Sleeping in the Cold

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All the complicated details
of the attiring and
the disattiring are completed!
A liquid moon
moves gently among
the long branches.
Thus having prepared their buds
against a sure winter
the wise trees
stand sleeping in the cold.
~William Carlos Williams “Winter Trees”

 

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Winter seems less complicated than other seasons until the wind blows brutal and the ice glaze is an inch thick and snow bends branches to the ground to the point of snapping a tree in half. It is no longer a quiet gentle sleeping time but can take a tree down,  unaware,  in the night, the crack and crash of branches like gunshots hunting down innocent prey.

The clean up has begun, the remnants lying waiting on the ground and the naked trunks scarred.

Despite such devastation, the buds still swell, readying for the complexity of spring.

 

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The Mountain Called Her By Name

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Devi and father Willi
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Nanda Devi courtesy of Stanford Alpine Club

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The ripple effect from Nanda Devi Unsoeld’s arrival as a new junior in Olympia High School in 1970 reached me within minutes, as I felt the impact of her presence on campus immediately.  One of my friends elbowed me, pointing out a new girl being escorted down the hall by the assistant principal.  Students stared at the wake she left behind: Devi had wildly flowing wavy long blonde hair, a friendly smile and bold curious eyes greeting everyone she met.

From the neck up, she fit right in with the standard appearance at the time:  as the younger sisters of the 60’s generation of free thinking flower children, we tried to emulate them in our dress and style, going braless and choosing bright colors and usually skirts that were too short and tight.   There was the pretense we didn’t really care how we looked, but of course we did care very much, with hours spent daily preparing the “casual carefree” look that would perfectly express our freedom from fashion trends amid our feminist longings. Practicing careful nonconformity perfectly fit our peers’ expectations and aggravated our parents.

But Devi never looked like she cared what anyone else thought of her.  The high school girls honestly weren’t sure what to make of her, speculating together whether she was “for real” and viewed her somewhat suspiciously, as if she was putting on an act.

The boys were mesmerized.

She preferred baggy torn khaki shorts or peasant skirts with uneven hems, loose fitting faded T shirts and ripped tennis shoes without shoelaces.  Her legs were covered with long blonde hair, as were her armpits which she showed off while wearing tank tops.   She pulled whole cucumbers from her backpack in class and ate them like cobs of corn, rind and all.  She smelled like she had been camping without a shower for three days, but then riding her bike to school from her home 8 miles away in all kinds of weather accounted for that.   One memorable day she arrived a bit late to school, pushing her bike through 6 inches of snow in soaking tennis shoes, wearing her usual broad smile of satisfaction.

As a daughter of two Peace Corps workers who had just moved back to the U.S. after years of service in Nepal, Devi had lived very little of her life in the United States.  Her father Willi Unsoeld, one of the first American climbers to reach the summit of Mt. Everest up the difficult west face, had recently accepted a professorship in comparative religion at a local college.  He moved his wife and family back to the northwest to be near his beloved snowy peaks,  suddenly immersing four children in an affluent culture that seemed foreign and wasteful.

Devi recycled before there was a word for it simply by never buying anything new and never throwing anything useful away, involved herself in social justice issues before anyone had coined the phrase, and was an activist behind the scenes more often than a leader, facilitating and encouraging others to speak out at anti-war rallies, organizing sit-ins for world hunger and volunteering in the local soup kitchen.  She mentored adolescent peers to get beyond their self-consciousness and self-absorption to explore the world beyond the security of high school walls.

Regretfully, few of us followed her lead.  We preferred the relative security and camaraderie of hanging out at the local drive-in to taking a shift at the local 24 hour crisis line.  We showed up for our graduation ceremony in caps and gowns while the rumor was that Devi stood at the top of Mt. Rainier with her father that day.

I never saw Devi after high school but heard of her plans in 1976 to climb with an expedition to the summit of Nanda Devi,  the peak in India for which she was named.  She never returned, dying in her father’s arms as she suffered severe abdominal pain and irreversible high altitude sickness just below the summit.  She lies forever buried in the ice on that faraway peak in India.  Her father died in an avalanche only a few years later, as he led an expedition of college students on a climb on Mt. Rainier, only 60 miles from home.

Had Devi lived these last 40 years, I have no doubt she would have led our generation with her combination of charismatic boldness and excitement about each day’s new adventure.  She lived without pretense, without hiding behind a mask of fad and fashion and conformity and without the desire for wealth or comfort.

I wish I had learned what she had to teach me when she sat beside me in class, encouraging me by her example to become someone more than the dictates of societal expectations. I secretly admired the freedom she embodied in not being concerned in the least about fitting in.   Instead, I still mourn her loss all these years later, having to be content with the legacy she has now left behind on a snowy mountain peak that called her by name.

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To Feel the Hem of Heaven

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Your days are short here; this is the last of your springs.
And now in the serenity and quiet of this lovely place,
touch the depths of truth, feel the hem of Heaven.
You will go away with old, good friends.
And don’t forget when you leave why you came.

~Adlai Stevenson, to the Class of ’54 Princeton University

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I was eight years old in June 1963 when the Readers’ Digest arrived in the mail inside its little brown paper wrapper. As usual, I sat down in my favorite overstuffed chair with my skinny legs dangling over the side arm and started at the beginning,  reading the jokes, the short articles and stories on harrowing adventures and rescues, pets that had been lost and found their way home, and then toward the back came to the book excerpt: “The Triumph of Janis Babson” by Lawrence Elliott.

Something about the little girl’s picture at the start of the story captured me right away–she had such friendly eyes with a sunny smile that partially hid buck teeth.  This Canadian child, Janis Babson, was diagnosed with leukemia when she was only ten, and despite all efforts to stop the illness, she died in 1961.  The story was written about her determination to donate her eyes after her death, and her courage facing death was astounding.  Being nearly the same age, I was captivated and petrified at the story, amazed at Janis’ straight forward approach to her death, her family’s incredible support of her wishes, and especially her final moments, when (as I recall 54 years later) Janis looked as if she were beholding some splendor, her smile radiant.

”Is this Heaven?” she asked.   She looked directly at her father and mother and called to them:  “Mommy… Daddy !… come… quick !”

And then she was gone.  I cried buckets of tears, reading and rereading that death scene.  My mom finally had to take the magazine away from me and shooed me outside to go run off my grief.  How could I run and play when Janis no longer could?  It was a devastating realization that a child my age could get sick and die, and that God allowed it to happen.

Yet this story was more than just a tear-jerker for the readers.  Janis’ final wish was granted –those eyes that had seen the angels were donated after her death so that they would help another person see.  Janis  had hoped never to be forgotten.  Amazingly, she influenced thousands of people who read her story to consider and commit to organ donation, most of whom remember her vividly through that book excerpt in Readers’ Digest.  I know I could not sleep the night after I read her story and determined to do something significant with my life, no matter how long or short it was.  Her story influenced my eventual decision to become a physician.  She made me think about death at a very young age as that little girl’s tragic story could have been mine and I was certain I could never have been so brave and so confident in my dying moments.

Janis persevered with a unique sense of purpose and mission for one so young.  As a ten year old, she developed character that some people never develop in a much longer lifetime.  Her faith and her deep respect for the gift she was capable of giving through her death brought hope and light to scores of people who still remember her to this day.

Out of the recesses of my memory, I recalled Janis’ story a few years ago when I learned of a local child who had been diagnosed with a serious cancer.  I could not recall Janis’ name, but in googling “Readers’  Digest girl cancer story”,  by the miracle of the internet I rediscovered her name, the name of the book and a discussion forum that included posts of people who were children in the sixties, like me,  who had been incredibly touched by Janis when they read this same story as a child.  Many were inspired to become health care providers like myself and some became professionals working with organ donation.

Janis and family, may you know the gift you gave so many people through your courage in the midst of suffering, and the resulting hope in the glory of the Lord.  Your days were short here, but you touched the depth of truth and touched the hem of heaven.
~~the angels are coming indeed.

We who have been your old good friends,  because of your story,  have not forgotten how you left us and why you came in the first place.

For excerpts from “The Triumph of Janis Babson”, click here

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The North Wind Dying

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Outside, the north wind,
coming and passing,
swelling and dying,
lifts the frozen sand drives it
a-rattle against the lidless windows
and we may
dear
sit stroking the cat stroking the cat
and smiling sleepily, prrrr.
~William Carlos Williams

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José is our front porch cat. That is as opposed to our garage cat, our upper barn cat, our lower barn cats and those that come and go on the farm because we’re a hospitable place where food is always on the table.

But he is the king of the farm cats.  No one questions him (usually) and no one occupies his front porch bench without his express permission. His Majesty shows mercy to any who show proper submission, and every once in awhile, that includes the dogs.  He’s trained every pup here over the years.

He is the official front porch farm greeter, rising from his pillowy bench throne to investigate any newcomer up the sidewalk, mewing his cheerful little “chirp” of a meow in welcome.  Then he turns around and returns to his perch.

José also is a performance cat, having been trained in his younger years to ride on a bareback pad on our Haflingers, walk, trot and over jumps (sorry, no pictures).  This once again proved his ability to get any creature, large or small, to submit to his will.

The love of his life is our daughter, Lea.  José  arrived on our farm 13+ years ago from a city home where he had been adopted as a stray of indeterminate age, and was too intimidating to the other resident cats.  José needed his own kingdom and his own queen so he set his eyes on her and decided he was exactly what she needed.  They have had many happy snuggles together over the years whenever she returns home, including only a month ago during the holidays.

The winter weather was brutal over the past month with weeks of bitter northeast wind blowing right over José’s front porch bed.  Usually during northeasters he picks up and moves to another of our farm buildings until the storm is done, and then reclaims his favorite spot when he deems it cozy enough to be worthy of him.

Only this time, when the wind went away, José didn’t return.

I’ve looked, I’ve called, I’ve left goodies out.  But no José. No chirpy meow, no yellow eyed gaze, no black velvet fur to stroke, no rumbly purr to vibrate in my lap.

I fear he has left for warmer quarters far far away from here as the north wind was dying this winter.

I think he was dying too, and somewhere on the farm — I just haven’t found it yet — there is a black coat that he left behind.

He doesn’t need it any more.

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See You Soon Enough

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Echo of the clocktower, footstep
in the alleyway, sweep
of the wind sifting the leaves.
 
Jeweller of the spiderweb, connoisseur
of autumn’s opulence, blade of lightning
harvesting the sky.
 
Keeper of the small gate, choreographer
of entrances and exits, midnight
whisper travelling the wires.
 
Seducer, healer, deity, or thief,
I will see you soon enough–
in the shadow of the rainfall,
 
in the brief violet darkening a sunset —
but until then I pray watch over him
as a mountain guards its covert ore
 
and the harsh falcon its flightless young.
~Dana Gioia “The Prayer” (written in memory of his infant son who died of SIDS)
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When we think of those who wait for us on the other side,
and who we will wait for when it comes our time,
I know there is One who watches over all these reunions,
knowing the moment when our fractured hearts
heal whole once again.
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That Still Room

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The time is ripe for looking back over the day, the week, the year,
and trying to figure out where we have come from and where we are going to,
for sifting through the things we have done
and the things we have left undone for a clue to who we are and who,
for better or worse, we are becoming.

We cling to the present out of wariness of the past.
But there is a deeper need yet, I think, and that is the need
—not all the time, surely, but from time to time—
to enter that still room within us all
where the past lives on as a part of the present,
where the dead are alive again,
where we are most alive ourselves to turnings
and to where our journeys have brought us.

The name of the room is Remember—
the room where with patience, with charity, with quietness of heart,
we remember consciously to remember the lives we have lived.
~Frederick Buechner

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In 1959, when I was five years old, my father left his high school agriculture teaching position for a new supervisor position with the state. Our family moved from a large 3 story farm house in a rural community to a 1950’s newer rambler style home just outside the city limits of the state capitol.  It was a big adjustment to move to a much smaller house without a basement or upper story, no garage, and no large haybarn nor chicken coop.  It meant most things we owned didn’t make the move with us.

The rambler had two side by side mirror image rooms as the primary central living space between the kitchen on one side and the hallway to the bedrooms on the other.  The living room could only be entered through the front door and the family room was accessed through the back door with a shared sandstone hearth in the center, containing a fireplace in each room.  The only opening between the rooms had a folding door shut most of the year.  In December, the door was opened to accommodate a Christmas tree, so it sat partially in the living room and depending on its generous width, spilled over into the family room.  That way it was visible from both rooms, and didn’t take up too much floor space.

The living room, because it contained the only carpeting in the house, and our “best” furniture,  was strictly off-limits. In order to keep our two matching sectional knobby gray fabric sofas,  a green upholstered chair and gold crushed velvet covered love seat in pristine condition, the room was to be avoided unless we had company. The carpet was never to develop a traffic pattern, there would be no food, beverage, or pet ever allowed in that room, and the front door was not to be used unless a visitor arrived.  The hearth never saw a fire lit on that side because of the potential of messy ashes or smoke smell. This was not a room for laughter, arguments or games and certainly not for toys. The chiming clock next to the hearth, wound with weighted cones on the end of chains, called out the hours without an audience.

One week before Christmas, a tree was chosen to fit in the space where it could overflow into the family room.  I particularly enjoyed decorating the “family room” side of the tree, using all my favorite ornaments that were less likely to break if they fell on the linoleum floor on that side of the door.

It was as if the Christmas tree became divided, with a “formal” side in the living room and a “real life” face on the other side where the living (and hurting) was actually taking place.

The tree straddled more than just two rooms.  Every year that tree’s branches reached out to shelter a family that was slowly, almost imperceptibly, falling apart, like the fir needles dropping to the floor to be swept away.

Each year since, the Christmas tree bearing those old ornaments from my childhood reminds me of a still room of memories within me.  I am no longer wary of the past, and when I sweep up the fir needles that inevitably drop, I no longer weep.

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Preparing the Heart: From Creche to Cross

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Detail from “Descent from the Cross” by Rogier van der Weyden

The whole of Christ’s life was a continual passion;
others die martyrs, but Christ was born a martyr.
He found a Golgotha, where he was crucified,
even in Bethlehem, where he was born;
for to his tenderness then the straws were almost as sharp as the thorns after,
and the manger as uneasy at first as the cross at last.
His birth and his death were but one continual act,
and his Christmas Day and his Good Friday are but
the evening and the morning of one and the same day.
From the creche to the cross is an inseparable line.
Christmas only points forward to Good Friday and Easter.
It can have no meaning apart from that,
where the Son of God displayed his glory by his death.

~John Donne –opening words in his sermon on Christmas Day 1626

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It is easy to hear of a baby in a wooden manger laid there by overwhelmed first-time parents far from home, surrounded by soft-eyed farm animals and adoring raggedy shepherds who reported hearing glorious singing angels.

It is not at all easy to hear of the slaughter of innocent children by a paranoid king in response to that baby, knowing in our hearts and feeling in our guts the desperation of the wailing grieving mothers.

It is much harder to fathom this baby, three decades later, as a grown man, flogged and bleeding, hanging from a wooden cross surrounded by mocking soldiers, his weeping mother and friends, and two crucified criminals.  This is much much more than we bargained for — this from a baby asleep in the hay.

Instead of the heavenly host declaring his glory, he himself spoke words of forgiveness and grace with his last breaths, making clear his death, as well as his birth, was no mistake, but one continual act of God’s glorious salvage of his children.

He makes clear a willingness to wear our skin and walk in our sandals, in order to die in our place.   Our own birth and our death are no mistakes either.

He claims us; we shall know his voice when he calls our name.

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