The Way the Wind Blows

Snow is falling today and more wind is forecast tomorrow.

It is a cold wind, whether coming from the north, chilling our bones as various weather fronts meet and clash overhead and we feel dumped on.

Another cold wind of reality is blowing through America right now as well, and not just on our farm.

There is considerable turmoil as Americans struggle with the increased need to “pay as you go” rather than “borrow for what you desire”.  The debt load for young adults is climbing, especially student loans and mortgages. Fewer older people have any significant savings for retirement.

Our parents were Great-Depression era children, so my husband and I heard plenty of stories convincing us never to reach beyond our means.  My grandmother moved her three young children 20 miles away from home in order to cook morning, noon and night in a large boarding house, grateful for the work that allowed her to feed her family. It also meant separation from their jobless, depressed and often intoxicated father for weeks at a time.  She told stories of making sandwiches to feed hobos who knocked on the kitchen door, hoping for a hand out, and after sitting briefly on the back steps eating what she could offer from left over scraps, they would be on their way again, walking on down the muddy road, hoping somewhere farther along there may be another handout or perhaps a day’s work.   Even in her time of trouble, my grandmother could find blessing in the fact she and her children had a roof over their heads, beds to sleep in (all in one room) and food to fill their stomachs.  There were always people worse off and she wasn’t one of them.

My grandmother never lived comfortably, by her own choice, after that experience.  She could never trust that tomorrow things would be as plentiful as today, so she rarely rested, never borrowed, always saved even the tiniest scrap of food, of cloth, of wood, as it could always prove useful someday.   My father learned from those uncertain days of his childhood and never borrowed to buy a car or a piece of furniture or an appliance.   It had to be cash, or it was simply not his to purchase, so he never coveted what he did not have money to buy outright.

So we, the next generation, were raised that way.  Even so, borrowing began with loans for college but still working three jobs while maintaining good grades.  But then there was borrowing for that first care and to buy a house. 

But with grandma’s and dad’s stories fresh in our minds, we knew we couldn’t start that slippery slope of borrowing to take vacations or buy  the latest and greatest stuff or build the bigger house.   So we didn’t.

We have lived simply, driving our vehicles past 200,000 miles, continuing to harvest and preserve from the garden, using our appliances past the 25 year mark. And we’ve been content and happy.

Happiness isn’t stuff.  It isn’t big houses.  It isn’t brand new cars or the latest gadgets.

It’s being under the same roof as a family, striving together and loving each other.  It is taking care of friends when they need help.  It is reaching out to the stranger in our midst who has less than we have.

The wind is pointing us back to the values we had long forgotten as we got much too comfortable.   It takes a storm to find that true contentment can rest only within our hearts.

No Longer Lonely

…horses
whose bellies are grain-filled,
whose long-ribbed loneliness
can be scratched into no-longer-lonely.

~Jane Hirshfield from The Love of Aged Horses

(originally written ~20 years ago)

Settling down into the straw, I am grateful for this quiet moment after a 12 hour workday followed by all the requisite personal conversations that help mop up the spills and splatters of every day life. My family has verbally unloaded their day like so much stored up laundry needing to be washed and rinsed with the spin cycle completed before tomorrow dawns. I moved from child to child to child to husband to grandmother, hoping to help each one clean, dry, fold and sort everything in their pile. Not to be outdone, I piled up a little dirty laundry of my own as I complain about my day.

By that time I’m on “spent” cycle myself and seeking a little “alone” time.  I retreat to the barn where verbal communication isn’t necessary. Instead, I need to just sit quietly, watching what happens around me. 

A new foal and his vigilant mama watch my every move.

This colt is intrigued by my intrusion into his 12′ x 24′ world. His mother is annoyed. He comes over to sniff my foot and his mother swiftly moves him away with a quick swing of her hips, daunting me with the closeness of her heels. Her first instinct insists she separate me from him and bar my access. My mandate is to woo her over. I could bribe her with food and sweet talk, but, no, that is too easy.

A curry comb is best. If nothing else will work, a good scratching always does. Standing up, I start peeling sheets of no longer needed winter hair off her neck,  her sides, her flank and hindquarter.  She relaxes in response to my efforts,  giving her baby a body rub with her muzzle, wiggling her lips all up and down from his back to his tummy. He is delighted with this spontaneous mommy massage and leans into her, moving around so his hind end is under her mouth and his front end is facing me. Then he starts giving his own version of a massage too, wiggling his muzzle over my coat sleeve and wondrously closing this little therapeutic triangle, all of us “scratched into no-longer-lonely.”

Here we are, a tight little knot of givers/receivers with horse hair flying in a cloud about us. One weary human, one protective mama mare and one day-old foal, who is learning so young how to contribute to the well being of others. It is an incredible gift of trust they bestow on me like a blessing.  I realize this horse family is helping me sort my own laundry in the same way I had helped with my human family’s load.

Too often in life we confine our lonely selves in painful triangles, passing our kicks and bites down the line to each other rather than providing nurture and respite. We find ourselves unable to wrench free from continuing to deliver the hurts we’ve just received.  What strength it takes to respond with kindness when the kick has just landed on our backside. How chastened we feel when a kindness is directed at us, as undeserving as we are after having bitten someone hard.

Instead of biting, try a gentle scratching.  Instead of kicking, try tickling. Instead of fear, try acceptance.  Instead of annoyance, try patience. Instead of piling up so much laundry of your own, try washing, folding and sorting what is dumped on you by others, handing it back all ready for the next day.

Just settle into the straw to watch and wait – amazing things will happen.

The Secret of Who I Am

You never know what may cause them. The sight of the ocean can do it, or a piece of music, or a face you’ve never seen before. A pair of somebody’s old shoes can do it. Almost any movie made before the great sadness that came over the world after the Second World War, a horse cantering across a meadow…

You can never be sure. But of this you can be sure. Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention.  They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go next.
~Frederick Buechner from
 Whistling in the Dark

photo by Emily Vander Haak

I’m not paying close enough attention to the meaning of my leaking eyes if I’m constantly looking for kleenex to stem the flow.  During the holidays it seems I have more than ample opportunity to find out the secret of who I am, where I have come from and where I am to be next.

So I keep my pockets loaded with kleenex.

It mostly has to do with welcoming family members back home for the holidays to become a full-out noisy messy chaotic household again, with puzzles and games and music and laughter and laundry and meal preparation.  It is about singing grace together before a meal in five-part harmony and choking on precious words of gratitude.  It is about remembering the drama of our youngest’s birthday twenty six years ago today, when she was saved by a snowstorm.

It certainly has to do with bidding farewell again as we will this weekend, gathering them all in for that final hug and then letting go.

We urge and encourage them to go where their hearts are telling them they are needed and called to be, even if that means thousands of miles away from their one-time home on the farm.

I too was let go once and though I would try to look back, too often in tears, I set my face toward the future.  It led me here, to this marriage, this family, this farm, this work, our church, to more tears, to more letting go if I’m granted more years to weep again and again with gusto and grace.

This is the secret of me: to love so much and so deeply that letting go is so hard that tears are no longer unexpected or a mystery to me or my children and grandchildren.   They are the spill-over of fullness that can no longer be contained: God’s still small voice spills down my cheeks drop by drop like wax from a burning candle.

No kleenex are needed with these tears.

Let them flow as I let them go.

God’s Gardener

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Grandma Kittie grew flowers–lots of them.  Her garden stretched along both sides of the sidewalk to her old two story farm house, in window boxes and beds around the perimeter, in little islands scattered about the yard anchored by a tree, or a piece of driftwood, a gold fish pond or a large rock.  Wisteria hung like a thick curtain of purple braids from the roof of her chicken coop, and her greenhouse, far bigger than her home, smelled moist and mossy with hanging fuschia baskets.  For her it was full time joy disguised as a job: she sold seedlings, and ready-to-display baskets, and fresh flower arrangements.  She often said she was sure heaven would be full of flowers needing tending, and she was just practicing for the day when she could make herself useful as a gardener for God.

Visiting Grandma was often an overnight stay, and summer evenings in her yard were heavy with wafting flower perfume.  One of her favorite flowers–indeed it was so hardy and independent it really could be considered a weed–was the evening primrose.  It was one of a few night blooming plants meant to attract pollinating moths.   Its tall stems were adorned by lance shaped leaves, with multiple buds and blooms per stem.  Each evening, and it was possible to set one’s watch by its punctuality, only one green wrapped bud per stem would open, revealing a bright yellow blossom with four delicate veined petals, a rosette of stamens and a cross-shaped stigma in the center, rising far above the blossom.  The yellow was so vivid and lively, it seemed almost like a drop of sun had been left on earth to light the night.  By morning, the bloom would begin to wither and wilt under the real sunlight, somehow overcome with the brightness, and would blush a pinkish orange as it folded upon itself, ready to die and drop from the plant in only a day or two, leaving a bulging seed pod behind.

I would settle down on the damp lawn at twilight, usually right before dusk fell, to watch the choreography of opening of blossoms on stem after stem of evening primrose.  Whatever the trigger was for the process of unfolding, there would be a sudden loosening of the protective green calyces, in an almost audible release.  Then over the course of about a minute, the overlapping yellow petals would unfurl, slowly, gently, purposefully, revealing their pollen treasure trove inside.   It was like watching time lapse cinematography, only this was an accelerated, real time flourish of beauty, happening right before my eyes.  I always felt privileged to witness each unveiling as Grandma liked to remind me that few flowers ever allowed us to behold their birthing process.  The evening primrose was not at all shy about sharing itself and it would enhance the show with a sweet lingering fragrance.

Grandma knew how much I enjoyed the evening primrose display, so she saved seeds from the seed pods for me, and helped me plant them at our house during one of her spring time visits.   I remember scattering the seeds with her in a specially chosen spot, in anticipation of the “drops of sun” that would grace our yard come summertime.  However, Grandma was more tired than usual on this particular visit, taking naps and not as eager to go for walks or eat the special meals cooked in honor of her visit.  Her usually resonant laughing brown eyes appeared dull, almost muddy.

The day she was to return home she came into the kitchen at breakfast time, wearily setting down her packed bags.  She gave me a hug and I looked at her, suddenly understanding what I had feared to believe.  Something was dreadfully wrong.  Grandma’s eyes were turning yellow.

Instead of returning home that day, she went to the hospital.  Within a day, she had surgery and within two days, was told she had terminal pancreatic cancer.  She did not last long, her skin becoming more jaundiced by the day, her eyes more icteric and far away.  She soon left her earthly gardens to cultivate those in heaven.

I’ve kept evening primrose in my garden ever since.  Grandma is inside each bloom as it unfolds precipitously in the evening, she wafts across the yard in its perfume.  Her spirit is a drop of sun coming to rest,  luminous,  for a brief stay upon the earth, only to die before we’re ready to let it go.  But as the wilted bloom lets go,  the seeds have already begun to form.

Grandma will grow flowers again–lots of them.

 

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The Tenderness of Mortals

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How joyful to be together, alone
as when we first were joined
in our little house by the river
long ago, except that now we know

each other, as we did not then;
and now instead of two stories fumbling
to meet, we belong to one story
that the two, joining, made. And now

we touch each other with the tenderness
of mortals, who know themselves:
how joyful to feel the heart quake

at the sight of a grandmother,
old friend in the morning light,
beautiful in her blue robe!
~Wendell Berry “The Blue Robe” from  New Collected Poems

 

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We have been grandparents for over 17 months, mostly from a great distance of thousands of miles, but today I get to actually hold this growing and precious grandchild in my arms on my 64th birthday.

During these many years, to love and be loved as a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a wife, a mother, and now a grandmother with whitening hair, is the greatest privilege and blessing of my life.

And to think, this tenderness these two new grandparents feel in our nearly four decades together,  this loving as a grandmother in a blue robe, is the most wonderful gift of all.

 

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Not long ago on winter mornings
Waking dark to part
From your warm side,
Leaving behind my soft imprint,
I wrap up in my blue robe
To walk the gravel drive
For the newspaper

Our hilltop farm
Lies silent amid fallow fields
Moon shadows
Broad across my path
Star sparks overhead
Tree lined yard shields
The house from road.

In ink of early morning
I walk noiseless;
Step out to the mailbox
Then turn~ startled~
A flashlight
Approaching on the road-
An early walker and his dog
Illuminate me in dawn disarray
Like a deer in headlights:
My ruffled hair,  my sleep lined face
Vulnerability suddenly
Uncovered in the darkness;
Exposed.

Now this birthday summer morning
Wakes me early to streaming light
Poured out on quilt and blankets.
I part from your warmth again
Readied for ritual walk.
Dew sparkling below
Rich foliage above
Road stretches empty
For miles east and west

Crossing to the mailbox
I reach for the paper
Suddenly surrounded by
A bovine audience
Appreciative and nodding
Riveted by my bold approach
In broad daylight.
Yet abruptly scatter, tails in the air
When in rumpled robe and woolen slippers
I dance and twirl
In a hilltop celebration
Of ordinary life and extraordinary love
Exposed.

 

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The Presence of Stillness

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When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the green heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
~Wendell Berry “The Peace of Wild Things” from The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry

 

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When our young grandchild visits
and I watch her discover
the joys and sorrows of this world,
I remember there is light beyond the darkness we feel,
there is peace amid the chaos,
there is a smile behind the tears,
there is stillness within the noisiness,
there is grace as old gives way to new.

 

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Dust Made Manifest

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Nobody in the hospital
Could tell the age 
Of the old woman who
Was called Susanna

Because she had no visitors
I would stop by to see her
But she was always sleeping

One day I was beside her
When she woke up
Opening small dark eyes
Of a surprising clearness

She looked at me and said
You want to know the truth?
I answered Yes

She said it’s something that 
My mother told me

There’s not a single inch
Of our whole body
That the Lord does not love

She then went back to sleep.
~Anne Porter  from “Susanna”

 

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Mom meeting great grandson Noah a few days before she died

 

We tend to forget who made us,
including our funny looking feet, our anxieties,
the crooked teeth, the wrinkles, the scars, the split ends —

We see only imperfection
when our Creator sees dust made manifest
in His image.

He loves us even when we do not love ourselves,
as we hide our nakedness.

He loves us even when we cover up with gloss
of polish, perms, plucking and plastic surgery,
hiding beneath our cosmetic masks.

He loves every inch
because we are His opus, a masterpiece.

He knew exactly what He was doing.

 

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photo by Lea Gibson

 

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photo by Andrea Nipges