Trusting All This to be True

Trust that there is a tiger, muscular
Tasmanian, and sly, which has never been
seen and never will be seen by any human
eye. Trust that thirty thousand sword-
fish will never near a ship, that far
from cameras or cars elephant herds live
long elephant lives. Believe that bees
by the billions find unidentified flowers
on unmapped marshes and mountains. Safe
in caves of contentment, bears sleep.
Through vast canyons, horses run while slowly
snakes stretch beyond their skins in the sun.
I must trust all this to be true, though
the few birds at my feeder watch the window
with small flutters of fear, so like my own.
~Susan Kinsolving “Trust”

When I stand at the window watching the flickers, sparrows, finches, chickadees, and red-winged blackbirds come and go from the feeders, I wonder who is watching who.  They remain wary of me, fluttering away quickly if I approach.  They fear capture, even within a camera.  They have a life to be lived without my witness or participation.  So much happens that I never see or know about; it would be overwhelming to absorb it all.

I understand:  I fear being captured too.

Even if only for a moment as an image preserved forever, I know it doesn’t represent all I am, all I’ve done, all I feel, all my moments put together.  The birds are, and I am, so much more than one moment.

Only God sees me fully in every moment that I exist, witness to my freedom and captivity, my loneliness and grief, my joy and tears, knowing my very best and my very worst.

And He is not overwhelmed by what He sees of me. He knows me so well, in Him I must trust.

photo by Larry Goldman (Gombe National Park, Tanzania)

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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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Posting Their Intentions

The woodpecker keeps returning
to drill the house wall.
Put a pie plate over one place, he chooses another.
There is nothing good to eat there:
he has found in the house
a resonant billboard to post his intentions,
his voluble strength as provider.
But where is the female he drums for? Where?
I ask this, who am myself the ruined siding,
the handsome red-capped bird, the missing mate.

~Jane Hirshfield “The Woodpecker Keeps Returning”

Piliated woodpecker
Flicker

One would think the bold rat-a-tats heard emanating from trees and buildings all over our farm would be due to very bold and fearless birds. Yet woodpeckers tend to be our most timid and seldom-seen though most-audible visitors. They project a loud and noisy presence to the ear but prefer to be invisible to the eye. I guess they don’t want us witnessing their repetitive self-induced head trauma

That’s not so different than some people I know, especially when they hammer away on social media, even when it hurts. I know that tendency: I want to be heard and want my voice acknowledged. I want my opinions to resonate and reverberate for all to hear, but hey, since I’m basically a shy and self-protective person, I prefer to remain in the background.

Whenever I hear an insistent pecking echoing from on high, I look to see if I can spot that busy woodpecker, admiring their dominance of the airwaves and persistence despite woody obstacles. Although most often I can’t see them in the branches, there is no question they have succeeded in getting my attention. I look forward to a day when they’ll allow me to see them as well as hear them.

They are worth the wait and the listen.

Downy woodpecker

“If only, if only, ” the woodpecker sighs
The bark on the trees was as soft as the skies…
~from the story “Holes”

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Taken Leave of My Senses

When I lived in the foothills
birds flocked to the feeder:

house finches, goldfinches,
skyblue lazuli buntings,

impeccably dressed chickadees,
sparrows in work clothes, even

hummingbirds fastforwarding
through the trees. Some of them

disappeared after a week, headed
north, I thought, with the sun.

But the first cool day
they were back, then gone,

then back, more reliable
than weathermen, and I realized

they hadn’t gone north at all,
but up the mountain, as invisible

to me as if they had flown
a thousand miles, yet in reality

just out of sight, out of reach—
maybe at the end of our lives

the world lifts that slightly
away from us, and returns once

or twice to see if we’ve refilled
the feeder, if we still remember it,

or if we’ve taken leave
of our senses altogether.
~Sharon Bryan, “The Underworld” from Sharp Stars

I only started feeding birds outside our kitchen window a few years ago. Previously, I thought it was an activity for older people with nothing better to do. After I turned sixty, I realized I was now qualified to feed the birds.

Now the professional wildlife and bird folks tell us we are endangering the welfare of wild birds by feeding them – the rapidly dropping numbers of songbirds in North America is due to pesticide use, window vs. bird deaths, climate change and birds not migrating in their usual patterns due to artificial feeding stations like mine. Most worrisome is transmission of fatal diseases when birds flock together at feeders. And Avian flu is on the rise in our country with hundreds of thousands of farm birds being preventively slaughtered in the last few weeks.

Now I’ve become the purveyor of pandemic conditions.

Good grief.

I let the feeders go empty for longer periods in my attempt to appease both the birds and the ornithologists. If the feeders dangle without visitors for several days, I refill them, more for me than for them as I appreciate the wild birds’ cheerful presence within a few feet of where I eat my breakfast as they eat theirs.

I’m not sure who to apologize to for still wanting to feed the birds. I grew up with Mary Poppins singing “tuppence a bag” and believed every word she sang. The birds themselves seem robust and chipper, happily coming and going as they please. Yet the scientists and bird experts see me, the casual backyard bird feeder as the problem. Perhaps selling packaged birdseed will eventually be outlawed so people like me can no longer have the option to cause this disruption to our feathered friends’ life cycles.

The birds and I will strike a deal so they know I mean well and haven’t taken leave of my senses. I’ll plant more more bird-friendly bushes on the farm. I’ll dispense a treat now and then if they promise to continue to stop by to check to see if my welcome mat is still out.

After all, I don’t want them to feel forgotten…or probably more to the point, like the little old bird woman on the steps of St. Paul, I don’t want them to ever forget me.

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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: Under Your Wing

For you have been the help of my life;
you take and keep me under your wing…
~from Psalm 63

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
~Gerard Manley Hopkins “God’s Grandeur”

Next week we read of the crushing of Christ in the Garden of the Oil Press, Gethsemane. 

Even there, the moment of betrayal is the moment He is glorified, as He glorifies God.  Crushed, bleeding, pouring out over the world — He becomes the wings that brood and cover us.

Jesus is the sacrifice that anoints us.

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…

1 O God eternal, you are my God!
for you I long in body and soul;
as in a dry and waterless land
I search, I thirst, I faint for you.

2 On holy ground your glory I saw;
your steadfast love is better than life;
I'll bless your name as long as I live
and lift my hands to you in prayer.

3 You feed my soul as if with a feast
I sing your praise with jubilant lips;
upon my bed I call you to mind
and meditate on you at night.

4 For you have been the help of my life;
you take and keep me under your wing;
I cling to you, and find your support;
O God my joy, you are my God!
~Christopher Idle

Oh God, you are my God
Earnestly I seek you
My Soul thirsts for you,
My flesh yearns for you
In a dry and weary land
Where there is no water

I remember you at night
Through the watches of the night in the shadow of your wings
I sing because you helped me
My soul clings to you
And your hand upholds me
You alone

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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: God of the Sparrow

God of the sparrow, care for us,
Speak in our sorrow, Lord of grief.
Sing us Your music, lift our hearts,
Pour out Your mercy, send relief.
~Craig Courtney

Through the winter, I feed the sparrows, the woodpeckers and chickadees, the juncos and finches, and yes — even the starlings. They would be fine without my daily contribution to their well-being, but in return for my provision of seeds, I am able to enjoy their spirited liveliness and their gracious ability to share the bounty with one another.

These birds give back to me simply by showing up, without ever realizing what their presence means to me.

How much more does God lay out for me on a daily basis to sustain me so I show up for Him? How oblivious am I to His gracious and profound gifts? How willingly do I share these gifts with others?

Unlike the birds, I could never survive on my own without His watchful care.

When life feels overwhelming, when I am filled with worries, sorrow, regrets and pain, I seek out this God who cares even for sparrows. He knows how to quiet my troubles and strengthen my faith and perseverance, a comfort that extends far beyond sunflower seeds.

photo by Harry Rodenberger

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…


God of the sparrow, sing through us
Songs of deliv’rance, songs of peace.
Helpless we seek You, God our joy,
Quiet our troubles, bid them cease,
Quiet our troubles, bid them cease.
Alleluia.

God of the sparrow, God of hope,
Tenderly guide us, be our song,
God of affliction, pain and hurt,
Comfort Your children, make us strong,
Comfort Your children, make us strong.
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

God of the sparrow, care for us,
Speak in our sorrow, Lord of grief.
Sing us Your music, lift our hearts,
Pour out Your mercy, send relief.

God, like the sparrow, we abide In
Your protection, love and grace.
Just as the sparrow in Your care,
May Your love keep us all our days,
May Your love keep us all our days. Amen.
~Craig Courtney

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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.

A Longed-For Beauty

When I was a child
I once sat sobbing on the floor
Beside my mother’s piano
As she played and sang
For there was in her singing
A shy yet solemn glory
My smallness could not hold

And when I was asked
Why I was crying
I had no words for it
I only shook my head
And went on crying

Why is it that music
At its most beautiful
Opens a wound in us
An ache a desolation
Deep as a homesickness
For some far-off
And half-forgotten country

I’ve never understood
Why this is so

But there’s an ancient legend
From the other side of the world
That gives away the secret
Of this mysterious sorrow

For centuries on centuries
We have been wandering
But we were made for Paradise
As deer for the forest

And when music comes to us
With its heavenly beauty
It brings us desolation
For when we hear it
We half remember
That lost native country

We dimly remember the fields
Their fragrant windswept clover
The birdsongs in the orchards
The wild white violets in the moss
By the transparent streams

And shining at the heart of it
Is the longed-for beauty
Of the One who waits for us
Who will always wait for us
In those radiant meadows

Yet also came to live with us
And wanders where we wander.
~Anne Porter “Music” from Living Thing
s

One evening, when our daughter was only a toddler,
just learning the words to tell us what she needed,
I was preparing dinner, humming along to
a Celtic choral music piece playing in the background.

She sat on the kitchen floor, looking up at me,
her eyes welling full with tears
like pools of reflected light spilling over
from some deep-remembered reservoir of sorrow.

At first I thought she was hurt or upset
but then could see she was feeling
an ache a desolation
deep as a homesickness

as she wept for wonder
at the sad beauty of the music
of the land her ancestors left long ago –
it spoke for her the words she herself could not express:

Of the One who waits for us
Who will always wait for us
In those radiant meadows

Yet also came to live with us
And wanders where we wander.

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The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: Calling Out

Vast whisp-whisp of wingbeats
awakens me and I look up
at a minute-long string of black geese
following low past the moon the white
course of the snow-covered river and
by the way thank You for
keeping Your face hidden, I
can hardly bear the beauty of this world
~Franz Wright from “Cloudless Snowfall”

A psalm of geese
labours overland

cajoling each other
near half…

The din grew immense.
No need to look up.

All you had to do
was sit in the sound

and put it down
as best you could…

It’s not a lonesome sound
but a panic,

a calling out to the others
to see if they’re there
~Dermot Healy from A Fool’s Errand 

Hear my prayer, Lord;
    let my cry for help come to you.

Do not hide Your face from me in the day of my distress;
Incline Your ear to me;
In the day when I call answer me quickly.
Psalm 102:1-2

We are here to witness the creation and abet it.
We are here to notice each thing so each thing gets noticed. Together we notice not only each mountain shadow
and each stone on the beach but, especially,
we notice the beautiful faces and complex natures of each other.

We are here to bring to consciousness the beauty and power that are around us and to praise the people who are here with us.
We witness our generation and our times.
We watch the weather.
Otherwise, creation would be playing to an empty house.
~Annie Dillard from The Meaning of Life edited by David Friend

We tend to keep our faces hidden from each other, even when we want to be recognized and known, especially when we are distressed.

What someone tells me about what they are feeling may not always match what I notice: trembling hands, a deep sigh, eyes filling with tears.  I am audience and witness to their burden and struggle; even more, I am called to listen, offering them the gift of being noticed and being there for them, just them, at that moment.

I know this because it is how God cares for me: when I call out to Him, sometimes in a panic to see if He is there, I know I am not playing or praying to an empty house. God is ready and listening, loving us enough to show us His face in the form of a helpless infant.

This is a God who allows Himself to be vulnerable to those He loves, whether laid to sleep in a wooden manager or dying nailed to a tree.

He calls out to us to see if we are there, ready to listen.

Psalm 102: 1 Hear my prayer, Lord; let my cry for help come to you.

This year’s Barnstorming Advent theme “… the Beginning shall remind us of the End” is taken from the final lines in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”

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Holy Moley

Cold morning. November, taking a walk,
when up ahead, suddenly, the trees unleave,
and thousands of starlings lift off, an immense
river of noise; they braid and unbraid themselves
over my head, the gray silk sky embroidered
with black kisses, the whoosh of their wings,
their chattering clatter, patterns broken/formed/
reformed, a scarf of ragged ribbons. Dumb-
struck, mouth open, I say holy and I say moley,
And then, they’re gone.
~Barbara Crooker, “Murmuration” from Some Glad Morning. 

Out of the dimming sky a speck appeared,
then another, and another.
It was the starlings going to roost. 
They gathered deep in the distance,  flock sifting into flock,
and strayed towards me, transparent and whirling, like smoke.
They seemed to unravel as they flew,
lengthening in curves, like a loosened skein. 
I didn’t move;
they flew directly over my head for half an hour. 

Each individual bird bobbed and knitted up and down
in the flight at apparent random, for no known reason except
that that’s how starlings fly, yet all remained perfectly spaced.
The flocks each tapered at either end from a rounded middle, like an eye. Overhead I heard a sound of beaten air, like a million shook rugs, a muffled whuff. Into the woods they sifted without shifting a twig, right through the crowns of trees, intricate and rushing, like wind.

Could tiny birds be sifting through me right now,
birds winging through the gaps between my cells,
touching nothing, but quickening in my tissues, fleet?
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

There comes a time in every fall
before the leaves begin to turn
when blackbirds group and flock and gather
choosing a tree, a branch, together
to click and call and chorus and clamor
announcing the season has come for travel.

Then comes a time when all those birds
without a sound or backward glance
pour from every branch and limb
into the air, as if on a whim
but it’s a dynamic, choreographed mass
a swoop, a swerve, a mystery, a dance

and now the tree stands breathless, amazed
at how it was chosen, how it was changed.

~Julie Cadwallader Staub “Turning” from Wing Over Wing

…yesterday I heard a new sound above my head
a rustling, ruffling quietness in the spring air

and when I turned my face upward
I saw a flock of blackbirds
rounding a curve I didn’t know was there
and the sound was simply all those wings,
all those feathers against air, against gravity
and such a beautiful winning:
the whole flock taking a long, wide turn
as if of one body and one mind.

How do they do that?

If we lived only in human society
what a puny existence that would be

but instead we live and move and have our being
here, in this curving and soaring world
that is not our own
so when mercy and tenderness triumph in our lives
and when, even more rarely, we unite and move together
toward a common good,

we can think to ourselves:

ah yes, this is how it’s meant to be.
~Julie Cadwallader Staub from “Blackbirds” from Wing Over Wing

Watching the starlings’ murmuration is a visceral experience – my heart leaps to see it happen above me.  I feel queasy following its looping amoebic folding and unfolding path.

Thousands of individual birds move in sync with one another to form one massive organism existing solely because each tiny component anticipates and cooperates to avoid mid-air collisions.  It could explode into chaos but it doesn’t.  It could result in massive casualties but it doesn’t.  They could avoid each other altogether but they don’t – they come together with a purpose and reasoning beyond our imagining. Even the silence of their movement has a discernible sound of air rushing past wings.

We humans are made up of just such cooperating component parts, that which is deep in our tissues, programmed in our DNA.  Yet we don’t learn from our designed and carefully constructed building blocks.  We have become frighteningly disparate and independent creatures, each going our own way bumping and crashing without care.

We have lost our internal moral compass for how it is meant to be.

The rustling ruffling quiet of wings in the air is like muffled weeping.

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A book of beauty in words and photography, available for order here: