A Marvelous Understanding

I was sad one day and went for a walk;
I sat in a field.

A rabbit noticed my condition
and came near.

It often does not take more than that to help at times—
to just be close to creatures
who are so full of knowing
so full of love
that they don’t chat,
they just gaze with
their marvelous understanding.
~St. John of the Cross, Love Poems From God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West, trans. Daniel Ladinsky, p. 323

It would be good to have an understanding
that helps people feel better
just by being near.

Knowing that you can be comforting
simply by being who you are
in that moment.

Even if you are a little afraid to be there.

Locked and Threw Away the Key


The weasel was stunned into stillness as he was emerging from beneath an enormous shaggy wild rose bush four feet away.

I was stunned into stillness twisted backward on the tree trunk. Our eyes locked, and someone threw away the key.

Our look was as if two lovers, or deadly enemies, met unexpectedly on an overgrown path when each had been thinking of something else: a clearing blow to the gut. It was also a bright blow to the brain, or a sudden beating of brains, with all the charge and intimate grate of rubbed balloons. It emptied our lungs. It felled the forest, moved the fields, and drained the pond; the world dismantled and tumbled into that black hole of eyes.

If you and I looked at each other that way, our skulls would split and drop to our shoulders.

But we don’t. We keep our skulls.

~Annie Dillard from “Living Like Weasels”

I watch you.  And you me.  Our eyes locked and someone threw away the key.


Haying Time

Hay making is late this year because of unpredictable weather for the past six weeks – there just hasn’t been a string of sunny days without rain yet this summer and the last thing that cut hay needs is to be rained on (mold, mildew, leeched out nutrients, doesn’t taste or smell good to humans or animals).

So the string of sunny days has arrived based on the forecast so the hay bales started coming into the barn. We often have a neighborhood crew to help since our children are grown and gone but today it was four intrepid young boys in their pre-teens and early teens who helped Dan get several dozen bales in the barn.

Unfortunately as the hay wagon with boys riding atop the bales went under the big chestnut tree in our barn driveway, the hay brushed against a branch holding a cannonball size hornet nest. That nest released angry bees which felt like cannonballs to the one boy who ended up with five stings. He bravely continued on with his hay duties though, even when I suggested he might consider taking the role of cheerleader instead.

Bringing in the hay is a ritual we all look forward to. It takes a team of friends to do it, you get happily dusty and dirty, and you are well fed afterward.

And the horses are fed well all through the winter.

For a New Name

(written about a young woman I met in the 1980s)

I prefer Jennifer, if that is okay with you. I’m planning to legally change my name but haven’t gotten around to the official paperwork yet. I just can’t be “Moonbeam” any more. You know what I mean?

What were my parents thinking? I’m not sure they were. Everyone at the commune had strange names. My mom’s real name is Edith, but she changed it to Willow when she left home to move to the commune. My dad, well, he’s not my real dad, he’s just one of the guys that was around part of the time when I was growing up, he calls himself Sage. I’m not sure what his real name is. I never met my real dad as my mom really didn’t know him and he took off before I was born. I think his real name was George, but my mom really wasn’t sure and wouldn’t ever talk about him. He probably doesn’t even know I exist.

Growing up we did a lot of traveling in our VW van, going from crafts fairs to street fairs where my mom made and sold macrame hemp bracelets and necklaces. She always managed to sell a few. She taught me to make them when I was young but to this day I can’t stand to do it. I thought it was boring and pointless, but she was stoned most of the time. We kids would run around and play hide and seek and try to beg money and scrounge food while our parents sat at their booths selling stuff to women who came with big purses and high heels and big hair. Mostly it was a good time, but after awhile one city looked like another city and I just wanted to go back to the commune where at least we could sleep in our tent and not in the back of the van. Mom tended to sleep with other guys when we were out on the road, so the back of the van would get pretty crowded and sometimes too noisy for me to sleep. At least on the commune, she’d go to some other tent when she wanted to sleep with some guy.

I was hungry a lot growing up. Mom didn’t think much about cooking. She took her turn at the commune kitchen, but we kids just had to make do except for the one meal a day that everyone ate together. So many of the adults had other things they did with their time, planning the next protest march, or sitting around smoking hash. That’s why I started hanging out in the kitchen when I was seven, just to be around the food, so I’d be put to work, either washing vegetables or cleaning up afterward. Pretty soon they had me cooking soups and bread. I loved the feeling of the dough in my hands and I got strong arms really fast. I felt like I was home.

School? Didn’t go to school until I left the commune at fifteen. There were some of the adults who taught us kids to read and write but we never had a school building or books to read or anything like that. When I ran away, I rode in a bus for hours to get as far away as I could and when I got off the bus in a small town, I went to the bakery and asked for a job. I told them I was eighteen and they believed me. I found a room to live in and got up every morning at 3 AM to bake bread. I’d be done at noon, and then I went to the library and spent the afternoon with books, reading everything I could get my hands on. I was lonely for awhile, but started to make friends. Someone suggested I come to church and so once I became a familiar face there, I felt like that was home too.

I’m here because I plan to go on to school, and I need to catch up by finishing high school. I know I’m older than some of your students but I really want to get my high school graduation done so I can go on to college. I want to run a business, maybe a bakery someday. I want to have a regular life, with a home and a family and a car. I want to have children with regular names.

So please call me Jennifer, okay?

For the “Eat Local” Corner Store

Everybody's Store, Van Zandt, Washington on Highway 9

Whenever I drive past a place like Everybody’s Store, a small grocery in our county on a local scenic backroads highway, I think of the rural corner stores only a couple miles from where I grew up in two different communities in Washington state.  These were the stores that often provided the basic provisions for farm families like ours, as well as an informal community gathering spot.  In Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegon, it is Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery, where “if you can’t find it at Ralph’s, you can probably get along (pretty good) without it.”

It still wasn’t that unusual in the fifties and sixties for a rural “mom and pop” operation to have a small grocery store in the front part of their refurbished home, often with a single gas pump sitting in the front yard.   The store had a reversible sign in the front window that said OPEN from dawn to dusk, unless the store owner needed a shower or a nap.  When you’d walk through the creaky front screen door, it slammed behind you with a bang, automatically notifying the store owner in the back of the house a customer had arrived.   They knew us by name, knew what our typical purchases would be, and always enjoyed a chat to catch up on the neighborhood news.  It meant a cup of tea or some pretty powerful coffee for mom and a stick of chewing gum for the kids.

There was always a cork board for flyer postings, with hand written notices of the latest community events, plus “for sale”, “for free”, or “lost” items.  There might be a polaroid picture of “Tinkerbelle — looking for our lost cat, children can’t stop crying” , or a hastily scribbled note from a harried mother  “seeking a mother’s helper to do laundry and ironing”,  or  “free puppies–take your choice.”  This was “Craig’s List” before Craig was born.

Sitting at the intersection of farm roads, corner stores were a natural outlet for local produce to be sold, from fresh eggs to seasonal berries and fruit, to pumpkins and squash piled up in the front yard in the fall.  Some store owners even did their own butchering and meat cutting before regulations made it too difficult to meet government standards.

The “bread and butter” for a store to thrive and stay in business was just that: they supplied the basic staples that families might need in a pinch– cornflakes and cheerios, loaves of Wonder bread and milk, bags of sugar and flour, toilet paper and wieners, Crisco for a pie crust or a cube of butter for baking cookies, Elmer’s Glue, scotch tape and construction paper for rainy day art projects.  Children were frequently sent on errands to the corner store on foot, or on their bicycles, or occasionally on their horses to get some immediately needed missing item.

Or perhaps they were sent to the corner store with a list just to get them out of their mothers’ hair.

The motivation for kids to make the store trip was the reward of a cold soda pop or an ice cream bar in the summer, hot chocolate with a marshmallow in the winter, and a carefully selected variety of treats from the bulk candy bins.  I had a particular affinity for multicolored jawbreakers.

The store my mother frequented in the tiny hamlet of East Stanwood, Washington had pretty much everything she needed, and the shopkeeper always had a fresh cookie for my brother and me.  We often brought extra eggs from our flock that mom would bring in for credit, but our raw Guernsey cow milk could not be sold through the store so was sold directly to our neighbors instead.

Once we moved to a rural neighborhood outside Olympia, Washington, the local corner store was at the “otherwise nothin’ happening” corner of Libby Road and Ames Huntley Road, almost three miles away from our little farm on Friendly Grove Road.  It was a long walk, though an easy bike ride along narrow country roads.  We kids could usually think of a good excuse at least twice a week during the summer to make that trek to the store and stock up.  My older sister would ride her horse to the store, using a telephone pole as a hitching post while she shopped.

It’s good to see the small local corner store that actually sells produce, not just beer, cigarettes and newspapers,  making a comeback.  With the emphasis to “eat local” and county farmers marketing and selling their own produce, there are more of these now in our area.  “Everybody’s Store” has existed for decades, but there is now a corner store that has opened just a few miles from us at Hinote’s Corner, at the intersection of Hannegan and Pole Roads.  It is owned by an East Indian family and has an eclectic combination of curries, chili peppers, and all kinds of spices and ethnic ingredients sought by our local Hispanic and Indian farm neighbors.  There is an orchard nearby on Ten Mile Road that has opened a store not only marketing their boxes of apples, but also sells cider, frozen apple pies ready to bake and home ground honey peanut butter.   We have local dairies producing their own homogenized pasteurized milk and ice cream, others making and selling cheese, some that raise grass fed organic beef and lamb, as well as heritage breed pork and turkeys.

It almost feels like home again.  It is tempting to think of pulling up a chair next to the wood burning stove, sipping a cup of tea and catching up on the neighborhood news.

It just might help bring a community close together again.

For “It’s the Water!”

The news headline read: “Former Olympia Brewery Attracts $24.9 million bid”.  This is the amount it would take to get this empty complex of buildings into the hands of another seller.  It has been abandoned by its parent company, the large tanks dry and empty since 2003, after a long history of  brew making that spanned most of the 20th century.

I’m not a beer enthusiast and never have tasted Olympia beer, even though I grew up in Olympia and attended high school only a few miles away.   The brewery was most definitely a part of my daily experience simply because the brewing hops could be smelled from the high school parking lot and sometimes all the way into our classrooms, the pungent fermentation odor penetrating the air for miles when the wind was right.

The brewery was a tremendously successful industry that counter-balanced Olympia’s economy which depended on ever-changing state government office positions, the rapidly fading logging and saw mills, and diminishing farms and fishing operations.  Somehow the beer business seemed recession-proof, but even Olympia beer eventually moved away from its founding brewery along the Deschutes River, leaving behind the fabled water that supposedly made the beer so special.

Even the classic old brew house, built originally before Prohibition, stands in disarray down river, covered with moss and ivy and slowly deteriorating.

Old Olympia Brew House 1896 photo by Michael Martin

Although my family were teetotalers, any time we had out of town guests, one of the first places we would take them was on the Brewery tour.  We would walk through all the buildings, following the pipelines carrying the brew which then sat in the large copper storage tanks visible through huge windows.  The end of the tour was always the same:  the guests “of age” would get to sample a beer along with my father while my mother took the youngsters for a walk in Tumwater Falls Park, along the Deschutes River just below the brewery.  It was always my favorite place to go, especially during the fall salmon run.  Some wonderful photos are provided on this blog:  http://olympia-daily-photo.blogspot.com/

The water of the river always ran so clear and the falls blustered with mist.  It was clear why the original brewmeister from Germany settled his brewery in this spot and said “It’s the Water!” as the company slogan.  There could not have been a better place.

Salmon ladder

Tumwater Falls Park

Tumwater Falls Park

Even if beer is not my “cup of tea”, I sincerely hope the Olympia Brewery will find an owner with a vision for how these buildings and this picturesque spot can be used for the benefit of the community for generations to come.   The water truly is what makes this place special.

For Milk of Many Colors

I grew up in Olympia, Washington, a large town of 20,000+ people in the 60’s that had only one black family.  One.  There were a hand full of Japanese and Korean families, a few Hispanics, but other than the Native American folks from the nearby Nisqually Reservation, our community seemed comprised of homogenized milk.  Plain white milk.

In 1970, the Caucasian high school graduation student speaker caused a controversy resulting in numerous parents walking out of the ceremony when in her speech she called our town a “white racist ghetto”.   It was the first time I’d heard someone actually crack a previously unspoken barrier with her words.  What she said caused much anger, but the ensuing debate in the letters to the editor, around lunch counters at the five and dime, and in the churches and real estate offices made a difference.  Olympia began to open its social and political doors to people who weren’t white.

Leaving for college in California helped broaden my point of view, to be sure, but in the 70’s there were no diversity initiatives, so it was still a vastly Caucasian campus.  When I went to study in Africa in 1975, I had the enlightening experience of being one of two whites traveling among hundreds of very dark skinned Tanzanians on trains and boats, and became the one gawked at, viewed as an oddity, pointed at and frightening small children, and constantly perceived as out of place, not belonging.

Returning to the Northwest meant blending in as homogenized white milk again.  Although there was some minimal diversity in my medical school class, it wasn’t until I was in family practice residency at Seattle’s Group Health Cooperative in 1980 that I began to experience the world in technicolor.    I joined a group of doctors in training that included a former member of the Black Panthers, a Kiowa Indian, several Jews, someone of Spanish descent, a son of Mexican immigrants, a daughter of Chinese immigrants, a Japanese American, and a Yupik Eskimo.   Not only was I challenged to explain how I perceived our inner city patients’ cultural and family context, but I witnessed how much more effectively my colleagues and teachers worked with patients who looked or grew up like them.   It was such a foundational experience that I was drawn to a medical practice in a Rainier Valley neighborhood clinic.  There I saw patients who lived in the projects, struggling with poverty and social fragmentation.  There were many ethnic groups: African Americans, Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian refugees, Askenazi Jews, Middle East Muslims, Russian immigrants and some Catholic Italian families who spoke broken English.  It was a wide world of color that walked into my exam rooms, enriching my life.  I found that white milk, wonderful as it was, didn’t hold a candle to some of the flavors I was discovering.

When we made the decision to move north near my husband’s home community of Lynden, a town of Dutch dairy farming immigrants, it felt like a homecoming yet not without an adjustment.  I am not Dutch even though I am as white and tall as the Frieslanders (my ancestry is from Schleswig-Holstein in Germany, right across the border).  I didn’t have the same cultural background to fit in easily.   The color of my skin no longer was noticeable, but the difference in rituals, the language quirks and traditions stood out.  In other words, the milk looked just as white,  (maybe skim versus whole or 2%),  but varied significantly in taste (were the cows just let out on grass??)

Even with those apparent differences, more changes have happened in our rural community over the last twenty five years since we moved here.  We have two thriving Native American sovereign nations, the Nooksack and Lummi tribes, and increasing numbers of migrant Hispanic families who work the seasonal berry harvest, some of whom have settled in year round.  My supervisors at my workplace are African American.   Our close proximity to the lower mainland of British Columbia has brought Taiwanese, Japanese and Hong Kong immigrants to our area, and East Indians are immigrating in large numbers, attracted by affordable farmland.  I was shopping today at a new rural corner grocery only a few miles from our farm, built and managed by Sikhs who have stocked the shelves with the most amazing array of Indian spices and Mexican chili sauce, with Dutch peppermints and licorice thrown in for good measure.

It has taken awhile for homogeniety to mean something other than white.  Instead, it has become the most wonderful tasting chocolate I could have ever imagined.  Even the local dairies understand.

Twin Brook Creamery Chocolate Milk

For Eyes to be Opened

Scene from Thornton Wilder's "Our Town"

Just as dinner was cooking in the oven last night, the power went out.  There was no wind, no rain, no reason except the power company’s rote “equipment failure” message.  It took several hours for power to be restored.  In the meantime, life becomes very very simple without all the usual myriad distractions.

Our daughter had been working on her last high school English essay of the year, an analysis of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town”.   The laptop she was working on still had battery power left, so she continued to type away, her face highlighted by the glow of her computer screen while the rest of us settled for candle light.

“Our Town” is a play set at the turn of the twentieth century, and an appropriate piece of literature to study during a power outage.  It is Wilder’s sledge hammer blow to a society too wrapped up striving for the false gods of cultural ambition and success to notice that life, real life,  is happening to us every minute in our relationships and in the places we dwell.  We are a people blinded to what is truly meaningful to our existence, and to what really matters after we are gone.

As the main character, Emily Gibbs (yes, I was actually named for her by my drama teacher mother) says from the grave:

“Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.  Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? – every, every minute?”

The power going out reminded us to really look at one another.  Power going out made us really talk to one another.  The power going out reminded me why several years ago,  I started writing about the significance of the routine and sometimes mundane details of my life.

I do want to realize life–every every minute.

Graveyard scene from Our Town

For the Mountain to Return

Every once in awhile this is the view from our kitchen window on bright mornings on the farm.    However, Mount Baker has been absent and elusive for the past week, shrouded in a sheath of heavy gray clouds.   As we try to explain to a visitor from Michigan, “the mountain is RIGHT THERE” pointing vaguely to a horizon of foothills and cloud banks.  “Sure, ” she says, unconvinced.  “If you say so…”

On the mornings that the mountain shows her face, it is a terrific start to the day.  There is a reassuring sense of steadfast permanence in a mountain’s standing proud and true over the valleys at her feet.

Unless you are looking at a volcano which likes to puff tendrils of steam on cold crisp mornings (as Mount Baker sometimes does).

Unless you lived thirty years ago at the feet of Mount St. Helens (only a couple hundred miles to the south).

As much as I long for the mountain to return from her vacation during these cloudy dreary days on her west side, I enjoy thinking about the sun on her east side, where the skies are usually clear and blue, and where the warmth causes her snowy coat to start to drip and melt into the rivers.

Today, on one of her snowy shoulders, hundreds of Ski to Sea Race teams are forming at this hour for the start of their day long race that will bring them on skis, runners, bikes, canoes and kayaks down to Bellingham Bay.

The mountain is still up there all right.  There are just some days when we have to prove it by physically touching her face.

Steam plume from Mt. St. Helens

The Farm Dream

Spring on our farm is brilliant, verdant and delicious to behold.  The orchard blossoms yield to fruit and the pastures are knee high with grass.  By this time in May, the daylight starts creeping over the eastern foothills at 4 AM and the last glimpse of sun disappears at nearly 10 PM.   So many hours of light to work with!

I yearn for a dark rainy day to hide inside with a book.  Instead the lawnmower calls my name, and the fish pond needs cleaning and the garden must be weeded.  It’s not that things don’t happen on the farm during months like this.  It’s just that nothing we do is enough.  Blackberry brambles have taken over everything, grass grows faster than we can keep it mowed down, the manure piles spread on the fields in April are growing exponentially again and the foals have grown large and strong without having good halter lessons when they were much smaller and easier to control.   The weather has been so iffy that no string of days has been available for hay cutting so the fields are yielding to the point of the tallest grass collapsing under its own weight when soaked with rain.  Farmers call this “lodged” hay, flattened by the weather, and more difficult to harvest.

Suddenly our farm dream seems not nearly so compelling.

We have spent many years dreaming about the farm as we hoped it would be.  We imagined the pastures managed perfectly with fencing that was both functional and beautiful.  Our barns and buildings would be tidy and leak-proof, and the stalls secure and safe.  We’d have a really nice pick up truck with low miles on it. We would have trees pruned expertly and we’d have flower beds blooming as well as a vegetable garden yielding 9 months of the year.  Our hay would never be rained on. We would have dogs that wouldn’t run off and cats that would take care of all the rodents.  We wouldn’t have any moles, thistles, dandelions or buttercup.  The deer, coyotes, raccoons, and wild rabbits would only stroll through the yard for our amusement and not disturb anything.  We’d have livestock with the best bloodlines we could afford and a steady demand from customers to purchase their offspring at reasonable prices so that not a dime of our off-farm income would be necessary to pay farm expenses.   Our animals (and we) would never get sick or injured. And our house would always stay clean.

Dream on.  Farms are often back-breaking, morale-eroding, expensive sinkholes.   I know ours is.  Yet here we be and here we stay.

It’s home.  We’ve raised three wonderful children here.  We’ve bred and grown good livestock and great garden and orchard crops and tons of hay from our own fields.  We breathe clean air and daily hear dozens of different bird songs and look out at some of the best scenery this side of heaven.  Eagles land in the trees in our front yard. It’s all enough for us even if we are not enough for the farm.  I know there will come a time when the farm will need to be a fond memory and not a daily reality.  Until then we will keep pursuing our dream as we and the farm grow older.   Dreams age and mature and I know now what I dreamed of when I was younger was not the important stuff…

We have been blessed with one another, with the sunrises and the sunsets and everything in between.  This is the stuff that dreams are made of.