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
I stop the car along the pasture edge, gather up bags of corncobs from the back, and get out. Two whistles, one for each, and familiar sounds draw close in darkness— cadence of hoof on hardened bottomland, twinned blowing of air through nostrils curious, flared. They come deepened and muscular movements conjured out of sleep: each small noise and scent heavy with earth, simple beyond communion, beyond the stretched-out hand from which they calmly take corncobs, pulling away as I hold until the mid-points snap. They are careful of my fingers, offering that animal-knowledge, the respect which is due to strangers; and in the night, their mares’ eyes shine, reflecting stars, the entire, outer light of the world here. ~Jane Hirshfield “After Work”from Of Gravity and Angels.
I’ve been picking up windfall apples to haul down to the barn for a special treat each night for the Haflingers. These are apples that we humans wouldn’t take a second glance at in all our satiety and fussiness, but the Haflingers certainly don’t mind a bruise, or a worm hole or slug trails over apple skin.
I’ve found over the years that our horses must be taught to eat apples–if they have no experience with them, they will bypass them lying in the field and not give them a second look. There simply is not enough odor to make them interesting or appealing–until they are cut in slices that is. Then they become irresistible and no apple is left alone from that point forward.
When I offer a whole apple to a young Haflinger who has never tasted one before, they will sniff it, perhaps roll it on my hand a bit with their lips, but I’ve yet to have one simply bite in and try. If I take the time to cut the apple up, they’ll pick up a section very gingerly, kind of hold it on their tongue and nod their head up and down trying to decide as they taste and test it if they should drop it or chew it, and finally, as they really bite in and the sweetness pours over their tongue, they get this look in their eye that is at once surprised and supremely pleased. The only parallel experience I’ve seen in humans is when you offer a five month old baby his first taste of ice cream on a spoon and at first he tightens his lips against its coldness, but once you slip a little into his mouth, his face screws up a bit and then his eyes get big and sparkly and his mouth rolls the taste around his tongue, savoring that sweet cold creaminess. His mouth immediately pops open for more.
It is the same with apples and horses. Once they have that first taste, they are our slaves forever in search of the next apple.
The Haflinger veteran apple eaters can see me coming with my sweat shirt front pocket stuffed with apples, a “pregnant” belly of fruit, as it were. They offer low nickers when I come up to their stalls and each horse has a different approach to their apple offering.
There is the “bite a little bit at a time” approach, which makes the apple last longer, and tends to be less messy in the long run. There is the “bite it in half” technique which leaves half the apple in your hand as they navigate the other half around their teeth, dripping and frothing sweet apple slobber. Lastly there is the greedy “take the whole thing at once” horse, which is the most challenging way to eat an apple, as it has to be moved back to the molars, and crunched, and then moved around the mouth to chew up the large pieces, and usually half the apple ends up falling to the ground, with all the foam that the juice and saliva create. No matter the technique used, the smell of an apple as it is being chewed by a horse is one of the best smells in the world. I can almost taste the sweetness too when I smell that smell.
What do we do when offered such a sublime gift from someone’s hand? If it is something we have never experienced before, we possibly walk right by, not recognizing that it is a gift at all, missing the whole point and joy of experiencing what is being offered. How many wonderful opportunities are right under our noses, but we fail to notice, and bypass them because they are unfamiliar?
Perhaps if the giver really cares enough to “teach” us to accept this communion meal, by preparing it and making it irresistible to us, then we are overwhelmed with the magnitude of the generosity and are transformed by the simple act of receiving.
We must learn to take little bites, savoring each piece one at a time, making it last rather than greedily grab hold of the whole thing, struggling to control it, thereby losing some in the process. Either way, it is a gracious gift, and it is how we receive it that makes all the difference.
In every encounter we either give life or drain it. There is no neutral exchange. We enhance human dignity or we diminish it. The success or failure of a given day is measured by the quality of our interest and compassion toward those around us. ~Brennan Manningfrom Abba’s Child: The Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging
Forty years ago this week I graduated with an M.D. degree from the University of Washington and began a lifetime of trying to be life-giving rather than life-draining to others.
There have been times when I’ve failed miserably, my interest waning and my compassion fatigued.
But like tracing the path of a spiral from inside to outside, I continue to try to reach farther and encompass more with each step I take in the time I have left, remembering the dignity of each person I meet and being worthy of their time and trust.
May this young woman who embarked so enthusiastically on the physician journey so many decades ago never forget, after so much seasoning, what it took to get there and what it means to continue to be worthy.
Before God and this gathering, I vow from my heart and spirit that I will be your wife/husband for as long as we both shall live.
I will love you with faithfulness, knowing its importance in sustaining us through good times and bad.
I will love you with respect, serving your greatest good and supporting your continued growth.
I will love you with compassion, knowing the strength and power of forgiveness.
I will love you with hope, remembering our shared belief in the grace of God and His guidance of our marriage.
“And at home, by the fire, whenever you look up, there I shall be–and whenever I look up, there will be you.”
(our wedding vows for our September 19, 1981 wedding at First Seattle Christian Reformed Church — the last line adapted from Thomas Hardy’s “Far From the Madding Crowd”)
I give you what is unbounded, passing from dark to dark, containing darkness: a night of rain, an early morning. I give you the life I have let live for the love of you: a clump of orange-blooming weeds beside the road, the young orchard waiting in the snow, our own life that we have planted in the ground, as I have planted mine in you.
~Wendell Berry from The Country of Marriage
Thirty five years ago today we became one story, a story still being told.
What joy it is to know you and be known by you!
May our story have many more chapters celebrating the poetry of life together, with a minimum of plot twists and cliffhangers.
We’ll trust the Author who touches us with Words as tenderly as we touch each other.
It is bliss to love and be loved from the first page to the last.
My father swerves the team to miss the quail’s nest hidden in the furrow she rises up beating her wings her cries fill all the world of sky and cloud echoing her call…
and so he passes the caring farmer with his crooked furrow saluting life the warm round eggs hidden in the spring grass the quail rising and falling pulled by invisible heartstrings. ~Dorothy Hewitt “Quail’s Nest”
I remember my father driving a stake
where the killdeer nest held 6 speckled eggs,
and the mother would run off crying,
flapping and appearing wounded
to lure him away from her precious brood.
He would drive the plow around those nests,
marking their spot for the season,
respecting their presence,
preserving their future,
without anyone telling him
he should or he must
because his heart told him
it was the right thing to do.
thank you to Joel DeWaard for giving me permission to use his recent photos from the Lynden International Plowing Match that takes place just down the road apiece.
And then, that evening Late in the summer the strange horses came.
In the first moment we had never a thought
That they were creatures to be owned and used.
Since then they have pulled our plows and borne our loads,
But that free servitude still can pierce our hearts.
Our life is changed; their coming our beginning. ~Edwin Muir from “The Horses”
There is nothing that truly compels a horse to wear a saddle, pull a heavy burden, chew a cold bit until it foams warm, no fear of whip or spur or harsh word. They, so much more powerful than we are, choose the work, to do what is needed, to serve freely, to be there because they were asked.
How much more we learn from the lather of their sweaty grace — how to choose the labor that changes lives, how to offer up love in gratitude for the reward of a nose buried in sweet clover.