Learning to Fish for Happiness

If winter is a house then summer is a window
in the bedroom of that house. Sorrow is a river
behind the house and happiness is the name

of a fish who swims downstream. The unborn child
who plays in the fragrant garden is named Mavis:
her red hair is made of future and her sleek feet

are wet with dreams. The cat who naps
in the bedroom has his paws in the sun of summer
and his tail in the moonlight of change. You and I

spend years walking up and down the dusty stairs
of the house. Sometimes we stand in the bedroom
and the cat walks towards us like a message.

Sometimes we pick dandelions from the garden
and watch the white heads blow open
in our hands. We are learning to fish in the river

of sorrow; we are undressing for a swim.
~Faith Shearin, “The Name of a Fish” from The Owl Question

We can be swallowed by our sorrow,
flowing past our feet, threatening to sweep us away.
Yet we might pull off our shoes and wade right in
looking for what happiness we might catch,
or simply watch it swim by, taking comfort in knowing
it still swirls around us.

It is possible to feel sadness and to rejoice all at once,
to hold infinity gently in the palm of my hand,
ready to disperse from a casual breeze
or intentional breath.

This sacrifice of One is only the beginning. 
A Breath started it all and ends it all.

How can it be when nothing is left, everything is gained?

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.

When the Soul Slept in Beams of Light 
God Appears & God is Light
To those poor Souls who dwell in Night 
But does a Human Form Display
To those who Dwell in Realms of day
~William Blake from “Auguries of Innocence”

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A Refuge in Briars and Brambles

What’s incomplete in me seeks refuge
in blackberry bramble and beech trees,
where creatures live without dogma
and water moves in patterns
more ancient than philosophy.
I stand still, child eavesdropping on her elders.
I don’t speak the language
but my body translates best it can,
wakening skin and gut, summoning
the long kinship we share with everything.
~Laura Grace Weldon, “Common Ground” from  Blackbird

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
~Wendell Berry “The Peace of Wild Things”

Nearly thirty months of pandemic separation and
I long to share our farm with our far-flung grandchildren
who live across the ocean, to watch them discover
the joys and sorrows of this place we inhabit.
I will tell them there is light beyond this darkness,
there is refuge amid the brambles,
there is kinship with what surrounds us,
there is peace amid the chaos,
there is a smile behind the tears,
there is stillness within the noisiness,
there is rescue when all seems hopeless,
there is grace as the old gives way to new.

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The Sacred Intoxication of Existence

For half-an-hour he writes words upon a scrap of paper….
words in which the soul’s blood pours out,

like the body’s blood from a wound.
He writes secretly this mad diary,
all his passion and longing,

his dark and dreadful gratitude to God,
his idle allegories, the tales that tell themselves in his head;
the joy that comes on him sometimes (he cannot help it)
at the sacred intoxication of existence…

~G.K. Chesterton in a letter to his fiancé

When I was six or seven years old, I used to take a precious penny of my own and hide it for someone else to find. It was a curious compulsion; sadly, I’ve never been seized by it since. For some reason I always “hid” the penny along the same stretch of sidewalk up the street. I would cradle it at the roots of a sycamore, say, or in a hole left by a chipped-off piece of sidewalk. Then I would take a piece of chalk, and, starting at either end of the block, draw huge arrows leading up to the penny from both directions. After I learned to write I labeled the arrows: SURPRISE AHEAD or MONEY THIS WAY. I was greatly excited, during all this arrow-drawing, at the thought of the first lucky passer-by who would receive in this way, regardless of merit, a free gift from the universe. But I never lurked about. I would go straight home and not give the matter another thought, until, some months later, I would be gripped again by the impulse to hide another penny.

The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand. But — and this is the point — who gets excited by a mere penny?

It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple.
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

I can grumble and grouse about the state of the world with the best of the them.

But I know better. I’ve seen where negative thoughts lead and I can feel it aching in my bones when I’m steeping myself in it. The sky is grayer, the clouds are thicker, the night is darker–on and on to its overwhelming suffocating conclusion.

I don’t ever want to feel so impoverished that finding a penny doesn’t make my day better.

I have the privilege to choose joy, to turn away from the bleak and simply seek and bathe in the warmth and wonder of each ordinary mundane day. Like an opportunistic cat finding that one ray of sun and melting into it, I can absorb and equip myself to become radiant as well. I’m not putting on a “happy face” — instead joy adopts me, holds me close in the tough times and won’t abandon me. Though at times joy may dip temporarily behind a cloud and the rain will fall, I know the Sun is there even when I can’t see or feel it.

Today, joy is mine to choose because joy has chosen me, this morning and every morning.

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Raise Your Hands in Wonder

Here, where this present
darkness presses in, pushes
down, imprisons you in
ice and stone to wall you up
alive or crush you into dust,
even here, the gold glimmers
through a crack in the rock, splits
the stones as it flames up
in the ruby hue of a tulip
bursting into bloom, droops
down in the blushing pink
of a cherry blossom fluttering
in the breeze, sings in the
trilling call of a finch,
shines in dewdrops sparkling
on a spider’s web. Oh the gold
pulsing in graced moments
of camaraderie and laughter,
in the warmth of gentle hands
caressing a cold brow, in quiet
words of love that brim
the hearer’s eyes with tears.
And the gold that rises up
like incense when you raise your
eyes, your heart, your hands
in wonder, thanks, and praise.
All this golden glory! Light
and love. And life. And life. And life!

~E.M. MacDonald “The Double Strand”

It feels as if everything is emerging from the darkness:
birdsong is earlier and louder,
grass squeaks with growth,
buds unfurling with vigor,
light glowing with promise.

There is much momentum
running pellmell into longer days;
so much glory bursting all at once.

As showers blow in
from clouds gray and thick with menace,
we are stilled and quieted in the drenching,
waiting, arms raised, for a shaft of light
to break through again,
turning everything from gray to golden.

photo by Natalia Burke

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Still Alive

Awake the mind’s hopeless so
At a quarter to six I rise
And run 2 or 3 miles in
The pristine air of a dark
And windy winter morning
With a light rain falling
And no sound but the pad
Of my sneakers on the asphalt
And the calls of the owls in
The cypress trees on Mesa Road

And when I get back you’re
Still asleep under the warm covers
Because love is here to stay
It’s another day and we’re both still alive
~Tom Clark – “Every Day” from Light & Shade: New and Selected Poems.

How joyful to be together, alone
as when we first were joined
in our little house by the river
long ago, except that now we know

each other, as we did not then;
and now instead of two stories fumbling
to meet, we belong to one story
that the two, joining, made. And now

we touch each other with the tenderness
of mortals, who know themselves:
how joyful to feel the heart quake

at the sight of a grandmother,
old friend in the morning light,
beautiful in her blue robe!
~Wendell Berry
“The Blue Robe” from  New Collected Poem

These winter mornings –
waking early to part
from your warm side,
leaving behind my soft imprint,
I wrap up in my robe
to walk the gravel drive
to deliver a letter to our mailbox.

Our hilltop farm
lies silent amid fallow fields,
moon shadows
broad across my path
star sparks overhead
with orange paint beginning to lick
awake the eastern mountain peaks.

I walk noiselessly;
step out on the road
then turn ~ startled
as a flashlight approaches.

A walker and her dog
illuminate me in my dawn disarray
like a deer in headlights:
my ruffled hair, my sleep-lined face.
It is a grandma-caught-in-her-bathrobe
surprise at sunrise and
I’m simply glad to be alive.

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A Day for Grumbling

I like these cold, gray winter days.
Days like these let you savor a bad mood. 
~Bill Watterson (Creator of Calvin and Hobbes)

Sometimes the mist overhangs my path,
And blackening clouds about me cling;
But, oh, I have a magic way
To turn the gloom to cheerful day—
      I softly sing.

And if the way grows darker still,
Shadowed by Sorrow’s somber wing,
With glad defiance in my throat,
I pierce the darkness with a note,
       And sing, and sing.

I brood not over the broken past,
Nor dread whatever time may bring;
No nights are dark, no days are long,
While in my heart there swells a song,
       And I can sing.

~James Weldon Johnson “The Gift to Sing”

I can grumble and complain with the best of them. There is camaraderie in shared grumbling, as well as an exponential increase in dissatisfaction as everyone around me shares their own particular misery. Some relationships are based on just such collaborative complaining.

But I know better. I’ve seen where grousing leads and I feel the ache in my bones when I’m steeped in it. The sky gets grayer, the clouds become thicker, the night is darker–on and on to its overwhelming suffocating conclusion.

I have the privilege to turn away from being bleak and gloomy and choose joy. I can find the single ray of sun and stand steadfastly within it, to sing out that first note and pierce the darkness.

This is not me putting on a “happy face” — instead joy adopts and inhabits me, holds me close in the tough times and won’t abandon me. Though at times it may hide temporarily behind a cloud, I know it is there even when I can’t see it.

So I gently sing my way out of the gloom and clouds, for when I choose joy over grumbling, I find joy has chosen me.

So breaks the sun earth’s rugged chains,
      Wherein rude winter bound her veins;
So grows both stream and source of price,
      That lately fettered were with ice.
So naked trees get crisped heads,
      And colored coats the roughest meads,
And all get vigor, youth, and spright,
      That are but looked on by his light.
~Ben Jonson “So Breaks the Sun”

May we sing together, always.
May our voice be soft.
May our singing be music for others
and may it keep others aloft.
Sing gently, always.
Sing gently as one.
May we stand together, always.
May our voice be strong.
May we hear the singing and
May we always sing along.
Sing gently, always.
Sing gently as one.
~Eric Whitacre

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The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: Heaven Flings Wide Its Gates

The end of all things is at hand. We all
Stand in the balance trembling as we stand;
Or if not trembling, tottering to a fall.
The end of all things is at hand.

O hearts of men, covet the unending land!
O hearts of men, covet the musical,
Sweet, never-ending waters of that strand!

While Earth shows poor, a slippery rolling ball,
And Hell looms vast, a gulf unplumbed, unspanned,
And Heaven flings wide its gates to great and small,
The end of all things is at hand.
~Christina Rossetti “Sunday Before Advent”

Dawn was defeating now the last hours sung
by night, which fled before it. And far away
I recognized the tremblings of the sea.
Alone, we walked along the open plain,
as though, returning to a path we’d lost,
our steps, until we came to that, were vain.
Then, at a place in shadow where the dew
still fought against the sun and, cooled by breeze,
had scarcely yet been sent out into vapor,
my master placed the palms of both his hands,
spread wide, lightly and gently on the tender grass.
And I, aware of what his purpose was,
offered my tear-stained cheeks to meet his touch.
At which, he made once more entirely clean
the color that the dark of Hell had hidden.
~Dante from The Divine Comedy, II Purgatorio,Canto 1 lines 115−29

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
2 Corinthians 4: 6

God brings forth Light through His Word, not once but at least three times:
 
In the beginning, He creates the sun and the moon to penetrate and illuminate the creation of our hearts and our souls. 

In the stable He comes to light the world from below as well as from above so our darkened hearts and souls could be saved from self-destruction.

In the tomb, He rolls back the stone, allowing the sun to penetrate the ultimate night – raising His Son from the dead, in an ultimate defeat of darkness.

He flings open the gates of heaven to the likes of me and in response, I fling my heart through, following the Light.

Showered with the cleansing dew of His light,  I am lit by the glory of God reflected in the many faces of Jesus: as vulnerable newborn, child teacher, working carpenter, healer, itinerant preacher, unjustly condemned, dying and dead, raised and ascended Son of God. 

Let the dark days come as they certainly will. They cannot overwhelm my heart now,  as I am lit from within, cleansed inside and out, no matter how deep the darkness that oppresses on the outside.

I know His promise.
I know His face.
He knows I know.

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”

1. Hail the blest morn! when the great Mediator
Down from the mansions of glory descends;
Shepherds, go worship the babe in the manger,
Lo! for his guard the bright angels attend.

Chorus:
Brightest and best of the sons of the morning.

Dawn on our darkness, and lend us thine aid;
Star in the east, the horizon adorning,
Guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.

2. Cold on his cradle the dew-drops are shining;
Low lies his head with the beasts of the stall:
Angels adore him, in slumbers reclining;
Wise men and shepherds before him do fall. Chorus

3. Say, shall we yield him, in costly devotion,
Odors of Edom, and offerings divine,
Gems from the mountains, and pearls from the ocean,
Myrrh from the forest, and gold from the mine? Chorus

4. Vainly we offer each ample oblation,
Vainly with gifts would his favor secure;
Richer by far is the heart’s adoration,
Dearer to God are the prayers of the poor. Chorus

How do you capture the wind on the water?
How do you count all the stars in the sky?
How do you measure the love of a mother
Or how can you write down a baby’s first cry?

Chorus: Candlelight, angel light, firelight and star-glow
Shine on his cradle till breaking of dawn
Silent night, holy night, all is calm and all is bright
Angels are singing; the Christ child is born

Shepherds and wise men will kneel and adore him
Seraphim round him their vigil will keep
Nations proclaim him their Lord and their Saviour
But Mary will hold him and sing him to sleep

Chorus

Find him at Bethlehem laid in a manger
Christ our Redeemer asleep in the hay
Godhead incarnate and hope of salvation
A child with his mother that first Christmas Day

Chorus
~John Rutter “Candlelight Carol”

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The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: No Longer Homeless

Today is my mother’s birthday,
but she’s not here to celebrate
by opening a flowery card
or looking calmly out a window.

If my mother were alive,
she’d be 114 years old,
and I am guessing neither of us
would be enjoying her birthday very much.

Mother, I would love to see you again
to take you shopping or to sit
in your sunny apartment with a pot of tea,
but it wouldn’t be the same at 114.

And I’m no prize either,
almost 20 years older than the last time
you saw me sitting by your deathbed.
Some days, I look worse than yesterday’s oatmeal.

It must have been frigid that morning
in the hour just before dawn
on your first December 1st
at the family farm a hundred miles north of Toronto
.

Happy Birthday, anyway. Happy Birthday to you.
~Billy Collins from “December 1”

December 1st is not my mother’s birthday but it was her death day thirteen years ago.

Yet it felt a bit like a birth.

The call came from the care center about 5:30 AM on the Monday after Thanksgiving on a frozen morning: the nurse gently said her breathing had changed, it wasn’t long now until she’d be gone.

My daughter and I quickly dressed and went out into bleak darkness to make the ten minute drive to where she lay. Mom had been wearily existing since a femur fracture 9 months earlier on a cruel April 1st morning. Everything changed for her at 87 years of being active at home. It was the beginning of the end for her, unable to care for herself at home.

These nine months had been her gestation time to transition to a new life. It occurred to me as I drove – she was about to be born in her long-awaited yet long-feared transition to death.

Her room was darkened except for the multicolored lights on the table top artificial Christmas tree I had brought her a few days earlier. It cast colorful shadows onto the walls and the white bedspread on her hospital bed. It even made her look like she had color to her cheeks where there actually was none.

There was no one home.

She had already left, flown away while we drove the few miles to come to her. There was no reaching her now. Her skin was cooling, her face hollowed by the lack of effort, her body stilled and sunken.

I could not weep at that point – it was time for her to leave us behind. She was so very tired, so very weary, so very ready for heaven. And I, weary too, felt much like yesterday’s oatmeal, something she actually very much loved during her life, cooking up a big batch a couple times a week, enough to last several days.

I knew, seeing what was left of her there in that bed, Mom was no longer settling for yesterday’s oatmeal and no longer homeless. I knew she now she was present for a feast, would never suffer insomnia again, would no longer be fearful of dying, that her cheeks would be forever full of color.

I knew she had a new beginning: the glory of rebirth thanks to her Savior who had gently taken her by the hand to a land where joy would never end.

Happy Birthday, Mom. Happy December 1st Birthday to you.

I’ll fly away, oh glory
I’ll fly away in the morning
When I die hallelujah by and by
I’ll fly away

God makes us happy as only children can be happy.
God wants to always be with us, wherever we may be –
in our sin, in our suffering and death.
We are no longer alone;
God is with us.
We are no longer homeless;
a bit of the eternal home itself has moved unto us. 
~Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Some bright morning when this life is over
I’ll fly away
To that home on God’s celestial shore
I’ll fly away

I’ll fly away, oh glory
I’ll fly away in the morning
When I die hallelujah by and by
I’ll fly away

When the shadows of this life have gone
I’ll fly away
Like a bird from these prison walls I’ll fly
I’ll fly away

Oh how glad and happy when we meet
I’ll fly away
No more cold iron shackles on my feet
I’ll fly away

Just a few more weary days and then
I’ll fly away
To a land where joys will never end
I’ll fly away

I’ll fly away oh glory
I’ll fly away in the morning
When I die hallelujah by and by
I’ll fly away
I’ll fly away

~Albert Brumley

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”

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The Beginning That Reminds Us of the End: Open Wide Then

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”

What matters is what occurs occurs
Between them, not to them. It’s only that
The angel doesn’t matter, nor the virgin.
A blade of light scissors the air

Between them. To them it’s only that:
A glancing blow, or a kind of cleaving,
A blade of light. Scissor the air
Wide open, then it happens:

A glance, a blow, error a kind of cleaving—
Of? Or to? So something else can enter.
Open wide then. It happens
Those two forget themselves, not knowing—

What, or who?—so something else can enter
And, in entering, replace them.
We can’t forget ourselves. Knowing
Carelessness has brought us to the point

Where in entering we replace them.
The angel doesn’t matter, nor the virgin.
Carelessness has brought us to the point.
What is matters. What occurs occurs.
~Katherine Coles “Annunciation”

Sometimes
for the light to illuminate
where darkness thrives,
there must be wounding,
that tears us open;
there is a crack in everything,
cleaving us so joy can infiltrate and heal
where we hurt the most.

When time sweeps yesterday away,
It leaves behind an empty heart,
Weeping through the night so dark and long.
When words are lost among the tears,
When sadness steals another day,
God hears our cries and turns our sighs into a song.

Sing to the One who mends our broken hearts with music.
Sing to the One who fills our empty hearts with love.
Sing to the One who gives us light to step into the darkest night.
Sing to the God who turns our sighs into a song.

From heaven falls a mercy sweet,
The time for weeping now is gone;
God hears our sighs and gives us His eternal song.

Sing to the One who mends our broken hearts with music.
Sing to the One who fills our empty hearts with love.
Sing to the One who gives us light to step into the darkest night.
Sing to the God who turns our sighs into a song.

Sing to the One who mends our broken hearts with music.
Sing to the One who fills our empty hearts with love.
Sing to the One who gives us light to step into the darkest night.
Sing to the God who turns our sighs into a song.
~Susan Boersma

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”

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”

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Things I Did Not Say or Do

IV  My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup
On the marble table-top.

While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.


V  Although the summer Sunlight gild
Cloudy leafage of the sky,
Or wintry moonlight sink the field
In storm-scattered intricacy,
I cannot look thereon,
Responsibility so weighs me down.

Things said or done long years ago,
Or things I did not do or say
But thought that I might say or do,
Weigh me down, and not a day
But something is recalled,
My conscience or my vanity appalled.
~William Butler Yeats,Vacillation Parts IV and V


In this, the last trimester of my life, I find myself dwelling on how I continue to grow and change, as if I was gestating all over again, 68 years later. It is a time or preparation for what comes next, while not wanting to miss a moment of what is – right now.

I have plenty of opportunity to replay the many moments I’ve regretted what I said or did, or what I could have said or did….and didn’t. Recalling remorse is far easier and stickier than replaying joy that seems so fleeting in my memory.

There are times when I feel both weighed down by memories and freed at the same time. It almost always happens while sitting in worship in church, while silently confessing how I have wronged those around me or turned my face from God, yet in the next moment, I feel the embrace of a Creator who never forgets but still forgives. It is an overwhelming knowledge that brings me to tears every time.

It is in that moment that my joy no longer is fleeting; it lives deeply in my cells since I, like all around me, am created in His image.

And God saw what He had made, and it was, and still is, good.
He made us for joy, not out of regret.

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