Seeking What Could No Longer Be Found

photo by Kate Steensma

Though I know well enough
To hunt the Lady’s Slipper now
Is playing blindman’s-buff,
For it was June She put it on
And grey with mist the spider’s lace
Swings in the autumn wind,
Yet through this hill-wood, high and low,
I peer in every place;
Seeking for what I cannot find
I do as I have often done
And shall do while I stay beneath the sun.
~Andrew Young “Lady’s Slipper Orchid”

My grandmother’s house where my father was born had been torn down. She sold her property on Fidalgo Island near Anacortes, Washington to a lumber company – this was the house where all four of her babies were born, where she and my grandfather loved and fought and separated and finally loved again, and where we spent chaotic and memorable Thanksgiving and Christmas meals.  After Grandpa died, Grandma took on boarders, trying to afford to remain there on the homesteaded wooded acreage on Similk Bay, fronted by meadows where her Scottish Highland cattle grazed.   Her own health was suffering and she reached a point when it was no longer possible to make it work. A deal was struck with the lumber company and she moved to a small apartment for the few years left to her, remaining bruised by leaving her farm.

My father realized what her selling to a lumber company meant and it was a crushing thought. The old growth woods would soon be stumps on the rocky hill above the bay, opening a view to Mt. Baker to the east, to the San Juan Islands to the north, and presenting an opportunity for development into a subdivision. He woke my brother and me early one Saturday in May and told us we were driving the 120 miles to Anacortes.  He was on a mission.

As a boy growing up on that land, he had wandered the woods, explored the hill, and helped his dad farm the rocky soil.  There was only one thing he felt he needed from that farm and he had decided to take us with him, to trespass where he had been born and raised to bring home a most prized treasure–his beloved lady slippers from the woods.

These dainty flowers enjoy a spring display known for its brevity–a week or two at the most–and they tend to bloom in small little clusters in the leafy duff mulch of the deep woods, preferring only a little indirect sunlight part of the day.  They are not easy to find unless you know where to look. 

My father remembered exactly where to look.

We hauled buckets up the hill along with spades, looking as if we were about to dig for clams at the ocean.  Dad led us up a trail into the thickening foliage, until we had to bushwhack our way into the taller trees where the ground was less brush and more hospitable ground cover.  He would stop occasionally to get his bearings as things were overgrown.   We reached a small clearing and he knew we were near.  He went straight to a copse of fir trees standing guard over a garden of lady slippers.

There were almost thirty of them blooming, scattered about in an area the size of my small bedroom.  Each orchid-like pink and lavender blossom had a straight backed stem that held it with sturdy confidence.  To me, they looked like they could be little shoes for fairies who may have hung them up while they danced about barefoot.    To my father, they represented the last redeeming vestiges of his often traumatic childhood, and were about to be trammeled by bulldozers.  We set to work gently digging them out of their soft bedding, carefully keeping their bulb-like corms from losing a protective covering of soil and leafy mulch.  Carrying them in the buckets back to the car, we felt some vindication that even if the trees were to be lost to the saws, these precious flowers would survive.

When we got home, Dad set to work creating a spot where he felt they could thrive in our own woods.  He found a place with the ideal amount of shade and light, with the protection of towering trees and the right depth of undisturbed leaf mulch.  We carefully placed the lady slippers in their new home, scattered in a pattern similar to how we found them.  Then Dad built a four foot split rail fence in an octagon around them, as a protection from our cattle and a horse who wandered the woods, and as a way to demarcate that something special was contained inside.

The next spring only six lady slippers bloomed from the original thirty.  Dad was disappointed but hoped another year might bring a resurgence as the flowers established themselves in their new home.  The following year there were only three.  A decade later, my father himself had left farm and family, not looking back.

Sometime after the divorce, when my mother had to sell the farm, I visited our lady slipper sanctuary in the woods for the last time in the middle of May, seeking what I hoped might still be there, but I knew was no longer.  The split rail fence still stood, guarding nothing but old memories.  No lady slippers bloomed. There was not a trace they had ever been there.  They had simply given up and disappeared.

The new owners of the farm surely puzzled over the significance of the small fenced-in area in the middle of our woods.  They probably thought it surrounded a graveyard of some sort.

And they would be right – it did.

An embroidery I made for my father after he replanted the lady slippers — on the back I wrote “The miracle of creation recurs each spring in the delicate beauty of the lady slipper – may we ourselves be recreated as well…”

Once more, once more into the sunny fields
Oh, let me stray!
And drink the joy that young existence yields
On a bright, cloudless day.
Once more let me behold the summer sky,
With its blue eyes,
And join the wild wind’s voice of melody,
As far and free it flies.
Once more, once more, oh let me stand and hear
The gushing spring,
As its bright drops fall starlike, fast and clear,
And in the sunshine sing.
~Frances Kemble “A Farewell”

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A World Without a Sky

Heaven-invading hills are drowned
In wide moving waves of mist,
Phlox before my door are wound
In dripping wreaths of amethyst.

Ten feet away the solid earth
Changes into melting cloud,
There is a hush of pain and mirth,
No bird has heart to speak aloud.

Here in a world without a sky,
Without the ground, without the sea,
The one unchanging thing is I,
Myself remains to comfort me.
~Sara Teasdale “White Fog”

We’ve had all-day fog up and down Puget Sound over the past few days, atypical for a Pacific Northwest winter. This is fog that literally drips from the trees and soaks like rain, swallowing up visible landscape, hushing bird song, erasing all color by homogenizing everything.

When not barn-bound in the winter, a foggy day means our horses are literally sucked up into the morning mist as I send them out one by one to the field from the barn. Stopping at the barn door, they sniff the wet air, hesitant to be turned out into the grey sea surrounding them. What could there be to eat out in this murk? Each one, when turned loose, would wander into the soup, disappearing, as if never to be seen again. One by one they wander out to look for their buddies, seeing nothing, hearing nothing, smelling nothing. They are lost and alone and bewildered until somehow they meet up out in the pasture, forming a pod of Haflingers.

I muse at their initial confusion and then their utter conviction there must be “something out there” worth finding. They are dependent on the usual cues–visual, auditory, olfactory–all limited in the fog. Instead they rely on some inner sonar to find each other and bunch together in a protective knot, drops of fog dew clinging to their manes, their eyelashes and their muzzle whiskers. As day wears on, the fog usually dissipates, their coats drying under a warming sun, and the colors of the fields and trees and chestnut horses emerge from the cocoon of haze.

This winter, I have felt lost in fog too. I’m disconnected from a regular work schedule since retiring as a physician, so am helping as a volunteer in a variety of service opportunities. I am still feeling afloat and circling somewhat aimlessly, searching for a touch point of purpose and direction. Every so often I bump into a fellow fog wanderer and we’ll knot together for a bit, relieved to be connected to something solid and familiar.

My isolation is likely a combination of pandemic limitations and my own self-absorbed state of mind, sucking me in deep, separating me from others, distancing me from joy. At times, I feel soaked, dripping and shivering. If I only had the faith shown by my horses in the mist, I’d charge into the fog fearlessly, knowing there are others out there ready to band together for company, comfort and support, awaiting the sun. When warming and rejuvenation do come, I hope it will be enough to dry my whiskers, put color back in my cheeks and refresh my hopes and dreams.

Most importantly, I am reminded yet again — no fog is forever.

An absolute
patience.
Trees stand
up to their knees in
fog. The fog
slowly flows
uphill.
White
cobwebs, the grass
leaning where deer
have looked for apples.
The woods
from brook to where
the top of the hill looks
over the fog, send up
not one bird.
So absolute, it is
no other than
happiness itself, a breathing
too quiet to hear.

~Denise Levertov “The Breathing”

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An Inescapable Network of Mutuality

As nightfall does not come at once, neither does oppression.
In both instances, there is a twilight

when everything remains seemingly unchanged.
And it is in such twilight that we all must be most aware

of change in the air – however slight –
lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness.
~William O. Douglas
in a 1976 letter to Young Lawyers of the Washington State Bar Association

Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood.

We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.

This is the way God’s universe is made;
this is the way it is structured.

John Donne caught it years ago and placed it in graphic terms:
“No man is an island entire of itself.
Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”
And he goes on toward the end to say,
“Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind;
therefore send not to know for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee.”


We must see this, believe this, and live by it…
~Martin Luther King Jr. from a sermon in A Knock At Midnight

Do you know why this world is as bad as it is?
It is because people think only about their own business,
and won’t trouble themselves to stand up for the oppressed,
nor bring the wrong-doers to light.
My doctrine is this,
that if we see cruelty or wrong that we have the power to stop,
and do nothing, we make ourselves sharers in the guilt.
~Anna Sewell from Black Beauty

Dr. King’s words and wisdom still inform us of our shortcomings.

We flounder in brokenness
despite our shared global neighborhood,
despite an inescapable mutuality and commitment to brotherhood.

We still stand apart from one another;
even as the bell tolls, we suffer divisiveness
from a lack of humility, grace and love.

Perhaps today, for a day, for a week, for a year,
we can unite in our shared tears:
shed for continued strife and disagreement,
shed for injustice that results in senseless killings,
shed for our inability to hold up one another
as brothers and sisters holy in God’s eyes.

We weep together as the light dawns on this day,
knowing as Dr. King knew:
a new day will come when the Lord God wipes tears away
from all faces and all colors —
a brotherhood created exactly as He intends.

What Did I Know?

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
~Robert Hayden “Those Winter Sundays”

As a child growing up,
I was oblivious
to the sacrifices my parents made
to keep the house warm,
place food on the table,
teaching us the importance of being steadfast,
to crack the door of opportunity open,
so we could walk through
to a better life
and we did.

It was no small offering
to keep dry seasoned fire and stove wood always at the doorstep,
to milk the cows twice a day,
to grow and preserve fruits and vegetables months in advance,
to raise and care for livestock,
to read books together every night,
to sit with us over homework
and drive us to 4H, Cub Scouts and Camp Fire,
to music lessons and sports,
to sit together for meals,
and never miss a Sunday
to worship God.

This was their love,
so often invisible,
too often imperfect,
yet its encompassing warmth
splintered and broke
the grip of cold
that can overwhelm and freeze
a family’s heart and soul.

What did I know? What did I know?
Too little then,
so much more now
yet still – never enough.

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A Day for Grumbling

I like these cold, gray winter days.
Days like these let you savor a bad mood. 
~Bill Watterson (Creator of Calvin and Hobbes)

Sometimes the mist overhangs my path,
And blackening clouds about me cling;
But, oh, I have a magic way
To turn the gloom to cheerful day—
      I softly sing.

And if the way grows darker still,
Shadowed by Sorrow’s somber wing,
With glad defiance in my throat,
I pierce the darkness with a note,
       And sing, and sing.

I brood not over the broken past,
Nor dread whatever time may bring;
No nights are dark, no days are long,
While in my heart there swells a song,
       And I can sing.

~James Weldon Johnson “The Gift to Sing”

I can grumble and complain with the best of them. There is camaraderie in shared grumbling, as well as an exponential increase in dissatisfaction as everyone around me shares their own particular misery. Some relationships are based on just such collaborative complaining.

But I know better. I’ve seen where grousing leads and I feel the ache in my bones when I’m steeped in it. The sky gets grayer, the clouds become thicker, the night is darker–on and on to its overwhelming suffocating conclusion.

I have the privilege to turn away from being bleak and gloomy and choose joy. I can find the single ray of sun and stand steadfastly within it, to sing out that first note and pierce the darkness.

This is not me putting on a “happy face” — instead joy adopts and inhabits me, holds me close in the tough times and won’t abandon me. Though at times it may hide temporarily behind a cloud, I know it is there even when I can’t see it.

So I gently sing my way out of the gloom and clouds, for when I choose joy over grumbling, I find joy has chosen me.

So breaks the sun earth’s rugged chains,
      Wherein rude winter bound her veins;
So grows both stream and source of price,
      That lately fettered were with ice.
So naked trees get crisped heads,
      And colored coats the roughest meads,
And all get vigor, youth, and spright,
      That are but looked on by his light.
~Ben Jonson “So Breaks the Sun”

May we sing together, always.
May our voice be soft.
May our singing be music for others
and may it keep others aloft.
Sing gently, always.
Sing gently as one.
May we stand together, always.
May our voice be strong.
May we hear the singing and
May we always sing along.
Sing gently, always.
Sing gently as one.
~Eric Whitacre

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An Absence of Secrecy

I came here to study hard things
– rock mountain and salt sea –
and to temper my spirit on their edges. 
“Teach me thy ways, O Lord” is, like all prayers,
a rash one, and one I cannot but recommend. 

These mountains — Mount Baker and the Sisters and Shuksan,
the Canadian Coastal Range and the Olympics on the peninsula — are surely the edge of the known and comprehended world…. 

That they bear their own unimaginable masses and weathers aloft, holding them up in the sky for anyone to see plain, makes them,
as Chesterton said of the Eucharist, only the more mysterious
by their very visibility and absence of secrecy.
~Annie Dillard from Holy the Firm

Sometimes the mountain
is hidden from me in veils
of cloud, sometimes
I am hidden from the mountain
in veils of inattention, apathy, fatigue,
when I forget or refuse to go
down to the shore or a few yards
up the road, on a clear day,
to reconfirm
that witnessing presence.
~Denise Levertov  “Witness”

Even on the days like today when the mountain is hidden behind a veil of clouds, I have every confidence it is there.  It has not moved in the night, gone to another county, blown up or melted down.  My vision isn’t penetrating enough to see it through cloud cover today, but it will return to my line of sight, if not tomorrow, perhaps the next day, maybe not until next week. 

I know this and have faith it is true – the mountain does not keep itself a secret.

On the days when I am not bothering to look for it, too preoccupied so walk right past its obvious grandeur and presence, then it reaches out to me and calls me back, refocusing me. 

There are times when I turn a corner on the farm and glance up, and there it is, a silent and overwhelming witness to beauty and steadfastness.  I literally gasp at not noticing before, at not remembering how I’m blessed by it being there even at the times I can’t be bothered.

It witnesses my lack of witness and, so in its mysterious way of being in plain sight, stays put to hold me fast yet another day.  And so I keep coming back to gaze, sometimes just at clouds, yearning to lift the veil, and as a result, lift my veil, just one more time.

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No Forwarding Address

Body is something you need in order to stay
on this planet and you only get one.
And no matter which one you get, it will not
be satisfactory. It will not be beautiful
enough, it will not be fast enough, it will
not keep on for days at a time, but will
pull you down into a sleepy swamp and
demand apples and coffee and chocolate cake.

Body is a thing you have to carry
from one day into the next. Always the
same eyebrows over the same eyes in the same
skin when you look in the mirror, and the
same creaky knee when you get up from the
floor and the same wrist under the watchband.
The changes you can make are small and
costly—better to leave it as it is.

Body is a thing that you have to leave
eventually. You know that because you have
seen others do it, others who were once like you,
living inside their pile of bones and
flesh, smiling at you, loving you,
leaning in the doorway, talking to you
for hours and then one day they
are gone. No forwarding address.

~Joyce Sutphen, “Living in the Body” from Coming Back to the Body.

All bodies are fragile vessels, right from the beginning. I know this because I live inside an aging one and experience its limitations daily. Yet it is the only one I’ll ever have, though an imperfect reflection of my Creator – like it or not. Frankly, I greatly respect it having kept me going for 68 years so far and hoping for a few more.

I grieve for the young and strong who are often dissatisfied with the body they are given, spending immense time and resources to change what they can and agonizing over what is unchangeable.

What is unchangeable is that we’ll leave this empty husk behind at some point when we move on, leaving no forwarding address other than @heavenabove. We have watched it happen to those we love who have died too young because of system failure from an impossible-to-survive insult, and it happens to those who simply ran out of breaths after multiple decades of functioning heart and lungs.

My imperfect body doesn’t define me as it didn’t define those who have left before me. It isn’t who I was when I came to be, and it isn’t who I will be after I depart. But it deserves my ongoing admiration, awe and honor, along with my commitment to keep it in running order as long as I am able.

And I’ll try to confirm a forwarding address before I go.

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Unclench Your Fists

Unclench your fists
Hold out your hands.
Take mine.
Let us hold each other.
Thus is his Glory Manifest.
~Madeleine L’Engle “Epiphany”

Journeying God,
pitch your tent with mine
so that I may not become deterred
by hardship, strangeness, doubt.
Show me the movement I must make

toward a wealth not dependent on possessions
toward a wisdom not based on books
toward a strength not bolstered by might
toward a God not confined to heaven

but scandalously earthed, poor, unrecognized…

Help me find myself
as I walk in others’ shoes
.

~Kate Compston, from A Poem for Epiphany From Bread of Tomorrow: Prayers for the Church Year

Imagine the Lord, for the first time, from darkness, and stranded
Immensely in distance, recognizing Himself in the Son
Of Man: His homelessness plain to him now in a homeless one.

~Joseph Brodsky from “Nativity Poem” (translated by Seamus Heaney)

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’

A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

…And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

~T.S.Eliot from “Journey of the Magi”

In journeyings often,
in perils of waters,
in perils of robbers,
in perils by mine own countrymen,
in perils by the heathen,
in perils in the city,
in perils in the wilderness,
in perils in the sea,
in perils among false brethren;
In weariness and painfulness,
in watchings often,
in hunger and thirst,
in fastings often,
in cold and nakedness.
2 Corinthians 11:26-27


Oh, when we are journeying through the murky night

and the dark woods of affliction and sorrow,
it is something to find here and there a spray broken,
or a leafy stem bent down with the tread of His foot
and the brush of His hand as He passed;
and to remember that the path He trod He has hallowed,
and thus to find lingering fragrance
and hidden strength in the remembrance of Him
as “in all points tempted like as we are,”
bearing grief for us,
bearing grief with us,
bearing grief like us.
~Alexander MacLaren from Sermons Preached in Manchester: First series

We are called to journey into the unfamiliar;
some go no further than the backyard,
some to the ends of the earth,
some to the moon and back.

The journey is not about the miles covered;
it is an internal trek we all must make
on the crooked road of our hearts,
by relaxing our clenched fists,
taking the offered hand and being led
to that straight path back to God.

Much of the journey is perilous.
We may become both sacrament and sacrifice.

He has been down that road before us,
knowing the temptations, and bearing the grief we face.

There is but one map available and one map maker.
This road leads home and home is where He patiently waits for us.

January 6, the traditional day of celebrating “Epiphany” as the manifestation of God on earth in the form of His incarnate Son, calls us to deeper scrutiny of our earthly journey —
away from our anger, our shame and our resultant homelessness,
to the restoration of our souls, resting in the sacrifice of Christ Himself.

1. On this day earth shall ring
with the song children sing
Praising the young King,
who was born to save us
And the maiden who
brought Him forth to save us.

2. His the doom, ours the mirth,
when he came to earth,
Bethlehem saw his birth,
ox and ass beside him,
He came to vanquish
the Prince of Darkness.

3. God’s bright star o’er his head,
Wise men come seeking Him,
They kneel and lay their gifts
beside Him and adore Him,
They offer gifts of gold,
frankincense, and myrrh

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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 Tenacity of Nature

By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast — a cold wind. Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

patches of standing water
the scattering of tall trees

All along the road the reddish
purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy
stuff of bushes and small trees
with dead, brown leaves under them
leafless vines —

Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches —

They enter the new world naked,
cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter. All about them
the cold, familiar wind —

Now the grass, tomorrow
the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf

One by one objects are defined —
It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf

But now the stark dignity of
entrance — Still, the profound change
has come upon them: rooted they
grip down and begin to awaken
~William Carlos Williams “Spring and All”

I ask your doctor
of infectious disease if she’s
read Williams   he cured
sick babies I tell her and
begin describing spring
and all   she’s looking at the wall
now the floor   now your chart
now the door   never
heard of him she says
but I can’t stop explaining
how important this is
I need to know your doctor
believes in the tenacity of nature
to endure   I’m past his heart
attack   his strokes   and now as if
etching the tombstone myself   I find
I can’t remember the date
he died or even
the year   of what now
are we the pure products   and what
does that even mean   pure   isn’t it
obvious   we are each our own culture
alive with the virus that’s waiting
to unmake us
~Brian Russell, “The Year of What Now”

It is the third January of a pandemic
of a virus far more tenacious than
we have proven to be,
it continues to unmake us,
able to mutate spike proteins seemingly overnight
while too many of us stubbornly
remain unchanged by this,
clinging to our “faith over fear”
and “my body, my choice”
and “lions, not sheep”
and “never comply” —
because self-determination must trump
compassion for the unfortunate fate of vulnerable millions.

We defend the freedom to choose
to be vectors of a contagion
that may not sicken us yet fills
clinics, hospitals and morgues.

William Carlos Williams, the early 20th century physician,
would be astonished at the clinical tools we have now
to fight this scourge.
William Carlos Williams, last centuries’ imagist poet,
would recognize our deadly erosion of cooperation
when faced with a worthy viral opponent.

So what happens now?

Starting with this third pandemic winter,
with our souls in another deep freeze,
covered in snow and ice and bitter wind chill,
a tenuous hope of restoration could awaken –
tender buds swelling,
bulbs breaking through soil,
being called forth from long burial
in a dark and cold and heartless earth.

Like a mother who holds
the mystery of her quickening belly,
knowing we nurture other lives with our own body,
we too can be hopeful and marveling
at who we are created to be.

She, and we, know soon and very soon
there will be spring.

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