A Calliope Cadence

those lovely horses,
that galloped me,


moving the world,
piston push and pull,


into the past—dream to
where? there, when


the clouds swayed by
then trees, as a tire


swing swung
me under—rope groan.


now, the brass beam,
holds my bent face,


calliope cadence—O
where have I been?
~Richard Maxson “Carousel at Seventy”

Under its canopy, in the shade it casts,
turns a world with painted horses,
all from a land that lingers a while
before it disappears.
Some, it’s true, are harnessed to a wagon,
but all have valor in their eyes.
A fierce red lion leaps among them,
and here comes ’round a snow-white elephant.

Even a stag appears, straight from the forest,
except for the saddle he wears, and,
buckled on it, a small boy in blue.

And a boy in white rides the lion,
gripping it with small clenched hands,
while the lion flashes teeth and tongue.

And here comes ’round a snow-white elephant.

And riding past on charging horses come girls,
bright-eyed, almost too old now for this children’s play.
With the horses rising under them,
they are looking up and off to what awaits.
~Rainer Maria Rilke from “Jardin de Luxembourg”

You don’t really understand human nature unless you know why a child on a merry-go-round will wave at his parents every time around – and why his parents will always wave back.
~William D. Tammeus

As a child, I could not resist a ride on a carousel, waving each time I came round.  Decades later, I can not resist standing and watching a carousel, waving back at whoever waves at me.

It is a world that turns and turns without going anywhere, except in the imaginations of the riders who fly higher, leap farther, jump huge gaps, race fastest. For them, it becomes a world that goes anywhere and everywhere. 

The swirl of surroundings and magic of music raises each child up, up, speeding faster and faster to catch whatever may await them. Then the world slows, settling and settling until each waving child becomes the stationary waving adult who stands their ground faithfully waiting — remembering how going round and round without going anywhere was the most wonderful feeling in the ever turning world.

Yesterday a child came out to wonder
Caught a dragonfly inside a jar
Fearful when the sky was full of thunder
And tearful at the falling of a star

And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we can only look behind
From where we came
And go round and round and round In the circle game

Then the child moved ten times round the seasons
Skated over ten clear frozen streams
Words like, when you’re older, must appease him
And promises of someday make his dreams

Sixteen springs and sixteen summers gone now
Cartwheels turn to car wheels thru the town
And they tell him, Take your time, it won’t be long now
Till you drag your feet just to slow the circles down

So the years spin by and now the boy is twenty
Though his dreams have lost some grandeur coming true
There’ll be new dreams, maybe better dreams and plenty
Before the last revolving year is through
~Joni Mitchell “The Circle Game”

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Days Continuing Hot

In the ordinary weather of summer
with storms rumbling from west to east
like so many freight trains hauling
their cargo of heat and rain,
the dogs sprawl on the back steps, panting,
insects assemble at every window,
and we quarrel again, bombarding
each other with small grievances,
our tempers flashing on and off
in bursts of heat lightning.
In the cooler air of morning,
we drink our coffee amicably enough
and walk down to the sea
which seems to tremble with meaning
and into which we plunge again and again.
The days continue hot.
At dusk the shadows are as blue
as the lips of the children stained
with berries or with the chill
of too much swimming.
So we move another summer closer
to our last summer together—
a time as real and implacable as the sea
out of which we come walking
on wobbly legs as if for the first time,
drying ourselves with rough towels,
shaking the water out of our blinded eyes.

~Linda Pastan, “The Ordinary Weather of Summer” from Carnival Evening: New and Select Poems 1968-1998

I grew up near Puget Sound and only a couple hours from the Washington Pacific Ocean coastline. Our annual trips to the ocean were early morning clamming harvests, usually returning home by noon to process the bounty we had dug up at the shore. Vacations at the beach were a few days spent in a rented cabin at Birch Bay on Puget Sound (now Salish Sea) or on Camano Island. These were short stays, usually no more than two or three nights but it gave our family a chance to live together in a different way.

It wasn’t easy for a family of five to sleep in a tiny two bedroom cabin with very little privacy – we siblings easily got on each other’s nerves as we teased each other or played hyper-competitive card or board games or futilely tried to distance ourselves from one another. We didn’t understand that these few summers in the 60’s were the last opportunities we would spend time together simply to “play”. Storms were on the horizon, our tempers flared when the weather was hot and humid. We had no awareness time was slipping through our fingers.

How this family time at the beach affected my parents is something I can only guess. Their marriage was on shaky ground ten years prior to their separation and divorce, even though we children were oblivious to it at the time. Whether being forced out of their routine was helpful or made their tensions worse, I don’t know. I do know quarreling children, small living quarters and sweaty temperatures can be a challenging combination.

Something about our current heat wave this week places me back to those hot nights in the beach cabins, unable to fall asleep due to a combination of itchy sweat and the world pressing down on me. The crankiness of those family vacations tends to infect my words and attitudes all these decades later.

Although the literal and figurative storms of those years have long since blown over, I still remember the musty smell of those beach cabins that had seen so many different families come and go over the decades, some thriving while others were wobbly and struggling to stay glued together. To the cabins that housed them, they looked all alike. But they weren’t. Only time would tell how well they weathered the storm.

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I Know Why I’m Here

my mother wants me to
go to college

the closest she has ever been
is this
the dorm

her father had needed her
to dig the potatoes
and load them into burlap bags

but here she is
leaving her daughter

on the campus in the city time to go

we go to the parking lot

old glasses thick graying hair
she is wearing a man’s shirt
has to get back to the job

we stand beside her Ford and it is
here she undoes the buckle of the watch
and holds it out to me

my father’s watch
keeping good time for him
and then for her

she says she knows I will
need a watch to get to class
we hug and she gets in

starts the car
eases into traffic
no wave

the metal of the back of the watch

is smooth to my thumb
and it keeps for a moment
a warmth from her skin.
~Marjorie Saiser from “She Gives Me the Watch off Her Arm” from 

I Have Nothing To Say About Fire

When I decided to attend college out of state, to a campus I had never seen before, my mother decided she couldn’t handle the goodbye in a strange place, so sent me on a two day drive with my dad. She was a very emotional person and he wasn’t, so he got the job of dropping me off.

It was a quiet car ride with only my dad and myself together. I think we both dreaded the upcoming parting moments.

When the moment came – my things scattered chaotically about my dorm room, marijuana smoke haze filling the dorm hallway and noise everywhere with loud music and the partings of students and parents – I looked at him with foreboding and desperation at this foreign environment to which I must learn to adapt. His eyes filled with tears — the first time in 18 years I had seen him cry — and he said “you know what you are here for,” hugged me tight and turned around and left.

My father didn’t give me anything but those parting words, but they still ring in my ears every day whenever I am feeling somewhat desperate, even now fifty years later.

It was a rough start at college for me, homesick as I was, in an unsupportive unstructured dorm environment. I came home at Thanksgiving that quarter and didn’t return until the following fall. But I finished strong and never looked back. You can’t go home again, not really.

Now I know what I am here for.

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Go Help Your Dad

It was hard work, dying, harder
than anything he’d ever done.

Whatever brutal, bruising, back-
Breaking chore he’d forced himself

to endure—it was nothing
compared to this. And it took

so long. When would the job
be over? Who would call him

home for supper? And it was
hard for us (his children)—

all of our lives we’d heard
my mother telling us to go out,

help your father, but this
was work we could not do.

He was way out beyond us,
in a field we could not reach.

~Joyce Sutphen, “My Father, Dying” from Carrying Water to the Field: New and Selected Poems.

We will grieve not, rather find                     
Strength in what remains behind;                     
In the primal sympathy                     
Which having been must ever be;  
                   

Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
~William Wordsworth from “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”

Pouring the sidewalk by hand
Grouting the tile perimeter
In the very bottom, installing a drain
The best dive ever…

Nearly twenty-seven years ago
we watched at your bedside as you labored,
readying yourself to die and we could not help
except to be there while we watched you
move farther away from us.

This dying, the hardest work you had ever done:

harder than handling the plow behind a team of draft horses,
harder than confronting a broken, alcoholic and abusive father,
harder than slashing brambles and branches to clear the woods,
harder than digging out stumps, cementing foundations, building roofs,
harder than shipping out, leaving behind a new wife after only a week of marriage,
harder than leading a battalion of men to battle on Saipan, Tinian and Tarawa,
harder than returning home so changed there were no words,
harder than returning to school, working long hours to support family,
harder than running a farm with only muscle and will power,
harder than coping with an ill wife, infertility, job conflict, discontent,
harder than building your own pool, your own garage, your own house,
harder than your marriage ending, a second wife dying of cancer,
and returning home asking for forgiveness.

Dying was the hardest of all
as no amount of muscle or smarts or determination
could stop it crushing you,
taking away the strength you relied on for 73 years.

So as you lay helpless, moaning, struggling to breathe,
we knew your hard work was complete
and what you left undone was up to us
to finish for you.

Ben packaged in a paper bag by Grandpa Hank
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The Presence of Absence

The sunlight now lay over the valley perfectly still. I went over to the graveyard beside the church and found them under the old cedars… I am finding it a little hard to say that I felt them resting there, but I did… I saw that, for me, this country would always be populated with presences and absences, presences of absences, the living and the dead. The world as it is would always be a reminder of the world that was, and of the world that is to come.
Wendell Berry in Jayber Crow

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
~Mary Oliver from “When Death Comes”

Today, as always over the last weekend of May, we have a family reunion where most turn up missing.  A handful of the living come together for lunch and then a slew of the no-longer-living, some of whom have been caught napping for a century or more, are no-shows.

It is always on this day of cemetery visiting that I feel keenly the presence of their absence: the great greats I never knew, a great aunt who kept so many secrets, an alcoholic grandfather I barely remember, my grandmother whose inherent messiness I inherited, an aunt who died of lymphoma as a young child, my parents who separated and divorced for ten years late in life, yet reunited long enough for their ashes to rest together for eternity.

It is good, as one of the still-for-now living, to approach these plots of grass with a wary weariness of the aging.  But for the grace of God, there will I be sooner than I wish to be.  There, thanks to the grace of God, will I one day be an absent presence for my children and grandchildren to ponder.

The world as it is remembers the world that was.  The world to come calls us home in its time, where we all will be present and accounted for — our reunion celebration.

All in good time.

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Wondering How She Came to Be There

She wasn’t looking
when they took this picture:
sitting on the grass
in her bare feet
wearing a cotton dress,
she stares off to the side
watching something on the lawn
the camera didn’t catch.
What was it?
A ladybug? A flower?
Judging from her expression,
possibly nothing at all,
or else
the lawn was like a mirror,
and she sat watching herself,
wondering who she was
and how she came to be there
sitting in this backyard,
wearing a cheap, white dress,
imagining that tomorrow
would be like all her yesterdays,
while her parents chatted
and watched, as I do
years later,
too distantly to interfere.
~Dana Gioia, “Photograph of My Mother as a Young Girl” from Daily Horoscope

Yesterday was my mother Elna Schmitz Polis’ 102nd birthday though she left us behind nearly 14 years ago. I wrote the poem below while she was fading from this life.

Vigil at my mother’s bedside

Lying still, your mouth gapes open as
I wonder if you breathe your last.
Your hair a white cloud
Your skin baby soft
No washing, digging, planting gardens
Or raising children
Anymore.

Where do your dreams take you?
At times you wake in your childhood home of
Rolling wheat fields, boundless days of freedom.
Other naps take you to your student and teaching days
Grammar and drama, speech and essays.
Yesterday you were a young mother again
Juggling babies, farm and your wistful dreams.

Today you looked about your empty nest
Disguised as hospital bed,
Wondering aloud about
Children grown, flown.
You still control through worry
and tell me:
Travel safely
Get a good night’s sleep
Take time to eat
Call me when you get there

I dress you as you dressed me
I clean you as you cleaned me
I love you as you loved me
You try my patience as I tried yours.
I wonder if I have the strength to
Mother my mother
For as long as she needs.

When I tell you the truth
Your brow furrows as it used to do
When I disappointed you~
This cannot be
A bed in a room in a sterile place
Waiting for death
Waiting for heaven
Waiting

And I tell you:
Travel safely
Eat, please eat
Sleep well
Call me when you get there.

Dad and Mom in their early thirties
Mom’s favorite song to sing
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They Are No More…


    …mourning and great weeping,
weeping for her children
    and refusing to be comforted,
    because they are no more.
from Matthew 2:18 and Jeremiah 31:15

Newtown, CT December 2012
There are the fields we’ll walk across
In the snow lightly falling.
In the snow lightly falling,
There are the fields we’ll walk across.

There are the houses we’ll walk toward
In the snow lightly falling.
In the snow lightly falling,
There are the houses we’ll walk toward.

There are the faces we once kissed
In the snow lightly falling.
In the snow lightly falling,
There are the faces we once kissed.

Incredible how we laughed and cried
In the snow lightly falling.
In the snow lightly falling,
Incredible how we laughed and cried.

Incredible how we’ll meet again
In the snow lightly falling.
In the snow lightly falling,
Incredible how we’ll meet again.

No small hand will go unheld
In the snow lightly falling.
In the snow lightly falling,
No small hand will go unheld.

No voice once heard is ever lost
In the snow lightly falling.
In the snow lightly falling,
No voice once heard is ever lost.

~Dick Allen “Solace”

In mourning for the families of Uvalde, Texas

There is no comfort for these families.
Their arms ache with emptiness,
their childrens’ beds and pillows cold tonight,
dolls and stuffed animals awaiting all night hugs
that will never come again.

There is no earthly consolation;
only mourning and great weeping,
sobbing that wrings dry
every human cell,
leaving only dust behind,
which is our beginning
and our end.

Christ came to us
for times such as this,
born of the dust of woman and
the breath of Spirit.
God bent down to
be cradled in barn dust,
walk on roads of dust,
die and be laid to rest as dust
to conquer such evil as this –
the slaughter and massacre of innocents.

He became dust to be
like us
He began a mere speck in a womb
like us
His heart beat
like ours
breathing each breath
like ours
until a fearful fallen world
took His
and our breath
away.

He shines His Light through
the darkness of tragic deaths
to guide our stumbling uncertain feet.
His tender mercies flow freely
when there is no consolation,
when there is no comfort.

He hears our cries
as He cried too.
He knows our tears
as He wept too.
He knows our mourning
as He mourned too.
He knows our dying
as He died too.

God wept as this happened yesterday.
Evil comes not from God
yet humankind embraces it.
Sin is our ongoing choice,
a decision made from our beginning,
but we can choose to end it now.

Only God can glue together
what evil has shattered.
He asks us to hand Him
the pieces of our broken hearts,
abandon our evil ways
and sin no more.

We will know His peace
when He comes
to bring us home,
our tears finally dried,
our cells no longer just dust,
as we are glued together
by the word and breath and voice
of God forevermore.

the tender mercy of our God,
    by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
    and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.
Luke 1: 78-79

The World’s Most Sensitive Cargo

Go north a dozen years
on a road overgrown with vines
to find the days after you were born.
Flowers remembered their colors and trees
were frothy and the hospital was


behind us now, its brick indifference
forgotten by our car mirrors. You were
revealed to me: tiny, delicate,
your head smelling of some other world.
Turn right after the circular room


where I kept my books and right again
past the crib where you did not sleep
and you will find the window where
I held you that morning
when you opened your eyes. They were


blue, tentative, not the deep chocolate
they would later become. You were gazing
into the world: at our walls,
my red cup, my sleepless hair and though
I’m told you could not focus, and you


no longer remember, we were seeing
one another after seasons of darkness.

~Faith Shearin, “Sight” from Orpheus, Turning

A man crosses the street in rain,
stepping gently, looking two times north and south,
because his son is asleep on his shoulder.

No car must splash him.
No car drive too near to his shadow.

This man carries the world’s most sensitive cargo
but he’s not marked.
Nowhere does his jacket say FRAGILE,
HANDLE WITH CARE.

His ear fills up with breathing.
He hears the hum of a boy’s dream
deep inside him.

We’re not going to be able
to live in this world
if we’re not willing to do what he’s doing
with one another.

The road will only be wide.
The rain will never stop falling.

~Naomi Shihab Nye “Shoulders”

Recent headlines reflect a touchy cultural debate about child bearing and rearing in our post-modern society:

who has control over whose body and for what justifiable reasons,

when life begins and when its loss is a death to be mourned
or if intentional, could be considered equivalent to murder,

babies without access to adequate nutrition due to a formula shortage while some shame mothers for not breast-feeding,

who determines what schools can teach at what stage of development, whether vaccines should be mandatory to attend,
and what books children can have access to in the library.

There are controversies about our country not guaranteeing paid parental leave and automatic free day care, along with government subsidized health care, and whether we coddle our kids too much or too little.

Some are convinced we should avoid child-bearing since people are destroying the earth and adding more people will only hasten our demise.

The judgement and harshness of the debate is enough to discourage parenting at all for those who are ambivalent to begin with. For those who long to be parents but still have empty arms, the debate seems heartless and selfish, as they wonder if and when a chance to love their own child will ever come.

Having waited long years ourselves with empty arms, and then were blessed with three of our own, I can say with assurance children are the most sensitive cargo we’ll ever bear and carry and love – there is no future without children cherished above one’s own wants and needs.

After seasons of darkness, we must look each other in the eyes and find each other worthy to exist and do whatever it takes to guarantee it. We must be willing to sacrifice, carrying one another like precious cargo. We were created for no less than this.

Just checking to see if she is real…

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Seeking What Could No Longer Be Found

photo by Kate Steensma

Though I know well enough
To hunt the Lady’s Slipper now
Is playing blindman’s-buff,
For it was June She put it on
And grey with mist the spider’s lace
Swings in the autumn wind,
Yet through this hill-wood, high and low,
I peer in every place;
Seeking for what I cannot find
I do as I have often done
And shall do while I stay beneath the sun.
~Andrew Young “Lady’s Slipper Orchid”

My grandmother’s house where my father was born had been torn down. She sold her property on Fidalgo Island near Anacortes, Washington to a lumber company – this was the house where all four of her babies were born, where she and my grandfather loved and fought and separated and finally loved again, and where we spent chaotic and memorable Thanksgiving and Christmas meals.  After Grandpa died, Grandma took on boarders, trying to afford to remain there on the homesteaded wooded acreage on Similk Bay, fronted by meadows where her Scottish Highland cattle grazed.   Her own health was suffering and she reached a point when it was no longer possible to make it work. A deal was struck with the lumber company and she moved to a small apartment for the few years left to her, remaining bruised by leaving her farm.

My father realized what her selling to a lumber company meant and it was a crushing thought. The old growth woods would soon be stumps on the rocky hill above the bay, opening a view to Mt. Baker to the east, to the San Juan Islands to the north, and presenting an opportunity for development into a subdivision. He woke my brother and me early one Saturday in May and told us we were driving the 120 miles to Anacortes.  He was on a mission.

As a boy growing up on that land, he had wandered the woods, explored the hill, and helped his dad farm the rocky soil.  There was only one thing he felt he needed from that farm and he had decided to take us with him, to trespass where he had been born and raised to bring home a most prized treasure–his beloved lady slippers from the woods.

These dainty flowers enjoy a spring display known for its brevity–a week or two at the most–and they tend to bloom in small little clusters in the leafy duff mulch of the deep woods, preferring only a little indirect sunlight part of the day.  They are not easy to find unless you know where to look. 

My father remembered exactly where to look.

We hauled buckets up the hill along with spades, looking as if we were about to dig for clams at the ocean.  Dad led us up a trail into the thickening foliage, until we had to bushwhack our way into the taller trees where the ground was less brush and more hospitable ground cover.  He would stop occasionally to get his bearings as things were overgrown.   We reached a small clearing and he knew we were near.  He went straight to a copse of fir trees standing guard over a garden of lady slippers.

There were almost thirty of them blooming, scattered about in an area the size of my small bedroom.  Each orchid-like pink and lavender blossom had a straight backed stem that held it with sturdy confidence.  To me, they looked like they could be little shoes for fairies who may have hung them up while they danced about barefoot.    To my father, they represented the last redeeming vestiges of his often traumatic childhood, and were about to be trammeled by bulldozers.  We set to work gently digging them out of their soft bedding, carefully keeping their bulb-like corms from losing a protective covering of soil and leafy mulch.  Carrying them in the buckets back to the car, we felt some vindication that even if the trees were to be lost to the saws, these precious flowers would survive.

When we got home, Dad set to work creating a spot where he felt they could thrive in our own woods.  He found a place with the ideal amount of shade and light, with the protection of towering trees and the right depth of undisturbed leaf mulch.  We carefully placed the lady slippers in their new home, scattered in a pattern similar to how we found them.  Then Dad built a four foot split rail fence in an octagon around them, as a protection from our cattle and a horse who wandered the woods, and as a way to demarcate that something special was contained inside.

The next spring only six lady slippers bloomed from the original thirty.  Dad was disappointed but hoped another year might bring a resurgence as the flowers established themselves in their new home.  The following year there were only three.  A decade later, my father himself had left farm and family, not looking back.

Sometime after the divorce, when my mother had to sell the farm, I visited our lady slipper sanctuary in the woods for the last time in the middle of May, seeking what I hoped might still be there, but I knew was no longer.  The split rail fence still stood, guarding nothing but old memories.  No lady slippers bloomed. There was not a trace they had ever been there.  They had simply given up and disappeared.

The new owners of the farm surely puzzled over the significance of the small fenced-in area in the middle of our woods.  They probably thought it surrounded a graveyard of some sort.

And they would be right – it did.

An embroidery I made for my father after he replanted the lady slippers — on the back I wrote “The miracle of creation recurs each spring in the delicate beauty of the lady slipper – may we ourselves be recreated as well…”

Once more, once more into the sunny fields
Oh, let me stray!
And drink the joy that young existence yields
On a bright, cloudless day.
Once more let me behold the summer sky,
With its blue eyes,
And join the wild wind’s voice of melody,
As far and free it flies.
Once more, once more, oh let me stand and hear
The gushing spring,
As its bright drops fall starlike, fast and clear,
And in the sunshine sing.
~Frances Kemble “A Farewell”

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No Forwarding Address

Body is something you need in order to stay
on this planet and you only get one.
And no matter which one you get, it will not
be satisfactory. It will not be beautiful
enough, it will not be fast enough, it will
not keep on for days at a time, but will
pull you down into a sleepy swamp and
demand apples and coffee and chocolate cake.

Body is a thing you have to carry
from one day into the next. Always the
same eyebrows over the same eyes in the same
skin when you look in the mirror, and the
same creaky knee when you get up from the
floor and the same wrist under the watchband.
The changes you can make are small and
costly—better to leave it as it is.

Body is a thing that you have to leave
eventually. You know that because you have
seen others do it, others who were once like you,
living inside their pile of bones and
flesh, smiling at you, loving you,
leaning in the doorway, talking to you
for hours and then one day they
are gone. No forwarding address.

~Joyce Sutphen, “Living in the Body” from Coming Back to the Body.

All bodies are fragile vessels, right from the beginning. I know this because I live inside an aging one and experience its limitations daily. Yet it is the only one I’ll ever have, though an imperfect reflection of my Creator – like it or not. Frankly, I greatly respect it having kept me going for 68 years so far and hoping for a few more.

I grieve for the young and strong who are often dissatisfied with the body they are given, spending immense time and resources to change what they can and agonizing over what is unchangeable.

What is unchangeable is that we’ll leave this empty husk behind at some point when we move on, leaving no forwarding address other than @heavenabove. We have watched it happen to those we love who have died too young because of system failure from an impossible-to-survive insult, and it happens to those who simply ran out of breaths after multiple decades of functioning heart and lungs.

My imperfect body doesn’t define me as it didn’t define those who have left before me. It isn’t who I was when I came to be, and it isn’t who I will be after I depart. But it deserves my ongoing admiration, awe and honor, along with my commitment to keep it in running order as long as I am able.

And I’ll try to confirm a forwarding address before I go.

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