Like a Century Ago

I like farming.
I like the work.
I like the livestock and the pastures and the woods. 
It’s not necessarily a good living, but it’s a good life. 
I now suspect that if we work with machines
the world will seem to us to be a machine,
but if we work with living creatures
the world will appear to us as a living creature. 
That’s what I’ve spent my life doing,

trying to create an authentic grounds for hope.
~Wendell Berry, horse farmer, essayist, poet, professor

When I pull open the barn doors,
every morning
and each evening,
as my grandparents did
one hundred years ago,
six rumbling voices
rise in greeting.
We exchange scents,
nuzzle each others’ ears.

I do my chores faithfully
as my grandparents once did–
draw fresh water
into buckets,
wheel away
the pungent mess underfoot,
release an armful of summer
from the bale,
reach under heavy manes
to stroke silken necks.

I don’t depend
on our horses’ strength
and willingness to
don harness
to carry me to town
or move the logs
or till the soil
as my grandparents did.

Instead,
these soft eyed souls,
born on this farm
two or three long decades ago,
are simply grateful
for my constancy
morning and night
to serve their needs
until the day comes
they need no more.

I depend on them
to depend on me
to be there
to open the doors;
their low whispering welcome
gives voice
to the blessings of
living on a farm
ripe with rhythms and seasons,
as if today and tomorrow are
just like one hundred years ago.

Pause for the Parable

Every happening, great and small,
is a parable whereby God speaks to us,
and the art of life is to get the message.
~Malcolm Muggeridge

Every day is filled with storied moments
though I feel too rushed to listen.

If I take time to be changed
by what I see or feel or hear,
when I pause
for the parable,
it makes all the difference:

A steaming manure pile
becomes the crucible for my failings
transformed into something useful,
a fertilizer to be spread
to grow what it touches.

An iced-over water barrel
reflects distant clouds
above me as I peer inside,
its frozen blue eye focused
past my brokenness
to mirror a beauty
far beyond.

An old barn roof with gaps torn by fierce winds,
is repaired and renewed,
no longer allowing rain and snow
and invading vines inside;
once again safe and secure,
a sanctuary protected from storms.

I am looking.
I am listening.
Feeling in desperate need of repair
before I topple over:
to be transformed,
and forever changed.

This Gift of Struggle

All morning, doing the hard, root-wrestling
work of turning a yard from the wild
to a gardener’s will, I heard a bird singing
from a hidden, though not distant, perch;
a song of swift, syncopated syllables sounding
like, Can you believe this, believe this, believe?
Can you believe this, believe this, believe?
And all morning, I did believe. All morning,
between break-even bouts with the unwanted,
I wanted to see that bird, and looked up so
I might later recognize it in a guide, and know
and call its name, but even more, I wanted
to join its church. For all morning, and many
a time in my life, I have wondered who, beyond
this plot I work, has called the order of being,
that givers of food are deemed lesser
than are the receivers. All morning,
muscling my will against that of the wild,
to claim a place in the bounty of earth,
seed, root, sun and rain, I offered my labor
as a kind of grace, and gave thanks even
for the aching in my body, which reached
beyond this work and this gift of struggle.
~Richard Levine “Believe This” from That Country’s Soul

North Brooklin, Maine
30 March 1973

Dear Mr. Nadeau:
As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up in the morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.

Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society—things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.

Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.
Sincerely,
[Signed, ‘E. B. White’] from Letters of Note

Today yet another era begins and another ends. However, the struggle continues: there is anguish on one side and relief on the other– just the reverse of four years ago.

I want to believe things will be different and the messes cleaned up without creating new messes. I realize, thanks to human nature, that is a futile hope.

I want to believe that goodness and compassion will thrive again.

So I will pull out the weeds that have taken over in my on back yard and clear the ground for a clean start. I will rewind the clock to help create order out of chaos and experience steadfastness instead of uncertainty.

May we hang on to hope that our dis-united states may once again survive a leader with many human flaws and failings, just as we’ve survived countless other imperfect leaders.

It is up to we the people to keep our own yards weed-free, and not allow them to take over — ever again.

An Austere Love

Sundays too my father got up early
And put his clothes on in the blueback cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices? 
–  Robert HaydenThose Winter Sundays

As a child growing up,
I was oblivious
to the sacrifices my parents made
to keep the house warm,
place food on the table,
to teach us the importance of faith and belief,
to crack the door of opportunity open,
so we could walk through
to a better life.

It was no small offering
to keep dry seasoned fire and stove wood always at the doorstep,
to milk the cows twice a day,
to grow and preserve fruits and vegetables months in advance,
to raise and butcher meat animals,
to read books together every night,
to sit with us over homework
and drive us to 4H, Cub Scouts and Camp Fire,
to music lessons and sports,
to sit together, never missing a Sunday morning,
to worship God.

This was their love,
so often invisible,
too often imperfect,
even when they were angry with one another–
yet its encompassing warmth
splintered and broke
the grip of cold and loneliness
that too often
overwhelms and freezes
a child’s heart and soul.

What did I know?
Too little then,
maybe a little more now.

Unseen Nest

I go to the mountain side
of the house to cut saplings,
and clear a view to snow
on the mountain. But when I look up,
saw in hand, I see a nest clutched in
the uppermost branches.
I don’t cut that one.
I don’t cut the others either.
Suddenly, in every tree,
an unseen nest
where a mountain
would be.
~Tess Gallagher “Choices” from Midnight Lantern: New and Selected Poems.

Am I capable of such tenderness,
such recognition of the well-being of others,
by saving the nest
and all future potential nests
rather than exercise my freedom
to have an unimpeded world view
when and where I want it?

I must not forget:
my right to choose
can only mean
choosing to do right
by those who have no choice.

You Are My Sunshine

My father climbs into the silo.
He has come, rung by rung,
up the wooden trail that scales
that tall belly of cement.

It’s winter, twenty below zero,
He can hear the wind overhead.
The silage beneath his boots
is so frozen it has no smell.

My father takes up a pick-ax
and chops away a layer of silage.
He works neatly, counter-clockwise
under a yellow light,

then lifts the chunks with a pitchfork
and throws them down the chute.
They break as they fall
and rattle far below.

His breath comes out in clouds,
his fingers begin to ache, but
he skims off another layer
where the frost is forming

and begins to sing, “You are my
sunshine, my only sunshine.”
~Joyce Sutphen, “Silo Solo” from First Words

Farmers gotta be tough. There is no taking a day off from chores. The critters need to eat and their beds cleaned even during the coldest and hottest days. Farmers rise before the sun and go to bed long after the sun sets.

I come from a long line of farmers on both sides – my mother was the daughter of wheat farmers and my father was the son of subsistence stump farmers who had to supplement their income with outside jobs as a cook and in lumber mills. Both my parents went to college; their parents wanted something better for them than they had. Both my parents had professions but still chose to live on a farm – daily milkings, crops in the garden and fields, raising animals for meat.

My husband’s story is similar, though his parents didn’t graduate from college. Dan milked cows with his dad and as a before-school job in the mornings.

We still chose to live on a farm to raise our children and commit to the daily work, no matter the weather, on sunlit days and blowing snow days and gray muddy days. And now, when our grandchildren visit, we introduce them to the routine and rhythms of farm life, the good and the bad, the joys and the sorrows, and through it all, we are grateful for the values that follow through the generations of farming people.

And our favorite song to sing to our grandchildren is “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine” as it is the sun that sustains our days and its promise of return that sustains our nights.

You’ll never know, dears, how much we love you.
Please don’t take our sunshine away.

The Departure Gate


and the garden diminishes: cucumber leaves rumpled
and rusty, zucchini felled by borers, tomatoes sparse
on the vines. But out in the perennial beds, there’s one last
blast of color: ignitions of goldenrod, flamboyant
asters, spiraling mums, all those flashy spikes waving
in the wind, conducting summer’s final notes.
The ornamental grasses have gone to seed, haloed
in the last light. Nights grow chilly, but the days
are still warm; I wear the sun like a shawl on my neck
and arms. Hundreds of blackbirds ribbon in, settle
in the trees, so many black leaves, then, just as suddenly,
they’re gone. This is autumn’s great Departure Gate,
and everyone, boarding passes in hand, waits
patiently in a long, long line.
~Barbara Crooker “And Now It’s September” from Spillway

The advance of autumn usually feels like I’m waiting to embark on an unplanned journey that I wish to avoid. I don’t like airports, don’t like the strangeness of unfamiliar destinations, don’t like flying with nothing between me and the ground.

Now “fall” is just like that — like I’m falling.

I look at what is dying around me and know these blasts of color and fruitfulness are their last sad gasps.

So too, when I go out the departure gate, may I go down the long ramp gaily without fear and without regrets — maybe even with a skip in my step as I fall.

It’s Time for Swinging to be Done

The porch swing hangs fixed in a morning sun
that bleaches its gray slats, its flowered cushion
whose flowers have faded, like those of summer,
and a small brown spider has hung out her web
on a line between porch post and chain
so that no one may swing without breaking it.
She is saying it’s time that the swinging were done with,
time that the creaking and pinging and popping
that sang through the ceiling were past,
time now for the soft vibrations of moths,
the wasp tapping each board for an entrance,
the cool dewdrops to brush from her work
every morning, one world at a time.
~Ted Kooser “Porch Swing in September” from Flying at Night

It is hard to just let go and let life move on, as it will do on this day’s transition to autumn, whether with us or without us.

We build our little lives so carefully; we plan and choreograph and anticipate, and all it takes is a creaky swing (or a measly little virus) to pull it to shreds.

So we rebuild, strand by strand, in the conviction that we still belong here even when everything around us is changing and will pay no attention to how we’re left hanging.

We keep trying.
We keep believing.
We keep wanting to make the world a little more beautiful.

Fitting Exactly Where Needed

The river is famous to the fish.
The loud voice is famous to silence,   
which knew it would inherit the earth   
before anybody said so.   

The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds   
watching him from the birdhouse.   
The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.   
The idea you carry close to your bosom   
is famous to your bosom.  
 

The boot is famous to the earth,   
more famous than the dress shoe,   
which is famous only to floors.
The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it   
and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.   

I want to be famous to shuffling men   
who smile while crossing streets,   
sticky children in grocery lines,   
famous as the one who smiled back.

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,   
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,   
but because it never forgot what it could do.
~Naomi Shihab Nye “Famous” from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems

Detail from “Descent from the Cross” by Rogier van der Weyden

Here’s the truth of it:
no one really wants to be famous
but seeks a life of meaning and purpose
rather than one empty of significance.

The button alone is
pure window-dressing,
a flash in the pan,
a bauble ready to loosen and fall off,
easy to go missing.

A button hole by itself
without a button to latch around
is plain and gaping and lonely and allows in drafts,
blending into the background,
silently waiting for its moment of usefulness.

We cannot forget who we’re meant to be
and what we’re meant to do –
we fit the task for which we’re made.

Send me a button and I’ll make sure it is secured.

I Don’t Mean to Make You Cry

I don’t mean to make you cry.
I mean nothing, but this has not kept you
From peeling away my body, layer by layer,

The tears clouding your eyes as the table fills
With husks, cut flesh, all the debris of pursuit.
Poor deluded human: you seek my heart.

Hunt all you want. Beneath each skin of mine
Lies another skin: I am pure onion–pure union
Of outside and in, surface and secret core.

Look at you, chopping and weeping…
~Suji Kwock Kim from “Monologue for a Onion”

It’s true it can make you weep
to peel them, to unfurl and to tease   
from the taut ball first the brittle,   
caramel-colored and decrepit
papery outside layer, the least

recent the reticent onion
wrapped around its growing body,   
for there’s nothing to an onion
but skin, and it’s true you can go on   
weeping as you go on in, through   
the moist middle skins, the sweetest

and thickest, and you can go on   
in to the core, to the bud-like,   
acrid, fibrous skins densely   
clustered there, stalky and in-
complete, and these are the most   
pungent

~William Matthews from “Onions”

I would never scold the onion
for causing tears.
It is right that tears fall
for something small and forgotten.
How at meal, we sit to eat,
commenting on texture of meat or herbal aroma
but never on the translucence of onion,
now limp, now divided,
or its traditionally honorable career:
For the sake of others,
disappear.

~Naomi Shihab Nye, from “The Traveling Onion”
from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems.

Onion,
luminous flask,
your beauty formed
petal by petal,
crystal scales expanded you
and in the secrecy of the dark earth
your belly grew round with dew.
Under the earth
the miracle
happened
and when your clumsy
green stem appeared,
and your leaves were born
like swords
in the garden,
the earth heaped up her power
showing your naked transparency…

…You make us cry without hurting us.
I have praised everything that exists,
but to me, onion, you are
more beautiful than a bird
of dazzling feathers,
heavenly globe, platinum goblet,
unmoving dance
of the snowy anemone

and the fragrance of the earth lives
in your crystalline nature.

~Pablo Neruda from “Ode to the Onion”

Everything smells of “eau de onion” here in the kitchen as the onions are brought in from our late summer garden to be stored or dehydrated and frozen for winter soups and stews.

This is weepy business, but these are good tears like I spill over the whistled Greensleeves theme from the old “Lassie” TV show, or during any childrens’ choir song, or by simply watching videos of our grandchildren who are quarantined so far away from our arms.

It takes almost nothing these days to make me weep, so onions are a handy excuse, allowing my tears to flow without explanation:

I weep over the headlines.
I weep over how changed life is and for the sadness of the stricken.
I weep over how messy things can get between people who don’t listen to one another or who misinterpret what they think they hear.
I weep knowing we all have layers and layers of skin that appear tough on the outside, but as you peel gently or even ruthlessly cut them away, the layers get more and more tender until you reach the throbbing heart of us.

We tend to hide our hearts out of fear of being hurt, crying out in pain.

Like an onion, each one of us exists to make the day a bit better, the meal more savory, to enhance the flavors of all who are mixed into this melting pot together. We aren’t meant to stand alone, but to disappear into the stew, and be sorely missed if we are absent.

So very dish needs an onion, and for the sake of the dish, every onion vanishes in the process.

No, I don’t mean to make you cry
as you peel my layers away,
gently, one by one,
each more tender until you reach my heart.
Chop away at me if you must
but weep the good tears, the ones that mean
we weep for the sake of our meal together:
you eating and drinking,
and me – consumed.