Merely to Be There

That house was, as Bilbo had long ago reported, “a perfect house, whether you liked food or sleep or story-telling or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all.”
Merely to be there was a cure for weariness, fear, and sadness.
~J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

I wish I was at home in my nice hole by the fire,
with the kettle just beginning to sing!
~J.R.R. Tolkien from The Hobbit

We sleep to time’s hurdy-gurdy; we wake, if ever we wake, to the silence of God. And then, when we wake to the deep shores of time uncreated, then when the dazzling dark breaks over the far slopes of time, then it’s time to toss things, like our reason, and our will;
then it’s time to break our necks for home.
~Annie Dillard from Holy the Firm

Every now and then, I forget to turn off the lights in the barn. I usually notice just before I go to bed, when the farm’s boundaries seem to have drawn in close. That light makes the barn seem farther away than it is — a distance I’m going to have to travel before I sleep. The weather makes no difference. Neither does the time of year.

Usually, after turning out that forgotten barn light, I sit on the edge of the tractor bucket for a few minutes and let my eyes adjust to the night outside. City people always notice the darkness here, but it’s never very dark if you wait till your eyes owl out a little….I’m always glad to have to walk down to the barn in the night, and I always forget that it makes me glad. I heave on my coat, stomp into my barn boots and trudge down toward the barn light, muttering at myself. But then I sit in the dark, and I remember this gladness, and I walk back up to the gleaming house, listening for the horses.
~Verlyn Klinkenborg  from A Light in the Barn

I have always been, and always will be a home-body. As a child, I was hopelessly homesick and miserable whenever I visited overnight somewhere else: not my bed, not my window, not anything that was familiar and comfortable. Going away to college was an ordeal and I had to do two runs at it to finally feel at home somewhere else. I traveled plenty during those young adult years and adapted to new and exotic environs, but never easily.

I haven’t changed much in my older years. Even now, travel is fraught with anxiety for me, not anticipation. I secretly had hoped for a prolonged stay-cation for a change rather than rushing about at break-neck speed when we had a few days off from work. I must be careful for what I wish for, as it is now seven months of stay-and-work-at-home with only two brief sojourns to visit out of town children.

It has been blissful — yet I dare not say that out loud as so many people don’t do well staying at home and are kicking the traces to be set free.

Not so me. I am content on our farm, appreciating our “perfect house, whether you liked food or sleep or story-telling or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all.”

Merely allowed to just be here is my ultimate answer to weariness, fear and sadness.

Great Expanses

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Not the midnight sun exactly, or endless summer,
just that extra hour holding steady, western
horizon stable, as though shadows won’t lengthen
when in August you can outrun the night
or feel as though you do, latitude in your favor,

North of Sioux City, the sky widens into South Dakota,
turn west and you will think you could see all the way
to Wyoming, and if you drive long enough you will,
crossing the Missouri River, the bluffs gentle,
then the grasslands, the turnoffs for reservations.

As dusk approaches, you may pass a stone house,
long deserted, a star carved over the door, a small pond,
wind stirring over it even now, forming a second thought,
a space you will carry within your speech,
your soul stirred by these great expanses.
~Jane Hoogestraat “At the Edge of a Time Zone” from Border States.

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We have spent long hours in the past week traveling on the great expanses of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Idaho plains. It is a marvel to see so far in every direction yet to feel you are barely moving at 80 miles an hour. The extra hour gained at the edge of a time zone is pure gravy of gifted time.

This is challenging land on which people eke out a living. We have seen a cowboy and herding dog flanking a few dozen Angus cattle alongside the freeway. We’ve seen huge combines kicking up dust clouds as they thresh fields of grain. There are 150 year old remnants of barns and buildings, barely standing against the constant winds and harsh weather.

While we now cross the plains in a day or two, native people and wagon train pioneers spent months by foot or horse, many never managing to reach their destination.

These expanses echo with those lost lives of previous centuries, not to forget hundreds of thousands of bison that also once grazed these basins.

We’ll return to the land of rain and green and ubiquitous trees today. But the great expanses of the plains always enlarge my vision of who lives and works within this vast country.

My heart swells in gratitude with the view of such an endless horizon.

abandoned schoolhouse (now collapsed) near Rapalje, Montana

The Hinge of Faithfulness

No one compels you, traveler;
this road or that road, make your choice!
Dust or mud, heat or cold,
fellowship or solitude,
foul weather or a fairer sky,
the choice is yours as you go by.

But here if you would take this path
there is a gate whose latch is love,
whose key is single and which swings
upon the hinge of faithfulness,

and none can mock, who seeks this way,
the king we worship shamelessly.
If you would enter, traveler,
into this city fair and wide,
it is forever and you leave
all trappings of the self outside.

~Jane Tyson Clements from  No One Can Stem the Tide

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
~T.S. Eliot from “Little Gidding” The Four Quartets

I can, with very little effort, remember the restlessness of my late teens once I learned homesickness was not a terminal condition.  There was a world out there to be explored just beyond the gate of my childhood barnyard, and I just knew I was meant to be a designated explorer and traveler, seeking out the extraordinary.

Ordinary simply wouldn’t do.  Ordinary was plentiful at my childhood home on a small farm with a predictable routine, a garden to be weeded and daily chores to be done, with middle-aged parents tight with tension in their struggling marriage.

On a whim at age nineteen, I applied for wild chimpanzee research study in Africa, and much to my shock, was accepted.  A year of academic and physical preparation as well as Swahili language study was required, so this was no impulsive adventure.   I had plenty of time to back out, reconsider, choose another path and retreat to ordinary again.

It was an adventure, far beyond what I had anticipated and trained for.  When I had to decide between more exploration, without clear purpose or funds, or returning home, I opted to return to the place I started. I saw home differently, as if for the first time,  after  experiencing the world in all its glory and ugliness. The next path I took, I needed to leave the trappings of myself behind, unlatch the gate with the key I had been given from the very beginning. The hinge of faithfulness opens the gate wide.

I must remember I have chosen the path that leads to forever, though neither smooth nor easy. Entering that unknown, unremembered gate means I will arrive where I started, back at the beginning and knowing the place for the first time.

What seemed to be the end proved to be the beginning…
Suddenly a wall becomes a gate.
~Henri Nouwen from A Letter of Consolation

The Road Winds Uphill

Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.

Will the day’s journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend.

But is there for the night a resting-place?
A roof for when the slow dark hours begin.

May not the darkness hide it from my face?
You cannot miss that inn.

Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?
Those who have gone before.

Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?
They will not keep you standing at that door.

Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
Of labour you shall find the sum.

Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
Yea, beds for all who come.

~Christina Rossetti “Up-Hill”

It is a comfort to sleep in our own bed after being away for a week. We drove uphill much of yesterday through numerous mountain passes, but then when we descended back into western Washington as darkness descended, we were greeted by the familiar landscape of home.

This life of ours can be a weary and sometimes perilous journey. There are times when it is so dark we’re not sure we can see the road, much less where it is headed or when and where we may be able to rest.

Many have gone on before us so that we will not be left stranded, lost and waiting by the roadside. There is a place waiting for wayfarers like us.

The door is flung open – those who are weary are welcomed with open arms. The road uphill points to the best home of all.

Corn Rows Flicking By

It was one of those days
when the sun poured gold
into the air, and flecks of
light floated in shafts that
fell through the branches
of yellow leaf and green.

We’d had dinner at a place
on the edge of a lake, and
now we were going back
to town. There was a simple
way to get there, but she
didn’t take it. Instead, we

drove the country roads
with the corn rows flicking by,
each one visible for a half
second, then gone. “Hello,
hello, hello,” they said, then
“Good-bye, bye, bye, bye.”

The soybeans, we agreed,
had turned burgundy overnight,
but it was the cornfields we
watched, as if we were waiting
for the waters to open, as if
we might cross over Jordan.

~Joyce Sutphen “Country Roadsfrom After Words

Traveling the country roads around here
can feel a bit like seeking the entrance
to the promised land:
we can see it,
just over there,
glowing with so much potential.
We haven’t quite found the way,
it flicks by so quickly.
It’s not yet our time, so
we tread hungrily on the outskirts
almost tasting the promise
and waiting for the invitation to come.



Returning Home

A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it.
~George Moore

I remember well the feeling of restlessness, having an itch that couldn’t be reached, feeling too rooted and uneasy staying in one place for long, especially if that place was my hometown.  I knew I must be destined for greater things, grander plans and extraordinary destinations.  There exists in most human beings an inborn compulsion to wander far beyond one’s own threshold, venturing out into unfamiliar and sometimes hostile surroundings simply because one can.   It is the prerogative of the young to explore, loosen anchor and pull up stakes and simply go.  Most cannot articulate why but simply feel something akin to a siren call.

And so at twenty I heard and I went, considerably aging my parents in the process and not much caring that I did.  To their credit, they never told me no, never questioned my judgment, and never inflicted guilt when I returned home after the adventure went sour.

I had gone on a personal quest to the other side of the world and had come home empty.  But home itself was not empty nor had it ever been and has not been since.

There is a Dorothy-esque feeling in returning home from a land of wonders and horrors, to realize there is no place like home.    There was no way to know until I went away,  searching, then coming home empty-handed, to understand home was right inside my heart the whole time.  There was no leaving after all, not really.

So I’m here to stay–there is no greater, grander or more extraordinary than right here.  Even now when I board a plane for a far off place, I know I’ll be back as this is where the search ends and the lost found.

At almost 65, my head now rests easy on the pillow.

I tell you this
to break your heart,
by which I mean only
that it break open and never close again
to the rest of the world.
— Mary Oliver from “Lead”
from New and Selected Poems

Waving Goodbye

A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness.
~Robert Frost
in a letter to Louis Untermeyer

Spending time away from home has always been difficult for me. I was hopelessly homesick as a child whenever I stayed overnight with a friend or even with my grandma. Going to college two states away was a complete ordeal – it took me much longer than typical to let go of home and finally settle into a new life away from all that was familiar. I really did feel sick clinging too tightly to home base, unwilling to launch, barely able to wave good-bye.

Even now, as I travel away from the farm for a week for this or that, I sometimes get the lump-in-the-throat feeling that I remember keenly from my childhood years — knowing I am out of my element, stretching my comfort zone, not feeling at home away from home.

Will I ever grow out of this now that I’m in my mid-sixties or will it only get worse? Will I ever embrace a lovesickness for the rest of the world?

I keep trying – but the return trip is still the sweetest remedy for this sickness. There’s no place like home…

To Go Home By Another Way

If you could see
the journey whole
you might never
undertake it;
might never dare
the first step
that propels you
from the place
you have known
toward the place
you know not.

Call it
one of the mercies
of the road:
that we see it
only by stages
as it opens
before us,
as it comes into
our keeping
step by

single step.

There are vows
that only you
will know;
the secret promises
for your particular path
and the new ones
you will need to make
when the road
is revealed
by turns
you could not
have foreseen.

Keep them, break them,
make them again:
each promise becomes
part of the path;
each choice creates
the road
that will take you
to the place
where at last
you will kneel

to offer the gift
most needed—
the gift that only you
can give—
before turning to go
home by
another way.
~Jan Richardson from
“Blessing for Those Who Travel Far”

… having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
Matthew 2:12

The night sky was still dim and pale.  
There, peeping among the cloud wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, 
Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while.  
The beauty of it smote his heart, 
as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him.  
For like a shaft, clear and cold, 
the thought pierced him that in the end 
the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: 
there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.
~J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

The star represented a hope
too long elusive;
so weary and with so much need
they headed out for unknown lands
to follow a light seemingly
beyond their reach.

When they found its source
they could touch His earthliness.
No shadow cast of darkness,
and no iron nails
could quell the beauty
of its brilliance.

Having been so illumined
they could only return home another way~
No longer could they be
who they had been.

The Whole Journey

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Night is drawing nigh.  How long the road is.  But, for all the time the journey has taken, how you have needed every second of it. 
~Dag Hammarskjöld

 

 

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It is easy to be grateful for the pretty times of life: those picture-perfect moments that end up on Christmas photo-cards and in detailed descriptions in holiday newsletters.  What we want others to see and what we wish to remember does not always reflect the experiences of the whole journey.  We are naturally programmed to concentrate on “The Best of…” rather than surveying the whole shebang, warts and all.

It isn’t all glorious sunsets, rainbows and happy endings.  We don’t usually take pictures of the potholes, or celebrate the obstacles and flat tires along the way. It is rare to acknowledge and honor the failing grade, the chronic illness, the rocky relationship, the mortifying mistake, the tragic accident.

Yet it is all a part of the journey, every second of it, even the moments we try hard to forget are worthy of our appreciation.  Even the difficult times move us a little closer to our destination, perhaps looking bruised and scraped, still making our way slowly, shakily yet surely.

How long the road is.  And night is coming.

How fortunate we are to be heading home.

 

 

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Ways of Getting Home

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

 

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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.

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 sympathizing 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 teaching in Japan settled in for the long term with wife and daughter) to lure me away from my corner of the world.   Getting away is good, coming back home is better.

Best of all, it’s 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.

 

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