Watching Ensanguining Skies

Ensanguining the skies
How heavily it dies
  Into the west away;
Past touch and sight and sound
Not further to be found,
How hopeless under ground
  Falls the remorseful day.
~A.E. Houseman from “How Clear, How Lovely Bright”

O’er me, like a regal tent,
Cloudy-ribbed, the sunset bent,
Purple-curtained, fringed with gold,
Looped in many a wind-swung fold…

~John Greenleaf Whittier from “The Barefoot Boy”

Once I saw a chimpanzee gaze at a particularly beautiful sunset for a full 15 minutes, watching the changing colors [and then] retire to the forest without picking a pawpaw for supper.
~Adriaan Krotlandt, Dutch ethologist in Scientific American (1962)

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”

How can I feel so warm   
Here in the dead center of January? I can   
Scarcely believe it, and yet I have to, this is   
The only life I have. 
~James Wright from “A Winter Daybreak Above Vence”

Last night was a once a year sunset experience in the dead center of January, following a full day of pouring-rain gray-skies monochrome nothingness.

For twenty minutes our region was blissed to witness an evolving array of crimson and purple color and patterns, streaks and swirls, gradation and gradual decline.

It all took place in silence.  No bird song, no wind, no spoken prayer.
Yet a communion took place – the air broke and fed us like manna from heaven. And so filled to the brim…

May I squander my life no more and instead treasure each moment.

May I vow to cherish God, church, family, friends, and those in my community who are strangers to me.

May I never forget my witness this winter day of the bleeding of the last light of day.

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An Absence of Secrecy

I came here to study hard things
– rock mountain and salt sea –
and to temper my spirit on their edges. 
“Teach me thy ways, O Lord” is, like all prayers,
a rash one, and one I cannot but recommend. 

These mountains — Mount Baker and the Sisters and Shuksan,
the Canadian Coastal Range and the Olympics on the peninsula — are surely the edge of the known and comprehended world…. 

That they bear their own unimaginable masses and weathers aloft, holding them up in the sky for anyone to see plain, makes them,
as Chesterton said of the Eucharist, only the more mysterious
by their very visibility and absence of secrecy.
~Annie Dillard from Holy the Firm

Sometimes the mountain
is hidden from me in veils
of cloud, sometimes
I am hidden from the mountain
in veils of inattention, apathy, fatigue,
when I forget or refuse to go
down to the shore or a few yards
up the road, on a clear day,
to reconfirm
that witnessing presence.
~Denise Levertov  “Witness”

Even on the days like today when the mountain is hidden behind a veil of clouds, I have every confidence it is there.  It has not moved in the night, gone to another county, blown up or melted down.  My vision isn’t penetrating enough to see it through cloud cover today, but it will return to my line of sight, if not tomorrow, perhaps the next day, maybe not until next week. 

I know this and have faith it is true – the mountain does not keep itself a secret.

On the days when I am not bothering to look for it, too preoccupied so walk right past its obvious grandeur and presence, then it reaches out to me and calls me back, refocusing me. 

There are times when I turn a corner on the farm and glance up, and there it is, a silent and overwhelming witness to beauty and steadfastness.  I literally gasp at not noticing before, at not remembering how I’m blessed by it being there even at the times I can’t be bothered.

It witnesses my lack of witness and, so in its mysterious way of being in plain sight, stays put to hold me fast yet another day.  And so I keep coming back to gaze, sometimes just at clouds, yearning to lift the veil, and as a result, lift my veil, just one more time.

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On the Outside of the World

At present we are on the outside of the world,
the wrong side of the door.
We discern the freshness and purity of morning,
but they do not make us fresh and pure.
We cannot mingle with the splendours we see.
But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour
that it will not always be so.
Some day, God willing, we shall get in.
~C.S. Lewis, from The Weight of Glory

Sometimes I’m on the outside looking in,
other times I’m on the inside looking out,
wondering where I should be,
knowing where I want to be,
longing for something I can’t quite reach.

We see through a glass darkly,
waiting for the day when all will be clear,
waiting to be invited into the purity
of where God dwells richly.

A book of beauty in words and photography, available for order here:

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.

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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.

A book of beautiful words and photography, available to order here:

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?