An Unexpected January Light

Today is one of those excellent January partly cloudies
in which light chooses an unexpected part of the landscape
to trick out in gilt, and then the shadow sweeps it away.
You know you’re alive.
You take huge steps,
trying to feel the planet’s roundness arc between your feet.
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

It was like a church to me.
I entered it on soft foot,
Breath held like a cap in the hand.
It was quiet.
What God there was made himself felt,
Not listened to, in clean colours
That brought a moistening of the eye,
In a movement of the wind over grass.

There were no prayers said. But stillness
Of the heart’s passions – that was praise
Enough; and the mind’s cession
Of its kingdom. I walked on,
Simple and poor, while the air crumbled
And broke on me generously as bread.
~R.S. Thomas “The Moor”

After years of rarely paying attention,
too busy with whatever household,
work-place, or barnyard task needed doing,
I realized there are only a finite number
of sunrises and sunsets left to me.

Now I stop, take a deep breath,
sense the earth’s roundness
and feel lucky to be alive,
a witness to a moment of manna
falling from the sky.

Sometimes it is as plain and gray
as I am, but at times,
a fire is lit from above and beneath,
igniting the sky, overwhelming me.

I am swept away by light and shadow,
transfixed and transformed,
forever grateful to be fed
by heavenly bread broken over my head.

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An Eternal Ultimate Eye

Silence and darkness grow apace, broken only by the crack of a hunter’s gun in the woods.  Songbirds abandon us so gradually that, until the day when we hear no birdsong at all but the scolding of the jay, we haven’t fully realized that we are bereft — as after a death.  Even the sun has gone off somewhere…

Now we all come in, having put the garden to bed, and we wait for winter to pull a chilly sheet over its head.  
~Jane Kenyon
from “Season of Change and Loss” in Winter: A Spiritual Biography

The tree, and its haunting bird,
Are the loves of my heart;
But where is the word, the word,
Oh where is the art,

To say, or even to see,
For a moment of time,
What the Tree and the Bird must be
In the true sublime?

They shine, listening to the soul,
And the soul replies;
But the inner love is not whole,
and the moment dies.

Oh give me before I die
The grace to see
With eternal, ultimate eye,
The Bird and the Tree.

The song in the living Green,
The Tree and the Bird –
Oh have they ever been seen,
Ever been heard?
~Ruth Pitter “The Bird in the Tree”

Every day now we hear hunters firing in the woods and the wetlands around our farm, most likely aiming for the few ducks that have stayed in the marshes through the winter, or possibly a Canadian goose or a deer to bring home for the freezer.   The usual day-long serenade of birdsong is replaced by shotguns popping, hawks and eagle screams and chittering from the treetops, the occasional dog barking, woodpeckers hammering at tree bark with the bluejays and squirrels arguing over the last of the filbert nuts.

In the clear cold evenings, when coyotes aren’t howling in the moonlight, the owls hoot to each other across the fields from one patch of woods to another, their gentle resonant conversation echoing back and forth. Our horses, confined to their stalls in the barns, snort and blow as they bury their noses in flakes of summer-bound hay.

But there are no longer birdsong arias; I’m left bereft of their blending musical tapestry that wakes me at 4 AM in the spring.

And no peeper orchestra tuning up in the swamps in the evenings, rising and falling on the breeze.

It is way too quiet – clearly a time of bereavement. The chilly silence of the darkened days, interrupted by gunshot percussion, is like a baton raised in anticipation after rapping the podium to bring us all to attention. I wait and listen for the downbeat of spring — the return of birds and frogs tuning their throats, preparing their symphony.

Oh, give me the grace to see and hear the Bird in the Tree with an eternal ultimate eye and ear.

Like a bird on a tree
I’m just sitting here
I get time
It’s clear to see
From up here
The world seems small
We can seat together
It’s so beautiful
You and me
We meant to be
In the great outdoors
Forever free
Sometimes you need to go
And take a step back
To see the truth around you
From a distance you can tell
You and me
We meant to be
In the great outdoors
Forever free
~Eldar Kedem

Between the March and April line—
That magical frontier
Beyond which summer hesitates,
Almost too heavenly near.
The saddest noise, the sweetest noise,
The maddest noise that grows and grows,—
The birds, they make it in the spring,
At night’s delicious close.
The saddest noise I know.
It makes us think of all the dead
That sauntered with us here,
By separation’s sorcery
Made cruelly more dear.
It makes us think of what we had,
And what we now deplore.
We almost wish those siren throats
Would go and sing no more.
An ear can break a human heart
As quickly as a spear,
We wish the ear had not a heart
So dangerously near.
~Lyrics adapted from an Emily Dickinson poem

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Something to Behold

Sometimes I just sit like this at the window and watch
the darkness come. If I’m smart, I’ll put on Bach.

I’m thinking now of how far it always seems there is to go.
Maybe it is too easy that I speak so often

of late last light on a December day,
of that stubborn grass that somehow still remains green

behind the broken chain link fence on the corner.
But the need is so great for the way light looks

as it takes its leave of us. We say
what we can to each other of these things,

we who are such thieves, stealing first
one breath and then the next. Bach, keep going

just this slowly, show me the way to believe
that what matters in this world has already happened

and will go on happening forever.
The way light falls on the last

of the stricken leaves of the copper beech
at the end of the block is something to behold.

~Jim Moore “The Need Is So Great”

No matter
No matter what happens between the sunrise and the sunset
No matter what happens between the sunset and the sunrise
It is something to behold.

To witness the return of light:
the rise and the set
the set and the rise

it keeps coming and going
through troubles
and sickness
joy and heartbreak
birth and death
loss and gain
it keeps coming and going
something to behold

the earth continues
to turn
to grant
a new start
a new day
something to behold

then settles
serenely
a quiet night
a respite from light

which matters so much
more than anything in between
so much more to behold
so much
so

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Dawn on our Darkness: It Might Have Been Otherwise

I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.
At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.
~Jane Kenyon “Otherwise”

I watched her cooking, from my chair.
She pressed her lips
Together, reached for kitchenware,
And tasted sauce from her fingertips.

“It’s ready now. Come on,” she said.
“You light the candle.”
We ate, and talked, and went to bed,
And slept. It was a miracle.

~Donald Hall from “Summer Kitchen” in The Selected Poems of Donald Hall.

I tend to get complacent in my daily routines, confident in the knowledge that tomorrow will be very much like yesterday. The distinct blessings of an ordinary day are lost in the rush of moving forward to whatever comes next so that I lose touch with what miracles are happening in the here and now.

The reality is there is nothing ordinary about the events of this day or any other –
it might have been otherwise and some day it will be otherwise.

Advent is an opportunity to stop the rushing, take a look around and actually revel in the quiet moments of daily work, chats, walks, meals, and sleep. Even the current constant of someone in the family being sick with one or more viruses, interrupting plans and schedules, can’t interrupt how remarkable it is to just be here together.

We are granted peace despite the stress of illness.

Jane Kenyon wrote much of her best poetry with the knowledge she was dying of leukemia. Her work reminds me that I don’t need a terminal diagnosis to appreciate the blessings of each ordinary moment. Her poet husband, Donald Hall, wrote verse from his perspective of cherishing the time he had left with his wife, living as if each day were his last day with her.

Like Jane’s “paintings on the walls,” on foggy gray days like today, I can gaze at our landscape paintings by local artist Randy Van Beek depicting an idealized serenity that I only sometimes feel. They depict the blessings just outside my windows.

I simply need to pay attention.

Christ came to earth to remind us to dwell richly in the experience of these moments, those sweet peaches and cream of daily life, while they are happening. God knows, the little miracles are a foretaste of the heaven which is to come.

This year’s Advent theme “Dawn on our Darkness” is taken from this 19th century Christmas hymn:

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
dawn on our darkness and lend us your aid.
Star of the east, the horizon adorning,
guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.
~Reginald Heber -from “Brightest and Best”

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Blinking in the Sun

When you have been
at war with yourself
for so many years that
you have forgotten why,
when you have been driving
for hours and only
gradually begin to realize
that you have lost the way,
when you have cut
hastily into the fabric,
when you have signed
papers in distraction,
when it has been centuries
since you watched the sun set
or the rain fall, and the clouds,
drifting overhead, pass as flat
as anything on a postcard;
when, in the midst of these
everyday nightmares, you
understand that you could
wake up,
you could turn
and go back
to the last thing you
remember doing
with your whole heart:
that passionate kiss,
the brilliant drop of love
rolling along the tongue of a green leaf,
then you wake,
you stumble from your cave,
blinking in the sun,
naming every shadow
as it slips.
~Joyce Sutphen “From Out the Cave” from Straight Out of View
.

Rather than mindfulness, I try to practice something I call “heartfulness.” Instead of staying so much inside my head while going through the necessary motions of everyday routine, I try to make sense of my place and purpose in the world to invest my heart in it. I pay attention to what is happening around me – the sights, sounds, smells – to where my feet will land next and to where my hands might extend to serve. For internally focused people like me, it helps to stretch my vision and my actions beyond my own needs.

It is like waking from a troubled sleep, and seeing familiar surroundings that have been in shadow, cast in a new light for the first time. When I first bought a phone with a camera over a decade ago, I started looking at the world differently, eager to capture the subtle changes I witnessed throughout the time of day and seasonal progression. Sometimes I receive feedback that my photos look “all the same” – they are only two-dimensional versions of what I see around me. Indeed, how can a photo communicate the fresh feel of dew-dawn air, or the crunch of snow underfoot, or the scent of spring blossoms or the smell of badly needed rain? My photo becomes my hook back to a focused moment of heartfulness for me — my reminder of what ‘was’ and ‘is” and what ‘will be again.’

As I climb out of the relative safety of my dark “cave” – a place we all retreat to when life is simply too much – I stand astonished and heart-full, blinking at the sun, aware that I’m meant to witness all that is beyond me.

And simply to share and tell about it as best I can.

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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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Take Time to Stand and Stare

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?—

No time to stand beneath the boughs,
And stare as long as sheep and cows:

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass:

No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night:

No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance:

No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began?

A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

~W.H. Davies “Leisure”

…I believe there are certain habits that, if practiced, will stimulate the growth of humble roots in our lives. One of those is a habit of awe and wonder.

By awe and wonder, I mean the regular practice of paying careful attention to the world around us. Not merely seeing but observing. Perceiving. Considering. Asking thoughtful questions about what we see, smell, hear, touch, taste. In other words, attending with love and curiosity to what our senses sense. (How often do we eat without tasting? How often do we look without seeing? Hear without listening?) Admiring, imagining, receiving the beauty of the world around us in a regular, intentional way: this is the habit of a wonder-filled person. And it leads to humility.

A regular habit of awe and wonder de-centers us. It opens a window in our imaginations, beckoning us to climb out of our own opinions and experiences and to consider things greater and beyond our own lives. It strengthens our curiosity, which in turn lowers the volume on our anxieties and grows our ability to empathize. Over time, we become less self-focused and can admit without embarrassment what we don’t know. In short, we grow more humble.
~Kelly Givens from “Teaching Children to See” from Mere Orthodoxy

This would be a poor life indeed if we didn’t take time to stand and stare at all that is displayed before us – whether it is the golden cast at the beginning and endings of the days, the light dancing in streams or simply staring at God’s creatures staring back at us.

I need to be a child for a minute, an hour, a day, a week, or forever, just to experience the wonder of what is before me. There is nothing sweeter.

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Walking Over the Threshold

I know for a while again,
the health of self-forgetfulness,
looking out at the sky through
a notch in the valley side,
the black woods wintry on
the hills, small clouds at sunset
passing across. And I know
that this is one of the thresholds
between Earth and Heaven,
from which I may even step
forth from myself and be free.
~ Wendell Berry, Sabbaths 2000

John O’Donohue gave voice to the connection between beauty and those edges of life — thresholds was the word he loved—
where the fullness of reality becomes more stark and more clear.

If you go back to the etymology of the word “threshold,” it comes from “threshing,” which is to separate the grain from the husk. So the threshold, in a way, is a place where you move into more critical and challenging and worthy fullness.

There are huge thresholds in every life.

You know that, for instance, if you are in the middle of your life in a busy evening, fifty things to do and you get a phone call that somebody you love is suddenly dying, it takes ten seconds to communicate that information.

But when you put the phone down, you are already standing in a different world. Suddenly everything that seems so important before is all gone and now you are thinking of this. So the given world that we think is there and the solid ground we are on is so tentative.

And a threshold is a line which separates two territories of spirit, and very often how we cross is the key thing.

When we cross a new threshold worthily, what we do is we heal the patterns of repetition that were in us that had us caught somewhere.
~John O’Donohue from an “On Being” interview with Krista Tippett on “Becoming Wise”

A decade ago, someone I respected told me that my writing reflects a “sacramental” life —  touching and tasting the holiness of everyday moments, as if they are the cup and bread that sustains me as God’s eternal grace and gift.

I allow that feedback to sit warmly beside me, like a welcome companion during the many hours I struggle with what to write here.

It is all too tempting to emphasize the sacrament over the sacrifice it represents.  As much as I love the world and the beauty in the moments I share here, my search should be for the entrance to the “thin places” between heaven and earth, through forgetting self and stepping forth through a holy threshold into something far greater.

I feel so unworthy — in fact, threshed to pieces most days, incapable of thinking of anything but how I feel reduced to fragments. Perhaps those fragments can be like the droplets coming from a farm sprinkler at sunset, sparkling and golden despite waning light, bringing something essential to anyone feeling dry, parched and dusty.

I may even step
forth from myself and be free
.

Only then we can walk each other home.

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The Hope for Meaningfulness

Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed?

Can the writer isolate and vivify all in experience that most deeply engages our intellects and our hearts?

Why are we reading, if not in hope that the writer will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage and the hope of meaningfulness, and press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so we may feel again their majesty and power?

What do we ever know that is higher than that power which, from time to time, seizes our lives, and which reveals us startlingly to ourselves as creatures set down here bewildered?

Why does death so catch us by surprise, and why love?

We still and always want waking.
~Annie Dillard from “Write Till You Drop”

…today, the unseen was everything. The unknown, the only real fact of life.
~Kenneth Grahame from Wind in the Willow

To find your voice you must forget about finding it,
and trust that if you pay sufficient attention to life
you will be found to have something to say

which no one else can say.
~Denise Levertov

We search for the unseen, hoping to find meaning in the unknown.

I am bewildered by life much of the time. Anyone looking at these online postings can see the struggle as I wake each day to seek out what I’m called to do and how to make this sad and suffering world a little bit better place.

I have little to offer a reader other than my own wrestling match with the mysteries we all face.

When a light does shine out through darkness,  I am not surprised. I simply needed to pay attention. Illumination was there all the time, but I needed the eyes to see its beauty laid bare, peering through the cracks of darkness.

Light beyond shadow,
Joy beyond tears,
Love that is greater when darkest our fears;
deeper the Peace when the storm is around,
nearer the Hope to the lost who is found.
Light of the world, ever shining, shining!
Hope in our pain and our dying.
in our darkness, there is Light, in our crying,
there is Love, in the noise of life imparting
Peace that passes understanding.
Light beyond shadow,
Joy beyond tears,
Love that is greater when darkest our fears;
deeper the Peace when the storm is around,
nearer the Hope to the lost who is found.
-Paul Wigmore

Light after darkness, gain after loss,
Strength after weakness, crown after cross;
Sweet after bitter, hope after fears,
Home after wandering, praise after tears.
Alpha and Omega, beginning and the end,
He is making all things new.
Springs of living water shall wash away each tear,
He is making all things new. ​
Sight after mystery, sun after rain,
Joy after sorrow, peace after pain;
Near after distant, gleam after gloom,
Love after wandering, life after tomb.
~Frances Havergal

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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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