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 green 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” fromThe Selected Poems of Wendell Berry
When our grandchildren visit our farm, I watch them rediscover what I know are the joys and sorrows of this world. I am reminded there is light beyond the darkness I fear, there is peace amid the chaos, there is a smile behind the tears, there is stillness within the noisiness there is rest despite my restlessness, there is grace as old gives way to new.
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I have walked through many lives, some of them my own, and I am not who I was, though some principle of being abides, from which I struggle not to stray. When I look behind, as I am compelled to look before I can gather strength to proceed on my journey, I see the milestones dwindling toward the horizon
How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses?
Yet I turn, I turn, exulting somewhat, with my will intact to go wherever I need to go, and every stone on the road precious to me. In my darkest night, when the moon was covered and I roamed through wreckage, a nimbus-clouded voice directed me: “Live in the layers, not on the litter.” Though I lack the art to decipher it, no doubt the next chapter in my book of transformations is already written. I am not done with my changes. ~Stanley Kunitz from “The Layers”
A child is asleep. Her private life unwinds inside skin and skull; only as she sheds childhood, first one decade and then another, can she locate the actual, historical stream, see the setting of her dreaming private life—the nation, the city, the neighborhood, the house where the family lives—as an actual project under way, a project living people willed, and made well or failed, and are still making, herself among them.
I breathed the air of history all unaware, and walked oblivious through its littered layers. ~Annie Dillard from An American Childhood
…we become whole by having the courage to revisit and embrace all the layers of our lives, denying none of them, so that we’re finally able to say, “Yes, all of this is me, and all of this has helped make me who I am.”
When we get to that point, amazingly, we can look at all the layers together and see the beauty of the whole. ~Parker Palmer from “Embracing All the Layers of Your Life” in On Being
My favorite scenes are ones where there are several “layers” to study, whether it is a still life of petals or a deep landscape with a foreground, middle and backdrop. The challenge is to decide where to look first, what to draw into sharp focus, and how to absorb it all as a whole. In fact, if I only see one aspect, I miss the entire point of the composition. It is wonderfully multi-faceted and multi-layered because that is how my own life is – complex with so much diverse and subtle shading.
If I try to suppress some darker part of my own life I wish to forget and blur out, I ignore the beauty of the contrast with the light that illuminates the rest.
The layers reflect who I was created to be as an image-bearer – complex, nuanced, illuminated in the presence of dark.
Beautifully composed and ultimately transformed.
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Each morning as I rise to let the horses out to graze for the day, I’m once again that teenage girl who awoke early to climb on horseback to greet the summer dawn, mist in my hair and dew on my boots, picking ripe blackberries and blueberries as we rode past.
The angled light always drew sharper shadow lines as the sun rose until I knew it was time to turn around, each hoof step taking us closer to home to clean barn, do chores, hang laundry, weed the garden until sunset.
It is sunlight that creates and then erases all in me that is shadow. Eventually, only the real me remains.
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There is a timelessness to mid-summer hay harvest that goes back generations on both sides of our family. The cutting, raking and gathering of hay has evolved from horse-drawn implements and gathering loose shocks of hay to 100+ horse power air-conditioned tractors and huge round bales wrapped and stored in plastic sheathing rather than in barns.
Our farm is happily stuck somewhere in-between: we still prefer filling the haybarn with bales that I can still lift and move myself to feed our animals. True hay harvest involves sweat and dust and a neighborhood coming together to preserve summer in tangible form.
I grew up on a farm with a hayfield – I still have the scar over my eyebrow where I collided with the handle of my father’s scythe when, as a toddler, I came too close behind him as he was taking a swing at cutting a field of grass one swath at a time. I remember the huge claws of the hay hook reaching down onto loose hay piled up on our wagon. The hook would gather up a huge load, lift it high in the air to be moved by pulley on a track into our spacious hay loft. It was the perfect place to play and jump freely into the fragrant memories of a summer day, even in the dark of winter.
But these days it is the slanted light of summer I remember most: -the weightlessness of dust motes swirling down sun rays coming through the slats of the barn walls as the hay bales are stacked -the long shadows and distant alpenglow in the mountains -the dusk that goes on and on as owls and bats come out to hunt above us
Most of all, I will remember the sweaty days of mid-summer as I open the bales of hay in mid-winter – the light and fragrance of those grassy fields spilling forth into the chill and darkness, in communion of blessing for our animals.
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There is something mysterious about fog. It whispered to Sandburg as it crept into the harbor
on little cat feet. It settles over Admiralty Inlet, a down comforter of relief on a simmering summer day.
It moves in quickly, a cool mist that settles lightly on our faces and arms as we trudge up the hill
toward home. Then the stillness, how it tamps down sound, reminding us to honor silence and drift
through an inner landscape of ideas, enter into the ethereal magic of another world,
as if we were birds soaring in clouds that have come down to enfold us,
quieting the minor furies we create. ~Lois Parker Edstrom from Glint (MoonPath Press, 2019)
And so you have a life that you are living only now, now and now and now, gone before you can speak of it, and you must be thankful for living day by day, moment by moment … a life in the breath and pulse and living light of the present… ~Wendell Berry from Hannah Coulter
~Lustravit lampade terras~ (He has illumined the world with a lamp) The weather and my mood have little connection. I have my foggy and my fine days within me; my prosperity or misfortune has little to do with the matter. – Blaise Pascal from “Miscellaneous Writings”
The only thing more frightening than the unknown is the fear that the next moment will be just like the last or perhaps worse.
I tend to forget: the moment just passed can never be retrieved and relived.
Worry and sorrow and angst are more contagious than the latest viral scourge. I mask up and wash my hands of it throughout the day. I wish we could be vaccinated to protect us all from our unnamed fears.
I want to say to myself: Stop and acknowledge this moment in time. Stop wanting to be numb to all discomfort. Stop fearing the next moment. Just stop. Instead, simply be, now and now and now.
I need to know: this moment, foggy or fine, is mine alone, a down comforter of relief~ this moment of weeping and sharing and breath and pulse and light. I shout for joy in it even when sound is muffled in morning fog. It is to be celebrated. I mustn’t hold back.
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In the waning evening light, I stood in the barnyard holding the hose to fill the water trough, gazing across a sunset-lit field of grass and weeds, puzzling over an intermittent flash and glimmer thirty yards away.
Trough filled, I set out to find what glinted and blinked in the breeze, assuming an errant piece of foil or lost piece of jewelry to be reclaimed, somehow fallen mysteriously from the sky into the middle of a horse pasture.
As I moved closer, my body blocked the sun’s rays so the glistening ceased. I moved aside, hoping to allow the fading light to re-ignite the spark that drew me there.
Doused by the advancing shadow of sunset, it vanished as I neared the spot. Looking closely, I found only a broad blade of grass shimmering with a silvery trail left behind by a slug tail.
Mere mucus slime scintillating in the setting sun! A complex mix of proteoglycans, glycosaminoglycans, glycoprotein enzymes, hyaluronic acid, antimicrobial peptides, and metal ions of zinc, iron, copper and manganese.
Precious trace metals flashing in the grass, masquerading as jewels.
What a fool to think only something man-made could lure me there. Instead, this miracle of mucus trailing from a lowly slug proved a far greater treasure is always hiding in the grass, if I only bother to look.
Girls are like slugs—they probably serve some purpose, but it’s hard to imagine what. ― Bill Watterson, in Calvin and Hobbes
From David Attenborough’s Life on our Planet (a truly remarkable video of how slug mucus becomes integral in their reproductive cycle)
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Once again a child asks me suddenly What is a poem?, And once again I find myself riffing freely and happily Without the slightest scholarly expertise or knowledge; But I am entranced by how poems can hint and suggest And point toward things deeper than words. A poem is An owl feather, I say. It’s not the owl—but it intimates Owlness, see what I mean? You imagine the owl, owls, Silent flight, razors for fingers, a wriggle of mouse tail Slurped up right quick like the last strand of angel hair, A startle of moonlight, a fox watching from the thicket, All that from a feather. It’s like an owl is in the feather. A poem is a small thing with all manner of bigger in it. Poor poems only have a writer in them, but better ones Have way more in them than the writer knew or knows About. This poem, for example, amazingly has owls in It—who knew we’d see a flurry of owls this afternoon? ~Brian Doyle, “A Flurry of Owls”
I ask them to take a poem and hold it up to the light like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski across the surface of a poem waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do is tie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it.
I walked into our big hay barn this week, finding scattered atop the few remaining bales from last summer these few owl feathers…
they were waiting for a poem to hide within, just as the barn owls are tucked invisibly in the rafters until the cool air of dusk and hunger lures them to the hunt, swooping outside to capture both moonlight and mice to be coughed up in pellets of fur and bones.
These feathers, dropped like so many random snowflakes, carry within them the glint and glow of the moon, a reminder what we leave behind matters, whether it be feather or fur or a wee dry skeleton, a shell of who we once were yet are no longer.
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Some of the most powerful memories of summer come out of our childhood when we wake up on a June morning and suddenly remember that school is out and that summer stretches in front of us as endlessly as the infinities of space.
Everything is different. The old routines are gone. The relentless school bus isn’t coming. The bells will be silent in silent hallways.
Time lurches ahead in imprecisely measured chunks.
Sometimes the beginning and ending of seasons are the yardstick, or the celebration of a holiday or a birthday. Memories tend to be stickiest surrounding a milestone event: a graduation, a move, a wedding, a birth, a road trip, a funeral.
But Summer needs nothing so remarkable to be memorable. It simply stands on its own in all its extravagant abundance of light and warmth and growth and color stretching deep within the rising and setting horizons. Each long day can feel like it must last forever, never ending.
Yet summer does eventually wind down, spin itself out, darkening gradually into the shadow dusk of autumn and the night of winter.
I always let go of summer with reluctance, feeling as if no summer like it will ever come again.
Yet another will, somehow, somewhere, someday. Surely a never-ending summer is what heaven itself will be.
Perfectly delightful and delightfully perfect.
We’ve already had a taste.
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It’s deep time here, this barrow grave five thousand years old, where we follow like sheep behind the guide to the heart of its cruciform center. I’ve never been in a space so dark. What was it like to fear that the sun would not return, that crops would wither, deer flee, that night’s dark cloak was all there was? But miraculously, on the lip of the solstice, the light returned, liquid and golden, ran down the narrow corridor, hit the back wall, splashed in the stone basin, and they knew summer would come back, run to fruit. Light, dark, freeze, thaw, seedtime, harvest, wheel of the year, the spiral dance. What would they make of our device-laden lives, fossil-fueled cars, over-stocked larders? Who stands in the dark and listens now, gaping at the stars? — Barbara Crooker, “Newgrange” from The Book of Kells
There is nothing so dark as centuries-old underground tunnels and portal tombs, some positioned with an opening to capture a beam of light exactly at either the winter or summer solstice, illuminating what dwells in blackness the rest of the year.
The more recent ninth century soutterain tunnels were refuge for Christians hiding from invaders, keeping whole villages safe from capture.
The dolmens and portal graves are Neolithic structures built before the pyramids. They still exist today as they were constructed to last by people serious about their beliefs. Though those people are long dust, the stones and tunnels remain as they were, to protect the spirits of the departed.
What would they think now of our extravagance, our plethora of goods and foods, our modern ways of crippling others with the weapons of internet words and hacking, rather than stealing, pillaging and enslaving strangers?
We moderns are lost in our over-abundance of light year round, scarcely noting the calendar or the passing of the longest and shortest days.
What remarkable people of strength have preceded us, seeking to preserve the significance of Light in their darkness.
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When summer time has come, and all The world is in the magic thrall Of perfumed airs that lull each sense To fits of drowsy indolence;
Just for the joy of being there And drinking in the summer air, The summer sounds, and summer sights, That set a restless mind to rights When grief and pain and raging doubt Of men and creeds have worn it out;
O time of rapture! time of song! How swiftly glide thy days along Adown the current of the years, Above the rocks of grief and tears! ‘Tis wealth enough of joy for me In summer time to simply be. ~Paul Laurence Dunbar from “Summertime”
Each year, on the same date, the summer solstice comes. Consummate light: we plan for it, the day we tell ourselves that time is very long indeed, nearly infinite. And in our reading and writing, preference is given to the celebratory, the ecstatic.
What follows the light is what precedes it: the moment of balance, of dark equivalence.
But tonight we sit in the garden in our canvas chairs so late into the evening – why should we look either forward or backwards? Why should we be forced to remember: it is in our blood, this knowledge. Shortness of the days; darkness, coldness of winter. It is in our blood and bones; it is in our history. It takes a genius to forget these things. ~Louise Glück from “Solstice”
I stand, wavering in a balance of light and shadow~ this knowledge of what’s to come next rests deep in my bones.
I’ve been here before, so grateful for the sun’s return.
I will not forget this gift of Light, as darkness begins to claim the days again.
I remember, He promised to never let darkness overwhelm the world again.
I believe Him, on this longest day, and even more so, in the midst of the longest night.