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 Thing With Feathers

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“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.
~Emily Dickinson
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Our local fair feels much like I remember when I was a child in the 60’s, accompanying my father to the Lynden fairgrounds during those summers of political and social turmoil.  His job was to supervise the teachers of FFA kids (Future Farmers of America) so he did the rounds of the regional and county fairs and my brother and I tagged along to explore the exhibits and go on rides.

The heart beat of a country fair pulses deep for me: I fell in love with my future husband at a fair, and we spent twenty years from 1992-2012 at the local Lynden fair exhibiting our Haflinger horses together as family and friends. Once our children grew and flew away four years ago, my husband and I were relegated to mere fair-goers, exploring exhibits without the need to show up to muck out stalls at 6 AM.

The chicken exhibit building is one of the same buildings I wandered through as a child over fifty years ago.  As we entered, it struck me I was admiring designs and color schemes, layered with nuance and texture, much like the nearby quilt exhibit — these feathers are God’s threads put to exquisite use to blanket a mere chicken.
So much design, so much detail, so much hope covers something as mere as a chicken … and me.
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Fair Well

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The Northwest Washington Fair in Lynden begins today and our Haflingers aren’t there on display.  I feel wistful as I wake up too early on a foggy Monday morning, remembering the twenty years where I would gather up our sleepy children and their friends and head into the fairgrounds to clean stalls, walk the ponies and prepare for the day.  We are no long “doing” the fair as a farm, and I’m just a little bit sad about that.

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 1980s 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 are all grown up and moved away so are no longer available to help “man” the horse stalls.  Our other long term helpers 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 moved 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 two other Haflinger breeding farms, 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 in-between kids did most of the horse stall cleaning duty, and the adults sat and shot the breeze.

Did this help sell horses for us? Nope. 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.

We continued to do this so long because our horses represented what dreams are made of.

Countless 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 is because he had a dream of a horse farm that he held onto all these years.

So on this misty foggy Monday morning, instead of heading to the fairgrounds to clean stalls, I’m going to turn our dusty, unbathed Haflingers out in the field as usual.  They don’t even know all the excitement they are missing.

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

 

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thank you to Lea Gibson and Emily Vander Haak for many of these photos

 

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Is This the Party to Whom I am Speaking?

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(As a child, I well remember our rural community’s party line — this was what social media was like 60 years ago, only you couldn’t choose your friends and you certainly couldn’t “unfriend” or block anyone from knowing all about your business.  Privacy was a relative concept during those days, so I decided to write this little story about how a “typical” neighborhood party line functioned) 

 

Two longs and a short is for the Williams farm,
Two shorts and a long is for Abner and Gladys, retired down the road,
A short and a long is for Aunt Bessie who lives nearby with her cat,
One long is for the Mitchell family of ten next door,
One short means it’s for me, alone since my son got married.

Most of the rings are for the Mitchells as four of their girls are over thirteen,
But when I pick up the receiver, it is Aunt Bessie’s voice I hear most,
As she likes to call the ladies from church and find out who’s sick,
Who’s not, and who’s maybe not going to make it through the week
To be sitting in their pew come Sunday.

Gladys is usually listening on the line real quiet-like and I know that
Because I can hear her sniff every once in awhile
Due to her allergies, kind of a little snort which she tries to cover up
But it does no good as we know she’s there and everything we say
Will be spread to town by tomorrow anyways.

Which reminds me the Williams’ are having money troubles
Because the bank is calling them about their overdue loan payments
And the crops are poor this year so there is worry about foreclosure.
And if that wasn’t enough, the Mrs. has made a doctor’s appointment in the city
Because of a new lump she found just yesterday.

Wouldn’t you know one of the Mitchell girls was talking about running off
With that Howard boy but I can’t imagine how word got back to her daddy
Who has put the phone and the boy off-limits for the time being
Until summer is over and she can be sent to the city to be a nanny to a wealthy family
And maybe meet a rich city boy who will keep her occupied.

Of course we’ve all offered solutions for Abner’s hemorrhoids
And his itchy scalp, even when we aren’t asked for our opinion.
Then when the youngest Mitchell was refusing to sleep through the night
Aunt Bessie suggested a little blackberry cordial might help but
Mrs. Mitchell was properly horrified and hung up then and there.

Last night the phone rang one short ring, sometime after 1 AM,
I woke with my nerves all a-jangle, wondering what bad news I would hear,
Four other people were on the line listening for my bad news too.
When I heard my oldest boy back east shout  “Mama, it’s a girl, you’re a granny!”
My heart swelled and my tears flowed for this answer to my prayers.

In the morning, when I went to walk down the driveway to get the mail
There was a bright bouquet of pink dahlias from the Williams’ on my front porch,
A drawing colored up real nice from the Mitchell kids “to our favorite new granny”
And a still warm fresh loaf of bread from Gladys waiting in the mailbox
Which made for a real fine party for Bessie and me sipping on her blackberry cordial.

 

 

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The Tenderness of Mortals

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How joyful to be together, alone
as when we first were joined
in our little house by the river
long ago, except that now we know

each other, as we did not then;
and now instead of two stories fumbling
to meet, we belong to one story
that the two, joining, made. And now

we touch each other with the tenderness
of mortals, who know themselves:
how joyful to feel the heart quake

at the sight of a grandmother,
old friend in the morning light,
beautiful in her blue robe!
~Wendell Berry “The Blue Robe” from  New Collected Poems

 

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We have been grandparents for over 17 months, mostly from a great distance of thousands of miles, but today I get to actually hold this growing and precious grandchild in my arms on my 64th birthday.

During these many years, to love and be loved as a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a wife, a mother, and now a grandmother with whitening hair, is the greatest privilege and blessing of my life.

And to think, this tenderness these two new grandparents feel in our nearly four decades together,  this loving as a grandmother in a blue robe, is the most wonderful gift of all.

 

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Not long ago on winter mornings
Waking dark to part
From your warm side,
Leaving behind my soft imprint,
I wrap up in my blue robe
To walk the gravel drive
For the newspaper

Our hilltop farm
Lies silent amid fallow fields
Moon shadows
Broad across my path
Star sparks overhead
Tree lined yard shields
The house from road.

In ink of early morning
I walk noiseless;
Step out to the mailbox
Then turn~ startled~
A flashlight
Approaching on the road-
An early walker and his dog
Illuminate me in dawn disarray
Like a deer in headlights:
My ruffled hair,  my sleep lined face
Vulnerability suddenly
Uncovered in the darkness;
Exposed.

Now this birthday summer morning
Wakes me early to streaming light
Poured out on quilt and blankets.
I part from your warmth again
Readied for ritual walk.
Dew sparkling below
Rich foliage above
Road stretches empty
For miles east and west

Crossing to the mailbox
I reach for the paper
Suddenly surrounded by
A bovine audience
Appreciative and nodding
Riveted by my bold approach
In broad daylight.
Yet abruptly scatter, tails in the air
When in rumpled robe and woolen slippers
I dance and twirl
In a hilltop celebration
Of ordinary life and extraordinary love
Exposed.

 

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The Presence of Stillness

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When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the green heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
~Wendell Berry “The Peace of Wild Things” from The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry

 

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When our young grandchild visits
and I watch her discover
the joys and sorrows of this world,
I remember there is light beyond the darkness we feel,
there is peace amid the chaos,
there is a smile behind the tears,
there is stillness within the noisiness,
there is grace as old gives way to new.

 

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Kindness Always Remembered

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Have you ever noticed how much of Christ’s life was spent in doing kind things – in merely doing kind things? … he spent a great proportion of his time simply in making people happy, in doing good turns to people.

There is only one thing greater than happiness in the world, and that is holiness; and it is not in our keeping. But what God has put in our power is the happiness of those about us, and that is largely to be secured by our being kind to them.…

I wonder why it is that we are not all kinder than we are. How much the world needs it. How easily it is done. How instantaneously it acts. How infallibly it is remembered.
~Henry Drummond from The Greatest Thing in the World

 

 

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Sure on this shining night
Of star made shadows round,
Kindness must watch for me
This side the ground. 
The late year lies down the north.
All is healed, all is health.
High summer holds the earth. 
Hearts all whole.
Sure on this shining night
I weep for wonder wand’ring far 
alone
Of shadows on the stars.
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Kindness has always watched for me;
I remember how it infallibly surrounds me.
I weep with those who weep,
whether from fear, or separation,
or frustration, or anger,
or grief, or loss,
or sheer exhaustion.
I weep to wonder
why any one of us should not know
the kindness and comfort
of being held in the arms of those we love
and who love us.
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