This Bleak World

Tis the last rose of summer
Left blooming alone;
All her lovely companions
Are faded and gone:
No flower of her kindred,
No rose-bud is nigh,
To reflect back her blushes,
Or give sigh for sigh.

I’ll not leave thee, thou lone one!
To pine on the stem;
Since the lovely are sleeping,
Go, sleep thou with them.
Thus kindly I scatter
Thy leaves o’er the bed,
Where thy mates of the garden
Lie scentless and dead.

So soon may I follow,
When friendships decay,
And from Love’s shining circle
The gems drop away.
When true hearts lie wither’ d,
And fond ones are flown,
Oh! who would inhabit
This bleak world alone?

~Thomas Moore “The Last Rose of Summer”

The last rose of the season is one tough bud. It has persisted through months of prunings and aphids and withering heat and frost-tipped mornings.

It doesn’t elegantly swell and swirl like its summer cousins adorned with pristine petals and silky smooth surface. It is blotchy and brown-tipped and not-a-little saggy.

Yet the last rose bud of the season is what I am. I would rather stay out on the bush than be plucked and admired in a vase. I would rather, plain as I am, weather my way through the elements to the fullest bloom possible and then drop, petal by petal, piece by piece to litter the ground below. I am meant to become the ground that will bear beauty next spring.

Rather than born for display, the last rose of October is born for hope.

A Genial Light

I cannot endure to waste anything so precious as autumnal sunshine by staying in the house.
There is no season
when such pleasant and sunny spots may be lighted on,
and produce so pleasant an effect on the feelings,

as now in October.
The sunshine is peculiarly genial;
and in sheltered places,

as on the side of a bank, or of a barn or house,
one becomes acquainted and friendly with the sunshine.
It seems to be of a kindly and homely nature.
And the green grass strewn with a few withered leaves looks the more green and beautiful for them.

~Nathaniel Hawthorne
from The American Notebooks

After the keen still days of September,
the October sun filled the world with mellow warmth…
The maple tree in front of the doorstep

burned like a gigantic red torch.
The oaks along the roadway glowed yellow and bronze.
The fields stretched like a carpet of jewels,

emerald and topaz and garnet.
Everywhere she walked the color shouted and sang around her…
In October any wonderful unexpected thing might be possible.
~Elizabeth George Speare from The Witch of Blackbird Pond 

If I were a month,
I would choose to be October:
bathed by a genial and friendly sun,
within a kindly and homely nature,
slowly withering, yet still crisp,
with mild temperature and modest temperament
despite a rain and wind storm or two,
only once in a while foggy.

Most of all,
I would cherish my flashes of burnt umber
as I reluctantly relinquish the light.

Reflection in the Mirror

Every time I turn to peer
at my reflection in the mirror,


a cruel bargain comes in play:
the glass takes off another day


from my expected living span.
It’s vanity’s fair payment plan.


Each time I look I pay, alas.
I see already how the glass


has laced its silver in my hair,
my youth was stolen unaware.


The real me just fades away,
glance by glance, day by day,


until too late I’ll turn to see
the mirror has stolen off with me!
~John Thornberg “Stolen Glances”

Reflections sometimes are blurred and not altogether an accurate representation of the real thing.

When I look at how I’ve changed over the years, as I pass by, just catching a glance in the mirror, I marvel at how the same brain and heart can exist in such a changing shell. I am still me, but the mirror seems to be stealing away the girl and young woman that I was.

And it is as it must be: no fountain of youth on this soil.

Eternity is to be grasped beyond the mirror.

Focused Rays of Light

In the gloaming
when death comes
clearly into view
as the horizon
of life’s landscape,
the call is to illumination,
to focus the shining darts
of life’s lessons
as a magnifying glass
focuses rays of light.
The task of middle age
is to dispose
of the extraneous,
to focus desire’s flickering
until it flames
at the incendiary point
of an undivided heart
and makes of love
a pure, bright blaze
before a falling night.
~Bonnie Thurston  “Late Vocation”by Paraclete Press

In this, my third trimester of life,
I try to find a focal point in all I do.

The blaze of my days glow
under that magnifying glass,
yet do not incinerate.

God shows me how
in evening light.
His Love focused bright and pure.

Like the burning bush
that embodied His presence,
I am sustained,
enlivened,
illuminated,
shoeless,
but never reduced to ashes.

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.
~Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Bequeathing What We Never Owned To Begin With

The lawyer told him to write a letter
to accompany the will, to prevent
potential discord over artifacts
valued only for their sentiment.

His wife treasures a watercolor by
her father; grandmama’s spoon stirs
their oatmeal every morning. Some
days, he wears his father’s favorite tie.

He tries to think of things that
could be tokens of his days:
binoculars that transport
bluebirds through his cataracts

a frayed fishing vest with
pockets full of feathers brightly
tied, the little fly rod he can still
manipulate in forest thickets,

a sharp-tined garden fork,
heft and handle fit for him,
a springy spruce kayak paddle,
a retired leather satchel.

He writes his awkward note,
trying to dispense with grace
some well-worn clutter easily
discarded in another generation.

But what he wishes to bequeath
are items never owned: a Chopin
etude wafting from his wife’s piano
on the scent of morning coffee

seedling peas poking into April,
monarch caterpillars infesting
milkweed leaves, a light brown
doe alert in purple asters

a full moon rising in October,
hunting-hat orange in ebony sky,
sunlit autumn afternoons that flutter
through the heart like falling leaves.

~Raymond Byrnes “Personal Effects” from Waters Deep

We’ve seen families break apart over the distribution of the possessions of the deceased. There can be hurt feelings, resentment over perceived slights, arguments over who cared most and who cared least.

Thankfully, that didn’t happen with our parents’ belongings. There had been a slow giving away process as their health failed and they needed to move from larger spaces to smaller spaces. Even so, no one was eager to take care of the things that had no particular monetary or sentimental value. We still have boxes and boxes of household and personal items sitting unopened in storage on our farm for over a decade. Each summer I think I’ll start the sorting process but I don’t. My intentions are good but my follow-through is weak.

So my husband and I have said to each other and our children that we don’t want to leave behind stuff which ultimately has little meaning in a generation or two. We need now to do the work it takes to make sure we honor that promise.

There is so much we would rather bequeath than just stuff we own. It can’t be stored in boxes or outlined in our wills: these are precious possessions that don’t take up space. Instead, we bequeath our love of simple everyday blessings, while passing down our faith in God to future generations.

May our memories be kept alive through stories about the people we tried to be in this life, told to our grandchildren and their children, with much humor and a few tears – that would be the very best legacy of all.

Fully Formed

What I didn’t know before
was how horses simply give birth to other horses.

Not a baby by any means, not
a creature of liminal spaces,

but already a four-legged beast hellbent on walking,
scrambling after the mother.

A horse gives way to another horse
and then suddenly there are
two horses, just like that.

That’s how I loved you.
You, off the long train from Red Bank carrying
a coffee as big as your arm, a bag with two
computers swinging in it unwieldily at your
side. I remember we broke into laughter
when we saw each other.

What was between us wasn’t a fragile thing
to be coddled, cooed over.
It came out fully formed, ready to run.
~Ada Limón “What I Didn’t Know Before”

photo by Emily Vander Haak

It felt fully formed and meant to be right from the beginning, now over forty years ago. We both recognized we were ready to run unafraid, trusting our legs were strong enough to take us wherever life would lead.

We don’t need to run as often now, but we are hellbent on walking through this world together as long and far as possible, laughing and loving as often as we can.

We didn’t know it could be like this. We just needed to wait for it to be born fully formed when the time was right.

Forever is Composed of Nows

Forever – is composed of Nows –
‘Tis not a different time –
Except for Infiniteness –
And Latitude of Home –

 
From this – experienced Here –
Remove the Dates – to These –
Let Months dissolve in further Months –
And Years – exhale in Years –

 
Without Debate – or Pause –
Or Celebrated Days –

No different Our Years would be
From Anno Dominies –
 ~Emily Dickinson, from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson

Whenever I feel overwhelmed with the news of the day, so much of which is depressingly dismal, I remind myself that there is still an infiniteness to life beyond this challenging year. Time passes like an ever-flowing stream: months dissolve into months, years exhale into years.

I flow right along with it, carried by the current though sometimes futilely fighting against it, trying to keep my nose above water.

No matter what may happen, no matter my frustration or sadness at the state of the world, things are beautiful in the moment now.

Forever is made up of nows — lots and lots and lots of nows. May the Year of our Lord be now and evermore into the infinite.

If You Were Here

How I loved those spiky suns,
rooted stubborn as childhood

in the grass, tough as the farmer’s
big-headed children—the mats
of yellow hair, the bowl-cut fringe.
How sturdy they were and how
slowly they turned themselves
into galaxies, domes of ghost stars
barely visible by day, pale
cerebrums clinging to life
on tough green stems.   Like you.
Like you, in the end.   If you were here,
I’d pluck this trembling globe to show
how beautiful a thing can be
a breath will tear away.
~Jean Nordhaus “A Dandelion for My Mother”

Vigil at my mother’s bedside
(for Elna)

Lying still, your mouth gapes open as
I wonder if you breathe your last.
Your hair a white cloud
Your skin baby soft
No washing, digging, planting gardens
Or raising children
Anymore.

Where do your dreams take you?
At times you wake in your childhood home of
Rolling wheat fields, boundless days of freedom.
Other naps take you to your student and teaching days
Grammar and drama, speech and essays.
Yesterday you were a young mother again
Juggling babies, farm and your wistful dreams.

Today you looked about your empty nest
Disguised as hospital bed,
Wondering aloud about
Children grown, flown.
You still control through worry
and tell me:
Travel safely
Get a good night’s sleep
Take time to eat
Call me when you get there

I dress you as you dressed me
I clean you as you cleaned me
I love you as you loved me
You try my patience as I tried yours.
I wonder if I have the strength to
Mother my mother
For as long as she needs.

When I tell you the truth
Your brow furrows as it used to do
When I disappointed you~
This cannot be
A bed in a room in a sterile place
Waiting for death
Waiting for the next breath
Waiting for heaven
Waiting

And I tell you:
Travel safely
Eat, please eat
Sleep well
Call me when you get there.

He Sees Us As We Are: Weary of Routine

Because children have abounding vitality,
because they are in spirit fierce and free,
therefore they want things repeated and unchanged.
They always say, “Do it again”;
and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead.
For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony.
But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony.
It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun;
and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon.
It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike;
it may be that God makes every daisy separately,
but has never got tired of making them.
It may be that he has the eternal appetite of infancy;
for we have sinned and grown old,
and our Father is younger than we.

~G.K. Chesterton from Orthodoxy

To an infant, nothing is monotonous — it is all so new.  The routine of the day is very simple and reassuring: sleep, wake, cry, nurse, clean up, gaze out at the world, turn on the smiles –repeat.

The routine becomes more complex as we age until it no longer resembles a routine, if we can help it. We don’t bother getting up to watch the sun rise yet again and don’t notice the sun set once more.

Weary as we may be with routine, our continual search for the next new thing costs us in time and energy.   We age every time we sigh with boredom or turn away from the mundane and everyday, becoming less and less like our younger purer selves.

Who among us exults in monotony and celebrates predictability and enjoys repetition, whether it is sunrise or sunset or an infinite number of daisies?

God does on our behalf as He sees our short attention spans.  He remains consistent, persistent and insistent because we are no longer are.

Do it again, God.  Please, please do it again.

This year’s Lenten theme on Barnstorming:

God sees us as we are,
loves us as we are,
and accepts us as we are.
But by His grace,
He does not leave us where we are.
~Tim Keller

Will You Come and Follow Me” (The Summons) by John Bell from the album God Never Sleeps

The Lyrics:
Will you come and follow me 
If I but call your name?
Will you go where you don’t know
And never be the same?
Will you let my love be shown,
Will you let me name be known,
Will you let my life be grown
In you and you in me?

Will you leave yourself behind
If I but call your name?
Will you care for cruel and kind
And never be the same?
Will you risk the hostile stare
Should your life attract or scare.
Will you let me answer prayer
In you and you in me?

Will you let the blinded see
If I but call your name?
Will you set the prisoners free
And never be the same?
Will you kiss the leper clean,
And do this as such unseen,
And admit to what I mean
In you and you in me?

Will you love the “you” you hide
If I but call your name?
Will you quell the fear inside
And never be the same?
Will you use the faith you’ve found
To reshape the world around,
Through my sight and touch and sound
In you and you in me?

Lord, your summons echoes true
When you but call my name.
Let me turn and follow you
And never be the same.
In your company I’ll go
Where your love and footsteps show.
Thus I’ll move and live and grow
In you and you in me.

A Prayer Under This Sky

Tonight at sunset walking on the snowy road,
my shoes crunching on the frozen gravel, first

through the woods, then out into the open fields
past a couple of trailers and some pickup trucks, I stop

and look at the sky. Suddenly: orange, red, pink, blue,
green, purple, yellow, gray, all at once and everywhere.

I pause in this moment at the beginning of my old age
and I say a prayer of gratitude for getting to this evening

a prayer for being here, today, now, alive
in this life, in this evening, under this sky.
~David Budbill “Winter: Tonight: Sunset”
from While We’ve Still Got Feet

If I don’t remember, each day, no matter how things feel, no matter how tired or distracted I am, no matter how worried, or fearful or heartsick:

it is up to me to distill my very existence down to this one moment of beauty that will never come again.

One breath, one blink, one pause, one whispered word: thanks.