Lined with light the twigs are stubby arrows. A gilded trunk writhes Upward from the roots, from the pit of the black tentacles.
In the book of spring a bare-limbed torso is the first illustration.
Light teaches the tree to beget leaves, to embroider itself all over with green reality, until summer becomes its steady portrait and birds bring their lifetime to the boughs.
Then even the corpse light copies from below may shimmer, dreaming it feels the cheeks of blossom. ~May Swenson “April Light”
For over two years, we have been surrounded by a shimmering corpse light hovering close, masked and wary when we needed each other most.
Even so, the world is not defeated by death.
An unprecedented illumination emerged from the tomb on a bright Sabbath morning to guarantee that we struggling people, we who became no more than bare twigs and stubs, we who feel at times hardly alive, are now begetting green, ready to burst into blossom, our glowing cheeks pink with life, a picture of our future fruitfulness.
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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.
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Not every man knows what he shall sing at the end, Watching the pier as the ship sails away, or what it will seem like When he’s held by the sea’s roar, motionless, there at the end, Or what he shall hope for once it is clear that he’ll never go back.
When the time has passed to prune the rose or caress the cat, When the sunset torching the lawn and the full moon icing it down No longer appear, not every man knows what he’ll discover instead. When the weight of the past leans against nothing, and the sky
Is no more than remembered light, and the stories of cirrus And cumulus come to a close, and all the birds are suspended in flight, Not every man knows what is waiting for him, or what he shall sing When the ship he is on slips into darkness, there at the end. ~Mark Strand “The End,” from The Continuous Life
Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. ~Annie Dillard from “Write Till You Drop”
I began to write after September 11, 2001 because that day it became obvious to me I was dying, though more slowly than the thousands who vanished in fire and ash that day, their voices obliterated along with their bodies. So, nearly each day since, while I still have voice and a new dawn to greet, I speak through my fingers to others, who, like me, are dying.
We are, after all, terminal patients, some of us more prepared than others to move on, slipping away into darkness, as if our readiness had anything to do with the timing.
Each day we get a little closer. I write in order to feel a little more ready. Each day I want to detach just a little bit, leaving a trace of my voice behind, wondering what will be left to say or sing at the end. Eventually, through unmerited grace, perhaps so much of me will be left on the page there won’t be anything or anyone left to do the typing.
No words should go to waste nor moments allowed to lapse unnoticed. I dwell here for now, knowing Who will be waiting for me there.
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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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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.
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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.
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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.
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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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.
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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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