A Full Circle Remembrance Day

weddingMy parents Henry and Elna Polis on their wedding day,
Dec. 24, 1942, Quantico, Virginia
He shipped out to the South Pacific front one week later,
not to return until June 1945

 

Sometimes, as a child,  when I was bored, I’d grab a step ladder, pull it into our hallway, climb half way up and carefully lift the plywood hatch that was the portal to our unlit attic.  It took some effort to climb up into the attic from the ladder, juggling a flashlight at the same time, but once seated safely on the beams above our ceiling, being careful not to put my foot through the carpet of insulation, I could explore what was stowed and normally inaccessible to me.

All the usual attic-type things were put up there:  Christmas ornaments and lights,  baby cribs and high chairs,  lamps and toys no longer used.  Secrets to my parents’ past were stored away there too.  It was difficult imagining them as young children growing up on opposite sides of the state of Washington, in very different circumstances, or as attractive college students who met at a dance, or as young marrieds unencumbered by the daily responsibilities of a family.  The attic held those images and memories like a three dimensional photo album.

My father’s dark green Marine Corps cargo trunk was up there, the one that followed him from Officer Training in Quantico, Virginia, to beach and mountain battles on Tarawa, Tinian and Saipan in the South Pacific, and three years later back home again.  It had his name and rank stenciled on the side in dark black lettering.  The buckles were stiff but could be opened with effort, and in the dark attic, there was always the thrill of unlatching the lid, and shining the flashlight across the contents.  His Marine Corps dress uniform lay inside underneath his stiff brimmed cap.  There were books about protocol, and a photo album which contained pictures of “his men” that he led in his battalion, and the collection of photos my mother sent of herself as she worked as a high school teacher back home.

Most fascinating was a folded Japanese flag inside a small drawstring bag, made of thin white see-through cloth with the bold red sun in the middle.  Surrounding the red sun were the delicate inked characters of many Japanese hands as if painted by artists, each wishing a soldier well in his fight for the empire.  Yet there it was, a symbol of that soldier’s demise, itself buried in an American attic, being gently and curiously held by an American daughter of a Marine Corps captain.  It would occur to me in the 1960s that some of the people who wrote on this flag might still be living, and certainly members of the soldier’s family would still be living.  I asked my father once about how he obtained the flag, and he, protecting me and himself, waved me away, saying he couldn’t remember.  I know better now.  He knew but could not possibly tell me the truth.

These flags, charms of good luck for the departing Japanese soldier as he left his neighborhood or village for war, are called Hinomaru Yosegaki (日の丸寄せ書き).  Tens of thousands of these flags came home with American soldiers; it is clear they were not the talisman hoped for.  A few of these flags are now finding their way back to their home country, to the original villages, to descendants of the lost soldiers.  My brother, who now has the flag, has returned it as well to its rightful owners.

Seventy some years ago doesn’t seem that long, a mere drop in the river of time.  There is more than mere mementos that have flowed from the broken dam of WWII, flooding subsequent generations of Americans, Japanese, Europeans with memories that are now lost as the oldest surviving soldiers in their 90’s pass, hundreds of them daily, taking their stories of pain and loss and heroism with them.   My father could never talk with a person of Asian descent, Japanese or not, without stiffening his spine and a grim set to his jaw.  He never could be at ease or turn his back.  As a child, I saw and felt this from him, but heard little from his mouth.

When he was twenty two years old,  pressed flat against the rocks of Tarawa, trying to melt into the ground to become invisible to the bullets whizzing overhead, he could not have conceived that sixty five years later his twenty two year old grandson would disembark from a jumbo jet at Narita in Tokyo, making his way to an international school in that city to teach Japanese children.  My father would have been shocked that his grandson would settle happily into a culture so foreign, so seemingly threatening, so apparently abhorrent.   Yet this irony is the direct result of the horrors of that too-long horrible bloody war of devastation: Americans and Japanese, despite so many differences, have become the strongest of allies, happily exchanging the grandchildren of those bitterly warring soldiers back and forth across the Pacific.  I care for Japanese exchange students daily in my University clinic, peering intently into their open faces and never once have seen the enemy that my father knew.

More than seventy years later, my son still teaches, with deep admiration and appreciation for each of his students, those grandchildren and greatgrandchildren of the soldiers my father hated and likely killed.  Not only does my son teach, but he married a granddaughter of those my father fought.  Their daughter is the perfect amalgam of once warring, yet now peaceful, cultures; symbol of blended and blending peoples overcoming the hatred of past generations.

In coming to the land of the red sun, in coming full circle, my father’s descendant, the teacher and missionary,  redeems my father, the warrior.

It is, on this Remembrance Day,  as it was meant to be.

 

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In Search Of…

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A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it.
~Kathleen Norris

 

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I remember well the feeling of restlessness, having an itch that couldn’t be reached, feeling too rooted and uneasy staying in one place for long, especially if that place was my hometown.  I knew I must be destined for greater things, grander plans and extraordinary destinations.  There exists in most human beings an inborn compulsion to wander far beyond one’s own threshold, venturing out into unfamiliar and sometimes hostile surroundings simply because one can.   It is the prerogative of the young to explore, loosen anchor and pull up stakes and simply go.  Most cannot articulate why but simply feel something akin to a siren call.

And so at twenty I heard and I went, considerably aging my parents in the process and not much caring that I did.  To their credit, they never told me no, never questioned my judgement, and never inflicted guilt when I returned home after the adventure went sour.

I had gone on a personal quest to the other side of the world and had come home empty.  But home itself was not empty nor had it ever been and has not been since.

There is a Dorothy-esque feeling in returning home from a land of wonders and horrors, to realize there is no place like home.    There was no way to know until I went away,  searching, then coming home empty-handed, to understand home was right inside my heart the whole time.  There was no leaving after all, not really.

So I’m here to stay–there is no greater, grander or more extraordinary than right here.  Even when I board a plane for a far off place, I know I’ll be back as this is where the search ends and the lost found.

My head now rests easy on the pillow.

 

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To Set A-Tremble

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“No man is an island,” John Donne wrote, “intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod be washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”

Or to use another metaphor, humanity is like an enormous spider web, so that if you touch it anywhere, you set the whole thing trembling…

As we move around this world and as we act with kindness, perhaps, or with indifference, or with hostility, toward the people we meet, we too are setting the great spider web a-tremble. The life that I touch for good or ill will touch another life, and that in turn another, until who knows where the trembling stops or in what far place and time my touch will be felt.

Our lives are linked together. No man is an island.
~Frederick Buechner from The Hungering Dark

 

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As we say “till we meet again” to our son and family who return today to their mission work in the island nation of Japan, I sense the strength and tenacity of the web that continually connects us to them. As they serve people thousands of miles away, the love and support of family and friends who touched them during their stay here is “set a-tremble” and extends far beyond our patch of soil here.

It helps to know we are linked, no matter how separated.  It helps to know what happens there will reach here with a tiny tremble, if I stay tuned for the smallest vibrations.  It helps to know that despite long history of conflict, our nations are connected again.

Fare well, dear hearts.  Until we meet again, we remain connected, trembling.

 

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So Many Presents to Open

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It is your birthday and there are many presents to open. The world is to be opened.

You are alive.
It needn’t have been so.
It wasn’t so once, and will not be forever.
But it is so now.

And what is it like:
to be alive in this one place of all places anywhere where life is?

Live a day of it and see.
Take any day and LIVE IT.
Nobody claims that it will be entirely painless, but no matter.

It is the first day because it has never been before
and the last day because it will never be again.

BE ALIVE.
~Frederick Buechner from The Alphabet of Grace

 

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Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.
~Mary Oliver from Red Bird

 

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To do the useful thing,
to say the courageous thing,
to contemplate the beautiful thing:
that is enough for one man’s life.

― T.S. Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism

 

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During these turbulent times
(and there have been many in my 63 years)
when too many regret living and quit,
when too many are deprived of even taking a first breath,
when too many live life shrouded in pain and sorrow~

I tend to forget each day is a gift to be opened and savored.
Each day a first day, a last day, a birthday of amazing grace.

I myself was never expected to be:
seven years of my parents wanting and not conceiving.
The papers to adopt a baby boy were ready to sign
when my mother began feeling sick in the mornings
and she celebrated her misery.

I think now of that baby boy and wonder whose arms took him in
when I unexpectedly came and filled my parents’.

I am alive, by God,
it needn’t have been so, but is so now.
I don’t want to waste a moment of astonishment
and breathe each breath, amazed.

 

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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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Driving Out the Cold

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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.

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Knitting Hearts

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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”

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