A Fragile Citadel

…And I think
They know my strength,
Can gauge
The danger of their work:
One blow could crush them
And their nest; and I am not their friend.

And yet they seem
Too deeply and too fiercely occupied
To bother to attend.
Perhaps they sense
I’ll never deal the blow,
For, though I am not in nor of them,
Still I think I know
What it is like to live
In an alien and gigantic universe, a stranger,
Building the fragile citadels of love
On the edge of danger.
~James Rosenberg from “The Wasps’ Nest”

The nest was hanging like the richest fruit
against the sun. I took the nest

and with it came the heart, and in my hand

the kingdom and the queen, frail surfaces,
rested for a moment. Then the drones
awoke and did their painful business.

I let the city drop upon the stones.
It split to its deep palaces and combs.
The secret heart was broken suddenly.
~Michael Schmidt — “Wasps’ Nest”

Over the years, we have had basketball-sized paper bald-faced hornet nests appear in various places on the farm. They hang from eaves or branches undisturbed as their busy citizens visit our picnics, greedily buzz our compost bin, shoot bullet-like out of the garbage can when I lift the lid.  In short, their threat of using their weaponry control our moves during the summer. This year’s nest has been built to include some Golden Delicious apples in our apple tree.

This nest is the hornets’ nighttime respite for a few more weeks before a freeze renders them weak and paralyzed in slow motion.  This thing of unparalleled beauty on the outside harbors plenty of danger inside. I will not touch this fragile tissue-paper fortress with its beating buzzing hornet heart.

Let winter deal the devastating blow to disable them. 
As I am not in or of them, I cannot cast the first stone.

In a few short weeks, as the hornets sleep, the north winds will tear it free from its tight hold, bear it aloft in its lightness of being, and it will fall, crushed and broken.

Only then, its secret heart will be revealed and all that stings will be let go.

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Passing Through

Wild geese fly south, creaking like anguished hinges; along the riverbank the candles of the sumacs burn dull red.
It’s the first week of October.
Season of woolen garments taken out of mothballs;
of nocturnal mists and dew
and slippery front steps, and late-blooming slugs;
of snapdragons having one last fling;
of those frilly ornamental pink-and-purple cabbages that never used to exist, but are all over everywhere now.
~Margaret Atwood
from The Blind Assassin

But it was no good trying to tell about the beauty. It was just that life was beautiful beyond belief, and that is a kind of joy which has to be lived.

Sometimes, when they came down from the cirrus levels to catch a better wind, they would find themselves among the flocks of cumulus: huge towers of modeled vapor, looking as white as Monday’s washing and as solid as meringues. Perhaps one of these piled-up blossoms of the sky, these snow-white droppings of a gigantic Pegasus, would lie before them several miles away. They would set their course toward it, seeing it grow bigger silently and imperceptibly, a motionless growth; and then, when they were at it, when they were about to bang their noses with a shock against its seeming solid mass, the sun would dim. Wraiths of mist suddenly moving like serpents of the air would coil about them for a second. Grey damp would be around them, and the sun, a copper penny, would fade away. The wings next to their own wings would shade into vacancy, until each bird was a lonely sound in cold annihilation, a presence after uncreation. And there they would hang in chartless nothing, seemingly without speed or left or right or top or bottom, until as suddenly as ever the copper penny glowed and the serpents writhed. Then, in a moment of time, they would be in the jeweled world once more: a sea under them like turquoise and all the gorgeous palaces of heaven new created, with the dew of Eden not yet dry.
~T.H. White from The Once and Future King

Each day this first week of October, feathered travelers have slipped past us unseen and unheard.  They may stop for a drink in the pond or a bite to eat in the field and woods, but we never know they are there – they are simply passing through.

Others are compelled to announce their journey with great fanfare, usually heard before seen.  The drama of migration becomes bantering conversation from bird to bird, bird to earth, bird to sun, moon and stars, with unseen magnetic forces pointing the way.

When not using voices, their wings sing the air with rhythmic beat and whoosh, like the creaking of rusty hinges.

It reminds me how we are all together here — altogether — even when our voices are raised sharply, our silences brooding, our hurts magnified, our sorrows deep. How we spend our days becomes a matter of debate.

Our destination is not in dispute however.  We’re all heading to the same end to the human story of creation/fall/redemption, no matter how we manage to get there.

It is just that life is beautiful beyond belief, and that is a kind of joy which has to be lived.

So let’s unite our wings and voices in joy: we are just passing through, just passing through, just passing through.

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O Hushed October Morning

O hushed October morning mild,
Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;
To-morrow’s wind, if it be wild,
Should waste them all.

O hushed October morning mild,
Begin the hours of this day slow,
Make the day seem to us less brief.
Hearts not averse to being beguiled,
Beguile us in the way you know;
Release one leaf at break of day;
At noon release another leaf;
One from our trees, one far away…

~Robert Frost “October”

These mornings I wander stunned by light and mist
to see trees tremble inside their loosening cloaks,
a pulsing palette of color ready to detach,
revealing mere bones and branches.

I want it all to be less brief,
leave the leaves attached like a fitted mosaic
rather than randomly falling away.

Their release is not their choosing:
the trees know it is time for slowly letting go~
readying for sleep, for sprouts and buds,
for fresh tapestry to be woven
from October’s leaves lying about their feet.

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So Like a Queen

She seems to hide all looks that have ever fallen
into her, so that, like an audience,
she can look them over, menacing and sullen,
and curl to sleep with them. But all at once

as if awakened, she turns her face to yours;
and with a shock, you see yourself, tiny,
inside the golden amber of her eyeballs
suspended, like a prehistoric fly.

~Rainer Maria Rilke from “Black Cat”

photo by Nate Gibson
photo by Nate Gibson

With the recent loss of Queen Elizabeth II, I must honor a queen of our own here on our farm:

Bobbi was a young calico who arrived on our farm after two years of a luxurious indoor life in town. She couldn’t accompany her physician owner to life in the big city to move in with a cat-allergic boyfriend, so Bobbi arrived to the farm in a van full of her own cat furniture – a climbing tree, a personal chair, toys, and special cuisine. When she strode out of her cat carrier, took a look around and immediately climbed into the nearest real tree, she never looked back at the accoutrements of her former pristine yet restrictive indoor life.  She became Queen of the farm, undisputed and regal, watching the goings-on from a carefully calculated and royal distance, never interacting with her subjects unless it was absolutely necessary.

She tolerated other cats, but barely. They scattered when she came in view.  She thought dogs were a waste of fur covering empty skulls, but when they met her needs, like on a chilly night, she would happily bunk down with them. They were baffled but grateful for her royal blessing when she climbed over their kennel fencing to sleep curled up between them: a two-dog and one-cat night.

She chose only one human to be subject to: our daughter-in-law Tomomi.  On Tomomi’s initial visit from Japan years ago, Bobbi approached her and decided then and there they were meant for each other. During Tomomi’s annual summer visits, Bobbi brought her mice on the welcome mat and followed her like a puppy, coming only when Tomomi called, and deigned to allow her to touch her calico coat.

When she was 16 years old, Bobbi took over the front porch bench throne when our long-lived black cat Jose died.  She preferred a closer view of our comings and goings, seemingly less disdainful and distant.  When two kittens arrived to live in the barn yet within a week formed a coup and took over the front porch, Bobbi retreated again to her other retreats on the farm. I worried a bit that she had given in too easily with no yowls or flying fur.

Still, I was surprised to find her one morning lying still on the grassy slope of our front yard as she was never one to take her naps where her subjects could see her. So I knew her long life of queenly surveillance and service was over.

Long live Queen Bobbi. You remain irreplaceable. May you forever continue to reign in our hearts.

photo by Nate Gibson
Tomomi and Bobbi, photo by Nate Gibson
Original Barnstorming artwork note cards available as a gift to you with a $50 donation to support Barnstorming – information here

They Changed Our Life

And then, that evening
Late in the summer the strange horses came.

In the first moment we had never a thought
That they were creatures to be owned and used.

Since then they have pulled our plows and borne our loads,
But that free servitude still can pierce our hearts.
Our life is changed; their coming our beginning.

~Edwin Muir from “The Horses”

There is nothing that truly compels a horse to wear a saddle, pull a heavy burden, chew a cold bit until it foams warm — no fear of whip or spur or harsh word.  They, so much more powerful than we are, choose the work, to do what is needed, to serve freely, to be there because they were asked — whether asked nicely or not.

How much more we learn from the lather of their sweaty grace —  how to choose the labor that changes lives, how to offer up love in gratitude for the reward of a scratch in just the right place and a nose buried in sweet clover.

Chesna Klimek free-jumping her Haflinger gelding Pippin

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Into Every Small Fold

It is not enough to offer a silent thank you,
looking down at dark mums and the garden’s final offerings
of autumn—late-planted greens, their small leaves
fragile and pale. And bright orange peppers,
the odd liveliness of their color signaling an end.
To see the dense clouds drop into its depths and know
who placed them there. It is not enough to welcome God
into every small fold of the day’s passing.
To call upon some unknown force
to let the meat be fresh, the house not burn,
the evening to find us all here again. Yet,
we are here again. And we have witnessed
the miracle of nothing. A slight turning of empty time,
bare of grief and illness and pain. We have lived
nondescript this season, this day, these sixty-minutes.
But it is not enough. To bow our heads in silence.
To close our eyes and see in each moment
of each second the uneventful wonder
of none.
~Pamela Steed Hill “The Miracle of Nothing”

Sometimes I have loved the peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday.
It is like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain.
You can feel the silent and invisible life.
~Marilynne Robinson from Gilead

I am covered with Sabbath rest
quiet and deep~
planted, grown, and now harvested in soil
still warm and dry from a too long summer,
now readying for sleep again.

I know there is nothing ordinary
in this uneventful wonder of none.

I am called by such Light
to push out against darkness,
to be witness to the miracle of nothing
and everything.

Can there be nothing more eventful
than the wonder of an ordinary Sunday?

Original Barnstorming artwork note cards available as a gift to you with a $50 donation to support Barnstorming – information here

Keeping It For Later

When you are already here 
you appear to be only 
a name that tells of you 
whether you are present or not 
and for now it seems as though 
you are still summer 
still the high familiar 
endless summer 
yet with a glint 
of bronze in the chill mornings 
and the late yellow petals 
of the mullein fluttering 
on the stalks that lean 
over their broken 
shadows across the cracked ground 
but they all know 
that you have come 
the seed heads of the sage 
the whispering birds 
with nowhere to hide you 
to keep you for later 
you who fly with them 
you who are neither 
before nor after 
you who arrive 
with blue plums 
that have fallen through the night 
perfect in the dew
~W.S.Merwin “To the Light of September”

Each month has its own special lighting
though this past luminous September tended to sweep them all.

I loosen my grasp on September as we slip into October bronze.

There must be a place I can hide these riches,
tuck this light away for safe-keeping,
to bring it out on the darkest winter day
and feast upon it.

I do know better;
this glow follows the birds as they fly away.
They keep it with them, wherever they go,
towing it back on their wings come spring.

In the meantime I must remember how
this endless summer defined September.

Earth Falling to Earth

1.

Through the night  
the apples
outside my window  
one by one let go  
their branches and  
drop to the lawn.
I can’t see, but hear
the stem-snap, the plummet
through leaves, then
the final thump against the ground.


Sometimes two  
at once, or one  
right after another.
During long moments of silence
I wait
and wonder about the bruised bodies,  
the terror of diving through air, and  
think I’ll go tomorrow
to find the newly fallen, but they
all look alike lying there
dewsoaked, disappearing before me.

2.

I lie beneath my window listening  
to the sound of apples dropping in


the yard, a syncopated code I long to know,
which continues even as I sleep, and dream I know

the meaning of what I hear, each dull  
thud of unseen apple-

body, the earth  
falling to earth


once and forever, over  
and over.
~ Li-Young Lee,”Falling: The Code” from Rose

Right outside our bedroom window stand two very ancient Gravenstein apple trees. Despite their age, they continue to produce apples with unparalleled bright and sweet flavor. These aren’t winter “keepers” so must be used quickly, preferably picked before they end up falling to their fate. Still, I rarely get that done before they are let go.

Over the past several weeks, before I fall asleep, I have listened to the trees releasing their hold on their apples, one by one by one. I make a mental note to try to get to the base of the trees first thing in the morning to pick up the “still warm” apple bodies strewn about in the grass underneath, in order to start a pot of applesauce simmering on the stove. Some of the Gravensteins are far too bruised or wormy to bother with, but with a careful eye, I can find the most recent windfalls that are worth peeling and chopping up.

I realize I miss picking up many apples that eventually melt back into the earth from which they originally came, feeding the roots of these old old trees. I think about my own current wobbliness on a branch where I budded, bloomed, and have fruited and wonder when the time will come when I too will be let loose to fall back to dust.

Or maybe, just maybe, I will be picked up and washed off to become part of a truly heavenly pie.

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Never Got Wet

When the doctor suggested surgery
and a brace for all my youngest years,
my parents scrambled to take me
to massage therapy, deep tissue work,
osteopathy, and soon my crooked spine
unspooled a bit, I could breathe again,
and move more in a body unclouded
by pain. My mom would tell me to sing
songs to her the whole forty-five minute
drive to Middle Two Rock Road and forty-
five minutes back from physical therapy.
She’d say, even my voice sounded unfettered
by my spine afterward. So I sang and sang,
because I thought she liked it. I never
asked her what she gave up to drive me,
or how her day was before this chore. Today,
at her age, I was driving myself home from yet
another spine appointment, singing along
to some maudlin but solid song on the radio,
and I saw a mom take her raincoat off
and give it to her young daughter when
a storm took over the afternoon. My god,
I thought, my whole life I’ve been under her
raincoat thinking it was somehow a marvel
that I never got wet.
~Ada Limón “The Raincoat”

When I was 13, I grew too quickly. My spine developed a thoracic scoliosis (curvature) — after inspecting my back as I bent over to touch my toes, my pediatrician referred me to a pediatric orthopedic specialist an hour away from my home town.

The question was whether I would need to have a metal rod surgically placed along my spine to prevent it from more misalignment or whether I would need to wear a back brace like a turtle. The least intervention would be physical therapy to try to keep my back and abdominal muscles as strong as possible to limit the curvature.

Since my father didn’t have much flexibility in his work schedule, my mother had to drive me to the “big city” for my appointments – as a nervous driver, she did it only because she knew it was necessary to get the medical opinion needed. She asked me to read aloud to her from whatever book I was reading at the time – I don’t think she listened closely but I think she knew it would keep me occupied while she navigated traffic.

At first, we went every three months for new xrays. The orthopedist would draw on my bare back and on my spine xrays with a black marker, calculating my curves and angles with his protractor, watching for a trend of worsening as I grew taller. He reassured us that I hadn’t yet reached a critical level of deviation requiring more aggressive treatment.

Eventually my growth rate slowed down and the specialist dismissed me from further visits, wishing me well. He told me I would certainly be somewhat “crooked” for the rest of my life, and it would inevitably worsen in my later years. I continued to visit PT for regular visits; my mom would patiently wait in the car as I sweated my way through the regimen.

The orthopedist was right about the curvature of my aging spine. I am not only a couple inches shorter now, but my rib cage and chest wall is asymmetric affecting my ability to stand up totally straight. Just last week, I had an xray of my collar bones as even those joints have developed wear and tear changes. I consider being crooked a small price to pay for avoiding a serious surgery or a miserable brace as a teenager.

What I didn’t understand at the time was the commitment my mother made to make sure I got the care I needed, even if it meant great inconvenience in her life, even if she was awake at night worried about the outcome of the appointments, even if the financial burden was significant for my family. She, like so many parents with children with significant medical or psychological challenges, gave up her wants and wishes to make sure I received what I needed. As a kid, I just assumed that’s what a mom does. Later, as a mom myself, I realized it is what moms do, but often at significant personal cost. As a physician, I saw many young people whose parents couldn’t make the commitment to see they got the care they needed, and it showed.

I was one blessed by parents who did what their kids needed to thrive.

My mom constantly offered me her raincoat so I wouldn’t get wet. Meanwhile she was being drenched.

Thank you, Mom, for making sure I was covered by your love. I still am.

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Ah, What If?

What if you slept
And what if
In your sleep
You dreamed
And what if
In your dream
You went to heaven
And there plucked a strange and beautiful flower
And what if
When you awoke
You had that flower in your hand
Ah, what then?
~Samuel Coleridge  “What if you slept”

This mountain, this strange and beautiful Shuksan flower that appears suddenly as we round a corner on the hour drive up the Mt. Baker Highway:  this mountain has one foot on earth and one foot in heaven – a thin place if there ever was one.

The only way to approach is in awed silence, as if entering the door of a grand cathedral.  Those who are there speak in hushed tones if they speak at all.

Mt. Shuksan wears autumn lightly about its shoulders as a multi-faceted cloak, barely anticipating the heavy snow coat to descend in the next few weeks.

I hold this mountain tight in my fist, wanting to turn it this way and that, breathe in its fragrance, bring it home with me and never let go.

Ah, what then?

Home is not nearly big enough for heaven to dwell.  I must content myself with this visit to the thin edge, peering through the open door, waiting until invited to come inside.

Original Barnstorming artwork note cards available as a gift to you with a $50 donation to support Barnstorming – information here
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