Watching Ensanguining Skies

Ensanguining the skies
How heavily it dies
  Into the west away;
Past touch and sight and sound
Not further to be found,
How hopeless under ground
  Falls the remorseful day.
~A.E. Houseman from “How Clear, How Lovely Bright”

O’er me, like a regal tent,
Cloudy-ribbed, the sunset bent,
Purple-curtained, fringed with gold,
Looped in many a wind-swung fold…

~John Greenleaf Whittier from “The Barefoot Boy”

Once I saw a chimpanzee gaze at a particularly beautiful sunset for a full 15 minutes, watching the changing colors [and then] retire to the forest without picking a pawpaw for supper.
~Adriaan Krotlandt, Dutch ethologist in Scientific American (1962)

It was like a church to me.
I entered it on soft foot,
Breath held like a cap in the hand.
It was quiet.
What God there was made himself felt,
Not listened to, in clean colours
That brought a moistening of the eye,
In a movement of the wind over grass.
There were no prayers said. But stillness
Of the heart’s passions — that was praise
Enough; and the mind’s cession
Of its kingdom. I walked on,
Simple and poor, while the air crumbled
And broke on me generously as bread.
R.S. Thomas “The Moor”

How can I feel so warm   
Here in the dead center of January? I can   
Scarcely believe it, and yet I have to, this is   
The only life I have. 
~James Wright from “A Winter Daybreak Above Vence”

Last night was a once a year sunset experience in the dead center of January, following a full day of pouring-rain gray-skies monochrome nothingness.

For twenty minutes our region was blissed to witness an evolving array of crimson and purple color and patterns, streaks and swirls, gradation and gradual decline.

It all took place in silence.  No bird song, no wind, no spoken prayer.
Yet a communion took place – the air broke and fed us like manna from heaven. And so filled to the brim…

May I squander my life no more and instead treasure each moment.

May I vow to cherish God, church, family, friends, and those in my community who are strangers to me.

May I never forget my witness this winter day of the bleeding of the last light of day.

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Saved By a Snow Storm

“I have noticed,” she said slowly, “that time does not really exist for mothers, with regard to their children. It does not matter greatly how old the child is – in the blink of an eye, the mother can see the child again as she was when she was born, when she learned to walk, as she was at any age — at any time, even when the child is fully grown….”
~Diana Gabaldon from Voyager

May the wind always be in her hair
May the sky always be wide with hope above her
And may all the hills be an exhilaration
the trials but a trail,
all the stones but stairs to God.

May she be bread and feed many with her life and her laughter
May she be thread and mend brokenness and knit hearts…
~Ann Voskamp from “A Prayer for a Daughter”

Your rolling and stretching had grown quieter that stormy winter night
twenty nine years ago, but still no labor came as it should.
Already a week overdue post-Christmas,
you clung to amnion and womb, not yet ready.
Then as the wind blew more wicked
and snow flew sideways, landing in piling drifts,
the roads became more impassable, nearly impossible to traverse.

So your dad and I tried,
concerned about your stillness and my advanced age,
worried about being stranded on the farm far from town.
So a neighbor came to stay with your brothers overnight,
we headed down the road
and our car got stuck in a snowpile in the deep darkness,
our tires spinning, whining against the snow.
Another neighbor’s earth mover dug us out to freedom.

You floated silent and still, knowing your time was not yet.

Creeping slowly through the dark night blizzard,
we arrived to the warm glow of the hospital,
your heartbeat checked out steady, all seemed fine.

I slept not at all.

The morning’s sun glistened off sculptured snow as
your heart ominously slowed.
You and I were jostled, turned, oxygenated, but nothing changed.
You beat even more slowly,
threatening to let loose your tenuous grip on life.

The nurses’ eyes told me we had trouble.
The doctor, grim faced, announced
delivery must happen quickly,
taking you now, hoping we were not too late.
I was rolled, numbed, stunned,
clasping your father’s hand, closing my eyes,
not wanting to see the bustle around me,
trying not to hear the shouted orders,
the tension in the voices,
the quiet at the moment of opening
when it was unknown what would be found.

And then you cried. A hearty healthy husky cry,
a welcomed song of life uninterrupted.
Perturbed and disturbed from the warmth of womb,
to the cold shock of a bright lit operating room,
your first vocal solo brought applause
from the surrounding audience who admired your purplish pink skin,
your shock of damp red hair, your blue eyes squeezed tight,
then blinking open, wondering and wondrous,
emerging and saved from a storm within and without.

You were brought wrapped for me to see and touch
before you were whisked away to be checked over thoroughly,
your father trailing behind the parade to the nursery.
I closed my eyes, swirling in a brain blizzard of what-ifs.

If no snow storm had come,
you would have fallen asleep forever within my womb,
no longer nurtured by my aging and failing placenta,
cut off from what you needed to stay alive.
There would have been only our soft weeping,
knowing what could have been if we had only known,
if God had provided a sign to go for help.

So you were saved by a providential storm
and dug out from a drift:
I celebrate when I hear your voice singing,
and when your students love you as their teacher,
knowing you are a thread born to knit and mend hearts,
all because of blowing snow.

My annual retelling of the most remarkable day of my life when our daughter Eleanor (“Lea”) Sarah Gibson was born, hale and hearty because the good Lord sent a snow and wind storm to blow us into the hospital in time to save her. She is now married to her true love Brian who is another gift sent from the Lord; someday their hope for parenthood will come true for them as well.

The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: Leaping with Life

Be a womb. Be a dwelling for God. Be surprised.
~Loretta Ross-Gotta
from Letters from the Holy Ground

Here is a meeting made of hidden joys
Of lightenings cloistered in a narrow place,
From quiet hearts the sudden flame of praise,
And in the womb the quickening kick of grace.

Two women on the very edge of things
Unnoticed and unknown to men of power,
But in their flesh the hidden Spirit sings
And in their lives the buds of blessing flower.

And Mary stands with all we call ‘too young,’
Elizabeth with all called ‘past their prime.’
They sing today for all the great unsung
Women who turned eternity to time,

Favoured of heaven, outcast on the earth,
Prophets who bring the best in us to birth.

~Malcolm Guite “The Visitation”

41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”
Luke 1: 41-45  (Song of Elizabeth)

This scene in Luke is remarkable for its portrayal of the interconnected relationship of four individuals, not just two.  Here are two cousins who become mothers despite utter impossibility — one too elderly and one virginal — present on this day with their unborn sons — one who is harbinger and one who is God.

These unborn babies are not just passively “hidden within” here.  They have changed their mothers in profound ways, as all pregnancies tend to do, but especially these pregnancies.  As any mother who first experiences the “quickening” of her unborn child can relate, there is an awesome and frightening awareness of a completely dependent but active “other” living inside. 

She is aware she is no longer alone in her shell and what happens to her, happens to this other life as well. This is deeply personal, yet deeply communal at the same time – as we witnessed in the arguments about maternal vs. fetal rights that took place in the hallowed halls of the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday.

The moment Elizabeth hears Mary’s voice, she and the baby in her womb are overwhelmed, filled with the Spirit from Mary’s unborn.  They leap, figuratively and literally.  Her voice leaps up, louder in her exclamation of welcome; John leaps in the womb in acknowledgement of being in the presence of God Himself.

How can our hearts not leap as well at God’s Word to us, at His hope and plan for each of us, at His gift of life from the moment of our conception.

After all, He once was unborn too,
completely dependent on the willingness of His mother to bear Him to birth,
completely alive because of the overshadowing Spirit of His Father.

We are all buds willed to flower by our God.

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”

Waves on Waves

I haven’t yet been able to find words—
a sentence for what happens when I brush
my daughter’s hair and divide into thirds
enough hair for a family of four
(one barber said, the rare one I trusted).
Honeycomb-colored braid, she’s out the door
for school (green coat, pink backpack), and rushing
right on time, little Virgo, to the bus.
One-woman-show with harmonies, alone—
amazed, bowed down (deep inhale) O the joy
contained in waves on waves: a shimmering song
my daughter’s hair sings as she floats
each afternoon high up into a tree.
Against the clouds she climbs, far beyond me.
~Megan Buchanan “My Daughter’s Hair”, from Clothesline Religion

She was born with the announcement from the doctor: “we have a bunch of red hair here on this little lady!”

Then as a little girl her hair was straight as could be, until one day she woke up with hints of waves and ringlets which eventually became a virtual thicket of auburn tresses.

No longer could I quickly comb through her hair or even trust myself with scissors. Instead I stood back in awe, with my thin straight hair, marveling at how this could happen to a child of mine. This was her daddy’s hair.

Her amazing mane is but one part of who this remarkable woman has become, these endless waves, yet it is only the surface of a strong light that dwells richly within her. Now, as a teacher of 10 year olds, she floats among children who someday will transform overnight as she did. She is part of determining who they will become, her effect on them like a wave upon wave upon wave.

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Benign

“They’re benign,” the radiologist says,
pointing to specks on the x ray
that look like dust motes
stopped cold in their dance.
His words take my spine like flame.
I suddenly love
the radiologist, the nurse, my paper gown,
the vapid print on the dressing room wall.
I pull on my radiant clothes.
I step out into the Hanging Gardens, the Taj Mahal,
the Niagara Falls of the parking lot.

~Jo McDougall, “Mammogram” from In the Home of the Famous Dead: Collected Poems

Outside the house the wind is howling
and the trees are creaking horribly.
This is an old story
with its old beginning,
as I lay me down to sleep.
But when I wake up, sunlight
has taken over the room.
You have already made the coffee
and the radio brings us music
from a confident age. In the paper
bad news is set in distant places.
Whatever was bound to happen
in my story did not happen.
But I know there are rules that cannot be broken.
Perhaps a name was changed.
A small mistake. Perhaps
a woman I do not know
is facing the day with the heavy heart
that, by all rights, should have been mine.

~Lisel Mueller “In November”

It does not escape me,
especially on mammogram days~~

(although I wake every day knowing this):

an earthquake happened somewhere else,
a war left people homeless and lifeless,
a windstorm leveled a town,
a drunk driver destroyed a family,
a fire left a house in ashes,
a famine caused children to starve,
a flood ravaged a village,
a devastating diagnosis darkened
someone’s remaining days.

No mistake has been made,
yet I wake knowing this part of my story
has not yet visited me,
the heavy heart
that could have been mine
is spared again,
still beating,
still breaking,
still bleeding,
still believing
the radiance from this good news is real
and once again happened today.

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Live Each Day As If It Were My First

You tell me to live each day
as if it were my last. This is in the kitchen
where before coffee I complain
of the day ahead—that obstacle race
of minutes and hours,
grocery stores and doctors.

But why the last? I ask. Why not
live each day as if it were the first—
all raw astonishment, Eve rubbing
her eyes awake that first morning,
the sun coming up
like an ingénue in the east?

You grind the coffee
with the small roar of a mind
trying to clear itself. I set
the table, glance out the window
where dew has baptized every
living surface.
~Linda Pastan “Imaginary Conversation” 

To live each day like the first day, rather than the last…

It would mean unbridled awe and astonishment, as it should be.
Not only gratitude that the world exists, but grateful that I exist.

Newly created and baptized by amazement each day,
just like my first day.

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

Held My Breath

We drove across high prairie,
the Mississippi behind us,
nothing ahead for miles
but sky,

a loamy sky, thick enough
to put a trowel into,
but off to the south
clouds pulled


away from one another
as if to stand back
take a long look,
and in that


space what light was left
of the sun
already gone below
the horizon


flowed up and held there
and we did too hold
our breaths at the sudden
beauty.
~Athena Kildegaard “We drove across high prairie…” from Cloves & Honey.

We didn’t drive this time;
instead we boarded a plane
with other masked people,
holding our breath with the unfamiliarity
of being so close to strangers—
rather than a response
to the beauty of what we saw.

The vast landscape appeared below
rather than stretching out before us,
its emptiness stark and lonely from the air
as well as from the road.

We hold our breath,
awed by the reality
that we are truly here.
Really here, one way or the other.

In two hours, rather than two days.
Masked, but never blind to the beauty.

A book of beautiful words and photos available to order

When the Trivial is Transformed

Man Scything Hay by Todd Reifers

A sudden light transfigures a trivial thing,
a weather-vane,
a wind-mill,
a winnowing flail,
the dust in the barn door;
a moment,- -and the thing has vanished,
because it was pure effect;
but it leaves a relish behind it,
a longing that the accident may happen again.
~Walter Pater from his essay “The Renaissance”

The accident of light does happen, again and again, but when I least expect it.  If I’m not ready for it, in a blink, it can be gone.

Yet in that moment, everything is changed and transformed forever.  The thing itself, trivial and transient becomes something other, merely because of how it is illuminated.

So am I, trivial and transient, lit from outside myself with a light that ignites me within. I’m transfigured by a love and sacrifice unexpected and undeserved.

Am I ready to be changed?

A book of beautiful words and photos, available for order here:

The Beauty of a Fogbow

We don’t need to understand why a rainbow or fogbow is formed in order to appreciate its beauty, of course, but understanding the physics of rainbows does give us a new set of eyes. I call this the beauty of knowledge.
~Walter Lewin from For the Love of Physics

Ghaist o a gaw that few hae seen
paintit on fog lyk a fugue o thi scheme
Noah supposit thi Lord tae mean
     when aa were drooned,
ither hauf o yin o His een
     thon runic roond.

Rope o smoke lyk a loop on a cable,
Grisaille Cain tae thi rainbow’s Abel,
ultra-blank tae infra-sable,
     auld noose o tow;
Yin that’s strang whaur Yang is faible:
     faur are ye now?
~WN Herbert “The Fogbow” from Omnesia

(this is my best guess of the meaning of Herbert’s inventive English/Gaelic/Scottish)

Ghost of a rainbow bruise that few have seen
painted on fog like a fugue of this scheme
Noah supposed the Lord to mean
when all were drowned
the other half of the dark cold earth is
a mysterious rune ruined.

A rope of smoke like a loop on a cable
a gray pallid Cain to the rainbow’s Abel,
outer-white to inner-black
old noose in tow;
the cold and dark is strong where warmth and light is feeble:
where are you now?

Look at a rainbow.
While it lasts, it is or appears to be,
a great arc of many colours occupying a position out there in space….
And now, before it fades, recollect all you have ever been told about the rainbow and its causes, and ask yourself the question,
Is it really there?
You know from memory that if you walked to the place where the rainbow ends, or seems to end, it would certainly not be ‘there’. In a word, reflection will assure you that the rainbow is the outcome of the sun, the raindrops and your own vision.
~Owen Barfield writing about “The Rainbow”

We saw our first “fogbow” or “ghost rainbow” early yesterday on our morning walk. It happened as we were heading east toward the sun, with the fog thickening, filling in behind us. We had just turned around to check the road to be sure no cars were coming before we crossed to the other side and there was this spectral image of foggy columns curving upward over the road to barely touch one another at the top. As we moved away from it, it vanished, as they say, “into thin air.”

This is an unusual phenomenon where the light and moisture in the air needs to be just right – reading about the physics of the fogbow helps to explain it and to render it even more beautiful. But the knowledge of how it happens isn’t nearly as impactful as the fact it was there at all for us to witness. Without our vision, it wasn’t really “there.”

The “bruised” rainbow color in the sky is God’s Old Testament promise to Noah to never destroy the world by flood again, establishing an everlasting covenant with His people while giving us the capacity to witness His promise. Perhaps the fogbow is ghostly reminder of those who have perished, whose blood, like Abel’s, cried out to God from the earth.

But where are we now? Do we seek to understand, believing the promises God made to us? Or do we walk right past God and His miraculous physics of creation, oblivious to what would not even exist without our ability to see it?

Somewhere, over the fogbow, way up high…

If you enjoy these posts, this book from Barnstorming may be of interest for yourself or as a gift to someone who loves beautiful photography and words of wisdom (from Lois Edstrom) – available to order here:

To Gather Paradise

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –

Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –

~Emily Dickinson

The possibilities contained within a Dickinson poem are doors and windows standing wide open for interpretation and comprehension. When I visit Emily’s dwelling full of mysterious capitalizations, inscrutable dashes and sideways rhymes, I am blind, get easily lost, stumbling over this and that, and end up wondering where she is leading me and how far I’m willing to go.



Yet she tells me
– This –
to get my attention, hold it fast, to look up and out, beyond, and into forever.

-This-
is what I must do when I read her carefully chosen words and dashes
-This-
is what I ask of a reader who opens my email or comes to my daily post
-This-
is us dwelling in possibility for a moment or an eternity,
all eyes and windows and doors wide open to grasp a glimpse of Paradise.

-This-
is our hands spread, ready
to gather, to hold, to embrace, to pray, to fold
to prepare us for Whatever Comes Next…

photo by Sara Larsen

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