What Is It I’m Trying to Say?

Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world,
and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.

~Percy Bysshe Shelley from “A Defence of Poetry

Poetry may make us from time to time
a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings
which form the substratum of our being,
to which we rarely penetrate;
for our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves.
—T.S. Eliot from The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism

Would anyone care to join me
in flicking a few pebbles in the direction
of teachers who are fond of asking the question:
“What is the poet trying to say?”

as if Thomas Hardy and Emily Dickinson
had struggled but ultimately failed in their efforts—
inarticulate wretches that they were,
biting their pens and staring out the window for a clue.

Yes, it seems that Whitman, Amy Lowell
and the rest could only try and fail
but we in Mrs. Parker’s third-period English class
here at Springfield High will succeed

with the help of these study questions
in saying what the poor poet could not,
and we will get all this done before
that orgy of egg salad and tuna fish known as lunch.

Tonight, however, I am the one trying
to say what it is this absence means,
the two of us sleeping and waking under different roofs.
The image of this vase of cut flowers,

not from our garden, is no help.
And the same goes for the single plate,
the solitary lamp, and the weather that presses its face
against these new windows–the drizzle and the
morning frost.

So I will leave it up to Mrs. Parker,
who is tapping a piece of chalk against the blackboard,
and her students—a few with their hands up,
others slouching with their caps on backwards—

to figure out what it is I am trying to say
about this place where I find myself
and to do it before the noon bell rings
and that whirlwind of meatloaf is unleashed.

~Billy Collins, “The Effort” from Ballistics.

Jan Davidsz de Heem. Vase of Flowers, 1660 National Gallery of ARt
photo by Josh Scholten

Poetry is the opening and closing of a door,
leaving those who look through to guess
about what is seen during the moment.
~Carl Sandburg

I am bewildered by life most of the time. Anyone looking at these online pages can see the struggle as I wake each day to seek out what I’m called to and how to make this sad and suffering world a bit better place.

I have so little wisdom to offer anyone with my own words, whether poetic or not. Instead, I describe my own wrestling match with the mysteries we all face.

When a light does somehow shine out through the murkiness,  I am not surprised.  It was there all the time, but by the grace of God I simply needed the eyes to see such beauty laid bare.

Only then I describe it as best I can.

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Almost No One Noticed

White egret
glided over
grasses, fiddlehead and fern,
then landed,
as I was caring
for young children by a pond.

Angelic, her wing span
fanned its gentle wave
across the shore

and no one noticed.
No one applauded or knelt
upon the grass.

But the children, eyes and mouths
as round as moons,
stopped and held her for that moment,

watched as she preened
her wings,
leaving them one feather
in the midst of spring green.

~Jesse LoVasco, from Native

Every day, there is so much I miss seeing,
sounds I fail to hear, a nurturing softness that eludes me,
all because I am wrapped in my own worries.

The wonders I miss may never come my way again,
so Lord, give me the eyes and ears and hands of a child
seeing and hearing and touching everything for the first time.

To notice the beauty that surrounds me,
let me marvel at a Creation
that started as mere Word and Thought and Hope,
left behind like a feather for me to hold on to.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –


And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.
~Emily Dickinson

Deep in the tarn the mountain
A mighty phantom gleamed,
She leaned out into the midnight,
And the summer wind went by,

The scent of the rose on its silken wing
And a song its sigh.


And, in depths below, the waters
Answered some mystic height,

As a star stooped out of the depths above
With its lance of light.


And she thought, in the dark and the fragrance,
How vast was the wonder wrought
If the sweet world were but the beauty born
In its Maker’s thought.

~Harriet Prescott Spofford

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Time to Stand and Stare

What is this life is, full of care
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

~William Henry Davies “Leisure”

Fingers of twilight shadow
begin to reach over the hill
crawling down through the field
up unto the bank of blackberries
covering fences along the alder grove.

Our horses chew their last
clover leafs before
coming to the barn for night, eyelids heavy,
relaxed and full, drowsy with spring evening
peace at hand and hoof.

A sudden change in the air forces
their heads up and ears forward;
they form a line, standing and staring at the hilltop
above them, riveted to the spot, alert
to an coming intruder, unfamiliar and foreign.

The roar is intermittent, like a warm wind
rattling a barn roof, but inconstant;
then peaking over the crest of the hill
a rounded top of technicolor glory:
The hot air balloon rises.

The horses riveted, baffled, fascinated;
no wild instinct prepares their response
to this wizard’s act from Oz in their own backyard.
The basket riders wave and laugh at the equine audience below
standing in formation with golden noses in the air
and white manes blowing in the breeze.

The balloon summits the hill, dipping low, almost touchable
before moving back up to race the sunset,
and search out other pastures, other valleys and hills.
The horses released from the spell of “stand and stare”
leap in response, snowy tails high, noses flared-

To race up the hill to catch impending darkness,
our night mares cavort, float suspended
until their air is let out, gently, in softening snorts,
to settle down in a shavings bed in the barn
where night, blissful, becomes ordinary again.

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Summoning Up Life’s Riches

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.
~Mary Oliver

If your everyday life seems poor to you, do not accuse it;
accuse yourself,
tell yourself you are not poet enough to summon up its riches;
since for the creator there is no poverty

and no poor or unimportant place.
― Rainer Maria Rilke
from Letters to a Young Poet

When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
~Mary Oliver from “When Death Comes”

As a child, I would sometimes spend long rainy afternoons languishing on the couch, complaining to my mother how boring my life was. 

Her typical response was to remind me my boredom said more about me than about life; I became the accused, rather than the accuser,  failing to summon up life’s riches. 

Thus convicted, my sentence followed: she would promptly give me chores to do.   I learned not to voice my complaints about how boring life seemed, because it always meant being put to work. I decided to live a life of nearly too much work and activity, missing much I could have slowed down to notice.

Some things haven’t changed, even sixty-some years later.  Whenever I am tempted to feel frustrated or pitiful or bored, I need to remember what that says about me.  If I’m not poet enough to recognize the Creator’s brilliance in every slant of light or every molecule, then it is my poverty I’m accusing, not His.

So – back to the work of paying attention and being astonished.  There is the rest of my life to be lived and nearly always something to say about it.


Night has come:
for one whole day again I’ve loved you so much,
stirring hills.
It’s beautiful to see.
But: to feel in the lining of closed eyelids
the sweetness of having seen …
~Rainer Maria Rilke

Even
After
All this time
The sun never says to the earth,

“You owe
Me.”

Look
What happens
With a love like that,
It lights the
Whole
Sky.
~Daniel Ladinsky, from “The Gift”

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To Make Truth

What is beauty for—
sunset searing my soul
without thought or plan?

Dawn green beauty, bee hum honey,
stone in hand so silky the long sea
worked centuries to ravish?

And what for pain—thorn
in heart for my hurt child,
dumb ache for my brother gone

thirty years, slow burn of disgrace
when I fail at what I am to do: to see
my country bruised and torn?

So, to make good things—
a song, a kind act, a friendship—
feed on beauty at every turn.

And to make truth, feed on sorrows,
gnash their salty structures,
bite the bitter rind.

~Kim Stafford, “Advice from a Raindrop” from Singer Come From Afar

Beauty is always right outside my back door, whether it is growing in the soil, as ephemeral as a raindrop, unfurling in a frosty dawn or settling into an early twilight serenade. 

The truth of beauty heals me after an imperfect day and an imperfect night’s sleep.

Today I want to be different. I will strive to be a steward for serenity, striving to find beauty in all things and all people, aiding their growth and helping them flourish.

Never perfect but I’m not giving up on the truth. 
Never perfect but serene with the responsibility of always trying, always wanting to be different than I am
and change what I can in this little part of the world.

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The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: The Heavens Will Drop Their Dew

The seed will grow well,
the vine will yield its fruit,
the ground will produce its crops,
and the heavens will drop their dew.
I will give all these things as an inheritance
to the remnant of this people.
Zechariah 8:12

Listen, you heavens, and I will speak;
    hear, you earth, the words of my mouth.
Let my teaching fall like rain
    and my words descend like dew,
like showers on new grass,
    like abundant rain on tender plants.
Deuteronomy 32:1-2

He hath abolished the old drouth,
And rivers run where all was dry,
The field is sopp’d with merciful dew.
The words are old, the purport new,
And taught my lips to quote this word
That I shall live, I shall not die

But I shall when the shocks are stored
See the salvation of the Lord.

~Gerard Manley Hopkins “He hath abolished the old drouth”

To God’s people, wandering homeless in the desert for years before being allowed to enter the Promised Land, there is great hope in the possibility of words and teaching coming from heaven.  The dew of heaven becomes the representation of God’s all-encompassing Spirit and gift of grace in this and other Old Testament scripture passages.

Ultimately, God’s Word descended like dew from heaven in the form of a newborn baby in a manger come to dwell among us. 

Like dew, He becomes flesh
at no cost to us,
to be among us freely,
coming in the night,
into the darkness,
as a gentle covering of all things dry and dying,
to refresh,
to restore,
to soften,
to make what was withered fruitful once again. 

We live again because this Word of flesh quickens within us. 

This year’s Barnstorming Advent theme “… the Beginning shall remind us of the End” is taken from the final lines in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”

Drop down ye heavens from above,
And let the skies pour down righteousness.
Come comfort ye, comfort ye my people;
My salvation shall not tarry.
I have blotted out as a thick cloud,
Thy transgressions:
Fear not, for I will save thee;
For I am the Lord thy God,
The holy one of Israel, thy redeemer.

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The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: God Magnified


These still December mornings…
Outside everything’s tinted rose, grape, turquoise,
silver–the stones by the path, the skin of the sun

on the pond ice, at the night the aureola of
a pregnant moon, like me, iridescent,
almost full term with light.

~
Luci Shaw from “Advent Visitation in Accompanied by Angels

And Mary said: “My soul magnifies the Lord”…
Luke 1:46

The Incarnation allows us
to see and hear and touch
what before we could only glimpse
in a pillar of smoke,
a tabernacle,
a burning bush,
a still small voice.

God becomes magnified in the manger
with unmistakable clarity and focus.
He is remarkably tangible:
rocked and fed,
comforted when crying,
cleansed when soiled,
mourned when dying.

What was once remote is now up close,
magnified like a setting moon
so huge on the horizon at dawn.

He has settled among us
as He becomes us.

Softly the light is stealing, sweetly a maiden sings
ever wakeful, ever wistful
watching faithfully, thankfully, tenderly
her king of kings

My soul doth magnify, doth magnify the Lord
and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour
Mary sang to Jesus, softly the Lady sings,
I will love you, I will serve you, make my lullaby
glorify, magnify the King of Kings
Lullaby, lullaby, lullaby
~Andrew Carter

1. Magnificat, anima mea, Dominum
My soul doth magnify the Lord

2. et exultavit spiritus meus in Deo, salutari meo.
and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.

3. Quia respexit humilitatem ancillæ suæ: ecce enim ex hoc beatam me dicent omnes generationes.
For he hath regarded: the lowliness of his handmaiden: for behold, from henceforth: all generations shall call me blessed.

4. Quia fecit mihi magna, qui potens est, et sanctum nomen eius,
For he that is mighty hath magnified me: and holy is his Name,

5. et misericordia eius a progenie in progenies timentibus eum.
and his mercy is on them that fear him: throughout all generations.

6. Fecit potentiam in brachio suo, dispersit superbos mente cordis sui. He hath showed strength with his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

7. Deposuit potentes de sede et exaltavit humiles;
He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek;

8. esurientes implevit bonis et divites dimisit inanes.
he hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away.

9. Suscepit Israel puerum suum recordatus misericordiæ suæ,
He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel,

10. sicut locutus est ad patres nostros, Abraham et semini eius in sæcula.
as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed, for ever.

11. Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto:
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost:

12. sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in sæcula sæculorum. Amen. as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

This year’s Barnstorming Advent theme “… the Beginning shall remind us of the End” is taken from the final lines in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”

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We Were All Beautiful Once

Everything in the garden is dead, killed by a sudden hard
freeze, the beans, the tomatoes, fruit still clinging to the
branches. It’s all heaped up ready to go to the compost
pile: rhubarb leaves, nasturtiums, pea vines, even the
geraniums. It’s too bad. The garden was so beautiful,
green and fresh, but then we were all beautiful once.
Everything dies, we understand. But the mind of the
observer, which cannot imagine not imagining, goes on.
The dynasties are cut down like the generations of grass,
the bodies blacken and turn into coal. The waters rise and
cover the earth and the mind broods on the face of the
deep, and learns nothing.
~Louis Jenkins, “Freeze” from Where Your House is Near: New and Selected Poems

This week was our first hard freeze of autumn, following on the heels of the worst flooding in a half century in our county. The land and all that grows here experienced a one-two punch – when the waters pulled back into the streams and rivers, what was left behind looked frozen, soaked and miserable. The people whose homes were devastated are so much more than miserable; they are mudding out by removing everything down to the studs to try to begin again. With hundreds of volunteers and disaster teams helping, there are piles of kitchen appliances, dry wall, carpet and every household item along the main streets of nearby towns, waiting to be hauled off.

Surveying our dying garden is small potatoes in comparison to a flooded town only a few miles away. The memories of how beautiful our garden was a 2-3 months ago is nothing in contrast to the families who lost their stored heirlooms and cherished memories to the muck and mire of deep waters.

But we are a resilient community. We are people of persistence and creativity and there will eventually be beauty again here. Driving on a newly opened road beside the still-surging river where a few days ago several feet of water covered a cornfield, I spotted a trumpeter swan, standing in glorious spotless white, picking her way through the mud-stained cornstalks, hoping to find something of value left behind in the devastation.

There is still hope; it did not wash away. We only need to use our imagination to find it.

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At Home with Us

The birds do not sing in these mornings. The skies
are white all day. The Canadian geese fly over
high up in the moonlight with the lonely sound
of their discontent. Going south. Now the rains
and soon the snow. The black trees are leafless,
the flowers gone. Only cabbages are left
in the bedraggled garden. Truth becomes visible,
the architecture of the soul begins to show through.
God has put off his panoply and is at home with us.
We are returned to what lay beneath the beauty.
We have resumed our lives. There is no hurry now.
We make love without rushing and find ourselves
afterward with someone we know well. Time to be
what we are getting ready to be next. This loving,
this relishing, our gladness, this being puts down
roots and comes back again year after year. 
~Jack Gilbert “Half the Truth”

Time to be
what we are getting ready to be next.

Once again comes
a slowing of days and lengthening of nights;
some may be on the move but
I am being prepared for months of stillness and silence
without the rush and hurry
of madding lives.

I relish this time
peering past the vanishing beauty
to discern the Truth of
Who is at home with us.

He put down roots here.
Though He flew away,
He will return.

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A Moment of Marvel

On this first day of November
it is cold as a cave,
the sky the color
of neutral third parties.
I am cutting carrots
for the chicken soup.
Knife against carrot
again and again
sends a plop of pennies
into the pan.
These cents,
when held to the gray light,
hold no noble president,
only stills
of some kaleidoscope
caught being pensive…
and beautiful,
in the eye of this beholder,
who did not expect
this moment of marvel
while making an early supper
for the hungry children.

~Cindy Gregg, “Monday” from Suddenly Autumn.

I wasn’t prepared for November to begin on this chilly Monday morning.

Throwing on my barn coat and boots, I pulled up some of the last carrots from the garden, cut them up, added some already harvested beans, peas and corn from the freezer, threw in some baby potatoes to make a crockpot of beef bone soup.

When we return home hungry from our community work tonight, we will be tired but well fed.

There is a moment of marvel in preparing a meal from one’s own garden bounty, remembering the small seeds put in the ground 6 months ago, and now washed and cut and simmering in a pot in our kitchen.

The start of November isn’t so chilly after all. We are warmed by the work done through the spring and summer, the sun and rain that grew these vegetables, and the Creator God who provides, even in the cold and dark months of the year.

We’ll make it through this first Monday of November, anticipating the marvels to come.

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