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.

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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At This Moment

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In a hundred trillion years—
an actual number
though we can’t begin
to grasp it—the last traces
of our universe will be not
even a memory
with no memory to lament it.

The last dust of the last star
will not drift in the great nothing
out of which everything we love
or imagine eventually comes.

Yet every day, every four hours
around the clock, Debbie prepares
her goat’s-milk mix
for the orphaned filly
who sucks down all three liters of it,
gratefully, it seems,
as if it matters more
than anything in the universe—
and it does—at this moment
while the sun is still
four hours from rising
on the only day that matters.
~ Dan Gerber “Only This Morning” from Particles

 

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For an orphan to survive, he or she must be adopted by surrogate parents whose love and dedication is fertilized by more than a cascade of post-partum maternal hormones.

This is a heart adoption, clean and pure and simple, a 24/7 commitment where each moment of nurture is about keeping this newest of God’s vulnerable and helpless creations alive.
Nothing else matters and nothing else should.

We too, each one of us, in a way we don’t always understand, are born orphans in need of adoption; we long to be found, rescued, fed, nurtured and loved.
We will never be set adrift in nothingness — Someone takes us to His heart.

Nothing else matters and nothing else should.

 

 

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thank you to Emily Vander Haak and Lea Gibson for taking a few of these BriarCroft foal photos.

 

Their Exuberant Souls

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Whatever he needs, he has or doesn’t
have by now. 
Whatever the world is going to do to him
it has started to do… 

…Whatever is 
stored in his heart, he can use, now. 
Whatever he has laid up in his mind
he can call on.  What he does not have
he can lack…

…Whatever his exuberant soul
can do for him, it is doing right now…

…Everything that’s been placed in him will come out, now, the contents of a trunk
unpacked and lined up on a bunk in the underpine light.
~Sharon Olds from “The Summer-Camp Bus Pulls Away from the Curb”

 

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This is the season for graduations, when children move into the adult world and don’t look back.

As a parent, as an educator, as a mentor within church and community, and after nearly thirty years as a college health physician witnessing this transition many times over, I can’t help but be wistful about what I may have left undone and unsaid with the generation about to launch.

In their moments of vulnerability, did I pack enough love into those exuberant hearts so he or she can pull it out when it is most needed?

When our three children traveled the world after their graduations, moving way beyond the fenced perimeter of our little farm, I trust they left well prepared.

As a school board member, I watched students, parents and teachers work diligently together in their preparation for that graduation day, knowing the encompassing love behind each congratulatory hand shake.

When another batch of our church family children say goodbye, I remember holding them in the nursery, listening to their joyful voices as I played piano accompaniment in Sunday School, feeding them in innumerable potlucks over the years.  I pray we have fed them well in every way with enough spiritual food to stick to their ribs in the “thin” and hungry times.

When hundreds of my student/patients move on each year beyond our university and college health clinic, I pray for their continued emotional growth buoyed by plenty of resilience when the road inevitably gets bumpy.

I believe I know what is stored in the hearts of graduates because I, among many others, helped them pack it full of love.   Only they will know the time to unpack what is within when their need arises.

 

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The Velvet of Sleep

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The children have gone to bed.
We are so tired we could fold ourselves neatly
behind our eyes and sleep mid-word, sleep standing
warm among the creatures in the barn, lean together
and sleep, forgetting each other completely in the velvet,
the forgiveness of that sleep.

Then the one small cry:
one strike of the match-head of sound:
one child’s voice:
and the hundred names of love are lit
as we rise and walk down the hall.

One hundred nights we wake like this,
wake out of our nowhere
to kneel by small beds in darkness.
One hundred flowers open in our hands,
a name for love written in each one.
~Annie Lighthart “The Hundred Names of Love”

 

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Each of many nights of a child wakening,
each of many moments of rocking them in the dark,
lulling them back to that soft velvet of sleep,
I feel my budding love
unfurling in fragrance
of blossomed fullness,
unfurling until there is no inner spiral left,
and each petal, one by one, drops away,
grateful.

 

 

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Going Home to Mother

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“Comrade General, instead of a decoration, could I go home to see my mother?”

I was sixteen, taking second year high school Russian during the Cold War, partly for the challenge, but mostly to understand better who our “enemy” was.  Our teacher assigned us unusual homework one weekend: watch the 1959 Russian movie  Ballad of a Soldier being broadcast on PBS in 1970.  It had English subtitles, but the point of the assignment was to experience the sounds and inflections of native Russian speakers.  Although the movie was a fictional story of a Russian soldier’s brief leave from the front during WWII, it complemented a concurrent assignment in our World History class, reading All Quiet on the Western Front. The unforgettable juxtaposition of these two works of art helped me appreciate, in the midst of the nightly news from Vietnam,  the terrible cost of war.

Recently, some forty seven years later, I watched this movie again. The tale is a classic “returning home from war” saga with the twist that young Alyosha is only on a brief leave granted by a compassionate general rewarding the front line soldier for an extraordinary act of bravery.  Alyosha asks only to return to his home village to fix the leaking roof of his mother’s home.  Given the extraordinary difficulties of war time travel in an economically struggling country, as well as the challenges and people he ends up meeting along the way, his time home ends up being only a few precious minutes before he has to turn around and return to the front.  He only has enough time to hug his mother, and say goodbye one last time, never to return again.

Although the story focuses on a son’s determination to get home to his mother, it also allows a view of war’s permanent damage to bodies and minds,  as well as the toll of war time separation on relationships.  There seems little sense of hopeful future for the characters in this story, so the immediacy of what they experience takes on greater significance.

Alyosha meets a young woman on the train and their evolving connection offers a glimpse of a potential love that can transcend the ugliness of war.  They part not even knowing how to find each other again, after having spent precious few hours in conversation.   Acknowledging that lack of future hope is the most painful of all;  there is no ability to make plans with confidence, no sense of a long life stretching ahead like the dusty road leading from his village that reaches endless to the horizon.

I remember sitting in my childhood home, watching this movie as a teenager with so little life experience at that point.  Tears streamed down my face, touched forever by the tender story of a man made too old by war and hardship for his young years and his simple desire to once again hug his mother.   This Russian soldier did not feel like an enemy to me.  This felt like someone I could easily love and hold on to–as a brother, someday as a cherished husband, eventually as a precious son.   Years later I would identify with the role of the mother with moistening eyes, watching my children leave our home, heading down that long endless road to their own uncertain futures.

On this day — May 26 — what would have been my mother’s 98th birthday — I have the simple desire to once again hug my mother and feel her tender love.  The wrenching moments of saying goodbye as I left home remain my precious bittersweet memories of her, even as my own road now grows shorter.

There will come a time, in our forever home,  when there will be no more goodbyes,  I’ll never have to let go of her and neither of us will walk away to an uncertain future.

 

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