Seeing It Through

I wanted you to see what real courage is,
instead of getting the idea
that courage is a man
with a gun in his hand.
It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin,
but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.

~Harper Lee from To Kill A Mockingbird

I know. It’s all wrong.
By rights we shouldn’t even be here.
But we are.

It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end.

Because how could the end be happy?
How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow.

Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why.

But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going, because they were holding on to something. That there is some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for.
~J.R.R. Tolkien – Samwise Gamgee to Frodo in The Two Towers

Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. 
It means a strong desire to live
taking the form of a readiness to die.
~ G.K. Chesterton from “The Paradoxes of Christianity” in Orthodoxy

This is another day, O Lord…
If I am to stand up, help me to stand bravely.
If I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly.
If I am to lie low, help me to do it patiently.
And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly.
— Kathleen Norris citing the Book of Common Prayer

What courage it takes to step out one’s front door these days.

I never know where I might be swept off to
or what I might be swept into.

When I feel overwhelmed and discouraged,
when it seems the world is cast in nothing but shadow,
I am reminded I too am part of a great story
and the plot progression is, by necessity, a mystery.

While the darkness seems to never end,
I will pass through shadows and feel great fear,
I will be asked to do things that threaten my well-being
because it is the right thing to do for another.

Yet we are promised Light and Joy at the end of this epic story.
There is still good in the world and it is worth fighting for.

It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door. You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off too.
~J.R.R. Tolkien – Bilbo to Frodo in Fellowship of the Rings

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Kneeling for Courage

You want to know how I spend my time?
I walk the front lawn, pretending
to be weeding. You ought to know
I’m never weeding, on my knees, pulling
clumps of clover from the flower beds: in fact
I’m looking for courage, for some evidence
my life will change, though
it takes forever, checking
each clump for the symbolic
leaf, and soon the summer is ending, already
the leaves turning, always the sick trees
going first, the dying turning
brilliant yellow, while a few dark birds perform
their curfew of music. You want to see my hands?
As empty now as at the first note.
Or was the point always
to continue without a sign?
~Louise Glück  “Matins V”

I have never been a brave person. In fact, I can be as fearful of the headlines of world events as the next person – a downright lily-livered chicken-heart. People like me may engage in lots of magical thinking, hoping I just might change through hard work and a large measure of good luck.

But what has luck got to do with it? Nothing whatsoever.

The reality is, many people work hard and still face insurmountable struggles that regularly force them to their knees. Courage is asking God for the grit to keep going no matter what confronts you because that is exactly what He did for us: even when his knees hurt from kneeling, his voice was hoarse with prayer, his eyes full of tears, his efforts unacknowledged and unappreciated, his heart broken.

Even when I come up empty-handed, I take courage and take heart. His heart.

Take heart, my friend, we’ll go together
This uncertain road that lies ahead
Our faithful God has always gone before us
And He will lead the way once again

Take heart, my friend, we can walk together
And if our burdens become too great
We can hold up and help one other
In God’s love and God’s grace

Take heart my friend, the Lord is with us
As He has been all the days of our lives
Our assurance every morning
Our defender in the night

If we should falter when trouble surrounds us
When the wind and the waves are wild and high
We will look away to Him who ruled the waters
Who spoke His peace into the angry tide

He is our comfort, our sustainer
He is our help in time of need
When we wander, He is our Shepherd
He who watches over us never sleeps

Take heart my friend the Lord is with us
As He has been all the days of our lives
Our assurance every morning
Our defender in the night

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Thorny Doubts and Tangled Angers

I remember
the first day,
how I looked down,
hoping you wouldn’t see
me,
and when I glanced up,
I saw your smile
shining like a soft light
from deep inside you.

“I’m listening,” you encourage us.
“Come on!
Join our conversation,
let us hear your neon certainties,
thorny doubts, tangled angers,”
but for weeks I hid inside.


I read and reread your notes
praising
my writing,
and you whispered,
“We need you
and your stories
and questions
that like a fresh path
will take us to new vistas.”

Slowly, your faith grew
into my courage
and for you—
instead of handing you
a note or apple or flowers—
I raised my hand.

I carry your smile
and faith inside like I carry
my dog’s face,
my sister’s laugh,
creamy melodies,
the softness of sunrise,
steady blessings of stars,
autumn smell of gingerbread,
the security of a sweater on a chilly day.
~Pat Mora, “Ode To Teachers” from Dizzy in Your Eyes.

School is back in session for some and will be soon for others. We cross our fingers it can remain in person, masked face-to-masked face, rather than via screens.

Students and teachers will find their way back to one another – learning each other’s stories and how to transform one another through sharing those stories.

Two of our children are school teachers – one at elementary level and the other in high school, while the third spent two years teaching high school math on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. They were transformed by their own teachers, inspired to do what had made such a difference in their own lives. They have become the teachers who I wish would teach me.

Some of my own teachers helped transform me in those early years, encouraging me in my shyness to raise my hand despite my thorny doubts, tell my story despite my tangled angers, share something of myself when I felt I had nothing of value to give.

I think of you and thank you – Mrs. Neil, Mr. Duffy, Mrs. MacMurray – for helping me break out of my broken shell in my grade school years. You taught me to wholly trust to this day those who love enough to push me to become a better me.

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We Stand Grounded

My father will not
climb into the trees
today.

He is eighty-four
and tells me
that he was never

fond of heights,
that he hated
putting up the pipes

to fill the silo,
that he did not enjoy
climbing to the top

of the barn
to fix the pulley
on the hay-sling.

I have no desire
to be in the air,
he says.

And I always thought
he loved walking
the rim of the silo,

waving his hat
in circles overhead,
shouting down to
where we stood
grounded and gazing
up at him.

~Joyce Sutphen “Grounded” from First Words

As much as I loved it, riding on my father’s shoulders when I was small was more than high enough for me: he was a tall man and I felt I could reach the sky when I was up there. He would dip me down and swoop around and I felt I was flying with my tummy tickling the whole time. It was sheer delight but only because my dad was attached to the ground and I was held tightly by him. I was safe because he was.

When I was five, it took me months to be brave enough to climb the steps to go down the slide on my kindergarten playground – I lied to my parents that I had done it way before I actually did and they were so proud for me. This meant when I actually screwed up the courage and did it months later, there was no one I could brag to – I had ruined my own achievement with my previous deceptive bravado.

Climbing ladders into the hay loft to fetch hay bales still requires bravery that I sorely lack. Going up the steps doesn’t bother me nearly as much as the fact I must eventually come down…somehow… and it is the descent that seems far more terrifying.

When our barn needed a major repair of new roof and walls, the workers used ladders but also a hydraulic lift – something the turn of the century carpenters didn’t have access to. When I look at the hay sling/hook pulley hanging high from the peak of the barn, I realize someone over 100 years ago had to climb up to put it up there, so there it remains even though its working days are long past.

As much as possible, I now stay grounded, firmly attached to the soil, convinced it is where I belong. I’ll look and act as if I’m brave when I dare to climb up high, but only because I know Whose shoulders bear me up when I’m going beyond my comfort zone.

I’m safe because He is and always will be.

If you prefer to keep your feet on the ground, you will enjoy this new book from Barnstorming, available to order here:

Beauty Laid Bare

To be a poet…
you must believe in the uniqueness of every person,
and therefore in your own.

To find your voice you must forget about finding it,
and trust that if you pay sufficient attention to life
you will be found to have something to say

which no one else can say.

And that will be your voice,
unsought,
singing out from you of itself. 


~Denise Levertov

At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace.
It is handed to you, but only if you look for it.
You search, you break your fists, your back, your brain, and then –
and only then -it is handed to you.

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.
What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon?
What could you say to a dying person

that would not enrage by its triviality?

Why are we reading,
if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened
and its deepest mystery probed?
Why are we reading,

if not in hope that the writer
will magnify and dramatize our days,
will illuminate and inspire us

with wisdom, courage and the hope of meaningfulness,
and press upon our minds the deepest mysteries,
so we may feel again their majesty and power?


What do we ever know that is higher than that power
which, from time to time, seizes our lives,
and which reveals us startlingly to ourselves
as creatures set down here bewildered? 

~Annie Dillard from “Write Till You Drop”

Some days my voice feels so weakened
I am unable to sing out from myself,
knowing I have said too much
that means so little.

I swing and I miss, over and over
swishing the air –
hoping, listening, looking, living
for a connection made
through sharing images and words.

I am bewildered by life most of the time –
how figurative and literal smoke and haze
can permeate and discolor our days and nights.

What I must do is lay bare the beauty I see,
seeking a way to make a sad and suffering world
less mystifying.

A new book from Barnstorming is available to order here:

To Live in the Layers

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon

How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?


Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.

In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered

and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:

“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”

Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.

I am not done with my changes.
~Stanley Kunitz from “The Layers”

A child is asleep. Her private life unwinds inside skin and skull; only as she sheds childhood, first one decade and then another, can she locate the actual, historical stream, see the setting of her dreaming private life—the nation, the city, the neighborhood, the house where the family lives—as an actual project under way, a project living people willed, and made well or failed, and are still making, herself among them.

I breathed the air of history all unaware, and walked oblivious through its littered layers.
~Annie Dillard from An American Childhood

photo of Wiser Lake and Mt. Baker by Joel de Waard

…we become whole by having the courage to revisit and embrace all the layers of our lives, denying none of them, so that we’re finally able to say, “Yes, all of this is me, and all of this has helped make me who I am.”

When we get to that point, amazingly, we can look at all the layers together and see the beauty of the whole.
~Parker Palmer from “Embracing All the Layers of Your Life” in On Being

My favorite scenes are ones where there are several “layers” to study, whether it is a still life of petals or a deep landscape with a foreground, middle and backdrop. The challenge is to decide where to look first, what to draw into sharp focus, and how to absorb it all as a whole. In fact, if I only see one aspect, I miss the entire point of the composition. It is wonderfully multi-faceted and multi-layered because that is how my own life is – complex with so much diverse and subtle shading.

If I try to suppress some darker part of my own life I wish to forget and blur out, I ignore the beauty of the contrast with the light that illuminates the rest.

The layers reflect who I was created to be as an image-bearer – complex, nuanced, illuminated in the presence of dark.

Beautifully composed and ultimately transformed.

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There Be Dragons

Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist.
Children already know that dragons exist.
Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.
~G.K. Chesterton from Tremendous Trifles

But a dragon lies in ambush for the traveler;
take care he does not bite you and inject you his poison of unbelief.
Seeing this numerous company winning salvation,
he selects and stalks his prey.
In your journey to the Father of souls,
your way lies past that dragon.
How shall you pass him?
You must have “your feet stoutly with the gospel of peace,”
so that, even if he does bite you,
he may not hurt you.
~St. Cyril of Jerusalem


<regarding St. Cyrus’s story>:
No matter what form the dragon may take,
it is of this mysterious passage past him, or into his jaws,
that stories of any depth will always be concerned to tell,
and this being the case, it requires considerable courage
at any time, in any country, not to turn away from the storyteller.

~Flannery O’Connor from A Good Man is Hard to Find

<Here be dragons>
was any place on the ancient maps
that was unknown and unexplored-
a place to avoid at all costs,
or — for the daring and carefree,
exactly the place to explore.

Here be dragons
marks the remainder of our days
that dwell at the edge of life’s roadmap
~ unknown and unexplored ~
and too often full of peril.

So many dragons to pass by,
ready to swallow us whole if we make a wrong turn,
or singe our britches if we stray off the map.

So many dark valleys and impenetrable forests to pass through.
so many mysteries unsolved,
so many stories of fateful journeys told,
and above all,
we must listen to what they have to teach us:
try not to stray from the well-worn lighted path of the faithful
who have managed to stay out of the jaws of the dragons
just so they could tell their story and save our souls.

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Turning Darkness into Light: Infinite Weight and Lightness

“Like Mary, we have no way of knowing…
We can ask for courage, however,
and trust that God has not led us into this new land
only to abandon us there.”
~Kathleen Norris from God With Us

We know the scene: the room, variously furnished,

almost always a lectern, a book; always
the tall lily.
Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,
the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,
whom she acknowledges, a guest.

But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions
courage.
The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent.
God waited.

She was free
to accept or to refuse, choice
integral to humanness.

____________________________

Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?
Some unwillingly
undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,
uncomprehending.
More often
those moments
when roads of light and storm
open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.
God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.

______________________________

She had been a child who played, ate, slept
like any other child – but unlike others,
wept only for pity, laughed
in joy not triumph.
Compassion and intelligence
fused in her, indivisible.

Called to a destiny more momentous
than any in all of Time,
she did not quail,
only asked
a simple, ‘How can this be?’
and gravely, courteously,
took to heart the angel’s reply,
perceiving instantly
the astounding ministry she was offered:

to bear in her womb
Infinite weight and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power –
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.
Then bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love –

but who was God.

This was the moment no one speaks of,
when she could still refuse.

A breath unbreathed,
                                Spirit,
                                          suspended,
                                                            waiting.

______________________________

She did not cry, ‘I cannot. I am not worthy,’
Nor, ‘I have not the strength.’
She did not submit with gritted teeth,
                                                       raging, coerced.
Bravest of all humans,
                                  consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light,
the lily glowed in it,
                               and the iridescent wings.
Consent,
              courage unparalleled,
opened her utterly.
~Denise Levertov “The Annunciation”

Like most people living in 2020,
I want things to be the way I want them:
my plans, my timing, my hopes and dreams first and foremost.

And then the unexpected happens and suddenly nothing looks the way it was supposed to be. There is infinite weight within infinite emptiness.

Only then, as an emptied vessel, can I be filled.

In my forty years of clinical work, I’ve never before seen such an epidemic of hopelessness. Debts seem too great, reserves too limited, foundations too shaky, plans dashed, the future too uncertain.

In the annunciation of the angel approaching a young woman out of the blue, Mary’s response to this overwhelming event is a model for us all when we are hit by the unexpected.

She is prepared; she has studied and knows God’s Word and His promise to His people, even in the midst of trouble. She is able to articulate it beautifully in the song she sings as her response. She gives up her so-carefully-planned-out life to give life to God within her.

Her resilience reverberates through the ages and to each one of us in our own multi-faceted and overwhelming troubles:
may it be to me as you say.

May it be.
Your plans, Your purpose, Your promise – all embodied within me.

Let it be.

Even if it pierces my soul as with a sword so that I leak out to empty;
you are there to plug the bleeding hole, filling me with your infinite light.

Everything inside me cries for order
Everything inside me wants to hide
Is this shadow an angel or a warrior?
If God is pleased with me, why am I so terrified?
Someone tell me I am only dreaming
Somehow help me see with Heaven’s eyes
And before my head agrees,
My heart is on its knees
Holy is He. Blessed am I.

Be born in me
Be born in me
Trembling heart, somehow I believe
That You chose me
I’ll hold you in the beginning
You will hold me in the end
Every moment in the middle,
Make my heart your Bethlehem
Be born in me

All this time we’ve waited for the promise
All this time You’ve waited for my arms
Did You wrap yourself inside the unexpected
So we might know that Love would go that far?

Be born in me
Be born in me
Trembling heart, somehow I believe
That You chose me
I’ll hold you in the beginning
You will hold me in the end
Every moment in the middle,
Make my heart your Bethlehem
Be born in me

I am not brave
I’ll never be
The only thing my heart can offer is a vacancy
I’m just a girl
Nothing more
But I am willing, I am Yours
Be born in me
Be born in me
Trembling heart, somehow I believe
That You chose me
I’ll hold you in the beginning
You will hold me in the end
Every moment in the middle,
Make my heart your Bethlehem
Be born in me

Francesca Battistelli

Kitten Who Lost Her Way

I sometimes think the PussyWillows grey
Are Angel Kittens who have lost their way,
And every Bulrush on the river bank
A Cat-Tail from some lovely Cat astray.
~Oliver Herford, from The Rubaiyat of a Persian Kitten

Our little calico Nala has the bravado of a cat many times her size and age. She climbs the tallest trees, dangles over the house roof eaves to stare eyeball-to-eyeball with the birds picking at seeds in the feeders. She takes no guff from the dogs or from her bigger brother Simba.

One day last summer, a visitor to our farm knocked early in the morning on our front door to say our kitty was struggling to walk, dragging her hind legs behind her. I hurriedly dressed to go find her, thinking I needed to somehow gather her up in a blanket to take to the vet, but she was no where to be found. I looked everywhere in the bushes and the hidden-away spots I knew she enjoyed, but she had vanished. I put out bowls of food to entice her but no luck – after three days, I figured she had crawled away to die alone, as cats are wont to do. Even her brother didn’t seem to know where she had gone as I followed him on his farm excursions.

I tried to theorize what might had happened – had she fallen from a roof or tree and become paralyzed? Surely she could not survive such a devastating injury.

Nine days later, long after I assumed she had died of her injuries or starvation, she appeared on the front porch when I opened the door. She was thin, weak, with her hind legs moving and holding up her weight. She was hungry and extremely vocal and not just a little perturbed that there was an empty cat food bowl on the porch.

On closer inspection, she had healing wounds along either side of her spine, matching closely with what I assume were eagle talon marks that had grasped her, if only briefly, as a raptor tried to carry her away. I suspect, feisty as she was, she fought her predator so fiercely that she was dropped from a bit of a height, bruising her spine. For an eagle, in this land of plenty of prey, dining on a calico is never worth such aggravation and hassle.

What a cat – now minus at least one, if not more lives. Only eight to go.

She is indeed resurrected; completely healed up, her spine is working fine and the only marks left on her back are white patches of new hair growth over her former wounds.

We thought she was lost forever, but she had not lost her way back to us, only way-laid for a bit. Our angel kitten is now resident on the front porch and back to her farm life climbing trees and torturing little birds.

Beware any big raptor who tries to take her on.

Like Current Through a Wire

What courage we had,
our infantry stretched across the yard,
no shields, no swords,
no cavalry assembled behind us
calming their nervous mounts.
We had the strength of our arms,
the speed of our legs.
We had our friends and our convictions.
Opposite us, the undulating line
of children drew suddenly straight.
It was early on a summer day
but the larks fell silent.
A high voice
invoked the name Red Rover;
we could not say who said it first.
But righteousness passed through us
like current through a wire.
Or like an inaugural sip of wine
burning in our chests,
something father gave us
over our mother’s earnest
protestations.
~Connie Wanek, “Red Rover” from Rival Gardens

… if you ran, time ran. You yelled and screamed and raced and rolled and tumbled and all of a sudden the sun was gone and the whistle was blowing and you were on your long way home to supper. When you weren’t looking, the sun got around behind you! The only way to keep things slow was to watch everything and do nothing! You could stretch a day to three days, sure, just by watching!
~Ray Bradbury from Dandelion Wine

I was a kid born without the necessary courage to enjoy playground games and sports – I was always chosen last as I didn’t have good coordination, I wasn’t fast or strong and I wasn’t physically aggressive. Games like dodge ball and Red Rover were too intimidating as I inevitably got battered and bruised by the other kids.

In Red Rover, that impenetrable line-up of kids found a weak link in me. I could feel the electricity like a current through the linked arms in the line, until it came to me. I became the off switch. Kids knew to choose my arm to break through because I tended to let go rather than have my arm bashed and bruised by some big kid running straight into it.

How have my years of work felt similar? Now well into my seventh decade, I can recall a few times when I’ve chosen to “let go” rather than get bruised. I’ve tried to be strong enough to stand up to the battering that comes with leadership positions and taking unpopular stands. It takes its toll and I regret I’m not strong enough at times. However, there is relief in no longer being connected to the electric current of these times.

What I always liked best about the playground was to simply run and jump and holler and hoot from the joy of being alive, or to just stand and watch what was going on around me without having to be in the center of things. Now decades later, I find myself again standing apart, just watching, grateful I’m no longer part of the line up about to get bashed.