Waiting in Wilderness: In the Interstices

As the deer pants for the water so my soul pants for you, God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
As with a deadly wound in my bones,
my adversaries taunt me,
while they say to me all the day long,
“Where is your God?”
from Psalm 42

Why no! I never thought other than
That God is that great absence
In our lives, the empty silence
Within, the place where we go
Seeking, not in hope to
Arrive or find. He keeps the interstices
In our knowledge, the darkness
Between stars. His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
Left. We put our hands in
His side hoping to find
It warm. We look at people
And places as though he had looked
At them, too; but miss the reflection.

~R.S. Thomas “Via Negativa”

We are treated as impostors, and yet are true;
as unknown, and yet well known;
as dying, and behold, we live;
as punished, and yet not killed;
as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing;
as poor, yet making many rich;
as having nothing, yet possessing everything.
2 Corinthians 6: 8b-10

The way of negation (via negativa) – describing who God is by describing who He is not — is like describing the interstitial spaces between my cells rather than the cells themselves, or the blackness between stars rather than the light that emanates from them.

It is impossible to understand God unless I absorb what He says about Himself. Yet I am too finite and He is too infinite to grasp fully.

So, like a deer panting for water, I thirst for Him, seeking more than a reflection of water for my real thirst. I want Him tangible and warm before me like Thomas thrusting his hand into Jesus’ wound, crying “My Lord and My God!”

The mystery of God is how He is so much more than mere reflection and the spaces in between what I see and feel in this existence. He is all things, all at once.

So I continue to seek Him, thirsting.

Waiting in Wilderness: Do It Again

Because children have abounding vitality,
because they are in spirit fierce and free,
therefore they want things repeated and unchanged.
They always say, “Do it again”;
and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead.

For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony.
But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony.
It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun;
and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon.

It may be that he has the eternal appetite of infancy;
for we have sinned and grown old,
and our Father is younger than we.
~G.K. Chesterton from Orthodoxy

To an infant, nothing is monotonous — it is all so new.  The routine of the day is very simple and reassuring: sleep, wake, cry, nurse, clean up, gaze out at the world, turn on the smiles –repeat.

The routine becomes more complex as we age until it no longer resembles a routine, if we can help it. We don’t bother getting up to watch the sun rise yet again and don’t notice the sun set once more. We truly flounder in the wilderness of our own making.

Weary as we may be with routine, our continual search for the next new thing costs us in time and energy.   We age every time we sigh with boredom or turn away from the mundane and everyday, becoming less and less like our younger purer selves.

Who among us exults in monotony and celebrates predictability and enjoys repetition, whether it is sunrise or sunset or an infinite number of daisies?

God does. He sees our short attention spans.  He alone remains consistent, persistent and insistent because we need someone to lead us out of our wilderness.

Do it again, God.  Please — please do it again.

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?
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?
How Can I Keep from singing? Keep Singing.

Will you come and follow me 
If I but call your name?
Will you go where you don’t know
And never be the same?
Will you let my love be shown,
Will you let me name be known,
Will you let my life be grown
In you and you in me?

Will you leave yourself behind
If I but call your name?
Will you care for cruel and kind
And never be the same?
Will you risk the hostile stare
Should your life attract or scare.
Will you let me answer prayer
In you and you in me?

Will you let the blinded see
If I but call your name?
Will you set the prisoners free
And never be the same?
Will you kiss the leper clean,
And do this as such unseen,
And admit to what I mean
In you and you in me?

Will you love the “you” you hide
If I but call your name?
Will you quell the fear inside
And never be the same?
Will you use the faith you’ve found
To reshape the world around,
Through my sight and touch and sound
In you and you in me?

Lord, your summons echoes true
When you but call my name.
Let me turn and follow you
And never be the same.
In your company I’ll go
Where your love and footsteps show.
Thus I’ll move and live and grow
In you and you in me.

The Smell of Water

At the soft place in the snowbank
Warmed to dripping by the sun
There is the smell of water.
On the western wind the hint of glacier.
A cottonwood tree warmed by the same sun
On the same day,
My back against its rough bark
Same west wind mild in my face.
A piece of spring
Pierced me with love for this empty place
Where a prairie creek runs
Under its cover of clear ice
And the sound it makes,
Mysterious as a heartbeat,
New as a lamb.
~Tom Hennen, “In the Late Season” from Darkness Sticks to Everything: Collected and New Poems. 

While walking the sloping hillside of our farm,
if I listen carefully,
I can hear trickling under the snow.
I can’t see it but I can hear and feel and smell the water;
as a hidden and mysterious melt happens.
Thawing under my feet-
as winter drains away,
spring is on the move.

I witness that which I have no control over,
this subtle softening of frozen ground-
unseen, yet as evident as the steady beating of my heart
as I too begin to thaw and melt
through the miracle of flowing grace
into whatever comes next.


Under This Sky

Tonight at sunset walking on the snowy road,
my shoes crunching on the frozen gravel, first

through the woods, then out into the open fields
past a couple of trailers and some pickup trucks, I stop

and look at the sky. Suddenly: orange, red, pink, blue,
green, purple, yellow, gray, all at once and everywhere.

I pause in this moment at the beginning of my old age
and I say a prayer of gratitude for getting to this evening

a prayer for being here, today, now, alive
in this life, in this evening, under this sky.
~David Budbill “Winter: Tonight: Sunset”
 from While We’ve Still Got Feet

I strive to remember, each day,
no matter how things feel,
no matter how tired or distracted I am,
no matter how worried, or fearful or heartsick
over the state of the world or the state of my soul:

it is up to me to distill my gratitude
down to this one moment of beauty
that will never come again.

One breath,
one blink,
one pause,
one whispered word:
wow.

Peaches and Cream

I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.
At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.
~Jane Kenyon “Otherwise” from Otherwise

We become complacent in our routines, confident in the knowledge that tomorrow will be very much like yesterday. The small distinct blessings of an ordinary day become lost in the rush of moving forward to the next experience, the next task, the next responsibility.

The reality is there is nothing ordinary about this day – it could be otherwise and some day it will be otherwise.

Jane Kenyon wrote much of her best poetry in the knowledge she was dying of leukemia. She reminds us that we don’t need a terminal diagnosis to understand the blessings of each ordinary moment.

So I look around longingly at the blessings of my life that I don’t even realize, knowing that one day, it will be otherwise. I dwell richly in the experience of these moments, these peaches and cream of daily life, as they are happening.

This Notable Thing

Chunky and noisy,
but with stars in their black feathers,
they spring from the telephone wire
and instantly

they are acrobats
in the freezing wind.
And now, in the theater of air,
they swing over buildings,

dipping and rising;
they float like one stippled star
that opens,
becomes for a moment fragmented,

then closes again;
and you watch
and you try
but you simply can’t imagine

how they do it
with no articulated instruction, no pause,
only the silent confirmation
that they are this notable thing,

this wheel of many parts, that can rise and spin
over and over again,
full of gorgeous life.

Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us,
even in the leafless winter,
even in the ashy city.
I am thinking now
of grief, and of getting past it;

I feel my boots
trying to leave the ground,
I feel my heart
pumping hard. I want

to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.
~Mary Oliver “Starlings in Winter” from Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays

Out of the dimming sky a speck appeared,
then another, and another.
It was the starlings going to roost. 
They gathered deep in the distance,  flock sifting into flock,
and strayed towards me, transparent and whirling, like smoke.
They seemed to unravel as they flew,
lengthening in curves, like a loosened skein. 
I didn’t move; they flew directly over my head for half an hour. 

Each individual bird bobbed and knitted up and down
in the flight at apparent random, for no known reason except
that that’s how starlings fly, yet all remained perfectly spaced.
The flocks each tapered at either end

from a rounded middle, like an eye.
Overhead I heard a sound of beaten air,

like a million shook rugs, a muffled whuff.
Into the woods they sifted without shifting a twig,
right through the crowns of trees, intricate and rushing, like wind.

Could tiny birds be sifting through me right now,
birds winging through the gaps between my cells,
touching nothing, but quickening in my tissues, fleet?
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

…yesterday I heard a new sound above my head
a rustling, ruffling quietness in the spring air

and when I turned my face upward
I saw a flock of blackbirds
rounding a curve I didn’t know was there
and the sound was simply all those wings,
all those feathers against air, against gravity
and such a beautiful winning:
the whole flock taking a long, wide turn
as if of one body and one mind.

How do they do that?

If we lived only in human society
what a puny existence that would be

but instead we live and move and have our being
here, in this curving and soaring world
that is not our own
so when mercy and tenderness triumph in our lives
and when, even more rarely, we unite and move together
toward a common good,

we can think to ourselves:

ah yes, this is how it’s meant to be.
~Julie Cadwallader Staub from “Blackbirds” from Wing Over Wing

Watching a winter starlings’ murmuration is a visceral experience – my heart leaps to see it happen above me.  I can get queasy following its looping amoebic folding and unfolding path.

Thousands of individual birds move in sync with one another to form one massive organism existing solely because each tiny component anticipates and cooperates to avoid mid-air collisions.  It could explode into chaos but it doesn’t.  It could result in massive casualties but it doesn’t.  They could avoid each other altogether but they don’t – they come together with a purpose and reasoning beyond our imagining. Even the silence of their movement has a discernible sound.

We humans are made up of just such cooperating component parts, that which is deep in our tissues, programmed in our DNA.  Yet we don’t exercise such unity from our designed and carefully constructed building blocks.  We are frighteningly disparate and independent creatures, going our own way bumping and crashing without care, leaving so much body and spiritual wreckage behind.

To where has flown our mercy and tenderness?
We have corporately lost our internal moral compass.

We figuratively and literally shoot each other in the back, trampling over and suffocating one another, in a reach for justice that seems right in our own eyes. 

We even watch the daily death count rise in ever-increasing numbers, and still some resist doing what it takes to protect themselves and one another.

The sound of silence is muffled weeping.

There comes a time in every fall
before the leaves begin to turn
when blackbirds group and flock and gather
choosing a tree, a branch, together
to click and call and chorus and clamor
announcing the season has come for travel.

Then comes a time when all those birds
without a sound or backward glance
pour from every branch and limb
into the air, as if on a whim
but it’s a dynamic, choreographed mass
a swoop, a swerve, a mystery, a dance

and now the tree stands breathless, amazed
at how it was chosen, how it was changed.

~Julie Cadwallader Staub “Turning” from Wing Over Wing

A Hand on the Forehead

The bud
stands for all things,
even for those things that don’t flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;   
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;   
as Saint Francis
put his hand on the creased forehead
of the sow, and told her in words and in touch   
blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow   
began remembering all down her thick length,   
from the earthen snout all the way
through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,   
from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine   
down through the great broken heart
to the sheer blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering   
from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing beneath them:
the long, perfect loveliness of sow.
~Galway Kinnell, “Saint Francis and the Sow” from Three Books.

We all need such a blessing – a gentle hand on our forehead to remind us of our budding loveliness. Without that affirmation, we become convinced we will never flower and fruit, that we are worthless to the world.

Due to cruel comparisons on social media and elsewhere, our young people (and too many older adults) remain crippled buds, feeling criticized and bullied into believing they don’t measure up and can never be crucially beautiful in the world.

And so I must ask: compared to what and whom?
What is more glorious than blooming just as we were created –
serving the very purpose for which we were intended?
Why wish for something or someone else?

There is nothing more wonderful than exactly how God knitted us together for His own purpose and in His own image — imperfectly perfect.

Celebrate your lifelong loveliness, whoever you are!

Her Cowness

There were a few dozen who occupied the field
across the road from where we lived,
stepping all day from tuft to tuft,
their big heads down in the soft grass,
though I would sometimes pass a window
and look out to see the field suddenly empty
as if they had taken wing, flown off to another country.

Then later, I would open the blue front door,
and again the field would be full of their munching
or they would be lying down
on the black-and-white maps of their sides,
facing in all directions, waiting for rain.
How mysterious, how patient and dumbfounded
they appear in the long quiet of the afternoon.

But every once in a while, one of them
would let out a sound so phenomenal
that I would put down the paper
or the knife I was cutting an apple with
and walk across the road to the stone wall
to see which one of them was being torched
or pierced through the side with a long spear.

Yes, it sounded like pain until I could see
the noisy one, anchored there on all fours,
her neck outstretched, her bellowing head
laboring upward as she gave voice
to the rising, full-bodied cry
that began in the darkness of her belly
and echoed up through her bowed ribs into her gaping mouth.

Then I knew that she was only announcing
the large, unadulterated cowness of herself,
pouring out the ancient apologia of her kind
to all the green fields and the gray clouds,
to the limestone hills and the inlet of the blue bay,
while she regarded my head and shoulders
above the wall with one wild, shocking eye.
~Billy Collins “Afternoon with Irish Cows”

Most of my life I have lived surrounded by cows. I have great appreciation for their pastoral presence, and know well their nosiness and their noisiness.

There isn’t anything else that sounds like a cow in heat. Nothing. Especially in the middle of the night.

There is the fascination of following a meandering cow path through a field –where there is no such thing as a straight line.

And there isn’t anything quite as riveting to a cow than a human approaching the gate.

During our farm stays in Ireland and Scotland a few years back, we made a point to get to know the local bovines, just for comparison’s sake. At home we raised Scottish Highland cattle, so we felt we could speak their language, even if they were Belted Galloways rather than Highlanders. Sure enough, we were just as riveting to them as they were to us.

We have talked about getting a couple of furry cows again for the farm. It’s been awhile since we hosted some here. I’m nostalgic for their reassuring cud chewing, their soft flap of ear, their round transparent eyes, but most of all watching the acrobatics of a tongue that wraps itself around a clump of grass while grazing and can reach up and clean out a moist nose.

A wondrous creature — the bovine – true magnificence and mystery in their cowness.

Permission to Breathe Again

We are waiting for snow
the way we might wait for a train
to arrive with its cold cargo—
it is late already, but surely
it will come.
We are waiting for snow
the way we might wait
for permission
to breathe again.


For only the snow
will release us, only the snow
will be a letting go, a blind falling
towards the body of earth
and towards each other.


And while we wait at this window
whose sheer transparency
is clouded already
with our mutual breath,


it is as if our whole lives depended
on the freezing color
of the sky, on the white
soon to be fractured
gaze of winter.
~Linda Pastan “Interlude” from Queen of a Rainy Country

This poem by Linda Pastan was published in 2008 — it wasn’t written about waiting our turn for the new COVID vaccine, but it could have been.

Most of us are waiting for the vaccine like we wait for the relief of a winter snow storm. It’s as if we are all stuck inside, watching at the window, our noses pressed to the glass, our breath fogging the pane, gazing at the sky and trying to predict when and if the snow will come. We long to see the world clean and smooth and magical again with all its messy, grimy, muddy parts covered up, at least for awhile.

We want to play again and go where our heart wishes and be together with our friends and family. We want permission to breathe deeply, to show off our smiles and sing with gusto.

This second winter of COVID is crueler than the first because we know more now than a year ago: we know what we could have done and should have done but didn’t. We know we’ve lost far more lives than we should have and thousands more struggle to recover.

In order to fracture this COVID winter, to break open this frozen sky of our suspended lives, we seek the vaccine to arrive like the snow, covering all, protecting all, inviting all.

Our lives depend on it.

(I get my first dose today)

Tender December

From the tawny light
from the rainy nights
from the imagination finding
itself and more than itself
alone and more than alone
at the bottom of the well where the moon lives,   
can you pull me

into December? a lowland
of space, perception of space
towering of shadows of clouds blown upon
clouds over
                  new ground, new made
under heavy December footsteps? the only
way to live?

The flawed moon
acts on the truth, and makes   
an autumn of tentative
silences.
You lived, but somewhere else,
your presence touched others, ring upon ring,
and changed. Did you think   
I would not change?

                              The black moon
turns away, its work done. A tenderness,
unspoken autumn.   
We are faithful
only to the imagination. What the
imagination
             seizes
as beauty must be truth
. What holds you
to what you see of me is
that grasp alone.

~Denise Levertov “Everything that Acts is Actual”

Within these days of early winter
is disappearance of our familiar world,
of all that grows and thrives,
of new life and freshness,
of hope slipping away
in a scurry for survival.

Then there comes this moment of softness amid the bleak,
a gift of grace and beauty,
a glance of sunlight on a snowy hillside,
a covering of low misty puffs in the valley,
a moon lit landscape,
a startling sunrise, clouds upon clouds
and then I know the actual world is seized with Your Truth
because You have grasped hold of it
and won’t let go.