Here’s My Hand

How far friends are! They forget you,
most days. They have to, I know; but still,
it’s lonely just being far and a friend.
I put my hand out—this chair, this table—
So near: touch, that’s how to live.
Call up a friend? All right, but the phone
itself is what loves you, warm on your ear,
on your hand. Or, you lift a pen
to write—it’s not that far person
but this familiar pen that comforts.
Near things: Friend, here’s my hand.

~William Stafford “Friends” from The Way It Is

I initially started writing online almost twenty years ago to a group of friends, most that I had met in real life, but some of whom I only knew from afar. It felt like I was writing a letter but without the pen, paper, envelopes and stamp.

Now I write to over 22,000 people every day. A few of you I know well, some I’ve only met once, most of you I will never have the privilege to know personally. Some of you have written to me privately (some with pen and paper, stamp and envelope!) to tell me more about your lives and how the thoughts I send along each day make a difference to you.

I know the power and love found in a hand-written letter. Someone I have known for nearly 50 years still writes to her friends – Jane Goodall was my teacher and mentor. When she gave me the opportunity to work with her in Africa in the 1970s, it changed my life in ways I still am discovering. Most remarkably, she has written to me on a number of occasions and I treasure those notes. Her familiar pen written by her familiar hand comforts me.

It’s lonely being far away, and a friend. But here is my hand. I hope you will continue to take what I offer here and find it comforting.

giving Jane a hug, courtesy of WWU Communications

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The Forgiveness of Sleep

The children have gone to bed.
We are so tired we could fold ourselves neatly
behind our eyes and sleep mid-word, sleep standing
warm among the creatures in the barn, lean together
and sleep, forgetting each other completely in the velvet,
the forgiveness of sleep.

Then the one small cry:
one strike of the match-head of sound:
one child’s voice:
and the hundred names of love are lit
as we rise and walk down the hall.

One hundred nights we wake like this,
wake out of our nowhere
to kneel by small beds in darkness.
One hundred flowers open in our hands,
a name for love written in each one.
~Annie Lighthart, from Iron String

I thought I had forgotten how to wake to the sound of a child’s voice in the night. I thought I wouldn’t remember how to gently open their bedroom door, entering their darkness from my own darkness, discerning what was distressing them, sensing how to soothe them back to slumber, wondering if I might sing or pray the words they needed to hear, bringing a blossoming peace and stillness to their night.

And then our son’s family arrived two months ago from thousands of miles away, to stay until they could settle in their own place, and I remembered my nights were never meant to be mine alone. As a child, I had so many night-wakenings that I’m sure my mother despaired that I would ever sleep through the night. She would come when I called, sitting beside my bed, rubbing my back until I forgot what woke me in the first place. She was patient and caring despite her own weariness, sleep problems and worriedness. She loved me and forgave me for needing her presence in the night, so her nights were never her own.

I too responded with compassion when my own children called out in the night. I woke regularly to phone calls from hospitals and patients during forty years of medical practice and listened and answered questions with grace and understanding. And now, for a time, I’m on call again, remembering the sweetness of being loved when the dark fears of the night need the light and promise of a new day coming, if only just a few hours away.

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An Object of Ultimate Concern

We live in an unbelieving age
but one which is markedly and lopsidedly spiritual…
an age that has domesticated despair
and learned to live with it happily.
There is something in us
that demands the redemptive act,
that demands that what falls
at least be offered the chance to be restored.
…what <modern man> has forgotten is the cost of it.
His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether,
and so he has forgotten the price of restoration.

This is an unlimited God
and one who has revealed himself specifically.
It is one who became man and rose from the dead.
It is one who confounds the senses and the sensibilities,
one known early on as a stumbling block.
There is no way to gloss over this specification
or to make it more acceptable to modern thought.
This God is the object of ultimate concern
and he has a name.

~Flannery O’Connor from a 1963 lecture published in Mystery and Manners

He has an unpronounceable name,
this God of specificity,
yet still He asks us to breathe it out
with each breath we take —
even if we don’t believe.

This God of specificity knows our name,
as He formed each one of us for a reason
and it is His voice calling out to us —
even when we aren’t listening.

He is worthy of our attention as
we are the object of His ultimate concern.

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The One Who Sees and Knows

Yesterday,
running slowly
in the gravel
I saw
a tiny bird
feathered pulsating globe
of white and gray
on its back
black pinprick eyes
pointing up to the sky.
I stooped down
closely
to peer.
We stared at one another—
creature to creature—
for a small eternity.
I scooped him
into my hands
and placed him gently
an offering
upright
onto the grass
whispering
a prayer to the One
who sees
and knows
each one
every sparrow
and every sorrow.
~Karen Swallow Prior “Creature to Creature”

photo by Harry Rodenberger

Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God.  Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.
Luke 12: 6-7

Typically, I hear sparrows more than see them most of the year. They are shy little birds and fly away any time I approach them. But during the winter months when the northeast arctic winds are blowing, they cling to the rose bushes beneath my bird feeders, fluffed up to try to stay warm, buffeted about by the breeze, just trying to stay alive. Singing is the last thing on their little minds.

This is when we need each other the most; the sparrow is hanging on the best it can to make it to spring and so am I, seeking to nurture some small part of Creation in order to keep simmering my hope for the future. Although there is no sparrows’ song lilting in the air during the coldest months, I know it will return.

So I sing for them.

I sing because I’m happy.
I sing because I’m free.
His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me.

Why should I feel discouraged,
Why should the shadows come,
Why should my heart be lonely,
And long for Heav’n and home,
When Jesus is my portion?
My constant friend is He:
His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me.

Refrain

I sing because I’m happy,
I sing because I’m free,
For His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me.

Let not your heart be troubled,
His tender word I hear,
And resting on His goodness,
I lose my doubts and fears;
Though by the path He leadeth,
But one step I may see;
His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me.

Whenever I am tempted,
Whenever clouds arise,
When songs give place to sighing,
When hope within me dies,
I draw the closer to Him,
From care He sets me free;
His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me.

Lyrics by Civilla Martin

ot one sparrow is forgotten,
E’en the raven God will feed;
And the lily of the valley
From His bounty hath its need.
Then shall I not trust Thee, Father,
In Thy mercy have a share?
And through faith and prayer, my Mother,
Merit Thy protecting care?

                Shaker Hymn (Canterbury Shakers Hymnal, 1908)
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A Heart I Cannot Fathom

Today, when I could do nothing,
I saved an ant.

It must have come in with the morning paper,
still being delivered
to those who shelter in place.

I have coffee and books,
time,
a garden,
silence enough to fill cisterns.

It must have first walked
the morning paper, as if loosened ink
taking the shape of an ant.

Small black ant, alone,
crossing a navy cushion,
moving steadily because that is what it could do.

Set outside in the sun,
it could not have found again its nest.
What then did I save?

It did not move as if it was frightened,
even while walking my hand,
which moved it through swiftness and air.

Ant, alone, without companions,
whose ant-heart I could not fathom —
how is your life, I wanted to ask.

I lifted it, took it outside.

This first day when I could do nothing,
contribute nothing
beyond staying distant from my own kind,
I did this.
~Jane Hirshfield from “Today, When I Could Do Nothing”

The other day, as I sat down in the grass to take pictures, I felt a tickle at the nape of my neck. I reached up, picked up something, and when I looked to see what it was, I found a tiny ant crushed in my fingers. Suddenly it felt like things were crawling everywhere on me, especially my scalp. I shook out my hair and clothes and found there weren’t any more ants. It was only one very unfortunate defenseless victim who chose the wrong place and time to inhabit me – unexpected, unwanted and unwelcome.

As a child, I was fascinated by the ant hills in the woods and fields of our small farm. I would track yards and yards of ant trails from the busy mounded colonies to tree trunks and other sources of food, watching the single file single-minded insects heading through all sorts of terrain to sustain their community. Having ants crawling on me wasn’t a problem then – they were part of my exploration of creation and sometimes they explored me.

How is your life, I wanted to ask.

Now as an adult, I confess I pay regularly for someone to come to the farm to spray around our house to prevent a resurgence of carpenter ants that threatened our foundation and walls some years ago. It works pretty well so I don’t have to deal with the reality of nature/creation invading my personal space. My wholistic acceptance of my co-existence with ants ends at my front door. No welcome mat for them, thou shalt not trespass.

I don’t seek to fathom their heart or a felt need to find food.

So now our country is embroiled in the polarizing issue of whether to protect the defenseless when they are unexpected, unwanted and unwelcome, especially when it may pose great personal risk to another. Many of those most upset by the judicial decision have a voice to protest today because their mother let them live, even though their conception was unexpected, unwanted and unwelcome. They were not prevented through prophylactic means, they were not squished in an intentional self-defensive move.

They were indeed part of creation.

They are living and whole and as angry and anxious as I was when I thought I was crawling with ants.

How is your life, I want to ask. How is it to feel what you are feeling right now?

I fathom your beating heart and that of a mother’s loving heart of selfless sacrifice.

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A Keeper of Bees

If you talk to him,
he will not pretend to be
an ordinary man.
He won’t let on
he is one who isn’t afraid to hold
in his outstretched hands
the buzzing gold.

He won’t tell you he is the man who keeps farmers
warm in their livelihood,
or the man who keeps the grocery shelves
full, then adds, simply for good measure,
jars of his shining honey.
He won’t explain that he is the one
who sets his suffering neighbors
free from their pain
with gifts of jars that sting.

He won’t let on to be the lifegiver or a god.
He will pretend he is just an old man with sand-colored hair,
a blue truck heavy with breezy hives,
and a comb-spinner in his cellar.

~Sidney Hall Jr., from This Understated Land

Our niece Andrea of Z’s Happy Bees, gently vacuuming a swarm from one of our farm trees

…The world was really one bee yard,
and the same rules work fine in both places.
Don’t be afraid, as no life-loving bee wants to sting you.
Still, don’t be an idiot; wear long sleeves and pants.
Don’t swat. Don’t even think about swatting.
If you feel angry, whistle.

Anger agitates while whistling melts a bee’s temper.
Act like you know what you’re doing, even if you don’t.
Above all, send the bees love. Every little thing wants to be loved.

~Sue Monk Kidd from The Secret Life of Bees

He calls the honeybees his girls although
he tells me they’re ungendered workers
who never produce offspring. Some hour drops,
the bees shut off. In the long, cool slant of sun,
spent flowers fold into cups. He asks me if I’ve ever
seen a Solitary Bee where it sleeps. I say I’ve not.
The nearest bud’s a long-throated peach hollyhock.
He cradles it in his palm, holds it up so I spy
the intimacy of the sleeping bee. Little life safe in a petal,
little girl, your few furious buzzings as you stir
stay with me all winter, remind me of my work undone.
~Heid E. Erdrich, from “Intimate Detail” from The Mother’s Tongue

I am awed and inspired by apiarists. Our niece Andrea has been bee-keeping for over a decade, keeping hives at home in nearby Skagit Valley as well as moving them during growing season to pollinate the blooms at Floret Flower Farm and other beautiful places.

A beekeeper must be a loving and patient person; the bees know who loves them, and who will always be there to care for them.

An old Celtic tradition necessitates sharing any news from the household with the farm’s bee hives, whether cheery like a new birth or a wedding celebration or sad like a family death.  This ensures the hives’ well-being and continued connection to home and community – the bees are kept in the loop, so to speak, so they stay at home, not swarm and move on to a more hospitable place.

Each little life safe at home, each little life with work undone.

Good news seems always easy to share; we tend to keep bad news to ourselves so this tradition helps remind us that what affects one of us, affects us all.

These days, with instant news at our fingertips at any moment, bad news is constantly bombarding us. Like the bees in the hives of the field, we want to flee from it and find a more hospitable home.

Our Creator (the ultimate Beekeeper) comes personally to each of us to say:
“Here is what has happened. All will be well, dear one. We will navigate your little life together.”

photo from Andrea from Z’s Happy Bees
What does the bee do?
Bring home honey.
And what does Father do?
Bring home money.
And what does Mother do?
Lay out the money.
And what does baby do?
Eat up the honey.
~Christina Rossetti

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A Day Well Spent

If you sit down at set of sun
And count the acts that you have done,
And, counting, find
One self-denying deed, one word
That eased the heart of him who heard,
One glance most kind
That fell like sunshine where it went —
Then you may count that day well spent.

But if, through all the livelong day,
You’ve cheered no heart, by yea or nay —
If, through it all
You’ve nothing done that you can trace
That brought the sunshine to one face —
No act most small
That helped some soul and nothing cost —
Then count that day as worse than lost.
~George Eliot “Count That Day Lost”

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

~Naomi Shihab Nye from “Kindness”

I tend to forget – in my own self-absorption – the privilege I have to help make the world a better place for someone else each day — to share a drop of sunshine in some way. Each morning I’m given another chance to treat the day like the gift that it is and hand it off to someone else in a continual “pay it forward” act of kindness.

Only kindness makes sense in this fallen world. We have been steeped in sorrow for so long. I don’t want to lose one more day to anything less than a depth of kindness and comfort that never leaves my side, still present as the sun goes down into darkness.

Only such Loving Kindness will raise the sun again in the morning.

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The World’s Most Sensitive Cargo

Go north a dozen years
on a road overgrown with vines
to find the days after you were born.
Flowers remembered their colors and trees
were frothy and the hospital was


behind us now, its brick indifference
forgotten by our car mirrors. You were
revealed to me: tiny, delicate,
your head smelling of some other world.
Turn right after the circular room


where I kept my books and right again
past the crib where you did not sleep
and you will find the window where
I held you that morning
when you opened your eyes. They were


blue, tentative, not the deep chocolate
they would later become. You were gazing
into the world: at our walls,
my red cup, my sleepless hair and though
I’m told you could not focus, and you


no longer remember, we were seeing
one another after seasons of darkness.

~Faith Shearin, “Sight” from Orpheus, Turning

A man crosses the street in rain,
stepping gently, looking two times north and south,
because his son is asleep on his shoulder.

No car must splash him.
No car drive too near to his shadow.

This man carries the world’s most sensitive cargo
but he’s not marked.
Nowhere does his jacket say FRAGILE,
HANDLE WITH CARE.

His ear fills up with breathing.
He hears the hum of a boy’s dream
deep inside him.

We’re not going to be able
to live in this world
if we’re not willing to do what he’s doing
with one another.

The road will only be wide.
The rain will never stop falling.

~Naomi Shihab Nye “Shoulders”

Recent headlines reflect a touchy cultural debate about child bearing and rearing in our post-modern society:

who has control over whose body and for what justifiable reasons,

when life begins and when its loss is a death to be mourned
or if intentional, could be considered equivalent to murder,

babies without access to adequate nutrition due to a formula shortage while some shame mothers for not breast-feeding,

who determines what schools can teach at what stage of development, whether vaccines should be mandatory to attend,
and what books children can have access to in the library.

There are controversies about our country not guaranteeing paid parental leave and automatic free day care, along with government subsidized health care, and whether we coddle our kids too much or too little.

Some are convinced we should avoid child-bearing since people are destroying the earth and adding more people will only hasten our demise.

The judgement and harshness of the debate is enough to discourage parenting at all for those who are ambivalent to begin with. For those who long to be parents but still have empty arms, the debate seems heartless and selfish, as they wonder if and when a chance to love their own child will ever come.

Having waited long years ourselves with empty arms, and then were blessed with three of our own, I can say with assurance children are the most sensitive cargo we’ll ever bear and carry and love – there is no future without children cherished above one’s own wants and needs.

After seasons of darkness, we must look each other in the eyes and find each other worthy to exist and do whatever it takes to guarantee it. We must be willing to sacrifice, carrying one another like precious cargo. We were created for no less than this.

Just checking to see if she is real…

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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: Ubi Caritas

Christ’s love has gathered us into one.
Let us rejoice and be pleased in Him.
Let us fear, and let us love the living God.
And may we love each other with a sincere heart.

~Paulinus of Aquileia (AD 796)

When I hear these powerful words
sung with a unity of spirit
through diversity of voice and song,
my own impulse to be divisive is convicted;
I am found guilty of provoking separation
rather than blending in holy togetherness.

May my disparate parts be gathered
by His immense capacity for goodness,
my broken fragments repaired,
knitted whole by His loving charity,
His knowledge of me always better
than my own understanding,
forgiving me from His all-encompassing compassion
in this world without end.
Amen

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…

Where charity and love are, God is there.
Christ’s love has gathered us into one.
Let us rejoice and be pleased in Him.
Let us fear, and let us love the living God.
And may we love each other with a sincere heart.
Where charity and love are, God is there.
As we are gathered into one body,
Beware, lest we be divided in mind.
Let evil impulses stop, let controversy cease,
And may Christ our God be in our midst.
Where charity and love are, God is there.
And may we with the saints also,
See Thy face in glory, O Christ our God:
The joy that is immense and good,
Unto the ages through infinite ages. Amen.

Lyrics in Latin:
Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.
Congregavit nos in unum Christi amor.
Exsultemus, et in ipso jucundemur.
Timeamus, et amemus Deum vivum.
Et ex corde diligamus nos sincero.
Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.
Simul ergo cum in unum congregamur:
Ne nos mente dividamur, caveamus.
Cessent iurgia maligna, cessent lites.
Et in medio nostri sit Christus Deus.
Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.
Simul quoque cum beatis videamus,
Glorianter vultum tuum, Christe Deus:
Gaudium quod est immensum, atque probum,
Saecula per infinita saeculorum.

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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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