Acknowledging the Abyss

The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for.
~Vladimir Nabokov from Speak Memory

I think Nabokov had it wrong. This is the abyss.
That’s why babies howl at birth,
and why the dying so often reach
for something only they can apprehend.

At the end they don’t want their hands
to be under the covers, and if you should put
your hand on theirs in a tentative gesture
of solidarity, they’ll pull the hand free;
and you must honor that desire,
and let them pull it free.

~Jane Kenyon from “Reading Aloud to My Father”

Great Grandma Emma, granddaughter Andrea, great-grandson Zealand – photo by Andrea Nipges

Great Grandpa Harry holding baby Emerson, photo by mama Abby Mobley
Great-Grandma Elna and Noah

And once, for no special reason,
I rode in the back of the pickup, leaning against the cab.
Everything familiar was receding fast…

Whatever I saw
I had already passed…
(This must be what life is like
at the moment of leaving it.)
~Jane Kenyon from “What It’s Like”

The farther I am down the road, everything familiar seems to be receding fast. What I see on my journey, I have already passed by as I watch it disappear into the horizon.

I too often mistake this world, this existence,  as the only light there is,  a mere beam of illumination in the surrounding night of eternity, the only relief from overwhelming darkness.  If we stand looking up from the bottom, we might erroneously assume we are the source of the light, we are all there is.

Yet looking at this world from a different perspective, gazing down into the abyss from above, it is clear the light does not come from below –it is from beyond us.

The newborn and the dying know this.  They signal their transition into and out of this world with their hands.  An infant holds tightly to whatever their fist finds,  grasping and clinging to not be lost to this darkness they have entered.  The dying instead loosen their grip on this world, reaching up and picking the air on their climb back to heaven.

We hold babies tightly so they won’t lose their way in the dark.  We loosen our grip on the dying to honor their outreach to the light that leads to something greater.

In the intervening years, we struggle in our blindness to climb out of the abyss to see vistas of great beauty and grace as we pass through the shadows of our lives.  Only then we acknowledge, with great calm and serenity, where we are headed.

Ben packaged in a paper bag by Grandpa Hank
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The Color of Eggplant

Every morning, cup of coffee
in hand, I look out at the mountain.
Ordinarily, it’s blue, but today
it’s the color of an eggplant.
And the sky turns
from gray to pale apricot
as the sun rolls up…

I study the cat’s face
and find a trace of white
around each eye, as if
he made himself up today
for a part in the opera.
~Jane Kenyon, from “In Several Colors” from Collected Poems
.

If you notice anything
it leads you to notice
more
and more.

And anyway
I was so full of energy.
I was always running around, looking
at this and that.

If I stopped
the pain
was unbearable.

If I stopped and thought, maybe
the world can’t be saved,
the pain
was unbearable.
~Mary Oliver from “The Moths” from Dream Work

I try to see things in a new way as I wander about my day,
my eyes scanning for how to transform all my
mundane, dusty corners exposed by a penetrating sunbeam
when its angle is just right.

My attempts to describe plain ordinary as extraordinary
feels futile in a messed-up upside-down world.

Such efforts can be painful:
it means getting tired and muddy in the muck,
falling down again and again
and being willing to get back up.

If I stop getting dirty,
if I by-pass every day grunginess,
if I give up the work of salvage and renewal,
I then abandon God’s promise to see the world changed.

He’s still here, ready and waiting,
handing me a broom, a shovel and cleaning rags,
so I can keep at it – mopping up my messy ordinary.

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The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: O Great Mystery

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.
So fair a fancy few would weave

In these years!

Yet, I feel,If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel,“
In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,
”I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
~Thomas Hardy “The Oxen”

Says a country legend told every year:
Go to the barn on Christmas Eve and see
what the creatures do as that long night tips over.
Down on their knees they will go, the fire
of an old memory whistling through their minds!

So I went. Wrapped to my eyes against the cold
I creaked back the barn door and peered in.
From town the church bells spilled their midnight music,
and the beasts listened – yet they lay in their stalls like stone.

Oh the heretics!
Not to remember Bethlehem,
or the star as bright as a sun,
or the child born on a bed of straw!
To know only of the dissolving Now!

Still they drowsed on –
citizens of the pure, the physical world,
they loomed in the dark: powerful
of body, peaceful of mind, innocent of history.

Brothers! I whispered. It is Christmas!
And you are no heretics, but a miracle,
immaculate still as when you thundered forth
on the morning of creation!
As for Bethlehem, that blazing star

still sailed the dark, but only looked for me.
Caught in its light, listening again to its story,
I curled against some sleepy beast, who nuzzled
my hair as though I were a child, and warmed me
the best it could all night.

~Mary Oliver “Christmas Poem” from Goodness and Light

The winds were scornful,
Passing by;
And gathering Angels
Wondered why

A burdened Mother
Did not mind
That only animals
Were kind.

For who in all the world
Could guess
That God would search out
Loneliness.
~Sr. M. Chrysostom, O.S.B.  “The Stable”

Beholding his glory is only half our job. 
In our souls too the mysteries must be brought forth; 
we are not really Christians till that has been done. 
A mystic says human nature is like a stable inhabited 
by the ox of passion and the ass of prejudice—
animals which take up a lot of room 
and which I suppose most of us are feeding on the quiet. 
And it is there between them, pushing them out, 
that Christ must be born 
and in their very manger he must be laid—
and they will be the first to fall on their knees before him. 
Sometimes Christians seem far nearer to those animals 
than to Christ in his simple poverty, self-abandoned to God.
~Evelyn Underhill
“Light of the World” from Watch for the Light

Growing up on my childhood farm,
remembering the magic of Christmas eve night,
I bundled myself up to stay warm
in our barn, to witness an unbelievable sight.

At midnight we knew the animals knelt down,
speaking words we could all understand,
to worship a Child born in Bethlehem town,
in a barn, long ago in a far away land.

They were there that night, to see and to hear,
the blessings that came from the sky.
They patiently stood watch at the manger near,
in a barn, while shepherds and kings stopped by.

My trips to the barn were always too late,
our cows would be chewing, our chickens asleep,
our horses breathing softly, cats climbing the gate,
in our barn, there was never a neigh, moo or peep.

But I knew they had done it, I just missed it again!
They were plainly so calm, well-fed and at peace
in the sweet smelling straw, all snug in their pens,
in a barn, a mystery, once more, took place.

Even now, I still bundle to go out Christmas eve,
in the hope I’ll catch them just once more this time.
Though I’m older and grayer, I still firmly believe
in the barn, a Birth happened amid cobwebs and grime.

Our horses sigh low as they hear me come near,
that tells me the time I hope for is now,
they will drop to their knees without any fear
in our barn, as worship, all living things bow.

I wonder anew at God’s immense trust
for His creatures so sheltered that darkening night –
the mystery of why of all places, His Son must
begin life in a barn: a welcoming most holy and right.
~Emily Gibson “In the Barn” (written Christmas Eve 1999)

Let it come, as it will, and don’t   
be afraid. God does not leave us   
comfortless, so let evening come.
~Jane Kenyon, from “Let Evening Come”

This year’s Barnstorming Advent theme “… the Beginning shall remind us of the End” is taken from the final lines in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”

Latin text
O magnum mysterium,
et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,
iacentem in praesepio!
Beata Virgo, cujus viscera
meruerunt portare
Dominum Iesum Christum.
Alleluia!

English translation
O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the newborn Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
the Lord, Jesus Christ.
Alleluia!

Sing O the wild wood, the green holly,
The silent river and barren tree;
The humble creatures that no man sees:
Sing O the wild wood.

A weary journey one winter’s night;
No hope of shelter, no rest in sight.
Who was the creature that bore Mary?
A simple donkey.

And when they came into Beth’lem Town
They found a stable to lay them down;
For their companions that Christmas night,
An ox and an ass.

And then an angel came down to earth
To bear the news of the Saviour’s birth;
The first to marvel were shepherds poor,
And sheep with their lambs.

Sing O the wild wood, the green holly,
The silent river and barren tree;
The humble creatures that no man sees:
Sing O the wild wood.
John Rutter

Jesus our brother, strong and good
Was humbly born in a stable rude
And the friendly beasts around him stood
Jesus our brother, strong and good
“I, ” said the donkey, shaggy and brown
“I carried his mother up hill and down
I carried his mother to Bethlehem town”
“I, ” said the donkey, shaggy and brown
“I, ” said the cow, all white and red
“I gave him my manger for his bed
I gave him my hay to pillow his head”
“I, ” said the cow, all white and red
“I, ” said the sheep with curly horn
“I gave him my wool for his blanket warm
He wore my coat on Christmas morn”
“I, ” said the sheep with curly horn
“I, ” said the dove from the rafters high
“I cooed him to sleep so he would not cry
We cooed him to sleep, my mate and I”
“I, ” said the dove from rafters high
Thus every beast by some good spell
In the stable dark was glad to tell
Of the gifts they gave Emmanuel
Of the gifts they gave Emmanuel

Holding Back My Heart

The others bent their heads and started in.
Confused, I asked my neighbor
to explain—a sturdy, bright-cheeked girl
who brought raw milk to school from her family’s
herd of Holsteins. Ann had a blue bookmark,
and on it Christ revealed his beating heart,
holding the flesh back with His wounded hand.
Ann understood division. . . .

Miss Moran sprang from her monumental desk
and led me roughly through the class
without a word. My shame was radical
as she propelled me past the cloakroom
to the furnace closet, where only the boys
were put, only the older ones at that.
The door swung briskly shut.

The warmth, the gloom, the smell
of sweeping compound clinging to the broom
soothed me. I found a bucket, turned it
upside down, and sat, hugging my knees.
I hummed a theme from Haydn that I knew
from my piano lessons. . . .
and hardened my heart against authority.
And then I heard her steps, her fingers
on the latch. She led me, blinking
and changed, back to the class.

~Jane Kenyon “Trouble with Math in a One-room Country School”

I avoided all potential trouble in school by avoiding the trouble-makers.
I never was disciplined or even looked at crossly by a teacher. They loved me and I wanted badly to be loved by them.

I looked away whenever another student got in trouble; I didn’t want to be a lookie-loo enjoying the travails of another child. It was painful for me to see another kid disciplined. I know I would have been crushed to be publicly called out, sent to the hallway, name on the board, or worse yet, banished to the principal.

So my heart broke when I saw another child cry,
or be defiant or be removed from class.
I knew I couldn’t fix it or them.
I knew I couldn’t help the teacher to like them.
I knew some kids have their own secret pain they endure.
I knew it would change me to know what their pain felt like.
So I just imagined being good and compliant and rule-abiding and lovable.

Forever.

Of course, I wasn’t and I’m not, sixty years later.
I too changed, just like everyone else.
It still makes me sad to think how much we change, how many hearts we break,
how our innocence is so fragile and as a result, how badly we need forgiveness
so we can learn to love ourselves as we are loved.

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

Why Did I Cry Today?

A second crop of hay lies cut   
and turned. Five gleaming crows   
search and peck between the rows.
They make a low, companionable squawk,   
and like midwives and undertakers   
possess a weird authority.

Crickets leap from the stubble,   
parting before me like the Red Sea.   
The garden sprawls and spoils.

Cloud shadows rush over drying hay,   
fences, dusty lane, and railroad ravine.   
The first yellowing fronds of goldenrod   
brighten the margins of the woods.

Schoolbooks, carpools, pleated skirts;   
water, silver-still, and a vee of geese.

*

The cicada’s dry monotony breaks   
over me. The days are bright   
and free, bright and free.

Then why did I cry today   
for an hour, with my whole   
body, the way babies cry?

*

A white, indifferent morning sky,   
and a crow, hectoring from its nest   
high in the hemlock, a nest as big   
as a laundry basket …
                                    In my childhood   
I stood under a dripping oak,
while autumnal fog eddied around my feet,   
waiting for the school bus
with a dread that took my breath away.

The damp dirt road gave off   
this same complex organic scent.

I had the new books—words, numbers,   
and operations with numbers I did not   
comprehend—and crayons, unspoiled   
by use, in a blue canvas satchel
with red leather straps.

Spruce, inadequate, and alien   
I stood at the side of the road.   
It was the only life I had.

~Jane Kenyon, “Three Songs at the End of Summer” from Collected Poems.

The first day back to school isn’t always the day after Labor Day as it was when I was growing up. Some students have been in classes for a couple weeks now, others started a few days ago to ease into the transition more gently, especially adjusting to classrooms and masking after a year of remote learning for so many.  Some will be return to the routine tomorrow: school buses will roar past our farm brimming with young faces under fresh masks, new clothes and shoes, stuffed back packs amid a fair amount of dread and anxiety.

I remember well that foreboding that accompanied a return to school — the strict schedule, the inflexible rules and the painful reconfiguration of social hierarchies and friend groups.  Even as a good learner and obedient student, I was a square peg being pushed into a round hole when I returned to the classroom; the students who struggled academically and who pushed against the boundaries of rules must have felt even more so. We all felt alien and inadequate to the immense task before us to fit in with one another, allow teachers to open our minds to new thoughts, and to become something and someone more than who we were before.

Growth is so very hard, our stretching so painful, the tug and pull of potential friendships stressful.  Two of my own children now make this annual transition to a new school year as veteran teachers.

For the first time in over thirty years, I won’t have yet another “first day” or new students under my care — it all feels new and unfamiliar yet again.

So I take a deep breath on this foggy Labor Day morning and am immediately taken back to the anxieties and fears of a skinny little girl in a new home-made corduroy jumper and saddle shoes, waiting for the schoolbus on a drippy wooded country road.

She is still me — just buried deeply in the fog of who I became after all those years of schooling, hidden somewhere under all the piled-on layers of learning and growing and hurting and stretching — but I do remember her well.

Like every student starting a new adventure tomorrow,
she could use a hug.

More like this is found in photos and words in this book from Barnstorming, available to order here:

The Delicate Sadness of Dusk

The talkative guest has gone,
and we sit in the yard
saying nothing. The slender moon
comes over the peak of the barn.

The air is damp, and dense
with the scent of honeysuckle. . . .
The last clever story has been told
and answered with laughter.

With my sleeping self I met
my obligations, but now I am aware
of the silence, and your affection,
and the delicate sadness of dusk.
~Jane Kenyon, “The Visit” from Collected Poems

As we slowly adapt to evenings spent with family and friends again, taking off our masks to actually witness the emotion on a familiar, now unveiled, face:

There are smiles and laughter again. We are trying to remember how to be ourselves outside the fearfulness that contagion wrought. More important: there are tears again. And wistfulness. And regret. And longing.

This delicate sadness happened – even to those of us who were never directly touched by sickness. We will never be the same, never so light of heart again, remembering what this past year has cost.

It is a slow transition to dusk. We sit together now and watch it come.

Rhubarb Thinking Its Way Up

When I take the chilly tools
from the shed’s darkness, I come
out to a world made new
by heat and light.

Like a mad red brain
the involute rhubarb leaf
thinks its way up
through loam.
~Jane Kenyon from “April Chores”

Over the last two weeks, the garden is slowly reviving, and rhubarb “brains” have been among the first to appear from the garden soil, wrinkled and folded, opening full of potential, “thinking” their way into the April sunlight.

Here I am, wishing my own brain could similarly rise brand new and tender every spring from the dust rather than leathery and weather-toughened, harboring the same old thoughts and patterns. 

Indeed, more wrinkles seem to be accumulating on the outside of my skull rather than the inside.

Still, I’m encouraged by my rhubarb cousin’s return every April.  Like me, it may be a little sour that necessitates sweetening, but its blood courses bright red and it is very very much alive.

Peaches and Cream

I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.
At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.
~Jane Kenyon “Otherwise” from Otherwise

We become complacent in our routines, confident in the knowledge that tomorrow will be very much like yesterday. The small distinct blessings of an ordinary day become lost in the rush of moving forward to the next experience, the next task, the next responsibility.

The reality is there is nothing ordinary about this day – it could be otherwise and some day it will be otherwise.

Jane Kenyon wrote much of her best poetry in the knowledge she was dying of leukemia. She reminds us that we don’t need a terminal diagnosis to understand the blessings of each ordinary moment.

So I look around longingly at the blessings of my life that I don’t even realize, knowing that one day, it will be otherwise. I dwell richly in the experience of these moments, these peaches and cream of daily life, as they are happening.

The Heart of a Pear

There are only ten minutes in the life of a pear
when it is perfect to eat.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Silver dust
lifted from the earth,
higher than my arms reach,
you have mounted.
O silver,
higher than my arms reach
you front us with great mass;


no flower ever opened
so staunch a white leaf,
no flower ever parted silver
from such rare silver;

O white pear,
your flower-tufts,
thick on the branch,
bring summer and ripe fruits
in their purple hearts.

~Hilda Doolittle Dawson (H.D.) “Pear Tree”

we noticed the pear tree,
the limbs so heavy with fruit
they nearly touched the ground.
We went out to the meadow; our steps
made black holes in the grass;
and we each took a pear,
and ate, and were grateful. 
~Jane Kenyon from “Coming Home at Twilight in Late Summer”

A moment’s window of perfection is so fleeting
in a life of bruises, blemishes and worm holes.
Wait too long and nectar-smooth flesh
softens to mush and rot.

The unknown rests beneath a blushed veneer:
perhaps immature gritty fruit unripened,
or past-prime browning pulp brimming with fruit flies
readily tossed aside for compost.

Our own sweet salvage from warming humus
depends not on flawless flesh deep inside
but heaven’s grace dropped into our laps:
to be eaten the moment it is offered.

The perfect pear falls when ripe
and not a moment before,
ready to become an exquisite tart which
tastes of a selfless gift.

Hanging Out

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