The porch swing hangs fixed in a morning sun that bleaches its gray slats, its flowered cushion whose flowers have faded, like those of summer, and a small brown spider has hung out her web on a line between porch post and chain so that no one may swing without breaking it. She is saying it’s time that the swinging were done with, time that the creaking and pinging and popping that sang through the ceiling were past, time now for the soft vibrations of moths, the wasp tapping each board for an entrance, the cool dewdrops to brush from her work every morning, one world at a time. ~Ted Kooser “Porch Swing in September” from Flying at Night
It is hard to just let go and let life move on, as it will do on this day’s transition to autumn, whether with us or without us.
We build our little lives so carefully; we plan and choreograph and anticipate, and all it takes is a creaky swing (or a measly little virus) to pull it to shreds.
So we rebuild, strand by strand, in the conviction that we still belong here even when everything around us is changing and will pay no attention to how we’re left hanging.
We keep trying. We keep believing. We keep wanting to make the world a little more beautiful.
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
Today, after weeks of worshipping outdoors, we move back inside for fall and winter, all wearing masks while separated into four different spaces with social distancing. It may be this way well into next year: nobody knows.
No one is happy that the singing will be limited, there will be no handshakes or hugs and some of us will be watching a live feed on a screen. Some are flat out angry at having to worship this way and will opt to stay away. Yet we are called to come together, to raise our voices corporately in praise, prayer and thanksgiving, despite the risks and unfamiliarity of how these changes look and feel while we try to protect one another from infection.
We tend to forget that walking into church on any Sabbath, not just during a pandemic, takes courage and commitment as we automatically become 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 today, and every day, we must not forget our crash helmets… or our masks.
The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. ~Frederick Buechner in Wishful Thinking in Beyond Words
What is it that goes on within the soul, that it takes greater delight if things it loves are found or restored to it than if it had always possessed them? …The storm tosses seafarers about and threatens them with shipwreck: they all grow pale at their coming death. Then the sky and the sea become calm, and they exult exceedingly, just as they had feared exceedingly. Or a dear friend is ill.… All those who long to see him in good health are in mind sick along with him. He gets well again, and although he does not yet walk with his former vigor, there is joy such as did not obtain before when he walked well and strong.…everywhere a great joy is preceded by a greater suffering. ~Augustine of Hippo from Confessions
The ghosts swarm. They speak as one person. Each loves you. Each has left something undone.
Today’s edges are so sharp they might cut anything that moved. ~Rae Armantrout from “Unbidden”
(written 19 years ago today on the evening of 9/11/01 – with the ongoing events of this year, I find I need to remind myself yet again)
Tonight was a moment of epiphany in my life as a mother and farmer. This world suddenly feels so uncertain after the horrific and tragic events today, yet simple moments of grace-filled routine offer themselves up unexpectedly. I know the Lord is beside us no matter what has happened.
For me, the routine is tucking the horses into bed, almost as important to me as tucking our children into bed. In fact, my family knows I cannot sit down to dinner until the job is done out in the barn–so human dinner waits until the horses are fed and their beds prepared.
My work schedule is usually such that I must take the horses out to their paddocks from their cozy box stalls while the sky is still dark, and then bring them back in later in the day after the sun goes down. We have quite a long driveway from barn to the paddocks which are strategically placed by the road so the horses are exposed to all manner of road noise, vehicles, logging, milk and hay trucks, school buses, and never blink when these zip past their noses. They must learn from weanling stage on to walk politely and respectfully alongside me as I make that trek from the barn in the morning and back to the barn in the evening.
Bringing the horses in tonight was a particular joy because I was a little earlier than usual and not needing to rush: the sun was setting golden orange, the world had a glow, the poplar, chestnut and maple leaves carpeting the driveway and each horse walked with me without challenge, no rushing, pushing, or pulling–just walking alongside me like the partner they have been taught to be.
I enjoy putting each into their own box stall bed at night, with fresh fluffed shavings, a pile of sweet smelling hay and fresh water. I see them breathe a big sigh of relief that they have their own space for the night–no jostling for position or feed, no hierarchy for 12 hours, and then it is back out the next morning to the herd, with all the conflict that can come from coping with other individuals in the same space. My horses love their stalls, because that is their safe sanctuary where peace and calm is restored, that is where they get special scratching and hugs, and visits from a little red haired girl who loves them and sings them songs.
Then comes my own restoration of returning to the sanctuary of our house, feeding my human family and tucking three precious children into bed, even though two are now taller than me. The world feels momentarily predictable within our walls, comforting us in the midst of devastation and tragedy elsewhere. Hugging a favorite pillow and wrapping up in a familiar soft blanket, there is warmth and safety in being tucked in.
I’ll continue to search for these moments of restoration whenever I’m frightened, hurting and unable to cope. I need a quiet routine to help remind me how blessed we are to be here to wake each morning to regroup, renew and restore when it seems even the ground has given way.
I don’t know if you ever saw a doubt. In fact, I doubt you did. They’re shape shifting little shadows and they’re more than often hid.
You could hear them on the whirling winds, that whistled through the farm. You could feel them in your stomach or brush the goosebumps of your arm.
You’d hear them giggling in the corners, in the darkness of the night. They’re the wobble in the voice that claims that things will be all right.
And the little doubts got larger, until they no longer hid in holes. They now lived out amongst them and they slipped into their souls.
I know good times are coming back. I know the sun will rise. I know the hard earth soon will soften, and plants will bloom before our eyes.
There will be colour in the meadows and the river will unfreeze. But if we’re to move beyond this moment then these fiendish doubts must leave.
We need hopeful stories more than ever, we should tell them till we’re blue. We should tell them till we look outside and see that they’ve come true.
And the doubts that wreak such havoc, they were nowhere to be seen. And the fear they’d brought forth with them felt so much like a dream.
So remember, little sister, take courage with you when you sleep. For tomorrow we might all need it, for the little doubts that creep. ~Tomos Roberts from “Doubts that Creep”
These days doubt is more epidemic than the COVID virus.
No one trusts anyone to tell the truth any longer and truth itself is up for grabs. Experts are suspect, while government agencies and their spokespersons surely must be part of a larger conspiracy.
It’s an “every man for himself” attitude with everyone doing what is right in their own eyes.
You can see where doubts leave us: we end up in a wintry forsaken place that looks, feels and frankly, is hopeless.
The most recent weeks have been difficult as most students start school at home again rather than in classrooms and no one is happy about it. Churches have been meeting online or outside and will need to make a difficult transition to limited indoor worship services that won’t feel familiar. Businesses continue to suffer the effects of people having less income to spend, and unwillingness to spend on anything but essentials.
A pandemic virus wreaks havoc with society but stories sowing doubts and mistrust are far more damaging. Rather than working together for solutions, we as a society have become more divided and divisive than ever.
When I speak with those whose well-being I care deeply about, yet who don’t trust my opinion or any medical opinion for that matter, my voice wobbles with concern. If I, as a caring friend and physician for forty years can’t be trusted, then whom will they trust?
A virus doesn’t give a rip what our politics are – it is an equal-opportunity opportunist seeking which cell to invade next. “Going viral” is yet another real life lesson in exponential multiplication, whether a packet of RNA or a social media meme or youtube link sowing mistrust and discord as it is shared millions of times and spreads with our help and consent.
We can’t allow creeping doubts to metastasize into a hopelessness cancer that is terminal.
We need hopeful stories, now more than ever. We need to take courage with us when we lay ourselves down to sleep, and dream the dreams of a better day on the horizon. We need truth that is not up for grabs to the highest bidder but is steadfast, transparent and … true.
Until then, we all should keep our masks on to stop the spread and protect others. It surely can’t hurt.
God put the rainbow in the clouds, not just in the sky…. It is wise to realize we already have rainbows in our clouds, or we wouldn’t be here. If the rainbow is in the clouds, then in the worst of times, there is the possibility of seeing hope…. We can say, ‘I can be a rainbow in the clouds for someone yet to be.’ That may be our calling. ~Maya Angelou (Harrisburg Forum, November 30, 2001)
Be thou the rainbow in the storms of life. The evening beam that smiles the clouds away, and tints tomorrow with prophetic ray. ~Lord Byron
Painting the indescribable with words necessitates subtlety, sound and rhythm. The best word color portraits I know are by Gerard Manley Hopkins who described what he saw using startling combinations: “crimson-cresseted”, “couple-colour”, “rose-moles”, “fresh-firecoal”, “adazzle, dim”, “dapple-dawn-drawn”, “blue-bleak embers”, “gash gold-vermillion”.
My facility with words doesn’t measure up so I rely on pictures to show the hope I see when I look at the sky. I keep reaching for the rainbow hiding within the clouds, searching for the prophetic promise that preserves my days and nights forever.
After all, in the beginning was the Word, and no one says it better than He does.
The river is famous to the fish. The loud voice is famous to silence, which knew it would inherit the earth before anybody said so.
The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds watching him from the birdhouse. The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek. The idea you carry close to your bosom is famous to your bosom.
The boot is famous to the earth, more famous than the dress shoe, which is famous only to floors. The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.
I want to be famous to shuffling men who smile while crossing streets, sticky children in grocery lines, famous as the one who smiled back.
I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous, or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular, but because it never forgot what it could do. ~Naomi Shihab Nye “Famous” from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems
Here’s the truth of it: no one really wants to be famous but seeks a life of meaning and purpose rather than one empty of significance.
The button alone is pure window-dressing, a flash in the pan, a bauble ready to loosen and fall off, easy to go missing.
A button hole by itself without a button to latch around is plain and gaping and lonely and allows in drafts, blending into the background, silently waiting for its moment of usefulness.
We cannot forget who we’re meant to be and what we’re meant to do – we fit the task for which we’re made.
Send me a button and I’ll make sure it is secured.
…It’s true it can make you weep to peel them, to unfurl and to tease from the taut ball first the brittle, caramel-colored and decrepit papery outside layer, the least
recent the reticent onion wrapped around its growing body, for there’s nothing to an onion but skin, and it’s true you can go on weeping as you go on in, through the moist middle skins, the sweetest
and thickest, and you can go on in to the core, to the bud-like, acrid, fibrous skins densely clustered there, stalky and in- complete, and these are the most pungent… ~William Matthews from “Onions”
…I would never scold the onion for causing tears. It is right that tears fall for something small and forgotten. How at meal, we sit to eat, commenting on texture of meat or herbal aroma but never on the translucence of onion, now limp, now divided, or its traditionally honorable career: For the sake of others, disappear. ~Naomi Shihab Nye, from “The Traveling Onion” from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems.
Onion, luminous flask, your beauty formed petal by petal, crystal scales expanded you and in the secrecy of the dark earth your belly grew round with dew. Under the earth the miracle happened and when your clumsy green stem appeared, and your leaves were born like swords in the garden, the earth heaped up her power showing your naked transparency…
…You make us cry without hurting us. I have praised everything that exists, but to me, onion, you are more beautiful than a bird of dazzling feathers, heavenly globe, platinum goblet, unmoving dance of the snowy anemone
and the fragrance of the earth lives in your crystalline nature. ~Pablo Neruda from “Ode to the Onion”
Everything smells of “eau de onion” here in the kitchen as the onions are brought in from our late summer garden to be stored or dehydrated and frozen for winter soups and stews.
This is weepy business, but these are good tears like I spill over the whistled Greensleeves theme from the old “Lassie” TV show, or during any childrens’ choir song, or by simply watching videos of our grandchildren who are quarantined so far away from our arms.
It takes almost nothing these days to make me weep, so onions are a handy excuse, allowing my tears to flow without explanation:
I weep over the headlines. I weep over how changed life is and for the sadness of the stricken. I weep over how messy things can get between people who don’t listen to one another or who misinterpret what they think they hear. I weep knowing we all have layers and layers of skin that appear tough on the outside, but as you peel gently or even ruthlessly cut them away, the layers get more and more tender until you reach the throbbing heart of us.
We tend to hide our hearts out of fear of being hurt, crying out in pain.
Like an onion, each one of us exists to make the day a bit better, the meal more savory, to enhance the flavors of all who are mixed into this melting pot together. We aren’t meant to stand alone, but to disappear into the stew, and be sorely missed if we are absent.
So very dish needs an onion, and for the sake of the dish, every onion vanishes in the process.
No, I don’t mean to make you cry as you peel my layers away, gently, one by one, each more tender until you reach my heart. Chop away at me if you must but weep the good tears, the ones that mean we weep for the sake of our meal together: you eating and drinking, and me – consumed.
Between my finger and my thumb The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound When the spade sinks into gravelly ground: My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds Bends low, comes up twenty years away Stooping in rhythm through potato drills Where he was digging.
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft Against the inside knee was levered firmly. He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep To scatter new potatoes that we picked, Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
By God, the old man could handle a spade. Just like his old man.
My grandfather cut more turf in a day Than any other man on Toner’s bog. Once I carried him milk in a bottle Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up To drink it, then fell to right away Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods Over his shoulder, going down and down For the good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge Through living roots awaken in my head. But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb The squat pen rests. I’ll dig with it. ~Seamus Heaney, “Digging” from Death of a Naturalist
Digging potatoes is one of the most satisfying tasks for a farmer. Often the dead above-ground vines have melted into the ground, blending in with the weeds and encroaching sprawl of squash vines. Finding the treasure underneath the topsoil is an act of faith. You set the shovel or fork boldly into the dirt to loosen up the top eight inches. Then you submerge your hand into the dirt and come up with a fistful of potato gold nuggets, each smooth cool tuber rolling into fresh air like so many newly discovered hidden Easter eggs.
A daily dig for words to write isn’t nearly as easy as finding potatoes in the soil; the bounty under the surface often remains hidden away from my view and elusive. I have to keep searching and sifting and sorting. Some that I end up with are rotten. Some are overexposed, too green and toxic. Some are scabby and look ugly, but are still useable and hopefully tasty.
Yet I get out my virtual spade and dig into the dirt of life every day, hoping, just hoping, to come up with words in my hands that are not only beautiful, colorful, smooth and palatable, but a sheer delight for the digger/reader to discover along with me.
A writer should concern himself with whatever absorbs his fancy, stirs his heart, and unlimbers his typewriter. I feel no obligation to deal with politics. I do feel a responsibility to society. A writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down.
A writer must reflect and interpret his society, his world; he must also provide inspiration and guidance and challenge. Much writing today strikes me as deprecating, destructive, and angry. There are good reasons for anger, and I have nothing against anger. But I think some writers have lost their sense of proportion, their sense of humor, and their sense of appreciation.
I am often mad, but I would hate to be nothing but mad: one role of the writer today is to sound the alarm. The environment is disintegrating, the hour is late, and not much is being done. Instead of carting rocks from the moon, we should be carting the feces out of Lake Erie. …I think I would lose what little value I may have as a writer if I were to refuse, as a matter of principle, to accept the warming rays of the sun, and to report them, whenever, and if ever, they happen to strike me. ~E.B. White 1969 (on writing)
It becomes tiresome always feeling angry about what it is happening in the world, feeling that everything, even a virus, has been made political. I’m done with reading and writing nothing but words of frustration, but will rail against the meanness that surrounds us, and push back the bully to seek out a balance of perspective and insight.
When I need to feel something other than mad, I’ll walk as far as I can go, look up, revel in the gift of rays of light and bask in their warmth and promise.
I will accept what the sun has to offer and tell about it so that my anger drains away like so much waste flushed down a pipe, never to be seen again.
There is not one blade of grass, there is no color in this world that is not intended to make us rejoice. ~John Calvin as quoted in John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait (Oxford, 1988)byWilliam J. Bouwsma
It is too easy to become blinded to the glory surrounding us if we perceive it to be routine and commonplace.
I can’t remember the last time I celebrated a blade of grass, given how focused I am at mowing it into conformity.
Too often I’m not up early enough to witness the pink sunrise or I’m too busy to take time to watch the sun paint the sky red as it sets or to witness our horses turning to gold in the evening glow.
I didn’t notice how the light was illuminating our walnut tree until I saw the perfect reflection of it in our koi pond — I had marveled at a reflection instead of the real thing itself.
I almost missed the miracle of a spider’s overnight work in the grass; from a distance, it looked like a dew-soaked tissue draped like a tent over the green blades. When I went to go pick it up to throw it away in the trash, I realized I was staring at a small creature’s masterpiece.
I miss opportunities to rejoice innumerable times a day. It takes only a moment of recognition and appreciation to feel the joy, and in that moment time stands still. Life stretches a little longer when I stop to acknowledge the intention of creation as an endless reservoir of rejoicing. If a blade of grass, if a leaf turning color, if a chance reflection, if a delicately knit tent in the grass — if all this is made for joy, then maybe so am I.
Even colorless, plain and commonplace me, created an image-bearer and intended reflector of Light.