Fixing Eyes on the Unseen – Free to Move in Darkness

Holding the arms of his helper, the blind
Piano tuner comes to our piano.
He hesitates at first, but once he finds
The keyboard, his hands glide over the slow
Keys, ringing changes finer than the eye
Can see. The dusty wires he touches, row
On row, quiver like bowstrings as he
Twists them one notch tighter. He runs his
Finger along a wire, touches the dry
Rust to his tongue, breaks into a pure bliss
And tells us, “One year more of damp weather
Would have done you in, but I’ve saved it this
Time. Would one of you play now, please? I hear
It better at a distance.” My wife plays
Stardust. The blind man stands and smiles in her
Direction, then disappears into the blaze
Of new October. Now the afternoon,
The long afternoon that blurs in a haze
Of music…Chopin nocturnes, Clair de lune,
All the old familiar, unfamiliar
Music-lesson pieces, Papa’s Haydn’s
Dead and gone, gently down the stream
…Hours later,
After the last car has doused its beams,
Has cooled down and stopped its ticking, I hear
Our cat, with the grace of animals free
To move in darkness, strike one key only,
And a single lucid drop of water stars my dream.

~Gibbons Ruark “The Visitor”

When I was a child
I once sat sobbing on the floor
Beside my mother’s piano
As she played and sang
For there was in her singing
A shy yet solemn glory
My smallness could not hold

And when I was asked
Why I was crying
I had no words for it
I only shook my head
And went on crying

Why is it that music
At its most beautiful
Opens a wound in us
An ache a desolation
Deep as a homesickness
For some far-off
And half-forgotten country

I’ve never understood
Why this is so

But there’s an ancient legend
From the other side of the world
That gives away the secret
Of this mysterious sorrow

For centuries on centuries
We have been wandering
But we were made for Paradise
As deer for the forest

And when music comes to us
With its heavenly beauty
It brings us desolation
For when we hear it
We half remember
That lost native country

We dimly remember the fields
Their fragrant windswept clover
The birdsongs in the orchards
The wild white violets in the moss
By the transparent streams

And shining at the heart of it
Is the longed-for beauty
Of the One who waits for us
Who will always wait for us
In those radiant meadows

Yet also came to live with us
And wanders where we wander.
~Anne Porter “Music” from Living Things

photo by Lea Gibson
photo from The Olympian

I learned today that John Grace recently died at age 92; John was the blind piano tuner who tended and tuned our family’s old Kranich & Bach baby grand through the 60’s and 70’s until it moved with me to Seattle. When I saw his photo online in The Olympian newspaper, it took me back sixty years to his annual visits to our home, accompanied by a friend who drove him to his jobs, who guided him up the sidewalk to our front door and then waited for him to finish his work.

I was the 8 year old reason my great Aunt Marian had given us her beloved piano when she downsized from her huge Bellingham house into an apartment. I was fascinated watching John make the old strings sing harmonically again. He seemed right at home working on the innards of our piano, but appeared to truly enjoy ours, always ending his tuning session by sitting down on the bench and playing a familiar old hymn, smiling a broad smile.

There was no doubt his unseeing eyes made him a great piano tuner. He was fixed on the unseen, undistracted by what was unimportant to his job. He could “feel” the right pitch, not just hear it. He could sense the wire tension without seeing it. He touched the keys and wood with reverence, not distracted by the blemishes and bleaching in the mahogany, or the chips in the ivory.

I learned something about music from John, without him saying much of anything. He built a successful business in our town during a time you could count the black citizens on one hand. He spoke very little while he worked so I never asked him questions although I wish I had. It was as if he somehow transcended our troubled world through his art and skill. Though blind, when he was with a piano, he could move freely in the darkness, hearing and feeling what I could not. Perhaps it was because he was visited by a beauty and peacefulness we all long for, seen and unseen.

It occurs to me now, sixty years after observing him work, John Grace was just a step ahead in recognizing the voice of Jesus in our midst through the music he made possible.

Though he was blind, there is no doubt in my mind – he could see.

Yea when this flesh and heart shall fail
And mortal life shall cease.
I shall possess within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

articles about John Grace:

https://www.thurstontalk.com/2014/08/27/olympia-piano-tuner-john-grace/

https://amp.theolympian.com/news/local/article272572635.html

photo by Josh Scholten

This year’s Barnstorming Lenten theme is taken from 2 Corinthians 4: 18:
So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

Morning Unfurls

I know this sound, first birds of morning.
As a child, I waited for hours for the drape
of night to roll up again. Leaning into the first
hint of the fresh day, the fragile lace of hesitant
light, the receding darkness dappled with bird song,
able at last to close my eyes.
I know this sound, some kind of redemption,
waking me from scattered sleep, a healing fragment
even as the work of the previous day marks my bones
in notches. Night leaves its small fur as the dawn
pushes, as the birds persist, and morning unfurls
like a promise you hoped someone would keep.
~Susan Moorhead “First Light” from Carry Darkness, Carry Light

Our February farm sunrises have always been full of promise over the three decades we’ve been here. The birds are waking earlier each day and when mornings are soaked, dripping with light and color, the air itself is alive.

Nothing though quite matches the phenomenon in February 2015 (top photo) when a fall streak hole or “key hole” cloud formed over nearby foothills. It looked to me as if angels were bursting through an unfurling break in heaven’s moving veil. Though it didn’t last long, it was seen for miles around us.

When morning breaks the night, it is like the first morning which came into being with His Words:

“Let there be light” and there continues to be the most amazing light…

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Landing Home

I was feeling lonely so
I went outside to the wind
swept yard and beyond
that to the wind-tousled outer
yard and found where last
night in the moonlight we left
two sets of boot prints, when
you stopped on your way
through the darkness to bring a
lemon bar and a movie, and
beside ours the tracks of the
smallest thing with claws, which
must have followed sometime
later. And I chased its tiny prints
and our mud-wash indents to
the far back gate and through
the gate out to where the
land is still dirt and brush
and bushes and cow
pies, my hair pinned
to my head but still blowing,
blowing, and finally a hard
breath, and I could see
through lonely to the wide
open, long blue lines of sunset,
moonlit night, the airplanes trailing
one another
down to tarmac, all those
people landing home.

~Angela Janda “At Quarter to Five” from Small Rooms with Gods.

When I walk out on our farm’s hilly fields, I’ve recently noticed more jets passing overhead than I remember in past years. They aren’t as low as I would expect for take offs and landings from Vancouver (B.C.) International Airport an hour north of us or descending for an approach to SeaTac International 100 miles to the south. They are in mid-flight mode, at least 35,000-45,000 feet above us. So I found a website that shows real-time location of flights all over the world. I can literally stand on our hill looking at a flight overhead while checking my phone to see where it has come from and where it is going. In that way, I feel linked with those people so far above me in that plane, strangers though they be.

Most of these flights are bound for Japan or Korea, coming from the east coast or midwest United States. Apparently these flights are taking a longer circuit over the Pacific Ocean to avoid going too close to Russian air space. They have a long flight ahead as they pass the coastline here in northwest Washington and over Vancouver Island. My husband and I have made that trek over the Pacific to Japan a half dozen times. I can easily imagine myself seated in the economy section, trying to keep my legs from stiffening up over 10+ hours, distracting myself watching movies on the inflight channels.

Instead of having leg cramps, I am here with my dog and farm cat leaving a trail of footprints in a frosty winter field. Above me, a plane leaves a condensation trail which blurs, fades and disappears in the evening light. I stand on a hillside at home, someone living out my days in this spot; those flying above are in transit, each with an individual story of their own. Though we are miles apart, the passengers in the plane connect with me for a brief few minutes.

It makes sense for me to pray for these people I will never meet to fly safely to their destination.

We all find our way home eventually, leaving our transient and temporary trails behind us. Surely, that home will be breathtaking and beautiful – just exactly where we belong.

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Only the Lost Could Find It

As through a long-abandoned half-standing house
only someone lost could find,

which, with its paneless windows and sagging crossbeams,
its hundred crevices in which a hundred creatures hoard and nest,

seems both ghost of the life that happened there
and living spirit of this wasted place,

wind seeks and sings every wound in the wood
that is open enough to receive it,

shatter me God into my thousand sounds.
~Christian Wiman “Small Prayer in a Hard Wind” from Every Riven Thing

May I,
though sagging and gray,
perilously leaning,
be porous enough
to allow life’s gusts to
blow through me
without pushing me over
in a heap.

The wind may
fill my every crack, crevice, and defect,
causing me to sing out.

Someday, when I do shatter,
toppling over into pieces into the ground,
it will be amidst
a mosaic of praises.

same abandoned school house near Rapalje, Montana – 2012 photo by Joel DeWaard
2012 photo by Joel DeWaard
2013 photo by Joel De Waard, a few days after the school collapsed
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Driving at Night

I want to be a passenger
in your car again
and shut my eyes
while you sit at the wheel,


awake and assured
in your own private world,
seeing all the lines
on the road ahead,


down a long stretch
of empty highway
without any other
faces in sight.

I want to be a passenger
in your car again
and put my life back
in your hands.
~Michael Miller “December”

Up north, the dashboard lights of the family car
gleam in memory, the radio
plays to itself as I drive
my father plied the highways
while my mother talked, she tried to hide
that low lilt, that Finnish brogue,
in the back seat, my sisters and I
our eyes always tied to the Big Dipper
I watch it still
on summer evenings, as the fireflies stream
above the ditches and moths smack
into the windshield and the wildlife’s
red eyes bore out from the dark forests
we flew by, then scattered like the last bit of star
light years before.
It’s like a different country, the past
we made wishes on unnamed falling stars
that I’ve forgotten, that maybe were granted
because I wished for love.

~Sheila Packa “Driving At Night” from The Mother Tongue

The moon was like a full cup tonight,
too heavy, and sank in the mist
soon after dark, leaving for light

faint stars and the silver leaves
of milkweed beside the road,
gleaming before my car.

Yet I like driving at night
the brown road through the mist

of mountain-dark, among farms
so quiet
, and the roadside willows
opening out where I saw

the cows. Always a shock
to remember them there, those
great breathings close in the dark.

~Hayden Carruth from “The Cows at Night”

Some of my most comfortable childhood memories come from the long ride home in the car at night from holiday gatherings. My father always drove, my mother humming “I See the Moon” in the front passenger seat, and we three kids sat in the back seat, drowsy and full of feasting. The night world hypnotically passed by outside the car window. I wondered whether the rest of the world was as safe and content as I felt at that moment.

On clear nights, the moon followed us down the highway, shining a light on the road.

Now as a driver at night, transporting grandchildren from a family gathering, I want them to feel the same peaceful contentment that I did as a child. As an older driver, I don’t enjoy driving at night, especially dark rural roads in pouring rain. I understand the enormous responsibility I bear, transporting those whom I dearly love and want to keep safe.

In truth, I long to be a passenger again, with no worries or pressures – just along for the ride, watching the moon and the world drift by, knowing I’m well-cared for.

Despite my fretting about the immense burden I feel to make things right in a troubled world, I do realize:
I am a passenger on a planet that has a driver Who feels great responsibility and care for all He transports through the black night of the universe. He loves me and I can rest content in the knowledge that I am safe in His vigilant hands. I am not the driver – He knows how to safely bring me` home.

I see the moon, it’s shining from far away, Beckoning with ev‘ry beam.
And though all the start above cast down their light, Still the moon is all that I see
And it’s calling out, “Come run a way!
And we’ll sail with the clouds for our sea,
And we’ll travel on through the black of the night, ‘til we float back home on a dream!”
The moon approaches my window pane, stretching itself to the ground.
The moon sings softly and laughs and smiles, and yet never makes a sound!
I see the moon! I see the moon!
Part A
And it’s calling out, “Come run a way!
And we’ll sail with the clouds for our sea,
And we’ll travel on through the black of the night, ‘til we float back home on a dream!”
Part B
I see the moon, it’s shining from far away, Beckoning with ev‘ry beam.
And though all the stars above cast down their light, Still the moon is all that I see
~Douglas Beam

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To Recover the Lost

The songs of small birds fade away
into the bushes after sundown,
the air dry, sweet with goldenrod.
Beside the path, suddenly, bright asters
flare in the dusk. The aged voices
of a few crickets thread the silence.
It is a quiet I love, though my life
too often drives me through it deaf.
Busy with costs and losses, I waste
the time I have to be here—a time
blessed beyond my deserts, as I know,
if only I would keep aware. The leaves
rest in the air, perfectly still.
I would like them to rest in my mind
as still, as simply spaced. As I approach,
the sorrel filly looks up from her grazing,
poised there, light on the slope
as a young apple tree. A week ago
I took her away to sell, and failed
to get my price, and brought her home
again. Now in the quiet I stand
and look at her a long time, glad
to have recovered what is lost
in the exchange of something for money.
~Wendell Berry “The Sorrel Filly”

I am reminded at the end of a week
of dark and wet and cold
with chores not done yet,
and horses waiting to be fed,
of the value of decades of moments spent
with long-lashed eyes, wind-swept manes, and velvet muzzles.

True, it appears to others to be time and money wasted.
But for a farmer like me, sometimes deaf and blind
to what is in front of me every day,
not all valuables are preserved in a lock box.

Golden treasure can have
four hooves, a tail, with a rumbling greeting
asking if I’d somehow gotten lost
since I’m a little later than usual
and they were a bit concerned I’d forgotten them.

Only then I remember where my home is
and how easy it is to wander from the path
that somehow always leads me back here.

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The Right Place For Yourself

If you’re John Muir
you want trees to live among.
If you’re Emily, a garden will do.
Try to find the right place for yourself.
If you can’t find it, at least dream of it.


                                             •

When one is alone and lonely, the body
gladly lingers in the wind or the rain,
or splashes into the cold river, or
pushes through the ice-crusted snow.

Anything that touches.


                                             •

All important ideas must include the trees,
the mountains, and the rivers.

                                             •

To understand many things you must reach out
of your own condition.


                                             •

For how many years did I wander slowly
through the forest. What wonder and
glory I would have missed had I ever been
in a hurry!


                                             •

Beauty can both shout and whisper, and still
it explains nothing.


                                             •

The point is, you’re you, and that’s for keeps.
~Mary Oliver from “Leaves and Blossoms Along the Way”

God is at home, it’s we who have gone out for a walk.
~Meister Eckhart

photo by Ben Gibson

Sometimes going for a walk feels to me like a sprint,
going as far and as fast as possible.
Sometimes it is a spontaneous trek into the unknown,
just to prove it can be done so I can find my way back.
Sometimes it is a climb into the dark,
with precipices and crumbling ledges under my feet.
Sometimes it is simply a journey of curiosity
to see what may be around the corner.

Most often it feels like the right place for me.

No matter why or where or how far I wander,
or how slowly,
the path shines just bright enough
to show me the way home
when I am ready.

He is there, waiting,
keeping the light on for me.

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Ah, What If?

What if you slept
And what if
In your sleep
You dreamed
And what if
In your dream
You went to heaven
And there plucked a strange and beautiful flower
And what if
When you awoke
You had that flower in your hand
Ah, what then?
~Samuel Coleridge  “What if you slept”

This mountain, this strange and beautiful Shuksan flower that appears suddenly as we round a corner on the hour drive up the Mt. Baker Highway:  this mountain has one foot on earth and one foot in heaven – a thin place if there ever was one.

The only way to approach is in awed silence, as if entering the door of a grand cathedral.  Those who are there speak in hushed tones if they speak at all.

Mt. Shuksan wears autumn lightly about its shoulders as a multi-faceted cloak, barely anticipating the heavy snow coat to descend in the next few weeks.

I hold this mountain tight in my fist, wanting to turn it this way and that, breathe in its fragrance, bring it home with me and never let go.

Ah, what then?

Home is not nearly big enough for heaven to dwell.  I must content myself with this visit to the thin edge, peering through the open door, waiting until invited to come inside.

Original Barnstorming artwork note cards available as a gift to you with a $50 donation to support Barnstorming – information here
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Walking Over the Threshold

I know for a while again,
the health of self-forgetfulness,
looking out at the sky through
a notch in the valley side,
the black woods wintry on
the hills, small clouds at sunset
passing across. And I know
that this is one of the thresholds
between Earth and Heaven,
from which I may even step
forth from myself and be free.
~ Wendell Berry, Sabbaths 2000

John O’Donohue gave voice to the connection between beauty and those edges of life — thresholds was the word he loved—
where the fullness of reality becomes more stark and more clear.

If you go back to the etymology of the word “threshold,” it comes from “threshing,” which is to separate the grain from the husk. So the threshold, in a way, is a place where you move into more critical and challenging and worthy fullness.

There are huge thresholds in every life.

You know that, for instance, if you are in the middle of your life in a busy evening, fifty things to do and you get a phone call that somebody you love is suddenly dying, it takes ten seconds to communicate that information.

But when you put the phone down, you are already standing in a different world. Suddenly everything that seems so important before is all gone and now you are thinking of this. So the given world that we think is there and the solid ground we are on is so tentative.

And a threshold is a line which separates two territories of spirit, and very often how we cross is the key thing.

When we cross a new threshold worthily, what we do is we heal the patterns of repetition that were in us that had us caught somewhere.
~John O’Donohue from an “On Being” interview with Krista Tippett on “Becoming Wise”

A decade ago, someone I respected told me that my writing reflects a “sacramental” life —  touching and tasting the holiness of everyday moments, as if they are the cup and bread that sustains me as God’s eternal grace and gift.

I allow that feedback to sit warmly beside me, like a welcome companion during the many hours I struggle with what to write here.

It is all too tempting to emphasize the sacrament over the sacrifice it represents.  As much as I love the world and the beauty in the moments I share here, my search should be for the entrance to the “thin places” between heaven and earth, through forgetting self and stepping forth through a holy threshold into something far greater.

I feel so unworthy — in fact, threshed to pieces most days, incapable of thinking of anything but how I feel reduced to fragments. Perhaps those fragments can be like the droplets coming from a farm sprinkler at sunset, sparkling and golden despite waning light, bringing something essential to anyone feeling dry, parched and dusty.

I may even step
forth from myself and be free
.

Only then we can walk each other home.

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Softening to an Evening Gray

Now that summer’s ripen’d bloom
Frolics where the winter frow n’d,
Stretch’d upon these banks of broom,
We command the landscape round.

Nature in the prospect yields
Humble dales and mountains bold,
Meadows, woodlands, heaths-and fields
Yellow’d o’er with waving gold.

On the uplands ev’ry glade
Brightens in the blaze of day;
O’er the vales the sober shade
Softens to an ev’ning gray.
~John Cunningham from “The Landscape”

Betty with children Carol, Barbara and Joe
the renovated farm house
the “egg” house where produce was kept cool
On the porch in Spring Valley in the Palouse – me at age two with Nancy holding my baby brother Steve along with the Schmitz cousins – Joe, Barbara and Carol

My Aunt Betty Buchholz Schmitz lived for most of her 102 years in landscapes that could be summer-rich with golden crops yet in winter, harsh, bleak and empty. She weathered it all with hard work, grace and an innate sweetness born of her faith.

She was carried away last week to her true home to join my mother’s brother, Albert, and so many family and friends who had gone before her, including my mother who always felt blessed to call Betty her sister through marriage.

I remember Aunt Betty from my earliest days as we would make an annual summer visit to our cousins in Spring Valley, a tiny place with train tracks and a grain elevator in the middle of the rolling hills of the Palouse country of eastern Washington. I felt such a surge of excitement as we entered the long poplar-lined driveway that we could see from the road from far away.

My Palouse family lived in the farm house where my mother and uncle were born – a magical place of two stories with an enclosed staircase and many rooms, a huge basement, a sleeping porch for summer, a working windmill, as well as numerous outbuildings that contained everything Palouse wheat and lentil farmers needed to survive. The house was nestled in a small vale between the surrounding hills, to protect it from chill winter winds and stay cool in the shadows on blazing hot summer days.

Betty was a woman who was soft-spoken, always humble and eager to lend herself wherever needed. She cooked and baked huge meals, and used a wringer-washer and clothesline for never-ending loads of farm laundry. Her home was warm and welcoming with true heart-felt hospitality, even decades later after she moved to a house “in town” – a metropolis with just a few hundred neighbors.

Although a pioneer in the sense of living remotely with minimal conveniences, Betty and her brother Kenneth became pioneers in the 1960’s living donor kidney transplant program, as one of the first successful transplants. This must have required immense courage and stamina from a farm mother of three children, yet she was able to give her brother years of life that he otherwise would not have had.

Over the years, Betty sent cards and letters of encouragement to me in between our occasional visits to see her. She was the kind of aunt that modeled how I wanted to be and I have too often fallen short of her example.

I hoped to see Betty this summer, having missed visits over the last two years of COVID restrictions in her assisted living facility. Instead I will look for her smiling face and listen for her warm voice amid a lengthening list of beloved family and friends when I am called home some day myself.

I’ll see you again, Betty, in the glades of those rolling hills and the shadowed softened vales of the valleys. You will hold out your hand and make sure I feel at home there, just as you did for me during your century here.

Palouse fields
Poplar-lined driveway to the Schmitz farm