Struggling to Remember

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

~Billy Collins “Forgetfulness”

It happens more often than I like to admit.

I have a name on the tip of my tongue, but it fails to form as if it has somehow faded into the mists of a morning fog, only barely discernible to me. Sometimes only the first letter remains to haunt me until the light of day finally burns off the fog and my synapses start to click again.

I actually subscribe to a daily app to exercise my memory and listening ability, including vocabulary and math skills but I realize the best exercise is actually using those brain muscles in real life like I use my arms out in the barn scooping poop every day. My brain knows when it is just a game under the pressure of a time limit vs. a high stakes situation of remembering the correct dosage of a medication in a critical clinical scenario – just like my muscles know there is a difference between a repetitive weight machine in the gym vs. pushing a heavy wheelbarrow uphill against the wind in muddy footing.

I think my brain’s memory capacity is an intricately woven web of connections that get stretched and battered over time. Each dropped connection is gone forever so I’m trying to treat it gently, hold on to and cherish the memories I never want to lose in the fog, and allow the minor forgettable stuff to float away without regrets.

After all, today will become tomorrow’s memory to store away for keeps so I need to do some serious house cleaning to make room…

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Heartbroken By Blight

In your extended absence, you permit me
use of earth, anticipating
some return on investment. I must report
failure in my assignment, principally
regarding the tomato plants.
I think I should not be encouraged to grow
tomatoes. Or, if I am, you should withhold
the heavy rains, the cold nights that come
so often here, while other regions get
twelve weeks of summer. All this
belongs to you: on the other hand,
I planted the seeds, I watched the first shoots
like wings tearing the soil, and it was my heart
broken by the blight, the black spot so quickly
multiplying in the rows. I doubt
you have a heart, in our understanding of
that term. You who do not discriminate
between the dead and the living, who are, in consequence,
immune to foreshadowing, you may not know
how much terror we bear, the spotted leaf,
the red leaves of the maple falling
even in August, in early darkness:

I am responsible for these vines.
~Louise Glück “Vespers”

As the calendar turns to September and August fades away, I know all too well what this means. I have spent a lifetime loving the season of autumn best of all, but that is because I wasn’t living it, and, of course, it seems now I am in its midst.

More and more the blight feels personal, the color change is in the mirror looking back at me, the leaves falling from my own scalp, the threat of rot setting in quite real. Growing older is hardly “pumpkin spice” and “harvest gold” in reality.

Even so, the fruit I still bear is edible even if not as presentable; the vine where I grow still bears useful life. A first frost forces ripening and prepares what remains because time is short and there is so much yet to get done.

So who am I anyway?

I feel the responsibility of making all this effort count for something. I am here because I was planted, weeded, nurtured, watered and warmed. The rot will thankfully be forgotten, so remaining sweet to the taste, just as I am meant to be.

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A Calliope Cadence

those lovely horses,
that galloped me,


moving the world,
piston push and pull,


into the past—dream to
where? there, when


the clouds swayed by
then trees, as a tire


swing swung
me under—rope groan.


now, the brass beam,
holds my bent face,


calliope cadence—O
where have I been?
~Richard Maxson “Carousel at Seventy”

Under its canopy, in the shade it casts,
turns a world with painted horses,
all from a land that lingers a while
before it disappears.
Some, it’s true, are harnessed to a wagon,
but all have valor in their eyes.
A fierce red lion leaps among them,
and here comes ’round a snow-white elephant.

Even a stag appears, straight from the forest,
except for the saddle he wears, and,
buckled on it, a small boy in blue.

And a boy in white rides the lion,
gripping it with small clenched hands,
while the lion flashes teeth and tongue.

And here comes ’round a snow-white elephant.

And riding past on charging horses come girls,
bright-eyed, almost too old now for this children’s play.
With the horses rising under them,
they are looking up and off to what awaits.
~Rainer Maria Rilke from “Jardin de Luxembourg”

You don’t really understand human nature unless you know why a child on a merry-go-round will wave at his parents every time around – and why his parents will always wave back.
~William D. Tammeus

As a child, I could not resist a ride on a carousel, waving each time I came round.  Decades later, I can not resist standing and watching a carousel, waving back at whoever waves at me.

It is a world that turns and turns without going anywhere, except in the imaginations of the riders who fly higher, leap farther, jump huge gaps, race fastest. For them, it becomes a world that goes anywhere and everywhere. 

The swirl of surroundings and magic of music raises each child up, up, speeding faster and faster to catch whatever may await them. Then the world slows, settling and settling until each waving child becomes the stationary waving adult who stands their ground faithfully waiting — remembering how going round and round without going anywhere was the most wonderful feeling in the ever turning world.

Yesterday a child came out to wonder
Caught a dragonfly inside a jar
Fearful when the sky was full of thunder
And tearful at the falling of a star

And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we can only look behind
From where we came
And go round and round and round In the circle game

Then the child moved ten times round the seasons
Skated over ten clear frozen streams
Words like, when you’re older, must appease him
And promises of someday make his dreams

Sixteen springs and sixteen summers gone now
Cartwheels turn to car wheels thru the town
And they tell him, Take your time, it won’t be long now
Till you drag your feet just to slow the circles down

So the years spin by and now the boy is twenty
Though his dreams have lost some grandeur coming true
There’ll be new dreams, maybe better dreams and plenty
Before the last revolving year is through
~Joni Mitchell “The Circle Game”

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Roaming Soft About the Slope

The mare roamed soft about the slope,
Her rump was like a dancing girl’s.
Gentle beneath the apple trees
She pulled the grass and shook the flies,
Her forelocks hung in tawny curls,
She had a woman’s limpid eyes,
A woman’s patient stare that grieves.
And when she moved among the trees,
The dappled trees, her look was shy,
She hid her nakedness in leaves.
A delicate though weighted dance
She stepped while flocks of finches flew
From tree to tree and shot the leaves
With songs of golden twittering;
How admirable her tender stance.
And then the apple trees were new,
And she was new, and we were new,
And in the barns the stallions stamped
And shook the hills with trumpeting.
~Ruth Stone, “The Orchard” from What Love Comes To

Our retired mares are aging, the oldest now thirty and the others only a few years younger. Born on this land, they have served us well over the decades, birthing us their foals and working when asked. They deserve this easy life on pasture for as long as their legs and feet will carry them up and down the slopes of our hilly farm – they are more and more resembling our ancient crooked crippled orchard trees, some of which have already toppled in the winter winds..

I’m thinking we are close to the end of these loyal mares’ long lives; hard decisions must be made at some point and I don’t feel quite prepared to determine when they are no longer enjoying their time under the sun but I don’t want them to topple over like an old hollow tree in the wind. I listen for their nickers as I come into the barn each morning and still see their eagerness to be set free to the fields. I look in their eyes when they come in at night to discern what they have to say about how their day went out on the grass.

Perhaps I too identify a bit much with the stiffness as they move and their need for frequent napping times in the field, swishing at flies while they dream of younger days of flirting with stallions, nursing babies, having suppler joints and a wild gallop at twilight.

I’ve been singing a sad lullaby to myself and them as I work about the barn with slow deliberation, knowing there is somber sorrow when life eventually must come to its inevitable end.

Ah, all the pretty little horses…

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Hour of Dawn

The rising sun had crowned the hills,
            And added beauty to the plain;
O grand and wondrous spectacle!
            That only nature could explain.

I stood within a leafy grove,
            And gazed around in blissful awe;
The sky appeared one mass of blue,
            That seemed to spread from sea to shore.

Far as the human eye could see,
            Were stretched the fields of waving corn.
Soft on my ear the warbling birds
            Were heralding the birth of morn.

While here and there a cottage quaint
            Seemed to repose in quiet ease
Amid the trees, whose leaflets waved
            And fluttered in the passing breeze.

O morning hour! so dear thy joy,
            And how I longed for thee to last;
But e’en thy fading into day
            Brought me an echo of the past.

 ‘Twas this,—how fair my life began;
            How pleasant was its hour of dawn;
But, merging into sorrow’s day,
            Then beauty faded with the morn.

~Olivia Ward Bush-Banks “Morning on Shinnecock”

The heart of a woman goes forth with the dawn,
As a lone bird, soft winging, so restlessly on,
Afar o’er life’s turrets and vales does it roam
In the wake of those echoes the heart calls home.
~Georgia Douglas Johnson from 
The Heart of a Woman and Other Poems

For what human ill does not dawn seem to be an alleviation?
~Thornton Wilder
from The Bridge of San Luis Rey

There are some days, as I look at what tasks lie ahead, when I must fling my heart out ahead of me in the hope before the sun goes down, I might catch up and retrieve it back home to me.

I wonder if anyone else might find it first or even notices it fluttering and stuttering its way through the day.

Perhaps, once flung with the dawn, my heart will wing its way home and I’ll find it patiently waiting for me when I return, readying itself for another journey tomorrow.

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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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Making the Best of What Remains

What is pertinent is the calmness of beauty, its sense of restraint. It is as though the land knows of its own beauty, its own greatness, and feels no need to shout it…

For a great many people, the evening is the most enjoyable part of the day. Perhaps, then, there is something to his advice that I should cease looking back so much, that I should adopt a more positive outlook and try to make the best of what remains of my day. After all, what can we ever gain in forever looking back and blaming ourselves if our lives have not turned out quite as we might have wished?
~Kazuo Ishiguro from The Remains of the Day

Life is a great big canvas, and you should throw all the paint you can on it.
~Danny Kaye

Every moment is a fresh beginning.
~T.S. Eliot

I am ashamed to admit I squander time looking back,
yearning for a day that has long since passed,
tossing off these present precious hours
as somehow not measuring up to what came before.

Even when I believe things will never change,
they will, and I will. 

There have been over thirty-six years
of such days in this farm country,
one flowing gently after another,
and every single one have been exactly what I’m looking for.

I shall toss my heart ahead and set out after it,
each moment a fresh beginning and blank canvas,
making the best of what remains of my day.

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A Darkened Path

We grow accustomed to the Dark —
When Light is put away —
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Good bye —

A Moment — We Uncertain step
For newness of the night —
Then — fit our Vision to the Dark —
And meet the Road — erect —

And so of larger — Darknesses —
Those Evenings of the Brain —
When not a Moon disclose a sign —
Or Star — come out — within —

The Bravest — grope a little —
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead —
But as they learn to see —

Either the Darkness alters —
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight —
And Life steps almost straight.

~Emily Dickinson

photo by Bob Tjoelker

So few grains of happiness
measured against all the dark
and still the scales balance.

The world asks of us
only the strength we have and we give it.
Then it asks more, and we give it.

~Jane Hirschfield from “The Weighing”

I admit that I’m stumbling about in the dark right now,
bearing the bruises and scrapes of
random collisions with objects hidden in the night.

My eyes must slowly adjust to such bare illumination,
as the Lamp has been carried away.
I must feel my way through this time of life.

I suspect there are fellow darkness travelers
who also have lost their way and their Light,
giving what they can and sometimes more.

And so, blinded as we each are,
we run forehead-first into the Tree
which has always been there and always will be.

Because of who we are and Who loves us,
we, now free and forgiven,
follow a darkened road nearly straight, all the way Home.

May you see God’s light on the path ahead
when the road you walk is dark.
May you always hear even in your hour of sorrow
the gentle singing of the lark.
When times are hard
may hardness never turn your heart to stone.
May you always remember when the shadows fall–
You do not walk alone.

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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: Guide Me Through the Gloom

Death shall not destroy my comfort,
Christ shall guide me thro’ the gloom;
Down he’ll send some heav’nly convoy,
To escort my spirit home.
~American Folk Hymn

Our neighbor Linda died yesterday after being cared for in hospice for the past several days. Her life journey was sadly shortened by the gloom and toll of early-onset dementia.

Even as her memory developed enlarging gaps and holes over the past few years, Jesus was always her refuge when she was lost in her confusion. Linda never lost her awe of God’s goodness, and never forgot His love for her. Even when fearful of the unknown or unremembered, she was held fast by Jesus.

Worshipping weekly with her husband Steve and extended family members brought her immense joy and comfort. She smiled broadly, singing faithfully the hymns she had known for decades.

Her call home is bittersweet for Steve, along with her family and friends who have supported her remaining at home during her last few vulnerable years. There is a toll and gloom in watching a beloved person slowly fade from this life, like a wave retreating from this shore to crest on some other far-off place.

What we who mourn know is that Linda was greeted on that other shore by those who have gone before her, assuring her she no longer would wonder where she was or be worried about what comes next.

She will forever know the joy of worship and the assurance of belonging. After all, there is no gloom in heaven, only the light of holy love.

This year’s Lenten theme for Barnstorming is a daily selection from songs and hymns about Christ’s profound sacrifice on our behalf.

If we remain silent about Him, the stones themselves will shout out and start to sing (Luke 19:40).

In His name, may we sing…

Death shall not destroy my comfort,
Christ shall guide me thro’ the gloom;
Down he’ll send some heav’nly convoy,
To escort my spirit home.

(Refrain):
Oh, hallelujah! How I Love my Savior,
Oh, hallelujah! That I Do.
Oh, Hallelujah! How I love my Savior!
Mourners, you may love him too.

Jordan’s stream shall not o’erflow me,
While my Savior’s by my side;
Canaan, Canaan lies before me!
Soon I’ll cross the swelling tide.

See the happy spirits waiting,
On the banks beyond the stream!
Sweet responses still repeating,
“Jesus! Jesus!” is their theme.

Supper Will Be Soon

Twilight comes to the little farm
At winter’s end. The snowbanks
High as the eaves, which melted
And became pitted during the day,
Are freezing again, and crunch
Under the dog’s foot. The mountains
From their place behind our shoulders
Lean close a moment, as if for a
Final inspection, but with kindness,
A benediction as the darkness
Falls. It is my fiftieth year. Stars
Come out, one by one with a softer
Brightness, like the first flowers
Of spring. I hear the brook stirring,
Trying its music beneath the ice.
I hear – almost, I am not certain –
Remote tinklings; perhaps sheepbells
On the green side of a juniper hill
Or wineglasses on a summer night.
But no. My wife is at her work,
There behind yellow windows. Supper
Will be soon. I crunch the icy snow
And tilt my head to study the last
Silvery light of the western sky
In the pine boughs. I smile. Then
I smile again, just because I can.
I am not an old man. Not yet.
~Hayden Carruth, “Twilight Comes” from From Snow and Rock

I am well aware how precious each day is, yet it necessitates effort to live as though I truly understand it.

So many people are not living out the fullness of their days as they have been taken too soon: either pandemic deaths or delayed treatment of other illness, tragic fatalities due to increased overdoses, accidents and suicides. I try to note the passing of the hours in my mind’s calendar so I can appreciate the blessings I have been given.

Each twilight becomes a benediction for preparation for the meal ahead. I pause to see, hear, touch and taste what is before me and what awaits me. And it never fails to make me smile.

I’m always hungry for the supper that awaits me, provided from the land through sacrifice and handed to me in love.

I’m not too old, at least not yet, to look forward to the gift of each next day until, in the fullness of time, there will be no more.

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