Tenderness for Ordinary Things

Last evening,
As I drove into this small valley,
I saw a low-hanging cloud
Wandering through the trees.
It circled like a school of fish
Around the dun-colored hay bales.
Reaching out its foggy hands
To stroke the legs of a perfect doe
Quietly grazing in a neighbor’s mule pasture
I stopped the car
And stepping out into the blue twilight,
A wet mist brushed my face,
And then it was gone.
It was not unfriendly,
But it was not inclined to tell its secrets.
I am in love with the untamed things,
The cloud, the doe,
Water, air and light.
I am filled with such tenderness
For ordinary things:
The practical mule, the pasture,
A perfect spiral of gathered hay.
And although I should not be,
Consistent as it is,
I am always surprised
By the way my heart will open
So completely and unexpectedly,
With a rush and an ache,
Like a sip of cold water
On a tender tooth.
~Carrie Newcomer “In the Hayfield”

I realize that nothing in this life is actually ordinary – at times I could weep over the unordinariness that is around me.

The light falls a certain way, the colors astound, the animals grace the fields with their contentment, the birds become overture, the air is perfumed with rain or blossom.

How can I not ache with this knowledge? How can I not feel the tenderness of my heart feeling so full, it could burst at any moment?

Truly extraordinary to be able to give myself over to this.

Light pools like spilled water on the floor
Cold air slips like silk beneath the door
The sky feels like a grey wool cap
Pulled down round my ears that near

All the ridge is lined with stands of beech
At the tops they’re swaying quietly
So elegant and raw without their leaves
All of these I see

I catch a memory a scent another short glimpse
Like someone leaned over and gave my forehead a kiss
I give myself to this

There’s a hidden spring back where it’s hard to find
Someone used it years ago to make moonshine
This forest has a different sense of time
Than yours or mine

I catch a memory a scent another short glimpse
Like someone leaned over and gave my forehead a kiss
I give myself to this

There’s a soil horizon
Layers beneath the trees
A sign of outward grace
Unraveling

One bird sits and sings an aching song
One turning leaf, ten circles on the pond
Two careful does wait silently beyond
Then they’re gone they’re gone

I catch a memory a scent another short glimpse
Like someone leaned over and gave my forehead a kiss
I give myself to this
~Carrie Newcomer

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Surrounded By Fog

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

~T.S. Eliot from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

The fog comes
on little cat feet.
It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.
~Carl Sandburg “Fog”

When I was young, fog felt oppressive, as sorrow-filled as the fog horns sounding continually in nearby bay.

Now, as I approach my eighth decade of life, I appreciate fog for slowing me down when life is compelling me to rush too fast.

When forced to take time, I begin to notice what I missed before:
a cloud descends to hug and kiss the ground, bejeweling everything it touches – like a cat luxuriously wrapping itself around the world, so soft and gentle.

This October fog makes the dying of autumn subtly beautiful, all gossamer garland, transparent pearls and glowing whiskers.

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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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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?

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Wrapped in the Shawl of Fading Summer

Summer begins to have the look
Peruser of enchanting Book
Reluctantly but sure perceives
A gain upon the backward leaves —

Autumn begins to be inferred
By millinery of the cloud,
Or deeper color in the shawl
That wraps the everlasting hill.
~Emily Dickinson in “Summer Begins to Have the Look”

Summer is waning and wistful;
it has the look of packing up,
and moving on
without bidding adieu
or looking back over its shoulder.

I’m just not ready to wave goodbye to sun-soaked clear skies.

Cooling winds have carried in darkening clouds
spread green leaves everywhere,
loosened before their time.
Rain is many weeks overdue
yet there is temptation to bargain
for a little more time.
Though we are in need of a good drenching
there are still onions and potatoes to pull from the ground,
berries to pick before they mold on the vine,
overwhelming buckets of tomatoes,
and the remaining corn cobs bulging.

The overhead overcast is heavily burdened
with clues of what is coming:
earlier dusk,
the feel of moisture,
the deepening graying hues,
the briskness of breezes.

There is no negotiation possible.
I need to steel myself and get ready,
wrapping myself in the soft shawl of inevitability.

So autumn advances with the clouds,
taking up residence where summer has left off.
Though there is still clean up
of the overabundance left behind,
autumn will bring its own unique plans
for display of a delicious palette of hues.

The truth is we’ve seen nothing yet.

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The Fog is Rising

I must go in; the fog is rising…
~Emily Dickinson, her last words

I have watched the dying
in their last hours:
often through the fog of waning breaths,
they see what I cannot,
they listen to what I do not hear,
stretching their arms overhead
as their fingers extend and grasp
to touch what is, as yet,
far beyond my reach.

I watch and wonder how it is
to reverse the journey that brought me here
from the fog of my amnion.

The mist of living lifts.

I will enter a place
unsurpassed in brilliance and clarity;
the mystery of what lies beyond solved
only by going in to it,
welcomed back to where I started.

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When Will Spring Get Here?

All anyone wants to know is when spring will get here. To hell
with dripping icicles, cold blue snow, silly birds too dumb to

go south, and sunlight gleaming off rock-hard snowflakes. I’m
sick of breathing air sharp as razor blades. I’m tired of feet as
hard to move as two buildings. I refuse to be seduced by the

pine tree blocking my path. Even though…just now, look how
it moves, its needles rubbing the sky-blue day. The glow it has
around its entire body. How perfectly it stands in the snow-
drift. The way both our shadows cross the noon hour at once,
like wings.
~Tom Hennen, “Adrift in the Winter” from Darkness Sticks to Everything: Collected and New Poems

photo by Nate Gibson

I can be seduced by the glow induced by the low angle of the winter sun. It transforms all that is fog and gray and mist and drizzle into spun gold and glitter.

Like the birds who are foolish enough to remain up here through nor-easters and floods and snow drifts and ice storms, I too stick it out through winter, even though no one puts out suet cakes and sunflower seeds for me to feast on. I get my sustenance from the days slowly lengthening, giving the light even more opportunity to convince me that winter can be overwhelmingly irresistible … until it isn’t any longer.

Uh, how many more weeks until spring?

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The Unanswerable Questions

When I lay these questions before God I get no answer.
But a rather special sort of “No answer.”

It is not the locked door.
It is more like a silent,
certainly not uncompassionate, gaze.

As though he shook his head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, “Peace, child; you don’t understand.”

Can a mortal ask questions which God finds unanswerable?
Quite easily, I should think.
All nonsense questions are unanswerable.

How many hours are there in a mile?
Is yellow square or round?

Probably half the questions we ask –
half our great theological and metaphysical problems –
are like that.

~C.S. Lewis from  A Grief Observed

I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. 
You are yourself the answer.
Before your face questions die away.
~C.S. Lewis from Till We Have Faces

And now brothers, 
I will ask you a terrible question, 
and God knows I ask it also of myself. 
Is the truth beyond all truths, 
beyond the stars, just this: 
that to live without him is the real death, 
that to die with him the only life?
~Frederick Buechner from The Magnificent Defeat

God will only give you what you would have asked for if you knew everything he knows.
~Tim Keller

And that is just the point… how the world, moist and beautiful, calls to each of us to make a new and serious response. That’s the big question, the one the world throws at you every morning. “Here you are, alive. Would you like to make a comment?
~Mary Oliver from Long Life

An hour later, the fog has lifted

This morning, it is impossible to stay a silent observer of the world.  I have to say something; I seek out answers to the unanswerable.

Overnight, our farm was covered with a freezing fog resembling a massive sponge soaking up all the light. A chill has returned: both in the air and in ongoing events in the headlines.

There can be no complacency in witnessing this life in progress.
It blusters, rips, drenches, swallows up, buries.
Nothing remains as it was.

Yet here I am, alive.
Awed, a witness to another day.
Called to ask questions and make a comment.
Dying to hear a response.

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A Cache of Love

January’s drop-down menu
leaves everything to the imagination:
splotch the ice, splice the light,
remake the spirit…

Just get on with it,
doing what you have to do
with the gray palette that lies
to hand. The sun’s coming soon.

A future, then, of warmth and runoff,
and old faces surprised to see us.
A cache of love, I’d call it,
opened up, vernal, refreshed.
~Sidney Burris “Runoff”

When I reach the end of January in all its grayest pallor, it is hard to imagine another six weeks of winter ahead. It can feel like nature offers only a few options, take your pick: a soupy foggy morning, a drizzly mid-day, a crisp northeast wind, an unexpected snow flurry, a soggy evening.

Every once in awhile the January drop-down menu will add a special surprise: icy spikes on grass blades, frozen droplets on birch branches, hair ice on wood, crystallized weeds like jewelry in the sun, a pink flannel blanket sunrise, an ocean-of-orange sunset.

Then I realize January’s gray palette is merely preparation for what has been hidden from me the whole time. There is Love cached away, and as it is revealed, it will not let me go.

photo of hair ice in King County, Washington taken by Laura Reifel

O Love that will not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
That in thy ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.

O Joy that seeks me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain,
That morn shall tearless be.

~George Matheson

(“O Love” was inspired by the words of Scottish minister, George Matheson in 1882. Blinded at the age of nineteen, his fiancé called off their engagement and his sister cared for him as he endured new challenges.  Years later, on the eve of his sister’s wedding, he faced the painful reminder of his own heartache and loss as he penned the words to this hymn.) from ElaineHagenborg.com

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A World Without a Sky

Heaven-invading hills are drowned
In wide moving waves of mist,
Phlox before my door are wound
In dripping wreaths of amethyst.

Ten feet away the solid earth
Changes into melting cloud,
There is a hush of pain and mirth,
No bird has heart to speak aloud.

Here in a world without a sky,
Without the ground, without the sea,
The one unchanging thing is I,
Myself remains to comfort me.
~Sara Teasdale “White Fog”

We’ve had all-day fog up and down Puget Sound over the past few days, atypical for a Pacific Northwest winter. This is fog that literally drips from the trees and soaks like rain, swallowing up visible landscape, hushing bird song, erasing all color by homogenizing everything.

When not barn-bound in the winter, a foggy day means our horses are literally sucked up into the morning mist as I send them out one by one to the field from the barn. Stopping at the barn door, they sniff the wet air, hesitant to be turned out into the grey sea surrounding them. What could there be to eat out in this murk? Each one, when turned loose, would wander into the soup, disappearing, as if never to be seen again. One by one they wander out to look for their buddies, seeing nothing, hearing nothing, smelling nothing. They are lost and alone and bewildered until somehow they meet up out in the pasture, forming a pod of Haflingers.

I muse at their initial confusion and then their utter conviction there must be “something out there” worth finding. They are dependent on the usual cues–visual, auditory, olfactory–all limited in the fog. Instead they rely on some inner sonar to find each other and bunch together in a protective knot, drops of fog dew clinging to their manes, their eyelashes and their muzzle whiskers. As day wears on, the fog usually dissipates, their coats drying under a warming sun, and the colors of the fields and trees and chestnut horses emerge from the cocoon of haze.

This winter, I have felt lost in fog too. I’m disconnected from a regular work schedule since retiring as a physician, so am helping as a volunteer in a variety of service opportunities. I am still feeling afloat and circling somewhat aimlessly, searching for a touch point of purpose and direction. Every so often I bump into a fellow fog wanderer and we’ll knot together for a bit, relieved to be connected to something solid and familiar.

My isolation is likely a combination of pandemic limitations and my own self-absorbed state of mind, sucking me in deep, separating me from others, distancing me from joy. At times, I feel soaked, dripping and shivering. If I only had the faith shown by my horses in the mist, I’d charge into the fog fearlessly, knowing there are others out there ready to band together for company, comfort and support, awaiting the sun. When warming and rejuvenation do come, I hope it will be enough to dry my whiskers, put color back in my cheeks and refresh my hopes and dreams.

Most importantly, I am reminded yet again — no fog is forever.

An absolute
patience.
Trees stand
up to their knees in
fog. The fog
slowly flows
uphill.
White
cobwebs, the grass
leaning where deer
have looked for apples.
The woods
from brook to where
the top of the hill looks
over the fog, send up
not one bird.
So absolute, it is
no other than
happiness itself, a breathing
too quiet to hear.

~Denise Levertov “The Breathing”

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