All That From a Feather

Once again a child asks me suddenly What is a poem?,
And once again I find myself riffing freely and happily
Without the slightest scholarly expertise or knowledge;
But I am entranced by how poems can hint and suggest
And point toward things deeper than words. A poem is
An owl feather, I say. It’s not the owl—but it intimates
Owlness, see what I mean? You imagine the owl, owls,
Silent flight, razors for fingers, a wriggle of mouse tail
Slurped up right quick like the last strand of angel hair,
A startle of moonlight, a fox watching from the thicket,
All that from a feather. It’s like an owl is in the feather.
A poem is a small thing with all manner of bigger in it.
Poor poems only have a writer in them, but better ones
Have way more in them than the writer knew or knows
About. This poem, for example, amazingly has owls in
It—who knew we’d see a flurry of owls this afternoon?

~Brian Doyle, “A Flurry of Owls”

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
~Billy Collins “Introduction to Poetry” from from The Apple that Astonished Paris.

I walked into our big hay barn this week,
finding scattered atop the few remaining bales from last summer
these few owl feathers…

they were waiting for a poem to hide within,
just as the barn owls are tucked invisibly in the rafters
until the cool air of dusk and hunger lures them to the hunt,
swooping outside to capture both moonlight and mice
to be coughed up in pellets of fur and bones.

These feathers, dropped like so many random snowflakes,
carry within them the glint and glow of the moon, a reminder
what we leave behind matters,
whether it be feather or fur
or a wee dry skeleton,
a shell of who we once were
yet are no longer.


A new book from Barnstorming, available to order here:

The Live-Long Light

Some of the most powerful memories of summer
come out of our childhood when we wake up on a June morning and suddenly remember that school is out
and that summer stretches in front of us
as endlessly as the infinities of space.

Everything is different.
The old routines are gone.
The relentless school bus isn’t coming.
The bells will be silent in silent hallways.

And all the world is leafy green,
and will be green,
forever and ever.

~Ray Bradbury from Summer: A Spiritual Biography of the Season

The sun is rich
And gladly pays
In golden hours,
Silver days,

And long green weeks
That never end.
School’s out. The time
Is ours to spend.

There’s Little League,
Hopscotch, the creek,
And, after supper,
Hide-and-seek.

The live-long light
Is like a dream,
and freckles come
Like flies to cream.

~John Updike “June” from A Child’s Calendar

photo by Harry Rodenberger
Photo by Harry Rodenberger

Time lurches ahead in imprecisely measured chunks. 

Sometimes the beginning and ending of seasons are the yardstick,  or the celebration of a holiday or a birthday.  Memories tend to be stickiest surrounding a milestone event: a graduation, a move, a wedding, a birth, a road trip, a funeral.

But Summer needs nothing so remarkable to be memorable. It simply stands on its own in all its extravagant abundance of light and warmth and growth and color stretching deep within the rising and setting horizons.  Each long day can feel like it must last forever, never ending.

Yet summer does eventually wind down, spin itself out, darkening gradually into the shadow dusk of autumn and the night of winter. 

I always let go of summer with reluctance, feeling as if no summer like it will ever come again.

Yet another will, somehow, somewhere, someday.  Surely a never-ending summer is what heaven itself will be.

Perfectly delightful and delightfully perfect. 

We’ve already had a taste.

A new book from Barnstorming is available to order here:

On the Lip of the Solstice



It’s deep time here, this barrow grave five thousand years old,
where we follow like sheep behind the guide to the heart
of its cruciform center. I’ve never been in a space so dark.
What was it like to fear that the sun would not return,
that crops would wither, deer flee, that night’s dark cloak
was all there was? But miraculously, on the lip of the solstice,
the light returned, liquid and golden, ran down the narrow corridor,
hit the back wall, splashed in the stone basin, and they knew summer
would come back, run to fruit. Light, dark, freeze, thaw, seedtime,
harvest, wheel of the year, the spiral dance. What would they make
of our device-laden lives, fossil-fueled cars, over-stocked larders?
Who stands in the dark and listens now, gaping at the stars?
— Barbara Crooker, “Newgrange” from The Book of Kells

Finnis Soutterain underground

Finnis Soutterain underground

There is nothing so dark as centuries-old underground tunnels and portal tombs, some positioned with an opening to capture a beam of light exactly at either the winter or summer solstice, illuminating what dwells in blackness the rest of the year.

The more recent ninth century soutterain tunnels were refuge for Christians hiding from invaders, keeping whole villages safe from capture.

The dolmens and portal graves are Neolithic structures built before the pyramids. They still exist today as they were constructed to last by people serious about their beliefs. Though those people are long dust, the stones and tunnels remain as they were, to protect the spirits of the departed.

What would they think now of our extravagance, our plethora of goods and foods, our modern ways of crippling others with the weapons of internet words and hacking, rather than stealing, pillaging and enslaving strangers?

We moderns are lost in our over-abundance of light year round, scarcely noting the calendar or the passing of the longest and shortest days.

What remarkable people of strength have preceded us, seeking to preserve the significance of Light in their darkness.

Legananny Dolmen, Northern Ireland
Legananny dolmen
Kilfeaghan Dolmen
Goward Dolmen at the foot of the Mourne Mountains

A new book from Barnstorming is available to be ordered here:

A Moment of Balance

When summer time has come, and all
The world is in the magic thrall
Of perfumed airs that lull each sense
To fits of drowsy indolence;

Just for the joy of being there
And drinking in the summer air,
The summer sounds, and summer sights,
That set a restless mind to rights
When grief and pain and raging doubt
Of men and creeds have worn it out;

O time of rapture! time of song!
How swiftly glide thy days along
Adown the current of the years,
Above the rocks of grief and tears!
‘Tis wealth enough of joy for me
In summer time to simply be.
~Paul Laurence Dunbar from “Summertime”

Each year, on the same date, the summer solstice comes.
Consummate light: we plan for it,
the day we tell ourselves
that time is very long indeed, nearly infinite.
And in our reading and writing, preference is given
to the celebratory, the ecstatic.

What follows the light is what precedes it:
the moment of balance, of dark equivalence.

But tonight we sit in the garden in our canvas chairs
so late into the evening –
why should we look either forward or backwards?
Why should we be forced to remember:
it is in our blood, this knowledge.
Shortness of the days; darkness, coldness of winter.
It is in our blood and bones; it is in our history.
It takes a genius to forget these things.
~Louise Glück from “Solstice”

I stand, wavering in a balance
of light and shadow~
this knowledge of what’s to come next
rests deep in my bones.

I’ve been here before,
so grateful for the sun’s return.

I will not forget this gift of Light,
as darkness begins to claim the days again.

I remember,
He promised to never let darkness
overwhelm the world again.

I believe Him,
on this longest day,
and even more so,
in the midst of the longest night.

I Nearly Said I Loved Him

“Hold on,” she said, “I’ll just run out and get him.
The weather here’s so good, he took the chance
To do a bit of weeding.”


So I saw him
Down on his hands and knees beside the leek rig,
Touching, inspecting, separating one
Stalk from the other, gently pulling up
Everything not tapered, frail and leafless,
Pleased to feel each little weed-root break,
But rueful also . . . 


Then found myself listening to
The amplified grave ticking of hall clocks
Where the phone lay unattended in a calm
Of mirror glass and sunstruck pendulums . . . 


And found myself then thinking: if it were nowadays,
This is how Death would summon
Everyman.

Next thing he spoke and I nearly said I loved him.

~Seamus Heaney “A Call” from ‘Poems That Make Grown Men Cry’

My father was a complex man. I understand better now where my own complicated nature comes from.

As inscrutable as he could be, there were things I absolutely understood about him:

he was a man of action
– he never just sat, never took a nap, never wasted a day of his life without accomplishing something tangible.

he was a man of the soil
– he plowed and harrowed and sowed and fertilized and weeded and harvested

he was a man of inventiveness
– he figured out a better way, he transformed tools and buildings, he started from scratch and built the impossible

he didn’t explain himself
– and never felt the need to.

Time keeps ticking on without him here, now 26 years since he took his last breath as the clock pendulum swung in his bedroom. He was taken too young for all the projects he still had in mind.

He handed off a few to me.
Some I have done.
Some still wait, I’m not sure why.

My regret is not understanding how much he needed to hear how loved he was. He seemed fine without it being said.
But he wasn’t.

I wish I had said it when I had the chance.

Ben packaged in a paper bag by Grandpa Hank
Pouring the sidewalk by hand

The Importance of Doing Nothing

He thought of all the time he wasted
being good. Clutched by the guilt
of excellence. Polite.
Well-trained. But when
the long summer afternoons came,
too hot to move
from the window fan, scent
of vapor rising
from water jackets, he found pleasure
in doing the nothing that had no regrets–
wasted afternoons
under the Wisteria vine when no one
was watching. Aroma thick
as a breeze on his shoulder.
Thinking of women constantly, forgetting
to water the chickens
in the barn. He was beginning to feel
the release of duty, to feel
what it’s like to feel.
Demands waiting like barking dogs
at the periphery. His good intention
to visit the sick woman
falling aside
as he listened to the rattle of starlings
in the rafters––discovering that strange lightness
of the body. And the new importance
of oak branches
where they separate from the trunk.
How far out the leaves
begin to spread.
The startling arrangement
of moss
like whiskers without discipline.
The long plains of earth
reaching to the clouds
behind the back yard fence.
How the ground pushes back when you walk.

~David Watts, M.D. – “Another Side of Transgression” from Having and Keeping

Decades of demands and responsibilities become a falling-down fence line with no end in sight. Having been raised an obedient person with a heightened sense of obligation about constantly fixing what needs repair, I’ve done what I could, where I could, when I could, how I could, though too often ineffective in my efforts.

I’ve always moved from task to task to task – life’s string of fence posts held wires that always needed stretching and patching and straightening. By continually working, I hoped I too would remain standing and functional.

It’s clear the fence isn’t perfect, nor will it ever be. It has served a purpose, as have I. Now I wander along the fencerow, focusing on the walk and the view rather than searching out every little thing which is leaning or loose or gaping.

This walk feels good, lighter, almost cushiony, almost like rolling with joy in the freedom of it. I’m ambling along for no particular reason at all, which is almost intoxicating.

I think I’ll get used to the importance of doing nothing whatsoever.

A new Barnstorming book is available for order here:

How Hungry Could I Be?

One taste

and the rest
is what came after.
Little berry,

you’re the flavor
of my best,
most necessary

kiss. Fit
for a tongue tip,
exactly.

You were nothing
until I picked
you once.

How long
do we willingly
live without?

How hungry
would I be if
I’d kept walking?
~Kathleen Flenniken “Thimbleberry” (2012 – 2014 Washington State poet laureate)

I’m glad I stopped
where I was going
what I was doing

to admire and taste
a little thimbleberry ~

an extraordinary moment
suspended in time,
never to come again

A hunger so sweet
and achingly sad

A new book from Barnstorming is available for order here:

The Reddening Light

Near dusk, near a path, near a brook,
we stopped, I in disquiet and dismay
for the suffering of someone I loved,
the doe in her always incipient alarm.

All that moved was her pivoting ear
the reddening sun was shining through
transformed to a color I’d only seen
in a photo of a new child in a womb.

Nothing else stirred, not a leaf,
not the air, but she startled and bolted
away from me into the crackling brush.

The part of my pain which sometimes
releases me from it fled with her, the rest,
in the rake of the late light, stayed.
~C. K. Williams  “The Doe”
from The Singing

Oh little one
who was to have been born this week in June
thirty eight years ago~
so wanted
so anticipated
but lost too soon.

Gone as swiftly in a clot of red
as a doe disappearing soundlessly into a thicket:
so long ago it makes me question
if you were real,
until my heart clenches again at the memory.

But you were
and you are
and someday
I’ll know you when I see you
and curious about who I am,
you won’t flee this time,
but stay to find out.

A new book from Barnstorming is available to order here:

An Exuberant Soul

Whatever he needs, he has or doesn’t
have by now.
Whatever the world is going to do to him
it has started to do. With a pencil and two

Hardy Boys and a peanut butter sandwich and
grapes he is on his way, there is nothing
more we can do for him. Whatever is
stored in his heart, he can use, now.
Whatever he has laid up in his mind
he can call on. What he does not have
he can lack. The bus gets smaller and smaller, as one
folds a flag at the end of a ceremony,
onto itself, and onto itself, until
only a heavy wedge remains.
Whatever his exuberant soul
can do for him, it is doing right now.
Whatever his arrogance can do
it is doing to him. Everything
that’s been done to him, he will now do.
Everything that’s been placed in him
will come out, now, the contents of a trunk
unpacked and lined up on a bunk in the underpine light.
~Sharon Olds “The Summer-Camp Bus Pulls Away from the Curb”

photo by Gary Herbert
photo from army.mil

This is the season for graduations and commencements to the next phase of life, when students move into the adult world and don’t look back.

As a parent, as an educator, as a mentor within church and community, and over thirty two years as a college health physician witnessing this transition many times over, I can’t help but be wistful about what I may have left undone and unsaid with the generation about to launch.   In their moments of vulnerability, did I pack enough love into their hearts so they can pull it out when it is most needed?

When our three children traveled the world after their graduations, moving beyond the fenced perimeter of our little farm, I trusted they left well prepared.

As a former school board member, I watched our students, parents and teachers work diligently together in their preparation for that graduation day, knowing the encompassing love behind each congratulatory hand shake.

When another batch of our church family children say goodbye, I remember holding them in the nursery, listening to their joyful voices as I played piano accompaniment in Sunday School, feeding them in innumerable potlucks over the years.  I pray we have fed them well in every way with enough spiritual food to stick to their ribs in the “thin” and hungry times.

When hundreds of my student/patients move on each year beyond our university health clinic, I pray for their continued emotional growth buoyed by plenty of resilience when the road gets inevitably bumpy.

I believe I know what is stored in the hearts of our graduates because I, among many others, helped them pack it full of love.  Only they will know the time to unpack it when the need arises.

And now, this year, I find I am “graduating” as well, moving away from a regular clinic work schedule to whatever waits for me next. I cleaned out my desk yesterday, carrying the detritus of three decades back home with me, including a packed-away glass “tear drop” I somehow earned ten years ago for “exceptional effort.” All I really remember about that time in my professional life are the shed tears that award acknowledged unbeknownst. It was a fitting symbol for what I had been through during a hard year.

I’m not exactly climbing on a bus with my lunch packed to go to summer camp, but it feels a bit similar as I enter this new phase. I’m nervous, I’m sad, I’m excited, I’m exuberant, so much like all the graduates I’ve seen commence over the years.

And best of all for me, summer camp is right here on the farm, peanut butter sandwiches included.

A new book from Barnstorming available to order here:

Simply Rapt

Someone spoke to me last night,
told me the truth. Just a few words,
but I recognized it.
I knew I should make myself get up,
write it down, but it was late,
and I was exhausted from working
all day in the garden, moving rocks.
Now, I remember only the flavor —
not like food, sweet or sharp.
More like a fine powder, like dust.
And I wasn’t elated or frightened,
but simply rapt, aware.
That’s how it is sometimes —
God comes to your window,
all bright light and black wings,
and you’re just too tired to open it.
~Dorianne Laux, “Dust” from What We Carry

We don’t have time to look at one another.
I didn’t realize.
All that was going on in life and we never noticed.

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? 
I’m ready to go back.

I should have listened to you.
That’s all human beings are!
Just blind people.
~Thornton Wilder, from Emily’s monologue in Our Town

And for all this, nature is never spent;   
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went   
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent   
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
~Gerard Manley Hopkins from “God’s Grandeur”

photo by Josh Scholten

Lord, all bright light and protective wings…

Let me not wear blinders through my days.
Let me see and feel it all
even when it seems too much to bear,
lest I’m too weary to listen.

Let me write it down
or find an image that captures You,
if only for the moment
I feel your presence.

Lord, prepare me to be whelmed at your world,
so Heaven itself will seem familiar,
and not that far,
maybe just round the corner.

A new book from Barnstorming available for order here: