Try as I might to hold fear and suffering to the periphery of my vision, it is difficult to keep them there; like a morning fog clutching at the ground, bad news creeps out and covers everything, distorting truth and color and light, yet so seductive by softening the rough edges until reality hits.
Maybe I can turn away Maybe it won’t reach me Maybe it is all mirage, someone’s imagining.
Still, I can no longer be mere audience to the events of the day, too weak in the knees to do anything. The trouble that lies beyond this hill touches us all.
I kneel in silent witness: to wait, to listen, to pray for a flood of stillness to cover us.
Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper?
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
I’m reminded daily of how short our time on earth is – the evidence is everywhere. Yesterday it was the stark finality of discovering a beetle-cleaned bighorn sheep skull in the woods, in addition to the bold reality of a black bear paw print on the car sitting next to our cabin.
Each day I receive an email from the local hospital where I’ve had clinical privileges for 35 years – it innumerates the number of admitted COVID-19 cases and deaths, the number of ICU beds filled and the number of ventilators in use. Reading those numbers is like scanning the obituaries for names and ages and causes of death in the newspaper, the only consistent thing I read in the paper anymore. The deaths are reported dispassionately, as if they are inevitable, which they are, yet each happens too soon.
Much too soon.
So the admonition is to pay attention to each living thing and witness each moment, falling onto the grass in worship of this “wild and precious life” I’ve been given rather than dwell on the future when I’ll be buried under the grass.
I shall celebrate being a consumer of this precious life, overjoyed by these sweet weeds and colorful wildflowers. There is still much that awaits me on this earth before, inevitably, I too become the consumed.
Mostly, I want to be kind. And nobody, of course, is kind, or mean, for a simple reason. ~Mary Oliver from “Dogfish”
Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle. ~Plato
Our mare Belinda has a two decade history of fighting the hard battle of being consistently on the bottom of the mare hierarchy. She is unusually shy, very submissive and never one to stir up trouble in the herd. Most of the time she simply wants to disappear so the other mares can’t see her to bully her.
I’ve watched her over the years to learn how she copes day in and day out with her low status. She is clearly more clever than the higher-ranking mares who lord it over her, reminding her of their rank.
In the mornings when the mares are turned out to pasture from their individual stalls, I always open Belinda’s door first so she has the option to walk out to pasture ahead of the others if she chooses. Instead, she’ll stand waiting at the open door, watching the other mares leave their stalls and pass by, then follow behind them out to pasture keeping a safe distance between them and herself.
Once outside, she’ll stand at the water barrel just inside the pasture gate, and pretend to drink water for several minutes (I’m convinced she doesn’t actually drink a drop) while the other mares wander into the field to find their preferred grazing spot.
Once the others are clearly settled, she joins them at a safe distance. Then the worst bully will approach her, just as Belinda has started to eat, and will start to groom Belinda’s withers with her teeth. This is a clear invitation to be scratched back, so despite being hungry and clearly fearful, Belinda mutually chews/scratches for at least ten minutes with her mortal enemy. I’d like to think this is their brief truce in the battle for status every day; one clearly has a need and wants Belinda to comply. Belinda is more than willing to set aside her own needs if it means keeping peace in the herd.
At the end of the day, Belinda stays up in the field until the other mares have returned to the barn and are back in their stalls with the doors latched. I know she counts the number of doors she hears closing because she will refuse to come in from outside and return to her stall until she hears the last door closing, knowing it is then safe to some into the barn.
The first thing she does returning to her stall is to drop a pile of manure right inside her door. It is her claim of “mine” – no other horse here does that, since they would have to walk through manure to leave the stall, but for Belinda, it is a way of saying if for some reason the closed door isn’t enough to keep her secure, the pile of manure at least marks her territory.
She does not always have a peaceful night alone in her stall as I would expect. Her stall floor is churned and messy in the morning, as if she continues to be on the move even in the darkness, or perhaps she is a mare having nightmares.
I know her long life has been one of constant worry and vigilance despite always having access to plenty of food, a safe place to rest at night and always being part of a community, though not one that has supported her.
She reminds me that everyone, especially the lowest on the totem pole, deserves kindness because I cannot possibly understand the battles they are fighting, both day and night.
And they deserve respect: to simply survive, they are much smarter than I am.
Every night, no matter where I am when I lie down, I turn my back on half the world.
At home, it’s the east I ignore, with its theatres and silverware, as I face the adventurous west.
But when I’m on the road in some hotel’s room 213 or 402 I could be pointed anywhere,
yet I hardly care as long as you are there facing the other way so we are defended in all degrees
and my left ear is pressing down as if listening for hoof beats in the ground. ~Billy Collins “Sleeping on My Side” from Whale Day and Other Poems
It seems amazing we can actually sleep at all, knowing all the hazards out there beyond the bedroom walls
– whether it is pandemic viral particles floating in the air, or pollution from wildfires, or ozone layer depletion or “the-big-one-any-moment” earthquake, or an errant nuclear missile launch, or bands of roving bandits –
it is a wonder we can quiet our minds at all.
When I was about 8 years old, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, I didn’t sleep for several days, fearful if I slept, then the world would end and me with it, without even knowing the bomb had hit. Somehow, my staying awake saved the world from destruction and no one, not one single person, ever thanked me for it.
There is always so terribly much to fear if you really think about it. We are constantly lying with our ears to the ground, listening for the hoofbeats of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, wondering how close they have come to our bedside.
These days I take comfort in knowing I don’t always need to be on high alert. I know, in fact, His eye is on the sparrow and He watches over me.
Light wakes us – there’s the sun climbing the mountains’ rim, spilling across the valley, finding our faces. It is July, between the hay and harvest, a time at arm’s length from all other time…
It is the time to set aside all vigil, good or ill, to loosen the fixed gaze of our attention as dandelions let seedlings to the wind. Wake with the light. Get up and go about the day and watch its surfaces that brighten with the sun. ~Kerry Hardie from “Sleep in Summer”
Saying good-bye to July is admitting summer is already half-baked and so are we– we are still doughy and not nearly done enough.
The rush to autumn is breathless. We want to hold on tight to our longish days and our sweaty nights for just a little while longer…
Please, oh please grant us light and steady us for the task of getting ready and letting go.
She lay on her back in the timothy and gazed past the doddering auburn heads of sumac.
A cloud – huge, calm, and dignified – covered the sun but did not, could not, put it out.
The light surged back again. Nothing could rouse her then from that joy so violent it was hard to distinguish from pain. ~Jane Kenyon, “The Poet at Ten” from The Best Poems of Jane Kenyon
I have a mare who journeyed as a foal from overseas alongside her mother, a difficult immigration to a new life and farm, followed by the drama of weaning and separation, then introduced to a new herd who didn’t speak her language so she couldn’t always understand what was being said.
She was shy and fearful from the beginning, knowing she didn’t belong, worried about doing the wrong thing, cringing when others laid back ears at her or bared their teeth, she always hung back and let others go first, waiting hungry and thirsty while others had their fill.
What she did best was be a mother herself, devoting herself to the care of her foals, as they became the light of her life though still covered with the cloud of not belonging, she grieved loudly at their weanling goodbyes.
Still, two decades later, in her retirement, she is shy and submissive, still feeling foreign, as if she never quite fit in, always letting others go first, concerned about making a misstep.
I think of her as an immigrant who never felt at home unless she had a baby at her side~ to live alongside one to whom she finally belonged: how does one measure the pain of true joy and love while knowing the violence of separation is inevitable?
thank you to Lea Gibson Lozano and Emily Vander Haak for their photos of Belinda and her babies
No taste of food, no feel of water, no sound of wind, no memory of tree or grass or flower, no image of moon or star are left to me. I am naked in the dark, Sam, and there is no veil between me and the wheel of fire. I begin to see it even with my waking eyes, and all else fades. ~J.R.R. Tolkien The Lord of the Rings
Frodo is a study of a hobbit broken by a burden of fear and horror— broken down, and in the end made into something quite different. Frodo undertook his quest out of love– to save the world he knew from disaster at his own expense, if he could; and also in complete humility, acknowledging that he was wholly inadequate to the task His real contract was only to do what he could, to try to find a way, and to go as far on the road as his strength of mind and body allowed. He did that. ~J.R.R. Tolkien
We are regularly called to do more than we feel capable of accomplishing. Whether we are in the midst of a crisis of confidence, feeling beaten down, physically and emotionally vulnerable, or just plain scared – it is tempting to shrink away from doing what is needed.
Our call to obedience may not be quite as dramatic as Frodo’s monumental task of saving the world from destruction by evil forces — it may simply be getting out of bed and facing the day despite pain and overwhelming sorrow — but it takes no less courage and strength.
We are equipped by the intimacy of the Word of God speaking to each of us individually, instructing us on how to live these days we are given.
Like Frodo, we are to do what we can, to find a way through darkness and fire and threat, and to go down that road as far as our minds and bodies allow. We are inadequate by ourselves, but we are bolstered by the constancy of God alongside. We never travel alone.
God keep my jewel this day from danger; From tinker and pooka and bad-hearted stranger. From harm of the water, from hurt of the fire. From the horns of the cows going home to the byre. From the sight of the fairies that maybe might change her. From teasing the ass when he’s tied to the manger. From stones that would bruise her, from thorns of the briar. From evil red berries that wake her desire. From hunting the gander and vexing the goat. From the depths o’ sea water by Danny’s old boat. From cut and from tumble, from sickness and weeping; May God have my jewel this day in his keeping. ~Winifred Lett (1882-1973) Prayer for a Child
This prayer has hung in our home for almost three decades, purchased when I was pregnant with our first child. When I first saw it with its drawing of the praying mother watching her toddler leave the safety of the home to explore the wide world, I knew it addressed most of my worries as a new mother, in language that helped me smile at my often irrational fears. I would glance at it dozens of time a day, and it would remind me of God’s care for our children through every scary thing, real or imagined.
And I continue to pray for our grown children, their spouses, and now for three precious grandchildren who live far from us. I do this because I can’t help myself but do it, and because I’m helpless without the care and compassion of our sovereign God.
Right now, this week, I pray for all children who are growing up in an increasingly divisive and conflicted world, who cannot understand why skin color should make a difference to one’s hopes and dreams and freedom to walk anywhere without feeling threatened.
May I be changed in my prayers. May we all be changed, in a twinkling of an eye.
I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time — waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God — it changes me. ~C.S. Lewis