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.

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


Fair Thee Well





The Northwest Washington Fair in Lynden wrapped up last night and our farm and Haflingers weren’t there waiting in our stalls for a ride home after a week of display.  I can imagine it in my mind: the many smells of fried food in the smoky dark filled with carnival bright flashing lights in a cacophony surreal to humans and horses.  We are no long “doing” the fair as a farm, a fact with which I’m reconciled…finally.

BriarCroft had been a consistent presence at this fair for nearly two decades, promoting the Haflinger breed in a well  decorated display, providing 24 hour a day coverage for the horses for the 6 days of the fair. We petitioned the Fair Board for 5 years in the late eighties to allow us to display at the fair, and they finally said “okay, here’s the space, build it yourself” and we did! We were not there for classes, competition, or ribbons. We were there because people enjoyed our Haflingers and we enjoyed the people.

But our children Nate, Ben and Lea have grown up and moved away so are no longer available to help “man” the horse stalls.  Our other long term helpers like Emily, Chris and David are now adults with “real” jobs and obligations, and our faithful trick riders Kelsy and Chesna who performed daring feats on their Haflingers in front of the grandstand crowds have gone on to other careers.   I miss spending that intense one week time with all of the several dozen “kid” helpers from over the years, many of them now with children of their own.

Every year since 1992, we evaluated whether we had the energy and resources to do it  again–for the initial 6 years when Dan and I were the sole Haflinger farm doing the display, it meant a week of vacation from work, and very very long days, juggling our small children as well as several horses. Then, with the help of the Rodenbergers of 3R Farms and McKees of Teaglach Farm, we were able to rotate shifts, still work at our “real” jobs part days, share duties and expenses together. The older kids watched the younger kids, the inbetween kids did most of the horse stall cleaning duty, and the adults sat and shot the breeze.

Did this sell horses for us? Not really. But it sure did create good will for the fair visitors who depended on us every year to be there with horses that they and their children could actually pet (and sit on ) without fear, who enjoyed our braiding demonstrations, and our various Haflinger trivia contests with prizes.

Most of all, why we continued to do this so long, was that we provided what dreams are made of. I’m not sure how many times a day there would be a bright eyed child who approached our stalls, climbed up on the step stools and reached up to pet a Haflinger nose or neck and looked deep into those big brown Haflinger eyes, and lost their heart forever to the breed. They will not forget that moment when a horse they had never met before loved them back. Haflingers are magic with children and we saw that over and over again.

Our first year, in 1992, a mom and her 6 year old son came up to our stalls, as do some  10,000 people a day, and spent a long time petting the horses and talking to them, and enjoying them. They walked off, with the little boy looking over his shoulder at the Haflingers until they turned a corner and went out of sight. An hour later they were back and spent more time with the Haflingers. I offered the little boy a chance to sit on a Haflinger, and he agreed readily, and sat and sat and sat, playing with the mane and petting the shoulder and neck and was simply in heaven, quietly dreaming his own dreams on the back of a horse. His mom told me that they lived in a suburb near Seattle, but always spent this particular week in August at a local beach cabin, and the fair was one of their favorite activities each year. Her son Gary had never had an opportunity to sit on a horse before.

Next year, they were back, and Gary was a little taller, but still a quiet boy, and he kept dragging his mom back to the Haflingers, and she’d sit and visit as he’d sit on the Haflingers. He watched as we watered the horses, or fed them hay, or cleaned their stalls, and pretty soon he was asking if he could do the scooping, or dump the buckets or brush the horses. So he became, out of his own initiative, a helper.

By the time he was 8, he was spending several hours at a time with us at the stalls, taking his turn at the chores, and his mom, trusting that he was in good hands, and that he certainly wasn’t going to wander away from the Haflingers, would check back with him now and then to see if he wanted to go on rides, or see a performance, and his response was always “no, I can do that anytime, but I don’t get to see Haflingers very often!” He would talk a little about his hope someday to have a farm where he could raise Haflingers, and one year even said that his folks were looking at property to buy with acreage, but apparently a job for his dad didn’t materialize, so he remained a city kid in reality, even if he was a future farm kid in his heart.

He was one of our regular kid helpers every year until he was 12 when he started turning out for junior high football, and the football summer camp coincided with our fair week, so we’d only see him briefly on Saturdays as he got into his teens. He’d stop by to say hi, pet the horses, catch up on the Haflinger news, and because he only had a few hours to spend at the fair, he’d head off to other things. I really missed him and his happy smile around the stalls.

When he was 15, I missed seeing him because I was working when he stopped by. When he stopped by at age 16, he strolled up to me and I found I was looking up at this young man who I had to study to recognize. I’m a tall woman of 5’10”–he was at least 4 inches taller than me! He told me he wanted to come by because some of his best summer memories were of spending time with the Haflingers at the fair and he wanted me to know that. He thanked me for welcoming him and allowing him to “hang out” with the Haflingers. He told me his hope and dream someday was to live somewhere where he could raise Haflingers, and he was working hard in school so he could make that happen. He was a  4.0 student and the first string quarterback on his high school football team. I was as proud as if he was my own son.

This young man received a full scholarship to play football at a major university, and over four years waited his turn to be the starting quarterback.  Once he had his chance, after only a few games of being the starter, he was tackled hard, sustaining a neck fracture which thankfully resulted in no permanent damage, but his college football career was suddenly over.

I hope someday to see Gary again–it would be great to see this tall accomplished young man who so recently was a shy quiet little city boy of 6, draped across the broad back of a Haflinger, and lost in his dreams of a “someday” Haflinger of his own. This is why we’ve done what we have at the fair all these years. It was for people like Gary who made a connection with a horse and never ever forget it. I’d like to think that a little bit of who Gary is and what he is becoming is because he had a dream of a horse farm that he held onto all these years.

We do hope the fair-goers miss the friendly golden horses with the big brown eyes that help make dreams come true.

A Meadow to Wander


On days when there was a break in the fighting, the two of us drank hot tea.
We were rattled by the same passions.
Both of us looked upon the world as a meadow in May
over which women and horses wander.

~Isaac Babel “The Story of a Horse”

War and détente will go on, détente and renewed tearings asunder,
we can never break free from the dark and degrading past.
Let us see life again, nevertheless, in the words of Isaac Babel
as a meadow over which women and horses wander.
~Maxine Kumin “Women and Horses”

I believe in the gift of the horse, which is magic,
their deep fear-snorts in play when the wind comes up,
and the ballet of nip and jostle, plunge and crow hop.

I trust them to run from me, necks arched in a full
swan’s S, tails cocked up over their backs
like plumes on a Cavalier’s hat. I trust them
to gallop back, skid to a stop, their nostrils

level with my mouth, asking for my human breath
that they may test its intent, taste the lure of it.
I believe in myself as their sanctuary
and in the earth with its summer plumes of carrots,

its clamber of peas, beans, masses of tendrils
as mine.
~Maxine Kumin from “Credo”


So this is a picture of peacefulness,
the carelessness of a summer afternoon on horseback,
wandering along a hilltop
a gallop through a meadow,
a sharing of breath with an animal that chooses,
instead of running far away,
to circle around
and come back
again and yet again.


Our Eyes Locked…




The weasel was stunned into stillness as he was emerging from beneath an enormous shaggy wild rose bush four feet away. I was stunned into stillness twisted backward on the tree trunk. Our eyes locked, and someone threw away the key.

Our look was as if two lovers, or deadly enemies, met unexpectedly on an overgrown path when each had been thinking of something else: a clearing blow to the gut. It was also a bright blow to the brain, or a sudden beating of brains, with all the charge and intimate grate of rubbed balloons. It emptied our lungs. It felled the forest, moved the fields, and drained the pond; the world dismantled and tumbled into that black hole of eyes. If you and I looked at each other that way, our skulls would split and drop to our shoulders. But we don’t. We keep our skulls. So.
~Annie Dillard from “Living Like Weasels”

I watch you.  And you me.  Our eyes locked and someone threw away the key.







A Hot Day on the Farm



These hot humid summer days have been barely tolerable for a temperate climate sissy pants like me.  I am melting even as I get up in the morning, and our house has been two degrees warmer (93 degrees) than the out of doors.

One morning as I drove the ten miles of country roads to get to work in town,  I was listening to the news on the car radio when I puzzled over why the radio station would be playing cat meows over the news.  I turned off the radio, and realized the meows didn’t go away.

As soon as I was able, I pulled into a parking lot and surveyed my car from back to front, looking under seats, opened the back, scratched my head.  Then the plaintive meowing started again—under the hood.  I struggled with the latch, lifted up the hood and a distressed bundle of kitten fur hurtled out at me, clinging all four little greasy paws to my shirt.  Unscathed except for greasy feet, this little two month old kitten had survived a 50 mile per hour ride for 20 minutes, including several turns and stops.  He immediately crawled up to my shoulder, settled in by my ear, and began to purr.  I contemplated showing up at a meeting at work with a kitten and grease marks all over me vs. heading back home with my newly portable neck warmer.  I opted to call in with the excuse “my cat hitchhiked to work with me this morning and is thumbing for a ride back home” and headed back down the road to take him back to the barn where he belongs.

At that point, my meeting at work was already over so I dawdled in the barn before heading back down the road.   I noticed the Haflinger horses had broken through our electric wire fencing into a more inviting adjacent field so I wandered out to check fence line.   The hot wire must have been shorting out somewhere in the pasture.  As I approached the fence, I heard numerous snaps and pops that I interpreted as hot wire shorting out in the dry grass and weeds, creating a potential fire hazard with the winds whipping up.  I could hear snaps all up and down the fenceline, but could not see sparks to lead me to the problem spot.

As I studied the wire, I heard a little “snap” and a tiny seed pod burst open in front of my eyes, scattering its contents very effectively on the ground below.  It was dried common vetch seed pods that were snapping and popping, not hot wire shorting out.  They were literally exploding all up and down the fenceline in a symphony of seed release.  Not a spark to be seen — at least not of the electrical variety — only botanical.

So I learned practical advice to be content on a hot day on the farm:

Remember to bang on my car hood before I start the ignition, cats do have nine lives, keep the hotwire hot to keep the horses where they belong,  and especially, vetch doesn’t start wildfires, but explodes wildly in its noisy reproductive cycle.  If vetch can find ecstasy on a hot day, so can we all.

It doesn’t get much better than that.