Only To Do What He Could

No taste of food, no feel of water, no sound of wind, no memory of tree or grass or flower, no image of moon or star are left to me. I am naked in the dark, Sam, and there is no veil between me and the wheel of fire. I begin to see it even with my waking eyes, and all else fades.
~J.R.R. Tolkien The Lord of the Rings

Frodo is a study of a hobbit broken by a burden of fear and horror— broken down, and in the end made into something quite different. Frodo undertook his quest out of love– to save the world he knew from disaster at his own expense, if he could; and also in complete humility, acknowledging that he was wholly inadequate to the task His real contract was only to do what he could, to try to find a way, and to go as far on the road as his strength of mind and body allowed. He did that.
~J.R.R. Tolkien

We are regularly called to do more than we feel capable of accomplishing. Whether we are in the midst of a crisis of confidence, feeling beaten down, physically and emotionally vulnerable, or just plain scared – it is tempting to shrink away from doing what is needed.

Our call to obedience may not be quite as dramatic as Frodo’s monumental task of saving the world from destruction by evil forces — it may simply be getting out of bed and facing the day despite pain and overwhelming sorrow — but it takes no less courage and strength.

We are equipped by the intimacy of the Word of God speaking to each of us individually, instructing us on how to live these days we are given.

Like Frodo, we are to do what we can, to find a way through darkness and fire and threat, and to go down that road as far as our minds and bodies allow. We are inadequate by ourselves, but we are bolstered by the constancy of God alongside. We never travel alone.

An Unchanging Flower


 
Like the small soft unchanging flower
     The words in silence speak;
Obedient to their ancient power
     The tear stands on my cheek.

 
Though our world burns, the small dim words
     Stand here in steadfast grace,
And sing, like the indifferent birds,
     About a ruined place.

 
Though the tower fall, the day be done,
     The night be drawing near,
Yet still the tearless tune pipes on,
     And still evokes the tear.

 
The tearless tune, wiser than we,
     As weak and strong as grass
Or the wild bracken-fern we see
     Spring where the palace was.

~Ruth Pitter “On an Old Poem” from Poems 1926-1966

When I write
a poem, sometimes, there is a kind of daze
that lifts, and I can see
what I couldn’t before, as if my mind
was in a fog, a cloud,
and only wanted

a poem to lift it out. I wanted
the rhythm, just the right
word, the crescendo from whisper to loud
celebration, and found them in the days
of trying poems. And I don’t mind
telling you: poetry has brought complacency

to a (wanted) end, turned upside-down days
aright, settled my unquiet mind,
and allowed me to clearly see.

~Monica Sharman from What Poetry Can Do”

When the world is topsy-turvy
and all seems immersed in fog and cobwebs,
it helps to put down images and words
to clarify and highlight.

Daily I need reminding to stay centered,
daily I acknowledge what makes me weep
and what is worth celebration.

It is a new day to illustrate with words and pictures
what is unchanging in my life:
thank God for a new day,
everyday.

Stitched Up Whole Again

 Sometimes, I am startled out of myself,
like this morning, when the wild geese came squawking,
flapping their rusty hinges, and something about their trek
across the sky made me think about my life, the places
of brokenness, the places of sorrow, the places where grief
has strung me out to dry. And then the geese come calling,
the leader falling back when tired, another taking her place.
Hope is borne on wings. Look at the trees. They turn to gold
for a brief while, then lose it all each November.
Through the cold months, they stand, take the worst
weather has to offer. And still, they put out shy green leaves
come April, come May. The geese glide over the cornfields,
land on the pond with its sedges and reeds.
You do not have to be wise. Even a goose knows how to find
shelter, where the corn still lies in the stubble and dried stalks.
All we do is pass through here, the best way we can.
They stitch up the sky, and it is whole again.

~Barbara Crooker, from Radiance

We’ve lived long enough – now over three decades – in one place so things here on the farm are starting to break and fall apart, or stop working and simply give up. Over the last several weeks we’ve been busy fixing everything from barns to lawnmowers and old pick up trucks to leaking comfy air mattresses, not to mention various appliances threatening to give up the ghost.

We wonder what will break next, or whether all this is just preparing us for our own turn to fall apart, so I’m looking around with a renewed perspective of running out of time.

Like most people who have been stuck at home over the last several months, quarantine has been a good opportunity to clean up around here, including untouched boxes of things moved from our parents’ homes when they had to move into extended care before their deaths. We’ve packed up outdated possessions and no-longer-fitting clothing, scads of magazines and books never read and not-likely-to-be, and anything else that simply isn’t needed any longer.

The older I get, the more I feel I am merely passing through. No one else should have to pick up my messes after me.

Though this will be the summer of the purge of the old and used up, some things are always fixable, and that includes me. Like a seam with missing thread or a broken zipper or a dangling button, it is possible to be carefully stitched back into place once again and thus remain, forever, hopeful and whole.

Do Not Even Think About Swatting or Trampling

One can no more approach people without love than one can approach bees without care. Such is the quality of bees…
~Leo Tolstoy

In the street outside a school
what the children learn
possesses them.
Little boys yell as they stone a flock of bees
trying to swarm
between the lunchroom window and an iron grate.
The boys sling furious rocks
smashing the windows.
The bees, buzzing their anger,
are slow to attack.
Then one boy is stung
into quicker destruction
and the school guards come
long wooden sticks held out before them
they advance upon the hive
beating the almost finished rooms of wax apart
mashing the new tunnels in
while fresh honey drips
down their broomsticks
and the little boy feet becoming expert
in destruction
trample the remaining and bewildered bees
into the earth.

Curious and apart
four little girls look on in fascination
learning a secret lesson
and trying to understand their own destruction.
One girl cries out
“Hey, the bees weren’t making any trouble!”
and she steps across the feebly buzzing ruins
to peer up at the empty, grated nook
“We could have studied honey-making!”

~Audre Lorde “The Bees”

…The world was really one bee yard, and the same rules work fine in both places.
Don’t be afraid, as no life-loving bee wants to sting you.
Still, don’t be an idiot; wear long sleeves and pants.
Don’t swat. Don’t even think about swatting.
If you feel angry, whistle. Anger agitates while whistling melts a bee’s temper.
Act like you know what you’re doing, even if you don’t.
Above all, send the bees love. Every little thing wants to be loved.

~Sue Monk Kidd from The Secret Life of Bees

Our beekeeper niece Andrea gently vacuuming a swarm of honeybees on our farm into a new hive box to take home to join the rest of her several dozen hives.

When the bee comes to your house, let her have beer; you may want to visit the bee’s house some day.
~Congo Proverb

An old Celtic tradition necessitates sharing any news from the household with the farm’s bee hives, whether cheery like a new birth or a wedding celebration or sad like a family death.  This ensures the hives’ well-being and continued connection to home and community – the bees are kept in the loop, so to speak, so they stay at home, not swarm and move on, possibly to even a less hospitable place where they may be trampled or destroyed.

Each little life should feel safe at home, each little life worthy — so much important honey-making to be done.

Good news seems always easy to share; we tend to keep bad news to ourselves so this tradition helps remind us that what affects one of us, affects us all.

These days, with instant news at our fingertips at any moment, bad news about the state of the world constantly bombards us, whether or not it is accurate. We feel compelled to respond without thinking, leading to even more swatting and trampling and destruction.

Like the bees who simply want to set up a safe place to make and store up honey, we want to flee and find a more hospitable home.

The Beekeeper, our Creator, comes personally to our rescue, reaching out to each of us to say:
“Here is the sadness that is happening. All will be well, dear ones. We will navigate your lives together. You are loved and valued. Come back home to stay.”

You Never Know

What shall I say, because talk I must?
That I have found a cure
for the sick?
I have found no cure
for the sick

but this crooked flower
which only to look upon
all men
are cured. This
is that flower
for which all men
sing secretly their hymns
of praise! This
is that sacred
flower!
~William Carlos Williams from “The Yellow Flower”

The nail of each big toe was the horn of a goat.  Thick as a thumb and curved, it projected down over the tip of the toe to the underside.  With each step, the nail would scrape painfully against the ground and be pressed into his flesh.  There was dried blood on each big toe. 

It took an hour to do each big toe.  The nails were too thick even for my nail cutters.  They had to be chewed away little by little, then flattened out with the rasp, washed each toe, dried him off, and put his shoes and socks back on.  He stood up and took a few steps, like someone who is testing the fit of a new pair of shoes. 

“How is it?”

“It don’t hurt,” he said, and gave me a smile that I shall keep in my safety deposit box at the bank until the day I die.

I never go to the library on Wednesday afternoon without my nail clippers in my briefcase.
You just never know.

~Richard Selzer from “Toenails” from Letters to a Young Doctor

I know for a while again
the health of self-forgetfulness,
looking out at the sky through
a notch in the valleyside,
the black woods wintry on
the hills, small clouds at sunset
passing across. And I know
that this is one of the thresholds
between Earth and Heaven,
from which even I may step
forth and be free.
– Wendell Berry from “Sabbath Poems”

Whenever I lose perspective about what I’m trained to do
and who I am meant to serve,
when I wallow in the mud of self-importance
rather than in the health of self-forgetfulness~

I wash out a plug of wax from a deaf ear
and restore hearing
or remove a painful thorn in a thumb
or clip someone’s crippling toenails
so they can step forth in freedom
or I simply sit still as someone
cries out their heart’s pain.

I cling to the crooked flower
of healing and forgiveness I was handed
over forty years ago in order to share
its sacred sweetness.

I’ve been given these tools for a reason
so need to continue to use them.

You just never know.

Untangling My Feelings

I knew you were not poisonous
when I saw you in the side garden;
even your name—milk snake—
sounds harmless, and yet your pattern
of copper splotches outlined in black
frightened me, and the way you were
curled in loops; and it offended me
that you were so close to the house
and clearly living underneath it
if not inside, in the cellar, where I
have found your torn shed skins.

You must have been frightened too
when I caught you in the webbing
of the lacrosse stick and flung you
into the woods, where you landed
dangling from a vine-covered branch,
shamelessly twisted. Now I
am the one who is ashamed, unable
to untangle my feelings,
braided into my DNA or buried
deep in the part of my brain
that is most like yours.

~Jeffrey Harrison “To a Snake” from Into Daylight.

Cast off on a sunny spring day
onto a warm manure pile,
a wriggled-free fresh snakeskin,
almost covered by my fresh load~
lay blended with old hay, horse hair, shavings,
tucked among what is already digested,
dumped and discarded.

This, an intact hollowed shadow
of a still living creature
who has moved on:
I too need to leave my old self
shrugged off onto the manure pile,
shed when it no longer fits
the ways I’ve grown more hallowed,
a fitting remembrance of
my entangled feelings about
who I once was,
yet now left behind.

Between the Lashes of Your Eyes

This is what you shall do:
Love the earth and sun and the animals,
despise riches,
give alms to everyone that asks,
devote your income and labor to others,
hate tyrants,
argue not concerning God,
have patience and indulgence toward the people,
and your very flesh shall be a great poem,
and have the richest fluency, not only in its words,
but in the silent lines of its lips and face,
and between the lashes of your eyes,
and in every motion and joint of your body.
~Walt Whitman from his preface to “Leaves of Grass”

Time, in so many ways, has been standing still for us over the last few months, fueled by an unprecedented quarantine and social isolation. We anticipate “when things return to normal” but the reality is there will be no “normal” for those who have lost jobs and businesses and family members or their own robust health since February.

And now society finds itself in the midst of anger and argument, marching and shouting to defend those who have lived for generations with injustice and oppression, and continue to face that reality every day, and the majority of us were oblivious.

“Normal” holds no appeal when “normal” is living under a tyrant’s thumb or dying under a knee.

So how do we approach a change in seasons as we ourselves are irrevocably changed?

What shall we do?

We are our flesh: all colors, flawed and fragile. We must look beyond the lashes of our eyes to see and understand the fluency of the poetry found in our bodies. We, each one of us, deserve the patience of being heard.

This summer will stand 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 will feel like it must last forever, never ending, yet, like the unpredictable length of our fleshy days on earth, it will eventually wind down, spin itself out, darkening gradually into shadow.

That is the “normal” of our existence because summer always, always ends.

Yet another will reappear, somehow, somewhere, someday. The very poetry of our flesh, the very survival of our souls, depends on it. We will then see beyond our own eyelashes.

Surely a never-ending summer is what heaven itself will be. We shall all be changed, in the twinkling of an eye…

From Cut and From Tumble…

God keep my jewel this day from danger;
From tinker and pooka and bad-hearted stranger.
From harm of the water, from hurt of the fire.
From the horns of the cows going home to the byre.
From the sight of the fairies that maybe might change her.
From teasing the ass when he’s tied to the manger.
From stones that would bruise her, from thorns of the briar.
From evil red berries that wake her desire.
From hunting the gander and vexing the goat.
From the depths o’ sea water by Danny’s old boat.
From cut and from tumble, from sickness and weeping;
May God have my jewel this day in his keeping.
~Winifred Lett (1882-1973) Prayer for a Child

This prayer has hung in our home for almost three decades, purchased when I was pregnant with our first child.  When I first saw it with its drawing of the praying mother watching her toddler leave the safety of the home to explore the wide world, I knew it addressed most of my worries as a new mother, in language that helped me smile at my often irrational fears.  I would glance at it dozens of time a day, and it would remind me of God’s care for our children through every scary thing, real or imagined.

And I continue to pray for our grown children, their spouses, and now for three precious grandchildren who live far from us. I do this because I can’t help myself but do it, and because I’m helpless without the care and compassion of our sovereign God.

Right now, this week, I pray for all children who are growing up in an increasingly divisive and conflicted world, who cannot understand why skin color should make a difference to one’s hopes and dreams and freedom to walk anywhere without feeling threatened.

May I be changed in my prayers.
May we all be changed, in a twinkling of an eye.

I pray because I can’t help myself.
I pray because I’m helpless.
I pray because the need flows out of me all the time

— waking and sleeping.
It doesn’t change God — it changes me.

~C.S. Lewis

Things Unknown But Longed For

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
    When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
    But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,   
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—
I know why the caged bird sings!

~Paul Dunbar from “Sympathy”

…the goldfinch comes, with a twitching chirrup
A suddenness, a startlement,at a branch end
Then sleek as a lizard, and alert and abrupt,
She enters the thickness,and a machine starts up
Of chitterings, and of tremor of wings, and trillings –
The whole tree trembles and thrills
It is the engine of her family.
She stokes it full, then flirts out to a branch-end
Showing her barred face identity mask

Then with eerie delicate whistle-chirrup whisperings
She launches away, towards the infinite

~Ted Hughes from “The Laburnum Top”

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn
and he names the sky his own.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

~Maya Angelou from “Caged bird”

The 4 AM moment of this waning night
before the first bird awakes to sing –
a solemn silence holds its breath
till broken by chitters and tweets.

Like a full breast tingles
with readiness to flow until emptied –
this wave of quiet builds before toppling forward
in barely contained abundance, saturating our ears.

The Conductor’s baton rises to ready
the multi-voiced chorus –
awaking voices, pleading, spill from
a thousand thousand perches.

My anticipation rises for
for such a prayer uncaged and free –
cascading from overnight stillness
into an explosive unmistakeable dawn.

photo by Harry Rodenberger

Casting All Your Cares

Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. 1Peter 5:7

In late May, on our farm,  there is only a brief period of utter silence during the dark of the night.  Up until about 2 AM, the spring peepers are croaking and chorusing vigorously in our ponds and wetlands, and around 4 AM the diverse bird song begins in the many tall trees surrounding the house and barnyard.

In between those bookend symphonies is stillness–usually.

I woke too early this morning aware of something being unstill.  It was an intermittent banging, coming from the barn.  I lay in bed, trying to discern the middle of the night noise that could be a sign of a major problem, like a horse stuck up against a stall wall or “cast” in horseman’s parlance,  or simply one of my water-bucket-banging geldings who enjoys nocturnal percussion.

This was not sounding like a bucket drum set.  It was emphatic hooves frantically banging against metal walls.

Throwing on sweats and boots, I head out the back door into the mere light of pre-dawn, dewy, with the birds just starting to rouse from sleep, the floral perfume of lingering apple blossoms heavy in the air.  Entering the barn, I throw on the lights and start to count the noses I can see in the stalls as I walk down the aisle~all present and accounted for until I get to the very end of the row.  No nose.   Down in the corner is one of our older mares on her side, too close to the wall, her feet askew up against the boards and metal siding.  She nickered low to me, and my entering the stall sent her into a renewed effort to right herself, but all she could do was scrabble against the wall, digging an even bigger hole beneath her body.

This has happened infrequently over our 35 years of owning horses, usually when a horse is rolling to scratch their back and rolls too close to the wall, and becomes lodged there.  Haflingers, who have a fairly round conformation, are a bit prone to being cast.  Our older barn,  with dirt floors, is particularly likely to having this happen, as depressions in the floor where horses have been digging end up becoming deeper and trap a hapless horse that was nonchalantly rolling.  The horse literally is trapped like a turtle on its back.

Righting a 1000 lb. horse that is frantically flailing and struggling is not a particularly easy or safe task.  Thankfully Haflingers tend to be pretty sensible in this situation and will calm when spoken to and be reassured we’re trying to help.  Carefully, I threw and looped a rope around each lower leg, and with help from the man of the house, we were able to pull her back over, and then jump out of her way quickly.  She got up, shook herself off and immediately asked for breakfast–a good sign this was not a horse in distress or colicking with abdominal pain.

So our day started early.

I hope when I find myself trapped in a hole of my own making, when I’ve been careless about watching where I’m heading and find myself helpless and hopeless with no where and no way to turn, someone will hear my struggles and come rescue me.  I promise not to kick out or bite,  but to wait patiently, in gratitude, for such gracious liberation.  

My cares will be cast upon my rescuer.

And then please, offer me breakfast.

John 21: 12 – Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.”