In This Twittering World

photo by Harry Rodenberger

Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning

Not here
Not here the darkness, in this twittering world.
..

After the kingfisher’s wing
Has answered light to light, and is silent, the light is still
At the still point of the turning world.

~T.S. Eliot – excerpts from Burnt Norton, first of the Four Quartets

Their song reminds me of a child’s neighborhood rallying cry—ee-ock-ee—with a heartfelt warble at the end. But it is their call that is especially endearing. The towhee has the brass and grace to call, simply and clearly, “tweet”. I know of no other bird that stoops to literal tweeting. 
~Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

A hundred thousand birds salute the day:–
        One solitary bird salutes the night:
Its mellow grieving wiles our grief away,
        And tunes our weary watches to delight;
It seems to sing the thoughts we cannot say,
        To know and sing them, and to set them right;
Until we feel once more that May is May,
        And hope some buds may bloom without a blight.
This solitary bird outweighs, outvies,
        The hundred thousand merry-making birds
Whose innocent warblings yet might make us wise
Would we but follow when they bid us rise,
        Would we but set their notes of praise to words
And launch our hearts up with them to the skies.
~Christina Rossetti “A Hundred Thousand Birds”

Eliot didn’t have in mind future tweets on 21st century Twitter when he wrote Burnt Norton in 1935.  He was far more concerned about the concept of Time and redeeming our distraction from connecting to God Himself, the “still point” source of the natural and creative order of all things. He uses the analogies of a garden of flowers and singing birds, a graveyard, and most disturbingly, a subway train of empty-souled people traveling in the Tube under London in the dark. 

Eliot was predicting an unknowable future. Great Britain was facing a second war with Germany, but nearly a century later, we live 24/7 in a “twittering world” war of empty words and darkness through devices we carry with us at all times. Eliot, critical of the dehumanizing technology of his time, was prescient enough to foresee how modern technology might facilitate our continued fall from grace and distract us from the source of our redemption.

Perhaps Rossetti understands best. When birdsong begins on our farm in June at 4 AM in the apple, cherry, chestnut, and walnut trees outside our bedroom windows, I am swept away from my dreams by the distraction of wakening to music of the created order among the branches surrounding me, immersed in the beauty of dew-laden blooms and cool morning air.

Once a hundred thousand birds settle into routine conversation after twenty minutes of their loudly tweeted greetings of the day, I settle too, sitting bleary-eyed at my computer to navigate the twittering world of technology which is too often filled with fancies, or meanness, or, most often, completely empty of meaning altogether.

Yet, each morning as my heart is launched by the warbling songs outside my window, I’m determined to dismiss the distraction of the tweets and twitters on my screen. 

Not here will darkness be found on this page, if I can keep it at bay. I want to answer light to light and light with light.

No darkness here.

I hear a bird chirping, up in the sky
I’d like to be free like that spread my wings so high I
see the river flowing water running by
I’d like to be that river, see what I might find

I feel the wind a blowin’, slowly changing time
I’d like to be that wind, I’d swirl and the shape sky
I smell the flowers blooming, opening for spring
I’d like to be those flowers, open to everything

I feel the seasons change, the leaves, the snow and sun
I’d like to be those seasons, made up and undone
I taste the living earth, the seeds that grow within
I’d like to be that earth, a home where life begins

I see the moon a risin’, reaching into night
I’d like to be that moon, a knowing glowing light
I know the silence as the world begins to wake
I’d like to be that silence as the morning breaks

He does-n’t know the world at all
Who stays in his nest and does-n’t go out.
He does-n’t know what birds know best
Nor what I sing a-bout, Nor what I sing a-bout, Nor what sing a-bout:
That the world is full of love-li-ness.

When dew-drops spar-kle in the grass
And earth is a-flood with mor-ning light. light
A black-bird sings up-on a bush
To greet the dawn-ing af-ter night,
the dawn-ing af-ter night,
the dawn-ing af-ter night.
Then I know how fine it is to live.

Hey, try to o-pen your heart to beau-ty;
Go to the woods some-day
And weave a wreath of me-mory there.
Then if tears ob-scure your way
You’ll know how won-der-ful it is
To be a-live.

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Simply Rapt

Someone spoke to me last night,
told me the truth. Just a few words,
but I recognized it.
I knew I should make myself get up,
write it down, but it was late,
and I was exhausted from working
all day in the garden, moving rocks.
Now, I remember only the flavor —
not like food, sweet or sharp.
More like a fine powder, like dust.
And I wasn’t elated or frightened,
but simply rapt, aware.
That’s how it is sometimes —
God comes to your window,
all bright light and black wings,
and you’re just too tired to open it.
~Dorianne Laux, “Dust” from What We Carry

We don’t have time to look at one another.
I didn’t realize.
All that was going on in life and we never noticed.

Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you. 
Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?

– every, every minute? 
I’m ready to go back.

I should have listened to you.
That’s all human beings are!
Just blind people.
~Thornton Wilder, from Emily’s monologue in Our Town

And for all this, nature is never spent;   
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went   
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent   
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
~Gerard Manley Hopkins from “God’s Grandeur”

photo by Josh Scholten

Lord, all bright light and protective wings…

Let me not wear blinders through my days.
Let me see and feel it all
even when it seems too much to bear,
lest I’m too weary to listen.

Let me write it down
or find an image that captures You,
if only for the moment
I feel your presence.

Lord, prepare me to be whelmed at your world,
so Heaven itself will seem familiar,
and not that far,
maybe just round the corner.

A new book from Barnstorming available for order here:

Hard to Reach

Hard to reach, so you yank your clothes
getting at it—the button at your neck,
the knotted shoe. You snake your fingers in
until your nails possess the patch of skin
that’s eating you. And now you’re in the throes
of ecstasy, eyes lolling in your skull,
as if sensing the first time the joy one takes
                     in being purely animal.

             It’s so good to have a scratch,
though isn’t it a drag living like this,
jounced on a high wire of impulses,
every wish the same programmed response
to another signal passed from cell to cell,
amounting in the end to a distraction—
if truth be told—from rarer things, thoughts free
                     from the anchor-chain of self?

~David Yezzi from “Itchy”

There is almost nothing more frustrating than having an itch you can’t reach. It is hard to think of anything else; you become entirely immersed in that sensation and the need to relieve it. It’s almost as difficult as stifling a yawn or trying to prevent a sneeze. It becomes literally painful: some things simply can’t be stopped.

So scratching an itch becomes the most important thing in the moment. And having done finally done it, you can move on to other things in your day and not think about it again.

So when the itch is hard to reach, it is surely a blessing to have a mama or close buddy who will scratch it for you. In fact, there is hardly anything as wonderful as someone who will be on the look out for your moments of distraction and discomfort and without even being asked, take care of it for you.

And to be really in sync, you’ll find their itch to scratch at the same time. I knew “scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours” must have come from somewhere — just out in my back field.
Quid pro quo.

The Face of a Frog

I miss the friendship with the pine tree and the birds
that I had when I was ten.
And it has been forever since I pushed my head
under the wild silk skirt of the waterfall.

The big rock on the shore was the skull of a dead king
whose name we could almost remember.
Under the rooty bank you could dimly see
the bunk beds of the turtles.

Nobody I know mentions these things anymore.
It’s as if their memories have been seized, erased, and relocated
among flowcharts and complex dinner-party calendars.

Now I want to turn and run back the other way,
barefoot into the underbrush,
getting raked by thorns, being slapped in the face by branches.

Down to the muddy bed of the little stream
where my cupped hands make a house, and

I tilt up the roof
to look at the face of the frog.
~Tony Hoagland, from “Nature” Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty

I grew up on a small farm with several acres of woodland. It was my near-daily retreat until I left for college: I walked among twittering birds, skittering wild bunnies, squirrels and chipmunks, busy ant hills and trails, blowing leaves, swimming tadpoles, falling nuts, waving wildflowers, large firs, pines, cottonwoods, maples and alder trees.

I had a favorite “secret” spot sitting perched on a stump where a large rock provided a favorite warm sunning spot for salamanders. They and I would make eye contact and ponder what the other was thinking.

It was where I felt closest to Creation, more so than the house I slept in with my family, the busy classrooms, the dentist office and retirement home where I worked.

Only our church sanctuary was such a thin place with a “can almost touch the hem of God” reality.

At college I searched for a place as private, as quiet, as serene, as full of the voices of creation – nothing ever matched the woods of my childhood home. I gave up as I lived a decade in the city and almost forgot what a familiar woods felt like.

I’ve come close again on this farm we’ve stewarded for thirty years, but the constant distractions are much greater now than when I was a child. I can’t empty out my head and heart as completely to receive the gifts of the field and trees and woodlands. I have greater worries, bigger responsibilities, places to go, people to see, things to do, a shorter timeline to get what I want to accomplish done …

Perhaps the time will come again to simply gaze into the eyes of a fellow creature, and invite them in with a head and heart ready to receive what they and our Creator have to give.


The Road Ahead

He sometimes felt that he had missed his life
By being far too busy looking for it.
Searching the distance, he often turned to find
That he had passed some milestone unaware…

The path grew easier with each passing day,
Since it was worn and mostly sloped downhill.
The road ahead seemed hazy in the gloom.
Where was it he had meant to go, and with whom?
~Dana Gioia from “The Road” from 99 Poems: New and Selected

The Road goes ever on and on
Out from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone.
Let others follow, if they can!
Let them a journey new begin.
But I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet.

Still ’round the corner there may wait
A new road or secret gate;
And though I oft have passed them by,
A day will come at last when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the Moon, East of the Sun.
~J.R.R Tolkien from “Roads Go Ever On”

Like many others, I have experienced the disconcerting feeling of traveling a familiar route with my mind completely disengaged. Suddenly I find myself at my destination without a conscious realization of how I even got there or what I saw along the way. Or maybe I was doing a routine daily task and later couldn’t remember having done it (did I shut off the barn faucet or are the water barrels flooding over all day?) because my head was somewhere else.

We describe this as “auto-pilot” or “body memory” or more distressingly “dissociation” — most therapists prescribe “mindfulness” to reengage us in our daily lives and thoughts. I’m not sure it is mindfulness that I practice, but I do force regular “brain check-ins” to anchor me to a time and place and task. (“yes, I have just passed that intersection where that truck and trailer almost hit me years ago and I am grateful to still be alive” or “I am now shutting off the barn faucet and won’t have to think about it again until tomorrow, thank you very much!”)

I regret “missing out” on experiencing my journey because I was so busy scanning the horizon for what is to come or looking back at where I’ve been, or watching where my feet will land or thinking about anywhere but where I was in the moment.

I need to acknowledge the milestones and not pass them by unawares — stopping at the view points, reading the historical markers, taking a breather at the rest stops. I seek to find the hidden paths and explore them rather than be solely destination-driven.

I must pay attention to who is alongside me and be ready to steady them if they trip or stumble, and pray they’ll catch me if I start to fall.

And most importantly, may I stay pointed toward the lighted inn that is awaiting all of us.

Playing to an Empty House

 

photo by Joel DeWaarda Mt. Baker photo by Joel DeWaard

 

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The Old Testament book of Micah answers the question of why we are here with another: 
“What doth the Lord require of thee but to do justly, 
and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”

We are here to abet creation and to witness it, 
to notice each thing so each thing gets noticed. 
Together we notice not only each mountain shadow 
and each stone on the beach 
but we notice each other’s beautiful face 
and complex nature 
so that creation need not play to an empty house.
~Annie Dillard from Life Magazine’s “The Meaning of Life”

 

 

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I started out a noticer,
a child who crawled on the ground
to follow winding ant trails from their hills,
then watched nests bloom with birds,
and sat still as a lizard sunning himself on a rock.

Next I was a student researcher of great apes,
following wild chimpanzees deep into an exotic forest
to observe their life in a community so much like our own.

Then came a profession and parenting and daughtering,
with mounting responsibilities and worries and cares,
and I stopped noticing any more,
too much inside the drama
to witness it from outside.

Creation played to an empty house
and the empty house was me.

Slowly now,
I’ve returned to noticing again~
buying my ticket, finding my seat,
smiling and nodding
applauding
hooting and hollering
begging for an encore.

It’s a non-stop show of the miraculous
where I’m less a player of parts
transformed to an appreciative audience
preparing to write a great review.

 

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The Pearl of Great Price

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The secret of seeing is, then the pearl of great price. 
If I thought he could teach me to find it and keep it forever 
I would stagger barefoot across a hundred deserts after any lunatic at all. 
But although the pearl may be found, it may not be sought.

The literature of illumination reveals this above all: 
although it comes to those who wait for it, 
it is always, even to the most practiced and adept, 
a gift and a total surprise.

I return from one walk 
knowing where the killdeer nests in the field by the creek and the hour the laurel blooms. 
I return from the same walk a day later scarcely knowing my own name.

Litanies hum in my ears; 
my tongue flaps in my mouth. 
Ailinon, alleluia!
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

 

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Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to.
You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see
and my self is the earth’s shadow
that keeps me from seeing all the moon.
The crescent is very beautiful
and perhaps that is all one like I am should or could see;
but what I am afraid of, dear God,
is that my self shadow will grow so large
that it blocks the whole moon,
and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing.

I do not know You God
because I am in the way.
Please help me to push myself aside.
~Flannery O’Connor from A Prayer Journal

 

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Sometimes the hardest thing is to step out of the way so that my own shadow no longer obscures what provides illumination.  I am regularly so blinded by busyness and distraction that I lose sight of God Himself.

Surprise me, dear Lord.  Though I regularly lament in the shadows, help me lift my voice in praise and gratitude for your gift, the pearl of great price you hold out for me to take each day.

 

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Throwing Off the Covers

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Why do we bother with the rest of the day,
the swale of the afternoon,
the sudden dip into evening,
then night with his notorious perfumes,
his many-pointed stars?
This is the best—
throwing off the light covers,
feet on the cold floor,
and buzzing around the house on espresso—
maybe a splash of water on the face,
a palmful of vitamins—
but mostly buzzing around the house on espresso,
dictionary and atlas open on the rug,
the typewriter waiting for the key of the head,
a cello on the radio,
and, if necessary, the windows—
trees fifty, a hundred years old
out there,
heavy clouds on the way
and the lawn steaming like a horse
in the early morning.
~Billy Collins “Morning”

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This is the best~~
heading with dogs and camera up the hill
on an early spring morning,
with nothing more than the hope
I can bring this magic back to the house
and preserve it long after the foglight evaporates,
the day moves on and distracted by life,
I’ve forgotten all about how
this is the best~~

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Like Dew

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Faith steals upon you like dew:
some days you wake and it is there.
And like dew, it gets burned off
in the rising sun of anxieties,
ambitions, distractions.
~Christian Wiman from My Bright Abyss

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Our faith,
refreshed in the light of morning,
can evaporate in the dry stress of the day.
May we turn our faces up
each night, asking to be washed
in the mist of God’s dew,
our anxiety settled like dust.

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