Too Many Missing Pieces

Adrift in the liberating, late light
of August, delicate, frivolous,
they make their way to my front porch
and flutter near the glassed-in bulb,
translucent as a thought suddenly
wondered aloud, illumining the air
that’s thick with honeysuckle and dusk.
You and I are doing our best
at conversation, keeping it light, steering clear
of what we’d like to say.
You leave, and the night becomes
cluttered with moths, some tattered,
their dumbly curious filaments
startling against my cheek. How quickly,
instinctively, I brush them away.
Dazed, they cling to the outer darkness
like pale reminders of ourselves.
Others seem to want so desperately
to get inside. Months later, I’ll find
the woolens, snug in their resting places,
full of missing pieces.

~Jennifer O’Grady “Moths” from White.

The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.
~John Stuart Mill from On Liberty

I recently discovered my favorite wool sweater has several holes thanks to a past moth invasion. The moths were feasting while I was simmering in frustration at the state of the world.

It is just human nature to want others to think and believe as I do and when they don’t, I’m befuddled, flummoxed and can feel downright pissy about it. I’m trying to rehabilitate myself but some days I suffer a set-back.

I read an article in the New York Times today that I found infuriating in its conclusion that maternal instinct is only a myth created by men. The headline was so offensive to me that I initially couldn’t finish the article. I just got angrier the second time through. I was like a moth to a flame shining bright: I found the article so irresistible to read because I disagreed so strongly. There were holes everywhere in the writer’s arguments claiming mothering is a male-self serving myth – like so many other hot button issues today, this was an opportunity for “woke” points to be made and non-woke points (like mine) being gaslit.

Unfortunately, this has become the way of modern discourse.

On further reflection, I realize my own point of view also is chock-full of moth-eaten holes if submitted to the scrutiny of irritable New York Times readers with a different life experience and world view. Instead, I wish there could be an opportunity for a sit-on-the-front-porch-in-waning-August discussion about what really matters in this life, leaving the porch light on for disoriented and misguided moths of public opinion to beat themselves silly. We could commit ourselves to ongoing relationship despite our disagreements, rather than an insistence controversial topics should be avoided between consenting adults.

Yet my energy for argument has ebbed as I age while the general public penchant for cruelty grows.

My holey sweater will never be the same, nor is my peace with seeking truth among the opinions of the world.

In retrospect, the moths who found my sweater had the better meal.

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A Heart I Cannot Fathom

Today, when I could do nothing,
I saved an ant.

It must have come in with the morning paper,
still being delivered
to those who shelter in place.

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.

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 Hirshfield from “Today, When I Could Do Nothing”

The other day, as I sat down in the grass to take pictures, I felt a tickle at the nape of my neck. I reached up, picked up something, and when I looked to see what it was, I found a tiny ant crushed in my fingers. Suddenly it felt like things were crawling everywhere on me, especially my scalp. I shook out my hair and clothes and found there weren’t any more ants. It was only one very unfortunate defenseless victim who chose the wrong place and time to inhabit me – unexpected, unwanted and unwelcome.

As a child, I was fascinated by the ant hills in the woods and fields of our small farm. I would track yards and yards of ant trails from the busy mounded colonies to tree trunks and other sources of food, watching the single file single-minded insects heading through all sorts of terrain to sustain their community. Having ants crawling on me wasn’t a problem then – they were part of my exploration of creation and sometimes they explored me.

How is your life, I wanted to ask.

Now as an adult, I confess I pay regularly for someone to come to the farm to spray around our house to prevent a resurgence of carpenter ants that threatened our foundation and walls some years ago. It works pretty well so I don’t have to deal with the reality of nature/creation invading my personal space. My wholistic acceptance of my co-existence with ants ends at my front door. No welcome mat for them, thou shalt not trespass.

I don’t seek to fathom their heart or a felt need to find food.

So now our country is embroiled in the polarizing issue of whether to protect the defenseless when they are unexpected, unwanted and unwelcome, especially when it may pose great personal risk to another. Many of those most upset by the judicial decision have a voice to protest today because their mother let them live, even though their conception was unexpected, unwanted and unwelcome. They were not prevented through prophylactic means, they were not squished in an intentional self-defensive move.

They were indeed part of creation.

They are living and whole and as angry and anxious as I was when I thought I was crawling with ants.

How is your life, I want to ask. How is it to feel what you are feeling right now?

I fathom your beating heart and that of a mother’s loving heart of selfless sacrifice.

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Lean with the Fury

Today, I planted a young Horsechestnut tree.

So slim and flexible
I could have rung my fingers round that skinny trunk.
Oh, you are built to survive a vernal storm.
Listen to me, though—


endure the wind’s force without resistance.
Lean with the fury.


When you’re nearly bowed over
think broad trunk think sturdy bark.
Someday you won’t bend nearly so—


and to that scared little girl
the one I saw yesterday in the department store


hiding under the dress rack
enduring a mother’s torrent—


I’m sorry.
You won’t bend nearly so
after you’re grown.
~Christine Bodine, “late apology to the scared little girl in the department store” from Souvenirs of Myself

I know a psychiatrist colleague, soon to be 80 years old and still seeing patients, who recommends people should aim to be more like a willow than a chestnut tree. His long clinical practice has given him a perspective of who survives and who becomes irretrievably broken when the forces of life hit hard.

I know I am not one to freely yield to the wind or ice storm. More chestnut than willow or birch, I can tend toward inflexibility rather than suppleness.

This means I easily break when anger and fury abound in the world around me, rather than leaning and bending. What’s left is broken pieces awaiting salvage, feeding the flames of the brush pile with all the rest of the rigid and unyielding.

Yea, if I don’t bow like a willow, I fall broken upon the rock.

photo by Harry Rodenberger

I will bow and be simple,
I will bow and be free,
I will bow and be humble,
Yea, bow like the willow tree.

I will bow, this is the token,
I will wear the easy yoke,
I will bow and will be broken,
Yea, I’ll fall upon the rock.
Shaker melody

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Unclench Your Fists

Unclench your fists
Hold out your hands.
Take mine.
Let us hold each other.
Thus is his Glory Manifest.
~Madeleine L’Engle “Epiphany”

Journeying God,
pitch your tent with mine
so that I may not become deterred
by hardship, strangeness, doubt.
Show me the movement I must make

toward a wealth not dependent on possessions
toward a wisdom not based on books
toward a strength not bolstered by might
toward a God not confined to heaven

but scandalously earthed, poor, unrecognized…

Help me find myself
as I walk in others’ shoes
.

~Kate Compston, from A Poem for Epiphany From Bread of Tomorrow: Prayers for the Church Year

Imagine the Lord, for the first time, from darkness, and stranded
Immensely in distance, recognizing Himself in the Son
Of Man: His homelessness plain to him now in a homeless one.

~Joseph Brodsky from “Nativity Poem” (translated by Seamus Heaney)

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’

A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

…And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

~T.S.Eliot from “Journey of the Magi”

In journeyings often,
in perils of waters,
in perils of robbers,
in perils by mine own countrymen,
in perils by the heathen,
in perils in the city,
in perils in the wilderness,
in perils in the sea,
in perils among false brethren;
In weariness and painfulness,
in watchings often,
in hunger and thirst,
in fastings often,
in cold and nakedness.
2 Corinthians 11:26-27


Oh, when we are journeying through the murky night

and the dark woods of affliction and sorrow,
it is something to find here and there a spray broken,
or a leafy stem bent down with the tread of His foot
and the brush of His hand as He passed;
and to remember that the path He trod He has hallowed,
and thus to find lingering fragrance
and hidden strength in the remembrance of Him
as “in all points tempted like as we are,”
bearing grief for us,
bearing grief with us,
bearing grief like us.
~Alexander MacLaren from Sermons Preached in Manchester: First series

We are called to journey into the unfamiliar;
some go no further than the backyard,
some to the ends of the earth,
some to the moon and back.

The journey is not about the miles covered;
it is an internal trek we all must make
on the crooked road of our hearts,
by relaxing our clenched fists,
taking the offered hand and being led
to that straight path back to God.

Much of the journey is perilous.
We may become both sacrament and sacrifice.

He has been down that road before us,
knowing the temptations, and bearing the grief we face.

There is but one map available and one map maker.
This road leads home and home is where He patiently waits for us.

January 6, the traditional day of celebrating “Epiphany” as the manifestation of God on earth in the form of His incarnate Son, calls us to deeper scrutiny of our earthly journey —
away from our anger, our shame and our resultant homelessness,
to the restoration of our souls, resting in the sacrifice of Christ Himself.

1. On this day earth shall ring
with the song children sing
Praising the young King,
who was born to save us
And the maiden who
brought Him forth to save us.

2. His the doom, ours the mirth,
when he came to earth,
Bethlehem saw his birth,
ox and ass beside him,
He came to vanquish
the Prince of Darkness.

3. God’s bright star o’er his head,
Wise men come seeking Him,
They kneel and lay their gifts
beside Him and adore Him,
They offer gifts of gold,
frankincense, and myrrh

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Companions in the Faith

east
west

In Christ there is no east or west,
in him no south or north,
but one great fellowship of love
throughout the whole wide earth.

In Christ shall true hearts everywhere
their high communion find;
his service is the golden cord
close binding humankind.

Join hands, companions in the faith,
whate’er your race may be!
All children of the living God

are surely kin to me.

In Christ now meet both east and west;
in him meet south and north,
all Christly souls are one in him
throughout the whole wide earth.
~William Dunkerley

north
south
east
west

We Christians are accused of being judgmental and unwilling to consider other points of view. We are usually the first to criticize another Christian of being unfaithful or heretical, not following doctrine and creeds, or being too liberal or too conservative or just too plain stubborn.

I’ve done it myself pretty recently and have received more than my share of mean-spirited, even hateful, messages from Christian brothers and sisters who disagree with my point of view on some issue.

Christians tend to revel in eating their own.

When I’m tempted to judge lest I be judged, I remember who Christ hung out with: the cast offs, the diseased and some of the most undesirable people in society. They were surely more receptive to His message than those who believed they knew better than Him, who questioned His every action and motive, and who plotted against Him behind His back.

It is crucial to be reminded that Christ doesn’t endorse one political party over another, one denomination or faith community over another, one zip code over another, or one racial or ethnic group over another. He seeks true hearts

Christians, east and west, north and south, constitute His body on earth, crucially dwelling in companionship as His image. It is only through His loving Spirit we are brought home where we belong, back to the center from the fraying ends of the earth and fragile edges of our faith.

West
North

A book of beauty in words and photography, available to order here:

Madly in Love

How is it they live for eons in such harmony
– the billions of stars –
when most men can barely go a minute
without declaring war in their mind

against someone they know.

There are wars where no one marches with a flag,

though that does not keep casualties from mounting.

Our hearts irrigate this earth. 
We are fields before each other.
How can we live in harmony?


First we need to know 

we are all madly in love
with the same God.

O Lord my God, make me
submissive without protest,

poor without discouragement,
chaste without regret,
patient without complaint,
humble without posturing,
cheerful without frivolity,
mature without gloom,
and quick-witted without flippancy.


Grant that I may know
what You require me to do.
Bestow upon me
the power to accomplish Your will,
as is necessary and fitting
for the salvation of my soul.

~St. Thomas Aquinas

I look at headline news through my fingers, cringing.  

Amid the centuries of posturing between governments and every imaginable tribe and faction, the names and faces change but the nature of hatred of the “other” doesn’t.

We’ve seen this all before, over and over through history.  Over 150 years ago it was in the Gettysburg fields that blood of rival armies intermingled and irrigated U.S. soil.  Though now we stand side by side with Germany and Japan, our bitter adversaries a mere eighty years ago, our world continually brews new enemies and ignites new conflicts.

We can barely go a minute without declaring war in our minds even against our neighbor, even those we consider friends and family. There is yelling from the streets in angry protest and screaming at school board meetings. Casualties mount in our bitterness toward one another.

And who am I to point fingers or squint through them at the news of the day?
I am as prone to this as anyone.

Am I myself capable of submission without protest, remaining patient and uncomplaining even when I disagree? Can I embody humility without having a hidden agenda? Can I remain selfless when my true nature is wholly selfish?

How can there ever be harmony? 
How can I overcome my own rancorous heart?

As critical as it seems, It is not love for one another that comes first.
I must first know, love and trust the only God who has loved the unloveable so much He became one with us, overpowering our tendency to hate one another by taking it all upon Himself.

Jesus found us dying in a world desperately drying up; His bleeding heart poured itself out onto our thirsting soil. We have been handed salvation.

It is, in fact, God who is madly in love with us and though we’ve done nothing to deserve it, it is our turn to show love to one another.

A book from Barnstorming is available for order here:

I Can Scarcely Wait

Light splashed this morning
on the shell-pink anemones
swaying on their tall stems;
down blue-spiked veronica
light flowed in rivulets
over the humps of the honeybees;
this morning I saw light kiss
the silk of the roses
in their second flowering,
my late bloomers
flushed with their brandy.
A curious gladness shook me.
So I have shut the doors of my house,
so I have trudged downstairs to my cell,
so I am sitting in semi-dark
hunched over my desk
with nothing for a view
to tempt me
but a bloated compost heap,
steamy old stinkpile,
under my window;
and I pick my notebook up
and I start to read aloud
and still-wet words I scribbled
on the blotted page:
“Light splashed…”

I can scarcely wait till tomorrow
when a new life begins for me,
as it does each day,
as it does each day.
~Stanley Kunitz  “The Round”

It is too easy to be ground to a pulp by the constant irritations of the day – my aggravations are too easily expressed, my worries never seem to wane – all of it sucks gladness out of me. When my feelings become four-dimensional and surround and drown me, I lose all perspective on what got me out of bed to begin the day.

God is in these intricate details, whether the splash of light on a petal or the smell of rotting compost; it is my job to notice this. It is tempting to look past His ubiquitous presence in all things, to seek out only the elegant grandeur of creation and bypass the plain and smelly and homely. Yet even what lacks beauty from my limited perspective is worthy of His divine attention.

He knows the value and purpose of each thing He created, including me and the things that aggravate me no end.

The time has come to be refreshed and renewed
even when surrounded by decay.
His care is revealed in the tiniest way.
He is worthy of my attention because I am constantly worthy of His.

If I rise early enough, I can see each new day’s light splash everything awake. By the time I come in to sit down to record my words and photos, I’m thoroughly washed with a fresh dawn. I can scarcely wait to take on what this day will bring.

A new life begins for me,
as it does each day,
as it does each day.

Maybe you or someone you love needs encouragement and a splash of light and beauty? Consider this book from Barnstorming, available to order here:

Seeing Clearly

To see clearly,
not needing a drink
or pill or puff
of any pipe
to know I’m alive.
To come home,
peel off sandals
and step onto
the cool tile floor
needing only
the rush of water
over strawberries
I picked myself
and then a knife
to trim the dusty
green heads
from each one,
to watch them
gleam cleanly
in a colander
in a patch of sun
near the sink.
~James Crews “Clearly” from Healing the Divide: Poems of Kindness and Connection

As a child, I could see some people I loved struggling with daily life like a never-ending wrestling match.

Can’t relax? Have a drink.
Feeling irritable? Have a smoke.
Can’t wake up? Strong coffee.
Can’t lose weight? Amphetamines.
Can’t sleep? Valium.

I watched as one after another after another lost the wrestling match with the life’s sharp edges, sometimes dying too young from their self-medication.

As a result, I never could reconcile experimenting with my brain, staying stone cold sober throughout 21 years of school, bored to tears at parties watching others get hammered and stoned. As a physician, I spent half my career trying to help people stop wrestling with life and find their sober selves again.

Like berries picked into a colander, we all need gentle handling, rinsing and hulling, to wash away the dust of the field, the spiders and slug slime.

No more wrestling. Restored to sweetness and sparkling beauty.

A new book from Barnstorming is available to order here:

Waiting in Wilderness: The Light Unseen

Six days of work are spent
To make a Sunday quiet
That Sabbath may return.
It comes in unconcern;
We cannot earn or buy it.
Suppose rest is not sent
Or comes and goes unknown,
The light, unseen, unshown.
Suppose the day begins
In wrath at circumstance,
Or anger at one’s friends
In vain self-innocence
False to the very light,
Breaking the sun in half,
Or anger at oneself
Whose controverting will
Would have the sun stand still.
The world is lost in loss
Of patience; the old curse
Returns, and is made worse
As newly justified.
In hopeless fret and fuss,
In rage at worldly plight
Creation is defied,
All order is unpropped,
All light and singing stopped
~Wendell Berry “Sabbath Poem V”

On the calendar, this past pandemic year contained just as many Sabbath days as any other year. Even so, we Christians allowed these fifty-plus precious days of rest to be broken by our own impatience and anger.

As a result of pandemic concerns and government regulations, many churches stopped meeting and even now continue to only worship virtually. Others blithely ignored the risks and continued to meet as they always had. Some tried to find an uneasy middle ground, meeting with restrictions on seating and indoor singing.

It felt like the Son Himself and His Light had been broken in half — the body of Christ divided.

The pandemic may be in its waning months but how will the church recover? Will friends find unity again after months of separation, disagreement and antipathy? Can healing reach into our pews and bond our prayers back together?

I have struggled to find rest on these Sabbath days, to look forward to meeting together with my brothers and sisters in the body. I am challenged by my tendency to fret and fuss. I need forgiveness for my attitude and I need to show forgiveness for those who see things differently.

The Lord knows what He is doing with His people, illuminating our divided hearts. Even in the darkest hour, He took on all our imperfections and failings and made them right.

May His broken Light be healed, our corrupted hearts be made whole and may our singing begin once again.

Waiting in Wilderness: Swallowed with All Hope

Measure the walls. Count the ribs. Notch the long days.
Look up for blue sky through the spout. Make small fires
with the broken hulls of fishing boats. Practice smoke signals.
Call old friends, and listen for echoes of distant voices.
Organize your calendar. Dream of the beach. Look each way
for the dim glow of light. Work on your reports. Review
each of your life’s ten million choices. Endure moments
of self-loathing. Find the evidence of those before you.
Destroy it. Try to be very quiet, and listen for the sound
of gears and moving water. Listen for the sound of your heart.
Be thankful that you are here, swallowed with all hope,
where you can rest and wait. Be nostalgic. Think of all
the things you did and could have done. Remember
treading water in the center of the still night sea, your toes
pointing again and again down, down into the black depths.
~Dan Albergotti “Things to Do in the Belly of the Whale” from The Boatloads.

But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
Jonah 4:4

Most of us feel as though we were swallowed into the belly of the whale a year ago. We are treading water in the dark, disoriented and not just a little angry. All we can see of the outside world is a bit of blue sky through a tiny hole above us.

We try to imagine what life was like before the pandemic swallowed up our light and hope but if you are like me, you are grumpy.

Yet the belly of the whale is not forever. It is a time of contemplation with little distraction other than our own emotions. We’ll soon be regurgitated back onto the shore of our trivial pursuits and busyness where suddenly it will feel too noisy with too many demands.

This quiet time is meant to teach something to each of us, even if it is just to count the ribs, gaze into our own darkness and contemplate how we were trying to escape when God asked something of us.

I think of all the things I did and could have done, but resisted when the Lord asked me.
It is time that I stop being angry and start to listen.

1. Courage, my soul, and let us journey on,
Tho’ the night is dark, it won’t be very long.
Thanks be to God, the morning light appears,
And the storm is passing over, Hallelujah!

Chorus: Hallelujah! Hallelujah! The storm is passing over, Hallelujah!

2. Billows rolling high, and thunder shakes the ground,
Lightnings flash, and tempest all around,
Jesus walks the sea and calms the angry waves,
And the storm is passing over, Hallelujah!

[Chorus]

3. The stars have disappeared, and distant lights are dim,
My soul is filled with fears, the seas are breaking in.
I hear the Master cry, “Be not afraid, ’tis I,”
And the storm is passing over, Hallelujah!

[Chorus]

4. Soon we shall reach the distant shining shore,
Free from all the storms, we’ll rest forevermore.
Safe within the veil, we’ll furl the riven sail,
And the storm will all be over, Hallelujah!