A Special Place to See in the New Year

Nate's photo of the tree on the hill
Nate's photo of the tree on the hill

The past two weeks brought unusual snowfall to our part of the world.  Usually snow days in our county are blustery with the northeast wind causing bitter cold and snow drifts with horizontal snow blowing across the horizon–no lazy flat flakes slowly falling, no accumulation on tree branches,  plenty of sub-zero wind chill temperatures. But not this past week.  There were several  lovely wintry days with no wind whatsoever.

So we headed to our farm hill for sledding–a perfect way to end the year. In the past, on snowy New Year’s Eves we’ve had a bunch of families here to sled on the hill under a generator-lit light, then back to the house for soup and bread, hot cocoa and ice cream sundaes. Can life get any better than this?

Our hill is the highest point around for several miles and has been the scene of so many good memories over the years. It serves as observatory,  spectator point, a church without walls, a campsite, a place for quiet meditation, and maybe even a little romance now and then.

That lone fir tree at the top is a resting place for bald eagles, red-tailed hawk, and barn owls as they can scan for field critters easily from its branches. We find a treasure trove of feathers at its base and occasionally the furry carcass of a rabbit.

Each Easter we have dozens of neighbors and friends climb the hill very early on a sunny morning to sit on hay bales and celebrate our risen Lord. Birdsong blends with human song. The previous night a group of our childrens’ teenage friends gather on the dark hill around a bonfire in an Easter vigil, a tradition long observed in the early church, and something we find is a tangible reminder of our daily vigil waiting for the light.

Two months later we were on that same hill as part of a family hay crew, picking up the bales scattered randomly about the field. They were hauled down to the big red hay barn, and now we feed that same hay to our hungry Haflinger horses.

It is the training hill for our young Haflingers during the summer as they love to race up and down from barnyard to tree and back, strengthening their legs and improving their balance.

On July 4, a  gathering of families comes to our hill to watch the fireworks shot from the surrounding communities and homes up to 15 miles away.

We had a church picnic and wiener roast on the hill in mid-summer, followed by a worship service of song and devotions as the evening breezes cooled the fields around us.

Later in the summer, my sons watched a meteor shower with their friends in the middle of the night, and could actually see the Milky Way.  My daughter had a group of friends over to cook and camp out on the hill, somehow managing to stay up there despite loud coyote yips and whoops only yards away.

This fall, my husband and I climbed the hill to witness some incredible sunsets which seem to last forever when viewed from a high point, prolonging the dip of the sun below the horizon.

And two months ago, I was up on this same hill taking pictures of an amazing sunrise that was breathtaking and memorable..

This hill is meant to be shared, experienced, meditated about, prayed from, loved upon. We are grateful to steward it for these decades we are fortunate enough to dwell on this farm, and with that gratitude in mind, I share it with you, although you may live half a world away. There are times when I stand on that hill, when the air is so clear and the horizon so sharp,  I almost feel I can see half a world away.

If you look hard enough, you might just see me waving at you, wishing you well in a brand new year…

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Haflinger-eating Snowman

calvinhobbessnowman

I’ve discovered that our Haflingers have a built in instinct to flee from 9 foot tall snowmen, so there must be Haflinger-eating abominable snowmen or “yeti” in the Alps that snack on unsuspecting golden ponies for lunch.  Haflingers are hard-wired to run the other way when they spy one.

My children cagily built a huge snowman right alongside the path between the horse barn and the paddocks, only two feet from where our Haflingers must pass when being led out for the day. It happens to be the most downhill part of the slope between house and barn, so rolling huge balls was made a lot easier. This was a particularly creative snowman ala “Calvin and Hobbes” cartoon fame for those of you who used to enjoy the various snowmen that Calvin would make with his tiger Hobbes–we’re talking full character costuming with facial expression, personality and a story to tell (in this case, a snowman holding his own decapitated head).

But creativity aside,  it was clearly abominable to the Haflingers. The minute their nose was out the door of the barn they stopped and looked at the new headless monster who had invaded their safe barnyard, but after all, breakfast was waiting, so with little urging continued on with me as I was between them and the suspicious intruder. There were a few snorts and dancing steps as we passed. But returning to the barn in the evening, after dark, that snowman was on THEIR side of the path without me, the fearless leader, in between, and that was simply more than they could cope with. Even my oldest most seasoned Haflinger stopped and asked if I’d switch sides and lead from his right side as he was more willing to sacrifice me rather than himself to the arms of the snowman.

Guess we’ll have to expose the horses to various types of scary snowmen in costumes and poses before our blizzardy winter weather clears in the next day or so. After all, Haflingers, just like humans, must learn to cope with adversity and threat even if all that is causing the fear is snowballs on steriods stacked on top of one another by three children enjoying a good joke at some ponies’ expense. As is the case for most scary things, in another few days the snowman and the fear it engendered will be melted and long gone, sucked into the ground and thereby rendered into harmless memory.

The First and the Last

human_infant_newborn_baby

First breath can come
Before fully delivered
Encased in warm
Tunnel swaddled tight
Nose bubbling, mouth gaping, swallowing hungrily
Building up to moist initial gasp~
Air-filled sliding free
Hands clenched, fingers spread, ready to grasp, arms reach
For anything to stop the fall.

Lifetime spent holding on tight,
Fastened firm, rooted deep
Eventually toppled in frailty
Slowly adrift, floating unmoored
Reaching for unseen fruit no longer needed
Breath comes ragged, at times silenced
Then gulp and sigh, ready to
Loosen grasp, no longer anchored, and with
Last soft breath, delivered into the hand of God.

Treading on Thin Ice

runsinsnowOur colder than customary winter in the Pacific Northwest has defied global warming trends worldwide.  We still have piles of snow drifts lying unmelted from our pre-Christmas storm, and day time temperatures only rose above freezing over the last 24 hours.  What that means is that we have superficial thawing during the day with rain showers, and then under a cover of fog and frost during the night, all is iced up again in the morning, making roads especially deceptive and treacherous.

Our barnyard is no different.  The slabs around our barn have the same coating of black ice in the morning as the roads do.  In particular, the slab behind our hillside horse barn is the source from run off of rain and ground water from the fields sloping above it, streaming to the fields that lie below.  The slab can be a veritable river most rainy winter days, and it has been flowing actively over the last several warmer days.  However, it froze hard during the night, and became a sheet of very slippery ice by this morning.

This is a challenge for the Haflingers as they are allowed out for some fresh air in the fields while we clean their stalls.  All year they are accustomed to going from barn aisle to open gate without considering the footing over the slab, focused only on the green grass beyond rather than the journey required to get there, but mornings like this are a whole other story.

I know better than to try to lead a horse across the ice like this as my ability to stay upright is seriously compromised if I’m pushed off balance.  So the horses must navigate this 10 yards untethered to me and with only my verbal cautions as a guide.  I certainly fear a horse falling on the ice and being injured, especially my mares who are in late pregnancy.  Some of them listen and learn better than others.

Our 25 year old gelding is always cautious and careful.  He’s seen enough unpredictable situations over the years and knows to check things out before committing himself, so takes it easy over the slab and has no difficulty.  Our yearling colt is also wary as he does not always know what to expect from the world yet, so he stops, sniffs the ice, tentatively puts a foot out as a test run and minces his way across, skittering as his smaller hooves give him little traction but he remains on his feet.

Our two pregnant mares, normally impatient about getting to any source of food, are heavy bellied and move awkwardly in the best of circumstances these days, so they are not eager to take chances either.  They seem to know they are more vulnerable and move deliberately and ponderously, safely carrying themselves and their unborn foals over the hazardous footing with an air of great responsibility and I breathe much easier when they reach the field.

Not so cautious is our younger mare.  She is unencumbered by pregnancy, full of pent up energy from lack of steady work in winter, and fueled by hormones.  Nothing seems to really penetrate her brain aside from her own desires and urges–all that matters is what she wants right now!–so she rushes too fast once beyond the barn, does a little skating across the slab and woomph! lands butt first as her feet go out from under her.  Getting up isn’t easy when you have newly trimmed smooth hooves, so she gathers up what is left of her dignity and balance, and gets upright again, stands still for a moment assessing how to proceed and then with great care, full of  grace she lacked a few moments before, walks the rest of the distance to the gate.  A painful lesson in impulsivity and selfish desire.

I’m certainly at a more cautious time of my life myself.  I’ve been through more impulsive, selfish and impatient stages in my younger years and remember all too well disregarding the admonitions and cautions from wiser people than myself.  I had to land hard a few times to “get it”.  I still lapse now and then and find myself treading too fast on “thin ice” but it seems less often as I grow older and perhaps a bit wiser myself.  I find that I’m trying now to guide not just my horses across the ice, but certainly my children and my patients as they navigate the hazards in their lives.  A fall now and then is inevitable and through grace we are picked back up.  That teaches far more effectively than my words of caution ever can.

Nevertheless here is the advice I have, given my own slips and slides on the thin ice of life:

Proceed forward with courage and boldness, anticipating each step as new and unfamiliar.  Remember you carry more than just yourself–you carry your past, your future and indeed that present moment itself–as precious as the moment just past and the moment yet to come.  And when you may think you have “arrived”, you’ll find yet another journey, perhaps just as filled with the unknown,  is about to begin.  Tread lightly within that knowledge, rejoicing in the journey itself and the destination will take care of you when you finally find yourself safe on the other side.

snowplay2

Ordinary to Extraordinary and Back Again

Nate Gibson's photo of our woods
Nate Gibson's photo of our woods

Today was typical of most dark December winter mornings. I am an early riser but procrastinate indoors, reading and responding to emails, fixing coffee, eating my breakfast, and making the walk to the mailbox in pitch dark to get the newspaper. I don’t like doing barn chores in the dark if I can avoid it, so I try to postpone until there is at least a little light peeking over the foothills to the east. I keep one eye out the kitchen window as I sit reading at the table, watching for Mount Baker to slowly appear in silhouette as dawn approaches, knowing that is my signal to get dressed and go out to feed the farm critters.

I wasn’t prepared for what this morning brought. Given the number of things I needed to attend to today post-Christmas, I was more than a little preoccupied. As I sat with my nose buried in the newspaper, and my mouth full of oatmeal, outside the hills began to glow orange along their snowy crest, as if a flame had been lit and was spreading from the shadows. It caught me unaware, appearing in the periphery of my vision. I had to shake myself from my preoccupation to stop what I was doing and gaze awestruck at the spectacle. I quickly realized I was missing the opportunity to capture this brilliance on my camera to save and share. The orange paintbrush strokes were reaching higher in the sky, bathing the glaciers of Mount Baker and stretching down to the Twin Sisters peaks to the south. It was startling transformation of the ordinary to the extraordinary.

By the time I’d grabbed my camera, exchanged slippers for muck boots and then raced outside in my bathrobe to capture it, it was gone. In under 2 minutes the sky had faded to gray, the mountains and countryside snowy white again and all became ordinary. It was as if it had never happened and I would never have any proof that it did.

Yet I write about it because for a few moments glory shone right in my own back yard and it shone on me. But I have no “proof.”

We don’t have photos of what the shepherds saw that night when the angel of the Lord came to them and glory shone all around them. We don’t know what the heavenly host looked or sounded like but we know their timeless words of “peace on earth, good will toward men”. We know that the angels then left the shepherds to stand awestruck in their fields, and all became ordinary again. Yet the shepherds themselves had been transformed. They had experienced glory, compelled to tell others what they had seen and heard though they were neither gregarious nor articulate nor even valued members of society.

The shepherds were most unlikely witnesses of that first Christmas eve and we remain unlikely witnesses each subsequent day. The glory shines all around us but we tend to remain preoccupied, too busy to notice and therefore unable to appreciate what has been given to us.

Nothing can be ordinary again as we have been transformed. For unto us a child is born and a Son is given.

Dismiss Your Servants in Peace

wedding

Sixty-six years ago today, my parents were married. Christmas Eve certainly wasn’t an ordinary wedding anniversary, but it did make it easy to remember during their years together. It was 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.

Now that they are both gone, when I look at their young faces in their wedding portrait, I imagine 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 for over a year, had talked pretty seriously 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 went to Virginia for his Marine officer training, and Mom started her high school teaching career in a rural town 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 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 ordinarily cautious mother to do.

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 left. Just like that. Mom returned to her teaching position and the first three years of their married life was all in letter correspondence, with gaps of up to a month during certain island battles when no mail could be delivered or posted.

As my mother’s things are being moved following her death, their letters are now in a box in my living room, stacked neatly and tied together. I have not yet been ready to open them but will soon. 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 after the war but 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 injuries–both physical and psychological.  It did not seem possible that things could go sour after they reunited following so many months of hardship to start their “real” lives. The expectations of happiness and bliss must have been overwhelming, and naturally, reality did not always deliver.

And so were the expectations in the barn on the first Christmas Eve. It must have been frightening for the parents of this special Baby, knowing in their minds but not completely understanding in their hearts what responsibility lay in their arms. They had to find faith and trust, not just in God who had determined what their future held, but in each other, to support one another when things became very difficult. It didn’t take long for that to happen: there was to be no room for them to stay in Bethlehem, she was a teenage girl enduring her first labor and delivery in a stable with no assistance from anyone, and later they became aware of a threat to the survival of their son requiring they leave the country.

When Mary and Joseph go to the temple for the circumcision and consecration of their son the following week, they allow a “righteous and devout man”, Simeon,  to hold their baby as, moved by the Holy Spirit, he tells them the role this child is to play in the world.  He prays over Jesus, saying to the Lord, “As you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace.  For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

It must have been like looking into a crystal ball to hear Simeon speak, as we’re told “the child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him.” But Simeon didn’t whitewash what was to come. It would have been easy to do so–just mention salvation, the light and the glory that will come to the people due to this little baby, but leave out the part about how His existence would cause division in Israel as well as personal rejection and anguish that He would experience. Not only that, but anguish will be His mother’s to bear as well. I’m sure that statement must have ended the sense of “marvel” they were feeling, and replaced it instead with great sorrow and trepidation.

Christmas is a time of joy, 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. A baby in a manger is a lovely story to “treasure up” in our hearts but once He became a bleeding Redeemer on a cross, it pierces those same living beating hearts, just as Simeon foretold.

My parents, such young idealistic adults 66 years ago, are His servants dismissed from this life in peace, as was Simeon, having beheld and known their Savior. As I look at their serene faces in their wedding photo, I know those same eyes now behold the light, the salvation and the glory~~the ultimate Christmas~~today in heaven.

Transformation

snowy_hill1

So it is going to be a white Christmas here.   For many, this is no big deal and nothing special.  Here in the Pacific Northwest, it is very rare to have a white Christmas: in my 54 years, I can recall exactly 4. The most dramatic was in 1996 when we had snow drifts over 10 feet high and were snow bound for several days.  We had to tunnel into our barns to feed the animals and the drama soon became much hard work and effort.

So a few inches sounds just right. It is plenty enough.

It isn’t Bing Crosby romanticism about White Christmases I’m seeking.  It is the transformation implicit in a new snowfall.   All appears new under a blanket of snow.  The ordinary appears extraordinary and we see with different eyes.  This is what Christmas morning is about and a little visual aid doesn’t hurt.

I know it didn’t snow that first Christmas morning in Bethlehem.  I know it wasn’t even winter when Jesus was born.  I know none of that really matters in this commercial craziness we call “Christmas” but which bears so little resemblance to what really happened at that moment when God became man.

The carol “There is No Rose” reprinted below profoundly illustrates with a few Latin words:

“Allelulia!
A wondrous thing has happened!
God and man become equally formed, made as one.
Let us rejoice!
Let us be transformed as a result!”

Today is our day for renewal–clean, extraordinary, transforming.

We’re allowed to peer into the face of God…

There Is No Rose
by Benjamin Britten from “The Ceremony of Carols”

Listen to it here

There is no rose of such virtue
As is the Rose that bore Jesu:
Alleluia.
For in this rose was contained
Heaven and earth in a small space.
Wondrous thing. Res miranda.
By that rose we may well see
There is one God in persons three.
Equally formed. Pares forma.
The angels sang; the shepherds, too:
Glory to God in the highest!
Let us rejoice. Gaudeamus.
Leave we all these worldly cares
And follow we this joyful birth.
Let us be transformed. Transeamus.