But By His Grace: We Are Not Alone

God makes us happy as only children can be happy.
God wants to always be with us, wherever we may be –
in our sin, in our suffering and death.
We are no longer alone;
God is with us.
We are no longer homeless;
a bit of the eternal home itself has moved unto us. 
~Dietrich Bonhoeffer

It’s the season of scars and of wounds in the heart
Of feeling the full weight of our burdens
It’s the season of bowing our heads in the wind
And knowing we are not alone in fear
Not alone in the dark

Don’t forget
Don’t forget I love
I love
I love you
~Vienna Teng “The Atheist Christmas Carol”

Over the years I have found I don’t do alone well.  Never have.  I’ve always preferred plenty of activity around me, planning gatherings and communal meals, and filling up my days to the brim with all manner of socializing. 

Typically I don’t prefer my own company.  There is no glossing over my flaws nor distracting myself from where I fall short.  Alone is an unforgiving mirror reflecting back what I have kept myself too overly busy to see.

I’ve never even lived alone except for short times when Dan is traveling.
I didn’t like that either.

We have had a taste of quiet aloneness together during the last two weeks of social isolation on the farm, with more time alone to come.  I continue to work, able to do my behavioral health medical consultations “virtually” as I am now in an age category that would not do well if exposed to COVID19 in the clinic. These days have had a slower pace and cadence, blessed with a gained hour by not commuting to the clinic. There is more time to take walks, often in silence together, bowing our heads to the wind, taking cover from chilling spring rains.

Despite our isolation, we know we are not alone in our fear of the darkness happening in the world around us. The headlines buzz on our phones; there is no ignoring the suffering happening to so many around us. I hear the fear of uncertainty in my patient’s voices as we talk.

Yet I remind myself of the certainty that I know is the truth:

We need not be afraid.
We are not alone in the dark.
We are loved.
And don’t forget,
don’t forget:
God is with us
even through this.

This year’s Lenten theme for Barnstorming:

God sees us as we are,
loves us as we are,
and accepts us as we are.
But by His grace,
He does not leave us where we are.
~Tim Keller

We are not alone. We are not alone.
We are not alone. God is with us.
We are not alone. We are not alone.
We are not alone. God is with us.

We are never alone (We are not alone 3x)
For (God is with us)
We (We are not alone 3x)
We are never alone
For (God is with us)

Now (We are not alone)
Through all our days(We are never alone)
(We are not alone. We are never alone)
Always (God is with us 2x)
For(ever and ever)
We are never alone

Are not alone. We are not alone.
We are not alone. God is with us.
We are not alone. We are not alone.
We are not alone. God is with us.

Waiting for News of Spring

It’s a motley lot. A few still stand
at attention like sentries at the ends
of their driveways, but more lean
askance as if they’d just received a blow
to the head, and in fact they’ve received
many, all winter, from jets of wet snow
shooting off the curved, tapered blade
of the plow. Some look wobbly, cocked
at oddball angles or slumping forlornly
on precariously listing posts. One box
bows steeply forward, as if in disgrace, its door
lolling sideways, unhinged. Others are dented,
battered, streaked with rust, bandaged in duct tape,
crisscrossed with clothesline or bungee cords.
A few lie abashed in remnants of the very snow
that knocked them from their perches.
Another is wedged in the crook of a tree
like a birdhouse, its post shattered nearby.
I almost feel sorry for them, worn out
by the long winter, off-kilter, not knowing
what hit them, trying to hold themselves
together, as they wait for news from spring.
~Jeffrey Harrison “Mailboxes in Late Winter”

This time of year I too often feel like an off-kilter mailbox – rusty, dented, leaning rather than upright, covered with mildew and lichens — it will take some effort to look presentable after a long winter.

There isn’t much that would recommend me as a potential destination; most of the mail that is delivered to me is junk mail or bills. It is a rare pleasure to find a hand-addressed card or note. I have myself to thank for that: I rarely send one to anyone else. I’m not even sure I could find a stamp at home if I wanted one.

It reminds me how infrequently I actually hand write any form of communication any more, how dependent I’ve become on the instantaneous nature of texting and email, and how much I used to enjoy writing letters back and forth to family and friends, in what feels like another life.

Letters can be forever–a tangible representation of the writer illustrated by their choice of envelope, stamp and paper, writing utensil, style of script, sometimes a scent. The neatness or hurried nature of the writing says something about the urgency with which it was written. Emails have none of those features, and can feel ephemeral, although we know they can always be found and retrieved, for good and for ill, by those who know how to look for them.

It has been too long. It’s time to commit to writing a letter a week to someone who needs to be able to tangibly feel my caring about them, right in their hands.

Then just maybe, I can share news of the spring to come.

Heading Home

There are two ways of getting home; and one of them is to stay there.
~G. K. Chesterton

Those who know me, know I don’t care much for traveling. I prefer to stay home, but a near second best is heading home from where I’ve been.

Home can seem elusive and just out of reach for much of our lives. It may not feel we truly belong in any one place in this modern era of constant transitions and transfers. I’m a prime example of a truly ambivalent home body.

In high school, I could not plan a get-away from my home town fast enough, opting to go to college two states away.  Once I was away, I was hopelessly home-and-heartsick.   Miserable, I decided to come back home and go to school there instead.

Once back under my parents’ roof, my homesickness abated but the heartsick continued, having nothing to do with where I ate and slept.  I wasn’t at home inside myself.   It took time and various attempts at geographic cures to settle in and accept who I always had been.

Those who do move away often cast aspersions at people who never wander far from home.  The homebodies are seen as provincial, stuck in a rut, unenlightened and hopelessly small-town.  Yet later in life as the wanderers have a tendency to move back home, the stay-at-homers become solid friends and neighbors.   Remarkably, they often have become the pillars and life blood of a community.  They have slogged through long hours of keeping a place going when others left.

I did end up doing my share of wandering yet still sympathized with those who decided to stay put. I returned home by settling only a few miles from the stomping grounds of my homesteading great-grandparents, at once backwoods and backwater. Cast aspersions welcomed.

Now I get back home by mostly staying home. It takes something major, like a son spending the last decade teaching in Japan, now married with two children, to lure me away from my corner of the world once or twice a year. Getting away for a far away visit becomes a bigger effort as we get older, and coming back home is so bittersweet when hugging those loved ones goodbye. That is exactly what happened earlier today, as we sit at Narita airport waiting for our flight home.

I simply remember the assurance expressed so simply by Thomas Hardy in Far From the Madding Crowd,
“And at home, by the fire, whenever you look up, there I shall be–and whenever I look up, there will be you.”

Home so sweet. We all long for it, sometimes with our hearts breaking, wherever it may be.

What Every Girl Wants

I wanted a horse. This was long after
we sold the work horses, and I was feeling

restless on the farm. I got up early
to help my father milk the cows, talking

a blue streak about TV cowboys
he never had time to see and trying to

convince him that a horse wouldn’t cost
so much and that I’d do all the work.

He listened while he leaned his head
against the flank of a Holstein, pulling

the last line of warm milk into
the stainless bucket. He kept listening

while the milk-machine pumped like an engine,
and the black and silver cups fell off and

dangled down, clanging like bells when he
stepped away, balancing the heavy milker

against the vacuum hose and the leather belt.
I knew he didn’t want the trouble

of a horse, but I also knew there was nothing
else I wanted the way I wanted a horse—

another way of saying I wanted
to ride into the sunset and (maybe)

never come back—I think he knew that too.
We’ll see, he said, we’ll see what we can do.
~Joyce Sutphen “What Every Girl Wants”

I once was a skinny freckled eleven year old girl who wanted nothing more than to have her own horse. Every inch of my bedroom wall had posters of horses, all my shelves were filled with horse books and horse figurines and my bed was piled with stuffed horses. I suffered an extremely serious case of horse fever.

I had learned to ride my big sister’s horse while my sister was off to college, but the little mare had pushed down a hot wire to get into a field of spring oats which resulted in a terrible case of colic and had to be put down. I was inconsolable until I set my mind to buy another horse.   We had only a small shed, not a real barn, and no actual fences other than the electric hot wire.  Though I was earning money as best I could picking berries and babysitting, I was a long way away from the $150 it would take to buy a trained horse back in 1965. I pestered my father about my dreams of another horse, and since he was the one to dig the hole for my sister’s horse to be buried, he was not enthusiastic.  “We’ll see,”  he said.  “We will see what we can do.”

So I dreamed my horsey dreams, mostly about golden horses with long white manes, hoping one day those dreams might come true.

In fall 1965, the  local radio station KGY’s Saturday morning horse news program announced their “Win a Horse” contest.  I knew I had to try. The prize was a weanling bay colt, part Appaloosa, part Thoroughbred, and the contest was only open to youth ages 9 to 16 years old. All I had to do was write a 250 word or less essay on “Why I Should Have a Horse”. I worked and worked on my essay, crafting the right words and putting all my heart into it, hoping the judges would see me as a worthy potential owner. My parents took me to visit the five month old colt named “Prankster”, a fuzzy engaging little fellow who was getting plenty of attention from all the children coming to visit him, and that visit made me even more determined.

When I read these words now, I realize there is nothing quite like the passion of an eleven year old girl:

“Why I Should Have a Horse”

When God created the horse, He made one of the best creatures in the world.  Horses are a part of me.  I love them and want to win Prankster for the reasons which follow:

To begin with, I’m young enough to have the time to spend with the colt.  My older sister had a horse when she was in high school and her school activities kept her too busy to really enjoy the horse.  I’ll have time to give Prankster the love and training needed.

Another reason is that I’m shy.  When I was younger I found it hard to talk to anybody except my family.  When my sister got the horse I soon became a more friendly person.  When her horse recently died (about when Prankster was born), I became very sad.  If I could win that colt, I couldn’t begin to describe my happiness. 

Also I believe I should have a horse because it would be a good experience to learn how to be patient and responsible while teaching Prankster the same thing. 

When we went to see Prankster, I was invited into the stall to brush him.  I was never so thrilled in my life!  The way he stood there so majestically, it told me he would be a wonderful horse. 

If I should win him, I would be the happiest girl alive.  I would work hard to train him with love and understanding.  If I could only get the wonderful smell and joy of horses back in our barn!

I mailed in my essay and waited.

Fifty four years ago on this day, November 27, 1965, my mother and I listened to the local horse program that was always featured on the radio at 8 AM on Saturday mornings. They said they had over 300 essays to choose from, and it was very difficult for them to decide who the colt should go to. I knew then I didn’t have a chance. They had several consolation prizes for 2nd through 4th place, so they read several clever poems and heartfelt essays, all written by teenagers.  My heart was sinking by the minute.

The winning essay was next.  The first sentence sounded very familiar to me, but it wasn’t until several sentences later that we realized they were reading my essay, not someone else’s. My mom was speechless, trying to absorb the hazards of her little girl owning a young untrained horse. I woke up my dad, who was sick in bed with an early season flu.  He opened one eye, looked at me, and said, “I guess I better get a fence up today, right?”  Somehow, fueled by the excitement of a daughter whose one wish had just come true, he pulled himself together and put up a wood corral that afternoon, despite feeling so miserable.

That little bay colt came home to live with me the next day. Over the next few months he and I did learn together, as I checked out horse training books from the library, and joined a 4H group with helpful leaders to guide me. I made plenty of mistakes along the way, learning from each one, including those that left behind scars I still bear. Prankster was a typical adolescent gelding who lived up to his name — full of mischief with a sense of humor and a penchant for finding trouble, but he was mine and that was all that mattered.

That and a dad who saw what he needed to do for his passionate kid.  I’ll never forget.

Freed into the Wider World

photo by Nate Gibson

When the wall
between the worlds
is too firm,
too close.

When it seems
all solidity
and sharp edges.

When every morning
you wake as if
flattened against it,
its forbidding presence
fairly pressing the breath
from you
all over again.

Then may you be given
a glimpse
of how weak the wall

and how strong what stirs
on the other side,

breathing with you
and blessing you
still,
forever bound to you
but freeing you
into this living,
into this world
so much wider
than you ever knew.
~Jan Richardson from The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief

On Halloween day in 1985, I packed up my clothes, a roll up mattress,  grabbed one lonely pumpkin from our small garden, locked our rental house door for the last time, climbed in my car and headed north out of Seattle. I never looked back in the rear view mirror at the skyline after nine years living in the city. My husband had moved to Whatcom County two months earlier to start his new job. I had stayed behind to wrap up my Group Health family practice in the Rainier Valley of Seattle, now leaving the city for a new rural home and a very uncertain professional future.

Never before had I felt such exhilaration at breaking through one wall to discover the unknown that lay on the other side.

I knew two things for sure:
I was finally several months pregnant after a miscarriage and two years of infertility, so our family had begun.
We were going to actually live in our own house, not just a rental, complete with a few acres and a barn.

A real (sort of) starter farm.

Since no farm can be complete without animals, I stopped at the first pet store I drove past and found two tortoise shell calico kitten sisters peering up at me,  just waiting for new adventures in farmland. Their box was packed into the one spot left beside me in my little Mazda. With that admittedly impulsive commitment to raise and nurture those kittens, life seemed brand new.

I will never forget the feeling of freedom on that drive north out of the traffic congestion of the city. The highway seemed more open, the fall colors more vibrant, the wind more brisk, our baby happily kicking my belly, the kittens plaintively mewing from their box. There seemed to be so much potential even though I had just left behind the greatest job that could be found in any urban setting (the most diverse zip code in the United States): an ideal family practice with patients from all over the world: Muslims from the Middle East and Indonesia, Orthodox Jews, Italian Catholics, African Americans, Cambodians, Laotians, Vietnamese. I would never know so much variety of background and perspective again and if I could have packed them all into the Mazda and driven them north with me, I would have.

We started our farm with those kittens dubbed Nutmeg and Oregano, soon adding an ethnic diversity of farm animals:  Belgian Tervuren dog Tango, Haflinger horse Greta, Toggenburg goats Tamsen and her kids, a few Toulouse geese, Araucana chickens, Fiona the Scottish Highland cow, then another Haflinger Hans and another, Tamara. I worked as a fill in locums doctor in four different clinics before our first baby, Nate, was born. We soon added little brother Ben and seven years later,  sister Lea. We settled happily into parenthood, our church community, serving on school and community boards, gardening, and enduring the loss of our parents one by one.

Thirty four years later our children have long ago grown and gone to new homes of their own, off to their own adventures beyond the farm.  Our sons married wonderful women, moving far away from home, our daughter teaches a fourth grade classroom a few hours away and we have two grandchildren with the third expected any moment.

A few cats, two Cardigan Corgi dogs, and a hand full of ponies remain at the farm with us. We are now both gray and move a bit more slowly, enjoy our naps and the quiet of the nights and weekends.  My work has evolved from four small jobs to two decades of two part time jobs to one more than full time job that fit me like a well worn sweater 24 hours a day for thirty years. With retirement looming, I’m trying out a three day a week schedule and the old sweater doesn’t fit quite so comfortably.

My happily retired husband finds he is busier than ever:  volunteering, serving on boards and being a full time farmer on our larger 20 acre place of fields and woods. 

That rainy Halloween day over three decades ago I was freed into a wider world. I would no longer sit captive in freeway rush hour bumper to bumper traffic jams.  Instead I celebrate my daily commute through farm fields, watching eagles fly, and new calves licked by their mamas. I am part of a broader community in a way I never could manage in the city, stopping to visit with friends at the grocery store, playing piano and teaching at church. Our home sits in the midst of woods and corn fields, with deer strolling through the fields at dawn, coyotes howling at night, Canadian and snow geese and trumpeter swans calling from overhead and salmon becoming more prolific every year in nearby streams. The snowy Cascades greet us in the morning and the sunset over Puget Sound bids us good night.

It all started October 31, 1985 with two orange and black kittens and a pumpkin sitting beside me in a little Mazda, my husband waiting for my homecoming 100 miles north. Now, thirty four years and three grown children and three (almost) grandchildren later, we celebrate this Halloween transition anniversary together. We’re still pregnant with the possibility that a wide world is waiting, just on the other side of the wall.

A Holy Day

Holy as a day is spent
Holy is the dish and drain
The soap and sink, and the cup and plate
And the warm wool socks, and the cold white tile
Shower heads and good dry towels
And frying eggs sound like psalms
With bits of salt measured in my palm
It’s all a part of a sacrament
As holy as a day is spent


Holy is the familiar room
And quiet moments in the afternoon
And folding sheets like folding hands
To pray as only laundry can
I’m letting go of all my fear
Like autumn leaves made of earth and air
For the summer came and the summer went
As holy as a day is spent


Holy is the place I stand
To give whatever small good I can
And the empty page, and the open book
Redemption everywhere I look
Unknowingly we slow our pace
In the shade of unexpected grace
And with grateful smiles and sad lament
As holy as a day is spent
And morning light sings ‘providence’
As holy as a day is spent
~Carrie Newcomer “Holy as a Day Is Spent “

If the New York Times says “Something Special is Happening in Rural America,” then of course, it must be true. But those of us out in the hinterlands have known the truth about the quieter life for decades. The pace is slower, the space is greater, the faces are friendlier.

It’s the small things that matter on a daily basis. Being in the center of things doesn’t matter.

Give me a home where the clouds and cows roam, where laundry is line-dried and there is no traffic noise.

Holy is the day today….and every day.