The Hope for Meaningfulness

Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed?

Can the writer isolate and vivify all in experience that most deeply engages our intellects and our hearts?

Why are we reading, if not in hope that the writer will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage and the hope of meaningfulness, and press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so we may feel again their majesty and power?

What do we ever know that is higher than that power which, from time to time, seizes our lives, and which reveals us startlingly to ourselves as creatures set down here bewildered?

Why does death so catch us by surprise, and why love?

We still and always want waking.
~Annie Dillard from “Write Till You Drop”

…today, the unseen was everything. The unknown, the only real fact of life.
~Kenneth Grahame from Wind in the Willow

To find your voice you must forget about finding it,
and trust that if you pay sufficient attention to life
you will be found to have something to say

which no one else can say.
~Denise Levertov

We search for the unseen, hoping to find meaning in the unknown.

I am bewildered by life much of the time. Anyone looking at these online postings can see the struggle as I wake each day to seek out what I’m called to do and how to make this sad and suffering world a little bit better place.

I have little to offer a reader other than my own wrestling match with the mysteries we all face.

When a light does shine out through darkness,  I am not surprised. I simply needed to pay attention. Illumination was there all the time, but I needed the eyes to see its beauty laid bare, peering through the cracks of darkness.

Light beyond shadow,
Joy beyond tears,
Love that is greater when darkest our fears;
deeper the Peace when the storm is around,
nearer the Hope to the lost who is found.
Light of the world, ever shining, shining!
Hope in our pain and our dying.
in our darkness, there is Light, in our crying,
there is Love, in the noise of life imparting
Peace that passes understanding.
Light beyond shadow,
Joy beyond tears,
Love that is greater when darkest our fears;
deeper the Peace when the storm is around,
nearer the Hope to the lost who is found.
-Paul Wigmore

Light after darkness, gain after loss,
Strength after weakness, crown after cross;
Sweet after bitter, hope after fears,
Home after wandering, praise after tears.
Alpha and Omega, beginning and the end,
He is making all things new.
Springs of living water shall wash away each tear,
He is making all things new. ​
Sight after mystery, sun after rain,
Joy after sorrow, peace after pain;
Near after distant, gleam after gloom,
Love after wandering, life after tomb.
~Frances Havergal

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In This Twittering World

photo by Harry Rodenberger

Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning

Not here
Not here the darkness, in this twittering world.
..

After the kingfisher’s wing
Has answered light to light, and is silent, the light is still
At the still point of the turning world.

~T.S. Eliot – excerpts from Burnt Norton, first of the Four Quartets

Their song reminds me of a child’s neighborhood rallying cry—ee-ock-ee—with a heartfelt warble at the end. But it is their call that is especially endearing. The towhee has the brass and grace to call, simply and clearly, “tweet”. I know of no other bird that stoops to literal tweeting. 
~Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

A hundred thousand birds salute the day:–
        One solitary bird salutes the night:
Its mellow grieving wiles our grief away,
        And tunes our weary watches to delight;
It seems to sing the thoughts we cannot say,
        To know and sing them, and to set them right;
Until we feel once more that May is May,
        And hope some buds may bloom without a blight.
This solitary bird outweighs, outvies,
        The hundred thousand merry-making birds
Whose innocent warblings yet might make us wise
Would we but follow when they bid us rise,
        Would we but set their notes of praise to words
And launch our hearts up with them to the skies.
~Christina Rossetti “A Hundred Thousand Birds”

Eliot didn’t have in mind future tweets on 21st century Twitter when he wrote Burnt Norton in 1935.  He was far more concerned about the concept of Time and redeeming our distraction from connecting to God Himself, the “still point” source of the natural and creative order of all things. He uses the analogies of a garden of flowers and singing birds, a graveyard, and most disturbingly, a subway train of empty-souled people traveling in the Tube under London in the dark. 

Eliot was predicting an unknowable future. Great Britain was facing a second war with Germany, but nearly a century later, we live 24/7 in a “twittering world” war of empty words and darkness through devices we carry with us at all times. Eliot, critical of the dehumanizing technology of his time, was prescient enough to foresee how modern technology might facilitate our continued fall from grace and distract us from the source of our redemption.

Perhaps Rossetti understands best. When birdsong begins on our farm in June at 4 AM in the apple, cherry, chestnut, and walnut trees outside our bedroom windows, I am swept away from my dreams by the distraction of wakening to music of the created order among the branches surrounding me, immersed in the beauty of dew-laden blooms and cool morning air.

Once a hundred thousand birds settle into routine conversation after twenty minutes of their loudly tweeted greetings of the day, I settle too, sitting bleary-eyed at my computer to navigate the twittering world of technology which is too often filled with fancies, or meanness, or, most often, completely empty of meaning altogether.

Yet, each morning as my heart is launched by the warbling songs outside my window, I’m determined to dismiss the distraction of the tweets and twitters on my screen. 

Not here will darkness be found on this page, if I can keep it at bay. I want to answer light to light and light with light.

No darkness here.

I hear a bird chirping, up in the sky
I’d like to be free like that spread my wings so high I
see the river flowing water running by
I’d like to be that river, see what I might find

I feel the wind a blowin’, slowly changing time
I’d like to be that wind, I’d swirl and the shape sky
I smell the flowers blooming, opening for spring
I’d like to be those flowers, open to everything

I feel the seasons change, the leaves, the snow and sun
I’d like to be those seasons, made up and undone
I taste the living earth, the seeds that grow within
I’d like to be that earth, a home where life begins

I see the moon a risin’, reaching into night
I’d like to be that moon, a knowing glowing light
I know the silence as the world begins to wake
I’d like to be that silence as the morning breaks

He does-n’t know the world at all
Who stays in his nest and does-n’t go out.
He does-n’t know what birds know best
Nor what I sing a-bout, Nor what I sing a-bout, Nor what sing a-bout:
That the world is full of love-li-ness.

When dew-drops spar-kle in the grass
And earth is a-flood with mor-ning light. light
A black-bird sings up-on a bush
To greet the dawn-ing af-ter night,
the dawn-ing af-ter night,
the dawn-ing af-ter night.
Then I know how fine it is to live.

Hey, try to o-pen your heart to beau-ty;
Go to the woods some-day
And weave a wreath of me-mory there.
Then if tears ob-scure your way
You’ll know how won-der-ful it is
To be a-live.

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Seeking Out the Ache of Memory

Well-away and be it so,
To the stranger let them go.
Even cheerfully I yield
Pasture, orchard, mowing-field,
Yea and wish him all the gain
I required of them in vain.
Yea and I can yield him house,
Barn, and shed, with rat and mouse
To dispute possession of.
These I can unlearn to love.
Since I cannot help it? Good!
Only be it understood,

It shall be no trespassing
If I come again some spring
In the grey disguise of years,
Seeking ache of memory here.
~Robert Frost from “On the Sale of My Farm”

the farm where I grew up in east Stanwood
the Stanwood farm from the road

From the road, each of the two small farms where I grew up in western Washington state (Stanwood and Olympia) look nothing like they did in my childhood.  When I drive past now, whether on Google Earth virtual reality or for real , the outbuildings have changed and are unfamiliar, fences pulled down, the trees exponentially taller or gone altogether, the fields no longer well-tended. Instead the familiarity is in the road to get there, the lean into the curves, the acceleration in and out of dips, the landscape which triggers a simultaneous comfort and disquiet deep in my DNA.

Though my brother recently stopped and looked around our long-ago childhood home, and sent me pictures that looked barely recognizable, I myself have never stopped to knock; instead I have driven slowly past to sense if I feel what I used to feel in these places.  My memories are indeed triggered but feel a bit as if they must have happened to someone else.

I have the same feeling when driving past my parents’ childhood farms in Anacortes and in the Palouse wheat fields. Part of me belongs to these places even though they have never been truly “mine” – only part of sweet memories from my own childhood.

barn on Olympia farm
the driveway to my mother’s Palouse farm where she grew up

One clinic day a few years ago, I glanced at the home address of a young man I was about to see for a medical issue and I realized he now lived in my childhood home over 100 miles away.  When I greeted him I told him we had something in common: we had grown up under the same roof, inside the same walls, though children of two different generations.  He was curious but skeptical — how could this gray-haired middle aged woman know anything about his home?  He told me a bit about the house, the barn, the fields, the garden and how he experienced it felt altogether strange to me.  He and I had shared nothing but a patch of real estate — our recollections were so completely disparate.

The two daughters of the family who sold our current farm to us over thirty years ago have been back to visit a time or two, and have driven by whenever they are in the area. Many things remain familiar to them but also too much has changed – it is not quite the same farm they remember from their childhood. I know it aches to visit here but they do let me know when a photo I post has a particular sweet memory for them.

I worry for the fearsome ache if someday, due to age or finances, we must sell this farm we cherish ~ this beloved place our children were raised, animals bred and cared for, fruit picked from an ancient orchard, plants tended and soil turned over. It will remain on the map surely as the other two farms of my past, visible as we pass by slowly on the road, but primarily alive in the words and photos I harvest here.

There will always be that sweet ache of hoping something will still remain familiar on the map of my memory. After all, there is no such beauty as the place where I belonged – now and forever ago.

eveningporch51218
mowedyard
leadogtree
foggyfrontyard0

Tell me, where is the road
I can call my own
That I left, that I lost
So long ago?
All these years I have wandered
Oh, when will I know
There’s a way, there’s a road
That will lead me home

After wind, after rain
When the dark is done
As I wake from a dream
In the gold of day
Through the air there’s a calling
From far away
There’s a voice I can hear
That will lead me home

Rise up, follow me
Come away, is the call
With the love in your heart
As the only song
There is no such beauty
As where you belong
Rise up, follow me
I will lead you home
~Michael Dennis Browne

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Though the Flower Fades Away…

O! my heart now feels so cheerful as I go with footsteps light
      In the daily toil of my dear home; 
And I’ll tell to you the secret that now makes my life so bright—
      There’s a flower at my window in full bloom. 

It is radiant in the sunshine, and so cheerful after rain; 
        And it wafts upon the air its sweet perfume. 
It is very, very lovely! May its beauties never wane—
        This dear flower at my window in full bloom. 

Nature has so clothed it in such glorious array, 
      And it does so cheer our home, and hearts illume; 
Its dear mem’ry I will cherish though the flower fade away—
      This dear flower at my window in full bloom. 

Oft I gaze upon this flower with its blossoms pure and white. 
        And I think as I behold its gay costume, 
While through life we all are passing may our lives be always bright 
        Like this flower at my window in full bloom.

~Lucian Watkins “The Flower at My Window” 1909

Details of the life of poet Lucian Watkins are few: a black man born in 1878 in Virginia, educated as a teacher and served as a U.S. Army Sergeant in WWI, then died shortly after in 1920. He leaves behind only a handful of poems, including the one above.

There is very little information available about Lucian but three letters written by him show a young man who earnestly wanted to have both a writing career and a “bread-winning vocation.” He describes feeling compelled to compose poetry, no matter what else he accomplishes.

The obvious challenges he faced –
–as a black man looking for a suitable place to live in Illinois so he can attend a college where there are no other people of color nearby,
–as a veteran of a most horrific war,
–as a creative mind trying to find a way to make a living,
he writes passionately about the aspirational purity of a white flower outside his window. Its bright radiance represents what he longs for in his own life.

From his letter to President Bissell of Bissell Colleges in Effingham, Illinois in 1919 after President Bissell is unable to assist in finding him a place to live, having suggested that the war veteran might consider “doing light housekeeping” – essentially live as a servant in a white household:

“About this matter of a boarding place. While I had hoped to obtain board with a member of my own race in Effingham, I had not thought it imperative that I should do so. I feel sure that there is enough Christianity in Effingham to provide that a brother-stranger in their midst shall not die of hunger. What would Jesus do?

It seems that some places in the south they rise more readily to our American ideal of democracy than in the North and Middle-West. ‘The Richmond Planet’ of Richmond, Va., states that ‘right here in Richmond, the capital of the late Confederacy, colored soldiers are welcomed to aristocratic Westhampton, and with no sigh of racial discrimination or antipathy to their being there.’ What is the matter with Illinois?

I am not sure as to what your question involves. We shall talk it over when I arrive. There must be a way that is just and that will be good for all concerned. Very respectfully, signed Lucian B. Watkins

This man was not only a poet. He was a statesman.

Though Lucian Watkins’ life was cut short for reasons unknown, and his portfolio of poetry is small, he is nonetheless a gift to generations of future poets and readers. This black artist did not let the inevitable rainfall in his life discourage his world view; he himself is radiant with illumination, showing a budding cheerfulness. His work reminds us something as simple as observing a resilient flower outside our window can help heal painful hurts and fulfill our deepest longing.

In his writing, Lucian Watkins draws a thin line between joy and sorrow, embracing the joy in a simple white flower in full bloom before it, as will we all, fades away.

Flower gleam and glow
let your power shine
make the Clock reverse
bring back what once was mine
What once was mine
Heal what has been hurt
change the fate’s design
Save what has been lost
bring back what once was mine
what once was mine

~Healing Song from Tangled

No matter if you’re born
To play the king or pawn
For the line is thinly drawn ‘tween joy and sorrow
So my fantasy becomes reality
And I must be what I must be and face tomorrow
So I’ll continue to continue to pretend
My life will never end
And flowers never bend with the rainfall

~Paul Simon
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The Sacred Intoxication of Existence

For half-an-hour he writes words upon a scrap of paper….
words in which the soul’s blood pours out,

like the body’s blood from a wound.
He writes secretly this mad diary,
all his passion and longing,

his dark and dreadful gratitude to God,
his idle allegories, the tales that tell themselves in his head;
the joy that comes on him sometimes (he cannot help it)
at the sacred intoxication of existence…

~G.K. Chesterton in a letter to his fiancé

When I was six or seven years old, I used to take a precious penny of my own and hide it for someone else to find. It was a curious compulsion; sadly, I’ve never been seized by it since. For some reason I always “hid” the penny along the same stretch of sidewalk up the street. I would cradle it at the roots of a sycamore, say, or in a hole left by a chipped-off piece of sidewalk. Then I would take a piece of chalk, and, starting at either end of the block, draw huge arrows leading up to the penny from both directions. After I learned to write I labeled the arrows: SURPRISE AHEAD or MONEY THIS WAY. I was greatly excited, during all this arrow-drawing, at the thought of the first lucky passer-by who would receive in this way, regardless of merit, a free gift from the universe. But I never lurked about. I would go straight home and not give the matter another thought, until, some months later, I would be gripped again by the impulse to hide another penny.

The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand. But — and this is the point — who gets excited by a mere penny?

It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple.
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

I can grumble and grouse about the state of the world with the best of the them.

But I know better. I’ve seen where negative thoughts lead and I can feel it aching in my bones when I’m steeping myself in it. The sky is grayer, the clouds are thicker, the night is darker–on and on to its overwhelming suffocating conclusion.

I don’t ever want to feel so impoverished that finding a penny doesn’t make my day better.

I have the privilege to choose joy, to turn away from the bleak and simply seek and bathe in the warmth and wonder of each ordinary mundane day. Like an opportunistic cat finding that one ray of sun and melting into it, I can absorb and equip myself to become radiant as well. I’m not putting on a “happy face” — instead joy adopts me, holds me close in the tough times and won’t abandon me. Though at times joy may dip temporarily behind a cloud and the rain will fall, I know the Sun is there even when I can’t see or feel it.

Today, joy is mine to choose because joy has chosen me, this morning and every morning.

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What Is It I’m Trying to Say?

Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world,
and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.

~Percy Bysshe Shelley from “A Defence of Poetry

Poetry may make us from time to time
a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings
which form the substratum of our being,
to which we rarely penetrate;
for our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves.
—T.S. Eliot from The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism

Would anyone care to join me
in flicking a few pebbles in the direction
of teachers who are fond of asking the question:
“What is the poet trying to say?”

as if Thomas Hardy and Emily Dickinson
had struggled but ultimately failed in their efforts—
inarticulate wretches that they were,
biting their pens and staring out the window for a clue.

Yes, it seems that Whitman, Amy Lowell
and the rest could only try and fail
but we in Mrs. Parker’s third-period English class
here at Springfield High will succeed

with the help of these study questions
in saying what the poor poet could not,
and we will get all this done before
that orgy of egg salad and tuna fish known as lunch.

Tonight, however, I am the one trying
to say what it is this absence means,
the two of us sleeping and waking under different roofs.
The image of this vase of cut flowers,

not from our garden, is no help.
And the same goes for the single plate,
the solitary lamp, and the weather that presses its face
against these new windows–the drizzle and the
morning frost.

So I will leave it up to Mrs. Parker,
who is tapping a piece of chalk against the blackboard,
and her students—a few with their hands up,
others slouching with their caps on backwards—

to figure out what it is I am trying to say
about this place where I find myself
and to do it before the noon bell rings
and that whirlwind of meatloaf is unleashed.

~Billy Collins, “The Effort” from Ballistics.

Jan Davidsz de Heem. Vase of Flowers, 1660 National Gallery of ARt
photo by Josh Scholten

Poetry is the opening and closing of a door,
leaving those who look through to guess
about what is seen during the moment.
~Carl Sandburg

I am bewildered by life most of the time. Anyone looking at these online pages can see the struggle as I wake each day to seek out what I’m called to and how to make this sad and suffering world a bit better place.

I have so little wisdom to offer anyone with my own words, whether poetic or not. Instead, I describe my own wrestling match with the mysteries we all face.

When a light does somehow shine out through the murkiness,  I am not surprised.  It was there all the time, but by the grace of God I simply needed the eyes to see such beauty laid bare.

Only then I describe it as best I can.

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Secrets Brought to Light

You won’t remember it—the apple orchard
We wandered through one April afternoon,
Climbing the hill behind the empty farm.

A city boy, I’d never seen a grove
Burst in full flower or breathed the bittersweet
Perfume of blossoms mingled with the dust.

A quarter mile of trees in fragrant rows
Arching above us. We walked the aisle,
Alone in spring’s ephemeral cathedral.

We had the luck, if you can call it that,
Of having been in love but never lovers—
The bright flame burning, fed by pure desire.

Nothing consumed, such secrets brought to light!
There was a moment when I stood behind you,
Reached out to spin you toward me…but I stopped.

What more could I have wanted from that day?
Everything, of course. Perhaps that was the point—
To learn that what we will not grasp is lost.
~Dana Gioia “The Apple Orchard”

Love, we are in God’s hand.
How strange now, looks the life he makes us lead;
So free we seem, so fettered fast we are!

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?
~Robert Browning from Andrea Del Sarto

As I walk down the blooming aisleways
of Spring’s ephemeral cathedral,
it doesn’t help to regret what could have been
– if only –
long ago I had reached out
to hold what remained free of my grasp.
Perhaps it is forever lost to me…

I am overwhelmed by all the potential surrounding me –
the trees are literally bursting with blossom and leaf,
an undulating green carpeting covering every rolling hill,
exuberant new life bouncing and bucking in the pastures.

I wonder, at this age and stage of my life,
whatever potential is left to me?

If I give up my dreams
if I don’t try to hold on to what seems out of reach
if I don’t remember what it feels like to want everything from life,
I would wilt and wither without forming fruit.

Ah Love – I am in God’s Hand.
Or what’s a heaven for?

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Dialogue With the Invisible

All day I try to say nothing but thank you,
breathe the syllables in and out with every step I
take through the rooms of my house and outside into
a profusion of shaggy-headed dandelions in the garden
where the tulips’ black stamens shake in their crimson cups.

I am saying thank you, yes, to this burgeoning spring
and to the cold wind of its changes.
Gratitude comes easy after a hot shower,
when loosened muscles work,
when eyes and mind begin to clear
and even unruly hair combs into place.

Dialogue with the invisible can go on every minute,
and with surprising gaiety I am saying thank you as
I remember who I am, a woman learning to praise something
as small as dandelion petals floating
on the steaming surface of this bowl of vegetable soup,
my happy savoring tongue.
~Jeanne Lohmann “To Say Nothing But Thank You”

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.
~Mary Oliver “Praying”

As this long winter has finally given way to spring, I am grateful to pay attention to the small things around me, to breathe my silent thanks for this privilege of being witness to the soil of this life, this farm, this faith. More days than not, I savor it as someone who is hungry and thirsty for beauty and meaning.

In my thankfulness, I must pay attention to who I am: I still yearn to grow, to bloom and fruit, harvesting what I can to share with others.

It often feels like a dialogue with the invisible.

With deep gratitude to all who come here daily to read these words and enjoy my pictures and who let me know how it makes a difference in your day.

You and I may never meet in this life yet your generous comments always make a difference to me!

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Posting Their Intentions

The woodpecker keeps returning
to drill the house wall.
Put a pie plate over one place, he chooses another.
There is nothing good to eat there:
he has found in the house
a resonant billboard to post his intentions,
his voluble strength as provider.
But where is the female he drums for? Where?
I ask this, who am myself the ruined siding,
the handsome red-capped bird, the missing mate.

~Jane Hirshfield “The Woodpecker Keeps Returning”

Piliated woodpecker
Flicker

One would think the bold rat-a-tats heard emanating from trees and buildings all over our farm would be due to very bold and fearless birds. Yet woodpeckers tend to be our most timid and seldom-seen though most-audible visitors. They project a loud and noisy presence to the ear but prefer to be invisible to the eye. I guess they don’t want us witnessing their repetitive self-induced head trauma

That’s not so different than some people I know, especially when they hammer away on social media, even when it hurts. I know that tendency: I want to be heard and want my voice acknowledged. I want my opinions to resonate and reverberate for all to hear, but hey, since I’m basically a shy and self-protective person, I prefer to remain in the background.

Whenever I hear an insistent pecking echoing from on high, I look to see if I can spot that busy woodpecker, admiring their dominance of the airwaves and persistence despite woody obstacles. Although most often I can’t see them in the branches, there is no question they have succeeded in getting my attention. I look forward to a day when they’ll allow me to see them as well as hear them.

They are worth the wait and the listen.

Downy woodpecker

“If only, if only, ” the woodpecker sighs
The bark on the trees was as soft as the skies…
~from the story “Holes”

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The Color of Eggplant

Every morning, cup of coffee
in hand, I look out at the mountain.
Ordinarily, it’s blue, but today
it’s the color of an eggplant.
And the sky turns
from gray to pale apricot
as the sun rolls up…

I study the cat’s face
and find a trace of white
around each eye, as if
he made himself up today
for a part in the opera.
~Jane Kenyon, from “In Several Colors” from Collected Poems
.

If you notice anything
it leads you to notice
more
and more.

And anyway
I was so full of energy.
I was always running around, looking
at this and that.

If I stopped
the pain
was unbearable.

If I stopped and thought, maybe
the world can’t be saved,
the pain
was unbearable.
~Mary Oliver from “The Moths” from Dream Work

I try to see things in a new way as I wander about my day,
my eyes scanning for how to transform all my
mundane, dusty corners exposed by a penetrating sunbeam
when its angle is just right.

My attempts to describe plain ordinary as extraordinary
feels futile in a messed-up upside-down world.

Such efforts can be painful:
it means getting tired and muddy in the muck,
falling down again and again
and being willing to get back up.

If I stop getting dirty,
if I by-pass every day grunginess,
if I give up the work of salvage and renewal,
I then abandon God’s promise to see the world changed.

He’s still here, ready and waiting,
handing me a broom, a shovel and cleaning rags,
so I can keep at it – mopping up my messy ordinary.

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