Without realizing it, we fill important places in each others’ lives. It’s that way with the guy at the corner grocery, the mechanic at the local garage, the family doctor, teachers, neighbors, coworkers. Good people who are always “there,” who can be relied upon in small, important ways. People who teach us, bless us, encourage us, support us, uplift us in the dailiness of life.
We never tell them. I don’t know why, but we don’t.
And, of course, we fill that role ourselves. There are those who depend on us,watch us, learn from us, take from us. And we never know.
You may never have proof of your importance, but you are more important than you think. There are always those who couldn’t do without you. The rub is that you don’t always know who. ~Robert Fulghum from All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten
If there is one thing the pandemic taught me, it’s noticing the people in my life who may have not been as obvious to me before. I hadn’t realized how many folks truly are front-line serving others. It is not only the health care workers, grocery store clerks and school teachers but suddenly the list of “essential workers” has grown large, including law enforcement, plumbers and electricians, child care workers, water, sanitation and sewer maintenance, postal clerks, technicians who fix our cars and appliances and the farmers who tend the crops and livestock we need to live.
I realized how oblivious I had been before not taking the time to acknowledge the daily services I receive from so many varied people. In fact, it became even more urgent for me to tell my family members and friends – some thousands of miles away from me – how much they mean to me.
I’ve tried to remedy this: I try to tell others as simply and clearly as I can, whenever possible, that I appreciate what they have done and what they continue to do under difficult circumstances, how important they are to me and others and make life better for us all. I also need to continue to nurture those relationships with family and friends crucial to my well-being. I need them all.
It is so important for them to know.
Well over a thousand of you receive these daily Barnstorming emails and posts yet I only hear from a few of you – I treasure those messages, thank you! Let me know if I can do better at reaching out to each of you in a meaningful way – either by commenting on posts or emailing me privately at email@example.com – we all need encouragement that we can make a difference in others’ lives.
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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 green 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” fromThe Selected Poems of Wendell Berry
When our grandchildren visit our farm, I watch them rediscover what I know are the joys and sorrows of this world. I am reminded there is light beyond the darkness I fear, there is peace amid the chaos, there is a smile behind the tears, there is stillness within the noisiness there is rest despite my restlessness, there is grace as old gives way to new.
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I love the look, austere, immaculate, Of landscapes drawn in pearly monotones. There’s something in my very blood that owns Bare hills, cold silver on a sky of slate, A thread of water, churned to milky spate Streaming through slanted pastures fenced with stones.
I love those skies, thin blue or snowy gray, Those fields sparse-planted, rendering meagre sheaves; That spring, briefer than apple-blossom’s breath, Summer, so much too beautiful to stay, Swift autumn, like a bonfire of leaves, And sleepy winter, like the sleep of death. ~Elinor Wylie from “Wild Peaches”
An amber light stretches from sky to ground this beautiful morning, another mid-summer dawning- today a clone of yesterday’s and the day before.
A stretch of forty identical days cannot last and will not stay. I long again for rain and chill nights.
Drying up and pock-marked with holes, I feel punched and withering in this browning landscape, wondering on this Sabbath day of communing together where holiness is to be found.
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I have walked through many lives, some of them my own, and I am not who I was, though some principle of being abides, from which I struggle not to stray. When I look behind, as I am compelled to look before I can gather strength to proceed on my journey, I see the milestones dwindling toward the horizon
How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses?
Yet I turn, I turn, exulting somewhat, with my will intact to go wherever I need to go, and every stone on the road precious to me. In my darkest night, when the moon was covered and I roamed through wreckage, a nimbus-clouded voice directed me: “Live in the layers, not on the litter.” Though I lack the art to decipher it, no doubt the next chapter in my book of transformations is already written. I am not done with my changes. ~Stanley Kunitz from “The Layers”
A child is asleep. Her private life unwinds inside skin and skull; only as she sheds childhood, first one decade and then another, can she locate the actual, historical stream, see the setting of her dreaming private life—the nation, the city, the neighborhood, the house where the family lives—as an actual project under way, a project living people willed, and made well or failed, and are still making, herself among them.
I breathed the air of history all unaware, and walked oblivious through its littered layers. ~Annie Dillard from An American Childhood
…we become whole by having the courage to revisit and embrace all the layers of our lives, denying none of them, so that we’re finally able to say, “Yes, all of this is me, and all of this has helped make me who I am.”
When we get to that point, amazingly, we can look at all the layers together and see the beauty of the whole. ~Parker Palmer from “Embracing All the Layers of Your Life” in On Being
My favorite scenes are ones where there are several “layers” to study, whether it is a still life of petals or a deep landscape with a foreground, middle and backdrop. The challenge is to decide where to look first, what to draw into sharp focus, and how to absorb it all as a whole. In fact, if I only see one aspect, I miss the entire point of the composition. It is wonderfully multi-faceted and multi-layered because that is how my own life is – complex with so much diverse and subtle shading.
If I try to suppress some darker part of my own life I wish to forget and blur out, I ignore the beauty of the contrast with the light that illuminates the rest.
The layers reflect who I was created to be as an image-bearer – complex, nuanced, illuminated in the presence of dark.
Beautifully composed and ultimately transformed.
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Each morning as I rise to let the horses out to graze for the day, I’m once again that teenage girl who awoke early to climb on horseback to greet the summer dawn, mist in my hair and dew on my boots, picking ripe blackberries and blueberries as we rode past.
The angled light always drew sharper shadow lines as the sun rose until I knew it was time to turn around, each hoof step taking us closer to home to clean barn, do chores, hang laundry, weed the garden until sunset.
It is sunlight that creates and then erases all in me that is shadow. Eventually, only the real me remains.
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I look for the way things will turn out spiralling from a center, the shape things will take to come forth in
so that the birch tree white touched black at branches will stand out wind-glittering totally its apparent self:
I look for the forms things want to come as
from what black wells of possibility, how a thing will unfold:
not the shape on paper, though that, too, but the uninterfering means on paper:
not so much looking for the shape as being available to any shape that may be summoning itself through me from the self not mine but ours. ~A. R. Ammons, “Poetics” from A Coast of Trees
Even our very origin as a unique organism is a process of unfolding and spiraling: from our very first doubling after conception expanding to a complexity of trillions of cells powering our every thought and movement.
I look everywhere in my backyard world for beginnings and endings, wanting to understand where I fit and where I am in the process of this unfolding life. As I grow older, I find myself more peripheral than central, as I am meant to be – I have more perspective now. I can see where I came from, and where I am headed.
We unfurl, each one of us, slowly, surely, gently, in the Hands of our Creator God. He knows how each of us began as He was there from the beginning. He remains at the core our unfolding forever.
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overly delicate, like a flower skimmed of all fragrance.
You hear in the long last notes of the nightingale’s song
how to harbor what’s left of joy, how spring clutches
the green shoot of life and holds on and on through summer, prepares
for no end that is sure in coming, the fall ever endlessly repeating. ~Maureen Doallas “Recounting Seasons”, from Neruda’s Memoirs
One of my greatest joys is watching time as days become weeks, then months, and as years flow by, the seasons repeat seemingly endlessly. I know they must end for me eventually so I anticipate transitions before they take place.
In the “olden” days, many farmers kept daily hand-written diaries to track the events of the seasons: when the soil was warm enough to sow, when the harvest was ready, the highs and lows of temperature fluctuations, how many inches in the rain gauge, how deep the snow.
Now we follow the years with a swift scroll in our photo collection in our phones: the tulips bloomed two weeks later this year, or the tomatoes ripened early or the pears were larger two years ago.
I take comfort things tend to repeat predictably year after year, yet I can spot subtle differences. Our hydrangea bushes are a harbinger of seasonal change: they are blooming a darker burgundy color this year, the lace caps are mostly blue rather than pink and purple. Their blooms fade eventually into blended earth tones, then blanche, finally losing color altogether and becoming skeletal.
And so it is with me. I harbor joy by noticing each change, knowing the repetition of the seasons and the cycle of blooming will continue, with or without me here watching. I am unnecessary except as a recorder of fact.
I will keep watching and keep documenting as long as I’m able.
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Serene the silver fishes glide, Stern-lipped, and pale, and wonder-eyed! As through the aged deeps of ocean, They glide with wan and wavy motion. They have no pathway where they go, They flow like water to and fro, They watch with never-winking eyes, They watch with staring, cold surprise, The level people in the air, The people peering, peering there: Who wander also to and fro, And know not why or where they go, Yet have a wonder in their eyes, Sometimes a pale and cold surprise. ~ Max Eastman, “At the Aquarium” Max Eastman: A Life
The fish are drifting calmly in their tank between the green reeds, lit by a white glow that passes for the sun. Blindly, the blank glass that holds them in displays their slow progress from end to end, familiar rocks set into the gravel, murmuring rows of filters, a universe the flying fox and glass cats, Congo tetras, bristle-nose pleocostemus all take for granted. Yet the platys, gold and red, persist in leaping occasionally, as if they can’t quite let alone a possibility—of wings, maybe, once they reach the air? They die on the rug. We find them there, eyes open in surprise. ~Kim Addonizio “Aquarium,” from The Philosopher’s Club
Our shadows bring them from the shadows: a yolk-yellow one with a navy pattern like a Japanese woodblock print of fish scales. A fat 18-karat one splashed with gaudy purple and a patch of gray. One with a gold head, a body skim-milk-white, trailing ventral fins like half-folded fans of lace. A poppy-red, faintly disheveled one, and one, compact, all indigo in faint green water. They wear comical whiskers and gather beneath us as we lean on the cement railing in indecisive late-December light, and because we do not feed them, they pass, then they loop and circle back. Loop and circle. Loop. “Look,” you say, “beneath them.” Beneath them, like a subplot or a motive, is a school of uniformly dark ones, smaller, unadorned, perhaps another species, living in the shadow of the gold, purple, yellow, indigo, and white, seeking the mired roots and dusky grasses, unliveried, the quieter beneath the quiet. ~Susan Kolodny “Koi Pond, Oakland Museum”
The water going dark only makes the orange seem brighter, as you race, and kiss, and spar for food, pretending not to notice me. For this gift of your indifference, I am grateful. I will sit until the pond goes black, the last orange spark extinguished. ~Robert Peake from “Koi Pond”
…the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish.When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. Matthew 13: 47-48
I caught a tremendous fish and held him beside the boat half out of water, with my hook fast in a corner of his mouth. He didn’t fight. He hadn’t fought at all. He hung a grunting weight, battered and venerable and homely. I looked into his eyes which were far larger than mine but shallower, and yellowed, the irises backed and packed with tarnished tinfoil seen through the lenses of old scratched isinglass. They shifted a little, but not to return my stare. – It was more like the tipping of an object toward the light. I admired his sullen face, the mechanism of his jaw, and then I saw that from his lower lip – if you could call it a lip grim, wet, and weaponlike, hung five old pieces of fish-line, or four and a wire leader with the swivel still attached, with all their five big hooks grown firmly in his mouth. Like medals with their ribbons frayed and wavering, a five-haired beard of wisdom trailing from his aching jaw. I stared and stared and victory filled up the little rented boat, from the pool of bilge where oil had spread a rainbow around the rusted engine to the bailer rusted orange, the sun-cracked thwarts, the oarlocks on their strings, the gunnels- until everything was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow! And I let the fish go. ~Elizabeth Bishop from “The Fish”
All my life, I’ve taken care of a variety of fish in tanks and ponds. As a child, I would watch, mesmerized, as our tropical fish glided around, happily exploring their little ten gallon world. I willingly cleaned away the algae, rinsed the gravel and changed the filter. As a teenager, I boasted at least three different tanks aerating away in my bedroom, my own little aqua-cultural world of bubbles and fins.
During college and medical school, I chose to share my room with goldfish and bettas, thriving on their apparent contentment within a clear glass bowl. I didn’t think of them as emotional support animals, but there was a joy obvious in their albeit limited existence: they still thrived when I was away, not missing me, but were always thrilled when I fed them, and tolerated my messing with their home maintenance.
My current thirty gallon aquarium is decades old and boasts over two dozen fish and plenty of furry algae and plants. Some of my watery friends have lived ten years or more and when they pass, I miss them. Even the dozen koi and goldfish in our farm pond have expressive faces and individual personalities that I’ve gotten to know well as they come when I call.
I know the heart of compassion I feel for any creature I’m responsible for, as I know and have experienced the compassion of our Creator.
I would hope when the time comes that I end up in His net, that He’ll look me in the eye, see the wonder there as I gape at Him. He’ll count my blemishes and wounds and the number of hooks in my mouth from the times I’ve been caught and escaped, and if He’s not yet ready to take me home, or deems me not yet ready to leave this world, He’ll throw me back rather than throw me away to keep trying to get it right.
He has promised us that.
Rainbows, rainbows, rainbows indeed…
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There is a timelessness to mid-summer hay harvest that goes back generations on both sides of our family. The cutting, raking and gathering of hay has evolved from horse-drawn implements and gathering loose shocks of hay to 100+ horse power air-conditioned tractors and huge round bales wrapped and stored in plastic sheathing rather than in barns.
Our farm is happily stuck somewhere in-between: we still prefer filling the haybarn with bales that I can still lift and move myself to feed our animals. True hay harvest involves sweat and dust and a neighborhood coming together to preserve summer in tangible form.
I grew up on a farm with a hayfield – I still have the scar over my eyebrow where I collided with the handle of my father’s scythe when, as a toddler, I came too close behind him as he was taking a swing at cutting a field of grass one swath at a time. I remember the huge claws of the hay hook reaching down onto loose hay piled up on our wagon. The hook would gather up a huge load, lift it high in the air to be moved by pulley on a track into our spacious hay loft. It was the perfect place to play and jump freely into the fragrant memories of a summer day, even in the dark of winter.
But these days it is the slanted light of summer I remember most: -the weightlessness of dust motes swirling down sun rays coming through the slats of the barn walls as the hay bales are stacked -the long shadows and distant alpenglow in the mountains -the dusk that goes on and on as owls and bats come out to hunt above us
Most of all, I will remember the sweaty days of mid-summer as I open the bales of hay in mid-winter – the light and fragrance of those grassy fields spilling forth into the chill and darkness, in communion of blessing for our animals.
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In your next letter, please describe the weather in great detail. If possible, enclose a fist of snow or mud,
everything you know about the soil, how tomato leaves rub green against your skin and make you itch, how slow
the corn is growing on the hill. Thank you for the photographs of where the chicken coop once stood,
clouds that did not become tornadoes. When I try to explain where I’m from, people imagine corn bread, cast-iron,
cows drifting across grass. I interrupt with barbed wire, wind, harvest air that reeks of wheat and diesel.
I hope your sleep comes easy now that you’ve surrendered the upstairs, hope the sun still lets you drink
one bitter cup before its rise. I don’t miss flannel shirts, radios with only AM stations, but there’s a certain kind
of star I can’t see from where I am— bright, clear, unconcerned. I need your recipes for gravy, pie crust,
canned green beans. I’m sending you the buttons I can’t sew back on. Please put them in the jar beside your bed.
In your next letter, please send seeds and feathers, a piece of bone or china you plowed up last spring. Please promise I’m missing the right things. ~Carrie Shipers, “In Your Next Letter” from Cause for Concern
For our children (and now their children) who have left the farm, now living far away:
I want to be sure you are missing the right things about this incredible place.
There is so much about a farm that is worrisome, burdensome, back-breaking and unpredictable. Don’t miss those things.
Miss what is breath-taking, awe-inspiring and heart-swelling.
We miss you more than we can ever say, indeed an intensive “missing” that can’t be expressed in words. So I send this to you and you’ll understand.