Angels in the Wilderness


…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


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.



Driving Out the Cold



Sundays too my father got up early
And put his clothes on in the blueback cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
–  Robert HaydenThose Winter Sundays


As a child growing up,
I was oblivious
to the sacrifices my parents made
to keep the house warm,
place food on the table,
to teach us the importance of faith and belief,
to crack the door of opportunity open,
so we could walk through
to a better life.

It was no small offering
to keep dry seasoned fire and stove wood always at the doorstep,
to milk the cows twice a day,
to grow and preserve fruits and vegetables months in advance,
to raise and butcher meat animals,
to read books together every night,
to sit with us over homework
and drive us to 4H, Cub Scouts and Camp Fire,
to music lessons and sports,
to sit together, never missing a Sunday
to worship God.

This was their love,
so often invisible,
too often imperfect,
yet its encompassing warmth
splintered and broke
the grip of cold
that too often
overwhelms and freezes
a child’s heart and soul.

What did I know?
Too little then,
so much more now.



Knitting Hearts


leaponyTo Lea on her birth day, celebrated twenty two years ago with much drama and joy — we cherish each day with you in our lives…


May the wind always be in her hair
May the sky always be wide with hope above her
And may all the hills be an exhilaration
the trials but a trail,
all the stones but stairs to God.

When it’s hard to be patient…make her willing to suffer
When it’s ridiculous to be thankful … make her see all is grace
When it’s radical to forgive…make her live the foundation of our faith
And when it’s time to work … make her a holy wonder.

May she be bread and feed many with her life and her laughter
May she be thread and mend brokenness and knit hearts…
~Ann Voskamp from “A Prayer for a Daughter”

lea004 lea006






So Pressed For Time


Six years after her death, I’m slowly sorting through my mother’s packed up possessions stored in one of our farm outbuildings. Some boxes I am still not ready to open, such as the 30 months of letters written by my newlywed father and mother while he fought in several bloody island battles as a Marine in the South Pacific during WWII. Other boxes contain items from too distant an era to be practical in my kitchen, such as the ones labeled “decorative teacups” or “assorted tupperware bowls”.

But I do open the boxes of books. My mother was a high school speech teacher during those war years, and she had a good sense of a classic book, so there are always treasures in those boxes.

Recently I rediscovered the 1956 Webster’s New Dictionary of the Twentieth Century that I grew up with. This book was massive, easily weighing 10 pounds, and served as a booster seat for haircuts, a step stool for trying to reach the cookie jar on the kitchen cupboard, and of course, for looking up any obscure word that ever existed in all of history. Or so it seemed.

An amazing tome. And as I flipped through the pages, I found some old familiar friends that were neither black nor white nor read all over.

Wildflowers had been carefully pressed between the pages–over two dozen specimens paper thin themselves, their existence squeezed into two dimensions–still showing faint pink or blue, or purple color, almost exuding a long ago fragrance from a summer over fifty years ago. As a child I regularly wandered out to our fields and woods to gather crimson clover blossoms, buttercup, dandelions, daisies, wild violets, wild ginger, and (shame on me!) trillium and calypso lady slippers for bouquets for my mother, and she would select the most perfect to slide between the pages of the dictionary. Occasionally she would pull out one to gently paste on a hand written card she sent to a friend.

Here were my once perfect flowers, preserved and pressed for time, just waiting for the middle-aged me to rediscover them lying between wonderful words that I love to roll in my mouth and type on a page. They are too fragile to paste to a greeting card, or even to handle due to their brittleness. They need to stay right where they are, for another generation or two or three to discover.

I too am so pressed for time, becoming more fragile, perhaps more brittle than I care to admit. My mother and father are now blown away like the puff ball seeds of the dandelion, on to other horizons, but the sturdy old dictionary is going nowhere. It will be passed down, its delicate passengers preserved inside, a long ago far away summer afternoon of flower gathering to be shared as a great grandchild opens the book to look up a favorite word sometime in the not so far off future.dictionary2



Looking Back at My Reflection

Henry Polis 1968

In acknowledgment of Father’s Day, I pulled out a particular photo album that chronicles my father’s 1968 backyard project.   This was no ordinary project, but like every other project he took on, it was accomplished during the daylight hours after he got home from his desk job and then consumed most of his weekend waking hours.  He had been dreaming it up for a number of years, and then one day, grabbed a shovel and simply got started and didn’t quit until it was finished.

Grouting the tile perimeter

He was determined to build a full size swimming pool, by himself, with his own two hands.  He did use our little Farmall Cub tractor to blade away the first layer of topsoil, but the rest of the digging was by the shovel-full.   He wanted a kidney shaped pool rather than a rectangular one, so he soaked the wooden forms in water to form the graceful curves. The cement was poured by a cement truck, but the sidewalks were all self-mixed in our own little cement mixer that ran off a small engine.  The tile that lined the top of the pool was all hand grouted and placed, square by square.  The pumphouse/changing room was built alongside.

In the very bottom, installing a drain
Pouring the sidewalk by hand

I was 14 that summer, not truly understanding how extraordinary an effort this was, but simply accepting it as another “dad” project like any other he finished through sheer will, stubbornness and a desire to go on to the next challenge.   Now, over forty years later,  as an adult who is plum tired at the end of an office/clinic work day, I marvel at his energy putting in another four or five hours of physical labor when he came home at night.  No wonder he never suffered from insomnia.

I was in a hurry for it to be done...

Once the pool was declared finished, a hose ran water for several days, and it took 2 more days to heat it up to a temperature that was survivable.  Then my dad took the first dive in.

The best dive ever...

Once he had taken that first dive, he was happy.  He swam every once in awhile, but was soon onto another project (reconstructing a steel walled gas station that arrived on our farm in piles of panels on the back of a flat bed truck, so that he could have a full size “shop” to work on indoor projects during the winter).  It was sufficient for him to just to be able to say he had done it himself.

So as I study the look on my father’s face in these photos, I am startled to see my self looking back at me, like a reflection in the water.  I now realize determination and utter stubbornness can manifest in different ways.  I have no mechanical skills whatsoever,  but like my father,  I always have a dream I’m pursuing, and I keep at it until it is accomplished.

Thanks to my dad for showing me how to dive right into life.  The water’s fine.

One January Afternoon

Surfacing to the street from a thirty two hour hospital shift usually means my eyes blink mole-like, adjusting to searing daylight after being too long in darkened windowless halls.  This particular January day is different.   As the doors open, I am immersed in a subdued gray Seattle afternoon, with horizontal rain soaking my scrubs.

Finally remembering where I had parked my car in pre-dawn dark the day before, I start the ignition, putting the windshield wipers on full speed.  I merge onto the freeway, pinching myself to stay awake long enough to reach my apartment and my pillow.

The freeway is a flowing river current of head and tail lights.  Semitrucks toss up tsunami waves cleared briefly by my wipers frantically whacking back and forth.

Just ahead in the lane to my right, a car catches my eye as looking just like my Dad’s new Buick.  I blink to clear my eyes and my mind, switching lanes to get behind.  The license plate confirms it is indeed my Dad, oddly 100 miles from home in the middle of the week.  I smiled, realizing he and Mom have probably planned to surprise me by taking me out for dinner.

I decide to surprise them first, switching lanes to their left and accelerating up alongside.  As our cars travel side by side in the downpour,  I glance over to my right to see if I can catch my Dad’s eye through streaming side windows.  He is looking away to the right at that moment, obviously in conversation.  It is then I realize something is amiss.  When my Dad looks back at the road, he is smiling in a way I have never seen before.  There are arms wrapped around his neck and shoulder, and a woman’s auburn head is snuggled into his chest.

My mother’s hair is gray.

My initial confusion turns instantly to fury.  Despite the rivers of rain obscuring their view, I desperately want them to see me.  I think about honking,  I think about pulling in front of them so my father would know I have seen and I know.  I think about ramming them with my car so that we’d perish, unrecognizable, in an explosive storm-soaked mangle.

At that moment, my father glances over at me and our eyes meet across the lanes.  His face is a mask of betrayal, bewilderment and then shock, and she straightens up and looks at me quizzically.

I leave them behind, speeding beyond, splashing them with my wake.  Every breath burns my lungs and pierces my heart.  I can not distinguish whether the rivers obscuring my view are from my eyes or my windshield.

When I walk into my apartment, the phone is ringing, futilely.  I throw myself on my bed, bury my wet face in my pillow and pray for sleep without dreams.

Where’s the Party?


Fireworks on our farm's hill taken by Nate Gibson
Fireworks on our farm's hill taken by Nate Gibson

I  remember childhood summers as 3 months of full-out celebration– long lazy days stretching into nights that didn’t seem to really darken until 11 PM and bright birdsong mornings starting out at 4:30 AM.  Not only were there the brief family vacations at the beach or to visit cousins, but there was the Fourth of July, Daily Vacation Bible School, the county fair, family reunions, and of course and most importantly, my July birthday.  Yes, there were mundane chores to be done, a garden to tend, a barn to clean, berries to pick,  a lawn to mow and all that stuff, but my memories of summer are mostly about fluff and frolic.

So where are the summer parties now?  Who is out there celebrating without me?  Nothing seems to be spontaneous as it was when I was a child. Instead there is still the routine of going to work most days in the summer.

I’m finding myself in the midst of my 55th summer and I have to create celebrations if they are going to happen in my life.  Without that perspective, the bird song at 4:30 AM can feel more irritant than blessing and the long days often mean I fall asleep nodding over a book at 9 PM.  I want to treasure every, every minute of this precious time yet they flow through my fingers like so much water, faster and faster.

I realize there will be few “family” summers left as I watch my children grow into adults and spread their wings.  They may be on to their next adventure in future summers.  So each family ritual and experience together takes on special meaning and needs to be appreciated and remembered.

So….for this summer my family has crammed as much in as we can in celebration of the season:

We just spent some time in the hayfields bringing in the bales with friends–our little crew of seven–sweating and itchy and exhausted, but the sight and smell of several hundred hay bales, grown on our own land, harvested without being rained on and piled in the barn is sweet indeed.   Weekly we are out on the softball field in church league,  yelling encouragement and high-fiving each other, hooting at the good hits and the bad, the great catches and the near misses, and getting dirty and sprained, and as happy to lose as to win.  We had a wonderful July 4 barbeque with good friends culminating in the fireworks show on our farm’s hill overlooking miles of valley around us, appreciating everyone else’s backyard displays as well as our own.  We are now able to sing hymns in church in four part harmony, and last night our children helped lead the singing last night in an evening “campfire church” for over fifty fellow worshipers on our hill.  In a couple weeks, we’ll take to the beach for three days of playing in the sand, roasting hot dogs. reading good books, and playing board games.  We’ll try to make the trek down to Seattle by train to spend the day watching the Mariners play (and likely lose). One change this year is we won’t be returning back to the Lynden fair with our horses–due to “off the farm” work and school schedules, we couldn’t muster the necessary round-the-clock crew after seventeen years of being there to display our little part of small town agricultural pursuits.

Yet the real party happens right here every day in small ways without any special planning.  It doesn’t require money or special food or traveling beyond our own soil.  It is the smiles and good laughs we share together, and the hugs for kids taller than I am. It’s adult conversations with the new adults in our family–no longer adolescents.  It’s finding delight in fresh cherries from our own trees, currants and berries from our own bushes, greens from the garden, flowers for the table from the yard.  It is the Haflingers in the field that come right up to us to enjoy rubs and scratches and follow us like puppies. It is babysitting for toddlers who remind us of the old days of having small children, and who give us a glimpse of future grandparenthood.  It is good friends coming from far away to ride our horses and learn farm skills. It is an early morning walk in the woods or a late evening stroll over the hills. It is daily contact with aging parents who no longer hear well or feel well but nevertheless share of themselves in the ways they are able.  It is the awesome power of an evening sunset filled with hope and the calming promise of a new day somewhere else in this world of ours.

Some days may not look or feel like there’s a party happening, but that is only because I haven’t searched hard enough.  The party is here, sparklers and all, even if only in my own mind.




Campfire church photos by Bette VanderHaak
Campfire church photos by Bette VanderHaak