When I can no longer say thank you for this new day and the waking into it, for the cold scrape of the kitchen chair and the ticking of the space heater glowing orange as it warms the floor near my feet, I know it is because I’ve been fooled again by the selfish, unruly man who lives in me and believes he deserves only safety and comfort. But if I pause as I do now, and watch the streetlights outside winking off one by one like old men closing their cloudy eyes, if I listen to my tired neighbors slamming car doors hard against the morning and see the steaming coffee in their mugs kissing their chapped lips as they sip and exhale each of their worries white into the icy air around their faces—then I can remember this one life is a gift each of us was handed and told to open: Untie the bow and tear off the paper, look inside and be grateful for whatever you find even if it is only the scent of a tangerine that lingers on the fingers long after you’ve finished eating it. ~James Crews, “Winter Morning” from How to Love the World: Poems of Gratitude and Hope
I close my eyes, savor a wafer of sacred cake on my tongue and try to taste my mother, to discern the message she baked in these loaves when she was too ill to eat them:
I love you. It will end. Leave something of sweetness and substance in the mouth of the world. ~Anna Belle Kaufman “Cold Solace”
Each day, even now, brings something new and special to my life, for which I am so grateful; I peel it carefully to find what hides inside, all the while inhaling its fragrance then carefully, slowly, gently lifting it to my mouth to savor it, knowing only love, only loving, only the gift of sacrifice could taste this sweet.
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater. ― J.R.R. Tolkien, from The Fellowship of the Ring
Not a single one of us chose this – living and working and schooling and worshiping with restrictions — unable to easily share meals with friends and family, feeling estranged from those who have previously been a support during trials in the past.
Yet here it is:
We can’t simply wish these hard times away. It is up to us what we do in response.
Do we puddle and want to disappear? Do we get angry and look for someone/anyone to blame? Do we leave it up to God and quietly wait for His plans to unfold? Do we grab hold of this unprecedented opportunity to reconnect in unique ways and so expand, rather than contract, our community?
Yes. All of those. Sometimes all in the same day.
We are all in different places about how to manage this. On the days I want to hide, someone is trying to pull me out into the light. On the days I feel angry, no one will listen to my rant. On the days I have a “bright” idea to try something new that I’m sure everyone else will endorse, God tells me to just sit back and wait on Him.
The waiting for normalcy feels interminable. And normal won’t ever be the same again.
It is overwhelming to be tasked with loving one another while grieving the loss of what once was. Love no longer is cheap or superficial: a Sunday handshake and sideways hug. We can’t even see each other’s smiles behind our masks. We have to actually talk to and listen to one another. It is now the hard work of true fellowship, listening compassionately to the complaints of others even when we don’t agree and can’t possibly empathize.
We all know the grieving process takes its own time – it can’t be rushed nor can it be wished away. It takes us on a path we never wanted to travel to a destination we never wanted to visit. And so it is with the losses we are feeling now. We don’t know where we’re heading, or how far we must go, or who will travel with us and who is bailing out now or who will die before we get there. But for those who decide it is best to journey together, we can pick each other up when another falters.
This is love in the time of COVID, love in the time of grief, love in the time of political divisiveness, love in the time of pleading with God to change things.
And He has. We have become the change.
Wherever you are, my love will keep you safe
My heart will build a bridge of love across both time and space
Wherever you are, our hearts still beat as one
I hold you in my dreams each night until your task is done
Light up the darkness my wondrous star
Our hopes and dreams, my heart and yours, forever shining far
Light up the darkness my prince of peace
May the stars shine all around you
May your courage never cease
Wherever I am, I will love you day by day
I will keep you safe, cling on to faith, along the dark dark way
Wherever I am, I will hold on through the night
I will pray each day, a safe return, will look now through the light
Light up the darkness my wondrous star
Our hopes and dreams, my heart and yours, forever shining far
Light up the darkness my prince of peace
May the stars shine all around you
May your courage never cease
Courage never cease
Let us step outside for a moment As the sun breaks through clouds And shines on wet new fallen snow, And breathe the new air. So much has died that had to die this year. We are dying away from things. It is a necessity—we have to do it Or we shall be buried under the magazines, The too many clothes, the too much food.
Let us step outside for a moment Among ocean, clouds, a white field, Islands floating in the distance. They have always been there. But we have not been there.
Already there are signs. Young people plant gardens. Fathers change their babies’ diapers And are learning to cook.
Let us step outside for a moment. It is all there Only we have been slow to arrive At a way of seeing it. Unless the gentle inherit the earth There will be no earth. ~May Sarton from “New Year Poem”
Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention. They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go next. ~Frederick Buechnerfrom Beyond Words
This year I have been paying close attention to what makes me weep. During 2020, I have had more than ample opportunity to find out — from my tears — the secret of who I am, where I have come from, and for the salvation of my soul, where I am to be next.
My pockets contain hand sanitizer and kleenex, stowed right next to my mask.
In previous years, my tears flowed while spending time with far-flung children and grandchildren for the holidays — reading books and doing puzzles together and reminiscing about what has been and what could be. It was about singing grace together before a meal and my voice breaking with precious words of gratitude. My tears certainly had to do with bidding farewell until we meet again — gathering them in for that final hug and then that difficult letting-go and waving goodbye as they round the corner and disappear.
This year, that had to happen on a screen or from behind masks. No hugs hello or goodbye. None of the usual ways we celebrate together. I feel bereft as have countless other families around the globe. Some never had opportunity to say their final goodbye – too much has died this year.
As our children grew up, we encouraged them to go where their hearts told them they were needed and called to go, even if thousands of miles away from their one-time home on this farm. And so they went.
I too was let go once and though I would try to look back, too often in tears, I learned to set my face toward the future, seeking how the sun might break through the clouds in my life. It led me to this marriage, this family, this farm, this work, this church, to more tears and heartbreak, to more letting go. And it will continue if I’m granted more years to weep again and again with gusto and grace.
This year my tears flow for what could not be. For too many families, their tears flow for who now is missing and will never return. My tears flow for the pain and sadness of disagreement and angry words.
Spreading faster than COVID is the viral expansion of toxic misinformation and conspiracy theories sowing doubt and distrust. Masks are useless to protect people exposed to a deficiency of simple common sense.
So this is where I must go next: to love so much and so deeply that my tears might make a small difference to those around me, like the sun breaking through the clouds.
A bookstore is for people who love books and need To touch them, open them, browse for a while, And find some common good––that’s why we read. Readers and writers are two sides of the same gold coin. You write and I read and in that moment I find A union more perfect than any club I could join: The simple intimacy of being one mind. Here in a book-filled sun-lit room below the street, Strangers––some living, some dead––are hoping to meet. ~Garrison Keillor from “November”
Better far than praise of men ‘Tis to sit with book and pen…
I get wisdom day and night Turning darkness into light. ~ninth century Irish monk from “Pangur Ban”
Most of my life has been a reading rather than a writing life. For too many decades, I spent most of my time reading scientific and medical journals, to keep up with the changing knowledge in my profession. That left too little opportunity to dabble in books of memoir, biography, poetry and the occasional novel.
Now in semi-retirement, I’m trying to rectify that deficit, spending wonderful hours reading books I feel immersed within. As a reader, I am no longer a stranger to the author or poet whose words I read. In a few instances, I’ve had the honor and privilege to meet these authors in real life, or to interact with them on line. They have become friends on the page as well as in my life. What a miracle of the modern age!
I am no longer strangers with many of you who read my words here on Barnstorming every day – I have been able to meet a number of you over the years. It is a joy to find new friends through my words!
In the summer of 2013, Dan and I wrapped up our Ireland trip with one day in Dublin before flying home. I wasn’t sure I could take in one more thing into my overwhelmed brain but am grateful Dan gently led me to the exhibit of the Book of Kells at Trinity College along with the incredible library right above it.
I needed to see the amazing things of which man is capable. My weariness was paltry compared to the immense effort of these dedicated writers and artists.
The Book of Kells is an intricately illustrated copy of the Gospels from the ninth century, meticulously decorated by Irish monks with quill pens and the finest of brushes. Two original pages are on display at the library and the brief look one is allowed scarcely does justice to the painstaking detail contained in every letter and design.
Upstairs, is the “Long Room” of 200,000 antiquarian books dating back centuries, lined by busts of writers and philosophers. It is inspiring to think of the millions of hours of illuminated thought contained within those leather bindings.
The written word is precious but so transient on earth; it takes preservationist specialists to keep these ancient books from crumbling to dust, lost forever to future generations.
The original Word is even more precious, lasting forever in the hearts and minds of men, and exists everlasting sitting at the right hand of God, never to disintegrate to dust. He is the inspiration for the intricate beauty of the illustrated Gospels we saw that day.
God is the ultimate source of wisdom for civilization’s greatest writers and poets. He alone has turned darkness into light even in man’s most desperate hours. Our weariness dissipates along with the shadows.
God is no stranger to us – He meets us in His Word and our reading is our ladder to Him. In that meeting, we are forever His.
The way a crow Shook down on me The dust of snow From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart A change of mood And saved some part Of a day I had rued. ~Robert Frost “Dust of Snow”
All those with whom I speak these days wish things could be different~ nothing feels right, rights feel like nothing, everyone sadly angry and angrily sad.
Friends no longer speaking to friends, families divided, opinions expressed and dismissed.
This virus is doing more damage than it was ever designed to do. It simply wants to replicate itself, yet along with its RNA, we have allowed it to sow discord, distrust, discouragement into our cells as well.
There is no vaccine for the stubbornness of heart ailing us now; we resist protective measures, act as if all is normal when a quarter million are dead and more are dying.
This infection of the spirit will far outlast the virus by spreading through the generations, eroding relationships, splitting human bonds, and withering our love for one another.
All winter the blue heron slept among the horses. I do not know the custom of herons, do not know if the solitary habit is their way, or if he listened for some missing one— not knowing even that was what he did— in the blowing sounds in the dark, I know that hope is the hardest love we carry. He slept with his long neck folded, like a letter put away. ~Jane Hirshfield “Hope and Love” from The Lives of the Heart
I know what it is like to feel out of step with those around me, an alien in my own land. At times I wonder if I belong at all as I watch the choices others make. I grew up this way, missing a connection that I could not find, never quite fitting in, a solitary kid becoming a solitary adult. The aloneness bothered me, but not in a “I’ve-got-to-become-like-them” kind of way.
I went my own way, never losing hope.
Somehow misfits find each other. Through the grace and acceptance of others, I found a soul mate and community. Even so, there are times when the old feeling of not-quite-belonging creeps in and I wonder whether I’ll be a misfit all the way to the cemetery, placed in the wrong plot in the wrong graveyard.
We disparate creatures are made for connection of some kind, with those who look and think and act like us, or with those who are something completely different. I’ll keep on the lookout for my fellow misfits, just in case there is another one out there looking for company along this journey.
It must have come in with the morning paper, still being delivered to those who shelter in place.
A morning paper is still an essential service.
I am not an essential service.
I have coffee and books, time, a garden, silence enough to fill cisterns.
It must have first walked the morning paper, as if loosened ink taking the shape of an ant.
Then across the laptop computer — warm — then onto the back of a cushion.
Small black ant, alone, crossing a navy cushion, moving steadily because that is what it could do.
Set outside in the sun, it could not have found again its nest. What then did I save?
It did not move as if it was frightened, even while walking my hand, which moved it through swiftness and air.
Ant, alone, without companions, whose ant-heart I could not fathom— how is your life, I wanted to ask. I lifted it, took it outside.
This first day when I could do nothing, contribute nothing beyond staying distant from my own kind, I did this. ~Jane Hirschfield “Today When I Could Do Nothing”
Nine months into social distancing one from another, with COVID spreading wider and faster than ever, I feel helpless to be a helper without the virus becoming a potentially deadly attachment to my efforts.
So I look for little ways to try to make a difference, as inadequate as they seem. I can no serve meals after evening church service. I can’t visit vulnerable people in their homes so have to be satisfied with screen visits. I can’t go where I wish when I wish because, by definition of age and medical risk, I am one of the vulnerable too.
So I look for words to express that may bring you a smile or maybe a knowing tear. I look for images to share that remind you of something from your past experience. I look for ways to make sense of the senseless when there can be so much disagreement and anger and bitterness. I look for where our common ground exists: how can we deepen and broaden our connection to one another in this time of painful and empty separation?
I want to ask and I want to hear: how is your life?
When we feel we can do nothing, we can do this: rescuing one another from isolation and loneliness. It will be the most important thing we do today.
That house was, as Bilbo had long ago reported, “a perfect house, whether you liked food or sleep or story-telling or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all.” Merely to be there was a cure for weariness, fear, and sadness. ~J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
I wish I was at home in my nice hole by the fire, with the kettle just beginning to sing! ~J.R.R. Tolkien from The Hobbit
We sleep to time’s hurdy-gurdy; we wake, if ever we wake, to the silence of God. And then, when we wake to the deep shores of time uncreated, then when the dazzling dark breaks over the far slopes of time, then it’s time to toss things, like our reason, and our will; then it’s time to break our necks for home. ~Annie Dillard from Holy the Firm
Every now and then, I forget to turn off the lights in the barn. I usually notice just before I go to bed, when the farm’s boundaries seem to have drawn in close. That light makes the barn seem farther away than it is — a distance I’m going to have to travel before I sleep. The weather makes no difference. Neither does the time of year.
Usually, after turning out that forgotten barn light, I sit on the edge of the tractor bucket for a few minutes and let my eyes adjust to the night outside. City people always notice the darkness here, but it’s never very dark if you wait till your eyes owl out a little….I’m always glad to have to walk down to the barn in the night, and I always forget that it makes me glad. I heave on my coat, stomp into my barn boots and trudge down toward the barn light, muttering at myself. But then I sit in the dark, and I remember this gladness, and I walk back up to the gleaming house, listening for the horses. ~Verlyn Klinkenborg from A Light in the Barn
I have always been, and always will be a home-body. As a child, I was hopelessly homesick and miserable whenever I visited overnight somewhere else: not my bed, not my window, not anything that was familiar and comfortable. Going away to college was an ordeal and I had to do two runs at it to finally feel at home somewhere else. I traveled plenty during those young adult years and adapted to new and exotic environs, but never easily.
I haven’t changed much in my older years. Even now, travel is fraught with anxiety for me, not anticipation. I secretly had hoped for a prolonged stay-cation for a change rather than rushing about at break-neck speed when we had a few days off from work. I must be careful for what I wish for, as it is now seven months of stay-and-work-at-home with only two brief sojourns to visit out of town children.
It has been blissful — yet I dare not say that out loud as so many people don’t do well staying at home and are kicking the traces to be set free.
Not so me. I am content on our farm, appreciating our “perfect house, whether you liked food or sleep or story-telling or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all.”
Merely allowed to just be here is my ultimate answer to weariness, fear and sadness.
In the juggle of job, geography, child-rearing, art, sometimes the only quiet is at the kitchen table, a pot of tea, perhaps a bowl of custard, a visitor. The conversation—a fine visible thread one or the other occasionally pulls tight—stretches from Ireland to Alaska, culture to creature, mad experience to dizzy present. How to best sew the dream? The question follows the line we daily stitch: the journey inside. On the stove water steams. Another pot suffices. ~Ken Waldman,”Irish Tea” from The Secret Visitor’s Guide
Your great mistake is to act the drama as if you were alone…
Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into the conversation. The kettle is singing even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots have left their arrogant aloofness and seen the good in you at last. Everything is waiting for you. ~David Whyte from “Everything is Waiting for You”
Many of us are feeling conversation-deficient right now. I know I am; even as a confirmed introvert, I struggle with the desire to stay comfortably internal when instead I need a good chat to discover through careful listening what others are thinking and saying.
Typed words on a screen or handwritten on a piece of paper, or confined to a muted box in a zoom meeting, or spontaneous telephone conversations just don’t do it.
We need a pot of tea, a mug of coffee, a scone or piece of fruit placed in front of us, and a couple of hours to trace the threads of our lives and see where they connect. We build a tapestry of friendship together, sorting through the colors and themes and blending what we can where we are able.
A conversation doesn’t have to be profound nor have an agenda. Sitting together with the patchwork of the world’s swirling events is reason enough. You choose the fabric, I’ll thread the needle and we’ll sew a dream of a better world.
When we stitch with our words, the good in you is sewn together with the good in me – a solid seam reinforced and everlasting.
Here we sit as evening falls Like old horses in their stalls. Thank you, Father, that you bless Us with food and an address And the comfort of your hand In this great and blessed land. Look around at each dear face, Keep each one in your good grace. We think of those who went before, And wish we could have loved them more. Grant to us a cheerful heart, Knowing we must soon depart To that far land to be with them. And now let’s eat. Praise God. Amen. ~Gary Johnson “Table Grace”
The world begins at a kitchen table. No Matter what, we must eat to live.
The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.
We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it.
It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.
At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.
Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.
This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.
We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.
Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate the terrible victory.
At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.
Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite. ~Joy Harjo “Perhaps the World Ends Here”
Our life revolves around the table, whether at home or at church.
This is where we hang out late into the evening, and begin the day before dawn.
This is where prayers happen, the meals happen, the arguments happen. This is where we listen to, understand and love each other.
This is where we share what we have and eat and are fed and this is where God provides for us daily.
One of the hardest parts of the pandemic is that the virus finds people who sing and talk together around a table, and who take off their masks to eat together. Truly this Enemy has found a way to keep people away from one another, caring for one another and being nourished together.
We think of those who went before and wish that we could have loved them more.
Let us love one another now, while we can, when we can, and we shall feast together later.
Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.