Nothing To Hold On To

They were smooth ovals,   
and some the shade of potatoes—   
some had been moth-eaten   
or spotted, the maples   
were starched, and crackled   
like campfire.   

We put them under tracing paper   
and rubbed our crayons   
over them, X-raying   
the spread of their bones   
and black, veined catacombs.   

We colored them green and brown   
and orange, and   
cut them out along the edges,   
labeling them deciduous   
or evergreen.   

All day, in the stuffy air of the classroom,   
with its cockeyed globe,   
and nautical maps of ocean floors,   
I watched those leaves   

lost in their own worlds   
flap on the pins of the bulletin boards:   
without branches or roots,   
or even a sky to hold on to.

~Judith Harris “Gathering Leaves in Grade School”

They are more like us than we care to admit:
veined and ribbed,
some wide, some thin,
lots with sharp edges, others rounded,
a variety of colors and shapes,
twisting this way and that with the breeze,
over-eager to let go,
explore wide open spaces
yet finding themselves blown and broken
thrown far from home and roots
with nothing left to hold on to,
destined to dust,
longing to return to branch and connection.

Even so-
even so, when we are let go,
we are thinking:
oh, what a life!

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Tomorrows Less Long

Let me enjoy
this late-summer day of my heart
while the leaves are still green
and I won’t look so close

as to see that first tint
of pale yellow slowly creep in.
I will cease endless running

and then look to the sky
ask the sun to embrace me
and then hope she won’t tell

of tomorrows less long than today.
Let me spend just this time

in the slow-cooling glow
of warm afternoon light
and I’d think

I will still have the strength
for just one more

last fling of my heart.
– Jonathan Bohrn, Late August

August rushes by like desert rainfall,
A flood of frenzied upheaval,
Expected,
But still catching me unprepared.
Like a match flame
Bursting on the scene,
Heat and haze of crimson sunsets.
Like a dream
Of moon and dark barely recalled,
A moment,
Shadows caught in a blink.
Like a quick kiss;
One wishes for more
But it suddenly turns to leave,
Dragging summer away.
–  Elizabeth Maua Taylor, August 
 

I’m in the time of life when what is to come is ever so much shorter than what has been. I muse now at my sudden revelation as a five year old that a time would come when I would cease to be on this earth. I had no idea how soon that would come or whether I would have many years to think about how I might come to an end. That knowledge has colored all my days, knowing they are numbered and finite.

Now, like the drying leaves, I watch my edges curling and changing color in preparation – a kind of beauty preceding an eventual letting go.

I remember thinking, in my kindergarten-size brain, that I could not waste a minute of this life and needed to pay attention to everything. That has been much harder than I imagined: there is pain in attending to wars and famine, illness and injury, tragedy and tribulation. I was given my ears to hear, my eyes to see, my mouth to speak – for good reason. Though my heart hurts to read headlines, I must fling it into the messiness around me.

Even the leaves bleed red as tomorrow is less long.

It is the waning light and shortening days that colors my view like smoky haze in the sky painting a sunset deep orange.  The coming darkness is temporary and, like me, is inevitably finite; it will never conquer the light that is everlasting.

More Barnstorming photography and poetry from Lois Edstrom can be ordered in this book available here:

All Puppies and Rainbows

The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening.  It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.
~
Henry David Thoreau from Walden

I don’t know about you, but there are some days I wake up just longing for my life to be all puppies and rainbows.

I hope to find sparkling magic around every corner, little wiggly fur balls surrounding me, happy tails a-wagging with a promise of glee and glitter. I’m eager to feel pure joy untainted by the realities of every day.

Perhaps I’m clutching at a kind of cartoon version of life without considering the wicked witches and monsters present in the ever-present dark forbidding woods of our human existence. Life just isn’t all puppies and rainbows. I know this…

Of course, puppies grow up. Rainbows fade and become just a memory. And I am growing older with all the aches and pains and uncertainties of aging. Even so, I still tend to clutch a “puppies and rainbows” state of mind when I open my eyes in the morning and when I close my eyes for sleep – hoping for a bit of stardust to hold.

I believe in promises. I believe in the God who made those promises. He is who I can hold onto and know with certainty, He won’t ever let go of me.

photo by Nate Gibson
photo by Brandon Dieleman
photo by Nate Gibson

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It Needn’t Have Been So…

You are alive.
It needn’t have been so.
It wasn’t so once, and will not be forever.
But it is so now.

And what is it like:
to be alive in this one place of all places anywhere where life is?
Live a day of it and see.
Take any day and LIVE IT.
Nobody claims that it will be entirely painless, but no matter.

It is your birthday and there are many presents to open. 
The world is to be opened.
It is the first day because it has never been before
and the last day because it will never be again.

BE ALIVE.
~Frederick Buechner from The Alphabet of Grace

When I was very young, I would trace my finger over the long scar that curved along the front of my mother’s neck and ask her what happened. She would tell me her thyroid gland had been overworking so she had to have it removed before I was born. That’s all she had to say about that and I never thought to ask more. Somehow I knew, just as my knowing my father would not talk about his experience as a Marine in WWII, my mother was hiding more than her big scar under high collars or a pearl necklace.

Hers was a deeper scar I couldn’t see or touch.

However, my older sister – about five at the time – remembers my mother’s illness. Mom was a little over thirty when her hands began to tremble, her pulse raced and she was irritable with trouble sleeping. My parents were hoping for a second child, but unable to get pregnant. Once her doctor diagnosed thyrotoxicosis , Mom had the option to try a new medication that had been recently developed – propylthiouracil – meant to suppress the function of overactive thyroid glands.

It didn’t work for her and she felt worse. It caused more side effects and my mother’s symptoms grew so severe, she was unable to leave her bedroom due to severe anxiety and paranoia made worse by insomnia. My paternal grandmother came to help since my father needed to continue to work to support the family but there was little that could be done other than sedation to ease my mother’s symptoms. My sister recalls not seeing Mom for days, unnerved by the wailing she heard from the bedroom. From her description, I now wonder if Mom was experiencing the beginning of thyroid “storm” (extremely high thyroid levels) which is potentially life-threatening with severe physical and emotional side effects.

After Mom was hospitalized and her entire thyroid was removed, she was placed on thyroid hormone supplements to take daily for the rest of her life. It took months for her to recover and feel somewhat normal again. Her eventual hormonal stability resolved her infertility as well as most of her other symptoms. She remained chronically anxious and had heart palpitations and insomnia the rest of her life, like a residual stain on her sense of well-being, although she lived another 55 years. The trauma of how her illness affected my dad and sister was never fully resolved. They all suffered. I can understand why those months remained as hidden as my mom’s surgical scar.

I was born about two years later – the second baby they never expected could happen. My brother was born 20 months after me.

From my family’s suffering came the solace of new life.

So I nearly wasn’t.

I’m reminded on each birthday:
I needn’t have been here yet by the grace of God I am.
I need to BE ALIVE and LIVE THIS DAY because it will never be again.

This is a truth for us all to cling to.

Each day is a gift to be opened and savored.
Each day a first day, a last day, a great day – a birthday of amazing grace.

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The Importance of Doing Nothing

He thought of all the time he wasted
being good. Clutched by the guilt
of excellence. Polite.
Well-trained. But when
the long summer afternoons came,
too hot to move
from the window fan, scent
of vapor rising
from water jackets, he found pleasure
in doing the nothing that had no regrets–
wasted afternoons
under the Wisteria vine when no one
was watching. Aroma thick
as a breeze on his shoulder.
Thinking of women constantly, forgetting
to water the chickens
in the barn. He was beginning to feel
the release of duty, to feel
what it’s like to feel.
Demands waiting like barking dogs
at the periphery. His good intention
to visit the sick woman
falling aside
as he listened to the rattle of starlings
in the rafters––discovering that strange lightness
of the body. And the new importance
of oak branches
where they separate from the trunk.
How far out the leaves
begin to spread.
The startling arrangement
of moss
like whiskers without discipline.
The long plains of earth
reaching to the clouds
behind the back yard fence.
How the ground pushes back when you walk.

~David Watts, M.D. – “Another Side of Transgression” from Having and Keeping

Decades of demands and responsibilities become a falling-down fence line with no end in sight. Having been raised an obedient person with a heightened sense of obligation about constantly fixing what needs repair, I’ve done what I could, where I could, when I could, how I could, though too often ineffective in my efforts.

I’ve always moved from task to task to task – life’s string of fence posts held wires that always needed stretching and patching and straightening. By continually working, I hoped I too would remain standing and functional.

It’s clear the fence isn’t perfect, nor will it ever be. It has served a purpose, as have I. Now I wander along the fencerow, focusing on the walk and the view rather than searching out every little thing which is leaning or loose or gaping.

This walk feels good, lighter, almost cushiony, almost like rolling with joy in the freedom of it. I’m ambling along for no particular reason at all, which is almost intoxicating.

I think I’ll get used to the importance of doing nothing whatsoever.

A new Barnstorming book is available for order here:

Presences of Absences

The sunlight now lay over the valley perfectly still.
I went over to the graveyard beside the church
and found them under the old cedars…
I am finding it a little hard to say that I felt them resting there, but I did…

I saw that, for me, this country would always be populated
with presences and absences,
presences of absences,
the living and the dead.
The world as it is

would always be a reminder
of the world that was,
and of the world that is to come.
~Wendell Berry in Jayber Crow

Today, as always during the last weekend of May, we have a family reunion where most turn up missing.  A handful of the living come together with a slew of the no-longer-living. Some, who have been caught napping for a century or more, are no-shows.

It is always on this day of cemetery visiting that I feel keenly the presence of their absence: the great greats I never knew, a great aunt who kept so many secrets, my alcoholic grandfather (who I remember as a very old man) who died of sudden cardiac arrest at the age I am now, my grandmother from whom I inherited inherent messiness and the love of things that bloom, my parents who divorced for ten years late in life, yet reunited long enough for their ashes to rest together for eternity.

These givers of my genes rest here in this beautiful place above Puget Sound, the Cascade Mountains with shining snow beside them. It is a peaceful spot to lay one’s dust for eternity.

It is good, as one of the still-for-now living, to approach these plots of grass with a wary weariness of the aging.  But for the grace of God, there will I be sooner than I wish to be.  There, thanks to the grace of God, will I one day be an absent presence for my children and grandchildren to ponder if they keep up this annual tradition of the cemetery-visit.

The world as it is…remembers the world that was. 

The world to come calls us home in its time, where we all will be present and accounted for — our reunion celebration where we pray no one is missing.

All in good time. All in good time.

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Waiting in Wilderness: Light as Feast

Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
Such a way as gives us breath;
Such a truth as ends all strife,
Such a life as killeth death.

Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength:
Such a light as shows a feast,
Such a feast as mends in length,
Such a strength as makes his guest.

Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
Such a joy as none can move,
Such a love as none can part,
Such a heart as joys in love.
~George Herbert (1633), “The Call”

Written by a young vicar in the 17th century,
dying of tuberculosis,
these lines of rhyme, single syllable words,
all except one.

Only one life lived truly killeth death.
That one word is meant to stand out alone.

The rest is up to us:
to find and blend together
in unexpected unity.

We are called the understanding:
all will be well
even when we ache to dying.

May we seek new light, new feast, new strength,
new life, new truth, new love.

How is Your Life?

Today, when I could do nothing,
I saved an ant.

It must have come in with the morning paper,
still being delivered
to those who shelter in place.

A morning paper is still an essential service.

I am not an essential service.

I have coffee and books,
time,
a garden,
silence enough to fill cisterns.

It must have first walked
the morning paper, as if loosened ink
taking the shape of an ant.

Then across the laptop computer — warm —
then onto the back of a cushion.


Small black ant, alone,
crossing a navy cushion,
moving steadily because that is what it could do.

Set outside in the sun,
it could not have found again its nest.
What then did I save?


It did not move as if it was frightened,
even while walking my hand,
which moved it through swiftness and air.


Ant, alone, without companions,
whose ant-heart I could not fathom—
how is your life, I wanted to ask.


I lifted it, took it outside.

This first day when I could do nothing,
contribute nothing
beyond staying distant from my own kind,
I did this.

~Jane Hirschfield “Today When I Could Do Nothing”

Nine months into social distancing one from another, with COVID spreading wider and faster than ever, I feel helpless to be a helper without the virus becoming a potentially deadly attachment to my efforts.

So I look for little ways to try to make a difference, as inadequate as they seem. I can no serve meals after evening church service. I can’t visit vulnerable people in their homes so have to be satisfied with screen visits. I can’t go where I wish when I wish because, by definition of age and medical risk, I am one of the vulnerable too.

So I look for words to express that may bring you a smile or maybe a knowing tear. I look for images to share that remind you of something from your past experience. I look for ways to make sense of the senseless when there can be so much disagreement and anger and bitterness. I look for where our common ground exists: how can we deepen and broaden our connection to one another in this time of painful and empty separation?

I want to ask and I want to hear: how is your life?

When we feel we can do nothing, we can do this: rescuing one another from isolation and loneliness. It will be the most important thing we do today.

Please tell me how you are.

Attention on the Fly

In Sleeping Beauty’s castle
the clock strikes one hundred years
and the girl in the tower returns to the world.
So do the servants in the kitchen,
who don’t even rub their eyes.
The cook’s right hand, lifted
an exact century ago,
completes its downward arc
to the kitchen boy’s left ear;
the boy’s tensed vocal cords
finally let go
the trapped, enduring whimper,
and the fly, arrested mid-plunge
above the strawberry pie,
fulfills its abiding mission
and dives into the sweet, red glaze.

As a child I had a book
with a picture of that scene.
I was too young to notice
how fear persists, and how
the anger that causes fear persists,
that its trajectory can’t be changed
or broken, only interrupted.
My attention was on the fly;
that this slight body
with its transparent wings
and lifespan of one human day
still craved its particular share
of sweetness, a century later.
~Lisel Mueller “Immortality” from Alive Together

Little fly,
Thy summer’s play
My thoughtless hand
Has brushed away.

Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?

For I dance
And drink and sing,
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.

If thought is life
And strength and breath,
And the want
Of thought is death,

Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.

~William Blake “The Fly”

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –….
~Emily Dickinson

A fly made the news this past week. It became more important than the issues being discussed in the room in which it buzzed and landed. Maybe it has come to symbolize our helplessness in the face of our anger toward one another, which has become just another way for our fear to express itself.

There is nothing more humbling than a wayward fly buzzing in the room or landing uninvited on my head.  No matter whether I live in a slum or a castle, a fly will find its way to me, just because it can.  I must learn to coexist with what I can’t control; this is no time for frustration nor fear nor anger to raise my hand, ready to kill the offender.

When I’m feeling bugged, which happens all too often these days, the buzzing may overwhelm my stillness but I won’t let it overwhelm me.  I will put down the swatter. I will breathe deeply and admire the ingenuity of such a brief life powered miraculously by two transparent wings.

The Autumn Sun

The way the trees empty themselves of leaves,
let drop their ponderous fruit,
the way the turtle abandons the sun-warmed log,
the way even the late-blooming aster
succumbs to the power of frost—


this is not a new story.
Still, on this morning, the hollowness
of the season startles, filling
the rooms of your house, filling the world
with impossible light, improbable hope.


And so, what else can you do
but let yourself be broken
and emptied? What else is there
but waiting in the autumn sun?

~Carolyn Locke “What Else?” from The Place We Become

So this is how our life goes:

we are sowed, set down roots, bud and grow and flower and bloom and fruit and flourish,

then dry and change and wither and empty and break away to be carried off beyond this air and water and soil.

We thrived where we were planted, did what we could with a little nurture, to transcend the here and now.

So may we plant the next generation in healthy soil.
May we weed and water and feed as needed.
May we never overshadow the sun but step aside so its light fully shines.