A Refuge in Briars and Brambles

What’s incomplete in me seeks refuge
in blackberry bramble and beech trees,
where creatures live without dogma
and water moves in patterns
more ancient than philosophy.
I stand still, child eavesdropping on her elders.
I don’t speak the language
but my body translates best it can,
wakening skin and gut, summoning
the long kinship we share with everything.
~Laura Grace Weldon, “Common Ground” from  Blackbird

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
~Wendell Berry “The Peace of Wild Things”

Nearly thirty months of pandemic separation and
I long to share our farm with our far-flung grandchildren
who live across the ocean, to watch them discover
the joys and sorrows of this place we inhabit.
I will tell them there is light beyond this darkness,
there is refuge amid the brambles,
there is kinship with what surrounds us,
there is peace amid the chaos,
there is a smile behind the tears,
there is stillness within the noisiness,
there is rescue when all seems hopeless,
there is grace as the old gives way to new.

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A Shimmering Evening Light

Lined with light
the twigs are stubby arrows.
A gilded trunk writhes
Upward from the roots,
from the pit of the black tentacles.

In the book of spring
a bare-limbed torso
is the first illustration.

Light teaches the tree
to beget leaves,
to embroider itself all over
with green reality,
until summer becomes
its steady portrait
and birds bring their lifetime
to the boughs.

Then even the corpse
light copies from below
may shimmer, dreaming it feels
the cheeks of blossom.
~May Swenson “April Light”

For over two years, we have been surrounded
by a shimmering corpse light hovering close,
masked and wary when we needed each other most.

Even so, the world is not defeated by death.

An unprecedented illumination
emerged from the tomb on a bright Sabbath morning
to guarantee that
we struggling people,
we who became no more than bare twigs and stubs,
we who feel at times hardly alive,
are now begetting green,
ready to burst into blossom,
our glowing cheeks pink with life,
a picture of our future fruitfulness.

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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: When I Am Alone


When I am alone, give me Jesus
Give me Jesus,
You can have all this world,
But give me Jesus
~Jeremy Camp

God wants to always be with us, wherever we may be –
in our sin, in our suffering and death.
We are no longer alone;
God is with us.
We are no longer homeless;
a bit of the eternal home itself has moved unto us. 
~Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I have found, over the years, I don’t do alone well.  Never have.  I’ve always preferred plenty of activity around me, planning gatherings and communal meals, and filling up my days to the brim with all manner of socializing. 

I don’t prefer my own company. There is no glossing over my flaws nor distracting myself from where I fall short.  Alone is an unforgiving mirror reflecting back what I keep myself too busy to see.

Most people around the world have experienced unprecedented aloneness during the last two years of social isolation. As we tentatively emerge from our COVID cocoons due to dropping case rates, “being together” can still feel somewhat risky and unfamiliar, especially when reading headlines of new variant surges on the horizon.

Despite this, despite two years of isolation, worry and concern:
I have never been truly alone.

I need not fear all this world with its unending troubles:

Give me Jesus.
God 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…

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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: Carry On

Weary traveler
Beat down from the storms that you have weathered
Feels like this road just might go on forever
Carry on
~Jordan St. Cyr

There are so many who are weary right now:
-refugees who have walked for miles to reach safety, with no idea where to go next.
-hopeful immigrants who seek a new life and a new start, but bogged down in government process and paperwork
-those who are struggling to stay alive in the midst of debilitating illness, both physical and mental
-those who have given of themselves to care for those who struggle
-those who have lived many years and now feel ready to be taken home, yet wake again to a new day
-those whose faith feels beaten down by the loss of community and congregational consolation during two years of pandemic anger and disagreement
-those who mourn deeply for those they have lost.

God knows our grief. God knows our weary bodies and minds need rest and restoration. God knows the struggle as He too walked this weary road, too often alone.

Yet He carried on then and carries on today and will be there alongside us tomorrow.

Carry on. Someday we will make it home.

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…

Weary traveler
Beat down from the storms that you have weathered
Feels like this road just might go on forever
Carry on

You keep on giving
But every day this world just keeps on taking
Your tired heart is on the edge of breaking
Carry on

Weary traveler, restless soul
You were never meant to walk this road alone
It’ll all be worth it so just hold on

Weary traveler
You won’t be weary long
No more searching

Heaven’s healing’s gonna find where all the hurt is
When Jesus calls we’ll lay down all our heavy burdens
Carry on
Someday soon we’re gonna make it home

Neon lights flickering
Outside the cafe
Ice on the windshield
Stars in a black sea
On a winter road
Flurries of snow
I’m ready to go

Past farmhouse and pasture
Our voices together
Rise to the drumming
Of big-rigs and trailers
Long hours to daylight
A rumbling bus
Our bed and our board

Heavenly Father
Remember the traveler
Bring us safely home
Heavenly Father
Remember the traveler
Bring us safely home
Safely home

In the towns off this highway
The people are kind
They welcome us in
I sing in their church halls
Old hymns and prayer songs
With lifted hearts
We rejoice in the Lord

I long for my family
And friends to remind me
Of where I have been
And where I am going
And where I come from

Heavenly Father
Remember the traveler
Bring us safely home
Heavenly Father
Remember the traveler
Bring us safely home
Safely home

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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: Sometimes I Feel Discouraged

Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my work’s in vain,
but then the holy spirit revives my soul again.

~ African-American Spiritual “There is a Balm in Gilead”

Since my people are crushed, I am crushed;
    I mourn, and horror grips me.
 Is there no balm in Gilead?
    Is there no physician there?
Why then is there no healing
    for the wound of my people?

Jeremiah 8:21-22

At the edge of the woods on our farm stands a stately black cottonwood tree, also known by locals as a “Balm of Gilead” tree in our region. The leaf buds this time of year have a sticky fragrant resin that native peoples prepared as a salve ointment to treat various wounds and skin conditions.

We never have tried harvesting any of the cottonwood resin, but I’ve found the presence of this grand tree in the field seems balm enough when I find myself discouraged. The tall tree adapts so dramatically over the course of the seasons, remaining a fixture of stability and beauty whether golden in the autumn, blowing cottony seeds in the spring, bare with snow in the winter or flourishing with summer leaves.
It is steadfast and reassuring.

Discouragement is so familiar to us, a constant pandemic companion, and certainly is rampant over the past week with images of war filling our screens. No tree resin is capable of fighting a virus or stopping a war but the balm of Gilead in Jeremiah has the power of the Holy Spirit, able to heal our sin sick souls.

The love of our Savior is the balm for us, the wounded.
We will become whole again.

cottonwood seeds
cottonwood seed

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…

There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.
There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul.

Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my works in vain,
but then the holy spirit revives my soul again.

There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.
There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul.

Don’t ever feel discouraged for Jesus is your friend
and if you lack for knowledge he’ll ne’er refuse to lend.

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Mere Spectator Through the Window

She opened her curtains, and looked out towards the bit of road that lay in view, with fields beyond outside the entrance-gates. On the road there was a man with a bundle on his back and a woman carrying her baby; in the field she could see figures moving – perhaps the shepherd with his dog. Far off in the bending sky was the pearly light; and she felt the largeness of the world and the manifold wakings of men to labor and endurance. She was a part of that involuntary, palpitating life, and could neither look out on it from her luxurious shelter as a mere spectator, nor hide her eyes in selfish complaining.
~George Eliot in Middlemarch

As civilization begins to emerge from pandemic restrictions and mandates, it is crucial to review the lessons learned over the past two years. Worldwide we’ve simultaneously become more unified in our shared experience of isolation and quarantine and also more divided in our opinions about its necessity. Whether we agree or not on the details of COVID-19 prevention and management, we have learned much more about ourselves.

We are natural complainers when we feel our familiar freedoms are taken away, no question about it. Despite our ongoing feelings of deprivation and inconvenience, most of us have still been blessed with shelter, warmth and sustenance during this time. Some of us have had others around us in isolation, and others of us wish we could have had more quiet and privacy. We’re more used to waiting in lines for our turn, and encountering empty store shelves when we need something.

Medical care has been a challenge to access, both for COVID-related illness and everything else that usually happens to our minds and bodies daily. We even feel the need to complain about people complaining.

So I remind myself daily that nearly a million of our U.S. brothers and sisters have gone missing in action over the last two years, lost to the COVID battle, and though the vast majority survived, they (we) will never be the same.

Now as we look out our windows, we are no longer mere spectators at what is transpiring around us, but are rejoining our palpitating existence alongside others.

God only knows where we would be without each other. We can’t forget what we have shared together – our view out our window is unique to each of us, yet so familiar no matter where it is in the largeness of the world.

Indeed – this is a time of reckoning that won’t be soon forgotten.

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Good to Melt

How exactly good it is
to know myself
in the solitude of winter,
my body containing its own
warmth, divided from all
by the cold; and to go
separate and sure

among the trees cleanly
divided, thinking of you
perfect too in your solitude,
your life withdrawn into
your own keeping
–to be clear, poised
in perfect self-suspension
toward you, as though frozen.
And having known fully the
goodness of that, it will be
good also to melt.
~Wendell Berry “The Cold” from New Collected Poems

It is too easy to find comfort in solitude
in yet another waning pandemic winter,
with trust and friendship eroded,
to stay protected one from another
by screens and windows and masks.

Standing apart can no longer be an option
as we long for reconnection;
the time has come for the melt,
for a re-blending of moments
full of meals and singing and hugs.

We’ll find our way out of the cold.
We’ll find our way to trust.
We’ll find our way back to one another.

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When Mortal Life Shall Cease

(Fourteen years ago this week, a healthy young college student came to our university health clinic ill with seasonal influenza complicated by pneumonia. His family gave permission for his story to be told. I share this again to honor the patients, young and old, who have fallen victim to the even more devastating COVID-19 pandemic over the past two years, as well as their families who have not had the same privilege of being at their bedside as they die. And honoring the health care workers who have witnessed so many preventable deaths over and over and will never truly recover from that experience.)

Nothing was helping.  Everything had been tried for a week of the most intensive critical care possible.  A twenty year old man – completely healthy only two weeks previously – was dying and nothing could stop it.

The battle against a sudden MRSA (Methicillin Resistant Staph Aureus) pneumonia precipitated by a routine seasonal influenza infection had been lost. Despite aggressive hemodynamic, antibiotic, antiviral and ventilator management, he was becoming more hypoxic and his renal function was deteriorating.  He was no longer responsive to stimuli.

The intensivist looked weary and defeated. The nurses were staring at their laps, unable to look up, their eyes tearing. The hospital chaplain reached out to hold this young man’s mother’s shaking hands.

After a week of heroic effort and treatment, there was now clarity about the next step.

Two hours later, a group gathered in the waiting room outside the ICU doors. The average age was about 21; they assisted each other in tying on the gowns over their clothing, distributed gloves and masks. Together, holding each other up, they waited for the signal to gather in his room after the ventilator had been removed and he was breathing without assistance. They entered and gathered around his bed.

He was ravaged by this sudden illness, his strong body beaten and giving up. His breathing was now ragged and irregular, sedation preventing response but not necessarily preventing awareness. He was surrounded by silence as each individual who had known and loved him struggled with the knowledge that this was the final goodbye.

His father approached the head of the bed and put his hands on his boy’s forehead and cheek.  He held this young man’s face tenderly, bowing in silent prayer and then murmuring words of comfort:

It is okay to let go. It is okay to leave us now.
We will see you again. We’ll meet again.
We’ll know where you will be.

His mother stood alongside, rubbing her son’s arms, gazing into his face as he slowly slowly slipped away. His father began humming, indistinguishable notes initially, just low sounds coming from a deep well of anguish and loss.

As the son’s breaths spaced farther apart, his dad’s hummed song became recognizable as the hymn of praise by John Newton, Amazing Grace.  The words started to form around the notes. At first his dad was singing alone, giving this gift to his son as he passed, and then his mom joined in as well. His sisters wept. His friends didn’t know all the words but tried to sing through their tears. The chaplain helped when we stumbled, not knowing if we were getting it right, not ever having done anything like this before.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home.

Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

When we’ve been here ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun.
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’ve first begun.

And he left us.

His mom hugged each sobbing person there–the young friends, the nurses, the doctors humbled by powerful pathogens. She thanked each one for being present for his death, for their vigil kept through the week in the hospital as his flesh and heart had failed.

This young man, now lost to this mortal life, had profoundly touched people in a way he could not have ever predicted or expected. His parents’ grief, so gracious and giving to the young people who had never confronted death before, remains unforgettable.

This was their sacred gift to their son so Grace could lead him home.

Supper Will Be Soon

Twilight comes to the little farm
At winter’s end. The snowbanks
High as the eaves, which melted
And became pitted during the day,
Are freezing again, and crunch
Under the dog’s foot. The mountains
From their place behind our shoulders
Lean close a moment, as if for a
Final inspection, but with kindness,
A benediction as the darkness
Falls. It is my fiftieth year. Stars
Come out, one by one with a softer
Brightness, like the first flowers
Of spring. I hear the brook stirring,
Trying its music beneath the ice.
I hear – almost, I am not certain –
Remote tinklings; perhaps sheepbells
On the green side of a juniper hill
Or wineglasses on a summer night.
But no. My wife is at her work,
There behind yellow windows. Supper
Will be soon. I crunch the icy snow
And tilt my head to study the last
Silvery light of the western sky
In the pine boughs. I smile. Then
I smile again, just because I can.
I am not an old man. Not yet.
~Hayden Carruth, “Twilight Comes” from From Snow and Rock

I am well aware how precious each day is, yet it necessitates effort to live as though I truly understand it.

So many people are not living out the fullness of their days as they have been taken too soon: either pandemic deaths or delayed treatment of other illness, tragic fatalities due to increased overdoses, accidents and suicides. I try to note the passing of the hours in my mind’s calendar so I can appreciate the blessings I have been given.

Each twilight becomes a benediction for preparation for the meal ahead. I pause to see, hear, touch and taste what is before me and what awaits me. And it never fails to make me smile.

I’m always hungry for the supper that awaits me, provided from the land through sacrifice and handed to me in love.

I’m not too old, at least not yet, to look forward to the gift of each next day until, in the fullness of time, there will be no more.

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Did I Find Everything I Was Looking For?

Did you find everything you were
looking for?
 Julie, the magenta-haired

checkout girl, asks, and no, I think,
I didn’t find inner peace, or answers to

several questions I’ve been mulling,
like are we headed for nuclear war and

does the rest of the world think America
has gone bonkers and also, by the way,

I could not find the tofu bacon, and
the chocolate sorbet shelf was empty

(I did find canned pumpkin in aisle four)
but I am silent and smile at Julie who

seems to know what I’m thinking anyway
so I hold back and muse on the view

of the bay this morning when we walked
the dog and the parsnip soup we’ll

make for dinner and realize that total
fulfillment probably jades the senses and

the bagger asks if I’d like help today
carrying my groceries out to the car.

~Thomas R. Moore, “Finding Everything” from Red Stone Fragments

He was a new old man behind the counter, skinny, brown and eager.
He greeted me like a long-lost daughter,
as if we both came from the same world,
someplace warmer and more gracious…

…his face lit up as if I were his prodigal daughter returning,
coming back to the freezer bins in front of the register
which were still and always filled
with the same old Cable Car ice cream sandwiches and cheap frozen greens.
Back to the knobs of beef and packages of hotdogs,
these familiar shelves strung with potato chips and corn chips…


I lumbered to the case and bought my precious bottled water
and he returned my change, beaming
as if I were the bright new buds on the just-bursting-open cherry trees,
as if I were everything beautiful struggling to grow,
and he was blessing me as he handed me my dime
over the counter and the plastic tub of red licorice whips.
This old man who didn’t speak English
beamed out love to me in the iron week after my mother’s death
so that when I emerged from his store
    my whole cock-eyed life  –
    what a beautiful failure ! –
glowed gold like a sunset after rain.
~Alison Luterman from “At the Corner Store”

During these two years of COVID-time precautions, grocery shopping has been an extra ordeal for both the shoppers and the store workers. We remain hidden behind our masks – both the ones mandated by state regulations to be covering our faces, as well as the ones we usually hide behind while out and about in polite society.

This week as I shopped in one of our local grocery stores, I witnessed a particularly poignant scene. As I waited my six foot distance in the check out line, the older man ahead of me was greeted by the young cashier with the standard “Did you find everything you were looking for?” He looked at her from behind his mask and his eyes were obviously smiling as she scanned his groceries. He responded with:
“I looked for world peace on your shelves, but it must have been sold out…”

She stopped scanning and looked directly at him for the first time, trying to discern if she misunderstood him or if he was mocking her or what. “Did you try Aisle 4?” she replied and they both laughed. They continued in light-hearted conversation as she continued scanning and once he had paid for his order and packed up his cart, he looked at her again.

“Thank for so much for coming to work today – I am so grateful for what you do.” He wheeled away his groceries and she stood, stunned, watching him go.

As I came up next, I looked at her watering eyes as she tried to compose herself and I said to her: “I’ll bet you don’t hear that often enough, do you?” She pulled herself together and shook her head, trying to make sense of the gift of words he had bestowed on her.

“No – like never,” she said as she scanned my groceries. “How could he possibly have known that I almost didn’t come to work today because it has been so stressful to be here? People are usually polite, but lately more and more have been so mean and refusing to put on their masks when I ask them to. No one seems to care about how others are feeling any more.”

She brushed away a tear and I paid for my groceries, and told her:

“I hope the rest of your work day is as great as that last customer. You’ve given me everything I was looking for today…”

And I emerged from the store feeling like I had scored a pot of gold like a sunset after rain.

last night’s rainbow through a windshield in pouring rain at 50mph

Try finding everything you are looking for in a book of beauty in words and photographs, available to order here:

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