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 Whole Journey

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Night is drawing nigh.  How long the road is.  But, for all the time the journey has taken, how you have needed every second of it. 
~Dag Hammarskjöld

 

 

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It is easy to be grateful for the pretty times of life: those picture-perfect moments that end up on Christmas photo-cards and in detailed descriptions in holiday newsletters.  What we want others to see and what we wish to remember does not always reflect the experiences of the whole journey.  We are naturally programmed to concentrate on “The Best of…” rather than surveying the whole shebang, warts and all.

It isn’t all glorious sunsets, rainbows and happy endings.  We don’t usually take pictures of the potholes, or celebrate the obstacles and flat tires along the way. It is rare to acknowledge and honor the failing grade, the chronic illness, the rocky relationship, the mortifying mistake, the tragic accident.

Yet it is all a part of the journey, every second of it, even the moments we try hard to forget are worthy of our appreciation.  Even the difficult times move us a little closer to our destination, perhaps looking bruised and scraped, still making our way slowly, shakily yet surely.

How long the road is.  And night is coming.

How fortunate we are to be heading home.

 

 

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A Long and Wondrous Journey

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Last night
the rain
spoke to me
slowly, saying,
what joy
to come falling
out of the brisk cloud,
to be happy again
in a new way
on the earth!

Then it was over.
The sky cleared.
I was standing
under a tree.

imagine! imagine!
the long and wondrous journeys
still to be ours.
~Mary Oliver from “Last Night the Rain Spoke to Me”

 

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Our rainfall this week was met with joy and relief, refreshing what had waited all summer parched and dry and dying.

Too little too late.

Across the country and in other parts of the world, this week’s rainfall caused flooding and destruction, threatening homes and lives.

Too much too soon.

This life’s too little/too much journeys are frightening, wondrous and arduous.

And this journey, this life, is ours to travel.  Let us pray for a little more just right.

 

 

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Lest We Forget

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Let me remember you, voices of little insects, 
Weeds in the moonlight, fields that are tangled with asters, 
Let me remember, soon will the winter be on us, 
Snow-hushed and heavy. 
Over my soul murmur your mute benediction, 
While I gaze, O fields that rest after harvest, 
As those who part look long in the eyes they lean to, 
Lest they forget them.
~Sara Teasdale from “September Midnight”
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If I were called upon to identify briefly the principal trait of the entire twentieth century, here too, I would be unable to find anything more precise and pithy than to repeat once again:
Men have forgotten God.
~Aleksandr Solzhenitzyn from his 1983 acceptance speech for the Templeton Prize
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Lest I forget…

I look long in the eyes I lean to

whether loved one, or mountains,  or garden, or flower

or the face of God Himself.

I cannot risk forgetting what must be remembered — encased in my heart
like a treasured photograph, like a precious gem, like a benediction that soothes me quiet when anxious.
It is His ultimate promise: He won’t forget me either –
looking long in my eyes that lean in to Him.
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What I’ve Gone and Done

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Why do we bother with the rest of the day,
the swale of the afternoon,
the sudden dip into evening,
then night with his notorious perfumes,
his many-pointed stars?
This is the best—
throwing off the light covers,
feet on the cold floor,
and buzzing around the house on espresso—
and, if necessary, the windows—
trees fifty, a hundred years old
out there,
heavy clouds on the way
and the lawn steaming like a horse
in the early morning.
~Billy Collins from “Morning”

 

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He had driven half the night
From far down San Joaquin
Through Mariposa, up the
Dangerous Mountain roads,
And pulled in at eight a.m.
With his big truckload of hay
     behind the barn.
With winch and ropes and hooks
We stacked the bales up clean
To splintery redwood rafters
High in the dark, flecks of alfalfa
Whirling through shingle-cracks of light,
Itch of haydust in the
     sweaty shirt and shoes.
At lunchtime under Black oak
Out in the hot corral,
—The old mare nosing lunchpails,
Grasshoppers crackling in the weeds—
“I’m sixty-eight” he said,
“I first bucked hay when I was seventeen.
I thought, that day I started,
I sure would hate to do this all my life.
And dammit, that’s just what
I’ve gone and done.”
~Gary Snyder – “Hay for the Horses” from Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems

 

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Sure enough, I’ve gone and done it — spent over 50 years of my life taking care of horses. I’m hoping for at least a decade more if this little herd of mostly retired Haflingers continues to bless me with their good health and mine.

No one said I had to do this and plenty of people saw it as folly, including a few folks who continue to aid and abet my horse ownership.

When I was young and agile and full of energy, I didn’t really project ahead fifty years to see that picking up hay bales, moving manure piles and being stepped on by a 1000 pound animal is a bigger deal than it once was.

But fifty years hasn’t changed anything else: the smell of a muzzle, the feel of a powerful muscle under my hand, my reflection in their eyes.

When I lived in a city apartment so many years ago, I knew I sure would love to wake up every morning to take care of horses the rest of my life.  And you know what?

That’s just what I’ve gone and done.

 

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Ways of Getting Home

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There are two ways of getting home; and one of them is to stay there.
— G. K. Chesterton

 

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Home can seem elusive and just out of reach for much of our lives.  It may not feel we truly belong in any one place in this modern era of constant transitions and transfers.

In high school, I could not plan a get-away from my home town fast enough, opting to go to college two states away.  Once I was away, I was hopelessly home-and-heartsick.   Miserable, I decided to come back home and go to school there instead.

Once back under my parents’ roof, my homesickness abated but the heartsick continued, having nothing to do with where I ate and slept.  I wasn’t at home inside myself.   It took time and various attempts at geographic cures to settle in and accept who I always had been.

Those who do move away often cast aspersions at people who never wander far from home.  The homebodies are seen as provincial, stuck in a rut, unenlightened and hopelessly small-town.  Yet later in life as the wanderers have a tendency to move back home, the stay-at-homers become solid friends and neighbors.   Remarkably, they often have become the pillars and life blood of a community.  They have slogged through long hours of keeping a place going when others left.

I did end up doing my share of wandering yet sympathizing with those who decided to stay put.   I returned home by settling only a few miles from the stomping grounds of my homesteading great-grandparents, at once backwoods and backwater.   Cast aspersions welcomed.

Now I get back home by mostly staying home.  It takes something major (like a son teaching in Japan settled in for the long term with wife and daughter) to lure me away from my corner of the world.   Getting away is good, coming back home is better.

Best of all, it’s the assurance expressed so simply by Thomas Hardy in Far From the Madding Crowd,
“And at home, by the fire, whenever you look up, there I shall be–and whenever I look up, there will be you.”

Home so sweet.

 

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My Own Bursting Heart

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Suddenly it is August again, so hot,
breathless heat.
I sit on the ground
in the garden of Carmel,
picking ripe cherry tomatoes
and eating them.
They are so ripe that the skin is split,
so warm and sweet
from the attentions of the sun,
the juice bursts in my mouth,
an ecstatic taste,
and I feel that I am in the mouth of summer,
sloshing in the saliva of August.
Hummingbirds halo me there,
in the great green silence,
and my own bursting heart
splits me with life.
~Anne Higgins “Cherry Tomatoes”  from At the Year’s Elbow

 

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Is there another sensation as blissful as a cherry tomato bursting inside my mouth?
Yes, I can think of one or two.

But never like this, when restoration is needed in the middle of a sweaty hot day, in a garden that needs weeding, when all else feels lost.

Pure gift, this bursting heart.

 

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