Quieting the Soul

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At times these days I think of the way the sun would set on the farmland around our small house in the autumn.  A view of the horizon, the entire circle of it, if you turned, the sun setting behind you, the sky in front becoming pink and soft, then slightly blue again, as though it could not stop going on in its beauty, then the land closest to the setting sun would get dark, almost black against the orange line of the horizon, but if you turn around, the land is still available to the eye with such softness, the few trees, the quiet fields of cover crops already turned, and the sky lingering, lingering, then finally dark. As though the soul can be quiet for those moments.

All life amazes me.

– Elizabeth Strout, from My Name is Lucy Barton

 

 

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I have learned, from those much wiser than I, to recognize moments meant for quieting.  The news of the world constantly rushes past; there is suffering beyond imagining in the lives of a few I know and millions I don’t know.  There is much I can do to make a difference but so much more beyond my feeble reach.

Instead of feeling abandoned on the shores of overwhelm, I seek out the familiar, the routine, and the ordinary, immersed in the recurring patterns of the day and night as the world turns on its axis.  I turn myself around to witness what surrounds me.

And so I am quieted.  And so I am amazed.

 

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Yesterday’s Unwashed Dishes

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She rarely made us do it—
we’d clear the table instead—so my sister and I teased
that some day we’d train our children right
and not end up like her, after every meal stuck
with red knuckles, a bleached rag to wipe and wring.
The one chore she spared us: gummy plates
in water greasy and swirling with sloughed peas,
globs of egg and gravy.
 
                                Or did she guard her place
at the window? Not wanting to give up the gloss
of the magnolia, the school traffic humming.
Sunset, finches at the feeder. First sightings
of the mail truck at the curb, just after noon,
delivering a note, a card, the least bit of news.
~Susan Meyers “Mother, Washing Dishes”
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My thoughts went round and round and it occurred to me that if I ever wrote a novel it would be of the ‘stream of consciousness’ type and deal with an hour in the life of a woman at the sink.

….I had to admit that nobody had compelled me to wash these dishes or to tidy this kitchen. It was the fussy spinster in me, the Martha who could not comfortably sit and make conversation when she knew that yesterday’s unwashed dishes were still in the sink.
~Barbara Pym from Excellent Women
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I trace the faltering American family to the invention of the automatic dishwasher.

What ever has happened to the human dishwasher with two hands full of wash cloth and scrubber, alongside a dish dryer armed with a towel?

Where is the list on the refrigerator of whose turn is next, and the accountability if a family member somehow shirks their washing/drying responsibility and leaves the dishes to the next day?

No longer do family members have to cooperate to scrub clean glasses, dishes and utensils, put them in the dish rack, dry them one by one and place them in the cupboard where they belong. If the washer isn’t doing a proper job, the dryer immediately takes note and recycles the dirty dish right back to the sink. Instant accountability. I always preferred to be the dryer. If I washed, and my sister dried, we’d never get done. She would keep recycling the dishes back for another going-over. My messy nature exposed.

The family conversations started over a meal often continue over the clean-up process while concentrating on whether a smudge is permanent or not. I learned some important facts of life while washing and drying dishes that I might not have learned otherwise. Sensitive topics tend to be easier to discuss when elbow deep in soap suds. Spelling and vocabulary and math fact drills are more effective when the penalty for a missed word is a snap on the butt with a dish towel.

Modern society is missing the best opportunity for three times a day family-together time. Forget family “game” night, or parental “date” night, or even vacations. Dish washing and drying at the sink takes care of all those times when families need to be communicating and cooperating.

It is time to treat the automatic dishwasher as simply another storage cupboard and instead pull out the brillo pads, the white cotton dishtowels and the plastic dishrack.

Let’s start tonight.

And I think it is your turn first…

 

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All Things Frail and Imperiled

 

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Here, I place
a blue glazed cup
where the wood
is slightly whitened.
Here, I lay down
two bright spoons,
our breakfast saucers, napkins
white and smooth as milk.

I am stirring at the sink,
I am stirring
the amount of dew
you can gather in two hands,
folding it into the fragile
quiet of the house.
Before the eggs,
before the coffee
heaving like a warm cat,
I step out to the feeder—
one foot, then the other,
alive on wet blades.
Air lifts my gown—I might fly—

This thistle seed I pour
is for the tiny birds.
This ritual,
for all things frail
and imperiled.
Wings surround me, frothing
the air. I am struck
by what becomes holy.

A woman
who lost her teenage child
to an illness without mercy,
said that at the end, her daughter
sat up in her hospital bed
and asked:

What should I do?
What should I do?

Into a white enamel bath
I lower four brown eggs.
You fill the door frame,
warm and rumpled, kiss
the crown of my head.
I know how the topmost leaves
of dusty trees
feel at the advent
of the monsoon rains.

I carry the woman with the lost child
in my pocket, where she murmurs
her love song without end:
Just this, each day:
Bear yourself up on small wings
to receive what is given.

Feed one another
with such tenderness,
it could almost be an answer.
~Marcia F. Brown “Morning Song”

 

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I am comforted by rituals, as are we all.
The feeding, the cleaning,
the washing, the nurture,
the smoothing of the wrinkled and ruffled,
the sacred time of rest.

It is those small things that get us through the day,
that create holiness in each breath, each moment.

What should I do next? What should I do?

No need to wonder. I am led to what is needed.

 

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Turn Aside and Look: Exulting in Monotony

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Because children have abounding vitality,
because they are in spirit fierce and free,
therefore they want things repeated and unchanged.
They always say, “Do it again”;
and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead.
For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony.
But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony.
It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun;
and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon.
It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike;
it may be that God makes every daisy separately,
but has never got tired of making them.
It may be that he has the eternal appetite of infancy;
for we have sinned and grown old,
and our Father is younger than we.

~G.K. Chesterton from Orthodoxy

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To an infant, nothing is monotonous — it is all so new.  The routine of the day is very simple and reassuring: sleep, wake, cry, nurse, clean up, gaze out at the world, turn on the smiles –repeat.

The routine becomes more complex as we age until it no longer resembles a routine, if we can help it. We don’t bother getting up to watch the sun rise yet again and don’t notice the sun set once more.

Weary as we may be with routine, our continual search for the next new thing costs us in time and energy.   We age every time we sigh with boredom or turn away from the mundane and everyday, becoming less and less like our younger purer selves.

Who among us exults in monotony and celebrates predictability and enjoys repetition, whether it is sunrise or sunset or an infinite number of daisies?

God does on our behalf.  He is consistent, persistent and insistent because we are no longer are.

Do it again, God.  Please, please do it again.

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Each Day’s Chores

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There is much about autumn farm chores that is good for the weary heart.

When the stresses of the work world amass together and threaten to overwhelm, there is reassurance in the routine of putting on muck boots, gloves, jacket, then hearing the back door bang behind me as I head outside. Following the path to the barns with my trusty corgi boys in the lead, I open wide the doors to hear the welcoming nickers of six different equine voices.

The routine:  loosening up the twine on the hay bales and opening each stall door to put a meal in front of each hungry horse, maneuvering the wheelbarrow to fork up accumulated manure, fill up the water bucket, pat a neck and go on to the next one. By the time I’m done, I am generally calmer, listening to the rhythmic chewing from six sets of molars. It is a welcome symphony of satisfaction for both the musicians and audience. My mind snaps a picture and records the song to pull out later when needed.

The horses are not in the least perturbed that I may have had a challenging day. Like the dogs and cats, they show appreciation that I have come to do what I promise to do–I care for them, I protect them and moreover, I will always return.

Outside the barn, the chill wind blows gently through the bare tree branches with a wintry bite to remind me who is not in control. I should drop the pretense. The stars, covered most nights by cloud cover, show themselves, glowing alongside the moon in a galactic sweep across the sky.  They exude the tranquility of an Ever-Presence over my bowed and humbled head. I am cared for and protected; He is always there and He will return.

There is balance of the ordinary and extraordinary within the profundity of farm chores,  and within the rhythm of autumn’s transition to winter.

Equilibrium is delivered to my heart, once and ever after, from a stable.

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photo of colors in New Hampshire by Ben Gibson

Restoration

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The ghosts swarm.
They speak as one
person. Each
loves you. Each
has left something undone.
~Rae Armantrout from “Unbidden”

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What is it that goes on within the soul,
that it takes greater delight if things it loves are found
or restored to it than if it had always possessed them?

…The storm tosses seafarers about and threatens them with shipwreck:
they all grow pale at their coming death.
Then the sky and the sea become calm, and they exult exceedingly,
just as they had feared exceedingly.

Or a dear friend is ill.…
All those who long to see him in good health are in mind sick along with him.
He gets well again, and although he does not yet walk with his former vigor,
there is joy such as did not obtain before when he walked well and strong.…

Everywhere a great joy is preceded by a greater suffering.
~Augustine of Hippo from Confessions

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(written 15 years ago today)
Tonight was a moment of epiphany in my life as a mother and farmer. This world suddenly feels so uncertain after the horrific and tragic events today, yet simple moments of grace-filled routine offer themselves up unexpectedly.  I know the Lord is beside us no matter what has happened.

For me, the routine is tucking the horses into bed, almost as important to me as tucking our children into bed. In fact, my family knows I cannot sit down to dinner until the job is done out in the barn–so human dinner waits until the horses are fed and their beds prepared.

My work schedule is usually such that I must take the horses out to their paddocks from their cozy box stalls while the sky is still dark, and then bring them back in later in the day after the sun goes down. We have quite a long driveway from barn to the paddocks which are strategically placed by the road so the horses are exposed to all manner of road noise, vehicles, logging, milk and hay trucks, school buses, and never blink when these zip past their noses. They must learn from weanling stage on to walk politely and respectfully alongside me as I make that trek from the barn in the morning and back to the barn in the evening.

Bringing the horses in tonight was a particular joy because I was a little earlier than usual and not needing to rush: the sun was setting golden orange, the world had a glow, the poplar and maple leaves carpeting the driveway and each horse walked with me without challenge,  no rushing, pushing, or pulling–just walking alongside me like the partner they have been taught to be.

I enjoy putting each into their own box stall bed at night, with fresh fluffed shavings, a pile of sweet smelling hay and fresh water. I see them breathe a big sigh of relief that they have their own space for the night–no jostling for position or feed, no hierarchy for 12 hours, and then it is back out the next morning to the herd, with all the conflict that can come from coping with other individuals in the same space.  My horses love their stalls, because that is their safe sanctuary where peace and calm is restored, that is where they get special scratching and hugs, and visits from a little red haired girl who loves them and sings them songs.

Then comes my own restoration of returning to the sanctuary of our house, feeding my human family and tucking three precious children into bed, even though two are now taller than me. The world feels momentarily predictable within our walls, comforting us in the midst of devastation and tragedy elsewhere.   Hugging a favorite pillow and wrapping up in a familiar soft blanket, there is warmth and safety in being tucked in.

I’ll continue to search for these moments of restoration whenever I’m frightened, hurting and unable to cope.  I need a quiet routine to help remind me how blessed we are to be here to wake each morning to regroup, renew and restore when it seems the ground has given way.

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Standing Together and Apart

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In southern France live two old horses,
High in the foothills, not even French,
But English, retired steeplechasers
Brought across to accept an old age
Of ambling together in the Pyrenees.
At times they whinny and kick
At one another with impatience,
But they have grown to love each other.

In time the gelding grows ill
And is taken away for treatment.
The mare pines, pokes at her food,
Dallies on her rides until the other
Comes home.
                        She is in her stall
When the trailer rumbles
Through the gate into the field,
And she sings with impatience
Until her door is opened.
                                             Then full
Of sound and speed, in need of
Each other, they entwine their necks,
Rub muzzles, bumping flanks
To embrace in their own way.
Together they prance to
The choicest pasture,
Standing together and apart,
To be glad until
They can no longer be glad.
~Paul Zimmer, “Love Poem”

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There is security in a basic routine, especially on our farm – predictable things happening in predictable ways, day after day, week after week, year after year.  Somehow, dull as it may seem, the “norm” is quite comforting, like each breath taken in and let go, each heart beat following the next. We depend on it, take it for granted, forget it until something doesn’t go as it should.

Mornings are very routine for me.  I wake before the alarm, usually by 5:30 AM, fire up the computer and turn the stove on to get my coffee water boiling.  I head down the driveway to fetch the paper, either feeling my way in the dark if it is winter, or squinting at the glare of early morning sunlight if it is not.  I make my morning coffee, check my emails, eat my share of whole grains while reading the paper, climb into my rubber boots and head out for chores.

Some years ago, as I was leading a mare and her colt out to pasture for their daytime turnout, I was whistling to the wandering colt as he had his own ideas about where he wanted to be, and it wasn’t where I was leading. Fifty yards away, he decided he was beyond his comfort zone so whirled around, sped back to his mom and me, and traveling too fast to put his brakes on ended up body slamming her on her right side, putting her off balance and she side stepped toward me, landing one very sizeable Haflinger hoof directly on my rubber booted foot.  Hard.

I hobbled my way with them to the pasture, let them go, closed the gate and then pulled my boot off to see my very scrunched looking toes, puffing up and throbbing.  I still had more horses to move, so I started to limp back to the barn, biting my lip and thinking “this is no big deal, this is just a little inconvenience, this will feel better in the next few minutes”  but each step suggested otherwise.  I was getting crankier by the second when I passed beneath one of our big evergreen trees and  noticed something I would not have noticed if I hadn’t been staring down at my poor sore foot.  An eagle feather, dew covered, was lodged in the tall grass beneath the tree, dropped there as a bald eagle had lifted its wings to fly off from the tree top, probably to dive down to grab one of the many wild bunnies that race across the open pasture, each vulnerable to the raptors that know this spot as a good place for lunch .  The wing feather lay there glistening, marking the spot, possessing the tree, claiming the land, owning our farm.  It belonged there and I did not–in fact I can’t even legally keep this feather–the law says I’m to leave it where I find it or turn it over to the federal government.

I am simply a visitor on this acreage, too often numbly going through my morning routine, accomplishing my chores for the few years I am here until I’m too old or crippled to continue. The eagles will always be here as long as the trees and potential lunch remain to attract them.

Contemplating my tenure on this earth, my toes didn’t hurt much anymore.  I was reminded that nothing truly is routine about daily life, it is gifted to us as a feather from heaven, floating down to us in ways we could never expect nor deserve.  I’d been body slammed that morning all right, but by the touch of a feather.  Bruised and broken but then built up, carried and sustained, standing together but yet apart.

I am glad for the gifts of this life, for the ache that love inevitably brings, as pain such as this can bring revelation and renewal.  Sometimes it is the only thing that does.

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