This Muddy Earth

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That whisper takes the voice
Of a Spirit, speaking to me,
Close, but invisible,
And throws me under a spell
At the kindling vision it brings;
And for a moment I rejoice,
And believe in transcendent things
That would make of this muddy earth
A spot for the splendid birth
Of everlasting lives,
Whereto no night arrives;
~Thomas Hardy from “In a Whispering Gallery” in Moments of Vision

If I listen carefully enough,
forgetting myself,
if I attend to His Voice,
the still small whisper that comes
as night fades away.
Light dawns kindling
over this sad world,
muddy though it be,
yet lit from above,
rejoicing, shouting:
reborn.
~EPG

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Fenced Off

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My grandmother’s house had been torn down after she sold her property on Similk Bay near Anacortes, Washington to a lumber company.  This was the house where her four babies were born, where she and my grandfather loved and fought and separated and loved again, and where our family spent chaotic and memorable Thanksgiving and Christmas meals.  After Grandpa died suddenly, she took on boarders, trying to afford to remain there on the wooded acreage fronted by stump farm meadows where her Scottish Highland cattle grazed.   She reached an age when it was no longer possible to make it work.   A deal was struck with the lumber company and she had moved to a small apartment, bruised by the move from her farm.

My father realized what her selling to a lumber company meant and it was a crushing thought.  The old growth woods would soon also be stumps on the rocky hill above the bay, opening a view to Mt. Baker to the east, to the San Juan Islands to the north, and presenting an opportunity for development into a subdivision.   He woke my brother and me early one Saturday in May and told us we were driving the 120 miles to Anacortes.  He was on a mission.

As a boy growing up on that land, he had wandered the woods, explored the hill, and helped his dad farm the rocky soil.  There was only one thing he felt he needed from that farm and he had decided to take us with him, to trespass where he had been born and raised to bring home a most prized treasure–his beloved lady slippers from the woods.

These dainty flowers enjoy a spring display known for its brevity–a week or two at the most–and they tend to bloom in small little clusters in the leafy duff mulch of the deep woods, preferring only a little indirect sunlight part of the day.  They are not easy to find unless you know where to look.  My father remembered exactly where to look.

We hauled buckets up the hill along with spades, looking as if we were about to dig for clams at the ocean.  Dad led us up a trail into the thickening foliage, until we had to bushwhack our way into the taller trees where the ground was less brush and more hospitable ground cover.  He would stop occasionally to get his bearings as things were overgrown.   We reached a small clearing and he knew we were near.  He went straight to a copse of fir trees standing guard over a garden of lady slippers.

There were almost thirty of them blooming, scattered in an area about the size of my tiny bedroom at home.  Each orchid-like pink and lavender blossom had a straight backed stem that held it with sturdy confidence.  To me, they looked like they could be little shoes for fairies who may have hung them up while they danced about barefoot.    To my father, they represented the last redeeming vestiges of his often traumatic rearing by an alcoholic father, and were about to be trammeled by bulldozers.  We set to work gently digging them out of their soft bedding, carefully keeping their bulb-like corms from losing a protective covering of soil and leafy mulch.  Carrying them in the buckets back to the car, we felt some vindication that even if the trees were to be lost to the saws, these precious flowers would survive.

When we got home, Dad set to work creating a spot where he felt they could thrive in our own woods.  He found a place with the ideal amount of shade and light, with the protection of towering trees and the right depth of undisturbed leaf mulch.  We carefully placed the lady slippers in their new home, scattered in a pattern similar to how we found them.  Then Dad built a four foot split rail fence in an octagon around them, as a protection from our cattle and a horse who wandered the woods, and as a way to demarcate that something special was contained inside.

The next spring only six lady slippers bloomed from the original thirty.  Dad was disappointed but hoped another year might bring a resurgence as the flowers established themselves in their new home.  The following year there were only three.  Two years later my father left us and them, not looking back.

Sometime after, when my mother had to sell our farm after the divorce, I visited our lady slipper sanctuary in the woods for the last time in the middle of May.  The split rail fence was still there, guarding nothing but old memories.  No lady slippers bloomed.  There was not a trace they had ever been there.  They had simply given up and disappeared.

The new owners of our farm surely puzzled over the significance of the small fenced-off area in the middle of our woods.  They probably thought it surrounded a graveyard of some sort.

And so it did.

This Shining Night

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Sure on this shining night of star-made shadows round,
kindness must watch for me this side the ground,
on this shining night, this shining night
Sure on this shining night of star-made shadows round,
kindness must watch for me this side the ground,
on this shining night, this shining night
The late year lies down the north
All is healed, all is health
High summer holds the earth, hearts all whole
The late year lies down the north
All is healed, all is health
High summer holds the earth, hearts all whole
Sure on this shining night,
sure on this shining, shining night
Sure on this shining night
I weep for wonder wand’ring far alone
Of shadows on the stars
Sure on this shining night, this shining night
On this shining night, this shining night
Sure on this shining night
~Morten Lauridsen

 

I am reminded in ways I don’t expect
and at times when I need it most:
the nature of the work I do
demands my tears,
I weep for wonder
at the privilege
to love people in my effort to heal them.
Sometimes it is their kindness
that heals me,
the wonder of that trust
shining through,
and not letting me go.

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Hope Borne on Wings

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Sometimes I am startled out of myself,
like this morning, when the wild geese came squawking,
flapping their rusty hinges, and something about their trek
across the sky made me think about my life, the places
of brokenness, the places of sorrow, the places where grief
has strung me out to dry. And then the geese come calling,
the leader falling back when tired, another taking her place.
Hope is borne on wings. Look at the trees. They turn to gold
for a brief while, then lose it all each November.
Through the cold months, they stand, take the worst
weather has to offer. And still, they put out shy green leaves
come April, come May. The geese glide over the cornfields,
land on the pond with its sedges and reeds.
You do not have to be wise. Even a goose knows how to find
shelter, where the corn still lies in the stubble and dried stalks.
All we do is pass through here, the best way we can.
They stitch up the sky, and it is whole again.
~Barbara Crooker

When it feels like the world is rent in two,
and the gulf into which I topple
too wide and dark to climb without help,
I can look to the sky
and see the stitching there
the careful caring line of connection
drawing me out of my hole, startled and grateful
to be made whole.
Hope is borne on wings:
may I fly threaded to others.

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Turning the Light Off

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Marlee has gone home this morning, far sooner than we planned.  She was only twenty two, born only two months after our daughter’s birth, much too young an age for a Haflinger to die.

But something dire was happening to her over the last two weeks — not eating much,  an expanding girth, then shortness of breath, and last week it was confirmed she had untreatable lymphoma.

Her bright eyes were shining to the end so it was very hard to ask the vet to turn the light off.  But the time had come.

Marlee M&B came to us as a six month old “runty orphan” baby by the lovely stallion Sterling Silver,  but she was suddenly weaned at three days when her mama Melissa died of sepsis.  She never really weaned from her bottle/bucket feeding humans Stefan and Andrea Bundshuh at M&B Farm in Canada. From them she knew people’s behavior, learned their nonverbal language, and understood human subtleties that most horses never learn. This made her quite a challenge as a youngster as it also meant there was no natural reserve nor natural respect for people. She had no boundaries taught by a mother, so we tried to teach her the proper social cues.

When turned out with the herd as a youngster, she was completely clueless–she’d approach the dominant alpha mare incorrectly, without proper submission, get herself bitten and kicked and was the bottom of the social heap for years, a lonesome little filly with few friends and very few social skills. She had never learned submission with people either, and had to have many remedial lessons on her training path. Once she was a mature working mare, her relationship with people markedly improved as there was structure to her work and predictability for her, and after having her own foals, she picked up cues and signals that helped her keep her foal safe, though she had always been one of our most relaxed “do whatever you need to do” mothers when we handled her foals as she simply never learned that she needed to be concerned.

Over the years, as the herd has changed, Marlee became the alpha mare, largely by default and seniority, so I don’t believe she really trusted her position as “real”. She tended to bully, and react too quickly out of her own insecurity about her inherited position. She was very skilled with her ears but she was also a master at the tail “whip” and the tensed upper lip–no teeth, just a slight wrinkling of the lip.  The herd scattered when they saw her face change.  The irony of it all is that when she was  “on top” of the herd hierarchy, she was more lonely than when she was at the bottom and I think a whole lot less happy as she had few grooming partners any more.

She accompanied us to the fair for a week of display of our Haflingers year after year after year — she could be always counted on to greet the public and enjoy days of braiding and petting and kids sitting on her back.

The day she started formal under saddle training under Val Bash was when the light bulb went off in her head–this was a job she could do! This was constant communication and interaction with a human being, which she craved! This was what she was meant for! And she thrived under saddle, advancing quickly in her skills, almost too fast, as she wanted so much to please her trainer.

She has had a still unequaled record among North American Haflingers. She was not only regional champion in her beginner novice division of eventing as a pregnant 5 year old, but also received USDF Horse of the Year awards in First and Second Level dressage that year as the highest scoring Haflinger.

With Jessica Heidemann she did a “bridleless” ride display in front of hundreds of people at the annual Haflinger event, and with Garyn Heidemann as instructor,  she became an eventing pony for a young rider whose blonde hair matched Marlee’s.  She galloped with abandon in the field on bareback rides with Emily Vander Haak and became our daughter Lea’s special riding horse over the last few years.

She had a career of mothering along with intermittent riding work, with 5 foals –Winterstraum, Marquisse, Myst, Wintermond, and Nordstrom—each from different stallions, and each very different from one another.

This mare had such a remarkable work ethic, was “fine-tuned” so perfectly with a sensitivity to cues–that our daughter said:   “Mom, it’s going to make me such a better rider because I know she pays attention to everything I do with my body–whether my heels are down, whether I’m sitting up straight or not.”  Marlee was, to put it simply,  trained to train her riders.

We will miss her high pitched whinny from the barn whenever she heard the back door to the house open. We will miss her pushy head butt on the stall door when it was time to close it up for the night.  We will miss that beautiful unforgettable face and those large deep brown eyes where the light was on.

What a ride she had for twenty two years, that dear little orphan.  What a ride she gave to many who trained her and who she trained over the years.   Though I never climbed on her back, what joy she gave me,  the surrogate mom who loved and fed her, unable to resist those bright eyes, which are now closed in peace.

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Photo Montage by Emily Dieleman

Waiting in Hope: Brought to our Senses

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By these three days all the world is called to attention.
Everything that is and ever was and ever will be,
the macro and the micro,
the galaxies beyond number and the microbes beyond notice –
everything is mysteriously entangled with what happened,
with what happens, in these days.…
Every human life,
conceived from eternity and destined to eternity,
here finds its story truly told.
In this killing that some call senseless
we are brought to our senses.
Here we find out who we most truly are because
here is the One who is what we are called to be.
The derelict cries, “Come, follow me.”
Follow him there?
We recoil.
We close our ears.
We hurry on to Easter.
But we will not know what to do with Easter’s light
if we shun the friendship of the darkness that is wisdom’s way to light.
~Richard Neuhaus from Death on a Friday Afternoon

 

 

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So many killings in the last two weeks — needless, heartbreaking death at the hands of others — people abruptly wrenched from their routine lives, their families left with empty arms and filling eyes spilling endlessly with tears.

Such senseless tragedies, we say, recoiling and withdrawing as if we can close our ears to more bad news.  How to make sense of deaths that arise from the darkness found in every soul?

This is the day in between when nothing makes sense;  we are lost, hopeless, grieving.

Yet we are brought to our senses by this one Death, this premeditated killing, this senseless act that darkened the skies, shook the earth and tore down the curtained barriers to the Living Eternal God.
The worst has already happened, no matter how horrific are the events that fill the headlines.

Today we are in between, stumbling in the darkness but aware of hints of light, of buds, of life, of promised fruit to come.

The best has already happened.  Happening now even when we are oblivious.

We move through this day, doing what is possible even when it feels senseless.  Tomorrow it will all make sense: our hope brings us face to face with our God who only does the impossible.

 

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The Holy Saturday of our life must be the preparation for Easter,
the persistent hope for the final glory of God.

The virtue of our daily life is the hope which does what is possible
and expects God to do the impossible.

To express it somewhat paradoxically, but nevertheless seriously:
the worst has actually already happened;
we exist,
and even death cannot deprive us of this.

Now is the Holy Saturday of our ordinary life,
but there will also be Easter, our true and eternal life.
~Karl Rahner “Holy Saturday” in The Great Church Year

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In the Midst of Sorrow: A Terrible Question

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And now brothers,
I will ask you a terrible question,
and God knows I ask it also of myself.
Is the truth beyond all truths,
beyond the stars, just this:
that to live without him is the real death,
that to die with him the only life?
~Frederich Buechner from The Magnificent Defeat

 

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I live each day to kill death;
I die each day to beget life,
and in this dying unto death,
I die a thousand times and
am reborn another thousand
through that love.
~Julia Esquivel, Guatemalan poet and theologian

 

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…{His is} the love for the enemy–
love for the one who does not love you
but mocks, threatens, and inflicts pain.
The tortured’s love for the torturer.
This is God’s love. It conquers the world.
~Frederich Buechner from The Magnificent Defeat

 

This is God with a man’s beating heart,
who bleeds from open wounds of a man’s skin,
while nailed to a tree,
considering His torturers below
and forgives them.

This is God with a man’s dry tongue
thirsting for relief
who ensures His love for us
will never run dry.

This is God with a man’s compassion
who grants grace to another who
confesses his guilt and shame.

This is God with a son’s love for His mother
who entrusts her future
to the care of His beloved friend.

This is God with a man’s debt to carry
who pays it all,
finished and done.

This is God with a man’s frailty and fear,
feeling forsaken,
conquering death and hatred
by dying for us.

This is God with a man’s last breath
giving His spirit into the hands of His father
and in so doing, ensures we live forever.

 

~dedicated to the brutal murders of over one hundred Christian college students in Kenya this week in yet another persecution of our faith~