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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Antidote to Bitterness

Keep a green tree in your heart and perhaps a singing bird will come–
~Chinese Proverb

photo by Harry Rodenberger

I heard a wood thrush in the dusk
Twirl three notes and make a star—
My heart that walked with bitterness
Came back from very far.


Three shining notes were all he had,
And yet they made a starry call—
I caught life back against my breast
And kissed it, scars and all.
~Sara Teasdale, featured in “The Wood” in Earth Song

…then came a sound even more delicious than the sound of water. Close beside the path they were following, a bird suddenly chirped from the branch of a tree. It was answered by the chuckle of another bird a little further off. And then, as if that had been a signal, there was chattering and chirruping in every direction, and then a moment of full song, and within five minutes the whole wood was ringing with birds’ music, and wherever Edmund’s eyes turned he saw birds alighting on branches, or sailing overhead or chasing one another or having their little quarrels or tidying up their feathers with their beaks.
~C.S. Lewis from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe

Their song reminds me of a child’s neighborhood rallying cry—ee-ock-ee—with a heartfelt warble at the end. But it is their call that is especially endearing. The towhee has the brass and grace to call, simply and clearly, “tweet”. I know of no other bird that stoops to literal tweeting. 
~Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

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

I need reminding that what I offer up from my heart predicts what I will receive there.

If I’m grumbling and falling apart like a dying vine
instead of a vibrant green tree~~~
coming up empty and hollow with discouragement,
entangled in the cobwebs and mildew of worry,
only grumbling and grousing~~~
then no singing bird will come.

It is so much better to nurture the singers of joy and gladness with a heart budding green with grace and gratitude, anticipatory and expectant.

My welcome mat is out and waiting.

The symphony can begin any time now…

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

Too Much is Too Much

Every spring
I hear the thrush singing
in the glowing woods
he is only passing through.
His voice is deep,
then he lifts it until it seems
to fall from the sky.
I am thrilled.
I am grateful.
Then, by the end of morning,
he’s gone, nothing but silence
out of the tree
where he rested for a night.
And this I find acceptable.
Not enough is a poor life.
But too much is, well, too much.
Imagine Verdi or Mahler
every day, all day.
It would exhaust anyone.
~Mary Oliver “In Our Woods, Sometimes a Rare Music ” from “A Thousand Mornings”

What does it say about me that six months ago, in the darkness of December mornings, I was yearning for the early sunrises of June but once I’m well into the June calendar, these early mornings are no longer so compelling?  It confirms my suspicion that I’m incapable of reveling in the moment at hand, something that would likely take years of therapy to undo.  I’m sure there is some deep seated issue here, but I’m too sleep deprived to pursue it.

My eyes popped open this morning at 4:17 AM, aided and abetted by vigorous birdsong in the trees surrounding our farm house.  There was daylight sneaking through the venetian blinds at that unseemly hour as well.  Once the bird chorus started, with one lone chirpy voice in the apple tree by our bedroom window, it rapidly became a full frontal onslaught symphony orchestra from all manner of avian life-forms, singing from the plum, cherry, walnut, fir and chestnut.   Sleep became irretrievable.

It would be such a poor life without the birdsong.

I remember wishing for early morning birdsong last December when it seemed the sun would never rise and the oppressive silence would never lift.  I had conveniently forgotten those mornings a few years ago when we had a flock of over a dozen young roosters who magically found their crows very early in the morning a mere 10 weeks after hatching.  Nothing before or since could match their alarm clock expertise after 4 AM.  No barbecue before or since has tasted as sweet (apologies to my vegan/vegetarian readers, but too much was too much).

So I remind myself how bad it can really be; this morning’s backyard birdsong was a veritable symphony in comparison.

I already need a nap.

Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark.
~Rabindranath Tagore

photo by Harry Rodenberger

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In This Twittering World

photo by Harry Rodenberger

Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning

Not here
Not here the darkness, in this twittering world.
..

After the kingfisher’s wing
Has answered light to light, and is silent, the light is still
At the still point of the turning world.

~T.S. Eliot – excerpts from Burnt Norton, first of the Four Quartets

Their song reminds me of a child’s neighborhood rallying cry—ee-ock-ee—with a heartfelt warble at the end. But it is their call that is especially endearing. The towhee has the brass and grace to call, simply and clearly, “tweet”. I know of no other bird that stoops to literal tweeting. 
~Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

A hundred thousand birds salute the day:–
        One solitary bird salutes the night:
Its mellow grieving wiles our grief away,
        And tunes our weary watches to delight;
It seems to sing the thoughts we cannot say,
        To know and sing them, and to set them right;
Until we feel once more that May is May,
        And hope some buds may bloom without a blight.
This solitary bird outweighs, outvies,
        The hundred thousand merry-making birds
Whose innocent warblings yet might make us wise
Would we but follow when they bid us rise,
        Would we but set their notes of praise to words
And launch our hearts up with them to the skies.
~Christina Rossetti “A Hundred Thousand Birds”

Eliot didn’t have in mind future tweets on 21st century Twitter when he wrote Burnt Norton in 1935.  He was far more concerned about the concept of Time and redeeming our distraction from connecting to God Himself, the “still point” source of the natural and creative order of all things. He uses the analogies of a garden of flowers and singing birds, a graveyard, and most disturbingly, a subway train of empty-souled people traveling in the Tube under London in the dark. 

Eliot was predicting an unknowable future. Great Britain was facing a second war with Germany, but nearly a century later, we live 24/7 in a “twittering world” war of empty words and darkness through devices we carry with us at all times. Eliot, critical of the dehumanizing technology of his time, was prescient enough to foresee how modern technology might facilitate our continued fall from grace and distract us from the source of our redemption.

Perhaps Rossetti understands best. When birdsong begins on our farm in June at 4 AM in the apple, cherry, chestnut, and walnut trees outside our bedroom windows, I am swept away from my dreams by the distraction of wakening to music of the created order among the branches surrounding me, immersed in the beauty of dew-laden blooms and cool morning air.

Once a hundred thousand birds settle into routine conversation after twenty minutes of their loudly tweeted greetings of the day, I settle too, sitting bleary-eyed at my computer to navigate the twittering world of technology which is too often filled with fancies, or meanness, or, most often, completely empty of meaning altogether.

Yet, each morning as my heart is launched by the warbling songs outside my window, I’m determined to dismiss the distraction of the tweets and twitters on my screen. 

Not here will darkness be found on this page, if I can keep it at bay. I want to answer light to light and light with light.

No darkness here.

I hear a bird chirping, up in the sky
I’d like to be free like that spread my wings so high I
see the river flowing water running by
I’d like to be that river, see what I might find

I feel the wind a blowin’, slowly changing time
I’d like to be that wind, I’d swirl and the shape sky
I smell the flowers blooming, opening for spring
I’d like to be those flowers, open to everything

I feel the seasons change, the leaves, the snow and sun
I’d like to be those seasons, made up and undone
I taste the living earth, the seeds that grow within
I’d like to be that earth, a home where life begins

I see the moon a risin’, reaching into night
I’d like to be that moon, a knowing glowing light
I know the silence as the world begins to wake
I’d like to be that silence as the morning breaks

He does-n’t know the world at all
Who stays in his nest and does-n’t go out.
He does-n’t know what birds know best
Nor what I sing a-bout, Nor what I sing a-bout, Nor what sing a-bout:
That the world is full of love-li-ness.

When dew-drops spar-kle in the grass
And earth is a-flood with mor-ning light. light
A black-bird sings up-on a bush
To greet the dawn-ing af-ter night,
the dawn-ing af-ter night,
the dawn-ing af-ter night.
Then I know how fine it is to live.

Hey, try to o-pen your heart to beau-ty;
Go to the woods some-day
And weave a wreath of me-mory there.
Then if tears ob-scure your way
You’ll know how won-der-ful it is
To be a-live.

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Trusting All This to be True

Trust that there is a tiger, muscular
Tasmanian, and sly, which has never been
seen and never will be seen by any human
eye. Trust that thirty thousand sword-
fish will never near a ship, that far
from cameras or cars elephant herds live
long elephant lives. Believe that bees
by the billions find unidentified flowers
on unmapped marshes and mountains. Safe
in caves of contentment, bears sleep.
Through vast canyons, horses run while slowly
snakes stretch beyond their skins in the sun.
I must trust all this to be true, though
the few birds at my feeder watch the window
with small flutters of fear, so like my own.
~Susan Kinsolving “Trust”

When I stand at the window watching the flickers, sparrows, finches, chickadees, and red-winged blackbirds come and go from the feeders, I wonder who is watching who.  They remain wary of me, fluttering away quickly if I approach.  They fear capture, even within a camera.  They have a life to be lived without my witness or participation.  So much happens that I never see or know about; it would be overwhelming to absorb it all.

I understand:  I fear being captured too.

Even if only for a moment as an image preserved forever, I know it doesn’t represent all I am, all I’ve done, all I feel, all my moments put together.  The birds are, and I am, so much more than one moment.

Only God sees me fully in every moment that I exist, witness to my freedom and captivity, my loneliness and grief, my joy and tears, knowing my very best and my very worst.

And He is not overwhelmed by what He sees of me. He knows me so well, in Him I must trust.

photo by Larry Goldman (Gombe National Park, Tanzania)

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A Refuge in Briars and Brambles

What’s incomplete in me seeks refuge
in blackberry bramble and beech trees,
where creatures live without dogma
and water moves in patterns
more ancient than philosophy.
I stand still, child eavesdropping on her elders.
I don’t speak the language
but my body translates best it can,
wakening skin and gut, summoning
the long kinship we share with everything.
~Laura Grace Weldon, “Common Ground” from  Blackbird

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
~Wendell Berry “The Peace of Wild Things”

Nearly thirty months of pandemic separation and
I long to share our farm with our far-flung grandchildren
who live across the ocean, to watch them discover
the joys and sorrows of this place we inhabit.
I will tell them there is light beyond this darkness,
there is refuge amid the brambles,
there is kinship with what surrounds us,
there is peace amid the chaos,
there is a smile behind the tears,
there is stillness within the noisiness,
there is rescue when all seems hopeless,
there is grace as the old gives way to new.

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Taken Leave of My Senses

When I lived in the foothills
birds flocked to the feeder:

house finches, goldfinches,
skyblue lazuli buntings,

impeccably dressed chickadees,
sparrows in work clothes, even

hummingbirds fastforwarding
through the trees. Some of them

disappeared after a week, headed
north, I thought, with the sun.

But the first cool day
they were back, then gone,

then back, more reliable
than weathermen, and I realized

they hadn’t gone north at all,
but up the mountain, as invisible

to me as if they had flown
a thousand miles, yet in reality

just out of sight, out of reach—
maybe at the end of our lives

the world lifts that slightly
away from us, and returns once

or twice to see if we’ve refilled
the feeder, if we still remember it,

or if we’ve taken leave
of our senses altogether.
~Sharon Bryan, “The Underworld” from Sharp Stars

I only started feeding birds outside our kitchen window a few years ago. Previously, I thought it was an activity for older people with nothing better to do. After I turned sixty, I realized I was now qualified to feed the birds.

Now the professional wildlife and bird folks tell us we are endangering the welfare of wild birds by feeding them – the rapidly dropping numbers of songbirds in North America is due to pesticide use, window vs. bird deaths, climate change and birds not migrating in their usual patterns due to artificial feeding stations like mine. Most worrisome is transmission of fatal diseases when birds flock together at feeders. And Avian flu is on the rise in our country with hundreds of thousands of farm birds being preventively slaughtered in the last few weeks.

Now I’ve become the purveyor of pandemic conditions.

Good grief.

I let the feeders go empty for longer periods in my attempt to appease both the birds and the ornithologists. If the feeders dangle without visitors for several days, I refill them, more for me than for them as I appreciate the wild birds’ cheerful presence within a few feet of where I eat my breakfast as they eat theirs.

I’m not sure who to apologize to for still wanting to feed the birds. I grew up with Mary Poppins singing “tuppence a bag” and believed every word she sang. The birds themselves seem robust and chipper, happily coming and going as they please. Yet the scientists and bird experts see me, the casual backyard bird feeder as the problem. Perhaps selling packaged birdseed will eventually be outlawed so people like me can no longer have the option to cause this disruption to our feathered friends’ life cycles.

The birds and I will strike a deal so they know I mean well and haven’t taken leave of my senses. I’ll plant more more bird-friendly bushes on the farm. I’ll dispense a treat now and then if they promise to continue to stop by to check to see if my welcome mat is still out.

After all, I don’t want them to feel forgotten…or probably more to the point, like the little old bird woman on the steps of St. Paul, I don’t want them to ever forget me.

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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: God of the Sparrow

God of the sparrow, care for us,
Speak in our sorrow, Lord of grief.
Sing us Your music, lift our hearts,
Pour out Your mercy, send relief.
~Craig Courtney

Through the winter, I feed the sparrows, the woodpeckers and chickadees, the juncos and finches, and yes — even the starlings. They would be fine without my daily contribution to their well-being, but in return for my provision of seeds, I am able to enjoy their spirited liveliness and their gracious ability to share the bounty with one another.

These birds give back to me simply by showing up, without ever realizing what their presence means to me.

How much more does God lay out for me on a daily basis to sustain me so I show up for Him? How oblivious am I to His gracious and profound gifts? How willingly do I share these gifts with others?

Unlike the birds, I could never survive on my own without His watchful care.

When life feels overwhelming, when I am filled with worries, sorrow, regrets and pain, I seek out this God who cares even for sparrows. He knows how to quiet my troubles and strengthen my faith and perseverance, a comfort that extends far beyond sunflower seeds.

photo by Harry Rodenberger

This year’s Lenten theme for Barnstorming is a daily selection from songs and hymns about Christ’s profound sacrifice on our behalf.

If we remain silent about Him, the stones themselves will shout out and start to sing (Luke 19:40).

In His name, may we sing…


God of the sparrow, sing through us
Songs of deliv’rance, songs of peace.
Helpless we seek You, God our joy,
Quiet our troubles, bid them cease,
Quiet our troubles, bid them cease.
Alleluia.

God of the sparrow, God of hope,
Tenderly guide us, be our song,
God of affliction, pain and hurt,
Comfort Your children, make us strong,
Comfort Your children, make us strong.
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

God of the sparrow, care for us,
Speak in our sorrow, Lord of grief.
Sing us Your music, lift our hearts,
Pour out Your mercy, send relief.

God, like the sparrow, we abide In
Your protection, love and grace.
Just as the sparrow in Your care,
May Your love keep us all our days,
May Your love keep us all our days. Amen.
~Craig Courtney

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At the End

Not every man knows what he shall sing at the end,
Watching the pier as the ship sails away, or what it will seem like
When he’s held by the sea’s roar, motionless, there at the end,
Or what he shall hope for once it is clear that he’ll never go back.

When the time has passed to prune the rose or caress the cat,
When the sunset torching the lawn and the full moon icing it down
No longer appear, not every man knows what he’ll discover instead.
When the weight of the past leans against nothing, and the sky

Is no more than remembered light, and the stories of cirrus
And cumulus come to a close,

and all the birds are suspended in flight,
Not every man knows what is waiting for him, or what he shall sing
When the ship he is on slips into darkness, there at the end.

~Mark Strand “The End,” from The Continuous Life

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.
~Annie Dillard from “Write Till You Drop”

I began to write after September 11, 2001 because that day it became obvious to me I was dying, though more slowly than the thousands who vanished in fire and ash that day, their voices obliterated along with their bodies.  So, nearly each day since, while I still have voice and a new dawn to greet, I speak through my fingers to others, who, like me, are dying.

We are, after all, terminal patients, some of us more prepared than others to move on, slipping away into darkness, as if our readiness had anything to do with the timing.

Each day we get a little closer. I write in order to feel a little more ready.  Each day I want to detach just a little bit, leaving a trace of my voice behind, wondering what will be left to say or sing at the end.  Eventually, through unmerited grace, perhaps so much of me will be left on the page there won’t be anything or anyone left to do the typing.

No words should go to waste nor moments allowed to lapse unnoticed.
I dwell here for now, knowing Who will be waiting for me there.

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When Will Spring Get Here?

All anyone wants to know is when spring will get here. To hell
with dripping icicles, cold blue snow, silly birds too dumb to

go south, and sunlight gleaming off rock-hard snowflakes. I’m
sick of breathing air sharp as razor blades. I’m tired of feet as
hard to move as two buildings. I refuse to be seduced by the

pine tree blocking my path. Even though…just now, look how
it moves, its needles rubbing the sky-blue day. The glow it has
around its entire body. How perfectly it stands in the snow-
drift. The way both our shadows cross the noon hour at once,
like wings.
~Tom Hennen, “Adrift in the Winter” from Darkness Sticks to Everything: Collected and New Poems

photo by Nate Gibson

I can be seduced by the glow induced by the low angle of the winter sun. It transforms all that is fog and gray and mist and drizzle into spun gold and glitter.

Like the birds who are foolish enough to remain up here through nor-easters and floods and snow drifts and ice storms, I too stick it out through winter, even though no one puts out suet cakes and sunflower seeds for me to feast on. I get my sustenance from the days slowly lengthening, giving the light even more opportunity to convince me that winter can be overwhelmingly irresistible … until it isn’t any longer.

Uh, how many more weeks until spring?

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