Beauty Laid Bare

To be a poet…
you must believe in the uniqueness of every person,
and therefore in your own.

To find your voice you must forget about finding it,
and trust that if you pay sufficient attention to life
you will be found to have something to say

which no one else can say.

And that will be your voice,
unsought,
singing out from you of itself. 


~Denise Levertov

At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace.
It is handed to you, but only if you look for it.
You search, you break your fists, your back, your brain, and then –
and only then -it is handed to you.

Write as if you were dying.
At the same time, assume you write for an audience

consisting solely of terminal patients.
That is, after all, the case.
What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon?
What could you say to a dying person

that would not enrage by its triviality?

Why are we reading,
if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened
and its deepest mystery probed?
Why are we reading,

if not in hope that the writer
will magnify and dramatize our days,
will illuminate and inspire us

with wisdom, courage and the hope of meaningfulness,
and press upon our minds the deepest mysteries,
so we may feel again their majesty and power?


What do we ever know that is higher than that power
which, from time to time, seizes our lives,
and which reveals us startlingly to ourselves
as creatures set down here bewildered? 

~Annie Dillard from “Write Till You Drop”

Some days my voice feels so weakened
I am unable to sing out from myself,
knowing I have said too much
that means so little.

I swing and I miss, over and over
swishing the air –
hoping, listening, looking, living
for a connection made
through sharing images and words.

I am bewildered by life most of the time –
how figurative and literal smoke and haze
can permeate and discolor our days and nights.

What I must do is lay bare the beauty I see,
seeking a way to make a sad and suffering world
less mystifying.

A new book from Barnstorming is available to order here:

To Live in the Layers

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon

How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?


Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.

In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered

and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:

“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”

Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.

I am not done with my changes.
~Stanley Kunitz from “The Layers”

A child is asleep. Her private life unwinds inside skin and skull; only as she sheds childhood, first one decade and then another, can she locate the actual, historical stream, see the setting of her dreaming private life—the nation, the city, the neighborhood, the house where the family lives—as an actual project under way, a project living people willed, and made well or failed, and are still making, herself among them.

I breathed the air of history all unaware, and walked oblivious through its littered layers.
~Annie Dillard from An American Childhood

photo of Wiser Lake and Mt. Baker by Joel de Waard

…we become whole by having the courage to revisit and embrace all the layers of our lives, denying none of them, so that we’re finally able to say, “Yes, all of this is me, and all of this has helped make me who I am.”

When we get to that point, amazingly, we can look at all the layers together and see the beauty of the whole.
~Parker Palmer from “Embracing All the Layers of Your Life” in On Being

My favorite scenes are ones where there are several “layers” to study, whether it is a still life of petals or a deep landscape with a foreground, middle and backdrop. The challenge is to decide where to look first, what to draw into sharp focus, and how to absorb it all as a whole. In fact, if I only see one aspect, I miss the entire point of the composition. It is wonderfully multi-faceted and multi-layered because that is how my own life is – complex with so much diverse and subtle shading.

If I try to suppress some darker part of my own life I wish to forget and blur out, I ignore the beauty of the contrast with the light that illuminates the rest.

The layers reflect who I was created to be as an image-bearer – complex, nuanced, illuminated in the presence of dark.

Beautifully composed and ultimately transformed.

Enjoying Barnstorming posts like this? You can order this book from Barnstorming here:

Waiting at the Edge of a Petal

Life is a stream 
On which we strew 
Petal by petal the flower of our heart; 
The end lost in dream, 
They float past our view, 
We only watch their glad, early start. 

Freighted with hope, 
Crimsoned with joy, 

We scatter the leaves of our opening rose; 
Their widening scope, 
Their distant employ, 
We never shall know. And the stream as it flows 
Sweeps them away, 
Each one is gone 
Ever beyond into infinite ways. 
We alone stay 
While years hurry on, 
The flower fared forth, though its fragrance still stays. 
~Amy Lowell “Petals”

It is at the edge of a petal that love waits.
~William Carlos Williams from Spring and All (1923)

Here is the fringy edge where elements meet and realms mingle, where time and eternity spatter each other with foam.
~Annie Dillard from Holy the Firm

It is common to look for love only inside the heart of things,
watching it pulse as both showpiece and show off,
reverberating from deep within,
yet loud enough for all the world to bear witness.

But as I advance on life’s road,
I find love lying waiting at the periphery of my heart,
fragile and easily torn as a petal edge – 
clinging to the fringe of my life,
holding on through storms and trials.

This love is ever-present,
protects and cherishes,
fed by fine little veins which branch
from the center to the tender margins of infinity.

It is on that delicate edge of forever I dwell,
waiting to be fed and trembling with anticipation.

A new book from Barnstorming is available for order here:

My Rough Edges

What does it feel like to be alive?
Living, you stand under a waterfall…
It is time pounding at you, time.
Knowing you are alive is watching on every side
your generation’s short time falling away
as fast as rivers drop through air,
and feeling it hit.

I had hopes for my rough edges.
I wanted to use them as a can opener,
to cut myself a hole in the world’s surface, and exit through it.

~Annie Dillard from An American Childhood

I saw a mom take her raincoat off
and give it to her young daughter when
a storm took over the afternoon. My god,
I thought, my whole life I’ve been under her
raincoat thinking it was somehow a marvel
that I never got wet.

~Ada Limón from “The Raincoat”

Mothering is like standing under a waterfall, barely able to breathe, barraged by the firehose of birthing and raising children – so much so fast.  Ideally, nothing rough remains after child rearing — all becomes soft and cushiony, designed to gather in, hold tight, and then reluctantly and necessarily, let go.

All the while a mother does whatever she must to protect her children from also getting soaked in the barrage, knowing one day they will also feel overwhelmed in the storms of life.

Now that my children have grown and flown, I’m well aware my rough edges still can surface, like Godzilla from the primordial swamp, unbidden and unwarranted, ready to cut a hole in the world.  I wish my sharpness gone, smoothed to a fine sheen and finish, sanded down by the relentless flow of the waters of time.

Now from afar, my children polish me even as I try to throw my raincoat over them virtually to keep them from getting wet in inevitable downpours. My reach will never be far enough.

Time pounds away both at me and them. I can feel it ruffing and buffing me every single moment, every drop its own mixed blessing, every drop unique, never to come again.

Wing to Wing

No speed of wind or water rushing by
But you have speed far greater. You can climb
Back up a stream of radiance to the sky,
And back through history up the stream of time.
And you were given this swiftness, not for haste
Nor chiefly that you may go where you will,
But in the rush of everything to waste,
That you may have the power of standing still-
Off any still or moving thing you say.
Two such as you with such a master speed

Cannot be parted nor be swept away
From one another once you are agreed
That life is only life forevermore
Together wing to wing and oar to oar
~Robert Frost “Master Speed”

All at once I saw what looked like a Martian spaceship whirling towards me in the air. It flashed borrowed light like a propeller. Its forward motion greatly outran its fall. As I watched, transfixed, it rose, just before it would have touched a thistle, and hovered pirouetting in one spot, then twirled on and finally came to rest. I found it in the grass; it was a maple key, a single winged seed from a pair. Hullo. I threw it into the wind and it flew off again, bristling with animate purpose, not like a thing dropped or windblown, pushed by the witless winds of convection currents hauling round the world’s rondure where they must, but like a creature muscled and vigorous, or a creature spread thin to that other wind, the wind of the spirit which bloweth where it listeth, lighting, and raising up, and easing down. O maple key, I thought, I must confess I thought, o welcome, cheers.

And the bell under my ribs rang a true note, a flourish as of blended horns, clarion, sweet, and making a long dim sense I will try at length to explain. Flung is too harsh a word for the rush of the world. Blown is more like it, but blown by a generous, unending breath. That breath never ceases to kindle, exuberant, abandoned; frayed splinters spatter in every direction and burgeon into flame. And now when I sway to a fitful wind, alone and listing, I will think, maple key. When I see a photograph of earth from space, the planet so startlingly painterly and hung, I will think, maple key. When I shake your hand or meet your eyes I will think, two maple keys. If I am a maple key falling, at least I can twirl.
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

(Happy birthday to Annie today — her 76th !)

I think a lot about wings — particularly when I’m sitting belted in a seat looking out at them bouncing in turbulence, marveling at how they keep hundreds of people and an entire aircraft miles above ground. 

Wings, no matter what they belong to, are marvelous structures that combine strength and lift and lightness and expanse and mobility, with the ability to rise up and ease back to earth.

And so ideally I am blown rather than flung through my fitful windy days,
rising and falling as those thin veined wings guide me,
twirling, swirling as I fall,
oh so slowly, to settle, planted.

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The Slanted Light

There’s a certain Slant of light
On winter afternoons —
That oppresses, like the Heft
of cathedral tunes.
When it comes, the Landscape listens —
Shadows hold their breath —
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death.
~Emily Dickinson

How valuable it is in these short days,
threading through empty maple branches,
the lacy-needled sugar pines.

 
Its glint off sheets of ice tells the story
of Death’s brightness, her bitter cold.

 
We can make do with so little, just the hint
of warmth, the slanted light.
..
~Molly Fisk, “Winter Sun” from 
The More Difficult Beauty

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
~Emily Dickinson

I like the slants of light; I’m a collector.
That’s a good one, I say…
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

During our northwest winters, there is usually so little sunlight on gray cloudy days that I routinely turn on the two light bulbs in the big hay barn any time I need to fetch hay bales for the horses. This is so I avoid falling into the holes that inevitably develop in the hay stack between bales. Winter murky lighting tends to hide the dark shadows of the leg-swallowing pits among the bales, something that is particularly hazardous when carrying a 60 pound hay bale.

Yesterday when I went to grab hay bales for the horses at sunset, before I flipped the light switch, I could see light already blazing in the big barn. The last of the day’s sun rays were at a precise winter slant, streaming through the barn slat openings, ricocheting off the roof timbers onto the bales, casting an almost fiery glow onto the hay. The barn was ignited and ablaze without fire and smoke — the last things one would even want in a hay barn.

I scrambled among the bales without worry.

In my life outside the barn I’ve been falling into more than my share of dark holes lately. Even when I know where they lie and how deep they are, some days I will manage to step right in anyway. Each time it knocks the breath out of me, makes me cry out, makes me want to quit trying to lift the heavy loads. It leaves me fearful to venture where the footing is uncertain.

Then, on the darkest of days, light comes from the most unexpected of places, blazing a trail to help me see where to step, what to avoid, how to navigate the hazards to avoid collapsing on my face. I’m redirected, inspired anew, granted grace, gratefully calmed and comforted amid my fears. Even though the light fades, and the darkness descends again, it is only until tomorrow. Then it reignites again.

The Light returns and so will I.

A January Partly Cloudy

Today is one of those
excellent January partly cloudies
in which light chooses
an unexpected part of the landscape
to trick out in gilt,
and then the shadow sweeps it away.

You know you’re alive.
You take huge steps,
trying to feel the planet’s roundness arc between your feet.
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

It was like a church to me.
I entered it on soft foot,
Breath held like a cap in the hand.
It was quiet.
What God there was made himself felt,
Not listened to, in clean colours
That brought a moistening of the eye,
In a movement of the wind over grass.

There were no prayers said. But stillness
Of the heart’s passions – that was praise
Enough; and the mind’s cession
Of its kingdom. I walked on,
Simple and poor, while the air crumbled
And broke on me generously as bread.
~R.S. Thomas “The Moor”

There are January days
when I am surrounded
by mist and fog and partly cloudies-
a brief gift of blue sky
and gilt light.

God is felt on days like this,
neither seen or heard,
His stilling presence
overtaking me
with each breath I draw,
following the path of each glistening tear,
becoming the arcing ground
reaching to meet my foot
with each bold step I take.

Struck Senseless

I saw the tree with lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed.

It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance.

I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Too much of the time
I fixate on what I think I can control in life~
what I see, hear, taste, feel

Instead –
how must I appear to my Maker
as I begin each day?
-my utter astonishment at waking up,
-my true gratitude for each breathless moment,
-my pealing resonance
when struck senseless by life.

Shadows Move with the Sun

The shadow’s the thing. 
If I no longer see shadows as “dark marks,”
as do the newly sighted,
then I see them as making some sort of sense of the light.
They give the light distance;
they put it in its place.
They inform my eyes of my location here, here O Israel,
here in the world’s flawed sculpture,

here in the flickering shade of the nothingness
between me and the light.
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Be comforted; the world is very old,
  And generations pass, as they have passed,
  A troop of shadows moving with the sun;
Thousands of times has the old tale been told;
  The world belongs to those who come the last,
  They will find hope and strength as we have done.
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow “A Shadow”

A shadow is hard to seize by the throat and dash to the ground.
~Victor Hugo from Les Miserables

We are dealing and dueling with shadows,
our flawed imperfect darkness
rather than one another.
We write things on a screen that we would never
say to another’s face.
We assume motives, predict behavior, ponder reactions
but all is smoke and mirrors.

Such is the cost of feeling fear and distrust.

As the sun moves and time passes,
the shadows shift and play with the Light
from a different angle,
so shall we shift and pray.

Rather than holding the Light at a distance
while trying to wrestle shadows to the ground,
we’ll embrace it and make sense of it,
yearning for the illuminating hugs
we’ve been denied for so long.

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.