When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the green heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free. ~Wendell Berry “The Peace of Wild Things” fromThe Selected Poems of Wendell Berry
When our grandchildren visit our farm, I watch them rediscover what I know are the joys and sorrows of this world. I am reminded there is light beyond the darkness I fear, there is peace amid the chaos, there is a smile behind the tears, there is stillness within the noisiness there is rest despite my restlessness, there is grace as old gives way to new.
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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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It has been a long 18 months of dwelling deeply in all kinds of “supposes” and “what ifs” because people were being crushed by a virus right and left.
I understand this kind of thinking, particularly when “in the moment” tragedies, (like a Florida condo building collapsing in the middle of the night) play out real-time in the palm of our hand in front of our eyes and we feel helpless to do anything but watch it unfold.
Those who know me well know I can fret and worry better than most. Medical training only makes this worse. I’m taught to think catastrophically. That is what I have done for a living – to always be ready for the worse case scenario and simply assume it will happen.
Sometimes it does happen and no amount of wishing it away will work.
When I rise, too often sleepless, to face a day of uncertainty as we all do ~ after careful thought, I reach for the certainty I am promised over the uncertainty I can only imagine:
What is my only comfort in life and in death? That I am not my own, but belong —body and soul, in life and in death— to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.
“Supposing it didn’t” — says our Lord (and we are comforted by this) but even if it did … even if it did – as awful things sometimes do – we are never abandoned.
He is with us always.
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We will grieve not, rather find Strength in what remains behind; In the primal sympathy Which having been must ever be;
Thanks to the human heart by which we live, Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears, To me the meanest flower that blows can give Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears. ~William Wordsworth from “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”
Twenty-six years ago today we watched at your bedside as you labored, readying yourself to die and we could not help except to be there while we watched you move farther away from us.
This dying, the hardest work you had ever done:
harder than handling the plow behind a team of draft horses, harder than confronting a broken, alcoholic and abusive father, harder than slashing brambles and branches to clear the woods, harder than digging out stumps, cementing foundations, building roofs, harder than shipping out, leaving behind a new wife after a week of marriage, harder than leading a battalion of men to battle on Saipan, Tinian and Tarawa, harder than returning home so changed there were no words, harder than returning to school, working long hours to support family, harder than running a farm with only muscle and will power, harder than coping with an ill wife, infertility, job conflict, discontent, harder than building your own pool, your own garage, your own house, harder than your marriage ending, a second wife dying, and returning home forgiven.
Dying was the hardest of all as no amount of muscle or smarts could stop it crushing you, taking away the strength you relied on for 73 years.
So as you lay helpless, moaning, struggling to breathe, we knew your hard work was complete and what was yet undone was up to us to finish for you.
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What a slow way to eat, the butterfly is given by Nature, sipping nectar one tiny blue flower at a time. Though a Monarch in name, she’s made to scavenge like the poorest of the poor, a morsel here, a morsel there. A flutter of ink- splattered orange wings. We don’t want to see the struggle that undergirds the grace: the ballerina’s sweat, or her ruined feet hidden by tights and toe-shoes. She knows her career will be as brief as it was hard to achieve. Pollinated, the tiny blue flowers are sated. The butterfly flits away, hoping to live one more day. ~Barbara Quick, “The Struggle That Undergirds the Grace.”
You have been my friend. That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that. ~E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web
…And when the sun rises we are afraid it might not remain when the sun sets we are afraid it might not rise in the morning when our stomachs are full we are afraid of indigestion when our stomachs are empty we are afraid we may never eat again when we are loved we are afraid love will vanish when we are alone we are afraid love will never return and when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcomed but when we are silent we are still afraid
We are here so briefly. We were never designed to survive forever on this earth yet we try to run the clock out as long as we can.
Just one day more.
We are here because of struggle – the pain of our birth, whether the cry of our laboring mother, or our own wrestling free of the cocoon or the shell, our daily work to find food to feed ourselves and our young, the upkeep and maintenance of our frail and failing bodies, our ongoing fear we’ll be taken before we can make a difference in another’s life.
If there is a reason for all this (and there is): our struggle forms the grace of another’s salvation. The flowers bloom to feed the butterfly, the butterfly pollinates the flower, ensuring the next generations of both. The silent and weakened find their voice so that the next generation can thrive.
Heaven knows, anyone’s life can stand a little of that.
Just one day more, Lord. Please – one day more.
Tomorrow we’ll discover What our God in Heaven has in store One more dawn One more day One day more… ~from Les Miserable
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There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive. With all dead, well, with all dead there’s usually only one thing you can do – Go through his clothes and look for loose change. ~William Goldman – the wisdom of Miracle Max in The Princess Bride
You who believe, and you who sometimes believe and sometimes don’t believe much of anything, and you who would give almost anything to believe if only you could.
You happy ones and you who can hardly remember what it was like once to be happy.
You who know where you’re going and how to get there and you who much of the time aren’t sure you’re getting anywhere.
“Get up,” he says, all of you – all of you! – and the power that is in him is the power to give life not just to the dead like the child,
but to those who are only partly alive, which is to say to people like you and me
who much of the time live with our lives closed to the wild beauty and miracle of things, including the wild beauty and miracle of every day we live and even of ourselves. ~Frederick Buechner -Originally published inSecrets in the Dark
May I not settle for being slightly alive or mostly dead –
I want to be fully alive to the wild beauty and miracle of things, to the wild beauty and miracle of every day, and even the wild beauty and miracle of myself~~
I have known what it is to doubt, to be discouraged, defeated, and grieved.
It is part of the package: shadows appear when the Sun is the brightest and hottest. I have no doubt the Sun exists, especially after the last few days.
So I must “get up!” even if I don’t know where to go next.
And then I will believe ~truly believe~ I am created to be mostly and absolutely alive this day and every day.
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Once again a child asks me suddenly What is a poem?, And once again I find myself riffing freely and happily Without the slightest scholarly expertise or knowledge; But I am entranced by how poems can hint and suggest And point toward things deeper than words. A poem is An owl feather, I say. It’s not the owl—but it intimates Owlness, see what I mean? You imagine the owl, owls, Silent flight, razors for fingers, a wriggle of mouse tail Slurped up right quick like the last strand of angel hair, A startle of moonlight, a fox watching from the thicket, All that from a feather. It’s like an owl is in the feather. A poem is a small thing with all manner of bigger in it. Poor poems only have a writer in them, but better ones Have way more in them than the writer knew or knows About. This poem, for example, amazingly has owls in It—who knew we’d see a flurry of owls this afternoon? ~Brian Doyle, “A Flurry of Owls”
I ask them to take a poem and hold it up to the light like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski across the surface of a poem waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do is tie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it.
I walked into our big hay barn this week, finding scattered atop the few remaining bales from last summer these few owl feathers…
they were waiting for a poem to hide within, just as the barn owls are tucked invisibly in the rafters until the cool air of dusk and hunger lures them to the hunt, swooping outside to capture both moonlight and mice to be coughed up in pellets of fur and bones.
These feathers, dropped like so many random snowflakes, carry within them the glint and glow of the moon, a reminder what we leave behind matters, whether it be feather or fur or a wee dry skeleton, a shell of who we once were yet are no longer.
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It’s deep time here, this barrow grave five thousand years old, where we follow like sheep behind the guide to the heart of its cruciform center. I’ve never been in a space so dark. What was it like to fear that the sun would not return, that crops would wither, deer flee, that night’s dark cloak was all there was? But miraculously, on the lip of the solstice, the light returned, liquid and golden, ran down the narrow corridor, hit the back wall, splashed in the stone basin, and they knew summer would come back, run to fruit. Light, dark, freeze, thaw, seedtime, harvest, wheel of the year, the spiral dance. What would they make of our device-laden lives, fossil-fueled cars, over-stocked larders? Who stands in the dark and listens now, gaping at the stars? — Barbara Crooker, “Newgrange” from The Book of Kells
There is nothing so dark as centuries-old underground tunnels and portal tombs, some positioned with an opening to capture a beam of light exactly at either the winter or summer solstice, illuminating what dwells in blackness the rest of the year.
The more recent ninth century soutterain tunnels were refuge for Christians hiding from invaders, keeping whole villages safe from capture.
The dolmens and portal graves are Neolithic structures built before the pyramids. They still exist today as they were constructed to last by people serious about their beliefs. Though those people are long dust, the stones and tunnels remain as they were, to protect the spirits of the departed.
What would they think now of our extravagance, our plethora of goods and foods, our modern ways of crippling others with the weapons of internet words and hacking, rather than stealing, pillaging and enslaving strangers?
We moderns are lost in our over-abundance of light year round, scarcely noting the calendar or the passing of the longest and shortest days.
What remarkable people of strength have preceded us, seeking to preserve the significance of Light in their darkness.
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“Hold on,” she said, “I’ll just run out and get him. The weather here’s so good, he took the chance To do a bit of weeding.”
So I saw him Down on his hands and knees beside the leek rig, Touching, inspecting, separating one Stalk from the other, gently pulling up Everything not tapered, frail and leafless, Pleased to feel each little weed-root break, But rueful also . . .
Then found myself listening to The amplified grave ticking of hall clocks Where the phone lay unattended in a calm Of mirror glass and sunstruck pendulums . . .
And found myself then thinking: if it were nowadays, This is how Death would summon Everyman.
Next thing he spoke and I nearly said I loved him.