Making the Best of What Remains

What is pertinent is the calmness of beauty, its sense of restraint. It is as though the land knows of its own beauty, its own greatness, and feels no need to shout it…

For a great many people, the evening is the most enjoyable part of the day. Perhaps, then, there is something to his advice that I should cease looking back so much, that I should adopt a more positive outlook and try to make the best of what remains of my day. After all, what can we ever gain in forever looking back and blaming ourselves if our lives have not turned out quite as we might have wished?
~Kazuo Ishiguro from The Remains of the Day

Life is a great big canvas, and you should throw all the paint you can on it.
~Danny Kaye

Every moment is a fresh beginning.
~T.S. Eliot

I am ashamed to admit I squander time looking back,
yearning for a day that has long since passed,
tossing off these present precious hours
as somehow not measuring up to what came before.

Even when I believe things will never change,
they will, and I will. 

There have been over thirty-six years
of such days in this farm country,
one flowing gently after another,
and every single one have been exactly what I’m looking for.

I shall toss my heart ahead and set out after it,
each moment a fresh beginning and blank canvas,
making the best of what remains of my day.

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Secrets Brought to Light

You won’t remember it—the apple orchard
We wandered through one April afternoon,
Climbing the hill behind the empty farm.

A city boy, I’d never seen a grove
Burst in full flower or breathed the bittersweet
Perfume of blossoms mingled with the dust.

A quarter mile of trees in fragrant rows
Arching above us. We walked the aisle,
Alone in spring’s ephemeral cathedral.

We had the luck, if you can call it that,
Of having been in love but never lovers—
The bright flame burning, fed by pure desire.

Nothing consumed, such secrets brought to light!
There was a moment when I stood behind you,
Reached out to spin you toward me…but I stopped.

What more could I have wanted from that day?
Everything, of course. Perhaps that was the point—
To learn that what we will not grasp is lost.
~Dana Gioia “The Apple Orchard”

Love, we are in God’s hand.
How strange now, looks the life he makes us lead;
So free we seem, so fettered fast we are!

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?
~Robert Browning from Andrea Del Sarto

As I walk down the blooming aisleways
of Spring’s ephemeral cathedral,
it doesn’t help to regret what could have been
– if only –
long ago I had reached out
to hold what remained free of my grasp.
Perhaps it is forever lost to me…

I am overwhelmed by all the potential surrounding me –
the trees are literally bursting with blossom and leaf,
an undulating green carpeting covering every rolling hill,
exuberant new life bouncing and bucking in the pastures.

I wonder, at this age and stage of my life,
whatever potential is left to me?

If I give up my dreams
if I don’t try to hold on to what seems out of reach
if I don’t remember what it feels like to want everything from life,
I would wilt and wither without forming fruit.

Ah Love – I am in God’s Hand.
Or what’s a heaven for?

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A Voice in My Ear

when my father had been dead a week
I woke
with his voice in my ear
                                           I sat up in bed
and held my breath
and stared at the pale closed door

white apples and the taste of stone

if he called again
I would put on my coat and galoshes
~Donald Hall “White Apples”

She skimmed the yellow water like a moth,
Trailing her feet across the shallow stream;
She saw the berries, paused and sampled them
Where a slight spider cleaned his narrow tooth.
Light in the air, she fluttered up the path,
So delicate to shun the leaves and damp,
Like some young wife, holding a slender lamp
To find her stray child, or the moon, or both.
Even before she reached the empty house,
She beat her wings ever so lightly, rose,
Followed a bee where apples blew like snow;
And then, forgetting what she wanted there,
Too full of blossom and green light to care,
She hurried to the ground, and slipped below.
~James Wright “My Grandmother’s Ghost from Above the River: The Complete Poems 

I saw my grandma’s ghost once.

She was my only grandparent I actually knew and who actually knew me — the others were lost before I was born or too young to realize what I had lost.

She had lived a hard life: losing her mother when she was 12, taking over the household duties for her father and younger brother while leaving school forever. She married too young to an abusive alcoholic, lost her first child to lymphoma at age 8 before treatment was possible and took her three remaining children to safety away from their father for a year to live above a seedy restaurant where she cooked seven days a week to make ends meet.

But there was grace too. The marriage somehow got patched together after Grandpa found God and sobriety – after his sudden death sitting in church, Grandma’s faith never wavered. Her garden soil yielded beautiful flowers she planted and nurtured and picked to sell, her children and grandchildren welcomed her many open armed visits and hugs.

She was busy planning her first overseas trip of a lifetime at age 72 when we noticed her eyes looked yellow. Only two weeks later she was bed-bound in unrelenting pain due to pancreatic cancer, gazing heaven-ward instead of Europe-bound. Her dreams had been dashed so quickly, she barely realized her itinerary and destination had changed.

I was 16 at the time, too absorbed in my own teenage cares and concerns to really notice how quickly she was fading and failing like a wilted flower. Instead I was picking fights with my stressed parents, worrying over taking my driver’s license driving test, distracted by all the typical social pressures of high school life.

Her funeral was unbearable as I had never really said goodbye – only one brief hospital visit when she was hardly recognizable in her anguish and jaundice. I didn’t even get to hold her hand.

Soon after she had been lowered into the ground next to her husband and young daughter, she came back to me in a dream.

I was asleep when my bedroom door opened into the dark, wakening me as the bright hallway light pushed its way via a shimmering beam to my bed. Grandma Kittie stood in my bedroom doorway, backlit by the light surrounding her silhouette. She silently stood there, just looking at me.

Startled, I sat up in my bed and said to her, “Grandma, why are you here? You died and we buried you!”

She nodded and smiled. And then she said to me:

“I want you to know I’m okay and always will be. You will be too.”

She gave a little wave, turned and left, closing the door behind her. I woke suddenly with a gasp in my darkened bedroom and knew I had just been visited.

She hadn’t come to say goodbye or to tell me she loved me — that I knew already.

She had come to shine with her light blossoming around her, mending my broken heart by planting it with peace.

Grandma Kittie and Grandpa Leslie in their courting days

You’re in a better place
I’ve heard a thousand times
And at least a thousand times
I’ve rejoiced for you

But the reason why I’m broken
The reason why I cry
Is how long must I wait to be with you

I close my eyes and I see your face
If home’s where my heart is then I’m out of place
Lord, won’t you give me strength
To make it through somehow
I’ve never been more homesick than now

Help me Lord cause I don’t understand your ways
The reason why I wonder if I’ll ever know
But, even if you showed me
The hurt would be the same
Cause I’m still here so far away from home

In Christ, there are no goodbyes
And in Christ, there is no end

So I’ll hold onto Jesus
With all that I have
To see you again
To see you again

And I close my eyes and I see your face
If home’s where my heart is then I’m out of place
Lord, won’t you give me strength
To make it through somehow

Won’t you give me strength
To make it through somehow
Won’t you give me strength
To make it through somehow
I’ve never been more homesick than now
~Millard Bart Marshall

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These Old Bones

First day of February,
and in the far corner of the yard
the Adirondack chair,
blown over by the wind at Christmas,

is still on its back,
the snow too deep for me
to traipse out and right it,
the ice too sheer
to risk slamming these old bones
to the ground.


In April
I will walk out
across the warming grass,
and right the chair
as if there had never been anything
to stop me in the first place,
listening for the buzz of hummingbirds
which reminds me of how fast
things are capable of moving.
~John Stanizzi “Ascension”

It has been a harsh and cold winter so far with more days of snow on the ground than not. For a couple weeks there was a constant challenge of finding safe footing when surfaces were snow and ice-covered; local orthopedists were busy putting together broken arms and legs and dislocated joints from too many unscheduled landings.

It seems sometimes winter will never be done with us. The saddest moment a week ago was the discovery as our iced-over fish pond was thawing that it had frozen solid during the sub-zero temperatures – and a dozen decade-old koi and goldfish frozen with it. Our sorrow at this loss is deeper than the pond proved to be; we assumed the depth of the water was sufficient to keep our fish safe from harm as it has for decades. Yet this winter stole them from us.

I know in my head that winter is not forever — February will wrap up its short stay on the calendar and once again I will traipse about with ease without worrying about iced-over walkways. But my heart is not so easily convinced about winter waning. The unexpected loss of our fish reminds me of my guilt from the past: times I have failed to help others when I could have – like the priest and Levite, seeing the dying man on the road to Jericho, cross to the other side and walk past.

So my heart and head and old bones need reminding:
Those who traipse on ice always risk being broken.
Those who have fallen will be righted and put together again.
Those who suffer regret are forgiven even when pain is not forgotten.
And time moves quickly on despite our efforts to hold on to now;
my old bones and tender heart will heal so I can be of use to others.

From the love of my own comfort
From the fear of having nothing
From a life of worldly passions
Deliver me O God

From the need to be understood
From the need to be accepted
From the fear of being lonely
Deliver me O God Deliver me O God

And I shall not want I shall not want
When I taste Your goodness I shall not want
When I taste Your goodness I shall not want

From the fear of serving others
From the fear of death or trial
From the fear of humility
Deliver me O God Deliver me O God
~Audrey Assad

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Things I Did Not Say or Do

IV  My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup
On the marble table-top.

While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.


V  Although the summer Sunlight gild
Cloudy leafage of the sky,
Or wintry moonlight sink the field
In storm-scattered intricacy,
I cannot look thereon,
Responsibility so weighs me down.

Things said or done long years ago,
Or things I did not do or say
But thought that I might say or do,
Weigh me down, and not a day
But something is recalled,
My conscience or my vanity appalled.
~William Butler Yeats,Vacillation Parts IV and V


In this, the last trimester of my life, I find myself dwelling on how I continue to grow and change, as if I was gestating all over again, 68 years later. It is a time or preparation for what comes next, while not wanting to miss a moment of what is – right now.

I have plenty of opportunity to replay the many moments I’ve regretted what I said or did, or what I could have said or did….and didn’t. Recalling remorse is far easier and stickier than replaying joy that seems so fleeting in my memory.

There are times when I feel both weighed down by memories and freed at the same time. It almost always happens while sitting in worship in church, while silently confessing how I have wronged those around me or turned my face from God, yet in the next moment, I feel the embrace of a Creator who never forgets but still forgives. It is an overwhelming knowledge that brings me to tears every time.

It is in that moment that my joy no longer is fleeting; it lives deeply in my cells since I, like all around me, am created in His image.

And God saw what He had made, and it was, and still is, good.
He made us for joy, not out of regret.

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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.

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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.

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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

fog101926

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

fog1228141

~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”

foggyfield
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”

supermoonbarn

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.

sunset15183

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