The World’s Most Sensitive Cargo

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 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” from Orpheus, Turning

A man crosses the street in rain,
stepping gently, looking two times north and south,
because his son is asleep on his shoulder.

No car must splash him.
No car drive too near to his shadow.

This man carries the world’s most sensitive cargo
but he’s not marked.
Nowhere does his jacket say FRAGILE,
HANDLE WITH CARE.

His ear fills up with breathing.
He hears the hum of a boy’s dream
deep inside him.

We’re not going to be able
to live in this world
if we’re not willing to do what he’s doing
with one another.

The road will only be wide.
The rain will never stop falling.

~Naomi Shihab Nye “Shoulders”

Recent headlines reflect a touchy cultural debate about child bearing and rearing in our post-modern society:

who has control over whose body and for what justifiable reasons,

when life begins and when its loss is a death to be mourned
or if intentional, could be considered equivalent to murder,

babies without access to adequate nutrition due to a formula shortage while some shame mothers for not breast-feeding,

who determines what schools can teach at what stage of development, whether vaccines should be mandatory to attend,
and what books children can have access to in the library.

There are controversies about our country not guaranteeing paid parental leave and automatic free day care, along with government subsidized health care, and whether we coddle our kids too much or too little.

Some are convinced we should avoid child-bearing since people are destroying the earth and adding more people will only hasten our demise.

The judgement and harshness of the debate is enough to discourage parenting at all for those who are ambivalent to begin with. For those who long to be parents but still have empty arms, the debate seems heartless and selfish, as they wonder if and when a chance to love their own child will ever come.

Having waited long years ourselves with empty arms, and then were blessed with three of our own, I can say with assurance children are the most sensitive cargo we’ll ever bear and carry and love – there is no future without children cherished above one’s own wants and needs.

After seasons of darkness, we must look each other in the eyes and find each other worthy to exist and do whatever it takes to guarantee it. We must be willing to sacrifice, carrying one another like precious cargo. We were created for no less than this.

Just checking to see if she is real…

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Seeking What Could No Longer Be Found

photo by Kate Steensma

Though I know well enough
To hunt the Lady’s Slipper now
Is playing blindman’s-buff,
For it was June She put it on
And grey with mist the spider’s lace
Swings in the autumn wind,
Yet through this hill-wood, high and low,
I peer in every place;
Seeking for what I cannot find
I do as I have often done
And shall do while I stay beneath the sun.
~Andrew Young “Lady’s Slipper Orchid”

My grandmother’s house where my father was born had been torn down. She sold her property on Fidalgo Island near Anacortes, Washington to a lumber company – this was the house where all four of her babies were born, where she and my grandfather loved and fought and separated and finally loved again, and where we spent chaotic and memorable Thanksgiving and Christmas meals.  After Grandpa died, Grandma took on boarders, trying to afford to remain there on the homesteaded wooded acreage on Similk Bay, fronted by meadows where her Scottish Highland cattle grazed.   Her own health was suffering and she reached a point when it was no longer possible to make it work. A deal was struck with the lumber company and she moved to a small apartment for the few years left to her, remaining bruised by leaving her farm.

My father realized what her selling to a lumber company meant and it was a crushing thought. The old growth woods would soon be stumps on the rocky hill above the bay, opening a view to Mt. Baker to the east, to the San Juan Islands to the north, and presenting an opportunity for development into a subdivision. He woke my brother and me early one Saturday in May and told us we were driving the 120 miles to Anacortes.  He was on a mission.

As a boy growing up on that land, he had wandered the woods, explored the hill, and helped his dad farm the rocky soil.  There was only one thing he felt he needed from that farm and he had decided to take us with him, to trespass where he had been born and raised to bring home a most prized treasure–his beloved lady slippers from the woods.

These dainty flowers enjoy a spring display known for its brevity–a week or two at the most–and they tend to bloom in small little clusters in the leafy duff mulch of the deep woods, preferring only a little indirect sunlight part of the day.  They are not easy to find unless you know where to look. 

My father remembered exactly where to look.

We hauled buckets up the hill along with spades, looking as if we were about to dig for clams at the ocean.  Dad led us up a trail into the thickening foliage, until we had to bushwhack our way into the taller trees where the ground was less brush and more hospitable ground cover.  He would stop occasionally to get his bearings as things were overgrown.   We reached a small clearing and he knew we were near.  He went straight to a copse of fir trees standing guard over a garden of lady slippers.

There were almost thirty of them blooming, scattered about in an area the size of my small bedroom.  Each orchid-like pink and lavender blossom had a straight backed stem that held it with sturdy confidence.  To me, they looked like they could be little shoes for fairies who may have hung them up while they danced about barefoot.    To my father, they represented the last redeeming vestiges of his often traumatic childhood, and were about to be trammeled by bulldozers.  We set to work gently digging them out of their soft bedding, carefully keeping their bulb-like corms from losing a protective covering of soil and leafy mulch.  Carrying them in the buckets back to the car, we felt some vindication that even if the trees were to be lost to the saws, these precious flowers would survive.

When we got home, Dad set to work creating a spot where he felt they could thrive in our own woods.  He found a place with the ideal amount of shade and light, with the protection of towering trees and the right depth of undisturbed leaf mulch.  We carefully placed the lady slippers in their new home, scattered in a pattern similar to how we found them.  Then Dad built a four foot split rail fence in an octagon around them, as a protection from our cattle and a horse who wandered the woods, and as a way to demarcate that something special was contained inside.

The next spring only six lady slippers bloomed from the original thirty.  Dad was disappointed but hoped another year might bring a resurgence as the flowers established themselves in their new home.  The following year there were only three.  A decade later, my father himself had left farm and family, not looking back.

Sometime after the divorce, when my mother had to sell the farm, I visited our lady slipper sanctuary in the woods for the last time in the middle of May, seeking what I hoped might still be there, but I knew was no longer.  The split rail fence still stood, guarding nothing but old memories.  No lady slippers bloomed. There was not a trace they had ever been there.  They had simply given up and disappeared.

The new owners of the farm surely puzzled over the significance of the small fenced-in area in the middle of our woods.  They probably thought it surrounded a graveyard of some sort.

And they would be right – it did.

An embroidery I made for my father after he replanted the lady slippers — on the back I wrote “The miracle of creation recurs each spring in the delicate beauty of the lady slipper – may we ourselves be recreated as well…”

Once more, once more into the sunny fields
Oh, let me stray!
And drink the joy that young existence yields
On a bright, cloudless day.
Once more let me behold the summer sky,
With its blue eyes,
And join the wild wind’s voice of melody,
As far and free it flies.
Once more, once more, oh let me stand and hear
The gushing spring,
As its bright drops fall starlike, fast and clear,
And in the sunshine sing.
~Frances Kemble “A Farewell”

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No Forwarding Address

Body is something you need in order to stay
on this planet and you only get one.
And no matter which one you get, it will not
be satisfactory. It will not be beautiful
enough, it will not be fast enough, it will
not keep on for days at a time, but will
pull you down into a sleepy swamp and
demand apples and coffee and chocolate cake.

Body is a thing you have to carry
from one day into the next. Always the
same eyebrows over the same eyes in the same
skin when you look in the mirror, and the
same creaky knee when you get up from the
floor and the same wrist under the watchband.
The changes you can make are small and
costly—better to leave it as it is.

Body is a thing that you have to leave
eventually. You know that because you have
seen others do it, others who were once like you,
living inside their pile of bones and
flesh, smiling at you, loving you,
leaning in the doorway, talking to you
for hours and then one day they
are gone. No forwarding address.

~Joyce Sutphen, “Living in the Body” from Coming Back to the Body.

All bodies are fragile vessels, right from the beginning. I know this because I live inside an aging one and experience its limitations daily. Yet it is the only one I’ll ever have, though an imperfect reflection of my Creator – like it or not. Frankly, I greatly respect it having kept me going for 68 years so far and hoping for a few more.

I grieve for the young and strong who are often dissatisfied with the body they are given, spending immense time and resources to change what they can and agonizing over what is unchangeable.

What is unchangeable is that we’ll leave this empty husk behind at some point when we move on, leaving no forwarding address other than @heavenabove. We have watched it happen to those we love who have died too young because of system failure from an impossible-to-survive insult, and it happens to those who simply ran out of breaths after multiple decades of functioning heart and lungs.

My imperfect body doesn’t define me as it didn’t define those who have left before me. It isn’t who I was when I came to be, and it isn’t who I will be after I depart. But it deserves my ongoing admiration, awe and honor, along with my commitment to keep it in running order as long as I am able.

And I’ll try to confirm a forwarding address before I go.

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A Still Room to Remember

Here, the bells are silent, blown glass hung from
branches of pine whose fragrance fills the room.
It’s December, and the world’s run out of color.
Darkness at five seems absolute outside
the nine square panes of glass. But inside
hundreds of small white lights reflect off
fragile ornaments handed down from before
the war. They’re all Shiny-Brite, some solid balls—
hot pink, lime green, turquoise, gold—some striped
and flocked. This night is hard obsidian, but these glints
pierce the gloom, along with their glittery echoes, the stars.
We inhale spruce, its resinous breath: the hope of spring,
the memory of summer. Every day, another peal
on the carillon of light.

~Barbara Crooker, “Bells” from Some Glad Morning

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
“A Room Called Remember”

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. 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 for us kids. 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 pine cones on the end of chains, called out the hours without an audience.

One week before Christmas, a tree was cut down 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 all that goes along with that) was actually taking place.

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

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

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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.