A Decent Little Cottage

Imagine yourself as a living house. 
God comes in to rebuild that house. 
At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. 
He is getting the drains right
and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; 

you knew that those jobs needed doing
and so you are not surprised. 

But presently He starts
knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably 

and does not seem to make any sense. 
What on earth is He up to? 
The explanation is that He is building
quite a different house from the one you thought of – 

throwing out a new wing here, 
putting on an extra floor there, 
running up towers, 
making courtyards. 
You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: 
but He is building a palace. 
He intends to come and live in it Himself.
~C.S. Lewis from Mere Christianity

Whether bunker or cottage or palace,
when I seek shelter, safety or simplicity,
it is not enough.
I am not a dwelling for God
until His remodel project is finished~

He puts down His chisel, hammer and saw,
sees what He has salvaged from the junk heap,
looks me over
and declares it good.

My father’s treehouse is twenty seven years old this summer, lonesome and empty high up in the black walnut tree in our front yard. It remains a constant reminder of my father’s 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 to visit, as the support branches in its century-old 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. My 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 it 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 praying the weather wouldn’t clear enough for construction to start any time soon.

The weather did clear just as 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.

I decided 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 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 completed a month later. It was everything my dad had dreamed of, and more. It had a deck surrounded by a protective railing, a trap door, and staircase up the trunk. We had an open tree celebration and had 15 friends and 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 with age. 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 those yet 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, inevitably 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.

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The World’s Most Sensitive Cargo

Go north a dozen years
on a road overgrown with vines
to find the days after you were born.
Flowers remembered their colors and trees
were frothy and the hospital was


behind us now, its brick indifference
forgotten by our car mirrors. You were
revealed to me: tiny, delicate,
your head smelling of some other world.
Turn right after the circular room


where I kept my books and right again
past the crib where you did not sleep
and you will find the window where
I held you that morning
when you opened your eyes. They were


blue, tentative, not the deep chocolate
they would later become. You were gazing
into the world: at our walls,
my red cup, my sleepless hair and though
I’m told you could not focus, and you


no longer remember, we were seeing
one another after seasons of darkness.

~Faith Shearin, “Sight” from Orpheus, Turning

A man crosses the street in rain,
stepping gently, looking two times north and south,
because his son is asleep on his shoulder.

No car must splash him.
No car drive too near to his shadow.

This man carries the world’s most sensitive cargo
but he’s not marked.
Nowhere does his jacket say FRAGILE,
HANDLE WITH CARE.

His ear fills up with breathing.
He hears the hum of a boy’s dream
deep inside him.

We’re not going to be able
to live in this world
if we’re not willing to do what he’s doing
with one another.

The road will only be wide.
The rain will never stop falling.

~Naomi Shihab Nye “Shoulders”

Recent headlines reflect a touchy cultural debate about child bearing and rearing in our post-modern society:

who has control over whose body and for what justifiable reasons,

when life begins and when its loss is a death to be mourned
or if intentional, could be considered equivalent to murder,

babies without access to adequate nutrition due to a formula shortage while some shame mothers for not breast-feeding,

who determines what schools can teach at what stage of development, whether vaccines should be mandatory to attend,
and what books children can have access to in the library.

There are controversies about our country not guaranteeing paid parental leave and automatic free day care, along with government subsidized health care, and whether we coddle our kids too much or too little.

Some are convinced we should avoid child-bearing since people are destroying the earth and adding more people will only hasten our demise.

The judgement and harshness of the debate is enough to discourage parenting at all for those who are ambivalent to begin with. For those who long to be parents but still have empty arms, the debate seems heartless and selfish, as they wonder if and when a chance to love their own child will ever come.

Having waited long years ourselves with empty arms, and then were blessed with three of our own, I can say with assurance children are the most sensitive cargo we’ll ever bear and carry and love – there is no future without children cherished above one’s own wants and needs.

After seasons of darkness, we must look each other in the eyes and find each other worthy to exist and do whatever it takes to guarantee it. We must be willing to sacrifice, carrying one another like precious cargo. We were created for no less than this.

Just checking to see if she is real…

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A Refuge in Briars and Brambles

What’s incomplete in me seeks refuge
in blackberry bramble and beech trees,
where creatures live without dogma
and water moves in patterns
more ancient than philosophy.
I stand still, child eavesdropping on her elders.
I don’t speak the language
but my body translates best it can,
wakening skin and gut, summoning
the long kinship we share with everything.
~Laura Grace Weldon, “Common Ground” from  Blackbird

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 great 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”

Nearly thirty months of pandemic separation and
I long to share our farm with our far-flung grandchildren
who live across the ocean, to watch them discover
the joys and sorrows of this place we inhabit.
I will tell them there is light beyond this darkness,
there is refuge amid the brambles,
there is kinship with what surrounds us,
there is peace amid the chaos,
there is a smile behind the tears,
there is stillness within the noisiness,
there is rescue when all seems hopeless,
there is grace as the old gives way to new.

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Making Us Even

And this, then,
is the vision of that Heaven of which
we have heard, where those who love
each other have forgiven each other,

where, for that, the leaves are green,
the light a music in the air,
and all is unentangled,
and all is undismayed.
~Wendell Berry “To My Mother”

I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.

Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.
Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.

And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.
~Billy Collins from “The Lanyard”

...I want to thank you
truly for the wry smile you set
on my lips, a smile as mild as your own;
it has saved me pain and grief.
And if now I shed a tear for you,
and all who wait like you and do not know
what they wait for, it does not matter.
O gentle death, do not touch the hands, the heart of the old.
Goodbye, dear one, farewell,

my sweet mother.
~Salvatore Quasimodo from “Letter to My Mother”

Mother love is life and light
beginning in the dark, as a special secret,
until you know without a doubt
you will never be just yourself again,
tethered forever to another.

~this sacrificial love is a haven of abundant grace~

the tangles we make of our lives
unravel, straighten and smooth,
no dismay over mistakes made

I was created within you –
to love my own children fully, fervently,
forever and forever –
as I was loved by you.

Now they, in turn, are known by their love.

Acknowledging the Abyss

The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for.
~Vladimir Nabokov from Speak Memory

I think Nabokov had it wrong. This is the abyss.
That’s why babies howl at birth,
and why the dying so often reach
for something only they can apprehend.

At the end they don’t want their hands
to be under the covers, and if you should put
your hand on theirs in a tentative gesture
of solidarity, they’ll pull the hand free;
and you must honor that desire,
and let them pull it free.

~Jane Kenyon from “Reading Aloud to My Father”

Great Grandma Emma, granddaughter Andrea, great-grandson Zealand – photo by Andrea Nipges

Great Grandpa Harry holding baby Emerson, photo by mama Abby Mobley
Great-Grandma Elna and Noah

And once, for no special reason,
I rode in the back of the pickup, leaning against the cab.
Everything familiar was receding fast…

Whatever I saw
I had already passed…
(This must be what life is like
at the moment of leaving it.)
~Jane Kenyon from “What It’s Like”

The farther I am down the road, everything familiar seems to be receding fast. What I see on my journey, I have already passed by as I watch it disappear into the horizon.

I too often mistake this world, this existence,  as the only light there is,  a mere beam of illumination in the surrounding night of eternity, the only relief from overwhelming darkness.  If we stand looking up from the bottom, we might erroneously assume we are the source of the light, we are all there is.

Yet looking at this world from a different perspective, gazing down into the abyss from above, it is clear the light does not come from below –it is from beyond us.

The newborn and the dying know this.  They signal their transition into and out of this world with their hands.  An infant holds tightly to whatever their fist finds,  grasping and clinging to not be lost to this darkness they have entered.  The dying instead loosen their grip on this world, reaching up and picking the air on their climb back to heaven.

We hold babies tightly so they won’t lose their way in the dark.  We loosen our grip on the dying to honor their outreach to the light that leads to something greater.

In the intervening years, we struggle in our blindness to climb out of the abyss to see vistas of great beauty and grace as we pass through the shadows of our lives.  Only then we acknowledge, with great calm and serenity, where we are headed.

Ben packaged in a paper bag by Grandpa Hank
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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: All the Tumult and the Strife

My life flows on in endless song
Above earth’s lamentation
I hear the sweet, though far-off hymn
That hails a new creation
Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear that music ringing
It finds an echo in my soul
How can I keep from singing?
~Robert Lowry

We recently returned from an out of state visit with two grandsons, ages two and six months. They love being sung to – they rock and bop to melodies and rhythms and then relax to sleep listening to us sing the quiet evening hymns we sang to his father at night.

They will see so much in their lifetimes that we can’t even imagine. Already in their short time on earth there have been plenty of cataclysmic events, and without a doubt, more are in store.

No matter what comes, we pray they will always hear their parents’ and four grandparents’ voices resounding inside their heads when things get rough. The hymns and the prayers said over them will give them calm and confidence in the face of troubles, tumult and strife.

God’s reality and truth are shared with them in songs and words every day, and as they someday raise children of their own, how can they keep from singing that out whenever it is most needed?

This year’s Lenten theme for Barnstorming is a daily selection from songs and hymns about Christ’s profound sacrifice on our behalf.

If we remain silent about Him, the stones themselves will shout out and start to sing (Luke 19:40).

In His name, may we sing…

My life flows on in endless song,
above earth’s lamentation.
I catch the sweet, though far-off hymn
that hails a new creation.

Refrain:
No storm can shake my inmost calm
while to that Rock I’m clinging.
Since Love is lord of heav’n and earth,
how can I keep from singing?

Through all the tumult and the strife,
I hear that music ringing.
It finds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?

What though my joys and comforts die,
I know my Savior liveth.
What though the darkness gather round?
Songs in the night he giveth.

I lift mine eyes the cloud grows thin
I see the blue above it
And day by day this pathway smooths
Since first I learned to love it

The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart,
a fountain ever springing!
All things are mine since I am his!
How can I keep from singing?

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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: The Hope of Peace

Then enemies shall learn to love,
All creatures find their true accord;
The hope of peace shall be fulfilled,
For all the earth shall know the Lord.
~Carl Daw, Jr.

Can enemies ever learn to love one another? Sometimes they live under the same roof, not always across armored yet porous political borders.

Can hatred be redeemed to grace and acceptance and peace?
What are we teaching children who are kept in barracks as unwelcome interlopers at our own border, or who sleep with their coats as pillows in basements in Ukraine as bombs rain around them?

They learn so young they are unwanted.
They learn so young to fear.
They learn so young to hate.

It is a little Child who will lead them to peace – a child sought out to be murdered by an earthly king who took thousands of innocent lives in the process. He survived in order to give His life for ours – an act He chose – rather than be slaughtered by a paranoid leader.

May this enemy lay down their swords and learn the sacrifice of love.
May the whole earth know the hope for peace through Christ our Lord.

This year’s Lenten theme for Barnstorming is a daily selection from songs and hymns about Christ’s profound sacrifice on our behalf.

If we remain silent about Him, the stones themselves will shout out and start to sing (Luke 19:40).

In His name, may we sing…

O day of peace that dimly shines
Through all our hopes and prayers and dreams,
Guide us to justice, truth, and love,
Delivered from our selfish schemes.

May swords of hate fall from our hands,
Our hearts from envy find release,
Till by God’s grace our warring world
Shall see Christ’s promised reign of peace.

Then shall the wolf dwell with the lamb,
Nor shall the fierce devour the small;
As beasts and cattle calmly graze
A little child shall lead them all.

Then enemies shall learn to love,
All creatures find their true accord;
The hope of peace shall be fulfilled,
For all the earth shall know the Lord.
~Carl Daw

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Our Weary World Transformed

I watch the great clear twilight
Veiling the ice-bowed trees;
Their branches tinkle faintly
With crystal melodies.

The larches bend their silver
Over the hush of snow;
One star is lighted in the west,
Two in the zenith glow.

For a moment I have forgotten
Wars and women who mourn,
I think of the mother who bore me
And thank her that I was born.
~Sara Teasdale “Winter Dusk” from The Collected Poems of Sara Teasdale

The towering tree spreads his greening canopy —
A veil between the soil and sky—
Not in selfish vanity,
But the gentle thrush to shade and shelter.


So it is with love.

For when we love,
Simply love,
Even as we are loved,
Our weary world can be transformed.

The busy thrush builds her nest below —
A fortnight’s work to weave and set—
Not for herself alone,
But her tender brood to shield and cherish.

And so it is with love.

For when we love,
Simply love,
Even as we are loved,
Our weary world can be transformed Into the Kingdom of God!
~Charles Silvestri “When We Love”

We are in the midst of a week-long late winter arctic blast of cold wind bending and breaking trees, even taking down an old apple tree in our orchard last night. Our seed feeders are swinging back and forth so violently that hungry wild birds struggle to hang on for their breakfast – they have to fight the northeast winds for their food.

The news headlines also freeze my heart, bringing back memories of old “cold war” threats and posturing of 60 years ago. In this more modern time of global communication, Ukrainian citizens directly in the line of fire become very real on our screens – people with work lives and families and views from their windows shared with the world as they anxiously wait for Russia’s shoe to drop upon them.

I freeze at the knowledge that my commitment to feed the birds in my backyard can’t begin to compare with the weary and war-torn world’s inability to keep starving children alive around the globe – in Afghanistan, South Sudan, Yemen and other unstable places.

I cannot forget our helplessness to love, cherish and protect the young when they are casualties of the destructive web of politics and power.

May God’s love transform our world,
turn our political platitudes to prayer,
bring about a thaw to build bridges, rather than gulfs,
between old enemies.

May love thrive in the nests and homes of parents
who commit to love, cherish and sustain their offspring
no matter where they live on the globe.

May I start right here, in my own frozen back yard,
caring for the young and vulnerable within my reach,
and hope my reach may stretch far beyond my grasp.

In Longing

I loved you before I was born.
It doesn’t make sense, I know.

I saw your eyes before I had eyes to see.
And I’ve lived longing 
for your ever look ever since.
That longing entered time as this body. 
And the longing grew as this body waxed.
And the longing grows as the body wanes.
The longing will outlive this body.

I loved you before I was born.
It doesn’t make sense, I know.

Long before eternity, I caught a glimpse
of your neck and shoulders, your ankles and toes.
And I’ve been lonely for you from that instant.
That loneliness appeared on earth as this body. 
And my share of time has been nothing 
but your name outrunning my ever saying it clearly. 
Your face fleeing my ever
kissing it firmly once on the mouth.

In longing, I am most myself, rapt,
my lamp mortal, my light 
hidden and singing. 

I give you my blank heart.
Please write on it
what you wish. 

~Li-Young Lee, “I Loved You Before I Was Born”

I should have recognized you at first, but didn’t.

Once I looked you in the eyes, I knew that I had loved you from before I was born. It didn’t make sense to me but nevertheless I knew. Our longing in loneliness finally brought us face to face.

I handed you my heart and you handed me yours, to keep forever.
And there they remain with utmost tenderness,
our longings still being written.

My Mourning Bench

…we all suffer.
For we all prize and love;
and in this present existence of ours,
prizing and loving yield suffering.
Love in our world is suffering love.
Some do not suffer much, though,
for they do not love much.
Suffering is for the loving.
This, said Jesus, is the command of the Holy One:
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
In commanding us to love, God invites us to suffer.

Over there, you are of no help.
What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is.
I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation.
To comfort me, you have to come close.
Come sit beside me on my mourning bench.
~Nicholas Wolterstorff from Lament for a Son

Spring 1980

I wondered if 8:30 AM was too early to call my friend and mentor Margy. As a sleep-deprived fourth year medical student, I selfishly needed to hear her voice. I wanted to know how she was doing; she was not sleeping well either these days. She was wearing a new halo brace—a metal contraption that wrapped around her head like a scaffolding to secure her degenerating cervical spine from collapsing from metastatic breast cancer growth in her bones. When she was fitted into the brace, she named the two large screw-like fasteners anchored into her frontal skull her “Frankenstein bolts”.  I had reassured her that with a proper white veil draped around the metal halo, she would be more suited to be Frankenstein’s bride.

Each patient I had seen the previous 24 hours while working in the Emergency Room benefited from the interviewing skills Margy had taught each one of us medical students. She reminded us that each patient had an important story to tell, and no matter how pressured our time, we needed to ask questions that gave permission for that story to be told. As a former nun now married with two teenage children, Margy had become our de facto counselor, and insisted physicians-in-training remember the soul thriving inside the broken and hurting body.

“Just let the patient know with certainty, through your eyes, your body language, your words, that you want to hear what they have to say. You can heal so much hurt simply by sitting beside them and caring enough to listen…”

Now with her recent diagnosis of metastatic cancer, Margy herself had become the broken vessel who needed the glue of a good listener.   She continued to teach, often from her bed at home and I regularly visited, in need of her wisdom and she still needed her students.

That night I had felt uneasy about her all during my ER shift and felt compelled to visit her and her husband and daughter that day, maybe help out by cleaning their house, fixing them a meal or taking her for a drive as a diversion.

Her phone rang only once after I dialed her number. There was a long pause; I could hear a clearing of her throat. A deep dam of tears welled behind a muffled “Hello?” Something was deeply wrong.

Her voice shattered like glass into fragments, strangling on words that struggled to form. She sobbed out the words that their college son, Gordon, was dead. Earlier that morning, a police officer had knocked loudly on their door, awakening her and her husband with the news of a tragic highway accident.

I sat in stunned silence, listening to her sobs, completely unequipped to know how to respond. None of this made sense although I knew her son was on college spring break, heading to Mexico for a missions trip.

She paused and took in a shuddering breath.

“Gordy died as they were driving through the night. He was sleeping in the camper as they drove. They think he sleepwalked right out of the back of the moving camper, fell onto the highway and was hit by another car.“

I felt strangled by her words and could only imagine how difficult it was for her to keep breathing enough to say them.

“They’ll bring him home to us, won’t they? I need to know I can see him again. I need to tell him how much I love him.”

I assured Margy she would see him again, both in his broken body and, some day yet to be determined, whole.

Up until then, I knew in my head this life was full of sorrow, but I had been spared the full heart impact of grief until I witnessed such intensity of an acute unbelievable loss – how loving one so deeply meant suffering immeasurably.

I understood, for the first but surely not the last time, how it is the only way to love.

During the remaining few months of Margy’s life as she waited to join her son, she continued to teach me about how to come close in to the suffering and grief of others, and also how to sit together, even in silence, on that too-often lonesome mourning bench.

…for the Jude Veltkamp family who lost their teenage son, grandson, nephew, brother this week to a relentless cancer.

But our God is even more relentless in His love and comfort for His mourning children…

I knew this life was full of sorrow
But still I believed
That good times would follow
That the evil would falter
And true hearts would rise
True hearts would rise
That simple dream ended
On the night that you died

And even the sound of a whistle fading
Brings back the longing
And stirs up the aching
Peaceful companion that grounded my soul
You grounded my soul
The world spins without meaning
Now that you’re gone

Sometimes I still think
I will see you in New York
And we will meet on the platform of the train
And with your great leaning stride
You’ll cross back to my side
And my old life
Will be my life again

You were quiet as a winter sky
Where planets turn
And the North Star rides
My sweet brother, so reasoned, so calm
My brother, my own
The world spins without meaning
Now that you’re gone
~Fernando Ortega