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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Birthing a Mother

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Her fate seizes her and brings her
down. She is heavy with it. It
wrings her. The great weight
is heaved out of her. It eases.
She moves into what she has become
sure in her fate now
as a fish free in the current.
She turns to the calf who has broken
out of the womb’s water and its veil.
He breathes. She licks his wet hair.
He gathers his legs under him
and rises. He stands, and his legs
wobble. After the months
of his pursuit of her now
they meet face to face.
From the beginnings of the world
his arrival and her welcome
have been prepared. They have always
known each other.
~Wendell Berry  “Her First Calf”

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Seized, brought down, wrung from, heaved out, pursued, then eased:
there is nothing gentle in what it takes to be birthed a mother;

once emptied, mothering becomes sweetness
as never tasted before,
a filling back up
in a face to face meeting
destined from the beginnings of time.

I have known you,
I knew each of you,
you have known me all along,
born in covenant promise
and set free at birth.

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back of the pickup 1994

Angels in the Wilderness

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…any father, particularly an old father, must finally give his child up to the wilderness and trust to the providence of God.

It seems almost a cruelty for one generation to beget another when parents can secure so little for their children, so little safety, even in the best circumstances. Great faith is required to give the child up, trusting God to honor the parents’ love for him by assuring that there will indeed be angels in that wilderness.
~Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

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This is a reassuring truth:  watching our children leave our home to a life of their own, I trusted in God’s providence there would be angels in the wilderness waiting to guide them (and indeed there have been and continue to be).

In turn, every day as I head to work in my clinic, I have opportunity to be an angel in the wilderness for children who have left their parents’ home and are seeking out their own path, sometimes choosing one that is twisting, rocky, full of pitfalls and perilous. 

Despite my own weariness, holding this perspective helps me greet each new face with a mother’s embrace.

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drencheddogwood

End of the Year Tears

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Let us step outside for a moment
As the sun breaks through clouds
And shines on wet new fallen snow,
And breathe the new air.
So much has died that had to die this year.

Let us step outside for a moment.
It is all there
Only we have been slow to arrive
At a way of seeing it.
Unless the gentle inherit the earth
There will be no earth.
~May Sarton from “New Year Poem”

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photo by Nate Gibson

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

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I don’t pay close enough attention to the meaning of my leaking eyes when I’m looking for kleenex to stem the flow.  During the holidays it seems I have more than ample opportunity to find out from my tears 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 and choking on precious words of gratitude.  It certainly has to do with bidding farewell as we did yet again this morning, gathering them in for that final hug and then that letting-go part.

We urge and encourage them to go where their hearts are telling them they are needed and called to be, even 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 learned to 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, as it will continue if granted the years to weep again and again with gusto and grace.

This is where I will go next: 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.   They release a 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 needed with these tears.

Let them flow as I let them go.

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When You Get There

Empty Hospital Bed
Vigil at my mother’s bedside

Lying still, your mouth gapes open as
I wonder if you breathe your last.
Your hair a white cloud
Your skin baby soft
No washing, digging, planting gardens
Or raising children
Anymore.

Where do your dreams take you?
At times you wake in your childhood home of
Rolling wheat fields, boundless days of freedom.
Other naps take you to your student and teaching days
Grammar and drama, speech and essays.
Yesterday you were a young mother again
Juggling babies, farm and your wistful dreams.

Today you looked about your empty nest
Disguised as hospital bed,
Wondering aloud about
Children grown, flown.
You still control through worry
and tell me:
Travel safely
Get a good night’s sleep
Take time to eat
Call me when you get there

I dress you as you dressed me
I clean you as you cleaned me
I love you as you loved me
You try my patience as I tried yours.
I wonder if I have the strength to
Mother my mother
For as long as she needs.

When I tell you the truth
Your brow furrows as it used to do
When I disappointed you~
This cannot be
A bed in a room in a sterile place
Waiting for death
Waiting for heaven
Waiting

And I tell you:
Travel safely
Eat, please eat
Sleep well
Call me when you get there.

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Great Grandma Elna meeting Noah 5 days before she died, 2008

 

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Elna Schmitz as Elizabeth Barrett Browning in a WSC production in Pullman, Washington in 1940

A Healing Triangle

(a reblog of my story written ten years ago published in Country Magazine August/September 2007 and selected for use by the Educational Testing Service for standardized tests, like the SAT for Reading Comprehension)

Settling into the straw, I am grateful for this quiet moment after a 12 hour workday followed by all the requisite personal conversations that help mop up the spills and splatters of every day life. My family verbally unloads their day like so much stored up laundry needing to be washed and rinsed with the spin cycle completed before tomorrow dawns. I move from child to child to child to husband to grandmother, hoping to help each one clean, dry, fold and sort everything in their pile. Not to be outdone, I pile up a little dirty laundry of my own as I complain about my day.

By that time I’m on “spent” cycle myself.  I retreat to the barn where communication is less demanding and requires more than just my ears and vocal cords.   Complaints are meaningless here. In this place a new foal and his vigilant mama watch my every move.

This colt is intrigued by my intrusion into his 12′ x 24′ world. His mother is annoyed. He comes over to sniff my foot and his mother swiftly moves him away with a quick swing of her hips, daunting me with the closeness of her heels. Her first instinct insists she separate me from him and bar my access. My mandate is to woo her over. I could bribe her with food, but, no,  that is too easy.

A curry comb is best. If nothing else will work, a good scratching always does. Standing up, I start peeling sheets of no longer needed winter hair off her neck,  her sides, her flank and hindquarter.  She relaxes in response to my efforts,  giving her baby a body rub with her muzzle, wiggling her lips all up and down from his back to his tummy. He is delighted with this spontaneous mommy massage and leans into her, moving around so his hind end is under her mouth and his front end is facing me. Then he starts giving his own version of a massage too, wiggling his muzzle over my coat sleeve and wondrously closing this little therapeutic triangle.

Here we are, a tight little knot of givers/receivers with horse hair flying in a cloud about us. One weary human, one protective mama mare and one day-old foal, who is learning so young how to contribute to the well being of others. It is an incredible gift of trust they bestow on me like a blessing.  I realize this horse family is helping me sort my own laundry in the same way I had helped with my human family’s load.

Too often in life we find ourselves in painful triangles, passing our kicks and bites down the line to each other rather than providing needed relief and respite. We find ourselves unable to wrench free from continuing to deliver the hurts we’ve just received.  What strength it takes to respond with kindness when the kick has just landed on our backside. How chastened we feel when a kindness is directed at us, as undeserving as we are after having bitten someone hard.

Instead of biting, try massaging.  Instead of kicking, try tickling. Instead of fear, try acceptance.  Instead of annoyance, try patience. Instead of piling up so much laundry of your own, try washing, folding and sorting what is given to you by others, handing it back all ready for the next day.

If you just settle into the straw and wait, amazing things can happen.

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belindarose

Each Minute the Last

11951312_1198925466800331_3990099488883249004_nphoto of Watson Lakes in the North Cascades by Benjamin Janicki

The fire in leaf and grass
so green it seems
each summer the last summer.

The wind blowing, the leaves
shivering in the sun,
each day the last day.

A red salamander
so cold and so
easy to catch, dreamily

moves his delicate feet
and long tail. I hold
my hand open for him to go.

Each minute the last minute.
~Denise Levertov

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To think that this meaningless thing was ever a rose,
Scentless, colourless, this!
Will it ever be thus (who knows?)
Thus with our bliss,
If we wait till the close?

Though we care not to wait for the end, there comes the end
Sooner, later, at last,
Which nothing can mar, nothing mend:
An end locked fast,
Bent we cannot re-bend.
~Christina Rossetti “Summer is Ended”

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As now school buses drone past the farm,
no longer bearing our children away to greater knowledge,
as they each have caught rides far beyond my reach.
I recall each first day of school feels like a day of mourning
each “last” of summer a loss, each ending so bent
I find no strength to bend it back carefree,
and I must learn, once more, with each “last”,
how fleeting the bliss of this life.

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