Doomed to Rebirth

You might not know this old tree by its bark,
Which once was striate, smooth, and glossy-dark,
So deep now are the rifts that separate
Its roughened surface into flake and plate.

Fancy might less remind you of a birch
Than of mosaic columns in a church
Like Ara Coeli or the Lateran
Or the trenched features of an agèd man.

Still, do not be too much persuaded by
These knotty furrows and these tesserae
To think of patterns made from outside in
Or finished wisdom in a shriveled skin.

Old trees are doomed to annual rebirth,
New wood, new life, new compass, greater girth,
And this is all their wisdom and their art—
To grow, stretch, crack, and not yet come apart.

~Richard Wilbur “A Black Birch in Winter”

When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay
As ice-storms do. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.

Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust—
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.

But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows—
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father’s trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.

So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.

I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.
~Robert Frost “Birches”

Old trees are doomed to annual rebirth,
New wood, new life, new compass, greater girth,
And this is all their wisdom and their art—
To grow, stretch, crack, and not yet come apart.

The poet understands as we (and trees) age, we are no longer smooth on the surface, developing cracks and furrows, a flaking and peeling skin surrounding a steadfast trunk. Yet we still grow, even if not as recognizable in our old skin – our innards are still working, in particular enhancing a “greater girth.” (!)

Our farm’s twin birch trees have had some rough winters, having been bent double in a previous ice storm. One has not survived the trauma – the other continues to struggle. There are times when these flexible trees can bear no more bending despite their strength and perseverance.

As I am no longer a swinger of birches (and in truth, never was), I hope instead for the “finished wisdom in shriveled skin” of the aging tree. I admire how the birches renew themselves each spring, not giving up hope despite everything they have been through. They keep reaching higher up to the sky, while a slender branch just might touch the hem of heaven oh so gently.

1. See the lovely birch in the meadow,
Curly leaves all dancing when the wind blows.
Loo-lee-loo, when the wind blows,
Loo-lee-loo, when the wind blows.

2. Oh, my little tree, I need branches,
For the silver flutes I need branches.
Loo-lee-loo, three branches,
Loo-lee-loo, three branches.

3. From another birch I will make now,
I will make a tingling balalaika.
Loo-lee-loo, balalaika,
Loo-lee-loo, balalaika.

4. When I play my new balalaika,
I will think of you, my lovely birch tree.
Loo-lee-loo, lovely birch tree,
Loo-lee-loo, lovely birch tree.

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Welcome Back, Trees

I go by a field where once
I cultivated a few poor crops.
It is now covered with young trees,
for the forest that belongs here
has come back and reclaimed its own.
And I think of all the effort
I have wasted and all the time,
and of how much joy I took
in that failed work and how much
it taught me. For in so failing
I learned something of my place,
something of myself, and now
I welcome back the trees.
~Wendell Berry, “IX” from Leavings.

As we both grow older, we watch our some of our farm’s fields slowly fill in with young trees, despite our efforts over the years to keep pulling out saplings to preserve pasture. Yet the trees are more determined to fill in the gaps than we are to remove them. The cottonwoods, alders and maples are returning to what once was their soil.

After all, this land was forested over a century ago and yielded to determined loggers and farmers as the old growth firs and cedars fell to the axe and the deciduous trees became firewood and furniture. We now find ourselves yielding back what we can, acknowledging what this land and these patient trees have to teach us about our transience. A few decades are a short stay to those who send roots and branches deep and wide in their effort to stay put.

Welcome back, trees. You have kindly waited for your turn to own the ground again.

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An Eternal Ultimate Eye

Silence and darkness grow apace, broken only by the crack of a hunter’s gun in the woods.  Songbirds abandon us so gradually that, until the day when we hear no birdsong at all but the scolding of the jay, we haven’t fully realized that we are bereft — as after a death.  Even the sun has gone off somewhere…

Now we all come in, having put the garden to bed, and we wait for winter to pull a chilly sheet over its head.  
~Jane Kenyon
from “Season of Change and Loss” in Winter: A Spiritual Biography

The tree, and its haunting bird,
Are the loves of my heart;
But where is the word, the word,
Oh where is the art,

To say, or even to see,
For a moment of time,
What the Tree and the Bird must be
In the true sublime?

They shine, listening to the soul,
And the soul replies;
But the inner love is not whole,
and the moment dies.

Oh give me before I die
The grace to see
With eternal, ultimate eye,
The Bird and the Tree.

The song in the living Green,
The Tree and the Bird –
Oh have they ever been seen,
Ever been heard?
~Ruth Pitter “The Bird in the Tree”

Every day now we hear hunters firing in the woods and the wetlands around our farm, most likely aiming for the few ducks that have stayed in the marshes through the winter, or possibly a Canadian goose or a deer to bring home for the freezer.   The usual day-long serenade of birdsong is replaced by shotguns popping, hawks and eagle screams and chittering from the treetops, the occasional dog barking, woodpeckers hammering at tree bark with the bluejays and squirrels arguing over the last of the filbert nuts.

In the clear cold evenings, when coyotes aren’t howling in the moonlight, the owls hoot to each other across the fields from one patch of woods to another, their gentle resonant conversation echoing back and forth. Our horses, confined to their stalls in the barns, snort and blow as they bury their noses in flakes of summer-bound hay.

But there are no longer birdsong arias; I’m left bereft of their blending musical tapestry that wakes me at 4 AM in the spring.

And no peeper orchestra tuning up in the swamps in the evenings, rising and falling on the breeze.

It is way too quiet – clearly a time of bereavement. The chilly silence of the darkened days, interrupted by gunshot percussion, is like a baton raised in anticipation after rapping the podium to bring us all to attention. I wait and listen for the downbeat of spring — the return of birds and frogs tuning their throats, preparing their symphony.

Oh, give me the grace to see and hear the Bird in the Tree with an eternal ultimate eye and ear.

Like a bird on a tree
I’m just sitting here
I get time
It’s clear to see
From up here
The world seems small
We can seat together
It’s so beautiful
You and me
We meant to be
In the great outdoors
Forever free
Sometimes you need to go
And take a step back
To see the truth around you
From a distance you can tell
You and me
We meant to be
In the great outdoors
Forever free
~Eldar Kedem

Between the March and April line—
That magical frontier
Beyond which summer hesitates,
Almost too heavenly near.
The saddest noise, the sweetest noise,
The maddest noise that grows and grows,—
The birds, they make it in the spring,
At night’s delicious close.
The saddest noise I know.
It makes us think of all the dead
That sauntered with us here,
By separation’s sorcery
Made cruelly more dear.
It makes us think of what we had,
And what we now deplore.
We almost wish those siren throats
Would go and sing no more.
An ear can break a human heart
As quickly as a spear,
We wish the ear had not a heart
So dangerously near.
~Lyrics adapted from an Emily Dickinson poem

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An End-of-the-Year Wintry Soul

Whatever harm I may have done
In all my life in all your wide creation
If I cannot repair it
I beg you to repair it,

And then there are all the wounded
The poor the deaf the lonely and the old
Whom I have roughly dismissed
As if I were not one of them.
Where I have wronged them by it
And cannot make amends
I ask you
To comfort them to overflowing,

And where there are lives I may have withered around me,
Or lives of strangers far or near
That I’ve destroyed in blind complicity,
And if I cannot find them
Or have no way to serve them,

Remember them. I beg you to remember them

When winter is over
And all your unimaginable promises
Burst into song on death’s bare branches.
~Anne Porter “A Short Testament” from Living Things.

While this end of the year’s darkness lingers,
beginning too early and lasting too late,
I find myself hiding in my own wintry soul,
knowing I have too often failed to do
what is needed
when it is needed.

I tend to look inward
when I need to focus outside myself.
I muffle my ears
to unhear supplicating voices.
I turn away
rather than meet a stranger’s gaze.

I appeal to God
who knows my darkness needs His Light,
who unimaginably promises
buds of hope and warmth
and color and fruit
will arise from my barest branches.

He brings me forth out of hiding,
to be impossibly transformed.

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Dawn on our Darkness: The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End

There are several attitudes towards Christmas,
Some of which we may disregard:
The social, the torpid, the patently commercial,
The rowdy (the pubs being open till midnight),
And the childish – which is not that of the child
For whom the candle is a star, and the gilded angel
Spreading its wings at the summit of the tree
Is not only a decoration, but an angel.

The child wonders at the Christmas Tree:
Let him continue in the spirit of wonder
At the Feast as an event not accepted as a pretext;
So that the glittering rapture, the amazement
Of the first-remembered Christmas Tree,
So that the surprises, delight in new possessions
(Each one with its peculiar and exciting smell),
The expectation of the goose or turkey
And the expected awe on its appearance,

So that the reverence and the gaiety
May not be forgotten in later experience,
In the bored habituation, the fatigue, the tedium,
The awareness of death, the consciousness of failure,
Or in the piety of the convert
Which may be tainted with a self-conceit
Displeasing to God and disrespectful to children
(And here I remember also with gratitude
St.Lucy, her carol, and her crown of fire):

So that before the end, the eightieth Christmas
(By “eightieth” meaning whichever is last)
The accumulated memories of annual emotion
May be concentrated into a great joy
Which shall be also a great fear, as on the occasion
When fear came upon every soul:
Because the beginning shall remind us of the end
And the first coming of the second coming.

~T.S. Eliot “The Cultivation of Christmas Tree”

Hanging old ornaments on a fresh cut tree,
I take each red glass bulb and tinfoil seraph
And blow away the dust. Anyone else
Would throw them out. They are so scratched and shabby.

My mother had so little joy to share
She kept it in a box to hide away.
But on the darkest winter nights—voilà—
She opened it resplendently to shine.

How carefully she hung each thread of tinsel,
Or touched each dime-store bauble with delight.
Blessed by the frankincense of fragrant fir,
Nothing was too little to be loved.

Why do the dead insist on bringing gifts
We can’t reciprocate? We wrap her hopes
Around the tree crowned with a fragile star.
No holiday is holy without ghosts.
~Dana Gioia, “Tinsel, Frankincense, and Fir”

When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,

to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.
~Howard Thurman from The Mood of Christmas & Other Celebrations

There are plenty of ghosts hiding in the boxes of ornaments I place on our Christmas tree.

Closing my eyes, I can see my father struggling to straighten our wild cut trees from our woods, mumbling under his breath in his frustration as he lies prone under the branches. I can see my mother, tears in her eyes, arranging ornaments from her parents’ childhoods, remembering times in her childhood that were fraught and fragile.

Each memory, every scratched-up glass ball is so easily breakable, a mere symbol for the fragility of us all this time of year.

Our real work of Christmas isn’t just during these frantic weeks of Advent but lasts year-long — often very hard intensive work, not just fa-la-la-la-la and jingle bells, but badly needed labor in this broken world with its homelessness, hunger, disease, conflict, addictions, depression and pain.

Even so, we enter winter next week replete with a startling splash of orange red that paints the skies in the evenings, the stark and gorgeous snow covered peaks surrounding us during the day,  the grace of bald eagles and trumpeter swans flying overhead, the heavenly lights that twinkle every night,  the shining globe that circles full above us, and the loving support of the Hand that rocks us to sleep when we are wailing loud.

Once again, I prepare myself to do the real work of Christmas, acknowledging the stark reality that the labor that happened in a barn that night was only the beginning of the labor required to salvage this world begun by an infant in a manger.

We don’t need a fragrant fir, full stockings on the hearth, Christmas villages on the side table, or a star on the top of the tree to know the comfort of His care and the astounding beauty of His creation, available for us without batteries, electrical plug ins, or the need of a ladder.

The ghosts and memories of Christmas tend to pull me up from my doldrums, alive to the possibility that even I, broken and fragile, scratched and showing my age, can make a difference, in His name, all year.

Nothing is too little to be loved…even me.

This year’s Advent theme “Dawn on our Darkness” is taken from this 19th century Christmas hymn:

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
dawn on our darkness and lend us your aid.
Star of the east, the horizon adorning,
guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.
~Reginald Heber -from “Brightest and Best”

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Dawn on our Darkness: A Shadowed Earth Reaches Up

   the season quicker now
the darkening—

no longer the leaves
fluttering down

but the whole shadowed earth
reaching up, taking hold
~David Baker “Quicker”

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?

~Robert Browning from Andrea del Sarto

My branches are bare during this season of letting go. As starkly revealed as I am, perhaps darkening days are a blessing – less spotlight on my plainness in silhouette – all knobby joints and awkward angles and curves.

One thing I know though: in this season I prefer the shadowland, yet I still reach up, trying to hold on to the promise beyond me. In fact, so many of us have kept grasping at what we know is there but cannot see, God has come down to grab on to each one — and is still hanging on to us.

We are not too plain to be lifted, welcomed, cherished as we are, into heaven’s arms.

This year’s Advent theme “Dawn on our Darkness” is taken from this 19th century Christmas hymn.

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
dawn on our darkness and lend us your aid.
Star of the east, the horizon adorning,
guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.
~Reginald Heber -from “Brightest and Best”

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Dawn on Our Darkness: Taking an Uncertain Step

We grow accustomed to the Dark —
When Light is put away —
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Good bye —

A Moment — We Uncertain step
For newness of the night —
Then — fit our Vision to the Dark —
And meet the Road — erect —

And so of larger — Darknesses —
Those Evenings of the Brain —
When not a Moon disclose a sign —
Or Star — come out — within —

The Bravest — grope a little —
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead —
But as they learn to see —

Either the Darkness alters —
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight —
And Life steps almost straight.

~Emily Dickinson

photo by Bob Tjoelker

So few grains of happiness
measured against all the dark
and still the scales balance.

The world asks of us
only the strength we have and we give it.
Then it asks more, and we give it.

~Jane Hirschfield from “The Weighing”

I admit that I’m stumbling about in the dark right now,
bearing the bruises and scrapes of
random collisions with objects hidden by the night.

My eyes must slowly adjust to such bare illumination,
as the Lamp has been carried away.

I’m feeling my way through this time of life.

I suspect there are fellow darkness travelers
who also have lost their way and their Light,
giving what they can and sometimes more.

And so, blinded as we each are,
we run forehead-first into the Tree
which has always been there and always will be,
the symbol of our salvation.

Because of who we are and Who loves us,
we, now free and forgiven,
safely follow a darkened road made nearly straight,
all the way Home.

This year’s Advent theme “Dawn on our Darkness” is taken from this 19th century Christmas hymn.

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
dawn on our darkness and lend us your aid.
Star of the east, the horizon adorning,
guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.
~Reginald Heber -from “Brightest and Best”

May you see God’s light on the path ahead
when the road you walk is dark.
May you always hear even in your hour of sorrow
the gentle singing of the lark.
When times are hard
may hardness never turn your heart to stone.
May you always remember when the shadows fall–
You do not walk alone.

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A Broken and Contrite Heart

The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit:
a broken and contrite heart
Psalm 51:17

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. 11 For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. 12 So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.
16 Therefore we do not lose heart.
2 Corinthians: 6-12, 16

The great mystery of God’s love is that we are not asked to live as if we are not hurting, as if we are not broken. In fact, we are invited to recognize our brokenness as a brokenness in which we can come in touch with the unique way that God loves us. The great invitation is to live your brokenness under the blessing. I cannot take people’s brokenness away and people cannot take my brokenness away.  But how do you live in your brokenness? Do you live your brokenness under the blessing or under the curse? The great call of Jesus is to put your brokenness under the blessing.
~Henri Nouwen from a Lecture at Scarritt-Bennett Center

Every day, as the sun goes down,
I pause, broken, remembering how often
I messed up that day, in big and small ways.
I’m cracked open, my mistakes illuminated,
weighing down my heart, impossible to forget.
Yet, as I pray for mercy, there follows a peacefulness,
as my errors are blotted out.

My slate, one more time, is wiped clean.

This ceramic pot is meant specially for our kitchen table — handmade by a friend using the abstract artistry of mane hairs from our farm’s Haflinger horses burnt onto the sides.  But it hit the floor and broke into many pieces, looking completely beyond repair.

It is back on our table, repaired with love and care by another friend, using nothing more than copious amounts of Elmer’s Glue.  This is the glue of every child’s school desk, the glue of every mother’s junk drawer, the glue of every heart that needs mending.  Elmer’s is not the gold of the Japanese art of kintsugiwhere broken vessels are repaired with precious metals, creating an object even more valuable and beautiful than before, with streaks and tracks of gold highlighting their shattered history.

Yet this ceramic is now even more precious to me. Someone we love cared deeply enough to make it in the first place, and another we love cared deeply to repair it, making it more beautiful and blessed in its brokenness, highlighting ragged pieces made whole again.

Someone made us.
Someone repairs us when we fall apart.
Someone blesses our brokenness with a glued-together beauty that makes us whole.

Therefore do not lose heart…


~Allegri’s Miserere — setting of Psalm 51

Translation:
Have mercy upon me, O God, after Thy great goodness
According to the multitude of Thy mercies do away mine offenses.

Wash me thoroughly from my wickedness: and cleanse me from my sin.
For I acknowledge my faults: and my sin is ever before me.
Against Thee only have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight:
that Thou mightest be justified in Thy saying, and clear when Thou art judged.

Behold, I was shaped in wickedness: and in sin hath my mother conceived me.
But lo, Thou requirest truth in the inward parts: and shalt make me to understand wisdom secretly.

Thou shalt purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean:
Thou shalt wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Thou shalt make me hear of joy and gladness:
that the bones which Thou hast broken may rejoice.

Turn Thy face from my sins: and put out all my misdeeds.

Make me a clean heart, O God: and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from Thy presence: and take not Thy Holy Spirit from me.

O give me the comfort of Thy help again: and establish me with Thy free Spirit.
Then shall I teach Thy ways unto the wicked: and sinners shall be converted unto Thee.

Deliver me from blood-guiltiness, O God, Thou that art the God of my health:
and my tongue shall sing of Thy righteousness.
Thou shalt open my lips, O Lord: and my mouth shall shew Thy praise.

For Thou desirest no sacrifice, else would I give it Thee: but Thou delightest not in burnt-offerings.
The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit: a broken and contrite heart, O God, shalt Thou not despise.

O be favorable and gracious unto Sion: build Thou the walls of Jerusalem.
Then shalt Thou be pleased with the sacrifice of righteousness,
with the burnt-offerings and oblations: then shall they offer young bullocks upon Thine altar.

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Such Letting Go

the leaves believe
such letting go is love
such love is faith
such faith is grace
such grace is god
i agree with the leaves
~Lucille Clifton “Lesson of the Falling Leaves” from Blessing the Boats

The leaves are falling, falling as if from far up,
as if orchards were dying high in space.
Each leaf falls as if it were motioning “no.”
And tonight the heavy earth is falling
away from all other stars in the loneliness.
We’re all falling. This hand here is falling.
And look at the other one. It’s in them all.
And yet there is Someone, whose hands
infinitely calm, holding up all this falling.
~Rainer Maria Rilke “Autumn” translated by Robert Bly

Sometimes I wake from my sleep
with a palpitating start:
dreaming of falling,
my body pitching and tumbling
yet somehow I land,
~oh so softly~
in my bed,
my fear quashed and cushioned by
awaking safe.

I feel caught,
held tightly,
rescued amid the fall
we all do someday,
like leaves drifting down
from heaven’s orchard,
like seeds released like kisses
into the air,
the earth rises to meet me
and Someone cradles me there.

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A Tree with Happy Leaves

Last night
the rain
spoke to me
slowly, saying,
what joy
to come falling
out of the brisk cloud,
to be happy again
in a new way
on the Earth!

That’s what it said
as it dropped,
smelling of iron,
and vanished
like a dream of the ocean
into the branches
and the grass below.

Then it was over.
The sky cleared.
I was standing
under a tree
with happy leaves,
and I was myself,


and there were stars in the sky
that were also themselves
at the moment
my right hand
was holding my left hand
which was holding the tree
which was filled with stars
and the soft rain–

imagine! imagine!
the long and wondrous journeys
still to be ours.
~Mary Oliver “Last Night the Rain Spoke to Me”

I’m walking under the trees
walking in and out of their shadows
walking step by step under the trees
so the leaves on their lowest branches
graze my bare head
as I walk slowly under the trees
so close to me they could have
their arms around my shoulders,
walking under the guardian trees.

I’m walking under the trees
plucking a leaf
and putting it in my pocket
so I won’t forget walking
under the cloak of these trees
thinking of nothing else
but the trees and me walking
under all their leaves and branches
walking all morning under the trees.
~Billy Collins “Walking Under the Trees”

I’m fortunate to have grown up in the land of trees, here in the Evergreen State of Washington. I spent hours and hours just walking or riding my horse in the woods of my childhood home. When I moved away to a state without many trees, I felt abandoned and lonesome. I had to find my way back.

Sometimes the woods can feel claustrophobic and I need to see a horizon to be aware of the comings and goings of the sun. Fortunately, on this farm where we raised our children, we can move easily from one to the other.

Each day, I’m reminded of the wondrous journey I am on. As a child, I always imagined living in a place of happy leaves. Growing up, I looked until I found it.

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