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”
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.
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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”
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
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.
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.
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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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.