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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When One’s Ramble is Over

The smell of that buttered toast simply spoke to Toad,
and with no uncertain voice;
talked of warm kitchens,
of breakfasts on bright frosty mornings,
of cozy parlour firesides on winter evenings,
when one’s ramble was over
and slippered feet were propped on the fender;
of the purring of contented cats,
and the twitter of sleepy canaries.
~Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

I’m not a practitioner of the ancient art of aromatherapy for medicinal purposes but I do know certain smells transport me more effectively than any other mode of travel. One whiff of a familiar scent can take me back years to another decade and place, in time traveling mode. I am so in the moment, both present and past, my brain sees, hears, tastes, feels everything just as it was before.

The most vivid are kitchen smells. Cinnamon becomes my Grandma’s farm kitchen full of rising breakfast rolls, roasting turkey is my mother’s chaotic kitchen on Thanksgiving Day, fresh baked bread is my own kitchen during those years I needed to knead as therapy during medical training.

The newly born wet fur of my foals in the barn carries the sweet and sour amnion that was part of every birth I’ve been part of: delivering others and delivering my own. My heart races at the memory of the drama of those first breaths.

The garden yields its own treasure: tea roses, sweet peas, heliotrope, mint, lemon verbena take me back to lazy breezes wafting through open bedroom windows in my childhood home. And of course the richness of petrichor: the fragrance of the earth after a long awaited rain will remind me of how things smell after a dry spell.

I doubt any aromatherapy kit available would include my most favorite farm smells: newly mown hay, fresh fir shavings for stall bedding,  the mustiness of the manure pile, the green sweetness of a horses’ breath.

Someday I’ll figure out how to bottle all these up to keep forever.   Years from now my rambles will be over, when I’m too feeble to walk to the barn,  I can sit by my fireplace, close my eyes, open it up and take a whiff now and then to remind me of all I’m grateful for. 

I’ll breathe deeply of those memories that speak to me through scents — with no uncertain voice.

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Please Don’t Take My Sunshine Away

My father climbs into the silo.
He has come, rung by rung,
up the wooden trail that scales
that tall belly of cement.

It’s winter, twenty below zero,
He can hear the wind overhead.
The silage beneath his boots
is so frozen it has no smell.

My father takes up a pick-ax
and chops away a layer of silage.
He works neatly, counter-clockwise
under a yellow light,

then lifts the chunks with a pitchfork
and throws them down the chute.
They break as they fall
and rattle far below.

His breath comes out in clouds,
his fingers begin to ache, but
he skims off another layer
where the frost is forming

and begins to sing, “You are my
sunshine, my only sunshine.”
~Joyce Sutphen, “Silo Solo” from First Words

Farmers gotta be tough. There is no taking a day off from chores. The critters need to eat and their beds cleaned even during the coldest and hottest days. Farmers rise before the sun and return to the house long after the sun sets. They need a positive outlook to keep going – knowing there is sunshine somewhere even when the skies are gray, their fingers are aching from the cold, and their back hurts.

I come from a long line of farmers on both sides – my mother was the daughter of wheat farmers and my father was the son of subsistence stump farmers who had to supplement their income with outside jobs as a cook and in lumber mills. Both my parents went to college; their parents wanted something better for them than they had. Both my parents had professions but still chose to live on a farm – daily milkings, crops in the garden and fields, raising animals for meat.

My husband’s story is similar, with both parents working on and off the farm. Dan milked cows with his dad and as a before-school job in the mornings.

We still chose to live on a farm to raise our children and commit to the daily work, no matter the weather, on sunlit days and blowing snow days and gray muddy days. And now, when our grandchildren visit, we introduce them to the routine and rhythms of farm life, the good and the bad, the joys and the sorrows, and through it all, we are grateful for the values that follow through the generations of farming people.

And one of our favorite songs to sing to our grandchildren is “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,” a song originally written about a horse named “Sunshine.

For the farmer and the rest of us, it is the Sun that sustains our days and its promise of return that sustains our nights.

You’ll never know, dears, how much we love you.
Please don’t take our sunshine away.

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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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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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A New Definition of Greatness

…if I respond to hate with a reciprocal hate I do nothing but intensify the cleavage in broken community. I can only close the gap in broken community by meeting hate with love. If I meet hate with hate, I become depersonalized, because creation is so designed that my personality can only be fulfilled in the context of community.
Booker T. Washington was right: “Let no man pull you so low as to make you hate him.”

~Martin Luther King, Jr.

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
from The Douglas Letters

Be careful whom you choose to hate.
The small and the vulnerable own a protection great enough,
if you could but see it,
to melt you into jelly.

~Leif Enger from Peace Like a River

We have a new definition of greatness:
it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. 
You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. 
You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. 
You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. 
You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. 
You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. 
You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. 
And you can be that servant.
~Martin Luther King, Jr.  in a February 1968 sermon:  “The Drum Major Instinct” from A Knock At Midnight: Inspiration from the Great Sermons of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. King’s words and wisdom in his sermons spoken over sixty years ago continue to inform us of our shortcomings as we flounder in flaws and brokenness. To often we resist considering others before ourselves, to serve one another out of humility, grace and love.

Today we unite in shared tears:
shed for continued strife and disagreements,
shed for the injustice that results in senseless emotional and physical violence,
shed for our inability to hold up one another as a holy in God’s eyes.

We weep together as the light dawns today, knowing, as Dr. King knew, a new day will come when the Lord God wipes the tears away from the remarkable and beautiful faces of all people — as all are created in His image.