Turn Aside and Look: An Opened Door

photo by Nate Gibson




Sam does barn chores with me, always has.  He runs up and down the aisles as I fill buckets, throw hay, and he’ll explore the manure pile out back and the compost pile and check out the dove house and have stand offs with the barn cats (which he always loses).  We have our routine.  When I get done with chores, I whistle for him and we head to the house.  We go back home.

Except this morning.  I whistled when I was done and his furry little fox face didn’t appear as usual.  I walked back through both barns calling his name, whistling, no signs of Sam.  I walked to the fields, I walked back to the dog yard, I walked the road (where he never ever goes), I scanned the pond (yikes), I went back to the barn and glanced inside every stall, I went in the hay barn where he likes to jump up and down on stacked bales, looking for a bale avalanche he might be trapped under, or a hole he couldn’t climb out of.  Nothing.

Passing through the barn again, I heard a little faint scratching inside one Haflinger’s stall, which I had just glanced in 10 minutes before.  The mare was peacefully eating hay.  Sam was standing with his feet up against the door as if asking what took me so long.  He must have scooted in when I filled up her water bucket, and I closed the door not knowing he was inside, and it was dark enough that I didn’t see him when I checked.  He and his good horse friend kept it their secret.

Making not a whimper or a bark when I called out his name, passing that stall at least 10 times looking for him, he just patiently waited for me to open the door and set him free.

It’s a Good Friday.

The lost is found even when he never felt lost to begin with.   But he was lost to me.  And that is what matters.

He was just waiting for a closed door to be opened so he could go home with me.  And today, of all days, that door has been thrown wide open.





Though you are homeless
Though you’re alone
I will be your home
Whatever’s the matter
Whatever’s been done
I will be your home
I will be your home
I will be your home
In this fearful fallen place
I will be your home
When time reaches fullness
When I move my hand
I will bring you home
Home to your own place
In a beautiful land
I will bring you home
I will bring you home
I will bring you home
From this fearful fallen place
I will bring you home
I will bring you home
~Michael Card

Licking a Wound





Now wind torments the field,
turning the white surface back
on itself, back and back on itself,
like an animal licking a wound.

A single green sprouting thing
would restore me . . .

Then think of the tall delphinium,
swaying, or the bee when it comes
to the tongue of the burgundy lily.
~Jane Kenyon from “February: Thinking of Flowers”




Turning the page on the calendar today doesn’t fix anything.  The arctic wind is blasting frozen again, snow is in the forecast, the skies practically crackle cold.

I’m like a dog tormented by my own open and raw flesh, trying my best to lick it healed, unable to think of anything or anyone else, going over it again and again:  how tired I feel, how bruised I am, how high the climb I must make, how uprooted I feel, how impossibly long it will be until I’m warm again.

Even now green sprouts try to push up even while molested by ice.  Soon fresh blooms will grace the barnyard and I will be distracted from my own wound licking.

It’s February and it’s a northeaster.


The cold never bothered me anyway…





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 Calico Diplomat

Cally, our adopted calico cat from close friends who moved across the country, was quite elderly and fading fast.  Winter is always a tough time for barn cats, even with snug shelter, plentiful food and water.  We had lost our 16+ year old tuxedo kitty just a couple months previously, and Cally, not much younger,  would not last much longer.  She got up to eat and potty, and still licked her front paws clean, but couldn’t manage much else.  Her frame was thin and frail, her coat dull and matted in places, she’d been deaf for some time and her eyes rheumy.  She spent her days and nights in a nest of hay on the floor of our horse barn, watching the comings and goings of horse hooves and people rolling by with wheelbarrows full of manure.  I brought her a little rug to give her a bit more cushion and protection from drafts, and I was not surprised to find her permanently curled up there in the morning.  Her time had come.

When Cally first arrived as a youngster, she strolled onto our farm and decreed it satisfactory.  She moved right in, immediately at home with the cows, horses, chickens,  our aging dog Tango (who loved cats) and our other cats.   In no time, she became the undisputed leader, with great nobility and elegance.  There was no one questioning her authority.

We knew Cally was unusual from the start.  Tango initially approached her somewhat warily, given the reaction Tango elicited from our other cats (typically a hair raising hiss, scratch and spit).  Instead, Cally marched right up, rubbed noses with Tango, and they became fast friends, cuddling together on our front porch whenever it was time to take a nap.  They were best pals.  Tango surely loved anyone who would snuggle up to her belly and keep her warm and Cally was the perfect belly warmer (as Garrison Keillor says, “a heater cat”).

Our free range Araucana rooster seriously questioned this dog/cat relationship.    He was a bit indignant about a front porch communal naptime and would strut up the sidewalk, walk up and down the porch and perch on the railing,  muttering to himself about how improper it was, and at times getting quite loud and insistent about it.  They completely ignored him, which obviously bugged him, proud and haughty bird that he was.

One fall morning, as I opened the front door to go down the driveway to get the newspaper in the pre-dawn mist, I was astonished to see not just a cat and dog snuggled together on the porch mat, but the rooster as well, tucked up next to Tango’s tail.  As usual,  Tango and Cally didn’t move a muscle when I appeared, as was their habit–I always had to step over them to get to where I needed to go.  The rooster, however, was very startled to see me,  almost embarrassed.  He stood up quickly, flapped his wings a few times, and swaggered off crowing, just to prove he hadn’t compromised his cock-sure raison d’etre.

No, I didn’t have my camera with me and I never found them all together ever again.  You, dear reader, will have to just take it on faith.

After Tango died, Cally rebounded by taking on the training of our new corgi pup and making sure he understood her regal authority in all things, and demanding, in her silent way, his respect and servitude.  He would happily chase other cats, but never Cally.    They would touch noses, she would rub against his fur, and tickle his chin with her tail and all he could think to do was smile and wag at her.

So I figure a dog, a cat and a rooster sleeping together was our little farm’s version of the lion and lamb lying down together, diplomacy of the purest kind, the most diverse becoming one.  The peaceable kingdom was right outside our front door,  a harbinger of what is promised someday for the rest of us.  Despite claws, sharp teeth, and talons, it will be possible to snuggle together in harmony and mutual need for warmth and comfort.

Our special Cally made it happen on earth with her special statesmanship.  I suspect she’s met up with Tango, and possibly one rooster with attitude, for a nice nap together on the other side.

Wandering Over Huckleberry Hills

red huckleberry


Lying back in the soft hay,
I folded my hands behind my head,
closed my eyes, and let my mind wander…

I thought of the blackberry patches, and the huckleberry hills.
I thought of the prayer I had said
when I asked God to help me get two hound pups.

I knew He had surely helped,
for He had given me the heart, courage, and determination.

~Wilson Rawls, Where the Red Fern Grows



Going Gentle Into That Good Night

Drawing of Dylan Thomas by Emily Vander Haak Dieleman
Dylan Thomas and his kids in 2002, by Karen Mullen
Dylan Thomas and his kids in 2003, by Karen Mullen
Dylan, a week ago
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
~Dylan Thomas
This pup came to us almost 13 years ago through a family friend, as we were mourning the death of Dan’s father, Tom, after a series of strokes.  Tom had rallied with amazing emotional strength against his growing weakness, until the final event took him quickly from us over a few short hours.  At home on the farm, we were watching a similar decline in our 16 year old Belgian Tervuren “Tango” who was deaf, blind and increasingly forgetful.  Our farm desperately needed the invigoration of a young vital life.
So Dylan Thomas, Welsh Cardigan Corgi puppy, moved in.  He was a most unusual color, with spotted eyes that laughed and mused at life.   He loved to cuddle and spent plenty of time in our kids’ laps.  When Tango’s time came after a sudden paralyzing stroke, as I held a flashlight for a young vet as she searched for a vein to administer the final medication outside on a freezing November night, I was very grateful we had Dylan’s calm face, strong back and short legs to carry us through another death.
He was asked to carry us again and again.  When he and a new dog to our farm went to the vet on the same day to be neutered, Dylan came home alone when his good buddy died from a devastating anesthetic reaction.  He watched another dog arrive as a pup and die a decade later of a rare muscle cancer.  Alone, Dylan would howl pitifully in the night.   He got grayer, barked more the deafer he grew,  and moved through farm chores with somber deliberateness.

When young Sam arrived two years ago, Dylan was obviously ambivalent about training up another pup.  He would put up with Sam’s lavishing kisses all over his face, but would never relinquish a bone or a preferred bed.  Sam was company but too much a bundle of energy to cuddle with, just a young whippersnapper who didn’t understand the serious business of life as a farm dog.

Dylan watched through his spotted eyes as our children grew up, got busier and moved away.  He watched them return for visits, accompanied them for walks to the top of the hill, but knew they would soon depart again to places far away.  Dylan’s world was a pen that felt like all the home he needed.  His farm, his family and his food were all he wanted.
He decided two weeks ago not to get up when I went to feed him in the morning.  He lay flat on the grass, weak, looking at me through those eyes as I petted and stroked his deaf ears, unable to hear any words of reassurance I spoke.   Our daughter was taking her semester finals at college in Chicago and I reluctantly let her know that I thought Dylan was not long for this world.  She asked if there was any way he would last until she arrived home on May 14 for a brief visit and I said it simply wasn’t possible.    That evening, anticipating that I was about to call the vet to come to the farm, Dylan struggled to his feet, clearly not ready to check out.  He was willing to take some special treats from my hand and decided that it was worth sticking around if it meant fresh steak meat and farm eggs to eat.
Remarkably, he grew strong enough to come to the barn again for chores, raid the cat food dish and even climb the hill one last time two nights ago.  He was clearly hanging on, raging against the dying of the light, until May 14, the morning of Lea’s arrival back home, when he wouldn’t accept the special treats from me any more.  When she arrived late that evening and came to say hello to him, it was clearly goodbye.  His eyes were fading, his strength waning.  But he had hung on in an old age that burned and raved.  He had made sure one of his kids was home so he could now sleep sound.
Yesterday, he didn’t get up in the morning, and laid quietly in his little house, watching the farm around him, the light fading from his eyes.   He napped in the warm spring afternoon and didn’t wake back up.  The light had flown into the skies above.
Many of us tend to measure our lives in dogs.   Dylan was the one who took us from a full house of young growing children to a house that longs for those arms to return home every once in awhile.   Dylan clearly waited for the arms he loved to come home and then he was ready to let go, going gently, oh so gently, into that very good night.
Sam watching the clouds from the hill after Dylan's death
Sam watching the clouds from the hill after Dylan’s death
The light last night
The light last night