Realizing Who I Have Offended

He is a hard one to write a poem about. Like Napoleon.
Hannibal. Genghis Khan. Already so large in history. To do it
right, I have to sit down with him. At a place of his own
choosing. Probably a steakhouse. We take a table in a corner.
But people still recognize him, come up and slap him on the
back, say how much they enjoyed studying about him in school
and ask for his autograph. After he eats, he leans back and
lights up a cigar and asks me what I want to know. Notebook in
hand, I suggest that we start with the Little Big Horn and work
our way back. But I realize I have offended him. That he
would rather take it the other way around. So he rants on
about the Civil War, the way west, the loyalty of good soldiers
and now and then twists his long yellow hair with his fingers.
But when he gets to the part about Sitting Bull, about Crazy
Horse, he develops a twitch above his right eye, raises his
finger for the waiter, excuses himself and goes to the restroom
while I sit there along the bluffs with the entire Sioux nation,
awaiting his return.
~David Shumate “Custer” from High Water Mark

Bighorn Battlefield – National Park Service photo

When my family took two cross-country trips by car, once in 1963 and another in 1965, my father, a former officer and battalion leader in the Marines during WWII, was the primary driver and keeper of maps and deadlines. He could be convinced to stop at any number of state and national parks, points of interest and historical markers, but all four times we passed the sign indicating the Battle of the Little Bighorn, he would not stop despite our pleading.

“You’ve seen as much as there is up there,” he would say as we sped past, pointing at the marble monolith at the top of the hill where the battle took place. I would look around at the desolate countryside of brown grass with no trees, in the middle of nowhere, and wonder how this place could ever have warranted a battle to the death.

Then I would get mad at my dad’s refusal to stop to learn more.

I had certainly learned about General George Custer’s Last Stand in my elementary school history lessons. But my interest was primarily driven by a 1958 Disney movie “Tonka Wakan” that I had seen in the theater and then later on Sunday nights on “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color.” I thought I understood the tragedy of that day from the standpoint of the U.S. Calvary and the only surviving horse Comanche, who in the Disney-imagined version of the battle, was raised and trained by a young Indian boy who turned the horse over to the calvary and then later was part of the Little Bighorn Battle in defense of Indian territory.

So I had a very skewed and Disney-fied version of history and my father was not helping me understand more deeply. It wasn’t until much later that I realized the likely reason he was so reluctant to stop and examine the history of the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

My father was ashamed of it. He was a humble man who knew there could be no pride or sense of honor in that place.

He had very likely been trained in his Marine Officer’s Training in 1942 to understand that the poor decision-making of a cocky, overly self-assured General Custer led to the slaughter of five companies of the 7th Calvary Regiment as well as their Indian scouts in addition to dozens of Lakota and Dakota Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapahoe warriors.

My father had lived through three South Pacific island battles where poor decision-making was a death sentence. He didn’t feel the need to rehash the history in this desolate part of Montana.

As an adult, I’ve visited the Battlefield with my husband and children several times, have learned more about what led to the battle, what took place that day and how the indigenous people of the region have memorialized the spot from their own perspective. When we approach this spot on our cross-country drives, I’m filled with regret and remorse at the loss of life and the eventual loss of a Native American culture that could never again be as it was, despite the defeat they handed to the cavalry that day. I learned more when our son lived and taught high school math on the Pine Ridge Reservation of the Lakota Sioux people and we visited the site of Wounded Knee, another tear-drenched place in U.S. Cavalry and Native American history.

We, all descendants of immigrant Americans, comprise the U.S. government and military which doesn’t always make the best or wisest decisions. This is haunting us again this week in the miserably managed ending of the twenty-year war in Afghanistan that has cost so many American and Afghan lives – certainly beyond the scale of the horrific one day defeat at the Little Bighorn River. This long drawn-out complicated response to the attacks we suffered on 9/11/01, ended with yet more tragic bloodshed as we left so many vulnerable behind.

War, suffering, loss and death cannot and should not be Disney-fied. History is more complex than a paragraph in a textbook.

We have so much to learn about our shame and our need for greater humility. We need to understand who we have offended, not just how offended we feel. We can’t hide in the bathroom or drive on past the sites of these bloody conflicts, hoping it will all be forgotten.

A book of Barnstorming photography and Lois Edstrom’s poetry is available to order here:

Change Altitudes

           ‘Regret has to be useless or it’s not really regret.’
                                                     ~Simone de Beauvoir

Rescuers did not find my uncle’s body.
But they found his axe at an icy altitude
impossible to navigate without one.


A little higher up, they found my uncle
’s sleeping bag at an altitude
unsurvivable without one.


You likely have a pen in purse or pocket.
Take it out and write a list of all
you need at your present altitude.


Next, change altitudes. Now, make another list:
the two biggest regrets of your life.
Take your time. Get it right. Because

here is all you need to know about need:
That list of regrets—cross one off.
You are going to need that space later.
~Jessica Goodfellow, “Unreachable” from Whiteout

I’ve known people who lost their lives while hiking/climbing in the mountains or due to some other tragedy – the cascade of decisions leading to their death are sources of regret for all who mourn them, even decades later. Somehow regret is a difficult feeling to let go; we cling to it as if it is somehow an essential part of us.

It is easy for me to come up with a long list of regrets in my life. They seem to grow like weeds – useless, unplanned, unwanted and prolific, threatening to take over any good fruit being produced.

Few of us volunteer to share openly about our current guilt or shame unless we are sitting in a therapy group or AA. Instead it gives us permission to beat ourselves up, going over and over in our minds how we could have done things differently. As a physician, I’ve heard about such heart-ache in my clinical encounters – a patient will regret an impulsive sexual encounter that turned out badly, or drinking and drugging too much, or regret an ongoing conflict with a family member, or wish they had decided to get that vaccine before becoming ill with a potentially preventable infection.

Our list of regrets can be endless and life-destroying.

I understand the pain of regret as I too am a flawed and fractured person with a seven decade history of things done and left undone, words said and unsaid. Even if I think I can somehow manage to cross a regret off my own list – perhaps I apologized and was granted forgiveness, or I tried to make right what I’d messed up — I still know a new regret will occupy its place before long.

I can’t simply fix my own regret list.

No matter what altitude we’re at — down in the pits in the lowest of the low, or up in the highest imaginable, I have come to realize that forgiveness is only possible through a knowledge of God Himself. He came to walk beside us in our low spots and our high spots, no matter where we find ourselves. His work on earth has crossed off our regrets and mistakes and wiped us clean of them.

He did this because He understood our desperate need; thanks to His sacrifice and love, our heart-aches are left at the Cross.

More beauty in words and photos are found in this new book from Barnstorming, available to order here:

If you have already read our book, your review of the book would be deeply appreciated here:

I Nearly Said I Loved Him

“Hold on,” she said, “I’ll just run out and get him.
The weather here’s so good, he took the chance
To do a bit of weeding.”


So I saw him
Down on his hands and knees beside the leek rig,
Touching, inspecting, separating one
Stalk from the other, gently pulling up
Everything not tapered, frail and leafless,
Pleased to feel each little weed-root break,
But rueful also . . . 


Then found myself listening to
The amplified grave ticking of hall clocks
Where the phone lay unattended in a calm
Of mirror glass and sunstruck pendulums . . . 


And found myself then thinking: if it were nowadays,
This is how Death would summon
Everyman.

Next thing he spoke and I nearly said I loved him.

~Seamus Heaney “A Call” from ‘Poems That Make Grown Men Cry’

My father was a complex man. I understand better now where my own complicated nature comes from.

As inscrutable as he could be, there were things I absolutely understood about him:

he was a man of action
– he never just sat, never took a nap, never wasted a day of his life without accomplishing something tangible.

he was a man of the soil
– he plowed and harrowed and sowed and fertilized and weeded and harvested

he was a man of inventiveness
– he figured out a better way, he transformed tools and buildings, he started from scratch and built the impossible

he didn’t explain himself
– and never felt the need to.

Time keeps ticking on without him here, now 26 years since he took his last breath as the clock pendulum swung in his bedroom. He was taken too young for all the projects he still had in mind.

He handed off a few to me.
Some I have done.
Some still wait, I’m not sure why.

My regret is not understanding how much he needed to hear how loved he was. He seemed fine without it being said.
But he wasn’t.

I wish I had said it when I had the chance.

Ben packaged in a paper bag by Grandpa Hank
Pouring the sidewalk by hand

Waiting in Wilderness: Heaven and I Wept Together

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And so you have a life that you are living only now,
now and now and now,
gone before you can speak of it,
and you must be thankful for living day by day,
moment by moment …
a life in the breath and pulse and living light of the present…

~Wendell Berry from Hannah Coulter

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~Lustravit lampade terras~
(He has illumined the world with a lamp)
The weather and my mood have little connection.
I have my foggy and my fine days within me;
my prosperity or misfortune has little to do with the matter.
– Blaise Pascal from “Miscellaneous Writings”

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photo by Nate Gibson

I laughed in the morning’s eyes.
I triumphed and I saddened with all weather,
Heaven and I wept together,
and its sweet tears were salt with mortal mine.
Against the red throb of its sunset heart,
I laid my own to beat
And share commingling heat.

Rise, clasp my hand, and come.
Halts by me that Footfall.
Is my gloom, after all,
Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly?
Ah, Fondest, Blindest, Weakest,
I am He whom thou seekest.
Thou dravest Love from thee who dravest Me.

~Francis Thompson from “The Hound of Heaven”

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My days are filled with anxious and sad patients,
one after another after another. 
They sit in front of their screen
and I in front of mine,
so close yet so far from each another –
a wilderness of unexpressed emotions.

They struggle to hold back the flood from brimming eyes.  
Each moment, each breath, each heart beat overwhelmed by questions: 
How to take yet another painful breath of this sad life?  must there be another breath?  
Must things go on like this in fear of what the next moment will bring?

The only thing more frightening than the unknown is the knowledge
that the next moment will be just like the last or perhaps worse. 
There is no recognition of a moment just passed
that can never be retrieved and relived.  
There is only fear of the next and the next
so that now and now and now is lost forever.

Worry and sorrow and angst are more contagious than any viral pandemic.
I mask up and wash my hands of it throughout the day.
I wish there was a vaccine to protect us all from our unnamed fears in the wilderness.

I want to say to them and myself:
Stop this moment in time.
Stop and stop and stop.
Stop expecting this feeling must be “fixed.”
Stop wanting to be numb to all discomfort.
Stop resenting the gift of each breath.
Just stop.
Instead, simply be
in the now and now and now.

I want to say:
this moment, foggy or fine, is yours alone,
this moment of weeping and sharing
and breath and pulse and light.
Shout for joy in it.
Celebrate it.
Be thankful for tears that can flow over grateful lips
and stop holding them back.

Stop me before I write,
out of my own anxiety over you,
yet another prescription
you don’t really need.

Just be–
and be blessed–
in the now and now and now.

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It Doesn’t Matter a Hill of Beans

I spent this morning adjusting to this change in season by occupying myself with the familiar task of moving manure.  Cleaning barn is a comforting chore, allowing me to transform tangible benefit from something objectionable and just plain stinky to the nurturing fertilizer of the future. It feels like I’ve actually accomplished something.

As I scooped and pushed the wheelbarrow, I remembered another barn cleaning twenty years ago, when I was one of three or four friends left cleaning over ninety stalls after a Haflinger horse event that I had organized at our local fairgrounds. Some people had brought their horses from over 1000 miles away to participate for several days.  Whenever horse people gather, there were personality clashes and harsh words among some participants along with criticism directed at me that I had taken very personally.  As I struggled with the umpteenth wheelbarrow load of manure, tears stung my eyes and my heart.  I was miserable with regrets.   After going without sleep and making personal sacrifices over many months planning and preparing for the benefit of our group,  my work felt like it had not been acknowledged or appreciated.

My friend Jenny had stayed behind with her family to help clean up the large facility and she could see I was struggling to keep my composure.  Jenny put herself right in front of my wheelbarrow and looked me in the eye, insisting I stop for a moment and listen.

“You know,  none of these troubles and conflicts will amount to a hill of beans years from now.  People will remember a fun event in a beautiful part of the country,  a wonderful time with their horses, their friends and family, and they’ll be all nostalgic about it, not giving a thought to the infighting or the sour attitudes or who said what to whom.   So don’t make this about you and whether you did or didn’t make everyone happy.  You loved us all enough to make it possible to meet here and the rest was up to us.  So quit being upset about what you can’t change.  There’s too much you can still do for us.”

During tough times which still come often in my professional life,  Jenny’s advice replays, reminding me to stop seeking appreciation from others, or feeling hurt when harsh words come my way.   She was right about the balm found in the tincture of time and she was right about giving up the upset in order to die to self and self absorption, and keep focusing outward.

Jenny, I have remembered what you said even though sometimes I emotionally relapse and forget.

Jenny herself spent the next six years literally dying, while vigorously living her life every day, fighting a relentless cancer that was initially helpless in the face of her faith and intense drive to live.    She became a rusting leaf, fading imperceptibly over time, crumbling at the edges until she finally let go.   Her dying did not flash brilliance, nor draw attention at the end.  Her intense focus during the years of her illness had always been outward to others, to her family and friends, to the healers she spent so much time with in medical offices, to her belief in the plan God had written for her and others.

Despite her intense love for her husband and young children, she had to let go her hold on life here.   And we all had to let her go.  

Brilliance cloaks her as her focus is now on things eternal.

You were so right, Jenny.  No conflicts from twenty years ago amounted to a hill of beans; all is remembered fondly by those who were part of the gathering. I especially treasure the words you wisely spoke to me.

And I’m no longer upset that I can’t change the fact that you have left us. There is still so much you do for us, alive in our memories.

I know we’ll catch up later.

Jenny R –photo by Ginger Kathleen Coombs

Cold Grows Colder

The cold grows colder, even as the days 
grow longer, February’s mercury vapor light 
buffing but not defrosting the bone-white 
ground, crusty and treacherous underfoot. 
This is the time of year that’s apt to put 
a hammerlock on a healthy appetite, 
old anxieties back into the night, 
insomnia and nightmares into play; 
when things in need of doing go undone 
and things that can’t be undone come to call, 
muttering recriminations at the door, 
and buried ambitions rise up through the floor 
and pin your wriggling shoulders to the wall; 
and hope’s a reptile waiting for the sun.
~Bill Christopherson
“February”

Just when you think it is safe to go out in shirt sleeves and sweats, subzero wind chill blasts through your bravado and reminds you February is still WINTER on the calendar and in reality.

February can be a month of regret and recriminations, of “should-haves” and “should-not-haves” while waiting, frozen and immobile, for spring to bring us back to life. Like cold-blooded creatures, we need the sun to warm us up so we can move again. This sun today, bright as it is, only lights up our flaws and holes – no warmth whatsoever.

And it’s not just me struggling to stay upright in the storm. Our old red barn, waiting for its spring date with a talented rehab carpenter, hasn’t many roof shingles left after this latest blow, and a recent partial wall collapse in the wind prompted a neighbor to ask if we had meant to create a new door into our barn.

Uh, no.

The old barn is kind of like how I feel at times: lacking a decent foundation, a bit shaky on my underpinnings, a lot sagging in the middle, broad in the beam and drafty where I shouldn’t be.

So much to be shored up, fixed, patched and restored. So much need for a talented Carpenter who knows how to mend and strengthen the broken and fallen.

Even the Winds and Sea Obey

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And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. A gale arose on the lake, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him up, saying, ‘Lord, save us! We are perishing!’ And he said to them, ‘Why are you afraid, you of little faith?’ Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. They were amazed, saying, ‘What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?’
Matthew 8:23-27

 

rialto2

 

Sweet Jesus, talking 
   his melancholy madness, 
     stood up in the boat 
       and the sea lay down,

silky and sorry. 
   So everybody was saved 
      that night… 
       
         Nobody knows what the soul is.

It comes and goes 
   like the wind over the water — 
      sometimes, for days, 
        you don’t think of it.

 Maybe, after the sermon, 
   after the multitude was fed, 
     one or two of them felt 
       the soul slip forth

like a tremor of pure sunlight 
   before exhaustion, 
      that wants to swallow everything, 
         gripped their bones and left them

miserable and sleepy, 
    as they are now, forgetting 
       how the wind tore at the sails 
          before he rose and talked to it —

tender and luminous and demanding 
   as he always was — 
      a thousand times more frightening 
         than the killer storm.
~Mary Oliver from “Maybe”

 

rialto3

 

I sleep through my diminishing days even more than I sleep through the nights, not nearly focused enough on each passing moment that never is to come again.  Those moments crash to shore and then pull back to be lost forever.

There is a blindness in us all about what is inevitably coming, how we are tumbled over the years like waves, overcome by their passage.

He is tender and luminous and demanding and He talks to us, not just the relentless stormy destructive sea.

Peace be still!

And so I obey, forgiven, and am saved by grace,
so silky and sorry.

 

Turn Aside and Look: Remembering the Air of Childhood

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I wanted to treat feelings that are not recognized as afflictions and are never diagnosed by doctors. All those little feelings and emotions no therapist is interested in,
because they are apparently too minor and intangible.
The feeling that washes over you when another summer nears its end.
Or when you recognize that you haven’t got your whole life left to find out where you belong.
Or the slight sense of grief when a friendship doesn’t develop as you thought,
and you have to continue your search for a lifelong companion.
Or those birthday morning blues.
Nostalgia for the air of your childhood.
Things like that.

~Nina George from The Little Paris Bookshop

 

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A white vase holds a kaleidoscope of wilting sweet peas
captive in the sunlight on the kitchen table while

wafting morning scent of pancakes
with sticky maple syrup swirls on the plate,

down the hall a dirty diaper left too long in the pail,
spills over tempera paint pots with brushes rinsed in jars after

stroking bright pastel butterflies fluttering on an easel
while wearing dad’s oversized shirt buttoned backwards

as he gently guides a hand beneath the downy underside
of the muttering hen reaching a warm egg hiding in the nest

broken into fragments like a heart while reading
the last stanza of “Dover Beach” in freshman English

Just down the hall of clanging lockers
To orchestra where strains of “Clair de Lune” accompany

the yearning midnight nipple tug of a baby’s hungry suck
hiccups gulping in rhythm to the rocking rocking

waiting for a last gasp for breath
through gaping mouth, mottled cooling skin

lies still between bleached sheets
illuminated by curtain filtered moonlight just visible

through the treetops while whoosh of owl wings
are felt not heard, sensed not seen.

Waking to bright lights and whirring machines
the hushed voice of the surgeon asking

what do you see now, what can you hear, what odor,
what flavor, what sensation on your skin

with each probe of temporal lobe, of fornix
and amygdala hidden deep in gray matter

of neurons and synaptic holding bins of chemical transmitters
storing the mixed bag of the past and present

to find and remove the offending lesion that seizes up
all remembrance, all awareness

and be set free again to live, to love, to swoon at the perfume
of spring sweet peas climbing dew fresh at dawn,

tendril wrapping over tendril,
the peeling wall of the garden shed

no more regrets, no more grief
no more sorrow.

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An Obesity of Grief

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octleaves2

…to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.
— Ellen Bass  “The Thing Is…” from Mules of Love

willowsun

It begins again, even though I’m unprepared.  No matter which way I turn,  autumn’s kaleidoscope displays new patterns, new colors, new empty spaces as I watch the world die into itself once again.  Some dying is flashy, brilliant, blazing – a calling out for attention.  Then there is the hidden dying that happens without anyone taking notice: just a plain, tired, rusting away letting go.

I will spend the morning adjusting to the change in season by occupying myself with the familiar task of moving manure.  Cleaning barn is a comforting chore, allowing me to transform tangible benefit from something objectionable and just plain stinky to the nurturing fertilizer of the future. It feels like I’ve actually accomplished something.

As I scoop and push the wheelbarrow, I recall another barn cleaning fifteen years ago, when I was one of three or four friends left cleaning over ninety stalls after a Haflinger horse event that I had organized at our local fairgrounds. Some people had brought their horses from over 1000 miles away to participate for several days.  There had been personality clashes and harsh words among some participants along with criticism directed at me as the organizer that I had taken very personally.  As I struggled with the umpteenth wheelbarrow load of manure, tears stung my eyes and my heart.  I was miserable with regret. After going without sleep and making personal sacrifices over many months planning and preparing for the benefit of our group,  my work felt futile and unappreciated.

One friend had stayed behind with her young family to help clean up the large facility and she could see I was struggling to keep my composure.  Jenny put herself right in front of my wheelbarrow and looked me in the eye, insisting I stop for a moment and listen:

“You know,  none of these troubles and conflicts will amount to a hill of beans years from now.  People will remember a fun event in a beautiful part of the country,  a wonderful time with their Haflingers, their friends and family, and they’ll be all nostalgic about it, not giving a thought to the infighting or the sour attitudes or who said what to whom.   So don’t make this about you and whether you did or didn’t make everyone happy.  You loved us all enough to make it possible to meet here and the rest was up to us.  So quit being upset about what you can’t change.  There’s too much you can still do for us.”

During tough times since (and there have been plenty),  Jenny’s advice replays, reminding me to cease seeking appreciation from others or feeling hurt when harsh words come my way.   She was right about the balm found in the tincture of time.  She was right about giving up the upset in order to die to self and self absorption, and instead to focus outward.

I have remembered.

Jenny herself did not know that day fifteen years ago she would subsequently spend six years dying while still loving her life every day, fighting a relentless cancer that was only slowed in the face of her faith and intense drive to live.    She became a rusting leaf gone holy, fading imperceptibly over time, crumbling at the edges until five years ago this past week, she finally had to let go.   Her dying did not flash brilliance, nor draw attention at the end.  Her intense focus during the years of her illness had always been outward to others, to her family and friends, to the healers she spent so much time with in medical offices, to her firm belief in the plan God had written for her and those who loved her.

So Jenny let go her hold on life here.   And we reluctantly let her go.   Brilliance cloaks her as her focus is now on things eternal.

You were so right, Jenny.  Nothing from fifteen years ago amounts to a hill of beans now. Except the words you spoke to me that day, teaching me to love life even when I have no stomach for it.

And I won’t be upset that I can’t change what is past and the fact that you have left us.

We’ll catch up later.

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Jenny R in her final year –photo by Ginger Kathleen Coombs

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mejierface

Soundless Echo

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rainbowfarm2

There are all kinds of silences and each of them means a different thing.
There is the silence that comes with morning in a forest,
and this is different from the silence of a sleeping city.
There is silence after a rainstorm,
and before a rainstorm,
and these are not the same.
There is the silence of emptiness,
the silence of fear,
the silence of doubt.
There is a certain silence that can emanate from a lifeless object
as from a chair lately used,
or from a piano with old dust upon its keys,
or from anything that has answered to the need of a man,
for pleasure or for work.
This kind of silence can speak.
Its voice may be melancholy,
but it is not always so;
for the chair may have been left by a laughing child
or the last notes of the piano may have been raucous and gay.
Whatever the mood or the circumstance,
the essence of its quality may linger in the silence that follows.
It is a soundless echo.

~Beryl Markham from West From the Night

________________

Silence shouts loud wherever I am,
so I capture it as best I can,
echoing what just has been,
what should have been
or could have been.
It is the sound of remembrance,
sometimes regret,
often reconciliation
that what once was
can be no longer.

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