Our final dogwood leans
over the forest floor
to the birds, the squirrels.
It’s a relic
of the days when dogwoods
flourished—creamy lace in April,
spilled milk in May—
their beauty delicate
When I took for granted
that the world would remain
as it was, and I
would remain with it.
~Linda Pastan “Elegy”
The inevitable change of the seasons, as portrayed by the branches of our aging pink dogwood tree, is a reminder nothing stays the same.
Like this old tree, I lean over more, I have a few bare branches with no leaves, I have my share of broken limbs, I have my share of blight and curl.
Yet each stage and transition has its own beauty:
a breathtaking depth of color flourishes on what once was bare.
Nothing is to be taken for granted. Nothing remains as it was.
Especially me. Oh, especially me.
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The others bent their heads and started in.
Confused, I asked my neighbor
to explain—a sturdy, bright-cheeked girl
who brought raw milk to school from her family’s
herd of Holsteins. Ann had a blue bookmark,
and on it Christ revealed his beating heart,
holding the flesh back with His wounded hand.
Ann understood division. . . .
Miss Moran sprang from her monumental desk
and led me roughly through the class
without a word. My shame was radical
as she propelled me past the cloakroom
to the furnace closet, where only the boys
were put, only the older ones at that.
The door swung briskly shut.
The warmth, the gloom, the smell
of sweeping compound clinging to the broom
soothed me. I found a bucket, turned it
upside down, and sat, hugging my knees.
I hummed a theme from Haydn that I knew
from my piano lessons. . . .
and hardened my heart against authority.
And then I heard her steps, her fingers
on the latch. She led me, blinking
and changed, back to the class.
~Jane Kenyon “Trouble with Math in a One-room Country School”
I avoided all potential trouble in school by avoiding the trouble-makers.
I never was disciplined or even looked at crossly by a teacher. They loved me and I wanted badly to be loved by them.
I looked away whenever another student got in trouble; I didn’t want to be a lookie-loo enjoying the travails of another child. It was painful for me to see another kid disciplined. I know I would have been crushed to be publicly called out, sent to the hallway, name on the board, or worse yet, banished to the principal.
So my heart broke when I saw another child cry,
or be defiant or be removed from class.
I knew I couldn’t fix it or them.
I knew I couldn’t help the teacher to like them.
I knew some kids have their own secret pain they endure.
I knew it would change me to know what their pain felt like.
So I just imagined being good and compliant and rule-abiding and lovable.
Of course, I wasn’t and I’m not, sixty years later.
I too changed, just like everyone else.
It still makes me sad to think how much we change, how many hearts we break,
how our innocence is so fragile and as a result, how badly we need forgiveness
so we can learn to love ourselves as we are loved.
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God keep my jewel this day from danger;
From tinker and pooka and bad-hearted stranger.
From harm of the water, from hurt of the fire.
From the horns of the cows going home to the byre.
From the sight of the fairies that maybe might change her.
From teasing the ass when he’s tied to the manger.
From stones that would bruise her, from thorns of the briar.
From evil red berries that wake her desire.
From hunting the gander and vexing the goat.
From the depths o’ sea water by Danny’s old boat.
From cut and from tumble, from sickness and weeping;
May God have my jewel this day in his keeping.
~Winifred Lett (1882-1973) Prayer for a Child
This prayer has hung in our home for almost three decades, purchased when I was pregnant with our first child. When I first saw it with its drawing of the praying mother watching her toddler leave the safety of the home to explore the wide world, I knew it addressed most of my worries as a new mother, in language that helped me smile at my often irrational fears. I would glance at it dozens of time a day, and it would remind me of God’s care for our children through every scary thing, real or imagined.
And I continue to pray for our grown children, their spouses, and now for four precious grandchildren who live too far away from us. I do this because I can’t not do it, and because I’m helpless without the care and compassion of our sovereign God.
May I be changed by my prayers.
I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God. It changes me.
Sleep child upon my bosom,
It is cosy and warm;
Mother’s arms are tight around you,
A mother’s love is in my breast;
Nothing shall disturb your slumber,
Nobody will do you harm;
Sleep in peace, dear child,
Sleep quietly on your mother’s breast.
Sleep peacefully tonight, sleep;
Gently sleep, my lovely;
Why are you now smiling,
Smiling gently in your sleep?
Are angels above smiling on you,
As you smile cheerfully,
Smiling back and sleeping,
Sleeping quietly on my breast?
Do not fear, it is nothing but a leaf
Beating, beating on the door;
Do not fear, only a small wave
Murmurs, murmurs on the seashore;
Sleep child, there’s nothing here
Nothing to give you fright;
Smile quietly in my bosom,
On the blessed angels yonder.
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I went out to cut a last batch of zinnias this
morning from the back fencerow and got my shanks
chilled for sure: furrowy dark gray clouds with
separating fringes of blue sky-grass: and the dew
beaded up heavier than the left-overs of the rain:
in the zinnias, in each of two, a bumblebee
stirring in slow motion. Trying to unwind
the webbed drug of cold, buzzing occasionally but
with a dry rattle: bees die with the burnt honey
at their mouths, at least: the fact’s established:
it is not summer now and the simmering buzz is out of
heat: the zucchini blossoms falling show squash
overgreen with stunted growth: the snapdragons have
suckered down into a blossom or so: we passed
into dark last week the even mark of day and night
and what we hoped would stay we yield to change.
~A.R. Ammons “Equinox”
We yield now
to the heaviness of the change;
a slowing of our walk
and the darkening of our days.
It is time:
day and night compete,
and neither wins.
Enter autumn as you would
a closing door. Quickly,
cautiously. Look for something inside
that promises color, but be wary
of its cast — a desolate reflection,
an indelible tint.
~Pamela Steed Hill “September Pitch”
Summer begins to have the look
Peruser of enchanting Book
Reluctantly but sure perceives–
A gain upon the backward leaves
Autumn begins to be inferred
By millinery of the cloud
Or deeper color in the shawl
That wraps the everlasting hill.
The eye begins its avarice
A meditation chastens speech
Some Dyer of a distant tree
Resumes his gaudy industry.
Conclusion is the course of All
Almost to be perennial
And then elude stability
Recalls to immortality.
~Emily Dickinson, Poem 65
This hot summer now wanes, wistful;
it has the look of packing up,
and moving on
without bidding adieu
or looking back over its shoulder.
I wave goodbye without regret; it leaves behind a hot mess
of burned landscape and drought.
Blustery winds have carried in darkening clouds
spread green leaves, chestnuts and walnuts everywhere,
loosened before their time.
Long overdue rain
gave us a good drenching
Overhead skies are heavily burdened
with clues of what more is coming:
the cool feel of moisture,
the deepening graying purplish hues,
the briskness of breezes.
There is no negotiation possible.
I steel myself and get ready,
wrapping myself in my perennial soft shawl of inevitability.
So autumn advances forth with its clouds,
taking up residence as summer moves out,
bringing its own unique plans for redecorating
using an array of hues and textures.
The truth is we’ve seen nothing yet.
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I am still skeptical about the reasons some seek spirituality in the land,
for the spirituality the land offers is anything but easy.
It is the spirituality of a God who would, with lightening and earthquakes, sneeze away the bland moralism preached in many pulpits,
a wildly free, undomesticated divinity,
the same God who demands of Moses from a burning bush,
“Remove your shoes,
for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”
When God appears to Job, the comforting sentiments we might expect to feel are absent because such sentiments
are at most God’s trappings, not the infinite himself.
The God who speaks to Job from the whirlwind reminds him that, comforting or terrifying, he alone is God.
To be satisfied with anything less
would be the spiritual catastrophe the Old Testament calls idolatry.
Some of our idols shatter in the West’s rugged vastness, others remain.
Perhaps God leaves exposed the land’s brokenness –
the scars of forest fires,
the fossils of extinct biospheres,
rifts showing ancient continents now scattered like puzzle pieces –
to remind us that he is greater than the icon, too.
The heavens and earth will wear out like a garment, the Psalmist says, like clothes that are changed.
“But You neither change, nor have an end.”
~Anthony Lusvardi from “Nature is Your Church?”
We are now 45 days into a hotter dry spell this summer with a slight possibility of some rain next week. Everything here in the Pacific Northwest is looking as it would in late August with the snow melt in the Cascades much accelerated from its usual timeline. With the fires already happening for weeks on the eastern side of the state, as well as to the north of us in British Columbia and south in Oregon and California, we are looking at a withering August of smoke and ash.
Dan and I headed up the Mt. Baker Highway yesterday evening to see how bare Baker and Shuksan look up close. We wonder what snow will be left before our typical precipitation begins in earnest in early October. These seemingly unchanging monoliths are being stripped of their usual garments, now naked and vulnerable. They are subject to God’s transforming power just as surely as we are.
When I stand at the foot of these peaks, I never fail to be awed to a whisper, as if I were inside an immense cathedral. God reminds us to remove our shoes out of respect for His holy ground. Yet I worship not the mountains nor the awe-inspiring landscape they are placed in, but worship their Creator whose strength and love is greater than all.
I tread lightly. I speak softly. I remove my shoes. I witness the fading light.
God, the eternal, the unchangeable, takes my breath away, as only He can..
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Mown meadows skirt the standing wheat;
I linger, for the hay is sweet,
New-cut and curing in the sun.
Like furrows, straight, the windrows run,
Fallen, gallant ranks that tossed and bent
When, yesterday, the west wind went
A-rioting through grass and grain.
To-day no least breath stirs the plain;
Only the hot air, quivering, yields
Illusive motion to the fields
Where not the slenderest tassel swings.
Across the wheat flash sky-blue wings;
A goldfinch dangles from a tall,
Full-flowered yellow mullein; all
The world seems turning blue and gold.
Unstartled, since, even from of old,
Beauty has brought keen sense of her,
I feel the withering grasses stir;
Along the edges of the wheat,
I hear the rustle of her feet:
And yet I know the whole sea lies,
And half the earth, between our eyes.
~Sophie Jewett “In Harvest”
Autumn harvest happens outside of me
despite sudden coolness of the air,
thanks to showers that green the fields
for one more month of grazing,
midst the smell of the dying of vines and roots.
Autumn harvest is happening inside of me
as I slow down my walk,
curl up within the lengthening nights,
the color of my thoughts
turning to bronze and gold and red
before I let go
before I let go
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The air was soft, the ground still cold.
In the dull pasture where I strolled
Was something I could not believe.
Dead grass appeared to slide and heave,
Though still too frozen-flat to stir,
And rocks to twitch and all to blur.
What was this rippling of the land?
Was matter getting out of hand
And making free with natural law,
I stopped and blinked, and then I saw
A fact as eerie as a dream.
There was a subtle flood of steam
Moving upon the face of things.
It came from standing pools and springs
And what of snow was still around;
It came of winter’s giving ground
So that the freeze was coming out,
As when a set mind, blessed by doubt,
Relaxes into mother-wit.
Flowers, I said, will come of it.
~Richard Wilbur “April 5, 1974”
As the ground softens with the warming sun,
so do I.
Winter freeze was comforting
as nothing appeared to change, day after day.
Neither did I,
staying stolid and fixed and frozen.
But now the fixed is flexing its muscles,
steaming in its labor,
greening and growing transformed.
So must I,
Every happening, great and small,
is a parable whereby God speaks to us,
and the art of life is to get the message.
Every day is filled with storied moments
though I feel too rushed to listen.
If I take time to be changed
by what I see or feel or hear,
when I pause
for the parable,
it makes all the difference:
A steaming manure pile
becomes the crucible for my failings
transformed into something useful,
a fertilizer to be spread
to grow what it touches.
An iced-over water barrel
reflects distant clouds
above me as I peer inside,
its frozen blue eye focused
past my brokenness
to mirror a beauty
An old barn roof with gaps torn by fierce winds,
is repaired and renewed,
no longer allowing rain and snow
and invading vines inside;
once again safe and secure,
a sanctuary protected from storms.
I am looking.
I am listening.
Feeling in desperate need of repair
before I topple over:
to be transformed,
and forever changed.
Every time I turn to peer
at my reflection in the mirror,
a cruel bargain comes in play:
the glass takes off another day
from my expected living span.
It’s vanity’s fair payment plan.
Each time I look I pay, alas.
I see already how the glass
has laced its silver in my hair,
my youth was stolen unaware.
The real me just fades away,
glance by glance, day by day,
until too late I’ll turn to see
the mirror has stolen off with me!
~John Thornberg “Stolen Glances”
Reflections sometimes are blurred and not altogether an accurate representation of the real thing.
When I look at how I’ve changed over the years, as I pass by, just catching a glance in the mirror, I marvel at how the same brain and heart can exist in such a changing shell. I am still me, but the mirror seems to be stealing away the girl and young woman that I was.
And it is as it must be: no fountain of youth on this soil.
Eternity is to be grasped beyond the mirror.