Born Broken

Man is born broken.
He lives by mending.
The grace of God is glue.
~Eugene O’Neill
from Act 4, Scene 1 – The Great God Brown

None of us can “mend” another person’s life, no matter how much the other may need it, no matter how much we may want to do it.

Mending is inner work that everyone must do for him or herself. When we fail to embrace that truth the result is heartbreak for all concerned.

What we can do is walk alongside the people we care about, offering simple companionship and compassion. And if we want to do that, we must save the only life we can save, our own.
~Parker Palmer writing about Mary Oliver’s poem “The Journey”

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting

their bad advice – – –
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
‘Mend my life!’
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.

You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations – – –
though their melancholy
was terrible. It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.

But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice,
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do – –

– determined to save
the only life you could save.
~Mary Oliver “The Journey”

We are born hollering and suddenly alone,
already aware of our emptiness
from the first breath,
each tiny air sac bursting
with the air of our fallen world~
air that is never enough.

The rest of our days are spent
filling up our empty spaces
whether alveoli
or stomach
or synapses starving for understanding,
still hollering in our loneliness
and heart
broken.

So we mend ourselves
through our walk with others
also broken,
we patch up our gaps
by knitting the scraggly fragments
of lives lived together.
We become the crucial glue
boiled from gifted Grace,
all our holes
somehow made holy.

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The Safety of the Thicket

He loved to ask his mother questions. It was the pleasantest thing for him to ask a question and then to hear what answer his mother would give. Bambi was never surprised that question after question should come into his mind continually and without effort. 

Sometimes he felt very sure that his mother was not giving him a complete answer, was intentionally not telling him all she knew.  For then there would remain in him such a lively curiosity, such suspicion, mysteriously and joyously flashing through him, such anticipation, that he would become anxious and happy at the same time, and grow silent.
~Felix Salten from Bambi

A Wounded Deer—leaps highest—
I’ve heard the Hunter tell—
‘Tis but the Ecstasy of death—
And then the Brake is still!
~Emily Dickinson from “165″

My first time ever
seated next to my mother
in a movie theater, just
a skinny four year old girl
practically folded up in half
by a large padded chair
whose seat won’t stay down,
bursting with anticipation
to see Disney’s Bambi.

Enthralled with so much color,
motion,  music, songs and fun
characters, I am wholly lost
in a new world of animated
reality when suddenly
Bambi’s mother looks up,
alarmed,  from eating
a new clump of spring grass
growing in the snow.

My heart leaps
with worry.
She tells him
to run
for the thicket,
the safest place where
she has always
kept him warm
next to her.

She follows behind,
tells him to run faster,
not to look back,
don’t ever look back.

Then the gun shot
hits my belly too.

My stomach twists
as he cries out
for his mother,
pleading for her.
I know in my heart
she is lost forever,
sacrificed for his sake.

I sob as my mother
reaches out to me,
telling me not to look.
I bury my face
inside her hug,
knowing Bambi
is cold and alone
with no mother
at all.

My mama took me home
before the end.
I could not bear to watch
the rest of the movie 
for years.

Those cries
still echo
in my ears
every time someone hunts and shoots
to kill the innocent.

Now, my own children are grown,
they have babies of their own,
my mom is gone from this earth,
I can even keep the seat from folding
me up in a movie theater.

I am in my seventh decade, and
there are still places in this world where
mothers and fathers
sons and daughters
grandmothers and grandfathers
sisters and brothers
and babies are hunted down
despite the supposed safety of the thicket~
of the sanctuary, the school, the grocery store, the home,
where we believe we are shielded from violence.

There is innocence no longer,
if there ever was.

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Yielding to Change

I went out to cut a last batch of zinnias this
morning from the back fencerow and got my shanks
chilled for sure: furrowy dark gray clouds with
separating fringes of blue sky-grass: and the dew

beaded up heavier than the left-overs of the rain:
in the zinnias, in each of two, a bumblebee 
stirring in slow motion. Trying to unwind
the webbed drug of cold, buzzing occasionally but

with a dry rattle: bees die with the burnt honey 
at their mouths, at least: the fact’s established:
it is not summer now and the simmering buzz is out of 
heat: the zucchini blossoms falling show squash

overgreen with stunted growth: the snapdragons have
suckered down into a blossom or so: we passed
into dark last week the even mark of day and night
and what we hoped would stay we yield to change.
~A.R. Ammons  “Equinox”

We yield now
to the heaviness of the change;
a slowing of our walk
and the darkening of our days.

It is time:
day and night compete,
and neither wins.

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I Pray Watch Over Them

Echo of the clocktower, footstep
in the alleyway, sweep
of the wind sifting the leaves. 


Jeweller of the spiderweb, connoisseur
of autumn’s opulence, blade of lightning
harvesting the sky. 

Keeper of the small gate, choreographer
of entrances and exits, midnight
whisper travelling the wires. 

Seducer, healer, deity, or thief,
I will see you soon enough–


in the shadow of the rainfall, 
in the brief violet darkening a sunset —

but until then I pray watch over him
as a mountain guards its covert ore 

and the harsh falcon its flightless young.
~Dana Gioia “The Prayer” (written in memory of his infant son who died of SIDS)

When we think of those who wait for us on the other side,
including our baby lost before birth 38 years ago…

We pray those from whom we are parted are loved as we have loved.

I know God will watch over all these reunions;
He knows the moment when our fractured hearts
heal whole once again.

I will see you soon enough, sweet one. Soon enough.

photo by Kate Steensma

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The Soul’s Sap Quivers

To think that this meaningless thing was ever a rose,
Scentless, colourless, this!
Will it ever be thus (who knows?)
Thus with our bliss,
If we wait till the close?


Though we care not to wait for the end, there comes the end
Sooner, later, at last,
Which nothing can mar, nothing mend:

An end locked fast,
Bent we cannot re-bend.

~Christina Rossetti “Summer is Ended”

The soul’s sap quivers. There is no earth smell
Or smell of living thing. This is the spring time
But not in time’s covenant. Now the hedgerow
Is blanched for an hour with transitory blossom
Of snow, a bloom more sudden
Than that of summer, neither budding nor fading,
Not in the scheme of generation.
Where is the summer, the unimaginable Zero summer?

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;


And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

~T.S. Eliot – lines taken from “Little Gidding”

As a grade school child in November 1963, I learned the import of the U.S. flag being lowered to half mast in response to the shocking and violent death of our President. The lowering of the flag was so rare when I was growing up, it had dramatic effect on all who passed by — our soul’s sap quivers — something very sad had happened to our country, something or someone had tragically ended, warranting our silence and our stillness.

For twenty years since 9/11/01, our flag has spent significant time at half mast, so much so that I’m befuddled instead of contemplative, puzzling over what the latest loss might be as there are so many, sometimes all happening in the same time frame.  We no longer are silenced by this gesture of honor and respect and we certainly are not stilled, personally and corporately instigating and suffering the same mistakes against humanity over and over again.

We are so bent. Will we ever be mended again?

Eliot wrote the prescient words of the Four Quartets in the midst of the WWII German bombing raids that destroyed people and neighborhoods. Perhaps he sensed the destruction he witnessed would not be the last time in history that evil visits the innocent, leaving them in ashes. There would be so many more losses to come, not least being the horror of 9/11/01.

There remains so much more sadness to be borne, such abundance of grief that our world has become overwhelmed and stricken. Yet Eliot was right: we have yet to live in a Zero summer of endless hope and fruitfulness, of spiritual awakening and understanding.  Where is it indeed? When will rise again the summer Rose of beauty and fragrance?

We must return, as people of faith to Eliot’s still point to which we are called on a day such as today.  We must be stilled; we must be silenced. We must grieve the losses of this turning world and pray for release from the suffering we cause and we endure.  Only in the asking, only in the kneeling down and pleading, are we surrounded by God’s unbounded grace and His Rose may bloom recognizable again.  

“There Are No Words” written on 9/11/2001
by Kitty Donohoe

there are no words there is no song
is there a balm that can heal these wounds that will last a lifetime long
and when the stars have burned to dust
hand in hand we still will stand because we must

in one single hour in one single day
we were changed forever something taken away
and there is no fire that can melt this heavy stone
that can bring back the voices and the spirits of our own

all the brothers, sisters and lovers all the friends that are gone
all the chairs that will be empty in the lives that will go on
can we ever forgive though we never will forget
can we believe in the milk of human goodness yet

we were forged in freedom we were born in liberty
we came here to stop the twisted arrows cast by tyranny
and we won’t bow down we are strong of heart
we are a chain together that won’t be pulled apart

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By the Shade of Thought and Dreams

In the high woods that crest our hills,
Upon a steep, rough slope of forest ground,
Where few flowers grow, sweet blooms today I found
Of the Autumn Crocus, blowing pale and fair.
Dim falls the sunlight there;
And a mild fragrance the lone thicket fills.


Languidly curved, the long white stems
Their purple flowers’ gold treasure scarce display:
Lost were their leaves since in the distant spring,

Their February sisters showed so gay.
Roses of June, ye too have followed fleet!
Forsaken now, and shaded as by thought,
As by the human shade of thought and dreams,
They bloom ‘mid the dark wood, whose air has wrought
With what soft nights and mornings of still dew!
Into their slender petals that clear hue,
Like paleness in fresh cheeks; a thing
On earth, I vowed, ne’er grew
More delicately pure, more shyly sweet.

Child of the pensive autumn woods!
So lovely, though thou dwell obscure and lone,
And though thy flush and gaiety be gone;
Say, among flowers of the sad, human mind,
Where shall I ever find
So rare a grace? in what shy solitudes?

~Robert Laurence Binyon “Autumn Crocus”

The early September emergence
of autumn crocus is always unexpected,
surprising even when I know where they hide
in the shade of spent peony bushes.

They are bound in waning summer dreams beneath the surface,
their incubation triggered by retreating light from above,
unlike their springtime cousins who emerge to the sun through snow.

The autumn crocus waits with thoughtful temerity,
summoned forth from earthly grime
to remind us the end of summer is not the end of them or us.

A luminous gift of hope and beauty
borne from a humble bulb;
plain and only soil-adorned.

Slowly unfurling on a pale leggy stem,
the tender lavender petals peel back to reveal golden crowns of saffron,
brazenly blooming when all else is dying back.

In the end, they too painfully wilt, deeply bruised and purple –
under the Sun’s reflection made manifest;
returning defeated, inglorious, fallen, to dust.

Yet we know – they remind us – they (and we) will rise again.

we know what is coming behind the crocus. The spring comes slowly down this way; but the great thing is that the corner has been turned. . . It remains with us to follow or not, to die in this winter, or to go on into that spring and that summer.
C.S. Lewis from God in the Dock

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Realizing Who I Have Offended

He is a hard one to write a poem about. Like Napoleon.
Hannibal. Genghis Khan. Already so large in history. To do it
right, I have to sit down with him. At a place of his own
choosing. Probably a steakhouse. We take a table in a corner.
But people still recognize him, come up and slap him on the
back, say how much they enjoyed studying about him in school
and ask for his autograph. After he eats, he leans back and
lights up a cigar and asks me what I want to know. Notebook in
hand, I suggest that we start with the Little Big Horn and work
our way back. But I realize I have offended him. That he
would rather take it the other way around. So he rants on
about the Civil War, the way west, the loyalty of good soldiers
and now and then twists his long yellow hair with his fingers.
But when he gets to the part about Sitting Bull, about Crazy
Horse, he develops a twitch above his right eye, raises his
finger for the waiter, excuses himself and goes to the restroom
while I sit there along the bluffs with the entire Sioux nation,
awaiting his return.
~David Shumate “Custer” from High Water Mark

Bighorn Battlefield – National Park Service photo

When my family took two cross-country trips by car, once in 1963 and another in 1965, my father, a former officer and battalion leader in the Marines during WWII, was the primary driver and keeper of maps and deadlines. He could be convinced to stop at any number of state and national parks, points of interest and historical markers, but all four times we passed the sign indicating the Battle of the Little Bighorn, he would not stop despite our pleading.

“You’ve seen as much as there is up there,” he would say as we sped past, pointing at the marble monolith at the top of the hill where the battle took place. I would look around at the desolate countryside of brown grass with no trees, in the middle of nowhere, and wonder how this place could ever have warranted a battle to the death.

Then I would get mad at my dad’s refusal to stop to learn more.

I had certainly learned about General George Custer’s Last Stand in my elementary school history lessons. But my interest was primarily driven by a 1958 Disney movie “Tonka Wakan” that I had seen in the theater and then later on Sunday nights on “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color.” I thought I understood the tragedy of that day from the standpoint of the U.S. Calvary and the only surviving horse Comanche, who in the Disney-imagined version of the battle, was raised and trained by a young Indian boy who turned the horse over to the calvary and then later was part of the Little Bighorn Battle in defense of Indian territory.

So I had a very skewed and Disney-fied version of history and my father was not helping me understand more deeply. It wasn’t until much later that I realized the likely reason he was so reluctant to stop and examine the history of the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

My father was ashamed of it. He was a humble man who knew there could be no pride or sense of honor in that place.

He had very likely been trained in his Marine Officer’s Training in 1942 to understand that the poor decision-making of a cocky, overly self-assured General Custer led to the slaughter of five companies of the 7th Calvary Regiment as well as their Indian scouts in addition to dozens of Lakota and Dakota Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapahoe warriors.

My father had lived through three South Pacific island battles where poor decision-making was a death sentence. He didn’t feel the need to rehash the history in this desolate part of Montana.

As an adult, I’ve visited the Battlefield with my husband and children several times, have learned more about what led to the battle, what took place that day and how the indigenous people of the region have memorialized the spot from their own perspective. When we approach this spot on our cross-country drives, I’m filled with regret and remorse at the loss of life and the eventual loss of a Native American culture that could never again be as it was, despite the defeat they handed to the cavalry that day. I learned more when our son lived and taught high school math on the Pine Ridge Reservation of the Lakota Sioux people and we visited the site of Wounded Knee, another tear-drenched place in U.S. Cavalry and Native American history.

We, all descendants of immigrant Americans, comprise the U.S. government and military which doesn’t always make the best or wisest decisions. This is haunting us again this week in the miserably managed ending of the twenty-year war in Afghanistan that has cost so many American and Afghan lives – certainly beyond the scale of the horrific one day defeat at the Little Bighorn River. This long drawn-out complicated response to the attacks we suffered on 9/11/01, ended with yet more tragic bloodshed as we left so many vulnerable behind.

War, suffering, loss and death cannot and should not be Disney-fied. History is more complex than a paragraph in a textbook.

We have so much to learn about our shame and our need for greater humility. We need to understand who we have offended, not just how offended we feel. We can’t hide in the bathroom or drive on past the sites of these bloody conflicts, hoping it will all be forgotten.

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Summer, Go Not Yet Away

Fair Summer droops, droop men and beasts therefore:
So fair a summer look for never more.
All good things vanish less than in a day,
Peace, plenty, pleasure, suddenly decay.
Go not yet away, bright soul of the sad year;
The earth is hell when thou leavest to appear…. 

What, shall those flowers that decked thy garland erst,
Upon thy grave be wastefully dispersed?
O trees, consume your sap in sorrow’s course,
Streams, turn to tears your tributary course.
Go not yet hence, bright soul of the sad year;
The earth is hell when thou leav’st to appear.

Ah, who shall hide us from the winter’s face?
Cold doth increase, the sickness will not cease,
And here we lie, God knows, with little ease.
From winter, plague, & pestilence, good Lord, deliver us.

~Thomas Nashe from “Summer’s Last Will and Testament” (from a stage play performed in 1592)

Summer 2021 so far has been hell for much of the world and we still have nearly a month left of more Summer to endure: the fall of Afghanistan, another earthquake in Haiti, floods in Europe and central U.S., storms in the east with drought and fires in the west, and last but certainly not least, the explosion of the Delta COVID variant everywhere.

COVID has demonstrated that plague and pestilence clearly isn’t limited to cold weather and winter. This virus enjoys easy transmission among those who continue to live without any defenses – the unmasked and those who remain unvaccinated either by choice or lack of access to vaccine. We, through our behavior, have invited an opportunistic virus to spread among us through this “bright soul” of the year which ordinarily should be “plague-free.”

Will we continue to roll out the red carpet for COVID, welcoming it into ours and other’s homes, noses and lungs, even as summer itself dies away along with thousands of more pandemic victims?

Deliver us, O Lord, from our own reluctance to accept that viruses care not whom they infect, particularly those with little defense.

Deliver us, O Lord, from our preference for our own self-determination over a concern for the needs and vulnerability of others.

Deliver us, O Lord, from our continued blindness – doing what is right in our own eyes without seeing what is best for all.

Go not yet away, fair Summer, as here we lie, God knows, with little ease.

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A Zone of Stink

Like a piece of rotten meat
which not only stinks right on its own surface
but also surrounds itself
with a stinking molecular cloud of stink,
so, too, each island of the archipelago
created and supported a zone of stink around itself.

~ Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, Books III-IV

If you’re looking for sympathy
you’ll find it between shit and syphilis in the dictionary.
— David Sedaris (Barrel Fever: Stories and Essays)

As I’ve written elsewhere, I spend over an hour a day dealing with the excrement of my farm critters. This is therapeutic time for me as I have deep respect for the necessity to clean up and compost what is smelly/stinky/yucky and biblically objectionable. (Deuteronomy 23:12-14) None of us, including God, want to take a walk having to pick our way around poop.

As I’m busy picking up manure, I watch our dogs seek out the smelliest, most vile things they can find in the barn or field (preferably dead) and roll themselves around in it one after another until they are just as stinky as the stuff they found. They are clearly joyous about it, especially when they do it together. It is curious throw-back behavior that I’ve assumed, wearing my animal behaviorist hat, was about a wild predator covering up their scent in order to stalk and capture prey more effectively without being detected – except they are really truly so smelly that any prey could sense them coming from a mile away and would learn quickly that a moving creature that smells like poop or a dead carcass is bad news and to be avoided.

This is the main reason our farm dogs live full time outdoors. We prefer to avoid stinky dirty creatures too. So I’ve tried to understand this behavior for what adaptive purpose it may have.

Here are some interesting theories at this link.

What makes the most sense to me is the “pack mentality” that suggests that once one dog/wolf rolls in something objectionable, that the rest of the pack does too. This is a unifying theme for anxious individuals – they aren’t really on their own if they smell and blend in with the rest of the pack. So they spread the “wealth”, so to speak. Stink up one, stink up all. Like team spirit, it seems to improve morale – until it doesn’t anymore.

I’ve been feeling covered with stink myself lately as I’ve searched for those sympathetic around me and found myself stuck between shit and syphilis. There are so many divisive opinions right now about a variety of current issues; vile nonsense has been flying right and left on social media as well as face to face. The theory is if all stink the same from rolling in piles of misinformation, we are then no longer alone.

Yet our destiny does not have to include believing, sharing and “flinging” the stuff that stinks to see who it will stick to. I no longer want to be a target.

Time for a bath.
Time for soap and cleansing and some serious self-examination.
Time to stop joyously rolling around in it.
Time to bury the excrement so we’re not staring at the ground, picking our way around the piles and can actually hold our heads up to see where we’re heading.

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Change Altitudes

           ‘Regret has to be useless or it’s not really regret.’
                                                     ~Simone de Beauvoir

Rescuers did not find my uncle’s body.
But they found his axe at an icy altitude
impossible to navigate without one.


A little higher up, they found my uncle
’s sleeping bag at an altitude
unsurvivable without one.


You likely have a pen in purse or pocket.
Take it out and write a list of all
you need at your present altitude.


Next, change altitudes. Now, make another list:
the two biggest regrets of your life.
Take your time. Get it right. Because

here is all you need to know about need:
That list of regrets—cross one off.
You are going to need that space later.
~Jessica Goodfellow, “Unreachable” from Whiteout

I’ve known people who lost their lives while hiking/climbing in the mountains or due to some other tragedy – the cascade of decisions leading to their death are sources of regret for all who mourn them, even decades later. Somehow regret is a difficult feeling to let go; we cling to it as if it is somehow an essential part of us.

It is easy for me to come up with a long list of regrets in my life. They seem to grow like weeds – useless, unplanned, unwanted and prolific, threatening to take over any good fruit being produced.

Few of us volunteer to share openly about our current guilt or shame unless we are sitting in a therapy group or AA. Instead it gives us permission to beat ourselves up, going over and over in our minds how we could have done things differently. As a physician, I’ve heard about such heart-ache in my clinical encounters – a patient will regret an impulsive sexual encounter that turned out badly, or drinking and drugging too much, or regret an ongoing conflict with a family member, or wish they had decided to get that vaccine before becoming ill with a potentially preventable infection.

Our list of regrets can be endless and life-destroying.

I understand the pain of regret as I too am a flawed and fractured person with a seven decade history of things done and left undone, words said and unsaid. Even if I think I can somehow manage to cross a regret off my own list – perhaps I apologized and was granted forgiveness, or I tried to make right what I’d messed up — I still know a new regret will occupy its place before long.

I can’t simply fix my own regret list.

No matter what altitude we’re at — down in the pits in the lowest of the low, or up in the highest imaginable, I have come to realize that forgiveness is only possible through a knowledge of God Himself. He came to walk beside us in our low spots and our high spots, no matter where we find ourselves. His work on earth has crossed off our regrets and mistakes and wiped us clean of them.

He did this because He understood our desperate need; thanks to His sacrifice and love, our heart-aches are left at the Cross.

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