Broad August burns in milky skies, The world is blanched with hazy heat; The vast green pasture, even, lies Too hot and bright for eyes and feet.
Amid the grassy levels rears The sycamore against the sun The dark boughs of a hundred years, The emerald foliage of one.
Lulled in a dream of shade and sheen, Within the clement twilight thrown By that great cloud of floating green, A horse is standing, still as stone.
He stirs nor head nor hoof, although The grass is fresh beneath the branch; His tail alone swings to and fro In graceful curves from haunch to haunch.
He stands quite lost, indifferent To rack or pasture, trace or rein; He feels the vaguely sweet content Of perfect sloth in limb and brain. ~William Canton “Standing Still”
I flunked sloth long ago. Perhaps I was born driven. My older sister, never a morning person, was thoroughly annoyed to share a bedroom with a toddler who awoke chirpy and cheerful, singing “Twinkle Twinkle” for all to hear and ready to conquer the day.
Since retiring, I admit I am becoming accustomed now to sloth-dom. I am still too cheerful in the early morning. It is a distinct character flaw.
Even so, I’m not immune to the attractions of a hot hazy day of doing absolutely nothing but standing still switching at flies. I envy our retired ponies in the pasture who spend the day grazing, moseying, and lazing because … I have worked hard to make that life possible for them.
I want to use my days well yet I know August was invented for lulling about. Maybe there is a reason to be here beyond just warning the flies away but I’m not working hard to find out what it might be. So perhaps I’ll get a passing grade in sloth after all.
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Well-away and be it so, To the stranger let them go. Even cheerfully I yield Pasture, orchard, mowing-field, Yea and wish him all the gain I required of them in vain. Yea and I can yield him house, Barn, and shed, with rat and mouse To dispute possession of. These I can unlearn to love. Since I cannot help it? Good! Only be it understood, It shall be no trespassing If I come again some spring In the grey disguise of years, Seeking ache of memory here. ~Robert Frost from “On the Sale of My Farm”
From the road, each of the two small farms where I grew up in western Washington state (Stanwood and Olympia) look nothing like they did in my childhood. When I drive past now, whether on Google Earth virtual reality or for real , the outbuildings have changed and are unfamiliar, fences pulled down, the trees exponentially taller or gone altogether, the fields no longer well-tended. Instead the familiarity is in the road to get there, the lean into the curves, the acceleration in and out of dips, the landscape which triggers a simultaneous comfort and disquiet deep in my DNA.
Though my brother recently stopped and looked around our long-ago childhood home, and sent me pictures that looked barely recognizable, I myself have never stopped to knock; instead I have driven slowly past to sense if I feel what I used to feel in these places. My memories are indeed triggered but feel a bit as if they must have happened to someone else.
I have the same feeling when driving past my parents’ childhood farms in Anacortes and in the Palouse wheat fields. Part of me belongs to these places even though they have never been truly “mine” – only part of sweet memories from my own childhood.
One clinic day a few years ago, I glanced at the home address of a young man I was about to see for a medical issue and I realized he now lived in my childhood home over 100 miles away. When I greeted him I told him we had something in common: we had grown up under the same roof, inside the same walls, though children of two different generations. He was curious but skeptical — how could this gray-haired middle aged woman know anything about his home? He told me a bit about the house, the barn, the fields, the garden and how he experienced it felt altogether strange to me. He and I had shared nothing but a patch of real estate — our recollections were so completely disparate.
The two daughters of the family who sold our current farm to us over thirty years ago have been back to visit a time or two, and have driven by whenever they are in the area. Many things remain familiar to them but also too much has changed – it is not quite the same farm they remember from their childhood. I know it aches to visit here but they do let me know when a photo I post has a particular sweet memory for them.
I worry for the fearsome ache if someday, due to age or finances, we must sell this farm we cherish ~ this beloved place our children were raised, animals bred and cared for, fruit picked from an ancient orchard, plants tended and soil turned over. It will remain on the map surely as the other two farms of my past, visible as we pass by slowly on the road, but primarily alive in the words and photos I harvest here.
There will always be that sweet ache of hoping something will still remain familiar on the map of my memory. After all, there is no such beauty as the place where I belonged – now and forever ago.
Tell me, where is the road I can call my own That I left, that I lost So long ago? All these years I have wandered Oh, when will I know There’s a way, there’s a road That will lead me home
After wind, after rain When the dark is done As I wake from a dream In the gold of day Through the air there’s a calling From far away There’s a voice I can hear That will lead me home
Rise up, follow me Come away, is the call With the love in your heart As the only song There is no such beauty As where you belong Rise up, follow me I will lead you home ~Michael Dennis Browne
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Did you find everything you were looking for?Julie, the magenta-haired
checkout girl, asks, and no, I think, I didn’t find inner peace, or answers to
several questions I’ve been mulling, like are we headed for nuclear war and
does the rest of the world think America has gone bonkers and also, by the way,
I could not find the tofu bacon, and the chocolate sorbet shelf was empty
(I did find canned pumpkin in aisle four) but I am silent and smile at Julie who
seems to know what I’m thinking anyway so I hold back and muse on the view
of the bay this morning when we walked the dog and the parsnip soup we’ll
make for dinner and realize that total fulfillment probably jades the senses and
the bagger asks if I’d like help today carrying my groceries out to the car. ~Thomas R. Moore, “Finding Everything” from Red Stone Fragments
He was a new old man behind the counter, skinny, brown and eager. He greeted me like a long-lost daughter, as if we both came from the same world, someplace warmer and more gracious…
…his face lit up as if I were his prodigal daughter returning, coming back to the freezer bins in front of the register which were still and always filled with the same old Cable Car ice cream sandwiches and cheap frozen greens. Back to the knobs of beef and packages of hotdogs, these familiar shelves strung with potato chips and corn chips…
I lumbered to the case and bought my precious bottled water and he returned my change, beaming as if I were the bright new buds on the just-bursting-open cherry trees, as if I were everything beautiful struggling to grow, and he was blessing me as he handed me my dime over the counter and the plastic tub of red licorice whips. This old man who didn’t speak English beamed out love to me in the iron week after my mother’s death so that when I emerged from his store my whole cock-eyed life – what a beautiful failure ! – glowed gold like a sunset after rain. ~Alison Luterman from “At the Corner Store”
During these two years of COVID-time precautions, grocery shopping has been an extra ordeal for both the shoppers and the store workers. We remain hidden behind our masks – both the ones mandated by state regulations to be covering our faces, as well as the ones we usually hide behind while out and about in polite society.
This week as I shopped in one of our local grocery stores, I witnessed a particularly poignant scene. As I waited my six foot distance in the check out line, the older man ahead of me was greeted by the young cashier with the standard “Did you find everything you were looking for?” He looked at her from behind his mask and his eyes were obviously smiling as she scanned his groceries. He responded with: “I looked for world peace on your shelves, but it must have been sold out…”
She stopped scanning and looked directly at him for the first time, trying to discern if she misunderstood him or if he was mocking her or what. “Did you try Aisle 4?” she replied and they both laughed. They continued in light-hearted conversation as she continued scanning and once he had paid for his order and packed up his cart, he looked at her again.
“Thank for so much for coming to work today – I am so grateful for what you do.” He wheeled away his groceries and she stood, stunned, watching him go.
As I came up next, I looked at her watering eyes as she tried to compose herself and I said to her: “I’ll bet you don’t hear that often enough, do you?” She pulled herself together and shook her head, trying to make sense of the gift of words he had bestowed on her.
“No – like never,” she said as she scanned my groceries. “How could he possibly have known that I almost didn’t come to work today because it has been so stressful to be here? People are usually polite, but lately more and more have been so mean and refusing to put on their masks when I ask them to. No one seems to care about how others are feeling any more.”
She brushed away a tear and I paid for my groceries, and told her:
“I hope the rest of your work day is as great as that last customer. You’ve given me everything I was looking for today…”
And I emerged from the store feeling like I had scored a pot of gold like a sunset after rain.
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I made for grief a leaden bowl and drank it, every drop. And though I thought I’d downed it all the hurting didn’t stop.
I made of hope a golden sieve to drain my world of pain. Though I was sure I’d bled it dry the void filled up again.
I made of words a silver fork and stabbed love in the heart, and when I found the sweetness gone I chewed it into art. ~Luci Shaw “What I Needed to Do”
How can I stow away our hurt and grief when it keeps refilling, leaking everywhere? Where can hope be found when all feels hopeless? When I have been loved beyond all measure, with bleeding hands and feet and side; why not turn to the Word, its sweetness never exhausted no matter how often I chew through it in my hunger.
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Late August, given heavy rain and sun For a full week, the blackberries would ripen. At first, just one, a glossy purple clot Among others, red, green, hard as a knot. You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots. Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills We trekked and picked until the cans were full, Until the tinkling bottom had been covered With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre. But when the bath was filled we found a fur, A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache. The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour. I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot. Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not. ~Seamus Heaney “Blackberry Picking”
…Do not be afraid, though briers and thorns are all around you… Ezekiel 2:6
In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. ~John Stottfrom The Cross
Today I will make wild blackberry cobbler, facing down the brambles and briers that thwart my reach for the elusive fruit – in this heat, it is important to harvest blackberries before they shrivel up and rot on the vine. I aim to gather more berries than scratches to prove that thorns and rot must never win and I will not yield to them.
Painful thorns and decay have always been part of life. They barricade us from all that is sweet and good and precious. They tear us up, bloody us, make us cry out in pain and grief, cause a stink, and deepen our fear that we may never overcome such a sorrowful destiny.
Yet even the most brutal crown of thorns or the rot of the grave did not stop the loving sacrifice, can never thwart the sweetness of redemption, will not spoil the goodness, nor destroy the promise of salvation to come.
We simply wait to be fed the loving gift that comes only from bloodied hands.
Flesh will fail and bones will break thieves will steal, the earth will shake Night will fall, the light will fade The Lord will give and take away
Put no trust in the earth in the sod you stand upon Flowers fade into dust The Lord will make a place for us
Because of His great Love We are not overcome Because of His great Love We are not overcome
Have no fear for your life Turn your cheek, turn your cheek Bear the yoke of love and death The Lord will give all life and breath
Because of His great Love We are not overcome Because of His great Love We are not overcome (from Bifrost Arts)
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To see clearly, not needing a drink or pill or puff of any pipe to know I’m alive. To come home, peel off sandals and step onto the cool tile floor needing only the rush of water over strawberries I picked myself and then a knife to trim the dusty green heads from each one, to watch them gleam cleanly in a colander in a patch of sun near the sink. ~James Crews “Clearly” from Healing the Divide: Poems of Kindness and Connection
As a child, I could see some people I loved struggling with daily life like a never-ending wrestling match.
Can’t relax? Have a drink. Feeling irritable? Have a smoke. Can’t wake up? Strong coffee. Can’t lose weight? Amphetamines. Can’t sleep? Valium.
I watched as one after another after another lost the wrestling match with the life’s sharp edges, sometimes dying too young from their self-medication.
As a result, I never could reconcile experimenting with my brain, staying stone cold sober throughout 21 years of school, bored to tears at parties watching others get hammered and stoned. As a physician, I spent half my career trying to help people stop wrestling with life and find their sober selves again.
Like berries picked into a colander, we all need gentle handling, rinsing and hulling, to wash away the dust of the field, the spiders and slug slime.
No more wrestling. Restored to sweetness and sparkling beauty.
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Nothing is so beautiful as Spring – When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush; Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing; The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.
What is all this juice and all this joy? A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning In Eden garden. – Have, get, before it cloy, Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning, Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy, Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning. ~Gerard Manley Hopkins “Spring”
Once, we were innocent, now, no longer. Cloyed and clouded by sin. Given a choice, we chose sour over the sweetness we were born to, giving up walks together in the cool of the day to feed our appetite that could never be sated.
God made a choice to win us back with His own blood as if we are worthy of Him. He says we are. He dies to prove it. Every day I try to believe our earth can be sweet and beautiful again.
When I take the chilly tools from the shed’s darkness, I come out to a world made new by heat and light.
Like a mad red brain the involute rhubarb leaf thinks its way up through loam. ~Jane Kenyon from “April Chores”
Over the last two weeks, the garden is slowly reviving, and rhubarb “brains” have been among the first to appear from the garden soil, wrinkled and folded, opening full of potential, “thinking” their way into the April sunlight.
Here I am, wishing my own brain could similarly rise brand new and tender every spring from the dust rather than leathery and weather-toughened, harboring the same old thoughts and patterns.
Indeed, more wrinkles seem to be accumulating on the outside of my skull rather than the inside.
Still, I’m encouraged by my rhubarb cousin’s return every April. Like me, it may be a little sour that necessitates sweetening, but its blood courses bright red and it is very very much alive.
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.