Though the Flower Fades Away…

O! my heart now feels so cheerful as I go with footsteps light
      In the daily toil of my dear home; 
And I’ll tell to you the secret that now makes my life so bright—
      There’s a flower at my window in full bloom. 

It is radiant in the sunshine, and so cheerful after rain; 
        And it wafts upon the air its sweet perfume. 
It is very, very lovely! May its beauties never wane—
        This dear flower at my window in full bloom. 

Nature has so clothed it in such glorious array, 
      And it does so cheer our home, and hearts illume; 
Its dear mem’ry I will cherish though the flower fade away—
      This dear flower at my window in full bloom. 

Oft I gaze upon this flower with its blossoms pure and white. 
        And I think as I behold its gay costume, 
While through life we all are passing may our lives be always bright 
        Like this flower at my window in full bloom.

~Lucian Watkins “The Flower at My Window” 1909

Details of the life of poet Lucian Watkins are few: a black man born in 1878 in Virginia, educated as a teacher and served as a U.S. Army Sergeant in WWI, then died shortly after in 1920. He leaves behind only a handful of poems, including the one above.

There is very little information available about Lucian but three letters written by him show a young man who earnestly wanted to have both a writing career and a “bread-winning vocation.” He describes feeling compelled to compose poetry, no matter what else he accomplishes.

The obvious challenges he faced –
–as a black man looking for a suitable place to live in Illinois so he can attend a college where there are no other people of color nearby,
–as a veteran of a most horrific war,
–as a creative mind trying to find a way to make a living,
he writes passionately about the aspirational purity of a white flower outside his window. Its bright radiance represents what he longs for in his own life.

From his letter to President Bissell of Bissell Colleges in Effingham, Illinois in 1919 after President Bissell is unable to assist in finding him a place to live, having suggested that the war veteran might consider “doing light housekeeping” – essentially live as a servant in a white household:

“About this matter of a boarding place. While I had hoped to obtain board with a member of my own race in Effingham, I had not thought it imperative that I should do so. I feel sure that there is enough Christianity in Effingham to provide that a brother-stranger in their midst shall not die of hunger. What would Jesus do?

It seems that some places in the south they rise more readily to our American ideal of democracy than in the North and Middle-West. ‘The Richmond Planet’ of Richmond, Va., states that ‘right here in Richmond, the capital of the late Confederacy, colored soldiers are welcomed to aristocratic Westhampton, and with no sigh of racial discrimination or antipathy to their being there.’ What is the matter with Illinois?

I am not sure as to what your question involves. We shall talk it over when I arrive. There must be a way that is just and that will be good for all concerned. Very respectfully, signed Lucian B. Watkins

This man was not only a poet. He was a statesman.

Though Lucian Watkins’ life was cut short for reasons unknown, and his portfolio of poetry is small, he is nonetheless a gift to generations of future poets and readers. This black artist did not let the inevitable rainfall in his life discourage his world view; he himself is radiant with illumination, showing a budding cheerfulness. His work reminds us something as simple as observing a resilient flower outside our window can help heal painful hurts and fulfill our deepest longing.

In his writing, Lucian Watkins draws a thin line between joy and sorrow, embracing the joy in a simple white flower in full bloom before it, as will we all, fades away.

Flower gleam and glow
let your power shine
make the Clock reverse
bring back what once was mine
What once was mine
Heal what has been hurt
change the fate’s design
Save what has been lost
bring back what once was mine
what once was mine

~Healing Song from Tangled

No matter if you’re born
To play the king or pawn
For the line is thinly drawn ‘tween joy and sorrow
So my fantasy becomes reality
And I must be what I must be and face tomorrow
So I’ll continue to continue to pretend
My life will never end
And flowers never bend with the rainfall

~Paul Simon
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In My Hunger

I made for grief a leaden bowl
and drank it, every drop.
And though I thought I’d downed it all
the hurting didn’t stop.

I made of hope a golden sieve
to drain my world of pain.
Though I was sure I’d bled it dry
the void filled up again.

I made of words a silver fork
and stabbed love in the heart,
and when I found the sweetness gone
I chewed it into art.
~Luci Shaw “What I Needed to Do”

How can I stow away our hurt and grief
when it keeps refilling, leaking everywhere?
Where can hope be found when all feels hopeless?
When I have been loved beyond all measure,
with bleeding hands and feet and side;
why not turn to the Word,
its sweetness never exhausted
no matter how often I chew through it
in my hunger.

A book of art in words and photography, available to order here:

Cure for Every Hurt

hankerchief tree (Ireland)
Baby Barn Owlet hiding in the rocks and grass
River carp (2-3 feet long) in Higashi-Kurume, Tokyo

Gardens are also good places
to sulk. You pass beds of
spiky voodoo lilies   
and trip over the roots   
of a sweet gum tree,   
in search of medieval   
plants whose leaves,   
when they drop off   
turn into birds
if they fall on land,
and colored carp if they   
plop into water.

Suddenly the archetypal   
human desire for peace   
with every other species   
wells up in you. The lion   
and the lamb cuddling up.
The snake and the snail, kissing.
Even the prick of the thistle,   
queen of the weeds, revives   
your secret belief
in perpetual spring,
your faith that for every hurt   
there is a leaf to cure it.

~Amy Gerstler “Perpetual Spring” from Bitter Angel

photo by Tomomi Gibson

We all want to fix what ails us: that was the point of my many years of medical training and over 40 years “practicing” that art. We want to know there is a cure for every hurt, an answer for every question, a resolution to every mystery, or peace for every conflict.

And there is. It just isn’t always on our timeline, nor is it always the answer we expect, nor the conflict magically dissolved. The mystery shall remain mystery until every tear is dried, as we stand before the Face of our Holy God who both loves and judges our hearts.

Sometimes this life hurts – a lot – but I believe in the perpetual Spring and Resurrection that guarantees our complete healing.

Soli Deo Gloria

A new book available to order https://barnstorming.blog/new-book-available-almanac-of-quiet-days/from Barnstorming and poet Lois Edstrom!

Waiting in Wilderness: There is a Crack in Everything

The birds they sang
At the break of day
Start again
I heard them say
Don’t dwell on what
Has passed away
Or what is yet to be

Ah the wars they will
Be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
Bought and sold
And bought again
The dove is never free

You can add up the parts
but you won’t have the sum
You can strike up the march,
there is no drum
Every heart, every heart
to love will come
but like a refugee.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
~Leonard Cohen from “Anthem”

The flaw is no more
noticeable, even to me,
than a new moth-hole
in my sweater, or
a very bald spot
on the fabric of
my velvet vest.

Yet when
I hold the cloth
up to the window
the sunlight
bleeds through.
~Luci Shaw “Defect”

My many cracks seem to expand with age:
do they not heal as quickly
or am I more brittle than before?

I know how my eyes leak,
my heart feels more porous.
The events of the day break me open even wider.

Yet the Light pours in
to illuminate my wounds old and new.
Let the world know
that after the hurt comes healing.

May I become the perfect offering.

Waiting in Wilderness: Removing a Splinter

To pull the metal splinter from my palm
my father recited a story in a low voice.
I watched his lovely face and not the blade.
Before the story ended, he’d removed
the iron sliver I thought I’d die from.

I can’t remember the tale,
but hear his voice still, a well
of dark water, a prayer.
And I recall his hands,
two measures of tenderness
he laid against my face,
the flames of discipline
he raised above my head.

Had you entered that afternoon
you would have thought you saw a man
planting something in a boy’s palm,
a silver tear, a tiny flame.
Had you followed that boy
you would have arrived here,
where I bend over my wife’s right hand.

Look how I shave her thumbnail down
so carefully she feels no pain.
Watch as I lift the splinter out.
I was seven when my father
took my hand like this,
and I did not hold that shard
between my fingers and think,
Metal that will bury me,
christen it Little Assassin,
Ore Going Deep for My Heart.
And I did not lift up my wound and cry,
Death visited here!
I did what a child does
when he’s given something to keep.
I kissed my father.
~Li-Young Lee, “The Gift” from Rose

I did, without ever wanting to, remove my own children’s splinter, lanced a boil, immobilized a broken arm, pulled together sliced skin, cleaned many dirty wounds. It felt like I crossed the line between mommy and doctor.  But someone had to do it, and a four hour wait in the emergency room didn’t seem warranted.

My own children learned to cope with hurt made worse by someone they trusted to be comforter.

I dealt with inflicting pain, temporary though it may be, to flesh that arose from my flesh.  It hurt as much as if it were my own wound needing cleansing, not theirs.

Our wounds are His – He is constantly feeling our pain as He performs healing surgeries in our lives, not because He wants to but because He must, to save us from our own destruction. Too often we yell and kick and protest in our distress, making it all that much more difficult for both of us.

If only we can come to acknowledge His intervention is our salvage:
our tears to flow in relief, not anguish,
we cling to His protection rather than pushing Him away,
we kiss Him in gratitude as we are restored again and yet again.

Turning Darkness into Light: Cloistered Immensity

Salvation to all that will is nigh;
That All, which always is all everywhere,
Which cannot sin, and yet all sins must bear,
Which cannot die, yet cannot choose but die,
Lo! faithful Virgin, yields Himself to lie
In prison, in thy womb; and though He there
Can take no sin, nor thou give, yet He’ll wear,
Taken from thence, flesh, which death’s force may try.

Ere by the spheres time was created thou
Wast in His mind, who is thy Son, and Brother;
Whom thou conceivest, conceived; yea, thou art now
Thy Maker’s maker, and thy Father’s mother,
Thou hast light in dark, and shutt’st in little room
Immensity, cloister’d in thy dear womb.
~John Donne “Annunciation”

What next, she wonders,
with the angel disappearing, and her room
suddenly gone dark.

The loneliness of her news
possesses her. She ponders
how to tell her mother.

Still, the secret at her heart burns like
a sun rising. How to hold it in—
that which cannot be contained.

She nestles into herself, half-convinced
it was some kind of good dream,
she its visionary.

But then, part dazzled, part prescient—
she hugs her body, a pod with a seed
that will split her.
~Luci Shaw “Mary Considers Her Situation”

Sometimes
for the light to replace
where darkness thrives,
there must be a wounding
that tears us open,
cleaving us enough so joy can enter into
where we hurt the most.

I Don’t Mean to Make You Cry

I don’t mean to make you cry.
I mean nothing, but this has not kept you
From peeling away my body, layer by layer,

The tears clouding your eyes as the table fills
With husks, cut flesh, all the debris of pursuit.
Poor deluded human: you seek my heart.

Hunt all you want. Beneath each skin of mine
Lies another skin: I am pure onion–pure union
Of outside and in, surface and secret core.

Look at you, chopping and weeping…
~Suji Kwock Kim from “Monologue for a Onion”

It’s true it can make you weep
to peel them, to unfurl and to tease   
from the taut ball first the brittle,   
caramel-colored and decrepit
papery outside layer, the least

recent the reticent onion
wrapped around its growing body,   
for there’s nothing to an onion
but skin, and it’s true you can go on   
weeping as you go on in, through   
the moist middle skins, the sweetest

and thickest, and you can go on   
in to the core, to the bud-like,   
acrid, fibrous skins densely   
clustered there, stalky and in-
complete, and these are the most   
pungent

~William Matthews from “Onions”

I would never scold the onion
for causing tears.
It is right that tears fall
for something small and forgotten.
How at meal, we sit to eat,
commenting on texture of meat or herbal aroma
but never on the translucence of onion,
now limp, now divided,
or its traditionally honorable career:
For the sake of others,
disappear.

~Naomi Shihab Nye, from “The Traveling Onion”
from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems.

Onion,
luminous flask,
your beauty formed
petal by petal,
crystal scales expanded you
and in the secrecy of the dark earth
your belly grew round with dew.
Under the earth
the miracle
happened
and when your clumsy
green stem appeared,
and your leaves were born
like swords
in the garden,
the earth heaped up her power
showing your naked transparency…

…You make us cry without hurting us.
I have praised everything that exists,
but to me, onion, you are
more beautiful than a bird
of dazzling feathers,
heavenly globe, platinum goblet,
unmoving dance
of the snowy anemone

and the fragrance of the earth lives
in your crystalline nature.

~Pablo Neruda from “Ode to the Onion”

Everything smells of “eau de onion” here in the kitchen as the onions are brought in from our late summer garden to be stored or dehydrated and frozen for winter soups and stews.

This is weepy business, but these are good tears like I spill over the whistled Greensleeves theme from the old “Lassie” TV show, or during any childrens’ choir song, or by simply watching videos of our grandchildren who are quarantined so far away from our arms.

It takes almost nothing these days to make me weep, so onions are a handy excuse, allowing my tears to flow without explanation:

I weep over the headlines.
I weep over how changed life is and for the sadness of the stricken.
I weep over how messy things can get between people who don’t listen to one another or who misinterpret what they think they hear.
I weep knowing we all have layers and layers of skin that appear tough on the outside, but as you peel gently or even ruthlessly cut them away, the layers get more and more tender until you reach the throbbing heart of us.

We tend to hide our hearts out of fear of being hurt, crying out in pain.

Like an onion, each one of us exists to make the day a bit better, the meal more savory, to enhance the flavors of all who are mixed into this melting pot together. We aren’t meant to stand alone, but to disappear into the stew, and be sorely missed if we are absent.

So very dish needs an onion, and for the sake of the dish, every onion vanishes in the process.

No, I don’t mean to make you cry
as you peel my layers away,
gently, one by one,
each more tender until you reach my heart.
Chop away at me if you must
but weep the good tears, the ones that mean
we weep for the sake of our meal together:
you eating and drinking,
and me – consumed.

The Pain I Feel

The pain I feel now is the happiness I had before. That’s the deal.
~C.S. Lewis
from A Grief Observed

I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.  ~James A. Baldwin

We pay for hate with our lives, and that’s too big a price to pay.
~Brené Brown from Braving the Wilderness

We live in a world of hurt. We are consumed with hatred for all that is unjust and unfair yet underneath it all we are people who are in fear and in pain.

We get angry at what we don’t like or don’t understand
and that includes God.

We are a people struggling with a profound irritability of the spirit. We give no one the benefit of the doubt any more,
and that includes God.

We ask God why He doesn’t do something about the suffering we see everywhere, or the terrible hurt we feel ourselves. We want answers, now, and that includes answers from God.

Instead He asks us the same question right back. What are we doing about the suffering of others? What are we doing about our own misery?

God knows suffering and hurt.
He knows fear.
He knows what it is to be hated, far more than we do.
He took it all on Himself,
loving us so much because His pain was part of the deal
He made with us to rescue us.

With that realization,
we trade our pain for hope,
our fear for trust,
and our hatred gives way to His sacrificial love.
Only then are we ready to respond to His call.

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear..
1 John 4:18a

Renouncing fear
We stand in your glorious grace.

When the oceans rise and thunders roar
I will soar with you above the storm
Father, You are King over the flood
I will be still and know You are God

from “Still” Hillsong

Choosing Gratitude

Gratitude as a discipline involves a conscious choice. I can choose to be grateful even when my emotions and feelings are still steeped in hurt and resentment. It is amazing how many occasions present themselves in which I can choose gratitude instead of a complaint. I can choose to be grateful when I am criticized, even when my heart still responds in bitterness. I can choose to speak about goodness and beauty, even when my inner eye still looks for someone to accuse or something to call ugly. ~ Henri Nouwen

When the slings and arrows are directly aimed at me, hit their mark and open a wound, I can choose to pick at the scab, maybe even cause it to get infected and make the scar worse, or I can marvel I’m still standing,  still capable of doing what I do best, and able to fully heal.  

I see beauty in recovery and becoming whole again. I see goodness in those who come alongside even if it means they become a target along with me.

Even when my heart bleeds from its inflicted wounds,  I choose forgiveness arising from grace and gratitude.  I hope I too will be forgiven for any wounds I inflict.

All becomes grace, the gift that never stops giving.

For Every Hurt

oakleafhydrangeabug
 
 
Gardens are also good places
to sulk. You pass beds of
spiky voodoo lilies   
and trip over the roots   
of a sweet gum tree,   
in search of medieval   
plants whose leaves,   
when they drop off   
turn into birds
if they fall on land,
and colored carp if they   
plop into water.
 
Suddenly the archetypal   
human desire for peace   
with every other species   
wells up in you. The lion
and the lamb cuddling up. 
The snake and the snail, kissing.
Even the prick of the thistle,   
queen of the weeds, revives   
your secret belief
in perpetual spring,
your faith that for every hurt   
there is a leaf to cure it.
~Amy Gerstler  from “In Perpetual Spring

Try as we might to find common ground with those so unlike ourselves, it is the differences we focus on despite our efforts to understand and befriend. Whether it is cranky politicians sparring in the headlines, or the perpetual struggle between weak and strong, we miss seeing Creation’s intended balance all around us.

We can dwell compatibly, lion and lamb, without one becoming a meal for the other. Indeed, prey transforms the predator.

Even the barbed and bloody thistle releases its seeds in the cushion of thistledown, drifting gently where the wind will take it next, at once forgiven for the scars it inflicted.

May I strive to be comforting rather than prickly, healing rather than inflicting, wherever I may land.