Here’s My Hand

How far friends are! They forget you,
most days. They have to, I know; but still,
it’s lonely just being far and a friend.
I put my hand out—this chair, this table—
So near: touch, that’s how to live.
Call up a friend? All right, but the phone
itself is what loves you, warm on your ear,
on your hand. Or, you lift a pen
to write—it’s not that far person
but this familiar pen that comforts.
Near things: Friend, here’s my hand.

~William Stafford “Friends” from The Way It Is

I initially started writing online almost twenty years ago to a group of friends, most that I had met in real life, but some of whom I only knew from afar. It felt like I was writing a letter but without the pen, paper, envelopes and stamp.

Now I write to over 22,000 people every day. A few of you I know well, some I’ve only met once, most of you I will never have the privilege to know personally. Some of you have written to me privately (some with pen and paper, stamp and envelope!) to tell me more about your lives and how the thoughts I send along each day make a difference to you.

I know the power and love found in a hand-written letter. Someone I have known for nearly 50 years still writes to her friends – Jane Goodall was my teacher and mentor. When she gave me the opportunity to work with her in Africa in the 1970s, it changed my life in ways I still am discovering. Most remarkably, she has written to me on a number of occasions and I treasure those notes. Her familiar pen written by her familiar hand comforts me.

It’s lonely being far away, and a friend. But here is my hand. I hope you will continue to take what I offer here and find it comforting.

giving Jane a hug, courtesy of WWU Communications

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Vines Running Wild

Poetry is a rich, full-bodied whistle,
cracked ice crunching in pails,
the night that numbs the leaf,
the duel of two nightingales,
the sweet pea that has run wild,
Creation’s tears in shoulder blades.
~Boris Pasternak

Here are sweet-peas, on tip-toe for a flight:
With wings of gentle flush o’er delicate white,
And taper fingers catching at all things,
To bind them all about with tiny rings.
~John Keats
from I Stood Tip-toe Upon a Little Hill

Sweet peas and pumpkins are strange neighbors on the table
Usually separated by weather and season,
one from late spring,
the other from mid-autumn,
truly never meant to meet.

Yet here they are, side by side,
grown in the same soil
through the same weeks,
their curling vines entwined.

A few dropped sweet pea seeds
forgotten in the summer weeds;
eventually swelled and thrived,
now forming rich autumn blooms
gracing a harvest table
with bright pastels and spring time fragrance.

Perhaps I too may bloom where I land,
even if ill-timed and out of place,
I might run wild, interwoven, bound to others
who look nothing like me,
encouraged to climb higher,
to blossom bravely,
even in the face of knowing
the killing frost is soon to come.

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Be Winged

O! for a horse with wings! 
~William Shakespeare from Cymbeline

photo by Bette Vander Haak
photo by Bette Vander Haak

Be winged. Be the father of all flying horses.
~C.S. Lewis from The Magician’s Nephew

photo by Bette Vander Haak
photo by Bette Vander Haak

One reason why birds and horses are happy is because they are not trying to impress other birds and horses. 
~Dale Carnegie

photo by Bette Vander Haak
photo by Bette Vander Haak

When I bestride him, I soar, I am a hawk:
he trots the air; the earth sings when he touches it;
~William Shakespeare from Henry V

We all need someone along for the ride with us, blessing us with their company — a precious friend who has our back and scratches it wonderfully – helping to keep the biting flies away by gobbling them up.

It is symbiosis at its best: a relationship built on mutual trust and helpfulness. In exchange for relief from annoying insects that a tail can’t flick off, a Haflinger horse serves up bugs on a smorgasbord landing platform located safely above farm cats and marauding coyotes.

Thanks to their perpetual full meal deals, these cowbirds do leave generous “deposits” behind that need to be brushed off at the end of the day. Like any good friendship, cleaning up the little messes left behind is a small price to pay for the bliss of companionable comradeship.

We’re buds after all – best forever friends, trotting the air while the earth sings along.

And this is exactly what friends are for: one provides the feast while the other provides the wings, even when things get messy.

Be winged. Be fed. Together.

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An Umbrella Collapsed

fallen sakura petals in Tokyo (photo by Nate Gibson)

A man sweeps with vigorous strokes
petals stuck to the street.


A grey sky hovers so close;
it finally touches my face.


Instantly umbrellas float over commuters,
I walk in a current of skirt and suits, gaijin.


One face nears. She stops and holds out her umbrella
so insistently I accept,


then try to give it back, but she pulls up her hood
and disappears like a pebble dropped into a puddle.


I kept this umbrella
collapsed, this story in the folded


fan of my tongue until now:
I raise its spokes, its flower-patterned nylon


above a squall of self-loathing, I take cover
in that moment—her wrist still kindling my sleeve

~Julia Shipley, “Tokyo, Near Ueno Station” from Roads Taken: Contemporary Vermont Poetry

In our six visits to Japan over the past decade, we became more comfortable with what was expected of us as “gaijin” (foreigners) while shopping, traveling, and attempting to communicate when we had neither words nor understanding.

We were always treated with utmost respect and politeness by those we encountered. There would even be an occasional smile or moment of warmth and connection which is remarkable in a city of 38 million people.

Never were we invisible to others – we stood a head taller, and could not disappear in the current and flow of people. Clearly we farm people didn’t fit in a huge city – just as we felt while visiting New York City or Chicago – we were not “of” them or their country, only visitors who would eventually leave and go home.

Yet Japan has left its mark on me and always will – especially in the lives of our grandchildren who are of two close-ally countries despite two very different cultures. The challenge of their mixed-race will be to understand how each forms and shapes who they are and will become.

And always to accept the offer of an umbrella as an act of grace and friendship.

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The Dignity of Being

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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Your Licorice Nose

Something about that nose,
round as a licorice gumdrop
and massively inquiring.

It brings the world to him,
the lowdown on facts
denied to us.

He knows the rabbit
has been in the garden and where
the interloper has traveled.

He knows who has wandered
through the neighborhood and
can sniff out the bad guys.

He would like to get a whiff of you.
He has an inside track and will know
more about you than you can imagine.

But for now, he has other concerns.
The cat got into my pen and is making me
nervous, so let me out now please.

~Lois Edstrom “Homer” from Almanac of Quiet Days

As young as I look,
I am growing older faster than he,
seven to one
is the ratio they tend to say.
Whatever the number,
I will pass him one day
and take the lead
the way I do on our walks in the woods.
And if this ever manages
to cross his mind,
it would be the sweetest
shadow I have ever cast on snow or grass
~Billy Collins “A Dog on his Master”

Oh, Homer, dog of my heart, when I open the gate to your pen to set you free for farm chores, you race after your corgi buddy Sam who must get to the cat food bowl before you, but then you stop mid-run, each time, and circle back to me to say hello, thank you, jumping high enough to put that licorice gumdrop nose in my glove as a greeting, so I can stroke your furry brow without bending down. You jump one, two, three times – for those three pats on the head (I think you can count) – and then you are off again running, having greeted your human with respect and affection.

You watch me do chores with your nose in the straw, checking out the smells of the day – I work at the cleaning and feeding the ponies as the barn cat embarrasses you with her attention. You wait patiently, connecting your brown eyes to my gray eyes when you want my attention. You are listening carefully for those words that mean you can race back to your pen for breakfast – “All done!”

We speak the same language, you and I. Your eyes and your nose tell me all I need to know about what you are thinking.

And I have no doubt whatsoever you read my thoughts completely.

More poems and photos in this book, available to order here:

A Book and a Shady Nook

O for a book and a shady nook,
Either indoors or out;
With the green leaves whispering overhead,
Or the street cries all about;
Where I may read all at my ease,
Both of the new and old;
For a jolly good book whereon to look
Is better to me than gold.

~John Wilson (early 19th century Scottish author)

Suzzallo Library, University of Washington, Seattle
Yale Divinity School Library
Village Books, Lynden, WA

…for people who love books and need
To touch them, open them, browse for a while,
And find some common good––that’s why we read.
Readers and writers are two sides of the same gold coin.
You write and I read and in that moment I find
A union more perfect than any club I could join:
The simple intimacy of being one mind.
     Here in a book-filled sun-lit room below the street,
     Strangers––some living, some dead––are hoping to meet.

~Garrison Keillor 

Trinity College Long Room, Dublin

You know who you are.

You are the person who stockpiles stacks of books
on the bedside table and next to your favorite chair.

The person who sacrifices sleep to read
just one more page.

The person who reads the cereal box when
nothing else is available near the breakfast table.

The girl who falls into an uncovered manhole
walking down a busy street while reading.

The objects of your affection may be
as precious as the Book of Kells
.

or as sappy as an Archie and Jughead
comic book.

It’s the words, the words,
that keep zipping by, telegraphing

an urgent message: What’s next?
What’s next?

~Lois Edstrom “Bookworm” from Almanac of Quiet Days

Beinecke Rare Book Library, Yale University

Most of my life has been a reading rather than a writing life. For too many decades, I spent most of my time reading scientific and medical journals, to keep up with the changing knowledge in my profession. Even as a retired physician, I still spend an hour a day reading medical articles but now have the opportunity to dabble in books of memoir, biography, poetry and the occasional novel.

As a reader, I am no longer a stranger to the author or poet whose words I read. In a few instances, I’ve had the honor and privilege to meet my favorite authors in real life and to interact with them on line. They are friends on the page as well as in my life.

I am no longer strangers with many of you who read my words here on Barnstorming every day – I have been able to meet a number of you over the years. There is no greater privilege than to share words with one another.

No matter where I find my books – in an independent bookstore, in a little free library standing along the roadside, or inside the world’s treasured libraries filled with books of antiquity – I’ll seek out the sanctuary of a shady nook, either inside or out, where I can open the pages to meet up once again with my friends.

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This is a perfect book of words and photos for your shady nook – available for order here:

Good to Melt

How exactly good it is
to know myself
in the solitude of winter,
my body containing its own
warmth, divided from all
by the cold; and to go
separate and sure

among the trees cleanly
divided, thinking of you
perfect too in your solitude,
your life withdrawn into
your own keeping
–to be clear, poised
in perfect self-suspension
toward you, as though frozen.
And having known fully the
goodness of that, it will be
good also to melt.
~Wendell Berry “The Cold” from New Collected Poems

It is too easy to find comfort in solitude
in yet another waning pandemic winter,
with trust and friendship eroded,
to stay protected one from another
by screens and windows and masks.

Standing apart can no longer be an option
as we long for reconnection;
the time has come for the melt,
for a re-blending of moments
full of meals and singing and hugs.

We’ll find our way out of the cold.
We’ll find our way to trust.
We’ll find our way back to one another.

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Did I Find Everything I Was Looking For?

Did you find everything you were
looking for?
 Julie, the magenta-haired

checkout girl, asks, and no, I think,
I didn’t find inner peace, or answers to

several questions I’ve been mulling,
like are we headed for nuclear war and

does the rest of the world think America
has gone bonkers and also, by the way,

I could not find the tofu bacon, and
the chocolate sorbet shelf was empty

(I did find canned pumpkin in aisle four)
but I am silent and smile at Julie who

seems to know what I’m thinking anyway
so I hold back and muse on the view

of the bay this morning when we walked
the dog and the parsnip soup we’ll

make for dinner and realize that total
fulfillment probably jades the senses and

the bagger asks if I’d like help today
carrying my groceries out to the car.

~Thomas R. Moore, “Finding Everything” from Red Stone Fragments

He was a new old man behind the counter, skinny, brown and eager.
He greeted me like a long-lost daughter,
as if we both came from the same world,
someplace warmer and more gracious…

…his face lit up as if I were his prodigal daughter returning,
coming back to the freezer bins in front of the register
which were still and always filled
with the same old Cable Car ice cream sandwiches and cheap frozen greens.
Back to the knobs of beef and packages of hotdogs,
these familiar shelves strung with potato chips and corn chips…


I lumbered to the case and bought my precious bottled water
and he returned my change, beaming
as if I were the bright new buds on the just-bursting-open cherry trees,
as if I were everything beautiful struggling to grow,
and he was blessing me as he handed me my dime
over the counter and the plastic tub of red licorice whips.
This old man who didn’t speak English
beamed out love to me in the iron week after my mother’s death
so that when I emerged from his store
    my whole cock-eyed life  –
    what a beautiful failure ! –
glowed gold like a sunset after rain.
~Alison Luterman from “At the Corner Store”

During these two years of COVID-time precautions, grocery shopping has been an extra ordeal for both the shoppers and the store workers. We remain hidden behind our masks – both the ones mandated by state regulations to be covering our faces, as well as the ones we usually hide behind while out and about in polite society.

This week as I shopped in one of our local grocery stores, I witnessed a particularly poignant scene. As I waited my six foot distance in the check out line, the older man ahead of me was greeted by the young cashier with the standard “Did you find everything you were looking for?” He looked at her from behind his mask and his eyes were obviously smiling as she scanned his groceries. He responded with:
“I looked for world peace on your shelves, but it must have been sold out…”

She stopped scanning and looked directly at him for the first time, trying to discern if she misunderstood him or if he was mocking her or what. “Did you try Aisle 4?” she replied and they both laughed. They continued in light-hearted conversation as she continued scanning and once he had paid for his order and packed up his cart, he looked at her again.

“Thank for so much for coming to work today – I am so grateful for what you do.” He wheeled away his groceries and she stood, stunned, watching him go.

As I came up next, I looked at her watering eyes as she tried to compose herself and I said to her: “I’ll bet you don’t hear that often enough, do you?” She pulled herself together and shook her head, trying to make sense of the gift of words he had bestowed on her.

“No – like never,” she said as she scanned my groceries. “How could he possibly have known that I almost didn’t come to work today because it has been so stressful to be here? People are usually polite, but lately more and more have been so mean and refusing to put on their masks when I ask them to. No one seems to care about how others are feeling any more.”

She brushed away a tear and I paid for my groceries, and told her:

“I hope the rest of your work day is as great as that last customer. You’ve given me everything I was looking for today…”

And I emerged from the store feeling like I had scored a pot of gold like a sunset after rain.

last night’s rainbow through a windshield in pouring rain at 50mph

Try finding everything you are looking for in a book of beauty in words and photographs, available to order here:

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To Be Conscious of Our Treasures

There was an entire aspect to my life that I had been blind to — the small, good things that came in abundance.
~Mary Karr from The Art of Memoir


We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.
~Thornton Wilder, quotes from “Our Town”

The words from “Our Town” written over 80 years ago still ring true:
at that time our country was crushed under the Great Depression, and
now out country is staggering under a Great Depression of the spirit~
despite more connected electronically,
we are, due to politics and pandemic,
more isolated from family, friends, faith.

Thought more economically secure,
we are emotionally bankrupt.

May we always be conscious of
our many treasures and abundance,
while taking care of others in need.

God, in His everlasting recognition
of our perpetual need of Him,
cares for us, even while
we turn our faces away from Him.

I search the soil of this life, this farm, this faith
to find what yearns
to grow, to bloom, to fruit, in order
to be harvested to share with others.

My deep gratitude goes
to you who visit here
and to those who let me know
the small and the good I share with you
makes a difference in your day

I’m right alongside you in joint Thanksgiving
to our Creator and Preserver.

Many blessings today and always,
Emily

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A book of thanksgiving for beauty in words and photography, available to order here: