Half a Lifetime Ago

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On Halloween day in 1985, I packed up my clothes, a roll up mattress,  grabbed one lonely pumpkin from our small garden, locked our rental house door for the last time, climbed in my car to head north out of Seattle. I don’t recall looking back in the rear view mirror at the skyline after nine years living in the city. My husband had moved to Whatcom County two months earlier to start his new job. I had stayed behind to wrap up my Group Health family practice in the Rainier Valley of Seattle. I was leaving the city for a new rural home and a very uncertain professional future.

I knew two things for sure: I was finally several months pregnant after a miscarriage and two years of infertility, so our family was on its way, and we were going to actually live in our own house, not just a rental, complete with a few acres and a barn. A real (sort of) starter farm. Since no farm can be complete without animals, I stopped at the first pet store I drove past and found two tortoise shell calico kitten sisters peering up at me,  just waiting for new adventures in farmland. Their box was packed into the one spot left beside me in my little Mazda. With that simple commitment to raise and nurture those kittens, life seemed very complete.

I will never forget the freedom I felt on that drive north. The highway seemed more open, the fall colors more vibrant, the wind more brisk, our baby happily kicking my belly, the kittens plaintively mewing from their box. There seemed to be so much potential even though I had just left behind the greatest job that could be found in any urban setting (the most diverse zip code in the United States): an ideal family practice with patients from all over the world: Muslims from the Middle East and Indonesia, Orthodox Jews, Italian Catholics, African Americans, Cambodians, Laotians, Vietnamese. I would never know so much variety of background and perspective again and if I could have packed them all into the Mazda and driven them north with me, I would have.

We started our farm with those kittens dubbed Nutmeg and Oregano, soon adding an ethnic diversity of farm animals:  Belgian Tervuren dog Tango, Haflinger horse Greta, Toggenburg goats Tamsen and her kids, a few Toulouse geese, Araucana chickens, Fiona the Scottish Highland cow, then another Haflinger Hans and another, Tamara. I worked as a fill in locums doctor in four different clinics before our first baby, Nate, was born. Again, we had new commitments and life felt complete– but not for long, as we soon added little brother Ben and seven years later,  sister Lea. Then it really was complete. Or so I thought.

Thirty three years later our children have long ago grown and gone to new homes of their own, off to their own adventures beyond the farm.  Our sons married wonderful women, our daughter is in her third year of teaching fourth grade a few hours away and we have a granddaughter growing up in Tokyo.

A few cats, two Cardigan Corgi dogs, and a hand full of ponies remain at the farm with us. We are now both gray and move a bit more slowly, enjoy our naps and the quiet of the nights and weekends.  My work has evolved from four small jobs to two decades of two part time jobs to one more than full time job that fits me like a well worn sweater 24 hours a day.

My husband is happily retired now,  volunteering, serving on boards and being a full time farmer on our larger 20 acre place of fields and woods.  Retirement looms closer for me:  I have never not worked outside the home and don’t know how I can stop when the need in health care is greater than ever.

There was freedom that rainy Halloween day over three decades ago as Seattle disappeared in the rear view mirror. I would no longer sat captive in freeway rush hour bumper to bumper traffic jams.  I celebrate my daily commute through farm fields, watching eagles fly, and new calves licked by their mamas. I am part of a community in a way I never could manage in the city, stopping to visit with friends at the grocery store, playing piano and teaching at church and serving on various community boards. Our home sits in the midst of woods and corn fields, with deer strolling through the fields at dawn, coyotes howling at night, Canadian geese and trumpeter swans calling from overhead and salmon becoming more prolific every year in nearby streams. The snowy Cascades greet us in the morning and the sunset over Puget Sound bids us good night.

It all started October 31, 1985 with two orange and black kittens and a pumpkin sitting beside me in a little Mazda, my husband waiting for my homecoming 100 miles north. Now, thirty three years and three grown children and one granddaughter later, we celebrate this Halloween transition anniversary together, still pregnant with the possibility that life is never truly complete when there is always a new day just around the corner.

 

 

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October

Between the Fading Leaves

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This is the spot:—how mildly does the sun
Shine in between the fading leaves! The air
In the habitual silence of this wood
Is more than silent; and this bed of heath—

Where shall we find so sweet a resting-place?

Come, let me see thee sink into a dream
Of quiet thoughts protracted till thine eye
Be calm as water when the winds are gone
And no one can tell whither.

My sweet Friend,
We two have had such happy hours together
That my heart melts in me to think of it.
~ William Wordsworth, “Traveling”  from The Collected Poems of William Wordsworth

 

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Air so silent.  Filtered sunlight on fading leaves.
So calmed with quieting thoughts and restfulness
that my eye is like still water:

Yet how,
within the daily barrage of headlines, broadcasts and opinion experts,
of threats and lies and redemption denied,
can I find calm and stillness?

Where are my sweet friends
for whom my heart melts in remembrance and gratitude?

This is the spot.  This is our respite.  This is where we find one another.

 

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Is This the Party to Whom I am Speaking?

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(As a child, I well remember our rural community’s party line — this was what social media was like 60 years ago, only you couldn’t choose your friends and you certainly couldn’t “unfriend” or block anyone from knowing all about your business.  Privacy was a relative concept during those days, so I decided to write this little story about how a “typical” neighborhood party line functioned) 

 

Two longs and a short is for the Williams farm,
Two shorts and a long is for Abner and Gladys, retired down the road,
A short and a long is for Aunt Bessie who lives nearby with her cat,
One long is for the Mitchell family of ten next door,
One short means it’s for me, alone since my son got married.

Most of the rings are for the Mitchells as four of their girls are over thirteen,
But when I pick up the receiver, it is Aunt Bessie’s voice I hear most,
As she likes to call the ladies from church and find out who’s sick,
Who’s not, and who’s maybe not going to make it through the week
To be sitting in their pew come Sunday.

Gladys is usually listening on the line real quiet-like and I know that
Because I can hear her sniff every once in awhile
Due to her allergies, kind of a little snort which she tries to cover up
But it does no good as we know she’s there and everything we say
Will be spread to town by tomorrow anyways.

Which reminds me the Williams’ are having money troubles
Because the bank is calling them about their overdue loan payments
And the crops are poor this year so there is worry about foreclosure.
And if that wasn’t enough, the Mrs. has made a doctor’s appointment in the city
Because of a new lump she found just yesterday.

Wouldn’t you know one of the Mitchell girls was talking about running off
With that Howard boy but I can’t imagine how word got back to her daddy
Who has put the phone and the boy off-limits for the time being
Until summer is over and she can be sent to the city to be a nanny to a wealthy family
And maybe meet a rich city boy who will keep her occupied.

Of course we’ve all offered solutions for Abner’s hemorrhoids
And his itchy scalp, even when we aren’t asked for our opinion.
Then when the youngest Mitchell was refusing to sleep through the night
Aunt Bessie suggested a little blackberry cordial might help but
Mrs. Mitchell was properly horrified and hung up then and there.

Last night the phone rang one short ring, sometime after 1 AM,
I woke with my nerves all a-jangle, wondering what bad news I would hear,
Four other people were on the line listening for my bad news too.
When I heard my oldest boy back east shout  “Mama, it’s a girl, you’re a granny!”
My heart swelled and my tears flowed for this answer to my prayers.

In the morning, when I went to walk down the driveway to get the mail
There was a bright bouquet of pink dahlias from the Williams’ on my front porch,
A drawing colored up real nice from the Mitchell kids “to our favorite new granny”
And a still warm fresh loaf of bread from Gladys waiting in the mailbox
Which made for a real fine party for Bessie and me sipping on her blackberry cordial.

 

 

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Sunlight and Shadow

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A girl comes out
of the barn, holding
a lantern
like a bucket of milk

or like a lantern.
Her shadow’s there.
They pump a bucket of water
and loosen their blouses,

they lead the mare out
from the field
their thin legs
blending with the wheat.

Crack a green kernel
in your teeth.  Mist
in the fields,
along the clay road

the mare’s footsteps
fill up with milk.
~Franz Wright  “Morning”

 

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Each morning as I rise to let the horses out to graze for the day,
I’m once again that girl who woke early
to climb on horseback to greet the summer dawn,
with mist in my hair and dew on my boots,
picking ripe blackberries and blueberries as we rode past.

The angled light always drew sharper shadow lines as the sun rose
until I knew it was time to turn around, each hoof step taking us home
to clean barn, do chores, hang the laundry, weed the garden until sunset.

Sunlight creates and erases all that is shadow.

 

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The Lesson of the Vetch

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Hot humid summer days are barely tolerable for a temperate climate sissy pants like me.  I am melting even as I get up in the morning, and at times our house is two degrees warmer (~90 degrees) than the out of doors.  So distractions from the heat are more than welcome.

For me today it started as I drove the ten miles of country roads to get to work in town, running a bit late to an important meeting.  I was listening to the news on the car radio when I puzzled over why the radio station would be playing cat meows over the news of the Trump and Putin meeting.  I turned off the radio, and realized the meows didn’t go away.

As soon as I was able, I pulled into a parking lot and surveyed my car from back to front, looking under seats, opened the back, scratched my head.  Then the meowing started again—under the hood.  I struggled with the latch, lifted up the hood and a distressed bundle of kitten fur hurtled out at me, clinging all four little greasy paws to my shirt.  Unscathed except for greasy feet, this little two month old kitten had survived a 50 mile per hour ride for 20 minutes, including several turns and stops.  He immediately crawled up to my shoulder, settled in by my ear, and began to purr.  I contemplated showing up at a meeting with a kitten and grease marks all over me, vs. heading back home with my newly portable neck warmer.  I opted to call in with the excuse “my cat hitchhiked to work with me this morning and is thumbing for a ride back home” and headed back down the road to take him back to the barn where he belongs, now with the new name “Harley” because he clearly desires the open road.

At that point, my meeting in town was already completed without me so I went out to check fence line as the hot wire seemed to be shorting out somewhere in the pasture. The mares had decided that the wire interfered with their hearts’ desire and had broken through, so it clearly was not hot enough to discourage them.  It has been a very hot few days with persistent drying breezes so as I approached the fence line, I heard numerous snaps and pops that I interpreted as hot wire shorting out in the dry grass and weeds, creating a fire hazard and certainly potentially dangerous with the winds whipping up.

I walked closer, puzzled to hear snaps all up and down the fence, but no sparks.  I approached and heard a little “snap” and a tiny seed pod burst open in front of my eyes, dropping its contents very effectively.  It was dried common vetch seed pods that were snapping and popping, not hot wire shorting out.  They were literally exploding all up and down the fence line in a reproductive symphony of seed release.

I put the broken wire back to together, plugged it in and all was well, at least until the next Haflinger decides the adjacent pasture looks better.

Returning to the barn,  I saw one of our Haflingers pawing furiously at his round black rubber water tub in his paddock, splashing water everywhere and creating quite a spectacle.  I went up to him to refill the tub with the hose and he continued to paw and splash in the tub and actually went down on his knees in the tub and then tried to lower one shoulder into it and his neck and face.  By this time he had created quite a mud puddle of the thick dust around the tub and his splashing and thrashing was causing mud to fly everywhere, including all over me, my hair, covering his mane and tail and belly and legs.  I took the hose and sprayed the cold water over him and he leaned closer to me, begging me to spray him everywhere, turning around so I could do his other side, facing me so I could spray his face.  I drenched him completely, and he was one happy horsie and I was laughing my head off at what he had done to me.  Both drenched, muddy, dirty, but happy and much much cooler.  What a sight we were.  This is the Haflinger that slows down at water hazards on the cross country courses because he wants to splash and play in it.

So even on a hot day on the farm, there was plenty else to occupy my mind.  It is never dull here and there are always lessons to be learned:

Remember to bang on your car hood before you get in~
keep the hotwire hot~
and share a mud bath with your Haflinger.

But especially, listen to the vetch and don’t let it fool you that catastrophe is about to happen.  The vetch is simply exploding in noisy reproductive ecstasy.  It can’t get much better than that.

 

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The Grass of Heaven

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Green hills, 
embroidered
mist, rich
rising ridge
fog filled
plunging fields
cattle, 
black, weightless
rise poised
from bare bank
grazing
the grass of
heaven
~Steven Federle

 

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May is always an overwhelming time of year – my senses work overtime with the feel of cool air mornings and evenings, the fragrance of blossoms everywhere, the dawn chorus of birdsong and the nightly coyote choir and peeper swamp symphony, the softness of mist rising from warm ground and the explosion of green – everywhere.

We are happily drowning in green – so much to be done quickly:  mowed, gathered, stored, treasured.

Surely heaven too is mostly green.  It can be no other.

 

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Every Green Moment

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Just past dawn, the sun stands
with its heavy red head
in a black stanchion of trees,
waiting for someone to come
with his bucket
for the foamy white light,
and then a long day in the pasture.
I too spend my days grazing,
feasting on every green moment
till darkness calls,
and with the others
I walk away into the night,
swinging the little tin bell
of my name.
~Ted Kooser “A Birthday Poem”

 

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Right now
all is green~
every square inch
and every misty mythical moment.

So I feast while I can,
knowing soon the darkness descends
and I too am called
to come home,
the bells I bear
swinging and ringing.

 

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