Circle of Light

candlelight1(written after a February storm in 2006)

I awoke to eery inky darkness this morning around 5 AM. No digital clock numbers shining red, no nightlight illumination. Just black. The wind and rain storm during the night had left us without power, and a quick scan out the windows informed me we were not alone. The closest lights in the horizon were toward Lynden 6 miles away, and the Canadian border cities ten miles away all gleamed bright.

The flashlights, of course, were not where they were supposed to be, and the candles were stuck deep in cupboards after Christmas, so I stumbled around in the dark, feeling my way through now unfamiliar hallways and rooms, gathering up what was needed to provide a little light and safety. When an Amish acquaintance from Ohio called me a couple hours later and I lamented about how completely unAmish I was in my dependency on the power grid, he chuckled and asked me if I had my oil lamps lit yet.

We are nearing 24 hours since the power went out, the storm long past, but sit with 200,000 other homes waiting to be “turned on” again. It could be awhile. It is just for these kinds of situations on the farm that we have a small generator that we use sporadically to pump the water to the barn and keep the freezer and refrigerator cold. I’m stealing a little generator power to write this quickly.

Our children have always celebrated our power outages. It is high adventure, an escape from the routine, and even in their teenage years, they cling closer. It managed to be an atypical  “family” Saturday, whereas we usually are bustling about separately playing catch-up from the week, and preparing for the activities of the week to come. Instead, today we cleaned barn with the help of flashlights, cleaned house together and folded clothes in the dark, guessing the color of the dark socks, played piano and sang together and read lines in my son’s high school musical, helping him to memorize his part. We played games and laughed more than usual. We were drawn together by necessity as well as by choice. There was one good light in the kitchen, so there we sat encircled together, connected by a candle, when so often we are flung apart by the busyness and bright light of the world.

I am wistful about the thought of the power returning sometime tonight or tomorrow. My children said it was one of the best Saturdays they remember in a long time. I have to agree.  Maybe we need to take a hint and shut off the electronics– the TV, this computer, and just sit down together more often, sharing ourselves inside a circle of light.  It is far more memorable, and in a chilly house battered by a windstorm, far more warming to the heart.

Finding Her Way Home

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Papa had been sick for a week. His cough shook our little house, perched as it was in a clearing a hundred yards from a rocky shelf high in the Tyrolian Alps.

Mama was so worried, her face hollow with lack of sleep. She sponged his face with cool water melted from the snow outside.

“Pieter, we must have medicine for your Papa, “ she murmured as she rubbed his legs with liniment to warm them.

“Mama, I can go to the village to the apothecary and bring back what you need.” I said confidently. “They’ll know what will help him.”

“It is such a hard trip this time of year, Pieter. You are only fourteen and there are storms…”

“I know, Mama, I’ll have Dalia to lead me. She will know the way.”

Dalia is our Haflinger mare. She is a sturdy mountain pony, bred in the Alps for just this kind of task– able to pull loads with harness for us, plow the rocky ground, pack with heavy weight on her back, provide warm milk when our cow is dry. Her golden coat glistens in the summer sun, and her heavy wavy white mane and tail are protection against the wintry winds. She is my Papa’s work partner, carrying his wood carvings to the village to sell, and bringing our supplies back on her back. Dalia takes me for rides across the mountain meadows of edelweiss in the spring, and skijoring in the autumn snows.

I harnessed her to the sled and Mama packed a lunch of cheese and bread for me, with a jug of milk. The November day was cloudy, but no new snow had fallen for several days, so we found the trail easily down the mountain path. Dalia picked her way carefully along the ledge, her surefooted amble brisk. I whistled to her and her copper ears flicked back and forth as she listened to my tune.

We reached the village in an hour where our package was quickly assembled and tied onto the sled, and I picked up supplies at the market.

It was time to head back, shortly after noon. I gazed up at the Alpen peaks high above the village, knowing our trip home would take at least twice as long with the steep climb up the trail.

Dalia was eager. She knew the trail home meant returning to her little stall in the snug barn next to the house, and to her 6 month old filly. Dalia leaned into the collar of the harness, pulling the sled up the trail as I sat, reins in hand, not needing to tell her where to go.

The clouds grew heavier and more threatening as we climbed. I urged little Dalia onward, hoping to get home before the snow started. It wasn’t long before the flakes started to fall, first heavy and lazy, and soon blowing wildly around our heads.

“Dalia, walk on!” She tugged harder, willing to try to go faster up the trail.

It soon was white everywhere around us and the snow was deepening by the minute, forcing Dalia to wade through up to her knees. I got off the sled and walked beside her. There was no longer a visible trail, and I began to worry we would lose our way in the blinding snow. I had to trust my brave little Haflinger.

She was soon up to her chest in the snow, pushing her way through, lunging at times to cross drifts. I hung onto her side, clinging to the harness leather, praying she would have the strength to go on despite the bite of the wind.

It seemed as if we were making no progress at all. The sun had gone down, the cold so bitter I could no longer feel my hands or feet. Dalia suddenly stopped, her sides heaving hard. She had brought us to the door of our little house, the oil lamp burning bright through the window.

Mama rushed to the door. “Pieter! You made it back! Praise God!”

“Yes, Mama. I’m back. Praise God and praise our Dalia. She found her way home as I would have been lost in the snow.”

I gave Mama the medicine for Papa, and I took Dalia to the barn for warm bran mash and hay from the summer meadows where she and I would someday ride again. And before long Papa will plow, and carve, and harvest again, thanks to our special Haflinger.
photos from Otto Schweisgut’s books “Haflinger Horses”  published in the 1950s and 1960s.

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Stolen Anthem

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Rousing from sleep in dawn of mid-winter gray
No usual mournful morning greeting
From the dove house.

Approach and where are the perfect
Slender birds whose low-throated songs
Soothe the night, and ballast waking?

Look closely and tiny feathers float
Above the ground, chaotic
Signs of futile struggle.

Not taken up in rapture,
But tortured in the night
Bloodied and abandoned.

Inside, tucked and nested
His partner sets unaware
Warming five pearl smooth eggs.

What thief would steal
Through some narrow crevice
To leave behind such devastation?

Cry indeed for stolen song,
The gentle soulful sounds
Of peace

And await the wakening of a new dawn:
Restored anthem, hatching soon
Beneath a downy breast.

Wanderlust

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Haflingers must have a migration center in their brain that tells them that it is time to move on to other territory, a move based on quality of forage, the seasons, or maybe simply a sudden urge for a change in scenery. I imagine, over hundreds of years of living in the rather sparse Alpen meadows, they needed to move on to another feeding area enmasse on a pretty regular basis, or if the weather was starting to get crummy. Or perhaps the next valley over had a better view, who knows? Trouble is, my Haflingers seem to have the desire to “move to other pastures” even if the grass in their own territory is plentiful and the view is great. And there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of natural or man-made barrier that will discourage them.

I have a trio of yearlings (the “Three Musketeers”) who are particularly afflicted with wanderlust. There is not a field yet that has held them when they decide together that it is time to move on. We are a hotwire and white tape fenced farm–something that has worked fairly well over the years, as it is inexpensive, easily repaired and best of all, easily moved if we need to change the fencing arrangement in our pasture rotation between six different 2 acre pastures. Previous generations of Haflingers have tested the hotwire and learned not to bother it again. No problem. But not the Three Musketeers.

They know when the wire is grounding out somewhere, so the current is low. They know when the weather is so dry that the conduction is poor through the wire. They know when I’ve absent mindedly left the fencer unplugged because I’ve had someone visit and we wanted to climb unshocked through the fences to walk from field to field. These three actually have little conferences out in the field together about this–I’ve seen them huddled together, discussing their strategy, and fifteen minutes later, I’ll look out my kitchen window and they are in another field altogether and the wire and tape is strewn everywhere and there’s not a mark on any of them. Even more mysteriously, often I can’t really tell where they made their escape as they leave no trace–I think one holds up the top wire with his teeth and the others carefully step over the bottom wire. I’m convinced they do this just to make me crazy.

Last night, when I brought them in from a totally different field from where they had started in the morning, they all smirked at me as they marched to their stalls as if to say, “guess what you have waiting for you out there.” It was too dark to survey the damage last night but I got up extra early to check it out this morning before I turned them out again.

Sure enough, in the back corner of the field they had been put in yesterday morning, (which has plenty of grass), the tape had been stretched, but not broken, and the wires popped off their insulators and dragging on the ground and in a huge tangled mass. I enjoyed 45 minutes of Pacific Northwest foggy morning putting it all back together. Then I put them out in the field they had escaped to last night, thinking, “okay, if you like this field so well, this is where you’ll stay”.

Tonight, they were back in the first field where they started out yesterday morning. Just to make me crazy. They are thoroughly enjoying this sport. I’m ready to buy a grand poobah mega-wattage fry-their-whiskers fence charger.

But then, I’d be spoiling their fun and their travels. As long as they stay off the road, out of my flowers, and out of my kitchen, they can have the run of the place. I too remember being adolescent, long long ago, and wanting to see the big wide world, no matter what obstacles had to be overcome or shocks I had to endure to get there. And I got there after all that trouble and effort and realized that home was really where I wanted to be. Now, prying me away from my little corner of the world gets more difficult every year. I hope my yearling trio will eventually decide that staying home is the best thing after all.

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Caritas

written originally in early March 2007

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We are all waiting for winter to be finished with us.  Instead it is snowing and blowing, ruining our dreams of spring and reminding us once again we have no control over the elements.  Cars were upside down in the ditches yesterday morning following a night of snow and freezing rain, and trying to accelerate up hill after a red stop light turned green was an exercise in futility.  I could have made it to work faster by hiking.

Not only the blustery out of doors has us in a strangle hold.  There are the winter viruses controlling everything inside our skin.  Workload at my clinic has doubled during influenza season, so I’m relegated to seeing patients in 10 minute slots to try to see everyone who is triaged.  There is little opportunity to provide much more than very basic assessment and advice and a moment of eye contact, a hand on the shoulder and reassurance that “this too will pass”.   After all, there is not much else a physician can do for the influenza patients who drag themselves out of bed finally on the third day of their illness, wondering what hit them like a truck.  We can only commiserate and advocate for signing up for next season’s flu vaccine 9 months from now.  Am I really doing much of value?  Some days I’m not so sure.  Yet I return each day to my work because I am needed by others, whether I make a difference that day or not.  It is what I am called to do– this caritas of the spirit.

When work load off the farm is this heavy, there is little that happens at home except basic daily maintenance.  The kitchen floor gets mopped less frequently, the laundry pile grows higher and the vacuum stays idle, but the barn chores continue unchanged.  It is my cherished routine to head to the barn in the dark of a winter’s morning and turn on the lights, and 7 pairs of Haflinger eyes blink and 7 Haflinger voices rumble greetings.  I am truly anticipated and appreciated and I have a clear task that I do that will make a difference.  Last summer’s hay bales are broken open and the fragrance of the clover and timothy fields is as grand as my morning cup of coffee.  I cradle the hay flakes to each expectant horse and they nod and bow in gratitude when I open their door.  Their buckets are filled with fresh clean water and they drink gratefully and deeply.  I share with each horse a moment of eye contact, a scratch on the wither and the reassurance that I will return at the end of the day to repeat our ritual and prepare their beds for the night.  And then I am gone, leaving the radio to play “oldies” to them while the weather rages outside.  I am needed and it is what I am called to do–this horse keeping.

Remarkably, the crocuses are up through the snow, the snowdrops are flourishing and the orchard trees are beginning to swell their buds.  Bird song is plentiful in the frozen mornings, with far more variety than a month ago.  There will be a spring coming soon, despite how things feel to me now.   This exhaustion will be replaced by renewal and the fresh air will be filled soon with the sweetness of cherry and apple blossoms.  The fields will grow lush and soft  and the sun will be warm on my horses’ withers once again.  And I will celebrate the defeat of winter once again.

Barnstorm

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Most of my life, a barn has stood a few dozen yards from my back door. As a small child, I learned to ride a tricycle on the wooden planks of the chicken coop, sat on the bony back of a Guernsey cow while my father milked by hand, found new litters of kittens in cobweb-filled hideaways, and leaped with abandon into stacks of loose hay in a massive loft.

As a young girl, I preferred to clean stalls rather than my bedroom. The acoustics in the barn were first rate for singing loud and the horses and cows never covered their ears, although the dog would usually howl. A hay loft was the perfect spot for hiding a writing journal and reading books. It was a place for quiet contemplation and sometimes fervent prayer when I was worried: a sanctuary for turbulent adolescence.

Through college and medical training, I managed to live over twelve years in the city without access to a barn or the critters that lived inside. I searched for plenty of surrogate retreats: the library stacks, empty chapels within the hospitals I worked, even a remote mountainous wildlife refuge in central Africa.

It is hard to ignore one’s genetic destiny to struggle as a steward of the land through the challenges of economics and weather. My blood runs with DNA of wheat and lentil growers, loggers, cattle ranchers, dairy farmers, work horse teamsters, and flower and vegetable gardeners. A farm eventually called me to come back home and so I heeded, bringing along a husband (from a dairy farming background himself), and eventually there followed three children.

It hasn’t always been pastoral and sublime on the farm. It’s a lot like life itself.

Recently, a sudden southerly wind hit our farm one winter night, powerfully gusting up to 60 miles an hour and slamming the house with drenching rain as we prepared to go to bed. Chores in the barn had been finished hours before, but as we had not been expecting a storm, the north/south center aisle doors were still open, banging and rattling as they were buffeted in the wind. I quickly dressed to go latch the doors for the night, but the tempest had already done its damage. Hay, empty buckets, horse blankets, tack and cat food had flown down the aisle, while the horses stood wide-eyed and fretful in their stalls. A storm was blowing inside the barn as well as outside. This was not the safe haven a barn was meant to be. It took all my strength to roll the doors shut, latch them tight, take a deep breath and then survey the damage.

It took some time to clean up the mess. The wind continued to bash at the doors, but it no longer could touch anything inside. The horses relaxed and got back to their evening meal though the noise coming from outside was deafening. I headed back to the house and slept fitfully listening to the wind blow all night, wondering if the barn roof might pull off in a gust, exposing everything within.

Yet in daylight the following morning, all was calm. The barn was still there, the roof still on, the horses where they belong and all inside was even tidier than before the barnstorm. Or so it appeared.

Like my sturdily built barn, I’m buffeted by the sudden gales of mid-life. My doors have been flung open wide, my roof pulled off, at times everything blown away, leaving me reeling. More and more often, I need restoration, renewal and reconciliation. And so I set to work to fix up my life with all the skill I can muster: setting things right where they’ve been upended, painting a fresh coat where chipped and dulled, shoring up rotted foundations. If only I can get it done well enough, with sufficient perseverance, I surely will recover from the latest blow.

But my hard work and determination is not enough. It is never enough. I am never finished.

The only true sanctuary isn’t found in a weather-beaten barn of rough-hewn old growth timbers vulnerable to the winds of life.

The barnstorming happens within me, in the depths of my soul, comforted only by the encompassing and salvaging arms of God. There I am held, transformed and restored, grateful beyond measure.

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Stumbling Upon Spring

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(published in May 2007  Country Magazine)

The past few weeks have been particularly dark and dank.  February often feels like this: the conviction winter will never be finished messing with us. Our doldrums are deep; brief respite of sun and warmth too rare.

I feel it in the barn as I go about my daily routine.   The Haflingers are impatient and yearn for freedom, over-eager when handled, sometimes banging on the stall doors in their frustration at being shut in,  not understanding that the alternative is  to stand outside all day in cold rain and wind.  To compensate for their confinement, I do some grooming of their thick winter coats, urging their hair to loosen and curry off in sheets over parts of their bodies, yet otherwise still clinging tight.  The horses are a motley crew right now, much like a worn ’60s shag carpet, uneven and in dire need of updating.  I prefer that no one see them like this and discourage visitors to the farm, begging people to wait a few more weeks until they (and I) are more presentable. Eventually I know the shag on my horses will come off, revealing the sheen of new short hair beneath, but when I look at myself, I’m unconvinced there is such transformation in store for me. Cranky, I  put one foot ahead of the other, get done what needs to be done, oblivious to the subtle renewal around me, refusing to believe even in the possibility.

It happened today.  Dawn broke bright and blinding and after escorting horses out to daytime paddocks for a sun bath, I heard the fields calling, so I heeded, climbing the hill and turning my face to the eastern light, soaking up all I could.  It was almost too much to keep my eyes open, as they are so accustomed to gray darkness. And then I stumbled across something extraordinary.

A patch of snowdrops sat blooming in an open space on our acreage, visible now only because of the brush clearing that was done last fall. Many of these little white upside down flowers were planted long ago around our house and yard, but  I had no idea they were also such a distance away, hiding underground. Yet there they’ve been, year after year, harbingers of the long-awaited spring to come in a few short weeks, though covered by the overgrowth of decades of neglect and invisible to me in my self-absorbed blindness.  I was astonished that someone, many many years ago, had carried these bulbs this far out to a place not easy to find, and planted them, hoping they might bless another soul sometime somehow.  Perhaps the spot marks a grave of a beloved pet, or perhaps it was simply a retreat of sorts, but there the blossoms had sprung from their sleep beneath the covering of years of fallen leaves and blackberry vines.

It was if I’d been physically hugged by this someone long dead,  now flesh and blood beside me, with work-rough hands, and dirty fingernails, and broad brimmed hat, and a satisfied smile.  I’m certain the secret gardener is no long living, and I reach back across those years in gratitude, to show my deep appreciation for the time and effort it took to place a foretaste of spring in an unexpected and hidden place.

I am thus compelled to look for ways to leave such a gift for someone to find 50 years hence as they likewise stumble blindly through too many gray days full of human frailty and flaw. Though I will be long gone,  I can reach across the years to grab them, hug them in their doldrums, lift them up and give them hope for what is to come.  What an astonishing thought that it was done for me and in reaffirming that promise of renewal,  I can do it for another.

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