Small Graces

— American goldfinch; Winston-Salem, North Carolina

First the horrible, reverberating thud  

against the glass wall of the student union.

Then the discovery, huddled on the sidewalk.

A wonder it hasn’t been stepped on.

Only as I’m holding it do students notice,

a few stopping to ask, Is it dead? No,

just stunned. Probably concussed, tucked in

on itself, black and brassy feathers just as

I remember from my mother’s pocket Audubon.

Her favorite guide for our hikes through the woods

when I was young, listening for meadowlark, for thrush.

She taught me the importance of quiet,

my flipping of the book’s pages, even, too loud.

Behind the closed door of my office, I sometimes

take it from my shelf and leaf through her life list:

a few sheets of spiral notebook paper

tucked inside the front cover. There, in her tight

penmanship, eagles and falcons over Horseshoe Lake,

burrowing desert owls, condors on the coast.

The goldfinch. Here, in my hands. A little

encouragement, gentle tossing motion

by my cupped hand—suddenly remembering flight.

The bird collecting itself for a minute

on a low-hanging branch before skittering off

to a bigger tree, then out of sight. Washing my hands

in the bathroom by my office, I blink at myself

in the mirror. Small graces. Desk clock.

Fountain pen. Old paper, thin and translucent

as onionskin. Nothing to bury or mourn today.

~Jim Whiteside “Life List”

I keep a “life list” of sorts. It isn’t like a birder’s list of species seen, but a collection of those of you who have reached out to me over the decades of my writing.

You dear folks I hear from are as varied as the birds that visit our farm.

Some soar high with adventuresome spirits.
Some are earth-bound, home-loving and egg-providers.
Some are nocturnal while others are early risers.
Some eat only seeds while others prefer worms and grubs.
Some are shy and rarely seen or heard from and others visit every day.
Some sing amazing arias and others squawk and cluck and coo.
Some have been stunned by life and need to be held so gently
until able to fly again.

You all are clothed with a feathery finery,
whether shimmering or flecked with light or simply pure gold.

Each one of you touches my life, sharing some small grace, becoming part of me.

I remember.

Please reach out in a comment here or email directly at


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Every Beautiful Thing

If only those parakeets would settle
A little nearer to where I’m sitting, instead of at the tops of far-off
     trees, this morning
Would be so much more remarkable.
One could watch the blackbirds, I suppose, peck their ways like
     Oxford dons across
The flagstone paths and lawns, or the swallows, or the sparrows,
Or the crows. But those birds are so plain—, so…painfully
No, only those parakeets will do and they will not do
What I want them to. In this, they are like everything else in the
Every beautiful thing.

~Jay Hopler “Beauty is a Real Thing, I’ve Seen It” from The Abridged History of Rainfall

“Get up,” he says, all of you – all of you! –
and the power that is in him is the power to give life not just to the dead…,

but to those who are only partly alive,
which is to say to people like you and me

who much of the time live with our lives
closed to the wild beauty and miracle of things,
including the wild beauty and miracle of every day we live
and even of ourselves.
~Frederick Buechner -from Secrets in the Dark

May I never just be partly alive,
longing for a far-away untouchable beauty
rather than noticing what is glorious right in front of me.

This is the package of life:
the plain and the mundane,
the painfully and wonderfully available,
the shadowy and the brilliant.

I want to be fully alive to the wild beauty and miracle of every day,
heeding His call to “get up!”
no matter how I may want things to be different,
no matter how I may want to be different.

And so I believe
~truly believe~
I am called to be fully alive, and gratefully acknowledge
the miracle of this and every day.


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We Couldn’t Do Anything

Yesterday our children, playing
in a tree, watched as the tiniest bird
fell from above them,
where it belonged,
to land below them,
where it did not.
The dog, animal and eager,
stepped on the bird, then
lowered his head. Our daughter
screamed, hauled him back,
then cupped her trembling hands
around the trembling bird,
Its one wing stretched and bent.
Our son ran inside, obedient
to our daughter’s instructions.
I was in the shower, useless.
You found a shoebox, sheltered the bird,
helped our children find leaves and twigs,
perched the box in the tree. At supper,
we prayed for the bird while its mother
visited the shoebox,
her beak full. She fretted
and fluttered. She couldn’t do anything,
and we couldn’t do anything,
and after supper, we found the trowel.
Dust to dust,
I said.
O how I longed to gather you,
you said, as a mother hen gathers
her young beneath her wings.
Our son pushed a stick into the soft earth.
Our daughter told him not to push too far.

~Shea Tuttle “After reading our daughter’s poem” from Image Journal

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

I have known the helplessness of watching life ebb away from a living creature and not be able to do a thing to change what is happening.

As a teenage nurse aide in a rest home for the elderly, I saw much of dying over those years before going to medical school – some deaths were anticipated and some unexpected. What was most apparent to me in that setting is that my primary role was to be a caring witness and comforter. I could not change what was happening but I could be there, not leaving my patients to die alone. I hoped that I was useful in some way.

Later, when I worked as a physician in a hospital, there were certainly things we would do to respond to a sudden cardiac event, and it was very dramatic to see someone’s pulse restored and stabilized due to our intervention. But more often than not, what we could do wouldn’t change the reality – dying still happened and we were gathered to witness the end. We often left the bedside feeling useless.

Now I have grandchildren who are learning about death through observing the natural cycles of animals living and dying on our farm. They discover a dead bird or vole on the ground; they were aware one of our elderly horses recently died. They are aware our beloved farm dogs are aging and so are grandma and grandpa.

Children naturally ask “why?” and we do our best to explain there is always hope and comfort, even when physical bodies are dust in the ground, marked by a stick or stone or only a memory.

It is “Hope” that sings alive within us, even when we’re naked and featherless, even if we fall far from the nest we were born to. We are caught and safe under our Savior’s wings for the rest of eternity, never to be “just dust” again.


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O, for a Horse with Wings!

O! for a horse with wings! 
~William Shakespeare from Cymbeline

(thank you to Bette Vander Haak for all her photos here of our Haflingers and their cow bird friends)

Be winged. Be the father of all flying horses.
~C.S. Lewis from The Magician’s Nephew

One reason why birds and horses are happy is because they are not trying to impress other birds and horses. 
~Dale Carnegie

When I bestride him, I soar, I am a hawk:
he trots the air; the earth sings when he touches it;
~William Shakespeare from Henry V

We all should have a buddy who is along for the ride and blesses us with their company.

There is always a need for a precious friend who has our back – helping to keep the biting flies away by gobbling them.

It is symbiosis at its best: a relationship built on mutual trust and helpfulness. In exchange for relief from annoying insects that a tail can’t flick off, a Haflinger serves up bugs on a smorgasbord landing platform located safely above farm cats and marauding coyotes.

Thanks to their perpetual full meal deals, these birds do leave “deposits” behind that need to be brushed off at the end of the day. Like any good friendship, having to clean up the little messes left behind is a small price to pay for the bliss of companionable comradeship.

We’re buds after all – best forever friends.

And this is exactly what friends are for: one provides the feast and the other provides the wings.

We’re fully fed and we’re fully free – together.

A new Barnstorming book is available for order here:

Waiting in Wilderness: The Known and the Unknown

Though I have never caught the word
Of God from any calling bird,
I hear all that the ancients heard. 
Though I have seen no deity
Enter or leave a twilit tree,
I see all that the seers see. 

A common stone can still reveal
Something not stone, not seen, yet real.
What may a common stone conceal? 

Nothing is far that once was near.
Nothing is hid that once was clear.
Nothing was God that is not here. 

Here is the bird, the tree, the stone.
Here in the sun I sit alone
Between the known and the unknown.
~Robert Francis, “Nothing Is Far” from Collected Poems, 1936-1976

We live out our lives between heaven and earth, sometimes in an uneasy tug-of-war between the two. We feel not quite ready for heaven as our roots go deep here, yet the challenges of daily life on this soil can seem overwhelmingly difficult and we often seek relief, begging for mercy.

We are living “in between” where we are now and where we soon will be, between the “known” of the birds and trees and stones of this world and the “unknown” of what comes next.

Christ, incarnate as the Son on earth and still King in heaven, maintains an eternal connection to above and below. Nothing was God that is not still here on earth. In His hands and under His protection, we are safe no matter where we are and where He takes us.

We, His children, have stony hearts no more. We are known to Him.

Castlerigg Stone Circle in Cumbria

This child through David’s city
   Shall ride in triumph by;
      The palm shall strew its branches,
   And every stone shall cry.
   And every stone shall cry,
      Though heavy, dull, and dumb,
         And lie within the roadway
   To pave his kingdom come.

 Yet he shall be forsaken,
   And yielded up to die;
      The sky shall groan and darken,
   And every stone shall cry.
   And every stone shall cry
      For stony hearts of men:
         God’s blood upon the spearhead,
   God’s love refused again.
~Richard Wilbur from “A Christmas Hymn”

The Nation-healing Tree of Life

Sometimes, hard-trying,
it seems I cannot pray–
For doubt, and pain,

and anger, and all strife.

Yet some poor half-fledged prayer-bird from the nest
May fall, flit, fly, perch–crouch in the bowery breast
Of the large, nation-healing tree of life;–

Moveless there sit

through all the burning day,
And on my heart at night

a fresh leaf cooling lay.
~George MacDonald from Diary of an Old Soul

I suspect I’m not the only U.S. citizen who slept fitfully last night, anxious about the election and how our nation’s peoples will accept and move on with life once official results are reported.

There can be no response but to bow in earnest prayer, waiting for a long-needed hatching of healing peace for our diverse beliefs and opinions.

Our lives are half-fledged, not yet fully delivered nor understood, doubt and distrust burns into our flesh like thorns on fire. 

We have become a seething-angry and moaning-sore nation — today we will be further divided between those who win and those who lose.  The moral high ground will go to the graceful loser who concedes defeat in a spirit of unity without stoking the fires of discontent. A gloating winner would bloat us all beyond recognition.

May our prayers for peace rise like a dove from hearts in turmoil,  once again to soar on the wings of eagles.

Peace, come quickly.
Be moved within us; no longer immobile.
Cool our angry words.
Take us to higher ground.
Plow deep our hearts.

He Does Not Leave Us Where We Are: Hatched and Learning to Fly

It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird:
it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present.
And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg.
We must be hatched or go bad.
~C.S.Lewis from Mere Christianity

There is certain comfort in incubating in the nest, snuggled warm under a fluffy breast, satisfied with the status quo. I tend toward perpetual nesting myself, preferring home to travel, too easily contented with the familiar rather than stretching into uncharted territory.

But eventually the unhatched egg gets the boot, even by its parents. When there are no signs of life, no twitches and wiggles and movement inside, it is doomed to rot.

And we all know nothing is worse than a rotten egg.

So it is up to us: we must chip away and crack open our comfy shell, leaving the fragments behind. Feeble, weak and totally dependent on the grace of others to feed and protect us, we are freed of the confinement of the sterility of the commonplace and loosed upon an unsuspecting world.

God does not leave us where we are. We are created to fly, the breath of God beneath our wings.

God sees us as we are,
loves us as we are,
and accepts us as we are.
But by His grace,
He does not leave us where we are.
~Tim Keller

The Moment You Forgot

It was like the moment when a bird decides not to eat
from your hand,
and flies, just before it flies, the moment the rivers seem
to still
and stop because a storm is coming, but there is no
storm, as when
a hundred starlings lift and bank together before they
wheel and drop,
very much like the moment, driving on bad ice, when it
occurs to you
your car could spin, just before it slowly begins to spin,
the moment just before you forgot what it was you were
about to say,
it was like that, and after that, it was still like that, only
all the time.

~Marie Howe “Part of Eve’s Discussion”

We all know how vulnerable we are to temptation; we know our failings and weaknesses yet how quickly we can go from knowing to forgetting.

There is a stillness, a suspension of time, in that moment of knowing – there is constant internal debate about the choices we face and what to do with that knowledge.

How many of us, knowing well the consequences, still do what we ought not to do? How many of us, having been previously told, having learned from history, having already experienced our own banishment, still make the wrong decision?

All of us, all the time, that’s how many. We are helpless despite our knowledge of good and evil. We forget, over and over.

Thank God for His grace in the face of our poor memories. Thank God He still feeds us wholly from His loving hands.

The Lapse of Time

A single gentle rain makes the grass many shades greener.
So our prospects brighten on the influx of better thoughts.
We should be blessed if we lived in the present always, and
took advantage of every accident that befell us.

Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sing around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time.
~Henry David Thoreau from “Simplicity” in Walden.

I’m completely unskilled at doing nothing and have no idea how to go about it.

There is no continuing education course or training in it. I can’t get credit hours for accumulating guilt about wasting time — I get antsy at the mere thought of inactivity. Simply watching the hours pass makes me itchy for productivity.

So I’m practicing at nothing whatsoever this summer, just to see if I’m really cut out for it. I’ve read up on “how to rest”: connecting to nature, taking a break from being responsible, choosing not to be helpful and just remaining still and to be content to watch what is around me. Except for the nature part, I’m an utter failure otherwise.

It starts to feel like work to not work.

Even Thoreau ended up writing down and then publishing his meandering thoughts. Sounds like work to me.

Time for a nap.

If Only Bark Were As Soft As the Sky

“If only, if only,” the woodpecker sighs,
“The bark on the tree was as soft as the skies.”
Louis Sachar,Holes_

When a shy visitor comes knocking, it is good manners to welcome him with a meal and a smile and a “come back soon.”

It isn’t polite to ask about repetitive pecking brain trauma, concussion prevention and woodpecker tongues that wrap around woodpecker brains as protective cushions.

You can bet I’ll never allow our suet supply to be depleted if it helps lure visiting pileated woodpeckers. He had quite an audience this past weekend.