There is nothing better for the inside of a man than the outside of a horse… ~Long time equestrian wisdom attributed to many famous riders
Nineteen years ago today in 2001, two days before the world changed forever, I helped organize a gathering of Haflinger horse owners from western Canada and the United States in our nearby town of Lynden, Washington. We received permission to have a Haflinger parade on a quiet Sunday morning while the townspeople were all in church. We wanted to be sure we would not interfere with traffic coming to town and leaving after worship services.
It was a remarkable morning of over ninety Haflingers – riding, driving, walking their horses, enjoying the quiet peace of a Sabbath morning in a friendly little town.
After September 11, 2001, nothing has felt quiet or calm in the same way ever again.
This is to remember the day we spent together, in the insides of us enjoying the outsides of our horses.
…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.
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.
The children are sleeping and the cows and chickens are sleeping, and the grass itself is sleeping. The machines are off and the neighbor’s lights, a half mile away, are out, and the moon is hanging like a powdered face in a darkened room, and the snow is shining under stars the way we are shining here in our cold skins under warm quilts.
There is no season, no grass gone brown, no cold, and no one to say we are anything but beautiful, swimming together across the wide channel of night. ~David Romtvedt from “Still” in Some Church
In the evening we come down to the shore to drink our fill, and sleep, while it flows through the regions of the dark. It does not hold us, except we keep returning to its rich waters thirsty. We enter, willing to die, into the commonwealth of its joy.
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”
Again we find ourselves alone together ~ shining in a warmth we find in each other planted so deeply we cannot always know where one ends and another begins, a commonwealth of shared everything~ the soft beauty of touch and tears: no matter what comes next. Mine is yours.
She rarely made us do it—we’d clear the table instead— so my sister and I teased that some day we’d train our children right and not end up like her, after every meal stuck with red knuckles, a bleached rag to wipe and wring. The one chore she spared us: gummy plates in water greasy and swirling with sloughed peas, globs of egg and gravy. Or did she guard her place at the window? Not wanting to give up the gloss of the magnolia, the school traffic humming. Sunset, finches at the feeder. First sightings of the mail truck at the curb, just after noon, delivering a note, a card, the least bit of news. ~Susan Meyers “Mother, Washing Dishes”
My thoughts went round and round and it occurred to me that if I ever wrote a novel it would be of the ‘stream of consciousness’ type and deal with an hour in the life of a woman at the sink.
….I had to admit that nobody had compelled me to wash these dishes or to tidy this kitchen. It was the fussy spinster in me, the Martha who could not comfortably sit and make conversation when she knew that yesterday’s unwashed dishes were still in the sink. ~Barbara Pym from Excellent Women
Even the mundane task of washing dishes by hand is an example of the small tasks and personal activities that once filled people’s daily lives with a sense of achievement. ~B.F. Skinner, behavioral psychologist
I trace the faltering American family to the invention of the automatic dishwasher.
What ever has happened to the human dishwasher with two hands full of wash cloth and scrubber, alongside a dish dryer armed with a towel?
Where is the list on the refrigerator of whose turn is next, and the accountability if a family member somehow shirks their washing/drying responsibility and leaves the dishes to the next day?
No longer do family members have to cooperate to scrub clean glasses, dishes and utensils, put them in the dish rack, dry them one by one and place them in the cupboard where they belong. If the washer isn’t doing a proper job, the dryer immediately takes note and recycles the dirty dish right back to the sink. Instant accountability. I always preferred to be the dryer. If I washed, and my sister dried, we’d never get done. She would keep recycling the dishes back for another going-over. My messy nature exposed.
The family conversations started over a meal often continue over the clean-up process while concentrating on whether a smudge is permanent or not. I learned some important facts of life while washing and drying dishes that I might not have learned otherwise. Sensitive topics tend to be easier to discuss when elbow deep in soap suds. Spelling and vocabulary and math fact drills are more effective when the penalty for a missed word is a snap on the butt with a dish towel.
Modern society is missing the best opportunity for three times a day family-together time. Forget family “game” night, or parental “date” night, or even vacations. Dish washing and drying at the sink takes care of all those times when families need to be communicating and cooperating.
It is time to treat the automatic dishwasher as simply another storage cupboard and instead pull out the brillo pads, the white cotton dishtowels and the plastic dishrack.
All through August and September thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of feathered creatures pass through this place and I almost never see a single one. The fall wood warbler migration goes by here every year, all of them, myriad species, all looking sort of like each other, yellow, brown, gray, all muted versions of their summer selves, almost indistinguishable from each other, at least to me, although definitely not to each other, all flying by, mostly at night, calling to each other as they go to keep the flock together, saying: chip, zeet, buzz, smack, zip, squeak— those sounds reassuring that we are all here together and heading south, all of us just passing through, just passing through, just passing through, just passing through. ~David Budbill “Invisible Visitors”
Some feathered travelers slip past us unseen and unheard. They may stop for a drink in the pond or a bite to eat in the field and woods, but we never know they are there – simply passing through.
Others are compelled to announce their journey with great fanfare, usually heard before seen. The drama of migration becomes bantering conversation from bird to bird, bird to earth, bird to sun, moon and stars, with unseen magnetic forces pointing the way.
When not using voices, their wings sing the air with rhythmic beat and whoosh.
We’re all together here — altogether — even when our voices are raised sharply, our silences brooding, our hurts magnified, our sorrows deep, so our route of travel becomes a matter of debate.
Our destination is not in dispute however. We’re all heading to the same place no matter how we get there.
We’re all just passing through, just passing through, just passing through.
Seventy five years ago, my parents were married on Christmas Eve. It was not a conventional wedding day but a date of necessity, only because a justice of the peace was available to marry a score of war-time couples in Quantico, Virginia, shortly before the newly trained Marine officers were shipped out to the South Pacific to fight in WWII.
When I look at my parents’ young faces in their only wedding portrait, I see a hint of the impulsive decision that led to that wedding just a week before my father left for 30 months. They had known each other at college for over a year, had talked about a future together, but with my mother starting a teaching job, and the war potentially impacting all young men’s lives very directly, they had not set a date.
My father had to put his college education on hold to enlist, knowing that would give him some options he wouldn’t have if drafted, so they went their separate ways as he headed east to Virginia for his Marine officer training, and Mom started her high school teaching career as a speech and drama teacher in rural Colville in Eastern Washington. One day in early December, he called her and said, “If we’re going to get married, it’ll need to be before the end of the year. I’m shipping out the first week in January.” Mom went to her high school principal, asked for a two week leave of absence which was granted, told her astonished parents, bought a dress, and headed east on the train with a friend who had received a similar call from her boyfriend. This was a completely uncharacteristic thing for my overly cautious mother to do so … it must have been love.
They were married in a brief civil ceremony with another couple as the witnesses. They stayed in Virginia only a couple days and took the train back to San Diego, and my father was shipped out. Just like that. Mom returned to her teaching position and the first three years of their married life was composed of letter correspondence only, with gaps of up to a month during certain island battles when no mail could be delivered or posted.
As I sorted through my mother’s things following her death I kept their war-time letters to each other, stacked neatly and tied together in a box that I walk past every day. I have not yet opened them but will when I’m ready. What I will find there will be words written by two young people who could not have foretold the struggles that lay ahead for them during and after the war but who both depended on faith and trust to persevere despite the unknowns. The War itself seemed struggle enough for the millions of couples who endured the separation, the losses and grieving, as well as the eventual injuries–both physical and psychological. It did not seem possible that beyond those harsh and horrible realities, things could go sour after reuniting.
The hope and expectation of happiness and bliss must have been overwhelming, and real life doesn’t often deliver. After raising three children, their 35 year marriage fell apart with traumatic finality. When my father returned (again) over a decade later, asking for forgiveness, they remarried and had five more years together before my father died.
Christmas is a time of joy, a celebration of new beginnings and new life when God became man, humble, vulnerable and tender. But it also gives us a foretaste for the profound sacrifice made in giving up this earthly life, not always so gently.
As I peer at my father’s and mother’s faces in their wedding photo, I remember those eyes, then so trusting and unaware of what was to come. I find peace in knowing they now behold the light, the salvation and the glory~~the ultimate Christmas~~in His presence.
Our hair turns white with our ripening as though to fly away in some coming wind, bearing the seed of what we know… Having come the bitter way to better prayer, we have the sweetness of ripening. ~Wendell Berry in “Ripening”
My husband and I walk our country road together on a warm late summer evening, breathing in the smell of ripening cornstalks and freshly mowed grass lined up in windrows, much like the walks we took together thirty six years ago when we were newly married. Just down the road, we pass the smaller farm we first owned having left the city behind for a new life amid quieter surroundings. The seedling trees we planted there are now a thick grove and effective windbreak from the bitter howling northeasters we endured. The fences need work after 30 years, the blackberries have swallowed up the small barn where our first horses, goats, chickens and cows lived, the house needs painting, nevertheless there is such sweetness recalling the first home we owned together.
On this road, our children were conceived and raised, strolling these same steps with us many times, but now they are flown far away for their life’s work. My husband and I are back to walking together again, just the two of us, wondering how each child is doing at this very moment, pondering how the passage of time could be so swift that our hair is turning white and we are going to seed when only yesterday we were so young.
We ripen before we’re ready.
It is bitter sweetness relinquishing what we know, to face what we can never know.
It is the mystery that keeps us coming back, walking the same steps those younger legs once did, admiring the same setting sun, smelling the same late summer smells. But we are not the same as we were, having finally come to the fruitfulness intended all along.