It Needn’t Have Been So…

You are alive.
It needn’t have been so.
It wasn’t so once, and will not be forever.
But it is so now.

And what is it like:
to be alive in this one place of all places anywhere where life is?
Live a day of it and see.
Take any day and LIVE IT.
Nobody claims that it will be entirely painless, but no matter.

It is your birthday and there are many presents to open. 
The world is to be opened.
It is the first day because it has never been before
and the last day because it will never be again.

BE ALIVE.
~Frederick Buechner from The Alphabet of Grace

When I was very young, I would trace my finger over the long scar that curved along the front of my mother’s neck and ask her what happened. She would tell me her thyroid gland had been overworking so she had to have it removed before I was born. That’s all she had to say about that and I never thought to ask more. Somehow I knew, just as my knowing my father would not talk about his experience as a Marine in WWII, my mother was hiding more than her big scar under high collars or a pearl necklace.

Hers was a deeper scar I couldn’t see or touch.

However, my older sister – about five at the time – remembers my mother’s illness. Mom was a little over thirty when her hands began to tremble, her pulse raced and she was irritable with trouble sleeping. My parents were hoping for a second child, but unable to get pregnant. Once her doctor diagnosed thyrotoxicosis , Mom had the option to try a new medication that had been recently developed – propylthiouracil – meant to suppress the function of overactive thyroid glands.

It didn’t work for her and she felt worse. It caused more side effects and my mother’s symptoms grew so severe, she was unable to leave her bedroom due to severe anxiety and paranoia made worse by insomnia. My paternal grandmother came to help since my father needed to continue to work to support the family but there was little that could be done other than sedation to ease my mother’s symptoms. My sister recalls not seeing Mom for days, unnerved by the wailing she heard from the bedroom. From her description, I now wonder if Mom was experiencing the beginning of thyroid “storm” (extremely high thyroid levels) which is potentially life-threatening with severe physical and emotional side effects.

After Mom was hospitalized and her entire thyroid was removed, she was placed on thyroid hormone supplements to take daily for the rest of her life. It took months for her to recover and feel somewhat normal again. Her eventual hormonal stability resolved her infertility as well as most of her other symptoms. She remained chronically anxious and had heart palpitations and insomnia the rest of her life, like a residual stain on her sense of well-being, although she lived another 55 years. The trauma of how her illness affected my dad and sister was never fully resolved. They all suffered. I can understand why those months remained as hidden as my mom’s surgical scar.

I was born about two years later – the second baby they never expected could happen. My brother was born 20 months after me.

From my family’s suffering came the solace of new life.

So I nearly wasn’t.

I’m reminded on each birthday:
I needn’t have been here yet by the grace of God I am.
I need to BE ALIVE and LIVE THIS DAY because it will never be again.

This is a truth for us all to cling to.

Each day is a gift to be opened and savored.
Each day a first day, a last day, a great day – a birthday of amazing grace.

A new book from Barnstorming is available to order here:

Looking Up

in other breaking news
a silver moon
sailed
above the world
and the only ones
who knew it
were the ones who looked up
~ Kat Lehmann, from Small Stones from the River

I spend too much time watching my feet for assurance about where my next step will land rather than looking up to appreciate Who directs my next step.

Perspective is everything; if I focus on what is above, I’ll be leaps and bounds ahead than if I only gaze down at the ground.

I’ve looked at life from both sides now:
focusing on what lies beneath me…
or looking up to apprehend the glories above…

I struggle to understand the mystery of both sides
as I really don’t know life, at all.

But someday, I’m confident I will.

photo by Bob Tjoelker of the rising moon behind our hilltop fir tree

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To Live One More Day

What a slow way to eat, the butterfly
is given by Nature, sipping nectar
one tiny blue flower at a time. Though
a Monarch in name, she’s made to scavenge
like the poorest of the poor, a morsel
here, a morsel there. A flutter of ink-
splattered orange wings. We don’t want to see
the struggle that undergirds the grace: the
ballerina’s sweat, or her ruined feet
hidden by tights and toe-shoes. She knows her
career will be as brief as it was hard
to achieve. Pollinated, the tiny
blue flowers are sated. The butterfly
flits away, hoping to live one more day.

~Barbara Quick, “The Struggle That Undergirds the Grace.”

You have been my friend. That in itself is a tremendous thing.
I wove my webs for you because I liked you.
After all, what’s a life, anyway?
We’re born, we live a little while, we die.
A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess,
with all this trapping and eating flies.
By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle.
Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.
~E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web



And when the sun rises we are afraid
it might not remain

when the sun sets we are afraid
it might not rise in the morning
when our stomachs are full we are afraid
of indigestion
when our stomachs are empty we are afraid
we may never eat again
when we are loved we are afraid
love will vanish
when we are alone we are afraid
love will never return
and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
nor welcomed
but when we are silent
we are still afraid


So it is better to speak
remembering
we were never meant to survive.
~Audre Lorde from “A Litany for Survival”

We are here so briefly.
We were never designed to survive forever on this earth
yet we try to run the clock out as long as we can.

Just one day more.

We are here because of struggle –
the pain of our birth, whether the cry of our laboring mother,
or our own wrestling free of the cocoon or the shell,
our daily work to find food
to feed ourselves and our young,
the upkeep and maintenance of our frail and failing bodies,
our ongoing fear we’ll be taken
before we can make a difference in another’s life.

If there is a reason for all this (and there is):
our struggle forms the grace of another’s salvation.
The flowers bloom to feed the butterfly,
the butterfly pollinates the flower,
ensuring the next generations of both.
The silent and weakened find their voice
so that the next generation can thrive.

Heaven knows,
anyone’s life can stand a little of that.

Just one day more, Lord. Please – one day more.

Tomorrow we’ll discover
What our God in Heaven has in store
One more dawn
One more day
One day more

~from Les Miserable

A new book available from Barnstorming available to order here:

How Hungry Could I Be?

One taste

and the rest
is what came after.
Little berry,

you’re the flavor
of my best,
most necessary

kiss. Fit
for a tongue tip,
exactly.

You were nothing
until I picked
you once.

How long
do we willingly
live without?

How hungry
would I be if
I’d kept walking?
~Kathleen Flenniken “Thimbleberry” (2012 – 2014 Washington State poet laureate)

I’m glad I stopped
where I was going
what I was doing

to admire and taste
a little thimbleberry ~

an extraordinary moment
suspended in time,
never to come again

A hunger so sweet
and achingly sad

A new book from Barnstorming is available for order here:

This Water-Lily World

In spring there’s hope,
in fall the exquisite, necessary diminishing,
in
winter I am as sleepy
as any beast in its
leafy cave,
but in summer there is

everywhere the luminous sprawl of gifts,
the hospitality of the Lord
and my
inadequate answers as
I row my beautiful, temporary body

through this water-lily world.
~Mary Oliver from “Six Recognitions of the Lord”

what I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled—
to cast aside the weight of facts

and maybe even
to float a little
above this difficult world.
I want to believe I am looking

into the white fire of a great mystery.
~Mary Oliver from “The Ponds”

I admit to being oblivious to the wonders going on beneath my feet, around my middle and above my head. My nose is to the grindstone, doing what needs to be done.

When a moment comes out of nowhere and I’m dazzled by something I’ve seen or heard or smelled, it shouldn’t come as a surprise. It has always been there; I’m simply waking to it.

Lord, lift my head in the midst of my blind hunger to see what you have already prepared for me.

Translation from Icelandic:

Hear, smith of heavens.
The poet seeketh.
In thy still small voice
Mayest thou show grace.
As I call on thee,
Thou my creator.
I am thy servant,
Thou art my true Lord.

God, I call on thee;
For thee to heal me.
Bid me, prince of peace,
Thou my supreme need.
Ever I need thee,
Generous and great,
O’er all human woe,
City of thy heart.

Guard me, my savior.
Ever I need thee,
Through ev’ry moment
In this world so wide.
Virgin–born, send me
Noble motives now.
Aid cometh from thee,
To my deepest heart.

A new book available from Barnstorming – more information about ordering here

To Embrace a Universe

Love, we are in God’s hand.
How strange now, looks the life he makes us lead;
So free we seem, so fettered fast we are!

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for? 

~Robert Browning from “Andrea del Sarto”

We have had names for you:
The Thunderer, the Almighty
Hunter, Lord of the snowflake
and the sabre-toothed tiger.
One name we have held back
unable to reconcile it
with the mosquito, the tidal wave,
the black hole into which
time will fall. You have answered
us with the image of yourself
on a hewn tree, suffering
injustice, pardoning it;
pointing as though in either
direction; horrifying us
with the possibility of dislocation.
Ah, love, with your arms out
wide, tell us how much more
they must still be stretched
to embrace a universe drawing
away from us at the speed of light.
~R.S.Thomas “Tell Us”

photo by our next door neighbor Bob Tjoelker

Ah, Love
You the Incarnate,
stretched and fettered to a tree

arms out wide
embracing us
who try to grasp
a heaven which eludes us

this heaven, Your heaven
brought down to us
within your wounded grip
and simply handed over.

In My Lonely Mind

Peace flows into me
As the tide to the pool by the shore;
It is mine forevermore,
It ebbs not back like the sea.

I am the pool of blue
That worships the vivid sky;
My hopes were heaven-high,
They are all fulfilled in you.

I am the pool of gold
When sunset burns and dies,—
You are my deepening skies,
Give me your stars to hold.
~Sara Teasdale, “Peace”

There will be rest, and sure stars shining
     Over the roof-tops crowned with snow,
A reign of rest, serene forgetting,
     The music of stillness holy and low.

I will make this world of my devising
     Out of a dream in my lonely mind.
I shall find the crystal of peace, – above me
     Stars I shall find.
~Sara Teasdale “Music of Stillness”

This is a wonderful day. I’ve never seen this one before.
~Maya Angelou

It is up to me how I begin this new day I’ve never seen before. Like every day, it comes unwrapped as a gift of light and growth and color and potential.

Here’s to you, new day!

Waiting in Wilderness: Impossible Blossom

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.
~Li-Young Lee, “From Blossoms” from Rose

In the midst of this past dying year, when too many have been lost to virus, to loneliness, to despair, to violence…

I seek the fragrance of the ultimate Bloom,
this true man yet very God

to be reminded of the Life and Light He brings to the darkness where we all dwell;
this impossible God sharing the load of man,
the sweetness of His glorious splendor

given to the undeserving
with joy and love
without reservation
without hesitation
from joy to joy to joy.

O Flow’r, whose fragrance tender
With sweetness fills the air,
Dispels in glorious splendor
The darkness ev’rywhere;
True man, yet very God,
From sin and death now saves us,
And shares our ev’ry load.

This One Life is a Gift

When I can no longer say thank you
for this new day and the waking into it,
for the cold scrape of the kitchen chair
and the ticking of the space heater glowing
orange as it warms the floor near my feet,
I know it is because I’ve been fooled again
by the selfish, unruly man who lives in me
and believes he deserves only safety
and comfort. But if I pause as I do now,
and watch the streetlights outside winking
off one by one like old men closing their
cloudy eyes, if I listen to my tired neighbors
slamming car doors hard against the morning
and see the steaming coffee in their mugs
kissing their chapped lips as they sip and
exhale each of their worries white into
the icy air around their faces—then I can
remember this one life is a gift each of us
was handed and told to open: Untie the bow
and tear off the paper, look inside
and be grateful for whatever you find
even if it is only the scent of a tangerine
that lingers on the fingers long after
you’ve finished eating it.

~James Crews, “Winter Morning” from How to Love the World: Poems of Gratitude and Hope

I close my eyes, savor a wafer of
sacred cake on my tongue and
try to taste my mother, to discern
the message she baked in these loaves
when she was too ill to eat them:

I love you.
It will end.
Leave something of sweetness
and substance
in the mouth of the world.
~Anna Belle Kaufman “Cold Solace”

Each day, even now,
brings something new and special to my life,
for which I am so grateful;
I peel it carefully
to find what hides inside,
all the while inhaling its fragrance
then carefully, slowly, gently
lifting it to my mouth to
savor it, knowing
only love,
only loving,
only the gift of sacrifice
could taste this sweet.

When Darkness Dazzles


Deep midwinter, the dark center of the year,
Wake, O earth, awake,
Out of the hills a star appears,
Here lies the way for pilgrim kings,
Three magi on an ancient path,
Black hours begin their journeyings.

Their star has risen in our hearts,
Empty thrones, abandoning fears,
Out on the hills their journey starts,
In dazzling darkness God appears.
~Judith Bingham “Epiphany”

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…the scent of frankincense
and myrrh
arrives on the wind,
and I long
to breathe deeply,
to divine its trail.
But I know their uses
and cannot bring myself
to breathe deeply enough
to know
whether what comes
is the fragrant welcoming
of birth
or simply covers the stench of death.
These hands
coming toward me,
is it swaddling they carry
or shroud?
~Jan Richardson from Night Visions –searching the shadows of Advent and Christmas

birchgold

Unclench your fists
Hold out your hands.
Take mine.
Let us hold each other.
Thus is his Glory Manifest.
~Madeleine L’Engle “Epiphany”

newyearsice2

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.


…I should be glad of another death.
~T.S. Eliot from “Journey of the Magi”

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Imagine the Lord, for the first time,
from darkness, and stranded
Immensely in distance,

recognizing Himself in the Son
Of Man:

His homelessness plain to him now in a homeless one.
~Joseph Brodsky from “Nativity Poem” translated from Russian by Seamus Heaney

In the cold season, in a locality accustomed to heat more than
to cold, to horizontality more than to a mountain,
a child was born in a cave in order to save the world;
it blew as only in deserts in winter it blows, athwart.

To Him, all things seemed enormous: His mother’s breast, the steam
out of the ox’s nostrils, Caspar, Balthazar, Melchior—the team
of Magi, their presents heaped by the door, ajar.
He was but a dot, and a dot was the star.

Keenly, without blinking, through pallid, stray
clouds, upon the child in the manger, from far away—
from the depth of the universe, from its opposite end—the star
was looking into the cave.

And that was the Father’s stare.
~Joseph Brodsky “Star of the Nativity”

“The Eye of God” Nebula

The Christmas season is now a wrap,
the lights put away for another year.
Yet our hearts are not so easily packed and stored.

Our troubles and concerns go on;
the pandemic numbers soar,
our frailty a daily reality.
We can be distracted with holidays for a few weeks,
but our time here slips away ever more quickly.

The Christmas story is not just about
light and birth and joy to the world,
magi following a star
to discover they are reborn in Light themselves.

It is about how His swaddling clothes
became a shroud that wrapped Him tight
for only three days.
There is not a birth without His death;
even when we try to store Him away,
neatly wrapped to pull out in another year.

Christ does not stay on the closet shelf.

God came to be with and among us;
Delivered so He could deliver.
Planted on and in the earth.
Born so He could die in our place
and leave the linen strips behind, neatly folded.

Advent: an interminable wait in the darkness
Christmas:  an unwrapping of the ultimate gift of life
Epiphany: the Father watches us from afar
to see how the Seed He sent takes root in our hearts,
dazzling our darkness.

bakersteaming