The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: The Frankincense of Fragrant Fir

Hanging old ornaments on a fresh cut tree,
I take each red glass bulb and tinfoil seraph
And blow away the dust. Anyone else
Would throw them out. They are so scratched and shabby.

My mother had so little joy to share
She kept it in a box to hide away.
But on the darkest winter nights—voilà—
She opened it resplendently to shine.

How carefully she hung each thread of tinsel,
Or touched each dime-store bauble with delight.
Blessed by the frankincense of fragrant fir,
Nothing was too little to be loved.

Why do the dead insist on bringing gifts
We can’t reciprocate? We wrap her hopes
Around the tree crowned with a fragile star.
No holiday is holy without ghosts.
~Dana Gioia, “Tinsel, Frankincense, and Fir”

When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,

to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.
~Howard Thurman from The Mood of Christmas & Other Celebrations

There are plenty of ghosts hiding in the boxes of ornaments I place on our Christmas tree.

Closing my eyes, I can see my father struggling to straighten our wild cut trees from our woods, mumbling under his breath in his frustration as he lies prone under the branches. I can see my mother, tears in her eyes, arranging ornaments from her parents’ childhoods, remembering times in her childhood that were fraught and fragile.

Each memory, every scratched-up glass ball is so easily breakable, a mere symbol for the fragility of us all this time of year.

Our real work of Christmas isn’t just during these frantic weeks of Advent but lasts year-long — often very hard intensive work, not just fa-la-la-la-la and jingle bells, but badly needed labor in this broken world with its homelessness, hunger, disease, conflict, addictions, depression and pain.

Even so, we enter winter next week replete with a startling splash of orange red that paints the skies in the evenings, the stark and gorgeous snow covered peaks surrounding us during the day,  the grace of bald eagles and trumpeter swans flying overhead, the heavenly lights that twinkle every night,  the shining globe that circles full above us, and the loving support of the Hand that rocks us to sleep when we are wailing loud.

Once again, I prepare myself to do the real work of Christmas, acknowledging the stark reality that the labor that happened in a barn that night was only the beginning of the labor required to salvage this world begun by an infant in a manger.

We don’t need a fragrant fir, full stockings on the hearth, Christmas villages on the side table, or a star on the top of the tree to know the comfort of His care and the astounding beauty of His creation, available for us without batteries, electrical plug ins, or the need of a ladder.

The ghosts and memories of Christmas tend to pull me up from my doldrums, alive to the possibility that even I, broken and fragile, scratched and showing my age, can make a difference, in His name, all year.

Nothing is too little to be loved…even me.

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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This Tranquil Dust

I like to live in the sound of water,
in the feel of mountain air. A sharp
reminder hits me: this world still is alive;
it stretches out there shivering toward its own
creation, and I’m part of it. Even my breathing
enters into the elaborate give-and-take,
this bowing to sun and moon, day or night,
winter, summer, storm, still—this tranquil
chaos that seems to be going somewhere.
This wilderness with a great peacefulness in it.
This motionless turmoil, this everything dance.

~William Stafford, “Time for Serenity, Anyone?” from Even in Quiet Places

We are, as breathed on dust, called into the service and company of another, called to do work other than our own. This creature, formed of dust, is entrusted with the garden, with all the animals, and with all living things. Our creatureliness binds us to the role of steward, friend, and companion of all other creatures who share our fragility.
~Walter Brueggemann from “Remember You Are Dust”

As a physician, I am reminded daily of the fragility of our bodies and minds, this breathed-on dust of us, especially now as a mere novel virus has immobilizes the world’s population.

As a farmer, I dwell compatibly with the dust I’m entrusted to steward.  I carry it around under my fingernails, on my boots, my skin smudged in unexpected ways and places as I go about my chores and tasks.  The dust of the barnyard wilderness clings to me, not wanting to let go of one of its own as I return indoors.  Sunbeams in our house swirl with released dust motes given new life through solar energy, each mote a source of fragile strength, tranquil beauty, complex simplicity.  Such joyful dust dance makes me reluctant to get out the dust rags and cleaning solutions.

As a child of the Creator, I am well aware of the cleansing needed in this grimy, desperately soiled world.  The dustiest parts of me lie far deeper than my shedding skin — the breathed-on dust that innervates, circulates and motivates me.

God sent His Son to be the dust rag I sorely need;  I cling to Him as He comes to clean house.

The Fragility of the Flower Unbruised

It is at the edge of a petal that love waits.

The fragility of the flower 
unbruised 
penetrates space
~William Carlos Williams from Spring and All (1923)

It is common to look for love only inside the heart of things, pulsing front and center as both showpiece and show off.    We think of love reverberating from deep within, loud enough for all the world to hear and know it is so.

But as I advance on life’s road, I have found the love that matters lies quietly waiting at the periphery of our hearts, so fragile and easily torn as a petal, often drenched in tears –  clinging to the edges of our lives and barely holding on through storms and trials.

This love remains ever-present , both protects and cherishes, fed by fine little veins which branch out from the center of the universe to the tender margins of infinity.

It is on that delicate edge of forever we dwell, our thirst waiting to be slaked and we stand ready, trembling with anticipation.

This Trembling Globe

dandyyellow

 

dandelion close

 

How I loved those spiky suns, 
rooted stubborn as childhood 
in the grass, tough as the farmer’s 
big-headed children—the mats 
of yellow hair, the bowl-cut fringe. 
How sturdy they were and how 
slowly they turned themselves 
into galaxies, domes of ghost stars 
barely visible by day, pale 
cerebrums clinging to life 
on tough green stems.   Like you. 
Like you, in the end.   If you were here, 
I’d pluck this trembling globe to show 
how beautiful a thing can be 
a breath will tear away. 
~Jean Nordhaus “A Dandelion for My Mother” from Innocence
dandy42615
dandybud
This is how I remember my mom at the end:
fragile, trembling,
a wispy white crown of hair,
clinging stubbornly to what was left of life
with roots that went so deep
there was no pulling them out.
Yet it only took that one last breath,
one quiet will-there-be-another
breath
to blow her away.
And she left us behind,
clinging stubbornly to those roots.
dandysunset5116
noahgrandma
dandysunset4

The Delicate Edge of Forever

begonia622153

 

dogwoodpetal

 

rosepetalrain

 

It is at the edge of a petal that love waits.

Crisp, worked to defeat 
laboredness–fragile 
plucked, moist, half-raised 
cold, precise, touching

From the petal’s edge a line starts 
that being of steel 
infinitely fine, infinitely 
rigid penetrates 
the Milky Way 
without contact–lifting 
from it–neither hanging 
nor pushing–

The fragility of the flower 
unbruised 
penetrates space
~William Carlos Williams from Spring and All (1923)

 

quincetree

 

sakurauw4

 

blackberrybloom

 

It is common to look for love only inside the heart of things, pulsing front and center as both showpiece and show off.    We think of love reverberating from deep within, loud enough for all the world to hear and know it is so.

But as I advance on life’s road, I have found the love that matters lies quietly waiting at the periphery of our hearts, so fragile and easily torn as a petal –  clinging to the edges of our lives barely holding on through storms and trials.

This love remains ever-present , both protects and cherishes, fed by fine little veins which branch out from the center of the universe to the tender margins of infinity.

It is on that delicate edge of forever we dwell, waiting to be fed and trembling with anticipation.

 

rainyrose39917

 

sunsetbegonia

 

trilliumweeping

 

The Gift of Fragility

web1Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing. 
Scout Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

How might I appreciate something
that is such a constant,
like my next heart beat or
breathing my next breath,
so unquestioningly predictable
it never registers
in my consciousness
until the moment
it might be rent asunder,
as delicate as a shattered web
hanging heavy with morning frost?

In knowing it will be someday lost,
my lungs emptied and heart stilled,
comes the realization:
the air I rely on
for my very existence
is the most precious gift of all.

For that ephemeral knowledge
of my fragility on this earth,
in learning that I love
my utter dependency on my Maker
who gifts me my next breath,
or not,
I am truly and forever
thankful.

Thankful for Fragility

Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing. 
Scout Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

 

How can I appreciate something
that is a constant,
like breathing the next breath,
so predictable
it never registers
in my consciousness
until the moment
it might be rent asunder,
just as delicate as a web
hanging heavy with evening frost?

Within that deprivation
is the realization
that what I rely on
for my very existence
is not a given.
Suddenly it becomes
the most precious thing of all.

For that ephemeral knowledge
of our fragility on this earth,
for our dependency on our Maker,
who gives us our next breath,
or not,
I am truly and forever
thankful.