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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Dawn on our Darkness: Heaven in Ordinary

Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.
~George Herbert “Prayer”

A kind of tune, a music everywhere
And nowhere. Love’s long lovely undersong,
A trace in time, a grace-note in the air,
Borne to us from the place where we belong
On every passing breeze and in the breath
Of every creature. All things hear and fear,
For faintly, through our fall, we too may hear
The strong song of the Son that undoes death.

And one day we will hear it unimpaired:
The joy of all the sorrowful, the song
Of all the saints who cry “how long,”
The hidden hope of all who have despaired.
He sang it to his mother in the womb
And now it echoes from his empty tomb.

~Malcolm Guite “A Kind of Tune”

When the sky is painted in pastels and the air is brisk with breath and movement, I sense a kind of tune leading me back to thankfulness and wonder rather than worry and fretfulness.

Even in ordinary times of stress – yet especially when we are drowning in sadness reaching for any rescue at hand, the song Christ sings to us is the prayer He taught us to pray – Thy will be done.

“How long, O Lord, how long,” will be answered in the fullness of time – in a manger, in a tomb, in the skies of heaven. Heaven is found in the ordinary but with God and His gift of His son, nothing, but nothing will be ordinary.

For Thine is the glory forever…

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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Tenderness for Ordinary Things

Last evening,
As I drove into this small valley,
I saw a low-hanging cloud
Wandering through the trees.
It circled like a school of fish
Around the dun-colored hay bales.
Reaching out its foggy hands
To stroke the legs of a perfect doe
Quietly grazing in a neighbor’s mule pasture
I stopped the car
And stepping out into the blue twilight,
A wet mist brushed my face,
And then it was gone.
It was not unfriendly,
But it was not inclined to tell its secrets.
I am in love with the untamed things,
The cloud, the doe,
Water, air and light.
I am filled with such tenderness
For ordinary things:
The practical mule, the pasture,
A perfect spiral of gathered hay.
And although I should not be,
Consistent as it is,
I am always surprised
By the way my heart will open
So completely and unexpectedly,
With a rush and an ache,
Like a sip of cold water
On a tender tooth.
~Carrie Newcomer “In the Hayfield”

I realize that nothing in this life is actually ordinary – at times I could weep over the unordinariness that is around me.

The light falls a certain way, the colors astound, the animals grace the fields with their contentment, the birds become overture, the air is perfumed with rain or blossom.

How can I not ache with this knowledge? How can I not feel the tenderness of my heart feeling so full, it could burst at any moment?

Truly extraordinary to be able to give myself over to this.

Light pools like spilled water on the floor
Cold air slips like silk beneath the door
The sky feels like a grey wool cap
Pulled down round my ears that near

All the ridge is lined with stands of beech
At the tops they’re swaying quietly
So elegant and raw without their leaves
All of these I see

I catch a memory a scent another short glimpse
Like someone leaned over and gave my forehead a kiss
I give myself to this

There’s a hidden spring back where it’s hard to find
Someone used it years ago to make moonshine
This forest has a different sense of time
Than yours or mine

I catch a memory a scent another short glimpse
Like someone leaned over and gave my forehead a kiss
I give myself to this

There’s a soil horizon
Layers beneath the trees
A sign of outward grace
Unraveling

One bird sits and sings an aching song
One turning leaf, ten circles on the pond
Two careful does wait silently beyond
Then they’re gone they’re gone

I catch a memory a scent another short glimpse
Like someone leaned over and gave my forehead a kiss
I give myself to this
~Carrie Newcomer

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Into Every Small Fold

It is not enough to offer a silent thank you,
looking down at dark mums and the garden’s final offerings
of autumn—late-planted greens, their small leaves
fragile and pale. And bright orange peppers,
the odd liveliness of their color signaling an end.
To see the dense clouds drop into its depths and know
who placed them there. It is not enough to welcome God
into every small fold of the day’s passing.
To call upon some unknown force
to let the meat be fresh, the house not burn,
the evening to find us all here again. Yet,
we are here again. And we have witnessed
the miracle of nothing. A slight turning of empty time,
bare of grief and illness and pain. We have lived
nondescript this season, this day, these sixty-minutes.
But it is not enough. To bow our heads in silence.
To close our eyes and see in each moment
of each second the uneventful wonder
of none.
~Pamela Steed Hill “The Miracle of Nothing”

Sometimes I have loved the peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday.
It is like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain.
You can feel the silent and invisible life.
~Marilynne Robinson from Gilead

I am covered with Sabbath rest
quiet and deep~
planted, grown, and now harvested in soil
still warm and dry from a too long summer,
now readying for sleep again.

I know there is nothing ordinary
in this uneventful wonder of none.

I am called by such Light
to push out against darkness,
to be witness to the miracle of nothing
and everything.

Can there be nothing more eventful
than the wonder of an ordinary Sunday?

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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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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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Where the Joy Came In

Incurable and unbelieving
in any truth but the truth of grieving,
I saw a tree inside a tree
rise kaleidoscopically
as if the leaves had livelier ghosts.

I pressed my face as close
to the pane as I could get
to watch that fitful, fluent spirit
that seemed a single being undefined
or countless beings of one mind
haul its strange cohesion
beyond the limits of my vision
over the house heavenwards.

Of course I knew those leaves were birds.

Of course that old tree stood
exactly as it had and would
(but why should it seem fuller now?)
and though a man’s mind might endow
even a tree with some excess
of life to which a man seems witness,
that life is not the life of men.
And that is where the joy came in.
~Christian Wiman, “From a Window” from Every Riven Thing. 

Coming to Christianity is like color slowly aching into things, the world becoming brilliantly, abradingly alive. “Joy is the overflowing consciousness of reality,” Simone Weil writes, and that’s what I had, a joy that was at once so overflowing that it enlarged existence, and yet so rooted in actual things that, again for the first time, that’s what I began to feel: rootedness.
~Christian Wiman “Gazing Into the Abyss”

Nothing is to be taken for granted.  Nothing remains as it was.

Like this old pink dogwood tree, I now lean over more,
I have a few bare branches with no leaves,
I have my share of broken limbs,
I have my share of blight and curl.

Yet each stage and transition of life has its own beauty: 
bursting forth with leaves and blooms
after a long winter of nakedness adorned
only by feathered friends destined to fly away.

Color has literally seeped in overnight,
resulting in a riot of joy.

Yet what matters most is what grows unseen,
underground, in a network that feeds and thrives
no matter what happens above ground,
steadfast roots of faith remain a reason to believe.

Nothing is to be taken for granted.  Nothing remains as it was.
Especially me. Oh, and especially me.

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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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When the Trivial is Transformed

Man Scything Hay by Todd Reifers

A sudden light transfigures a trivial thing,
a weather-vane,
a wind-mill,
a winnowing flail,
the dust in the barn door;
a moment,- -and the thing has vanished,
because it was pure effect;
but it leaves a relish behind it,
a longing that the accident may happen again.
~Walter Pater from his essay “The Renaissance”

The accident of light does happen, again and again, but when I least expect it.  If I’m not ready for it, in a blink, it can be gone.

Yet in that moment, everything is changed and transformed forever.  The thing itself, trivial and transient becomes something other, merely because of how it is illuminated.

So am I, trivial and transient, lit from outside myself with a light that ignites me within. I’m transfigured by a love and sacrifice unexpected and undeserved.

Am I ready to be changed?

A book of beautiful words and photos, available for order here:

To See Heaven in a Wild Flower

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

~William Blake from Auguries of Innocence

If I look closely enough, I might find the extraordinary in the commonplace things of life. So I keep my eyes alert and my heart open to infinite possibilities.

Sometimes what I see is so extraordinary already, it is like uncovering a bit of heaven on earth. Up in the alpine meadows of the Cascade mountains grow delicate avalanche lilies in July, just as the snow melt is complete. Though brief in their blooming, they are our harbingers of heaven. Despite the chill and darkness of winter, they rise triumphant, an eternal promise of a someday never-ending summer.

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