The Beginning That Reminds Us of the End: Open Wide Then

What next, she wonders,
with the angel disappearing, and her room
suddenly gone dark.

The loneliness of her news
possesses her. She ponders
how to tell her mother.

Still, the secret at her heart burns like
a sun rising. How to hold it in—
that which cannot be contained.

She nestles into herself, half-convinced
it was some kind of good dream,
she its visionary.

But then, part dazzled, part prescient—
she hugs her body, a pod with a seed
that will split her.
~Luci Shaw “Mary Considers Her Situation”

What matters is what occurs occurs
Between them, not to them. It’s only that
The angel doesn’t matter, nor the virgin.
A blade of light scissors the air

Between them. To them it’s only that:
A glancing blow, or a kind of cleaving,
A blade of light. Scissor the air
Wide open, then it happens:

A glance, a blow, error a kind of cleaving—
Of? Or to? So something else can enter.
Open wide then. It happens
Those two forget themselves, not knowing—

What, or who?—so something else can enter
And, in entering, replace them.
We can’t forget ourselves. Knowing
Carelessness has brought us to the point

Where in entering we replace them.
The angel doesn’t matter, nor the virgin.
Carelessness has brought us to the point.
What is matters. What occurs occurs.
~Katherine Coles “Annunciation”

Sometimes
for the light to illuminate
where darkness thrives,
there must be wounding,
that tears us open;
there is a crack in everything,
cleaving us so joy can infiltrate and heal
where we hurt the most.

When time sweeps yesterday away,
It leaves behind an empty heart,
Weeping through the night so dark and long.
When words are lost among the tears,
When sadness steals another day,
God hears our cries and turns our sighs into a song.

Sing to the One who mends our broken hearts with music.
Sing to the One who fills our empty hearts with love.
Sing to the One who gives us light to step into the darkest night.
Sing to the God who turns our sighs into a song.

From heaven falls a mercy sweet,
The time for weeping now is gone;
God hears our sighs and gives us His eternal song.

Sing to the One who mends our broken hearts with music.
Sing to the One who fills our empty hearts with love.
Sing to the One who gives us light to step into the darkest night.
Sing to the God who turns our sighs into a song.

Sing to the One who mends our broken hearts with music.
Sing to the One who fills our empty hearts with love.
Sing to the One who gives us light to step into the darkest night.
Sing to the God who turns our sighs into a song.
~Susan Boersma

The birds they sang
At the break of day
Start again
I heard them say
Don’t dwell on what
Has passed away
Or what is yet to be

Ah the wars they will
Be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
Bought and sold
And bought again
The dove is never free

You can add up the parts
but you won’t have the sum
You can strike up the march,
there is no drum
Every heart, every heart
to love will come
but like a refugee.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
~Leonard Cohen from “Anthem”

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”

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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.

Enjoying Barnstorming posts like this? You can order this book from Barnstorming here:

Waiting in Wilderness: So Strange and Wild a Guest

In the dark, a child might ask, What is the world?
just to hear his sister
promise, An unfinished wing of heaven,
just to hear his brother say,
A house inside a house,
but most of all to hear his mother answer,
One more song, then you go to sleep.
How could anyone in that bed guess
the question finds its beginning
in the answer long growing
inside the one who asked, that restless boy,
the night’s darling?
Later, a man lying awake,
he might ask it again,
just to hear the silence
charge him, This night
arching over your sleepless wondering,
this night, the near ground
every reaching-out-to overreaches,
just to remind himself
out of what little earth and duration,
out of what immense good-bye,
each must make a safe place of his heart,
before so strange and wild a guest
as God approaches.
~Li-Young Lee “Nativity”

“What’s wrong with the world?” asked The Times of famous authors.
“Dear Sir,
I am.

Yours, G.K. Chesterton

I’m not ashamed that I still ask the hard questions, just as I did when I was a child, lying in bed, fearful in the dark. Some call it a lack of faith: if I truly believed, I would trust completely, so asking such questions would be “out of the question.”

Yet God throughout scripture encourages questions, listens to lament, isn’t intimidated by uncertainty and weakness. He waits patiently for His people to make their hearts a safe place for Him to dwell – a place of wings and songs and awe and worship – even when resounding with questions.

My heart is a womb where our strange and wild God seeks to reside in this world. “Why me?” I ask, pondering yet another hard question in the dark.
“Why not you?” comes His response: a question for which He awaits my answer.

But By His Grace: Let Love Be Heard

The world is indeed full of peril and in it there are many dark places.
But still there is much that is fair. And though in all lands, love is now mingled with grief, it still grows, perhaps, the greater.
— J. R. R. Tolkien from The Fellowship of the Ring

Worldwide. a tsunami of tears overflows in households and communities as COVID-19 wreaks physical and economic havoc in hundreds of thousands of lives. We experience deep sadness and grief when older folks with health conditions are taken by a virulent pneumonia within a matter of days, often dying without a familiar face nearby. And there is no end to our distress when up to 40% of hospitalizations are for younger victims of the virus, most of whom survive, but too many don’t and won’t.

Our sorrow fills a chasm so deep and dark that it is a fearsome thing to even peer from the edge, as so many of us do, praying for far-flung family and friends to remain healthy and unable to be of any direct assistance even if they become ill.  We join the helplessness of countless people in human history who have lived through times that seem unendurable.

We don’t understand why inexplicable tragedy befalls good and gracious people, taking them when they are not yet finished with their work on earth.  From quakes that topple buildings burying people, to waves that wipe out whole cities and sweep away thousands of people, to a pathogen too swift and powerful for all the weapons of modern medicine,  we are reminded every day – we live on perilous ground and our time here has always been finite. We don’t have control over the amount of time, but we do have control over how our love is heard and spread.

There is assurance in knowing we do not weep alone; Our Lord is acquainted with grief.  Our grieving is so familiar to a suffering God who too wept at the death of a beloved friend, and who cried out when He was tasked with enduring the unendurable.

There is comfort in knowing He too peered into the chasm of darkness;
He willingly entered its depths to come to our rescue with His incomparable capacity for Light and Love.

This year’s Lenten theme for 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

Angels, where you soar
Up to God’s own light
Take my own lost bird
On your hearts tonight;
And as grief once more
Mounts to heaven and sings
Let my love be heard
Whispering in your wings
~Alfred Noyes

That Patch of Sunlight

It appears now that there is only one
age and it knows
nothing of age as the flying birds know
nothing of the air they are flying through
or of the day that bears them up
through themselves
and I am a child before there are words
arms are holding me up in a shadow
voices murmur in a shadow
as I watch one patch of sunlight moving
across the green carpet
in a building
gone long ago and all the voices
silent and each word they said in that time
silent now
while I go on seeing that patch of sunlight

~W.S. Merwin, “Still Morning” from The Shadow of Sirius

photo by Barbara Hoelle

Our memories can play tricks. A whiff of a fragrance can trigger an experience of another time and place, a song can transport us to a decade long ago, a momentary sensation will remind us of a past experience long forgotten.

We dwell inside a different age as the years go by, in a body that no longer looks or feels exactly the same, yet our memories take us powerfully back to a special moment that happened before. For those who struggle with post-trauma recollections, this is a curse to be overcome. For those whose memories bring joy and comfort, they seek to nurture and cherish what has been as if it is still here and now.

We must remember the light, just as the poet W.S. Merwin in this poem “Still Morning” remembers the moment of his baptism in a church long gone and whose voices are long-stilled. The Light of that day remains, as fresh today as it was when it moved toward him.

Our memories aren’t tricks. They are as powerfully a part of us as the here and now: a moving patch light touching us here from back then.

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 Light is Enough

There were moments, hours even,
when it was clear what I

was meant to do, as if
a landscape had revealed itself

in the morning light.
I could see the road

plainly now, imagining myself
walking towards the distant mountains

like a pilgrim in the old stories—
ready to take on any danger,

hapless but always hopeful,
certain that my simple belief

in the light
would be enough.
~Joyce Sutphen “Those Hours” from Carrying Water to the Field

We’re not always sure we’re on the right road, are we? Too often we’re struggling to find our way in the dark.

Suddenly things are under water, the bridge is washed out, there are potholes everywhere, the fog line disappears in the mist, a mudslide covers both lanes – the road seems impossibly impassable.

Yet we set out on this road for a reason and a purpose; this is not wasted effort. If we can’t see where we are going, fearing we may plunge off an unseen cliff, we pause, waiting until the light is enough to take the next step.

So the light will come.
I believe it will.
I know it will as it always has.

A Last Great Splash of Light

The sun came up chased by dogs
Across a field of snow.
As they passed the pile of broken logs
Frost fluttered in the air
Between the birch trees
Standing in that spot exactly
Where the ridge becomes a hill.

The sun goes in animal delight
Over the farthest edge of earth
Not far ahead of night
And jumps into the dark pool
With a last great splash of light.
~Tom Hennen from “Winter, Thirty Below with Sundogs” from Darkness Sticks to Everything. 

Winter reduces me to my elements:
light/dark
chilled/warm
hungry/sated
empty/filled
sleep/awake
gray/gray.

It is a holding pattern of endurance, awaiting a sun that will linger longer, arrive earlier, and actually be felt, not just apparent in the distance.

I pray for a dawn or twilight splashed with color.
Lord, any imaginable splash of color will do.

Too Cold

We are partly tuber, partly bear.
Inside our warmth we fold ourselves
in the dark and its cold –
around us, outside us,
safely away from us;
we tuck ourselves up
in the long sleep
and comfort of cold’s opposite,
warming ourselves
by thought of the cold,
lighting ourselves by darkness’s idea.
~Donald Hall from “Seasons at Eagle Pond”

Being too warm the old lady said to me
is better than being too cold I think now
in between is the best because you never
give it a thought but it goes by too fast
I remember the winter how cold it got
I could never get warm wherever I was
but I don’t remember the summer heat like that
only the long days the breathing of the trees
the evenings with the hens still talking in the lane
and the light getting longer in the valley
the sound of a bell from down there somewhere
I can sit here now still listening to it
~W.S. Merwin “Remembering Summer”

I confess
loving the dark and cold
as much as light and warmth.
Drawn without alarm clock
away from my pillow,
I awake early
covered in inky blackness
of these unlit January mornings.

An uncharted day
before sunrise,
so raw with ripening,
belongs to no one else
until the light comes
to force me forth.
Only from darkness can I
sprout so boldly.

God is Weeping

The day is cold, and dark, and dreary
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
The vine still clings to the mouldering wall,
But at every gust the dead leaves fall,
And the day is dark and dreary.

My life is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
My thoughts still cling to the mouldering Past,
But the hopes of youth fall thick in the blast,
And the days are dark and dreary.

Be still, sad heart! and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow “The Rainy Day”

People who grow up in the Pacific Northwest suffer from peculiar climate-related disorders unique to only to us.   This deserves a page in the next version of the DSM — the diagnostic psychiatric manual:  we in the PNW don’t feel 100% normal unless it is raining.  We love weather like we’re having right now – full on gray and full on wet with threats of northeast winds and snow.

In fact, we born and bred web-footers can feel downright depressed when it is sunny all the time.  We groan inwardly when yet another day dawns bright instead of gray, we start to look longingly at accumulating clouds,  and we get positively giddy when morning starts with a drizzly mist.

It’s difficult to say what exactly is at work in brain chemistry in cases like this.  It is the opposite effect of classically described Seasonal Affective Disorder diagnosed especially in those transplants from more southerly climates who get sadder and slowed down with darker days and longer nights.   In people like me, born a stone’s throw from Puget Sound, the more sunlight there is, the more doldrums I feel:  desolaration (desolation from too much solar exposure).   The grayer the day, the wetter the sky–> a lightening of the heart and the spirit:  precipilicity (felicity arising from precipitation).

Like most northwesterners, I have low Vitamin D levels even in the summer.  It just isn’t seemly to expose all that skin to UV light.

So I celebrate the profound relief of a rainy day, thank you.   There would be no internal conflict about feeling compelled to go outside to work up a sweat and soak up the elusive sun rays.   There would only be the cozy invitation to stay inside to read and write and sleep.

I know I’m not alone in this disorder.  Many of us are closet sufferers but would never admit it in polite company.  To complain about sunny days is perceived as meteorologically, spiritually and poetically incorrect.  It is time to acknowledge that many of us are in this wet boat rowing together.

Robert Frost (definitely not a northwesterner) confessed his own case of desolaration in the first stanza of his poem November Guest:

My Sorrow, when she’s here with me,
Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;
She loves the bare, the withered tree;
She walks the sodden pasture lane.

And Jack Handey, the satirist, summarizes the real reason for the guilty pleasure of the northwest native in liking rain:

“If a kid asks where rain comes from, I think a cute thing to tell him is ‘God is crying.’
And if he asks why God is crying, another cute thing to tell him is ‘Probably because of something you did.”

Okay, okay, I guess we’ve been really naughty to have so much rainfall in the last month. We should repent for our misbehavior and eventually God’s tears will dry up and the sun would shine again.

Then again, maybe God likes a good rain and a good cry as much as we do.