We Couldn’t Do Anything


Yesterday our children, playing
in a tree, watched as the tiniest bird
fell from above them,
where it belonged,
to land below them,
where it did not.
The dog, animal and eager,
stepped on the bird, then
lowered his head. Our daughter
screamed, hauled him back,
then cupped her trembling hands
around the trembling bird,
Its one wing stretched and bent.
Our son ran inside, obedient
to our daughter’s instructions.
I was in the shower, useless.
You found a shoebox, sheltered the bird,
helped our children find leaves and twigs,
perched the box in the tree. At supper,
we prayed for the bird while its mother
visited the shoebox,
her beak full. She fretted
and fluttered. She couldn’t do anything,
and we couldn’t do anything,
and after supper, we found the trowel.
Dust to dust,
I said.
O how I longed to gather you,
you said, as a mother hen gathers
her young beneath her wings.
Our son pushed a stick into the soft earth.
Our daughter told him not to push too far.

~Shea Tuttle “After reading our daughter’s poem” from Image Journal

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

~Emily Dickinson

I have known the helplessness of watching life ebb away from a living creature and not be able to do a thing to change what is happening.

As a teenage nurse aide in a rest home for the elderly, I saw much of dying over those years before going to medical school – some deaths were anticipated and some unexpected. What was most apparent to me in that setting is that my primary role was to be a caring witness and comforter. I could not change what was happening but I could be there, not leaving my patients to die alone. I hoped that I was useful in some way.

Later, when I worked as a physician in a hospital, there were certainly things we would do to respond to a sudden cardiac event, and it was very dramatic to see someone’s pulse restored and stabilized due to our intervention. But more often than not, what we could do wouldn’t change the reality – dying still happened and we were gathered to witness the end. We often left the bedside feeling useless.

Now I have grandchildren who are learning about death through observing the natural cycles of animals living and dying on our farm. They discover a dead bird or vole on the ground; they were aware one of our elderly horses recently died. They are aware our beloved farm dogs are aging and so are grandma and grandpa.

Children naturally ask “why?” and we do our best to explain there is always hope and comfort, even when physical bodies are dust in the ground, marked by a stick or stone or only a memory.

It is “Hope” that sings alive within us, even when we’re naked and featherless, even if we fall far from the nest we were born to. We are caught and safe under our Savior’s wings for the rest of eternity, never to be “just dust” again.

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An Ordinary Night

What scene would I want to be enveloped in
more than this one,
an ordinary night at the kitchen table,
floral wallpaper pressing in,
white cabinets full of glass,
the telephone silent,
a pen tilted back in my hand?

It gives me time to think
about all that is going on outside–
leaves gathering in corners,
lichen greening the high grey rocks,
while over the dunes the world sails on,
huge, ocean-going, history bubbling in its wake.

But beyond this table
there is nothing that I need,
not even a job that would allow me to row to work,
or a coffee-colored Aston Martin DB4
with cracked green leather seats.

No, it’s all here,
the clear ovals of a glass of water,
a small crate of oranges, a book on Stalin,
not to mention the odd snarling fish
in a frame on the wall,
and the way these three candles–
each a different height–
are singing in perfect harmony.

So forgive me
if I lower my head now and listen
to the short bass candle as he takes a solo
while my heart
thrums under my shirt–
frog at the edge of a pond–
and my thoughts fly off to a province
made of one enormous sky
and about a million empty branches.

~Billy Collins “I Ask You”

I want to make poems while thinking of
the bread of heaven and the
cup of astonishment; let them be

songs in which nothing is neglected
~Mary Oliver  from “Everything”

Some days, my search for new words and images runs dry, especially in mid-winter when a chill wind is blowing and inhospitable. I seek indoor comfort more than inspiration. I am content sitting in a warm kitchen with other’s words running through my ears and over my tongue.

I feel kinship with the amaryllis bulb that has been on my kitchen table for the past month, as it enjoys the warmth in its soil pot and occasional drink of water. It started out as such a plain-looking bulb, so dry, so underwhelming in every respect. Once the stem started emerging from its plain-jane cocoon, I watched it grow taller each day. Last week it burst open, wearing its heart on its sleeve, comically cheerful at this drab time of year. I appreciate its effort at bringing summer right into my kitchen and my heart; I get a bit drab and cranky myself without the reminder that winter is not forever.

So I allow myself to drink deeply from a cup of astonishment, even on an ordinary night in an ordinary kitchen on an ordinary very cold end-of-January evening.

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An Unexpected January Light

Today is one of those excellent January partly cloudies
in which light chooses an unexpected part of the landscape
to trick out in gilt, and then the shadow sweeps it away.
You know you’re alive.
You take huge steps,
trying to feel the planet’s roundness arc between your feet.
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

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”

After years of rarely paying attention,
too busy with whatever household,
work-place, or barnyard task needed doing,
I realized there are only a finite number
of sunrises and sunsets left to me.

Now I stop, take a deep breath,
sense the earth’s roundness
and feel lucky to be alive,
a witness to a moment of manna
falling from the sky.

Sometimes it is as plain and gray
as I am, but at times,
a fire is lit from above and beneath,
igniting the sky, overwhelming me.

I am swept away by light and shadow,
transfixed and transformed,
forever grateful to be fed
by heavenly bread broken over my head.

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Making Something Happen Every Day

There in the attic of forgotten shapes
(Old coats in plastic, hat boxes, fur capes
Amongst the smells of mothballs and cigars),
I saw the doll house of our early years,
With which my mother and my aunt had played,
And later where my sister and I made
The towering grown-up hours to smile and pass:
The little beds, the tin-foil looking glass,
Bookcases stamped in ink upon the walls,
Mismatched chairs where sat the jointed dolls,
The clock whose face, no larger than a dime,
Had, for all these years, kept the same time.
I remembered how we set the resin food
Atop a table of stained balsa wood,
The shiny turkey hollow to the tap,
The cherry pie baked in a bottle cap.
Now it is time to go to sleep, we spoke,
Parroting the talk of older folk,
And laid the dolls out fully-clothed in bed
After their teeth were brushed, and prayers were said,
And flipped the switch on the low-wattage sun.
But in the night we’d have something break in,
Kidnap the baby or purloin the pie —
A tiger, maybe, or a passer by —
Just to make something happen, to move the story.
The dolls awoke, alarmed, took inventory.
If we made something happen every day,
Or night, it was the game we knew to play,
Not realizing then how lives accrue,
With interest, the smallest things we do.

~A.E. Stallings “The Doll House”

I was born with a severe imagination deficiency. I could not create my way out of a paper bag, much less make up a story. This never seemed like much of an impediment since I am quite content dealing with the daily challenges of real life. I married someone with a similar world view and we both thrived in our banal and mundane world.

Then we had children. Children born with intact and active imaginations. Children with imaginary friends, and monsters under the bed and a world outside our front door that I didn’t recognize. And they have grown up to have children with wild imaginings too.

Our old doll house is a pretty tame place to exercise excessive levels of creativity, with characters and furniture to move around, conversations to overhear and conflicts to resolve. So I watch grandchildren make something happen in their world while I continue to make sense of the world I was born into.

Their stories become interest accrued on lives well-composed and imagined. Even when a giant troll comes and knocks over all the furniture – there is no need for real life earthquakes in their created-reality.

And so it goes…

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Standing Together in One Body

Because I know tomorrow
his faithful gelding heart will be broken
when the spotted mare is trailered and driven away,
I come today to take him for a gallop on Diaz Ridge.

Returning, he will whinny for his love.
Ancient, spavined,
her white parts red with hill-dust,
her red parts whitened with the same, she never answers.

But today, when I turn him loose at the hill-gate
with the taste of chewed oat on his tongue
and the saddle-sweat rinsed off with water,
I know he will canter, however tired,
whinnying wildly up the ridge’s near side,
and I know he will find her.

He will be filled with the sureness of horses
whose bellies are grain-filled,
whose long-ribbed loneliness
can be scratched into no-longer-lonely.

His long teeth on her withers,
her rough-coated spots will grow damp and wild.
Her long teeth on his withers,
his oiled-teakwood smoothness will grow damp and wild.
Their shadows’ chiasmus will fleck and fill with flies,
the eight marks of their fortune stamp and then cancel the earth.
From ear-flick to tail-switch, they stand in one body.
No luck is as boundless as theirs.

~Jane Hirshfield “The Love of Aged Horses”

Is there anything as wonderful as a good friend?

Someone who doesn’t mind if you are getting long in the tooth and fluffy around the waist and getting white around the whiskers?

Someone who will listen to your most trivial troubles and nod and understand even if they really don’t?

Someone who will fix you up when you are hurt and celebrate when you are happy?

Someone who knows exactly where your itches are that need scratching, even if it means a mouthful of hair?

We all need at least one. We all need to be one for at least one other.

Isn’t it good to know? You’ve got a friend in me…

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Watching Where I Step

I watch where I step and see
that the fallen leaf, old broken glass,
an icy stone are placed in

exactly the right spot on the earth, carefully,
royalty in their own country.

~ Tom Hennen, “Looking For The Differences”
from Darkness Sticks To Everything: Collected and New Poems.

If the pebble, the leaf, the walnut shell, the moss, the fallen feather
are placed exactly right where they belong,
then so am I
~even when I might rather be elsewhere~
even when I could get stepped on,
even when I am broken apart,
even when I would rather hide in a hole,
even when exactly right is feeling exactly wrong.

I’m placed right here, watching where I step
for reasons beyond my understanding:
indeed – a simple peasant
asked to serve a royal purpose.

Sometimes the night was beautiful
Sometimes the sky was so far away
Sometimes it seemed to stoop so close
You could touch it but your heart would break
Sometimes the morning came too soon
Sometimes the day could be so hot
There was so much work left to do
But so much You’d already done

O God, You are my God
And I will ever praise You
O God, You are my God
And I will ever praise You
And I will seek You in the morning
And I will learn to walk in Your ways
And step by step You’ll lead me
And I will follow You all of my days
~Rich Mullins

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All Here is Well…

Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving   
up the bales as the sun moves down.

Let it come, as it will, and don’t   
be afraid. God does not leave us 
comfortless, so let evening come.

~Jane Kenyon “Let Evening Come”

And into nights when bats were on the wing
Over the rafters of sleep, where bright eyes stared
From piles of grain in corners, fierce, unblinking.
The dark gulfed like a roof-space. 

~Seamus Heaney from “The Barn”

The barn is awake,
There is no mistake,
Something wonderful is happening here.
Yellow panes glowing, it begins snowing.
Over rafters a hoot owl takes flight.
A safe place to dwell—all here is well— when we’re in the barn at night.
~Michelle Houts from “Barn at Night”

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

Above us, stars. Beneath us, constellations.
Five billion miles away, a galaxy dies
like a snowflake falling on water. Below us,
some farmer, feeling the chill of that distant death,
snaps on his yard light, drawing his sheds and barn
back into the little system of his care.
All night, the cities, like shimmering novas,
tug with bright streets at lonely lights like his.

~Ted Kooser “Flying at Night”

The night barn is a type of beacon as darkness falls.
Light falls through the cracks to guide our footsteps.
It becomes protection from wind and rain and snow.
It provides creatures comfort so their keepers can sleep soundly.
It is safe and warm – full of steaming breath and overall contentment.
It is a kind of sanctuary: a cathedral sans stained glass grandeur or organ hymns.

Yet the only true sanctuary isn’t found in a weather-beaten barn of rough-hewn old growth timbers vulnerable to the winds of life.

An illuminated night barn happens within me, in the depths of my soul, comforted by the encompassing and salvaging arms of God. There I am held, transformed and restored, grateful beyond measure: all is well here.

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Lifted From the Water

I couldn’t let it drown. I ripped off a piece
of my sandwich bag, lifted it to safety.
Its little legs reached behind its back
to stroke its wings dry.
I, too, have stretched my legs
in strange positions. Is this a leap?
What did you expect? For me to let the bug
just be a bug. To leave it alone
when it already planned on dying.
To reach out and not imagine myself the God
I wish would lift me from the water.
~Daniella Toosie-Watson “The Bug”

You are not your own; you were bought at a price.
1 Corinthians 6: 19b-20a

There is a well known story with a number of variations, all involving a scorpion that stings a good-souled frog/turtle/crocodile/person who tries to rescue it from drowning. Since the sting dooms the rescuer and as a result the scorpion as well, the scorpion explains “to sting is in my nature”. In one version, the rescuer tries again and again to help the scorpion, repeatedly getting stung, only to explain before he dies “it may be in your nature to sting but it is in my nature to save.”

This is actually a story originating from Eastern religion and thought, the purpose of which is to illustrate the “dharma”, or orderly nature of things. The story ends perfectly for the Eastern religions believer even though both scorpion and the rescuer die in the end, as the dharma of the scorpion and of the rescuer is realized, no matter what the outcome. Things are what they are, without judgment, and actualization of that nature is the whole point.

However, this story only resonates for the Christian if the nature of the scorpion is forever transformed by the sacrifice of the rescuer on its behalf. The scorpion is no longer its own so no longer slave to its “nature” – no longer just a scorpion with a need and desire to sting whatever it sees. It has been “bought” through the sacrifice of the Rescuer. It no longer is “just” a bug, planning on drowning.

So we too are no longer our own,
no longer the helpless victim of our nature
no longer the stinger
no longer the stung
no longer who we used to be before we were rescued.

We are bought at a price beyond imagining.

And our nature to hurt, to punish, to sting, even to die – shall be no more.

Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?
1 Corinthians 15: 55

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Ragged Hopes

How granular they feel—grief and regret, arriving, as they do,
in the sharp particularities of distress. Inserting themselves—
cunning, intricate, subversive—into our discourse.

In the long night, grievances seem to multiply. Old dreams
mingling with new. Disappointment and regret bludgeon
the soul, your best imaginings bruised, your hopes ragged.

Yet wait, watch. From the skylight the room is filling with
soft early sun, slowly sifting its light on the bed, on your head,
a shower of fine particles. How welcome. And how reliable.

~Luci Shaw “Sorrow”

(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)

Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.

~ Mary Oliver “The Uses of Sorrow” from Thirst

We are given a box full of darkness
by someone who loves us,
and we can’t help but open it
and weep.

It takes a lifetime to understand,
if we ever do,
we will inevitably hand off
this gift to others whom we love.

Opening the box
allows the Light in
where none existed before.
Light pours into our brokenness.

Sorrow ends up shining through our tears:
we reach out from a deep well of need.
Because we are loved so thoroughly,
we too love deeply beyond ourselves.

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Rainy Sundays Last Forever

I’m the child of rainy Sundays.
I watched time crawl
Like an injured fly
Over the wet windowpane.
Or waited for a branch
On a tree to stop shaking,
While Grandmother knitted
Making a ball of yarn
Roll over like a kitten at her feet.
I knew every clock in the house
Had stopped ticking
And that this day will last forever.
~Charles Simic “To Boredom”


Charles Simic died last week at the age of 84.

It has been an eternity since I’ve been bored.

My list of to-do’s
and want-to-do’s
and hope-to-do’s
and someday-maybe-if-I’m-lucky-to-do’s
is much longer than the years still left to me.

But I remember those days long ago
when the clock would stop,
time would suspend itself above me,
~dangling~
and the day would last forever
until it finally collapsed with a gasp.

No more.

Time races and skitters and skips by,
each heartbeat
a grateful reminder of my continued existence
as forever moves closer than ever.

Lying in my bed I hear the clock tick,
And think of you
Caught up in circles confusion –
Is nothing new
Flashback – warm nights –
Almost left behind
Suitcases of memories,
Time after –
Sometimes you picture me –
I’m walking too far ahead
You’re calling to me, I can’t hear
What you’ve said –
Then you say – go slow – I fall behind –
The second hand unwinds
If you’re lost you can look – and you will find me
Time after time
If you fall I will catch you – I’ll be waiting
Time after time
After my picture fades and darkness has
Turned to gray
Watching through windows – you’re wondering
If I’m OK
Secrets stolen from deep inside
The drum beats out of time –
~Cyndi Lauper

The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time
Any fool can do it
There ain’t nothing to it
Nobody knows how we got to
The top of the hill
But since we’re on our way down
We might as well enjoy the ride.
The secret of love is in opening up your heart
It’s okay to feel afraid
But don’t let that stand in your way
’cause anyone knows that love is the only road
And since we’re only here for a while
Might as well show some style
Give us a smile.
Isn’t it a lovely ride
Sliding down
Gliding down
Try not to try too hard
It’s just a lovely ride.
Now the thing about time is that time
Isn’t really real
It’s just your point of view
How does it feel for you
Einstein said he could never understand it all
Planets spinning through space
The smile upon your face
Welcome to the human race.
Some kind of lovely ride
I’ll be sliding down
I’ll be gliding down
Try not to try too hard
It’s just a lovely ride.
Isn’t it a lovely ride
Sliding down
Gliding down
Try not to try too hard
It’s just a lovely ride.
~James Taylor

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