For So It Has Been

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely.  Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.
Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.
The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,—
They are gone.  They are gone to feed the roses.  Elegant and curled
Is the blossom.  Fragrant is the blossom.  I know.  But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.
Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know.  But I do not approve.  And I am not resigned.
~Edna St. Vincent Millay “Dirge Without Music”
Each Memorial Day weekend without fail,
we gather with family, have lunch, reminisce,
and trek to the cemetery high above Puget Sound
to catch up with our relatives who lie there still,
some we knew and loved and miss,
others not so much, unknown to us
except on genealogy charts,
their names and dates and these stones
all that is left of them.
Yet we know each, as we know ourselves and others,
was tender and kind, though flawed and broken,
was beautiful and strong, though wrinkled and frail,
was hopeful and faithful, though too soon in the ground.

We know this about them
as we know it about ourselves:
someday we too will feed roses,
the light in our eyes
become elegant swirls with fragrant breath of heaven.
No one asks if we approve of this, nor should they;
So it is, so it will be, for so it has been.


Fenced Off


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.

Headed Home


He wasn’t just any drunk.  He was a mean drunk.  Surly, cursing, prone to throwing things and people, especially at home.

My grandmother used to say he learned to drink in the logging camps and I suspect that is true.  He started working as a logger before he was fully grown, dropping out of school, leaving home around age sixteen and heading up to the hills where real money could be made.  He learned more than how to cut down huge old growth Douglas Fir trees, skid them down the hills using a team of horses, and then roll them onto waiting wagons to be hauled to the mills.  He learned how to live with a group of men who surfaced once or twice a month from the hills to take a bath and maybe go to church with their womenfolk. Mostly he learned how to curse and drink.

He headed home to the  farm with muscles and attitude a few years later, and started the process of felling trees there, creating a “stump farm” that was a challenge to work because huge stumps dotted the fields and hills.  He slowly worked at blasting them out of the ground so the land could be tilled.  It proved more than he had strength and motivation to do, so his fields were never very fruitful, mostly growing hay for his own animals.  He went to work in the local saw mill to make ends meet.

He cleaned up some when he met my grandmother, who at eighteen was twelve years younger, and eager to escape her role as chief cook and bottle washer for her widowed father and younger brother.   She was devout, lively and full of energy and talked constantly while he, especially when sober, preferred to let others do the talking.  It was an unusual match but he liked her cooking and she was ready to escape the drudgery of her father’s household and be wooed.

They settled on the stump farm and began raising a family, trying to eke out what living they could from the land, from the sporadic work he found at the saw mill, and every Sunday, took the wagon a mile down the road to the Summit Park Bible Church where they both sang with gusto.

He still drank when he had the money, blowing his pay in the local tavern, and stumbling in the back door roaring and burping, falling into bed with his shoes on.  Grandma was a teetotaler and yelled into his ruddy face about the wrath of God anytime he drank, their four children hiding when the dishes started to fly, and when he would whip off his belt to hit anyone who looked sideways at him.

When their eldest daughter took sick and died quickly of lymphoma at age eight despite the little doctoring that was available, Grandpa got sober for awhile.  He saw it as punishment from God, or at least that is what Grandma told him through her sobs as she struggled to cope with her loss.

Over the years, he relapsed many times, losing fingers in his work at the mill, and losing the respect of his wife, his children and the people in the community.  Grandma left with the kids for several months to cook in a boarding house in a neighboring town, simply to be able to feed her family while Grandpa squandered what he had on drink.   Reconciled over and over again, Grandma would come back to him, sending their growing son to fetch him from the tavern for the night.  My Dad would bicycle to that dark and smoky place,  stand Grandpa up and guide him staggering out to their truck for the weaving drive home on country roads.  On more than one occasion, Grandpa, belligerent as ever, would resist leaving and throw a punch at his boy, usually missing by a mile.

But once the boy grew taller and strong enough to fight back, managing to knock Grandpa to the ground in self-defense, the punching and resistance stopped.   The boozing didn’t.

Grandpa sobered up for good while his boy fought in the war overseas, striking a bargain with God that his boy would come home safe as long as Grandpa left alcohol alone.  It stuck and he stayed sober.  His boy came home.  Grandpa saw it as a promise kept and became an elder in his Bible Church, taught Sunday School and gave his extra cash to the church rather than the tavern.

Sitting in a Christmas Sunday School program one Christmas Eve, Grandpa leaned toward Grandma and she noticed his face broken out in sweat, his face ashen.

“It’s hot in here, “ he said and collapsed in her lap.    He was gone, just like that, and he left the rest of his family behind while sitting in church, sober as can be,  on the day before Christmas.

Finally everlastingly forgiven, he headed one more time, not weaving or swerving but on the straight and narrow,  home.

Warm Milk of Light

portrait of Dan's mom, Emma Gibson, praying,  by granddaughter Sara Lenssen

portrait of Emma Gibson, Dan’s mom in her later years, photo taken by granddaughter Sara Lenssen

I sit with braided fingers   
and closed eyes
in a span of late sunlight.   
The spokes are closing.
It is fall: warm milk of light,   
though from an aging breast.   
I do not mean to pray.   
The posture for thanks or   
supplication is the same   
as for weariness or relief.   
But I am glad for the luck   
of light. Surely it is godly,   
that it makes all things
begin, and appear, and become   
actual to each other.
Light that’s sucked into   
the eye, warming the brain   
with wires of color.
Light that hatched life
out of the cold egg of earth.
~May Swenson from “October”

A Presence of Absence

photo by Gary Jarvis of Dutch Reformed Cemetery

“The sunlight now lay over the valley perfectly still. I went over to the graveyard beside the church and found them under the old cedars… I am finding it a little hard to say that I felt them resting there, but I did… I saw that, for me, this country would always be populated with presences and absences, presences of absences, the living and the dead. The world as it is would always be a reminder of the world that was, and of the world that is to come.”
Wendell Berry in Jayber Crow

Today, as always over the last weekend of May, we have a family reunion where most turn up missing.  A handful of the living come together for lunch and then a slew of the no-longer-living, some of whom have been caught napping for a century or more, are no-shows.

It is always on this day of cemetery visiting that I feel keenly the presence of their absence: the great greats I never knew, a great aunt who kept so many secrets, an alcoholic grandfather I barely remember, my grandmother whose inherent messiness I inherited, my parents who separated for ten years late in life, yet reunited long enough for their ashes to rest together for eternity.

It is good, as one of the still-for-now living, to approach these plots of grass with a wary weariness of the aging.  But for the grace of God, there will I be sooner than I wish to be.  There, thanks to the grace of God, will I one day be an absent presence for my children and hoped-for grandchildren to ponder.

The world as it is remembers the world that was.  The world to come calls us home in its time, where we all will be present and accounted for — our reunion celebration.

All in good time.


photo by Josh Scholten

photo by Josh Scholten

What is there beyond knowing that keeps
calling to me?  I can’t
turn in any direction
but it’s there.  I don’t mean
the leaves’ grip and shine or even the thrush’s
silk song, but the far-off
fires, for example,
of the stars, heaven’s slowly turning
theater of light, or the wind
playful with its breath;
or time that’s always rushing forward,
or standing still
in the same — what shall I say —
What I know
I could put into a pack
as if it were bread and cheese, and carry it
on one shoulder,
important and honorable, but so small!
While everything else continues, unexplained
and unexplainable.
….mostly I just stand in the dark field,
in the middle of the world, breathing in and out…
 ~Mary Oliver from “What is there beyond knowing”

Yesterday, we packed up the remnants of our sons’ childhood, boxing up their bedrooms to put away their school notebooks and artwork in garage storage next to the boxes containing their departed grandparents’ lives.  The bedrooms are now pristine and less chaotic, ready for overnight visitors from faraway lands, but I lay awake troubled and tossing in the winds of my life’s changing.  

What I know will be packed up in a box someday by my children, a simple portable box to be tucked away and reopened by some future generation who will puzzle over why this or that was saved.  While time rushes forward, it is disorienting as everything else is unexplainable.

I can only stand and wait, breathless yet breathing, to know what is there beyond knowing.  

It will come, I know.  It is calling.

The Smell of Buttered Toast

Great Harvest Bread Company Chocolate Babka

“The smell of that buttered toast simply spoke to Toad, and with no uncertain voice; talked of warm kitchens, of breakfasts on bright frosty mornings, of cozy parlour firesides on winter evenings, when one’s ramble was over and slippered feet were propped on the fender; of the purring of contented cats, and the twitter of sleepy canaries.”
~Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

I’m not a practitioner of the ancient art of aromatherapy for medicinal purposes but I do know certain smells can transport me more effectively than any other mode of travel.  One whiff of a familiar scent can take me back years to another decade and place, almost in time traveling mode.  I am so in the moment, both present and past, my brain sees, hears, feels everything as it was before.

The most vivid are kitchen smells, to be sure.  Cinnamon becomes my Grandma’s farm kitchen, roasting turkey is my mother’s kitchen on Thanksgiving Day, fresh baked bread is my own kitchen during the years I needed to knead as therapy during medical training. Today it is the warmth of a slice of chocolate babka bread for breakfast.

Occasionally I have the privilege of babysitting infants whose skin smells of baby shampoo and powder, so like the soft velvet of my own childrens’.   The newly born wet fur of my foals carries the sweet and sour amnion that was part of every birth I’ve been part of: delivering others and delivering my own.  My heart races at the memory of the drama of those first breaths.

The garden yields its own treasure: tea roses, sweet peas, heliotrope, lemon blossom take me back to lazy breezes past blossoms planted along the house, wafting through open bedroom windows.  The fragrance of the earth after a long awaited rain will remind me of how things smell outside this morning.

I doubt any aromatherapy kit would include my most favorite–the farm smells: newly mown hay, fresh fir shavings for stall bedding,  the mustiness of the manure pile, the green sweetness of a horses’ breath.

Someday I’ll figure out how to bottle all these up to keep forever.   Years from now my rambles will be over, when I’m too feeble to walk to the barn or be part of the hay harvest crew any longer,  I can sit by my fireplace, close my eyes, open it up and take a whiff now and then.  It’ll take me back to a day like today with the best smells on earth in my own backyard.

They will simply speak to me with no uncertain voice.

Jose, lord of the manor and farm