An Inescapable Network of Mutuality

As nightfall does not come at once, neither does oppression.
In both instances, there is a twilight

when everything remains seemingly unchanged.
And it is in such twilight that we all must be most aware

of change in the air – however slight –
lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness.
~William O. Douglas
in a 1976 letter to Young Lawyers of the Washington State Bar Association

Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood.

We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.

This is the way God’s universe is made;
this is the way it is structured.

John Donne caught it years ago and placed it in graphic terms:
“No man is an island entire of itself.
Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”
And he goes on toward the end to say,
“Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind;
therefore send not to know for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee.”


We must see this, believe this, and live by it…
~Martin Luther King Jr. from a sermon in A Knock At Midnight

Do you know why this world is as bad as it is?
It is because people think only about their own business,
and won’t trouble themselves to stand up for the oppressed,
nor bring the wrong-doers to light.
My doctrine is this,
that if we see cruelty or wrong that we have the power to stop,
and do nothing, we make ourselves sharers in the guilt.
~Anna Sewell from Black Beauty

Dr. King’s words and wisdom still inform us of our shortcomings.

We flounder in brokenness
despite our shared global neighborhood,
despite an inescapable mutuality and commitment to brotherhood.

We still stand apart from one another;
even as the bell tolls, we suffer divisiveness
from a lack of humility, grace and love.

Perhaps today, for a day, for a week, for a year,
we can unite in our shared tears:
shed for continued strife and disagreement,
shed for injustice that results in senseless killings,
shed for our inability to hold up one another
as brothers and sisters holy in God’s eyes.

We weep together as the light dawns on this day,
knowing as Dr. King knew:
a new day will come when the Lord God wipes tears away
from all faces and all colors —
a brotherhood created exactly as He intends.

The Tenacity of Nature

By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast — a cold wind. Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

patches of standing water
the scattering of tall trees

All along the road the reddish
purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy
stuff of bushes and small trees
with dead, brown leaves under them
leafless vines —

Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches —

They enter the new world naked,
cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter. All about them
the cold, familiar wind —

Now the grass, tomorrow
the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf

One by one objects are defined —
It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf

But now the stark dignity of
entrance — Still, the profound change
has come upon them: rooted they
grip down and begin to awaken
~William Carlos Williams “Spring and All”

I ask your doctor
of infectious disease if she’s
read Williams   he cured
sick babies I tell her and
begin describing spring
and all   she’s looking at the wall
now the floor   now your chart
now the door   never
heard of him she says
but I can’t stop explaining
how important this is
I need to know your doctor
believes in the tenacity of nature
to endure   I’m past his heart
attack   his strokes   and now as if
etching the tombstone myself   I find
I can’t remember the date
he died or even
the year   of what now
are we the pure products   and what
does that even mean   pure   isn’t it
obvious   we are each our own culture
alive with the virus that’s waiting
to unmake us
~Brian Russell, “The Year of What Now”

It is the third January of a pandemic
of a virus far more tenacious than
we have proven to be,
it continues to unmake us,
able to mutate spike proteins seemingly overnight
while too many of us stubbornly
remain unchanged by this,
clinging to our “faith over fear”
and “my body, my choice”
and “lions, not sheep”
and “never comply” —
because self-determination must trump
compassion for the unfortunate fate of vulnerable millions.

We defend the freedom to choose
to be vectors of a contagion
that may not sicken us yet fills
clinics, hospitals and morgues.

William Carlos Williams, the early 20th century physician,
would be astonished at the clinical tools we have now
to fight this scourge.
William Carlos Williams, last centuries’ imagist poet,
would recognize our deadly erosion of cooperation
when faced with a worthy viral opponent.

So what happens now?

Starting with this third pandemic winter,
with our souls in another deep freeze,
covered in snow and ice and bitter wind chill,
a tenuous hope of restoration could awaken –
tender buds swelling,
bulbs breaking through soil,
being called forth from long burial
in a dark and cold and heartless earth.

Like a mother who holds
the mystery of her quickening belly,
knowing we nurture other lives with our own body,
we too can be hopeful and marveling
at who we are created to be.

She, and we, know soon and very soon
there will be spring.

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There is No Center Any Longer

The mass gravesite at Wounded Knee, Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota
Burial of the dead in the mass gravesite at Wounded Knee

Big Foot, a great Chief of the Sioux often said,
“I will stand in peace till my last day comes.”
He did many good and brave deeds

for the white man and the red man.
Many innocent women and children who knew no wrong died here.
~Inscription on the Wounded Knee Monument

I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream. And I, to whom so great a vision was given in my youth, — you see me now a pitiful old man who has done nothing, for the nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.
~Black Elk, (wounded trying to rescue his people after the Wounded Knee Massacre)  from Black Elk Speaks

From today’s The Writer’s Almanac:

December 29 is the anniversary of the massacre at Wounded Knee, which took place in South Dakota in 1890. Twenty-three years earlier the local tribes had signed a treaty with the United States government that guaranteed them the rights to the land around the Black Hills, which was sacred land. The treaty said that not only could no one move there, but they couldn’t even travel through without the consent of the Indians.

But in the 1870s gold was discovered in the Black Hills and the treaty was broken. People from the Sioux tribe were forced onto a reservation with a promise of more food and supplies, which never came. Then in 1889 a native prophet named Wovoka, from the Paiute tribe in Nevada, had a vision of a ceremony that would renew the earth, return the buffalo, and cause the white men to leave and return the land that belonged to the Indians. This ceremony was called the Ghost Dance. People traveled across the plains to hear Wovoka speak, including emissaries from the Sioux tribe, and they brought back his teachings. The Ghost Dance, performed in special brightly colored shirts, spread through the villages on the Sioux reservation and it scared the white Indian agents. They considered the ceremony a battle cry, dangerous and antagonistic. So one of them wired Washington to say that he was afraid and wanted to arrest the leaders and he was given permission to arrest Chief Sitting Bull, who was killed in the attempt. The next on the wanted list was Sitting Bull’s half-brother, Chief Big Foot, known to his own people as Spotted Elk. Some members of Sitting Bull’s tribe made their way to Big Foot and when he found out what had happened he decided to lead them along with the rest of his people to Pine Ridge Reservation for protection. But it was winter, 40 degrees below zero, and he contracted pneumonia on the way.

Big Foot was sick, he was flying a white flag, and he was a peaceful man. He was one of the leaders who had actually renounced the Ghost Dance. But the Army didn’t make distinctions. They intercepted Big Foot’s band and ordered them into the camp on the banks of the Wounded Knee Creek. Big Foot went peacefully.

The next morning federal soldiers began confiscating their weapons and a scuffle broke out between a soldier and an Indian. The federal soldiers opened fire, killing almost 300 men, women, and children, including Big Foot. Even though it wasn’t really a battle, the massacre at Wounded Knee is considered the end of the Indian Wars, a blanket term to refer to the fighting between the Native Americans and the federal government, which had lasted 350 years.

One of the people wounded but not killed during the massacre was the famous medicine man Black Elk, author of Black Elk Speaks (1932). Speaking about Wounded Knee, he said:

“I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream.”

Like most twentieth century American children, I grew up with a sanitized understanding of American and Native history.  I had only a superficial knowledge of what happened at Wounded Knee, a low hill that rises above a creek bed on the South Dakota Pine Ridge Reservation, gleaned primarily from the 71 day symbolic standoff in 1973 between members of the Oglala Sioux and the American Indian Movement and the FBI, resulting in several shooting deaths.

Nine years ago, when our son was teaching math at Little Wound High School on the Pine Ridge Reservation, we visited the site of this last major battle between the white man and Native people, which broke the spirit of the tribes’ striving to maintain their nomadic life as free people. This brutal massacre of nearly 300 Lakota men, women and children by the Seventh Regiment of the U.S. Army Cavalry took place in December 1890.

The dead lay where they fell for four days due to a severe blizzard. When the frozen corpses were finally gathered up by the Army, a deep mass grave was dug at the top of the hill, the bodies buried stacked one on top of another. The massive grave is now marked by a humble memorial monument surrounded by a chain link fence, adjacent to a small church, circled by more recent Lakota gravesites.

Four infants survived the four days of blizzard conditions wrapped in their dead mothers’ robes. One baby girl, only a few months old, was named “Lost Bird” after the massacre, bartered for and adopted by an Army Colonel as an interesting Indian “relic.” Rather than this adoption giving her a new chance, she died at age 29, having endured much illness, prejudice in white society, as well as estrangement from her native community and culture. Her story has been told in a book by Renee Sansom Flood, who helped to locate and move her remains back to Wounded Knee, where in death she is now back with her people.

There is unspeakable desolation and sadness on that lonely hill of graves. It is a regrettable part of our history that descendants of immigrants to American soil need to understand: by coming to the “New World” for opportunity, or refuge from oppression elsewhere, we made refugees of the people already here.

As Black Elk wrote, the dreams of a great people have been scattered and lack a center. He was not only speaking of his own tribe, but was presciently speaking of our current divisiveness – due to extremism, we lack “a center” in our current governmental discourse.

We must never allow hope to be buried at Wounded Knee nor must we ever forget what it means to no longer be safe in one’s own homeland.

Lost Bird after her adoption

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The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: Unlocked and Opened Wide

What seemed to be the end proved to be the beginning…
Suddenly a wall becomes a gate.
~Henri Nouwen from Gracias! A Letter of Consolation

As Christians we do not believe in walls,
but that life lies open before us;
that the gate can always be unbarred;
that there is no final abandonment or desertion.
We do not believe that it can ever be “too late.”

We believe that the world is full of doors that can be opened. Between us and others.
Between the people around us.
Between today and tomorrow.
Our own inner person can be unlocked too:
even within our own selves,
there are doors that need to be opened.

If we open them and enter,
we can unlock ourselves, too,
and so await whatever is coming to free us and make us whole.
~ Jörg Zink from “Doors to the Feast”

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
~T.S. Eliot from “Little Gidding” The Four Quartets


We stand outside the gate, incapable of opening it ourselves,
watching as God Himself throws it open wide. 
We choose to enter this unknown unremembered gate
into the endless length of days,
or we choose to remain outside,
lingering in the familiar confines of what we know,
though it destroys us.

There we shall rest and we shall see;
we shall see and we shall love;
we shall love and we shall praise.
Behold what shall be in the end and shall not end.
~Augustine of Hippo

1 Lift up your heads, ye mighty gates; 
behold, the King of glory waits; 
the King of kings is drawing near; 
the Savior of the world is here!

2 Fling wide the portals of your heart; 
make it a temple, set apart 
from earthly use for heaven’s employ, 
adorned with prayer and love and joy.

3 Redeemer, come, with us abide; 
our hearts to thee we open wide; 
let us thy inner presence feel; 
thy grace and love in us reveal.

4 Thy Holy Spirit lead us on 
until our glorious goal is won; 
eternal praise, eternal fame 
be offered, Savior, to thy name!

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”

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

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:

But Right Now

Maybe night is about to come
calling, but right now
the sun is still high in the sky.

It’s half-past October, the woods
are on fire, blue skies stretch
all the way to heaven. Of course,
we know that winter is coming, its thin
winding sheets and its hard narrow bed.

But right now, the season’s fermented
to fullness, so slip into something
light, like your skeleton; while these old
bones are still working, my darling,
let’s dance.
~Barbara Crooker, “Reel” from The Book of Kells

I’ve never been much of a dancer; we were taught square dancing in grade school when we were kids so I could do-si-do with the best of them.

The non-descript dancing of the sixties and seventies never appealed to me – it was kind of like writhing in place, sometimes alone, sometimes in parallel with another body.

Our church used to hold once a year square dances in November along with a harvest dinner, gathered in a school gymnasium, so my husband and I learned to Virginia Reel up and back and be sore the next day. Those were the days…

But right now, we watch our trees dance this time of year, getting more naked with each passing day and breeze. They sway and bow and join limbs, their bare bones grasping one another in preparation for their cold and narrow winter bed, wrapped in the shroud that will give way, yet again to the green leaves of spring, only a few months away.

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

Just Enough Light and Shadow

In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe
and enough shadows to blind those who don’t.
~Blaise Pascal

Be comforted; the world is very old,
  And generations pass, as they have passed,
  A troop of shadows moving with the sun;
Thousands of times has the old tale been told;
  The world belongs to those who come the last,
  They will find hope and strength as we have done.
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow “A Shadow”

The shadow’s the thing. 
If I no longer see shadows as “dark marks,” 
as do the newly sighted,

then I see them as making some sort of sense of the light.
They give the light distance;
they put it in its place.
They inform my eyes of my location here, here O Israel,
here in the world’s flawed sculpture,

here in the flickering shade of the nothingness
between me and the light.
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

I find myself seeking the safety of hiding in the shadows under a rock where lukewarm moderates tend to congregate, especially on Sundays.

Extremist views predominate simply for the sake of staking out one’s claim to one’s political turf.  There is no spirit of compromise, negotiation or collaboration – that would be perceived as a sign of weakness.  Instead it is “my way or the wrong way.”

I’m ready to say “no way,” as both sides are intolerably intolerant of the other as I watch them volley back and forth over my cowering head. As someone who is currently volunteering oodles of hours to help manage a community’s response to end COVID controlling our lives, I find myself smack dab in the middle of extremes.

The chasm is most gaping when we bring up any discussion of faith and how it influences our response to the pandemic.  Religion and politics are already angry neighbors constantly arguing over how high to build the fence between them, what it should be made out of, what color it should be, should there be peek holes, should it be electrified with barbed wire to prevent moving back and forth, should there be a gate with or without a lock and who pays for the labor.  Add in a pandemic to argue about and we become stymied and paralyzed.

In a country founded on the principle of freedom of religion, there are more and more who believe our forefathers’ blood was shed for freedom from religion and others feel there can be only one religion here.

Yet others feel we are founded on freedom from science and epidemiological data, because what possibly can those researchers know when the random person on YouTube says something far more palatable?

Good grief.

Give us the right to believe in nothing whatsoever or give us death. Perhaps both actually go together.

And so it goes.  We the people bring out the worst in our leadership as facts are distorted, the truth is stretched or completely abandoned, unseemly pandering abounds and curried favors are served for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Enough already. Time for the shadows to abate and the Light to shine.

In the midst of this morass, we who want to believe still choose to believe but won’t force belief on anyone else. It’s called freedom of religion for a reason.

There is just enough Light shining for those who seek it.  No need to remain blinded in the shadowlands of unbelief or “my way or the highway.”

I’ll come out from under my rock if you do.

In fact…I think I just did.

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

Dangling Alone

l (a

le
af
fa
ll

s)
one
l
iness…

~e.e. cummings

The trees are undressing, and fling in many places—
On the gray road, the roof, the window-sill—
Their radiant robes and ribbons and yellow laces;
A leaf each second so is flung at will,
Here, there, another and another, still and still.

A spider’s web has caught one while downcoming,
That stays there dangling when the rest pass on;
Like a suspended criminal hangs he, mumming
In golden garb, while one yet green, high yon,
Trembles, as fearing such a fate for himself anon.
~Thomas Hardy “Last Week in October”

You may feel you are the only one
to fall
until you land in a cushion of others
comforted.

But maybe you dangle suspended
twisting and turning in the slightest breeze
not knowing when the fall will come.

I know I’m both~
one alone suspended by faith,
hoping for rescue
while others pass me by ~~
another and another, still and still.

Held by a slender silken thread
until the moment comes
when I too am let go.

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

Almost Eternal, But Not Quite

Again I resume the long
lesson: how small a thing
can be pleasing, how little
in this hard world it takes
to satisfy the mind
and bring it to its rest.

Within the ongoing havoc
the woods this morning is
almost unnaturally still.
Through stalled air, unshadowed
light, a few leaves fall
of their own weight.

                                       The sky
is gray. It begins in mist
almost at the ground
and rises forever. The trees
rise in silence almost
natural, but not quite,
almost eternal, but
not quite.

                      What more did I
think I wanted? Here is
what has always been.
Here is what will always
be. Even in me,
the Maker of all this
returns in rest, even
to the slightest of His works,
a yellow leaf slowly
falling, and is pleased.
~Wendell Berry “VII”

What more did I think I wanted?

To know that as long as I’m able to hold on,
I can be a spot of light in a dark and bleak world.
Once I let go,
it is finished and worthwhile,
seeing His knowing smile.

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

Eavesdropping on Private Voices

When I opened the door
I found the vine leaves
speaking among themselves in abundant
whispers.
                   My presence made them
hush their green breath,
embarrassed, the way
humans stand up, buttoning their jackets,
acting as if they were leaving anyway, as if
the conversation had ended
just before you arrived.
                                               I liked
the glimpse I had, though,
of their obscure
gestures. I liked the sound
of such private voices. Next time
I’ll move like cautious sunlight, open
the door by fractions, eavesdrop
peacefully.
~Denise Levertov, “Aware” from This Great Unknowing.

I need to be cautious or I also would be swallowed up inch by inch by a variety of vines surrounding our home and farm buildings. Between the ivy, Virginia creeper and our opportunistic ubiquitous blackberry vines, I’m mere audience to their varied plans of expansive world domination.

As part of generations of human creep, I can’t indict the vines as aggressive interlopers for going where no vine has gone before. Much human migration has been out of necessity due to inadequate food sources or inhospitable circumstances. Some is due to a spirit of adventure and desire for new places to explore. Nevertheless, we human vines end up dominating places where we may not be really welcome.

So we human vines whisper together conspiratorially about where to send out our tendrils next, never asking permission, only sometimes asking for forgiveness later.

I can’t help but listen to those private voices – one of which is my own – who feel discontented with the “here and now” — we suspect somewhere else may be better. Rather than choose to stay and flourish in place, we keep creeping and overwhelming our surroundings.

Dear human vines: creep gently with sensitivity for the ground you occupy. Don’t block the sun from others or quench yourself while others thirst. Be kind and make the spot you cover more beautiful than it was before.https://barnstorming.blog/new-book-available-almanac-of-quiet-days/

A book of beauty in words and photography