Struggling to Remember

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

~Billy Collins “Forgetfulness”

It happens more often than I like to admit.

I have a name on the tip of my tongue, but it fails to form as if it has somehow faded into the mists of a morning fog, only barely discernible to me. Sometimes only the first letter remains to haunt me until the light of day finally burns off the fog and my synapses start to click again.

I actually subscribe to a daily app to exercise my memory and listening ability, including vocabulary and math skills but I realize the best exercise is actually using those brain muscles in real life like I use my arms out in the barn scooping poop every day. My brain knows when it is just a game under the pressure of a time limit vs. a high stakes situation of remembering the correct dosage of a medication in a critical clinical scenario – just like my muscles know there is a difference between a repetitive weight machine in the gym vs. pushing a heavy wheelbarrow uphill against the wind in muddy footing.

I think my brain’s memory capacity is an intricately woven web of connections that get stretched and battered over time. Each dropped connection is gone forever so I’m trying to treat it gently, hold on to and cherish the memories I never want to lose in the fog, and allow the minor forgettable stuff to float away without regrets.

After all, today will become tomorrow’s memory to store away for keeps so I need to do some serious house cleaning to make room…

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The Need to Praise

A blue horse turns into
a streak of lightning,
then the sun —
relating the difference between sadness
and the need to praise
that which makes us joyful,
I can’t calculate
how the earth tips hungrily
toward the sun – then soaks up rain —
or the density
of this unbearable need
to be next to you. It’s a palpable thing —
this earth philosophy
and familiar in the dark
like your skin under my hand.
We are a small earth. It’s no
simple thing. Eventually
we will be dust together;
can be used to make a house,
to stop a flood or grow food
for those who will never remember
who we were, or know
that we loved fiercely.
Laughter and sadness eventually become
the same song turning us
toward the nearest star —
a star constructed of eternity
and elements of dust barely visible
in the twilight as you travel
east. I run with the blue horses
of electricity who surround
the heart
and imagine a promise made
when no promise was possible.

~Joy Harjo “Promise of Blue Horses” from How We Became Human

Birds embody the shapes of my heart
these days


holding the warmth of a hug
in their feathers


the gleam of a kiss in
their eyes


building a home for my love
in their beaks


and spreading, with their song,
the promise of blue horses.

 

“A blue horse turns into a streak of lightning,
then the sun—
relating the difference between sadness
and the need to praise
that which makes us joyful.”
~Marjorie Moorhead, “That Which Makes Us Joyful” from Literary North

Even when my heart isn’t feeling it, especially when I’m blue (along with much of the rest of the world on this September 11 anniversary), I need to remember to whisper hymns of praise to the Creator of all that is blue as well as every other color.

I’m reminded of the goodness of a God who provides me with the words to sing and a voice to sing them out loud.

That reality alone makes me joyful. That alone is reason to worship Him. That alone is enough to turn blue days, blue horses and blue hearts gold again.

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An Arch of Colored Light

Be thou the rainbow in the storms of life.
The evening beam that smiles the clouds away,

and tints tomorrow with prophetic ray.
~Lord Byron

But mark! what arch of varied hue
  From heaven to earth is bowed?
Haste, ere it vanish, haste to view
  The Rainbow in the cloud.

How bright its glory! there behold
  The emerald’s verdant rays,
The topaz blends its hue of gold
  With the deep ruby’s blaze.

Yet not alone to charm thy sight
  Was given the vision fair;–
Gaze on that arch of colored light,
  And read God’s mercy there.

~Felicia Hemans from “The Rainbow”

The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.
~Henry David Thoreau

Painting the indescribable with words necessitates subtlety, sound and rhythm on a page.  The best word color portraits I know are by Gerard Manley Hopkins who created  through startling combinations:  “crimson-cresseted”, “couple-colour”, “rose-moles”, “fresh-firecoal”, “adazzle, dim”, “dapple-dawn-drawn”, “blue-bleak embers”, “gash gold-vermillion”.

I understand, as Thoreau does,  how difficult it is to harvest a day using ordinary words.   Like grasping ephemeral star trails or the transient rainbow that moves away as I approach, what I bring to the page or screen is intangible yet so very real.

I will keep reaching for rainbows, searching for the best words to preserve my days and nights forever. It does feel like I’m clutching at a moment in time moving through my fingers.

I witnessed this Sabbath rainbow last night from our farm, standing with two of our very young grandchildren, hoping they would remember it enough to describe it to our someday great-grandchildren. Perhaps they will even read my words and know how much it mattered to me that they experience such beauty and promise.

I want them to always remember: in the beginning was the Word, and we are created by the same Author who writes incredible rainbows across the sky.

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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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A Humble and Silky Life

This morning the green fists of the peonies are getting ready
to break my heart
as the sun rises, 
as the sun strokes them with his old, buttery fingers

and they open —
pools of lace, 
white and pink —

and all day
under the shifty wind, 
as in a dance to the great wedding,

the flowers bend their bright bodies, 
and tip their fragrance to the air, 
and rise, 
their red stems holding

all that dampness and recklessness 
gladly and lightly, 
and there it is again — 
beauty the brave, the exemplary,

blazing open. 
Do you love this world? 
Do you cherish your humble and silky life? 
Do you adore the green grass, with its terror beneath?

Do you also hurry, half-dressed and barefoot, into the garden, 
and softly, 
and exclaiming of their dearness, 
fill your arms with the white and pink flowers,

with their honeyed heaviness, their lush trembling, 
their eagerness
to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are
nothing, forever?
~Mary Oliver 
from New And Selected Poems 

White peonies blooming along the porch
send out light
while the rest of the yard grows dim.
Outrageous flowers as big as human

heads! They’re staggered
by their own luxuriance: I had
to prop them up with stakes and twine.
The moist air intensifies their scent,

and the moon moves around the barn
to find out what it’s coming from.
In the darkening June evening

I draw a blossom near, and bending close
search it as a woman searches
a loved one’s face.
~Jane Kenyon “Peonies at Dusk”

This coming weekend, I will bring our peonies
to the graves of those from whom I came,
to lay one after another exuberant floral head
upon each headstone,
a moment of connection between those in the ground
and me standing above, acknowledging its thin space
when one more humble and silky life shatters,
its petals slowly
scatter, lush and trembling,
to the wind.

Let my soul rise up to meet You
As the day rises to the sun
Let my soul rise up to meet You
Let that patient kingdom come

When’s the last time you felt steady in the chaos?
Hear the sound when the seed falls to earth
Is it time to give up your destination?
Slow me down, let love do its work
Let my soul rise up to meet You

As the trees and hummingbirds lead the chorus
They work so hard, and their center so still
Is it time for a change in direction?
Slow me down where I bend to Your will

Slow me down Slow me down
Let love do its work

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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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To Be Conscious of Our Treasures

There was an entire aspect to my life that I had been blind to — the small, good things that came in abundance.
~Mary Karr from The Art of Memoir


We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.
~Thornton Wilder, quotes from “Our Town”

The words from “Our Town” written over 80 years ago still ring true:
at that time our country was crushed under the Great Depression, and
now out country is staggering under a Great Depression of the spirit~
despite more connected electronically,
we are, due to politics and pandemic,
more isolated from family, friends, faith.

Thought more economically secure,
we are emotionally bankrupt.

May we always be conscious of
our many treasures and abundance,
while taking care of others in need.

God, in His everlasting recognition
of our perpetual need of Him,
cares for us, even while
we turn our faces away from Him.

I search the soil of this life, this farm, this faith
to find what yearns
to grow, to bloom, to fruit, in order
to be harvested to share with others.

My deep gratitude goes
to you who visit here
and to those who let me know
the small and the good I share with you
makes a difference in your day

I’m right alongside you in joint Thanksgiving
to our Creator and Preserver.

Many blessings today and always,
Emily

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A book of thanksgiving for beauty in words and photography, available to order here:

What Falling Leaves Disclose

And Is it not enough that every year
A richly laden autumn should unfold
And shimmer into being leaf by leaf,
It’s scattered ochres mirrored everywhere
In hints and glints of hidden red and gold
Threaded like memory through loss and grief,
When dusk descends, when branches are unveiled,
When roots reach deeper than our minds can feel
And ready us for winter with strange calm,
That I should see the inner tree revealed
And know its beauty as the bright leaves fall
And feel its truth within me as I am?

It is not yet enough. So I must try,
In my poor turn, to help you see it too,
As though these leaves could be as rich as those,
That red and gold might glimmer in your eye,
That autumn might unfold again in you,
Feeling with me what falling leaves disclose.

~Malcolm Guite from “And is it Not Enough?”

As the rains return,
and the leaves turn and fall,
we shelter together,
blessed by years and miles,
our unknown becoming known,
our understanding of nakedness
breathed in silence.

Though we be gray as the clouds above,
our hearts beat in synchrony
each pulsing moment
more sacred than our last.

More beauty in words and photography in this book, available to order here:

Make Our Feast Ourselves

The adults we call our children will not be arriving
with their children in tow for Thanksgiving.
We must make our feast ourselves,

slice our half-ham, indulge, fill our plates,
potatoes and green beans
carried to our table near the window.

We are the feast, plenty of years,
arguments. I’m thinking the whole bundle of it
rolls out like a white tablecloth. We wanted

to be good company for one another.
Little did we know that first picnic
how this would go. Your hair was thick,

mine long and easy; we climbed a bluff
to look over a storybook plain. We chose
our spot as high as we could, to see

the river and the checkerboard fields.
What we didn’t see was this day, in
our pajamas if we want to,

wrinkled hands strong, wine
in juice glasses, toasting
whatever’s next,

the decades of side-by-side,
our great good luck.
~Marjorie Saiser “Thanksgiving for Two”

Even without family gathered around us this day,
we do have each other and that is a blessing in and of itself.
May we revel in our thanksgiving feast for two because,
through thick and thin and COVID,
we are still together.

That Patch of Sunlight

It appears now that there is only one
age and it knows
nothing of age as the flying birds know
nothing of the air they are flying through
or of the day that bears them up
through themselves
and I am a child before there are words
arms are holding me up in a shadow
voices murmur in a shadow
as I watch one patch of sunlight moving
across the green carpet
in a building
gone long ago and all the voices
silent and each word they said in that time
silent now
while I go on seeing that patch of sunlight

~W.S. Merwin, “Still Morning” from The Shadow of Sirius

photo by Barbara Hoelle

Our memories can play tricks. A whiff of a fragrance can trigger an experience of another time and place, a song can transport us to a decade long ago, a momentary sensation will remind us of a past experience long forgotten.

We dwell inside a different age as the years go by, in a body that no longer looks or feels exactly the same, yet our memories take us powerfully back to a special moment that happened before. For those who struggle with post-trauma recollections, this is a curse to be overcome. For those whose memories bring joy and comfort, they seek to nurture and cherish what has been as if it is still here and now.

We must remember the light, just as the poet W.S. Merwin in this poem “Still Morning” remembers the moment of his baptism in a church long gone and whose voices are long-stilled. The Light of that day remains, as fresh today as it was when it moved toward him.

Our memories aren’t tricks. They are as powerfully a part of us as the here and now: a moving patch light touching us here from back then.