A Crumb of Thanks

Aren’t you glad at least that the earthworms
Under the grass are ignorant, as they eat the earth,
Of the good they confer on us, that their silence
Isn’t a silent reproof for our bad manners,
Our never casting earthward a crumb of thanks
For their keeping the soil from packing so tight
That no root, however determined, could pierce it?

Imagine if they suspected how much we owe them,
How the weight of our debt would crush us
Even if they enjoyed keeping the grass alive,
The garden flowers and vegetables, the clover,
And wanted nothing that we could give them,
Not even the merest nod of acknowledgment.

A debt to angels would be easy in comparison,
Bright, weightless creatures of cloud, who serve
An even brighter and lighter master.


Lucky for us they don’t know what they’re doing,
These puny anonymous creatures of dark and damp
Who eat simply to live, with no more sense of mission
Than nature feels in providing for our survival.

…the tunneling earthworms, tireless, silent,
As they persist, oblivious, in their service.

~Carl Dennis from “Worms”

We’ve been carefully composting horse manure for years behind the barn, and we dig in to the 10 foot tall pile to spread on our garden plots. As Dan pushed the tractor’s front loader into the pile, steam rose from its compost innards. As the rich soil was scooped, thousands of newly exposed red wiggler worms immediately dove for cover. Within seconds, thousands of naked little creatures had, well, …wormed their way back into the security of warm dirt, rudely interrupted from their routine. I can’t say I blamed them.

Hundreds of thousands of wigglers ended up being forced to adapt to new quarters, leaving the security of the manure mountain behind. As I smoothed the topping of compost over the garden plot, the worms–gracious creatures that they are–tolerated being rolled and raked and lifted and turned over, waving their little bodies expectantly in the cool air before slipping back down into the dark. There they will begin their work of digesting and aerating the tired soil of the garden, reproducing in their unique hermaphroditic way, leaving voluminous castings behind to further feed future seedlings to be planted.

Worms are unjustly denigrated by humans primarily because we don’t like to be surprised by them. We don’t like to see one in our food, especially only part of one, and are particularly distressed to see them after we’ve digested our food. Once we get past that bit of squeamishness, we can greatly appreciate their role as the ultimate recyclers, leaving the earth a lot better off once they are finished with their work. We humans actually suffer by comparison; to be called “a worm” is really not as bad as it sounds at first. However, the worm may be offended by the association.

I hope to prove a worthy innkeeper for these new tenants.
May they live long and prosper.
May the worm forgive the disruption of my rake and shovel.
May I smile appreciatively the next time someone calls me a mere worm.

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Such Letting Go

the leaves believe
such letting go is love
such love is faith
such faith is grace
such grace is god
i agree with the leaves
~Lucille Clifton “Lesson of the Falling Leaves” from Blessing the Boats

The leaves are falling, falling as if from far up,
as if orchards were dying high in space.
Each leaf falls as if it were motioning “no.”
And tonight the heavy earth is falling
away from all other stars in the loneliness.
We’re all falling. This hand here is falling.
And look at the other one. It’s in them all.
And yet there is Someone, whose hands
infinitely calm, holding up all this falling.
~Rainer Maria Rilke “Autumn” translated by Robert Bly

Sometimes I wake from my sleep
with a palpitating start:
dreaming of falling,
my body pitching and tumbling
yet somehow I land,
~oh so softly~
in my bed,
my fear quashed and cushioned by
awaking safe.

I feel caught,
held tightly,
rescued amid the fall
we all do someday,
like leaves drifting down
from heaven’s orchard,
like seeds released like kisses
into the air,
the earth rises to meet me
and Someone cradles me there.

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A Tree with Happy Leaves

Last night
the rain
spoke to me
slowly, saying,
what joy
to come falling
out of the brisk cloud,
to be happy again
in a new way
on the Earth!

That’s what it said
as it dropped,
smelling of iron,
and vanished
like a dream of the ocean
into the branches
and the grass below.

Then it was over.
The sky cleared.
I was standing
under a tree
with happy leaves,
and I was myself,


and there were stars in the sky
that were also themselves
at the moment
my right hand
was holding my left hand
which was holding the tree
which was filled with stars
and the soft rain–

imagine! imagine!
the long and wondrous journeys
still to be ours.
~Mary Oliver “Last Night the Rain Spoke to Me”

I’m walking under the trees
walking in and out of their shadows
walking step by step under the trees
so the leaves on their lowest branches
graze my bare head
as I walk slowly under the trees
so close to me they could have
their arms around my shoulders,
walking under the guardian trees.

I’m walking under the trees
plucking a leaf
and putting it in my pocket
so I won’t forget walking
under the cloak of these trees
thinking of nothing else
but the trees and me walking
under all their leaves and branches
walking all morning under the trees.
~Billy Collins “Walking Under the Trees”

I’m fortunate to have grown up in the land of trees, here in the Evergreen State of Washington. I spent hours and hours just walking or riding my horse in the woods of my childhood home. When I moved away to a state without many trees, I felt abandoned and lonesome. I had to find my way back.

Sometimes the woods can feel claustrophobic and I need to see a horizon to be aware of the comings and goings of the sun. Fortunately, on this farm where we raised our children, we can move easily from one to the other.

Each day, I’m reminded of the wondrous journey I am on. As a child, I always imagined living in a place of happy leaves. Growing up, I looked until I found it.

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The Child I Was Calls Out to Me

It’s in the perilous boughs of the tree   
out of blue sky    the wind   
sings loudest surrounding me.


And solitude,   a wild solitude
’s reveald,   fearfully,   high     I’d climb   
into the shaking uncertainties,

part out of longing,   part     daring my self,
part to see that
widening of the world,   part

to find my own, my secret
hiding sense and place, where from afar   
all voices and scenes come back

—the barking of a dog,   autumnal burnings,
far calls,   close calls—   the boy I was
calls out to me

here the man where I am   “Look!
I’ve been where you


most fear to be.”
~Robert Duncan “Childhood’s Retreat”

And this is where we went, I thought,
Now here, now there, upon the grass
Some forty years ago.

The days being short now, simply I had come
To gaze and look and stare upon
The thought of that once endless maze of afternoons.
But most of all I wished to find the places where I ran

What’s happened to our boys that they no longer race
And stand them still to contemplate Christ’s handiwork:
His clear blood bled in syrups from the lovely wounded trees?
Why only bees and blackbird winds and bending grass?
No matter. Walk. Walk, look, and sweet recall.

I came upon an oak where once when I was twelve
I had climbed up and screamed for Skip to get me down.
It was a thousand miles to earth. I shut my eyes and yelled.
My brother, richly compelled to mirth, gave shouts of laughter
And scaled up to rescue me.
“What were you doing there?” he said.
I did not tell. Rather drop me dead.
But I was there to place a note within a squirrel nest
On which I’d written some old secret thing now long forgot.

{Now} I lay upon the limb a long while, thinking.
I drank in all the leaves and clouds and weathers
Going by as mindless
As the days.
What, what, what if? I thought. But no. Some forty years beyond!

I brought forth:
The note.

I opened it. For now I had to know.
I opened it, and wept. I clung then to the tree
And let the tears flow out and down my chin.
Dear boy, strange child, who must have known the years
And reckoned time and smelled sweet death from flowers
In the far churchyard.
It was a message to the future, to myself.
Knowing one day I must arrive, come, seek, return.
From the young one to the old. From the me that was small
And fresh to the me that was large and no longer new.
What did it say that made me weep?

I remember you.
I remember you.
~Ray Bradbury from “Remembrance”

Not long ago, we drove the country roads where I grew up,
over sixty years later,
and though some trees are taller, and others cut down –
it looked just as I remembered.
The scattered houses on farms still standing, a bit more worn,
the fields open and flowing as always,
the turns and bends, the ups and downs of the asphalt lanes unchanged
where once I tread with bicycle tires and sneakered feet.

My own childhood home a different color
but so familiar as we drive slowly by,
full of memories of laughter and games,
long winter days and longer summer evenings
full of its share of angry words and tears
and eventual forgiveness.

I too left notes to my future self, in old barns, and lofts,
and yes, in trees,
but won’t go back to retrieve them.
I remember what I wrote.
My young heart tried to imagine itself decades hence,
with so much to fear – bomb drills and shelters in the ground,
such anxiety and joy would pass through me like pumping blood,
wondering what wounds would I bear and bleed,
what love and tears would trace my aging face?

I have not forgotten that I wish to be remembered.

No, I have never forgotten
that I remember that child:
this is me,
as I was, and, deep down, still am.

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The Sidewalks of Life

The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I’m coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light-
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.

You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.

This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.

But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.

It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.

~Billy Collins “On Turning Ten”

Dear Ben,

You were born thirty-four years ago today on a gray and drizzly mid-November day.

November is often like that–there are times during this darkening month when we’re never really certain we’ll see the sun again.  The sky is gray, the mountain is all but invisible behind the clouds, the air hangs heavy with mist. The woods and fields are all shadowy.  Morning light starts late and the evening takes over early.

You changed November for us that day. You brought sunshine to our lives as if you were born with light under your skin. You smiled almost from the first day, always responding, always watching, ready to engage with your new family. You were a delight from that first moment we saw you and have been a light in our lives and so many other lives ever since, no matter where you have gone and what you have done over these four decades.

Then you married another bright light and now you shine together, raising your precious sons in God’s Light.

We know you discovered long ago, even before you turned ten, that when you fall on the sidewalks of life, you bleed. And you know sadness and have wounds aplenty. Yet you love others like no one else, and keep going in hope, with longing for our Lord. Even your scars shine with intention.

Gray and drizzle is your favorite kind of weather because you were born to it–you’ve always loved the misty fog, the chill winds, the hunkering down and waiting for brighter days to come even though you now live where the sun shines almost every day.

November 15 was and still is, a brighter day because of you.

Love,

Mom and Dad

Fallen Like the Trees

I want to praise things
that cannot last. The scarlet and orange leaves
are already gone, blown down by a cold rain,
crushed and trampled. They rise again in leaf meal
and wood smoke. The Great Blue Heron’s returned to the pond,
settles in the reeds like a steady flame.
Geese cut a wedge out of the sky, drag the gray days
behind them like a skein of old wool.
I want to praise everything brief and finite.
~Barbara Crooker from her poem “Equinox” in Selected Poems

A gracious Sabbath stood here while they stood
Who gave our rest a haven.
Now fallen, they are given
To labor and distress.
These times we know much evil, little good
To steady us in faith
And comfort when our losses press
Hard on us, and we choose,
In panic or despair or both,
To keep what we will lose.

For we are fallen like the trees, our peace
Broken, and so we must
Love where we cannot trust,
Trust where we cannot know,
And must await the wayward-coming grace
That joins living and dead,
Taking us where we would not go–
Into the boundless dark.
When what was made has been unmade
The Maker comes to His work.

~Wendell Berry “Sabbaths, II”

Things: simply lasting, then
failing to last: water, a blue heron’s
eye, and the light passing
between them: into light all things
must fall, glad at last to have fallen.
~Jane Kenyon, from “Things”
in Collected Poems

I know I am brief and finite,
leaning more and more from the prevailing winds,
wobbly throughout each storm.

Things I wish would last
don’t, so I hold them lightly in love.
I must trust God’s Light passes
through the darkness,
an illuminated pathway
I will follow,
even when falling, even when finite and failing
until I become Light myself.

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Sustained by Mystery

Days pass when I forget the mystery.
Problems insoluble and problems offering
their own ignored solutions
jostle for my attention, they crowd its antechamber
along with a host of diversions, my courtiers, wearing
their colored clothes; cap and bells.
                                                        And then
once more the quiet mystery
is present to me, the throng’s clamor
recedes: the mystery
that there is anything, anything at all,
let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything,
rather than void: and that, O Lord,
Creator, Hallowed One, You still,
hour by hour sustain it.
~Denise Levertov  “Primary Wonder” from Selected Poems

Here is the mystery, the secret, one might almost say the cunning, of the deep love of God: that it is bound to draw upon itself the hatred and pain and shame and anger and bitterness and rejection of the world, but to draw all those things on to itself is precisely the means chosen from all eternity by the generous, loving God, by which to rid his world of the evils which have resulted from human abuse of God-given freedom.
~N.T.Wright from The Crown and The Fire

When I’m embittered and overwhelmed by the bad news of the world and I am buried in my own troubles such as COVID visiting our household, I cling to the mystery of God’s magnetism for my weaknesses and flaws.

He willingly pulls evil onto Himself, out of each of us. Hatred and pain and shame and anger disappear into the vortex of His love and beauty, the mucky corners of my heart vacuumed spotless.

We are let in on a secret: God is not sullied by absorbing the dirty messes of our lives as He came here to do just that. God leaves no void behind; He fills all emptiness with Himself.

Created in His image, we are sustained and saved through Him, thus bound to reflect His glory – how can we not be transformed and healed by His Love?

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Here’s My Hand

How far friends are! They forget you,
most days. They have to, I know; but still,
it’s lonely just being far and a friend.
I put my hand out—this chair, this table—
So near: touch, that’s how to live.
Call up a friend? All right, but the phone
itself is what loves you, warm on your ear,
on your hand. Or, you lift a pen
to write—it’s not that far person
but this familiar pen that comforts.
Near things: Friend, here’s my hand.

~William Stafford “Friends” from The Way It Is

I initially started writing online almost twenty years ago to a group of friends, most that I had met in real life, but some of whom I only knew from afar. It felt like I was writing a letter but without the pen, paper, envelopes and stamp.

Now I write to over 22,000 people every day. A few of you I know well, some I’ve only met once, most of you I will never have the privilege to know personally. Some of you have written to me privately (some with pen and paper, stamp and envelope!) to tell me more about your lives and how the thoughts I send along each day make a difference to you.

I know the power and love found in a hand-written letter. Someone I have known for nearly 50 years still writes to her friends – Jane Goodall was my teacher and mentor. When she gave me the opportunity to work with her in Africa in the 1970s, it changed my life in ways I still am discovering. Most remarkably, she has written to me on a number of occasions and I treasure those notes. Her familiar pen written by her familiar hand comforts me.

It’s lonely being far away, and a friend. But here is my hand. I hope you will continue to take what I offer here and find it comforting.

giving Jane a hug, courtesy of WWU Communications

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The Silence of a Dying God

November pierces with its bleak remembrance
Of all the bitterness and waste of war.
Our silence tries but fails to make a semblance
Of that lost peace they thought worth fighting for.
Our silence seethes instead with wraiths and whispers,
And all the restless rumour of new wars,
The shells are falling all around our vespers,
No moment is unscarred, there is no pause,
In every instant bloodied innocence
Falls to the weary earth ,and whilst we stand
Quiescence ends again in acquiescence,
And Abel’s blood still cries in every land
One silence only might redeem that blood
Only the silence of a dying God.
~Malcolm Guite “Silence: a Sonnet for Remembrance Day”

So, when old hopes that earth was bettering slowly
Were dead and damned, there sounded ‘War is done!’
One morrow. Said the bereft, and meek, and lowly,
‘Will men some day be given to grace? yea, wholly,
And in good sooth, as our dreams used to run?

Aye; all was hushed. The about-to-fire fired not,
The aimed-at moved away in trance-lipped song.

Calm fell. From Heaven distilled a clemency;
There was peace on earth, and silence in the sky;

Some could, some could not, shake off misery

~Thomas Hardy from “And There Was a Great Calm” 

(On the Signing of the Armistice, 11 Nov. 1918)

When you go home tell them of us and say –
“For your tomorrow we gave our today”
~John Maxwell Edmonds from “The Kohima Epitaph” 

I’m unsure why the United States does not call November 11 Remembrance Day as the Commonwealth nations did 99 years ago at the Armistice. This is a day that demands so much more than the more passive name Veterans’ Day represents.

This day calls all citizens who appreciate their freedoms to stop what they are doing and disrupt the routine rhythm of their lives. We are to remember in humble thankfulness the generations of military veterans who sacrificed time, resources, sometimes health and well being, and too often their lives in answering the call to defend their countries.

Remembrance means
~never forgetting what it costs to defend freedom.
~acknowledging the millions who have given of themselves and continue to do so on our behalf.
~never ceasing to care.
~a commitment to provide resources needed for the military to remain strong and supported.
~unending prayers for safe return home to family.
~we hold these men and women close in our hearts, always teaching the next generation about the sacrifices they made.

Most of all,
it means being willing ourselves to become the sacrifice when called.

Doing This Hard Thing

I finished loading the woodshed today. Every year
I tell myself, This is it, the last time. It’s just too
much work, too painful, and I’m too old.
And then, the next year, when fall rolls
around, the air gets cold, and the geese go south, I
load the woodshed again.

How long will this go on? I’m seventy-two.
Every year it takes me longer to recover,
yet every year I keep doing it.

It’s just, now that I’m done, I can go out into
the woodshed, sit in a chair, and look at all those
neatly stacked rows, six and a half feet high, six feet
long and sixteen inches deep, two sets of rows like that,
left and right, four full cord — not much by some standards —
but enough to keep us warm all winter.

When I go out and look at what I’ve done, I get such a deep
sense of satisfaction from this backaching labor that I can’t

imagine a year without going through all that pain again.
~David Budbill, “Loading the Woodshed” from Tumbling toward the End.

Long-johns top and bottom, heavy socks, flannel shirt, overalls,
steel-toed work boots, sweater, canvas coat, toque, mittens: on.


Out past grape arbor and garden shed, into the woods.
Sun just coming through the trees. There really is such a thing


as Homer’s rosy-fingered dawn. And here it is, this morning.
Down hill, across brook, up hill, and into the stand of white pine


and red maple where I’m cutting firewood. Open up workbox,
take out chain saw, gas, bar oil, kneel down, gas up saw, add

bar oil to the reservoir, stand up, mittens off, strap on and buckle
chaps from waist to toe, hard hat helmet: on. Ear protectors: down,

face screen: down, push in compression release, pull out choke,
pull on starter cord, once, twice, go. Stall. Pull out choke, pull on


starter cord, once, twice, go. Push in choke. Mittens: back on.
Cloud of two-cycle exhaust smoke wafting into the morning air


and I, looking like a medieval Japanese warrior, wade through
blue smoke, knee-deep snow, revving the chain saw as I go,


headed for that doomed, unknowing maple tree.
~David Budbill”Into the Winter Woods”, from Happy Life

The other day, I was visiting with a recently widowed neighbor who is now well into her 70’s. She said she had finished loading her woodshed and was now ready for winter, dependent on wood stove heat over the next 6 months or so. She is someone who takes her independence seriously after her husband died, having lived in the same house for over fifty years – not at all ready to move into town to an apartment or condo, much less assisted living. She assists herself, thank you very much, even if it means climbing a step ladder to overhead-toss the firewood chunks onto the top row, and later to pull them down again to haul into the house to the stove.

I asked her why she continued to do such hard physical work when she has sons who live nearby as well as the means to hire help if she needed it. She also could choose to install a furnace, making it easier to stay warm.

She told me she likes to look at the stack every day when she does her farmyard chores, which include bringing in her day’s worth of wood. It gives her a deep sense of satisfaction to know that she was able to neatly stack several cords of wood under cover for yet another year, just as she has done year after year after year. It is a reminder of what she is capable of doing on her own, now that she is alone.

It makes her feel good to look at the fruit of her labor.

And that, of course, is reason enough to keep doing a hard thing. We each work at living out our days the best we can despite how painful they can be. We are blessed to be able to do it.

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