Let us step outside for a moment As the sun breaks through clouds And shines on wet new fallen snow, And breathe the new air. So much has died that had to die this year.
Let us step outside for a moment. It is all there Only we have been slow to arrive At a way of seeing it. Unless the gentle inherit the earth There will be no earth. ~May Sarton from “New Year Poem”
Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention. They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go next. ~Frederick Buechnerfrom Beyond Words
I don’t pay close enough attention to the meaning of my leaking eyes when I’m constantly looking for kleenex to stem the flow. During the holidays it seems I have more than ample opportunity to find out from my tears the secret of who I am, where I have come from, and where I am to be next, so I keep my pockets loaded with kleenex.
It mostly has to do with spending time with far-flung children and grandchildren for the holidays. It is about reading books and doing puzzles together and reminiscing about what has been and what could be. It is about singing grace together before a meal and choking on precious words of gratitude. It certainly has to do with bidding farewell until we meet again — gathering them in for that final hug and then that letting-go part.
We urged and encouraged our children to go where their hearts told them they are needed and called to be, even if thousands of miles away from their one-time home on this farm.
I too was let go once and though I would try to look back, too often in tears, I learned to set my face toward the future. It led me here, to this marriage, this family, this farm, this work, our church, to more tears, to more letting go, as it will continue if I’m granted the years to weep again and again with gusto and grace.
This is where I must go next: to love so much and so deeply that letting go is so hard that tears are no longer unexpected or a mystery to me or my children and grandchildren. They release a fullness that can no longer be contained: God’s still small voice spills down my cheeks drop by drop like wax from a burning candle.
On Halloween day in 1985, I packed up my clothes, a roll up mattress, grabbed one lonely pumpkin from our small garden, locked our rental house door for the last time, climbed in my car and headed north out of Seattle. I never looked back in the rear view mirror at the skyline after nine years living in the city. My husband had moved to Whatcom County two months earlier to start his new job. I had stayed behind to wrap up my Group Health family practice in the Rainier Valley of Seattle, now leaving the city for a new rural home and a very uncertain professional future.
Never before had I felt such exhilaration at breaking through one wall to discover the unknown that lay on the other side.
I knew two things for sure: I was finally several months pregnant after a miscarriage and two years of infertility, so our family had begun. We were going to actually live in our own house, not just a rental, complete with a few acres and a barn.
A real (sort of) starter farm.
Since no farm can be complete without animals, I stopped at the first pet store I drove past and found two tortoise shell calico kitten sisters peering up at me, just waiting for new adventures in farmland. Their box was packed into the one spot left beside me in my little Mazda. With that admittedly impulsive commitment to raise and nurture those kittens, life seemed brand new.
I will never forget the feeling of freedom on that drive north out of the traffic congestion of the city. The highway seemed more open, the fall colors more vibrant, the wind more brisk, our baby happily kicking my belly, the kittens plaintively mewing from their box. There seemed to be so much potential even though I had just left behind the greatest job that could be found in any urban setting (the most diverse zip code in the United States): an ideal family practice with patients from all over the world: Muslims from the Middle East and Indonesia, Orthodox Jews, Italian Catholics, African Americans, Cambodians, Laotians, Vietnamese. I would never know so much variety of background and perspective again and if I could have packed them all into the Mazda and driven them north with me, I would have.
We started our farm with those kittens dubbed Nutmeg and Oregano, soon adding an ethnic diversity of farm animals: Belgian Tervuren dog Tango, Haflinger horse Greta, Toggenburg goats Tamsen and her kids, a few Toulouse geese, Araucana chickens, Fiona the Scottish Highland cow, then another Haflinger Hans and another, Tamara. I worked as a fill in locums doctor in four different clinics before our first baby, Nate, was born. We soon added little brother Ben and seven years later, sister Lea. We settled happily into parenthood, our church community, serving on school and community boards, gardening, and enduring the loss of our parents one by one.
Thirty four years later our children have long ago grown and gone to new homes of their own, off to their own adventures beyond the farm. Our sons married wonderful women, moving far away from home, our daughter teaches a fourth grade classroom a few hours away and we have two grandchildren with the third expected any moment.
A few cats, two Cardigan Corgi dogs, and a hand full of ponies remain at the farm with us. We are now both gray and move a bit more slowly, enjoy our naps and the quiet of the nights and weekends. My work has evolved from four small jobs to two decades of two part time jobs to one more than full time job that fit me like a well worn sweater 24 hours a day for thirty years. With retirement looming, I’m trying out a three day a week schedule and the old sweater doesn’t fit quite so comfortably.
My happily retired husband finds he is busier than ever: volunteering, serving on boards and being a full time farmer on our larger 20 acre place of fields and woods.
That rainy Halloween day over three decades ago I was freed into a wider world. I would no longer sit captive in freeway rush hour bumper to bumper traffic jams. Instead I celebrate my daily commute through farm fields, watching eagles fly, and new calves licked by their mamas. I am part of a broader community in a way I never could manage in the city, stopping to visit with friends at the grocery store, playing piano and teaching at church. Our home sits in the midst of woods and corn fields, with deer strolling through the fields at dawn, coyotes howling at night, Canadian and snow geese and trumpeter swans calling from overhead and salmon becoming more prolific every year in nearby streams. The snowy Cascades greet us in the morning and the sunset over Puget Sound bids us good night.
It all started October 31, 1985 with two orange and black kittens and a pumpkin sitting beside me in a little Mazda, my husband waiting for my homecoming 100 miles north. Now, thirty four years and three grown children and three (almost) grandchildren later, we celebrate this Halloween transition anniversary together. We’re still pregnant with the possibility that a wide world is waiting, just on the other side of the wall.
Go north a dozen years on a road overgrown with vines to find the days after you were born. Flowers remembered their colors and trees were frothy and the hospital was
behind us now, its brick indifference forgotten by our car mirrors. You were revealed to me: tiny, delicate, your head smelling of some other world. Turn right after the circular room
where I kept my books and right again past the crib where you did not sleep and you will find the window where I held you that June morning when you opened your eyes. They were
blue, tentative, not the deep chocolate they would later become. You were gazing into the world: at our walls, my red cup, my sleepless hair and though I’m told you could not focus, and you
no longer remember, we were seeing one another after seasons of darkness. ~Faith Shearin “Sight”
The helpless state of a newborn adjusting to an unfamiliar world – when all depends on deep murmurs, shadowy faces and comforting arms, full nipples and cleansing rags. When all that can be said are mewing cries and satisfied grunts.
Those long exhausting sleepless nights finally transition to heart-warming smiles at dawn, when we lock onto each other for survival, peering into the mutual light and love in our eyes, needing each other like no other; it is always, and will be always, about those eyes.
A spoon in a cup of tea. Letters in yellow envelopes, the way a hand pushed lines into the soft paper. Morning laughter. A white shirt draped over her chair. An open window. The air. Call of one blackbird. Silence of another. November. Summer. My love for you, I say. My love for you infinity times a million, my son says. Sounds of piano notes as they rest in treetops. The road from here to there. Grief, that floating, lost swan. ~Paige Riehl “Things That Cannot Die” from Suspension
Anticipation of an early morning call so not much sleep last night. When the call came – a new grandson announced from miles away-
we laughed gleefully at this gift
our love expanded infinity times a million for these brand new parents, this new life joining the world, this new road to travel together from here to there. All that is ordinary is now new and extraordinary.
Love through the generations cannot die but thrives and pulses alive. We laugh and cry at once at the generous grace of our good God who turns all human grief to joy.
What does it feel like to be alive? Living, you stand under a waterfall… It is time pounding at you, time. Knowing you are alive is watching on every side your generation’s short time falling away as fast as rivers drop through air, and feeling it hit. I had hopes for my rough edges. I wanted to use them as a can opener, to cut myself a hole in the world’s surface, and exit through it. ~Annie Dillard from An American Childhood
Mothering can feel like standing under a waterfall barely able to breathe, barraged by the firehose of birthing and raising and loving one’s children, so much so fast. Few rough edges remain after child rearing — all becomes soft and cushiony, designed to gather in, hold tight, and then reluctantly and necessarily, let go.
I’m well aware, even after my children have grown and flown, my rough edges still manage to surface, like Godzilla from the primordial swamp, unbidden and unwarranted. I want the sharpness gone, sanded down by the waterfalls of life, and smoothed to a fine finish.
My children continue to polish me, now from afar. Time pounds away at me. I can feel it hitting, each and every drop.
Morning without you is a dwindled dawn. ~Emily Dickinson in a letter to a friend April 1885
Adjusting to our children being grown and moved away from home took time: for months, I instinctively grabbed too many plates and utensils when setting the table, though the laundry and dishwasher loads seemed skimpy I washed anyway, the tidiness of their bedrooms was frankly disturbing as I passed by.
I need a little mess and noise around to feel that living is actually happening under this roof and that all is well. That quarter century of raising children consisted of nonstop parenting, farming, working, playing – never finding enough hours in the day and hardly enough sleep at night. It was a full to overflowing phase of life.
Somehow, life now is too quiet, and I am dwindling.
Though now I know: despite missing our children here, they have thrived where planted. And so must I.
Each morning is new, each dawn softens the void, and each diminishing moment becomes a recognition of how truly blessed life can be.
…horses whose bellies are grain-filled, whose long-ribbed loneliness can be scratched into no-longer-lonely. ~Jane Hirshfield from The Love of Aged Horses
(originally written ~20 years ago)
Settling down into the straw, I am grateful for this quiet moment after a 12 hour workday followed by all the requisite personal conversations that help mop up the spills and splatters of every day life. My family has verbally unloaded their day like so much stored up laundry needing to be washed and rinsed with the spin cycle completed before tomorrow dawns. I moved from child to child to child to husband to grandmother, hoping to help each one clean, dry, fold and sort everything in their pile. Not to be outdone, I piled up a little dirty laundry of my own as I complain about my day.
By that time I’m on “spent” cycle myself and seeking a little “alone” time. I retreat to the barn where verbal communication isn’t necessary. Instead, I need to just sit quietly, watching what happens around me.
A new foal and his vigilant mama watch my every move.
This colt is intrigued by my intrusion into his 12′ x 24′ world. His mother is annoyed. He comes over to sniff my foot and his mother swiftly moves him away with a quick swing of her hips, daunting me with the closeness of her heels. Her first instinct insists she separate me from him and bar my access. My mandate is to woo her over. I could bribe her with food and sweet talk, but, no, that is too easy.
A curry comb is best. If nothing else will work, a good scratching always does. Standing up, I start peeling sheets of no longer needed winter hair off her neck, her sides, her flank and hindquarter. She relaxes in response to my efforts, giving her baby a body rub with her muzzle, wiggling her lips all up and down from his back to his tummy. He is delighted with this spontaneous mommy massage and leans into her, moving around so his hind end is under her mouth and his front end is facing me. Then he starts giving his own version of a massage too, wiggling his muzzle over my coat sleeve and wondrously closing this little therapeutic triangle, all of us “scratched into no-longer-lonely.”
Here we are, a tight little knot of givers/receivers with horse hair flying in a cloud about us. One weary human, one protective mama mare and one day-old foal, who is learning so young how to contribute to the well being of others. It is an incredible gift of trust they bestow on me like a blessing. I realize this horse family is helping me sort my own laundry in the same way I had helped with my human family’s load.
Too often in life we confine our lonely selves in painful triangles, passing our kicks and bites down the line to each other rather than providing nurture and respite. We find ourselves unable to wrench free from continuing to deliver the hurts we’ve just received. What strength it takes to respond with kindness when the kick has just landed on our backside. How chastened we feel when a kindness is directed at us, as undeserving as we are after having bitten someone hard.
Instead of biting, try a gentle scratching. Instead of kicking, try tickling. Instead of fear, try acceptance. Instead of annoyance, try patience. Instead of piling up so much laundry of your own, try washing, folding and sorting what is dumped on you by others, handing it back all ready for the next day.
Just settle into the straw to watch and wait – amazing things will happen.