What a person desires in life is a properly boiled egg. This isn’t as easy as it seems. There must be gas and a stove, the gas requires pipelines, mastodon drills, banks that dispense the lozenge of capital. There must be a pot, the product of mines and furnaces and factories, of dim early mornings and night-owl shifts, of women in kerchiefs and men with sweat-soaked hair. Then water, the stuff of clouds and skies and God knows what causes it to happen. There seems always too much or too little of it and more pipelines, meters, pumping stations, towers, tanks. And salt-a miracle of the first order, the ace in any argument for God. Only God could have imagined from nothingness the pang of salt. Political peace too. It should be quiet when one eats an egg. No political hoodlums knocking down doors… It should be quiet, so quiet you can hear the chicken, a creature usually mocked as a type of fool, a cluck chained to the chore of her body. Listen, she is there, pecking at a bit of grain that came from nowhere. ~Baron Wormser, from “A Quiet Life” from Scattered Chapters.
So much depends on the cluck of a chicken, on her self-satisfied cackle when she releases her perfect egg into the nest.
I wish I could be so flawless as her egg but am far from it. The simple things in life season me with meaning and flavor, all God-given mercy making it possible that I am here at all: walking this earth for the time I am granted, talking with those who listen intently, healing those who seek my help, writing for those who read kindly, loving those who, like me, thrive solely on being fed God’s gentle grace salted over my forgiven flaws: I’m a boiled egg peeled imperfectly with divets and bits of shell still attached, yet formed from a clucking chicken fed generously from His holy hand.
Morning without you is a dwindled dawn. ~Emily Dickinsonin a letter to a friend April 1885
For the past year, the most common search term bringing new readers to my Barnstorming blog is “dwindled dawn.” I have written about Emily Dickinson’s “dwindles” on occasions, but had not really been diagnosed with a serious case myself until recently.
I am not the only one. It has spread across the globe and I regularly recognize the symptomatology of the dwindles in my clinical work with patients.
There really isn’t a pill or other therapy that works well for this. One of the most effective treatments I might prescribe is breaking bread with friends and family all in the same room at the same table while the sun rises around us, lingering in conversation because there could not be anything more important for us to do.
Just being together would be the ultimate cure.
Maybe experiencing friend and family deficiency helps us understand how vital they are to our well-being. You don’t know what you have ’till they’re gone, sadly some now forever.
Point well-taken; it is high time to replenish the reservoir before dwindling away to nothing.
So if you are visiting these words for the first time because you too searched for “dwindled dawn,” welcome to Barnstorming. We can dwindle together in our shared isolation.
Because mornings without you all diminishes me. I just wanted you to know.
Her elbow rested here a century ago. This is the field
she looked upon, a mad rush of wheat anchored to the barn.
What her thoughts were, the words she penned are driven into the grain,
its deep tide crossing under my hand. She breathes through the knothole.
Outside, the wind pushes the farm down an ally of stars. ~Wyatt Townley, “The Oak Desk” from The Afterlives of Trees
A writing desk is simply a repurposed tree; the smoothly sanded surface of swirling grain and knotholes nourish words and stories rather than leaves and fruit.
I can easily lose myself in the wood, whether it is as I sit at a window composing, or whether I’m outside walking among the trees which are merely potential writing desks in the raw.
Museums often feature the writing desks of the famous and I’ve seen many over the years – it is thrilling to be able touch the wood they touched as they wrote – gaze at the same grain patterns they saw as the words gelled, and feel the worn spots where elbows rested.
Though my little desk won’t ever become a museum piece, nor will my words ever be famous, I am grateful for the tree that gave me this place to sit each morning, breathing deeply, and praying that I will share worthy fruit.
When the plowblade struck An old stump hiding under The soil like a beggar’s Rotten tooth, they swarmed up & Mister Jackson left the plow Wedged like a whaler’s harpoon. The horse was midnight Against dusk, tethered to somebody’s Pocketwatch. He shivered, but not The way women shook their heads Before mirrors at the five & dime—a deeper connection To the low field’s evening star. He stood there, in tracechains, Lathered in froth, just Stopped by a great, goofy Calmness. He whinnied Once, & then the whole Beautiful, blue-black sky Fell on his back. ~Yusuf Komunyakaa “Yellow Jackets” from Pleasure Dome
Death by a thousand stings.
This poem is twenty years old, yet shattering to read by the light of the events of this past week and this past year. Written by a Pulitzer Prize winning Black poet and Vietnam War veteran, it is a stark description of a teamster and plow horse going about their routine work when a hive of yellow jackets is disturbed.
The farmer saves himself.
The abandoned work horse remains harnessed and chained to the immobilized plow, eventually falling crushed beneath the swarm on his back.
How many times recently have we witnessed this stark reality of the power of the angry swarm – whether the target is someone set upon and killed by law enforcement gone rogue, or last week, a man in blue defending the U.S. Capitol, beaten and crushed by rioters who pummeled him senseless with the pole of the American flag?
A poetic metaphor about an enslaved worker dying in chains expands to include us all:
-we are the farmer who panics and runs for his life in the midst of crisis -we are the harnessed plowhorse obediently and calmly doing his job, becoming the sacrifice for the sake of the farmer -we are the angry swarm whose well being and security is threatened so all hell breaks loose -we are the poet whose words try to make sense of the senseless.
Ultimately, the Writer of the Word is our rescuer: rather than abandoning us to our fate, He saves us by becoming the sacrifice Himself.
He allowed the swarm to fall on His back rather than on us.
Let us step outside for a moment As the sun breaks through clouds And shines on wet new fallen snow, And breathe the new air. So much has died that had to die this year. We are dying away from things. It is a necessity—we have to do it Or we shall be buried under the magazines, The too many clothes, the too much food.
Let us step outside for a moment Among ocean, clouds, a white field, Islands floating in the distance. They have always been there. But we have not been there.
Already there are signs. Young people plant gardens. Fathers change their babies’ diapers And are learning to cook.
Let us step outside for a moment. It is all there Only we have been slow to arrive At a way of seeing it. Unless the gentle inherit the earth There will be no earth. ~May Sarton from “New Year Poem”
Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention. They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go next. ~Frederick Buechnerfrom Beyond Words
This year I have been paying close attention to what makes me weep. During 2020, I have had more than ample opportunity to find out — from my tears — the secret of who I am, where I have come from, and for the salvation of my soul, where I am to be next.
My pockets contain hand sanitizer and kleenex, stowed right next to my mask.
In previous years, my tears flowed while spending time with far-flung children and grandchildren for the holidays — reading books and doing puzzles together and reminiscing about what has been and what could be. It was about singing grace together before a meal and my voice breaking with precious words of gratitude. My tears certainly had to do with bidding farewell until we meet again — gathering them in for that final hug and then that difficult letting-go and waving goodbye as they round the corner and disappear.
This year, that had to happen on a screen or from behind masks. No hugs hello or goodbye. None of the usual ways we celebrate together. I feel bereft as have countless other families around the globe. Some never had opportunity to say their final goodbye – too much has died this year.
As our children grew up, we encouraged them to go where their hearts told them they were needed and called to go, even if thousands of miles away from their one-time home on this farm. And so they went.
I too was let go once and though I would try to look back, too often in tears, I learned to set my face toward the future, seeking how the sun might break through the clouds in my life. It led me to this marriage, this family, this farm, this work, this church, to more tears and heartbreak, to more letting go. And it will continue if I’m granted more years to weep again and again with gusto and grace.
This year my tears flow for what could not be. For too many families, their tears flow for who now is missing and will never return. My tears flow for the pain and sadness of disagreement and angry words.
Spreading faster than COVID is the viral expansion of toxic misinformation and conspiracy theories sowing doubt and distrust. Masks are useless to protect people exposed to a deficiency of simple common sense.
So this is where I must go next: to love so much and so deeply that my tears might make a small difference to those around me, like the sun breaking through the clouds.
I wanted a horse. This was long after we sold the work horses, and I was feeling
restless on the farm. I got up early to help my father milk the cows, talking
a blue streak about TV cowboys he never had time to see and trying to
convince him that a horse wouldn’t cost so much and that I’d do all the work.
He listened while he leaned his head against the flank of a Holstein, pulling
the last line of warm milk into the stainless bucket. He kept listening
while the milk-machine pumped like an engine, and the black and silver cups fell off and
dangled down, clanging like bells when he stepped away, balancing the heavy milker
against the vacuum hose and the leather belt. I knew he didn’t want the trouble
of a horse, but I also knew there was nothing else I wanted the way I wanted a horse—
another way of saying I wanted to ride into the sunset and (maybe)
never come back—I think he knew that too. We’ll see, he said, we’ll see what we can do. ~Joyce Sutphen “What Every Girl Wants”
I once was a skinny freckled eleven year old girl who wanted nothing more than to have her own horse. Every inch of my bedroom wall had posters of horses, all my shelves were filled with horse books and horse figurines and my bed was piled with stuffed horses. I suffered an extremely serious case of horse fever.
I had learned to ride my big sister’s horse while my sister was off to college, but the little mare had pushed down a hot wire to get into a field of spring oats which resulted in a terrible case of colic and had to be put down. I was inconsolable until I set my mind to buy another horse. We had only a small shed, not a real barn, and no actual fences other than the electric hot wire. Though I was earning money as best I could picking berries and babysitting, I was a long way away from the $150 it would take to buy a trained horse back in 1965. I pestered my father about my dreams of another horse, and since he was the one to dig the hole for my sister’s horse to be buried, he was not enthusiastic. “We’ll see,” he said. “We will see what we can do.”
So I dreamed my horsey dreams, mostly about golden horses with long white manes, hoping one day those dreams might come true.
In fall 1965, the local radio station KGY’s Saturday morning horse news program announced their “Win a Horse” contest. I knew I had to try. The prize was a weanling bay colt, part Appaloosa, part Thoroughbred, and the contest was only open to youth ages 9 to 16 years old. All I had to do was write a 250 word or less essay on “Why I Should Have a Horse”. I worked and worked on my essay, crafting the right words and putting all my heart into it, hoping the judges would see me as a worthy potential owner. My parents took me to visit the five month old colt named “Prankster”, a fuzzy engaging little fellow who was getting plenty of attention from all the children coming to visit him, and that visit made me even more determined.
When I read these words now, I realize there is nothing quite like the passion of an eleven year old girl:
“Why I Should Have a Horse”
When God created the horse, He made one of the best creatures in the world. Horses are a part of me. I love them and want to win Prankster for the reasons which follow:
To begin with, I’m young enough to have the time to spend with the colt. My older sister had a horse when she was in high school and her school activities kept her too busy to really enjoy the horse. I’ll have time to give Prankster the love and training needed.
Another reason is that I’m shy. When I was younger I found it hard to talk to anybody except my family. When my sister got the horse I soon became a more friendly person. When her horse recently died (about when Prankster was born), I became very sad. If I could win that colt, I couldn’t begin to describe my happiness.
Also I believe I should have a horse because it would be a good experience to learn how to be patient and responsible while teaching Prankster the same thing.
When we went to see Prankster, I was invited into the stall to brush him. I was never so thrilled in my life! The way he stood there so majestically, it told me he would be a wonderful horse.
If I should win him, I would be the happiest girl alive. I would work hard to train him with love and understanding. If I could only get the wonderful smell and joy of horses back in our barn!
I mailed in my essay and waited.
Fifty five years ago on this day, November 27, 1965, my mother and I listened to the local horse program that was always featured on the radio at 8 AM on Saturday mornings. They said they had over 300 essays to choose from, and it was very difficult for them to decide who the colt should go to. I knew then I didn’t have a chance. They had several consolation prizes for 2nd through 4th place, so they read several clever poems and heartfelt essays, all written by teenagers. My heart was sinking by the minute.
The winning essay was next. The first sentence sounded very familiar to me, but it wasn’t until several sentences later that we realized they were reading my essay, not someone else’s. My mom was speechless, trying to absorb the hazards of her little girl owning a young untrained horse. I woke up my dad, who was sick in bed with an early season flu. He opened one eye, looked at me, and said, “I guess I better get a fence up today, right?” Somehow, fueled by the excitement of a daughter whose one wish had just come true, he pulled himself together and put up a wood corral that afternoon, despite feeling so miserable.
That little bay colt came home to live with me the next day. Over the next few months he and I did learn together, as I checked out horse training books from the library, and joined a 4H group with helpful leaders to guide me. I made plenty of mistakes along the way, learning from each one, including those that left behind scars I still bear. Prankster was a typical adolescent gelding who lived up to his name — full of mischief with a sense of humor and a penchant for finding trouble, but he was mine and that was all that mattered.
That and a dad who saw what he needed to do for his passionate kid. I’ll never forget.
A bookstore is for people who love books and need To touch them, open them, browse for a while, And find some common good––that’s why we read. Readers and writers are two sides of the same gold coin. You write and I read and in that moment I find A union more perfect than any club I could join: The simple intimacy of being one mind. Here in a book-filled sun-lit room below the street, Strangers––some living, some dead––are hoping to meet. ~Garrison Keillor from “November”
Better far than praise of men ‘Tis to sit with book and pen…
I get wisdom day and night Turning darkness into light. ~ninth century Irish monk from “Pangur Ban”
Most of my life has been a reading rather than a writing life. For too many decades, I spent most of my time reading scientific and medical journals, to keep up with the changing knowledge in my profession. That left too little opportunity to dabble in books of memoir, biography, poetry and the occasional novel.
Now in semi-retirement, I’m trying to rectify that deficit, spending wonderful hours reading books I feel immersed within. As a reader, I am no longer a stranger to the author or poet whose words I read. In a few instances, I’ve had the honor and privilege to meet these authors in real life, or to interact with them on line. They have become friends on the page as well as in my life. What a miracle of the modern age!
I am no longer strangers with many of you who read my words here on Barnstorming every day – I have been able to meet a number of you over the years. It is a joy to find new friends through my words!
In the summer of 2013, Dan and I wrapped up our Ireland trip with one day in Dublin before flying home. I wasn’t sure I could take in one more thing into my overwhelmed brain but am grateful Dan gently led me to the exhibit of the Book of Kells at Trinity College along with the incredible library right above it.
I needed to see the amazing things of which man is capable. My weariness was paltry compared to the immense effort of these dedicated writers and artists.
The Book of Kells is an intricately illustrated copy of the Gospels from the ninth century, meticulously decorated by Irish monks with quill pens and the finest of brushes. Two original pages are on display at the library and the brief look one is allowed scarcely does justice to the painstaking detail contained in every letter and design.
Upstairs, is the “Long Room” of 200,000 antiquarian books dating back centuries, lined by busts of writers and philosophers. It is inspiring to think of the millions of hours of illuminated thought contained within those leather bindings.
The written word is precious but so transient on earth; it takes preservationist specialists to keep these ancient books from crumbling to dust, lost forever to future generations.
The original Word is even more precious, lasting forever in the hearts and minds of men, and exists everlasting sitting at the right hand of God, never to disintegrate to dust. He is the inspiration for the intricate beauty of the illustrated Gospels we saw that day.
God is the ultimate source of wisdom for civilization’s greatest writers and poets. He alone has turned darkness into light even in man’s most desperate hours. Our weariness dissipates along with the shadows.
God is no stranger to us – He meets us in His Word and our reading is our ladder to Him. In that meeting, we are forever His.
You are our portal to those hidden havens Whence we return to bless our being here. Scribe of the Kingdom, keeper of the door Which opens on to all we might have lost,
Generous, capacious, open, free, Your wardrobe-mind has furnished us with worlds Through which to travel, whence we learn to see Along the beam, and hear at last the heralds, Sounding their summons, through the stars that sing, Whose call at sunrise brings us to our King. ~Malcolm Guite from “C.S. Lewis: a sonnet”
This is the 57th anniversary of C.S Lewis’s death in 1963, overshadowed that day by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Sign on the Lewis wardrobebuilt by C.S. Lewis’ grandfather that served as his inspiration for “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” — it first stood in his childhood home and later in his home “The Kilns” at Oxford. Now part of the C.S. Lewis collection at the Marion Wade Center at Wheaton College, Illinois:
“We do not take responsibility for people disappearing.”
This is no mere piece of furniture; Enchantment hangs within Among the furs and cloaks Smelling faintly of mothballs.
Touch the smooth wood, Open the doors barely To be met with a faint cool breeze~ Hints of snowy woods and adventure.
Reach inside to feel smooth soft furs Move aside to allow dark passage Through to another world, a pathway to Cherished imagination of the soul.
Seek a destination for mind and heart, A journey through the wardrobe, Navigate the night path to reach a Lit lone lamp post in the wood.
Beaming light as it shines undimmed, A beacon calling us home, back home Through the open door, to step out transformed, No longer lost or longing, now found and filled.
It must have come in with the morning paper, still being delivered to those who shelter in place.
A morning paper is still an essential service.
I am not an essential service.
I have coffee and books, time, a garden, silence enough to fill cisterns.
It must have first walked the morning paper, as if loosened ink taking the shape of an ant.
Then across the laptop computer — warm — then onto the back of a cushion.
Small black ant, alone, crossing a navy cushion, moving steadily because that is what it could do.
Set outside in the sun, it could not have found again its nest. What then did I save?
It did not move as if it was frightened, even while walking my hand, which moved it through swiftness and air.
Ant, alone, without companions, whose ant-heart I could not fathom— how is your life, I wanted to ask. I lifted it, took it outside.
This first day when I could do nothing, contribute nothing beyond staying distant from my own kind, I did this. ~Jane Hirschfield “Today When I Could Do Nothing”
Nine months into social distancing one from another, with COVID spreading wider and faster than ever, I feel helpless to be a helper without the virus becoming a potentially deadly attachment to my efforts.
So I look for little ways to try to make a difference, as inadequate as they seem. I can no serve meals after evening church service. I can’t visit vulnerable people in their homes so have to be satisfied with screen visits. I can’t go where I wish when I wish because, by definition of age and medical risk, I am one of the vulnerable too.
So I look for words to express that may bring you a smile or maybe a knowing tear. I look for images to share that remind you of something from your past experience. I look for ways to make sense of the senseless when there can be so much disagreement and anger and bitterness. I look for where our common ground exists: how can we deepen and broaden our connection to one another in this time of painful and empty separation?
I want to ask and I want to hear: how is your life?
When we feel we can do nothing, we can do this: rescuing one another from isolation and loneliness. It will be the most important thing we do today.