Fifty Years Ago Today


Prankster getting my brother’s attention


For the past fifty years, this date especially stands out on my calendar. Whenever November 27 comes around, I think back to a skinny freckled eleven year old girl who wanted nothing more than to have her own horse. Every inch of my bedroom wall had posters of horses, all my shelves were filled with horse books and horse figurines and my bed was piled with stuffed horses. I suffered an extremely serious case of horse fever.

I had learned to ride my big sister’s horse while my sister was off to college, but the little mare had pushed down a hot wire to get into a field of spring oats which resulted in a terrible case of colic and had to be put down. I was inconsolable until I set my mind to buy another horse.   We had only a small shed, not a real barn, and no actual fences other than the electric hot wire.  Though I was earning money as best I could picking berries and babysitting, I was a long way away from the $150 it would take to buy a trained horse back in 1965. So I dreamed my horsey dreams, mostly about golden horses with long white manes, hoping one day those dreams might come true.

In fall 1965, the  local radio station KGY’s Saturday morning horse news program announced their “Win a Horse” contest.  I knew I had to try. The prize was a weanling bay colt, part Appaloosa, part Thoroughbred, and the contest was only open to youth ages 9 to 16 years old. All I had to do was write a 250 word or less essay on “Why I Should Have a Horse”. I worked and worked on my essay, crafting the right words and putting all my heart into it, hoping the judges would see me as a worthy potential owner. My parents took me to visit the five month old colt named “Prankster”, a fuzzy engaging little fellow who was getting plenty of attention from all the children coming to visit him, and that visit made me even more determined. When I read these words now, I realize there is nothing quite like the passion of an eleven year old girl:

“Why I Should Have a Horse”

When God created the horse, He made one of the best creatures in the world.  Horses are a part of me.  I love them and want to win Prankster for the reasons which follow:

To begin with, I’m young enough to have the time to spend with the colt.  My older sister had a horse when she was in high school and her school activities kept her too busy to really enjoy the horse.  I’ll have time to give Prankster the love and training needed.

Another reason is that I’m shy.  When I was younger I found it hard to talk to anybody except my family.  When my sister got the horse I soon became a more friendly person.  When her horse recently died (about when Prankster was born), I became very sad.  If I could win that colt, I couldn’t begin to describe my happiness. 

Also I believe I should have a horse because it would be a good experience to learn how to be patient and responsible while teaching Prankster the same thing. 

When we went to see Prankster, I was invited into the stall to brush him.  I was never so thrilled in my life!  The way he stood there so majestically, it told me he would be a wonderful horse. 

If I should win him, I would be the happiest girl alive.  I would work hard to train him with love and understanding.  If I could only get the wonderful smell and joy of horses back in our barn!

I mailed in my essay and waited.

On November 27, 1965, my mother and I listened to the local horse program that was always featured on the radio at 8 AM on Saturday mornings. They said they had over 300 essays to choose from, and it was very difficult for them to decide who the colt should go to. I knew then I didn’t have a chance. They had several consolation prizes for 2nd through 4th place, so they read several clever poems and heartfelt essays, all written by teenagers.  My heart was sinking by the minute.

The winning essay was next.  The first sentence sounded very familiar to me, but it wasn’t until several sentences later that we realized they were reading my essay, not someone else’s. My mom was speechless, trying to absorb the hazards of her little girl owning a young untrained horse. I woke up my dad, sick in bed with an early season flu, who opened one eye, looked at me, and said, “I guess I better get a fence up today, right?”  I have been forever grateful to him that he pulled himself together and put up a wood corral that afternoon, despite feeling so miserable.

That little bay colt came home to live with me the next day. Over the next few months he and I did learn together, as I checked out horse training books from the library, and joined a 4H group with helpful leaders to guide me. I made plenty of mistakes along the way, learning from each one, including those that left behind scars I still bear. Prankster was a typical adolescent gelding who lived up to his name — full of mischief with a sense of humor and a penchant for finding trouble, but he was mine and that was all that mattered.

By the time he was two, I was sitting on him, and when he was three, my Christmas present that year was a beautiful western saddle. We spent many happy hours riding trails in the nearby woods and enjoying life in the moment.

When it was time for me to leave for college, I knew I could no longer afford to keep him, so found Prankster a forever home to live out his days as I spent the next 13 years of my life living and learning in the city. Horse dreams still visited me in my sleep and swept me into book stores to pore over horse books. I knew I’d had my once-in-a-lifetime special “gift” by winning my first horse, so the next horse I would have to earn on my own. I worked long hours, many nights and many holidays, earning what I could to eventually move from Seattle to own land for a farm.

Along the way, I met a farm boy also temporarily displaced to Seattle and together we worked toward building our farm dream while planning our future together. During our weekly Friday evening bookstore visit, I had opened one discount picture book and discovered the golden horses of my childhood dreams, running wild through green mountain meadows, their white manes and tails streaming out behind them. I bought that book in a heartbeat, and began my search for a breed previously unknown to me before — the magical Haflinger. Within a month of our moving to the farm, on November 27, 1985, our first Haflinger mare joined us. Over the past thirty years, we’ve owned dozens of Haflingers, most born and raised here, and today six are still happily munching hay out in our barn.

Twenty years separated my first horse from my second horse, but November 27 stands out as the day a kid’s dream came true. As I clean our barn every morning, I marvel at the privilege it has been to share this land and this farm life with my husband, my children, and these beautiful horses. They all owned me, heart and soul, because of a first prize fuzzy bay colt fifty years ago.


Prankster helping my dad build a new farm building


Prankster’s favorite drinking fountain


Galaxy, the first Haflinger born on our farm, entertaining at the fair


A few of our many BriarCroft Haflingers raised here over the years

Only Human


photo by Nate Gibson

                                                                                                                               above photo by Nate Gibson



They work with herbs
and penicillin.
They work with gentleness
and the scalpel.
They dig out the cancer,
close an incision
and say a prayer
to the poverty of the skin.
They are not Gods
though they would like to be;
they are only human
trying to fix up a human.
Many humans die.
They die like the tender,
palpitating berries
in November.
But all along the doctors remember:
First do no harm.
They would kiss if it would heal.
It would not heal.

If the doctors cure
then the sun sees it.
If the doctors kill
then the earth hides it.
The doctors should fear arrogance
more than cardiac arrest.
If they are too proud,
and some are,
then they leave home on horseback
but God returns them on foot.
~Anne Sexton “Doctors”


Decades ago, essayist, journalist and storyteller E.B. White advised, “Be obscure clearly.”

As a physician, I work at clarifying obscurity about the human condition daily, dependent on my patients to communicate the information I need to make a sound diagnosis and treatment recommendation.  There is much that is still unknown and difficult to understand about psychology, physiology and anatomy.  Then throw in a disease process or two or three to complicate what appears to be “normal”, and further consider the side effects and complications of various treatments — even evidence-based decision making isn’t equipped to reflect perfectly the best and only solution to a problem.  Sometimes the solution is very muddy, hardly pristine and clear.

Let’s face the lack of facts of the plethora of shifting, changing facts.  Our conceit about our clinical work is ready to unseat us and plunk us in the dust even on the best of days when everything goes well.  We hope our patients communicate their concerns clearly and comprehensively, reflecting accurately what is happening with their health.  In a typical clinic day we see things we’ve never seen before, must expect the unexpected, learn things we never thought we’d need to know, attempt to make the better choice between competing treatment alternatives, unlearn things we thought were gospel truth but have just been disproved by the latest double blind controlled study which may later be reversed by a newer study.   Our footing, advertised by our training as so solid and reliable,  is quicksand much of the time even though our patients trust we are giving them advice based on a foundation of truth learned over years of education and experience.   Add in medical decision-making that is driven by cultural, political or financial outcomes rather than what works best for the individual, and our clinical clarity becomes even further obscured.

Over thirty years of doctoring in the midst of the mystery of medicine — learning, unlearning, listening, discerning, explaining, guessing, hoping,  along with constant silent praying — has taught me the humility that any good clinician must have when making decisions with and about patients.  What works well for one patient may not be at all appropriate for another despite what the evidence says or what an insurance company or the government is willing to pay for.  Each person we work with deserves the clarity of a fresh look and perspective, to be “known” and understood for their unique circumstances rather than treated by cook-book algorithm.  The complex reality of health care reform may dictate something quite different.

The future of medicine is dependent on finding clarifying solutions to help unmuddy the health care decisions our patients face. We have entered a time of information technology that is unparalleled in bringing improved communication between clinicians and patients because of more easily shared electronic records.  The pitfall of not knowing what work up was previously done will be a thing of the past.  The risk and cost of redundant procedures can be avoided.  The patient shares responsibility for maintenance of their medical records and assists the diagnostic process by providing online symptom and outcomes documentation.   The benefit of this shared record is not that all the muddiness in medicine is eliminated, but that an enhanced transparent partnership between clinician and patient develops,  reflecting a relationship able to transcend the unknowns.

So we can be obscure clearly.   Lives depend on it.
And maybe we can stay on the horse and out of the dirt a little while longer.



I Greet Him




I kiss my hand
To the stars, lovely-asunder
Starlight, wafting him out of it; and
Glow, glory in thunder;
Kiss my hand to the dappled-with-damson west;
Since, though he is under the world’s splendor and wonder,
His mystery must be instressed, stressed;
For I greet him the days I meet him, and bless when I understand.
~Gerard Manley Hopkins from “The Wreck of the Deutschland”

I greet Him when I meet Him
as the color of the evening sky
spills out as tipped paint
far fleeting across the horizon,
cleaned up and gone before grasped,
I kiss my hand
to the drama played out before sun is set.

I greet Him when I meet Him
as starlight speckles
the overhead ceiling,
each touching infinity
where it begins
and never ends.

I greet Him when I meet Him
in glowing cloud mountains
sparking lightning
and clapping thunder,
applause for His
resplendent magnificence.

I greet Him when
He is hidden
unknown and unknowable,
waiting for the blessing
of understanding
wafting from Him
in color, in speckle,
in glow, in spark,
in appreciative applause
for His splendor
wrapped in wonder.



Thirty Halloweens Ago



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 and headed 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 an 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) 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 ideal family practice with a delightfully diverse patient population of African Americans, Cambodians, Laotians, Vietnamese, Muslims and Orthodox Jews. 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 years later our children have long ago grown and gone, off to their own adventures beyond the farm.  Our sons are married to wonderful women, our daughter is finishing her student teaching and starting the job hunt. Each child moved to a different big city spread out in three different time zones from us. 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. Our second larger farm is more than we can realistically manage by ourselves in our spare time. 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 talking retirement in a little over two years. I’m not so sure for myself. I have never not worked and don’t know how I can stop when the need in health care is greater than ever.

The freedom I felt that rainy Halloween day three decades ago, as Seattle disappeared in the rear view mirror,  meant I 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 years and three grown children 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.




Stay Gold, Ponyboy






Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf,
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day
Nothing gold can stay.
~Robert Frost “Nothing Gold Can Stay”

“Stay gold, Ponyboy, stay gold.”
~S.E. Hinton from The Outsiders
Man’s innocence was lost
the moment we chose
knowledge over obedience.
The gold in our creation
sinks to grief as
we make the same mistakes
again and again;
each dawn reenacts our beginnings
and each winter our endings.
Our only salvage is a rescue
borne of selflessness,
an obedience beyond imagining.
He stays gold for us
so we are illuminated.

The Original Self


The original shimmering self gets buried so deep
that most of us end up hardly living out of it at all.
Instead we live out of all our other selves,
which we are constantly putting on and taking off
like coats and hats against the world’s weather.

~Frederick Buechner from Telling Secrets


Generally late September is when we start to see our Haflinger horses growing in their longer coat for winter. Their color starts to deepen with the new hair as the sun bleached summer coat loosens and flies with the late summer breezes. The nights here, when the skies are cloudless, can get perilously close to freezing this time of year, though our first frost is generally not until well into October. The Haflingers, outside during the day, and inside their snug stalls at night, don’t worry too much about needing their extra hair quite yet, especially when the day time temperatures are still comfortably in the 70s. So they are not in a hurry to be furrier. Neither am I. But I enjoy watching this daily change in their coats, as if they were ripening at harvest time. Their copper colors are so rich against the green fields and trees, especially at sunset when the orange hue of their coat is enhanced by the sunlit color palette of fall leaves undergoing their own transformation in their dying.

In another six months, it will be a reverse process once again. This heavy hair will have served its purpose, dulled by the harsh weather it has been exposed to, and coming out in clumps and tufts, revealing that iridescent short hair summer coat that shines and shimmers metallic in comparison, although several shades lighter, sometimes with nuances of dapples peeking through. Metamorphosis from fur ball to shimmering copper penny.

It occurs to me our old barn buildings on our farm are in need of a similar transformation, having received a new coat of paint over ten years ago and overdue for another.  As a dairy farm for its previous owners starting in the early 1900s until a few years before we purchased it in the late 80s, it has accumulated more than its share of sheds and buildings constructed over the years to serve one purpose or another: the big hay barn with mighty old growth beams and timbers in its framework (still hay storage), the attached milking parlor (converted by us to individual box stalls for our weanlings and yearlings) and milk house where the bulk tank once stood, the older separate milk house where the milk used to be stored in cans waiting for pick up by the milk truck (now garden shed and harness storage), the old smoke house for smoking meats (was our chicken coop, but now the dogs claim it), the old bunk house and root cellar (more storage), the old large chicken coop (now parking for our carts and carriage), and the garage (a Methodist church in its former life and moved 1/4 mile up the road to our farm some 70 years ago when the little community of Forest Grove that had formed around a saw mill, store, school and church disbanded after 30 years of prosperity when there were no more trees to cut down in the area). When we bought this farm, these buildings had not seen a coat of paint in many many years. They were weathering badly–we set to work right away in an effort to save them if we could, and got them repainted–“barn red” for the barn and cream white for the other buildings with red trim around the windows and roof lines.

That was over 25 years ago now and we’ve been trying to hold off on another round of painting. With a fresh coat of paint, these old buildings would appear to have new life again, though it is only on the surface. We know there are roofs that need patching, wiring that needs to be redone, plumbing that needs repair, foundations that need shoring up, broken windows that are drafty and need replacing, doors that don’t shut properly anymore–the list goes on. That superficial coat of paint does not solve all those problems–it will help prolong the life of the buildings, to be sure, but in many ways, all we’ve done is cosmetic surgery. What we really need is a full time carpenter –which neither of us is and at this point can’t afford.

In my late middle age, there are times when I wish fervently for that “new coat” for myself–i.e. fewer gray hairs, fewer pounds, fewer wrinkles and one less chin, less achy stronger muscles. I buy a new fall jacket and realize that all my deficiencies are simply covered for the time being. I may be warmer but I’m not one bit younger. That jacket will, I hope, protect me from the brisk northeast winds and the incessant drizzle of the region, but it will not stop the inevitable underneath. It will not change my original self and what I will become.

True shimmering change can only come from within, from deep inside our very foundations, requiring a transforming influence that comes from outside. For the Haflingers, it is the diminishing light and lower temperatures. For the buildings, it is the hammer and nail, and the capable hands that wield them. For me, it is knowing there is salvage for people too, not just for old barns and sheds. Our foundations are hoisted up and reinforced, and we’re cleaned, patched and saved despite who we have become. And unlike new paint, or a winter coat, it lasts forever.




When It Doesn’t Matter a Hill of Beans

Fall begins again even though I’m unprepared.  No matter which way I turn,  autumn’s kaleidoscope displays new patterns, new colors, new empty spaces as I watch the world die into itself once again.

Some dying blazes out in fury — a calling out for attention.  Then there is the dying that happens without anyone taking much notice: a plain, tired, rusting away letting go.

I spent the morning adjusting to this change in season by occupying myself with the familiar task of moving manure.  Cleaning barn is a comforting chore, allowing me to transform tangible benefit from something objectionable and just plain stinky to the nurturing fertilizer of the future. It feels like I’ve actually accomplished something.

As I scooped and pushed the wheelbarrow, I remembered another barn cleaning fifteen years ago, when I was one of a few friends left cleaning over ninety stalls after a Haflinger horse event that I had organized at our local fairgrounds. Some people had brought their horses from over 1000 miles away to participate for several days.  There had been personality clashes and harsh words among some participants along with criticism directed at me that I had taken very personally.  As I struggled with the umpteenth wheelbarrow load of manure, tears stung my eyes and my heart.  I was miserable with regrets.   After going without sleep and making personal sacrifices over many months planning and preparing for the benefit of our group,  my work felt like it had not been acknowledged or appreciated.

A friend had stayed behind with her family to help clean up the large facility and she could see I was struggling to keep my composure.  Jenny put herself right in front of my wheelbarrow and looked me in the eye, insisting I stop working for a moment and listen.

“You know,  none of these troubles and conflicts will amount to a hill of beans years from now.  People will remember a fun event in a beautiful part of the country,  a wonderful time with their horses, their friends and family, and they’ll be all nostalgic about it, not giving a thought to the infighting or the sour attitudes or who said what to whom.   We are horse people and human beings, for Pete’s sake, prone to complain and grouse about life.  So don’t make this about you and whether you did or didn’t make everyone happy.  You loved us all enough to make it possible to meet here and the rest was up to us.  So quit being upset about what you can’t change.  There’s too much you can still do for us.”

During tough times, Jenny’s advice replays, reminding me to stop expecting or seeking appreciation from others, or feeling hurt when harsh words come my way.   She was right about the balm found in the tincture of time and she was right about giving up the upset in order to die to self and self absorption, and keep focusing outward.

I have remembered.

Subsequently, unknown to both of us at the time,  Jenny herself spent over six years dying from breast cancer, while living her life sacrificially and sacramentally every day, fighting a relentless disease that was, for a time, immobilized in the face of her faith and intense drive to live. She became a rusting leaf, fading imperceptibly over time, crumbling at the edges until the day when she finally let go.   Her dying did not flash brilliance, nor draw attention at the end.  Her intense focus during the years of her illness had always been outward to others, to her young family and friends, to the healers she spent so much time with in medical offices, to her belief in the plan God had written for her and others.

So four years ago she let go her hold on life here. And we reluctantly have let her go.   Brilliance now cloaks her as her focus is on things eternal.

You were so right, Jenny.  Nothing from fifteen years ago amounts to a hill of beans; it simply doesn’t matter any more.

Except the words you spoke to me.

And I won’t be upset that I can’t change the fact that you have left us.

We’ll catch up later.

photo of Jenny Rausch in her last year on earth, by sister Ginger-Kathleen Coombs