To Break Your Heart

Here is a story
to break your heart.
Are you willing?
This winter
the loons came to our harbor
and died, one by one,
of nothing we could see.
A friend told me
of one on the shore
that lifted its head and opened
the elegant beak and cried out
in the long, sweet savoring of its life
which, if you have heard it,
you know is a sacred thing.,
and for which, if you have not heard it,
you had better hurry to where
they still sing.
And, believe me, tell no one
just where that is.
The next morning
this loon, speckled
and iridescent and with a plan
to fly home
to some hidden lake,
was dead on the shore.
I tell you this
to break your heart,
by which I mean only
that it break open and never close again
to the rest of the world.
~Mary Oliver “Lead” from New and Selected Poems

Why shouldn’t we go through heartbreaks?

…if through a broken heart
God can bring His purposes to pass in the world,
then thank Him for breaking your heart.
~Oswald Chambers from “Ye are not your own” from My Utmost for the Highest

These last two years have seen an epidemic of heart-break.

Due to hospital visitor restrictions, thousands of loved ones have died of COVID without family by their side, deprived of the solace of hearing familiar voices and being touched by familiar hands. A weary and over-worked health care team can only do so much in their efforts to comfort and console when so many patients are losing their battle with the virus at the same time. Although nurses and doctors have always been witnesses to the cries of the dying and the weeping of the grief-stricken, that is usually together at the bedside.

An iPad screen isn’t the same for those saying good-bye forever.

For all the advances of our modern society – through technology and communication and the development of medical miracles – people still die and others still grieve and weep over their loss. We’re not used to dying happening with such frequency to those who have no business dying in the first place. We assume death rates exceeding birth rates happens only in third world countries beset with drought or plague.

Not any more.

So my heart is tender – for those lost, for those left behind, for those trying their best to save lives when they are weary and ill themselves, for the irony of hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths when the preventive measures available to us all are so clear-cut.

If anything, a breaking heart is an open invitation for the solace of a God who himself had no business dying in the first place, but did. He cried out in a long, sweet savoring of his life and ours, saving us in the process.

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Saved By a Snow Storm

“I have noticed,” she said slowly, “that time does not really exist for mothers, with regard to their children. It does not matter greatly how old the child is – in the blink of an eye, the mother can see the child again as she was when she was born, when she learned to walk, as she was at any age — at any time, even when the child is fully grown….”
~Diana Gabaldon from Voyager

May the wind always be in her hair
May the sky always be wide with hope above her
And may all the hills be an exhilaration
the trials but a trail,
all the stones but stairs to God.

May she be bread and feed many with her life and her laughter
May she be thread and mend brokenness and knit hearts…
~Ann Voskamp from “A Prayer for a Daughter”

Your rolling and stretching had grown quieter that stormy winter night
twenty nine years ago, but still no labor came as it should.
Already a week overdue post-Christmas,
you clung to amnion and womb, not yet ready.
Then as the wind blew more wicked
and snow flew sideways, landing in piling drifts,
the roads became more impassable, nearly impossible to traverse.

So your dad and I tried,
concerned about your stillness and my advanced age,
worried about being stranded on the farm far from town.
So a neighbor came to stay with your brothers overnight,
we headed down the road
and our car got stuck in a snowpile in the deep darkness,
our tires spinning, whining against the snow.
Another neighbor’s earth mover dug us out to freedom.

You floated silent and still, knowing your time was not yet.

Creeping slowly through the dark night blizzard,
we arrived to the warm glow of the hospital,
your heartbeat checked out steady, all seemed fine.

I slept not at all.

The morning’s sun glistened off sculptured snow as
your heart ominously slowed.
You and I were jostled, turned, oxygenated, but nothing changed.
You beat even more slowly,
threatening to let loose your tenuous grip on life.

The nurses’ eyes told me we had trouble.
The doctor, grim faced, announced
delivery must happen quickly,
taking you now, hoping we were not too late.
I was rolled, numbed, stunned,
clasping your father’s hand, closing my eyes,
not wanting to see the bustle around me,
trying not to hear the shouted orders,
the tension in the voices,
the quiet at the moment of opening
when it was unknown what would be found.

And then you cried. A hearty healthy husky cry,
a welcomed song of life uninterrupted.
Perturbed and disturbed from the warmth of womb,
to the cold shock of a bright lit operating room,
your first vocal solo brought applause
from the surrounding audience who admired your purplish pink skin,
your shock of damp red hair, your blue eyes squeezed tight,
then blinking open, wondering and wondrous,
emerging and saved from a storm within and without.

You were brought wrapped for me to see and touch
before you were whisked away to be checked over thoroughly,
your father trailing behind the parade to the nursery.
I closed my eyes, swirling in a brain blizzard of what-ifs.

If no snow storm had come,
you would have fallen asleep forever within my womb,
no longer nurtured by my aging and failing placenta,
cut off from what you needed to stay alive.
There would have been only our soft weeping,
knowing what could have been if we had only known,
if God had provided a sign to go for help.

So you were saved by a providential storm
and dug out from a drift:
I celebrate when I hear your voice singing,
and when your students love you as their teacher,
knowing you are a thread born to knit and mend hearts,
all because of blowing snow.

My annual retelling of the most remarkable day of my life when our daughter Eleanor (“Lea”) Sarah Gibson was born, hale and hearty because the good Lord sent a snow and wind storm to blow us into the hospital in time to save her. She is now married to her true love Brian who is another gift sent from the Lord; someday their hope for parenthood will come true for them as well.

The Tenacity of Nature

By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast — a cold wind. Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

patches of standing water
the scattering of tall trees

All along the road the reddish
purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy
stuff of bushes and small trees
with dead, brown leaves under them
leafless vines —

Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches —

They enter the new world naked,
cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter. All about them
the cold, familiar wind —

Now the grass, tomorrow
the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf

One by one objects are defined —
It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf

But now the stark dignity of
entrance — Still, the profound change
has come upon them: rooted they
grip down and begin to awaken
~William Carlos Williams “Spring and All”

I ask your doctor
of infectious disease if she’s
read Williams   he cured
sick babies I tell her and
begin describing spring
and all   she’s looking at the wall
now the floor   now your chart
now the door   never
heard of him she says
but I can’t stop explaining
how important this is
I need to know your doctor
believes in the tenacity of nature
to endure   I’m past his heart
attack   his strokes   and now as if
etching the tombstone myself   I find
I can’t remember the date
he died or even
the year   of what now
are we the pure products   and what
does that even mean   pure   isn’t it
obvious   we are each our own culture
alive with the virus that’s waiting
to unmake us
~Brian Russell, “The Year of What Now”

It is the third January of a pandemic
of a virus far more tenacious than
we have proven to be,
it continues to unmake us,
able to mutate spike proteins seemingly overnight
while too many of us stubbornly
remain unchanged by this,
clinging to our “faith over fear”
and “my body, my choice”
and “lions, not sheep”
and “never comply” —
because self-determination must trump
compassion for the unfortunate fate of vulnerable millions.

We defend the freedom to choose
to be vectors of a contagion
that may not sicken us yet fills
clinics, hospitals and morgues.

William Carlos Williams, the early 20th century physician,
would be astonished at the clinical tools we have now
to fight this scourge.
William Carlos Williams, last centuries’ imagist poet,
would recognize our deadly erosion of cooperation
when faced with a worthy viral opponent.

So what happens now?

Starting with this third pandemic winter,
with our souls in another deep freeze,
covered in snow and ice and bitter wind chill,
a tenuous hope of restoration could awaken –
tender buds swelling,
bulbs breaking through soil,
being called forth from long burial
in a dark and cold and heartless earth.

Like a mother who holds
the mystery of her quickening belly,
knowing we nurture other lives with our own body,
we too can be hopeful and marveling
at who we are created to be.

She, and we, know soon and very soon
there will be spring.

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The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: Wake Us From Drowsy Worship

A little aside from the main road,
becalmed in a last-century greyness,
there is the chapel, ugly, without the appeal
to the tourist to stop his car
and visit it. The traffic goes by,
and the river goes by, and quick shadows
of clouds, too, and the chapel settles
a little deeper into the grass.

But here once on an evening like this,
in the darkness that was about
his hearers, a preacher caught fire
and burned steadily before them
with a strange light, so that they saw
the splendour of the barren mountains
about them and sang their amens
fiercely, narrow but saved
in a way that men are not now.
~R.S. Thomas “The Chapel”

The journey begins when Christians leave their homes and beds. They leave, indeed, their life in this present and concrete world, and whether they have to drive 15 miles or walk a few blocks, a sacramental act is already taking place…

For they are now on their way to constitute the Church, or to be more exact, to be transformed into the Church of God. They have been individuals, some white, some black, some poor, some rich, they have been the ‘natural’ world and a natural community. And now they have been called to “come together in one place,” to bring their lives, their very world with them and to be more than what they were: a new community with a new life.

We are already far beyond the categories of common worship and prayer. The purpose of this ‘coming together’ is not simply to add a religious dimension to the natural community, to make it ‘better’ – more responsible, more Christian. The purpose is to fulfill the Church, and that means to make present the One in whom all things are at their end, and all things are at their beginning.
~ Father Alexander Schmemann from For the Life of the World

Unexpected God,
your coming advent alarms us.
Wake us from drowsy worship,
from the sleep that neglects love,
and the sedative of misdirected frenzy.
Awaken us now to your coming,
and bend our angers into your peace.
Amen.
~Revised Common Lectionary

Sometimes the very walls of our churches
separate us from God
and each other.


In our various naves and sanctuaries
we are safely separated from those outside,
from other denominations, other religions,
separated from the poor, the ugly, the dying.…


The house of God is not a safe place.
It is a cross where time and eternity meet,
and where we are – or should be –
challenged to live more vulnerably,
more interdependently.
~Madeleine L’Engle, from  A Stone for a Pillow

Does anyone have the foggiest idea
of what sort of power we so blithely invoke?
Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?
The churches are
children playing
on the floor with their chemistry sets,
mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.
It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church;
we should all be wearing crash helmets.
Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares;
they should lash us to our pews.

~Annie Dillard from Teaching a Stone to Talk

Being a Christian during a pandemic is nothing new in the history of the world. We’ve been through this again and again, on the frontlines caring for others during the Black Death, dying while serving unselfishly through plague after plague, and most recently during the killing influenza of the early 20th century.

Somehow the last two years of COVID-time feel different …

No one is happy that congregational singing takes place through masks. There are fewer handshakes and hugs and some of us feel safer worshiping while streaming a live feed on a screen. Some are flat out angry at having to worship with any restrictions and opt to stay away or move to churches with no such rules. Yet Christians are called to come together to raise our voices corporately in praise, prayer and thanksgiving despite potential health risks and physical inconvenience.

We are to love one another when we are most unloveable.

We tend to forget that walking into church on any Sabbath, not just during a pandemic, takes courage and commitment as we automatically become emotionally and spiritually vulnerable to one another. What one of us says and does can bless or hurt us all. This can be no drowsy worship: we are the poor, the ugly and the dying.

When I hear the secular folks in society scoff at attending church as a “crutch for the weak”, they underestimate what it means to admit a desperate need for salvation and grace that can only be found inside those doors. We who sit in a pew in the sanctuary cling to the life preserver found in the Word. We are lashed to our seats and must hang on.  It is only because of God’s grace that we survive the tempests of temptation, guilt and self-doubt in order to let go of our own anger at the state of the world and the state of our own souls.

Exposing ourselves to the radical mystery and immense power of the living God is not for the faint of heart, yet all of us on the verge of heart failure need God’s deep roots to thrive and grow in our rocky soul soil.

So we must not forget our crash helmets… or our masks.

photo by Barb Hoelle

This year’s Barnstorming Advent theme “… the Beginning shall remind us of the End” is taken from the final lines in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”

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The Scar of Proud Flesh

There are names for what binds us:
strong forces, weak forces.
Look around, you can see them:
the skin that forms in a half-empty cup,
nails rusting into the places they join,
joints dovetailed on their own weight.

The way things stay so solidly whenever they’ve been set down –
and gravity, scientists say, is weak.

And see how the flesh grows back across a wound, with a great vehemence,
more strong than the simple, untested surface before.

There’s a name for it on horses, when it comes back darker and raised:
proud flesh, as all flesh is proud of its wounds,
wears them as honors given out after battle,
small triumphs pinned to the chest –

And when two people have loved each other,
see how it is like a scar between their bodies,
stronger, darker, and proud;
how the black cord makes of them a single fabric
that nothing can tear or mend.
~Jane Hirshfield  “For What Binds Us”

Scars come in various sizes and shapes, some hidden, some quite obvious to all.  How they are inflicted also varies–some accidental, others therapeutic, and too many intentional. 

The most insidious are the ones so deep inside,  no one can see or know they are there.

Back in our woodlot stands a sawed off stump of a cedar that was old growth in virgin forest over a hundred years ago.  One day clearcut loggers came through and took every tree they could to haul to the local sawmills to become beams and lumber for the growing homesteading population in the region.  This cedar once was grand and vast, covering an immense part of the forest floor, providing protection to trillium at its feet and finches’ nests and raptors hunting in its branches.   It nurtured its environment until other plans were made, and one day, axes fell on its sides to cut out the notches for the springboards where two loggers stood either side of the proud trunk to man the saw which brought the tree down. 

Where the wood went is anyone’s guess.  It could be one of the mighty beams supporting our old hay barn roof or it could have become the foundation flooring of a nearby one room school house.  It surely had a productive and meaningful life as part of a structure somewhere until rot or carpenter ants or fire brought it once again to its knees.

But this ghost of a stump remains, a tombstone of remembrance of a once grand tree, the notch scars embedded deep in its sides, nursing new seedlings from its center and moss, lichen and ferns from its sides.

I come from logger stock so I don’t begrudge these frontier settlers their hard scrabble living, nor minimize their dangerous work in order to feed themselves and their families.  It’s just I’m struck by those scars over one hundred years later — such a visible reminder of what once was a vital living organism toppled for someone’s need and convenience.

Trees are not unique.  It happens to people too.  Everyday scars are inflicted for reasons hard to justify.  Too often I see them self-inflicted in an effort to feel something other than despair.  Sometimes they are inflicted by others out of fear or need for control.

Sometimes they are simply the scars of living – on our horses they are a dark tough scar of leathery “proud flesh”. These are the wounds that accumulate on our journey through our numbered days.

None of them are as deep and wide as the scars that were accepted on our behalf, nor as wondrous as the Love that oozed from them, nor as amazing as the Grace that abounds to this day because of the promise they represent. 

These are scars from the Word made Flesh, a proud flesh that won’t give way, lasting forever.

As a result, that Tree lives, and so do we.

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Benign

“They’re benign,” the radiologist says,
pointing to specks on the x ray
that look like dust motes
stopped cold in their dance.
His words take my spine like flame.
I suddenly love
the radiologist, the nurse, my paper gown,
the vapid print on the dressing room wall.
I pull on my radiant clothes.
I step out into the Hanging Gardens, the Taj Mahal,
the Niagara Falls of the parking lot.

~Jo McDougall, “Mammogram” from In the Home of the Famous Dead: Collected Poems

Outside the house the wind is howling
and the trees are creaking horribly.
This is an old story
with its old beginning,
as I lay me down to sleep.
But when I wake up, sunlight
has taken over the room.
You have already made the coffee
and the radio brings us music
from a confident age. In the paper
bad news is set in distant places.
Whatever was bound to happen
in my story did not happen.
But I know there are rules that cannot be broken.
Perhaps a name was changed.
A small mistake. Perhaps
a woman I do not know
is facing the day with the heavy heart
that, by all rights, should have been mine.

~Lisel Mueller “In November”

It does not escape me,
especially on mammogram days~~

(although I wake every day knowing this):

an earthquake happened somewhere else,
a war left people homeless and lifeless,
a windstorm leveled a town,
a drunk driver destroyed a family,
a fire left a house in ashes,
a famine caused children to starve,
a flood ravaged a village,
a devastating diagnosis darkened
someone’s remaining days.

No mistake has been made,
yet I wake knowing this part of my story
has not yet visited me,
the heavy heart
that could have been mine
is spared again,
still beating,
still breaking,
still bleeding,
still believing
the radiance from this good news is real
and once again happened today.

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Just Enough Light and Shadow

In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe
and enough shadows to blind those who don’t.
~Blaise Pascal

Be comforted; the world is very old,
  And generations pass, as they have passed,
  A troop of shadows moving with the sun;
Thousands of times has the old tale been told;
  The world belongs to those who come the last,
  They will find hope and strength as we have done.
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow “A Shadow”

The shadow’s the thing. 
If I no longer see shadows as “dark marks,” 
as do the newly sighted,

then I see them as making some sort of sense of the light.
They give the light distance;
they put it in its place.
They inform my eyes of my location here, here O Israel,
here in the world’s flawed sculpture,

here in the flickering shade of the nothingness
between me and the light.
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

I find myself seeking the safety of hiding in the shadows under a rock where lukewarm moderates tend to congregate, especially on Sundays.

Extremist views predominate simply for the sake of staking out one’s claim to one’s political turf.  There is no spirit of compromise, negotiation or collaboration – that would be perceived as a sign of weakness.  Instead it is “my way or the wrong way.”

I’m ready to say “no way,” as both sides are intolerably intolerant of the other as I watch them volley back and forth over my cowering head. As someone who is currently volunteering oodles of hours to help manage a community’s response to end COVID controlling our lives, I find myself smack dab in the middle of extremes.

The chasm is most gaping when we bring up any discussion of faith and how it influences our response to the pandemic.  Religion and politics are already angry neighbors constantly arguing over how high to build the fence between them, what it should be made out of, what color it should be, should there be peek holes, should it be electrified with barbed wire to prevent moving back and forth, should there be a gate with or without a lock and who pays for the labor.  Add in a pandemic to argue about and we become stymied and paralyzed.

In a country founded on the principle of freedom of religion, there are more and more who believe our forefathers’ blood was shed for freedom from religion and others feel there can be only one religion here.

Yet others feel we are founded on freedom from science and epidemiological data, because what possibly can those researchers know when the random person on YouTube says something far more palatable?

Good grief.

Give us the right to believe in nothing whatsoever or give us death. Perhaps both actually go together.

And so it goes.  We the people bring out the worst in our leadership as facts are distorted, the truth is stretched or completely abandoned, unseemly pandering abounds and curried favors are served for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Enough already. Time for the shadows to abate and the Light to shine.

In the midst of this morass, we who want to believe still choose to believe but won’t force belief on anyone else. It’s called freedom of religion for a reason.

There is just enough Light shining for those who seek it.  No need to remain blinded in the shadowlands of unbelief or “my way or the highway.”

I’ll come out from under my rock if you do.

In fact…I think I just did.

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On a Monday

My life is not this steeply sloping hour,
in which you see me hurrying.
Much stands behind me;
I stand before it like a tree;

I am the rest between two notes,
which are somehow always in discord
because Death’s note wants to climb over—
but in the dark interval, reconciled,
they stay there trembling.
And the song goes on, beautiful.
― Rainer Maria Rilke from “My Life is Not This Steeply Sloping Hour”

photo by Josh Scholten

On Monday mornings I often feel I’m stuck immobilized in the spot in the middle between discordant notes.

There is on one side of me the pressure of catch-up from what was left undone through the weekend and on the other side is the anticipated demand of the coming week of stressful work I am committed to doing. Before I arrive to work, I dwell uneasily in dead center between the unknown ahead and the known behind.

This moment of rest in the present, this trembling broken Now, is my moment of reconciliation, my Sabbath extended.

This Monday morning I allow myself an instant of silence and reflection before I surge full bore into the week, knowing that on my journey I’ll inevitably hit wrong notes, just as I do when I play, unprepared, at the piano.

But it can be beautiful nevertheless.

Even the least harmonious notes seek reconciliation within the next chord. I now move from the rest of my Sabbath back into the rhythm of my life.

Trembling, still trembling.

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Unanswerable Questions

Under the harvest moon,
When the soft silver
Drips shimmering over the garden nights,
Death, the gray mocker,
Comes and whispers to you
As a beautiful friend
Who remembers.

Under the summer roses
When the flagrant crimson
Lurks in the dusk
Of the wild red leaves,
Love, with little hands,
Comes and touches you
With a thousand memories,
And asks you
Beautiful, unanswerable questions.
~Carl Sandburg, “Under the Harvest Moon”

As we enter the season
of all that is lush and lovely
which starts to wither and decay before our eyes,
we know the flowers and trees aren’t alone.
Death, whispering within its gray night’s cloak,
has been stealing the young and old since time began,
but never as boldly as during a pandemic.
Millions of family members are left
with nothing but bittersweet memories
of their loved ones now buried deep.

The harvest moon – not nearly bright enough,
as a poor reflection of the sun –
mocks us who covet light
during a rampage of contagious illness and death.

As we endure the searing beauty of yet another dying season,
let us treasure those we protect through our care and concern.
Let us cherish the memories of those we’ve lost.
There can be only one answer to the unanswerable questions:
Love itself died to become Salvation,
an ever-sufficient Light that leads us home.

A book of beauty in words and photos is available to order here:


	

The Impeded Stream

It may be that when we no longer know what to do we have come to our real work and that when we no longer know which way to go we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.The world, the truth, is more abounding, more delightful, more demanding than we thought. What appeared for a time perhaps to be mere dutifulness … suddenly breaks open in sweetness — and we are not where we thought we were, nowhere that we could have expected to be.
~Wendell Berry from “Poetry and Marriage: The Use of Old Forms,” in Standing By Words

Who among us knows with certainty each morning
what we are meant to do that day
or where we are to go?

Or do we make our best guess by
putting one foot ahead of the other as we were taught
until the day is done and it is time to rest?

For me, over four decades,
I woke baffled each day
that I was allowed
to eavesdrop on heartbeats,
touch tender bellies,
sew up broken skin,
set fractured bones,
listen to and through tears.

I woke humbled with commitment and duty
to keep going even when too tired,
to offer care even when rejected.
to keep striving even if impeded.

Doing that work, I learned that
obstacles will slow but cannot stop
the cascade of love and hope over the rocks of life.

My days overflow with the uncertainty
of what comes next:
finding my real work
is to wade in deep,
tumbling over the barriers
and still keep singing.

Simply keep singing.

photo by Josh Scholten

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