Supposing a Tree Fell

“Supposing a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?”

“Supposing it didn’t,” said Pooh after careful thought.

Piglet was comforted by this.
~A.A. Milne from The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh

our friends’ bedroom after a tree fell through their roof in a windstorm – thankfully, no one was hurt

It has been a long 18 months of dwelling deeply
in all kinds of “supposes” and “what ifs”
because people were being crushed by a virus
right and left.

I understand this kind of thinking,
particularly when “in the moment” tragedies,
(like a Florida condo building collapsing in the middle of the night)
play out real-time in the palm of our hand
in front of our eyes
and we feel helpless to do anything
but watch it unfold.

Those who know me well
know I can fret and worry
better than most.
Medical training only makes this worse.
I’m taught to think catastrophically.
That is what I have done for a living –
to always be ready for the worse case scenario
and simply assume it will happen.

Sometimes it does happen
and no amount of wishing it away will work.

When I rise, too often sleepless,
to face a day of uncertainty
as we all do ~
after careful thought,
I reach for the certainty I am promised
over the uncertainty I can only imagine:

What is my only comfort in life and in death? 
That I am not my own, but belong
—body and soul, in life and in death—
to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.

“Supposing it didn’t” — says our Lord
(and we are comforted by this)
but even if it did … even if it did –
as awful things sometimes do –
we are never abandoned.

He is with us always.

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Go Out and 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”

Twenty-six years ago today
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 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,
and returning home forgiven.

Dying was the hardest of all
as no amount of muscle or smarts 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 was yet undone was up to us
to finish for you.

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May Light Eternal Shine Upon Them

May light eternal shine upon them, O Lord,
with Thy saints forever, for Thou art kind.
Eternal rest give to them, O Lord,
and let perpetual light shine upon them.

Lux aeterna luceat eis, Domine,
cum sanctis tuis in aeternum, quia pius es.
Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine,
et lux perpetua luceat eis.

In my father’s near daily letters home to my mother during WWII, month after month after month, he would say, over and over while apologizing for the repetition:

“I will come home to you, I will return, I will not let this change me, we will be joined again…”

This was his way of convincing himself even as he carried the dead and dying after island battles: men he knew well and the enemy he did not know. He knew they were never returning to the home they died protecting and to those who loved them.

He shared little of battle in his letters as each letter was reviewed and signed off by a censor before being sealed and sent. This story made it through:

“You mentioned a story of Navy landing craft taking the Marines into Tarawa.  It reminded me of something which impressed me a great deal and something I’m sure I’ll never forget. 

So you’ll understand what I mean I’ll try to start with an explanation.  In training – close order drill- etc.  there is a command that is given always when the men form in the morning – various times during the day– after firing– and always before a formation is dismissed.  The command is INSPECTION – ARMS.  On the command of EXECUTION- ARMS each man opens the bolt of his rifle.  It is supposed to be done in unison so you hear just one sound as the bolts are opened.  Usually it is pretty good and sounds O.K.

Just to show you how the morale of the men going to the <Tarawa> beach was – and how much it impressed me — we were on our way in – I was forward, watching the beach thru a little slit in the ramp – the men were crouched in the bottom of the boat, just waiting.  You see- we enter the landing boats with unloaded rifles and wait till it’s advisable before loading.  When we got about to the right distance in my estimation I turned around and said – LOAD and LOCK – I didn’t realize it, but every man had been crouching with his hand on the operating handle and when I said that — SLAM! — every bolt was open at once – I’ve never heard it done better – and those men meant business when they loaded those rifles. 

A man couldn’t be afraid with men like that behind him.”

(for my father Henry Polis on Memorial Day)

It was only a part of what we knew about you-
serving three long years in the South Pacific,
spoken of obliquely
only if asked about,
but never really answered.

We knew you were a Marine battalion leader at age 21,
knew you spent too many nights without sleep,
unsure if you or your men would see the dawn
only to dread
what the next day would bring.

We knew you lost buddies
and your innocence;
found unaccustomed strength
in a mama’s boy
who once cried too easily and later almost never.

Somehow life had prepared you for this:
pulling your daddy out of taverns when you were ten
watching him beat your mama
until finally getting big enough
to stand in the way so he stopped.

Then Tarawa, Saipan, Tinian beaches
bitterly bloodsoaked
battles won,
to be restored and renewed
as vacation resorts.

We let you go without knowing
your full story–
even Mom didn’t ask.
You could not share the depth
of horror and fear you felt.

It was not shame that kept you silent;
simply no need to revisit
the pain of remembrance.
It was done, finished,
you had done your duty.

So as we again set flowers and flag
on your grave,
reunited with Mom after years apart,
I regret so many questions unasked
of your sacrifice beyond imagining.

Sleep well, Dad,
with Mom now by your side.
I rejoice you have wakened
to a renewed dawn,
an eternal light
Lux Aeterna.

Each One Knows What the Other Knows

They sit together on the porch, the dark
Almost fallen, the house behind them dark.
Their supper done with, they have washed and dried
The dishes–only two plates now, two glasses,
Two knives, two forks, two spoons–small work for two.
She sits with her hands folded in her lap,
At rest. He smokes his pipe. They do not speak,
And when they speak at last it is to say
What each one knows the other knows. They have
One mind between them, now, that finally
For all its knowing will not exactly know
Which one goes first through the dark doorway, bidding
Goodnight, and which sits on a while alone.
~Wendell Berry “They Sit Together on the Porch”

Over our multiple decades together, the more often we see others who sat together on the porches of their lives, and one has now already gone through that darkened doorway, bidding Goodnight.

The other remains sitting alone for a time.

We know what the other knows in our one mind together: we don’t know who will bid Goodnight before the other and who will sit on for awhile.

But we know it is okay either way because this is how it is and how it is meant to be. This is why we treasure up each porch-sitting, breathing the fresh evening air together, sighing wordlessly together, knowing, and not knowing, what will come next.

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Appareled in Celestial Light

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparell’d in celestial light,
The glory of a dream.

The rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the rose;
The moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare;
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath pass’d away a glory from the earth.

Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind.
~William Wordsworth from Intimations of Immortality

I woke immersed in sadness;
it doesn’t happen often.
Whether a dream surrounded me in sorrow,
or perhaps the weight of grayness of the morning,
I couldn’t tell.

I felt burdened and weepy,
wondering where hope had fled just overnight.

Even though I know true glory lies beyond this soil,
I still look for it here,
seeking encouragement in midst of trouble.
I set out to find light which clothes the ordinary,
becoming resplendent and shimmering
from celestial illumination.

Though I may sometimes grieve for what is lost,
there is enough,
there is always enough each morning
to remind me God’s gift of grace and strength
transforms this day and every day.

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There Be Dragons

Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist.
Children already know that dragons exist.
Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.
~G.K. Chesterton from Tremendous Trifles

But a dragon lies in ambush for the traveler;
take care he does not bite you and inject you his poison of unbelief.
Seeing this numerous company winning salvation,
he selects and stalks his prey.
In your journey to the Father of souls,
your way lies past that dragon.
How shall you pass him?
You must have “your feet stoutly with the gospel of peace,”
so that, even if he does bite you,
he may not hurt you.
~St. Cyril of Jerusalem


<regarding St. Cyrus’s story>:
No matter what form the dragon may take,
it is of this mysterious passage past him, or into his jaws,
that stories of any depth will always be concerned to tell,
and this being the case, it requires considerable courage
at any time, in any country, not to turn away from the storyteller.

~Flannery O’Connor from A Good Man is Hard to Find

<Here be dragons>
was any place on the ancient maps
that was unknown and unexplored-
a place to avoid at all costs,
or — for the daring and carefree,
exactly the place to explore.

Here be dragons
marks the remainder of our days
that dwell at the edge of life’s roadmap
~ unknown and unexplored ~
and too often full of peril.

So many dragons to pass by,
ready to swallow us whole if we make a wrong turn,
or singe our britches if we stray off the map.

So many dark valleys and impenetrable forests to pass through.
so many mysteries unsolved,
so many stories of fateful journeys told,
and above all,
we must listen to what they have to teach us:
try not to stray from the well-worn lighted path of the faithful
who have managed to stay out of the jaws of the dragons
just so they could tell their story and save our souls.

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Finding the Real Thing

I am hardly ever able
to sort through my memories
and come away whole
or untroubled.
It is difficult
to sift through the stones,
the weighty moments and know
which is rare gem,
which raw coal,
which worthless shale or slate.
So, one by one,
I drag them across the page
and when one cuts into the white,
leaves a trail of blood,
no matter how narrow the stream,
then I know
I’ve found the real thing,
the diamond,
one of the priceless gems
my pain produced.
“There! There,” I say,
“is a memory worth keeping.”
~Nikki Grimes “Poems”

I have tucked-away memories that still scratch my tender skin:
when they surface, I tend to bleed at the recollection,
feeling the familiar sting behind my eyelids and upside-down stomach.

Some people work hard to completely bury painful history,
unwilling to allow it back into the daylight to inflict even more harm.

I don’t welcome overwhelming memories back,
but when they come unbidden,
I grant them access only because I know,
as this happened to me long ago,
I will feel the sharp ache of sorrow
when I witness bleeding in another.

I was there too.
I am there with you now.
What happened was real but done.
Its healing leaves behind only
a thin line where the bleeding was.

Hollowed

The barn roof sags like an ancient mare’s back.
The field, overgrown, parts of it a marsh
where the pond spills over. No hay or sacks
of grain are stacked for the cold. In the harsh
winters of my youth, Mama, with an axe,
trudged tirelessly each day through deep snow,
balanced on the steep bank, swung down to crack
the ice so horses could drink. With each blow
I feared she would fall, but she never slipped.
Now Mama’s bent and withered, vacant gray
eyes fixed on something I can’t see. I dip
my head when she calls me Mom. What’s to say?
The time we have’s still too short to master
love, and then, the hollow that comes after.
~Kitty Carpenter “Farm Sonnet”

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.
Hollowed.

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.

photo by Andrea Nipges

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To Reach Beyond Ourselves

I lived in the first century of world wars.
Most mornings I would be more or less insane,
The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,
The news would pour out of various devices
Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.
I would call my friends on other devices;
They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.
Slowly I would get to pen and paper,
Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.
In the day I would be reminded of those men and women,
Brave, setting up signals across vast distances,
Considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined values.
As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,
We would try to imagine them, try to find each other,
To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile
Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,
Ourselves with ourselves. We would try by any means
To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,
To let go the means, to wake.

I lived in the first century of these wars.
~Muriel Rukeyser “Poem” written in 1968

Juries can’t raise the dead...
…a just God governs the universe, and for that reason, none of our efforts are in vain ...God is not limited by our insufficiency, but perhaps might even be glorified through using limited human instruments for his purposes.
~Esau McCaulley, New Testament Wheaton College professor in his Opinion piece today “How I’m talking to my kids about the Derek Chauvin verdict”

How to reconcile ourselves with each other?
Indeed – ourselves with ourselves?

How will a single verdict make a difference in the battles fought for centuries between people all made in the image of God but fallen so far from Him?

Juries call us to the truth about ourselves.
The rest is up to us: what we tell our children about how to live and love.

What poems do we write to the unseen and the unborn so they do not repeat our mistakes.

And so, now we reconcile ourselves, heeding the call to live out His purposes.

No Longer in Wilderness: The Day In-Between

I see his blood upon the rose
And in the stars the glory of his eyes,
His body gleams amid eternal snows,
His tears fall from the skies.

I see his face in every flower;
The thunder and the singing of the birds
Are but his voice-and carven by his power
Rocks are his written words.

All pathways by his feet are worn,
His strong heart stirs the ever-beating sea,
His crown of thorns is twined with every thorn,
His cross is every tree.

~Joseph Plunkett “I See His Blood Upon the Rose”

…to break through earth and stone of the faithless world
back to the cold sepulchre, tearstained
stifling shroud; to break from them
back into breath and heartbeat, and walk
the world again, closed into days and weeks again,
wounds of His anguish open, and Spirit
streaming through every cell of flesh
so that if mortal sight could bear
to perceive it, it would be seen
His mortal flesh was lit from within, now,
and aching for home. He must return,
first, In Divine patience, and know
hunger again, and give
to humble friends the joy
of giving Him food – fish and a honeycomb.
~Denise Levertov “Ikon: The Harrowing of Hell” from A Door in the Hive

The Holy Saturday of our life must be the preparation for Easter,
the persistent hope for the final glory of God.

The virtue of our daily life is the hope which does what is possible
and expects God to do the impossible.

To express it somewhat paradoxically, but nevertheless seriously:
the worst has actually already happened;
we exist, and even death cannot deprive us of this.
Now is the Holy Saturday of our ordinary life,
but there will also be Easter, our true and eternal life.
~Karl Rahner “Holy Saturday” in The Great Church Year

This in-between day
after all had gone so wrong:
the rejection, the denials,
the trumped-up charges,
the beatings, the burden,
the jeering, the thorns,
the nails, the thirst,
the despair of being forsaken.

This in-between day
before all will go so right:
the forgiveness and compassion,
the grace and sacrifice,
the debt paid in full,
the immovable stone rolled away,
our name on His lips,
our hearts burning
to hear His words.

What does it take to move the stone?
When it is an effort to till the untillable,
creating a place where simple seed
can drop, be covered and sprout and thrive,
it takes muscle and sweat and blisters and tears.

What does it take to move the stone?
When it is a day when no one will speak out of fear,
the silent will be moved to cry out
the truth, heard and known and never forgotten.

What does it take to move the stone?
When it is a day when all had given up,
gone behind locked doors in grief.
When two came to tend the dead,
there would be no dead to tend.

Only a gaping hole left
Only an empty tomb
Only a weeping weary silence
broken by Love calling our name
and we turn to greet Him
as if hearing it for the first time.

We cannot imagine what is to come
in the dawn tomorrow as
the stone lifted and rolled,
giving way so our separation is bridged,
darkness overwhelmed by light,
the crushed and broken rising to dance,
and inexplicably,
from the waiting stillness He stirs
and we, finding death emptied,
greet Him with trembling
and are forever moved,
just like the stone.