The Heart in Exile

Down near the bottom
of the crossed-out list
of things you have to do today,

between “green thread”
and “broccoli,” you find
that you have penciled “sunlight.”

Resting on the page, the word
is beautiful. It touches you
as if you had a friend

and sunlight were a present
he had sent from someplace distant
as this morning—to cheer you up,


and to remind you that,
among your duties, pleasure
is a thing


that also needs accomplishing.
Do you remember?
that time and light are kinds

of love, and love
is no less practical
than a coffee grinder


or a safe spare tire?
Tomorrow you may be utterly
without a clue,


but today you get a telegram
from the heart in exile,
proclaiming that the kingdom


still exists,
the king and queen alive,
still speaking to their children,

—to any one among them
who can find the time
to sit out in the sun and listen.

~Tony Hoagland “The Word” from Sweet Ruin

When I moved from Washington state to California for college, daily sunshine was a new experience for me, having grown up in the cloudy Pacific Northwest. At first I was nearly giddy with the new reality of not having to wear jackets with hoods or (horrors!) carry an umbrella. It was like being let out of gray prison into the land of puppies and rainbows – like the old Wizard of Oz B&W film becoming technicolor when Dorothy’s house lands in Oz and she opens the door to her new home.

But then I realized strings of sunny days were doing something to my head. Previously, I was dependent on rainy days to stay inside and hit the books, curled up in a quiet corner, content to be cerebral rather than exercising the rest of my muscles. If there was a sunny day in Washington, then I was compelled outside to enjoy what few hours were offered up by the skies. Real gray life happened the rest of the time when I could buckle down and get some work done.

So college days started out euphoric and ended up depressing – I tried studying in dark carrels in the library but I still knew there was sunshine going to waste. I tried studying outside on the college lawn but the distraction of all the activity around me was too great. I finally learned to apportion my “out-in-the-sun” hours from my study hours so I wasn’t feeling robbed of either. I decided to take a sun bath like I take a water bath – just enough to feel transformed and cleansed.

I owned a rainy heart in exile so moving back to the northwest after college was easy; I longed for strings of cloudy days so I could be productive guilt-free again. To this day, I only dose myself with sunbeams in moderation as if I was still worried there won’t be enough sun to last another day.

But there is, there always is.

You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you. Please don’t take my sunshine away.

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Antidote to Bitterness

Keep a green tree in your heart and perhaps a singing bird will come–
~Chinese Proverb

photo by Harry Rodenberger

I heard a wood thrush in the dusk
Twirl three notes and make a star—
My heart that walked with bitterness
Came back from very far.


Three shining notes were all he had,
And yet they made a starry call—
I caught life back against my breast
And kissed it, scars and all.
~Sara Teasdale, featured in “The Wood” in Earth Song

…then came a sound even more delicious than the sound of water. Close beside the path they were following, a bird suddenly chirped from the branch of a tree. It was answered by the chuckle of another bird a little further off. And then, as if that had been a signal, there was chattering and chirruping in every direction, and then a moment of full song, and within five minutes the whole wood was ringing with birds’ music, and wherever Edmund’s eyes turned he saw birds alighting on branches, or sailing overhead or chasing one another or having their little quarrels or tidying up their feathers with their beaks.
~C.S. Lewis from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe

Their song reminds me of a child’s neighborhood rallying cry—ee-ock-ee—with a heartfelt warble at the end. But it is their call that is especially endearing. The towhee has the brass and grace to call, simply and clearly, “tweet”. I know of no other bird that stoops to literal tweeting. 
~Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

I hope you love birds too. It is economical. It saves going to heaven.
~Emily Dickinson in an 1885 letter to Miss Eugenia Hall

I need reminding that what I offer up from my heart predicts what I will receive there.

If I’m grumbling and falling apart like a dying vine
instead of a vibrant green tree~~~
coming up empty and hollow with discouragement,
entangled in the cobwebs and mildew of worry,
only grumbling and grousing~~~
then no singing bird will come.

It is so much better to nurture the singers of joy and gladness with a heart budding green with grace and gratitude, anticipatory and expectant.

My welcome mat is out and waiting.

The symphony can begin any time now…

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Trying to Yield to Change

I went out to cut a last batch of zinnias this
morning from the back fencerow and got my shanks
chilled for sure: furrowy dark gray clouds with
separating fringes of blue sky-grass: and the dew

beaded up heavier than the left-overs of the rain:
in the zinnias, in each of two, a bumblebee
stirring in slow motion. Trying to unwind
the webbed drug of cold, buzzing occasionally but

with a dry rattle: bees die with the burnt honey
at their mouths, at least: the fact’s established:
it is not summer now and the simmering buzz is out of
heat: the zucchini blossoms falling show squash

overgreen with stunted growth: the snapdragons have
suckered down into a blossom or so: we passed
into dark last week the even mark of day and night
and what we hoped would stay we yield to change.
~A.R. Ammons  “Equinox” from Complete Poems

I yield now
to the heaviness of transition
from summer to autumn,
with slowing of my walk
and darkening of my days.

It is time;
day and night now compete for my attention
and both will win.

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The Universal Theme

It’s good for the ego, when I call and they come
running, squawking and clucking, because it’s feedtime,
and once again I can’t resist picking up little Lazarus,
an orange-and-white pullet I adore. “Yes, yes, everything will be
okay,” I say to her glaring mongrel face. Come September,
she’ll begin to lay the blue-green eggs I love poached.
God dooms the snake to taste nothing but the dust
and the hen to 4,000 or so ovulations. Poor Lazarus—
last spring an intruder murdered her sisters and left her
garroted in the coop. There’s a way the wounded
light up a dark rectangular space. Suffering becomes
the universal theme. Too soft, and you’ll be squeezed;
too hard, and you’ll be broken. Even a hen knows this,
posing on a manure pile, her body a stab of gold.

~Henri Cole “Hens”

Every few minutes, he wants
to march the trail of flattened rye grass
back to the house of muttering
hens. He too could make
a bed in hay. Yesterday the egg so fresh
it felt hot in his hand and he pressed it
to his ear while the other children
laughed and ran with a ball, leaving him,
so little yet, too forgetful in games,
ready to cry if the ball brushed him,
riveted to the secret of birds
caught up inside his fist,
not ready to give it over
to the refrigerator
or the rest of the day.
~Naomi Shihab Nye “Boy and Egg”

I’ve bonded with chickens since my birth, living in a farm house adjacent to a large chicken coop. I was taught to gather eggs at a very young age, learning to approach the hens respectfully and steathily, ignoring their scolding clucks as I reached under their feathered bellies to find a smooth warm treasure. Carrying eggs to the house was a great privilege, knowing what a delicious meal they would become. I became a grateful friend to those hens.

I also learned that chickens were tragic figures, either sacrificed young as meat birds so large they could barely walk or after a few decent years of declining egg production for the hens. Participating in their butchering made me respect them even more for their unwitting willingness to suffer the indignity of the process to give their all for the survival of our family.

They are an ideal farm animal; the coyotes, weasels and raccoons think so too, digging into the chicken yard at night to steal unsuspecting hens from their nighttime roosts. Our compost pile has absorbed too many chickens murdered by varmints and left partially eaten in a pile of feathers.

Suffering is universal in this sad weary world. Somehow it is offset by an amazing ability to produce a perfect egg day after day after day.

Thank God for the muttering hens.

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Dreaming of Rain

Mine, O thou Lord of life, send my roots rain
~Gerard Manley Hopkins  “Thou art indeed just, Lord”

it rained in my sleep
and in the morning the fields were wet

I dreamed of artillery
of the thunder of horses

in the morning the fields were strewn
with twigs and leaves

as if after a battle
or a sudden journey

I went to sleep in the summer
I dreamed of rain

in the morning the fields were wet
and it was autumn

~Linda Pastan “September” from Carnival Evening

Even though we are experiencing outlandishly brilliant and sunny late summer weather, I am longing for rain – it has been much too long without a decent soaking and I’m antsy and anxious when the ground is all dust and the air is in need of a good cleansing.

It’s true that my spirit can be just as dry and dusty as the ground, and my roots are parched. I know the need for a drenching renewal isn’t just for the soil.

Lord of Life,
send your refreshing rain to quench my continual thirst.
Reach down with your torrential Love and bathe my roots.

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A Sweetness Ripening

Our hair
turns white with our ripening
as though to fly away in some
coming wind, bearing the seed
of what we know…
Having come
the bitter way to better prayer, we have
the sweetness of ripening.
~Wendell Berry from “Ripening”

My husband and I have walked our country road together many times on warm late summer evenings, breathing in the smell of ripening cornstalks and freshly mowed grass lined up in windrows, much like the walks we took together forty one years ago when we were newly married. Just down the road, we pass the smaller farm we first bought to leave the city behind for a new life amid quieter surroundings. 

The seedling trees my husband planted there are now a thick grove and effective windbreak from the bitter howling northeasters we endured.  The fences have fallen after 38 years, the blackberries have swallowed up the small barn where our first horses, goats, geese, chickens and cows lived. But today, on our 41st wedding anniversary, the house is getting new siding and windows, a fresh coat of paint, and the inside is being updated.

In a few weeks, our oldest son and his family, having concluded their mission work in Japan, will move in. There is such sweetness knowing the first home we owned together will now house our grandchildren.

Our children were raised on this road and they strolled these same steps with us many times, before flying far away for their life’s work. My husband and I have continued to walk together, just the two of us, pondering how the passage of time could be so swift that our hair has turned white and we are going to seed when it was only yesterday we were so young.

Indeed we ripen before we’re feeling ready. It is bitter sweetness relinquishing the youth we once knew, to face a future we can never know.

It is the mystery that keeps us coming back, walking the same steps those younger legs once did, admiring the same setting sun, smelling the same late summer smells.  But we are not the same as we were, having progressed to a fruitfulness intended all along.

We are ripening and readying, our seed flying with the wind.

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There Is Not One Blade of Grass…

There is not one blade of grass, there is no color in this world that is not intended to make us rejoice.
~John Calvin – Sermon Number 10 on I Corinthians

We are given the option to notice
or not
We are given reason to rejoice
or not
We are given a rain-bowed promise to witness
or not.

So why ever not?

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Wrapped in the Shawl of Fading Summer

Summer begins to have the look
Peruser of enchanting Book
Reluctantly but sure perceives
A gain upon the backward leaves —

Autumn begins to be inferred
By millinery of the cloud,
Or deeper color in the shawl
That wraps the everlasting hill.
~Emily Dickinson in “Summer Begins to Have the Look”

Summer is waning and wistful;
it has the look of packing up,
and moving on
without bidding adieu
or looking back over its shoulder.

I’m just not ready to wave goodbye to sun-soaked clear skies.

Cooling winds have carried in darkening clouds
spread green leaves everywhere,
loosened before their time.
Rain is many weeks overdue
yet there is temptation to bargain
for a little more time.
Though we are in need of a good drenching
there are still onions and potatoes to pull from the ground,
berries to pick before they mold on the vine,
overwhelming buckets of tomatoes,
and the remaining corn cobs bulging.

The overhead overcast is heavily burdened
with clues of what is coming:
earlier dusk,
the feel of moisture,
the deepening graying hues,
the briskness of breezes.

There is no negotiation possible.
I need to steel myself and get ready,
wrapping myself in the soft shawl of inevitability.

So autumn advances with the clouds,
taking up residence where summer has left off.
Though there is still clean up
of the overabundance left behind,
autumn will bring its own unique plans
for display of a delicious palette of hues.

The truth is we’ve seen nothing yet.

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Struggling to Remember

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

~Billy Collins “Forgetfulness”

It happens more often than I like to admit.

I have a name on the tip of my tongue, but it fails to form as if it has somehow faded into the mists of a morning fog, only barely discernible to me. Sometimes only the first letter remains to haunt me until the light of day finally burns off the fog and my synapses start to click again.

I actually subscribe to a daily app to exercise my memory and listening ability, including vocabulary and math skills but I realize the best exercise is actually using those brain muscles in real life like I use my arms out in the barn scooping poop every day. My brain knows when it is just a game under the pressure of a time limit vs. a high stakes situation of remembering the correct dosage of a medication in a critical clinical scenario – just like my muscles know there is a difference between a repetitive weight machine in the gym vs. pushing a heavy wheelbarrow uphill against the wind in muddy footing.

I think my brain’s memory capacity is an intricately woven web of connections that get stretched and battered over time. Each dropped connection is gone forever so I’m trying to treat it gently, hold on to and cherish the memories I never want to lose in the fog, and allow the minor forgettable stuff to float away without regrets.

After all, today will become tomorrow’s memory to store away for keeps so I need to do some serious house cleaning to make room…

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Let Evening Come

Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving   
up the bales as the sun moves down.

Let the cricket take up chafing   
as a woman takes up her needles   
and her yarn. Let evening come.

Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned   
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.   
Let the wind die down. Let the shed   
go black inside. Let evening come.

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop   
in the oats, to air in the lung   
let evening come.

Let it come, as it will, and don’t   
be afraid. God does not leave us 
comfortless, so let evening come.

~Jane Kenyon “Let Evening Come”

We resist the arrival of the evening of our lives. I wish I could remain forever sunshiny, vital and irreplaceable, living each moment of the day with the energy I feel with the morning light. But I know that the forward momentum of time inevitably will wind me down to sunset.

The poet Jane Kenyon learned this at far too young an age, diagnosed and beginning treatment for leukemia before turning fifty. I thought of Jane’s poem above when I learned today of the death of a courageous local nurse in her thirties who survived six years of treatment for metastatic cancer after being diagnosed only a few months after the birth of her first and only child. She and her family and medical team tried to postpone her evening coming for as long as possible, knowing God ultimately counts our days.

This week, her evening has come. God comforts those who weep with the loss of this remarkable loving wife, mother, daughter – a woman who trusted her heavenly Father for all the things she needed.

We all are created in the image of a God who remembered to rest. We are not alone in our need to catch our breath.

So let evening come, as it will – there is no stopping it – allowing our lungs to be filled with the loving breath of God, our Creator. To Him, we are most definitely irreplaceable.

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