At the soft place in the snowbank Warmed to dripping by the sun There is the smell of water. On the western wind the hint of glacier. A cottonwood tree warmed by the same sun On the same day, My back against its rough bark Same west wind mild in my face. A piece of spring Pierced me with love for this empty place Where a prairie creek runs Under its cover of clear ice And the sound it makes, Mysterious as a heartbeat, New as a lamb. ~Tom Hennen, “In the Late Season” from Darkness Sticks to Everything: Collected and New Poems.
While walking the sloping hillside of our farm, if I listen carefully, I can hear trickling under the snow. I can’t see it but I can hear and feel and smell the water; as a hidden and mysterious melt happens. Thawing under my feet- as winter drains away, spring is on the move.
I witness that which I have no control over, this subtle softening of frozen ground- unseen, yet as evident as the steady beating of my heart as I too begin to thaw and melt through the miracle of flowing grace into whatever comes next.
I like farming. I like the work. I like the livestock and the pastures and the woods. It’s not necessarily a good living, but it’s a good life. I now suspect that if we work with machines the world will seem to us to be a machine, but if we work with living creatures the world will appear to us as a living creature. That’s what I’ve spent my life doing, trying to create an authentic grounds for hope. ~Wendell Berry, horse farmer, essayist, poet, professor
When I pull open the barn doors, every morning and each evening, as my grandparents did one hundred years ago, six rumbling voices rise in greeting. We exchange scents, nuzzle each others’ ears.
I do my chores faithfully as my grandparents once did– draw fresh water into buckets, wheel away the pungent mess underfoot, release an armful of summer from the bale, reach under heavy manes to stroke silken necks.
I don’t depend on our horses’ strength and willingness to don harness to carry me to town or move the logs or till the soil as my grandparents did.
Instead, these soft eyed souls, born on this farm two or three long decades ago, are simply grateful for my constancy morning and night to serve their needs until the day comes they need no more.
I depend on them to depend on me to be there to open the doors; their low whispering welcome gives voice to the blessings of living on a farm ripe with rhythms and seasons, as if today and tomorrow are just like one hundred years ago.
When it snows, he stands at the back door or wanders around the house to each window in turn and watches the weather like a lover.
O farm boy, I waited years for you to look at me that way. Now we’re old enough to stop waiting for random looks or touches or words, so I find myself watching you watching the weather, and we wait together to discover whatever the sky might bring. ~Patricia Traxler “Weather Man”
My farm boy always looked at me that way, and still does — wondering if today will bring a hard frost, a chilly northeaster, a scorcher, or a deluge, and I reassure him as best I can, because he knows me so well in our many years together: today, like every other day, will always be partly sunny with some inevitable cloud cover and always a possibility of rain.
What a person desires in life is a properly boiled egg. This isn’t as easy as it seems. There must be gas and a stove, the gas requires pipelines, mastodon drills, banks that dispense the lozenge of capital. There must be a pot, the product of mines and furnaces and factories, of dim early mornings and night-owl shifts, of women in kerchiefs and men with sweat-soaked hair. Then water, the stuff of clouds and skies and God knows what causes it to happen. There seems always too much or too little of it and more pipelines, meters, pumping stations, towers, tanks. And salt-a miracle of the first order, the ace in any argument for God. Only God could have imagined from nothingness the pang of salt. Political peace too. It should be quiet when one eats an egg. No political hoodlums knocking down doors… It should be quiet, so quiet you can hear the chicken, a creature usually mocked as a type of fool, a cluck chained to the chore of her body. Listen, she is there, pecking at a bit of grain that came from nowhere. ~Baron Wormser, from “A Quiet Life” from Scattered Chapters.
So much depends on the cluck of a chicken, on her self-satisfied cackle when she releases her perfect egg into the nest.
I wish I could be so flawless as her egg but am far from it. The simple things in life season me with meaning and flavor, all God-given mercy making it possible that I am here at all: walking this earth for the time I am granted, talking with those who listen intently, healing those who seek my help, writing for those who read kindly, loving those who, like me, thrive solely on being fed God’s gentle grace salted over my forgiven flaws: I’m a boiled egg peeled imperfectly with divets and bits of shell still attached, yet formed from a clucking chicken fed generously from His holy hand.
There’s a certain Slant of light On winter afternoons — That oppresses, like the Heft of cathedral tunes. When it comes, the Landscape listens — Shadows hold their breath — When it goes, ’tis like the Distance On the look of Death. ~Emily Dickinson
How valuable it is in these short days, threading through empty maple branches, the lacy-needled sugar pines.
Its glint off sheets of ice tells the story of Death’s brightness, her bitter cold.
We can make do with so little, just the hint of warmth, the slanted light... ~Molly Fisk, “Winter Sun” from The More Difficult Beauty
Tell all the truth but tell it slant — Success in Circuit lies Too bright for our infirm Delight The Truth’s superb surprise As Lightning to the Children eased With explanation kind The Truth must dazzle gradually Or every man be blind — ~Emily Dickinson
I like the slants of light; I’m a collector. That’s a good one, I say… ~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
During our northwest winters, there is usually so little sunlight on gray cloudy days that I routinely turn on the two light bulbs in the big hay barn any time I need to fetch hay bales for the horses. This is so I avoid falling into the holes that inevitably develop in the hay stack between bales. Winter murky lighting tends to hide the dark shadows of the leg-swallowing pits among the bales, something that is particularly hazardous when carrying a 60 pound hay bale.
Yesterday when I went to grab hay bales for the horses at sunset, before I flipped the light switch, I could see light already blazing in the big barn. The last of the day’s sun rays were at a precise winter slant, streaming through the barn slat openings, ricocheting off the roof timbers onto the bales, casting an almost fiery glow onto the hay. The barn was ignited and ablaze without fire and smoke — the last things one would even want in a hay barn.
I scrambled among the bales without worry.
In my life outside the barn I’ve been falling into more than my share of dark holes lately. Even when I know where they lie and how deep they are, some days I will manage to step right in anyway. Each time it knocks the breath out of me, makes me cry out, makes me want to quit trying to lift the heavy loads. It leaves me fearful to venture where the footing is uncertain.
Then, on the darkest of days, light comes from the most unexpected of places, blazing a trail to help me see where to step, what to avoid, how to navigate the hazards to avoid collapsing on my face. I’m redirected, inspired anew, granted grace, gratefully calmed and comforted amid my fears. Even though the light fades, and the darkness descends again, it is only until tomorrow. Then it reignites again.
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.
It’s easy to love a deer But try to care about bugs and scrawny trees Love the puddle of lukewarm water From last week’s rain. Leave the mountains alone for now. Also the clear lakes surrounded by pines. People are lined up to admire them. Get close to the things that slide away in the dark. Be grateful even for the boredom That sometimes seems to involve the whole world. Think of the frost That will crack our bones eventually. ~Tom Hennen “Love for Other Things” from Darkness Sticks To Everything: Collected and New Poems
Some people complain that this constricted life — due to pandemic COVID limitations and the restrictions placed upon us — is boring.
Nothing to do, no places to go, no people to see.
Yet I haven’t been bored – not even for a minute. There is so much to see and do right in my own backyard which I rarely had time to observe and appreciate previously. Rather than spending 6-8 hours a week in my car commuting, I’m gifted that time to work at my desk, do chores on the farm, walk with the dogs, and muse about how things have changed.
One person’s boredom is another person’s liberating freedom.
But we have it easy compared to those whose jobs can’t be done from home. We can grow our own food here, but that isn’t an option for those living in a high rise. We can isolate and still maintain our connections virtually with our friends and family. I know I am blessed with options.
This COVID-tide will end eventually and our stack of responsibilities will resume, but I’m wiser than I was before. I don’t need to live life at break-neck speed. I don’t need constant entertainment and novel experiences. No longer do I need to feel indispensable because it is so completely obvious that I’m not.
I didn’t need this virus to remind me of my mortality and my shortening days on earth, yet it has.
Our time here is too brief to waste even a minute. So I live each moment to the fullest, knowing it will never come again.
If we want to support each other’s inner lives, we must remember a simple truth: the human soul does not want to be fixed, it wants simply to be seen and heard.
If we want to see and hear a person’s soul, there is another truth we must remember: the soul is like a wild animal – tough, resilient, and yet shy.
When we go crashing through the woods shouting for it to come out so we can help it, the soul will stay in hiding. But if we are willing to sit quietly and wait for a while, the soul may show itself. ~Parker Palmer from The Courage to Teach
I tend to be a crash-through-the-woods kind of person, searching out those in hiding needing help whether they want it or not. Part of this is my medical training: I’m not subtle, I can be brash and bold as I go where no one else wants to go.
Friends have reminded me this actually isn’t helpful much of the time and certainly doesn’t translate well in non-clinical settings. They have a good point. Undoing what I’ve learned isn’t easy, but I’m trying.
Before I trained in clinical medicine, I knew how to blend into my surroundings, to simply wait and listen and take note of what I observe. I never would have been part of a research team observing wild chimpanzee behavior without being born with that skill. The wild and shy around me eventually did show themselves, but it took time and patience and a willingness to let things happen without my making it happen.
I’m trying to relearn what I knew intuitively fifty years ago and unlearn what I was trained to do forty years ago as a “fix-it” clinician. It helps when people remind me to tone it down, back off and simply “be.”
I just might see and hear and understand more than I ever have before.