The Clarity of Light

On the day when
The weight deadens
On your shoulders
And you stumble,
May the clay dance
To balance you.

And when your eyes
Freeze behind

The gray window
And the ghost of loss
Gets in to you,
May a flock of colors,
Indigo, red, green
And azure blue,
Come to awaken in you
A meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.

And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

~John O’Donohue “Beannacht”

So many of us grieve the loss of the way things were
and the loss of the people we loved.

There seems no light at all in the world,
only heaviness of burden, of clouds and sickness.

May God bring back the lightness to our days,
the color back to the gray,
the clarity of purpose throughout generations.

May God be real to us now, cleansing us
from our doubts, our frustrations,
our anger and our impatience
with one another
and with Him.

May God love us
in the midst of our weeping,
cloaked in His Word and His arms.

Flat Affect

I used to think the land
had something to say to us,
back when wildflowers
would come right up to your hand
as if they were tame.

Sooner or later, I thought,
the wind would begin to make sense
if I listened hard
and took notes religiously.
That was spring.

Now I’m not so sure:
the cloudless sky has a flat affect
and the fields plowed down after harvest
seem so expressionless,
keeping their own counsel.

This afternoon, nut tree leaves
blow across them
as if autumn had written us a long letter,
changed its mind,
and tore it into little scraps.
~Don Thompson October

photo by Nate Gibson
photo by Nate Gibson

We’re in a time of seasonal abundance but our emotions are spent from containment through lock-down, shelter-in, social distancing, zoom-in and zoom-out.

As I meet with my patients via a televisit, I try to read their faces and find that along with the flatness of our screens, our emotions are flat too. My usual gentle humor to lighten things up becomes pointless – it is hard to elicit smiles these days. On the other hand, there no longer is a need for abundant tissues for tearful conversations because no one will weep on screen. There may be a hint of emotion in a catch in a voice, but I have yet to see anyone actually cry in two months of telehealth conversations. That would be too vulnerable – somehow being on camera suggests we need to put the actor-mask on, be expression-less, strong and invulnerable. And somehow my patient knows I can’t reach out as I would in an exam room, literally and verbally, to reassure them I’m present and listening. I’m not really present on a screen even though I’m listening.

And while out in society, we must literally hide ourselves behind a mask that conceals our smiles as well as our grim-faced frowns.

So our social and clinical interactions are as flat as the screens they play out on.

We need some unchecked tears about now, as well as endless belly laughs. Perhaps there will be a reawakening to the range of emotions we have taken for granted before finding ourselves in this time of restraint and restriction.

As we reintegrate and reunite, slowly, carefully and compassionately, let us re-experience in 3-D what we have been missing in our virtual meetings: tears that accompany joyous reunion as well as the lament of all we’re lost during this time.

Please pass the tissues.

A Glut of Melancholy

I eat oatmeal for breakfast.
I make it on the hot plate and put skimmed milk on it.
I eat it alone.
I am aware it is not good to eat oatmeal alone.
Its consistency is such that is better for your mental health
if somebody eats it with you.
That is why I often think up an imaginary companion to have
breakfast with.
Possibly it is even worse to eat oatmeal with an imaginary
companion.
Nevertheless, yesterday morning, I ate my oatmeal porridge,
as he called it with John Keats.
Keats said I was absolutely right to invite him:
due to its glutinous texture, gluey lumpishness, hint of slime,
and unusual willingness to disintegrate, oatmeal should
not be eaten alone…
~Galway Kinnell from “Oatmeal”

But when the melancholy fit shall fall
Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,
That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,
And hides the green hill in an April shroud;
Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,
Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,
Or on the wealth of globed peonies;
~John Keats from “Ode on Melancholy”

Oatmeal porridge and melancholy,
poets and peonies,
stay-at-home orders and quarantine,
a rising COVID-19 death toll;
a week of walking through the suffering
of our Redeemer.

To be glutted with melancholy:
I am not alone in feeling it is
already too much to be borne on
a holy Monday morning~~
nothing more need be said.

We do what we can to understand
why He does what He must.

But By His Grace: Let Love Be Heard

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 still grows, perhaps, the greater.
— J. R. R. Tolkien from The Fellowship of the Ring

Worldwide. a tsunami of tears overflows in households and communities as COVID-19 wreaks physical and economic havoc in hundreds of thousands of lives. We experience deep sadness and grief when older folks with health conditions are taken by a virulent pneumonia within a matter of days, often dying without a familiar face nearby. And there is no end to our distress when up to 40% of hospitalizations are for younger victims of the virus, most of whom survive, but too many don’t and won’t.

Our sorrow fills a chasm so deep and dark that it is a fearsome thing to even peer from the edge, as so many of us do, praying for far-flung family and friends to remain healthy and unable to be of any direct assistance even if they become ill.  We join the helplessness of countless people in human history who have lived through times that seem unendurable.

We don’t understand why inexplicable tragedy befalls good and gracious people, taking them when they are not yet finished with their work on earth.  From quakes that topple buildings burying people, to waves that wipe out whole cities and sweep away thousands of people, to a pathogen too swift and powerful for all the weapons of modern medicine,  we are reminded every day – we live on perilous ground and our time here has always been finite. We don’t have control over the amount of time, but we do have control over how our love is heard and spread.

There is assurance in knowing we do not weep alone; Our Lord is acquainted with grief.  Our grieving is so familiar to a suffering God who too wept at the death of a beloved friend, and who cried out when He was tasked with enduring the unendurable.

There is comfort in knowing He too peered into the chasm of darkness;
He willingly entered its depths to come to our rescue with His incomparable capacity for Light and Love.

This year’s Lenten theme for Barnstorming:

God sees us as we are,
loves us as we are,
and accepts us as we are.
But by His grace,
He does not leave us where we are.
~Tim Keller

Angels, where you soar
Up to God’s own light
Take my own lost bird
On your hearts tonight;
And as grief once more
Mounts to heaven and sings
Let my love be heard
Whispering in your wings
~Alfred Noyes

Rise Up in Weediness

Like animals moving daily
through the same open field,
it should be easier to distinguish
light from dark, fabrications

from memory, rain on a sliver
of grass from dew appearing
overnight. In these moments
of desperation, a sentence

serves as a halo, the moon
hidden so the stars eclipse
our daily becoming. You think
it should be easier to define

one’s path, but with the clouds
gathering around our feet,
there’s no sense in retracing
where we’ve been or where

your tired body will carry you.
Eventually the birds become
confused and inevitable. Even our
infinite knowledge of the forecast

might make us more vulnerable
than we would be in drawn-out
ignorance. To the sun
all weeds eventually rise up.

~Adam Clay “Our Daily Becoming”

I can choose to fight the inevitable march of time with sighs and sorrows,
thus arm myself with regret for what is no more,

or pull myself through light to dark each day with soul-sucking fatigue, uncertain if I have what it takes to power through,

or I can flow passively for as long as I can stay afloat, apart and remote,
barely aware of the passage of all around me,

or I can smile at awakening each morning, no matter what is forecast,
reaching up to the sun I know is there, though hidden behind mist, fog and clouds,

grateful I’m given another day to work to get it right:
my opportunity to be fruitful, despite my weediness.

A Last Great Splash of Light

The sun came up chased by dogs
Across a field of snow.
As they passed the pile of broken logs
Frost fluttered in the air
Between the birch trees
Standing in that spot exactly
Where the ridge becomes a hill.

The sun goes in animal delight
Over the farthest edge of earth
Not far ahead of night
And jumps into the dark pool
With a last great splash of light.
~Tom Hennen from “Winter, Thirty Below with Sundogs” from Darkness Sticks to Everything. 

Winter reduces me to my elements:
light/dark
chilled/warm
hungry/sated
empty/filled
sleep/awake
gray/gray.

It is a holding pattern of endurance, awaiting a sun that will linger longer, arrive earlier, and actually be felt, not just apparent in the distance.

I pray for a dawn or twilight splashed with color.
Lord, any imaginable splash of color will do.

Lost in Grayness

Moss the color of malachite weaves
its way up and under bark crevices of an old oak.
Enchanting furry tendrils reach out
as I walk past, my head burrowed
against the January morning fog.

Because it seems the sun
has vanished for the foreseeable future,
I am so lost in grayness I resist
the curled invitations
to dig deep, to engage
to applaud the colors of the fog
even as it surrounds me.
~Claire Weiner,”The Sun is in Hiatus”  from VerseWrights Journal

Come here
and share the rain
with me. You.
Isn’t it wonderful to hear
the universe
shudder. How old it all,
everything,
must be.
~Eileen Myles from “And Then the Weather Arrives”

I’m looking longingly at a weather prediction for rain all day.  I want gray, wet and miserable when I am buried in a windowless room at work all day.

Some winters bring too much perfection for too long:  360 degree views of snowy mountains and foothills that gleam in the sun, glistening crystalline fields of frost, sparkling clear waters in Puget Sound,  and bright blue cloudless skies. It is difficult for any northwest native to tolerate.    It is hard work keeping up the smiles and general good humor that goes with excellent weather.   There is always a clear expectation that one should be outside enjoying the rare sunny day, when it is far more appealing to curl up with a good book and a warm dog by a roaring fire, pretending not to notice how nice it is out.

We native Washingtonians are congenitally grumpy people, born to splash through puddles and lose our boots in footwear-sucking mud.    We don’t carry umbrellas because they are useless when our horizontal rain comes from the side, not from the top.   We wear sunglasses on mid-winter sunny days because we can’t possibly get our eyes to adjust to so much brightness.   We perpetually wear sweatshirt hoods and baseball caps, even when we are indoors, just in case,  because you never know.

Gray is preferred.   Gray with wet and cold is even better.   No one even questions my staying sequestered inside on days like this.   Being in a good mood would be highly suspect.

So I savor the opportunity to act outwardly disgruntled with such obvious justification as a rainy evening.

Downright crabby.  No apologies needed.  No excuses given.

It’s almost enough to put a smile on my face.

The Crumbling Air

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”

There are mornings surrounded by His stilling presence~
when God is felt,
neither seen nor heard,
overtaking me
within each breath taken,
following the path of each glistening tear,
the air crumbling down around me,
its rich manna becoming the ground
reaching to meet my foot
with each step I take.

Day After Day

So long as that woman from the Rijksmuseum 
in painted quiet and concentration
keeps pouring milk day after day
from the pitcher to the bowl
the World hasn’t earned
the world’s end.
~Wisława Szymborska “Vermeer”
trans. Clare Cavanagh & Stanisław Barańczak

I am struck by the expression of so much widespread hopelessness: the earth is being destroyed by humanity. Our continued existence is causing the world’s end.

This certainly isn’t the first time we’ve felt such desperation about our relationship with the world. It happened long ago when we chose to eat the fruit of the one forbidden tree and as a result were banned from the Garden. It happened with the plague when careless exposures wiped out entire villages. It happened when our wars left behind no living thing, leaving the ground itself cinders. It happened with the threat of imminent nuclear holocaust as missiles remain pointed at each other.

Still the sun rises and the sun sets, day after day. We don’t know for how much longer. Only God knows as God put us here with a plan.

So we continue to pour the milk as a sacrament: quietly, with great concentration, as that is the work we do, day after day. We still milk the cows and raise the wheat for bread and conceive children and raise them up as best we can. As long as we continue to do the work of the Garden, even while we dwell outside it, we are not causing the apocalypse. It is God’s world, after all, and all that is in it.

So we keep milking and keep pouring.

A Few Tears at the End of the Year

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.

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”

photo by Nate Gibson

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 Buechner
from Beyond Words

I don’t pay close enough attention to the meaning of my leaking eyes when I’m constantly looking for kleenex to stem the flow.  During the holidays it seems I have more than ample opportunity to find out from my tears the secret of who I am, where I have come from, and where I am to be next, so I keep my pockets loaded with kleenex.

It mostly has to do with spending time with far-flung children and grandchildren for the holidays. It is about reading books and doing puzzles together and reminiscing about what has been and what could be. It is about singing grace together before a meal and choking on precious words of gratitude.  It certainly has to do with bidding farewell until we meet again — gathering them in for that final hug and then that letting-go part.

We urged and encouraged our children to go where their hearts told them they are needed and called to be, even if thousands of miles away from their one-time home on this farm.

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.  It led me here, to this marriage, this family, this farm, this work, our church, to more tears, to more letting go, as it will continue if I’m granted the years to weep again and again with gusto and grace.

This is where I must go next: to love so much and so deeply that letting go is so hard that tears are no longer unexpected or a mystery to me or my children and grandchildren.   They release a fullness that can no longer be contained: God’s still small voice spills down my cheeks drop by drop like wax from a burning candle.

A wise and precious friend once told me that “our tears are God’s tears; to be bereft is the only way to become one with God.

So no kleenex needed with these tears.

I’ll let them flow as I let them go.