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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A Shimmering Evening Light

Lined with light
the twigs are stubby arrows.
A gilded trunk writhes
Upward from the roots,
from the pit of the black tentacles.

In the book of spring
a bare-limbed torso
is the first illustration.

Light teaches the tree
to beget leaves,
to embroider itself all over
with green reality,
until summer becomes
its steady portrait
and birds bring their lifetime
to the boughs.

Then even the corpse
light copies from below
may shimmer, dreaming it feels
the cheeks of blossom.
~May Swenson “April Light”

For over two years, we have been surrounded
by a shimmering corpse light hovering close,
masked and wary when we needed each other most.

Even so, the world is not defeated by death.

An unprecedented illumination
emerged from the tomb on a bright Sabbath morning
to guarantee that
we struggling people,
we who became no more than bare twigs and stubs,
we who feel at times hardly alive,
are now begetting green,
ready to burst into blossom,
our glowing cheeks pink with life,
a picture of our future fruitfulness.

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Operators are Standing By

Just before the green begins there is the hint of green
a blush of color, and the red buds thicken
the ends of the maple’s branches and everything
is poised before the start of a new world,
which is really the same world
just moving forward from bud
to flower to blossom to fruit
to harvest to sweet sleep, and the roots
await the next signal, every signal
every call a miracle and the switchboard
is lighting up and the operators are
standing by in the pledge drive we’ve
all been listening to: Go make the call.
~Stuart Kestenbaum “April Prayer”

These buds have been poised for weeks and then,
as if responding to the Conductor’s uplifted arms,
readying for a momentous downstroke,
they let go of all their pent up potential~
exploding with harmonious energy
enough to carry them all the way to autumn
when they fly, gone with the wind.

We wait impatiently until next spring,
operators standing by to take our pledge,
for the next encore performance.

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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: Sometimes I Feel Discouraged

Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my work’s in vain,
but then the holy spirit revives my soul again.

~ African-American Spiritual “There is a Balm in Gilead”

Since my people are crushed, I am crushed;
    I mourn, and horror grips me.
 Is there no balm in Gilead?
    Is there no physician there?
Why then is there no healing
    for the wound of my people?

Jeremiah 8:21-22

At the edge of the woods on our farm stands a stately black cottonwood tree, also known by locals as a “Balm of Gilead” tree in our region. The leaf buds this time of year have a sticky fragrant resin that native peoples prepared as a salve ointment to treat various wounds and skin conditions.

We never have tried harvesting any of the cottonwood resin, but I’ve found the presence of this grand tree in the field seems balm enough when I find myself discouraged. The tall tree adapts so dramatically over the course of the seasons, remaining a fixture of stability and beauty whether golden in the autumn, blowing cottony seeds in the spring, bare with snow in the winter or flourishing with summer leaves.
It is steadfast and reassuring.

Discouragement is so familiar to us, a constant pandemic companion, and certainly is rampant over the past week with images of war filling our screens. No tree resin is capable of fighting a virus or stopping a war but the balm of Gilead in Jeremiah has the power of the Holy Spirit, able to heal our sin sick souls.

The love of our Savior is the balm for us, the wounded.
We will become whole again.

cottonwood seeds
cottonwood seed

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…

There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.
There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul.

Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my works in vain,
but then the holy spirit revives my soul again.

There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.
There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul.

Don’t ever feel discouraged for Jesus is your friend
and if you lack for knowledge he’ll ne’er refuse to lend.

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Who Can Know?

I do not like to think about my life,
one lived too often without original fire.


I would rather walk among the serious trees,
hooded by important weather, by immense silences.


I’d rather unravel the wind’s calligraphies,
letter by letter, and spell myself into the world,


a glittering altar of atoms, all aswirl.
Who can know what will happen to each of us,


as time’s currents bend and assail us,
as gravity pulls us further into ourselves?


Better to be buoyed skyward, to modestly reach out
to the palaver of raindrops, to the silky leaves,


so that the air’s amazement stirs an answering
ripple among my own heavy branches.


Let me lose myself in the star’s mute company,
among the steady wanderers of night


whose eyes ignite a cupola of yearnings.
Crown me with a wreath of stars unmoored


from desire, untampered by this ache
for a blaze beyond the tremor of my fingertips.

~Maurya Simon, “A Thousand Acres of Light” from Cartographies 

I take myself too seriously,
thinking everything in my life must be planned
so I am prepared for what could happen next –

Of course it is impossible
as who can know?

Each day the unexpected happens
if I am willing to recognize it:
the rush of the wind, the drenching of raindrops,
the tingle of the winter sun on my face.

In that moment I might find endless perfection.

Even the thriving among us may lie down this night
and fail to wake tomorrow,
atoms toppled over, leaves shriveled, roots exposed,
no longer needing to breathe
much sooner than planned.

Let me lose myself in that thought:
what is lost here is more than replaced by
the joy of beholding the Face of the Eternal God.

Faire is the heav’n, where happy souls have place,
In full enjoyment of felicitie,
Whence they doe still behold the glorious face
Of the divine, eternall Majestie…

Yet farre more faire be those bright Cherubins
Which all with golden wings are overdight,
And those eternall burning Seraphins,
Which from their faces dart out fierie light;
Yer fairer than they both, and much more bright,
Be th’ Angels and Archangels which attend
On God’s owne person, without rest or end.

These then is faire each other farre excelling
As to the Highest they approach more neare,
Yet is that Highest farre beyond all telling
Fairer than all the rest which there appeare,
Though all their beauties joynd together were:
How then can mortall tongue hope to expresse
The image of such endlesse perfectnesse?
~Edmund Spenser

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Lean with the Fury

Today, I planted a young Horsechestnut tree.

So slim and flexible
I could have rung my fingers round that skinny trunk.
Oh, you are built to survive a vernal storm.
Listen to me, though—


endure the wind’s force without resistance.
Lean with the fury.


When you’re nearly bowed over
think broad trunk think sturdy bark.
Someday you won’t bend nearly so—


and to that scared little girl
the one I saw yesterday in the department store


hiding under the dress rack
enduring a mother’s torrent—


I’m sorry.
You won’t bend nearly so
after you’re grown.
~Christine Bodine, “late apology to the scared little girl in the department store” from Souvenirs of Myself

I know a psychiatrist colleague, soon to be 80 years old and still seeing patients, who recommends people should aim to be more like a willow than a chestnut tree. His long clinical practice has given him a perspective of who survives and who becomes irretrievably broken when the forces of life hit hard.

I know I am not one to freely yield to the wind or ice storm. More chestnut than willow or birch, I can tend toward inflexibility rather than suppleness.

This means I easily break when anger and fury abound in the world around me, rather than leaning and bending. What’s left is broken pieces awaiting salvage, feeding the flames of the brush pile with all the rest of the rigid and unyielding.

Yea, if I don’t bow like a willow, I fall broken upon the rock.

photo by Harry Rodenberger

I will bow and be simple,
I will bow and be free,
I will bow and be humble,
Yea, bow like the willow tree.

I will bow, this is the token,
I will wear the easy yoke,
I will bow and will be broken,
Yea, I’ll fall upon the rock.
Shaker melody

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A Lonely Unyielding Fir

A silence slipping around like death,
Yet chased by a whisper, a sigh, a breath,
One group of trees, lean, naked and cold,
Inking their crest ‘gainst a sky green-gold,
One path that knows where the corn flowers were;
Lonely, apart, unyielding, one fir;
And over it softly leaning down,
One star that I loved ere the fields went brown.
~Angelina Weld Grimke “A Winter Twilight”

Some ask for the world
and are diminished

in the receiving
of it. You gave me
only this small pool
that the more I drink
from, the more overflows
me with sourceless light.
~R.S. Thomas  “Gift” from Experimenting with an Amen

I am astonished my thirstiness is
slaked by such simple things as
a moment of pink in the sky,
a burst of birdsong,
a tree standing steadfast on the hill through the seasons,
a glimpse of tomorrow over the fading horizon of today.

Even
After
All this time
The sun never says to the earth,

“You owe
Me.”

Look
What happens
With a love like that,
It lights the
Whole
Sky.
~Daniel Ladinsky, from “The Gift”

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A Puzzling Light

These are amazing: each
Joining a neighbor, as though speech
Were a still performance.
Arranging by chance

To meet as far this morning
From the world as agreeing
With it, you and I
Are suddenly what the trees try

To tell us we are:
That their merely being there
Means something;

A silence already filled with noises,
A canvas on which emerges

A chorus of smiles, a winter morning.
Placed in a puzzling light…
~John Ashbery from “Some Trees”

Surrounded as we are by special trees on this farm, I watch them carefully through the seasons.
I hope to learn what they have to teach me about adaptation to change
through the driest of hot days,
to the coloring and loss of their leafy wardrobes,
to the barren nakedness of winter,
to the renewal of buds adorning spring branches.

Trees have plenty to say, but all in invisible silence. I’ve read about the communication that takes place underground between them via their roots and I have to say — I feel left out knowing I don’t speak or understand their language.

So I learn from trees by observing what is visible above the ground, especially when the light is just right.

Simply by merely being here, year after year – that means something.

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A Stranger to Nothing

Contorted by wind,
mere armatures for ice or snow,
the trees resolve
to endure for now,

they will leaf out in April.
And I must be as patient
as the trees—
a winter resolution

I break all over again,
as the cold presses
its sharp blade
against my throat.

~Linda Pastan “January” from The Months

A year has come to us as though out of hiding
It has arrived from an unknown distance
From beyond the visions of the old
Everyone waited for it by the wrong roads
And it is hard for us now to be sure it is here
A stranger to nothing
In our hiding places
~W. S. Merwin “Early January” from  The Lice 

January can be a rough month for most of us: the beginning-of-winter doldrums can be fierce after the hubbub of holidays. It doesn’t help the new year I hoped for is nothing like the unfamiliar road I find myself following – full of twists and turns and switchbacks, as well as being stalled at times, iced firmly in place, a stranger to myself.

So resolutions have been set aside, travel plans postponed, priorities changed; what I need most is the patience to endure, trusting things do change over time, like the seasons.

Winter will not last forever.
I will, like the bare trees around me, leaf out again.

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A Life Only Just Begun

As once a Child was planted in a womb
(and later, erected on a hill, a wooden cross)
one year we dug a hole to plant a tree.
Our choice, a Cornus Kousa with its fine,
pink, four-petaled bracts, each curving lip
touched with a red as deep as human blood.
It rooted well, and every year it grows
more glorious, bursting free in Spring—bud
into full flower, flame-colored, flushed as wine.
Even the slim sapling’s roughened bark
speaks of that tree, nail-pierced and dark.
Now, each new year, fresh blossoms shine
radiant, and each cross-blessed,
as if all love and loveliness has been compressed
into a flower’s face, fresh as the Son’s
new-born presence, a life only just begun.

The dogwood leaves turn iron red in Fall,
their centers fully ripening—into small seeded balls,
each one a fruit vivid as Mary’s love, and edible.
The sciontree, once sprung from Jesse’s root,
speaks pain and life and love compressed
and taken in, eye, mouth, heart. Incredible
that now all Eucharists in our year suggest
the living Jesus is our Christmas guest.
~Luci Shaw “Dogwood Tree” from Eye of the Beholder

God is in the manger, wealth in poverty,
light in darkness, succor in abandonment.
No evil can befall us;

whatever men may do to us,
they cannot but serve the God
who is secretly revealed as love
and rules the world and our lives.
— Dietrich Bonhoeffer from God Is in the Manger

I ponder the paradox of Christ, the Son of God,
coming to the world through the womb of a woman,
born homeless in order to bring us home with Him.

The uncontainable contained
the infinite made finite
the Deliverer delivered
the Eternal dwelling here and now
already but not yet.

As only one child of many of the
Very God of Very God,
(He is and was and always will be)
I am cross-blessed to realize
my life feels fresh-born – only just begun –
yet we all have been known to the Creator
from the start of time.

(If you are interested in hearing an old old story about the dogwood tree in song, and you don’t mind old-timey honky-tonk music, there is this….)

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