Promises to Keep

Whose woods these are I think I know.   
His house is in the village though;   
He will not see me stopping here   
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
   

My little horse must think it queer   
To stop without a farmhouse near   
Between the woods and frozen lake   
The darkest evening of the year.   

He gives his harness bells a shake   
To ask if there is some mistake.   
The only other sound’s the sweep   
Of easy wind and downy flake.   

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   
But I have promises to keep,   
And miles to go before I sleep,   
And miles to go before I sleep.

~Robert Frost, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” from The Poetry of Robert Frost

I wish one
could press snowflakes
in a book
like flowers.
~James Schuyler from “February 13, 1975

When a January night lingers long,
beginning too early and lasting too late,
I find myself in my own insistent winter,
wanting to hide away from trouble
deep in a peaceful snowy woods,
knowing I choose to avoid doing
what is needed
when it is needed.

I look inward
when I must focus outside myself.
I muffle my ears
to deafen voices crying in need.
I turn away
rather than meet a stranger’s gaze.

A wintry soul
is a cold and empty place,
not lovely, dark and deep.

I appeal to my Creator
who knows my darkness.
He expects me to keep my promises
because He keeps His promises.
His buds of hope and warmth
and color and fruit
will arise from my bare branches.

He brings me out of the night
to finish what He brought me here to do.

A book from Barnstorming combining the beauty of Lois Edstrom’s words and Barnstorming photography, available for order here:

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The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: No Room At All

For outlandish creatures like us,
on our way to a heart, a brain, and courage,
Bethlehem is not the end of our journey but only the beginning – not home but the place through which we must pass
if ever we are to reach home at last.
~Frederick Buechner from The Magnificent Defeat

Into this world, this demented inn,
in which there is absolutely no room for him at all,
Christ has come uninvited.
But because he cannot be at home in it –
because he is out of place in it, and yet must be in it –
his place is with those others who do not belong,
who are rejected because they are regarded as weak…
With those for whom there is no room,
Christ is present in this world.
He is mysteriously present in those for whom
there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst.
~Thomas Merton from Watch for the Light

As a physician, I’ve provided care to many homeless people, but I’ve never known homelessness myself.  However, I have been room-less and those experiences were enough to acquaint me with the dilemma for Joseph and Mary searching for a place to sleep in Bethlehem.

It was my ninth birthday, July 26, 1963, and my family was driving to Washington D.C. for a few days of sightseeing. We had planned to spend the night in a motel somewhere in eastern Ohio or western Pennsylvania but my father, ever the determined traveler, felt we should push on closer to our destination. By the time 11 PM rolled around, we were all tired and not just a little cranky so we started looking for vacancy signs at road-side motels. Most were posted no vacancy by that time of night, and many simply had shut off their lights. We stopped at a few with vacancy still lit, but all they had available would never accommodate a family of five.

We kept driving east, and though I was hungry for sleep, I became ever more anxious that we really would never find a place to lay our heads. My eyes grew wider and I was more awake than ever, having never stayed up beyond 1 AM before and certainly, I’d never had the experience of being awake all night long. It still goes down in my annals as my longest birthday on record.

By 2 AM we arrived in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and my dad had reached his driving limit and my mom had declared we were not traveling another mile. We headed downtown where the brick Harrisburg Hotel stood some 10 stories high, an old structure in a questionable area of town, but the lights were on and there were signs of life inside.

They did have a room that gave us two saggy double beds to share for eight dollars, with sheets and blankets with dubious laundering history, a bare light bulb that turned on with a chain and a bathroom down the hall. I’m surprised my mother even considered laying down on that bed, but she did. I don’t remember getting much sleep that night, but it was a place to rest, and the sirens and shouts out on the street did make for interesting background noise.

Some 12 years later, I had another experience of finding no room to lay my head after arriving late at night in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, with supposed reservations at the local YMCA for myself and my three student friends traveling together on our way to Gombe to study wild chimpanzees. We landed at the airport after midnight after a day long flight from Brussels, managed to make it through customs intact and find a taxi, only to arrive at the Y to find it dark and locked. It took some loud knocking to rouse anyone and with our poor Swahili, we were able to explain our dilemma–we were supposed to have two rooms reserved for the four of us. He said clearly “no room, all rooms taken”.

The host was plainly perplexed at what to do with four Americans in the middle of the night. He decided to parse us out one each to occupied rooms and hope that the occupants were willing to share. He looked at me, a skinny white girl with short hair and decided I was some kind of strange looking guy, and tried to stick me in a room with a rather intoxicated French man and I said absolutely not. Instead my female traveling partner and I ended up sharing a cot (sort of) in a room with a German couple who allowed us into their room, which I thought was an amazing act of generosity at 2 AM in the morning. I didn’t sleep a wink, amazed at the magical sounds and smells of my first dawn in Africa, hearing the morning prayers coming from the mosque across the street, only a few hours later.

So I can relate in a small way to what it must have felt like over 2000 years ago to have traveled over hard roads to arrive in a dirty little town temporarily crammed with too many people, and find there were no rooms anywhere to be had. And to have doors shut abruptly on a young woman in obvious full term pregnancy is another matter altogether. They must have felt a growing sense of panic that there would be no safe and clean place to rest and possibly deliver this Child.

Then there came the offer of an animals’ dwelling, with fodder for bedding and some minimal shelter. A stable and its stone manger became sanctuary for the weary and burdened. We are all invited in to rest there, and I never enter a barn without somehow acknowledging that fact and feeling welcomed.

There are so many ways we continue to refuse access and shut the doors in the faces of those two (plus One) weary travelers, forcing them to look elsewhere to stay. We say “no room” dozens of times every day, not realizing who and what we are shutting out.

With all the material distractions of our age, it is small wonder we pay no attention to who is waiting patiently outside the back door of our lives, where it is inhospitable and cold and dank. Few of us would invite our special company into the barn first and foremost. Yet these travelers don’t seek an invitation to come in the front door, with fancy meals and feather beds and fresh flowers on the cupboard. It is the dark and manure strewn parts of our lives where they are needed most. That is where He was born to dwell amid our messiness, and that is where He remains, in the humblest parts of our being, the parts we do not want to show off, and indeed, most often want to hide.

And that is, of course, a place where there is always plenty of room.

This year’s Barnstorming Advent theme “… the Beginning shall remind us of the End” is taken from the final lines in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”

Jesus, Jesus, rest your head.
You has got a manger bed.
All the evil folk on earth
Sleep in feathers at their birth.
Jesus, Jesus, rest your head.
You has got a manger bed.

1. Have you heard about our Jesus?
Have you heard about his fate?
How his mammy went to the stable
On that Christmas Eve so late?
Winds were blowing, cows were lowing,
Stars were glowing, glowing, glowing. Refrain

2. To the manger came the Wise Men.
Bringing from hin and yon,
For the mother and the father,
And the blessed little Son.
Milkmaids left their fields and flocks
And sat beside the ass and ox. Refrain

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The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: A Dark Blanket of Peace

Well I know now the feel of dirt under the nails,
I know now the rhythm of furrowed ground under foot,
I have learned the sounds to listen for in the dusk,
the dawning and the noon.

I have held cornfields in the palm of my hand,
I have let the swaying wheat and rye run through my fingers,
I have learned when to be glad for sunlight and for sudden
thaw and for rain.

I know now what weariness is when the mind stops
and night is a dark blanket of peace and forgetting
and the morning breaks to the same ritual and the same
demands and the silence.
~Jane Clement from No One Can Stem the Tide

Seven-thirty. Driving northwest out of town,
the snowscape dusky, sky tinted smoky peach.
In the rear view mirror, a bright orange glow
suffuses the stubbly treeline. Suddenly a column
of brightness shoots from the horizon,
a pillar of fire! One eye on the road,
I watch behind me the head of a golden
child begin to push up between the black knees
of the hills. Two weeks out from Solstice, the sun
so near winter it seems to rise in the south.
A fiery angel stands over his cradle of branches.
And what strange travelers come to honor him?
And what gift will I bring to him this day?
~Thomas Smith “Advent Dawn” from The Glory

And he shall be their peace.
Micah 5:5

I tossed and turned last night — my thoughts too busy, my blankets twisted in turmoil, my muscles too tight.  

The worries of the day required serious wrestling in the dark rather than settling silent and forgotten under my pillow after prayer.

Yet, as ever, morning dawns anew and once again I’m comforted by the rhythm of emerging light overwhelming the night. This ritual of starting fresh remembers the promises given to us again and again in His Word.

In the name of peace today, I will get my hands dirty digging a hole deep enough to hold the worries that kept me awake in the night.

And tomorrow, even if I try to remember, I will have forgotten where exactly I buried them.

This year’s Barnstorming Advent theme “… the Beginning shall remind us of the End” is taken from the final lines in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”


Peace, peace, peace on earth
and good will to all.
This is the time for joy
This is the time for love
Now let us all sing together
of peace, peace, peace on earth.

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The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: Wake Us From Drowsy Worship

A little aside from the main road,
becalmed in a last-century greyness,
there is the chapel, ugly, without the appeal
to the tourist to stop his car
and visit it. The traffic goes by,
and the river goes by, and quick shadows
of clouds, too, and the chapel settles
a little deeper into the grass.

But here once on an evening like this,
in the darkness that was about
his hearers, a preacher caught fire
and burned steadily before them
with a strange light, so that they saw
the splendour of the barren mountains
about them and sang their amens
fiercely, narrow but saved
in a way that men are not now.
~R.S. Thomas “The Chapel”

The journey begins when Christians leave their homes and beds. They leave, indeed, their life in this present and concrete world, and whether they have to drive 15 miles or walk a few blocks, a sacramental act is already taking place…

For they are now on their way to constitute the Church, or to be more exact, to be transformed into the Church of God. They have been individuals, some white, some black, some poor, some rich, they have been the ‘natural’ world and a natural community. And now they have been called to “come together in one place,” to bring their lives, their very world with them and to be more than what they were: a new community with a new life.

We are already far beyond the categories of common worship and prayer. The purpose of this ‘coming together’ is not simply to add a religious dimension to the natural community, to make it ‘better’ – more responsible, more Christian. The purpose is to fulfill the Church, and that means to make present the One in whom all things are at their end, and all things are at their beginning.
~ Father Alexander Schmemann from For the Life of the World

Unexpected God,
your coming advent alarms us.
Wake us from drowsy worship,
from the sleep that neglects love,
and the sedative of misdirected frenzy.
Awaken us now to your coming,
and bend our angers into your peace.
Amen.
~Revised Common Lectionary

Sometimes the very walls of our churches
separate us from God
and each other.


In our various naves and sanctuaries
we are safely separated from those outside,
from other denominations, other religions,
separated from the poor, the ugly, the dying.…


The house of God is not a safe place.
It is a cross where time and eternity meet,
and where we are – or should be –
challenged to live more vulnerably,
more interdependently.
~Madeleine L’Engle, from  A Stone for a Pillow

Does anyone have the foggiest idea
of what sort of power we so blithely invoke?
Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?
The churches are
children playing
on the floor with their chemistry sets,
mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.
It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church;
we should all be wearing crash helmets.
Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares;
they should lash us to our pews.

~Annie Dillard from Teaching a Stone to Talk

Being a Christian during a pandemic is nothing new in the history of the world. We’ve been through this again and again, on the frontlines caring for others during the Black Death, dying while serving unselfishly through plague after plague, and most recently during the killing influenza of the early 20th century.

Somehow the last two years of COVID-time feel different …

No one is happy that congregational singing takes place through masks. There are fewer handshakes and hugs and some of us feel safer worshiping while streaming a live feed on a screen. Some are flat out angry at having to worship with any restrictions and opt to stay away or move to churches with no such rules. Yet Christians are called to come together to raise our voices corporately in praise, prayer and thanksgiving despite potential health risks and physical inconvenience.

We are to love one another when we are most unloveable.

We tend to forget that walking into church on any Sabbath, not just during a pandemic, takes courage and commitment as we automatically become emotionally and spiritually vulnerable to one another. What one of us says and does can bless or hurt us all. This can be no drowsy worship: we are the poor, the ugly and the dying.

When I hear the secular folks in society scoff at attending church as a “crutch for the weak”, they underestimate what it means to admit a desperate need for salvation and grace that can only be found inside those doors. We who sit in a pew in the sanctuary cling to the life preserver found in the Word. We are lashed to our seats and must hang on.  It is only because of God’s grace that we survive the tempests of temptation, guilt and self-doubt in order to let go of our own anger at the state of the world and the state of our own souls.

Exposing ourselves to the radical mystery and immense power of the living God is not for the faint of heart, yet all of us on the verge of heart failure need God’s deep roots to thrive and grow in our rocky soul soil.

So we must not forget our crash helmets… or our masks.

photo by Barb Hoelle

This year’s Barnstorming Advent theme “… the Beginning shall remind us of the End” is taken from the final lines in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”

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The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: Tenderness Begins to Form

This is the honest grace of her body:
that she is afraid, and in this moment does not
hide her fear...
Until in the cave of her body
she might feel without willing it a tenderness
begin to form. Like the small, ghostly
clover of the meadow; the deer hidden
in the hills. A tenderness like mourning.
The source of love, she thinks, is mourning.
…the child that will soon form
inside her body, this loss by which we come
to bend before the given, its arms that open
unexplained, and take us in.
~Laurie Sheck from “The Annunciation”

Like Mary, we have no way of knowing… We can ask for courage, however, and trust that God has not led us into this new land only to abandon us there.
~Kathleen Norris from God With Us

As if until that moment
nothing real
had happened since Creation

As if outside the world were empty
so that she and he were all
there was — he mover, she moved upon

As if her submission were the most
dynamic of all works: as if
no one had ever said Yes like that

As if one day the sun had no place
in all the universe to pour its gold
but her small room
~Luci Shaw “Virgin”

Like most people, I want my life to be the way I want it:
my plans, my timing, my hopes and dreams first and foremost.

And then stuff happens and suddenly nothing looks the way it was supposed to be. I feel emptied of the future I had envisioned.

Yet only then, as an empty vessel, can I be filled.

In the annunciation of the angel, Mary’s response to this overwhelming circumstance is a model for us all when we are hit by a wave of circumstances we didn’t expect and had not prepared for.

She is prepared; she has studied and knows God’s Word and His promise to His people, even in the midst of trouble. She is able to articulate it beautifully in the song she sings as her response. She gives up her so-carefully-planned-out life to give life to God within her.

Her resilience sings through the ages and to each one of us in our troubles:
may it be to me as you say.

May it be.
Your plans, Your purpose, Your promise.
Let it be.
Even if it may pierce my soul as with a sword.
You are there with your exquisite tenderness to stem the bleeding so I sing through my fear, through my weariness, and through my tears.

The angel Gabriel from heaven came
His wings as drifted snow his eyes as flame
“All hail” said he “thou lowly maiden
Mary, Most highly favored lady,” Gloria!

“For known a blessed mother thou shalt be,
All generations laud and honor thee,
Thy Son shall be Emanuel, by seers foretold
Most highly favored lady,” Gloria!

Then gentle Mary meekly bowed her head
“To me be as it pleaseth God,” she said,
“My soul shall laud and magnify his holy name.”
Most highly favored lady. Gloria!

Of her, Emmanuel, the Christ was born
In Bethlehem, all on a Christmas morn
And Christian folk throughout the world will ever say:
“Most highly favored lady,” Gloria!

This year’s Barnstorming Advent theme “… the Beginning shall remind us of the End” is taken from the final lines in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”

Heed No Nightly Noises

There was a fire in the wide hearth before them, and it was burning with a sweet smell, as if it were built of apple-wood. When everything was set in order, all the lights in the room were put out, except one lamp and a pair of candles at each end of the chimney-shelf. Then Goldberry came and stood before them, holding a candle; and she wished them each a good night and deep sleep.

“Have peace now,” she said, “until the morning! Heed no nightly noises! For nothing passes door and window here save moonlight and starlight and the wind off the hill-top. Good night!” She passed out of the room with a glimmer and a rustle. The sound of her footsteps was like a stream falling gently away downhill over cool stones in the quiet of night.

Tom sat on a while beside them in silence, while each of them tried to muster the courage to ask one of the many questions he had meant to ask at supper. Sleep gathered on their eyelids. At last Frodo spoke: “Did you hear me calling, Master, or was it just chance that brought you at that moment?”

Tom stirred like a man shaken out of a pleasant dream. ‘Eh, what?’ said he. ‘Did I hear you calling? Nay, I did not hear: I was busy singing. Just chance brought me then, if chance you call it. It was no plan of mine, though I was waiting for you. We heard news of you, and learned that you were wandering.”
~J.R.R. Tolkien from The Lord of the Rings

We wander through this life, sometimes with a destination in mind, but too often lost and surrounded by a darkness threatening to swallow us whole.

It isn’t by chance that we have been rescued and brought to safety.

Our Savior has been waiting for us, hearing us call out for help. Our rescue begins again tomorrow with the Advent of the Light that comes into pitch dark to illuminate our way to becoming un-lost.

No longer do we need to fear the noises of the night or where we take our next step. We are reassured we have been found, as T.S. Eliot wrote of Advent: “the beginning shall remind us of the end and the first coming of the second coming.”

May the coming weeks be a time of peace and reflection:
For nothing passes door and window here save moonlight and starlight and the wind off the hill-top

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The Barn Serious in the Moonlight

After writing for a week alone in my old shack,
I guide the car through Ortonville around midnight.

The policeman talks intently in his swivel chair.
The light from above shines on his bald head.

Soon the car picks up speed again beside the quarries.
The moonspot on the steel tracks moves so fast!

Thirty or so Black Angus hold down their earth
Among silvery grasses blown back and forth in the wind.

My family is still away; no one is home.
How sweet it is to come back to an empty house—

The windows dark, no lamps lit, trees still,
The barn serious and mature in the moonlight.

~Robert Bly, “Living a Week Alone” from Like the New Moon, I Will Live My Life. 

Being introverted, I would expect to enjoy time alone. But I don’t. A conversation with myself is uninspiring, leading me back into the inner circle of my thoughts when I would much rather explore the unknown of another’s view of the world. Alone, I feel exceptionally unexceptional and extraordinarily ordinary. Quite simply, without others around me, I’m empty.

At night, when I drive up to our farm and see both house and barn glowing with lights and life rather than still and dark, it is a warm blessing to return home. Someone left the lights on for me.

I’ll leave the lights on for you as well.

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Just Strength to Believe

The care of the disciples was the care for the day,
not for the morrow; the word morrow must stand
for any and every point of the future.
The next hour, the next moment,
is as much beyond our grasp and as much in God’s care,
as that a hundred years away.
Care for the next minute is just as foolish

as care for the morrow,
or for a day in the next thousand years–
in neither can we do anything,
in both God is doing everything.
Those claims only of the morrow

which have to be prepared to-day
are of the duty of to-day;

the moment which coincides with work to be done,
is the moment to be minded;
the next is nowhere till God has made it.
~George McDonald “The Cause of Spiritual Stupidity” from Unspoken Sermons

I come from a long line of worriers, so it comes quite naturally to me to anticipate the cares and concerns not only of this very moment, but every moment to come.

Unfortunately, medical training did little to calm that tendency as every worst-case-scenario is emphasized by every teacher to prepare the doctor-novice for any potential eventuality. Knowing about all the bad things that can happen is essential for disaster-preparedness in order to be ready to leap into action. Hospital rounds focus on the “what-ifs” as much as the “what-is” to be sure that all possible research and due diligence had been done in a particular patient’s case.

So for Jesus to say to His disciples (and us) “Do you not understand?” hits me hard because I’ve spent my life working hard to understand. My training and my human nature tells me to care in advance so I’ll be ready for what is to come; yet, true to form, just as He says, it doesn’t change what will happen.

As I watch the sun rise yet again, watching the fire in the sky light and then slowly fade, I know Who is in control, and it surely is not me. There will be enough for today, enough for tomorrow and enough for all the years to come, because God is enough.

It takes strength to believe that. And that understanding has to be enough.

Thank you to Amy Baik Lee in her essay, which led me to George McDonald’s “Unspoken Sermons” and the song below.

Late nights, long hours
Questions are drawn like a thin red line
No comfort left over
No safe harbor in sight

Really we don’t need much
Just strength to believe
There’s honey in the rock,
There’s more than we see
In these patches of joy
These stretches of sorrow
There’s enough for today
There will be enough tomorrow

Upstairs a child is sleeping
What a light in our strain and stress
We pray without speaking
Lord help us wait in kindness

Really we don’t need much
Just strength to believe
There’s honey in the rock,
There’s more than we see
In these patches of joy
These stretches of sorrow
There’s enough for today

There will be enough tomorrow
Songwriters: Sara Groves / Julie Ann Lee / Sarah Dark

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Benign

“They’re benign,” the radiologist says,
pointing to specks on the x ray
that look like dust motes
stopped cold in their dance.
His words take my spine like flame.
I suddenly love
the radiologist, the nurse, my paper gown,
the vapid print on the dressing room wall.
I pull on my radiant clothes.
I step out into the Hanging Gardens, the Taj Mahal,
the Niagara Falls of the parking lot.

~Jo McDougall, “Mammogram” from In the Home of the Famous Dead: Collected Poems

Outside the house the wind is howling
and the trees are creaking horribly.
This is an old story
with its old beginning,
as I lay me down to sleep.
But when I wake up, sunlight
has taken over the room.
You have already made the coffee
and the radio brings us music
from a confident age. In the paper
bad news is set in distant places.
Whatever was bound to happen
in my story did not happen.
But I know there are rules that cannot be broken.
Perhaps a name was changed.
A small mistake. Perhaps
a woman I do not know
is facing the day with the heavy heart
that, by all rights, should have been mine.

~Lisel Mueller “In November”

It does not escape me,
especially on mammogram days~~

(although I wake every day knowing this):

an earthquake happened somewhere else,
a war left people homeless and lifeless,
a windstorm leveled a town,
a drunk driver destroyed a family,
a fire left a house in ashes,
a famine caused children to starve,
a flood ravaged a village,
a devastating diagnosis darkened
someone’s remaining days.

No mistake has been made,
yet I wake knowing this part of my story
has not yet visited me,
the heavy heart
that could have been mine
is spared again,
still beating,
still breaking,
still bleeding,
still believing
the radiance from this good news is real
and once again happened today.

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A book of beauty in words and photography, available to order here:

On a Monday

My life is not this steeply sloping hour,
in which you see me hurrying.
Much stands behind me;
I stand before it like a tree;

I am the rest between two notes,
which are somehow always in discord
because Death’s note wants to climb over—
but in the dark interval, reconciled,
they stay there trembling.
And the song goes on, beautiful.
― Rainer Maria Rilke from “My Life is Not This Steeply Sloping Hour”

photo by Josh Scholten

On Monday mornings I often feel I’m stuck immobilized in the spot in the middle between discordant notes.

There is on one side of me the pressure of catch-up from what was left undone through the weekend and on the other side is the anticipated demand of the coming week of stressful work I am committed to doing. Before I arrive to work, I dwell uneasily in dead center between the unknown ahead and the known behind.

This moment of rest in the present, this trembling broken Now, is my moment of reconciliation, my Sabbath extended.

This Monday morning I allow myself an instant of silence and reflection before I surge full bore into the week, knowing that on my journey I’ll inevitably hit wrong notes, just as I do when I play, unprepared, at the piano.

But it can be beautiful nevertheless.

Even the least harmonious notes seek reconciliation within the next chord. I now move from the rest of my Sabbath back into the rhythm of my life.

Trembling, still trembling.

A book of beauty in words and photos, available to order here: