A Listening Walk

I took the dog and went to walk
in the auditorium of the woods,
but not to get away from things.
It was our habit, that was all,
a thing we did on summer days,
and much there was to listen to.
A slight wind came and went
in three birches by the pond.
A crow uphill was going on
about the black life it led,
and a brown creeper went creeping up
a brown trunk methodically
with no record of ever having
been understood by anyone.
A woodpecker was working out
a deep hole from the sound of it
in a stand of dead trees up there.
And then a jay, much put upon,
complained about some treachery
it may or may not have endured,
though most are liars anyway.
The farther in, the quieter,
till only the snapping of a stick
broke the silence we were in.
The dog stood still and looked at me,
the woods by then already dark.
Much later, on the porch at night,
I heard the owl, an eldritch thing.
The dog, still with me, heard it too,
a call that came from where we’d been,
and where we would not be again.
~John Foy, “Woods,” from Night Vision

photo of brown creeper from American Bird Conservancy
photo of stellar jay from allaboutbirds.org
photo by Ken Schults for National Audubon Society

We live near fields and woods so the evening walks we take with the dogs are listening walks. There is always plenty to hear.

It is an immense relief to hear something other than the talking heads on TV or podcasts. The voices we hear in the woods are unconcerned about upcoming elections, pandemics or the state of the economy.

I listen for the sound of breezes rustling the tree branches, the crunch of sticks and dry leaves under my boots, and more often than not, the woodpeckers tapping away at tree trunks, eagles chittering from the treetops, and unseen owls visiting back and forth from their hidey-holes.
The red-tailed hawks scream out warnings as they float from tree top to tree top, particularly upset that we’ve brought along the corgis into their territory.

So, like the outside world, this woods has its own talking heads and drama, but I know who I will listen to and where I prefer to hang out if given a choice. I understand I’m only a visitor to their world and will be invited back only as long as we tread softly.

Until next time then, until next time.

So Starved for Hope

I know what you planned, what you meant to do, teaching me
to love the world, making it impossible
to turn away completely, to shut it out completely over again–
it is everywhere; when I close my eyes,
birdsong, scent of lilac in early spring, scent of summer roses:
you mean to take it away, each flower, each connection with earth–
why would you wound me, why would you want me
desolate in the end, unless you wanted me so starved for hope
I would refuse to see that finally
nothing was left to me, and would believe instead
that you were left to me.
~Louise Glück “Vespers”
from The Wild Iris

Summer days like this: bright, so promising with potential, birdsong constantly in the air, scent of roses and a flush of color everywhere, miracles growing gilled under my feet –

how can I not love the world so much I never want to leave it?

Yet it is but a tiny show of the glories to come, of what You have waiting for us next.

We are wounded with the realization that we must eventually let this go.

We hold onto the hope that won’t be found in all this beauty and lushness, the fulfilling hope that can only be found in our relationship with You as our Father and Creator.

You provide only a taste here so that we know what we starve for, starved with hope for what You have in store for us next.

Amen and Amen.

And Why Not

Underneath the tree on some
soft grass I sat, I


watched two happy
woodpeckers be dis-


turbed by my presence. And
why not, I thought to


myself, why
not.
~Robert Creeley “Like They Say”

We’re told the earth would be a much healthier place if man wasn’t here.
Our very presence disturbs the balance of nature: the climate has changed, we make messes, we don’t clean up after ourselves.

Yet we are here and were meant to be from the beginning – instructed to name and admire the creatures who came before us. The Creator Himself formed humans to be the disturbance nature must cope with from the beginning of time. And nature doesn’t take it lying down: it likes to flood and quake and blow and burn us to bits when it pleases. It is an uneasy relationship, to say the least.

Yet who else is there to admire two shy woodpeckers who would prefer I simply go away?

Deal with it, woodpeckers.
I’m here to stay, just watching you watching me.

And why ever not?

Things Unknown But Longed For

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
    When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
    But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,   
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—
I know why the caged bird sings!

~Paul Dunbar from “Sympathy”

…the goldfinch comes, with a twitching chirrup
A suddenness, a startlement,at a branch end
Then sleek as a lizard, and alert and abrupt,
She enters the thickness,and a machine starts up
Of chitterings, and of tremor of wings, and trillings –
The whole tree trembles and thrills
It is the engine of her family.
She stokes it full, then flirts out to a branch-end
Showing her barred face identity mask

Then with eerie delicate whistle-chirrup whisperings
She launches away, towards the infinite

~Ted Hughes from “The Laburnum Top”

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn
and he names the sky his own.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

~Maya Angelou from “Caged bird”

The 4 AM moment of this waning night
before the first bird awakes to sing –
a solemn silence holds its breath
till broken by chitters and tweets.

Like a full breast tingles
with readiness to flow until emptied –
this wave of quiet builds before toppling forward
in barely contained abundance, saturating our ears.

The Conductor’s baton rises to ready
the multi-voiced chorus –
awaking voices, pleading, spill from
a thousand thousand perches.

My anticipation rises for
for such a prayer uncaged and free –
cascading from overnight stillness
into an explosive unmistakeable dawn.

photo by Harry Rodenberger

Springing

Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers today;
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest; keep us here
All simply in the springing of the year.

Oh, give us pleasure in the orchard white,
Like nothing else by day, like ghosts at night;
And make us happy in the happy bees,
The swarm dilating round the perfect trees.

And make us happy in the darting bird
That suddenly above the bees is heard,
The meteor that thrusts in with needle bill,
And off a blossom in mid-air stands still.

For this is love and nothing else is love,
The which it is reserved for God above
To sanctify to what far ends He will,
But which it only needs that we fulfil.
~Robert Frost “A Prayer in Spring”

photo by Josh Scholten

photo by Josh Scholten

We are wisely warned what may happen in the next few months: a second or third wave of virus, more disruption, more closures, more deaths. There seems no end in sight on this long COVID road. Or perhaps the end is prematurely near for too many.

Thinking so far away to uncertain times ahead, we need to remember the future has always been uncertain; we just aren’t reminded so starkly. Instead we are reminded to dwell in the present here and now, appreciating these quiet moments at home for what they may bestow.

The earth is springing even while our hearts are weary of distancing and isolation. Each breath is filled with new fragrance, the greens startlingly verdant, each blossom heavy with promise.

There is reassurance in this renewal we witness yet again.

This, now, is love springing.
This is His love, reminding us He has not abandoned us.
This is love and nothing else can be as certain as that.

Shafts of Golden Light

Again the woods are odorous, the lark 
Lifts on upsoaring wings the heaven gray
That hung above the tree-tops, veiled and dark, 
Where branches bare disclosed the empty day. 

After long rainy afternoons an hour 
Comes with its shafts of golden light and flings 
Them at the windows in a radiant shower, 
And rain drops beat the panes like timorous wings. Then all is still. The stones are crooned to sleep
By the soft sound of rain that slowly dies; 
And cradled in the branches, hidden deep
In each bright bud, a slumbering silence lies.
~ Rainer Maria Rilke [trans. Jessie Lemont], from Poems

It seems in May everything explodes with energy:
the birdsong earlier and louder
the grass nearly squeaks with growth
the buds unfurling before our eyes.

There is much momentum
running pellmell into longer days;
I need to catch my breath.

As showers blow in from
clouds gray and thick with menace, dumping their load,
everything stills from the drenching,
waiting for a shaft of light to break through again,
turning everything to gold.

He Sees Us As We Are: Worrying A Lot

So I tell you to stop worrying about what you will eat, drink, or wear. Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothes?
Look at the birds. They don’t plant, harvest, or gather the harvest into barns. Yet, your heavenly Father feeds them.
Aren’t you worth more than they?
Can any of you add a single hour to your life by worrying? 
— Matthew 6:25-27

Jesus does not respond to our worry-filled way of living by saying that we should not be so busy with worldly affairs. He does not try to pull us away from the many events, activities, and people that make up our lives. He does not tell us that what we do is unimportant, valueless, or useless. Nor does he suggest that we should withdraw from our involvements and live quiet, restful lives removed from the struggles of the world.

Jesus’ response to our worry-filled lives is quite different. He asks us to shift the point of gravity, to relocate the center of our attention, to change our priorities. Jesus wants us to move from the “many things” to the “one necessary thing.”

It is important for us to realize that Jesus in no way wants us to leave our many-faceted world. Rather, he wants us to live in it, but firmly rooted in the center of all things. Jesus does not speak about a change of activities, a change in contacts, or even a change of pace.

He speaks about a change of heart. This change of heart makes everything different, even while everything appears to remain the same. This is the meaning of “Set your hearts on his kingdom first…and all these other things will be given you as well.”

What counts is where our hearts are. When we worry, we have our hearts in the wrong place. Jesus asks us to move our hearts to the center, where all other things fall into place.
— Henri Nouwen from Making All Things New

I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers
flow in the right direction, will the earth turn
as it was taught, and if not how shall
I correct it?

Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,
can I do better?

Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows
can do it and I am, well,
hopeless.

Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
am I going to get rheumatism,
lockjaw, dementia?

Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up. And took my old body
and went out into the morning,
and sang.
— Mary Oliver from Swan: Poems and Prose Poems

I must confess I am a skilled and well-practiced worrier. It’s deep in my DNA: my mother had truly exceptional worrying capability, awake or asleep. I’m glad she is safe in the arms of Jesus during these uncertain times as she would be beside herself.

As a novel virus passes, person to person to person, from a market in Wuhan, China, to the farthest corners of the earth in a matter of weeks, I find plenty to keep me awake, personally and professionally. 

Yet I know my worry is wasted energy, and worse than that, it pulls me away from the center of all I really need to know: all will be well. It may take time to get there, but eventually all will be well.

Jesus wants my heart, not my worry.

This year’s Lenten theme on Barnstorming:

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

Still, still with Thee, when purple morning breaketh,  
When the bird waketh and the shadows flee;
Fairer than morning, lovelier than the daylight,  
Dawns the sweet consciousness, I am with Thee!


When sinks the soul, subdued by toil, to slumber,  
Its closing eye looks up to Thee in prayer;
Sweet the repose beneath the wings o’ershading,  
But sweeter still to wake and find Thee there.


So shall it be at last, in that bright morning  
When the soul waketh and life’s shadows flee;
O in that hour, fairer than daylight dawning,  
Shall rise the glorious thought, I am with Thee!
~Harriet Beecher Stowe

Rise Up in Weediness

Like animals moving daily
through the same open field,
it should be easier to distinguish
light from dark, fabrications

from memory, rain on a sliver
of grass from dew appearing
overnight. In these moments
of desperation, a sentence

serves as a halo, the moon
hidden so the stars eclipse
our daily becoming. You think
it should be easier to define

one’s path, but with the clouds
gathering around our feet,
there’s no sense in retracing
where we’ve been or where

your tired body will carry you.
Eventually the birds become
confused and inevitable. Even our
infinite knowledge of the forecast

might make us more vulnerable
than we would be in drawn-out
ignorance. To the sun
all weeds eventually rise up.

~Adam Clay “Our Daily Becoming”

I can choose to fight the inevitable march of time with sighs and sorrows,
thus arm myself with regret for what is no more,

or pull myself through light to dark each day with soul-sucking fatigue, uncertain if I have what it takes to power through,

or I can flow passively for as long as I can stay afloat, apart and remote,
barely aware of the passage of all around me,

or I can smile at awakening each morning, no matter what is forecast,
reaching up to the sun I know is there, though hidden behind mist, fog and clouds,

grateful I’m given another day to work to get it right:
my opportunity to be fruitful, despite my weediness.

The Dead Center of January

The night’s drifts
Pile up below me and behind my back,
Slide down the hill, rise again, and build
Eerie little dunes on the roof of the house.  
 

The moon and the stars
Suddenly flicker out, and the whole mountain   
Appears, pale as a shell.

Look, the sea has not fallen and broken   
Our heads. How can I feel so warm   
Here in the dead center of January? I can   
Scarcely believe it, and yet I have to, this is   
The only life I have. I get up from the stone.   
My body mumbles something unseemly
And follows me. Now we are all sitting here strangely   
On top of the sunlight.

~James Wright, “A Winter Daybreak Above Vence” from Above the River: The Complete Poems and Selected Prose.

This is our fourth day of house arrest with roads icy and drifted and temperatures sub-freezing – a windchill below zero. What sun has appeared is ineffective, as if it were fake news on a winter day.

The prediction is for a dramatic turn-around in the next couple hours with temperatures rising 16 degrees with the advent of southerly “pineapple express” breezes.

I’ll believe it when I feel it. In the past, the drama of a south wind breaking the curse of the icy cold happens so rapidly, we could hear it before we felt it. The sound of ice and snow falling, taking branches with them in the woods was like the rat-a-tat of target shooting. None of us were ready for it and the trees were literally breaking in response to the warming winds.

We can grumble and mumble (and do) but this is the only life we have in the dead center of a January snow and wind storm. We’ll just sit tight braced against the cold, like the hungry birds that flock by the dozens at our feeders, waiting for the warming winds to carry us right into February, preferably unbroken.

We Are No Longer Alone: When Enough Was No Longer Enough

For hours, the flowers were enough.
Before the flowers, Adam had been enough.
Before Adam, just being a rib was enough.
Just being inside Adam’s body, near his heart, enough.
Enough to be so near his heart, enough
to feel that sweet steady rhythm, enough
to be a part of something bigger was enough.
And before the rib, being clay was enough.
And before clay, just being earth was enough.
And before earth, being nothing was enough.
But then enough was no longer enough.
The flowers bowed their heads, as if to say, enough,
and so Eve, surrounded by peonies, and alone enough,
wished very hard for something, and the wish was enough
to make the pinecone grow wings; the wish was enough
to point to the sky, say bird, and wait for something to sing.
~Nicole Callihan “The Origin of Birds”

photo by Harry Rodenberger

We were created to be enough,
but for us enough was no longer enough so we reached for more.

We ended up stripped and stark — as if fall and winter would be the ending of all things, but of course they are not. We will not sleep forever.

When I am down to my bare and broken essentials — the bleak and muddy and the too-early dark — I am the pinecone in the dirt wishing for the strength of wings and miraculously granted the gift of flight and a voice to sing.

I know this darkness is not the ending. 

Never has been.  Never will be.

Whence comes this rush of wings afar
Following straight the NoÎl star?
Birds from the woods, in wondrous flight
Bethlehem seek this Holy Night

“Tell us, ye birds, why come ye here
Into this stable, poor and drear?”
“Hast’ning, we seek the new-born King
And all our sweetest music bring.”

Hark! how the greenfinch bears his part
Philomel, too, with tender heart
Chants from her leafy dark retreat
Re, mi, fa, sol, in accents sweet

Angels and shepherds, birds of the sky
Come where the Son of God doth lie;
Christ on earth with man doth dwell
Join in the shout, “Noël, Noël!”
~French Carol