The Heart in Exile

Down near the bottom
of the crossed-out list
of things you have to do today,

between “green thread”
and “broccoli,” you find
that you have penciled “sunlight.”

Resting on the page, the word
is beautiful. It touches you
as if you had a friend

and sunlight were a present
he had sent from someplace distant
as this morning—to cheer you up,


and to remind you that,
among your duties, pleasure
is a thing


that also needs accomplishing.
Do you remember?
that time and light are kinds

of love, and love
is no less practical
than a coffee grinder


or a safe spare tire?
Tomorrow you may be utterly
without a clue,


but today you get a telegram
from the heart in exile,
proclaiming that the kingdom


still exists,
the king and queen alive,
still speaking to their children,

—to any one among them
who can find the time
to sit out in the sun and listen.

~Tony Hoagland “The Word” from Sweet Ruin

When I moved from Washington state to California for college, daily sunshine was a new experience for me, having grown up in the cloudy Pacific Northwest. At first I was nearly giddy with the new reality of not having to wear jackets with hoods or (horrors!) carry an umbrella. It was like being let out of gray prison into the land of puppies and rainbows – like the old Wizard of Oz B&W film becoming technicolor when Dorothy’s house lands in Oz and she opens the door to her new home.

But then I realized strings of sunny days were doing something to my head. Previously, I was dependent on rainy days to stay inside and hit the books, curled up in a quiet corner, content to be cerebral rather than exercising the rest of my muscles. If there was a sunny day in Washington, then I was compelled outside to enjoy what few hours were offered up by the skies. Real gray life happened the rest of the time when I could buckle down and get some work done.

So college days started out euphoric and ended up depressing – I tried studying in dark carrels in the library but I still knew there was sunshine going to waste. I tried studying outside on the college lawn but the distraction of all the activity around me was too great. I finally learned to apportion my “out-in-the-sun” hours from my study hours so I wasn’t feeling robbed of either. I decided to take a sun bath like I take a water bath – just enough to feel transformed and cleansed.

I owned a rainy heart in exile so moving back to the northwest after college was easy; I longed for strings of cloudy days so I could be productive guilt-free again. To this day, I only dose myself with sunbeams in moderation as if I was still worried there won’t be enough sun to last another day.

But there is, there always is.

You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you. Please don’t take my sunshine away.

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Antidote to Bitterness

Keep a green tree in your heart and perhaps a singing bird will come–
~Chinese Proverb

photo by Harry Rodenberger

I heard a wood thrush in the dusk
Twirl three notes and make a star—
My heart that walked with bitterness
Came back from very far.


Three shining notes were all he had,
And yet they made a starry call—
I caught life back against my breast
And kissed it, scars and all.
~Sara Teasdale, featured in “The Wood” in Earth Song

…then came a sound even more delicious than the sound of water. Close beside the path they were following, a bird suddenly chirped from the branch of a tree. It was answered by the chuckle of another bird a little further off. And then, as if that had been a signal, there was chattering and chirruping in every direction, and then a moment of full song, and within five minutes the whole wood was ringing with birds’ music, and wherever Edmund’s eyes turned he saw birds alighting on branches, or sailing overhead or chasing one another or having their little quarrels or tidying up their feathers with their beaks.
~C.S. Lewis from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe

Their song reminds me of a child’s neighborhood rallying cry—ee-ock-ee—with a heartfelt warble at the end. But it is their call that is especially endearing. The towhee has the brass and grace to call, simply and clearly, “tweet”. I know of no other bird that stoops to literal tweeting. 
~Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

I hope you love birds too. It is economical. It saves going to heaven.
~Emily Dickinson in an 1885 letter to Miss Eugenia Hall

I need reminding that what I offer up from my heart predicts what I will receive there.

If I’m grumbling and falling apart like a dying vine
instead of a vibrant green tree~~~
coming up empty and hollow with discouragement,
entangled in the cobwebs and mildew of worry,
only grumbling and grousing~~~
then no singing bird will come.

It is so much better to nurture the singers of joy and gladness with a heart budding green with grace and gratitude, anticipatory and expectant.

My welcome mat is out and waiting.

The symphony can begin any time now…

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Let Evening Come

Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving   
up the bales as the sun moves down.

Let the cricket take up chafing   
as a woman takes up her needles   
and her yarn. Let evening come.

Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned   
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.   
Let the wind die down. Let the shed   
go black inside. Let evening come.

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop   
in the oats, to air in the lung   
let evening come.

Let it come, as it will, and don’t   
be afraid. God does not leave us 
comfortless, so let evening come.

~Jane Kenyon “Let Evening Come”

We resist the arrival of the evening of our lives. I wish I could remain forever sunshiny, vital and irreplaceable, living each moment of the day with the energy I feel with the morning light. But I know that the forward momentum of time inevitably will wind me down to sunset.

The poet Jane Kenyon learned this at far too young an age, diagnosed and beginning treatment for leukemia before turning fifty. I thought of Jane’s poem above when I learned today of the death of a courageous local nurse in her thirties who survived six years of treatment for metastatic cancer after being diagnosed only a few months after the birth of her first and only child. She and her family and medical team tried to postpone her evening coming for as long as possible, knowing God ultimately counts our days.

This week, her evening has come. God comforts those who weep with the loss of this remarkable loving wife, mother, daughter – a woman who trusted her heavenly Father for all the things she needed.

We all are created in the image of a God who remembered to rest. We are not alone in our need to catch our breath.

So let evening come, as it will – there is no stopping it – allowing our lungs to be filled with the loving breath of God, our Creator. To Him, we are most definitely irreplaceable.

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A Galaxy of Grasses

О Greater Light, we praise Thee for the less;
The eastern light our spires touch at morning,
The light that slants upon our western doors at evening.
The twilight over stagnant pools at batflight,
Moon light and star light, owl and moth light,
Glow-worm glowlight on a grassblade.
О Light Invisible, we worship Thee!

~T.S. Eliot from “O Light Invisible”

Look, in the early light, 
   Down to the infinite 
   Depths at the deep grass-roots; 
      Where the sun shoots 
In golden veins, as looking through 
   A dear pool one sees it do; 
   Where campion drifts 
Its bladders, iris-brinded, through the rifts 
      Of rising, falling seed
   That the winds lightly scour—
Down to the matted earth where over 
   And over again crow’s-foot and clover
      And pink bindweed
      Dimly, steadily flower.

~Michael Field “The Depths of the Grass”

We wove hip-high field grass 
into tunnels 

knotting the tops 
of bunched handfuls the drooping 
heads tied together. 

My seven siblings and I 
sheltered ourselves

inside these labyrinths 
in a galaxy of grasses.
~Heather Cahoon “Shelter”

As a child I liked to go out far into our hay field and find the tallest patch of grass. There, like a dog turning circles before a nap,  I’d trample down the tall waving stems that stretched up almost to my eyes, and create a grass nest, just cozy enough for me. I’d sit or lie down in this tall green fortress, gazing up at the blue sky, and watch the clouds lazily drift over top of me.  I’d suck on a hollow stem or two, to savor the bitter grass juice. Time felt suspended.

Scattered around my grassy cage, looking out of place attached to the broad grass stems, would be innumerable clumps of white foam. I’d tease out the hidden green spit bugs with their little black eyes from their white frothy bubble encasement. I too felt “bubble-wrapped” in my green hide-a-way.

My grassy nest was a time of retreat from the world.  I felt protected, surrounded, encompassed and free –at least until I heard my mother calling for me from the house, or a rain shower started, driving me to run for cover, or my dog found me by following my green path.

It has been decades since I hid away in a grass fort trying to defoam spit bugs. Surely, I’m overdue: instead of being determined to mow down and level the grass around me, I long for a galaxy of grassy bubble-wrap.

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Forgive Me

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

~William Carlos Williams “This is Just to Say…”

Who needs forgiveness
when more plums
hang heavy
in the orchard

dotted with dew
glistening
in the spare pink light
of dawn

so ripe
and so inviting as
their golden flesh
warms with the risen sun.

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The Flame is on the Hill

You may take your winters southward,
You may have your golden Junes,
You may have your summer mountains
Or your eastern fog-swept dunes;
But I’ll take the first red ember,
Where the Painter works his will,
When it’s morning in September,
Or it’s noon-day in September,
Or it’s twilight in September,
And the flame is on the hill.


There is orange down the valley,
There is crimson out the lane;
There’s a fleck of purple tinting
Where the maples meet the rain.
For the glow that I remember,
With an everlasting thrill,
Is a morning in September,
Or a noon-time in September,
Or a twilight in September,
When the flame is on the hill.
~Henry Grantland Rice “The Month of All”

I cherish September for the look and feel of the landscape as it browns and burnishes with aging – transforming to gilded, burnt and rusted, almost glistening in its dying.

I gather up and store these images, like sheaves of wheat stacked in the field. I’ll need them again someday, when I’m hungry, starving for the memory of what once was, and, when the light is just right, how it could be again someday.

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The Forgiveness of Sleep

The children have gone to bed.
We are so tired we could fold ourselves neatly
behind our eyes and sleep mid-word, sleep standing
warm among the creatures in the barn, lean together
and sleep, forgetting each other completely in the velvet,
the forgiveness of sleep.

Then the one small cry:
one strike of the match-head of sound:
one child’s voice:
and the hundred names of love are lit
as we rise and walk down the hall.

One hundred nights we wake like this,
wake out of our nowhere
to kneel by small beds in darkness.
One hundred flowers open in our hands,
a name for love written in each one.
~Annie Lighthart, from Iron String

I thought I had forgotten how to wake to the sound of a child’s voice in the night. I thought I wouldn’t remember how to gently open their bedroom door, entering their darkness from my own darkness, discerning what was distressing them, sensing how to soothe them back to slumber, wondering if I might sing or pray the words they needed to hear, bringing a blossoming peace and stillness to their night.

And then our son’s family arrived two months ago from thousands of miles away, to stay until they could settle in their own place, and I remembered my nights were never meant to be mine alone. As a child, I had so many night-wakenings that I’m sure my mother despaired that I would ever sleep through the night. She would come when I called, sitting beside my bed, rubbing my back until I forgot what woke me in the first place. She was patient and caring despite her own weariness, sleep problems and worriedness. She loved me and forgave me for needing her presence in the night, so her nights were never her own.

I too responded with compassion when my own children called out in the night. I woke regularly to phone calls from hospitals and patients during forty years of medical practice and listened and answered questions with grace and understanding. And now, for a time, I’m on call again, remembering the sweetness of being loved when the dark fears of the night need the light and promise of a new day coming, if only just a few hours away.

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A Silken Connection

Someone said my name in the garden,

while I grew smaller
in the spreading shadow of the peonies,

grew larger by my absence to another,
grew older among the ants, ancient

under the opening heads of the flowers,
new to myself, and stranger.

When I heard my name again, it sounded far,
like the name of the child next door,
or a favorite cousin visiting for the summer,

while the quiet seemed my true name,
a near and inaudible singing
born of hidden ground.

Quiet to quiet, I called back.
And the birds declared my whereabouts all morning.

~Li-Young Lee “Out of Hiding”

The spider, dropping down from twig,
Unfolds a plan of her devising,
A thin premeditated rig
To use in rising.

And all that journey down through space,
In cool descent and loyal hearted,
She spins a ladder to the place
From where she started.

Thus I, gone forth as spiders do
In spider’s web a truth discerning,
Attach one silken thread to you
For my returning.
~E.B. White “Natural History”

I seek out the hidden web artist
who rebuilds this remarkable funnel
in an open pipe attached to a gate
I open and close daily without a thought.

As I approach, I see the weaver’s legs
scurrying hurriedly down into the safety of
its chosen darkness.

This spider needs temerity, not timidity,
to find its meal.

How else might it issue a dinner invitation,
luring me down into a sticky funnel vortex,
as a cherished guest meant never to return?

If I go astray and wander into temptation,
lose my way and plunge into the hole,
a silken thread remains:
hearing Him call out
my name from the garden,
urging me to return
to Whom I belong.

Indeed my soul hangs
by this single gossamer thread~
this silken connection calls me
back home, back to eternity.

There’s more that rises in the morning
Than the sun
And more that shines in the night
Than just the moon
It’s more than just this fire here
That keeps me warm
In a shelter that is larger
Than this room

And there’s a loyalty that’s deeper
Than mere sentiments
And a music higher than the songs
That I can sing
The stuff of Earth competes
For the allegiance
I owe only to the Giver
Of all good things

So if I stand let me stand on the promise
That you will pull me through
And if I can’t, let me fall on the grace
That first brought me to You
And if I sing let me sing for the joy
That has born in me these songs
And if I weep let it be as a man
Who is longing for his home

There’s more that dances on the prairies
Than the wind
More that pulses in the ocean
Than the tide
There’s a love that is fiercer
Than the love between friends
More gentle than a mother’s
When her baby’s at her side

~Rich Mullins

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An Accident of Light

A sudden light transfigures a trivial thing,
a weather-vane,
a wind-mill,
a winnowing flail,
the dust in the barn door;
a moment,
– -and the thing has vanished, because it was pure effect;
but it leaves a relish behind it,
a longing that the accident may happen again.

~Walter Pater from “The Renaissance”

The accident of light does happen, again and again, but when I least expect it.  If I’m not ready for it, in a blink, it can be gone and I have lost it.

Yet in that moment, everything is changed and transformed forever.  The thing itself, trivial and transient becomes something other, merely because of how it is illuminated.

So am I, trivial and transient, lit from outside myself with a light that ignites within. I’m transfigured by a love and sacrifice unexpected and undeserved.

I need to be ready for it.

Through love to light!
Oh, wonderful the way
That leads from darkness to the perfect day!
From darkness and from sorrow of the night
To morning that comes singing o’er the sea.
Through love to light!
Through light, O God, to thee,
Who art the love of love, the eternal light of light!
~Elaine Hagenberg

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Unintentionality

I go to nature not because
its flowers and sunsets speak
to me (though they do) or
listen to me inquire but


because I have filled it with
unintentionality, so that I
can miss anything personal in
the roar of sunset, so that


I can in beds of flowers hold
my head up too.
~A.R. Ammons from The Ridge Farm from Complete Poems

Take the tangle instead of the trouble it causes.
Take the world inside
as seriously as any other.
Take your elderly mother and father
at face value as they have to.
Take the mirror of the sky
mirrored in the bay.
Take the swell of new-mown hay
and the river conversing
where the valley opens its mouth
and the land begins to creak less
as the evening steals light away—
Take the wick in the far hills
and take the sun and the wind
and the look of nothing for granted.
Take a little less, all right
and try not to take fright.
Take the end in mind
instead of the end in sight.

~Brian Turner “Take This” from Taking Off

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.
~Rainer Maria Rilke from The Book of Hours

Each of us,
intentionally made by our Creator
in His image,
yet we discover the beauty and terror of living
in His shadow.

So much happens which we don’t intend
but there is nothing unintentional with God.

Books and lectures tell us to live intentionally
while each day contains something that
brings us to our knees.

I tell myself:
even though I don’t know what tomorrow will be,
I will not take fright
and hold my head up
I’ll just keep going
while taking His Hand and following
wherever He intends to take me.

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