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.

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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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We May Or Might Never, Meet Here Again

My great grandfather had some fields in North Carolina
and he willed those fields to his sons and his sons
willed them to their sons so there is a two-hundred-year-old
farm house on that land where several generations
of my family fried chicken and laughed and hung

their laundry beneath the trees. There are things you
know when your family has lived close to the earth:
things that make magic seem likely. Dig a hole on the new
of the moon and you will have dirt to throw away
but dig one on the old of the moon and you won’t have

enough to fill it back up again: I learned this trick
in the backyard of childhood with my hands. If you know
the way the moon pulls at everything then you can feel
it on the streets of a city where you cannot see the sky.

I may walk the streets
of this century and make my living in an office
but my blood is old farming blood and my true
self is underground like a potato.

I have taken root in my grandfather’s
fields: I am hanging my laundry beneath his trees.
~Faith Shearin from “Fields”

It just isn’t possible to completely take me off the farm – I have generations of farmers extending back on both sides of my family, so I have dug myself a hole here, resting easy in the soil like a potato and ventured out only as I needed to in order to actually make a living.

A gathering of all my vaccinated clinic colleagues came to our farm yesterday to help me celebrate my retiring from office life. They brought beautiful flowers, plentiful food, kind and restoring words, thirty year old photos and lovely parting gifts, as well as my singing doctor buddy sharing a sea shanty about bittersweet parting. It is helping ease my sorrow at leaving regular doctoring behind, knowing there are more days to come, more time to grow things in the ground, more blissing out over sunrises and sunsets and more hanging laundry on the clothesline.

My dear friends know where they can find me – on the hill above our farm – we may or might never, meet here again but it was such a fine time together yesterday, thank you!

Kind Friend and Companions, Come join me in rhyme,
Come lift up your voices, In chorus with mine,
Come lift up your voices, all grief to refrain,
For we may or might never, all meet here again
Here’s a health to the company and one to my lass,
Let us drink and be merry, all out of one glass,
Let us drink and be merry, all grief to refrain
For we may or might never, all meet here again
Here’s a health to the dear lass, that I love so well,
For her style and her beauty, sure none can excel,
There’s a smile on her countenance, as she sits on my knee,
There’s no man in this wide world, as happy as me,
Here’s a health to the company, and one to my lass
Let us drink and be merry, all out of one glass,
Let us drink and be merry, all grief to refrain
For we may or might never, all meet here again,
Our ship lies at anchor, she’s ready to dock,
I wish her safe landing, without any shock,
If ever I should meet you, by land or by sea,
I will always remember, your kindness to me,
Here’s a health to the company and one to my lass,
Let us drink and be merry, all out of one glass,
Let us drink and be merry, all grief to refrain
For we may or might never, all meet here again
Here’s a health to the company and one to my lass,
Let us drink and be merry, all out of one glass,
Let us drink and be merry, all grief to refrain
For we may or might never, all meet here again

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Summer, Go Not Yet Away

Fair Summer droops, droop men and beasts therefore:
So fair a summer look for never more.
All good things vanish less than in a day,
Peace, plenty, pleasure, suddenly decay.
Go not yet away, bright soul of the sad year;
The earth is hell when thou leavest to appear…. 

What, shall those flowers that decked thy garland erst,
Upon thy grave be wastefully dispersed?
O trees, consume your sap in sorrow’s course,
Streams, turn to tears your tributary course.
Go not yet hence, bright soul of the sad year;
The earth is hell when thou leav’st to appear.

Ah, who shall hide us from the winter’s face?
Cold doth increase, the sickness will not cease,
And here we lie, God knows, with little ease.
From winter, plague, & pestilence, good Lord, deliver us.

~Thomas Nashe from “Summer’s Last Will and Testament” (from a stage play performed in 1592)

Summer 2021 so far has been hell for much of the world and we still have nearly a month left of more Summer to endure: the fall of Afghanistan, another earthquake in Haiti, floods in Europe and central U.S., storms in the east with drought and fires in the west, and last but certainly not least, the explosion of the Delta COVID variant everywhere.

COVID has demonstrated that plague and pestilence clearly isn’t limited to cold weather and winter. This virus enjoys easy transmission among those who continue to live without any defenses – the unmasked and those who remain unvaccinated either by choice or lack of access to vaccine. We, through our behavior, have invited an opportunistic virus to spread among us through this “bright soul” of the year which ordinarily should be “plague-free.”

Will we continue to roll out the red carpet for COVID, welcoming it into ours and other’s homes, noses and lungs, even as summer itself dies away along with thousands of more pandemic victims?

Deliver us, O Lord, from our own reluctance to accept that viruses care not whom they infect, particularly those with little defense.

Deliver us, O Lord, from our preference for our own self-determination over a concern for the needs and vulnerability of others.

Deliver us, O Lord, from our continued blindness – doing what is right in our own eyes without seeing what is best for all.

Go not yet away, fair Summer, as here we lie, God knows, with little ease.

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A Zone of Stink

Like a piece of rotten meat
which not only stinks right on its own surface
but also surrounds itself
with a stinking molecular cloud of stink,
so, too, each island of the archipelago
created and supported a zone of stink around itself.

~ Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, Books III-IV

If you’re looking for sympathy
you’ll find it between shit and syphilis in the dictionary.
— David Sedaris (Barrel Fever: Stories and Essays)

As I’ve written elsewhere, I spend over an hour a day dealing with the excrement of my farm critters. This is therapeutic time for me as I have deep respect for the necessity to clean up and compost what is smelly/stinky/yucky and biblically objectionable. (Deuteronomy 23:12-14) None of us, including God, want to take a walk having to pick our way around poop.

As I’m busy picking up manure, I watch our dogs seek out the smelliest, most vile things they can find in the barn or field (preferably dead) and roll themselves around in it one after another until they are just as stinky as the stuff they found. They are clearly joyous about it, especially when they do it together. It is curious throw-back behavior that I’ve assumed, wearing my animal behaviorist hat, was about a wild predator covering up their scent in order to stalk and capture prey more effectively without being detected – except they are really truly so smelly that any prey could sense them coming from a mile away and would learn quickly that a moving creature that smells like poop or a dead carcass is bad news and to be avoided.

This is the main reason our farm dogs live full time outdoors. We prefer to avoid stinky dirty creatures too. So I’ve tried to understand this behavior for what adaptive purpose it may have.

Here are some interesting theories at this link.

What makes the most sense to me is the “pack mentality” that suggests that once one dog/wolf rolls in something objectionable, that the rest of the pack does too. This is a unifying theme for anxious individuals – they aren’t really on their own if they smell and blend in with the rest of the pack. So they spread the “wealth”, so to speak. Stink up one, stink up all. Like team spirit, it seems to improve morale – until it doesn’t anymore.

I’ve been feeling covered with stink myself lately as I’ve searched for those sympathetic around me and found myself stuck between shit and syphilis. There are so many divisive opinions right now about a variety of current issues; vile nonsense has been flying right and left on social media as well as face to face. The theory is if all stink the same from rolling in piles of misinformation, we are then no longer alone.

Yet our destiny does not have to include believing, sharing and “flinging” the stuff that stinks to see who it will stick to. I no longer want to be a target.

Time for a bath.
Time for soap and cleansing and some serious self-examination.
Time to stop joyously rolling around in it.
Time to bury the excrement so we’re not staring at the ground, picking our way around the piles and can actually hold our heads up to see where we’re heading.

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Change Altitudes

           ‘Regret has to be useless or it’s not really regret.’
                                                     ~Simone de Beauvoir

Rescuers did not find my uncle’s body.
But they found his axe at an icy altitude
impossible to navigate without one.


A little higher up, they found my uncle
’s sleeping bag at an altitude
unsurvivable without one.


You likely have a pen in purse or pocket.
Take it out and write a list of all
you need at your present altitude.


Next, change altitudes. Now, make another list:
the two biggest regrets of your life.
Take your time. Get it right. Because

here is all you need to know about need:
That list of regrets—cross one off.
You are going to need that space later.
~Jessica Goodfellow, “Unreachable” from Whiteout

I’ve known people who lost their lives while hiking/climbing in the mountains or due to some other tragedy – the cascade of decisions leading to their death are sources of regret for all who mourn them, even decades later. Somehow regret is a difficult feeling to let go; we cling to it as if it is somehow an essential part of us.

It is easy for me to come up with a long list of regrets in my life. They seem to grow like weeds – useless, unplanned, unwanted and prolific, threatening to take over any good fruit being produced.

Few of us volunteer to share openly about our current guilt or shame unless we are sitting in a therapy group or AA. Instead it gives us permission to beat ourselves up, going over and over in our minds how we could have done things differently. As a physician, I’ve heard about such heart-ache in my clinical encounters – a patient will regret an impulsive sexual encounter that turned out badly, or drinking and drugging too much, or regret an ongoing conflict with a family member, or wish they had decided to get that vaccine before becoming ill with a potentially preventable infection.

Our list of regrets can be endless and life-destroying.

I understand the pain of regret as I too am a flawed and fractured person with a seven decade history of things done and left undone, words said and unsaid. Even if I think I can somehow manage to cross a regret off my own list – perhaps I apologized and was granted forgiveness, or I tried to make right what I’d messed up — I still know a new regret will occupy its place before long.

I can’t simply fix my own regret list.

No matter what altitude we’re at — down in the pits in the lowest of the low, or up in the highest imaginable, I have come to realize that forgiveness is only possible through a knowledge of God Himself. He came to walk beside us in our low spots and our high spots, no matter where we find ourselves. His work on earth has crossed off our regrets and mistakes and wiped us clean of them.

He did this because He understood our desperate need; thanks to His sacrifice and love, our heart-aches are left at the Cross.

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Supposing a Tree Fell

“Supposing a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?”

“Supposing it didn’t,” said Pooh after careful thought.

Piglet was comforted by this.
~A.A. Milne from The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh

our friends’ bedroom after a tree fell through their roof in a windstorm – thankfully, no one was hurt

It has been a long 18 months of dwelling deeply
in all kinds of “supposes” and “what ifs”
because people were being crushed by a virus
right and left.

I understand this kind of thinking,
particularly when “in the moment” tragedies,
(like a Florida condo building collapsing in the middle of the night)
play out real-time in the palm of our hand
in front of our eyes
and we feel helpless to do anything
but watch it unfold.

Those who know me well
know I can fret and worry
better than most.
Medical training only makes this worse.
I’m taught to think catastrophically.
That is what I have done for a living –
to always be ready for the worse case scenario
and simply assume it will happen.

Sometimes it does happen
and no amount of wishing it away will work.

When I rise, too often sleepless,
to face a day of uncertainty
as we all do ~
after careful thought,
I reach for the certainty I am promised
over the uncertainty I can only imagine:

What is my only comfort in life and in death? 
That I am not my own, but belong
—body and soul, in life and in death—
to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.

“Supposing it didn’t” — says our Lord
(and we are comforted by this)
but even if it did … even if it did –
as awful things sometimes do –
we are never abandoned.

He is with us always.

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Seeing Clearly

To see clearly,
not needing a drink
or pill or puff
of any pipe
to know I’m alive.
To come home,
peel off sandals
and step onto
the cool tile floor
needing only
the rush of water
over strawberries
I picked myself
and then a knife
to trim the dusty
green heads
from each one,
to watch them
gleam cleanly
in a colander
in a patch of sun
near the sink.
~James Crews “Clearly” from Healing the Divide: Poems of Kindness and Connection

As a child, I could see some people I loved struggling with daily life like a never-ending wrestling match.

Can’t relax? Have a drink.
Feeling irritable? Have a smoke.
Can’t wake up? Strong coffee.
Can’t lose weight? Amphetamines.
Can’t sleep? Valium.

I watched as one after another after another lost the wrestling match with the life’s sharp edges, sometimes dying too young from their self-medication.

As a result, I never could reconcile experimenting with my brain, staying stone cold sober throughout 21 years of school, bored to tears at parties watching others get hammered and stoned. As a physician, I spent half my career trying to help people stop wrestling with life and find their sober selves again.

Like berries picked into a colander, we all need gentle handling, rinsing and hulling, to wash away the dust of the field, the spiders and slug slime.

No more wrestling. Restored to sweetness and sparkling beauty.

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The Importance of Doing Nothing

He thought of all the time he wasted
being good. Clutched by the guilt
of excellence. Polite.
Well-trained. But when
the long summer afternoons came,
too hot to move
from the window fan, scent
of vapor rising
from water jackets, he found pleasure
in doing the nothing that had no regrets–
wasted afternoons
under the Wisteria vine when no one
was watching. Aroma thick
as a breeze on his shoulder.
Thinking of women constantly, forgetting
to water the chickens
in the barn. He was beginning to feel
the release of duty, to feel
what it’s like to feel.
Demands waiting like barking dogs
at the periphery. His good intention
to visit the sick woman
falling aside
as he listened to the rattle of starlings
in the rafters––discovering that strange lightness
of the body. And the new importance
of oak branches
where they separate from the trunk.
How far out the leaves
begin to spread.
The startling arrangement
of moss
like whiskers without discipline.
The long plains of earth
reaching to the clouds
behind the back yard fence.
How the ground pushes back when you walk.

~David Watts, M.D. – “Another Side of Transgression” from Having and Keeping

Decades of demands and responsibilities become a falling-down fence line with no end in sight. Having been raised an obedient person with a heightened sense of obligation about constantly fixing what needs repair, I’ve done what I could, where I could, when I could, how I could, though too often ineffective in my efforts.

I’ve always moved from task to task to task – life’s string of fence posts held wires that always needed stretching and patching and straightening. By continually working, I hoped I too would remain standing and functional.

It’s clear the fence isn’t perfect, nor will it ever be. It has served a purpose, as have I. Now I wander along the fencerow, focusing on the walk and the view rather than searching out every little thing which is leaning or loose or gaping.

This walk feels good, lighter, almost cushiony, almost like rolling with joy in the freedom of it. I’m ambling along for no particular reason at all, which is almost intoxicating.

I think I’ll get used to the importance of doing nothing whatsoever.

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An Exuberant Soul

Whatever he needs, he has or doesn’t
have by now.
Whatever the world is going to do to him
it has started to do. With a pencil and two

Hardy Boys and a peanut butter sandwich and
grapes he is on his way, there is nothing
more we can do for him. Whatever is
stored in his heart, he can use, now.
Whatever he has laid up in his mind
he can call on. What he does not have
he can lack. The bus gets smaller and smaller, as one
folds a flag at the end of a ceremony,
onto itself, and onto itself, until
only a heavy wedge remains.
Whatever his exuberant soul
can do for him, it is doing right now.
Whatever his arrogance can do
it is doing to him. Everything
that’s been done to him, he will now do.
Everything that’s been placed in him
will come out, now, the contents of a trunk
unpacked and lined up on a bunk in the underpine light.
~Sharon Olds “The Summer-Camp Bus Pulls Away from the Curb”

photo by Gary Herbert
photo from army.mil

This is the season for graduations and commencements to the next phase of life, when students move into the adult world and don’t look back.

As a parent, as an educator, as a mentor within church and community, and over thirty two years as a college health physician witnessing this transition many times over, I can’t help but be wistful about what I may have left undone and unsaid with the generation about to launch.   In their moments of vulnerability, did I pack enough love into their hearts so they can pull it out when it is most needed?

When our three children traveled the world after their graduations, moving beyond the fenced perimeter of our little farm, I trusted they left well prepared.

As a former school board member, I watched our students, parents and teachers work diligently together in their preparation for that graduation day, knowing the encompassing love behind each congratulatory hand shake.

When another batch of our church family children say goodbye, I remember holding them in the nursery, listening to their joyful voices as I played piano accompaniment in Sunday School, feeding them in innumerable potlucks over the years.  I pray we have fed them well in every way with enough spiritual food to stick to their ribs in the “thin” and hungry times.

When hundreds of my student/patients move on each year beyond our university health clinic, I pray for their continued emotional growth buoyed by plenty of resilience when the road gets inevitably bumpy.

I believe I know what is stored in the hearts of our graduates because I, among many others, helped them pack it full of love.  Only they will know the time to unpack it when the need arises.

And now, this year, I find I am “graduating” as well, moving away from a regular clinic work schedule to whatever waits for me next. I cleaned out my desk yesterday, carrying the detritus of three decades back home with me, including a packed-away glass “tear drop” I somehow earned ten years ago for “exceptional effort.” All I really remember about that time in my professional life are the shed tears that award acknowledged unbeknownst. It was a fitting symbol for what I had been through during a hard year.

I’m not exactly climbing on a bus with my lunch packed to go to summer camp, but it feels a bit similar as I enter this new phase. I’m nervous, I’m sad, I’m excited, I’m exuberant, so much like all the graduates I’ve seen commence over the years.

And best of all for me, summer camp is right here on the farm, peanut butter sandwiches included.

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