Presences of Absences

The sunlight now lay over the valley perfectly still.
I went over to the graveyard beside the church
and found them under the old cedars…
I am finding it a little hard to say that I felt them resting there, but I did…

I saw that, for me, this country would always be populated
with presences and absences,
presences of absences,
the living and the dead.
The world as it is

would always be a reminder
of the world that was,
and of the world that is to come.
~Wendell Berry in Jayber Crow

Today, as always during the last weekend of May, we have a family reunion where most turn up missing.  A handful of the living come together with a slew of the no-longer-living. Some, who have been caught napping for a century or more, are no-shows.

It is always on this day of cemetery visiting that I feel keenly the presence of their absence: the great greats I never knew, a great aunt who kept so many secrets, my alcoholic grandfather (who I remember as a very old man) who died of sudden cardiac arrest at the age I am now, my grandmother from whom I inherited inherent messiness and the love of things that bloom, my parents who divorced for ten years late in life, yet reunited long enough for their ashes to rest together for eternity.

These givers of my genes rest here in this beautiful place above Puget Sound, the Cascade Mountains with shining snow beside them. It is a peaceful spot to lay one’s dust for eternity.

It is good, as one of the still-for-now living, to approach these plots of grass with a wary weariness of the aging.  But for the grace of God, there will I be sooner than I wish to be.  There, thanks to the grace of God, will I one day be an absent presence for my children and grandchildren to ponder if they keep up this annual tradition of the cemetery-visit.

The world as it is…remembers the world that was. 

The world to come calls us home in its time, where we all will be present and accounted for — our reunion celebration where we pray no one is missing.

All in good time. All in good time.

A new book from Barnstorming – available for order here

Waiting in Wilderness: A Man Wondering

Nate Gibson at Sendai, Japan
Nate while visiting home on the farm

Men go abroad to wonder at the heights of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motions of the stars, and they pass by themselves without wondering.
~St. Augustine of Hippo

Our firstborn son turns thirty five years old today. Nate was born on a day very much like this: sunny, frosty, a not-yet-spring kind of early morning. He was so welcome and cherished after years of our struggling to have children. Nate seemed to come with a sense of wonder and enthusiasm for whatever life had in store for him.

First-time parents don’t think much about where their child’s path will lead in a mere twenty years – it seems so far off. We knew he was a home-body. Nate wanted to write and teach and settle into the small town life that he loved and understood.

But God had other plans. God asked him to wonder at himself in relation to the world beyond his small town. So Nate was called to teach in Japan within days of graduating with his teaching degree in 2008. He has remained there ever since, reaching the hearts and minds of well over a thousand individual students in his classroom during those years, while falling in love with his soulmate Tomomi and becoming father to their two beautiful children.

Nate has discovered the irony of moving from a town where the majority of his classmates were blonde to thriving where he is the only redhead among thousands in a train station throng. He has learned a new culture, a new language and a new way of thinking about what “home” in God’s kingdom really means.

When we visit Nate now, only virtually since the pandemic, we see a man who has traveled far, in miles and spiritually. He continues to wonder where God may call him, along with Tomomi and their family, next. We cherish them all, from so far away, no matter where their home may be, as they embody servant love wherever they are needed most.

Happy Birthday, Nate!
Sending our love across the many miles of ocean that separates us but our shared hearts remain close.

The towering tree spreads his greening canopy —
A veil between the soil and sky—
Not in selfish vanity,
But the gentle thrush to shade and shelter.
So it is with love.
For when we love,
Simply love,
Even as we are loved,
Our weary world can be transformed.
The busy thrush builds her nest below —
A fortnight’s work to weave and set—
Not for herself alone,
But her tender brood to shield and cherish.
And so it is with love.
For when we love,
Simply love,
Even as we are loved,
Our weary world can be transformed Into the Kingdom of God!
~Charles Silvestri

Waiting in Wilderness: Not Quite Ready Yet

In the cemetery
a mile away
from where we used to live,
my aunts and mother
my father and uncles lie
in two long rows,
almost the way
they used to sit around
the long planked table
at family dinners.
And walking beside
the graves today, down
one straight path
and up the next,
I don’t feel sad, exactly,
just left out a bit,
as if they kept
from me the kind
of grown-up secret
they used to share
back then, something
I’m not quite ready yet
to learn.
~Linda Pastan “Unveiling” from Carnival Evening

Some family gatherings can wait. I don’t feel ready yet to learn what they all now know posthumously, in their tidy rows in peaceful settings. I feel some curiosity as I wander among them, realizing my invitation is coming, most likely before I wish to receive it.

I nod to one and then another, greeting them as I used to when we gathered around the same dinner table. To those I never met but share DNA, I introduce myself, hoping to make a good impression.

They still have their secrets, as they always had. And I try not to ask too many questions. No, not yet.

“Oh, that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and be at rest.
Psalm 55:6

other side of the same stone

Some glad morning when this life is over
I’ll fly away
To a home on God’s celestial shore
I’ll fly awayI’ll fly away, oh, Glory
I’ll fly away
When I die, Hallelujah, by and by
I’ll fly awayJust a few more weary days and then
I’ll fly away
To a land where joy shall never end
I’ll fly awayI’ll fly away, oh, Glory
I’ll fly away
When I die, Hallelujah, by and by
I’ll fly awayYeah, when I die, Hallelujah, by and by
I’ll fly away

An Austere Love

Sundays too my father got up early
And put his clothes on in the blueback cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices? 
–  Robert HaydenThose Winter Sundays

As a child growing up,
I was oblivious
to the sacrifices my parents made
to keep the house warm,
place food on the table,
to teach us the importance of faith and belief,
to crack the door of opportunity open,
so we could walk through
to a better life.

It was no small offering
to keep dry seasoned fire and stove wood always at the doorstep,
to milk the cows twice a day,
to grow and preserve fruits and vegetables months in advance,
to raise and butcher meat animals,
to read books together every night,
to sit with us over homework
and drive us to 4H, Cub Scouts and Camp Fire,
to music lessons and sports,
to sit together, never missing a Sunday morning,
to worship God.

This was their love,
so often invisible,
too often imperfect,
even when they were angry with one another–
yet its encompassing warmth
splintered and broke
the grip of cold and loneliness
that too often
overwhelms and freezes
a child’s heart and soul.

What did I know?
Too little then,
maybe a little more now.

Missing the Missing

Dearly.
How was it used?
Dearly beloved.
Dearly beloved, we are gathered.
Dearly beloved, we are gathered here
in this forgotten photo album
I came upon recently.

Dearly beloved, gathered here together
in this closed drawer,
fading now, I miss you.
I miss the missing, those who left earlier.
I miss even those who are still here.
I miss you all dearly.
Dearly do I sorrow for you.


Sorrow: that’s another word
you don’t hear much anymore.
I sorrow dearly.
~Margaret Atwood from “Dearly”

A holiday without family is a day of longing and memories.

I did sorrow for those who were missing as they left us long ago and missed those who are still here but far away.

It is a bittersweet sorrow to be all together in a photo album, our color and youth fading along with our smiles.

Children who now have children of their own.
Newlyweds who have become grandparents,
trying to fit the shoes of those who came before.

And so, in our own leave-taking, we miss the missing.
We miss who was, who would have been here if they could,
and who will come to be the next in line that we may never meet.

After the Family Broke

This was our pretty gray kitten,
hence her name; who was born
in our garage and stayed nearby
her whole life. There were allergies;
so she was, as they say,
an outside cat.
But she loved us. For years,
she was at our window.
Sometimes, a paw on the screen
as if to want in, as if
to be with us
the best she could.
She would be on the deck,
at the sliding door.
She would be on the small
sill of the window in the bathroom.
She would be at the kitchen
window above the sink.
We’d go to the living room;
anticipating that she’d be there, too,
hop up, look in.
She’d be on the roof,
she’d be in a nearby tree.
She’d be listening
through the wall to our family life.
She knew where we were,
and she knew where we were going
and would meet us there.
Little spark of consciousness,
calm kitty eyes staring
through the window.

After the family broke,
and when the house was about to sell,
I walked around it for a last look.
Under the eaves, on the ground,
there was a path worn in the dirt,
tight against the foundation —
small padded feet, year after year,
window to window.

When we moved, we left her
to be fed by the people next door.
Months after we were gone,
they found her in the bushes
and buried her by the fence.
So many years after,
I can’t get her out of my mind.

~Philip F. Deaver, “Gray” from How Men Pray

Our pets are witness to the routine of our lives. They know when the food bowl remains empty too long, or when no one comes to pick them up and stroke their fur. They sit silently waiting.

They know when things aren’t right at home.

Sometimes a barn cat moves on, looking for a place with more consistency and better feeding grounds. Most often they stick close to what they know, even if it isn’t entirely a happy or welcoming place. After all, it’s home and that’s what they know and that’s where they stay.

When my family broke as my parents split, after the furniture was removed and the dust of over thirty five years of marriage swept up, I wondered if our cat and dog had seen it coming before we did. They had been peering through the window at our lives, measuring the amount of spilled love that was left over for them.

I can’t get them out of my mind – they, like me, became children of divorce. We knew when we left the only home we knew, we would never truly feel at home again.

An Ordinary Life

No doubt she’s disappointed.

Such a disgrace I turned out to be.

Not a policy-maker
Or tech-savvy entrepreneur.
Nothing of note.

I gave birth three times
and sent three
tall, kind people 
into the world

I offered words of consolation
I planted sunflowers
I listened

Elected official?
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist?
Cutting-edge thought-leader?
MD, PhD, CEO?
Oscar, Emmy, Tony? 
Nobel? 
Anything?

I closed my mother’s eyes
when she died
and again, my father’s

I made no fortune
no headlines
nothing went viral

I sang and danced
for no one

I remembered
I noticed
I breathed

Just an ordinary life
filled with extraordinary love.

How disappointing.
~Mary Poindexter McLaughlin “Alma Mater”

Do not ask your children
to strive for extraordinary lives.

Such striving may seem admirable,
but it is a way of foolishness.
Help them instead to find the wonder
and the marvel of an ordinary life.
Show them the joy of tasting
tomatoes, apples, and pears.
Show them how to cry
when pets and people die.
Show them the infinite pleasure
in the touch of a hand.
And make the ordinary come alive for them.
The extraordinary will take care of itself.
~William Martin from The Parent’s Tao Te Ching: Ancient Advice for Modern Parents

Parents can hold expectations of success for their children
that reflect their own deficiencies or failures.
After all, we want the world to be a better place for them than for us.

Yet no academic degree, no bank account, no notoriety or award
can match living an ordinary life filled with extraordinary love.

I did disappoint my parents despite checking off all the boxes they hoped I would achieve in my younger years, because in retrospect, I disappointed myself.

I tended to cling to old grievances and resentments, withholding myself emotionally from them. I could have been more compassionate in their failing years, more available even though physically present. That is something I cannot undo except to pray now for forgiveness for my own deficiencies and failures.

Giving birth to three tall kind people who we have sent into the world, I hope for them what I wish I had understood when I was sent into the world by my parents: living an ordinary life of extraordinary love is more important than anything else they set out to do.

I rejoice as I see them foster such love with their spouses and their children and their communities: remembering, noticing and breathing life into each new day.

Seeing that, I can let go of my own disgrace and disappointment in myself.



Giving Life’s Best

In great deeds, something abides. 
On great fields, something stays. 
Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; 
but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. 
And reverent men and women from afar, 
and generations that know us not and that we know not of, 
heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, 
to ponder and dream; and lo!

the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, 
and the power of the vision pass into their souls. 
This is the great reward of service. 
To live, far out and on, in the life of others;
this is the mystery of the Christ,

–to give life’s best for such high sake
that it shall be found again unto life eternal.

~Major-General Joshua Chamberlain, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania 1889

A box of over 700 letters, exchanged between my parents from late 1941 to mid-1945, sat unopened for decades until last year. I started reading.

My parents barely knew each other before marrying quickly on Christmas Eve 1942 – the haste due to the uncertain future for a newly trained Second Lieutenant in the Marine Corps. They only had a few weeks together before she returned home to her rural teaching position and he readied himself to be shipped out for the island battles to come.

They had no idea they would not see each other for another 30+ months or even see each other again at all. They had no idea their marriage would fall apart 35 years later and they would reunite a decade after the divorce for five more years together.

The letters do contain the long-gone but still-familiar voices of my parents, but they are the words and worries of youngsters of 20 and 21, barely prepared for the horrors to come from war and interminable waiting. When he was fighting battles on Tarawa, Saipan, and Tinian, no letters or news would be received for a month or more, otherwise they tried to write each other daily, though with minimal news to share due to military censorship. They speak mostly of their desire for a normal life together rather than a routine centered on mailbox, pen and paper and waiting, lots and lots of waiting.

I’m not sure what I hoped to find in these letters. Perhaps I hoped for flowery romantic whisperings and the poetry of longing and loneliness. Instead I am reading plain spoken words from two people who somehow made it through those awful years to make my sister and brother and myself possible.

Our inheritance is contained in this musty box of words bereft of poetry. But decades later my heart is moved by these letters – I carefully refold them back into their envelopes and replace them gently back in order. A six cent airmail stamp – in fact hundreds and hundreds of them – was a worthwhile investment in the future, not only for themselves and their family to come, but for generations of U.S. citizens who tend to take their freedom for granted.

Thank you, Dad and Mom, for what you gave up to make today possible.

I hear the mountain birds
The sound of rivers singing
A song I’ve often heard
It flows through me now
So clear and so loud
I stand where I am
And forever I’m dreaming of home
I feel so alone, I’m dreaming of home

It’s carried in the air
The breeze of early morning
I see the land so fair
My heart opens wide
There’s sadness inside
I stand where I am
And forever I’m dreaming of home
I feel so alone, I’m dreaming of home

This is no foreign sky
I see no foreign light
But far away am I
From some peaceful land
I’m longing to stand
A hand in my hand
…forever I’m dreaming of home
I feel so alone, I’m dreaming of home
~Lori Barth and Philippe Rombi “I’m Dreaming of Home”

Drying Inward From the Edge

 
I know what my heart is like
      Since your love died:
It is like a hollow ledge
Holding a little pool
      Left there by the tide,
      A little tepid pool,
Drying inward from the edge.
~Edna St. Vincent Millay “Ebb”
 
 

I wondered if that was how forgiveness budded;
not with the fanfare of epiphany,
but with pain gathering its things,
packing up,
and slipping away unannounced in the middle of the night.

— Khaled Hosseini from The Kite Runner

My mother was seven years younger than I am now when my father left her for a younger woman.  For months my mother withered, crying until there were no more tears left, drying inward from her edges.  

It took ten years, but he came back like an overdue high tide.   She was sure her love had died but the tepid pool refilled, the incoming water cool to the touch, finally overflowing beyond imagining.

Something Went Wrong

age nine

The time is ripe for looking back over the day, the week, the year, and trying to figure out where we have come from and where we are going to, for sifting through the things we have done and the things we have left undone for a clue to who we are and who, for better or worse, we are becoming. We cling to the present out of wariness of the past. But there is a deeper need yet, I think, and that is the need—not all the time, surely, but from time to time—to enter that still room within us all where the past lives on as a part of the present, where the dead are alive again, where we are most alive ourselves to turnings and to where our journeys have brought us. The name of the room is Remember—the room where with patience, with charity, with quietness of heart, we remember consciously to remember the lives we have lived.” 
~Frederick Buechner from A Room Called Remember

He was a big man, says the size of his shoes
on a pile of broken dishes by the house;
a tall man too, says the length of the bed
in an upstairs room; and a good, God-fearing man,
says the Bible with a broken back
on the floor below the window, dusty with sun;
but not a man for farming, say the fields
cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn.

A woman lived with him, says the bedroom wall
papered with lilacs and the kitchen shelves
covered with oilcloth, and they had a child,
says the sandbox made from a tractor tire.
Money was scarce, say the jars of plum preserves
and canned tomatoes sealed in the cellar hole.
And the winters cold, say the rags in the window frames.
It was lonely here, says the narrow country road.

Something went wrong, says the empty house
in the weed-choked yard. Stones in the fields
say he was not a farmer; the still-sealed jars
in the cellar say she left in a nervous haste.
And the child? Its toys are strewn in the yard
like branches after a storm—a rubber cow,
a rusty tractor with a broken plow,
a doll in overalls. Something went wrong, they say.

~Ted Kooser, “Abandoned Farmhouse” from Sure Signs: New and Selected Poems. 

In 1959, when I was five years old, my father left his high school agriculture teaching position for a new supervisor position with the state.
I didn’t understand at the time the reasons for his leaving his job after 13 years.

Our family moved from a large 3 story farm house in a rural community to a 1950’s newer rambler style home just outside the city limits of the state capitol.  It was a big adjustment to move to a much smaller house without a basement or upper story, no garage, and no large haybarn nor chicken coop.  It meant most things we owned didn’t make the move with us.

The rambler had two side by side mirror image rooms as the primary central living space between the kitchen on one side and the hallway to the bedrooms on the other.  The living room could only be entered through the front door and the family room was accessed through the back door with a shared sandstone hearth in the center, containing a fireplace in each room.  The only opening between the rooms had a folding door shut most of the year.  In December, the door was opened to accommodate a Christmas tree, so it sat partially in the living room and depending on its generous width, spilled over into the family room.  That way it was visible from both rooms, and didn’t take up too much floor space.

The living room, because it contained the only carpeting in the house, and our “best” furniture,  was strictly off-limits. In order to keep our two matching sectional knobby gray fabric sofas,  a green upholstered chair and gold crushed velvet covered love seat in pristine condition, the room was to be avoided unless we had company. The carpet was never to develop a traffic pattern, there would be no food, beverage, or pet ever allowed in that room, and the front door was not to be used unless a visitor arrived.  The hearth never saw a fire lit on that side because of the potential of messy ashes or smoke smell. This was not a room for laughter, arguments or games and certainly not for toys. The chiming clock next to the hearth, wound with weighted cones on the end of chains, called out the hours without an audience.

One week before Christmas, a tree was chosen to fit in the space where it could overflow into the family room.  I particularly enjoyed decorating the “family room” side of the tree, using all my favorite ornaments that were less likely to break if they fell on the linoleum floor on that side of the door.

It was as if the Christmas tree became divided, with a “formal” side in the living room and a “real life” face on the other side where the living (and hurting) was actually taking place.

The tree straddled more than just two rooms.  Every year that tree’s branches reached out to shelter a family that was slowly, almost imperceptibly, falling apart, like the fir needles dropping to the floor to be swept away. Something was going wrong.

Each year since, the Christmas tree bearing those old ornaments from my childhood reminds me of a still room of mixed memories within me.  I am no longer wary of the past, and when I sweep up the fir needles that inevitably drop, I no longer weep.