A Day for Grumbling

I like these cold, gray winter days.
Days like these let you savor a bad mood. 
~Bill Watterson (Creator of Calvin and Hobbes)

Sometimes the mist overhangs my path,
And blackening clouds about me cling;
But, oh, I have a magic way
To turn the gloom to cheerful day—
      I softly sing.

And if the way grows darker still,
Shadowed by Sorrow’s somber wing,
With glad defiance in my throat,
I pierce the darkness with a note,
       And sing, and sing.

I brood not over the broken past,
Nor dread whatever time may bring;
No nights are dark, no days are long,
While in my heart there swells a song,
       And I can sing.

~James Weldon Johnson “The Gift to Sing”

I can grumble and complain with the best of them. There is camaraderie in shared grumbling, as well as an exponential increase in dissatisfaction as everyone around me shares their own particular misery. Some relationships are based on just such collaborative complaining.

But I know better. I’ve seen where grousing leads and I feel the ache in my bones when I’m steeped in it. The sky gets grayer, the clouds become thicker, the night is darker–on and on to its overwhelming suffocating conclusion.

I have the privilege to turn away from being bleak and gloomy and choose joy. I can find the single ray of sun and stand steadfastly within it, to sing out that first note and pierce the darkness.

This is not me putting on a “happy face” — instead joy adopts and inhabits me, holds me close in the tough times and won’t abandon me. Though at times it may hide temporarily behind a cloud, I know it is there even when I can’t see it.

So I gently sing my way out of the gloom and clouds, for when I choose joy over grumbling, I find joy has chosen me.

So breaks the sun earth’s rugged chains,
      Wherein rude winter bound her veins;
So grows both stream and source of price,
      That lately fettered were with ice.
So naked trees get crisped heads,
      And colored coats the roughest meads,
And all get vigor, youth, and spright,
      That are but looked on by his light.
~Ben Jonson “So Breaks the Sun”

May we sing together, always.
May our voice be soft.
May our singing be music for others
and may it keep others aloft.
Sing gently, always.
Sing gently as one.
May we stand together, always.
May our voice be strong.
May we hear the singing and
May we always sing along.
Sing gently, always.
Sing gently as one.
~Eric Whitacre

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A Still Room to Remember

Here, the bells are silent, blown glass hung from
branches of pine whose fragrance fills the room.
It’s December, and the world’s run out of color.
Darkness at five seems absolute outside
the nine square panes of glass. But inside
hundreds of small white lights reflect off
fragile ornaments handed down from before
the war. They’re all Shiny-Brite, some solid balls—
hot pink, lime green, turquoise, gold—some striped
and flocked. This night is hard obsidian, but these glints
pierce the gloom, along with their glittery echoes, the stars.
We inhale spruce, its resinous breath: the hope of spring,
the memory of summer. Every day, another peal
on the carillon of light.

~Barbara Crooker, “Bells” from Some Glad Morning

The time is ripe for looking back over the day, the week, the year,
and trying to figure out where we have come from
and where we are going to,
for sifting through the things we have done
and the things we have left undone

for a clue to who we are and who,
for better or worse, we are becoming.

We cling to the present out of wariness of the past.
But there is a deeper need yet, I think, and that is the need
—not all the time, surely, but from time to time—
to enter that still room within us all
where the past lives on as a part of the present,
where the dead are alive again,
where we are most alive ourselves to turnings
and to where our journeys have brought us.

The name of the room is Remember—
the room where with patience, with charity, with quietness of heart,
we remember consciously to remember the lives we have lived.
~Frederick Buechner
“A Room Called Remember”

In 1959, when I was five years old, my father left his high school agriculture teaching position for a new supervisor position with the state. Our family moved from a large 3 story farm house in a rural community to a 1950’s newer rambler style home just outside the city limits of the state capitol.  It was a big adjustment to move to a much smaller house without a basement or upper story, no garage, and no large haybarn nor chicken coop.  It meant most things we owned didn’t make the move with us.

The rambler had two side by side mirror image rooms as the primary central living space between the kitchen on one side and the hallway to the bedrooms on the other.  The living room could only be entered through the front door and the family room was accessed through the back door with a shared sandstone hearth in the center, containing a fireplace in each room.  The only opening between the rooms had a folding door shut most of the year.  In December, the door was opened to accommodate a Christmas tree, so it sat partially in the living room and depending on its generous width, spilled over into the family room.  That way it was visible from both rooms, and didn’t take up too much floor space.

The living room, because it contained the only carpeting in the house, and our “best” furniture,  was strictly off-limits for us kids. In order to keep our two matching sectional knobby gray fabric sofas,  a green upholstered chair and gold crushed velvet covered love seat in pristine condition, the room was to be avoided unless we had company. The carpet was never to develop a traffic pattern, there would be no food, beverage, or pet ever allowed in that room, and the front door was not to be used unless a visitor arrived.  The hearth never saw a fire lit on that side because of the potential of messy ashes or smoke smell. This was not a room for laughter, arguments or games and certainly not for toys. The chiming clock next to the hearth, wound with weighted pine cones on the end of chains, called out the hours without an audience.

One week before Christmas, a tree was cut down to fit in the space where it could overflow into the family room.  I particularly enjoyed decorating the “family room” side of the tree, using all my favorite ornaments that were less likely to break if they fell on the linoleum floor on that side of the door.

It was as if the Christmas tree became divided, with a “formal” side in the living room and a “real life” face on the other side where the living (and all that goes along with that) was actually taking place.

The tree straddled more than just two rooms.  Each year that tree’s branches reached out to shelter a family that was slowly, almost imperceptibly, falling apart like fir needles dropping to the floor, soon to be swept away.

Each year since, our Christmas tree, bearing those old ornaments from my childhood, reminds me of that still room of memories.  No longer am I wary of the past, and as I sweep up the fir needles that inevitably drop, I no longer weep.

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Bagging Gold

All afternoon his tractor pulls a flat wagon
with bales to the barn, then back to the waiting
chopped field. It trails a feather of smoke.
Down the block we bend with the season:
shoes to polish for a big game,
storm windows to batten or patch.
And how like a field is the whole sky now
that the maples have shed their leaves, too.
It makes us believers—stationed in groups,
leaning on rakes, looking into space. We rub blisters
over billows of leaf smoke. Or stand alone,
bagging gold for the cold days to come.

~David Baker “Neighbors in October”

There is a desperation to these October days:
the leaves torn from branches by unrelenting gusts
with no thought to where they may land~
upon which patch of grass or gravel will be their final resting place
to wilt and wither in the rain,
under frost,
buried by eventual peaceful snowbanks
until they return to dust.

Or in my need to hold on to what I can
of what was,
I preserve a few like precious treasure,
tucked between book pages
to remain forever neighbors
with the words they embrace.

A book with beautiful words and photography (but no leaves tucked inside) is available to order here:

A Benediction of Mourning

The waning October moon reluctantly rose,
pulling back from the full globe of a few nights before.

I drive a night darkened country road, white lines sweeping past,
aware of advancing frost in the evening haze,
anxious to return home to fireplace light.

Nearing a familiar corner, a stop sign loomed,
to the right, a rural cemetery sits silently expectant.

Open iron gates and tenebrous headstones,
in the middle path, incongruous, a car’s headlights beam bright.
I slowed, thinking: lovers or vandals would seek inky cover of night.

Instead, these lights illuminate a lone figure, kneeling graveside,
one hand resting heavily on a stone, head bowed in prayer.

A stark moment of solitary sorrow,
invisible grieving of the heart
focused by twin beams.

A benediction of mourning; light piercing their blackness,
as gentle fingertips trace the engraved letters of a beloved name.

An uneasy witness, I withdraw as if touched myself
and drive on into the night, struggling to see
through the thickening mist of my eyes and the road.

Angel of Grief–Stanford University

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

The Fallen Works of Light

The summer ends, and it is time
To face another way. Our theme
Reversed, we harvest the last row
To store against the cold, undo
The garden that will be undone.
We grieve under the weakened sun
To see all earth’s green fountains dried,
And fallen all the works of light.
You do not speak, and I regret
This downfall of the good we sought
As though the fault were mine. I bring
The plow to turn the shattering
Leaves and bent stems into the dark,
From which they may return. At work,
I see you leaving our bright land,
The last cut flowers in your hand.
~Wendell Berry “The Summer Ends” from A Timbered Choir.

I want to memorize it all before it changes
as the light weakens from
the sun shifting from north to south,
balancing on the fulcrum of our country road at equinox.

The dying back of the garden leaves and vines reveals
what lies unharvested beneath,
so I gather in urgency, not wanting it to go to waste.

We part again from you, Summer –
your gifts seemed endless
until you ended –
a reminder that someday, so must I.

I sit silenced and brooding, waiting for what comes next.

A book of beautiful words and photography, available to order here:

The Delicate Sadness of Dusk

The talkative guest has gone,
and we sit in the yard
saying nothing. The slender moon
comes over the peak of the barn.

The air is damp, and dense
with the scent of honeysuckle. . . .
The last clever story has been told
and answered with laughter.

With my sleeping self I met
my obligations, but now I am aware
of the silence, and your affection,
and the delicate sadness of dusk.
~Jane Kenyon, “The Visit” from Collected Poems

As we slowly adapt to evenings spent with family and friends again, taking off our masks to actually witness the emotion on a familiar, now unveiled, face:

There are smiles and laughter again. We are trying to remember how to be ourselves outside the fearfulness that contagion wrought. More important: there are tears again. And wistfulness. And regret. And longing.

This delicate sadness happened – even to those of us who were never directly touched by sickness. We will never be the same, never so light of heart again, remembering what this past year has cost.

It is a slow transition to dusk. We sit together now and watch it come.

Feeling Blue

The world is blue at its edges and in its depths.

This blue is the light that got lost. Light at the blue end of the spectrum does not travel the whole distance from the sun to us. It disperses among the molecules of the air, it scatters in water. Water is colorless, shallow water appears to be the color of whatever lies underneath it, but deep water is full of this scattered light, the purer the water the deeper the blue.

The sky is blue for the same reason, but the blue at the horizon, the blue of land that seems to be dissolving into the sky, is a deeper, dreamier, melancholy blue, the blue at the farthest reaches of the places where you see for miles, the blue of distance. This light that does not touch us, does not travel the whole distance, the light that gets lost, gives us the beauty of the world, so much of which is in the color blue.

For many years, I have been moved by the blue at the far edge of what can be seen, that color of horizons, of remote mountain ranges, of anything far away. The color of that distance is the color of an emotion, the color of solitude and of desire, the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not. And the color of where you can never go. For the blue is not in the place those miles away at the horizon, but in the atmospheric distance between you and the mountains.

“Longing,” says the poet Robert Hass, “because desire is full of endless distances.”

Blue is the color of longing for the distances you never arrive in…
~Rebecca Solnit from A Field Guide for Getting Lost

photo by Philip Gibson

I become easily lost in a horizon of blue mountains
or a vivid sky with clouds
or by merely peering into the innards of a blue iris.

I realize I can never actually be there, but only here,
longing for what I see but cannot touch.

These are landscapes in my mind
forever beyond my reach,
where I can never actually go,
but dwell nevertheless
simply by opening my eyes to see.

My heart forgets me not.
My soul, though lost,
will be found.

Finding the Real Thing

I am hardly ever able
to sort through my memories
and come away whole
or untroubled.
It is difficult
to sift through the stones,
the weighty moments and know
which is rare gem,
which raw coal,
which worthless shale or slate.
So, one by one,
I drag them across the page
and when one cuts into the white,
leaves a trail of blood,
no matter how narrow the stream,
then I know
I’ve found the real thing,
the diamond,
one of the priceless gems
my pain produced.
“There! There,” I say,
“is a memory worth keeping.”
~Nikki Grimes “Poems”

I have tucked-away memories that still scratch my tender skin:
when they surface, I tend to bleed at the recollection,
feeling the familiar sting behind my eyelids and upside-down stomach.

Some people work hard to completely bury painful history,
unwilling to allow it back into the daylight to inflict even more harm.

I don’t welcome overwhelming memories back,
but when they come unbidden,
I grant them access only because I know,
as this happened to me long ago,
I will feel the sharp ache of sorrow
when I witness bleeding in another.

I was there too.
I am there with you now.
What happened was real but done.
Its healing leaves behind only
a thin line where the bleeding was.

Because They Are No More…

A voice is heard in Ramah,
    mourning and great weeping,

Rachel weeping for her children
    and refusing to be comforted,
    because they are no more.
Matthew 2:18 and Jeremiah 31:15

We think of him as safe beneath the steeple,
Or cosy in a crib beside the font,
But he is with a million displaced people|
On the long road of weariness and want.
For even as we sing our final carol
His family is up and on that road,
Fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel,
Glancing behind and shouldering their load.

Whilst Herod rages still from his dark tower
Christ clings to Mary, fingers tightly curled,|
The lambs are slaughtered by the men of power,
And death squads spread their curse across the world.
But every Herod dies, and comes alone
To stand before the Lamb upon the throne.
~Malcolm Guite from Waiting on the Word

 …as you sit beneath your beautifully decorated tree, eat the rich food of celebration, and laugh with your loved ones, you must not let yourself forget the horror and violence at the beginning and end of the Christmas story. The story begins with the horrible slaughter of children and ends with the violent murder of the Son of God. The slaughter depicts how much the earth needs grace. The murder is the moment when that grace is given.

Look into that manger representing a new life and see the One who came to die. Hear the angels’ celebratory song and remember that sad death would be the only way that peace would be given. Look at your tree and remember another tree – one not decorated with shining ornaments, but stained with the blood of God.

As you celebrate, remember that the pathway to your celebration was the death of the One you celebrate, and be thankful.
~Paul Tripp

There can be no consolation;
only mourning and great weeping,
sobbing that wrings dry
every human cell,
leaving dust behind–
dust, only dust
which is beginning
and end.

He came to us
for times such as this,
born of
the dust of woman and
the breath of Spirit,
God who bent down to
lie in barn dust,
walk on roads of dust,
die and be laid to rest as dust
in order to conquer
such evil as this
that could terrify masses
and massacre innocents.

He became dust to be
like us
He began a mere speck in a womb
like us,
so easily washed away
as unexpected, unneeded, unwanted.

Lord, You are long expected.
You are needed
You are wanted.

Your heart beat
like ours
breathing each breath
like ours
until a fearful fallen world
took Your
and our breath
away.

You shine through
the shadows of death
to guide our stumbling uncertain feet.
Your tender mercies flow freely
when there is no consolation
when there is no comfort.

You hear our cries
as You cry too.
You know our tears
as You weep too.
You know our mourning
as You mourned too.
You know our dying
as You died too.

God weeps
as tragedy happens.
Evil comes not from God
yet humankind embraces it.
Sin is a choice
we made from the beginning,
a choice we continue to make.

Only God can glue together
what evil has shattered.
He just asks us to hand Him
the pieces of our broken hearts.

We will know His peace
when He comes
to bring us home,
our tears will finally be dried,
our cells no longer
just dust,
never only dust
as we are glued together
by the breath of God
forevermore.

the tender mercy of our God,
    by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
    and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.
Luke 1: 78-79

Turning Darkness Into Light: Shadows Flee Away

There is nothing I can give you that you do not already have,
but there is much, very much, that, while I cannot give it, you can take.

No heaven can come to us
Unless our hearts find rest in it today.
Take heaven.

No peace lies in the future
Which is not hidden in this present instant.
Take peace.

The gloom of the world is but a shadow;
Behind it, yet within reach, is joy.
Take joy.

And so, at this Christmastime,
I greet you with the prayer that for you,
Now and forever,
The day breaks and the shadows flee away.
– Fra Giovanni Giocondo letter to Countess Allagia Aldobrandeschi, Christmas Eve 1513

We are reminded in hundreds of self-help books, both secular and faith-based, to count our blessings in order to find happiness in our daily existence. The point is to peer out from under the shadow of gloom and grumbles to where light and hope is unimpeded.

It’s good advice as old as the Psalms, even if some folks don’t want to associate gratitude and blessings with Someone who actually bestows them.

There are some days when the shadows overpower all feelings of thanksgiving: seeing the tent and box cities of the homeless expanding, watching the numbers of sick and dying rise exponentially, witnessing the suffering of the lonely and isolated among us. How is it possible for us to grasp heaven or feel peace when all seems so bleak?

That is exactly why the Babe was born so many years ago, bringing with Him the Light and Hope so sorely needed by the world then and the world now. With His dawning, shadows flee away; we only need to take the joy and peace He offers.

Alleluia!

Oh little child it’s Christmas night
And the sky is filled with glorious light
Lay your soft head so gently down
It’s Christmas night in Bethlehem town.

Chorus: Alleluia the angels sing
Alleluia to the king
Alleluia the angels sing
Alleluia to the king.

Sleep while the shepherds find their way
As they kneel before you in the golden hay
For they have brought you a woolly lamb
On Christmas night in Bethlehem.
Chorus

Sleep till you wake at the break of day
With the sun’s first dawning ray
You are the babe, who’ll wear the crown
On Christmas morn in Bethlehem town.
Chorus

Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia. Alleluia