Standing Together in One Body

Because I know tomorrow
his faithful gelding heart will be broken
when the spotted mare is trailered and driven away,
I come today to take him for a gallop on Diaz Ridge.

Returning, he will whinny for his love.
Ancient, spavined,
her white parts red with hill-dust,
her red parts whitened with the same, she never answers.

But today, when I turn him loose at the hill-gate
with the taste of chewed oat on his tongue
and the saddle-sweat rinsed off with water,
I know he will canter, however tired,
whinnying wildly up the ridge’s near side,
and I know he will find her.

He will be filled with the sureness of horses
whose bellies are grain-filled,
whose long-ribbed loneliness
can be scratched into no-longer-lonely.

His long teeth on her withers,
her rough-coated spots will grow damp and wild.
Her long teeth on his withers,
his oiled-teakwood smoothness will grow damp and wild.
Their shadows’ chiasmus will fleck and fill with flies,
the eight marks of their fortune stamp and then cancel the earth.
From ear-flick to tail-switch, they stand in one body.
No luck is as boundless as theirs.

~Jane Hirshfield “The Love of Aged Horses”

Is there anything as wonderful as a good friend?

Someone who doesn’t mind if you are getting long in the tooth and fluffy around the waist and getting white around the whiskers?

Someone who will listen to your most trivial troubles and nod and understand even if they really don’t?

Someone who will fix you up when you are hurt and celebrate when you are happy?

Someone who knows exactly where your itches are that need scratching, even if it means a mouthful of hair?

We all need at least one. We all need to be one for at least one other.

Isn’t it good to know? You’ve got a friend in me…

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All Here is Well…

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

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”

And into nights when bats were on the wing
Over the rafters of sleep, where bright eyes stared
From piles of grain in corners, fierce, unblinking.
The dark gulfed like a roof-space. 

~Seamus Heaney from “The Barn”

The barn is awake,
There is no mistake,
Something wonderful is happening here.
Yellow panes glowing, it begins snowing.
Over rafters a hoot owl takes flight.
A safe place to dwell—all here is well— when we’re in the barn at night.
~Michelle Houts from “Barn at Night”

Usually, after turning out that forgotten barn light, I sit on the edge of the tractor bucket for a few minutes and let my eyes adjust to the night outside. City people always notice the darkness here, but it’s never very dark if you wait till your eyes owl out a little….

I’m always glad to have to walk down to the barn in the night, and I always forget that it makes me glad. I heave on my coat, stomp into my barn boots and trudge down toward the barn light, muttering at myself. But then I sit in the dark, and I remember this gladness, and I walk back up to the gleaming house, listening for the horses.
~Verlyn Klinkenborg from A Light in the Barn

Above us, stars. Beneath us, constellations.
Five billion miles away, a galaxy dies
like a snowflake falling on water. Below us,
some farmer, feeling the chill of that distant death,
snaps on his yard light, drawing his sheds and barn
back into the little system of his care.
All night, the cities, like shimmering novas,
tug with bright streets at lonely lights like his.

~Ted Kooser “Flying at Night”

The night barn is a type of beacon as darkness falls.
Light falls through the cracks to guide our footsteps.
It becomes protection from wind and rain and snow.
It provides creatures comfort so their keepers can sleep soundly.
It is safe and warm – full of steaming breath and overall contentment.
It is a kind of sanctuary: a cathedral sans stained glass grandeur or organ hymns.

Yet the only true sanctuary isn’t found in a weather-beaten barn of rough-hewn old growth timbers vulnerable to the winds of life.

An illuminated night barn happens within me, in the depths of my soul, comforted by the encompassing and salvaging arms of God. There I am held, transformed and restored, grateful beyond measure: all is well here.

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Here Under This Sky

I stop

and look at the sky. Suddenly: orange, red, pink, blue,
green, purple, yellow, gray, all at once and everywhere.

I pause in this moment at the beginning of my old age
and I say a prayer of gratitude for getting to this evening

a prayer for being here, today, now, alive
in this life, in this evening, under this sky.
~David Budbill from Winter: Tonight: Sunset

Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case.
~Annie Dillard from “Write Till You Drop”

At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace.

It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your fists, your back, your brain, and then – and only then – it is handed to you. From the corner of your eye you see motion. Something is moving through the air and headed your way. It is a parcel bound in ribbons and bows; it has two white wings.

It flies directly at you; you can read your name on it. If it were a baseball, you would hit it out of the park. It is that one pitch in a thousand you see in slow motion; its wings beat slowly as a hawk’s.
~Annie Dillard from “Write Till You Drop”

I began to write regularly after September 11, 2001 because that day it became obvious to me I was dying too, though more slowly than the thousands who vanished in fire and ash, their voices obliterated with their bodies.   So, nearly each day since, while I still have voice and a new dawn to greet, I speak through my fingers to others dying around me.

We are, after all, terminal patients, some of us more prepared than others to move on, as if our readiness has anything to do with the timing.  Once, when our small church lost one of its most senior members to metastatic cancer, he announced his readiness once the doctor gave him the dire news (he liked to say he never bought green bananas as he wasn’t sure he’d be around to use them), but God had different plans and kept him among us for several years beyond his diagnosis.

Each day I too get a little closer to the end, but I write in order to feel a little more ready.  Each day I detach just a little bit, leaving a trace of my voice behind.  Eventually, through unmerited grace, so much of me will be left on the page there won’t be anything or anyone left to do the typing. I will be far out of the park, far beyond here.

Not a moment, not a sunrise, not a sunset, and not a word to waste.

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A New Definition of Greatness

…if I respond to hate with a reciprocal hate I do nothing but intensify the cleavage in broken community. I can only close the gap in broken community by meeting hate with love. If I meet hate with hate, I become depersonalized, because creation is so designed that my personality can only be fulfilled in the context of community.
Booker T. Washington was right: “Let no man pull you so low as to make you hate him.”

~Martin Luther King, Jr.

As nightfall does not come at once, neither does oppression.
In both instances, there is a twilight when everything remains seemingly unchanged.
And it is in such twilight that we all must be most aware of change in the air
– however slight – lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness.
~William O. Douglas
from The Douglas Letters

Be careful whom you choose to hate.
The small and the vulnerable own a protection great enough,
if you could but see it,
to melt you into jelly.

~Leif Enger from Peace Like a River

We have a new definition of greatness:
it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. 
You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. 
You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. 
You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. 
You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. 
You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. 
You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. 
And you can be that servant.
~Martin Luther King, Jr.  in a February 1968 sermon:  “The Drum Major Instinct” from A Knock At Midnight: Inspiration from the Great Sermons of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. King’s words and wisdom in his sermons spoken over sixty years ago continue to inform us of our shortcomings as we flounder in flaws and brokenness. To often we resist considering others before ourselves, to serve one another out of humility, grace and love.

Today we unite in shared tears:
shed for continued strife and disagreements,
shed for the injustice that results in senseless emotional and physical violence,
shed for our inability to hold up one another as a holy in God’s eyes.

We weep together as the light dawns today, knowing, as Dr. King knew, a new day will come when the Lord God wipes the tears away from the remarkable and beautiful faces of all people — as all are created in His image.

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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Dawn on our Darkness: It Might Have Been Otherwise

I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.
At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.
~Jane Kenyon “Otherwise”

I watched her cooking, from my chair.
She pressed her lips
Together, reached for kitchenware,
And tasted sauce from her fingertips.

“It’s ready now. Come on,” she said.
“You light the candle.”
We ate, and talked, and went to bed,
And slept. It was a miracle.

~Donald Hall from “Summer Kitchen” in The Selected Poems of Donald Hall.

I tend to get complacent in my daily routines, confident in the knowledge that tomorrow will be very much like yesterday. The distinct blessings of an ordinary day are lost in the rush of moving forward to whatever comes next so that I lose touch with what miracles are happening in the here and now.

The reality is there is nothing ordinary about the events of this day or any other –
it might have been otherwise and some day it will be otherwise.

Advent is an opportunity to stop the rushing, take a look around and actually revel in the quiet moments of daily work, chats, walks, meals, and sleep. Even the current constant of someone in the family being sick with one or more viruses, interrupting plans and schedules, can’t interrupt how remarkable it is to just be here together.

We are granted peace despite the stress of illness.

Jane Kenyon wrote much of her best poetry with the knowledge she was dying of leukemia. Her work reminds me that I don’t need a terminal diagnosis to appreciate the blessings of each ordinary moment. Her poet husband, Donald Hall, wrote verse from his perspective of cherishing the time he had left with his wife, living as if each day were his last day with her.

Like Jane’s “paintings on the walls,” on foggy gray days like today, I can gaze at our landscape paintings by local artist Randy Van Beek depicting an idealized serenity that I only sometimes feel. They depict the blessings just outside my windows.

I simply need to pay attention.

Christ came to earth to remind us to dwell richly in the experience of these moments, those sweet peaches and cream of daily life, while they are happening. God knows, the little miracles are a foretaste of the heaven which is to come.

This year’s Advent theme “Dawn on our Darkness” is taken from this 19th century Christmas hymn:

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
dawn on our darkness and lend us your aid.
Star of the east, the horizon adorning,
guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.
~Reginald Heber -from “Brightest and Best”

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Dawn to our Darkness: Someone is Looking Out for Us

The congregation sang off key.
The priest was rambling.
The paint was peeling in the Sacristy.


A wayward pigeon, trapped in the church,
flew wildly around for a while and then
flew toward a stained glass window,

but it didn’t look like reality.

The ushers yawned, the dollar bills
drifted lazily out of the collection baskets
and a child in the front row began to cry.


Suddenly, the pigeon flew down low,
swooping over the heads of the faithful
like the Holy Ghost descending at Pentecost


Everyone took it to be a sign,
Everyone wants so badly to believe.
You can survive anything if you know
that someone is looking out for you,


but the sky outside the stained glass window,
doesn’t it look like home?
~June Beisch, “Holy Ghost” from 
Fatherless Women.

A little aside from the main road,
becalmed in a last-century greyness,
there is the chapel, ugly, without the appeal
to the tourist to stop his car
and visit it. The traffic goes by,
and the river goes by, and quick shadows
of clouds, too, and the chapel settles
a little deeper into the grass.

But here once on an evening like this,
in the darkness that was about
his hearers, a preacher caught fire
and burned steadily before them
with a strange light, so that they saw
the splendour of the barren mountains
about them and sang their amens
fiercely, narrow but saved
in a way that men are not now.
~R.S. Thomas “The Chapel”

The church knelt heavy
above us as we attended Sunday School,
circled by age group and hunkered
on little wood folding chairs
where we gave our nickels, said
our verses, heard the stories, sang
the solid, swinging songs.

It could have been God above
in the pews, His restless love sifting
with dust from the joists. We little
seeds swelled in the stone cellar, bursting
to grow toward the light
.

Maybe it was that I liked how, upstairs, outside,
an avid sun stormed down, burning the sharp-
edged shadows back to their buildings, or
how the winter air knifed
after the dreamy basement.

Maybe the day we learned whatever
would have kept me believing
I was just watching light
poke from the high, small window
and tilt to the floor where I could make it
a gold strap on my shoe, wrap
my ankle, embrace
any part of me.
~Maureen Ash “Church Basement”

There is much wrong with churches overall,
comprised as they are of fallen people
with broken wings and fractured faith.
We seem odd, keen to find flaws in one another
as we crack open and spill our own.

Yet what is right with the church is
who we pray to, why we sing, feast together
and share His Word.
We are visible people joined together
as a body bloodied and bruised.
Someone is looking out for us
despite our thoroughly motley messiness.

Our Lord of Heaven and Earth
rains down His restless love upon our heads,
no matter how humble a building we worship in,
or how we look or feel today.

The dove descends upon us.

We are simply grateful to be alive,
to raise our hands together, to sing and kneel and bow
in a house, indeed a home that God calls His own.

This year’s Advent theme “Dawn on our Darkness” is taken from this 19th century Christmas hymn.

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
dawn on our darkness and lend us your aid.
Star of the east, the horizon adorning,
guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.
~Reginald Heber -from “Brightest and Best”

The old church leans nearby a well-worn road,
Upon a hill that has no grass or tree,
The winds from off the prairie now unload
The dust they bring around it fitfully.

The path that leads up to the open door
Is worn and grayed by many toiling feet
Of us who listen to the Bible lore
And once again the old-time hymns repeat.

And ev’ry Sabbath morning we are still
Returning to the altar waiting there.
A hush, a prayer, a pause, and voices fill
The Master’s House with a triumphant air.

The old church leans awry and looks quite odd,
But it is beautiful to us and God.
~Stephen Paulus

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Dawn on our Darkness: A Reckless Joy

After all the false dawns,
who is this who unerringly paints
the first rays in their true colours?
We have kept vigil with owls
when the occult noises of the night
fell tauntingly silent
and a breeze got up
as if for morning.
This time the trees tremble.
Is it with a kind of reckless joy
at the gentle light
lapping their leaves
like the very first turn of a tide?
Timid creatures creep out of burrows
sensing kindness
and the old crow on the cattle-shed roof
folds his wings and dreams.
~Richard Bauckham “First Light”

Who is this who dawns on my darkness,
changes everything in my life
and everything within my heart?

Who is this who paints the skies to speak to me from His creation?

Who is this who wraps me firmly within His grasp
and holds me tenderly when I am trembling afraid in the night?

There will be no more false dawns.
He brings the sun with Him
and I am here, a witness to the reckless joy of His Advent,
as I stand before His kindness and mercy.

This year’s Advent theme “Dawn on our Darkness” is taken from this 19th century Christmas hymn.

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
dawn on our darkness and lend us your aid.
Star of the east, the horizon adorning,
guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.
~Reginald Heber -from “Brightest and Best”

You have broken this old soil
You have torn this skin apart
And the seed that you have planted
Buries naked in the dark

In the springtime of my breathing
You have sheltered me from harm
All you asked was that my seedling
Play into your earthen yarn

If you trimmed off all my branches
They would not complete your pile
There is no way that I’m left standing
When you light that final fire

Even small fruit you have nourished
On these branches weighs them down
If I bear it, if I carry
It will sink me to the ground

With the sunset in the background
And this tree placed in the fore
I could just make out what you have
Planted all these years before

In the forests in the orchards
Broken trees cover the ground
When they’ve fallen, when they’re trampled
They have made a clapping sound

And they join with the mountains
And they join with the seas
And they join with the parts that are alive inside of me
And they cry out in longing for the earth that’s yet to be
And they find joy and peace
And they find joy and peace

If I’m bearing when you’re ready
If you come at the right time
Take the fruit that I have carried
Crush it down and make your wine
~Wendell Kimbrough

If I am alive this time next year
Will I have arrived in time to share?
And mine is about as good this far
And I’m still applied to what you are

And I am joining all my thoughts to you
And I’m preparing every part for you

And I heard from the trees a great parade
And I heard from the hills a band was made
And will I be invited to the sound?
And will I be a part of what you’ve made?

And I am throwing all my thoughts away
And I’m destroying every bet I’ve made
And I am joining all my thoughts to you
And I’m preparing every part for you
For you

~Sufjan Stevens

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The Silence of a Dying God

November pierces with its bleak remembrance
Of all the bitterness and waste of war.
Our silence tries but fails to make a semblance
Of that lost peace they thought worth fighting for.
Our silence seethes instead with wraiths and whispers,
And all the restless rumour of new wars,
The shells are falling all around our vespers,
No moment is unscarred, there is no pause,
In every instant bloodied innocence
Falls to the weary earth ,and whilst we stand
Quiescence ends again in acquiescence,
And Abel’s blood still cries in every land
One silence only might redeem that blood
Only the silence of a dying God.
~Malcolm Guite “Silence: a Sonnet for Remembrance Day”

So, when old hopes that earth was bettering slowly
Were dead and damned, there sounded ‘War is done!’
One morrow. Said the bereft, and meek, and lowly,
‘Will men some day be given to grace? yea, wholly,
And in good sooth, as our dreams used to run?

Aye; all was hushed. The about-to-fire fired not,
The aimed-at moved away in trance-lipped song.

Calm fell. From Heaven distilled a clemency;
There was peace on earth, and silence in the sky;

Some could, some could not, shake off misery

~Thomas Hardy from “And There Was a Great Calm” 

(On the Signing of the Armistice, 11 Nov. 1918)

When you go home tell them of us and say –
“For your tomorrow we gave our today”
~John Maxwell Edmonds from “The Kohima Epitaph” 

I’m unsure why the United States does not call November 11 Remembrance Day as the Commonwealth nations did 99 years ago at the Armistice. This is a day that demands so much more than the more passive name Veterans’ Day represents.

This day calls all citizens who appreciate their freedoms to stop what they are doing and disrupt the routine rhythm of their lives. We are to remember in humble thankfulness the generations of military veterans who sacrificed time, resources, sometimes health and well being, and too often their lives in answering the call to defend their countries.

Remembrance means
~never forgetting what it costs to defend freedom.
~acknowledging the millions who have given of themselves and continue to do so on our behalf.
~never ceasing to care.
~a commitment to provide resources needed for the military to remain strong and supported.
~unending prayers for safe return home to family.
~we hold these men and women close in our hearts, always teaching the next generation about the sacrifices they made.

Most of all,
it means being willing ourselves to become the sacrifice when called.

The Ultimate Good for All

First I shake the whole Apple tree, that the ripest might fall. Then I climb the tree and shake each limb, and then each branch and then each twig, and then I look under each leaf.
~Martin Luther

The apple is the commonest and yet the most varied and beautiful of fruits… A rose when it blooms, the apple is a rose when it ripens. It pleases every sense to which it can be addressed, the touch, the smell, the sight, the taste; and when it falls in the still October days it pleases the ear [when] down comes the painted sphere with a mellow thump to the earth, towards which it has been nodding so long.

<Dear apple>, I think if I could subsist on you or the like of you, I should never have an intemperate or ignoble thought, never be feverish or despondent. So far as I could absorb or transmute your quality I should be cheerful, continent, equitable, sweet-blooded, long-lived, and should shed warmth and contentment around.
~John Burroughs from The Apple

Lo! Sweetened with the summer light,
The full-juiced apple, waxing over-mellow,
Drops in a silent autumn night.
~Lord Tennyson from “The Lotos-eaters”

An election day in a free country can seem like a free-for-all, with the most vocal citizens shouting their personal opinions far and wide, whether through letters to the editor, reams of ads arriving in the mailbox or by email, roadside signs and bumperstickers, and, most obnoxious of all, robo-call phone texts at all hours of the day or night. Despite all the promotion of one candidate or negative attacks on an opponent, every voter, even the smallest and meekest, has the opportunity today to have their say, quietly and alone– a pas de deux between the ballot box and them.

This particular free-for-all has now lasted for months. There is nearly a universal desire to just get it done, shaking the electoral apple tree so hard that ripe and bruised and bitter and green all fall to the ground. We then settle in to cope with whatever harvest we have reaped with our votes. Sometimes we get near-perfect fruit; other times we get rotten to the core. All too often there is a worm or two in the mix.

Somehow, we’ve got to cooperate to make palatable sauce from all those apples falling at our feet, trying to pare out and discard what spoils the whole pot.

Some citizens vote down party lines only; the quality of the candidate matters not — as long as they have the right party affiliation and platform. Other citizens turn over every leaf in detailed scrutiny of each candidate’s history and qualifications, voting based primarily on individual characteristics.

Sadly, it can seem like few running for office are worthy choices to represent a country founded on the principles of religious freedom and escape from the tyranny of government in the lives of citizens. We are indeed a confused and far too angry people, divided and divisive, all shaking the American tree for all its worth to see what’s in it for us, threatening the life of the tree itself.

After I complete and seal up my ballot, I pray this election day will be a day when we set the differences aside and work together to make the best applesauce possible, blending all the different viewpoints in a “cheerful, continent, equitable, sweet-blooded, long-lived” mixture, shedding warmth and contentment around for the ultimate good of all.

Now that’ll be the day…

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