Trust that there is a tiger, muscular Tasmanian, and sly, which has never been seen and never will be seen by any human eye. Trust that thirty thousand sword- fish will never near a ship, that far from cameras or cars elephant herds live long elephant lives. Believe that bees by the billions find unidentified flowers on unmapped marshes and mountains. Safe in caves of contentment, bears sleep. Through vast canyons, horses run while slowly snakes stretch beyond their skins in the sun. I must trust all this to be true, though the few birds at my feeder watch the window with small flutters of fear, so like my own. ~Susan Kinsolving “Trust”
When I stand at the window watching the flickers, sparrows, finches, chickadees, and red-winged blackbirds come and go from the feeders, I wonder who is watching who. They remain wary of me, fluttering away quickly if I approach. They fear capture, even within a camera. They have a life to be lived without my witness or participation. So much happens that I never see or know about; it would be overwhelming to absorb it all.
I understand: I fear being captured too.
Even if only for a moment as an image preserved forever, I know it doesn’t represent all I am, all I’ve done, all I feel, all my moments put together. The birds are, and I am, so much more than one moment.
Only God sees me fully in every moment that I exist, witness to my freedom and captivity, my loneliness and grief, my joy and tears, knowing my very best and my very worst.
And He is not overwhelmed by what He sees of me. He knows me so well, in Him I must trust.
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What’s incomplete in me seeks refuge in blackberry bramble and beech trees, where creatures live without dogma and water moves in patterns more ancient than philosophy. I stand still, child eavesdropping on her elders. I don’t speak the language but my body translates best it can, wakening skin and gut, summoning the long kinship we share with everything. ~Laura Grace Weldon, “Common Ground” from Blackbird
When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free. ~Wendell Berry “The Peace of Wild Things”
Nearly thirty months of pandemic separation and I long to share our farm with our far-flung grandchildren who live across the ocean, to watch them discover the joys and sorrows of this place we inhabit. I will tell them there is light beyond this darkness, there is refuge amid the brambles, there is kinship with what surrounds us, there is peace amid the chaos, there is a smile behind the tears, there is stillness within the noisiness, there is rescue when all seems hopeless, there is grace as the old gives way to new.
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Two horses were put together in the same paddock. Night and day. In the night and in the day wet from heat and the chill of the wind on it. Muzzle to water, snorting, head swinging and the taste of bay in the shadowed air. The dignity of being. They slept that way, knowing each other always. Withers quivering for a moment, fetlock and the proud rise at the base of the tail, width of back. The volume of them, and each other’s weight. Fences were nothing compared to that. People were nothing. They slept standing, their throats curved against the other’s rump. They breathed against each other, whinnied and stomped. There are things they did that I do not know. The privacy of them had a river in it. Had our universe in it. And the way its border looks back at us with its light. This was finally their freedom. The freedom an oak tree knows. That is built at night by stars. ~Linda Gregg, “The Weight” from All of It Singing: New and Selected Poems
When the pasture gate opens after a long winter, they are let out on grass to a world vast and green and lush beyond their wildest imaginings.
They run leaping and bounding, hair flying in the wind, heels kicked up in a new freedom to re-form together their binding trust of companionship.
They share feasting and grooming with one another, as grace grows like grass stretching to eternity yet bounded safely within fence rows.
When cold rains come, as miserable times will, and this spring day feels far removed, when covered in the mud or frost or drought of life, they still have warm memories of one another.
Even though fences lean and break, as they will, the ponies are reminded where home is, whistled back to the barn if they lose your way, pointing them back to the gate to night’s rest and quiet.
Once there they long again for the gift of pasture freedom: how blessed is this opened gate, these fences, and most of all their dignity of being together as they feast with joy on the richness of spring.
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“You are fettered,” said Scrooge, trembling. “Tell me why?” “I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.” ― Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
My chains fell off, my heart was free; I rose, went forth and followed Thee. ~Charles Wesley
As the cold chains of memory and wrath Fall from our hearts before we are aware, Their rusty locks all picked by patient prayer, Till closed doors open… ~Malcolm Guite from “Peace”
These weeks of Lent are a time for me to remember my chains; they are invisible compared to all the rusty chains everywhere on our farm, but, in truth, are just as restrictive to freedom.
I’m fettered not only by the chains imposed by the limitations of a selfish society, but primarily by chains I have made myself, needing no help from anyone as I add link after link until I’m completely weighed down and immobilized.
We are bound to our sin as if by chains, locked tight with the key thrown away, pitiful in our imprisonment. Saturation with the gospel and heart-felt prayer are the only keys that will spring the lock, unclasp the chains, unbind our hands and feet, free our souls, loose us to live fully as images of our Creator.
Remember my chains? How can I forget? I have been handed the key to freedom.
This year’s Lenten theme for Barnstorming is a daily selection from songs and hymns about Christ’s profound sacrifice on our behalf.
If we remain silent about Him, the stones themselves will shout out and start to sing (Luke 19:40).
In His name, may we sing…
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She opened her curtains, and looked out towards the bit of road that lay in view, with fields beyond outside the entrance-gates. On the road there was a man with a bundle on his back and a woman carrying her baby; in the field she could see figures moving – perhaps the shepherd with his dog. Far off in the bending sky was the pearly light; and she felt the largeness of the world and the manifold wakings of men to labor and endurance. She was a part of that involuntary, palpitating life, and could neither look out on it from her luxurious shelter as a mere spectator, nor hide her eyes in selfish complaining. ~George Eliot in Middlemarch
As civilization begins to emerge from pandemic restrictions and mandates, it is crucial to review the lessons learned over the past two years. Worldwide we’ve simultaneously become more unified in our shared experience of isolation and quarantine and also more divided in our opinions about its necessity. Whether we agree or not on the details of COVID-19 prevention and management, we have learned much more about ourselves.
We are natural complainers when we feel our familiar freedoms are taken away, no question about it. Despite our ongoing feelings of deprivation and inconvenience, most of us have still been blessed with shelter, warmth and sustenance during this time. Some of us have had others around us in isolation, and others of us wish we could have had more quiet and privacy. We’re more used to waiting in lines for our turn, and encountering empty store shelves when we need something.
Medical care has been a challenge to access, both for COVID-related illness and everything else that usually happens to our minds and bodies daily. We even feel the need to complain about people complaining.
So I remind myself daily that nearly a million of our U.S. brothers and sisters have gone missing in action over the last two years, lost to the COVID battle, and though the vast majority survived, they (we) will never be the same.
Now as we look out our windows, we are no longer mere spectators at what is transpiring around us, but are rejoining our palpitating existence alongside others.
God only knows where we would be without each other. We can’t forget what we have shared together – our view out our window is unique to each of us, yet so familiar no matter where it is in the largeness of the world.
Indeed – this is a time of reckoning that won’t be soon forgotten.
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By the road to the contagious hospital under the surge of the blue mottled clouds driven from the northeast — a cold wind. Beyond, the waste of broad, muddy fields brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen
patches of standing water the scattering of tall trees
All along the road the reddish purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy stuff of bushes and small trees with dead, brown leaves under them leafless vines —
Lifeless in appearance, sluggish dazed spring approaches —
They enter the new world naked, cold, uncertain of all save that they enter. All about them the cold, familiar wind —
Now the grass, tomorrow the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf
One by one objects are defined — It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf
But now the stark dignity of entrance — Still, the profound change has come upon them: rooted they grip down and begin to awaken ~William Carlos Williams “Spring and All”
I ask your doctor of infectious disease if she’s read Williams he cured sick babies I tell her and begin describing spring and all she’s looking at the wall now the floor now your chart now the door never heard of him she says but I can’t stop explaining how important this is I need to know your doctor believes in the tenacity of nature to endure I’m past his heart attack his strokes and now as if etching the tombstone myself I find I can’t remember the date he died or even the year of what now are we the pure products and what does that even mean pure isn’t it obvious we are each our own culture alive with the virus that’s waiting to unmake us ~Brian Russell, “The Year of What Now”
It is the third January of a pandemic of a virus far more tenacious than we have proven to be, it continues to unmake us, able to mutate spike proteins seemingly overnight while too many of us stubbornly remain unchanged by this, clinging to our “faith over fear” and “my body, my choice” and “lions, not sheep” and “never comply” — because self-determination must trump compassion for the unfortunate fate of vulnerable millions.
We defend the freedom to choose to be vectors of a contagion that may not sicken us yet fills clinics, hospitals and morgues.
William Carlos Williams, the early 20th century physician, would be astonished at the clinical tools we have now to fight this scourge. William Carlos Williams, last centuries’ imagist poet, would recognize our deadly erosion of cooperation when faced with a worthy viral opponent.
So what happens now?
Starting with this third pandemic winter, with our souls in another deep freeze, covered in snow and ice and bitter wind chill, a tenuous hope of restoration could awaken – tender buds swelling, bulbs breaking through soil, being called forth from long burial in a dark and cold and heartless earth.
Like a mother who holds the mystery of her quickening belly, knowing we nurture other lives with our own body, we too can be hopeful and marveling at who we are created to be.
She, and we, know soon and very soon there will be spring.
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As Christians we do not believe in walls, but that life lies open before us; that the gate can always be unbarred; that there is no final abandonment or desertion. We do not believe that it can ever be “too late.”
We believe that the world is full of doors that can be opened. Between us and others. Between the people around us. Between today and tomorrow. Our own inner person can be unlocked too: even within our own selves, there are doors that need to be opened.
If we open them and enter, we can unlock ourselves, too, and so await whatever is coming to free us and make us whole. ~ Jörg Zink from “Doors to the Feast”
What we call the beginning is often the end And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.
We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time. Through the unknown, unremembered gate When the last of earth left to discover Is that which was the beginning; ~T.S. Eliot from “Little Gidding” The Four Quartets
We stand outside the gate, incapable of opening it ourselves, watching as God Himself throws it open wide. We choose to enter this unknown unremembered gate into the endless length of days, or we choose to remain outside, lingering in the familiar confines of what we know, though it destroys us.
There we shall rest and we shall see; we shall see and we shall love; we shall love and we shall praise. Behold what shall be in the end and shall not end. ~Augustine of Hippo
1 Lift up your heads, ye mighty gates; behold, the King of glory waits; the King of kings is drawing near; the Savior of the world is here!
2 Fling wide the portals of your heart; make it a temple, set apart from earthly use for heaven’s employ, adorned with prayer and love and joy.
3 Redeemer, come, with us abide; our hearts to thee we open wide; let us thy inner presence feel; thy grace and love in us reveal.
4 Thy Holy Spirit lead us on until our glorious goal is won; eternal praise, eternal fame be offered, Savior, to thy name!
Cold morning. November, taking a walk, when up ahead, suddenly, the trees unleave, and thousands of starlings lift off, an immense river of noise; they braid and unbraid themselves over my head, the gray silk sky embroidered with black kisses, the whoosh of their wings, their chattering clatter, patterns broken/formed/ reformed, a scarf of ragged ribbons. Dumb- struck, mouth open, I say holy and I say moley, And then, they’re gone. ~Barbara Crooker, “Murmuration” from Some Glad Morning.
Out of the dimming sky a speck appeared, then another, and another. It was the starlings going to roost. They gathered deep in the distance, flock sifting into flock, and strayed towards me, transparent and whirling, like smoke. They seemed to unravel as they flew, lengthening in curves, like a loosened skein. I didn’t move; they flew directly over my head for half an hour.
Each individual bird bobbed and knitted up and down in the flight at apparent random, for no known reason except that that’s how starlings fly, yet all remained perfectly spaced. The flocks each tapered at either end from a rounded middle, like an eye.Overhead I heard a sound of beaten air, like a million shook rugs, a muffled whuff.Into the woods they sifted without shifting a twig,right through the crowns of trees, intricate and rushing, like wind.
Could tiny birds be sifting through me right now, birds winging through the gaps between my cells, touching nothing, but quickening in my tissues, fleet? ~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
There comes a time in every fall before the leaves begin to turn when blackbirds group and flock and gather choosing a tree, a branch, together to click and call and chorus and clamor announcing the season has come for travel.
Then comes a time when all those birds without a sound or backward glance pour from every branch and limb into the air, as if on a whim but it’s a dynamic, choreographed mass a swoop, a swerve, a mystery, a dance
and now the tree stands breathless, amazed at how it was chosen, how it was changed. ~Julie Cadwallader Staub “Turning” from Wing Over Wing
…yesterday I heard a new sound above my head a rustling, ruffling quietness in the spring air
and when I turned my face upward I saw a flock of blackbirds rounding a curve I didn’t know was there and the sound was simply all those wings, all those feathers against air, against gravity and such a beautiful winning: the whole flock taking a long, wide turn as if of one body and one mind.
How do they do that?
If we lived only in human society what a puny existence that would be
but instead we live and move and have our being here, in this curving and soaring world that is not our own so when mercy and tenderness triumph in our lives and when, even more rarely, we unite and move together toward a common good,
we can think to ourselves:
ah yes, this is how it’s meant to be. ~Julie Cadwallader Staub from “Blackbirds” from Wing Over Wing
Watching the starlings’ murmuration is a visceral experience – my heart leaps to see it happen above me. I feel queasy following its looping amoebic folding and unfolding path.
Thousands of individual birds move in sync with one another to form one massive organism existing solely because each tiny component anticipates and cooperates to avoid mid-air collisions. It could explode into chaos but it doesn’t. It could result in massive casualties but it doesn’t. They could avoid each other altogether but they don’t – they come together with a purpose and reasoning beyond our imagining. Even the silence of their movement has a discernible sound of air rushing past wings.
We humans are made up of just such cooperating component parts, that which is deep in our tissues, programmed in our DNA. Yet we don’t learn from our designed and carefully constructed building blocks. We have become frighteningly disparate and independent creatures, each going our own way bumping and crashing without care.
We have lost our internal moral compass for how it is meant to be.
The rustling ruffling quiet of wings in the air is like muffled weeping.
In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don’t. ~Blaise Pascal
Be comforted; the world is very old, And generations pass, as they have passed, A troop of shadows moving with the sun; Thousands of times has the old tale been told; The world belongs to those who come the last, They will find hope and strength as we have done. ~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow “A Shadow”
The shadow’s the thing. If I no longer see shadows as “dark marks,” as do the newly sighted, then I see them as making some sort of sense of the light. They give the light distance; they put it in its place. They inform my eyes of my location here, here O Israel, here in the world’s flawed sculpture, here in the flickering shade of the nothingness between me and the light. ~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
I find myself seeking the safety of hiding in the shadows under a rock where lukewarm moderates tend to congregate, especially on Sundays.
Extremist views predominate simply for the sake of staking out one’s claim to one’s political turf. There is no spirit of compromise, negotiation or collaboration – that would be perceived as a sign of weakness. Instead it is “my way or the wrong way.”
I’m ready to say “no way,” as both sides are intolerably intolerant of the other as I watch them volley back and forth over my cowering head. As someone who is currently volunteering oodles of hours to help manage a community’s response to end COVID controlling our lives, I find myself smack dab in the middle of extremes.
The chasm is most gaping when we bring up any discussion of faith and how it influences our response to the pandemic. Religion and politics are already angry neighbors constantly arguing over how high to build the fence between them, what it should be made out of, what color it should be, should there be peek holes, should it be electrified with barbed wire to prevent moving back and forth, should there be a gate with or without a lock and who pays for the labor. Add in a pandemic to argue about and we become stymied and paralyzed.
In a country founded on the principle of freedom of religion, there are more and more who believe our forefathers’ blood was shed for freedom from religion and others feel there can be only one religion here.
Yet others feel we are founded on freedom from science and epidemiological data, because what possibly can those researchers know when the random person on YouTube says something far more palatable?
Give us the right to believe in nothing whatsoever or give us death. Perhaps both actually go together.
And so it goes. We the people bring out the worst in our leadership as facts are distorted, the truth is stretched or completely abandoned, unseemly pandering abounds and curried favors are served for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Enough already. Time for the shadows to abate and the Light to shine.
In the midst of this morass, we who want to believe still choose to believe but won’t force belief on anyone else. It’s called freedom of religion for a reason.
There is just enough Light shining for those who seek it. No need to remain blinded in the shadowlands of unbelief or “my way or the highway.”
I’ll come out from under my rock if you do.
In fact…I think I just did.
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The trees are undressing, and fling in many places— On the gray road, the roof, the window-sill— Their radiant robes and ribbons and yellow laces; A leaf each second so is flung at will, Here, there, another and another, still and still.
A spider’s web has caught one while downcoming, That stays there dangling when the rest pass on; Like a suspended criminal hangs he, mumming In golden garb, while one yet green, high yon, Trembles, as fearing such a fate for himself anon. ~Thomas Hardy “Last Week in October”
You may feel you are the only one to fall until you land in a cushion of others comforted.
But maybe you dangle suspended twisting and turning in the slightest breeze not knowing when the fall will come.
I know I’m both~ one alone suspended by faith, hoping for rescue while others pass me by ~~ another and another, still and still.
Held by a slender silken thread until the moment comes when I too am let go.
A book of beauty in words and photography, available for order here: