Everything Dies Too Soon

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

~Mary Oliver from “A Summer Day”

It doesn’t take much to remind me
what a mayfly I am,
what a soap bubble floating over the children’s party.

Standing under the bones of a dinosaur
in a museum does the trick every time
or confronting in a vitrine a rock from the moon…

And the realization that no one
who ever breasted the waters of time
has figured out a way to avoid dying

always pulls me up by the reins and settles me down
by a roadside, grateful for the sweet weeds
and the mouthfuls of colorful wild flowers.

~Billy Collins from “Memento Mori“

I’m reminded daily of how short our time on earth is – the evidence is everywhere. Yesterday it was the stark finality of discovering a beetle-cleaned bighorn sheep skull in the woods, in addition to the bold reality of a black bear paw print on the car sitting next to our cabin.

Each day I receive an email from the local hospital where I’ve had clinical privileges for 35 years – it innumerates the number of admitted COVID-19 cases and deaths, the number of ICU beds filled and the number of ventilators in use. Reading those numbers is like scanning the obituaries for names and ages and causes of death in the newspaper, the only consistent thing I read in the paper anymore. The deaths are reported dispassionately, as if they are inevitable, which they are, yet each happens too soon.

Much too soon.

So the admonition is to pay attention to each living thing and witness each moment, falling onto the grass in worship of this “wild and precious life” I’ve been given rather than dwell on the future when I’ll be buried under the grass.

I shall celebrate being a consumer of this precious life, overjoyed by these sweet weeds and colorful wildflowers. There is still much that awaits me on this earth before, inevitably, I too become the consumed.

Smelled Like Roses

I found a box of old hours at the back of the fridge.
I don’t even know how long it had been there.
Summer hours.
Smelled like roses.
~Duchess Goldblatt on Twitter

We all have things we’ve forgotten tucked away in the back of the fridge. A good cleaning now and then will surface some things that are barely identifiable and, frankly, a little scary. But those of us who are nostalgic creatures, like the delightfully fictional Duchess Goldblatt who dispenses desperately needed ascerbic wisdom on Twitter (of all places), also store away a few things that just might come in handy on a depressing day

I like the idea of taking these long summer days, the countless hours of daylight and slowed-downness, putting them in a box and pushing them to the back of fridge for safe-keeping. I might even label it “open in case of emergency” or “don’t open until December 25” or “fragile – handle with care.” In the darkest hours of winter, when I need a booster shot of light, I would bend down to look as far back on the fridge shelf as possible, pushing aside the jam jars and the left-over pea soup and the blocks of cheese, and reach for my rescue inhaler.

I would lift the lid on the box of summer hours and take in a deep breath to remind myself of dewy mornings with a bit of fog, a scent of mown grass, a hint of campfire smoke. But mostly, I would open the box to smell the roses of summer, as no winter florist rose ever exudes that fragrance. It has to be tucked away in the summer hours box in the back of the fridge. Just knowing it’s there would make me glad.

A Poem About Cheese

The poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.
~G.K.Chesterton

from Pleasant Valley Dairy

from Steensma Dairy on Ellie’s visit to Holland

Until now, that is…

It may be gouda for me to know
that cheddar is better – I’m totally nokkelost

Maasdam! It would take a swiss kick to the asiago
to dubliner my efforts to string the praises of gorgonzola

It could be a muenster of a havarti
to provolone the colby truth

Edam, what a mozzarella I’ve made for myself
ever since I got caught leyden and didn’t know jack

But it is all up to quark-y feta;  ask for parmesan
and it may gruyere on me, what a squeaker!

Ricotta go now
~a  farmer is waiting for me on the farmstead

from Appel Farms
from Steensma Dairy

thank you to our local cheese producers for their photos of their cheeses – Appel Farms
Pleasant Valley Dairy
Steensma Dairy

Grazing and Feasting

Just past dawn, the sun stands
with its heavy red head
in a black stanchion of trees,
waiting for someone to come
with his bucket
for the foamy white light,
and then a long day in the pasture.
I too spend my days grazing,
feasting on every green moment
till darkness calls,
and with the others
I walk away into the night,
swinging the little tin bell
of my name.
~Ted Kooser “A Birthday Poem”

This is not a usual summer,
lacking boisterous gatherings of family and friends,
missing our endless July outdoor meals~
instead staying in place,
quietly feasting upon each gifted moment
while close-crop grazing
’til I’m full up and spilling over,
ready to someday again share all I have
until empty.


The Whole Sky is Yours

Life is grace.
Sleep is forgiveness.
The night absolves.
Darkness wipes the slate clean,
not spotless to be sure,
but clean enough for another day’s chalking.
~Frederick Buechner
from The Alphabet of Grace


Imagine you wake up
with a second chance: The blue jay
hawks his pretty wares
and the oak still stands, spreading
glorious shade. If you don’t look back,
the future never happens.
How good to rise in sunlight,

in the prodigal smell of biscuits –
eggs and sausage on the grill.
The whole sky is yours
to write on, blown open
to a blank page. Come on,
shake a leg! You’ll never know
who’s down there, frying those eggs,
if you don’t get up and see.

~Rita Dove “Dawn Revisited” from On the Bus with Rosa Parks

When I was a kid, summer mornings were simply delicious – I loved the smell of breakfast being prepared while I unfolded and stretched my growing legs under the covers, lazily considering how to take on the dawn.

Each new day felt like another chance, a clean slate, a blank page ready to be filled with the knowledge gained from the mistakes made the day before, the urgency of today’s needs, and the hope for grace tomorrow.

Now I’m the one cooking up a breakfast of words and pictures, trying to lure others from their beds with the fragrance of another day, another chance, another opportunity.

There is life to be lived; the whole sky is yours.
Time’s a-wasting. Time to get up.

Abundant Overwhelming June

I wonder what it would be like to live in a world
where it was always June.
~L. M. Montgomery from Anne of the Island

Each month is special in its own way:  I tend to favor April and October for how the light plays on the landscape during transitional times — a residual of what has been, with a hint of what lies ahead.

Then there is June.  Dear, gentle, abundant and overwhelming June.  Nothing is dried up, there is such a rich feeling of ascension into lushness of summer with an “out of school” attitude, even if one has graduated long ago.

And the light, and the birdsong and the dew and the greens — such vivid verdant greens.

As lovely as June is, 30 days is more than plenty or I would become completely saturated. Then I can be released from my sated stupor to wistfully hunger for June for 335 more.

Groaning Too Deep for Words

What stood will stand, though all be fallen,
The good return that time has stolen.
Though creatures groan in misery,
Their flesh prefigures liberty
To end travail and bring to birth
Their new perfection in new earth.
At word of that enlivening
Let the trees of the woods all sing
And every field rejoice, let praise
Rise up out of the ground like grass.
What stood, whole in every piecemeal
Thing that stood, will stand though all
Fall–field and woods and all in them
Rejoin the primal Sabbath’s hymn.
~Wendell Berry, from “Sabbaths” (North Point Press, 1987)
.

We live in a time where the groaning need and dividedness of humankind is especially to be felt and recognized…

Yet this terrific human need and burden of the times causes us to see how weak and powerless we are to change this. Then we must see that if we are to advocate change, we must start with ourselves. We must recognize that we as individuals are to blame for social injustice, oppression, and the downgrading of others, whether personal or on a broader plane. We must see that a revolution must take place against all that destroys life. This revolution must become a revolution different from any the world has ever seen. God must intervene and lead such a revolution with his Spirit and his justice and his truth.
~Dwight Blough from the introduction to When the Time was Fulfilled (1965)

22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.
Romans 8: 22-26

We are groaning in anticipation of what might come next – so many ill, so many lost. What can we make of this, how can we make sense of it?

We could groan together in the hard labor of birthing a newly unified people all facing the same viral enemy. Instead we groan angry and bitter, irritable with one another, wanting to find someone else, anything to blame for our misery.

God willingly pulls our groanings onto Himself and out of us.
He understands even when we are too inarticulate to form the words we want Him to hear.

We must cling tenaciously to the mystery of God’s magnetism
for our weakness and suffering and allow His healing us to begin.

By His Spirit
we will be forever changed
and our groanings will be no more.

The Soul Confined

 
It’s frail, this spring snow, it’s pot cheese
packing down underfoot. It flies out of the trees
at sunrise like a flock of migrant birds.
It slips in clumps off the barn roof,
wingless angels dropped by parachute.
Inside, I hear the horses knocking
aimlessly in their warm brown lockup,
testing the four known sides of the box
as the soul must, confined under the breastbone.
Horses blowing their noses, coming awake,
shaking the sawdust bedding out of their coats.
They do not know what has fallen
out of the sky, colder than apple bloom,
since last night’s hay and oats.
They do not know how satisfactory
they look, set loose in the April sun,
nor what handsprings are turned under
my ribs with winter gone.
~Maxine Kumin “Late Snow” from Selected Poems: 1960 – 1990

photo of spring snow by Paul Dorpat

This past weekend we had it all: sun, rain, windstorm, hail, and some local areas even reported a late April snowfall. It is indeed disorienting to have one foot still in winter and the other firmly on grass that needs mowing.

It is also disorienting to look at pandemic data and hear varying experts’ interpretations about what is happening, what they predict and what strategies are recommended.

It may be time to loosen the tight grip on social distancing yet many are reticent to emerge from their confinement, for good reason.

Just last week, we released the Haflingers from their winter lock-in back onto the fields – their winter-creaky barn-confined joints stretched as they joyfully ran the perimeter of the fields before settling their noses into fresh clover. Their ribs sprung with the fragrance of the apple blossom perfume of the orchard and it lifted my sagging spirit to see them gallop. But even the horses are not ready for complete freedom either – I whistled them in after two hours, not wanting them to eat themselves sick with too much spring grass. Their time on the outside will be tightly controlled until it is safe for them to be out unrestricted.

Surprisingly, the horses come in willingly to settle back into their stalls and their confinement routine.

I’m not so different. I long to be set loose in the April sun and the freedom to go when and where I wish. But the new reality means winter is not entirely gone yet and may not be for some time. There are still tragic and untimely losses of life, still plenty of weeping and lament from the grief-stricken who have been robbed prematurely of loved ones due to a virus that is circulating indiscriminately.

So we must ease out slowly, carefully and cautiously, with one ear cocked and ready to be whistled back in when we are called to return to safety.

The Crumbling Air

It was like a church to me.
I entered it on soft foot,
Breath held like a cap in the hand.
It was quiet.
What God there was made himself felt,
Not listened to, in clean colours
That brought a moistening of the eye,
In a movement of the wind over grass.

There were no prayers said. But stillness
Of the heart’s passions – that was praise
Enough; and the mind’s cession
Of its kingdom. I walked on,
Simple and poor, while the air crumbled
And broke on me generously as bread.
~R.S. Thomas “The Moor”

There are mornings surrounded by His stilling presence~
when God is felt,
neither seen nor heard,
overtaking me
within each breath taken,
following the path of each glistening tear,
the air crumbling down around me,
its rich manna becoming the ground
reaching to meet my foot
with each step I take.

A Feeble Reed

Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature, but he is a thinking reed.
~Blaise Pascal

I’m not sure which is getting flabbier faster–my biceps or my brain. As I advance in age I tend to just get by with only occasional heavy lifting: a hay bale here, a challenging abstract philosophical commentary there. Hard work, whether physical or mental, is getting harder. As a naturally lazy person, I have to be forced into manual and central nervous system labor out of necessity. Necessity happens less and less often unless I go looking for it.

Given the choice between a physical task and a thinking task, I’ll opt for thinking over lifting any day. Even so, I find my mental strengths are ebbing. My brain is less flexible, I can tend to be stiff headed when trying something new and it starts to feel strained if I push it too fast. There are times when it feels like it just goes into spasm and I need to sit down and rub it for awhile. Feeble suddenly doesn’t sound like it just belongs to the aged and infirm.

The only remedy is to use it or lose it, whether muscles or gray matter. So I dig a little deeper each day, even when it hurts to do so. I purposely stretch beyond the point of comfort, just so I know it can still be done. I lift a little higher, heft a little heavier, push a little harder. Being the most feeble thing in nature may mean being easily broken by the smallest effort, but at least I’ll have thought through my reedy limitations thoroughly, chewed on it until there was nothing left and digested what I could.

Eventually I’ll come to accept that my greatest strength is to know what I don’t know.