The Art of Showing Up

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I learned from my mother how to love
the living, to have plenty of vases on hand
in case you have to rush to the hospital
with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants
still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars
large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole
grieving household, to cube home-canned pears
and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins
and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point.
I learned to attend viewings even if I didn’t know
the deceased, to press the moist hands
of the living, to look in their eyes and offer
sympathy, as though I understood loss even then.
I learned that whatever we say means nothing,
what anyone will remember is that we came.
I learned to believe I had the power to ease
awful pains materially like an angel.
Like a doctor, I learned to create
from another’s suffering my own usefulness, and once
you know how to do this, you can never refuse.
To every house you enter, you must offer
healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself,
the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch.
~Julie Kasdorf– “What I Learned from my Mother”

 

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Usually a mom knows best about these things — how to love others when and how they need it.  Showing up with food you’ve made yourself is always a good thing but it is the showing up part that is the real food;  bringing along a cake is simply the icing.

This is a good reminder that as a doctor, my usefulness is completely dependent on others’ suffering. No illness, no misery, no symptoms and I’m out of a job.

If only.
What a world that would be.
And then I can still be a mom even if there is no more doctor work:

….if I’d known it could help, I’d have baked a cake…

 

 

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This Good Man

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This good man
~who has left us behind~

whose farm-hardened hands
wielded not only heavy hammers
but cradled a trembling wee bird.

This good man
~who has left us behind~

raised many a calf and chick
and a plethora of pups and piglets
and enough canaries to fill a thousand homes with song.

This good man
~who left us behind~

whose gentle smile
and generous heart
volunteered thousands of hours of selfless service.

This good man
~who has left us behind~

who raised no children himself
yet loved and nurtured a slew of nieces and nephews,
keeping track of every single one.

This good man
~who has left us behind~

who plowed and planted,
harvested and gathered
and saved and gave and gave and gave.

This good man
~who has left us behind~

who dressed for the farm every day
yet changed his jeans and tee shirt and muck boots
each week to Sunday’s best button-down shirt and sweater.

This good man
~who has left us behind~

is the only man to ever have owned both
a church organ in his front room
and a gold FireBird Trans Am in his back shed.

This good man
~who has left us behind~

has shown us the way to follow Him:

by his faithful service
by his love for the land
by his love for the garden
by his love for his animals
by his love for his family and friends
by his love for his church
by his love for the Lord.

This good man~
This good and humble man~
This good and humble and gentle man~

has gone down the lane ahead of us a bit
and will be waiting for us around the bend,
watching and waiting, waiting and watching,
keeping vigil until he can
someday see us coming on the horizon
and beckon us in and welcome us home.

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Uncle John Smit

That Heaven of which We Have Heard

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I was your rebellious son,
do you remember? Sometimes
I wonder if you do remember,
so complete has your forgiveness been.

So complete has your forgiveness been
I wonder sometimes if it did not
precede my wrong, and I erred,
safe found, within your love,

prepared ahead of me, the way home,
or my bed at night, so that almost
I should forgive you, who perhaps
foresaw the worst that I might do,

and forgave before I could act,
causing me to smile now, looking back,
to see how paltry was my worst,
compared to your forgiveness of it

already given. And this, then,
is the vision of that Heaven of which
we have heard, where those who love
each other have forgiven each other,

where, for that, the leaves are green,
the light a music in the air,
and all is unentangled,
and all is undismayed.
-Wendell Berry “To My Mother”

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…and to think we enter this world screaming,
begging to be held and fed,
already needing forgiveness that sometimes,
(not always)
comes from our entangled imperfect parents
who worry over and juggle and guide us

and who themselves, once prodigal,
weep too with the burden
of feeling unforgiven,
dismayed because they won’t get it right
no matter how hard they try

Thank God for the promise
of this Heaven of which we have heard
where Love freely given, never earned,
rises resplendent, in full bloom,
from earth’s fallen ashes.

 

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Forgiving the Scythe

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To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows…

The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.
My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.
~Robert Frost in “Mowing”

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Winslow Homer’s The Veteran in a New Field

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The grass around our orchard and yet-to-be-planted garden is now thigh-high. It practically squeaks while it grows. Anything that used to be in plain sight on the ground is rapidly being swallowed up in a sea of green: a ball, a pet dish, a garden gnome, a hose, a tractor implement, a bucket. In an effort to stem this tidal flood of grass, I grab the scythe out of the garden shed and plan my attack. The pastures are too wet yet for heavy hooves so I have hungry horses to provide for and there is more than plenty fodder to cut down for them.

I’m not a weed whacker kind of gal. First there is the necessary fuel, the noise necessitating ear plugs, the risk of flying particles requiring goggles–it all seems too much like and act of war to be remotely enjoyable. Instead, I’m trying to take scything lessons from my husband. Emphasis on “trying”.

I grew up watching my father scythe our hay in our field because he couldn’t afford a mower for his tractor. He enjoyed physical labor in the fields and woods–his other favorite hand tool was a brush cutter that he’d take to blackberry bushes. He would head out to the field with the scythe over this shoulder, grim reaper style. Once he was standing on the edge of the grass needing to be mowed, he would then lower the scythe, curved blade to the ground, turn slightly, positioning his hands on the two handles just so, raise the scythe up past his shoulders, and then in a full body twist almost like a golf swing, he’d bring the blade down. It would follow a smooth arc through the base of the standing grass, laying clumps flat in a tidy pile alongside the 2 inch stubble left behind. It was a swift, silky muscle movement — a thing of beauty.

I’ve yet to manage anything nearly as graceful. I tend to chop and mangle rather than effect an efficient slicing blow. I unintentionally trample the grass I mean to cut. I get blisters from holding the handles too tightly. It feels hopeless that I’ll ever perfect that whispery rise and fall of the scythe, with the rhythmic shush sound of the slice that is almost hypnotic.

Not only am I an ineffective scything human, but I have also learned what it is like to be the grass I am unintentionally mutilating, on the receiving end of a glancing blow that misses the mark. I bear plenty of footprints from the trampling. It can take awhile to stand back up after being knocked repeatedly to the ground.

Sometimes it makes more sense to simply start over as stubble, oozing and bleeding green, with deep roots that no one can reach. As I grow back, I will sing rather than squeak, and I’ll forgive the scythe every time it comes down on my head.

 

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God Leaps Out

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… And now in vast, cold, empty space, alone.
Yet hidden deep within the grown-up heart,
A longing for the first world, the ancient one …
Then, from His place of ambush, God leapt out.
~ Rainer Maria Rilke

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That’s the mystery of us.
But then there’s the mystery of God,
lying in ambush,
watching, waiting,
waiting for the fulfillment of time,
the nexus of his grace and our vulnerability.
Maybe today.
~Kathleen Mulhern “Hangs My Helpless Soul on Thee”

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Sometimes, during a long night of fitful sleep,
when nothing makes sense and worry takes over,
I ponder the mystery of how our brains were made to wonder at all.

I long for a simpler time,
for clarity of purpose,
for laughter through tears,
for gratitude even in hard times.

Yet as I toss and turn,
I know my God lies in wait for me,
as He watches for the moment
when being ambushed is exactly what I need.

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Who Are These People?

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photo by Kate Steensma

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The snow piles in dark places are gone.
Pools by the railroad tracks shine clear.
The gravel of all shallow places shines.
A white pigeon reels and somersaults.

Frogs plutter and squdge—and frogs beat the air with a recurring thin steel sliver of melody.
Crows go in fives and tens; they march their black feathers past a blue pool; they celebrate an old festival.
A spider is trying his webs, a pink bug sits on my hand washing his forelegs.
I might ask: Who are these people?
~Carl Sandburg “Just Before April Came”

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There are no creatures you cannot love.
A frog calling at God
From the moon-filled ditch
As you stand on the country road in the June night.
The sound is enough to make the stars weep
With happiness.
In the morning the landscape green
Is lifted off the ground by the scent of grass.
The day is carried across its hours
Without any effort by the shining insects
That are living their secret lives.
The space between the prairie horizons
Makes us ache with its beauty.
Cottonwood leaves click in an ancient tongue
To the farthest cold dark in the universe.
The cottonwood also talks to you
Of breeze and speckled sunlight.
You are at home in these
great empty places
along with red-wing blackbirds and sloughs.
You are comfortable in this spot
so full of grace and being
that it sparkles like jewels
spilled on water.
~Tom Hennen “A Country Overlooked”

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It is simply too easy to think of others as “those people” — they are not like me, they don’t dress like me, they don’t look like me, they don’t talk like me, they don’t love like me, they don’t act like me, they just aren’t me in any recognizable way.

Yet I’m the blinded one who cannot see how similar we are.

Whether I have eight legs or two, whether I have wings or arms, whether I “plutter and squdge” or sing arias,  whether I am green or brown or speckled, there is no creature I cannot love as brother or sister.

Instead of wondering “who are these people?” I will be comfortable in this spot in the spectrum of life I’m been given, in an act so full of grace and being.

 

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A Rest Between Two Notes

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I am the rest between two notes,
which are somehow always in discord
because Death’s note wants to climb over—
but in the dark interval, reconciled,
they stay there trembling.
And the song goes on, beautiful.”
~Rainer Maria Rilke from “My Life is Not This Steeply Sloping Hour”

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photo by Josh Scholten

 

At the end of this past Sunday’s Easter worship, while playing a complicated version of the Doxology on the piano in our church, I hit some wrong notes.  Usually I can recover from such mistakes but I lost my way in the music on the page, struggling to recover in time to finish with the undaunted congregation, my fingers trembling to find the right keys.

Waking yesterday, I felt my usual Monday morning uneasiness but even more so: I’m the spot in the middle between discordant notes. There is on one side of me the pressure of catching up from what was left undone through the weekend and on the other side the anticipated demands of the coming week.

Before I even arrive at work, I find myself uneasy in dead center, immobilized by the unknown ahead and the known messiness I’ve left behind.

This moment of rest in the present, between the trembling past and uncertain future, is a precious moment of reconciliation, my Sabbath extended. I must allow myself an instant of silence and reflection and forgiveness before I surge ahead into the week, knowing that on my continuing journey I’ll inevitably hit wrong notes.

But it can be beautiful nevertheless.

Even the least harmonious notes find reconciliation within the next chord. I move from the rest of my Sabbath back into the rhythm of my life, renewed and forgiven.

But trembling, still trembling.

 

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