In Solitudes of Peace

There seemed a smell of autumn in the air
At the bleak end of night; he shivered there
In a dank, musty dug-out where he lay,
Legs wrapped in sand-bags,—lumps of chalk and clay
Spattering his face. Dry-mouthed, he thought, “To-day
We start the damned attack; and, Lord knows why,
Zero’s at nine; how bloody if I’m done in
Under the freedom of that morning sky!”
And then he coughed and dozed, cursing the din
.

Was it the ghost of autumn in that smell
Of underground, or God’s blank heart grown kind,
That sent a happy dream to him in hell?—
Where men are crushed like clods, and crawl to find
Some crater for their wretchedness; who lie
In outcast immolation, doomed to die
Far from clean things or any hope of cheer,
Cowed anger in their eyes, till darkness brims
And roars into their heads, and they can hear
Old childish talk, and tags of foolish hymns.

He sniffs the chilly air; (his dreaming starts).
He’s riding in a dusty Sussex lane
In quiet September; slowly night departs;
And he’s a living soul, absolved from pain.
Beyond the brambled fences where he goes
Are glimmering fields with harvest piled in sheaves,
And tree-tops dark against the stars grown pale;
Then, clear and shrill, a distant farm-cock crows;
And there’s a wall of mist along the vale
Where willows shake their watery-sounding leaves.
He gazes on it all, and scarce believes
That earth is telling its old peaceful tale;
He thanks the blessed world that he was born….
Then, far away, a lonely note of the horn.

They’re drawing the Big Wood! Unlatch the gate,
And set Golumpus going on the grass:
He knows the corner where it’s best to wait
And hear the crashing woodland chorus pass;
The corner where old foxes make their track
To the Long Spinney; that’s the place to be.
The bracken shakes below an ivied tree,
And then a cub looks out; and “Tally-o-back!”
He bawls, and swings his thong with volleying crack,—
All the clean thrill of autumn in his blood,
And hunting surging through him like a flood
In joyous welcome from the untroubled past;
While the war drifts away, forgotten at last.

Now a red, sleepy sun above the rim
Of twilight stares along the quiet weald,
And the kind, simple country shines revealed
In solitudes of peace, no longer dim.
The old horse lifts his face and thanks the light,
Then stretches down his head to crop the green.
All things that he has loved are in his sight;
The places where his happiness has been
Are in his eyes, his heart, and they are good.

* * * *  
Hark! there’s the horn: they’re drawing the Big Wood.
~Siegfried Sassoon “Break of Day”
(written about his memories as a WWI soldier)

When we are at war,
whether deep in the foxhole
hiding from the enemy,
or deeper yet in a hole of our own making,
trying to conceal our sins.

Amidst that mire and mud,
we dream of better days
and an untroubled past,
when the hunter and hunted was merely a game,
not life and death.

May we know the means of peace was brought to earth.

May we surface in mutual surrender,
begging for reprieve, longing for redemption.
May the solitudes of peace overwhelm
those who are angry and conflicted.
May we lift our faces up
and thank the Light.

The Ebb and Flow of Sound

What I remember is the ebb and flow of sound
That summer morning as the mower came and went
And came again, crescendo and diminuendo,
And always when the sound was loudest how it ceased
A moment while he backed the horses for the turn,
The rapid clatter giving place to the slow click
And the mower’s voice. That was the sound I listened for,
The voice did what the horses did. It shared the action
As sympathetic magic does or incantation.
The voice hauled and the horses hauled. The strength of one
Was in the other and in the strength was impatience.
Over and over as the mower made his rounds
I heard his voice and only once or twice he backed
And turned and went ahead and spoke no word at all.
~Robert Francis “The Sound I Listened For” from Collected Poems

In the rural countryside where we live, we’ve been fortunate enough to know people who still dabble in horse farming, whose draft teams are hitched to plows and mowers and manure spreaders as they head out to the fields to recapture the past and experience working the land in a way that honors the traditions of our forebears.

A good teamster primarily works with his horses using his voice. No diesel engine means hearing bird calls from the surrounding fields and woods, along with the steady footfall of the horses, the harness chains jingling, the leather straps creaking, the machinery shushing quietly as gears turn and grass lays over in submission. No ear protection is needed. There is no clock needed to pace the day.

There is a rhythm of nurture when animals instead of motors are part of the work day. The gauge for taking a break is the amount of foamy sweat on the horses and how fast they are breathing — time to stop and take a breather, time to start back up and do a few more rows, time to water, time for a meal, time for a nap, time for a rest in a shady spot.

This is gentle use of the land with four footed stewards who deposit right back to the soil the digested forage they have eaten only hours before. This is gentle to our ears and our souls, measuring the ebb and flow of sound and silence.

The horse-drawn field mower is a sound I listen for, if not next door then in my dreams.

Photo courtesy of Aaron Janicki
Photo courtesy of Aaron Janicki

Standing Still as Stone

Broad August burns in milky skies,
The world is blanched with hazy heat;
The vast green pasture, even, lies
Too hot and bright for eyes and feet.

Amid the grassy levels rears
The sycamore against the sun
The dark boughs of a hundred years,
The emerald foliage of one.

Lulled in a dream of shade and sheen,
Within the clement twilight thrown
By that great cloud of floating green,
A horse is standing, still as stone.

He stirs nor head nor hoof, although
The grass is fresh beneath the branch;
His tail alone swings to and fro
In graceful curves from haunch to haunch.

He stands quite lost, indifferent
To rack or pasture, trace or rein;
He feels the vaguely sweet content
Of perfect sloth in limb and brain.
~William Canton “Standing Still”

Sweet contentment is a horse dozing in the summer field, completely sated by grass and clover, tail switching and skin rippling automatically to discourage flies.

I too wish at times for that stillness of mind and body, allowing myself to simply “be” without concern about yesterday’s travails, or what duties await me tomorrow. Sloth and indifference sounds almost inviting. I’m an utter failure at both.

The closest I come to this kind of stillness is my first moments of waking from an afternoon nap. As I slowly surface out of the depths of a few minutes of sound sleep, I lie still as a stone, my eyes open but not yet focused, my brain not yet working overtime.

I simply am.

It doesn’t stay simple for long. But it is good to remember the feeling of becoming aware of living and breathing.

I want to use my days well.
I want to be worthy.
I want to know there is a reason to be here beyond just warning the flies away.

It is absolutely enough to enjoy the glory of it all.

Where Gloom and Brightness Meet

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.

Ever Were or Ever Will Be

Sunrise is an event that calls forth solemn music in the very depths of our nature, as if one’s whole being had to attune itself to the cosmos and praise God for the new day, praise him in the name of all the creatures that ever were or ever will be.

I look at the rising sun and feel that now upon me falls the responsibility of seeing what all my ancestors have seen, in the Stone Age and even before it, praising God before me. Whether or not they praised him then, for themselves, they must praise him now in me. When the sun rises each one of us is summoned by the living and the dead to praise God.
~Thomas Merton from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

I’m well aware not everyone greets the morning with praise; dawn signals the start of a new day of painful relationships, back-breaking work, and unending discouragement. I know people who keep themselves up until 3 AM just so they can sleep through the sunrise and somehow find a way to start their day at noon after all hint of morning has passed.

Instead I’m one of those barely tolerable “morning” persons, waking up without an alarm, ready to rise, a song in my heart and a smile on my lips. The gift of a new day and another try at life is a source of great joy and inspiration to me.

God keeps bringing the sun back to us, day in and day out. We, His creatures, are given yet another chance.

May His Name be praised evermore.

Wave Follows Wave

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Like the stretching light of the river?
And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything?
And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life?
~Mary Oliver from The Swan

 

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This laboring of ours with all that remains undone,
as if still bound to it,
is like the lumbering gait of the swan.

And then our dying—releasing ourselves
from the very ground on which we stood—
is like the way he hesitantly lowers himself

into the water. It gently receives him,
and, gladly yielding, flows back beneath him,
as wave follows wave,
while he, now wholly serene and sure,
with regal composure,
allows himself to glide.
~Rainer Maria Rilke, “The Swan”

 

 

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This is the time of year when we look at making changes in how we live our lives. We want to start fresh as the calendar turns over; we want to become “new” too.  Maybe it is giving up an old destructive habit or adopting a new healthier routine, but it means giving up something familiar and becoming uncomfortable, at least for a while.

I seek out the graceful gliding part of life and not the lumbering awkward part.  I’d like to say I live out equal measures of both, but I don’t – I’m lumbering and awkward too much of the time due to my own choices.   It is difficult to navigate the waves of life when in “lumbering” and “laboring” mode, as wave follows wave, some gentle and lapping, others overwhelming and crashing.

I know what grace looks and feels like,  floating atop whatever wave hits me, to stay on the surface and not get soaked through.

I pray that whatever comes, this stretching light over the waves, will fill me with its beauty and grant me grace to glide.

 

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The Day Breaks, Shadows Flee Away

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No heaven can come to us
Unless our hearts find rest in it today.
Take heaven.

No peace lies in the future
Which is not hidden in this present instant.
Take peace.

The gloom of the world is but a shadow;
Behind it, yet within reach, is joy.
Take joy.

And so, at this Christmastime,
I greet you with the prayer that for you,
Now and forever,
The day breaks and the shadows flee away.
– Fra Giovanni Giocondo letter to Countess Allagia Aldobrandeschi, Christmas Eve 1513

 

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May today there be peace within.
May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be.
May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith.
May you use those gifts that you have received, and pass on the love that has been given to you.
May you be content knowing you are a child of God.
Let this presence settle into your bones, and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love.
It is there for each and every one of us.
― Thérèse de Lisieux of Avila

 

 

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Now, newborn,
in wide-eyed wonder
he gazes up at his creation.
His hand that hurled the world
holds tight his mother’s finger.
Holy light
spills across her face
and she weeps
silent wondering tears
to know she holds the One
who has so long held her.
~Joan Rae Mills from “Mary” in Light Upon Light

 

 

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I watch the long night’s transition to day as the mountain is licked by bright flames of color, heralding our slow awakening.

The sun illuminates the darkened earth and we are bathed in its reflected glory and grace.

We work hard to be at ease, to lay down the heaviness of endings and celebrate the arrival of Brilliant Light in our lives.

The Son is now among us, carrying our load.  We take heaven, take peace, take joy as He takes He takes all our burdens upon Himself.