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.

Everyday Life

If your everyday life seems poor to you,
do not accuse it;
accuse yourself,
tell yourself you are not poet enough to summon up its riches;
since for the creator
there is no poverty and no poor or unimportant place.
― Rainer Maria Rilke

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.
~Mary Oliver

As a child, I would sometimes spend long rainy afternoons languishing on the couch, complaining to my mother how boring life was. 

Her typical response was to remind me my boredom said more about me than about life– I became the accused, rather than the accuser,  failing to summon up life’s riches. 

Thus convicted, my sentence followed:  she would promptly give me chores to do.   I learned not to voice my complaints about how boring life seemed, because it always meant work.

Some things haven’t changed, even fifty-some years later.  Whenever I am tempted to feel frustrated or pitiful or bored, accusing my life of being poor or unfair, I need to remember what that says about me.  If I’m not poet enough to recognize the Creator’s brilliance in every slant of light or every molecule, then it is my poverty I’m accusing, not His.

So – back to the work of paying attention and being astonished.  There is a life to be lived and almost always something to say about it.

So Pressed for Time

Now a decade after her death, I’m still slowly sorting through my mother’s packed up possessions stored in one of our farm outbuildings. Some boxes I am not ready to open, such as the 30 months of letters written by my newlywed father and mother while he fought in several bloody island battles as a Marine in the South Pacific during WWII. Other boxes contain items from too distant an era to be practical in my kitchen, such as the ones labeled “decorative teacups” or “assorted tupperware bowls without lids”.

But I do open the boxes of books. My mother was a high school speech teacher during those war years, and she had a good sense of a classic book, so there are always treasures in those boxes.

Recently I found the 1956 Webster’s New Dictionary of the Twentieth Century that I grew up with. This book was massive, easily weighing 10 pounds, and served as a booster seat for haircuts, a step stool for trying to reach the cookie jar on the kitchen cupboard, and of course, for looking up any obscure word that ever existed in all of history. Or so it seemed.

It was an amazing tome. And as I flipped through the pages, I found some old familiar friends that were neither black nor white nor read all over.

Wildflowers had been carefully pressed between the pages–over two dozen specimens paper thin themselves, their existence squeezed into two dimensions–still showing faint pink or blue, or purple color, almost exuding a long ago fragrance from a summer over fifty years ago. As a child I regularly wandered out to our fields and woods to gather crimson clover blossoms, buttercup, dandelions, daisies, wild violets, wild ginger, calypso lady slippers for bouquets for my mother, and she would select the most perfect to slide between the pages of the dictionary. Occasionally she would pull out one to gently paste on a hand written card she sent to a friend.

Here were my perfect flowers, preserved and pressed for time, just waiting for the fifty-five-years-older me to rediscover them lying between wonderful words that I love to roll in my mouth and type on a page. They are too fragile to paste to a greeting card, or even to handle due to their brittleness. They need to stay right where they are, for another generation or two or three to discover.

I am so pressed for time, becoming more fragile, perhaps more brittle than I care to admit. My mother and father have blown away like the puff ball seeds of the dandelion, on to other horizons, but the sturdy old dictionary is going nowhere. It will be passed down, its delicate passengers preserved inside, a long ago far away summer afternoon of flower gathering to be shared as a great grandchild opens the book to look up a favorite word sometime in the not so far off future.

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.

Smells That Speak

October

 

 

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

 

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I’m not a practitioner of the ancient art of aromatherapy for medicinal purposes but I do know certain smells 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, tastes, feels everything just as it was before.

The most vivid are kitchen smells, to be sure.  Cinnamon becomes my Grandma’s farm kitchen full of rising breakfast rolls, roasting turkey is my mother’s chaotic kitchen on Thanksgiving Day, fresh baked bread is my own kitchen during those years I needed to knead as therapy during medical training.

Sometimes I have the privilege of holding 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, mint, lemon verbena and lemon blossom take me back to lazy breezes wafting through open bedroom windows in my childhood home.  And of course the richness of petrichor: the fragrance of the earth after a long awaited rain will remind me of how things smell after a dry spell.

I doubt any aromatherapy kit available includes my most favorite 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 and remind me of all I’m grateful for.  It’ll take me back to a day just like today when I cooked in the kitchen, held a friend’s sweet infant, moved hay to the horses and cleaned the barn:

I’ll breathe deeply of the smells that speak to me with no uncertain voice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Half a Lifetime Ago

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On Halloween day in 1985, I packed up my clothes, a roll up mattress,  grabbed one lonely pumpkin from our small garden, locked our rental house door for the last time, climbed in my car to head north out of Seattle. I don’t recall looking back in the rear view mirror at the skyline after nine years living in the city. My husband had moved to Whatcom County two months earlier to start his new job. I had stayed behind to wrap up my Group Health family practice in the Rainier Valley of Seattle. I was leaving the city for a new rural home and a very uncertain professional future.

I knew two things for sure: I was finally several months pregnant after a miscarriage and two years of infertility, so our family was on its way, and we were going to actually live in our own house, not just a rental, complete with a few acres and a barn. A real (sort of) starter farm. Since no farm can be complete without animals, I stopped at the first pet store I drove past and found two tortoise shell calico kitten sisters peering up at me,  just waiting for new adventures in farmland. Their box was packed into the one spot left beside me in my little Mazda. With that simple commitment to raise and nurture those kittens, life seemed very complete.

I will never forget the freedom I felt on that drive north. The highway seemed more open, the fall colors more vibrant, the wind more brisk, our baby happily kicking my belly, the kittens plaintively mewing from their box. There seemed to be so much potential even though I had just left behind the greatest job that could be found in any urban setting (the most diverse zip code in the United States): an ideal family practice with patients from all over the world: Muslims from the Middle East and Indonesia, Orthodox Jews, Italian Catholics, African Americans, Cambodians, Laotians, Vietnamese. I would never know so much variety of background and perspective again and if I could have packed them all into the Mazda and driven them north with me, I would have.

We started our farm with those kittens dubbed Nutmeg and Oregano, soon adding an ethnic diversity of farm animals:  Belgian Tervuren dog Tango, Haflinger horse Greta, Toggenburg goats Tamsen and her kids, a few Toulouse geese, Araucana chickens, Fiona the Scottish Highland cow, then another Haflinger Hans and another, Tamara. I worked as a fill in locums doctor in four different clinics before our first baby, Nate, was born. Again, we had new commitments and life felt complete– but not for long, as we soon added little brother Ben and seven years later,  sister Lea. Then it really was complete. Or so I thought.

Thirty three years later our children have long ago grown and gone to new homes of their own, off to their own adventures beyond the farm.  Our sons married wonderful women, our daughter is in her third year of teaching fourth grade a few hours away and we have a granddaughter growing up in Tokyo.

A few cats, two Cardigan Corgi dogs, and a hand full of ponies remain at the farm with us. We are now both gray and move a bit more slowly, enjoy our naps and the quiet of the nights and weekends.  My work has evolved from four small jobs to two decades of two part time jobs to one more than full time job that fits me like a well worn sweater 24 hours a day.

My husband is happily retired now,  volunteering, serving on boards and being a full time farmer on our larger 20 acre place of fields and woods.  Retirement looms closer for me:  I have never not worked outside the home and don’t know how I can stop when the need in health care is greater than ever.

There was freedom that rainy Halloween day over three decades ago as Seattle disappeared in the rear view mirror. I would no longer sat captive in freeway rush hour bumper to bumper traffic jams.  I celebrate my daily commute through farm fields, watching eagles fly, and new calves licked by their mamas. I am part of a community in a way I never could manage in the city, stopping to visit with friends at the grocery store, playing piano and teaching at church and serving on various community boards. Our home sits in the midst of woods and corn fields, with deer strolling through the fields at dawn, coyotes howling at night, Canadian geese and trumpeter swans calling from overhead and salmon becoming more prolific every year in nearby streams. The snowy Cascades greet us in the morning and the sunset over Puget Sound bids us good night.

It all started October 31, 1985 with two orange and black kittens and a pumpkin sitting beside me in a little Mazda, my husband waiting for my homecoming 100 miles north. Now, thirty three years and three grown children and one granddaughter later, we celebrate this Halloween transition anniversary together, still pregnant with the possibility that life is never truly complete when there is always a new day just around the corner.

 

 

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October

The Path of Life

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Our last five minutes on earth are running out.

We can spend those minutes in meanness, exclusivity,
and self-righteous disparagement of those who are different from us,
or we can spend them consciously embracing every glowing soul
who wanders within our reach – those who, without our caring,
would find the vibrant, exhilarating path of life just another sad and forsaken road.
~Alice Walker from Anything We Love Can Be Saved

 

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During these summer weeks of orientation of new college students and their parents, I speak to several thousand people, all looking nervous in unfamiliar territory among strangers.

They are about to embark on a road that rises to meet them and leads them to parts unknown.

I try to say, as I shake each hand, and give out my card with my personal phone number:
this too will be okay.  This too will bless you.  Even when there are potholes, uneven surfaces and times when you want to turn back to more familiar territory, you will find the road to your next destination fulfilling and welcoming.

Embrace the journey…and each other.

And I embrace you.

(Thanks Ann Voskamp for sharing your message to your college-bound son here)

 

 

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