I got out of bed on two strong legs. It might have been otherwise. I ate cereal, sweet milk, ripe, flawless peach. It might have been otherwise. I took the dog uphill to the birch wood. All morning I did the work I love. At noon I lay down with my mate. It might have been otherwise. We ate dinner together at a table with silver candlesticks. It might have been otherwise. I slept in a bed in a room with paintings on the walls, and planned another day just like this day. But one day, I know, it will be otherwise. ~Jane Kenyon “Otherwise” from Otherwise
We become complacent in our routines, confident in the knowledge that tomorrow will be very much like yesterday. The small distinct blessings of an ordinary day become lost in the rush of moving forward to the next experience, the next task, the next responsibility.
The reality is there is nothing ordinary about this day – it could be otherwise and some day it will be otherwise.
Jane Kenyon wrote much of her best poetry in the knowledge she was dying of leukemia. She reminds us that we don’t need a terminal diagnosis to understand the blessings of each ordinary moment.
So I look around longingly at the blessings of my life that I don’t even realize, knowing that one day, it will be otherwise. I dwell richly in the experience of these moments, these peaches and cream of daily life, as they are happening.
You wake up on a winter morning and pull up the shade, and what lay there the evening before is no longer there– the sodden gray yard, the dog droppings, the tire tracks in the frozen mud, the broken lawn chair you forgot to take in last fall. All this has disappeared overnight, and what you look out on is not the snow of Narnia but the snow of home, which is no less shimmering and white as it falls. The earth is covered with it, and it is falling still in silence so deep that you can hear its silence. It is snow to be shoveled, to make driving even worse than usual, snow to be joked about and cursed at, but unless the child in you is entirely dead, it is snow, too, that can make the heart beat faster when it catches you by surprise that way, before your defenses are up. It is snow that can awaken memories of things more wonderful than anything you ever knew or dreamed. ~Frederick Buechner “Sudden Snow”
There will be rest, and sure stars shining Over the roof-tops crowned with snow, A reign of rest, serene forgetting, The music of stillness holy and low.
I will make this world of my devising Out of a dream in my lonely mind. I shall find the crystal of peace, – above me Stars I shall find. ~Sara Teasdale “There Will Be Rest”
We had a surprise snowfall on the first day of winter last week.
In the Pacific Northwest, snow is often a once-a-winter event and usually doesn’t stay long. Here in the upper NW corner close to the Canadian border, it is accompanied by frigid northeast winds, blowing and drifting and making us all frankly miserable.
Yet this fresh-into-winter snowfall came down gently for several hours, without wind or drifts. It covered a multitude of messes that had accumulated over the previous year, making all things shimmer with newness. It made magic where before previously there had been drudgery.
And it silently lingered, like a long-lost memory I wanted to cling to, rolling it over and over in my mind like a snow ball that grows with each turn.
After a night of warm rain, it vanished and all was back to as it was. Yet I am better for having been visited by an unexpected snow, reminding me how my memories and dreams are not buried so deep that they are lost forever.
The way the dog trots out the front door every morning without a hat or an umbrella, without any money or the keys to her dog house never fails to fill the saucer of my heart with milky admiration.
Off she goes into the material world with nothing but her brown coat and her modest blue collar, following only her wet nose, the twin portals of her steady breathing, followed only by the plume of her tail.
If only she did not shove the cat aside every morning and eat all his food what a model of self-containment she would be, what a paragon of earthly detachment. If only she were not so eager for a rub behind the ears, so acrobatic in her welcomes, if only I were not her god. ~Billy Collins, from “Dharma” from Sailing Alone Around the Room
We all should know, at least once in our lives, the complete and total enthusiastic and worshipful devotion that comes without hesitation from a dog. No other living creature grants us this: not a spouse, certainly not our children, never a cat or a horse, but dogs worship the ground we walk on.
It doesn’t take long when living with one or two dogs, to realize they are only human too – with insatiable appetites for independent defiance as they follow their noses rather than respond promptly to a call and whistle.
I love them anyway, even though they are wholly misinformed about my apparent divinity on earth.
In my view, our farm dogs exist solely so I can rub behind their divinely designed corgi ears. Is that not reason enough?
Night and day seize the day, also the night — a handful of water to grasp. The moon shines off the mountain snow where grizzlies look for a place for the winter’s sleep and birth. I just ate the year’s last tomato in the year’s fatal whirl. This is mid-October, apple time. I picked them for years. One Mcintosh yielded sixty bushels.
Fifty years later we hold each other looking out the windows at birds, making dinner, a life to live day after day, a life of dogs and children and the far wide country out by rivers, rumpled by mountains. So far the days keep coming. Seize the day gently as if you loved her. ~Jim Harrison, from “Carpe Diem” from Dead Man’s Float.
Forty some years later, the days keep coming, a life to live day after day after day. I try not to take a single one for granted, each morning a gift to be seized gently and embraced with reverent gratitude.
Even knowing I am meant to cherish this gift, I squander it. I grumble, I grouse, I can be tough to live alongside. I know better than to give into an impulse toward discontent, yet still it happens. Something inside me whispers that things could be better than they are — more of this, less of that — I tend to dwell on whatever my heart yearns for rather than the riches right in front of me.
I’m not the first one to struggle with this nor will I be the last. It turned out rather badly when those before me gave into their discontent and took what was not theirs to have.
We are still living out the consequences of that fall from grace.
Yet, even in our state of disgrace, despite our grumbling and groaning, we have been seized – gently and without hesitation – and held closely by One who loves us at our most unloveable.
Though my troubles and yearnings may continue, I will be content in that embrace, knowing even if I loosen my grip, I will not be let go.
That house was, as Bilbo had long ago reported, “a perfect house, whether you liked food or sleep or story-telling or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all.” Merely to be there was a cure for weariness, fear, and sadness. ~J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
I wish I was at home in my nice hole by the fire, with the kettle just beginning to sing! ~J.R.R. Tolkien from The Hobbit
We sleep to time’s hurdy-gurdy; we wake, if ever we wake, to the silence of God. And then, when we wake to the deep shores of time uncreated, then when the dazzling dark breaks over the far slopes of time, then it’s time to toss things, like our reason, and our will; then it’s time to break our necks for home. ~Annie Dillard from Holy the Firm
Every now and then, I forget to turn off the lights in the barn. I usually notice just before I go to bed, when the farm’s boundaries seem to have drawn in close. That light makes the barn seem farther away than it is — a distance I’m going to have to travel before I sleep. The weather makes no difference. Neither does the time of year.
Usually, after turning out that forgotten barn light, I sit on the edge of the tractor bucket for a few minutes and let my eyes adjust to the night outside. City people always notice the darkness here, but it’s never very dark if you wait till your eyes owl out a little….I’m always glad to have to walk down to the barn in the night, and I always forget that it makes me glad. I heave on my coat, stomp into my barn boots and trudge down toward the barn light, muttering at myself. But then I sit in the dark, and I remember this gladness, and I walk back up to the gleaming house, listening for the horses. ~Verlyn Klinkenborg from A Light in the Barn
I have always been, and always will be a home-body. As a child, I was hopelessly homesick and miserable whenever I visited overnight somewhere else: not my bed, not my window, not anything that was familiar and comfortable. Going away to college was an ordeal and I had to do two runs at it to finally feel at home somewhere else. I traveled plenty during those young adult years and adapted to new and exotic environs, but never easily.
I haven’t changed much in my older years. Even now, travel is fraught with anxiety for me, not anticipation. I secretly had hoped for a prolonged stay-cation for a change rather than rushing about at break-neck speed when we had a few days off from work. I must be careful for what I wish for, as it is now seven months of stay-and-work-at-home with only two brief sojourns to visit out of town children.
It has been blissful — yet I dare not say that out loud as so many people don’t do well staying at home and are kicking the traces to be set free.
Not so me. I am content on our farm, appreciating our “perfect house, whether you liked food or sleep or story-telling or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all.”
Merely allowed to just be here is my ultimate answer to weariness, fear and sadness.
The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was, is lost For none now live who remember it. ~J.R.R. Tolkien Galadriel’s prologue to The Fellowship of the Rings
There trudges one to a merry-making With a sturdy swing, On whom the rain comes down.
To fetch the saving medicament Is another bent, On whom the rain comes down.
One slowly drives his herd to the stall Ere ill befall, On whom the rain comes down.
This bears his missives of life and death With quickening breath, On whom the rain comes down.
One watches for signals of wreck or war From the hill afar, On whom the rain comes down.
No care if he gain a shelter or none, Unhired moves on, On whom the rain comes down.
And another knows nought of its chilling fall Upon him at all, On whom the rain comes down. ~Thomas Hardy “An Autumn Rain-scene”(1904)
The rain has returned, now six months into a changed world. The rain blows, raging against the windows and puddling in the low spots, sparing nothing and no one.
It drenches all and everyone – none of us immune from the cleansing: whether missing the joy of sweet fellowship, whether bearing urgent messages or administering badly needed medication, whether trudging through the day’s chores, whether unemployed and praying for work, whether bearing witness to ongoing divisive conflict and tragedy, or whether the rain falls chill upon those newly lying still and silent beneath the soil.
In our universal soaking, may we look at one another with a renewed compassion. Each one of us deserves a warm and comforting toweling off, being buffed and fluffed so we’re ready to face what comes next.
I’ve banked nothing, or everything. Every day the chores need doing again. Early in the morning, I clean the horse barn with a manure fork. Every morning, it feels as though it could be the day beforeor a year ago or a year before that. With every pass, I give the fork one final upward flick to keep the manure from falling out, and every day I remember where I learned to do that and from whom. Time all but stops.
But then I dump the cart on the compost pile. I bring out the tractor and turn the pile, once every three or four days. The bucket bites and lifts, and steam comes billowing out of the heap. It’s my assurance that time is really moving forward, decomposing us all in the process. ~Verlyn Klinkenborg from More Scenes from the Rural Life
I’ve written about horse manure before in a variety of contexts as it is a daily chore here to keep it picked up, wheeled to the pile, wait for it to compost and then use it to fertilize garden or fields. It is one of the crops on our farm and we take our manure management seriously.
I have not written before about our dogs’ coprophagous grins (look it up). This is a family-friendly blog so I’m not using the colloquial term that might be used while we’re out in the barn. But grinning they are, with a muzzle full of manure.
Dogs love to eat horse poop (among other things). No one has figured out why except that decomposing things – fecal, rotting or decaying- just simply smell good to a dog and what smells good must taste good. It does not smell good on their breath or, when they happily roll in it, on their fur. But they don’t seem to mind stinking to high heaven as long as it is their choice. What consenting dogs do should not concern us, right? Right – until the stink reaches the threshold of the house or man’s best friend wants to plant a slobbery kiss on your cheek.
There is a lesson here in the manure pile. There must be a pony buried here somewhere. And there is.
We human beings, proper as we may appear on the surface, like to roll around in the figurative decomposing stuff too. Especially individuals in the news this week and in the recent past who proclaim strict Christian values and are leaders in preaching standards of morality have found themselves up to their eyeballs in the stink of their own choices, surrounding themselves with it. Jobs have been lost and reputations ruined.
We almost lost a farm dog because he inadvertently overdosed on ivermectin horse wormer that may have been in ingested manure or dripped nearby. What may appear benign, no big deal and may not hurt anyone, could in fact be lethal.
So I tell the dogs to wipe that coprophagous grin off their faces and clean up their act. If I wanted to hang out with the stink of decomposition, I’d go picnic next to a nice steaming warm compost pile.
At least I know in the case of the compost pile, the manure eventually becomes something far more wholesome, thereby ultimately redeemed.
I took the dog and went to walk in the auditorium of the woods, but not to get away from things. It was our habit, that was all, a thing we did on summer days, and much there was to listen to. A slight wind came and went in three birches by the pond. A crow uphill was going on about the black life it led, and a brown creeper went creeping up a brown trunk methodically with no record of ever having been understood by anyone. A woodpecker was working out a deep hole from the sound of it in a stand of dead trees up there. And then a jay, much put upon, complained about some treachery it may or may not have endured, though most are liars anyway. The farther in, the quieter, till only the snapping of a stick broke the silence we were in. The dog stood still and looked at me, the woods by then already dark. Much later, on the porch at night, I heard the owl, an eldritch thing. The dog, still with me, heard it too, a call that came from where we’d been, and where we would not be again. ~John Foy, “Woods,” from Night Vision
We live near fields and woods so the evening walks we take with the dogs are listening walks. There is always plenty to hear.
It is an immense relief to hear something other than the talking heads on TV or podcasts. The voices we hear in the woods are unconcerned about upcoming elections, pandemics or the state of the economy.
I listen for the sound of breezes rustling the tree branches, the crunch of sticks and dry leaves under my boots, and more often than not, the woodpeckers tapping away at tree trunks, eagles chittering from the treetops, and unseen owls visiting back and forth from their hidey-holes. The red-tailed hawks scream out warnings as they float from tree top to tree top, particularly upset that we’ve brought along the corgis into their territory.
So, like the outside world, this woods has its own talking heads and drama, but I know who I will listen to and where I prefer to hang out if given a choice. I understand I’m only a visitor to their world and will be invited back only as long as we tread softly.
Now we are here at home, in the little nation of our marriage, swearing allegiance to the table we set for lunch or the windchime on the porch,
its easy dissonance. Even in our shared country, the afternoon allots its golden lines so that we’re seated, both in shadow, on opposite
ends of a couch and two gray dogs between us. There are acres of opinions in this house. I make two cups of tea, two bowls of soup,
divide an apple equally. If I were a patriot, I would call the blanket we spread across our bed the only flag—some nights we’ve burned it with our anger at each other.Some nights we’ve welcomed the weight, a woolen scratch on both our skins. My love, I am pledging
to this republic, for however long we stand, I’ll watch with you the rain’s arrival in our yard. We’ll lift our faces, together, toward the glistening. ~Jehanne Dubrow from “Pledge”
Whether it is a beloved country, or a devoted marriage, there is need for loyalty to last through the difficult times and the imperfections.
We pledge allegiance to the republic of one another among acres of opinions: our differences in how we see the world contrast with our shared goals and dreams. Our stubborn persistence to stay intact is threatened by our fragile weaknesses that can easily break us asunder.
So we stand united, no matter the dissonance and the disagreements, drenched with the responsibility and accountability to make this union work, no matter what, for as long as we shall live, and much much beyond.
May we glisten with the pledge of allegiance: we can only accomplish this together.
How shall I not adore them, snoozing right through the Annunciation? They inhabit the outskirts of every importance, sprawl dead center in each oblivious household.
They’re digging at fleas or snapping at scraps, dozing with noble abandon while a boy bells their tails. Often they present their rumps in the foreground of some martyrdom.
What Christ could lean so unconcernedly against a table leg, the feast above continuing? Could the Virgin in her joy match this grace as a hound sagely ponders an upturned turtle?
No scholar at his huge book will capture my eye so well as the skinny haunches, the frazzled tails and serene optimism of the least of these mutts, curled
in the corners of the world’s dazzlement. ~David Graham “The Dogs in Dutch Paintings” from The Honey of Earth.
They are part of the scenery, always there, close by and near enough to touch, yet taken for granted until they are gone.
What would I do without them during times like these, when I need their steady gaze and happy wag? They look right into my eyes, trying to discern what I’m thinking and what I’ll do or say next, so I am held to a higher standard. These four-footed fluffy fellows are my conscience, reminding me my motives are always scrutinized.
They may be in the background of the old masterpieces, curled in the corners, just part of the furniture, but day in and day out their love and loyalty dazzle me, remaining front and center in my heart.