Wired With Alertness

Edmund Darch Lewis – Susquehanna
Agnes Wallace by Robert Sivell

I have never been fishing on the Susquehanna
or on any river for that matter
to be perfectly honest.


Not in July or any month
have I had the pleasure — if it is a pleasure —
of fishing on the Susquehanna.


I am more likely to be found
in a quiet room like this one —
a painting of a woman on the wall,


a bowl of tangerines on the table —
trying to manufacture the sensation
of fishing on the Susquehanna.


There is little doubt
that others have been fishing
on the Susquehanna,


rowing upstream in a wooden boat,
sliding the oars under the water
then raising them to drip in the light.


But the nearest I have ever come to
fishing on the Susquehanna
was one afternoon in a museum in Philadelphia,


when I balanced a little egg of time
in front of a painting
in which that river curled around a bend


under a blue cloud-ruffled sky,
dense trees along the banks,
and a fellow with a red bandana


sitting in a small, green
flat-bottom boat
holding the thin whip of a pole.


That is something I am unlikely

ever to do, I remember
saying to myself and the person next to me.


Then I blinked and moved on
to other American scenes
of haystacks, water whitening over rocks,


even one of a brown hare
who seemed so wired with alertness
I imagined him springing right out of the frame. 
~Billy Collins Fishing On The Susquehanna In July

A Hare in the Forest by Hans Hoffman (Getty Museum)
Susquehanna by Jasper Francis Cropsey
Hayfield–oil painting by Scott Prior http://www.scottpriorart.com

I live a quiet life in a quiet place. There are many experiences not on my bucket list that I’m content to simply imagine.

I’m not a rock climber or a zip liner or willing to jump out of an airplane. I won’t ride a horse over a four foot jump or race one around a track. Not for me waterskis or unicycles or motorcycles.

I’m grateful there are those who are eagerly wired with alertness for the next experience: adventurers who seek out the extremes of life so the rest of us can sit back and admire their courage and applaud their explorations and achievement.

My mind’s eye and imagination is powerful enough, thanks to the words and pictures of others. I find I’m content to explore the corners of my quiet places, both inside and outside, to see what I can build from what I find right here under my nose.

When the light is right, and I’m open enough to it, what I see is ready to spring right out of the frame.

The difficulty to think at the end of day,
When the shapeless shadow covers the sun
And nothing is left except light on your fur—

….and August the most peaceful month.

To be, in the grass, in the peacefullest time,
And to feel that the light is a rabbit-light
In which everything is meant for you
And nothing need be explained;

You become a self that fills the four corners of
night.
~Wallace Stevens, from “A Rabbit As King of the Ghosts”

More of my images along with Lois Edstrom’s ekphrastic poetry can be found in this book, available for order here:

To Live in the Layers

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon

How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?


Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.

In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered

and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:

“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”

Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.

I am not done with my changes.
~Stanley Kunitz from “The Layers”

A child is asleep. Her private life unwinds inside skin and skull; only as she sheds childhood, first one decade and then another, can she locate the actual, historical stream, see the setting of her dreaming private life—the nation, the city, the neighborhood, the house where the family lives—as an actual project under way, a project living people willed, and made well or failed, and are still making, herself among them.

I breathed the air of history all unaware, and walked oblivious through its littered layers.
~Annie Dillard from An American Childhood

photo of Wiser Lake and Mt. Baker by Joel de Waard

…we become whole by having the courage to revisit and embrace all the layers of our lives, denying none of them, so that we’re finally able to say, “Yes, all of this is me, and all of this has helped make me who I am.”

When we get to that point, amazingly, we can look at all the layers together and see the beauty of the whole.
~Parker Palmer from “Embracing All the Layers of Your Life” in On Being

My favorite scenes are ones where there are several “layers” to study, whether it is a still life of petals or a deep landscape with a foreground, middle and backdrop. The challenge is to decide where to look first, what to draw into sharp focus, and how to absorb it all as a whole. In fact, if I only see one aspect, I miss the entire point of the composition. It is wonderfully multi-faceted and multi-layered because that is how my own life is – complex with so much diverse and subtle shading.

If I try to suppress some darker part of my own life I wish to forget and blur out, I ignore the beauty of the contrast with the light that illuminates the rest.

The layers reflect who I was created to be as an image-bearer – complex, nuanced, illuminated in the presence of dark.

Beautifully composed and ultimately transformed.

Enjoying Barnstorming posts like this? You can order this book from Barnstorming here:

For a Bee’s Experience

Like trains of cars on tracks of plush
I hear the level bee:
A jar across the flowers goes,
Their velvet masonry

Withstands until the sweet assault
Their chivalry consumes,
While he, victorious, tilts away
To vanquish other blooms.

His feet are shod with gauze,
His helmet is of gold;
His breast, a single onyx
With chrysoprase, inlaid.

His labor is a chant,
His idleness a tune;
Oh, for a bee’s experience
Of clovers and of noon!

~Emily Dickinson “The Bee”

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

~Li-Young Lee, last stanza of “From Blossoms” from Rose.

I try, as best I can, to see the world from a perspective other than my own:

Spending this week with our toddler grandson has helped me to look at things at the three foot rather than six foot level and suddenly I’m overwhelmed with how large everything appears.

I read opinions that differ considerably from my own so I can gain understanding and hopefully compassion for how others perceive the events of the world, even when I don’t and won’t agree.

And I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be a bee – to leave my warm and cozy community to find the best sources of pollen, diving bum-deep into a plethora of colors and fragrances, from ‘blossom to blossom to impossible blossom.’

Bees have a life-preserving mission in the world – not only to sustain themselves and their hive, but pollinating millions of blooms, an essential task for the fruiting of the land. Now that is a purpose-driven life.

We are no different. Our reason to exist goes far beyond our self-preservation, or the preservation of everyone who looks like or thinks like we do, i.e. “hive-mind.” We were created to care for the rest of the world, by dipping into each beautiful and sacred thing that thrives here because of us, not despite us.

And that includes each other, as different as we look and think and act. Each of us a sweet impossible blossom.

New book available from Barnstorming — information on how to order it here

Four Seasons

Autumn

Winter is an etching,
spring a watercolor,
summer an oil painting

and autumn a mosaic of them all.
~Stanley Horowitz
, a poem in Readers’ Digest Nov. 1983

Winter
Winter

L’Inverno (Winter)
Opus 8, No. 4, in F minor

I. Allegro non molto–
Frozen and trembling in the icy snow,
In the severe blast of the horrible wind,
As we run, we constantly stamp our feet,
And our teeth chatter in the cold.
II. Largo–
To spend happy and quiet days near the fire,
While, outside, the rain soaks hundreds.
III. Allegro–
We walk on the ice with slow steps,
And tread carefully, for fear of falling.
Symphony, If we go quickly, we slip and fall to the ground.
Again we run on the ice,
Until it cracks and opens.
We hear, from closed doors,
Sirocco, Boreas, and all the winds in battle.
This is winter, but it brings joy.

~Vivaldi (Winter poem)

Spring
Spring
Spring
Spring

La Primavera (Spring)
Opus 8, No. 1, in E Major

I. Allegro–
Festive Spring has arrived,
The birds salute it with their happy song.
And the brooks, caressed by little Zephyrs,
Flow with a sweet murmur.
The sky is covered with a black mantle,
And thunder, and lightning, announce a storm.
When they are silent, the birds
Return to sing their lovely song.
II. Largo e pianissimo sempre–
And in the meadow, rich with flowers,
To the sweet murmur of leaves and plants,
The goatherd sleeps, with his faithful dog at his side.
III. Danza pastorale. Allegro–
To the festive sound of pastoral bagpipes,
Dance nymphs and shepherds,
At Spring’s brilliant appearance.

~Vivaldi (Spring poem)

Summer
Summer
Summer
Summer

L’Estate (Summer)
Opus 8, No. 2, in G minor

I. Allegro non molto–
Under the heat of the burning summer sun,
Languish man and flock; the pine is parched.
The cuckoo finds its voice, and suddenly,
The turtledove and goldfinch sing.
A gentle breeze blows,
But suddenly, the north wind appears.
The shepherd weeps because, overhead,
Lies the fierce storm, and his destiny.
II. Adagio; Presto–
His tired limbs are deprived of rest
By his fear of lightning and fierce thunder,
And by furious swarms of flies and hornets.
III. Presto–
Alas, how just are his fears,
Thunder and lightening fill the Heavens, and the hail
Slices the tops of the corn and other grain.
~Vivaldi (Summer poem)

Autumn
Autumn
Autumn

Autumn
Autumn

L’Autunno (Autumn)
Opus 8, No. 3, in F Major

I. Allegro–
The peasants celebrate with dance and song,
The joy of a rich harvest.
And, full of Bacchus’s liquor,
They finish their celebration with sleep.
II. Adagio molto–
Each peasant ceases his dance and song.
The mild air gives pleasure,
And the season invites many
To enjoy a sweet slumber.
III. Allegro–
The hunters, at the break of dawn, go to the hunt.
With horns, guns, and dogs they are off,
The beast flees, and they follow its trail.
Already fearful and exhausted by the great noise,
Of guns and dogs, and wounded,
The exhausted beast tries to flee, but dies.

~Vivaldi (Autumn poem)

I walk this path to stand at the same spot
countless times through the year,
to witness the palette changing
around me.

The Artist chooses His color and technique
lovingly, with a gentle touch for each season.

My life too is painted with richness and variety:
from the bare lines of winter,
to a green emergence of spring,
a summer sweet fruitfulness
and a mosaic crescendo of autumn.

This ever-new pathway extends
beyond the reach of the canvas.


Beyond Communion

I stop the car along the pasture edge,
gather up bags of corncobs from the back,
and get out.
Two whistles, one for each,
and familiar sounds draw close in darkness—
cadence of hoof on hardened bottomland,
twinned blowing of air through nostrils curious, flared.
They come deepened and muscular movements
conjured out of sleep: each small noise and scent
heavy with earth, simple beyond communion,
beyond the stretched-out hand from which they calmly
take corncobs, pulling away as I hold
until the mid-points snap.
They are careful of my fingers,
offering that animal-knowledge,
the respect which is due to strangers;
and in the night, their mares’ eyes shine, reflecting stars,
the entire, outer light of the world here.
~Jane Hirshfield “After Work”from Of Gravity and Angels.

I’ve been picking up windfall apples to haul down to the barn for a special treat each night for the Haflingers. These are apples that we humans wouldn’t take a second glance at in all our satiety and fussiness, but the Haflingers certainly don’t mind a bruise, or a worm hole or slug trails over apple skin.

I’ve found over the years that our horses must be taught to eat apples–if they have no experience with them, they will bypass them lying in the field and not give them a second look. There simply is not enough odor to make them interesting or appealing–until they are cut in slices that is. Then they become irresistible and no apple is left alone from that point forward.

When I offer a whole apple to a young Haflinger who has never tasted one before, they will sniff it, perhaps roll it on my hand a bit with their lips, but I’ve yet to have one simply bite in and try. If I take the time to cut the apple up, they’ll pick up a section very gingerly, kind of hold it on their tongue and nod their head up and down trying to decide as they taste and test it if they should drop it or chew it, and finally, as they really bite in and the sweetness pours over their tongue, they get this look in their eye that is at once surprised and supremely pleased. The only parallel experience I’ve seen in humans is when you offer a five month old baby his first taste of ice cream on a spoon and at first he tightens his lips against its coldness, but once you slip a little into his mouth, his face screws up a bit and then his eyes get big and sparkly and his mouth rolls the taste around his tongue, savoring that sweet cold creaminess. His mouth immediately pops open for more.

It is the same with apples and horses. Once they have that first taste, they are our slaves forever in search of the next apple.

The Haflinger veteran apple eaters can see me coming with my sweat shirt front pocket stuffed with apples, a “pregnant” belly of fruit, as it were. They offer low nickers when I come up to their stalls and each horse has a different approach to their apple offering.

There is the “bite a little bit at a time” approach, which makes the apple last longer, and tends to be less messy in the long run. There is the “bite it in half” technique which leaves half the apple in your hand as they navigate the other half around their teeth, dripping and frothing sweet apple slobber. Lastly there is the greedy “take the whole thing at once” horse, which is the most challenging way to eat an apple, as it has to be moved back to the molars, and crunched, and then moved around the mouth to chew up the large pieces, and usually half the apple ends up falling to the ground, with all the foam that the juice and saliva create. No matter the technique used, the smell of an apple as it is being chewed by a horse is one of the best smells in the world. I can almost taste the sweetness too when I smell that smell.

What do we do when offered such a sublime gift from someone’s hand? If it is something we have never experienced before, we possibly walk right by, not recognizing that it is a gift at all, missing the whole point and joy of experiencing what is being offered. How many wonderful opportunities are right under our noses, but we fail to notice, and bypass them because they are unfamiliar?

Perhaps if the giver really cares enough to “teach” us to accept this communion meal, by preparing it and making it irresistible to us, then we are overwhelmed with the magnitude of the generosity and are transformed by the simple act of receiving.

We must learn to take little bites, savoring each piece one at a time, making it last rather than greedily grab hold of the whole thing, struggling to control it, thereby losing some in the process. Either way, it is a gracious gift, and it is how we receive it that makes all the difference.

Even This Late

Even this late it happens:
the coming of love, the coming of light.
You wake and the candles are lit as if by themselves,
stars gather, dreams pour into your pillows,
sending up warm bouquets of air.
Even this late the bones of the body shine
and tomorrow’s dust flares into breath.
~Mark Strand “The Coming of Light”

At times I feel my age more than others:
my joints and muscles need loosening,
my thoughts take time to clarify and sharpen,
my longings less urgent.

Yet those moments are balanced
by the steady persistence
of light and warmth and love.
I breathe deeply of this fragrant life;

I’m not dust yet.

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Endless Song

My life flows on in endless song
above earth’s lamentation.
I hear the real, though far-off hymn

that hails a new creation.

No storm can shake my inmost calm,

while to that rock, I’m clinging
Since love prevails in heaven and earth,

How can I keep from singing?

Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear its music ringing
It sounds an echo in my soul
How can I keep from singing?

While though the tempest round me roars,
I know the truth, it liveth.
And though the darkness round me close,

songs in the night it giveth.

No storm can shake my inmost calm,

while to that rock, I’m clinging
Since love prevails in heaven and earth,

How can I keep from singing?

I Lift my eyes. The cloud grows thin;
I see the blue above it.
And day by day, this pathway smooths,

since first I learned to love it.

No storm can shake my inmost calm,

I hear the music ringing.
It sounds an echo in my soul.

How can I keep from singing?
~Robert Lowry

We are spending a few precious days with our grandson in Colorado before his first birthday. He loves being sung to – he rocks and bops to the melodies and rhythms and then relaxes to sleep listening to us sing the quiet evening hymns we sang to his father at night.

He will see so much in his lifetime that we can’t even imagine. Already in his short time on earth there have been plenty of cataclysmic events, and without a doubt, more are in store.

No matter what comes, we pray he will always hear his parents’ and four grandparents’ voices resounding inside his head when things get rough. The hymns and the prayers said over him will give him calm and confidence in the face of trouble.

God’s reality and truth are shared with him in songs and words every day, and as he someday raises children of his own, how can he keep from singing that out when it is most needed?

Make These Words More Than Words

This is another day, O Lord.
I know not what it will bring forth,
but make me ready, Lord,
for whatever it may be.
If I am to stand up,
help me to stand bravely.
If I am to sit still,
help me to sit quietly.
If I am to lie low,
help me to do it patiently.
And if I am to do nothing,
let me do it gallantly.
Make these words more than words,
and give me the Spirit of Jesus.
Amen.
~Book of Common Prayer

Most days I am overwhelmed with words, whether they come from the radio, TV, podcasts, books, magazines, social media or simply dwelling in my own thoughts. I’m barraged with what to think, how to think, who to believe, who not to believe, and why to think at all.

I’m left desperate for a need for silence, just to quiet myself.
All I need is to know what I am to do with this new day,
how to best live this moment.

Then I come to the Word.
It explains.
It responds.
It restores.
It refreshes.
It consoles.
It understands.
It embodies the Spirit I need far more than I need silence.

The words I seek to hear are far more than Words.
They are God Himself.

Amen
and again
Amen.

All Things Glad and Flourishing

Spring flew swiftly by, and summer came;
and if the village had been beautiful at first,
it was now in the full glow and luxuriance of its richness.
The great trees, which had looked shrunken and bare in the earlier months, had now burst into strong life and health;
and stretching forth their green arms over the thirsty ground,
converted open and naked spots into choice nooks,
where was a deep and pleasant shade
from which to look upon the wide prospect,
steeped in sunshine, which lay stretched out beyond.
The earth had donned her mantle of brightest green;
and shed her richest perfumes abroad.
It was the prime and vigour of the year;
all things were glad and flourishing.”
~ Charles Dickens from Oliver Twist 

Despite a pandemic,
despite economic hardship,
despite racial tensions and in-the-street protests,
despite political maneuvering and posturing:

life is green and flourishing and vigorous
even when we feel gray and withered and weakened.

May we not forget why we are here.
May we never forget our calling and purpose
to steward the earth and care for one another.

Reflecting Stars

Two whistles, one for each,
and familiar sounds draw close in darkness—
cadence of hoof on hardened bottomland,
twinned blowing of air through nostrils curious, flared.
They come deepened and muscular movements
conjured out of sleep: each small noise and scent
heavy with earth, simple beyond communion…

…and in the night, their mares’ eyes shine, reflecting stars,
the entire, outer light of the world here. 
~Jane Hirschfield from “After Work”

It’s tempting to fall headfirst into their fathomless well –
Their eyes are what rivet me as they search my own,
This retinal magnet drawing me into
Such incalculable depths.

Yet I’m merely reflected like starlight;
Only dancing on this mirrored surface
When I long to dive deep to understand what they see in me:
To be so lost I must be found.