Doing This Hard Thing

I finished loading the woodshed today. Every year
I tell myself, This is it, the last time. It’s just too
much work, too painful, and I’m too old.
And then, the next year, when fall rolls
around, the air gets cold, and the geese go south, I
load the woodshed again.

How long will this go on? I’m seventy-two.
Every year it takes me longer to recover,
yet every year I keep doing it.

It’s just, now that I’m done, I can go out into
the woodshed, sit in a chair, and look at all those
neatly stacked rows, six and a half feet high, six feet
long and sixteen inches deep, two sets of rows like that,
left and right, four full cord — not much by some standards —
but enough to keep us warm all winter.

When I go out and look at what I’ve done, I get such a deep
sense of satisfaction from this backaching labor that I can’t

imagine a year without going through all that pain again.
~David Budbill, “Loading the Woodshed” from Tumbling toward the End.

Long-johns top and bottom, heavy socks, flannel shirt, overalls,
steel-toed work boots, sweater, canvas coat, toque, mittens: on.


Out past grape arbor and garden shed, into the woods.
Sun just coming through the trees. There really is such a thing


as Homer’s rosy-fingered dawn. And here it is, this morning.
Down hill, across brook, up hill, and into the stand of white pine


and red maple where I’m cutting firewood. Open up workbox,
take out chain saw, gas, bar oil, kneel down, gas up saw, add

bar oil to the reservoir, stand up, mittens off, strap on and buckle
chaps from waist to toe, hard hat helmet: on. Ear protectors: down,

face screen: down, push in compression release, pull out choke,
pull on starter cord, once, twice, go. Stall. Pull out choke, pull on


starter cord, once, twice, go. Push in choke. Mittens: back on.
Cloud of two-cycle exhaust smoke wafting into the morning air


and I, looking like a medieval Japanese warrior, wade through
blue smoke, knee-deep snow, revving the chain saw as I go,


headed for that doomed, unknowing maple tree.
~David Budbill”Into the Winter Woods”, from Happy Life

The other day, I was visiting with a recently widowed neighbor who is now well into her 70’s. She said she had finished loading her woodshed and was now ready for winter, dependent on wood stove heat over the next 6 months or so. She is someone who takes her independence seriously after her husband died, having lived in the same house for over fifty years – not at all ready to move into town to an apartment or condo, much less assisted living. She assists herself, thank you very much, even if it means climbing a step ladder to overhead-toss the firewood chunks onto the top row, and later to pull them down again to haul into the house to the stove.

I asked her why she continued to do such hard physical work when she has sons who live nearby as well as the means to hire help if she needed it. She also could choose to install a furnace, making it easier to stay warm.

She told me she likes to look at the stack every day when she does her farmyard chores, which include bringing in her day’s worth of wood. It gives her a deep sense of satisfaction to know that she was able to neatly stack several cords of wood under cover for yet another year, just as she has done year after year after year. It is a reminder of what she is capable of doing on her own, now that she is alone.

It makes her feel good to look at the fruit of her labor.

And that, of course, is reason enough to keep doing a hard thing. We each work at living out our days the best we can despite how painful they can be. We are blessed to be able to do it.

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Only Here and Now

When I work outdoors all day, every day,
as I do now, in the fall, getting ready for winter,
tearing up the garden, digging potatoes,
gathering the squash, cutting firewood, making kindling, repairing
bridges over the brook, clearing trails in the woods,

doing the last of the fall mowing,
pruning apple trees, taking down the screens,
putting up the storm windows, banking the house—all these things,
as preparation for the coming cold…


when I am every day all day all body and no mind, when I am
physically, wholly and completely, in this world with the birds,
the deer, the sky, the wind, the trees…


when day after day I think of nothing but what the next chore is,
when I go from clearing woods roads, to sharpening a chain saw,
to changing the oil in a mower, to stacking wood, when I am
all body and no mind…

when I am only here and now and nowhere else—
then, and only then, do I see the crippling power of mind,
the curse of thought, and I pause and wonder why
I so seldom find this shining moment in the now.
~David Budbill “This Shining Moment in the Now” from While We’ve Still Got Feet.

I spend only a small part of my day doing physical work compared to my husband’s faithful daily labor in the garden and elsewhere on the farm. We both celebrate the good and wonderful gifts from the Lord, His sun, rain and soil. Although these weeks are a busy harvest time preserving as much as we can from the orchard and the garden, too much of my own waking time is spent almost entirely within the confines of my skull.

I know that isn’t healthy. My body needs to lift and push and pull and dig and toss, so I head outside to do farm and garden chores. This physical activity gives me the opportunity to be “in the moment” and not crushed under “what was, what is, what needs to be and what possibly could be” — all the processing that happens mostly in my head.

I’m grateful for this tenuous balance in my life, knowing as I do that I was never cut out to be a good full time farmer. I sometimes feel that shining glow in the moments of “living it now” rather than dwelling endlessly in my mind about the past or the future.

Thank the Lord, oh thank the Lord. I am learning to let those harvest moments shine.

Original Barnstorming artwork note cards available as a gift to you with a $50 donation to support Barnstorming – information here

The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: The Frankincense of Fragrant Fir

Hanging old ornaments on a fresh cut tree,
I take each red glass bulb and tinfoil seraph
And blow away the dust. Anyone else
Would throw them out. They are so scratched and shabby.

My mother had so little joy to share
She kept it in a box to hide away.
But on the darkest winter nights—voilà—
She opened it resplendently to shine.

How carefully she hung each thread of tinsel,
Or touched each dime-store bauble with delight.
Blessed by the frankincense of fragrant fir,
Nothing was too little to be loved.

Why do the dead insist on bringing gifts
We can’t reciprocate? We wrap her hopes
Around the tree crowned with a fragile star.
No holiday is holy without ghosts.
~Dana Gioia, “Tinsel, Frankincense, and Fir”

When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,

to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.
~Howard Thurman from The Mood of Christmas & Other Celebrations

There are plenty of ghosts hiding in the boxes of ornaments I place on our Christmas tree.

Closing my eyes, I can see my father struggling to straighten our wild cut trees from our woods, mumbling under his breath in his frustration as he lies prone under the branches. I can see my mother, tears in her eyes, arranging ornaments from her parents’ childhoods, remembering times in her childhood that were fraught and fragile.

Each memory, every scratched-up glass ball is so easily breakable, a mere symbol for the fragility of us all this time of year.

Our real work of Christmas isn’t just during these frantic weeks of Advent but lasts year-long — often very hard intensive work, not just fa-la-la-la-la and jingle bells, but badly needed labor in this broken world with its homelessness, hunger, disease, conflict, addictions, depression and pain.

Even so, we enter winter next week replete with a startling splash of orange red that paints the skies in the evenings, the stark and gorgeous snow covered peaks surrounding us during the day,  the grace of bald eagles and trumpeter swans flying overhead, the heavenly lights that twinkle every night,  the shining globe that circles full above us, and the loving support of the Hand that rocks us to sleep when we are wailing loud.

Once again, I prepare myself to do the real work of Christmas, acknowledging the stark reality that the labor that happened in a barn that night was only the beginning of the labor required to salvage this world begun by an infant in a manger.

We don’t need a fragrant fir, full stockings on the hearth, Christmas villages on the side table, or a star on the top of the tree to know the comfort of His care and the astounding beauty of His creation, available for us without batteries, electrical plug ins, or the need of a ladder.

The ghosts and memories of Christmas tend to pull me up from my doldrums, alive to the possibility that even I, broken and fragile, scratched and showing my age, can make a difference, in His name, all year.

Nothing is too little to be loved…even me.

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 Way I Might Have Gone

Out walking in the frozen swamp one gray day,
I paused and said, ‘I will turn back from here.
No, I will go on farther—and we shall see.’
The hard snow held me, save where now and then
One foot went through. The view was all in lines
Straight up and down of tall slim trees
Too much alike to mark or name a place by
So as to say for certain I was here
Or somewhere else: I was just far from home.
A small bird flew before me. He was careful
To put a tree between us when he lighted,
And say no word to tell me who he was
Who was so foolish as to think what he thought.
He thought that I was after him for a feather—
The white one in his tail; like one who takes
Everything said as personal to himself.
One flight out sideways would have undeceived him.
And then there was a pile of wood for which
I forgot him and let his little fear
Carry him off the way I might have gone,
Without so much as wishing him good-night.
He went behind it to make his last stand.
It was a cord of maple, cut and split
And piled—and measured, four by four by eight.

And not another like it could I see.
No runner tracks in this year’s snow looped near it.
And it was older sure than this year’s cutting,
Or even last year’s or the year’s before.
The wood was gray and the bark warping off it
And the pile somewhat sunken. Clematis
Had wound strings round and round it like a bundle.
What held it though on one side was a tree
Still growing, and on one a stake and prop,
These latter about to fall. I thought that only
Someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks
Could so forget his handiwork on which
He spent himself, the labor of his ax,
And leave it there far from a useful fireplace
To warm the frozen swamp as best it could

With the slow smokeless burning of decay.
~Robert Frost, “The Wood-pile” from North of Boston

My labor is usually done with fervor and purpose, but there are times when I do not experience the fruits of my labor. It is left to smolder slowly to decay rather than provide the intended warmth and nurture of a fresh hearthfire.

I might have chosen a different way to go if I had known.

Perhaps I will simply follow the birds instead…

fire photo by Josh Scholten

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

To Leave Something Behind

Everyone must leave something behind when he dies,
my grandfather said.
A child or a book or a painting
or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made.
Or a garden planted.
Something your hand touched some way
so your soul has somewhere to go when you die,
and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted,
you’re there.

It doesn’t matter what you do, he said,
so long as you change something
from the way it was before you touched it
into something that’s like you after you take your hands away.
The difference between the man who just cuts lawns
and a real gardener is in the touching, he said.
The lawn-cutter might just as well not have been there at all;
the gardener will be there a lifetime.
~Ray Bradbury from Fahrenheit 451

Esther Meyer, nearly 92, photo taken by a granddaughter
Esther’s hands – photo by Donna Meyer
photo by Danielle Meyer Miljevic

At last the entire family stood, like people seeing someone off at the rail station, waiting in the room.

“Well,” said Great-grandma, “there I am, I’m not humble, so it’s nice seeing you standing around my bed. Now next week there’s late gardening and closet-cleaning and clothes-buying for the children to do. And since that part of me is called, for convenience, Great-grandma, won’t be here to step it along, those other parts of me called Uncle Bert and Leo and Tom and Douglas, and all the other names, will have to take over, each to his own.”

“Yes, Grandma.”

Somewhere a door closed quietly.

… she saw it shaping in her mind quietly, and with serenity like a sea moving along and endless and self-refreshing shore.

Downstairs, she thought, they are polishing the silver, and rummaging the cellar, and dusting in the halls. She could hear them living all through the house.

“It’s all right,” whispered Great-grandma, as the dream floated her. “Like everything else in this life, it’s fitting.”

And the sea moved her back down the shore.
~Ray Bradbury “Great-Grandmother” from Dandelion Wine

Esther learned young how to work and she never forgot, still working up until the last few days of her long life.

Today she is sweeping up, wiping down counters and washing the dishes in a corner of heaven, after baking cookies and putting a soup on to simmer, to be sure everyone up there is well-fed and feels welcome.

She grew up on a remote farm in South Dakota where survival meant the whole family pitched in to help. When she married Pete and headed west to Washington, the work never let up: six sons, a small farm, a construction business to help manage, working as a caretaker privately and in a nursing home, taking on the mission of coordinating a large Sunday School ministry in our small church back over fifty years ago and never leaving.

Esther touched everything and everyone in this life, leaving a bit of herself behind in all of us. She’ll stay plenty busy in the next life.

She was Wiser Lake Chapel for over half her life, along with her husband Pete who passed from chronic leukemia over a decade ago. Their son Wes took on many of Pete’s carpentry and building maintenance duties at church, but then he too lost a fight with acute leukemia.

Esther persevered despite these heartbreaking losses, a tenacious testament to the power of the Spirit in one woman’s life. She had more artificial joints in her body than her own joints, some replaced twice. Her heart tried to fail any number of times, most recently after a trip to Europe she made earlier this year, by herself, to visit her missionary son. She never stopped driving. She never stopped walking even though every step took immense effort paid in pain. She came to every church service, morning and night and mid-week, usually with something fresh-baked in her hand. If soup was needed for a meal on short notice, she could make it happen in an hour from what she stored away in her freezer. She was a self-appointed clean-up crew, wheeling her walker from table to sink to counter to trash can and back again.

Every new great-grandbaby and every new Chapel baby had a hand-made Esther quilt, complete with her hand-painted pictures and the details of the birthday and birthweight printed on it. She made hundreds over her lifetime.

Esther’s family is a large exuberant and glory-filled group of sons and daughter-in-laws and grands and great-grands who reflect who she and Pete were to them, to our church and the greater community. They are a legacy left on earth, to keep up the good work and gratitude-filled worship, to never ever give up, no matter how tough life can be.

Thank you, Esther, for changing us all so profoundly we won’t ever be the same as we were before you touched us; you left us all so much better than before. Now I believe we all are just a little bit like you.

And most of all, thanks for 90-plus years of your loving labor on the Lord’s behalf. The soup is on the stove in memory of you.

Something Finished

Gold of a ripe oat straw, gold of a southwest moon,
What is there for you in the birds, the birds, the birds, crying
down on the north wind in September, acres of birds spotting
the air going south?

Is there something finished? And some new beginning on the
way?

I cried over beautiful things knowing no beautiful thing lasts.
~Carl Sandburg from “Fall Time” and “Autumn Movement”

My summer of “no doctoring” finishes today. I return to part-time clinical work tomorrow; a new beginning is on the way.

I am readying myself.

I consider how it will feel to put the stethoscope back on and return to spending most of my daylight hours in window-less rooms. Several months of freedom to wander and wonder will be tough to give up.

However, when I meet my first patient of the day, I’m “all in.” Someone is needing my help more than I need time off. The wind has shifted, it is time to migrate back to the work I was called to do over forty years ago.

Still I will look for beautiful things where I can find them, knowing that even though they don’t last, they will always be well worth the weeping.

A Bright Sadness: All Creatures Doing Their Best

All creatures are doing their best
to help God in His birth
of Himself.

Enough talk for the night.
He is laboring in me;

I need to be silent 
for a while,

worlds are forming
in my heart.    
~Meister Eckhart from “Expands His Being”

These last few days of winter are a reawakening of nature’s rebirthing rhythms, with increased activity of all the wild creatures and birds around us, and most importantly, God’s renewal of our weary wintery hearts.

Some late winter and early spring mornings still are pitch black with blustering winds and rain, looking and feeling like the bleakest of December mornings about to plunge into the death spiral of winter all over again.

No self-respecting God would birth Himself into a dawn as dark as night.

But this God would.

He labors in our bleakest of hearts for good reason.  We are unformed and unready to meet Him in the light, clinging as we do to our dark ways and thoughts.  Though we soon celebrate the rebirth of springtime, it is just so much talk until we accept the change of being transformed ourselves.

Though soon the birds will be singing their hearts out and the frogs chorusing in the warming ponds, we, His people, are silenced as He prepares us and prepares Himself for birth within us.   The labor pains are His, not ours;  we become awed witnesses to His first and last breath when He makes all things, including us, new again.

The world and its creatures, including us, is reborn — even where dark reigned before, even where it is bleakest, especially inside our healing wintery hearts.

The Snuffle of Winter

We praise thee, O God, for thy glory
displayed in all the creatures of the earth,
In the snow, in the rain, in the wind, in the storm;
in all of thy creatures, both the hunters and the hunted…
They affirm thee in living;
all things affirm thee in living;
the bird in the air, both the hawk and the finch;
the beast on the earth, both the wolf and the lamb;…
Therefore man, whom thou hast made
to be conscious of thee,
must consciously praise thee,
in thought and in word and in deed.
Even with the hand to the broom,
the back bent in laying the fire,
the knee bent in cleaning the hearth…
The back bent under toil,
the knee bent under sin,
the hands to the face under fear,
the head bent under grief,
Even in us the voices of the seasons,
the snuffle of winter, the song of spring,
the drone of summer,
the voices of beasts and of birds,
praise thee. 

~T.S. Eliot from Murder in the Cathedral

In the midst of all the snuffling viruses of winter,
the back breaking daily work and labor:

this amazing glory happens this morning

the sky is afire with Him

I am reminded yet again
all things affirm thee in living
and so shall I.

And so shall I.

Get On With Work or Take It Slow

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Sweet smell of phlox drifting across the lawn—
an early warning of the end of summer.
August is fading fast, and by September
the little purple flowers will all be gone.
Season, project, and vacation done.
One more year in everybody’s life.
Add a notch to the old hunting knife
Time keeps testing with a horny thumb.
Over the summer months hung an unspoken
aura of urgency. In late July
galactic pulsings filled the midnight sky
like silent screaming, so that, strangely woken,
we looked at one another in the dark,
then at the milky magical debris
arcing across, dwarfing our meek mortality.
There were two ways to live: get on with work,
redeem the time, ignore the imminence
of cataclysm; or else take it slow,
be as tranquil as the neighbors’ cow
we love to tickle through the barbed wire fence
(she paces through her days in massive innocence,
or, seeing green pastures, we imagine so).
In fact, not being cows, we have no choice.
Summer or winter, country, city, we
are prisoners from the start and automatically,
hemmed in, harangued by the one clamorous voice.
Not light but language shocks us out of sleep
ideas of doom transformed to meteors
we translate back to portents of the wars
looming above the nervous watch we keep.
~Rachel Hadas from “The End of Summer”
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In observance of Labor Day:
I did not grow up in a household that took time off.  Time was redeemed by work, and work was noble and honorable and proved we had a right to exist.
Vacation road trips were rare and almost always associated with my father’s work.  When he came home from his desk job in town, he would immediately change into his farm clothes and put in several hours of work outside, summer or winter, rain or shine, light or dark.
My mother did not work in town while we were children, but worked throughout her day inside and outside the house doing what farm wives and mothers need to do: growing, hoeing, harvesting, preserving, washing, cleaning, sewing, and most of all, being there for us.
As kids, we had our share of chores that were simply part of our day as our work was never done on a farm. When we turned twelve, we began working for others: babysitting, weeding, barn and house cleaning, berry picking.  I have now done over 52 years of gainful employment – there were times I worked four part-time jobs at once because that was what I could put together to keep things together.
The thought of “retirement” is anathema for me but that time will come for me when I am ready to take it slow. I know I’ve missed out on much of life being a “nose to the grindstone” person.
I wish there had been more times I had taken a few moments to be more like the cows I see meandering, tranquil and unconcerned, in the surrounding green pastures. Part of every day now I pull myself away from the work to be done, the work that is always calling and staring me in the face, and try a different way to redeem my time: to notice, to record, to observe, to appreciate beauty that exists in the midst of chaos and cataclysm and neverending portents of war.
Life isn’t all about non-stop labor, yet we get on with our work because work is about showing up when and where we are needed. Not being cows, we may feel we have no choice in the matter. Just maybe, like cows, we can manage to slow down,  watch what is happening around us, and by chewing our cud, keep contemplating and digesting whatever life feeds us, the sweet and the sour.
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To Labor and Not Seek Reward

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And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so

One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
And lays in it and settles down to nest.

Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,

Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.

*

And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time

From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth

Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,
‘To labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays,

A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.
~Seamus Heaney “St. Kevin and the Blackbird”

 

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Eternal Word, only begotten Son of God,
Teach me true generosity.
Teach me to serve you as you deserve.
To give without counting the cost,
To fight heedless of wounds,
To labor without seeking rest,
To sacrifice myself without thought of any reward
Save the knowledge that I have done your will.
Amen.

~St. Ignatius’ Prayer for Generosity

 

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Heaney shifts from the literal (if “imagined”) physical world to the metaphysical and symbolic. In the midst of burnout and mental detachment, Kevin is somehow returned to and reconnected with his calling at a level deeper than conscious thought. Indeed, in the span of one brief line break, it is as though he has become indistinguishable from his life’s mission itself: he is “mirrored clear” in the pure, deep waters of an empathetic love for the “network of eternal life” into which he is presently and vitally “linked.”

The way Heaney constructs the next two lines calls attention to the paradox of mindfulness he illuminates. Kevin “prays,” which perhaps most immediately suggests that he entreats God to help him “labour and not to seek reward.” But after the stanza break, Heaney reveals that this prayer is not at all what the reader might have expected; Kevin’s prayer is not conscious because he is no longer conscious in the workaday-world way. Rather, Kevin’s is

“A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.

When he can no longer muster the energy to think of the life entrusted to him, his own delights and discomforts in fostering that life, or even the original life force (here, the “river”) that led to his vocation, it is as if a kind of autonomic spirituality kicks in to complement the compassionate detachment with which—or in which—he holds the blackbird. Body and soul and work are one.
~Kimberly R. Myers, PhD, MA from “Mindfulness and Seamus Heaney” from JAMA’s
A Piece of My Mind, Aug.1, 2017

 

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…we have tried to do too much, pretending to be in such control of things that we are indispensible…

…if you’re like me, you take a kind of comfort in being busy. The danger is that we will come to feel too useful, so full of purpose and the necessity of fulfilling obligations that we lose sight of God’s play with creation, and with ourselves.
~Kathleen Norris from The Quotidian Mysteries

 

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