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A Well-Worn Path

Ode to Sun Ups and Downs

A Well-Worn PathMaybe it’s because without mountains in the way we don’t have to look up to see the sky, but here in the Flint Hills of Kansas when we talk about our sunsets or sunrises we frequently begin waxing poetic. Maybe that’s more a country thing than one specific to Kansas. Maybe because we live close to the land and the seasons we are more apt to take notice of the sun ups and downs.

Of course, the sun makes no decision to shine or set more beautifully in one location over another. The science behind sunrises and sunsets is the same everywhere. With little regard for landscape, the earth rotates, creating the illusion that the sun comes up and goes down. So what makes these sunrises and sunsets so special? Well, it may be a case of beauty being in the eye, or the heart, of the beholder. If you have ever been stopped in place by the awe of a particularly stunning sunrise or sunset, you know that they often evoke an emotional response from the people viewing them.

Each sunrise and sunset reflects our human understanding of the comings and goings of our days, and this visual splendor is inseparable from our inner emotional dialogue. Sunrises and sunsets mark the ever-cyclical beginning and ending of night to day and day to night. They are the transitions by which we measure our time here.

Stand and watch the sun slowly dip below the horizon line and you can’t help but feel a sense of reflection, possibly even longing, for the day just past. Do the same as the sun rises again in the east at the beginning of a new day, and you might feel excited expectation or promise in what lies ahead.

Kansas sunset 

On the Great Plains of Kansas, as well as other places that allow for a long view, sunrises and sunsets are more than supporting players to our unique and expansive landscape. They are the entire show. Like summer storms moving in from the southwest or winter chills blowing down from the north, we watch and we pay close attention because living on the land we often feel more exposed and more personally affected by the power, as well as the beauty, of nature.

When everything aligns perfectly and we are treated to good, or surprisingly exceptional, weather, such as a 70-degree day in mid-July or a warm spell in January, we appreciate it more deeply because we have lived through many days of great imperfection. Since, here in Kansas, we endure temperature swings of more than 100 degrees, from summer days with heat and humidity so high we fear becoming liquefied to winter mornings so bone chillingly cold that our hair freezes, we don’t hesitate to appreciate or make excuses for feeling blessed by a particularly beautiful sunset. We have earned the right to pause and stand in awe of it.

And as we stand and watch, we are reminded that the sun is not a flat object dropping behind a solid line, but that we, in fact, are on a vast sphere that’s imperceptibly rolling away from the sun. Being in any open space at the evening turn is an excellent way to reconnect with the size and scale of our planet.

We’re fortunate that here in Kansas everyone, whether city dweller or country homesteader, is only a few minutes away from an open view and wide perspective of the horizon. And if you are born to this place, you tend to see this horizon differently than those who simply pass through.

But wherever we stand to watch the rising or setting sun, we are full of gratitude for the array of pinks and purples, splashes of oranges, golds and other colors reflected by the setting or rising sun across our landscape, and it becomes a blank slate on which we can record our hopes for the day to come or count our blessings for the one just passing.

It’s possible we believe that if we have lived through another day on the prairie where the winds didn’t blow us away, or the snow didn’t pile up too high; where the sun rose with precision warming the earth and all on it and then radiantly set allowing a cool breeze to soothe our skin, bones and spirit, well then, just maybe, it’s an indication that no matter what is transpiring elsewhere, at least for these few moments under a wide and awe inspiring sky, something is good and right.

Corn Harvest Reaps Memories of Dad

A Well-Worn PathI love fall. I love the chill in the mornings that require me to pull on a sweatshirt for my morning walk and chores. And I love the way the sun warms my shoulders and the day as I work outside so that soon I am peeling down to shirtsleeves. I love the swirl of leaves in the wind and the crunch of them under my feet as they gather in the yard.

But nothing warms my heart more, or brings back more memories, than witnessing another bountiful fall corn harvest in full swing. Seeing the combines kicking up dust from the corn and soybean fields makes me feel safe and optimistic. If you’re looking for some kind of indication that a prosperous and abundant Universe surrounds us, this is the time of year to find that.

Maybe it's because having grown up on this farm I know how satisfying a good harvest is for our hard-working farmers and their families. And maybe that's why watching those farmers in their combines and trucks this time of year makes me miss my father more than I usually do.

Dad has been gone for nearly 12 years now, but rarely does a day go by that I don't think of him.

There are so many times I wish I could talk to him about things that are happening in my life or things we both enjoyed. Dad and I shared many things, but a love of sports and for the land, especially this farm, were among our strongest bonds.

In addition to farming, Dad taught school for many years and would teach all day, then get home and change into his blue jeans and old work shirt, pull on his old, worn, held-together-with-field-goo boots and crawl onto our old Farmall tractor to work the fields until dark. Even after he retired from farming he followed the markets, knew what kind of yields the crops were getting in the area and kept close tabs on the young guys who were farming our land.

Dad was proud of being a farmer. I'm ashamed to now admit that when I was a teenager there were times when I wasn't so proud to be this farmer's daughter. Usually those were the times when Dad insisted on wearing his white athletic socks with his Sunday suit and black dress shoes. Come to think of it, Dad may have only done that to bug me, but at the time I was humiliated by what I considered to be his total lack of fashion sense and cool. Now, I'd give anything to have my farmer father with me, and I wouldn't give a hoot what kind of socks he wore or even if he wore any at all.

So if our paths cross and you find me appearing a tad forlorn as I watch a combine creep dustily through a field or a truck full of grain groaning its way out of a field, don't be concerned – it's just me and Dad talking about how harvest is going.

fall corn harvest | iStockphoto.com/CarbonBrain 

Photo: iStockphoto/CarbonBrain

Bringing back hand written letters -- one letter at a time

How long has it been since you received a hand-written letter in the mail?  How long since you sent one? 

I honestly can’t remember the last time I found a newsy, hand-written letter in my mailbox and I miss receiving them.  To read words chosen carefully by someone who believes I am worth the time it took to gather the materials and to share their thoughts, while thinking of me with every loop in a word touches me like nothing else can. 

Growing up I loved sending and receiving letters.  I had pen pals in France and Spain and I wrote to friends in neighboring towns.  The best part about writing everyone letters is that they almost always wrote me back and when I found one of their letters waiting for me in the mailbox, I couldn’t wait to tear open the envelope and read what they had written.  I’d read the letter as fast as I could, hitting all the main points, gathering the gist of how life was going for them since our last correspondence.  Then I’d read the letter again, this time very slowly, taking in every detail they shared.   

As soon as I could, I’d write my friends back, commenting on their news, and adding bits of pieces of my own to the thread of our ongoing conversations.  There was nothing like savoring the delicious hand chosen and hand written news from a friend and knowing that they were looking forward to the same from me.  I saved many of the letters from my friends so I could revisit them when I felt lonely, or re-read them and feel the presence of someone I missed as though they were right there with me. 

These days it’s easier to hurriedly send an email or text than to sit down with pen and paper and hand write a letter.  Don’t get me wrong, I love email and texting.  They are quick and easy and allow me to stay connected with many people near and far.  But, since I rarely keep emails, they are not the same as receiving hand written letters that can be kept as reminders of our connection.   

Important pieces of our history, as a nation, as a modern civilization and as individuals are preserved in letters.  They offer us glimpses into what others held important and how they were feeling as they steered their way through life.  Without those letters we might never know the details of the human condition in times past. 

With the loss of letter writing we are also losing big chunks of our personal history. Most of the ways in which we communicate with our modern technology are little more than blips across a lit screen. Without letters that can live on without us what will future generations learn about our time on this planet?  How will they know what we valued, who we loved, how we navigated heart break, disappointment and how we celebrated the joys and triumphs of our lives? 

So, I’m on a mission.  I have made a vow to write one hand-written letter every week.  That’s not a huge investment of time or effort and even at my busiest, is completely doable.  I’ve been doing this for several weeks and everyone who has been a recipient has been touched by and appreciative of having once again received a hand-written message.   

I know this because they emailed to tell me so. 

God Made a Farmer, Then He Made My Dad

I’m sure it will come as no surprise that my favorite Super Bowl commercial was the one created by Chrysler for Ram trucks, “So God Made a Farmer”. 

I’ve watched the commercial, narrated by Paul Harvey, on You Tube several times since the Super Bowl airing and still can’t get through it with dry eyes.  It reminds me of my father, who was a farmer and a teacher.  But honestly the teaching was mostly a way to support his farming habit. Dad use to say that if he had a million dollars he’d farm until it was gone.

“So God Made a Farmer” could have been written specifically for my father, and every other hard working farmer out there.  For me it was particularly heartwarming because it reminded me of my father’s hands.  They were the hands of a workman, a woodworker, a craftsman, a mechanic and a farmer.  They were strong with visible dings, nicks, and scars that served as reminders of long days filled with hard work.  Dad’s hands were his most reliable tool. 

As a young girl, I watched my Dad’s hands clean a plow, pull a calf, hammer numerous nails flawlessly and fix too many to count farm implements.  Dad’s hands were strong, but also gentle.  They could tighten the smallest nut on the screw that held the large front wheel of my tricycle together and pick up a newborn kitten and pet it until you could hear its contented purr clear across the room.   

I can still recall the feeling of safety that my father’s hand offered as he steadied me, then gave me a quick little push sending me off for my first spin on my blue Huffy bike after the training wheels were removed.  Dad’s hands taught me to catch and throw.  They
taught me how to drive a car, a wheat truck and a tractor without turning any of them into implements of destruction.  Dad’s hands were always there to help steady me and to offer me help in getting back up whenever I fell. 

Dad passed away in December 2002 and I’ve missed him every day since.  Not a day goes by that I don’t think of him, especially since I moved back to this farm.  He is in every nail in this house that he built, and every inch of soil and blade of grass that makes up this place.

That Ram truck commercial is a stirring tribute to all the men, and women, like my dad who work hard with rarely taking a day off, and who love and respect this land and the satisfaction of a job well done.  But the best part of watching that commercial is that it reminds me of how fortunate I am to be a Farmer’s Daughter.

Yes, God made a farmer, then he made a farmer my Dad! 

Giving thanks for family, friends and memories past

It is the time to once again gather around our tables, heavy with delicious food, and give thanks for what we have, for what we have had and for all that is coming to us. There is nothing like a feast of turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce, green beans, and of course, pumpkin pie to kick off the holiday season. I began my pre-feast fast a week ago in anticipation of the huge, table bending meal. Thanksgiving is the best holiday of them all. It is like Christmas without the stress of shopping. 

Every family has their special traditions this time of year. Some do the traditional turkey feast, others will be setting their tables with goose, duck, ham or, like my friend Troy's family, lasagna.  

One of my family’s traditions that I miss the most was sitting at the Kid’s Table. I loved sitting at the card table set up in the kitchen or other place a comfortable distance from the Adult Table. The Adult Table was always set with the "good dishes," usually some sacred china gingerly passed down from one generation to another. The Kids' Table was set with the everyday dishes, and that was just fine with me, because everyone cared less if you accidentally broke one. 

It was at the Kids' Table where our great family traditions began. It was at this simple table that some of the best stories first happened and were shared. It was here that I once laughed so hard milk came out my nose, at which point my cousin Paula started laughing so hard she wet her pants, which we both thought was hysterical and commenced to laugh even harder, so hard we made ourselves sick, all to the escalating voices from our respective parents inquiring, "What's going on in there? What are you two doing? What in the world is so funny?" And at that, with our faces flushed from laughing so hard we were hyperventilating, we burst into even more uncontrollable giggles. 

Laughter like that almost never happened at the Adult Table. They were always so serious and proper, so somber and polite. It was at the Kids' Table that you could really cut loose and have a good time. 

Sometimes the stories begun around the table never die, but follow us from holiday to holiday, from year to year. One Thanksgiving when I was eight or nine, I blurted out toward the end of the meal that I could always tell when I was getting full because I started to sweat. For years, I couldn't sit down to a meal with family members without someone asking if I was sweating yet. It was funny the first few times, but after several decades, the joke grew old and stale.  

I not only miss the Kids' Table, but I miss gathering with my extended family at the holidays.  I no longer have any family to include me in their feasts, so I’ve been creating my own, new traditions, which often include crashing my friend’s family gatherings.  

I feel fortunate and am grateful to share a Thanksgiving meal with my chosen family of friends, but I miss those days when the house would be full of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. The women gathering in the kitchen making final meal preparations, the men in the living room watching football, us kids racing around from one room to the other until someone shooed us outside to burn off some of our excitement. There was laughter then and the warm, secure feeling you get when you are surrounded by the people who have known and loved you from your first breath. I miss the feeling of belonging to something bigger that being around grandparents, aunts and uncles gave me. Why, I even miss being asked if I am sweating yet. 

But the only constant in life is change. Without it, we would all be stuck in the monotony of sameness. Despite not having my own family to sit with around a Thanksgiving table, I am grateful for so many fond and fun memories of Thanksgivings past and for having a large and loving circle of friends with whom to share this year's feast.  

So next Thursday, as well as every day, I will give heartfelt thanks for all of my many blessings, including things just as they are. 

Finding treasures

Lou Ann head shotMy mother use to apologize for leaving me with the task of clearing out her basement.  I would quickly suggest that she help me by bearing witness as I pulled each box down from the shelves, opened it and began the arduous journey determining what was to stay and what was to be thrown away.  Mother would just as quickly back away from my suggestion, obviously preferring that I take that journey alone after she was gone.

And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since she passed over four years ago.  Box by box, whenever I felt strong enough, I’ve been going through the many shelves and piles of things left behind from lives well lived.

Sometimes I find things that I know must have been important, and may still be, but I have no idea about the story behind the items.  But every once in awhile I come across something that is pure treasure. That was the case when, in a box of hankies, photographs and unopened bottles of Avon cologne I found an old autograph book.  As I carefully opened the worn orange cloth cover with the white plastic flowers on the front I was treated to my Great Aunt Pauline’s carefully scribed name, followed by the year, 1895.

I never knew Pauline.  I may have met her, but she died in 1955, three years after I was born, so I have no recollection of her beyond the photographs I’ve seen.  To hold something that she once held was humbling, but to read the carefully written friendship poems inside touched me deeply.  I felt connected to something much greater than I, much longer lasting than my fleeting lifetime.  I can tell by the carefully worn pages that Pauline must have looked through this book of wishes from her cherished friends many times.  Inside were “forget me not’s” and lovely rhymes, such as:

“Live for those that love you,

For those whose hearts are true,

For the heavens that shine above you,

And the good that you may do.” 

Many of the names were familiar to me, having heard of the Surdez’s, the Junod’s, the Bonjour’s and the Jeanerret’s, many who were distant relatives, all through my youth.  Pauline was my grandfather’s older sister.  They, along with their mother and three other siblings came to America from Switzerland in 1888.  I’ve heard the stories and I know my mother always had fond memories of Pauline, but holding her autograph book made her more real to me.

Maybe it’s my age, having just turned 60, but finding this book has somehow deepened my interest in learning more about history.  When you walk through your local historical museum and see your old high school band uniform on display you feel a bit historical, if not hysterical realizing that you are now old enough to have things that were part of your lifetime displayed as though they are artifacts of a bygone era. 

Maybe I’ve now lived long enough to have a history, or to remember history.  When you drive down the main street of your hometown and can remember what businesses were at each location…over the last 50 years, you have some history in you.

And holding something that I know was cherished by a family member who has gone before me makes me want to know more about the people from whom I came.  Aunt Pauline’s autograph book has prompted me to try to learn more of my family’s history, which I now realize is a significant part of my own history.

To hold something once held by a family member over 100 years ago provides a wider and deeper perspective.  Aunt Pauline lived, she had friends she loved and she kept this book to remember them by.

And now I will keep it too.  

Unplugging for a low-tech day

Last Sunday I unplugged. I didn’t check my email, update my status on Facebook, or post a single tweet. I didn’t turn on the computer or even answer the phone. It was a day of silence and low-tech living and I wondered if I would feel uncomfortably disconnected without a computer, smart phone, social media and all the technological tools with which I spend most of my time.

Before the sun was completely up I set my intention to simply allow the day to unfold naturally. My goal was to be conscious of and pay attention to whatever was going on around me, and soon I felt myself settling more deeply into myself.  As I sat and just allowed myself to be, feeling the perfection of the day, it felt as though I was sinking into my core.  There’s a Zen koan that asks “what was your face before your parents were born?” and allowing myself to move deeply into that part of me that always is, has always been and will always be, I felt I was beginning to understand the question, if not the answer.

Of course, without spending time in front of a computer screen, or constantly checking email on my phone, or habitually scanning the various social networking sites, I was awake, aware and more conscious of everything that was happening around me. Every time I strayed and began worrying about some upcoming deadline, to-do tasks still undone, or wondering what was happening in the cyber world in my absence, something inside would gently bring me back to my intention of allowing myself to feel whatever this day held for me.  Often that reminding came from heart asking questions like, “Where are you now?  What can you hear?  What can you see?  How are you feeling?”  Sometimes it was my bladder asking, “Do you have to pee?”  And as a middle aged woman, I usually did.

But by allowing my heart to lead I started really seeing a plethora of things that might have otherwise gone unnoticed.  A raccoon ran across the road and into the shed, where I had noticed his tracks but had yet to spot him.  As I looked out my north windows four deer trekked up over the hill presumably to their daytime hiding places. I walked up along the edge of my and saw four red-tailed hawks enjoying some time riding thermals in the bright blue sky above me and heard a woodpecker in the woods tap-tap-tapping.  I felt keenly aware of every sound and sight and felt tapped in, tuned in and rather than disconnected, totally connected.

But the most amazing part of my day occurred while I was sitting on one of the large red granite boulders that dot my pasture. I had stopped for a break and to tune in even more deeply to the heartbeat of the day. The rock was warmed by the sunshine and the day felt about as perfect as it could be. Little did I know it was about to get even better. I opened my eyes and looked up just as an eagle flew directly overhead. An eagle!

What a sight!  What a day!  And what a gift to disconnect from technology and feel so incredibly connected to everything else, including myself.  It was such a surprisingly good day that I’m hoping to treat myself to a day of Connected Disconnection every week!