Better Than Any Argument

However just and anxious I have been
I will stop and step back
from the crowd of those who may agree
with what I say, and be apart.
There is no earthly promise of life or peace
but where the roots branch and weave
their patient silent passages in the dark;
uprooted, I have been furious without an aim.
I am not bound for any public place,
but for ground of my own
where I have planted vines and orchard trees,
and in the heat of the day climbed up
into the healing shadow of the woods.
Better than any argument is to rise at dawn
and pick dew-wet berries in a cup.
~Wendell Berry “A Standing Ground”
from The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry

This is an age of argument: silence is labeled violence so we’re induced to have our say and look for others to listen and support our point of view. Without mutual agreement, there is plenty of fodder for argument with a duel-to-the-death determination to win others over to our way of thinking.

Agreeing to disagree doesn’t seem to be an option any longer. Why can’t our debates simply settle down to get on with life and find a way to live alongside each other? Instead, if I don’t see it your way, I’m morally deficient or hostile or worst of all I’m not an ally, so by modern definition, I’ve become the enemy.

But I’m not the enemy and never want to be.

It’s enough to make one retreat from the fray altogether. Those of us who have been around awhile know: anger puts a match to feelings that burn hot inside and outside. Initially debate is energizing with a profound sense of purpose and direction, yet too soon it becomes nothing but ashes.

I refuse to be furious for the sake of fury and indignation. Arguments, tempting as they may be in the heat of the moment, don’t hold a candle to the lure of sharing sweet fruit of the garden and the cool shadows of the forest with those who need it most.

So come in and help me eat berries and cherries but leave your arguments at the door. You can pick them up later on your way out if you wish, but most likely they will have forgotten all about you and wandered away while you were busy living life.

Fickle things, arguments – they tend to fizzle out until someone decides to light a match to them again.

My Father’s Dream

To every man
His treehouse,
A green splice in the humping years,
Spartan with narrow cot
And prickly door.

To every man
His twilight flash
Of luminous recall
of tiptoe years
in leaf-stung flight;

To every man
His house below
And his house above—
With perilous stairs
Between.

~James Emmanuel from “The Treehouse”

A shudder of joy runs up
The trunk; the needles tingle;   
One bird uncontrollably cries.
The wind changes round, and I stir   
Within another’s life. Whose life?
Who is dead? Whose presence is living?   
When may I fall strangely to earth,

Who am nailed to this branch by a spirit?   
Can two bodies make up a third?
To sing, must I feel the world’s light?   
My green, graceful bones fill the air   
With sleeping birds. Alone, alone
And with them I move gently.
I move at the heart of the world.

~James Dickey from “In the Treehouse at Night”


My father’s treehouse is twenty five years old this summer, lonesome and empty in our front yard, a constant reminder of his own abandoned Swiss Family Robinson dreams. Over the years, it has been the setting for a local children’s TV show, laser tag wars, sleep overs and tea parties, even my writer’s retreat with a deck side view of the Cascades to the east, the Canadian Coastal Range to the north and Puget Sound to the west. Now it is a sad shell no longer considered safe, as the support branches in our 100+ year old walnut tree are weakening with age and time. It is on our list of farm restoration projects, but other falling down buildings must be prioritized first.

My father’s dream began in February 1995 when our sons were 8 and 6 years old and our daughter just 2. We had plenty of recycled lumber on our old farm and an idea about what to build. Dad, retired from his desk job and having recently survived a lymphoma diagnosis and treatment, had many previous daunting building projects to his credit, and a few in his mind that he was yet to get to. He was eager to see what he could construct for his grandkids by spring time. He doodled out some sketches of what might work in the tree, and contemplated the physics of a 73 year old man scaling a tree vs. building on the ground and hoisting it up mostly completed. I got more nervous the more I thought about it and hoped we could consider a project less risky, and hoping the weather wouldn’t clear enough for construction to start any time soon.

The weather cleared as simultaneously my father’s health faded. His cancer relapsed and he was sidelined with a series of doctor’s appointments, hospitalizations and treatment courses. He hung on to that hope of getting the treehouse going by summer, still thinking it through in his mind, still evaluating what he would need to buy to supplement the materials already gathered and piled beneath the tree. In the mean time he lost physical strength day by day.

His dream needed to proceed as he fought his battle, so I borrowed library books on treehouses, and hired two college age brothers who lived down the road to get things started. I figured if my dad got well enough to build again, at least the risky stuff could be already done by the young guys. These brothers took their job very seriously. They pored over the books, took my dad’s plans, worked through the details and started in. They shinnied up the tree, put up pulleys on the high branches and placed the beams, hoisting them by pulling on the ropes with their car bumper. It was working great until the car bumper came off.

I kept my dad updated long distance with photos and stories. It was a diversion for him, but the far off look in his eye told me he wasn’t going to be building anything in this world ever again. He was gone by July. The treehouse was done a month later. It was everything my dad had dreamed of, and more. It had a deck, a protective railing, a trap door, a staircase. We had an open tree celebration and had 15 neighbors up there at once. I’m sure dad was sipping lemonade with us as well, enjoying the view.

Now all these years later, the treehouse is tilting on its foundation as the main weight bearing branch is weakening. We’ve declared it condemned, not wanting to risk an accident.  As I look out my front window, it remains a daily reminder of past dreams fulfilled and unfulfilled. Much like my father’s body, the old walnut tree is weakening, hanging on by the roots, but its muscle strength is failing. It will, sometime, come down in one of our frequent fierce windstorms, just as its nearby partner did a few years ago.

The treehouse dream branched out in another way. One of the construction team brothers decided to try building his own as a place to live in his woods, using a Douglas Fir tree as the center support and creating an octagon, two stories, 30 feet off the ground. He worked on it for two years and moved in, later marrying someone who decided a treehouse was just fine with her, and for 20+ years, they’ve been raising five children there.  The treehouse kids are old enough to come work for me on our farm, a full circle feeling for me.  This next generation is carrying on a Swiss Family Robinson dream that began in my father’s mind and our front yard.

I still have a whole list full of dreams myself, some realized and some deferred by time, resources and the limits of my imagination. I feel the clock ticking too, knowing that the years and the seasons slip by me faster and faster as I near the age my father was when he first learned he had cancer. It would be a blessing to me to see others live out the dreams I have held so close.

Like my father, I will some day teeter in the wind like our old tree, barely hanging on. When ready to fall to the ground, I’ll reach out with my branches and hand off my dreams too. The time will have come to let them go. Thank you, Dad, for handing me yours.

photo by Dan Gibson

Between the Lashes of Your Eyes

This is what you shall do:
Love the earth and sun and the animals,
despise riches,
give alms to everyone that asks,
devote your income and labor to others,
hate tyrants,
argue not concerning God,
have patience and indulgence toward the people,
and your very flesh shall be a great poem,
and have the richest fluency, not only in its words,
but in the silent lines of its lips and face,
and between the lashes of your eyes,
and in every motion and joint of your body.
~Walt Whitman from his preface to “Leaves of Grass”

Time, in so many ways, has been standing still for us over the last few months, fueled by an unprecedented quarantine and social isolation. We anticipate “when things return to normal” but the reality is there will be no “normal” for those who have lost jobs and businesses and family members or their own robust health since February.

And now society finds itself in the midst of anger and argument, marching and shouting to defend those who have lived for generations with injustice and oppression, and continue to face that reality every day, and the majority of us were oblivious.

“Normal” holds no appeal when “normal” is living under a tyrant’s thumb or dying under a knee.

So how do we approach a change in seasons as we ourselves are irrevocably changed?

What shall we do?

We are our flesh: all colors, flawed and fragile. We must look beyond the lashes of our eyes to see and understand the fluency of the poetry found in our bodies. We, each one of us, deserve the patience of being heard.

This summer will stand on its own in all its extravagant abundance of light and warmth and growth and color stretching deep within the rising and setting horizons. Each long day will feel like it must last forever, never ending, yet, like the unpredictable length of our fleshy days on earth, it will eventually wind down, spin itself out, darkening gradually into shadow.

That is the “normal” of our existence because summer always, always ends.

Yet another will reappear, somehow, somewhere, someday. The very poetry of our flesh, the very survival of our souls, depends on it. We will then see beyond our own eyelashes.

Surely a never-ending summer is what heaven itself will be. We shall all be changed, in the twinkling of an eye…

Muddied But Whole

The crow’s voice filtered through the walls of the farmhouse
makes sounds of a rusty car engine turning over. Clouds on a
north wind that whistles softly and cold. Spruce trees planted
in a line on the south side of the house weave and scrape at the
air. I’ve walked to a far field to a fence line of rocks where I am
surprised to see soft mud this raw day. No new tracks in the
mud, only desiccated grass among the rocks, a bare grove of
trees in the distance, a blue sky thin as an eggshell with a crack
of dark geese running through it, their voices faint and almost
troubled as they disappear in a wedge that has opened at last
the cold heart of winter.

~Tom Hennen, “Early Spring in the Field” from Darkness Sticks to Everything: Collected and New Poems

I shouldn’t be turning on the heat in the house on a late May morning but there is still an undeniable chill, even at this point in spring. The flowers outside are lush, but we’re still two or three weeks behind our usual bloom schedule.

We’re all impatient to be done with the coldness of a winter that has driven a wedge between people and politics, families and friends, well and ill.

We seek warmth and renewal and hugs and handshakes.

Instead we are asked for patience, to continue to practice the art of waiting for a safe reentry to spring and summer. No one wants to be tossed brutally back to the winter we just crawled away from.

May we emerge together, muddied but whole, ready to face whatever comes next.

It’s All Right Now

How should I not be glad to contemplate
the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window
and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?
There will be dying, there will be dying,
but there is no need to go into that.
The poems flow from the hand unbidden
and the hidden source is the watchful heart.
The sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.
I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.
Everything is going to be all right.
~Derek Mahon,”Everything is Going to be All Right” from Selected Poems

It’s tough to find reassurance these days; in a mere five months, things have gone from “doing okay” to outright disastrous. There is no expert anywhere with a crystal ball who can tell us what things will be like in another five months. We simply have to live it out as best we can.

I regularly remind myself: history has a way of repeating itself, and yes, the world has been in this place before. We’ve fought back against global pandemics and economic depressions and devastating world conflicts and we somehow manage to come out the other side.

It takes time and patience and prayer and groaning and a fair amount of teeth gritting.

So the sun rises in spite of everything. The clouds still fly by above us. We still love one another even when it takes a little work. So let’s give ourselves a little break from the bad news and just love, oh Lord above, in the glory of now.

Everything is going to be all right. Let your heart be watchful and untroubled.

Truly.

The Clarity of Light

On the day when
The weight deadens
On your shoulders
And you stumble,
May the clay dance
To balance you.

And when your eyes
Freeze behind

The gray window
And the ghost of loss
Gets in to you,
May a flock of colors,
Indigo, red, green
And azure blue,
Come to awaken in you
A meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.

And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

~John O’Donohue “Beannacht”

So many of us grieve the loss of the way things were
and the loss of the people we loved.

There seems no light at all in the world,
only heaviness of burden, of clouds and sickness.

May God bring back the lightness to our days,
the color back to the gray,
the clarity of purpose throughout generations.

May God be real to us now, cleansing us
from our doubts, our frustrations,
our anger and our impatience
with one another
and with Him.

May God love us
in the midst of our weeping,
cloaked in His Word and His arms.

The Cheeks of Blossom

Lined with light
the twigs are stubby arrows.
A gilded trunk writhes
Upward from the roots,
from the pit of the black tentacles.

In the book of spring
a bare-limbed torso
is the first illustration.

Light teaches the tree
to beget leaves,
to embroider itself all over
with green reality,
until summer becomes
its steady portrait
and birds bring their lifetime
to the boughs.

Then even the corpse
light copies from below
may shimmer, dreaming it feels
the cheeks of blossom.
~May Swenson “April Light”

This April we are surrounded by corpse light:
the threat of untimely death, so we distance ourselves
one from the other, awaiting the “all clear”
which may be a long time coming ~

We have already forgotten the unprecedented illumination
that walked from the tomb on a bright Sabbath morning
to guarantee that
we people,
we who are no more than bare twigs and stubs,
we who feel hardly alive,
are now begotten green,
ready to burst into blossom,
our cheeks pink with life,
promising future fruitfulness.

Lest They Sicken

Tell the bees. They require news of the house;
they must know, lest they sicken
from the gap between their ignorance and our grief.
Speak in a whisper. Tie a black swatch
to a stick and attach the stick to their hive.
From the fortress of casseroles and desserts
built in the kitchen these past few weeks
as though hunger were the enemy, remove
a slice of cake and lay it where they can
slowly draw it in, making a mournful sound.

And tell the fly that has knocked on the window all day.
Tell the redbird that rammed the glass from outside
and stands too dazed to go. Tell the grass,
though it’s already guessed, and the ground clenched in furrows;
tell the water you spill on the ground,
then all the water will know.
And the last shrunken pearl of snow in its hiding place.

Tell the blighted elms, and the young oaks we plant instead.
The water bug, while it scribbles
a hundred lines that dissolve behind it.
The lichen, while it etches deeper
its single rune. The boulders, letting their fissures widen,
the pebbles, which have no more to lose,
the hills—they will be slightly smaller, as always,

when the bees fly out tomorrow to look for sweetness
and find their way
because nothing else has changed.
~Sarah Lindsay “Tell the Bees”

So many around the globe are grieving their losses, their reality forever changed by a virus. Yet the world churns on, oblivious to the sorrows of individuals.

The tradition of telling the bees is that it matters to the community of hives how people who care for them are faring: is there a wedding coming up? a baby due? an overwhelming illness? a death of a loved one? If a hive is kept in ignorance, the cloud of grief will sicken them or drive them away. Shared grief is a nurturing spirit that allows the community to thrive and move on in sweetness.

Nothing happens without an impact down the line; the butterfly effect is also the bee effect. We speak softly of our desolation and suffering so our tears water thirsty ground.

Let the bees know, let them hear; the bees will go about their work and they will turn our sorrow to honey.

But By His Grace: Waiting Patiently

For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
Romans 8:24-25

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”

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
    and in his word I put my hope.
My soul waits for the Lord
    more than watchmen wait for the morning,
    more than watchmen wait for the morning.
Psalm 130: 5-6 from a Song of Ascents

Waiting is essential to the spiritual life. But waiting as a disciple of Jesus is not an empty waiting. It is a waiting with a promise in our hearts that makes already present what we are waiting for. We wait during Advent for the birth of Jesus. We wait after Easter for the coming of the Spirit, and after the ascension of Jesus we wait for his coming again in glory. We are always waiting, but it is a waiting in the conviction that we have already seen God’s footsteps.
— Henri Nouwen from Bread For The Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith

The world’s people wait impatiently: sheltering at home, watching jobs and savings dissipate, feeling wholly isolated, praying this plague will bypass our doorsteps and fade away. 

The hard part is not knowing how long we must wait for life to feel safe and normal again (as if it ever was!). We want our reprieve, our salvation now.

Yet we can have certainty that eventually all will be well. We have seen His footprints beside us and His Word is spoken with a quiet breath.

He is here among us. 

So shall we persevere together, with patience, watching and hoping –
a community groaning together in sweet expectation of the morning.

This year’s Lenten theme for Barnstorming:

God sees us as we are,
loves us as we are,
and accepts us as we are.
But by His grace,
He does not leave us where we are.
~Tim Keller

The Light is Enough

There were moments, hours even,
when it was clear what I

was meant to do, as if
a landscape had revealed itself

in the morning light.
I could see the road

plainly now, imagining myself
walking towards the distant mountains

like a pilgrim in the old stories—
ready to take on any danger,

hapless but always hopeful,
certain that my simple belief

in the light
would be enough.
~Joyce Sutphen “Those Hours” from Carrying Water to the Field

We’re not always sure we’re on the right road, are we? Too often we’re struggling to find our way in the dark.

Suddenly things are under water, the bridge is washed out, there are potholes everywhere, the fog line disappears in the mist, a mudslide covers both lanes – the road seems impossibly impassable.

Yet we set out on this road for a reason and a purpose; this is not wasted effort. If we can’t see where we are going, fearing we may plunge off an unseen cliff, we pause, waiting until the light is enough to take the next step.

So the light will come.
I believe it will.
I know it will as it always has.