It Doesn’t Matter a Hill of Beans

I spent this morning adjusting to this change in season by occupying myself with the familiar task of moving manure.  Cleaning barn is a comforting chore, allowing me to transform tangible benefit from something objectionable and just plain stinky to the nurturing fertilizer of the future. It feels like I’ve actually accomplished something.

As I scooped and pushed the wheelbarrow, I remembered another barn cleaning twenty years ago, when I was one of three or four friends left cleaning over ninety stalls after a Haflinger horse event that I had organized at our local fairgrounds. Some people had brought their horses from over 1000 miles away to participate for several days.  Whenever horse people gather, there were personality clashes and harsh words among some participants along with criticism directed at me that I had taken very personally.  As I struggled with the umpteenth wheelbarrow load of manure, tears stung my eyes and my heart.  I was miserable with regrets.   After going without sleep and making personal sacrifices over many months planning and preparing for the benefit of our group,  my work felt like it had not been acknowledged or appreciated.

My friend Jenny had stayed behind with her family to help clean up the large facility and she could see I was struggling to keep my composure.  Jenny put herself right in front of my wheelbarrow and looked me in the eye, insisting I stop for a moment and listen.

“You know,  none of these troubles and conflicts will amount to a hill of beans years from now.  People will remember a fun event in a beautiful part of the country,  a wonderful time with their horses, their friends and family, and they’ll be all nostalgic about it, not giving a thought to the infighting or the sour attitudes or who said what to whom.   So don’t make this about you and whether you did or didn’t make everyone happy.  You loved us all enough to make it possible to meet here and the rest was up to us.  So quit being upset about what you can’t change.  There’s too much you can still do for us.”

During tough times which still come often in my professional life,  Jenny’s advice replays, reminding me to stop seeking appreciation from others, or feeling hurt when harsh words come my way.   She was right about the balm found in the tincture of time and she was right about giving up the upset in order to die to self and self absorption, and keep focusing outward.

Jenny, I have remembered what you said even though sometimes I emotionally relapse and forget.

Jenny herself spent the next six years literally dying, while vigorously living her life every day, fighting a relentless cancer that was initially helpless in the face of her faith and intense drive to live.    She became a rusting leaf, fading imperceptibly over time, crumbling at the edges until she finally let go.   Her dying did not flash brilliance, nor draw attention at the end.  Her intense focus during the years of her illness had always been outward to others, to her family and friends, to the healers she spent so much time with in medical offices, to her belief in the plan God had written for her and others.

Despite her intense love for her husband and young children, she had to let go her hold on life here.   And we all had to let her go.  

Brilliance cloaks her as her focus is now on things eternal.

You were so right, Jenny.  No conflicts from twenty years ago amounted to a hill of beans; all is remembered fondly by those who were part of the gathering. I especially treasure the words you wisely spoke to me.

And I’m no longer upset that I can’t change the fact that you have left us. There is still so much you do for us, alive in our memories.

I know we’ll catch up later.

Jenny R –photo by Ginger Kathleen Coombs

A World of Crowded Cups to Fill

sphere of pillowed sky
one faceless gathering of blue.
..

… I’m tethered, and devoted
to your raw and lonely bloom

my lavish need to drink
your world of crowded cups to fill.
~Tara Bray “hydrangea” from Image Journal

Like in old cans of paint the last green hue,
these leaves are sere and rough and dull-complected
behind the blossom clusters in which blue
is not so much displayed as it’s reflected;

They do reflect it imprecise and teary,
as though they’d rather have it go away,
and just like faded, once blue stationery,
they’re tinged with yellow, violet and gray;

As in an often laundered children’s smock,
cast off, its usefulness now all but over,
one senses running down a small life’s clock.

Yet suddenly the blue revives, it seems,
and in among these clusters one discovers
a tender blue rejoicing in the green.
~Rainer Maria Rilke “Blue Hydrangea” Translation by Bernhard Frank

Dwelling within a mosaic of dying colors,
these petals fold and collapse
under the weight of the sky’s tears.

This hydrangea bears a rainbow of hues,
once-vibrant promises of blue
now fading to rusts and grays.

I know what this is like:
the running out of the clock,
feeling the limits of vitality.

Withering and drying,
I’m drawn, thirsty for the beauty,
to this waning artist’s palette.

To quench my thirst:
from an open cup, an invitation,
an everlasting visual sacrament.

Something Way Down Deep

We all know that something is eternal. 
And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, 
and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars 
. . . everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, 
and that something has to do with human beings. 
All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that 
for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised 
how people are always losing hold of it. 
There’s something way down deep 
that’s eternal about every human being.
~Thornton Wilder, from “Our Town”

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.
~Annie Dillard from “Write Till You Drop”

I began to write regularly after September 11, 2001 because more than on any previous day, it became obvious to me I was dying, though more slowly than the thousands who vanished that day in fire and ash, their voices obliterated with their bodies into eternity.  

Nearly each day since, while I still have voice and a new dawn to greet, I speak through my fingers to others dying with and around me.

We are, after all, terminal patients — some of us more prepared than others to move on — as if our readiness had anything to do with the timing.

Each day I get a little closer to the eternal, but I write in order to feel a little more ready.  Each day I want to detach just a little bit, leaving a trace of my voice behind.  Eventually, through unmerited grace, so much of me will be left on the page there won’t be anything or anyone left to do the typing.

There is no time or word to waste.

Gossamer Garlands

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The sun-dipped isle was suddenly a sheep
Lost and stupid, a dense wet tremulous fleece.
~George Mackay Brown “Fog” from The Weather Bestiary

 

 

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When I was young, fog felt oppressive,
as mournful as the fog horns sounding continually in the nearby bay.
Now in sixty years later
I appreciate fog for slowing me down
when life compels me to rush too fast.
When forced to take time,
I begin to notice what I missed before:
clouds descend to hug and kiss the ground
to bejewel everything they touch.
The dead and dying
become glorious in subtle beauty,
the farm all gossamer garland and transparent pearls.

 

 

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The Windowed Light

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In its web I see the mountains
swell with slow rhythmic oscillations
in a sea of sky and waves of breaking clouds.

I listen to the leaves—
those that fall, those that persist
on their dichotomy of stems—

Dissection never reveals the whole.
The fragile rings hide their slender strength,
as the trees abide the sultry air,

brandishing their rattling bassinets
in Spring and in the throes of Autumn
drop their dappled dress exposed.

This is the fineness that holds me
here, fibers that vibrate from my searching
for the words to describe them,

words, like houses made of trees,
that let the winds play at their doors,
and let the windowed light know where I am.
~Richard Maxson, from “A Green and Yellow Basket” in Molly and the Thieves

 

 

 

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There are no words for this light, for this color, for this richness
so I simply dwell within it, failing to describe it.

I can’t stop looking, can’t stop breathing it in.

How is it dying is so glorious that it makes me gasp at being alive?

 

 

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Nature’s Funeral Month

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October is nature’s funeral month.
Nature glories in death more than in life.
The month of departure is more beautiful
than the month of coming – October than May.
Every green thing
loves to die in bright colors.
~Henry Ward Beecher
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I don’t know…
I myself feel pretty drab these days, gray and fading,
with ripples and wrinkles, more fluff than firm.I’m reminded to hang on to an October state of mind:
more raucous color than somber funereal attire
so when it is time to take my leave,
I go brightly, in joyous celebration of what has been~~
and knowing, without any doubt,
where I’m heading as I wander down the road a piece.
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A Residual Celestial Heat

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“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”

 

 

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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.

An ancient apple tree mysteriously topples over one morning, a beloved riding horse dies of colic, another dies of lymphoma, an old cat finds her final resting place in the hay loft, another old cat naps forever under a tree,  a newborn foal fails to break free of its amniotic sac, another foal delivered unexpectedly and prematurely lies still and lifeless in the shavings of the stall, a vibrantly alive dog is put to sleep due to a growing tumor,  an old dog passes during an afternoon nap, a predator raids the dove cage and leaves behind carnage, our woods bears its own tragic history.

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.

 

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