Watching the Birds Watching Me

I have been trying to think of the word to say to you that would never fail to lift you up when you are too tired or too sad not [to] be downcast. When you are so sad that you ‘cannot work’ there is always a danger fear will enter in and begin withering around.

A good way to remain on guard is to go to the window and watch the birds for an hour or two or three. It is very comforting to see their beaks opening and shutting.
~Maeve Brennan in a letter to writer Tillie Olsen

My window is a book of birds.
I draw back the curtains
and there they all are,
scribbling their lives in the trees.

Bird in the holly tree,
invisible mentor,
your cheerful philosophy
is a glittering chain of light
slung between us,
drawing me ever closer
to the source of your joy.

The silver thread of your song
guides me through the dark
as surely as the night
I first heard you,
improvising on a theme
of beauty and truth
in the holly tree out there.

~Hugo Williams from “Birdwatching”

I hope you love birds too. It is economical. It saves going to heaven.
~Emily Dickinson in an 1885 letter to Miss Eugenia Hall

The windows are dressed in feathers where the birds have flown against them,
then fallen below into the flowers where their bodies lie grounded, still,
slowly disappearing each day until all that is left are their narrow, prehensile bones.

I have sat at my window now for years and watched a hundred birds
mistake the glass for air and break their necks, wondering what to do,
how else to live among them and keep my view.
Not to mention the sight of them at the feeder in the morning,
especially the cardinal in snow.

What sign to post on the sill that says, “Warning, large glass window.
Fatal if struck. Fly around or above but not away.
There are seeds in the feeder and water in the bath.
I need you, which is to say, I’m sorry for my genius as the creature inside
who attracts you with seeds and watches you die against the window
I’ve built with the knowledge of its danger to you. 
With a heart that rejects its reasons in favor of keeping what it wants:
the sight of you, the sight of you.”

~Chard deNiord, “Confession of a Bird Watcher” from Interstate

I made the terrible faux pas of running out of suet and bird seed this week. My little feathered buddies fly up to the feeders by our kitchen window and poke around the empty trays, glance disparagingly in my direction, then fly away disheartened. There is no free lunch today.

I am no birder; I don’t go out looking for birds like the serious people of the birding community who keep a careful list of all they seen or hear. I don’t even track every species that comes to visit my humble offerings here on the farm nor do I recognize the frequent visitors as individuals. I just enjoy watching so many diverse sizes, colors and types coming together in one place to feast in relative peace and cooperation and I’m the hostess.

Birds are my visual and tangible reminder that the good Lord provides, buoyed by the help of hospitable humans who set out irresistible treats next to big windows. These delightful creatures have such autonomy and genuine glee in their daily existence until they forget their boundaries and slam headlong into invisible glass, too often falling to the ground for good. Then the farm cats are gleeful.

I know all about the warnings to stop doing communal bird feeding: spreading bird diseases too easily among multiple species who come together to feast, attracting vermin and assisting their burgeoning population growth, assisting predators like my aforementioned farm cats in their decimation of the wild bird population, encouraging wild birds to ignore their usual migration urge to seek better feeding/breeding climates so they often die prematurely.

As a trained scientist in animal behavior, I understand it all. As a human observer seeking to enjoy feathered friends during long gray winter days, I ignore it all.

Pardon me now, as I better head to the farm store to replenish my bird feasting stash. See you all later.

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Dawn on our Darkness: Frost Arrests the Beauty

He will come like last leaf’s fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to the bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud’s folding.

He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.

He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.

~Dr. Rowan Williams “Advent Calendar”

He arrives when we are at our loneliest
and most discouraged,
a flash of brilliance,
an emergence of new life
when all seems hopeless, dead and dying.

He arrives to comfort and console us
with His Words and reminder:
all is not lost
all is not sadness

There is work yet to be done.

Even now, after all we’ve been through-
even now, as we are shrouded with new hope
and arrested by His beauty.

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”

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 flock,
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 others,
To make music in the heart.
~Howard Thurman

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Dawn on our Darkness: How is it Possible?

The yellow tulip in the room’s warmth opens.

Can I say it, and not seem to taunt

all who live in torment? Believe it, yet

remain aware of the world’s anguish?

But it’s so: a caravan arrives constantly

out of desert dust, laden

with gift beyond gift, beyond reason.

Item: a yellow tulip
opens; at its center
a star of greenish indigo,
a subtle wash of ink
at the base of each of
six large petals.
The black stamens
are dotted with white.
At the core, the ovary,
applegreen fullness
tapering to proffer—sheltered
in the wide cup of primary
yellow—its triune stigma, clove
of green and gold.

That’s one, at nightfall of a day which brought

a dozen treasures, exotic surprises, landscapes,

music, words, acts of friendship, all of them wrapped

in mysterious silk, each unique.

How is it possible?

The yellow tulip in the room’s warmth opens.
~Denise Levertov “A Yellow Tulip” from Sands of the Well

I feel like I’m constantly aware of the world’s anguish, reminded in headlines, and radio news updates. The knowledge of others’ grief and mourning, their losses and struggles can be overwhelming. This world is a darkened place of pain and tears for so many, so much of the time.

So who am I to write of a moment of incredible encouragement and beauty, to post pictures of the latest masterpiece painted through sunrise and sunset, to search out and share the gifts that exist all around me – while people are suffering?

We were not created to wallow in anguish – yet here we are, trying to every way to climb our way out of the mess.

I only know this Advent promise: I am but one of countless witnesses to the dawn which has been sent to diminish and overwhelm our darkest times. I seek an oasis of restoration in the desert dust that comprise our days.

I cannot turn away from the gifts laid at my feet — they are as unexpected and awe-inspiring as the angel chorus must have been to lonely shepherds that glorious night. Suddenly, for those isolated people, nothing was the same ever again.

How is it possible?

So too, I open: waiting, watching, longing for the glory.
Nothing will be the same, ever again.

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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Heart Sore

The trees are in their autumn beauty,   
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water   
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones   
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me   
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings  
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,   
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,   
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,   
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;   
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,   
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water,   
Mysterious, beautiful;   
Among what rushes will they build
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day   
To find they have flown away?
~William Butler Yeats “The Wild Swans at Coole”

All is changing
yet even though
my pace has slowed
from younger days,
my heart aches
to know I finally behold
this mysterious beauty,
a witness now because I no longer
choose to hurry headlong through life.

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The Warm Milk of Light

I sit with braided fingers
and closed eyes
in a span of late sunlight.
The spokes are closing.
It is fall: warm milk of light,
though from an aging breast.
I do not mean to pray.
The posture for thanks or
supplication is the same
as for weariness or relief.
But I am glad for the luck
of light. Surely it is godly,
that it makes all things
begin, and appear, and become
actual to each other.
Light that’s sucked into
the eye, warming the brain
with wires of color.
Light that hatched life
out of the cold egg of earth.
~May Swenson from “October”

portrait of Dan’s mom, Emma Gibson, praying, by granddaughter Sara Lenssen

We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words — to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.
~C.S. Lewis from The Weight of Glory

photo of Wiser Lake Chapel by Barbara Hoelle

I do mean to pray.

I will sit in an old wooden pew this Sabbath day, my fingers tightly braided together in gratitude for bathing in yet another feast of Light. I will be fed as surely as if I were being cradled at a warm breast, as if I were a newborn holding tightly with a mighty grip.

We were created to be nurtured like this, held close to beauty and stirred to life, immersed within a nest made for us out of cold dust.

So I drink deeply of the warm milk of beauty whenever offered.
Perhaps you can too.

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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.

Original Barnstorming artwork note cards available as a gift to you with a $50 donation to support Barnstorming – information here

Passing Through

Wild geese fly south, creaking like anguished hinges; along the riverbank the candles of the sumacs burn dull red.
It’s the first week of October.
Season of woolen garments taken out of mothballs;
of nocturnal mists and dew
and slippery front steps, and late-blooming slugs;
of snapdragons having one last fling;
of those frilly ornamental pink-and-purple cabbages that never used to exist, but are all over everywhere now.
~Margaret Atwood
from The Blind Assassin

But it was no good trying to tell about the beauty. It was just that life was beautiful beyond belief, and that is a kind of joy which has to be lived.

Sometimes, when they came down from the cirrus levels to catch a better wind, they would find themselves among the flocks of cumulus: huge towers of modeled vapor, looking as white as Monday’s washing and as solid as meringues. Perhaps one of these piled-up blossoms of the sky, these snow-white droppings of a gigantic Pegasus, would lie before them several miles away. They would set their course toward it, seeing it grow bigger silently and imperceptibly, a motionless growth; and then, when they were at it, when they were about to bang their noses with a shock against its seeming solid mass, the sun would dim. Wraiths of mist suddenly moving like serpents of the air would coil about them for a second. Grey damp would be around them, and the sun, a copper penny, would fade away. The wings next to their own wings would shade into vacancy, until each bird was a lonely sound in cold annihilation, a presence after uncreation. And there they would hang in chartless nothing, seemingly without speed or left or right or top or bottom, until as suddenly as ever the copper penny glowed and the serpents writhed. Then, in a moment of time, they would be in the jeweled world once more: a sea under them like turquoise and all the gorgeous palaces of heaven new created, with the dew of Eden not yet dry.
~T.H. White from The Once and Future King

Each day this first week of October, feathered travelers have slipped past us unseen and unheard.  They may stop for a drink in the pond or a bite to eat in the field and woods, but we never know they are there – they are simply passing through.

Others are compelled to announce their journey with great fanfare, usually heard before seen.  The drama of migration becomes bantering conversation from bird to bird, bird to earth, bird to sun, moon and stars, with unseen magnetic forces pointing the way.

When not using voices, their wings sing the air with rhythmic beat and whoosh, like the creaking of rusty hinges.

It reminds me how we are all together here — altogether — even when our voices are raised sharply, our silences brooding, our hurts magnified, our sorrows deep. How we spend our days becomes a matter of debate.

Our destination is not in dispute however.  We’re all heading to the same end to the human story of creation/fall/redemption, no matter how we manage to get there.

It is just that life is beautiful beyond belief, and that is a kind of joy which has to be lived.

So let’s unite our wings and voices in joy: we are just passing through, just passing through, just passing through.

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Ah, What If?

What if you slept
And what if
In your sleep
You dreamed
And what if
In your dream
You went to heaven
And there plucked a strange and beautiful flower
And what if
When you awoke
You had that flower in your hand
Ah, what then?
~Samuel Coleridge  “What if you slept”

This mountain, this strange and beautiful Shuksan flower that appears suddenly as we round a corner on the hour drive up the Mt. Baker Highway:  this mountain has one foot on earth and one foot in heaven – a thin place if there ever was one.

The only way to approach is in awed silence, as if entering the door of a grand cathedral.  Those who are there speak in hushed tones if they speak at all.

Mt. Shuksan wears autumn lightly about its shoulders as a multi-faceted cloak, barely anticipating the heavy snow coat to descend in the next few weeks.

I hold this mountain tight in my fist, wanting to turn it this way and that, breathe in its fragrance, bring it home with me and never let go.

Ah, what then?

Home is not nearly big enough for heaven to dwell.  I must content myself with this visit to the thin edge, peering through the open door, waiting until invited to come inside.

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Life Goes Too Fast

Sometimes you don’t get a chance
To pause and rest
Even to just take it all in
Sometimes life just goes too fast
And if you halt, even for a moment
You could get rolled over
By the momentum of existence
So, push yourself and keep going
Because once you stop
You may not get started again
And if you need a breather
Do it after the big stuff is done –
I guarantee you the view
Will be a whole lot better
~Eric Nixon “The Momentum of Existence” from Equidistant

The weather app on my phone tells me precisely when sunrise and sunset will happen every day, but I’m often too distracted to be present to witness them. I miss some great shows because I don’t get up early enough or don’t return home in time or simply don’t bother to look out the window or pay attention.

These are brilliant light and shadow shows that are free for the having if only I pause, take a breather, and watch.

The view from our hill keeps getting better the older I get. The momentum of daily life slows enough to allow me, breathless, to take in the best art show around.

No charge for admission and the Artist’s exhibit rotates daily.

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Unintentionality

I go to nature not because
its flowers and sunsets speak
to me (though they do) or
listen to me inquire but


because I have filled it with
unintentionality, so that I
can miss anything personal in
the roar of sunset, so that


I can in beds of flowers hold
my head up too.
~A.R. Ammons from The Ridge Farm from Complete Poems

Take the tangle instead of the trouble it causes.
Take the world inside
as seriously as any other.
Take your elderly mother and father
at face value as they have to.
Take the mirror of the sky
mirrored in the bay.
Take the swell of new-mown hay
and the river conversing
where the valley opens its mouth
and the land begins to creak less
as the evening steals light away—
Take the wick in the far hills
and take the sun and the wind
and the look of nothing for granted.
Take a little less, all right
and try not to take fright.
Take the end in mind
instead of the end in sight.

~Brian Turner “Take This” from Taking Off

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.
~Rainer Maria Rilke from The Book of Hours

Each of us,
intentionally made by our Creator
in His image,
yet we discover the beauty and terror of living
in His shadow.

So much happens which we don’t intend
but there is nothing unintentional with God.

Books and lectures tell us to live intentionally
while each day contains something that
brings us to our knees.

I tell myself:
even though I don’t know what tomorrow will be,
I will not take fright
and hold my head up
I’ll just keep going
while taking His Hand and following
wherever He intends to take me.

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