The Cousins Are Coming!

The cousins are coming!
Cousins, cousins. Here come the boys.
Bedlam, mayhem, noise, noise, noise.
Blow up the air mattresses, hide the breakable toys.
Cousins, cousins. Here come the boys.

~John Forster and Tom Chapin “Cousins”

photo of a windy day — photo by Danyale Tamminga
photo of a windy day — photo by Nate Lovegren

When I was growing up, I got to see my cousins at least once or twice a year but never lived near extended family. It was always an exciting day when the cousins were coming for a visit, or we went to see them. Now as adults, I have sadly lost touch with several of them.

I’m particularly envious of the close relationships between cousins growing up on the same farm just down the road from us- essentially they live interchangeably between one house or the other. What a great way to grow up, with two families who will take you in whenever you want a change in scenery or siblings. If you are fighting with a brother or sister, you can hopefully find compatible cousins a few hundred yards away.

Our children have produced two sets of cousins who had never met due to COVID restrictions on international travel but were familiar only as faces on a screen. Today they were able to play together in the same room in our ordinarily quiet and boring home —-at times it was mayhem and noise noise noise, but wonderful happy giggles and games will happen over the next week. We hope this can now happen much more often.

It is a perfect time to treasure these family ties between our grandchildren. And create as much bedlam and mayhem as possible!

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Astonished

It’s an early summer day, going to be a hot one.
I’m away from home, I’m working; the sky is solidly blue
with just a chalk smear of clouds. So why this melancholy?
Why these blues? Nothing I’ve done seems to matter; I
could leave tomorrow and no one would notice, that’s how
invisible I feel. But look, there’s a pair of cardinals
on the weathered table, pecking at sunflower seeds
which I’ve brought from home. They don’t seem
particularly grateful. Neither does the sky, no matter
how I transcribe it. I wanted to do more in this life,
not the elusive prizes, but poems that astonish. A big flashy jay
lands on the table, scattering seeds and smaller birds.
They regroup, continue to hunt and peck on the lawn.
~Barbara Crooker, “Melancholia” from Some Glad Morning

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the green heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
~Wendell Berry “The Peace of Wild Things” from The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry

I lay awake last night worrying over our son and his family’s ten hour overnight flight from Tokyo. Our two young grandchildren arrive today after 30 months of pandemic separation – to them, we are just faces on a screen.

We go soon to collect them from half-way around the world where they said a sorrowful sayonara to grandparents and family there, arriving here to a new life, new language, new everything, with their worldly belongings in suitcases.

From the largest city in the world to our little corner of the middle of nowhere.

I will watch them discover for themselves
the joys and sorrows of this world.
When I look through their eyes,
I will be reminded there is light beyond the darkness I fear,
there is peace amid the chaos,
there is a smile behind the tears,
there is stillness within the noisiness
there is rest despite my restlessness,
there is grace as old gives way to new.

I do not need to do anything astonishing myself.
Astonishing happens all around me.

I need only notice and cherish it.

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The Presence of Absence

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

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
~Mary Oliver from “When Death Comes”

Today, as always over the last weekend of May, we have a family reunion where most turn up missing.  A handful of the living come together for lunch and then a slew of the no-longer-living, some of whom 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, an alcoholic grandfather I barely remember, my grandmother whose inherent messiness I inherited, an aunt who died of lymphoma as a young child, my parents who separated and divorced for ten years late in life, yet reunited long enough for their ashes to rest together 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.

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.

All in good time.

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Listen for Returning Feet

I sit beside the fire and think of all that I have seen,
of meadow-flowers and butterflies in summers that have been;
Of yellow leaves and gossamer in autumns that there were,
with morning mist and silver sun and wind upon my hair.
I sit beside the fire and think of how the world will be
when winter comes without a spring that I shall ever see.

For still there are so many things that I have never seen:
in every wood in every spring there is a different green.
I sit beside the fire and think of people long ago,
and people who will see a world that I shall never know.
But all the while I sit and think of times there were before,
I listen for returning feet and voices at the door.

~J.R.R. Tolkien “Bilbo’s Song” from The Lord of the Rings

The shortening days make me greedy
for what is left of daylight –
watching the sky change by the hour,
brown summer fields
greening from rain,
webs clinging when I pass.

More than anything, I hunker down,
waiting for winter, knowing the quiet nights
by the fire will restore me –
hoping I’ll hear visitors at the door,
those I love coming home to spend what time is left.

A dichotomy of sweet peas and pumpkins in October

The perfect book for an autumn evening by the fire, available to order here:

I Pray Watch Over Them

Echo of the clocktower, footstep
in the alleyway, sweep
of the wind sifting the leaves. 


Jeweller of the spiderweb, connoisseur
of autumn’s opulence, blade of lightning
harvesting the sky. 

Keeper of the small gate, choreographer
of entrances and exits, midnight
whisper travelling the wires. 

Seducer, healer, deity, or thief,
I will see you soon enough–


in the shadow of the rainfall, 
in the brief violet darkening a sunset —

but until then I pray watch over him
as a mountain guards its covert ore 

and the harsh falcon its flightless young.
~Dana Gioia “The Prayer” (written in memory of his infant son who died of SIDS)

When we think of those who wait for us on the other side,
including our baby lost before birth 38 years ago…

We pray those from whom we are parted are loved as we have loved.

I know God will watch over all these reunions;
He knows the moment when our fractured hearts
heal whole once again.

I will see you soon enough, sweet one. Soon enough.

photo by Kate Steensma

A peaceful book of beauty in words and pictures, available to order here:

Returning Home More Enriched

Every time you leave home,
Another road takes you
Into a world you were never in.

New strangers on other paths await.
New places that have never seen you
Will startle a little at your entry.
Old places that know you well
Will pretend nothing
Changed since your last visit.

When you travel, you find yourself
Alone in a different way,
More attentive now
To the self you bring along,
Your more subtle eye watching
You abroad; and how what meets you
Touches that part of the heart
That lies low at home:

How you unexpectedly attune
To the timbre in some voice,
Opening in conversation
You want to take in
To where your longing
Has pressed hard enough
Inward, on some unsaid dark,
To create a crystal of insight
You could not have known
You needed
To illuminate
Your way.

When you travel,
A new silence
Goes with you,
And if you listen,
You will hear
What your heart would
Love to say.

A journey can become a sacred thing:
Make sure, before you go,
To take the time
To bless your going forth,
To free your heart of ballast
So that the compass of your soul
Might direct you toward
The territories of spirit
Where you will discover
More of your hidden life,
And the urgencies
That deserve to claim you.

May you travel in an awakened way,
Gathered wisely into your inner ground;
That you may not waste the invitations
Which wait along the way to transform you.

May you travel safely, arrive refreshed,
And live your time away to its fullest;
Return home more enriched, and free
To balance the gift of days which call you.

~ John O’Donohue from To Bless The Space Between Us

We are out of the habit of traveling after remaining home for over a year waiting out the pandemic. So a two-day road trip to visit a grandchild takes on nearly mythic proportions: all senses on alert – wondering at new sights and sounds and smells, traveling in “an awakened way.”

One doesn’t have to journey beyond borders to feel like the “other” – a grocery store in rural Wyoming can seem just as foreign when we are perceived as the strangers by our appearance. Clearly we were “out of towners” – driving a Japanese-made hybrid sedan, not a F150 pickup, wearing Keen shoes, not cowboy boots, wearing COVID masks even though fully vaccinated out of respect for others while everyone else is unmasked and clearly suspicious of our apparent “virtual signaling.”

When others see me as a stranger, I in turn see myself differently when I’m not at home. Out “there,” I am seen as a gray-haired senior citizen who isn’t completely comfortable with where I am going or where I’ve been; nothing is familiar so I am slightly disoriented and unsure of myself and what might happen next.

At home, I’m still young in my head if not considerably older and fluffier in body, usually confident about what will happen next in my day. Traveling takes me out of myself and my precious routine, picks me up and puts me where I don’t expect to be. I’m transformed and enlightened even when feeling a bit out of time and place.

It is a good thing to see oneself with different eyes and not always know what will happen next. An adventure around every corner is just fine for a week or so. But coming home from a journey is the truest gift. I look to the east and to the west on our rural country road and think about who and what lies beyond our farm on a hill, knowing that I’m always better for having ventured out to see what I could see.

And even better for having this place to come home to.

A new book from Barnstorming – more information here:

My Most Unusual Job Interview

photo of Jane Goodall, smiling at me as I came up to give her a hug, courtesy of WWU University Communications (2018)
courtesy of WWU Communications
courtesy of WWU University Communications

Standing outside a non-descript door in a long dark windowless hallway of offices at the Stanford Medical Center, I took a deep breath and swallowed several times to clear my dry throat. I hoped I had found the correct office, as there was only a number– no nameplate to confirm who was inside.

I was about to meet a childhood hero, someone whose every book I’d read and every TV documentary I had watched. I knocked with what I hoped was the right combination of assertiveness (“I want to be here to talk with you and prove my interest”) and humility (“I hope this is convenient for you as I don’t want to intrude”). I heard a soft voice on the other side say “Come in” so I slowly opened the door.

It was a bit like going through the wardrobe to enter Narnia. Bright sunlight streamed into the dark hallway as I stepped over the threshold. Squinting, I stepped inside and quickly shut the door behind me as I realized there were at least four birds flying about the room. They were taking off and landing, hopping about feeding on bird seed on the office floor and on the window sill. The windows were flung wide open with a spring breeze rustling papers on the desk. The birds were very happy occupying the sparsely furnished room, which contained only one desk, two chairs and Dr. Jane Goodall.

She stood up and extended her hand to me, saying, quite unnecessarily, “Hello, I’m Jane” and offered me the other chair when I told her my name. She was slighter than she appeared when speaking up at a lectern, or on film. Sitting back down at her desk, she busied herself reading and marking her papers, seemingly occupied and not to be disturbed. It was as if I was not there at all.

It was disorienting. In the middle of a bustling urban office complex containing nothing resembling plants or a natural environment, I had unexpectedly stepped into a bird sanctuary instead of sitting down for a job interview. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do or say. Jane didn’t really ever look directly at me, yet I was clearly being observed. So I waited, watching the birds making themselves at home in her office, and slowly feeling at home myself. I felt my tight muscles start to relax and I loosened my grip on the arms of the chair.

There was silence except for the twittering of the finches as they flew about our heads.

After awhile she spoke, her eyes still perusing papers: “It is the only way I can tolerate being here for any length of time. They keep me company. But don’t tell anyone; the people here would think this is rather unsanitary.”

I said the only thing I could think of: “I think it is magical. It reminds me of home.”

Only then did she look at me. “Now tell me why you’d like to come work at Gombe…”

The next day I received a note from her letting me know I was accepted for the research assistantship to begin a year later. I had proven I could sit silently and expectantly, waiting for something, or perhaps nothing at all, to happen. For a farm girl who never before traveled outside the United States, I was about to embark on an adventure far beyond the barnyard.

(I had no idea when I applied for this position in March of 1974 that a little more than a year later, on May 19, 1975, I would be hiding in a Tanzanian jungle alongside Jane and her eight year old son Grub – that story is found here.

True to Jane’s tradition of impeccable graciousness, she sent me a hand-written note after her last visit in 2018 when she came to speak at Western Washington University in Bellingham.

A documentary “Jane” is streaming online and reviewed at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/18/movies/jane-review-jane-goodall-documentary.html

A new book from Barnstorming is available for order here

Each One Knows What the Other Knows

They sit together on the porch, the dark
Almost fallen, the house behind them dark.
Their supper done with, they have washed and dried
The dishes–only two plates now, two glasses,
Two knives, two forks, two spoons–small work for two.
She sits with her hands folded in her lap,
At rest. He smokes his pipe. They do not speak,
And when they speak at last it is to say
What each one knows the other knows. They have
One mind between them, now, that finally
For all its knowing will not exactly know
Which one goes first through the dark doorway, bidding
Goodnight, and which sits on a while alone.
~Wendell Berry “They Sit Together on the Porch”

Over our multiple decades together, the more often we see others who sat together on the porches of their lives, and one has now already gone through that darkened doorway, bidding Goodnight.

The other remains sitting alone for a time.

We know what the other knows in our one mind together: we don’t know who will bid Goodnight before the other and who will sit on for awhile.

But we know it is okay either way because this is how it is and how it is meant to be. This is why we treasure up each porch-sitting, breathing the fresh evening air together, sighing wordlessly together, knowing, and not knowing, what will come next.

A new book from Barnstorming, available to order here:

Jeweller of the Spiderweb

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Echo of the clocktower, footstep
in the alleyway, sweep
of the wind sifting the leaves.

Jeweller of the spiderweb, connoisseur
of autumn’s opulence, blade of lightning
harvesting the sky.

Keeper of the small gate, choreographer
of entrances and exits, midnight
whisper traveling the wires.

Seducer, healer, deity or thief,
I will see you soon enough—
in the shadow of the rainfall,

in the brief violet darkening a sunset—
but until then I pray watch over him
as a mountain guards its covert ore

and the harsh falcon its flightless young. 
~Dana Gioia “Prayer”
(written in memory of his infant son who died of SIDS)

 

 

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When we think of those who wait for us on the other side,
including our baby lost before birth 35 years ago…

Who then will we long for when it comes our time to wait?

I know there is One who watches over all these reunions,
knowing the moment when my fractured heart
heals whole once again.

I will see you soon enough.

 

 

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Spread Your Wings and Fly

View More: http://karenmullen.pass.us/gibson-order

 

You can kiss your family and friends good-bye and put miles between you, but at the same time you carry them with you in your heart, your mind, your stomach, because you do not just live in a world but a world lives in you.
~ Frederick Buechner

 

View More: http://karenmullen.pass.us/gibson-order

 

We have now said good-bye to our children who came together for a time back on the farm this summer and have all returned to their lives elsewhere.  It was bliss to raise our voices together in harmony before our meals, as we always have done, and now our table is set for two as we entrust them yet again to God’s care and keeping.

Their wings are strong and sure, carrying them miles away from this place of origin.

I began writing regularly 16 years ago to consider more deeply my time left on this earth and what my family meant to me, here and now, and for eternity. Family is carried inside the words I write without my often writing about them directly.  They inspire and challenge me, they love and stretch me, and as our children have now gone out into the world, two returning with beloved wives, and one with their first child,  I am assured they are sustained by what they have carried away from this home.

Life is not just about living in the world but what world you carry deep inside, blessed by faith and obedience to God.  We can never really be lonely; our hearts will never be empty when our voices are always raised in praise together.

We have each other forever, even miles and miles and lifetimes apart.
For you’re always near to me, in my joy and sorrow
For you ever care for me, lifting my spirits to the sky (see song below by Libera)

I sustain myself with the love of family.
― Maya Angelou

 

View More: http://karenmullen.pass.us/gibson-order

all family photos by Karen Mullen Photography (thanks once again, Karen!)

 

Angel take your wings and fly, watching over me
See me through my night time and be my leading light
Angel you have found the way, never fear to tread
You’ll be a friend to me, angel spread your wings and fly.

Voces angelorum gloria! Dona eis pacem!
(O voices of angels (give) glory! Grant them peace!)

For you’re always near to me, in my joy and my sorrow
For you ever care for me, lifting my spirits to the sky.
Where a million angels sing, in amazing harmony
And the words of love they bring
To the never ending story
A million voices sing
To the wonder of the light
So I hide beneath your wing
You are my guardian, angel of mine.

Cantate caeli chorus angelorum!
Venite adoramus in aeternum!
Psallite saecula et saeculorum!
Laudate Deo in gloria!
(Sing, Heaven’s choir of angels!
Come, let us evermore adore!
Sing forever and ever!
Praise God in glory!)

Can you be my angel now watching over me
Comfort and inspire me to see our journey through
Can I be your friend indeed, from all cares set free,
The clouds would pass away, then I’d be an angel too

Voces angelorum gloria, dona eis pacem!
(O voices of angels (give) glory! Grant them peace!)

For you’re always near to me, in my joy and my sorrow
For you ever care for me, lifting my spirits to the sky.
Where a million angels sing, in amazing harmony
And the words of love they bring
To the never ending story
A million voices sing
To the wonder of the light
So I hide beneath your wing
You are my guardian, angel of mine
Angel of mine