My life is not this steeply sloping hour, in which you see me hurrying. Much stands behind me; I stand before it like a tree;
I am the rest between two notes, which are somehow always in discord because Death’s note wants to climb over— but in the dark interval, reconciled, they stay there trembling. And the song goes on, beautiful. ― Rainer Maria Rilkefrom “My Life is Not This Steeply Sloping Hour”
On Monday mornings I often feel I’m stuck immobilized in the spot in the middle between discordant notes.
There is on one side of me the pressure of catch-up from what was left undone through the weekend and on the other side is the anticipated demand of the coming week of stressful work I am committed to doing. Before I arrive to work, I dwell uneasily in dead center between the unknown ahead and the known behind.
This moment of rest in the present, this trembling broken Now, is my moment of reconciliation, my Sabbath extended.
This Monday morning I allow myself an instant of silence and reflection before I surge full bore into the week, knowing that on my journey I’ll inevitably hit wrong notes, just as I do when I play, unprepared, at the piano.
But it can be beautiful nevertheless.
Even the least harmonious notes seek reconciliation within the next chord. I now move from the rest of my Sabbath back into the rhythm of my life.
Trembling, still trembling.
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God keep my jewel this day from danger; From tinker and pooka and bad-hearted stranger. From harm of the water, from hurt of the fire. From the horns of the cows going home to the byre. From the sight of the fairies that maybe might change her. From teasing the ass when he’s tied to the manger. From stones that would bruise her, from thorns of the briar. From evil red berries that wake her desire. From hunting the gander and vexing the goat. From the depths o’ sea water by Danny’s old boat. From cut and from tumble, from sickness and weeping; May God have my jewel this day in his keeping. ~Winifred Lett (1882-1973) Prayer for a Child
This prayer has hung in our home for almost three decades, purchased when I was pregnant with our first child. When I first saw it with its drawing of the praying mother watching her toddler leave the safety of the home to explore the wide world, I knew it addressed most of my worries as a new mother, in language that helped me smile at my often irrational fears. I would glance at it dozens of time a day, and it would remind me of God’s care for our children through every scary thing, real or imagined.
And I continue to pray for our grown children, their spouses, and now for four precious grandchildren who live too far away from us. I do this because I can’t not do it, and because I’m helpless without the care and compassion of our sovereign God.
May I be changed by my prayers.
I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God. It changes me. ~C.S. Lewis
Sleep child upon my bosom, It is cosy and warm; Mother’s arms are tight around you, A mother’s love is in my breast; Nothing shall disturb your slumber, Nobody will do you harm; Sleep in peace, dear child, Sleep quietly on your mother’s breast.
Sleep peacefully tonight, sleep; Gently sleep, my lovely; Why are you now smiling, Smiling gently in your sleep? Are angels above smiling on you, As you smile cheerfully, Smiling back and sleeping, Sleeping quietly on my breast?
Do not fear, it is nothing but a leaf Beating, beating on the door; Do not fear, only a small wave Murmurs, murmurs on the seashore; Sleep child, there’s nothing here Nothing to give you fright; Smile quietly in my bosom, On the blessed angels yonder.
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A second crop of hay lies cut and turned. Five gleaming crows search and peck between the rows. They make a low, companionable squawk, and like midwives and undertakers possess a weird authority.
Crickets leap from the stubble, parting before me like the Red Sea. The garden sprawls and spoils.
Cloud shadows rush over drying hay, fences, dusty lane, and railroad ravine. The first yellowing fronds of goldenrod brighten the margins of the woods.
Schoolbooks, carpools, pleated skirts; water, silver-still, and a vee of geese.
The cicada’s dry monotony breaks over me. The days are bright and free, bright and free.
Then why did I cry today for an hour, with my whole body, the way babies cry?
A white, indifferent morning sky, and a crow, hectoring from its nest high in the hemlock, a nest as big as a laundry basket … In my childhood I stood under a dripping oak, while autumnal fog eddied around my feet, waiting for the school bus with a dread that took my breath away.
The damp dirt road gave off this same complex organic scent.
I had the new books—words, numbers, and operations with numbers I did not comprehend—and crayons, unspoiled by use, in a blue canvas satchel with red leather straps.
Spruce, inadequate, and alien I stood at the side of the road. It was the only life I had. ~Jane Kenyon, “Three Songs at the End of Summer” from Collected Poems.
The first day back to school isn’t always the day after Labor Day as it was when I was growing up. Some students have been in classes for a couple weeks now, others started a few days ago to ease into the transition more gently, especially adjusting to classrooms and masking after a year of remote learning for so many. Some will be return to the routine tomorrow: school buses will roar past our farm brimming with young faces under fresh masks, new clothes and shoes, stuffed back packs amid a fair amount of dread and anxiety.
I remember well that foreboding that accompanied a return to school — the strict schedule, the inflexible rules and the painful reconfiguration of social hierarchies and friend groups. Even as a good learner and obedient student, I was a square peg being pushed into a round hole when I returned to the classroom; the students who struggled academically and who pushed against the boundaries of rules must have felt even more so. We all felt alien and inadequate to the immense task before us to fit in with one another, allow teachers to open our minds to new thoughts, and to become something and someone more than who we were before.
Growth is so very hard, our stretching so painful, the tug and pull of potential friendships stressful. Two of my own children now make this annual transition to a new school year as veteran teachers.
For the first time in over thirty years, I won’t have yet another “first day” or new students under my care — it all feels new and unfamiliar yet again.
So I take a deep breath on this foggy Labor Day morning and am immediately taken back to the anxieties and fears of a skinny little girl in a new home-made corduroy jumper and saddle shoes, waiting for the schoolbus on a drippy wooded country road.
She is still me — just buried deeply in the fog of who I became after all those years of schooling, hidden somewhere under all the piled-on layers of learning and growing and hurting and stretching — but I do remember her well.
Like every student starting a new adventure tomorrow, she could use a hug.
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We were created as creatures of light invited to walk alongside our Creator – joyfully made in His image and gifted with managing a productive and beautiful world.
Yet even this wasn’t enough for us, this garden of wonders. We were free to do what was right in our own eyes rather than live in gratitude, faith and obedience, and made our choice at tremendous cost.
Now we struggle with the reality of daily life in a fallen world, experiencing conflict, disorder, illness and tragedy. Hurricanes bear down on vulnerable people, tornados rip apart towns, fires ravage homes, earthquakes level and destroy, tsunamis flood and overwhelm, pandemics kill indiscriminately.
Yet God has not abandoned us as we deserve. He has gifted Himself to His Created yet again, coming from heaven in a river of light to wash us clean, to invite us once again to walk beside Him, die with Him, live with Him.
What we are asked for in return is simple belief – by acknowledging a God who is greater than anything or anyone, admitting we are thirsty and filthy, in dire need of cleansing.
He is our river of light and life, glorious and ever-flowing.
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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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The horse bears me along, like grace, making me better than what I am, and what I think or say or see is whole in these moments, is neither small nor broken. Who then is better made to say be well, be glad,
or who to long that we, as one, might course over the entire valley, over all valleys, as a bird in a great embrace of flight, who presses against her breast, in grief and tenderness, the whole weeping body of the world? ~Linda McCarriston from “Riding Out At Evening”
We all need to remember transcendent moments in our lives, those brief times when all was well, our worries left behind in the dust.
Wounds healed, hearts full, senses filled with wonder, feeling whole rather than broken.
The summer evening rides of my younger years were just such a time: lifted by such powerful grace and transported to another time and place. It can feel like flying but mostly it feels like an embrace, one creature with another, exploring the world together.
All these years later, I am held fast by the memories and in remembering, I weep.
Surely, someday, heaven will be something like this.
Sure on this shining night Of star made shadows round, Kindness must watch for me This side the ground. The late year lies down the north. All is healed, all is health. High summer holds the earth. Hearts all whole. Sure on this shining night I weep for wonder wand’ring far alone Of shadows on the stars. ~James Agee
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Light splashed this morning on the shell-pink anemones swaying on their tall stems; down blue-spiked veronica light flowed in rivulets over the humps of the honeybees; this morning I saw light kiss the silk of the roses in their second flowering, my late bloomers flushed with their brandy. A curious gladness shook me. So I have shut the doors of my house, so I have trudged downstairs to my cell, so I am sitting in semi-dark hunched over my desk with nothing for a view to tempt me but a bloated compost heap, steamy old stinkpile, under my window; and I pick my notebook up and I start to read aloud and still-wet words I scribbled on the blotted page: “Light splashed…”
I can scarcely wait till tomorrow when a new life begins for me, as it does each day, as it does each day. ~Stanley Kunitz “The Round”
It is too easy to be ground to a pulp by the constant irritations of the day – my aggravations are too easily expressed, my worries never seem to wane – all of it sucks gladness out of me. When my feelings become four-dimensional and surround and drown me, I lose all perspective on what got me out of bed to begin the day.
God is in these intricate details, whether the splash of light on a petal or the smell of rotting compost; it is my job to notice this. It is tempting to look past His ubiquitous presence in all things, to seek out only the elegant grandeur of creation and bypass the plain and smelly and homely. Yet even what lacks beauty from my limited perspective is worthy of His divine attention.
He knows the value and purpose of each thing He created, including me and the things that aggravate me no end.
The time has come to be refreshed and renewed even when surrounded by decay. His care is revealed in the tiniest way. He is worthy of my attention because I am constantly worthy of His.
If I rise early enough, I can see each new day’s light splash everything awake. By the time I come in to sit down to record my words and photos, I’m thoroughly washed with a fresh dawn. I can scarcely wait to take on what this day will bring.
A new life begins for me, as it does each day, as it does each day.
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To the shepherd herding his flock through the gorge below, it must appear as if I walk on the sky. I feel that too: so little between me
and The Fall. But this is how faith works its craft. One foot set in front of the other, while the wind rattles the cage of the living and the rocks down there
cheer every wobble, your threads keep this braided business almost intact saying: Don’t worry. I’ve been here a long time. You’ll make it across. ~Matthew Olzmann “Letter to a Bridge Made of Rope”
I have never walked a rope bridge though I’ve seen one from a distance in Northern Ireland. It swayed far above a rocky gorge, hanging almost miraculously in the air as walkers trekked blithely across.
Not for me, I said.
I feel disoriented and dizzy when the surface beneath my feet sways and moves with the wind and due to my own movement. I make my own wobbling worse with my fear. The rocks below seem menacing; I don’t trust my own ability to navigate over and through them.
Oh, me of little faith. So little between me and The Fall.
Simply crossing a narrow wooden bridge built over a fallen large old-growth tree trunk takes all my courage. I try to focus on my feet taking each step, testing the solid wood beneath me rather than looking down at the rushing water and sharp rocks below.
In the course of life, I have to take steps that feel uncertain and unsupported. I freeze in place, afraid to move forward, reluctant to leave the security of where I am to do what it takes to get safely to the other side.
Yet I need to trust what holds firm for others will hold firm for me.
Christ is the bridge for those like me who fear, who don’t trust their own feet, who can’t stop looking at the taunting and daunting rocks below. He has braided Himself around me to keep me safe, no matter what and no matter where. He’s been here a long time and will always be.
I can step out in that confidence.
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When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the green heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free. ~Wendell Berry “The Peace of Wild Things” fromThe Selected Poems of Wendell Berry
When our grandchildren visit our farm, I watch them rediscover what I know are the joys and sorrows of this world. I am reminded there is light beyond the darkness I fear, there is peace amid the chaos, there is a smile behind the tears, there is stillness within the noisiness there is rest despite my restlessness, there is grace as old gives way to new.
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You are alive. It needn’t have been so. It wasn’t so once, and will not be forever. But it is so now.
And what is it like: to be alive in this one place of all places anywhere where life is? Live a day of it and see. Take any day and LIVE IT. Nobody claims that it will be entirely painless, but no matter.
It is your birthday and there are many presents to open. The world is to be opened. It is the first day because it has never been before and the last day because it will never be again.
When I was very young, I would trace my finger over the long scar that curved along the front of my mother’s neck and ask her what happened. She would tell me her thyroid gland had been overworking so she had to have it removed before I was born. That’s all she had to say about that and I never thought to ask more. Somehow I knew, just as my knowing my father would not talk about his experience as a Marine in WWII, my mother was hiding more than her big scar under high collars or a pearl necklace.
Hers was a deeper scar I couldn’t see or touch.
However, my older sister – about five at the time – remembers my mother’s illness. Mom was a little over thirty when her hands began to tremble, her pulse raced and she was irritable with trouble sleeping. My parents were hoping for a second child, but unable to get pregnant. Once her doctor diagnosed thyrotoxicosis , Mom had the option to try a new medication that had been recently developed – propylthiouracil – meant to suppress the function of overactive thyroid glands.
It didn’t work for her and she felt worse. It caused more side effects and my mother’s symptoms grew so severe, she was unable to leave her bedroom due to severe anxiety and paranoia made worse by insomnia. My paternal grandmother came to help since my father needed to continue to work to support the family but there was little that could be done other than sedation to ease my mother’s symptoms. My sister recalls not seeing Mom for days, unnerved by the wailing she heard from the bedroom. From her description, I now wonder if Mom was experiencing the beginning of thyroid “storm” (extremely high thyroid levels) which is potentially life-threatening with severe physical and emotional side effects.
After Mom was hospitalized and her entire thyroid was removed, she was placed on thyroid hormone supplements to take daily for the rest of her life. It took months for her to recover and feel somewhat normal again. Her eventual hormonal stability resolved her infertility as well as most of her other symptoms. She remained chronically anxious and had heart palpitations and insomnia the rest of her life, like a residual stain on her sense of well-being, although she lived another 55 years. The trauma of how her illness affected my dad and sister was never fully resolved. They all suffered. I can understand why those months remained as hidden as my mom’s surgical scar.
I was born about two years later – the second baby they never expected could happen. My brother was born 20 months after me.
From my family’s suffering came the solace of new life.
So I nearly wasn’t.
I’m reminded on each birthday: I needn’t have been here yet by the grace of God I am. I need to BE ALIVE and LIVE THIS DAY because it will never be again.
This is a truth for us all to cling to.
Each day is a gift to be opened and savored. Each day a first day, a last day, a great day – a birthday of amazing grace.
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