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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What’s Left of Joy

You recall how winter
colored your love, left it


overly delicate, like a flower
skimmed of all fragrance.


You hear in the long last notes
of the nightingale’s song


how to harbor what’s left
of joy, how spring clutches


the green shoot of life and holds
on and on through summer, prepares


for no end that is sure in coming,
the fall ever endlessly repeating.
~Maureen Doallas “Recounting Seasons”, from Neruda’s Memoirs 

One of my greatest joys is watching time as days become weeks, then months, and as years flow by, the seasons repeat seemingly endlessly. I know they must end for me eventually so I anticipate transitions before they take place.

In the “olden” days, many farmers kept daily hand-written diaries to track the events of the seasons: when the soil was warm enough to sow, when the harvest was ready, the highs and lows of temperature fluctuations, how many inches in the rain gauge, how deep the snow.

Now we follow the years with a swift scroll in our photo collection in our phones: the tulips bloomed two weeks later this year, or the tomatoes ripened early or the pears were larger two years ago.

I take comfort things tend to repeat predictably year after year, yet I can spot subtle differences. Our hydrangea bushes are a harbinger of seasonal change: they are blooming a darker burgundy color this year, the lace caps are mostly blue rather than pink and purple. Their blooms fade eventually into blended earth tones, then blanche, finally losing color altogether and becoming skeletal.

And so it is with me. I harbor joy by noticing each change, knowing the repetition of the seasons and the cycle of blooming will continue, with or without me here watching. I am unnecessary except as a recorder of fact.

I will keep watching and keep documenting as long as I’m able.

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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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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 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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Simply Rapt

Someone spoke to me last night,
told me the truth. Just a few words,
but I recognized it.
I knew I should make myself get up,
write it down, but it was late,
and I was exhausted from working
all day in the garden, moving rocks.
Now, I remember only the flavor —
not like food, sweet or sharp.
More like a fine powder, like dust.
And I wasn’t elated or frightened,
but simply rapt, aware.
That’s how it is sometimes —
God comes to your window,
all bright light and black wings,
and you’re just too tired to open it.
~Dorianne Laux, “Dust” from What We Carry

We don’t have time to look at one another.
I didn’t realize.
All that was going on in life and we never noticed.

Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you. 
Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?

– every, every minute? 
I’m ready to go back.

I should have listened to you.
That’s all human beings are!
Just blind people.
~Thornton Wilder, from Emily’s monologue in Our Town

And for all this, nature is never spent;   
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went   
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent   
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
~Gerard Manley Hopkins from “God’s Grandeur”

photo by Josh Scholten

Lord, all bright light and protective wings…

Let me not wear blinders through my days.
Let me see and feel it all
even when it seems too much to bear,
lest I’m too weary to listen.

Let me write it down
or find an image that captures You,
if only for the moment
I feel your presence.

Lord, prepare me to be whelmed at your world,
so Heaven itself will seem familiar,
and not that far,
maybe just round the corner.

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The Good Parts

Once, in the cool blue middle of a lake,
up to my neck in that most precious element of all,

I found a pale-gray, curled-upwards pigeon feather
floating on the tension of the water

at the very instant when a dragonfly,
like a blue-green iridescent bobby pin,

hovered over it, then lit, and rested.
That’s all.

I mention this in the same way
that I fold the corner of a page

in certain library books,
so that the next reader will know

where to look for the good parts.
~Tony Hoagland, “Field Guide” from Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty.

photo by Josh Scholten
dragonfly wings photo by Josh Scholten

…God’s attention is indeed fixed on the little things. But this is not because God is a great cosmic cop, eager to catch us in minor transgressions, but simply because God loves us–loves us so much that the divine presence is revealed even in the meaningless workings of daily life. It is in the ordinary, the here-and-now, that God asks us to recognize that the creation is indeed refreshed like dew-laden grass that is “renewed in the morning” or to put it in more personal and also theological terms, “our inner nature is being renewed everyday”.
~Kathleen Norris from The Quotidian Mysteries

Whether it is in a favorite book of fiction or poetry,
or from the Word itself,
or as I keep my eyes open to the daily wonders around me,
I feel compelled to share the good parts with those of you who visit here.

It is easy to be ground to a pulp by the little things:
waiting in line too long, heavy traffic,
an insistent alarm clock,
a mouse (or more) in the house,
miserable spring-time pollen allergies,
wearing a face mask though we no longer want to. 

God is in the details, from dew drop to tear drop and even to nose snot.  His ubiquitous presence is in all things, large and small, not just the “good parts” of His exquisite grandeur.  

It isn’t all elegance from our limited perspective, but still, they are all good parts worthy of His divine attention.

The time has come to be refreshed and renewed by His care revealed in the tiniest ways.

He has my attention and I hope I now have yours.

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