Not Remotely Mystical

When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

~Mary Oliver from “When Death Comes”

Probably Mary Oliver doesn’t stress out
about her hair or quote Led Zeppelin or start
to go upstairs to write something mystical
about a wood duck, but get sidetracked
by The Millionaire Matchmaker, watching four episodes
until, panicked by self-loathing, she hits the remote.

She lives somewhere kind of remote.
Is there even a Walmart out
in Provincetown? Mary never, in an episode
of frugality, shops there instead of the food co-op and starts
lying about where the Moose Tracks
ice cream came from, feigning loyalty to the mystical


oils and bulk grains of the co-op where Mystical
Mac ‘N Cheese costs an absurd $3.95 a box. There’s a remote
chance Mary, while pondering lilies, would get sidetracked
by a voicemail from her agent. Even Mary Oliver spaces out
on occasion and forgets to turn off her phone. Her days start
before dawn; wouldn’t she sometimes have episodes

of thinking, “To hell with the swan, I’m going to watch episodes
of Lost in bed all day?” It must be exhausting to be mystical
all the time, having to think up poems that start
with a smelly turtle and end with the glory of the soul. The remote,
sleek as an otter, lolls on her nightstand, calling out 
for her to take just this one morning off, to follow the tracks


of Matt Lauer and Dr. Phil instead of mucky tracks
left in the marsh by tick-ridden deer. Euphoric episodes
bound like grasshoppers through St. Mary’s poems, but out
in nature there must be days when nothing is special, when mystical epiphanies can’t break through the clouds. Is Mary ever so remote from it all that touching a leaf leaves her blank?

Does she start to get frantic, to fear she’s lost the connection?
She starts picturing herself in a smock with a nametag,
cleaning finger tracks off the automatic doors while wearing Mona Lisa’s remote smile, a smile barely wide enough to keep her employed. Fighting episodes of despair, she can’t figure out how to turn a shopping cart into a mystical symbol for death—piece of cake for most poets, but not for our Mary, out


there with the flora and fauna, not remotely accustomed to the episodes comprising life for those of us not “married to amazement,” the unmystical singles’ club, sidetracked by diversions. We start toward the door, but we rarely make it out.
~Christine Heppermann, “Pure” from  Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty

wood duck photo from Audobon Society

Moose Tracks ice cream has nothing on Tillamook Mudslide ice cream. And I can quote Simon and Garfunkel but not Led Zeppelin. Cracker Barrel Mac n Cheese is better than any other. If I’m going to take a day to get lost in a binge of streaming episodes, it is most likely going to be Outlander. And I don’t fuss about my hair.

<sigh>

I am well aware I fall far short from the example set by Mary Oliver, Jane Kenyon, Annie Dillard and others for whom writing became a mystical passion of self-discovery in their observation of creation and search for understanding of the Creator.

As someone who as a child could spend hours fascinated by the tiniest bug or follow ant tracks through the woods or catch pollywogs in the creek or lie motionless in a hideaway of tall grass watching clouds roll by on a summer afternoon, I can easily be accused of way too much “blissing out” on sunrises and sunsets as I walk through my days on earth.

The reality is something completely different. I compose my writing and photos as I go about my day, whether it is scooping manure in the barn, taking quick breaks to see how the light is changing outside, or gardening, or hanging up the laundry on the clothesline. I pull over on my way to work for a quick picture if something catches my eye. A trip to the grocery store offers opportunities for a back-roads drive to see how the surrounding cornfields are growing and raspberries are ripening. When I’m fortunate, I’ll spot an eagle in a roadside tree or a new calf nursing.

So every day is a new exploration of what is in my own backyard, not remotely mystical but simply there to be seen and mused over. Rather than married to amazement, I’m attracted to the remarkably mundane. But it does mean I need to walk out the door to meet it head-on.

Even
After
All this time
The sun never says to the earth,

“You owe
Me.”

Look
What happens
With a love like that,
It lights the
Whole
Sky.
~Daniel Ladinsky, from “The Gift”

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The Salt Water Cure

The cure for anything is salt water–sweat, tears or the sea.
~Isak Dinesen

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall —
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.
~Mary Oliver “I Go Down to the Shore”

photo by Nate Gibson

…when he looked at the ocean,
he caught a glimpse of the One he was praying to.

Maybe what made him weep was
how vast and overwhelming it was

and yet at the same time as near
as the breath of it in his nostrils,
as salty as his own tears.

~Frederick Buechner writing about Paul Tillich in Beyond Words

I grew up an easy crier.  Actually growing up hasn’t cured it, nor has getting older.  I’m still an easy crier – a hard thing to admit especially when my tears flow at an inopportune time in a public place. These days, it is most often in church, while singing favorite hymns, but I can cry just about anywhere.

These days, simply reading the headlines warrants weeping.

It might have had something to do with being a middle child, bombarded from both directions by siblings who recognized how little aggravation it took to make me cry, or it may have been my hypersensitive feelings about …. everything.  I felt really alone in my tearful travails until my formidable grandmother, another easy weepy, explained that my strong/tall/tough/nothing-rocks-him former WWII Marine father had been a very weepy little boy.  She despaired that he would ever get past being awash in tears at every turn.  His alcoholic father tormented him about it, wondering if he would ever learn to “man up.”

So this is a congenital condition – my only excuse and I’m sticking to that story.

A few years ago I read about how different kinds of tears (tears of joy, tears of pain, tears of grief, tears of frustration, tears of irritated eyes, tears of onion cutting) all look different and remarkably apt, when dried and pictured under the microscope.  This is more than mere salt water leaking from our eyes — this is our heart and soul and hormonal barometer streaming down our faces – a visible litmus test of our deepest feelings.

I witnessed many tears every day in my clinical practice, usually not tears of joy.  These were tears borne of pain and loss and rejection and failure, of hopelessness and helplessness, loneliness and anguish.  Often my patients would describe having a “break down” by which they meant uncontrollable crying.  It was one of the first-mentioned symptoms they wanted relief from.

Tears do come less frequently as depression lifts and anxiety lessens but I let my patients know (and I remind myself) that tears are a transparent palette for painting the desires and concerns of our heart.  Dry up the tears and one dries up emotions that express who we are and who we strive to be.

When I’m able, I celebrate the salt water squeezing from my eyes, knowing it means I’m so fully human that I leak my humanity everywhere I go.  Even God wept while dwelling among us on earth, and what’s good enough for Him is certainly good enough for me.

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A Morning Luminous with Mystery and Pain

Heart,
I implore you,
it’s time to come back
from the dark,
it’s morning,
the hills are pink
and the roses
whatever they felt

in the valley of night
are opening now
their soft dresses,
their leaves

are shining.
Why are you laggard?
Sure you have seen this
a thousand times,

which isn’t half enough.
Let the world
have its way with you,
luminous as it is

with mystery
and pain–
graced as it is
with the ordinary.

~Mary Oliver “Summer Morning”

I love to stay in bed
All morning,
Covers thrown off, naked,
Eyes closed, listening.

There’s a smell of damp hay,
Of horses, laziness,
Summer sky and eternal life.

I know all the dark places
Where the sun hasn’t reached yet,
Where the last cricket
Has just hushed; anthills

Where it sounds like it’s raining,
Slumbering spiders spinning wedding dresses.

The good tree with its voice
Of a mountain stream
Knows my steps.
It, too, hushes.

I stop and listen:
Somewhere close by
A stone cracks a knuckle,
Another turns over in its sleep.

I hear a butterfly stirring
Inside a caterpillar.
I hear the dust talking
Of last night’s storm.

Farther ahead, someone
Even more silent
Passes over the grass
Without bending it.

And all of a sudden
In the midst of that quiet,
It seems possible
To live simply on this earth.

~Charles Simic from “Summer Morning”

Reading headlines about yet more unimaginable losses and grieving people is extraordinarily painful on a summer morning when all should be luminous and lighthearted. My heart isn’t feeling the light at all; I struggle to leave behind those dark places where the sun hasn’t reached yet.

Yet if I’m still and quiet, I can hear life going on all around me. My sadness doesn’t change the mystery of a world God created in beauty and peace, now overshadowed by our fall into darkness, yet redeemed by a sacrificial Love we cannot possibly comprehend.

What a summer morning revelation. It’s as extraordinarily ordinary and simple as that.

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To Seek the Whole…

… why should I not sit, every morning of my life,
on the hillside, looking into the shining world?
Can one be passionate about the just, the
ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit
to no labor in its cause? I don’t think so.

 
Be ignited, or be gone.
~Mary Oliver from “What I Have Learned So Far”

How often do we miss the fainter note
Or fail to see the more exquisite hue,
Blind to the tiny streamlet at our feet,
Eyes fixed upon some other, further view.
What chimes of harmonies escape our ears,
How many rainbows must elude our sight,
We see a field but do not see the grass,
Each blade a miracle of shade and light.
How then to keep the greater end in eye
And watch the sunlight on the distant peak,
And yet not tread on any leaf of love,
Nor miss a word the eager children speak?
Ah, what demand upon the narrow heart,
To seek the whole, yet not ignore the part.

~Philip Britts “Sonnet 1” from Water at the Roots

We are born nearly blinded, focused solely on our emptiness – a hunger to be filled and our need to be held.  As we grow, our focus sharpens to fall in love with those who feed and nurture us.

Eventually we discover, challenge and worship He who made us. I need to seek out and harvest the beauty growing in each moment.

This world is often too much for me to take in as a whole — an exquisite view of shadow and light, color and gray, loneliness and embrace, sorrow and joy.

With more years and a broader vision, I scan for the finer details within the whole before it disappears with the changing light.  Time’s a wasting (and so am I) as I try to capture it all with the lenses of our eyes and hearts.

The end of life comes too soon, when once again my vision blurs and the world fades away from view. I will hunger yet again to be filled and held.

And then heaven itself will seem almost too much to take in – my heart full to bursting with light and promise for the rest of eternity.

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The Color of Eggplant

Every morning, cup of coffee
in hand, I look out at the mountain.
Ordinarily, it’s blue, but today
it’s the color of an eggplant.
And the sky turns
from gray to pale apricot
as the sun rolls up…

I study the cat’s face
and find a trace of white
around each eye, as if
he made himself up today
for a part in the opera.
~Jane Kenyon, from “In Several Colors” from Collected Poems
.

If you notice anything
it leads you to notice
more
and more.

And anyway
I was so full of energy.
I was always running around, looking
at this and that.

If I stopped
the pain
was unbearable.

If I stopped and thought, maybe
the world can’t be saved,
the pain
was unbearable.
~Mary Oliver from “The Moths” from Dream Work

I try to see things in a new way as I wander about my day,
my eyes scanning for how to transform all my
mundane, dusty corners exposed by a penetrating sunbeam
when its angle is just right.

My attempts to describe plain ordinary as extraordinary
feels futile in a messed-up upside-down world.

Such efforts can be painful:
it means getting tired and muddy in the muck,
falling down again and again
and being willing to get back up.

If I stop getting dirty,
if I by-pass every day grunginess,
if I give up the work of salvage and renewal,
I then abandon God’s promise to see the world changed.

He’s still here, ready and waiting,
handing me a broom, a shovel and cleaning rags,
so I can keep at it – mopping up my messy ordinary.

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Catching a Small Glimpse of Holy

Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.
~Mary Oliver, “The Uses of Sorrow”

surprising as unplanned kisses, all you haven’t deserved
of days and solitude, your body’s immoderate good health
that lets you work in many kinds of weather. Praise

talk with just about anyone. And quiet intervals, books
that are your food and your hunger; nightfall and walks
before sleep. Praising these for practice, perhaps

you will come at last to praise grief and the wrongs
you never intended. At the end there may be no answers
and only a few very simple questions: did I love,

finish my task in the world? Learn at least one
of the many names of God? At the intersections,
the boundaries where one life began and another

ended, the jumping-off places between fear and
possibility, at the ragged edges of pain,
did I catch the smallest glimpse of the holy?

~Jeanne Lohmann “Praise What Comes” from The Light Invisible Bodies”

The ragged edge of sadness and sorrow
is a box full of darkness handed to me
by Someone who knows my name.

It takes a lifetime to understand,
if I ever do,
this gift with which I am entrusted
is meant to be passed on
to another and another
whom I love just as deeply.

He cracked open the box of shadows
to allow His light in
where none dwelled before,
seeping into my brokenness
from a deep well of holiness,
giving me a glimpse of all Love can do.

Another sleepless night
I’m turning in my bed
Long before the red sun rises

In these early hours
I’m falling again
Into the river of my worries

When the river runs away
I find a shelter in your name


Jesus, only light on the shore
Only hope in the storm
Jesus, let me fly to your side
There I would hide, Jesus


Hear my anxious prayer
The beating of my heart
The pulse and the measure of my unbelief
Speak your words to me
Before I come apart
Help me believe in what I cannot see
Before the river runs away
I will call upon your name


Jesus, only light on the shore
Only hope in the storm
Jesus, let me fly to your side
There I would hide, Jesus
~Elaine Rubenstein, Fernando Ortega

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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: The Angry Tide

If we should falter when trouble surrounds us
When the wind and the waves are wild and high
We will look away to Him who rules the waters;
Who speaks His Peace into the angry tide.

~Fernando Ortega

Sweet Jesus, talking 
   his melancholy madness, 
     stood up in the boat 
       and the sea lay down,

silky and sorry. 
   So everybody was saved 
      that night… 

       
         Nobody knows what the soul is.

It comes and goes 
   like the wind over the water — 
      sometimes, for days, 
        you don’t think of it.

 Maybe, after the sermon, 
   after the multitude was fed, 
     one or two of them felt 
       the soul slip forth

like a tremor of pure sunlight 
   before exhaustion, 
      that wants to swallow everything, 
         gripped their bones and left them

miserable and sleepy, 
    as they are now, forgetting 
       how the wind tore at the sails 
          before he rose and talked to it —

tender and luminous and demanding 
   as he always was — 
      a thousand times more frightening 
         than the killer storm.
~Mary Oliver from “Maybe”

Could it be?

Could it be that I am more frightened of the power of Christ to say “Peace be still!” to the storm threatening to drown us all (and it heeds His command!) than I am of the waves themselves?

I sleep through my diminishing days, not nearly focused enough on each passing moment that never is to come again.  Those moments crash to shore and then pull back to be lost forever.

I tend to be blinded to what is inevitably coming, how I have tumbled over the years like waves, overcome by their passage.

He is tender and luminous and demanding as He talks to my heart, not just to the relentless stormy destructive sea.

Peace be still!

And so I obey, forgiven, and am saved by grace,
so silky and sorry.

Take heart, my friend. The Lord is with us.

This year’s Lenten theme for Barnstorming is a daily selection from songs and hymns about Christ’s profound sacrifice on our behalf.

If we remain silent about Him, the stones themselves will shout out and start to sing (Luke 19:40).

In His name, may we sing…

Take heart, my Friend, we’ll go together
This uncertain road that lies ahead
Our faithful God has always gone before us
And He will lead the Way once again.

Take heart, my Friend, we can walk together
And if our burdens become too great
We can hold up and help one another
In God’s LOVE, in God’s Grace.

Take heart my Friend, the Lord is with us
As He has been all the days of our lives
Our assurance every morning
Our Defender in the Night.

If we should falter when trouble surrounds us
When the wind and the waves are wild and high
We will look away to HIM who rules the waters;
Who speaks His Peace into the angry tide.

He is our Comfort, our Sustainer
He is our Help in time of need
When we wander, He is our Shepherd
He who watches over us NEVER sleeps.

Take heart my friend, the Lord is with us
As He has been all the days of our lives
Our Assurance every morning
Our Defender every night.

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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: Turn Sighs Into Songs

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

Sixty-seven years, oh Lord, to look at the clouds,
the trees in deep, moist summer,

daisies and morning glories
opening every morning

their small, ecstatic faces—
Or maybe I should just say

how I wish I had a voice
like the meadowlark’s,

sweet, clear, and reliably
slurring all day long

from the fencepost, or the long grass
where it lives

in a tiny but adequate grass hut
beside the mullein and the everlasting,

the faint-pink roses
that have never been improved, but come to bud

then open like little soft sighs
under the meadowlark’s whistle, its breath-praise,

its thrill-song, its anthem, its thanks, its
alleluia. Alleluia, oh Lord.

~Mary Oliver “While I Am Writing A Poem to Celebrate Summer, the Meadowlark Begins to Sing”

Each day opens to new possibility
with a sigh, a breath and thankfulness-

once in awhile tears, sometimes heartbreak,
and flat out fear of what comes next.

Even so,
through it all
I sing a song of praise, an alleluia
that reminds me why I am
and who I live for.

All is well,
it is well with my soul.

This year’s Lenten theme for Barnstorming is a daily selection from songs and hymns about Christ’s profound sacrifice on our behalf.

If we remain silent about Him, the stones themselves will shout out and start to sing (Luke 19:40).

In His name, may we sing…

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.

Translation:
Lord, protect Ukraine. Give us strength, faith, and hope, our Father. Amen

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The Unanswerable Questions

When I lay these questions before God I get no answer.
But a rather special sort of “No answer.”

It is not the locked door.
It is more like a silent,
certainly not uncompassionate, gaze.

As though he shook his head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, “Peace, child; you don’t understand.”

Can a mortal ask questions which God finds unanswerable?
Quite easily, I should think.
All nonsense questions are unanswerable.

How many hours are there in a mile?
Is yellow square or round?

Probably half the questions we ask –
half our great theological and metaphysical problems –
are like that.

~C.S. Lewis from  A Grief Observed

I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. 
You are yourself the answer.
Before your face questions die away.
~C.S. Lewis from Till We Have Faces

And now brothers, 
I will ask you a terrible question, 
and God knows I ask it also of myself. 
Is the truth beyond all truths, 
beyond the stars, just this: 
that to live without him is the real death, 
that to die with him the only life?
~Frederick Buechner from The Magnificent Defeat

God will only give you what you would have asked for if you knew everything he knows.
~Tim Keller

And that is just the point… how the world, moist and beautiful, calls to each of us to make a new and serious response. That’s the big question, the one the world throws at you every morning. “Here you are, alive. Would you like to make a comment?
~Mary Oliver from Long Life

An hour later, the fog has lifted

This morning, it is impossible to stay a silent observer of the world.  I have to say something; I seek out answers to the unanswerable.

Overnight, our farm was covered with a freezing fog resembling a massive sponge soaking up all the light. A chill has returned: both in the air and in ongoing events in the headlines.

There can be no complacency in witnessing this life in progress.
It blusters, rips, drenches, swallows up, buries.
Nothing remains as it was.

Yet here I am, alive.
Awed, a witness to another day.
Called to ask questions and make a comment.
Dying to hear a response.

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To Break Your Heart

Here is a story
to break your heart.
Are you willing?
This winter
the loons came to our harbor
and died, one by one,
of nothing we could see.
A friend told me
of one on the shore
that lifted its head and opened
the elegant beak and cried out
in the long, sweet savoring of its life
which, if you have heard it,
you know is a sacred thing.,
and for which, if you have not heard it,
you had better hurry to where
they still sing.
And, believe me, tell no one
just where that is.
The next morning
this loon, speckled
and iridescent and with a plan
to fly home
to some hidden lake,
was dead on the shore.
I tell you this
to break your heart,
by which I mean only
that it break open and never close again
to the rest of the world.
~Mary Oliver “Lead” from New and Selected Poems

Why shouldn’t we go through heartbreaks?

…if through a broken heart
God can bring His purposes to pass in the world,
then thank Him for breaking your heart.
~Oswald Chambers from “Ye are not your own” from My Utmost for the Highest

These last two years have seen an epidemic of heart-break.

Due to hospital visitor restrictions, thousands of loved ones have died of COVID without family by their side, deprived of the solace of hearing familiar voices and being touched by familiar hands. A weary and over-worked health care team can only do so much in their efforts to comfort and console when so many patients are losing their battle with the virus at the same time. Although nurses and doctors have always been witnesses to the cries of the dying and the weeping of the grief-stricken, that is usually together at the bedside.

An iPad screen isn’t the same for those saying good-bye forever.

For all the advances of our modern society – through technology and communication and the development of medical miracles – people still die and others still grieve and weep over their loss. We’re not used to dying happening with such frequency to those who have no business dying in the first place. We assume death rates exceeding birth rates happens only in third world countries beset with drought or plague.

Not any more.

So my heart is tender – for those lost, for those left behind, for those trying their best to save lives when they are weary and ill themselves, for the irony of hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths when the preventive measures available to us all are so clear-cut.

If anything, a breaking heart is an open invitation for the solace of a God who himself had no business dying in the first place, but did. He cried out in a long, sweet savoring of his life and ours, saving us in the process.

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