The Heart in Exile

Down near the bottom
of the crossed-out list
of things you have to do today,

between “green thread”
and “broccoli,” you find
that you have penciled “sunlight.”

Resting on the page, the word
is beautiful. It touches you
as if you had a friend

and sunlight were a present
he had sent from someplace distant
as this morning—to cheer you up,


and to remind you that,
among your duties, pleasure
is a thing


that also needs accomplishing.
Do you remember?
that time and light are kinds

of love, and love
is no less practical
than a coffee grinder


or a safe spare tire?
Tomorrow you may be utterly
without a clue,


but today you get a telegram
from the heart in exile,
proclaiming that the kingdom


still exists,
the king and queen alive,
still speaking to their children,

—to any one among them
who can find the time
to sit out in the sun and listen.

~Tony Hoagland “The Word” from Sweet Ruin

When I moved from Washington state to California for college, daily sunshine was a new experience for me, having grown up in the cloudy Pacific Northwest. At first I was nearly giddy with the new reality of not having to wear jackets with hoods or (horrors!) carry an umbrella. It was like being let out of gray prison into the land of puppies and rainbows – like the old Wizard of Oz B&W film becoming technicolor when Dorothy’s house lands in Oz and she opens the door to her new home.

But then I realized strings of sunny days were doing something to my head. Previously, I was dependent on rainy days to stay inside and hit the books, curled up in a quiet corner, content to be cerebral rather than exercising the rest of my muscles. If there was a sunny day in Washington, then I was compelled outside to enjoy what few hours were offered up by the skies. Real gray life happened the rest of the time when I could buckle down and get some work done.

So college days started out euphoric and ended up depressing – I tried studying in dark carrels in the library but I still knew there was sunshine going to waste. I tried studying outside on the college lawn but the distraction of all the activity around me was too great. I finally learned to apportion my “out-in-the-sun” hours from my study hours so I wasn’t feeling robbed of either. I decided to take a sun bath like I take a water bath – just enough to feel transformed and cleansed.

I owned a rainy heart in exile so moving back to the northwest after college was easy; I longed for strings of cloudy days so I could be productive guilt-free again. To this day, I only dose myself with sunbeams in moderation as if I was still worried there won’t be enough sun to last another day.

But there is, there always is.

You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you. Please don’t take my sunshine away.

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Stretching Out Time

… if you ran, time ran. You yelled and screamed and raced and rolled and tumbled and all of a sudden the sun was gone and the whistle was blowing and you were on your long way home to supper. When you weren’t looking, the sun got around behind you! The only way to keep things slow was to watch everything and do nothing! You could stretch a day to three days, sure, just by watching!
~Ray Bradbury from Dandelion Wine

Late summer is a time to slow down and just watch, to stretch the days out as long as possible.

I have a tendency to race through the hours granted to me, heedless of the rising sun at dawn or it settling low behind me in the evening. I don’t want to surrender the day of the months to the advancing march of darkness.

So I choose for now to be observer and recorder rather than runner and racer, each moment preserved like so many jars of sweet jam on a pantry shelf.

The sun may be setting, but I need it to take its time.

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Everything is Meant for You

The difficulty to think at the end of day,
When the shapeless shadow covers the sun
And nothing is left except light on your fur—

There was the cat slopping its milk all day,
Fat cat, red tongue, green mind, white milk

and August the most peaceful month.

To be, in the grass, in the peacefullest time,
Without that monument of cat,
The cat forgotten on the moon;


And to feel that the light is a rabbit-light
In which everything is meant for you
And nothing need be explained;

Then there is nothing to think of. It comes of itself;
And east rushes west and west rushes down,
No matter. The grass is full

And full of yourself. The trees around are for you,
The whole of the wideness of night is for you,
A self that touches all edges,

You become a self that fills the four corners of night.
The red cat hides away in the fur-light
And there you are humped high, humped up,

You are humped higher and higher, black as stone —
You sit with your head like a carving in space
And the little green cat is a bug in the grass
.
~Wallace Stevens, from “A Rabbit As King of the Ghosts”

This summer has brimmed with fullness ready for emptying:
a spilling over of light and sun and heat and life,
almost too much to take in.

I tried to blend in, almost disappear into my surroundings,
as evening fell, catching me just-so, immobile,
captured by failing light as the day darkened.

Then I prepared to dream unthinkingly
peaceful in the night
when all is stilled anticipation.

With pulsing vessels in twitching transparent ears,
both warming and cooling, aglow yet fading,
my empty spaces are filled.

I welcome the relief of sitting still as a statue
in the cool whiff of this misty August morning.

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Mostly Dead

There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead.
Mostly dead is slightly alive. With all dead, well,

with all dead there’s usually only one thing you can do –
Go through his clothes and look for loose change.
~William Goldman – the wisdom of Miracle Max in The Princess Bride

You who believe,
and you who sometimes believe

and sometimes don’t believe much of anything,
and you who would give almost anything to believe if only you could.

You happy ones
and you who can hardly remember what it was like once to be happy.

You who know where you’re going and how to get there
and you who much of the time aren’t sure you’re getting anywhere.

“Get up,” he says, all of you – all of you! –
and the power that is in him

is the power to give life not just to the dead like the child,

but to those who are only partly alive,
which is to say to people like you and me

who much of the time live with our lives
closed to the wild beauty and miracle of things,
including the wild beauty and miracle of every day we live
and even of ourselves.
~Frederick Buechner -Originally published in Secrets in the Dark

May I not settle for being slightly alive or mostly dead –

I want to be fully alive
to the wild beauty and miracle of things,
to the wild beauty and miracle of every day,
and even the wild beauty and miracle of myself~~

I have known what it is to doubt,
to be discouraged, defeated, and grieved.

It is part of the package:
shadows appear when the Sun is the brightest and hottest.
I have no doubt the Sun exists, especially after the last few days.

So I must “get up!” even if I don’t know where to go next.

And then I will believe
~truly believe~
I am created to be mostly and absolutely alive this day and every day.

A new book from Barnstorming is available for order here:

The Way It Ought To Be

After three weeks of hot weather and drought,
           we’ve had a week of cold and rain,
just the way it ought to be here in the north,
            in June, a fire going in the woodstove
all day long, so you can go outside in the cold
            and rain anytime and smell
the wood smoke in the air.
 
This is the way I love it. This is why
           I came here almost
fifty years ago. What is June anyway
          without cold and rain
and a fire going in the stove all day?
~David Budbill, “What Is June Anyway?” from Tumbling toward the End.

I spent seven hours yesterday at my daughter’s house
helping her expand their garden by at least ten times.
We dug up sod by the shovelful, shook off the dirt as
best we could; sod into the wheelbarrow and off to the
pile at the edge of the yard. Then all that over and over
again. Five hours total work-time, with time out for lunch
and supper. By the time I got home I knew all too well
that seventy-two is not thirty-five; I could barely move.

I got to quit earlier than Nadine. She told me I’d done
enough and that I should go get a beer and lie down on
the chaise lounge and cheer her on, which is what I did.

All this made me remember my father forty years ago
helping me with my garden. My father’s dead now, and
has been dead for many years, which is how I’ll be one
of these days too. And then Nadine will help her child,
who is not yet here, with her garden. Old Nadine, aching
and sore, will be in my empty shoes, cheering on her own.

So it goes. The wheel turns, generation after generation,
around and around. We ride for a little while, get off and
somebody else gets on. Over and over, again and again.
~David Budbill “Seventy-Two Is Not Thirty-Five” from Tumbling toward the End.

June is not supposed to be like this.

It is typically cool and rainy during these first few weeks of summer. June is an impossible month to hold outdoor weddings as we discovered a year ago. We celebrated our daughter and son-in-law’s wedding amid chilly breezes and sprinkles, avoiding a downpour.

Yet if it had been this year we would have all baked and sweated to a golden melting crust sitting in the full sun.

Yesterday we reached 106 F here in the normally temperate Pacific Northwest. I am scanning the weather forecast for any hint of rain (none) and am celebrating the prediction of mid-80s temperatures (hopefully soon). I once thought 85 to be intolerably hot.

It all is a matter of perspective when considering how things “ought” to be.

Wild temperature fluctuations and weather extremes are not new to this earth, but they certainly seem more frequent, causing more damage and suffering among all earth dwellers, whether plant or animal. We expect natural predictable cycles in the seasons and in the passing of one generation to another — a smooth replacement plan as older gives way to the younger.

This is how it ought to be. Yet it isn’t always so. Sometimes not even close.

We’ll remember 2020 and early 2021 as months of pandemic that sucked the life and joy from so many of us. Now the crazy heat index of June 2021 is effectively distracting us from a dwindling risk of COVID infection to consider instead the immediacy of how to avoid overheating ourselves, our animals and our gardens/crops.

It is always something in this life of peril and worry.

That is just how it is,
rather than how it ought to be.

A new book from Barnstorming is available to order here

Rippling of the Land

The air was soft, the ground still cold.
In the dull pasture where I strolled
Was something I could not believe.
Dead grass appeared to slide and heave,
Though still too frozen-flat to stir,
And rocks to twitch and all to blur.
What was this rippling of the land?
Was matter getting out of hand
And making free with natural law,
I stopped and blinked, and then I saw
A fact as eerie as a dream.
There was a subtle flood of steam
Moving upon the face of things.
It came from standing pools and springs
And what of snow was still around;
It came of winter’s giving ground
So that the freeze was coming out,
As when a set mind, blessed by doubt,
Relaxes into mother-wit.
Flowers, I said, will come of it.
~Richard Wilbur “April 5, 1974”

As the ground softens with the warming sun,
so do I.
Winter freeze was comforting
as nothing appeared to change, day after day.

Neither did I,
staying stolid and fixed and frozen.

But now the fixed is flexing its muscles,
steaming in its labor,
greening and growing transformed.

So must I,
giving ground
and birth
to blooms.

The Power of Fluff

As the days warm and lengthen, the grass
is getting happy almost overnight.
Under my window the first star of spring
opens its eye on the front lawn. Yellow
as butter, it is only one. But it is one,
and in the nature of things, and like
the multiple asterisks seeding the night sky,
it will flourish and take over every
grassy bank in town. I long to be prolific
as the dandelion, spinning pale parachutes
of words, claiming new territory by
the power of fluff. The stars in their courses
have bloomed an unending glory
across the heavens, but here in my yard
a local constellation prepares to launch
multiple, short-lived, radiant coronas
to proclaim the new-sprung season.
~Luci Shaw “Dandelion”

How I loved those spiky suns,   
rooted stubborn as childhood   
in the grass, tough as the farmer’s   
big-headed children—the mats   
of yellow hair, the bowl-cut fringe.   
How sturdy they were and how   
slowly they turned themselves   
into galaxies, domes of ghost stars   
barely visible by day, pale   
cerebrums clinging to life   
on tough green stems.   
Like you.   
Like you, in the end.   
If you were here,   
I’d pluck this trembling globe to show   
how beautiful a thing can be   
a breath will tear away.  
~Jean Nordhaus “A Dandelion for My Mother”

We harbor a dandelion sanctuary,
a safe haven from herbicides and trowels.

The lawn is filled with them now
yellow spots in carpeted green
which close tight at night,
then open each morning
as miniature reflections
of the real dawn.

As a kid, I was paid a nickel
to dig up each long dandelion root,
restoring the blemished green yard
to pristine perfection;
no more yellow splotches,
unruly stems,
trembling transparent globes
releasing scores of
seedy offspring.

But it didn’t last.

The perfect lawn,
like the perfect life
~unbesmirched~
is a myth.

A host of opportunistic seeds
float innocently on the breeze
or lie hidden deep in our soil
ready to spring up again overnight.

Those spunky spiky suns
and ghostly stars of fluff
overwhelm my heart with joy:
they take my breath away
as my breath, in turn,
blows them away.


The Slanted Light

There’s a certain Slant of light
On winter afternoons —
That oppresses, like the Heft
of cathedral tunes.
When it comes, the Landscape listens —
Shadows hold their breath —
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death.
~Emily Dickinson

How valuable it is in these short days,
threading through empty maple branches,
the lacy-needled sugar pines.

 
Its glint off sheets of ice tells the story
of Death’s brightness, her bitter cold.

 
We can make do with so little, just the hint
of warmth, the slanted light.
..
~Molly Fisk, “Winter Sun” from 
The More Difficult Beauty

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
~Emily Dickinson

I like the slants of light; I’m a collector.
That’s a good one, I say…
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

During our northwest winters, there is usually so little sunlight on gray cloudy days that I routinely turn on the two light bulbs in the big hay barn any time I need to fetch hay bales for the horses. This is so I avoid falling into the holes that inevitably develop in the hay stack between bales. Winter murky lighting tends to hide the dark shadows of the leg-swallowing pits among the bales, something that is particularly hazardous when carrying a 60 pound hay bale.

Yesterday when I went to grab hay bales for the horses at sunset, before I flipped the light switch, I could see light already blazing in the big barn. The last of the day’s sun rays were at a precise winter slant, streaming through the barn slat openings, ricocheting off the roof timbers onto the bales, casting an almost fiery glow onto the hay. The barn was ignited and ablaze without fire and smoke — the last things one would even want in a hay barn.

I scrambled among the bales without worry.

In my life outside the barn I’ve been falling into more than my share of dark holes lately. Even when I know where they lie and how deep they are, some days I will manage to step right in anyway. Each time it knocks the breath out of me, makes me cry out, makes me want to quit trying to lift the heavy loads. It leaves me fearful to venture where the footing is uncertain.

Then, on the darkest of days, light comes from the most unexpected of places, blazing a trail to help me see where to step, what to avoid, how to navigate the hazards to avoid collapsing on my face. I’m redirected, inspired anew, granted grace, gratefully calmed and comforted amid my fears. Even though the light fades, and the darkness descends again, it is only until tomorrow. Then it reignites again.

The Light returns and so will I.

Shadows Move with the Sun

The shadow’s the thing. 
If I no longer see shadows as “dark marks,”
as do the newly sighted,
then I see them as making some sort of sense of the light.
They give the light distance;
they put it in its place.
They inform my eyes of my location here, here O Israel,
here in the world’s flawed sculpture,

here in the flickering shade of the nothingness
between me and the light.
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Be comforted; the world is very old,
  And generations pass, as they have passed,
  A troop of shadows moving with the sun;
Thousands of times has the old tale been told;
  The world belongs to those who come the last,
  They will find hope and strength as we have done.
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow “A Shadow”

A shadow is hard to seize by the throat and dash to the ground.
~Victor Hugo from Les Miserables

We are dealing and dueling with shadows,
our flawed imperfect darkness
rather than one another.
We write things on a screen that we would never
say to another’s face.
We assume motives, predict behavior, ponder reactions
but all is smoke and mirrors.

Such is the cost of feeling fear and distrust.

As the sun moves and time passes,
the shadows shift and play with the Light
from a different angle,
so shall we shift and pray.

Rather than holding the Light at a distance
while trying to wrestle shadows to the ground,
we’ll embrace it and make sense of it,
yearning for the illuminating hugs
we’ve been denied for so long.

You Are My Sunshine

My father climbs into the silo.
He has come, rung by rung,
up the wooden trail that scales
that tall belly of cement.

It’s winter, twenty below zero,
He can hear the wind overhead.
The silage beneath his boots
is so frozen it has no smell.

My father takes up a pick-ax
and chops away a layer of silage.
He works neatly, counter-clockwise
under a yellow light,

then lifts the chunks with a pitchfork
and throws them down the chute.
They break as they fall
and rattle far below.

His breath comes out in clouds,
his fingers begin to ache, but
he skims off another layer
where the frost is forming

and begins to sing, “You are my
sunshine, my only sunshine.”
~Joyce Sutphen, “Silo Solo” from First Words

Farmers gotta be tough. There is no taking a day off from chores. The critters need to eat and their beds cleaned even during the coldest and hottest days. Farmers rise before the sun and go to bed long after the sun sets.

I come from a long line of farmers on both sides – my mother was the daughter of wheat farmers and my father was the son of subsistence stump farmers who had to supplement their income with outside jobs as a cook and in lumber mills. Both my parents went to college; their parents wanted something better for them than they had. Both my parents had professions but still chose to live on a farm – daily milkings, crops in the garden and fields, raising animals for meat.

My husband’s story is similar, though his parents didn’t graduate from college. Dan milked cows with his dad and as a before-school job in the mornings.

We still chose to live on a farm to raise our children and commit to the daily work, no matter the weather, on sunlit days and blowing snow days and gray muddy days. And now, when our grandchildren visit, we introduce them to the routine and rhythms of farm life, the good and the bad, the joys and the sorrows, and through it all, we are grateful for the values that follow through the generations of farming people.

And our favorite song to sing to our grandchildren is “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine” as it is the sun that sustains our days and its promise of return that sustains our nights.

You’ll never know, dears, how much we love you.
Please don’t take our sunshine away.