Much Too Beautiful to Stay

I love the look, austere, immaculate,
Of landscapes drawn in pearly monotones.
There’s something in my very blood that owns
Bare hills, cold silver on a sky of slate,
A thread of water, churned to milky spate
Streaming through slanted pastures fenced with stones.

I love those skies, thin blue or snowy gray,
Those fields sparse-planted, rendering meagre sheaves;
That spring, briefer than apple-blossom’s breath,
Summer, so much too beautiful to stay,
Swift autumn, like a bonfire of leaves,
And sleepy winter, like the sleep of death.

~Elinor Wylie from “Wild Peaches”

An amber light stretches from sky to ground
this beautiful morning, another mid-summer dawning-
today a clone of yesterday’s and the day before.

A stretch of forty identical days cannot last and will not stay.
I long again for rain and chill nights.

Drying up and pock-marked with holes,
I feel punched and withering in this browning landscape,
wondering on this Sabbath day of communing together
where holiness is to be found.

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How Things Unfold

I look for the way
things will turn
out spiralling from a center,
the shape
things will take to come forth in


so that the birch tree white
touched black at branches
will stand out
wind-glittering
totally its apparent self:


I look for the forms
things want to come as


from what black wells of possibility,
how a thing will
unfold:

not the shape on paper, though
that, too, but the
uninterfering means on paper:


not so much looking for the shape
as being available
to any shape that may be
summoning itself
through me
from the self not mine but ours.

~A. R. Ammons, “Poetics” from  A Coast of Trees

Even our very origin as a unique organism is a process of unfolding and spiraling: from our very first doubling after conception expanding to a complexity of trillions of cells powering our every thought and movement.

I look everywhere in my backyard world for beginnings and endings, wanting to understand where I fit and where I am in the process of this unfolding life. As I grow older, I find myself more peripheral than central, as I am meant to be – I have more perspective now. I can see where I came from, and where I am headed.

We unfurl, each one of us, slowly, surely, gently, in the Hands of our Creator God. He knows how each of us began as He was there from the beginning. He remains at the core our unfolding forever.

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Looking Up

in other breaking news
a silver moon
sailed
above the world
and the only ones
who knew it
were the ones who looked up
~ Kat Lehmann, from Small Stones from the River

I spend too much time watching my feet for assurance about where my next step will land rather than looking up to appreciate Who directs my next step.

Perspective is everything; if I focus on what is above, I’ll be leaps and bounds ahead than if I only gaze down at the ground.

I’ve looked at life from both sides now:
focusing on what lies beneath me…
or looking up to apprehend the glories above…

I struggle to understand the mystery of both sides
as I really don’t know life, at all.

But someday, I’m confident I will.

photo by Bob Tjoelker of the rising moon behind our hilltop fir tree

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Like Time’s Insidious Wrinkle

Like Time’s insidious wrinkle
On a beloved Face
We clutch the Grace the tighter
Though we resent the crease
~Emily Dickinson

People are more than just the way they look.
~Madeleine L’Engle from A Wrinkle in Time

1971 – not a wrinkle in sight
2021

Just a glance in the mirror tells me all I need to know:

the creases I see remind me
each wrinkle shows my life in action,
so tangible, so telling, so mobile –
they multiply particularly when I smile and laugh
so I must do both more often.

I won’t hide them
nor tighten them away
or inject them smooth.

Instead I’ll grin at the wrinkle of time’s passing
knowing each line gained
is grace clutched tightly
in my otherwise loosening grasp.

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This Garden Entrusted to Me

The wind, one brilliant day, called
to my soul with an odor of jasmine.

“In return for the odor of my jasmine,
I’d like all the odor of your roses.”

“I have no roses; all the flowers
in my garden are dead.”

“Well then, I’ll take the withered petals
and the yellowed leaves and the waters of the fountain.”

The wind left.  And I wept. And I said to myself:
“What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?”
~Antonio Machado “The Wind, One Brilliant Day” translated by Robert Bly

This garden bloomed with potential,
entrusted to me for 32 years:
the health and well-being of 16,000 students,
most thriving and flourishing,
some withering, their petals falling,
a few have been lost altogether.

As the winds of time sweep away
another group of graduates from my care,
to be blown to places unknown,
their beauty and fragrance gone from here.

I marvel at their growth,
but also weary weep for those who left too soon,
wondering if I failed to water them enough –
or is it I who am parched in this garden
with a thirst unceasing, my roots reaching deep
into drought-stricken soil,
ever so slowly drying out?

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Unattainable Unbounded Joy

I had a profound amazement
at the sovereignty of Being

becoming a dizzy sensation of tumbling endlessly
into the abyss of its mystery;


an unbounded joy at being alive,
at having been given the chance to live through

all I have lived through,
and at the fact that
everything has a deep and obvious meaning –
this joy formed a strange alliance in me
with a vague horror at the inapprehensibility and unattainability

of everything I was so close to in that moment,
standing at the very “edge of the infinite”;


I was flooded with a sense of
ultimate happiness and harmony
with the world and with myself,
with that moment, with all the moments I could call up,
and with everything invisible that lies behind it and has meaning.
~Václav Havel in a letter to his wife

– for Czesław Miłosz

How unattainable life is,
it only reveals its features in memory, in nonexistence.
How unattainable afternoons,
ripe, tumultuous, leaves bursting with sap; swollen fruit,
the rustling silks of women who pass on the other side of the street,
and the shouts of boys leaving school.
Unattainable.
The simplest apple inscrutable, round.
The crowns of trees shake in warm currents of air.

Unattainably distant mountains.
Intangible rainbows.

Huge cliffs of clouds flowing slowly through the sky.
The sumptuous, unattainable afternoon.
My life, swirling, unattainable, free.
~Adam Zagajewski, “Fruit” Translated by Renata Gorczyńska and C. K. Williams

Heaven and earth are only three feet apart,
but in the thin places that distance is even smaller.
A thin place is where the veil that separates heaven and earth is lifted
and one is able to receive a glimpse of the glory of God.
~Celtic saying

Sometimes the abundance in my life is so unbounded,
I possibly can’t absorb it all,
like an endless feast that far exceeds my hunger.

At times I have no idea how hungry I am
until it is laid out before me;
I don’t know where to begin.

When I feel myself on that cliff of overwhelm,
that thin edge of knowing
I can almost reach past the finite
to touch the infinite,
I realize it is unattainable.

Not now, not yet.

We live in the already but not yet.
The all-encompassing I AM is here among us,
His Spirit surrounding us with beauty beyond imagining.
But we are waiting, wondering, wistful
as the kingdom of God is already here
and yet to come.

So He offers a glimpse and a taste
and it is so very very good.

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An Ordinary Sunday

Sometimes I have loved the peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday.
It is like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain.
You can feel the silent and invisible life.
~Marilynne Robinson from Gilead

It is ordinary time,
in the church calendar and in my life…

As I am covered with Sabbath rest
quiet and deep
as if planted in soil finally
warming from a too long winter~

I realize there is nothing ordinary
about what is happening
in the church, in the world,
or in me.

We are called by the Light
to push away from darkness,
to reach to the sky,
to grasp and bloom and fruit.

We begin as mere and ordinary seed.

Therefore, nothing is more extraordinary
than an ordinary Sunday.

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May Light Eternal Shine Upon Them

May light eternal shine upon them, O Lord,
with Thy saints forever, for Thou art kind.
Eternal rest give to them, O Lord,
and let perpetual light shine upon them.

Lux aeterna luceat eis, Domine,
cum sanctis tuis in aeternum, quia pius es.
Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine,
et lux perpetua luceat eis.

In my father’s near daily letters home to my mother during WWII, month after month after month, he would say, over and over while apologizing for the repetition:

“I will come home to you, I will return, I will not let this change me, we will be joined again…”

This was his way of convincing himself even as he carried the dead and dying after island battles: men he knew well and the enemy he did not know. He knew they were never returning to the home they died protecting and to those who loved them.

He shared little of battle in his letters as each letter was reviewed and signed off by a censor before being sealed and sent. This story made it through:

“You mentioned a story of Navy landing craft taking the Marines into Tarawa.  It reminded me of something which impressed me a great deal and something I’m sure I’ll never forget. 

So you’ll understand what I mean I’ll try to start with an explanation.  In training – close order drill- etc.  there is a command that is given always when the men form in the morning – various times during the day– after firing– and always before a formation is dismissed.  The command is INSPECTION – ARMS.  On the command of EXECUTION- ARMS each man opens the bolt of his rifle.  It is supposed to be done in unison so you hear just one sound as the bolts are opened.  Usually it is pretty good and sounds O.K.

Just to show you how the morale of the men going to the <Tarawa> beach was – and how much it impressed me — we were on our way in – I was forward, watching the beach thru a little slit in the ramp – the men were crouched in the bottom of the boat, just waiting.  You see- we enter the landing boats with unloaded rifles and wait till it’s advisable before loading.  When we got about to the right distance in my estimation I turned around and said – LOAD and LOCK – I didn’t realize it, but every man had been crouching with his hand on the operating handle and when I said that — SLAM! — every bolt was open at once – I’ve never heard it done better – and those men meant business when they loaded those rifles. 

A man couldn’t be afraid with men like that behind him.”

(for my father Henry Polis on Memorial Day)

It was only a part of what we knew about you-
serving three long years in the South Pacific,
spoken of obliquely
only if asked about,
but never really answered.

We knew you were a Marine battalion leader at age 21,
knew you spent too many nights without sleep,
unsure if you or your men would see the dawn
only to dread
what the next day would bring.

We knew you lost buddies
and your innocence;
found unaccustomed strength
in a mama’s boy
who once cried too easily and later almost never.

Somehow life had prepared you for this:
pulling your daddy out of taverns when you were ten
watching him beat your mama
until finally getting big enough
to stand in the way so he stopped.

Then Tarawa, Saipan, Tinian beaches
bitterly bloodsoaked
battles won,
to be restored and renewed
as vacation resorts.

We let you go without knowing
your full story–
even Mom didn’t ask.
You could not share the depth
of horror and fear you felt.

It was not shame that kept you silent;
simply no need to revisit
the pain of remembrance.
It was done, finished,
you had done your duty.

So as we again set flowers and flag
on your grave,
reunited with Mom after years apart,
I regret so many questions unasked
of your sacrifice beyond imagining.

Sleep well, Dad,
with Mom now by your side.
I rejoice you have wakened
to a renewed dawn,
an eternal light
Lux Aeterna.

A Girl from the Palouse

My mother, Elna Schmitz Polis, was born 101 years ago today in the lonely isolation of a Palouse wheat and lentil farm in eastern Washington. She drew her first breath in a two story white house located down a long poplar-lined lane and nestled in a draw between the undulating hills.

She attended a one room school house until 8th grade, located a mile away in the rural countryside, then moved in with her grandmother “in town” in Rosalia to attend high school, seeing her parents only a couple times a month.

It was a childhood which accustomed her to solitude and creative play inside her mind and heart – her only sibling, an older brother, was busy helping their father on the farm. All her life and especially in her later years, she would prefer the quiet of her own thoughts over the bustle of a room full of activities and conversation.

Her childhood was filled with exploration of the rolling hills, the barns and buildings where her father built and repaired farm equipment, and the chilly cellar where the fresh eggs were stored after she reached under cranky hens to gather them. She sat in the cool breeze of the picketed yard, watching the huge windmill turn and creak next to the house. She helped her weary mother feed farm crews who came for harvest time and then settled in the screened porch listening to the adults talk about lentil prices and bushel production. She woke to the mourning dove call in the mornings and heard the coyote yips and howls at night.

She nearly died at the age of 13 from a ruptured appendix, before antibiotics were an option. That near-miss seemed to haunt her life-long, filling her with worry that it was a mistake that she survived that episode at all. Yet she thrived despite the anxiety, and ended up, much to her surprise, living a long life full of family and faith, letting go at age 88 after fracturing a femur, breaking her will to continue to live.

As a young woman, she was ready to leave the wheat farm behind for college, devoting herself to the skills of speech, and the creativity of acting and directing in drama, later teaching rural high school students, including a future Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Carolyn Kizer. She loved words and the power and beauty they wielded.

Marrying my father was a brave and impulsive act, traveling by train to the east coast only a week before he shipped out for almost 3 years to the South Pacific to fight as a Marine in WWII. She must have wondered about the man who returned from war changed and undoubtedly scarred in ways she could not see or touch. They worked it out, as rocky as it must have been at times, and in their reconciliation after their divorce years later, I could see the devotion and mutual respect of life companions who shared purpose and love.

As a wife and mother, she rediscovered her calling as a steward of the land and a steward of her family, gardening and harvesting fruits, vegetables and children tirelessly. When I think of my mother, I most often think of her tending us children in the middle of the night whenever we were ill; her over-vigilance was undoubtedly due to her worry we might die in childhood as she almost did.

She never did stop worrying until the last few months. As she became more dependent on others in her physical decline, she gave up the control she thought she had to maintain through her “worry energy” and became much more accepting about the control the Lord maintains over all we are and will become.

I know from where my shyness comes, my preference for birdsongs rather than radio music, my preference for naps, and my tendency to be serious and straight-laced with a twinkle in my eye. This is my German Palouse side–immersing in the quietness of solitude, thrilling to the sight of the spring wheat flowing like a green ocean wave in the breeze and appreciating the warmth of rich soil held in my hands. From that heritage came my mother and it is the legacy she has left with me. I am forever grateful to her for her unconditional love and her willingness to share the warmth of her nest whenever we felt the need to fly back home and shelter, overprotected at times but safe nonetheless, under her wings.

Elna Schmitz playing Elizabeth Barrett Browning

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Feathers of Flame

Come, Holy Spirit,
bending or not bending the grasses,
appearing or not above our heads in a tongue of flame,
at hay harvest or when they plough in the orchards or when snow
covers crippled firs…
~Czeslaw Milosz from “Veni Creator” in Selected and Last Poems

The cows
munched or stirred or were still. I
was at home and lonely,
both in good measure. Until
the sudden angel affrighted me––light effacing
my feeble beam,
a forest of torches, feathers of flame, sparks upflying:
but the cows as before
were calm, and nothing was burning,
nothing but I, as that hand of fire
touched my lips and scorched my tongue
and pulled my voice
into the ring of the dance.
~Denise Levertov from “Caedmon” in Breathing the Water

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed.

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”

Today, when I feel at times without hope,
as mute and dumb as cattle chewing the cud,
as the bent world reels with illness, blood and violence,
I remain in hiding: my faith feels frail, love seems distant.

I wait, stilled
for the moment I am lit afire ~
when the Living God is
seen, heard, named, loved, known
forever burning in my heart deep down,
brooded over by His bright wings: His dearest
in this moment
and for eternity.

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