Much Too Beautiful to Stay

I love the look, austere, immaculate,
Of landscapes drawn in pearly monotones.
There’s something in my very blood that owns
Bare hills, cold silver on a sky of slate,
A thread of water, churned to milky spate
Streaming through slanted pastures fenced with stones.

I love those skies, thin blue or snowy gray,
Those fields sparse-planted, rendering meagre sheaves;
That spring, briefer than apple-blossom’s breath,
Summer, so much too beautiful to stay,
Swift autumn, like a bonfire of leaves,
And sleepy winter, like the sleep of death.

~Elinor Wylie from “Wild Peaches”

An amber light stretches from sky to ground
this beautiful morning, another mid-summer dawning-
today a clone of yesterday’s and the day before.

A stretch of forty identical days cannot last and will not stay.
I long again for rain and chill nights.

Drying up and pock-marked with holes,
I feel punched and withering in this browning landscape,
wondering on this Sabbath day of communing together
where holiness is to be found.

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To Live in the Layers

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon

How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?


Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.

In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered

and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:

“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”

Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.

I am not done with my changes.
~Stanley Kunitz from “The Layers”

A child is asleep. Her private life unwinds inside skin and skull; only as she sheds childhood, first one decade and then another, can she locate the actual, historical stream, see the setting of her dreaming private life—the nation, the city, the neighborhood, the house where the family lives—as an actual project under way, a project living people willed, and made well or failed, and are still making, herself among them.

I breathed the air of history all unaware, and walked oblivious through its littered layers.
~Annie Dillard from An American Childhood

photo of Wiser Lake and Mt. Baker by Joel de Waard

…we become whole by having the courage to revisit and embrace all the layers of our lives, denying none of them, so that we’re finally able to say, “Yes, all of this is me, and all of this has helped make me who I am.”

When we get to that point, amazingly, we can look at all the layers together and see the beauty of the whole.
~Parker Palmer from “Embracing All the Layers of Your Life” in On Being

My favorite scenes are ones where there are several “layers” to study, whether it is a still life of petals or a deep landscape with a foreground, middle and backdrop. The challenge is to decide where to look first, what to draw into sharp focus, and how to absorb it all as a whole. In fact, if I only see one aspect, I miss the entire point of the composition. It is wonderfully multi-faceted and multi-layered because that is how my own life is – complex with so much diverse and subtle shading.

If I try to suppress some darker part of my own life I wish to forget and blur out, I ignore the beauty of the contrast with the light that illuminates the rest.

The layers reflect who I was created to be as an image-bearer – complex, nuanced, illuminated in the presence of dark.

Beautifully composed and ultimately transformed.

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How Things Unfold

I look for the way
things will turn
out spiralling from a center,
the shape
things will take to come forth in


so that the birch tree white
touched black at branches
will stand out
wind-glittering
totally its apparent self:


I look for the forms
things want to come as


from what black wells of possibility,
how a thing will
unfold:

not the shape on paper, though
that, too, but the
uninterfering means on paper:


not so much looking for the shape
as being available
to any shape that may be
summoning itself
through me
from the self not mine but ours.

~A. R. Ammons, “Poetics” from  A Coast of Trees

Even our very origin as a unique organism is a process of unfolding and spiraling: from our very first doubling after conception expanding to a complexity of trillions of cells powering our every thought and movement.

I look everywhere in my backyard world for beginnings and endings, wanting to understand where I fit and where I am in the process of this unfolding life. As I grow older, I find myself more peripheral than central, as I am meant to be – I have more perspective now. I can see where I came from, and where I am headed.

We unfurl, each one of us, slowly, surely, gently, in the Hands of our Creator God. He knows how each of us began as He was there from the beginning. He remains at the core our unfolding forever.

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Looking Up

in other breaking news
a silver moon
sailed
above the world
and the only ones
who knew it
were the ones who looked up
~ Kat Lehmann, from Small Stones from the River

I spend too much time watching my feet for assurance about where my next step will land rather than looking up to appreciate Who directs my next step.

Perspective is everything; if I focus on what is above, I’ll be leaps and bounds ahead than if I only gaze down at the ground.

I’ve looked at life from both sides now:
focusing on what lies beneath me…
or looking up to apprehend the glories above…

I struggle to understand the mystery of both sides
as I really don’t know life, at all.

But someday, I’m confident I will.

photo by Bob Tjoelker of the rising moon behind our hilltop fir tree

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Missing the Right Things

In your next letter, please describe
the weather in great detail. If possible,
enclose a fist of snow or mud,

everything you know about the soil,
how tomato leaves rub green against
your skin and make you itch, how slow

the corn is growing on the hill.
Thank you for the photographs
of where the chicken coop once stood,

clouds that did not become tornadoes.
When I try to explain where I’m from,
people imagine corn bread, cast-iron,

cows drifting across grass. I interrupt
with barbed wire, wind, harvest air
that reeks of wheat and diesel.

I hope your sleep comes easy now
that you’ve surrendered the upstairs,
hope the sun still lets you drink

one bitter cup before its rise. I don’t miss
flannel shirts, radios with only
AM stations, but there’s a certain kind

of star I can’t see from where I am—
bright, clear, unconcerned. I need
your recipes for gravy, pie crust,

canned green beans. I’m sending you
the buttons I can’t sew back on.
Please put them in the jar beside your bed.

In your next letter, please send seeds
and feathers, a piece of bone or china
you plowed up last spring. Please
promise I’m missing the right things.

~Carrie Shipers, “In Your Next Letter” from Cause for Concern

For our children (and now their children) who have left the farm, now living far away:

I want to be sure you are missing the right things about this incredible place.

There is so much about a farm that is worrisome, burdensome, back-breaking and unpredictable. Don’t miss those things.

Miss what is breath-taking, awe-inspiring and heart-swelling.

We miss you more than we can ever say, indeed an intensive “missing” that can’t be expressed in words. So I send this to you and you’ll understand.

To See Heaven in a Wild Flower

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

~William Blake from Auguries of Innocence

If I look closely enough, I might find the extraordinary in the commonplace things of life. So I keep my eyes alert and my heart open to infinite possibilities.

Sometimes what I see is so extraordinary already, it is like uncovering a bit of heaven on earth. Up in the alpine meadows of the Cascade mountains grow delicate avalanche lilies in July, just as the snow melt is complete. Though brief in their blooming, they are our harbingers of heaven. Despite the chill and darkness of winter, they rise triumphant, an eternal promise of a someday never-ending summer.

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To Live One More Day

What a slow way to eat, the butterfly
is given by Nature, sipping nectar
one tiny blue flower at a time. Though
a Monarch in name, she’s made to scavenge
like the poorest of the poor, a morsel
here, a morsel there. A flutter of ink-
splattered orange wings. We don’t want to see
the struggle that undergirds the grace: the
ballerina’s sweat, or her ruined feet
hidden by tights and toe-shoes. She knows her
career will be as brief as it was hard
to achieve. Pollinated, the tiny
blue flowers are sated. The butterfly
flits away, hoping to live one more day.

~Barbara Quick, “The Struggle That Undergirds the Grace.”

You have been my friend. That in itself is a tremendous thing.
I wove my webs for you because I liked you.
After all, what’s a life, anyway?
We’re born, we live a little while, we die.
A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess,
with all this trapping and eating flies.
By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle.
Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.
~E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web



And when the sun rises we are afraid
it might not remain

when the sun sets we are afraid
it might not rise in the morning
when our stomachs are full we are afraid
of indigestion
when our stomachs are empty we are afraid
we may never eat again
when we are loved we are afraid
love will vanish
when we are alone we are afraid
love will never return
and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
nor welcomed
but when we are silent
we are still afraid


So it is better to speak
remembering
we were never meant to survive.
~Audre Lorde from “A Litany for Survival”

We are here so briefly.
We were never designed to survive forever on this earth
yet we try to run the clock out as long as we can.

Just one day more.

We are here because of struggle –
the pain of our birth, whether the cry of our laboring mother,
or our own wrestling free of the cocoon or the shell,
our daily work to find food
to feed ourselves and our young,
the upkeep and maintenance of our frail and failing bodies,
our ongoing fear we’ll be taken
before we can make a difference in another’s life.

If there is a reason for all this (and there is):
our struggle forms the grace of another’s salvation.
The flowers bloom to feed the butterfly,
the butterfly pollinates the flower,
ensuring the next generations of both.
The silent and weakened find their voice
so that the next generation can thrive.

Heaven knows,
anyone’s life can stand a little of that.

Just one day more, Lord. Please – one day more.

Tomorrow we’ll discover
What our God in Heaven has in store
One more dawn
One more day
One day more

~from Les Miserable

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A Miracle of Mucus

In the waning evening light, I stood in the barnyard
holding the hose to fill the water trough,
gazing across a sunset-lit field of grass and weeds,
puzzling over an intermittent flash and glimmer thirty yards away.

Trough filled, I set out to find what glinted and blinked in the breeze,
assuming an errant piece of foil or lost piece of jewelry to be reclaimed,
somehow fallen mysteriously from the sky into the middle of a horse pasture.

As I moved closer, my body blocked the sun’s rays
so the glistening ceased. I moved aside,
hoping to allow the fading light
to re-ignite the spark that drew me there.

Doused by the advancing shadow of sunset,
it vanished as I neared the spot.
Looking closely, I found only a broad blade of grass
shimmering with a silvery trail left behind by a slug tail.

Mere mucus slime scintillating in the setting sun!
A complex mix of proteoglycans, glycosaminoglycans,
glycoprotein enzymes, hyaluronic acid, antimicrobial peptides,
and metal ions of zinc, iron, copper and manganese.

Precious trace metals flashing in the grass, masquerading as jewels.

What a fool to think only something man-made could lure me there.
Instead, this miracle of mucus trailing from a lowly slug proved
a far greater treasure is always hiding in the grass,
if I only bother to look.

Hermaphroditic slugs mating on the side of our field’s water barrel/trough,
hanging form a strand of mucus from the rim.

Girls are like slugs—they probably serve some purpose, but it’s hard to imagine what.
― Bill Watterson, in Calvin and Hobbes

From David Attenborough’s Life on our Planet
(a truly remarkable video of how slug mucus becomes integral in their reproductive cycle)

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All That From a Feather

Once again a child asks me suddenly What is a poem?,
And once again I find myself riffing freely and happily
Without the slightest scholarly expertise or knowledge;
But I am entranced by how poems can hint and suggest
And point toward things deeper than words. A poem is
An owl feather, I say. It’s not the owl—but it intimates
Owlness, see what I mean? You imagine the owl, owls,
Silent flight, razors for fingers, a wriggle of mouse tail
Slurped up right quick like the last strand of angel hair,
A startle of moonlight, a fox watching from the thicket,
All that from a feather. It’s like an owl is in the feather.
A poem is a small thing with all manner of bigger in it.
Poor poems only have a writer in them, but better ones
Have way more in them than the writer knew or knows
About. This poem, for example, amazingly has owls in
It—who knew we’d see a flurry of owls this afternoon?

~Brian Doyle, “A Flurry of Owls”

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
~Billy Collins “Introduction to Poetry” from from The Apple that Astonished Paris.

I walked into our big hay barn this week,
finding scattered atop the few remaining bales from last summer
these few owl feathers…

they were waiting for a poem to hide within,
just as the barn owls are tucked invisibly in the rafters
until the cool air of dusk and hunger lures them to the hunt,
swooping outside to capture both moonlight and mice
to be coughed up in pellets of fur and bones.

These feathers, dropped like so many random snowflakes,
carry within them the glint and glow of the moon, a reminder
what we leave behind matters,
whether it be feather or fur
or a wee dry skeleton,
a shell of who we once were
yet are no longer.


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The Live-Long Light

Some of the most powerful memories of summer
come out of our childhood when we wake up on a June morning and suddenly remember that school is out
and that summer stretches in front of us
as endlessly as the infinities of space.

Everything is different.
The old routines are gone.
The relentless school bus isn’t coming.
The bells will be silent in silent hallways.

And all the world is leafy green,
and will be green,
forever and ever.

~Ray Bradbury from Summer: A Spiritual Biography of the Season

The sun is rich
And gladly pays
In golden hours,
Silver days,

And long green weeks
That never end.
School’s out. The time
Is ours to spend.

There’s Little League,
Hopscotch, the creek,
And, after supper,
Hide-and-seek.

The live-long light
Is like a dream,
and freckles come
Like flies to cream.

~John Updike “June” from A Child’s Calendar

photo by Harry Rodenberger
Photo by Harry Rodenberger

Time lurches ahead in imprecisely measured chunks. 

Sometimes the beginning and ending of seasons are the yardstick,  or the celebration of a holiday or a birthday.  Memories tend to be stickiest surrounding a milestone event: a graduation, a move, a wedding, a birth, a road trip, a funeral.

But Summer needs nothing so remarkable to be memorable. It simply stands on its own in all its extravagant abundance of light and warmth and growth and color stretching deep within the rising and setting horizons.  Each long day can feel like it must last forever, never ending.

Yet summer does eventually wind down, spin itself out, darkening gradually into the shadow dusk of autumn and the night of winter. 

I always let go of summer with reluctance, feeling as if no summer like it will ever come again.

Yet another will, somehow, somewhere, someday.  Surely a never-ending summer is what heaven itself will be.

Perfectly delightful and delightfully perfect. 

We’ve already had a taste.

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