Dropping the Colored Veils

Winter is an etching,
spring a watercolor,
summer an oil painting

and autumn a mosaic of them all.
~Stanley Horowitz

And then in the falling comes a rising, 
as of the bass coming up for autumn’s last insects 
struggling amid the mosaic of leaves on the lake’s surface. 
We express it as the season of lacking, but what is this nakedness
— the unharvested corn frost-shriveled but still a little golden 
under the diffuse light of a foggy sky,
the pin oak’s newly stark web of barbs, the woodbine’s vines 
shriven of their scarlet and left askew in the air 
like the tangle of threads on the wall’s side 
of the castle tapestry—what is it but greater intimacy,
the world slackening its grip on the veils, letting them slump
to the floor in a heap of sodden colors, and saying,
this is me, this is my skeletal muscle, 
my latticework of bones, my barren winter skin, 
this is it and if you love me, know that this is what you love. 
~Laura Fargas “October Struck” from Animal of the Sixth Day

Something about the emerging nakedness of autumn reassures that we can be loved even when stripped down to our bones. We do make quite a show of lifting our veils and shedding our coverings, our bits and pieces fluttering down to rejoin the soil. What is left is meager lattice.

When the light is just right, we are golden, illuminated and illuminating, even if only barely there.

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A Fragile Citadel

…And I think
They know my strength,
Can gauge
The danger of their work:
One blow could crush them
And their nest; and I am not their friend.

And yet they seem
Too deeply and too fiercely occupied
To bother to attend.
Perhaps they sense
I’ll never deal the blow,
For, though I am not in nor of them,
Still I think I know
What it is like to live
In an alien and gigantic universe, a stranger,
Building the fragile citadels of love
On the edge of danger.
~James Rosenberg from “The Wasps’ Nest”

The nest was hanging like the richest fruit
against the sun. I took the nest

and with it came the heart, and in my hand

the kingdom and the queen, frail surfaces,
rested for a moment. Then the drones
awoke and did their painful business.

I let the city drop upon the stones.
It split to its deep palaces and combs.
The secret heart was broken suddenly.
~Michael Schmidt — “Wasps’ Nest”

Over the years, we have had basketball-sized paper bald-faced hornet nests appear in various places on the farm. They hang from eaves or branches undisturbed as their busy citizens visit our picnics, greedily buzz our compost bin, shoot bullet-like out of the garbage can when I lift the lid.  In short, their threat of using their weaponry control our moves during the summer. This year’s nest has been built to include some Golden Delicious apples in our apple tree.

This nest is the hornets’ nighttime respite for a few more weeks before a freeze renders them weak and paralyzed in slow motion.  This thing of unparalleled beauty on the outside harbors plenty of danger inside. I will not touch this fragile tissue-paper fortress with its beating buzzing hornet heart.

Let winter deal the devastating blow to disable them. 
As I am not in or of them, I cannot cast the first stone.

In a few short weeks, as the hornets sleep, the north winds will tear it free from its tight hold, bear it aloft in its lightness of being, and it will fall, crushed and broken.

Only then, its secret heart will be revealed and all that stings will be let go.

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Ah, What If?

What if you slept
And what if
In your sleep
You dreamed
And what if
In your dream
You went to heaven
And there plucked a strange and beautiful flower
And what if
When you awoke
You had that flower in your hand
Ah, what then?
~Samuel Coleridge  “What if you slept”

This mountain, this strange and beautiful Shuksan flower that appears suddenly as we round a corner on the hour drive up the Mt. Baker Highway:  this mountain has one foot on earth and one foot in heaven – a thin place if there ever was one.

The only way to approach is in awed silence, as if entering the door of a grand cathedral.  Those who are there speak in hushed tones if they speak at all.

Mt. Shuksan wears autumn lightly about its shoulders as a multi-faceted cloak, barely anticipating the heavy snow coat to descend in the next few weeks.

I hold this mountain tight in my fist, wanting to turn it this way and that, breathe in its fragrance, bring it home with me and never let go.

Ah, what then?

Home is not nearly big enough for heaven to dwell.  I must content myself with this visit to the thin edge, peering through the open door, waiting until invited to come inside.

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The Heart in Exile

Down near the bottom
of the crossed-out list
of things you have to do today,

between “green thread”
and “broccoli,” you find
that you have penciled “sunlight.”

Resting on the page, the word
is beautiful. It touches you
as if you had a friend

and sunlight were a present
he had sent from someplace distant
as this morning—to cheer you up,


and to remind you that,
among your duties, pleasure
is a thing


that also needs accomplishing.
Do you remember?
that time and light are kinds

of love, and love
is no less practical
than a coffee grinder


or a safe spare tire?
Tomorrow you may be utterly
without a clue,


but today you get a telegram
from the heart in exile,
proclaiming that the kingdom


still exists,
the king and queen alive,
still speaking to their children,

—to any one among them
who can find the time
to sit out in the sun and listen.

~Tony Hoagland “The Word” from Sweet Ruin

When I moved from Washington state to California for college, daily sunshine was a new experience for me, having grown up in the cloudy Pacific Northwest. At first I was nearly giddy with the new reality of not having to wear jackets with hoods or (horrors!) carry an umbrella. It was like being let out of gray prison into the land of puppies and rainbows – like the old Wizard of Oz B&W film becoming technicolor when Dorothy’s house lands in Oz and she opens the door to her new home.

But then I realized strings of sunny days were doing something to my head. Previously, I was dependent on rainy days to stay inside and hit the books, curled up in a quiet corner, content to be cerebral rather than exercising the rest of my muscles. If there was a sunny day in Washington, then I was compelled outside to enjoy what few hours were offered up by the skies. Real gray life happened the rest of the time when I could buckle down and get some work done.

So college days started out euphoric and ended up depressing – I tried studying in dark carrels in the library but I still knew there was sunshine going to waste. I tried studying outside on the college lawn but the distraction of all the activity around me was too great. I finally learned to apportion my “out-in-the-sun” hours from my study hours so I wasn’t feeling robbed of either. I decided to take a sun bath like I take a water bath – just enough to feel transformed and cleansed.

I owned a rainy heart in exile so moving back to the northwest after college was easy; I longed for strings of cloudy days so I could be productive guilt-free again. To this day, I only dose myself with sunbeams in moderation as if I was still worried there won’t be enough sun to last another day.

But there is, there always is.

You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you. Please don’t take my sunshine away.

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There Is Not One Blade of Grass…

There is not one blade of grass, there is no color in this world that is not intended to make us rejoice.
~John Calvin – Sermon Number 10 on I Corinthians

We are given the option to notice
or not
We are given reason to rejoice
or not
We are given a rain-bowed promise to witness
or not.

So why ever not?

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Taking Care Where I Step

I didn’t stay for the closing
hymns and prayers. I felt
out of sorts, so I left.

Someone was before me
at the door: a child, gazing
at a spot on her wrist.

She said, “Can you help me?”
“What is it?”
“A ladybug,” she said.

So I opened the door,
and she said, “It jumped off.”
We stood looking around.

“It’ll be all right,” I said.
She went in, and I left,
taking care where I stepped.

~Louis Simpson “At the Church Door” from The Owner of the House.

Maker of All Things,
including appetite,
including stealth,
including the fear that makes
all of us, sometime or other,
flee for the sake
of our small and precious lives,
let me abide in your shadow—
let me hold on
to the edge of your robe
as you determine
what you must let be lost
and what will be saved.

I will try.
I will step from the house to see what I see and hear

and I will praise it…

But this too, I believe, is a place
where God is keeping watch
until we rise, and step forth again…
~Mary Oliver from “Red Bird”

Even when I am out of sorts,
even though my mind is already out the door
and the rest of me not far behind,
even though I am supposed to have a smile on my face
and encouraging words on my lips,
even though I should be focusing on who needs my help
rather than my own helplessness.

Then, somehow, there is solace.

I am plucked out of my doldrums
and given a chance to reset and start over –
God intervenes in the least likely way
so that I see things differently,
by watching where I am stepping to protect the defenseless
rather than plunge, lurch, stumble, crush my way back to the world.

I am a rescuer rescued, encouraged by encouragement, ready to step forth in compassion.

God is keeping watch over the mere lady bug and merest me.

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So Gradual the Grace

Further in Summer than the Birds
Pathetic from the Grass
A minor Nation celebrates
Its unobtrusive Mass.

No Ordinance be seen
So gradual the Grace
A pensive Custom it becomes
Enlarging Loneliness.

Antiquest felt at Noon
When August burning low
Arise this spectral Canticle
Repose to typify

Remit as yet no Grace
No Furrow on the Glow
Yet a Druidic Difference
Enhances Nature now
~Emily Dickinson

…<Dickinson’s Further in Summer is> one of the great poems of American literature. The statement of the poem is profound; it remarks the absolute separation between man and nature at a precise moment in time.  The poet looks as far as she can into the natural world, but what she sees at last is her isolation from that world.  She perceives, that is, the limits of her own perception. But that, we reason, is enough. This poem of just more than sixty words comprehends the human condition in relation to the universe:

So gradual the Grace
A pensive Custom it becomes
Enlarging Loneliness.

But this is a divine loneliness, the loneliness of a species evolved far beyond all others. The poem bespeaks a state of grace. In its precision, perception and eloquence it establishes the place of words within that state.  Words are indivisible with the highest realization of human being.
~N.Scott Momaday from The Man Made of Words

Silence again. The glorious symphony
Hath need of pause and interval of peace.
Some subtle signal bids all sweet sounds cease,
Save hum of insects’ aimless industry.
Pathetic summer seeks by blazonry
Of color to conceal her swift decrease.
Weak subterfuge! Each mocking day doth fleece
A blossom, and lay bare her poverty.
Poor middle-agèd summer! Vain this show!
Whole fields of golden-rod cannot offset
One meadow with a single violet;
And well the singing thrush and lily know,
Spite of all artifice which her regret
Can deck in splendid guise, their time to go!

~Helen Hunt Jackson “August”

On the first day I took his class on Native American Mythology and Lore in 1974 at Stanford, N.Scott Momaday strolled to the front, wrote the 60 words of this Dickinson poem on the blackboard.  He told us we would spend at least a week working out the meaning of what he considered the greatest poem written — this in a class devoted to Native American writing and oral tradition.  In his resonant bass, he read the poem to us many times, rolling the words around his mouth as if to extract their sweetness. This man of the plains, a member of the Kiowa tribe, loved this poem put together by a New England recluse poet — someone as culturally distant from him and his people as possible.

But grace works to unite us, no matter our differences, and Scott knew this as he led us, mostly white students, through this poem.  What on the surface appears a paean to late summer insect droning – doomed to extinction by oncoming winter – is a statement of the transcendence of man beyond our understanding of nature and the world in which we, its creatures, find ourselves. As summer begins its descent into the dark death of winter, we, unlike cicadas and crickets, become all too aware we too are descending.  There is no one as lonely as an individual facing their mortality and no one as lonely as a poet facing the empty page, in search of words to describe the sacrament of sacrifice and perishing.

The poem “August” by Helen Hunt Jackson has similar themes without the acknowledgement of grace. Helen was a childhood friend of Dickinson, and she comments on August heralding the coming silence of the winter of our lives.

Yet the written Word is not silent; the Word brings Grace unlike any other, even when the summer, pathetic and transient as it is, is gone. The Word brings Grace, like no other, to pathetic and transient man who will emerge transformed.

There is no furrow on the glow.  There is no need to plow and seed our salvaged souls, already lovingly planted by our Creator God, yielding a fruited plain.

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Ordinary is Just Extraordinary That Happens Over and Over

…it’s easy to forget that the ordinary is just the extraordinary that’s happened over and over again. Sometimes the beauty of your life is apparent. Sometimes you have to go looking for it. And just because you have to look for it doesn’t mean it’s not there.

God, grant me the grace of a normal day.
~Billy Coffey

Now, at sunset, all I see are dandelions on fire in the field.

To think I’ve carelessly
walked through,
on top of,
over and around them
for nearly 70 years,
and only now I see what magic they contain
once I settle down at their level and look.
God grants me grace for my years of dandelion destruction.

They are so normal and ordinary: extraordinary happening over and over again.

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The Heart’s Need

About living in the country?
…peace can deafen one, beauty surprise
No longer.  There is only the thud
Of the slow foot up the long lane
At morning and back at night.
~R.S. Thomas from “The Country”

…once when he was walking
Along a lane in spring he was deceived
By a shrill whistle coming through the leaves;
Wait a minute, wait a minute-four swift notes;
He turned, and it was nothing, only a Thrush
In the thorn bushes easing its throat.
He swore at himself for paying heed,
The poor hill farmer, so often again
Stopping, staring, listening, in vain,
His ear betrayed by the heart’s need.
~R.S.Thomas from “The Lonely Farmer”

I must not forget my heart’s need:
my utter astonishment
at the beauty around me
even on the hottest and sweatiest of days,
even on the grayest and wettest of days,
while trudging the darkened barnyard path
to attend, although weary, to chores.

If ever I fail to see
what is right in front of me,
this grace-given gift
to my eyes and ears and heart,
I do not deserve to put on boots
or hold a pitchfork.

Farmer with a pitchfork by Winslow Homer

He knows every stone that’s been struck by the plow
There’s a pile by the barn by the sweat of his brow
The land has his heart and he rarely complains
And it holds his knees when he prays for rain

He’s a dusty old carhartt and the light in the barn
He’ll work the late hours and he’s up before dawn
Every man has a story and the story goes on
From grandad’s eyes to a new born son

Why I farm is in my blood, like the sunlight is on my skin
Is who I meant to be, is who I’ve always been
Is more than just a living, it’s my way of life
And it grows like seed inside my heart
That’s why I farm

We always pull through when we thought we would break
In the flood ’93, in the draught ’88
The Lord has his timing ’cause only he knows
That when next year comes the crops will grow
Find more lyrics at 

Tough the world may shake around me, still I am stable
For as long as I am able, I’ll work this way
‘Cause when heaven comes this close to what you’re holding
This life is but a moment in a bigger plan
~The Henningsens

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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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