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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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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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.

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

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.

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

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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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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