Operators are Standing By

Just before the green begins there is the hint of green
a blush of color, and the red buds thicken
the ends of the maple’s branches and everything
is poised before the start of a new world,
which is really the same world
just moving forward from bud
to flower to blossom to fruit
to harvest to sweet sleep, and the roots
await the next signal, every signal
every call a miracle and the switchboard
is lighting up and the operators are
standing by in the pledge drive we’ve
all been listening to: Go make the call.
~Stuart Kestenbaum “April Prayer”

These buds have been poised for weeks and then,
as if responding to the Conductor’s uplifted arms,
readying for a momentous downstroke,
they let go of all their pent up potential~
exploding with harmonious energy
enough to carry them all the way to autumn
when they fly, gone with the wind.

We wait impatiently until next spring,
operators standing by to take our pledge,
for the next encore performance.

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Promises to Keep

Whose woods these are I think I know.   
His house is in the village though;   
He will not see me stopping here   
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
   

My little horse must think it queer   
To stop without a farmhouse near   
Between the woods and frozen lake   
The darkest evening of the year.   

He gives his harness bells a shake   
To ask if there is some mistake.   
The only other sound’s the sweep   
Of easy wind and downy flake.   

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   
But I have promises to keep,   
And miles to go before I sleep,   
And miles to go before I sleep.

~Robert Frost, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” from The Poetry of Robert Frost

I wish one
could press snowflakes
in a book
like flowers.
~James Schuyler from “February 13, 1975

When a January night lingers long,
beginning too early and lasting too late,
I find myself in my own insistent winter,
wanting to hide away from trouble
deep in a peaceful snowy woods,
knowing I choose to avoid doing
what is needed
when it is needed.

I look inward
when I must focus outside myself.
I muffle my ears
to deafen voices crying in need.
I turn away
rather than meet a stranger’s gaze.

A wintry soul
is a cold and empty place,
not lovely, dark and deep.

I appeal to my Creator
who knows my darkness.
He expects me to keep my promises
because He keeps His promises.
His buds of hope and warmth
and color and fruit
will arise from my bare branches.

He brings me out of the night
to finish what He brought me here to do.

A book from Barnstorming combining the beauty of Lois Edstrom’s words and Barnstorming photography, available for order here:

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The Tenacity of Nature

By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast — a cold wind. Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

patches of standing water
the scattering of tall trees

All along the road the reddish
purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy
stuff of bushes and small trees
with dead, brown leaves under them
leafless vines —

Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches —

They enter the new world naked,
cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter. All about them
the cold, familiar wind —

Now the grass, tomorrow
the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf

One by one objects are defined —
It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf

But now the stark dignity of
entrance — Still, the profound change
has come upon them: rooted they
grip down and begin to awaken
~William Carlos Williams “Spring and All”

I ask your doctor
of infectious disease if she’s
read Williams   he cured
sick babies I tell her and
begin describing spring
and all   she’s looking at the wall
now the floor   now your chart
now the door   never
heard of him she says
but I can’t stop explaining
how important this is
I need to know your doctor
believes in the tenacity of nature
to endure   I’m past his heart
attack   his strokes   and now as if
etching the tombstone myself   I find
I can’t remember the date
he died or even
the year   of what now
are we the pure products   and what
does that even mean   pure   isn’t it
obvious   we are each our own culture
alive with the virus that’s waiting
to unmake us
~Brian Russell, “The Year of What Now”

It is the third January of a pandemic
of a virus far more tenacious than
we have proven to be,
it continues to unmake us,
able to mutate spike proteins seemingly overnight
while too many of us stubbornly
remain unchanged by this,
clinging to our “faith over fear”
and “my body, my choice”
and “lions, not sheep”
and “never comply” —
because self-determination must trump
compassion for the unfortunate fate of vulnerable millions.

We defend the freedom to choose
to be vectors of a contagion
that may not sicken us yet fills
clinics, hospitals and morgues.

William Carlos Williams, the early 20th century physician,
would be astonished at the clinical tools we have now
to fight this scourge.
William Carlos Williams, last centuries’ imagist poet,
would recognize our deadly erosion of cooperation
when faced with a worthy viral opponent.

So what happens now?

Starting with this third pandemic winter,
with our souls in another deep freeze,
covered in snow and ice and bitter wind chill,
a tenuous hope of restoration could awaken –
tender buds swelling,
bulbs breaking through soil,
being called forth from long burial
in a dark and cold and heartless earth.

Like a mother who holds
the mystery of her quickening belly,
knowing we nurture other lives with our own body,
we too can be hopeful and marveling
at who we are created to be.

She, and we, know soon and very soon
there will be spring.

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The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: Leaping with Life

Be a womb. Be a dwelling for God. Be surprised.
~Loretta Ross-Gotta
from Letters from the Holy Ground

Here is a meeting made of hidden joys
Of lightenings cloistered in a narrow place,
From quiet hearts the sudden flame of praise,
And in the womb the quickening kick of grace.

Two women on the very edge of things
Unnoticed and unknown to men of power,
But in their flesh the hidden Spirit sings
And in their lives the buds of blessing flower.

And Mary stands with all we call ‘too young,’
Elizabeth with all called ‘past their prime.’
They sing today for all the great unsung
Women who turned eternity to time,

Favoured of heaven, outcast on the earth,
Prophets who bring the best in us to birth.

~Malcolm Guite “The Visitation”

41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”
Luke 1: 41-45  (Song of Elizabeth)

This scene in Luke is remarkable for its portrayal of the interconnected relationship of four individuals, not just two.  Here are two cousins who become mothers despite utter impossibility — one too elderly and one virginal — present on this day with their unborn sons — one who is harbinger and one who is God.

These unborn babies are not just passively “hidden within” here.  They have changed their mothers in profound ways, as all pregnancies tend to do, but especially these pregnancies.  As any mother who first experiences the “quickening” of her unborn child can relate, there is an awesome and frightening awareness of a completely dependent but active “other” living inside. 

She is aware she is no longer alone in her shell and what happens to her, happens to this other life as well. This is deeply personal, yet deeply communal at the same time – as we witnessed in the arguments about maternal vs. fetal rights that took place in the hallowed halls of the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday.

The moment Elizabeth hears Mary’s voice, she and the baby in her womb are overwhelmed, filled with the Spirit from Mary’s unborn.  They leap, figuratively and literally.  Her voice leaps up, louder in her exclamation of welcome; John leaps in the womb in acknowledgement of being in the presence of God Himself.

How can our hearts not leap as well at God’s Word to us, at His hope and plan for each of us, at His gift of life from the moment of our conception.

After all, He once was unborn too,
completely dependent on the willingness of His mother to bear Him to birth,
completely alive because of the overshadowing Spirit of His Father.

We are all buds willed to flower by our God.

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”

Sunburst Petals

When I pray I go in, and close the door,
But what, really, do we mean by prayer?
Isn’t it anything done with full attention
Whether sinking into silent depths, or
Relishing a sun-ripe peach, or gazing
At the zinnias freshly picked this early
Morning, these multi-petaled shouts of joy,
Lemon yellow, orange, reds, a carnival of
Flame-filled light, the sweet green scent
Summer flowers.

~Sarah Rossiter “Zinnias”

My father’s mother grew a garden of zinnias
to divide the house from the woods:

pop art tops in every color—cream,
peach, royal purple, and even envy

—the sunburst petals

the heads little suns you watch die
on the stem if you want the bloom back.

~Tyler Mills “Zinnias”

As an eight year old, I grew zinnias
from a tiny package of seeds tucked inside
a Christmas card by my third grade teacher
whose rapt attention turned to her backyard garden
when school doors closed in the summer.

She nurtured each of us students
like one of her cream-colored zinnia buds
arising boldly on a single sturdy stem,
growing tall almost before her eyes, yet still undefined.

Watered and fed, her warm light shining on our bright faces,
we opened expectantly under her steady gaze,
each one a sunburst bloom smiling back at her,
which kept her coming back, year after year,
to sow a few more celebratory seeds with her sprinkling of wisdom.

Thank you to Chris and Jan Lovegren for sharing their zinnias!

Consider a gift of this new Barnstorming book to someone who loves beautiful pictures and words – available to order here:

Root and All

Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower—but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, all in all,
I should know what God and man is.
~Lord Alfred Tennyson “Flower in the Crannied Wall”

Am I root, or am I bud?
Am I stem or am I leaf?

All in all, I am
but the merest reflection
of God’s fruiting glory;

I am His tears shed
as He broke
into blossom.

A new book from Barnstorming available for order here

Waiting in Wilderness: Just As We Lose Hope

Just as we lose hope
she ambles in,
a late guest
dragging her hem
of wildflowers,
her torn
veil of mist,
of light rain,
blowing
her dandelion
breath
in our ears;
and we forgive her,
turning from
chilly winter
ways,
we throw off
our faithful
sweaters
and open
our arms.
~Linda Pastan “Spring” from Heroes in Disguise: Poems 

The ground is slowly coming to life again;
snowdrops and daffodils are surfacing from months of dormancy,
buds are swelling
the spring chorus frogs have come from the mud to sing again
and birds now greet the lazy dawn.

Everything, everyone, has been so dead, so hidden;
His touch calls us back to life,
love is come again
to the fallow fields of our hearts.

Now the green blade riseth from the buried grain,
Wheat that in dark earth many days has lain;
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.

In the grave they laid him, love whom men had slain,
Thinking that never he would wake again.
Laid in the earth like grain that sleeps unseen:
Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green,

Forth he came at Easter, like the risen grain,
He that for three days in the grave had lain.
Quick from the dead my risen Lord is seen:
Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.

When our hearts are wintry, grieving, or in pain,
Thy touch can call us back to life again;
Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.
~John Crum

A Hand on the Forehead

The bud
stands for all things,
even for those things that don’t flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;   
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;   
as Saint Francis
put his hand on the creased forehead
of the sow, and told her in words and in touch   
blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow   
began remembering all down her thick length,   
from the earthen snout all the way
through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,   
from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine   
down through the great broken heart
to the sheer blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering   
from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing beneath them:
the long, perfect loveliness of sow.
~Galway Kinnell, “Saint Francis and the Sow” from Three Books.

We all need such a blessing – a gentle hand on our forehead to remind us of our budding loveliness. Without that affirmation, we become convinced we will never flower and fruit, that we are worthless to the world.

Due to cruel comparisons on social media and elsewhere, our young people (and too many older adults) remain crippled buds, feeling criticized and bullied into believing they don’t measure up and can never be crucially beautiful in the world.

And so I must ask: compared to what and whom?
What is more glorious than blooming just as we were created –
serving the very purpose for which we were intended?
Why wish for something or someone else?

There is nothing more wonderful than exactly how God knitted us together for His own purpose and in His own image — imperfectly perfect.

Celebrate your lifelong loveliness, whoever you are!

Losing Foliage

In the shallows of the river
After one o’clock in the afternoon
Ice still
An eighth of an inch thick.
Night never disappears completely
But moves among the shadows
On the bank
Like a glimpse of fur.
Meanwhile
Trees
Grass
Flies and spiderwebs
Appear alone in the flat air.
The naked aspens stand like children
Waiting to be baptized
And the goldenrod too is stripped down
To its bare stalk
In the cold
Even my thoughts
Have lost their foliage.
~Tom Hennen
“At the Beginning of Winter”, from Looking Into The Weather.

My thoughts are stripped bare these days,
no flowers or flourishing foliage left behind-
just stark rows of naked branches, waiting,
orderly and plain.

It is the nature of winter
to think only of the essentials
when night is always creeping
around the edges of midday.

There is silence outside
and echoing in my head,
while waiting for something,
~anything~
remarkable to bud out
and bloom.

Promises Promises

The flown, the fallen,
the golden ones,
the deciduous dead, all gone
to ground, to dust, to sand,
borne on the shoulders of the wind.

Listen! They are whispering…

Look at the trees!

Every leaf-scar is a bud
expecting a future.
The earth speaks in parables.
The burning bush. The rainbow.
Promises. Promises.
~Gillian Clarke from “The Year’s Midnight” From Selected Poems

Having turned the ragged corner into a new year,
I search for any signs of recovery from
what was fallen and flown from last year.
Instead there is rain upon rain and water levels rise.

I step cautiously upon the sponge of soaked leaves underfoot,
recalling their crisp vibrancy when still attached
to branches that are now picked clean
to bare bones, all flesh devoured.

Yet, as I examine those skeletal remains,
I see their scars swelling with potential,
even now, even in early winter there is expectancy.

These bushes will not burn to ashes;
this rain will cease to flood.
This sky, these trees will light up once again
with promises made
and promises kept.