I had a dog who loved flowers. Briskly she went through the fields,
yet paused for the honeysuckle or the rose, her dark head
and her wet nose touching the face of every one
with its petals of silk, with its fragrance rising
into the air where the bees, their bodies heavy with pollen,
hovered— and easily she adored every blossom,
not in the serious, careful way that we choose this blossom or that blossom—
the way we praise or don’t praise— the way we love or don’t love— but the way
we long to be— that happy in the heaven of earth— that wild, that loving. ~Mary Oliver “Luke” from Dog Songs
Why do we not feel the joiede vivre, the ebullience and fullness of every moment? What makes us hide our nakedness rather than join in the walk in the garden in the cool of the day? What makes us choose this blossom or that, this tree or that, this fruit or that, judging for ourselves what is good, better and best?
What has happened to wild loving appreciation of the heaven of earth?
We gave it up for one taste; we lost heaven and regretted it immediately.
Even so, joiede vivre awaits, beyond this, above this. We are invited, all expenses paid, yet unearned, to go back to the way we long to be:
The incredible grace of loving wildly what we’re given.
It will not always be like this, The air windless, a few last Leaves adding their decoration To the trees’ shoulders, braiding the cuffs Of the boughs with gold; a bird preening
In the lawn’s mirror. Having looked up From the day’s chores, pause a minute, Let the mind take its photograph Of the bright scene, something to wear Against the heart in the long cold. ~Ronald Stuart Thomas A Day in Autumn
Autumn farm chores are good for the weary heart.
When the stresses of the work world amass together and threaten to overwhelm, there is reassurance in the routine of putting on muck boots, gloves, jacket, then hearing the back door bang behind me as I head outside. Following the path to the barns with my trusty corgi boys in the lead, I open wide the doors to hear the welcoming nickers of five different Haflinger voices.
The routine: loosening up the twine on the hay bales and opening each stall door to put a meal in front of each hungry horse, maneuvering the wheelbarrow to fork up accumulated manure, fill up the water bucket, pat a neck and go on to the next one. By the time I’m done, I am calmer, listening to the rhythmic chewing from five sets of molars. It is a welcome symphony of satisfaction for both the musicians and audience. My mind snaps a picture and records the song to pull out later when needed.
The horses are not in the least perturbed that I may face a challenging day. Like the dogs and cats, they show appreciation that I have come to do what I promised to do–I care for them, I protect them and moreover, I will always return.
Outside the barn, the chill wind blows gently through the bare tree branches with a wintry bite, reminding me who is not in control. I should drop the pretense. The stars, covered most nights by cloud cover, show themselves, glowing alongside the moon in a galactic sweep across the sky. They exude the tranquility of an Ever-Presence over my bowed and humbled head. I am cared for and protected; He is always there and He will return.
Saving mental photographs of the extraordinary ordinariness of barn chores, I ready myself as autumn fades to winter.
Equilibrium is delivered to my heart, once and ever after, from a stable.
I want to be like water, go low where there is least resistance, loll in the vestibules of leaks, the flaws of casks, painlessly pool around rocks, unworried about which part of me splits off. I want to flow, drop by drop, with crown-shaped splatters, hang like a spangled globule on the oily feather of a bird, jewel-like in the sun, or be flung
in diamond-crested shakes by a wet dog. Let me be of a piece, the shape of shape- lessness, like my airy partner, the fog. Let me forget I’m caught in the trap of a body, that abyss of bone and blood inside my skin where I founder, drowning. ~Enid Shomer, “Shoreless” from This Close To the Earth
I’m of an age where I try not to look at my shape in the mirror too often. My reflection reminds me too much of the ravages of time and faltering self-discipline. The old gray mare ain’t what she used to be.
I was a skinny kid, so much so that my mother despaired of ever “fattening me up” with visits to the doctor and recommendations of high calorie supplements to add “meat to my bones.” I didn’t mind this plumping up at all, having been teased mercilessly at grade school that I was “Polebean Polis”. My overweight grandmother just shook her head at my mother and told me more than once about how skinny she was too as a kid and “look at me now.”
Grandma was right, particularly considering the challenges of post-childbirth and post-menopause. It takes lots of effort to keep from becoming “shapeless” when everything conspires to loosen, round out, sag, wrinkle and droop.
I like the thought that my shape is softened by the “fog” and water of time passing. I may not have the silhouette I used to have, or the firmness of muscle, nor can you easily count my ribs, but this is no trap I inhabit. It is merely temporary housing.
The next morning I felt that our house had been lifted away from its foundation during the night, and was now adrift, though so heavy it drew a foot or more of whatever was buoying it up, not water but something cold and thin and clear, silence riffling its surface as the house began to turn on a strengthening current, leaving, taking my wife and me with it, and though it had never occurred to me until that moment, for fifteen years our dog had held down what we had by pressing his belly to the floors, his front paws, too, and with him gone the house had begun to float out onto emptiness, no solid ground in sight. ~Ted Kooser “Death of a Dog”
God… sat down for a moment when the dog was finished in order to watch it… and to know that it was good, that nothing was lacking, that it could not have been made better.” ― Rainer Maria Rilke
Twelve dogs have left pawprints on my heart over my sixty five years. Each dog of my childhood was my best friend to confide in, take walks with, to cry into the ruff of their furry necks. They always listened compassionately and never judged, even when I was in the wrong.
There was a thirteen year long dogless period while I went to college, medical school and residency, living in inhospitable urban environs, working unsuitable dog-keeping hours. Those were sad years indeed with no dog hair to vacuum or slobber to mop up.
The first dog in our married life on the farm, a Tervuren, rode home from Oregon on my pregnant lap in the passenger seat, all sixty five pounds of her. I think our first born son has a permanent dog imprint on his side as a result, and it certainly resulted in his dog-loving brain yet he has lived ten years in the largest city on earth, sadly dogless.
Six dogs and thirty four years later, we are currently owned by two gentle hobbit-souled Cardigan Corgis who are middle-aged and healthy. I hope they stick around with us for a few more years, but we have felt the unmooring of our home’s foundation when we have lost, one by one, our dog friends in the past, usually in ripe old age.
Dogs could not have been made better among God’s creations because they love unconditionally, forgive without holding a grudge and show unbounded joy umpteen times a day. It’s true–it would be nice if they would poop only in discrete off-the-path areas, use their teeth only for dog designated chew toys, and vocalize only briefly when greeting and warning, but hey, nobody is perfect.
So to Buttons, Sammy, Sandy, Sparky, Toby, Tango, Talley, Makai, Frodo, Dylan Thomas, Sam Gamgee and Homer: God sat down for a moment when He made you and saw that it was good.
You’ve been good for me too, holding fast my foundation to the ground..
Now all the doors and windows are open, and we move so easily through the rooms. Cats roll on the sunny rugs, and a clumsy wasp climbs the pane, pausing to rub a leg over her head.
All around physical life reconvenes. The molecules of our bodies must love to exist: they whirl in circles and seem to begrudge us nothing. Heat, Horatio, heat makes them put this antic disposition on!
This year’s brown spider sways over the door as I come and go. A single poppy shouts from the far field, and the crow, beyond alarm, goes right on pulling up the corn. ~Jane Kenyon, “Philosophy in Warm Weather” from Otherwise
Whether weather is very or very cold, so go our molecules — indeed our very atoms are constantly awhirl to keep us upright whenever we sweat or shiver.
This summer my doors and windows have been flung wide open; I’m seeing and hearing and feeling all that I can absorb, never to forget the gift of being human witness to it all.
Like a dog trying to catch its tail, I’m whirling in circles, trying to grab what will always elude me.
Some were pulled by the wind from moving to the ends of the stacked cages, some had their heads blown through the bars—
and could not get them in again. Some hung there like that—dead— their own feathers blowing, clotting
in their faces. Then I saw the one that made me slow some— I lingered there beside her for five miles.
She had pushed her head through the space between bars—to get a better view. She had the look of a dog in the back
of a pickup, that eager look of a dog who knows she’s being taken along. She craned her neck.
She looked around, watched me, then strained to see over the car—strained to see what happened beyond.
That is the chicken I want to be. ~Jane Mead “Passing a Truck Full of Chickens at Night on Highway Eighty” from The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, 2015
I want to be that chicken.
When life is an anxious,
even terrifying journey
and everything around me is a swirl of chaos –
I want to be able to stick my head up above the fray,
feel the wind as opportunity rather than threat
and exist content in the moment,
looking ahead to what may happen,
Reaching my mind beyond what I can hardly grasp,
I want to be that chicken
who experiences life like a dog.
Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for? ~Robert Browning from “Andrea Del Sarto”
Coyotes have the gift of seldom being seen; they keep to the edge of vision and beyond, loping in and out of cover on the plains and highlands. And at night, when the whole world belongs to them, they parley at the river with the dogs, their higher, sharper voices full of authority and rebuke. They are an old council of clowns, and they are listened to. N. Scott Momaday in House Made of Dawn
On summer nights like this, with light just fading from the sky at 10 PM, it will be only a few minutes before the local coyote choristers begin their nightly serenade. This can be a surround-sound experience with coyote packs echoing back and forth from distant corners of farmland and woodlands below the hill where we live. Their shrill yipping and yapping song, with hollering, chortling and hooting, is impossible to ignore just as it is time to go to sleep. Like priming a pump, the rise and fall of the coyote ensemble inevitably inspires the farm dogs to tune up, exercising their vocal cords with a howl or two. It becomes canine bedlam outside our windows, right at bedtime.
Coyotes send a mixed message: they insist on being heard and listened to, yet are seldom visible. In a rare sighting, it is a low slung slinking form scooting across a field with a rabbit in its mouth, or patiently waiting at a fence line as a new calf is born, hoping to duck in and grab the placenta before the cow notices. They are not particularly brave nor bold yet they insist on commanding attention and ear drums.
Irritating not only for their ill-timed concerts, they also have a propensity for thieving sleeping chickens from coop roosts in the night. Despite my disgust for that behavior, I have to grudgingly admire such independent self sufficient characters. They do know how to take care of themselves in a dog-eat-dog world, primarily by eating whatever they can get their jaws around and carry away, no matter who it may belong to.
I can just envision this old council of clowns gathered around giggling and sniggering in the dark at their own silly stories of the hunt. As I listen from a distance, sometimes just a few yards, sometimes miles, I wish to be let in on the joke.
Just once I want to howl back, plaintive, pleading, pejorative–another bozo adding my voice to the noisy nocturnal chorus– hoping somebody, anybody might listen, hear and join in the laughter.
“Somehow the question of identity is always emerging on this farm. I found the body of a barn swallow lying just inside the barn the other day. There was no telling how it died. I noticed the intense particularity of its body, its sharply cut wings, the way its plumage seemed to glow with some residual celestial heat. But it was the particularity of death, not the identity of life, a body in stillness while all around me its kin were twittering and swooping in and out of the hayloft.” ~Verlyn Klinkenborg from “A Swallow in the Hand”
Stumbling across death on the farm is always startling. The farm teems with life 24 hours a day: frogs croaking, dawn bird chorus, insects buzzing and crawling, cats stalking, coyotes yipping, raccoons stealing, dogs wagging, horses galloping, owls and bats swooping. Amid so much activity, it doesn’t seem possible that some simply cease to be.
Yet, as often as it happens, there is a unique particularity about the end of life. The stillness of death permits a full appreciation of who this individual is, the remarkable care that went into creating every molecule of its being.
The sudden presence of absence is a stark and necessary reminder of what I myself want to leave behind.
In truth, we will glow with residual celestial heat, still warm even after our hearts cease to beat. We are distinct individuals in our own particularity: living and dying at a particular time and place as a unique creature, given a chance in the cosmos of infinite possibilities. The Creator knit us together specially, every feather, hair, bone and sinew a unique work of His Hands, and what we do with what we are given is the stuff between our first God-given breath and our last, handed back to Him.
May we not squander our particular role in the history of the world.
“May the hair on your toes never fall out!” — J.R.R. Tolkien in The Hobbit (Thorin Oakenshield addressing Bilbo Baggins)
It’s a safe bet my toes and your toes have never been subjected to a blessing. But I like the idea of being blest starting from the bottom up, encompassing my most humble and homely parts first.
The world would be a better place if we rediscovered the art of bestowing blessings–those specific prayers of favor and protection that reinforce community and connection to each other and to something larger than ourselves. They have become passé in a modern society where God’s relationship with and blessing of His people is not much more than an after-thought. Benedictions can extend beyond the end of worship services to all tender partings; wedding receptions can go beyond roasting and toasting to encompass sincere prayers for a future life together.
But let’s start at the very beginning: let’s bless our hairy toes.
May you always have…
Walls for the winds
A roof for the rain
Tea beside the fire
Laughter to cheer you
Those you love near you
And all your heart might desire
May those who love us, love us;
and those who don’t love us, may God turn their hearts;
and if He doesn’t turn their hearts, may he turn their ankles
so we’ll know them by their limping. Traditional Irish Blessing
Just past dawn, the sun stands with its heavy red head in a black stanchion of trees, waiting for someone to come with his bucket for the foamy white light, and then a long day in the pasture. I too spend my days grazing, feasting on every green moment till darkness calls, and with the others I walk away into the night, swinging the little tin bell of my name. ~Ted Kooser “A Birthday Poem”
all is green~
every square inch
and every misty mythical moment.
So I feast while I can,
knowing soon the darkness descends
and I too am called
to come home,
the bells I bear
swinging and ringing.