Where Everybody Knows Your Name

He was a new old man behind the counter, skinny, brown and eager.
He greeted me like a long-lost daughter,
as if we both came from the same world,
someplace warmer and more gracious…

…his face lit up as if I were his prodigal daughter returning,
coming back to the freezer bins in front of the register
which were still and always filled
with the same old Cable Car ice cream sandwiches and cheap frozen greens.
Back to the knobs of beef and packages of hotdogs,
these familiar shelves strung with potato chips and corn chips…


I lumbered to the case and bought my precious bottled water
and he returned my change, beaming
as if I were the bright new buds on the just-bursting-open cherry trees,
as if I were everything beautiful struggling to grow,
and he was blessing me as he handed me my dime
over the counter and the plastic tub of red licorice whips.
This old man who didn’t speak English
beamed out love to me in the iron week after my mother’s death
so that when I emerged from his store
    my whole cock-eyed life  –
    what a beautiful failure ! –
glowed gold like a sunset after rain.
~Alison Luterman from “At the Corner Store”

During the COVID-19 quarantine, we’ve chosen to shop at small locally owned markets in our rural county rather than the large chain groceries we usually frequent. They are less busy, more personal and desperately need the business. As we walk in, we are greeted with “hi kids, let me know if I can help you find anything!” – there is something nice about two gray heads being called “kids” because in our hearts, we still are – see below.

Yesterday, the market cashier/manager noticed a cane that had been left in one of the aisles and said “oh, Harry must have left his cane behind again, I guess he won’t get too far without it so I’ll leave it right here by the door for when he comes to get it.”

You wanna go where everybody knows your name…

These stores make me think of the rural markets only a couple miles from where I grew up in two different communities in Washington state.  These were the stores that often provided the basic provisions for farm families like ours, as well as an informal community gathering spot.  In Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegon, it’s called Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery, where “if you can’t find it at Ralph’s, you can probably get along (pretty good) without it.”

It still wasn’t that unusual in the fifties and sixties for a rural “mom and pop” operation to have a small grocery store in the front part of their refurbished home, often with a single gas pump sitting in the front yard.   The store had a reversible sign in the front window that said OPEN from dawn to dusk, unless the store owner needed a shower or a nap.  When you’d walk through the creaky front screen door, it slammed behind you with a bang, automatically notifying the store owner in the back of the house a customer had arrived.   They knew us by name, knew what our typical purchases would be, and always enjoyed a chat to catch up on the neighborhood news.  It meant a cup of tea or some pretty powerful coffee for mom and a stick of chewing gum for the kids.

There was always a cork board for flyer postings, with hand written notices of the latest community events, plus “for sale”, “for free”, or “lost” items.  There might be a polaroid picture of “Tinkerbelle — looking for our lost cat, children can’t stop crying” , or a hastily scribbled note from a harried mother  “seeking a mother’s helper to do laundry and ironing”,  or  “free puppies–take your choice.”  This was “Craig’s List” before Craig was born.

Sitting at the intersection of farm roads, corner stores were a natural outlet for local produce to be sold, from fresh eggs to seasonal berries and fruit, to pumpkins and squash piled up in the front yard in the fall.  Some store owners even did their own butchering and meat cutting before regulations made it too difficult to meet government standards.

The “bread and butter” for a store to thrive and stay in business was just that: they supplied the basic staples that families might need in a pinch– cornflakes and cheerios, loaves of Wonder bread and milk, bags of sugar and flour, toilet paper and wieners, Crisco for a pie crust or a cube of butter for baking cookies, Elmer’s Glue, scotch tape and construction paper for rainy day art projects.  Children were frequently sent on errands to the corner store on foot, or on their bicycles, or occasionally on their horses to get some immediately needed missing item.

Or perhaps they were sent to the corner store with a list just to get them out of their mothers’ hair.

The motivation for kids to make the store trip was the reward of a cold soda pop or an ice cream bar in the summer, hot chocolate with a marshmallow in the winter, and a carefully selected variety of treats from the bulk candy bins.  I had a particular affinity for multicolored jawbreakers and red licorice whips.

The store my mother frequented in the tiny hamlet of East Stanwood, Washington had pretty much everything she needed, and the shopkeeper always had a fresh cookie for my brother and me.  We often brought extra eggs from our flock that mom would bring in for credit, but our raw Guernsey cow milk could not be sold through the store so was sold directly to our neighbors instead.

Once we moved to a rural neighborhood outside Olympia, Washington, the local corner store was at the “otherwise nothin’ happening” corner of Libby Road and Ames Huntley Road, almost three miles away from our little farm on Friendly Grove Road.  It was a long walk, though an easy bike ride along narrow country roads.  We kids could usually think of a good excuse at least twice a week during the summer to make that trek to the store and stock up.  My older sister would ride her horse to the store, using a telephone pole as a hitching post while she shopped.

On our visits to family in Japan, there are plenty of small family-owned corner markets in the huge cities, each with their own flavor and personality matching their owners. It’s good to see the persistence in the U.S. of small local markets that actually sell produce, not just convenience store beer, cigarettes and lottery tickets.  With the emphasis to “eat local” and county farmers marketing and selling their own produce, there are more of these now in our area. 

Just a few miles from us is a market owned by an East Indian family and has an eclectic combination of curries, chili peppers, and all kinds of spices and ethnic ingredients sought by our local Hispanic and Indian farm neighbors. 

There is an orchard nearby that has opened a store not only marketing their boxes of apples, but also sells cider, frozen apple pies ready to bake and home ground honey peanut butter.  

We have local dairies producing their own homogenized pasteurized milk and ice cream, others making and selling cheese, some that raise grass fed organic beef and lamb, as well as heritage breed pork and turkeys. This time of year there are lots of end-of-the-driveway vegetable and flower stands as farmers sell their wares on the honor system, with the money going into a lock box right there by the road.

It almost feels like going home again.  When I walk into a small market, it is tempting to think of pulling up a chair next to a wood burning stove, sipping a cup of tea and catching up on the neighborhood news. That can’t happen with social distancing, but my hope is to help these markets survive for when, someday, we can sit and visit and learn each others’ names and stories.

Forever is Composed of Nows

Forever – is composed of Nows –
‘Tis not a different time –
Except for Infiniteness –
And Latitude of Home –

 
From this – experienced Here –
Remove the Dates – to These –
Let Months dissolve in further Months –
And Years – exhale in Years –

 
Without Debate – or Pause –
Or Celebrated Days –

No different Our Years would be
From Anno Dominies –
 ~Emily Dickinson, from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson

Whenever I feel overwhelmed with the news of the day, so much of which is depressingly dismal, I remind myself that there is still an infiniteness to life beyond this challenging year. Time passes like an ever-flowing stream: months dissolve into months, years exhale into years.

I flow right along with it, carried by the current though sometimes futilely fighting against it, trying to keep my nose above water.

No matter what may happen, no matter my frustration or sadness at the state of the world, things are beautiful in the moment now.

Forever is made up of nows — lots and lots and lots of nows. May the Year of our Lord be now and evermore into the infinite.

Hard to Reach

Hard to reach, so you yank your clothes
getting at it—the button at your neck,
the knotted shoe. You snake your fingers in
until your nails possess the patch of skin
that’s eating you. And now you’re in the throes
of ecstasy, eyes lolling in your skull,
as if sensing the first time the joy one takes
                     in being purely animal.

             It’s so good to have a scratch,
though isn’t it a drag living like this,
jounced on a high wire of impulses,
every wish the same programmed response
to another signal passed from cell to cell,
amounting in the end to a distraction—
if truth be told—from rarer things, thoughts free
                     from the anchor-chain of self?

~David Yezzi from “Itchy”

There is almost nothing more frustrating than having an itch you can’t reach. It is hard to think of anything else; you become entirely immersed in that sensation and the need to relieve it. It’s almost as difficult as stifling a yawn or trying to prevent a sneeze. It becomes literally painful: some things simply can’t be stopped.

So scratching an itch becomes the most important thing in the moment. And having done finally done it, you can move on to other things in your day and not think about it again.

So when the itch is hard to reach, it is surely a blessing to have a mama or close buddy who will scratch it for you. In fact, there is hardly anything as wonderful as someone who will be on the look out for your moments of distraction and discomfort and without even being asked, take care of it for you.

And to be really in sync, you’ll find their itch to scratch at the same time. I knew “scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours” must have come from somewhere — just out in my back field.
Quid pro quo.

The Veil is Lifted

Heaven and earth are only three feet apart,
but in the thin places that distance is even smaller.
A thin place is where the veil

that separates heaven and earth is lifted
and one is able to glimpse the glory of God.
~Celtic saying

Our neighboring Cascade mountain peak, Mt. Baker, has been veiled with clouds for a number of days. I am used to this hide-and-seek with the mountain as it makes its appearance even more special when it does take off its veil.

Yesterday morning, it was shrouded in clouds but visible against the gray. What was unusual, something I had not seen before in 35 years of admiring the mountain, was a flash of sun reflection on the north side of the summit, when no sun was visible in the sky.

This reminded me of our experience last December at solstice when we were visiting our son and family in Tokyo, right at the time for “Diamond Fuji” to potentially appear.

In the misty rain
Mount Fuji is veiled all day —
How intriguing!
~Basho

We had the good fortune to be staying on the top floor of a business hotel just a few minutes walk from our son’s apartment, so we made sure we were ready with a camera on the few days that we might witness the sun setting directly behind Fuji, creating a diamond effect from the summit and an appearance of fire along its crest. There are many extraordinary photos taken over the years of this phenomenon — google “Diamond Fuji” and you’ll see why this is a special event.

There were cloudy evenings when Fuji made no appearance at all – there were many photographers gathered in the train station deck where Fuji is potentially visible. They would set up and wait for the possibility of catching the sunset perfectly as it settled behind the mountain. Some nights there was nothing to photograph and they would pack up their gear, ready to return the next day.

We didn’t know if Fuji would uncover enough to allow us to see this for ourselves, but we hoped it would. The mountain did give us several beautiful sunsets, none exactly “Diamond Fuji”- perfect, but enough for us to get a sense of why it is revered so much by the people of Japan.

God does unveil His glory to us perfectly if we have eyes open enough to see. He doesn’t need to use mountains, or sunlight, or the exact precise timing. He makes sure it can be put into every human hand in the form of His Word – no waiting for the right moment or the clouds to be swept away.

The right moment is now.

Ancestral Wanderlust

Because I have come to the fence at night,
the horses arrive also from their ancient stable.
They let me stroke their long faces, and I note
in the light of the now-merging moon

how they, a Morgan and a Quarter, have been
by shake-guttered raindrops
spotted around their rumps and thus made
Appaloosas, the ancestral horses of this place.

Maybe because it is night, they are nervous,
or maybe because they too sense
what they have become, they seem
to be waiting for me to say something

to whatever ancient spirits might still abide here,
that they might awaken from this strange dream,
in which there are fences and stables and a man
who doesn’t know a single word they understand.

~Robert Wrigley “After a Rainstorm” from Beautiful Country

Haflinger horses must have a migration center in their brain that tells them that it is time to move on to other territory, a move based on quality of forage, the seasons, or maybe simply a sudden urge for a change in scenery. I imagine, over hundreds of years of living in the rather sparse Alpen meadows, they needed to move on to another feeding area enmasse on a pretty regular basis, or if the weather was starting to get crummy. Or perhaps the next valley over had a better view, who knows? Trouble is, my Haflingers seem to have the desire to “move to other pastures” even if the grass in their own territory is plentiful and the view is great. And there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of natural or man-made barrier that will discourage them.

I have a trio of geldings (the “Three Musketeers”) who are particularly afflicted with wanderlust. There is not a field yet that has held them when they decide together that it is time to move on. We are a hotwire and white tape fenced farm–something that has worked fairly well over the years, as it is inexpensive, easily repaired and best of all, easily moved if we need to change the fencing arrangement in our pasture rotation between five different 2 acre pastures. Previous generations of Haflingers have tested the hotwire and learned not to bother it again. No problem. But not the Three Musketeers.

They know when the wire is grounding out somewhere, so the current is low. They know when the weather is so dry that the conduction is poor through the wire. They know when I’ve absent mindedly left the fencer unplugged because I’ve had someone visit and we wanted to climb unshocked through the fences to walk from field to field. These three actually have little conferences out in the field together about this–I’ve seen them huddled together, discussing their strategy, and fifteen minutes later, I’ll look out my kitchen window and they are in another field altogether and the wire and tape is strewn everywhere and there’s not a mark on any of them. Even more mysteriously, often I can’t really tell where they made their escape as they leave no trace–I think one holds up the top wire with his teeth and the others carefully step over the bottom wire. I’m convinced they do this just to make me crazy.

Last night, when I brought them in from a totally different field from where they had started in the morning, they all smirked at me as they marched to their stalls as if to say, “guess what you have waiting for you out there.” It was too dark to survey the damage last night but I got up extra early to check it out this morning before I turned them out again.

Sure enough, in the back corner of the field they had been put in yesterday morning, (which has plenty of grass), the tape had been stretched, but not broken, and the wires popped off their insulators and dragging on the ground and in a huge tangled mass. I enjoyed 45 minutes of Pacific Northwest cloudy morning putting it all back together. Then I put them out in the field they had escaped to last night, thinking, “okay, if you like this field so well, this is where you’ll stay”.

Tonight, they were back in the first field where they started out yesterday morning. Just to make me crazy. They are thoroughly enjoying this sport. I’m ready to buy a grand poobah mega-wattage fry-their-whiskers fence charger.

But then, I’d be spoiling their fun and their travels. As long as they stay off the road, out of our garden, and out of my kitchen, they can have the run of the place. I too remember being afflicted with wanderlust, long long ago, and wanting to see the big wide world, no matter what obstacles had to be overcome or shocks I had to endure to get there. And I got there after all that trouble and effort and realized that home was really where I wanted to be. Now, prying me away from my little corner of the world gets more difficult every year. I hope my Haflinger trio will eventually decide that staying home is the best thing after all.

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.



Better Than Any Argument

However just and anxious I have been
I will stop and step back
from the crowd of those who may agree
with what I say, and be apart.
There is no earthly promise of life or peace
but where the roots branch and weave
their patient silent passages in the dark;
uprooted, I have been furious without an aim.
I am not bound for any public place,
but for ground of my own
where I have planted vines and orchard trees,
and in the heat of the day climbed up
into the healing shadow of the woods.
Better than any argument is to rise at dawn
and pick dew-wet berries in a cup.
~Wendell Berry “A Standing Ground”
from The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry

This is an age of argument: silence is labeled violence so we’re induced to have our say and look for others to listen and support our point of view. Without mutual agreement, there is plenty of fodder for argument with a duel-to-the-death determination to win others over to our way of thinking.

Agreeing to disagree doesn’t seem to be an option any longer. Why can’t our debates simply settle down to get on with life and find a way to live alongside each other? Instead, if I don’t see it your way, I’m morally deficient or hostile or worst of all I’m not an ally, so by modern definition, I’ve become the enemy.

But I’m not the enemy and never want to be.

It’s enough to make one retreat from the fray altogether. Those of us who have been around awhile know: anger puts a match to feelings that burn hot inside and outside. Initially debate is energizing with a profound sense of purpose and direction, yet too soon it becomes nothing but ashes.

I refuse to be furious for the sake of fury and indignation. Arguments, tempting as they may be in the heat of the moment, don’t hold a candle to the lure of sharing sweet fruit of the garden and the cool shadows of the forest with those who need it most.

So come in and help me eat berries and cherries but leave your arguments at the door. You can pick them up later on your way out if you wish, but most likely they will have forgotten all about you and wandered away while you were busy living life.

Fickle things, arguments – they tend to fizzle out until someone decides to light a match to them again.

How You Made Them Feel

I’ve learned that even
when I have pains, I don’t have to be one …
I’ve learned that people will forget what you said,
people will forget what you did,
but people will never forget how you made them feel.
~Maya Angelou
on her 70th birthday, citing a quote from Carl Buehner

I learned from my mother how to love
the living, to have plenty of vases on hand
in case you have to rush to the hospital
with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants
still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars
large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole
grieving household, to cube home-canned pears
and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins
and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point.
I learned to attend viewings even if I didn’t know

the deceased, to press the moist hands

of the living, to look in their eyes and offer
sympathy, as though I understood loss even then.
I learned that whatever we say means nothing,

what anyone will remember is that we came.
I learned to believe I had the power to ease
awful pains materially like an angel.
Like a doctor, I learned to create

from another’s suffering my own usefulness, and once
you know how to do this, you can never refuse.
To every house you enter, you must offer

healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself,
the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch.
~Julie Kasdorf– “What I Learned from my Mother”

Usually a mom knows best about these things — how to love others when and how they need it and how to ease pain, not become one.  We don’t always get it right though, and dads can do it better.

Showing up with food is always a good thing but it is the showing up part that is the real food;  bringing along a cake is simply the icing.

This is a good reminder that as a doctor,
my usefulness has tended to depend on another’s suffering.
No illness, no misery, no symptoms and I’m out of a job.
I can only hope that someday that might be the case.
What a world it would be, especially as now suffering is universal.

And then I can still be a mom and grandmom
even if there is no more doctor work to be done:
….if I’d known it could help, I’d have baked a cake and shown up with it…

Just As I Left It

The cat calls for her dinner.
On the porch I bend and pour
brown soy stars into her bowl,
stroke her dark fur.
It’s not quite night.
Pinpricks of light in the eastern sky.
Above my neighbor’s roof, a transparent
moon, a pink rag of cloud.
Inside my house are those who love me.
My daughter dusts biscuit dough.
And there’s a man who will lift my hair
in his hands, brush it
until it throws sparks.
Everything is just as I’ve left it.
Dinner simmers on the stove.
Glass bowls wait to be filled
with gold broth. Sprigs of parsley
on the cutting board.
I want to smell this rich soup, the air
around me going dark, as stars press
their simple shapes into the sky.
I want to stay on the back porch
while the world tilts
toward sleep, until what I love
misses me, and calls me in.
~Dorianne Laux “On the Back Porch” from Awake

If just for a moment,
when the world feels like it is tilting so far
I just might fall off,
there is a need to pause
to look at where I’ve been
and get my feet back under me.

The porch is a good place to start:
a bridge to what exists beyond
without completely leaving the safety of inside.

I am outside looking square at uncertainty
and still hear and smell and taste
the love that dwells just inside these walls.

What do any of us want more
than to be missed if we were to step away
or be taken from this life?

Our voice, our words, our heart, our touch
never to be replaced,
its absence a hole impossible to fill?

When we are called back inside to the Love
that made us who we are,
may we leave behind the outside world
more beautiful because we were part of it.

A Daisy Vanished

So has a Daisy vanished
From the fields today—
So tiptoed many a slipper
To Paradise away—

Oozed so in crimson bubbles
Day’s departing tide—
Blooming—tripping—flowing
Are ye then with God?

~Emily Dickinson (28)

We may be as ephemeral
as the daisies of the field,
but we are not lost to God.

Our hearts swirl and spiral
into the vortex of infinity
that only contains Him.