…I have been younger in October than in all the months of spring walnut and may leaves the color of shoulders at the end of summer a month that has been to the mountain and become light there the long grass lies pointing uphill even in death for a reason that none of us knows…
my love is for lightness of touch foot feather the day is yet one more yellow leaf and without turning I kiss the light by an old well on the last of the month gathering wild rose hips in the sun ~W. S. Merwin from “The Love of October”
A wind gusts through shedding branches stripping them bare and carrying the leaves to fields far away, to a diverse gathering they have never known before: chestnut, cherry, birch, walnut, apple, alder, maple, parrotia, pear, oak, poplar, cottonwood suddenly all sharing the same fate and grave, each wearing a color of its own, falling, falling, soon to blend with others.
There is an exquisite lightness in letting go of all that feels familiar and safe, for reasons none of us can actually comprehend.
Can’t help “falling” in love and falling in leaf…
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And then, that evening Late in the summer the strange horses came.
In the first moment we had never a thought That they were creatures to be owned and used.
Since then they have pulled our plows and borne our loads, But that free servitude still can pierce our hearts. Our life is changed; their coming our beginning. ~Edwin Muir from “The Horses”
There is nothing that truly compels a horse to wear a saddle, pull a heavy burden, chew a cold bit until it foams warm — no fear of whip or spur or harsh word. They, so much more powerful than we are, choose the work, to do what is needed, to serve freely, to be there because they were asked — whether asked nicely or not.
How much more we learn from the lather of their sweaty grace — how to choose the labor that changes lives, how to offer up love in gratitude for the reward of a scratch in just the right place and a nose buried in sweet clover.
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When I lived in the foothills birds flocked to the feeder:
house finches, goldfinches, skyblue lazuli buntings,
impeccably dressed chickadees, sparrows in work clothes, even
hummingbirds fastforwarding through the trees. Some of them
disappeared after a week, headed north, I thought, with the sun.
But the first cool day they were back, then gone,
then back, more reliable than weathermen, and I realized
they hadn’t gone north at all, but up the mountain, as invisible
to me as if they had flown a thousand miles, yet in reality
just out of sight, out of reach— maybe at the end of our lives
the world lifts that slightly away from us, and returns once
or twice to see if we’ve refilled the feeder, if we still remember it,
or if we’ve taken leave of our senses altogether. ~Sharon Bryan, “The Underworld” from Sharp Stars
I only started feeding birds outside our kitchen window a few years ago. Previously, I thought it was an activity for older people with nothing better to do. After I turned sixty, I realized I was now qualified to feed the birds.
Now the professional wildlife and bird folks tell us we are endangering the welfare of wild birds by feeding them – the rapidly dropping numbers of songbirds in North America is due to pesticide use, window vs. bird deaths, climate change and birds not migrating in their usual patterns due to artificial feeding stations like mine. Most worrisome is transmission of fatal diseases when birds flock together at feeders. And Avian flu is on the rise in our country with hundreds of thousands of farm birds being preventively slaughtered in the last few weeks.
Now I’ve become the purveyor of pandemic conditions.
I let the feeders go empty for longer periods in my attempt to appease both the birds and the ornithologists. If the feeders dangle without visitors for several days, I refill them, more for me than for them as I appreciate the wild birds’ cheerful presence within a few feet of where I eat my breakfast as they eat theirs.
I’m not sure who to apologize to for still wanting to feed the birds. I grew up with Mary Poppins singing “tuppence a bag” and believed every word she sang. The birds themselves seem robust and chipper, happily coming and going as they please. Yet the scientists and bird experts see me, the casual backyard bird feeder as the problem. Perhaps selling packaged birdseed will eventually be outlawed so people like me can no longer have the option to cause this disruption to our feathered friends’ life cycles.
The birds and I will strike a deal so they know I mean well and haven’t taken leave of my senses. I’ll plant more more bird-friendly bushes on the farm. I’ll dispense a treat now and then if they promise to continue to stop by to check to see if my welcome mat is still out.
After all, I don’t want them to feel forgotten…or probably more to the point, like the little old bird woman on the steps of St. Paul, I don’t want them to ever forget me.
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O for a book and a shady nook, Either indoors or out; With the green leaves whispering overhead, Or the street cries all about; Where I may read all at my ease, Both of the new and old; For a jolly good book whereon to look Is better to me than gold. ~John Wilson(early 19th century Scottish author)
…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
You know who you are.
You are the person who stockpiles stacks of books on the bedside table and next to your favorite chair.
The person who sacrifices sleep to read just one more page.
The person who reads the cereal box when nothing else is available near the breakfast table.
The girl who falls into an uncovered manhole walking down a busy street while reading.
The objects of your affection may be as precious as the Book of Kells.
or as sappy as an Archie and Jughead comic book.
It’s the words, the words, that keep zipping by, telegraphing
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. Even as a retired physician, I still spend an hour a day reading medical articles but now have the opportunity to dabble in books of memoir, biography, poetry and the occasional novel.
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 my favorite authors in real life and to interact with them on line. They are friends on the page as well as in my life.
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. There is no greater privilege than to share words with one another.
No matter where I find my books – in an independent bookstore, in a little free library standing along the roadside, or inside the world’s treasured libraries filled with books of antiquity – I’ll seek out the sanctuary of a shady nook, either inside or out, where I can open the pages to meet up once again with my friends.
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How should I not be glad to contemplate the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window and a high tide reflected on the ceiling? There will be dying, there will be dying, but there is no need to go into that. The poems flow from the hand unbidden and the hidden source is the watchful heart. The sun rises in spite of everything and the far cities are beautiful and bright. I lie here in a riot of sunlight watching the day break and the clouds flying. Everything is going to be all right. ~Derek Mahon,”Everything is Going to be All Right” from Selected Poems
It’s tough to find reassurance these days; in a mere five months, things have gone from “doing okay” to outright disastrous. There is no expert anywhere with a crystal ball who can tell us what things will be like in another five months. We simply have to live it out as best we can.
I regularly remind myself: history has a way of repeating itself, and yes, the world has been in this place before. We’ve fought back against global pandemics and economic depressions and devastating world conflicts and we somehow manage to come out the other side.
It takes time and patience and prayer and groaning and a fair amount of teeth gritting.
So the sun rises in spite of everything. The clouds still fly by above us. We still love one another even when it takes a little work. So let’s give ourselves a little break from the bad news and just love, oh Lord above, in the glory of now.
Everything is going to be all right. Let your heart be watchful and untroubled.
And came the horses. There, still they stood, But now steaming, and glistening under the flow of light,
Their draped stone manes, their tilted hind-hooves Stirring under a thaw while all around them
The frost showed its fires. But still they made no sound. Not one snorted or stamped,
Their hung heads patient as the horizons, High over valleys, in the red leveling rays
In din of the crowded streets, going among the years, the faces, May I still meet my memory in so lonely a place
Between the streams and the red clouds, hearing curlews, Hearing the horizons endure. ~Ted Hughes from “The Horses”
Five years ago this week, Marlee went to her forever home, far sooner than we planned. She was only twenty two, born only two months after our daughter’s birth, much too young an age for a Haflinger to die.
But something dire was happening to her over the previous two weeks — not eating much, an expanding girth, then shortness of breath, and it was confirmed she had untreatable lymphoma.
Her bright eyes were shining to the end so it was very hard to ask the vet to turn the light off. But the time had clearly come.
Marlee M&B came to us as a six month old “runty orphan” baby by the lovely stallion Sterling Silver, but she was suddenly weaned at three days when her mama Melissa died of sepsis. She never really weaned from her bottle/bucket feeding humans Stefan and Andrea Bundshuh at M&B Farm in Canada. From them she learned people’s behavior, understood their nonverbal language, and discerned human subtleties that most horses never learn. This made her quite a challenge as a youngster as it also meant there was no natural reserve nor natural respect for people. She had no boundaries taught by a mother, so we were tasked with teaching her the proper social cues.
When turned out with the herd as a youngster, she was completely clueless–she’d approach the dominant alpha mare incorrectly, without proper submission, get herself bitten and kicked and was the bottom of the social heap for years, a lonesome little filly with few friends and very few social skills. She had never learned submission with people either, and had to have many remedial lessons on her training path. Once she was a mature working mare, her relationship with people markedly improved as there was structure to her work and predictability for her, and after having her own foals, she picked up cues and signals that helped her keep her foal safe, though she had always been one of our most relaxed “do whatever you need to do” mothers when we handled her foals as she simply never learned that she needed to be concerned.
Over the years, as the herd has changed, Marlee became the alpha mare, largely by default and seniority, so I don’t believe she really trusted her position as “real”. She tended to bully, and react too quickly out of her own insecurity about her inherited position. She was very skilled with her ears but she was also a master at the tail “whip” and the tensed upper lip–no teeth, just a slight wrinkling of the lip. The herd scattered when they saw her face change. The irony of it all is that when she was “on top” of the herd hierarchy, she was more lonely than when she was at the bottom and I think a whole lot less happy as she had few grooming partners any more.
She accompanied us to the fair for a week of display of our Haflingers year after year after year — she could be always counted on to greet the public and enjoy days of braiding and petting and kids sitting on her back.
The day she started formal under saddle training under Val Bash was when the light bulb went off in her head–this was a job she could do! This was constant communication and interaction with a human being, which she craved! This was what she was meant for! And she thrived under saddle, advancing quickly in her skills, almost too fast, as she wanted so much to please her trainer.
She was the first among North American Haflingers to not only become regional champion in her beginner novice division of eventing as a pregnant 5 year old, but also received USDF Horse of the Year awards in First and Second Level dressage that year as the highest scoring Haflinger.
With Jessica Heidemann she did a “bridleless” ride display in front of hundreds of people at the annual Haflinger event, and with Garyn Heidemann as instructor, she became an eventing pony for a young rider whose blonde hair matched Marlee’s. She galloped with abandon in the field on bareback rides with Emily Vander Haak and became our daughter Lea’s special riding horse over the last few years.
She had a career of mothering along with intermittent riding work, with 5 foals –Winterstraum, Marquisse, Myst, Wintermond (aka “Mondo”), and Nordstrom—each from different stallions, and each very different from one another.
This mare had such a remarkable work ethic, was “fine-tuned” so perfectly with a sensitivity to cues–that our daughter said: “Mom, it’s going to make me such a better rider because I know she pays attention to everything I do with my body–whether my heels are down, whether I’m sitting up straight or not.” Marlee was, to put it simply, trained to train her riders.
I miss her high pitched whinny from the barn whenever she heard the back door to the house open. I miss her pushy head butt on the stall door when it was time to close it up for the night. I miss that beautiful unforgettable face and those large deep brown eyes where the light was always on.
What a ride she had for twenty two years, that dear little orphan. What a ride she gave to many who trained her and who she trained over the years. Though I never climbed on her back, what joy she gave me all those years, as the surrogate mom who loved and fed her. May I meet her in my memories, whenever I feel lonesome for her, still unable to resist those bright eyes forever now closed in peace.
More than once I’ve seen a dog waiting for its owner outside a café practically implode with worry. “Oh, God, what if she doesn’t come back this time? What will I do? Who will take care of me? I loved her so much and now she’s gone and I’m tied to a post surrounded by people who don’t look or smell or sound like her at all.” And when she does come, what a flurry of commotion, what a chorus of yelping and cooing and leaps straight up into the air! It’s almost unbearable, this sudden fullness after such total loss, to see the world made whole again by a hand on the shoulder and a voice like no other. ~John Brehm from “If Feeling Isn’t In It”
We all need to love like this: so binding, so complete, so profoundly filling: its loss empties our world of all meaning as our tears run dry.
So abandoned, we woeful wait, longing for the return of the gentle voice, the familiar smile, the tender touch and encompassing embrace.
With unexpected restoration when we’ve done nothing to deserve it- we leap and shout with unsurpassed joy, the world without form and void made whole again.
In the grey summer garden I shall find you With day-break and the morning hills behind you. There will be rain-wet roses; stir of wings; And down the wood a thrush that wakes and sings. Not from the past you’ll come, but from that deep Where beauty murmurs to the soul asleep: And I shall know the sense of life re-born From dreams into the mystery of morn Where gloom and brightness meet. And standing there Till that calm song is done, at last we’ll share The league-spread, quiring symphonies that are Joy in the world, and peace, and dawn’s one star. ~Siegfried Sassoon “Idyll”
Sixty five years ago today was a difficult day for my mother and me. She remembered it was a particularly hot July 4 with the garden coming on gangbusters and she having quite a time keeping up with summer farm chores. With three weeks to go in her pregnancy, her puffy legs were aching and she wasn’t sleeping well.
She just wanted to be done gestating, with the planned C section scheduled a few days before my due date of August 1.
She and my dad and my sister had waited eight long years for this pregnancy, having given up hope, having already chosen an infant boy to adopt, the papers signed and waiting on the court for the final approval. They were ready to bring him home when she discovered she was pregnant and the adoption agency gave him to another family.
I’ve always wondered where that little boy ended up, his life trajectory suddenly changed by my conception. I feel some accountability.
Every subsequent July 4, my mother would tell me about July 4, 1954 when I was curled upside down inside her impatiently kicking her ribs in my attempts to stretch, hiccuping when she tried to nap, and dozing as she cooked the picnic meal they took to eat while waiting for the local fireworks show to start.
As I grew up, she would remind me when I cringed and covered my ears as fireworks shells boomed overhead, that I leapt startled inside her with each explosion. She wondered if I might jump right out of her, so she held onto her belly tight, trying to calm and reassure me. Perhaps I was justifiably fearful about what chaos was booming on the outside, as I remained inside until the doctor opened Mom up three weeks later.
Now I know I am meant for quieter things, greeting the mystery of each morning with as much calm as I can muster. I still cringe and jump at fireworks and recognize I was blessed to be born to a family who wanted me and waited for me.
May there come a day when every baby knows such a blessing.
A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it. ~George Moore
I remember well the feeling of restlessness, having an itch that couldn’t be reached, feeling too rooted and uneasy staying in one place for long, especially if that place was my hometown. I knew I must be destined for greater things, grander plans and extraordinary destinations. There exists in most human beings an inborn compulsion to wander far beyond one’s own threshold, venturing out into unfamiliar and sometimes hostile surroundings simply because one can. It is the prerogative of the young to explore, loosen anchor and pull up stakes and simply go. Most cannot articulate why but simply feel something akin to a siren call.
And so at twenty I heard and I went, considerably aging my parents in the process and not much caring that I did. To their credit, they never told me no, never questioned my judgment, and never inflicted guilt when I returned home after the adventure went sour.
I had gone on a personal quest to the other side of the world and had come home empty. But home itself was not empty nor had it ever been and has not been since.
There is a Dorothy-esque feeling in returning home from a land of wonders and horrors, to realize there is no place like home. There was no way to know until I went away, searching, then coming home empty-handed, to understand home was right inside my heart the whole time. There was no leaving after all, not really.
So I’m here to stay–there is no greater, grander or more extraordinary than right here. Even now when I board a plane for a far off place, I know I’ll be back as this is where the search ends and the lost found.
At almost 65, my head now rests easy on the pillow.
I tell you this to break your heart, by which I mean only that it break open and never close again to the rest of the world. — Mary Oliver from “Lead” from New and Selected Poems