Dawn on our Darkness: When All Things Fall Apart

It was a time like this,
War & tumult of war,
a horror in the air.
Hungry yawned the abyss-
and yet there came the star
and the child most wonderfully there.

It was time like this
of fear & lust for power,
license & greed and blight-
and yet the Prince of bliss
came into the darkest hour
in quiet & silent light.

And in a time like this
how celebrate his birth
when all things fall apart?
Ah! Wonderful it is
with no room on the earth
the stable is our heart.

~Madeleine L’Engle “Into the Darkest Hour” in Wintersong

Into this world, this demented inn,
in which there is absolutely no room for him at all,
Christ has come uninvited.
But because he cannot be at home in it –
because he is out of place in it, and yet must be in it –
his place is with those others who do not belong,
who are rejected because they are regarded as weak…
With those for whom there is no room,
Christ is present in this world.
He is mysteriously present in those for whom
there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst.
~Thomas Merton from Watch for the Light

The Nativity, stained glass in the Epiphany Chapel of Winchester Cathedral, UK
The Nativity by Le Nain, Antoine and Louis (d.1648) & Mathieu (1607-77)

A stable and its stone manger is sanctuary for the weary and burdened – especially when everything seems to be falling apart.

There are so many ways we continue to refuse access and shut the doors in the faces of those two (plus One) weary travelers, forcing them to look elsewhere for refuge. We say “no room” dozens of times every day, not realizing who we are shutting out.

With all the material distractions of our age, it is small wonder we pay no attention to who is waiting patiently outside the back door of our lives, where it is inhospitable and cold and dank. Few of us would invite our special company into the barn first and foremost. Yet these travelers have no access to our front door, with fancy meals and feather beds and fresh flowers on the cupboard. They are relegated to the dark and manure strewn parts of our lives. That is where He was born to dwell amid our messiness, and that is where He remains, in the humblest parts of our being, the parts we do not want to show off, and indeed, most often want to hide.

And that is, of course, a place where there is always plenty of room.

This year’s Advent theme “Dawn on our Darkness” is taken from this 19th century Christmas hymn:

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
dawn on our darkness and lend us your aid.
Star of the east, the horizon adorning,
guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.
~Reginald Heber -from “Brightest and Best”

A stable lamp is lighted
Whose glow shall wake the sky
The stars shall bend their voices
And every stone shall cry
And every stone shall cry
And straw like gold will shine
A barn shall harbour heaven
A stall become a shrine

This child through David’s city
Will ride in triumph by
The palm shall strew its branches
And every stone shall cry
And every stone shall cry
Though heavy, dull and dumb
And lie within the roadway
To pave the Kingdom come

Yet He shall be forsaken
And yielded up to die
The sky shall groan and darken
And every stone shall cry
And every stone shall cry
For thorny hearts of men
God’s blood upon the spearhead
God’s love refused again

 
But now as at the ending
The low is lifted high
The stars will bend their voices
And every stone shall cry
And every stone shall cry
In praises of the child
By whose descent among us
The worlds are reconciled
~Richard Wilbur
 “A Christmas Hymn”

No presents, no candy, no treat
No stockings hung by the fire
No parties, no family to greet
No angel’s heavenly choirs

Bells are ringing all over the world
Bells are ringing calling the light
Bells are ringing all over the world
All over the world tonight

No doorways, no windows, no walls
No shelter here on the ground
No standing and no safe place to fall
Just the promise of this distant sound

Wherever you’re walking tonight
Whoever you’re waiting for
Somehow by the stable’s faint light
Peace in your heart is restored

Bells are ringing all over the world
Bells are ringing calling the light
Bells are ringing all over the world
All over the world tonight
~Mary Chapin Carpenter

Dawn on our Darkness: The Gates are Drawn Apart

What seemed to be the end proved to be the beginning…
Suddenly a wall becomes a gate.
~Henri Nouwen from  A Letter of Consolation

I heard in Addison’s Walk a bird sing clear:
This year the summer will come true. This year. This year.

Winds will not strip the blossom from the apple trees
This year, nor want of rain destroy the peas.

This year time’s nature will no more defeat you,
Nor all the promised moments in their passing cheat you.

This time they will not lead you round and back
To Autumn, one year older, by the well-worn track.

This year, this year, as all these flowers foretell,
We shall escape the circle and undo the spell.

Often deceived, yet open once again your heart,
Quick, quick, quick, quick!—the gates are drawn apart.

~C.S. Lewis “What the Bird Said Early in the Year”

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

I expect gates in my neighborhood to be closed – in the farming business, a gate left open is an invitation to disaster. Likewise, barn doors are often locked, to keep things safe inside and leave the unwanted out.

So it is true of the heart, where my most cherished treasures are stored and protected – a lockbox of faith and love. But the Lord knocks at the locked doors and closed gates of our hearts, expecting a response. He came to earth to enter into our lives, not be kept outside waiting. From the very beginning of His life, we refused Him entry to share our comfortable inn, relegating Him to a stone trough, and at the end, a stone tomb.

A gate never opened becomes a wall. A heart that does not bleed joy and tears and sorrow becomes nothing but stone.

He has come to turn the key and we are unlocked forever.

This year’s Advent theme “Dawn on our Darkness” is taken from this 19th century Christmas hymn.

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
dawn on our darkness and lend us your aid.
Star of the east, the horizon adorning,
guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.
~Reginald Heber -from “Brightest and Best”

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Letting My Heart Go Forth

The season of sunset as it draws a veil over the day,
befits that repose of the soul when earthborn cares

yield to the joys of heavenly communion.
The glory of the setting sun excites our wonder,
and the solemnity of approaching night awakens our awe.


If the business of this day will permit it, it will be well, dear reader,
if you can spare an hour to walk in the field at eventide,
but if not, the Lord is in the town too, and will meet with you

in your chamber or in the crowded street.

Let your heart go forth to meet Him.

~Charles Spurgeon from Morning and Evening Devotionals

During my forty years in medical practice, I saw many patients who struggled to sleep at night. Their minds raced, they couldn’t stop worrying, their bodies were tight with tension.

I would have preferred to prescribe walking an hour with God at sunset but that was not permissible at a public institution owned by the government.

Instead, I prescribed sleep hygiene habit, over the counter herbals, prescription medications or talk therapy, wrote documentation for emotional support animals, or suggested yoga or “meditation” or even a labyrinth walk.

I find what is most effective in my own life is allowing my heart to go forth and meet God’s invitation to communion with Him.

Spurgeon, in his own anxiety and depression, knew the healing power of a walk with God at sunset or a meal together in His memory. Even when we are hungry, thirsty, exhausted with worry — by throwing the cares of our heart out to Him, He will catch and hold them tight, raising us up alongside Him on the last day.

I am the bread of life.
He who comes to me shall not hunger;
he who believes in me shall not thirst.
No one can come to me
unless the Father draw him.

And I will raise him up,
and I will raise him up,
and I will raise him up on the last day.

The bread that I will give
is my flesh for the life of the world,
and he who eats of this bread,
he shall live for ever,
he shall live for ever.

And I will raise him up,
and I will raise him up,
and I will raise him up on the last day.

Unless you eat
of the flesh of the Son of Man
and drink of his blood,
and drink of his blood,
you shall not have life within you.

And I will raise him up,
and I will raise him up,
and I will raise him up on the last day.

I am the resurrection,
I am the life.
He who believes in me
even if he die,
he shall live for ever.

And I will raise him up,
and I will raise him up,
and I will raise him up on the last day.

Yes, Lord, I believe
that you are the Christ,
the Son of God,
who has come
into the world.

And I will raise him up,
and I will raise him up,
and I will raise him up on the last day.

Sr. Suzanne Toolan

Original Barnstorming artwork note cards available as a gift to you with a $50 donation to support Barnstorming – information here

With All My Heart

Leave the dishes.
Let the celery rot in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator
and an earthen scum harden on the kitchen floor.
Leave the black crumbs in the bottom of the toaster.
Throw the cracked bowl out and don’t patch the cup.
Don’t patch anything. Don’t mend. Buy safety pins.
Don’t even sew on a button.
Let the wind have its way, then the earth
that invades as dust and then the dead
foaming up in gray rolls underneath the couch.
Talk to them. Tell them they are welcome.
Don’t keep all the pieces of the puzzles
or the doll’s tiny shoes in pairs, don’t worry
who uses whose toothbrush or if anything
matches, at all.
Except one word to another. Or a thought.
Pursue the authentic—decide first
what is authentic,
then go after it with all your heart.
Your heart, that place
you don’t even think of cleaning out.
That closet stuffed with savage mementos.
Don’t sort the paper clips from screws from saved baby teeth
or worry if we’re all eating cereal for dinner
again. Don’t answer the telephone, ever,
or weep over anything at all that breaks.
Pink molds will grow within those sealed cartons
in the refrigerator. Accept new forms of life
and talk to the dead
who drift in through the screened windows, who collect
patiently on the tops of food jars and books.
Recycle the mail, don’t read it, don’t read anything
except what destroys
the insulation between yourself and your experience
or what pulls down or what strikes at or what shatters
this ruse you call necessity

~Louise Erdrich “Advice to Myself”

I am a messy person, coming from a long line of messy people. My paternal grandmother never had a clear kitchen counter, or a dining room table without piles of books and papers, spilling over with knickknacks and half-completed craft projects everywhere. I loved the chaos of her house since the messes left behind by her grandchildren weren’t as noticeable. I always felt at home, as if I was not being constantly monitored as a potential mess about to happen.

During this past (very hot) week, in our own home some sixty years later, we have grown from two residents to twelve with a lovely reunion of our children and grandchildren after four years of living far-flung and unable to gather. With four children under six years of age together, our house became even more of a whirlwind than it ordinarily is. I took no photos to demonstrate this, but trust me, the floor was covered with all manner of organic and inorganic matter most of the time. This was bliss, as long as I didn’t step on something sharp or suspiciously slimy in my bare feet.

The biggest surprise was a very early morning, about 4:30 AM, when the house was still dark and quiet except for our ten month old grandson who had not adapted yet to our time zone, so was up early for his breakfast. As I tiptoed quietly into my <very messy chaotic> kitchen to retrieve something, I noticed a good sized dust bunny on the linoleum floor and bent down to pick it up to toss in the trash can. To my surprise, it leaped away from my fingers!

It kept jumping away and when my eyes finally focused in the early morning light, I realized it wasn’t an escaping dust bunny, but a tree frog covered in dust fuzz from my less than tidy floor. It must have come in the house from the perpetually open front door and hidden under a piece of furniture, being transformed into a furry froggy Frankenstein.

I caught it and carried it outside into the morning dawn, setting it free into the chaos of the world outside, rather than coping inside with my insufficient housekeeping. No, I didn’t think to get a photo. Oh, well. Some things you just have to take on faith.

After all, my heart has been leaping and rejoicing all week to have our family under one roof for a brief few days and whether the house was clean was simply a secondary concern. It actually is not a concern at all.

You can’t clean out a mama’s heart; it carries so much over the years that may need sweeping and scrubbing, but this was not the week to worry about it. My worth is not in what I own or how pristine I keep things, but in the depth of my commitment to those who I am given the privilege to know and love.

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The Heart of a Pansy

Nobody can keep on being angry if she looks into the heart of a pansy for a little while.
~L.M. Montgomery

One has to wonder where they got
their reputation for pansiness.
Purple and proud, or any color
you might imagine, they grow
where they want to grow, despite the cold,
so much unlike their flashy cousins,
impatiens, petunias, scarlet sage,
petals falling off at first frost,
hardly hearty at all.
Keep your prima donna blossoms,
loud and boastful annuals, brief
and seedless. I’ll take the pansies
of the world, unassuming, resilient,
quietly doing what they know to do

~Scott Owen “Pansies”

As a seed, I was shot out the back end of a blue jay
when, heedless, she flew over the meadow.
She had swallowed me in my homeland when she spied me
lying easy under the sun—briefly, I called her Mother
before I passed through her gullet like a ghost.
In a blink of God’s eye I was an orphan. I trembled
where I fell, alone in the dirt. That first night
was a long night, early May and chilly, and I remember
rain filled my furrow. I called out for mercy—
only a wolverine wandered by. I cursed my luck,
I cursed the happenstance of this world, I smelled
his hot stink, but he nosed me deep into the mud—
this was the gift of obscurity. I germinated, hidden
from the giants of earth, the jostling stalks,
the various, boisterous bloomers, and this was my salvation.
After seven days and nights I pushed through—
yes. Here I am, kissable: your tiny, purple profusion.
~Lisa Bellamy “Wild Pansy”

The world is in sore need of a cure for the grumbles.

Fortunately, it exists right outside in our back yards, along sidewalks and in vacant lots.

A cheerful face is irresistible to all but the crabbiest among us, guaranteed to bring a smile every time.

Beyond the obvious charm exists a depth of heart — roots able to thrive in the thinnest of soil, at home among rocks and weeds,  resilient even when tromped on.

We carry its seeds on the tread of our boots in spite of our grumbling and help spread the good news: anger left unfed will dry up and blow away.

Yet the constant heart of the pansy will last.  It keeps smiling back.

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Forget Me Not

A good character is the best tombstone. Those who loved you and were helped by you will remember you when forget-me-nots have withered. Carve your name on hearts, not on marble.
~Charles Spurgeon (19th century pastor and theologian)

It’s said that ages, long ago,
when God had formed the earth and heaven,
He called the flowers one by one
until to all sweet names He’d given:
to one, pure Lily, other Rose
another Violet, or Daisy fair,
as each bright flower before Him passed,
to wear anew its Father’s care.

One day a tiny flower with pale blue eye,
stood at the Father’s feet and gazing in His face,
it said, in low and trembling tone
and with a modest grace,
“Dear God, the name You gave to me,
alas I have forgot!”
Then kindly looked the Father down
and said: “Forget-me-not.”
~Ethel Ridley (adapted by Emily Bruce Roelofson)

The tiny blue forget-me-not blossom reminds us who we are:
we are faithful,
we are loving,
we will remember,
we will keep the promises we make.

God does not make His promises in order to please us. He faithfully keeps His promises because He knows we need to understand what happens in our lives is according to His plan.

He forgets-us-not because we are the troubled dust upon which He has blown sweet and fragrant breath.

God is ever-faithful,
God loves us forever,
God never withers.

His promises are carved upon our hearts.

for those of you familiar with the Forget-me-not’s role in the Outlander book series…

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Hour of Dawn

The rising sun had crowned the hills,
            And added beauty to the plain;
O grand and wondrous spectacle!
            That only nature could explain.

I stood within a leafy grove,
            And gazed around in blissful awe;
The sky appeared one mass of blue,
            That seemed to spread from sea to shore.

Far as the human eye could see,
            Were stretched the fields of waving corn.
Soft on my ear the warbling birds
            Were heralding the birth of morn.

While here and there a cottage quaint
            Seemed to repose in quiet ease
Amid the trees, whose leaflets waved
            And fluttered in the passing breeze.

O morning hour! so dear thy joy,
            And how I longed for thee to last;
But e’en thy fading into day
            Brought me an echo of the past.

 ‘Twas this,—how fair my life began;
            How pleasant was its hour of dawn;
But, merging into sorrow’s day,
            Then beauty faded with the morn.

~Olivia Ward Bush-Banks “Morning on Shinnecock”

The heart of a woman goes forth with the dawn,
As a lone bird, soft winging, so restlessly on,
Afar o’er life’s turrets and vales does it roam
In the wake of those echoes the heart calls home.
~Georgia Douglas Johnson from 
The Heart of a Woman and Other Poems

For what human ill does not dawn seem to be an alleviation?
~Thornton Wilder
from The Bridge of San Luis Rey

There are some days, as I look at what tasks lie ahead, when I must fling my heart out ahead of me in the hope before the sun goes down, I might catch up and retrieve it back home to me.

I wonder if anyone else might find it first or even notices it fluttering and stuttering its way through the day.

Perhaps, once flung with the dawn, my heart will wing its way home and I’ll find it patiently waiting for me when I return, readying itself for another journey tomorrow.

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Secret Purple Wisdom

There’s always an iris
amusing and amazing.
Today, wildly purple stretching
to search dark colors,
open and about to reach.
Reach.

Even the vase holds on,
shows courage for both
who touch the beautiful,
alive and color to color,
evoking how one can love another.
Longer to live, shorter to die.
~Eloise Klein Healy “Iris”

What word informs the world,
and moves the worm along in his blind tunnel?

What secret purple wisdom tells the iris edges
to unfold in frills? What juiced and emerald thrill

urges the sap until the bud resolves
its tight riddle? What irresistible command

unfurls this cloud above this greening hill,
or one more wave — its spreading foam and foil —

across the flats of sand? What minor thrust
of energy issues up from humus in a froth

of ferns? Delicate as a laser, it filigrees
the snow, the stars. Listen close — What silver sound

thaws winter into spring? Speaks clamor into singing?
Gives love for loneliness? It is this

un-terrestrial pulse, deep as heaven, that folds you
in its tingling embrace, gongs in your echo heart.

~Luci Shaw “What Secret Purple Wisdom”  The Green Earth: Poems of Creation 

He gave Himself to us
to wrest joy from our misery-

A mystery is too much to accept
such sacrifice is possible.

We are blind-hearted to the possibility:
He who cannot be measured unfolds before us
to reach us, overwhelming our darkness. 

I prefer remaining closed in my bud,
hidden in the little room of my heart
rather than risk opening by loving another
in full blossom and fruitfulness.

Lord, give me grace to open my tight fist of a bud.

Prepare me for embracing your mystery. 
Prepare me to unfurl,
to reach out beyond myself.
Prepare me to bloom wildly purple.

What is the crying at Jordan?
Who hears, O God, the prophecy?
Dark is the season, dark
our hearts and shut to mystery.

Who then shall stir in this darkness
prepare for joy in the winter night?
Mortal in darkness we
lie down, blind-hearted, seeing no light.

Lord, give us grace to awake us,
to see the branch that begins to bloom;
in great humility
is hid all heaven in a little room.

Now comes the day of salvation,
in joy and terror the Word is born!
God gives himself into our lives;
Oh, let salvation dawn!
~Carol Christopher Drake

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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: It Is My Treason

Who was the guilty?
Who brought this upon you?

It is my treason,
Lord, that has undone you.

’Twas I, Lord Jesus,
I it was denied you;
I crucified you.

~Oh Holy Jesus, How Have You Offended?

Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?
~Robert Frost from “Reluctance”

We share in the guilt, you and I, turning away from Love freely given.

We are the treasonous souls who betrayed a suffering dying Savior, allowing Him to take on Himself the punishment we deserved ourselves.

It is we who abandoned Him as He loved us to death.

Still now, even knowing His sacrifice, we accept the drift of things in our daily lives, setting aside our responsibility to care for one another.

We yield when there is pressure threatening to knock us over.
We bow and falter when our or others’ burdens become too much.

It just feels easier to not get involved.

Over this past week we are witnessing the profound cost of love:
the citizens of Ukraine will not accept, yield or bow to evil. They are willingly becoming sacrifices by resisting enormous forces bent on their destruction. Ukraine is teaching the world what it means to stand up to a bully — to take the shots for what is right and good and pure, not assuming someone else will do it for them.

Anything less would be acting treasonous to Love:
loving the heart of man and revering the face of God.

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…

Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended,
That we to judge thee have in hate pretended?
By foes derided, by thine own rejected,
O most afflicted!

Who was the guilty?
Who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee!
Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee;
I crucified thee.

Lo, the Good Shepherd for the sheep is offered;
The slave hath sinned, and the Son hath suffered.
For our atonement, while we nothing heeded,
God interceded.

For me, kind Jesus, was thy incarnation,
Thy mortal sorrow, and thy life’s oblation;
Thy death of anguish and thy bitter passion,
For my salvation.

Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay thee,
I do adore thee, and will ever pray thee,
Think on thy pity and thy love unswerving,
Not my deserving.

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In Longing

I loved you before I was born.
It doesn’t make sense, I know.

I saw your eyes before I had eyes to see.
And I’ve lived longing 
for your ever look ever since.
That longing entered time as this body. 
And the longing grew as this body waxed.
And the longing grows as the body wanes.
The longing will outlive this body.

I loved you before I was born.
It doesn’t make sense, I know.

Long before eternity, I caught a glimpse
of your neck and shoulders, your ankles and toes.
And I’ve been lonely for you from that instant.
That loneliness appeared on earth as this body. 
And my share of time has been nothing 
but your name outrunning my ever saying it clearly. 
Your face fleeing my ever
kissing it firmly once on the mouth.

In longing, I am most myself, rapt,
my lamp mortal, my light 
hidden and singing. 

I give you my blank heart.
Please write on it
what you wish. 

~Li-Young Lee, “I Loved You Before I Was Born”

I should have recognized you at first, but didn’t.

Once I looked you in the eyes, I knew that I had loved you from before I was born. It didn’t make sense to me but nevertheless I knew. Our longing in loneliness finally brought us face to face.

I handed you my heart and you handed me yours, to keep forever.
And there they remain with utmost tenderness,
our longings still being written.