Rainy Sundays Last Forever

I’m the child of rainy Sundays.
I watched time crawl
Like an injured fly
Over the wet windowpane.
Or waited for a branch
On a tree to stop shaking,
While Grandmother knitted
Making a ball of yarn
Roll over like a kitten at her feet.
I knew every clock in the house
Had stopped ticking
And that this day will last forever.
~Charles Simic “To Boredom”


Charles Simic died last week at the age of 84.

It has been an eternity since I’ve been bored.

My list of to-do’s
and want-to-do’s
and hope-to-do’s
and someday-maybe-if-I’m-lucky-to-do’s
is much longer than the years still left to me.

But I remember those days long ago
when the clock would stop,
time would suspend itself above me,
~dangling~
and the day would last forever
until it finally collapsed with a gasp.

No more.

Time races and skitters and skips by,
each heartbeat
a grateful reminder of my continued existence
as forever moves closer than ever.

Lying in my bed I hear the clock tick,
And think of you
Caught up in circles confusion –
Is nothing new
Flashback – warm nights –
Almost left behind
Suitcases of memories,
Time after –
Sometimes you picture me –
I’m walking too far ahead
You’re calling to me, I can’t hear
What you’ve said –
Then you say – go slow – I fall behind –
The second hand unwinds
If you’re lost you can look – and you will find me
Time after time
If you fall I will catch you – I’ll be waiting
Time after time
After my picture fades and darkness has
Turned to gray
Watching through windows – you’re wondering
If I’m OK
Secrets stolen from deep inside
The drum beats out of time –
~Cyndi Lauper

The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time
Any fool can do it
There ain’t nothing to it
Nobody knows how we got to
The top of the hill
But since we’re on our way down
We might as well enjoy the ride.
The secret of love is in opening up your heart
It’s okay to feel afraid
But don’t let that stand in your way
’cause anyone knows that love is the only road
And since we’re only here for a while
Might as well show some style
Give us a smile.
Isn’t it a lovely ride
Sliding down
Gliding down
Try not to try too hard
It’s just a lovely ride.
Now the thing about time is that time
Isn’t really real
It’s just your point of view
How does it feel for you
Einstein said he could never understand it all
Planets spinning through space
The smile upon your face
Welcome to the human race.
Some kind of lovely ride
I’ll be sliding down
I’ll be gliding down
Try not to try too hard
It’s just a lovely ride.
Isn’t it a lovely ride
Sliding down
Gliding down
Try not to try too hard
It’s just a lovely ride.
~James Taylor

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Immortal Flowers

“Did you ever know that a flower, once withered and freshened again, becomes an immortal flower, – that is, that it rises again?”
~Emily Dickinson in a letter to a friend

Emily Dickinson Herbarium – preservation of trillium

Emily Dickinson herbarium- preservation of wild ginger (asarum)

While I was fearing it, it came—
But came with less of fear
Because that fearing it so long
Had almost made it fair—

There is a Fitting—a Dismay—
A Fitting—a Despair
’Tis harder knowing it is Due
Than knowing it is Here.

The Trying on the Utmost
The Morning it is new
Is Terribler than wearing it
A whole existence through.

~Emily Dickinson

Over a decade ago, as I was going through my mother’s boxed-up possessions after her death, I found the 1956 Webster’s New Dictionary of the Twentieth Century that I grew up with. This book was massive, easily weighing 10 pounds, and served as a booster seat for haircuts, a step stool for trying to reach the cookie jar on the kitchen cupboard, and of course, for looking up any obscure word that ever existed in all of history. Or so it seemed.

It was an amazing tome. And as I flipped through the pages, I found some old familiar friends that were neither black nor white nor read all over. They had survived over half a century.

Wildflowers had been carefully pressed between the pages–over two dozen specimens paper thin themselves, their existence squeezed into two dimensions–still showing faint pink or blue, or purple color, almost exuding a long ago fragrance from a summer over fifty years ago. As a child I regularly wandered out to our fields and woods to gather crimson clover blossoms, buttercup, dandelions, daisies, wild violets, wild ginger, calypso lady slippers for bouquets for my mother, and she would select the most perfect to slide between the pages of the dictionary. Occasionally she would pull one out to gently paste on a hand written card she sent to a friend.

Here were my perfect flowers, preserved and pressed for time, just waiting for the senior-citizen me to rediscover them lying between wonderful words that I love to roll in my mouth and type on a page. They are too fragile to paste to a greeting card, or even to handle due to their brittleness. They need to stay right where they are, for another generation or two or three to discover.

As a child, I was always very worried about losing my parents, fearing their death would be the end of me as well. But as Emily Dickinson writes “fearing it so long/Had almost made it fair” – as an adult, I was more prepared for the day each parted from this life. As the poet suggests, fearing it for years was much harder than the acceptance when that time had come.

Now I too am pressed for time, fading and more fragile, perhaps more brittle than I care to admit. My mother and father have blown away like the puff ball seeds of the dandelion, on to other horizons, but the sturdy old dictionary is going nowhere. It will be passed down, its delicate passengers preserved inside from a long-ago-far-away summer afternoon of flower gathering. They will be shared as a great grandchild opens the book to look up a favorite word sometime in the not-so-far-off future.

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Make Me Like You

Make me like one of your leaves
  Thirsty for light

Make me like one of your rocks
   Quiet to the core

Make me like one of your raindrops
      Joining the river

Make me like one of your feathers
      Floating in uncertainty

Make me like one of your stars
      Shining through darkness

Make me like You
     Able to love.

~Spence Pfleiderer “A Simple Morning Prayer”

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

I thank you God for most this amazing day
For the leaping greenly spirits of trees
And a blue true dream of sky
And for everything that is natural, which is infinite, which is yes
I who have died am alive again today
And this is the sun’s birthday
This is the birth day of life and of love and wings
And of the gay great happening illimitably earth
How should tasting, touching, hearing, seeing, breathing any
Lifted from the no of all nothing
Human merely being doubt unimaginable You?
Now the ears of my ears awake
And now the eyes of my eyes are opened
~E. E. Cummings~

Each day,
no matter how things feel,
no matter how tired or distracted I am,
no matter how empty or discouraged,
no matter how worried, or fearful or heartsick:

it is up to me to distill my very existence down
to this moment of beauty that will never come again;
I’m given the unimaginable opportunity to be loving
with every cell of my being.

One breath, one blink, one pause, one whispered word again and again:
thanks, thanks, thanks be to God.

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Last Ebbing Light

Clouded with snow
The cold winds blow,
And shrill on leafless bough
The robin with its burning breast
Alone sings now.

   The rayless sun,
Day’s journey done,
Sheds its last ebbing light
On fields in leagues of beauty spread
Unearthly white.

   Thick draws the dark,
And spark by spark,
The frost-fires kindle, and soon
Over that sea of frozen foam
Floats the white moon.
~ Walter De la Mare, “Winter” from  By Heart

Roused by a faint glow
between closed slats
of window blinds
at midnight

Our bedroom suffused
in ethereal glow
from a moon-white sky,
mixing a million stars and snowflakes

A snow light covers all,
settling gently around us,
tucking in the drifting corners
of a downy comforter

while heaven comes to earth,
plumps the pillows,
cushions the landscape,
and illuminates our longing hearts.

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Dawn on our Darkness: The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End

There are several attitudes towards Christmas,
Some of which we may disregard:
The social, the torpid, the patently commercial,
The rowdy (the pubs being open till midnight),
And the childish – which is not that of the child
For whom the candle is a star, and the gilded angel
Spreading its wings at the summit of the tree
Is not only a decoration, but an angel.

The child wonders at the Christmas Tree:
Let him continue in the spirit of wonder
At the Feast as an event not accepted as a pretext;
So that the glittering rapture, the amazement
Of the first-remembered Christmas Tree,
So that the surprises, delight in new possessions
(Each one with its peculiar and exciting smell),
The expectation of the goose or turkey
And the expected awe on its appearance,

So that the reverence and the gaiety
May not be forgotten in later experience,
In the bored habituation, the fatigue, the tedium,
The awareness of death, the consciousness of failure,
Or in the piety of the convert
Which may be tainted with a self-conceit
Displeasing to God and disrespectful to children
(And here I remember also with gratitude
St.Lucy, her carol, and her crown of fire):

So that before the end, the eightieth Christmas
(By “eightieth” meaning whichever is last)
The accumulated memories of annual emotion
May be concentrated into a great joy
Which shall be also a great fear, as on the occasion
When fear came upon every soul:
Because the beginning shall remind us of the end
And the first coming of the second coming.

~T.S. Eliot “The Cultivation of Christmas Tree”

Hanging old ornaments on a fresh cut tree,
I take each red glass bulb and tinfoil seraph
And blow away the dust. Anyone else
Would throw them out. They are so scratched and shabby.

My mother had so little joy to share
She kept it in a box to hide away.
But on the darkest winter nights—voilà—
She opened it resplendently to shine.

How carefully she hung each thread of tinsel,
Or touched each dime-store bauble with delight.
Blessed by the frankincense of fragrant fir,
Nothing was too little to be loved.

Why do the dead insist on bringing gifts
We can’t reciprocate? We wrap her hopes
Around the tree crowned with a fragile star.
No holiday is holy without ghosts.
~Dana Gioia, “Tinsel, Frankincense, and Fir”

When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,

to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.
~Howard Thurman from The Mood of Christmas & Other Celebrations

There are plenty of ghosts hiding in the boxes of ornaments I place on our Christmas tree.

Closing my eyes, I can see my father struggling to straighten our wild cut trees from our woods, mumbling under his breath in his frustration as he lies prone under the branches. I can see my mother, tears in her eyes, arranging ornaments from her parents’ childhoods, remembering times in her childhood that were fraught and fragile.

Each memory, every scratched-up glass ball is so easily breakable, a mere symbol for the fragility of us all this time of year.

Our real work of Christmas isn’t just during these frantic weeks of Advent but lasts year-long — often very hard intensive work, not just fa-la-la-la-la and jingle bells, but badly needed labor in this broken world with its homelessness, hunger, disease, conflict, addictions, depression and pain.

Even so, we enter winter next week replete with a startling splash of orange red that paints the skies in the evenings, the stark and gorgeous snow covered peaks surrounding us during the day,  the grace of bald eagles and trumpeter swans flying overhead, the heavenly lights that twinkle every night,  the shining globe that circles full above us, and the loving support of the Hand that rocks us to sleep when we are wailing loud.

Once again, I prepare myself to do the real work of Christmas, acknowledging the stark reality that the labor that happened in a barn that night was only the beginning of the labor required to salvage this world begun by an infant in a manger.

We don’t need a fragrant fir, full stockings on the hearth, Christmas villages on the side table, or a star on the top of the tree to know the comfort of His care and the astounding beauty of His creation, available for us without batteries, electrical plug ins, or the need of a ladder.

The ghosts and memories of Christmas tend to pull me up from my doldrums, alive to the possibility that even I, broken and fragile, scratched and showing my age, can make a difference, in His name, all year.

Nothing is too little to be loved…even me.

This year’s Advent theme “Dawn on our Darkness” is taken from this 19th century Christmas hymn:

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
dawn on our darkness and lend us your aid.
Star of the east, the horizon adorning,
guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.
~Reginald Heber -from “Brightest and Best”

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Dawn on Our Darkness: Taking an Uncertain Step

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 by the night.

My eyes must slowly adjust to such bare illumination,
as the Lamp has been carried away.

I’m feeling 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,
the symbol of our salvation.

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

This year’s Advent theme “Dawn on our Darkness” is taken from this 19th century Christmas hymn.

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
dawn on our darkness and lend us your aid.
Star of the east, the horizon adorning,
guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.
~Reginald Heber -from “Brightest and Best”

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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A Girl from Spring Valley

Fourteen years ago today, my mother, Elna Schmitz Polis, returned home for good, gently picked up and carried away by the Lord before dawn. She was just over 88 1/2 years old, and had lived much of her life anticipating her death day with some apprehension, having almost been called home at the age of 13 from a ruptured appendix, before antibiotics were an option. That near-miss seemed to haunt her, filling her with worry that it was a mistake that she survived that episode at all. Yet she thrived despite the anxiety, and ended up, much to her surprise, living a long life full of family and faith.

She was born in the isolation of a Palouse wheat and lentil farm in eastern Washington, in a two story white house located down a long lane and nestled in a draw between the undulating hills. Despite having one older brother, it was a lonely childhood which accustomed her to solitude and creative play inside her mind and heart. All her life and especially in her later years, she would prefer the quiet of her own thoughts over the bustle of a room full of activities and conversation.

Her childhood was filled with exploration of the rolling hills, the barns and buildings where her father built and repaired farm equipment, and the chilly cellar where the fresh eggs were stored after she reached under cranky hens to gather them. She sat in the cool breeze of the picketed yard, watching the huge windmill turn and creak next to the house. She helped her weary mother feed farm crews who came for harvest time and then settled in the screened porch listening to the adults talk about lentil prices and bushel production. She woke to the mourning dove call in the mornings and heard the coyote yips and howls at night.

As a young woman, she was ready to leave the farm behind for college, devoting herself to the skills of speech, and the creativity of acting and directing in drama, later teaching rural high school students, including a future Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Carolyn Kizer. She loved words and the power and beauty they wielded.

Marrying my father was a brave and impulsive act, traveling by train to the east coast only a week before he shipped out for almost 3 years to the South Pacific to fight as a Marine in WWII. She must have wondered about the man who returned from war changed and undoubtedly scarred in ways she could not see or touch. They worked it out, as rocky as it must have been at times, and in their reconciliation years later after divorce, I could see the devotion and mutual respect of life companions who shared purpose and love.

As a wife and mother, she rediscovered her calling as a steward of the land and a steward of her family, gardening and harvesting fruits, vegetables and children tirelessly. When I think of my mother, I most often think of her tending us children in the middle of the night whenever we were ill; her over-vigilance was undoubtedly due to her worry we might die in childhood as she almost did.

She never did stop worrying during the last few months if her life after a devastating leg fracture. As she became more dependent on others in her physical decline, she tried to give up the control she thought she had to maintain through her “worry energy” and became more accepting about the control the Lord maintains over all we are and will become.

I know from where my shyness comes, my preference for birdsongs rather than radio music, my preference for naps, and my tendency to be serious and straight laced with a twinkle in my eye. This is my German Palouse side–immersing in the quietness of solitude, thrilling to the sight of the spring wheat flowing like a green ocean wave in the breeze and appreciating the warmth of rich soil held in my hands. From that heritage came my mother and it is the legacy she has left with me. I am forever grateful to her for her unconditional love and her willingness to share the warmth of her nest whenever we felt the need to fly back home and shelter, overprotected but safe nonetheless, under her wings.

Pearls of Early Dew

October is the treasurer of the year,
And all the months pay bounty to her store;
The fields and orchards still their tribute bear,
And fill her brimming coffers more and more.
But she, with youthful lavishness,
Spends all her wealth in gaudy dress,
And decks herself in garments bold
Of scarlet, purple, red, and gold.

She heedeth not how swift the hours fly,
But smiles and sings her happy life along;
She only sees above a shining sky;
She only hears the breezes’ voice in song.
Her garments trail the woodlands through,
And gather pearls of early dew
That sparkle, till the roguish Sun
Creeps up and steals them every one.

But what cares she that jewels should be lost,
When all of Nature’s bounteous wealth is hers?
Though princely fortunes may have been their cost,
Not one regret her calm demeanor stirs.
Whole-hearted, happy, careless, free,
She lives her life out joyously,
Nor cares when Frost stalks o’er her way
And turns her auburn locks to gray.
~Paul Laurence Dunbar “October”

Frost arrives this week
as pearls of dew freeze into place, dangling –
strings of liquid gems transform to icy diamonds.

A rich and mellow October gives way
to crisp and colorless November –
a sorrowful undressing.

All fades to gray; so do I.

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The Unbroken Dark

Now you hear what the house has to say.
Pipes clanking, water running in the dark,
the mortgaged walls shifting in discomfort,
and voices mounting in an endless drone
of small complaints like the sounds of a family
that year by year you’ve learned how to ignore.

But now you must listen to the things you own,
all that you’ve worked for these past years,
the murmur of property, of things in disrepair,
the moving parts about to come undone,
and twisting in the sheets remember all
the faces you could not bring yourself to love.

How many voices have escaped you until now,
the venting furnace, the floorboards underfoot,

the steady accusations of the clock
numbering the minutes no one will mark.
The terrible clarity this moment brings,
the useless insight, the unbroken dark.
~Dana Gioia, “Insomnia” from 99 Poems: New and Selected. 

The almost disturbing scent
of peonies presses through the screens,
and I know without looking how
those heavy white heads lean down
under the moon’s light. A cricket chafes
and pauses, chafes and pauses,
as if distracted or preoccupied.

When I open my eyes to document
my sleeplessness by the clock, a point
of greenish light pulses near the ceiling.
A firefly . . . In childhood I ran out
at dusk, a jar in one hand, lid
pierced with airholes in the other,
getting soaked to the knees
in the long wet grass.

The light moves unsteadily, like someone
whose balance is uncertain after traveling
many hours, coming a long way.
Get up. Get up and let it out.

But I leave it hovering overhead, in case
it’s my father, come back from the dead
to ask, “Why are you still awake? You can
put grass in their jar in the morning.”

~Jane Kenyon from “Insomnia” from Collected Poems

Sleep comes its little while.
Then I wake in the valley of midnight or three a.m.
to the first fragrances of spring which is coming,
all by itself, no matter what
My heart says,
what you thought you have you do not have.
My body says,
will this pounding ever stop?
My heart says:
there, there, be a good student.
My body says:
let me up and out,
I want to fondle those soft white flowers,
open in the night
~Mary Oliver
from A Thousand Morning Poems

Our house does make sounds at night. It has many stories to tell, and does.

I’ve become accustomed to its various voices after almost thirty years sleeping (and too often not sleeping) here, yet hearing new noises are disconcerting – whether thumps that come from the attic, pattering of little feet across the roof, clinking and clunking of the furnace, or inexplicable wild sounds right outside the bedroom window.

Listening in the night reminds me I’m a mere visitor here. The house, the farm, all that surrounds me here remains long after I’m gone. Awake or asleep, I want to spend my time well here; tossing and turning in my thoughts gives me a chance to consider what the house, the land, the the wild and not-so-wild critters outside have to say. The “terrible clarity” of the unbroken dark is often disconcerting and downright frightening.

It is then, and only then – God’s still, small voice breaks the dark.
Always has. Always will.

I will seek You Lord
Search with all my heart till I find You
Waiting patiently
Longing for one word to breath new life
Your words are life

I will listen, ever listen
For Your still small voice
Lord I’m longing to know You more
So I will listen for Your still small voice

Take me to a place
Sheltered from the noise and distraction
Lord be my escape
Open up my heart to whispers of
Your life and love

I will listen, ever listen
For Your still small voice
Lord I’m longing to know You more
So I will listen for Your still small voice

I will listen, ever listen
For Your still small voice
Lord I’m longing to know You more
So I will listen for Your still small voice
~Jay Stocker

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Surrounded By Fog

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

~T.S. Eliot from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

The fog comes
on little cat feet.
It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.
~Carl Sandburg “Fog”

When I was young, fog felt oppressive, as sorrow-filled as the fog horns sounding continually in nearby bay.

Now, as I approach my eighth decade of life, I appreciate fog for slowing me down when life is compelling me to rush too fast.

When forced to take time, I begin to notice what I missed before:
a cloud descends to hug and kiss the ground, bejeweling everything it touches – like a cat luxuriously wrapping itself around the world, so soft and gentle.

This October fog makes the dying of autumn subtly beautiful, all gossamer garland, transparent pearls and glowing whiskers.

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