To a Heaven of Impermanence

In heaven it is always autumn.
~John Donne

The leaves are always near to falling there
but never fall, and pairs of souls out walking
heaven’s paths no longer feel the weight of years upon them.
Safe in heaven’s calm, they take each other’s arm,
the light shining through them, all joy and terror gone.
But we are far from heaven here, in a garden ragged and unkept
as Eden would be with the walls knocked down,
    the paths littered
with the unswept leaves of many years, bright keepsakes
for children of the Fall. The light is gold, the sun pulling
the long shadow soul out of each thing, disclosing an outcome.
The last roses of the year nod their frail heads,
like listeners listening to all that’s said, to ask,
What brought us here? What seed? What rain? What light?
What forced us upward through dark earth? What made us bloom?
What wind shall take us soon, sweeping the garden bare?
Their voiceless voices hang there, as ours might,
if we were roses, too. Their beds are blanketed with leaves,
tended by an absent gardener whose life is elsewhere.
It is the last of many last days. Is it enough?
To rest in this moment? To turn our faces to the sun?
To watch the lineaments of a world passing?
To feel the metal of a black iron chair, cool and eternal,
press against our skin? To apprehend a chill as clouds
pass overhead, turning us to shivering shade and shadow?
And then to be restored, small miracle, the sun
    shining brightly

as before? We go on, you leading the way, a figure
leaning on a cane that leaves its mark on the earth.
My friend, you have led me farther than I have ever been.
To a garden in autumn. To a heaven of impermanence
where the final falling off is slow, a slow and radiant happening.
The light is gold. And while we’re here, I think it must
    be heaven.
~Elizabeth Spires “In Heaven It Is Always Autumn” from Now the Green Blade Rises

I wander the autumn garden mystified at the passing of the weeks since the seed was first sown, weeds pulled, peapods picked. It could not possibly be done so soon–this patch of productivity and beauty, now wilted and brown, vines crushed to the ground, no longer fruitful.

The root cellar is filling up, the freezer is packed.  The work of putting away is almost done.

So why do I go back to the now barren soil we so carefully worked, numb in the knowledge I will pick no more this season, nor feel the burst of a cherry tomato exploding in my mouth or the green freshness of a bean or peapod straight off the vine?

Because for a few fertile weeks, only a few weeks, the garden was a bit of heaven on earth, impermanent but a real taste nonetheless.   We may have once mistaken our Lord for the gardener when He appeared to us radiant, suddenly unfamiliar, but it was He who offered us the care of the garden, to bring in the sheaves, to share the forever mercies in the form of daily bread grown right here and now.

When He says my name, then I will know Him. 
He will lead me farther than I have ever been.

A book of beauty in words and photography is available to order here:

I Pray Watch Over Them

Echo of the clocktower, footstep
in the alleyway, sweep
of the wind sifting the leaves. 


Jeweller of the spiderweb, connoisseur
of autumn’s opulence, blade of lightning
harvesting the sky. 

Keeper of the small gate, choreographer
of entrances and exits, midnight
whisper travelling the wires. 

Seducer, healer, deity, or thief,
I will see you soon enough–


in the shadow of the rainfall, 
in the brief violet darkening a sunset —

but until then I pray watch over him
as a mountain guards its covert ore 

and the harsh falcon its flightless young.
~Dana Gioia “The Prayer” (written in memory of his infant son who died of SIDS)

When we think of those who wait for us on the other side,
including our baby lost before birth 38 years ago…

We pray those from whom we are parted are loved as we have loved.

I know God will watch over all these reunions;
He knows the moment when our fractured hearts
heal whole once again.

I will see you soon enough, sweet one. Soon enough.

photo by Kate Steensma

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Riding at Dusk

At dusk, everything blurs and softens…

The horse bears me along, like grace,
making me better than what I am,
and what I think or say or see
is whole in these moments, is neither
small nor broken.  Who then
is better made to say be well, be glad,

or who to long that we, as one,
might course over the entire valley,
over all valleys, as a bird in a great embrace
of flight, who presses against her breast,
in grief and tenderness,
the whole weeping body of the world?
~Linda McCarriston from “Riding Out At Evening”

“Last Light” photo of Twin Sisters at dusk by Joel de Waard

We all need to remember transcendent moments in our lives, those brief times when all was well, our worries left behind in the dust.

Wounds healed, hearts full, senses filled with wonder, feeling whole rather than broken.

The summer evening rides of my younger years were just such a time: lifted by such powerful grace and transported to another time and place. It can feel like flying but mostly it feels like an embrace, one creature with another, exploring the world together.

All these years later, I am held fast by the memories and in remembering, I weep.

Surely, someday,
heaven will be something like this.

Sure on this shining night
Of star made shadows round,
Kindness must watch for me
This side the ground.
The late year lies down the north.
All is healed, all is health.
High summer holds the earth.
Hearts all whole.
Sure on this shining night I weep for wonder wand’ring far
alone
Of shadows on the stars.

~James Agee

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To See Heaven in a Wild Flower

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

~William Blake from Auguries of Innocence

If I look closely enough, I might find the extraordinary in the commonplace things of life. So I keep my eyes alert and my heart open to infinite possibilities.

Sometimes what I see is so extraordinary already, it is like uncovering a bit of heaven on earth. Up in the alpine meadows of the Cascade mountains grow delicate avalanche lilies in July, just as the snow melt is complete. Though brief in their blooming, they are our harbingers of heaven. Despite the chill and darkness of winter, they rise triumphant, an eternal promise of a someday never-ending summer.

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The Live-Long Light

Some of the most powerful memories of summer
come out of our childhood when we wake up on a June morning and suddenly remember that school is out
and that summer stretches in front of us
as endlessly as the infinities of space.

Everything is different.
The old routines are gone.
The relentless school bus isn’t coming.
The bells will be silent in silent hallways.

And all the world is leafy green,
and will be green,
forever and ever.

~Ray Bradbury from Summer: A Spiritual Biography of the Season

The sun is rich
And gladly pays
In golden hours,
Silver days,

And long green weeks
That never end.
School’s out. The time
Is ours to spend.

There’s Little League,
Hopscotch, the creek,
And, after supper,
Hide-and-seek.

The live-long light
Is like a dream,
and freckles come
Like flies to cream.

~John Updike “June” from A Child’s Calendar

photo by Harry Rodenberger
Photo by Harry Rodenberger

Time lurches ahead in imprecisely measured chunks. 

Sometimes the beginning and ending of seasons are the yardstick,  or the celebration of a holiday or a birthday.  Memories tend to be stickiest surrounding a milestone event: a graduation, a move, a wedding, a birth, a road trip, a funeral.

But Summer needs nothing so remarkable to be memorable. It simply stands on its own in all its extravagant abundance of light and warmth and growth and color stretching deep within the rising and setting horizons.  Each long day can feel like it must last forever, never ending.

Yet summer does eventually wind down, spin itself out, darkening gradually into the shadow dusk of autumn and the night of winter. 

I always let go of summer with reluctance, feeling as if no summer like it will ever come again.

Yet another will, somehow, somewhere, someday.  Surely a never-ending summer is what heaven itself will be.

Perfectly delightful and delightfully perfect. 

We’ve already had a taste.

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The Reddening Light

Near dusk, near a path, near a brook,
we stopped, I in disquiet and dismay
for the suffering of someone I loved,
the doe in her always incipient alarm.

All that moved was her pivoting ear
the reddening sun was shining through
transformed to a color I’d only seen
in a photo of a new child in a womb.

Nothing else stirred, not a leaf,
not the air, but she startled and bolted
away from me into the crackling brush.

The part of my pain which sometimes
releases me from it fled with her, the rest,
in the rake of the late light, stayed.
~C. K. Williams  “The Doe”
from The Singing

Oh little one
who was to have been born this week in June
thirty eight years ago~
so wanted
so anticipated
but lost too soon.

Gone as swiftly in a clot of red
as a doe disappearing soundlessly into a thicket:
so long ago it makes me question
if you were real,
until my heart clenches again at the memory.

But you were
and you are
and someday
I’ll know you when I see you
and curious about who I am,
you won’t flee this time,
but stay to find out.

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Unattainable Unbounded Joy

I had a profound amazement
at the sovereignty of Being

becoming a dizzy sensation of tumbling endlessly
into the abyss of its mystery;


an unbounded joy at being alive,
at having been given the chance to live through

all I have lived through,
and at the fact that
everything has a deep and obvious meaning –
this joy formed a strange alliance in me
with a vague horror at the inapprehensibility and unattainability

of everything I was so close to in that moment,
standing at the very “edge of the infinite”;


I was flooded with a sense of
ultimate happiness and harmony
with the world and with myself,
with that moment, with all the moments I could call up,
and with everything invisible that lies behind it and has meaning.
~Václav Havel in a letter to his wife

– for Czesław Miłosz

How unattainable life is,
it only reveals its features in memory, in nonexistence.
How unattainable afternoons,
ripe, tumultuous, leaves bursting with sap; swollen fruit,
the rustling silks of women who pass on the other side of the street,
and the shouts of boys leaving school.
Unattainable.
The simplest apple inscrutable, round.
The crowns of trees shake in warm currents of air.

Unattainably distant mountains.
Intangible rainbows.

Huge cliffs of clouds flowing slowly through the sky.
The sumptuous, unattainable afternoon.
My life, swirling, unattainable, free.
~Adam Zagajewski, “Fruit” Translated by Renata Gorczyńska and C. K. Williams

Heaven and earth are only three feet apart,
but in the thin places that distance is even smaller.
A thin place is where the veil that separates heaven and earth is lifted
and one is able to receive a glimpse of the glory of God.
~Celtic saying

Sometimes the abundance in my life is so unbounded,
I possibly can’t absorb it all,
like an endless feast that far exceeds my hunger.

At times I have no idea how hungry I am
until it is laid out before me;
I don’t know where to begin.

When I feel myself on that cliff of overwhelm,
that thin edge of knowing
I can almost reach past the finite
to touch the infinite,
I realize it is unattainable.

Not now, not yet.

We live in the already but not yet.
The all-encompassing I AM is here among us,
His Spirit surrounding us with beauty beyond imagining.
But we are waiting, wondering, wistful
as the kingdom of God is already here
and yet to come.

So He offers a glimpse and a taste
and it is so very very good.

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Each One Knows What the Other Knows

They sit together on the porch, the dark
Almost fallen, the house behind them dark.
Their supper done with, they have washed and dried
The dishes–only two plates now, two glasses,
Two knives, two forks, two spoons–small work for two.
She sits with her hands folded in her lap,
At rest. He smokes his pipe. They do not speak,
And when they speak at last it is to say
What each one knows the other knows. They have
One mind between them, now, that finally
For all its knowing will not exactly know
Which one goes first through the dark doorway, bidding
Goodnight, and which sits on a while alone.
~Wendell Berry “They Sit Together on the Porch”

Over our multiple decades together, the more often we see others who sat together on the porches of their lives, and one has now already gone through that darkened doorway, bidding Goodnight.

The other remains sitting alone for a time.

We know what the other knows in our one mind together: we don’t know who will bid Goodnight before the other and who will sit on for awhile.

But we know it is okay either way because this is how it is and how it is meant to be. This is why we treasure up each porch-sitting, breathing the fresh evening air together, sighing wordlessly together, knowing, and not knowing, what will come next.

A new book from Barnstorming, available to order here:

The World is Flux

…The world
is flux, and light becomes what it touches,
becomes water, lilies on water,
above and below water,
becomes lilac and mauve and yellow
and white and cerulean lamps,
small fists passing sunlight
so quickly to one another
that it would take long, streaming hair
inside my brush to catch it.
To paint the speed of light!
Our weighted shapes, these verticals,
burn to mix with air
and change our bones, skin, clothes
to gases.  Doctor,
if only you could see
how heaven pulls earth into its arms
and how infinitely the heart expands
to claim this world, blue vapor without end.
~Lisel Mueller, “Monet Refuses the Operation” from Second Language

“Heaven pulls earth into its arms…”

We all see things differently, don’t we? What seems ordinary to one person is extraordinarily memorable to another. How might I help others to see the world as I do? How might I learn to adjust my focus to see things as you do?

The world is flux; my delight and dismay flows from moment to moment, from object to absence, from light to darkness, from color to gray. Perhaps the blur from the figurative (or real) cataract that impedes my vision creates a deeper understanding, as I use my imagination to fill in what I can’t discern.

My heart and mind expands exponentially to claim this world and all the beauty has to offer, while heaven – all this while – is pulling me into its arms.

In heaven, my focus will be clear. It will all be extraordinarily ordinary.

Appareled in Celestial Light

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparell’d in celestial light,
The glory of a dream.

The rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the rose;
The moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare;
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath pass’d away a glory from the earth.

Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind.
~William Wordsworth from Intimations of Immortality

I woke immersed in sadness;
it doesn’t happen often.
Whether a dream surrounded me in sorrow,
or perhaps the weight of grayness of the morning,
I couldn’t tell.

I felt burdened and weepy,
wondering where hope had fled just overnight.

Even though I know true glory lies beyond this soil,
I still look for it here,
seeking encouragement in midst of trouble.
I set out to find light which clothes the ordinary,
becoming resplendent and shimmering
from celestial illumination.

Though I may sometimes grieve for what is lost,
there is enough,
there is always enough each morning
to remind me God’s gift of grace and strength
transforms this day and every day.

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