A Bump in the Road

On July 16, 2007, I began to publish my journal as a web log. Blogging was becoming very popular. I had been journaling off and on for years but had taken up the practice freshly during a sabbatical the year before. I reasoned that a daily writing regimen might help me become a better writer, and I have long held visions of becoming a writer. My original vision was to publish a photograph and a personal essay each day.  I did not know at the time that the essays would become a habit and then an obsession. Shortly after I began publishing my journal entries, I came upon the formula of a 1,000-word essay, recalling the quote that “a picture is worth a thousand words.”
After several years, I found that I wasn’t taking enough photographs to support the publication of a picture every day. Often, to find a picture that matched my topic of the day, I would have to use stock photos or photos by other photographers previously published. Eventually, I dropped the practice of placing a photograph every day. I still publish photos from time to time, but most days I simply write the essay.
Since that first entry, I have not missed a single day of writing an essay. You can access all those essays from this web site if you are persistent. Here is a link to the first year’s essays. This link will connect you to my journal archives. Like I say, the habit has become an obsession.
There have been times when I was unable to publish. I continued to write every day, but when I don’t have access to the Internet, I may have to wait to publish to the Internet. However, I have written an essay every day since 2007. That’s nearly 16 years of essays. It is a lot of words! I don’t know if my writing skills have increased, but my production has been substantial.
However, it is possible that I may miss writing tomorrow. It won’t be a permanent suspension, just a day off. At 4:30 local time this morning, I leave for the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle where I will undergo an outpatient procedure. According to the doctors the procedure is routine, and I should be home in time for dinner. It is, however, an entirely new experience for me and I have a bit of anxiety. So, I have decided to give myself the luxury of taking a day off tomorrow if I feel like I don’t have enough energy.
What is going on isn’t a secret, but I am not much at being the center of attention or of complaining about my health in my journal. I have been blessed with wonderful health. And my anxiety has less to do with myself and the procedure than with some memories of experiences we had in 2019 when my wife faced serious heart issues.
The story is simple. Two weeks ago, while at a school function with our granddaughters, my smartwatch alarmed that my pulse rate was very high. I checked repeatedly throughout the evening, and it was very irregular. I called the after-hours number of our family practice clinic when I got home, and it turned out that my doctor was on call that evening. She arranged for me to come to the office the next day for an EKG and a cardiac consultation. The diagnosis was atrial flutter. It is a condition like, but not the same as the atrial fibrillation that sent Susan to the hospital for an extended stay in 2019. Two days later, I was in the exam room with an electrophysiologist who recommended a “routine” ablation. The procedure is to thread a catheter with a camera and an electronic probe through an artery into the upper chamber of the heart. A brief electrical signal is aimed at a few nerve endings to stop the heart from receiving excess messages about beating. Normal rhythm is thus restored, and the patient goes on with a normal life without the need for additional medications.
It may be routine for the doctor, but it isn’t routine for me.
However, I am being treated in our region’s most advanced cardiac care center with some of the best trained and best supported physicians and surgeons in the country. And I get to sleep through the whole procedure. The day will be more challenging for my wife and children, who have to wait while the procedure is taking place. I know. I waited while she had a more complex ablation procedure a short while ago.

I have a couple of observations about the day that is about to unfold. I am awed and amazed at the technology that has been developed in recent years to enable such a procedure. Fiber optics, micro cameras and tiny instruments that allow the doctor to “see” inside of an artery and perform microsurgery inside of a beating human heart simply did not exist a short while ago. The ability of doctors to perform lifesaving and life-enhancing procedures is truly amazing.

In addition, I am aware that such a procedure is a luxury of a very small segment of the human population who have access to incredible health insurance. The amount of resources that will be invested in this single procedure exceeds our ability to pay by a significant amount. In our society, senior citizens are the biggest spenders on health care. I am grateful for the decades when our church employers paid health insurance premiums that far exceeded our consumption of health care. I am grateful for medicare and the power of the federal government to pay for expensive healthcare costs. But I also don’t want to have the fact that I receive care to mean that others are denied the care they need, and I know that in our society there are others who cannot obtain basic health care services.

I know I am aging. I don’t expect to get out of this life without a few challenges and bumps in the road. I know that there could well be sickness and pain in my future. I don’t ask for an exemption. But today is not that day. It is a day to receive the care that is offered and be grateful to live in this time of such advanced care.

I have no intention of quitting writing at this point.

Still learning about our new home

When we moved to South Dakota, our city was a regional hub. It was the second-largest city in the state and the largest city within 350 miles in any direction. Our regional hospital served an area with a radius of roughly 250 miles. We were well aware of the impact of our city before moving there because we had previously lived in a small North Dakota town that was 175 miles from Rapid City and we used to drive those 175 miles each way for orthopedic care for our son and to shop for certain items that weren’t available in our town. Population centers are few and far between in the Dakotas.

Our situation here is very different. Here we live in a small unincorporated settlement with a population of under 10,000 people. Our community has a lot of vacationers and second-home owners during the summer, but we don’t feel very crowded at all. Our location, however is close to two very large cities. Seattle is about 100 miles south of us. The Seattle metro area is home to over 4 million people. And just 35 miles in the other direction is Vancouver, British Columbia with a metro area housing over 2 1/2 million people. Living in a vacation area so close to major metro areas means that some of those people come to our town when they are on vacation.

When we first moved to this area, the Canadian border was closed to nonessential travel. That meant that the usual tourists from Vancouver weren’t coming to our community. Many of the vacation homes and rental properties were vacant. Some of the area restaurants were struggling and had decreased hours of operation. Some of the small shops weren’t open every day. Last summer, however, the border was open and we really noticed the influx of tourists. It seemed to us that about half of the cars parked alongside the beach sported British Columbia license plates.

It has been quite a bit calmer over the winter. We like the empty beaches and the lack of traffic. Our South Dakota home was near tourist attractions and we were used to the gigantic influx of non-natives during the annual motorcycle rally when there were more guests than local residents for a week each August. But the variation in the number of people is even more dramatic here.

The last few days we have noticed a slight uptick in the number of people on the beach. Part of that is probably natural due to a few warmer days. But we have spoken with enough tourists to know that some of the public schools in British Columbia have spring break this week. Families have rented some of the mobile homes and cottages in our town. We spoke with a teacher and her son yesterday who were sitting on the beach despite the cloudy day. The 3 or 4 year old was not affected by the weather at all. He was having a good time digging in the sand and playing with his toys. His shoes and jacket had been shed as he played.

I suppose that we might learn to take advantage of the nearby cities as time passes. There are some wonderful attractions in the cities including zoos, aquariums, museums, art displays, orchestras, ballet companies, and much more. We aren’t much for shopping and the thought of putting up with urban traffic to find a store doesn’t appeal to us, but there are some places in the cities that we would like to visit. Part of the reason we haven’t done too much exploring is that it took quite a bit of energy to get moved and become settled in our new location. Part of the reason is that we are busy with our part-time jobs and our grandchildren. We have found ourselves saying, “When this job is finished,” about our current interim positions. We don’t really know what we will be doing next. There is a bit of an urge to look for a job after we finish our service to our current church, but there is also a sense that we can afford to be selective and that some of the most interesting positions seem to appear without an extensive search. Our two-year employment at First Congregational Church of Bellingham turned up without us going through a search at all. We just happened to be in the right place at the right time. That is part of the ministry: being able to respond to a call when it comes.

We do plan, however, to drive to Seattle tomorrow. It is one of the first trips to Seattle since we moved that doesn’t involve going to Sea-Tac International Airport. The regional hub airport is on the south side of the city and it takes a bit over two hours to get there and can take considerably more time in peak traffic because there is no way to get there without driving through the city. The closest route goes right through downtown Seattle.

Like other things in life, doing something once makes it easier to do it again later. Perhaps we will find a few more reasons to make the journey into Seattle in the months to come.

The more practical urban experience for us might be to visit Vancouver, British Columbia. The wait at the border can be up to a half hour at times, but most of the time it is 15 minutes or less. We could speed that time by obtaining NEXUS permits, which involve a pre-check and allow one to use the express lanes to cross the border. Folks who have reason to cross the border frequently recommend getting the cards. It seems that a lot of Canadians obtain the cards to come to the US for shopping and vacations. Since we aren’t that interested in shopping the exchange rate doesn’t make much of a difference to us unless we were to need to purchase gasoline in Canada, where the price is higher right now.

It has been nearly three years since we moved from South Dakota and there is still much to learn about living in this new home. Adventures await us and we’re the kind of folks who enjoy adventure.

The mystery of spring

When we lived in South Dakota our lawn was bout 1/2 acre. During those 25 years, we never owned a riding lawn mower. We moved in the summer, so we were in our house for 26 summers. For the first 25 we used the same walk-behind lawn mower that I bought the year we moved into the house. The last summer, I bought a new battery-powered electric mower. With either mower it took me about 2 hours to mow the lawn. It was a good bit of exercise for me. Now we have moved to a house on a very small lot. Mowing the lawn takes less than a half hour. The lawn mower I bought in South Dakota is almost overkill for such a small lawn. I’m pretty sure it will last a very long time in this application. I mowed the lawn yesterday morning and commented to Susan when I finished, “Fretting over having to mow the lawn takes longer than mowing the lawn.” Actually, I don’t fret over it much. I have the right tools and it is a small job.

Mowing the lawn really made me feel like spring has arrived. Later in the morning, we met our son and grandchildren to take a look at a cherry blossom festival. The town of Ferndale, where we do quite a bit of shopping, has a grove of cherry trees that are part of that town’s sister city relationship with a Japanese city. In a community center, they also had a large drum from Japan displayed. They had arranged for demonstrations of Samurai armor and weapons presented by members of the Japanese Consulate Office in Seattle. There were activities for the children including simple origami, Japanese calligraphy, Japanese treats, and more. The children enjoyed the displays, presentations and activities. Because we were active in the sister city organization in Rapid City and have a Japanese exchange daughter and have traveled to Japan twice, we enjoyed the experience as well.

However, the cherry trees are not in blossom in Ferndale yet. We have two cherry trees in our back yard and they are not blossoming, either. They are just budding out, so blossoms are a little while away. Still, spring is in the air.

Our grandkids were in the mood for a burger for lunch, and there isn’t a good burger restaurant in Ferndale, so their father decided to drive into Bellingham to go to a good burger joint we know there. We had plans to meet my brother in Bellingham in the afternoon, so we joined them for lunch. High prices aside, the restaurant delivered really good burgers and it turned out to be a really nice meal. We generally have our big meal in the evening, but on occasion being flexible enough to have it at noon means we get in on some pretty good dining.

From there we headed to a nearby coffee shop to meet up with my brother, his wife, and a friend of theirs who played in a soccer tournament last evening. After we got home from that visit, there was time for a walk before we enjoyed a light supper. As we strolled through the birch forest on our way to the beach, the trees were alive with song birds. It not only felt like spring, it sounded like spring. There was a light onshore breeze so the sea air added to the richness of sensation with smells that are distinctive to our coastal location.

Walking in the warm sunlight in my shirtsleeves feels like spring, It sounds like spring, It smells like spring, It looks like spring. And if you imagine biting into a juicy burger surrounded by our grandchildren, it even tasted like spring. OK, I admit that is stretching it a bit. We eat burgers all year around.

Reflecting on yesterday as I write, I am aware of what a rich day yesterday was for our senses. And I am grateful that we have so many wonderful ways to perceive the world around us.

We belong to a poetry group. Our prompt for our meeting on Monday is the opening line of a poem by Mary Oliver:

“Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous to be understood.”

My reaction to the prompt initially was that the line is nearly perfect. What more could be added other than the poem that Mary Oliver wrote to follow it? And yet the line is worth pondering. I’m no poet, or, at least I identify with what the novelist Jess Walter said in his Whatcom Reads presentation, “I write bad poetry.” I dabble in poetry in part because I enjoy reading poetry so much.

I write essays. Thinking about the experience of spring inspires me to write about the mystery of the change of seasons as the equinox approaches. “Truly we live with mysteries too marvelous to be understood.” I don’t understand all of the processes of the change of season. I don’t understand all of the processes of my own emotional reactions to the world around me. My life is filled with mysteries, most of which are pleasant as well as meaningful. And yet, I fell an urge to try to express some of that in words. The result, I guess, is that I write about things that I don’t understand. Perhaps I write in order to understand. Except, I don’t really understand.

Mary Oliver’s poem goes on to say, “Let me keep my distance, always, from those who think they have the answers. Let me keep company always with those who say, ‘Look!’ and taught in astonishment, and bow their heads.” Like Oliver, I don’t need or want the mysteries of life to be fully solved. I am delighted to simply listen to the birds, without having to know all of their names. I am delighted to wait for the cherry blossoms without knowing which day they will appear. I enjoy being surprised by their sudden burst of beauty. I am delighted walking in my shirtsleeves and smelling the ocean breeze, sharing burgers with my grandchildren, or a cup of tea with my brother.

And I bow my head in gratitude for the surprise and joy and love that are parts of my everyday life. I am blessed.

Wings over Washington

I’m not a birder. I don’t keep a list of the birds I have sighted. I own binoculars, but seldom carry them around with me when we go on walks. But I do like to look at and listen to the birds. I enjoy living in a place with a lot of different species of birds. My heart stirs when I see a bald eagle circling over the farm. I took the return of the red-winged blackbirds to the marshy area in our neighborhood as a sure sign of spring. I am awed and stirred by the trumpeter swans that winter in our region. I frequently comment on the sounds of squabbling gulls and flying Canadian geese. I enjoy the visits of song birds to our backyard feeders and delight when the humming birds come to the wisteria in our yard. When we moved to Washington, I received the gift of a new bird book, which is specific to our area. And recently I installed the Cornell Ornithology Lab’s phone app, which not only displays pictures of birds, but plays recordings of their calls to assist in identification.

This weekend serious birders have descended on our area. March is an especially good time to view the birds, as many of our winter birds have not yet departed for the north country and some of our summer birds have returned to the area. This weekend is the Wings over Water birding festival in our community and it attracts birders from around the country for a weekend of birding events, including hikes, tours, art displays, speakers, and more. During last year’s festival, birders spotted 126 species of birds, including a dozen species of ducks.

We notice all different kinds of birds during our daily walks. Sometimes we are challenged to identify them. For example, I simply call seagulls seagulls. Serious birders have identified nine different species of gulls in our area. I don’t know the difference between Anna’s Hummingbird and a Rufous Hummingbird. When we spotted an owl near our home, I knew it was smaller than a great horned owl, so I called it a barn owl. That apparently isn’t accurate, as the owls spotted by the official bird accounts in our region have been Barred Owls and Short-eared Owls.

And when we get to the beach, I can identify just a few of the shore birds. I’ve learned to identify the oystercatchers by their bright orange long beaks and the orange around their eyes. I think I can accurately name Greater Yellowlegs, thought to be honest I call all little gray shorebirds with bright yellow legs Yellowlegs. The shallows are often full of brants and ducks and grebes and loons and cormorants. I know the distinctive call of loons, but don’t know which of the three species found around here I’m looking at.

Last year, we took in some of the Wings over Water events, including a tour through the civic center with its art displays, vendors, and raptor show. The kids made kites at one of the children’s tables and we went outside to join others in flying the simple kites. Our friends joined in a serious birdwatching expedition on a path that we regularly walk. There is a place near the top of a hill where you can gaze across a swampy area to the trees beyond and see a farm outside of the State Park boundaries. If you look carefully, you’re likely to spot one or more of the emus that are raised on the farm. Those birds aren’t native to our area, but they make a good joke for those who take their birding just a little bit too seriously. I doubt that they are recording the emus in their record books.

One of the things that I like about watching birds is that you don’t have to be a serious birder to enjoy the birds that we see. We often comment on the birds we see and the behaviors as we walk. Oystercatchers really do pluck oysters from the water and open the shells with their sharp beaks. The gulls pick up oysters and clams and fly over the rocks or the parking lot and drop the shells so that they break open. There are some gulls who seem to specialize in stealing the contents of the shells from others who have done the work of finding them in the ocean’s edge and flying them up to a height to drop them. There are different kinds of birds that feed in the tidal creeks depending on which way the tide is flowing. Some days, especially when the tide is out, the beaches will be covered with all kinds of birds. Some days, there will only be a few. In the spring and early summer we might count 25 or more Great Blue Herons, and on some days we won’t see any. There is a field we pass on our way to work that sometimes has hundreds of trumpeter swans. One day this week we saw only two and thought that maybe they had started to migrate north, but yesterday there were dozens in that same field again. We don’t know where they go when they are away from the field but still in the area.

I’m told that most of the rooms in the Semiahmoo Resort are booked months in advance of the Wings over the Water weekend. I’m sure that there are plenty of bargain birders who drive the additional 25 miles or so to a lower priced motel in Bellingham as well. I wonder if there are serious birders who, like me, enjoy getting away from the crowds and plan to visit the area on different days, leaving the festival weekends to others. I’m pretty sure that if I were to put a pair of binoculars around my neck on one of our walks, I’d end up striking up a conversation with a serious birder, who might notice from my ignorance about birds that I’m an amateur.

That’s OK by me. The word amateur comes from the word for love. An amateur is one who pursues something for the love of it. I love looking at the birds, even when I don’t know what I’m looking at.

Spring on the farm

The official first day of spring is next week, but it is really starting to feel like spring around here. My plan is to mow the lawn here. We’ve had a few frosty mornings lately, so we’ll probably wait just a bit before getting the dahlia tubers into the ground and planting our lettuce and peas. We’re already thinking of how we want things to look in our small garden areas this summer.

Over at the farm, the cattle have been taken to the butcher. The pastures are starting to green up and the mud is receding. Most of the garden areas have been layered in with straw and manure and mulch, in different ratios depending on what will be planted. The seedlings are ready to move from under the grow lamps out to the greenhouse.

The kids have a reasonable supply of hay left in the barn as a head start for next winter’s feeding, and we’ll see what the summer brings in terms of whether or not they will be able to get a cutting from the pasture before time to buy heifers in the fall. The new chicks for the laying flock are still in the brooder, but are growing well and will be moving to the pullet pen before too long, depending on the weather. The new bee hives have been stained and varnished and the hive stands are set up in the apiary. It’ll be about a month before the new bees arrive, but we need to have everything ready when they arrive.

Some of the berries are mulched in with straw. The raspberries have been pruned, but are waiting for more straw to mulch them in for the growing season. Although there is a good supply of hay in the barn, the farm ran out of straw. They don’t grow grain, so straw has to be hauled from a neighboring farm where the farmer has a custom bailing operation. Much of the hay and straw around here is put up in round bales, but we know a farmer who puts up thousands of square bales of straw and hay each year. Yesterday, I took the pickup over and got a few bales of straw for the berry patch and other garden areas at the farm. It was over 50 degrees and we loaded in our shirtsleeves and then stood around and talked for a while. The farmer’s boys were playing in the yard, enjoying a break from their project of extending their chicken run while their father tossed bales of straw to me in the pickup and we stood around talking about the weather, the price of eggs, the amount of hay and straw yet to be sold, and a variety of other topics. He had already loaded 350 bales of hay for a local feed store, and his one ton truck was piled high with bales ready to be delivered to San Juan Island on the morning ferry today. Tossing 10 bales to me in the pickup was light duty for him and I was a bit surprised at how easily he threw the bales much farther than I could have.

Back at the farm, I unloaded and stacked the bales. The chickens were out in the yard and very curious about my operation, scratching the loose straw around the pickup and hopping up onto the bales in search of seeds or bugs or anything else they might find. Unlike the hay, there are very few seeds in the straw, but the smell was enticing to the chickens. Our granddaughters were home from school and eating a snack at the picnic table as they watched grandpa work. It was a small job and soon finished. The girls reported to me on their plans for building a leprechaun trap for St. Patrick's day morning. I was happy to be outside doing a bit of work, even if it was light duty instead of sitting at my computer sending e-mails or harvesting numbers from last year’s records for the taxes. Susan does our taxes and she had the information she needed to get through the first draft yesterday. We don’t anticipate any surprises this year, which is good news.

I know that there are many good ways to grow up in this world. Children thrive in all kinds of environments. But I feel especially lucky that our grandchildren are growing up on the farm. It is good for them to have space to run and play. They have a first-hand sense of where their food comes from. They have experience with life and death and new life. They have a few chores when they get off the school bus in the afternoon and the days are getting long enough for them to be outside for a few hours between school and dinner time.

I am continually amazed that their father, whom we raised in a house in town away from the chores of raising animals, except pet cats, and away from an orchard or large garden, has acquired the skills of managing a small farming operation on the side of his busy life and long days as a professional. He’s a busy guy and his days are long and his nights are short. Somehow he has grown up to discover the joy of hard work and big projects. He is far more accomplished at home repair than I was at his age. With three females in the family with long hair, he has had to learn how to snake the drain lines without calling a plumber. He knows how to keep the cattle water trough filled in the cold of winter and the garden irrigated in the summer. He keeps the vehicles and the tractor running, making a lot of the repairs himself. He can clean up and head to a city council meeting in suit and tie and come home, slip on muck boots and coveralls and be out in the yard working after dinner.

And somehow, I’ve come to the place in life where I can do the farm chores I enjoy and avoid the ones I don’t. I volunteer to help with childcare on chicken butchering day. I haul hay, but don’t do much weeding in the garden. I putter in the shop, but get a full share of apples and pears and plums and berries from the orchard. And I get to see my grandchildren nearly every day as they grow and change without the responsibility for their day to day care.

I love spring on the farm, but then again, I love all of the seasons of our life. Being the old guy with the pickup is a role that seems to fit.

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