As Quiet As a Feather

Today I’m flying low and I’m
not saying a word.

…I’m taking the day off.
Quiet as a feather.
I hardly move though really I’m traveling
a terrific distance.

Stillness. One of the doors
into the temple.
~Mary Oliver from “Today” from A Thousand Mornings

Some days warrant stillness.
On this Sabbath day of rest,
seek to be quiet as a feather,
silently in place, listening.

Maybe, hear each other again.
Surely, hear the Word of God.

A funny thing about feathers:
alone, each one is merely fluff and air.
Together — feathers become lift and power,
with strength and will to soar
beyond the tether of gravity’s
pull on our flawed humanity back to dust.

As quiet as a feather,
joined and united, one overlapping another,
rise above and fly
as far as your life and breath can take you.

May peace be still.

Thank you, once again, to the chickens displayed at the NW Washington Fair in Lynden last week, who struggled to be still in their cages for these close-up feather photos….

More Barnstorming photos and poems from Lois Edstrom are available in this book from Barnstorming. Order here:


Standing on Holy Ground

I am still skeptical about the reasons some seek spirituality in the land,
for the spirituality the land offers is anything but easy.

It is the spirituality of a God who would, with lightening and earthquakes, sneeze away the bland moralism preached in many pulpits,
a wildly free, undomesticated divinity,
the same God who demands of Moses from a burning bush,
“Remove your shoes,
for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”

When God appears to Job, the comforting sentiments we might expect to feel are absent because such sentiments
are at most God’s trappings, not the infinite himself.
The God who speaks to Job from the whirlwind reminds him that, comforting or terrifying, he alone is God.  
To be satisfied with anything less
would be the spiritual catastrophe the Old Testament calls idolatry.

Some of our idols shatter in the West’s rugged vastness, others remain.

Perhaps God leaves exposed the land’s brokenness –
the scars of forest fires,
the fossils of extinct biospheres,
rifts showing ancient continents now scattered like puzzle pieces –
to remind us that he is greater than the icon, too.

The heavens and earth will wear out like a garment, the Psalmist says, like clothes that are changed.

“But You neither change, nor have an end.”
Psalm 102:27
~Anthony Lusvardi from “Nature is Your Church?”

We are now 45 days into a hotter dry spell this summer with a slight possibility of some rain next week. Everything here in the Pacific Northwest is looking as it would in late August with the snow melt in the Cascades much accelerated from its usual timeline. With the fires already happening for weeks on the eastern side of the state, as well as to the north of us in British Columbia and south in Oregon and California, we are looking at a withering August of smoke and ash.

Dan and I headed up the Mt. Baker Highway yesterday evening to see how bare Baker and Shuksan look up close. We wonder what snow will be left before our typical precipitation begins in earnest in early October. These seemingly unchanging monoliths are being stripped of their usual garments, now naked and vulnerable. They are subject to God’s transforming power just as surely as we are.

When I stand at the foot of these peaks, I never fail to be awed to a whisper, as if I were inside an immense cathedral. God reminds us to remove our shoes out of respect for His holy ground. Yet I worship not the mountains nor the awe-inspiring landscape they are placed in, but worship their Creator whose strength and love is greater than all.

I tread lightly. I speak softly. I remove my shoes. I witness the fading light.

God, the eternal, the unchangeable, takes my breath away, as only He can..

Here is an opportunity to own a Barnstorming book of more photos like these along with poems written for each poem by Lois Edstrom. It is available to order here:

What Makes Things the Same

At first we just say flower. How
thrilling it is to name. Then it’s
aster. Begonia. Chrysanthemum.

We spend our childhood learning
to separate one thing from another.
Daffodil. Edelweiss. Fern. We learn

which have five petals, which have six.
We say, “This is a gladiolus, this hyacinth.”
And we fracture the world into separate

identities. Iris. Jasmine. Lavender.
Divorcing the world into singular bits.
And then, when we know how to tell

one thing from another, perhaps
at last we feel the tug to see not
what makes things different, but

what makes things the same. Perhaps
we feel the pleasure that comes
when we start to blur the lines—and once again everything
is flower, and by everything,
I mean everything.
~Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer, “Where We are Headed” from Hush

Somehow we find reassurance in naming things each according to its own kind – after all, we were given that task by God Himself in the Garden. We take our work seriously at lining up labels and categories based on all the differences we observe — we want to organize and define, separate and segregate, to do our best to create order out of a jumble, even if we are too young to have words for what we are doing.

Yet when we emphasize differences, we fail to appreciate all that is shared among us and end up fracturing rather than joining together. We look for what keeps us apart rather than find the common ground that blurs the lines, creating a healing bond between us.

Everything has a common origin, and I mean everything.

Flowers: each needs soil, sun and some water no matter how differently they flourish and bloom.

People who cherish an identity: we are all human.
We were all created from dust and rib.
We share the same Creator.
We bloom, all in our own unique and precious way,
but what matters most
is where we put down roots and how freely we share our fruit.

And that is why we’re put here.

This Gift of Struggle

All morning, doing the hard, root-wrestling
work of turning a yard from the wild
to a gardener’s will, I heard a bird singing
from a hidden, though not distant, perch;
a song of swift, syncopated syllables sounding
like, Can you believe this, believe this, believe?
Can you believe this, believe this, believe?
And all morning, I did believe. All morning,
between break-even bouts with the unwanted,
I wanted to see that bird, and looked up so
I might later recognize it in a guide, and know
and call its name, but even more, I wanted
to join its church. For all morning, and many
a time in my life, I have wondered who, beyond
this plot I work, has called the order of being,
that givers of food are deemed lesser
than are the receivers. All morning,
muscling my will against that of the wild,
to claim a place in the bounty of earth,
seed, root, sun and rain, I offered my labor
as a kind of grace, and gave thanks even
for the aching in my body, which reached
beyond this work and this gift of struggle.
~Richard Levine “Believe This” from That Country’s Soul

North Brooklin, Maine
30 March 1973

Dear Mr. Nadeau:
As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up in the morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.

Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society—things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.

Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.
Sincerely,
[Signed, ‘E. B. White’] from Letters of Note

Today yet another era begins and another ends. However, the struggle continues: there is anguish on one side and relief on the other– just the reverse of four years ago.

I want to believe things will be different and the messes cleaned up without creating new messes. I realize, thanks to human nature, that is a futile hope.

I want to believe that goodness and compassion will thrive again.

So I will pull out the weeds that have taken over in my on back yard and clear the ground for a clean start. I will rewind the clock to help create order out of chaos and experience steadfastness instead of uncertainty.

May we hang on to hope that our dis-united states may once again survive a leader with many human flaws and failings, just as we’ve survived countless other imperfect leaders.

It is up to we the people to keep our own yards weed-free, and not allow them to take over — ever again.

Turning Darkness into Light: Make All Things New

In our secret yearnings
we wait for your coming,
and in our grinding despair
we doubt that you will.

And in this privileged place
we are surrounded by witnesses who yearn more than do we
and by those who despair more deeply than do we.

Look upon your church and its pastors
in this season of hope
which runs so quickly to fatigue
and in this season of yearning
which becomes so easily quarrelsome.

Give us the grace and the impatience
to wait for your coming to the bottom of our toes,
to the edges of our fingertips.

Come in your power
and come in your weakness in any case
and make all things new.
Amen.
Walter Brueggemann, Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth

We simply have to wait and wait.
The celebration of Advent is possible only to those troubled in soul,
who know themselves to be poor and imperfect,
and who look forward to something greater to come.
~Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!
Psalm 27:14

These are troubling times and yes, I’m troubled. It can feel like things will never change. It can feel like I will never adapt to how the world is darker right now, how people are more bitter and angry, how each day brings more bad news, how tired we all are of wearing our real and figurative masks.

I know better than this;
I’ve seen dark times before that have taken time to resolve.
So why does this time seem different?
Why have doubts become four-dimensional realities?

So I remember:
we were created for this waiting in-between.
We were created to keep watching for when all things will be made new.
From the bottoms of our toes to the tips of our fingers,
we marvel at the power shown by our God
choosing weakness
as the vessel that saves us.

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning.
Psalm 130: 5-6

INTRO

Lord, from the depths I call to You

Lord, hear me from on high

And give attention to my voice

When I for mercy cry

Out of the depths I cry to You

In darkest places I will call

Incline Your ear to me anew

And hear my cry for mercy, Lord

Were You to count my sinful ways

How could I come before Your throne

Yet full forgiveness meets my gaze

I stand redeemed by grace alone

CHORUS

I will wait for You

I will wait for You

On Your word, I will rely

I will wait for You

Surely wait for You

Till my soul is satisfied

So put your hope in God alone

Take courage in His power to save

Completely and forever won

By Christ emerging from the grave

CHORUS

Now He has come to make a way

And God Himself has paid the price

That all who trust in Him today

Find healing in His sacrifice

CHORUS

I will wait for You

I will wait for You

Through the storm and through the night

I will wait for You

Surely wait for You

For Your love is my delight

OUTRO

I pray my soul waits for the Lord

My hope is in His word

More than the watchman waits for dawn

My soul waits for the Lord

©2018 Getty Music Publishing (BMI)

Caught in Our Own Careless Wreckage

I believed only air
stretched between the dogwood

and the barberry: another
thoughtless human assumption

sidetracking the best story
this furrow spider knew to spin.

And, trying to get the sticky
filament off my face, I must look,

to the neighbors, like someone
being attacked by his own nervous

system, a man conducting an orchestra
of bees. Or maybe it’s only the dance

of human history I’m reenacting:
caught in his own careless wreckage,

a man trying to extricate himself,
afraid to open his eyes.
~Jeff Worley from Lucky Talk

It was an uneasy feeling opening my eyes this morning, waking up to a world where the election results are still uncertain. We are suspended in a sticky web of our own making and will be for some time, dangling…

Twenty years ago, I woke up not feeling well after a long night of waiting for election results to come in. I thought it was from the tension of not knowing when the outcome would be finalized but no… It ended up being appendicitis that day — my 2000 post-election surgical solution to take my mind off Bush vs Gore. It worked. I simply ceased to care about anything but my own healing, my priorities clarified by post-op recovery.

I’m not looking to resort to that remedy today in Trump vs Biden. I’d like to keep myself out of the ER and the OR and just go about my clinic day as usual. Yet in the dance of human history we badly want to determine who our leaders will be in a clear-cut and clean-cut process, something this campaign season has lacked. So why we would expect clarity now?

Instead, we are covered in a sticky-wickety web, spread all over our faces, unwilling to open our eyes to the reality of our divisive messiness, and attacked by our own nervous systems.

Today, I will open my eyes, take a few deep breaths and I hope you will too. And tomorrow and the next day. And avoid radical surgery if we can.

Maybe the dance is something we can do together — coordinated, cooperative, choreographed, and united — rather than flailing about in our careless wreckage of human history.

Where Time and Eternity Meet

Unexpected God,
your coming advent alarms us.
Wake us from drowsy worship,
from the sleep that neglects love,
and the sedative of misdirected frenzy.
Awaken us now to your coming,
and bend our angers into your peace.
Amen.
~Revised Common Lectionary

photo by Julie Garrett

Sometimes the very walls of our churches
separate us from God
and each other.


In our various naves and sanctuaries
we are safely separated from those outside,
from other denominations, other religions,
separated from the poor, the ugly, the dying.…


The house of God is not a safe place.
It is a cross where time and eternity meet,
and where we are – or should be –
challenged to live more vulnerably,
more interdependently.
~Madeleine L’Engle, from  A Stone for a Pillow

Does anyone have the foggiest idea
of what sort of power we so blithely invoke?
Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?
The churches are

children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets,
mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.
It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church;
we should all be wearing crash helmets.
Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares;
they should lash us to our pews.

~Annie Dillard from Teaching a Stone to Talk

Today, after weeks of worshipping outdoors, we move back inside for fall and winter, all wearing masks while separated into four different spaces with social distancing. It may be this way well into next year: nobody knows.

No one is happy that the singing will be limited, there will be no handshakes or hugs and some of us will be watching a live feed on a screen. Some are flat out angry at having to worship this way and will opt to stay away. Yet we are called to come together, to raise our voices corporately in praise, prayer and thanksgiving, despite the risks and unfamiliarity of how these changes look and feel while we try to protect one another from infection.

We tend to forget that walking into church on any Sabbath, not just during a pandemic, takes courage and commitment as we automatically become vulnerable to one another. What one of us says and does can bless or hurt us all. This can be no drowsy worship: we are the poor, the ugly and the dying.

When I hear the secular folks in society scoff at attending church as a “crutch for the weak”, they underestimate what it means to admit a desperate need for salvation and grace that can only be found inside those doors. We who sit in a pew in the sanctuary cling to the life preserver found in the Word. We are lashed to our seats and must hang on.  It is only because of God’s grace that we survive the tempests of temptation, guilt and self-doubt in order to let go of our own anger at the state of the world and the state of our own souls.

Exposing ourselves to the radical mystery and immense power of the living God is not for the faint of heart, yet all of us on the verge of heart failure need God’s deep roots to thrive and grow in our rocky soul soil.

So today, and every day, we must not forget our crash helmets… or our masks.

Only the Strength We Have

The heart’s reasons
seen clearly,
even the hardest
will carry
its whip-marks and sadness
and must be forgiven.

As the drought-starved
eland forgives
the drought-starved lion
who finally takes her,
enters willingly then
the life she cannot refuse,
and is lion, is fed,
and does not remember the other.

So few grains of happiness
measured against all the dark
and still the scales balance.

The world asks of us
only the strength we have and we give it.
Then it asks more, and we give it.

~Jane Hirshfield “The Weighing” from The Beauty

So many right now feel they have no more left to give;
so much has been asked, so much sacrificed,
the scale feels broken, forever out of balance.

Yet more strength is needed, more requested,
and somehow in some way,
the scale steadies, rebalances
because of that extra effort.

We can’t give up now.
We need each other to give a little more
try a little harder
go a little farther
smile behind the mask
while showing our smile above the mask.

It only takes a little love
to balance out all the rest.

from “Feats of Strength” by Tom Otterness at Western Washington University

August Burns Low

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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

“…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

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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 white 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 cricket song 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 the crickets, become all too aware we too are descending. Not only are the skies are filled with smoke from uncontrolled wildfires, but the streets are filled with protesters and counter-protesters who loot and shoot rather than meet to ask questions, and our future is filled with the uncertain timeline of ongoing pandemic destruction as nature has the upper hand yet again. 

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.

Yet the Word brings Grace unlike any other, even when the cricket song, pathetic and transient as it is, is gone.  The Word brings Grace, like no other, to pathetic and transient man who shall emerge transformed.

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

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Fighting a Harder Battle

Mostly, I want to be kind.
And nobody, of course, is kind,
or mean,
for a simple reason.

~Mary Oliver from “Dogfish”

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.
~Plato

Our mare Belinda has a two decade history of fighting the hard battle of being consistently on the bottom of the mare hierarchy. She is unusually shy, very submissive and never one to stir up trouble in the herd. Most of the time she simply wants to disappear so the other mares can’t see her to bully her.

I’ve watched her over the years to learn how she copes day in and day out with her low status. She is clearly more clever than the higher-ranking mares who lord it over her, reminding her of their rank.

In the mornings when the mares are turned out to pasture from their individual stalls, I always open Belinda’s door first so she has the option to walk out to pasture ahead of the others if she chooses. Instead, she’ll stand waiting at the open door, watching the other mares leave their stalls and pass by, then follow behind them out to pasture keeping a safe distance between them and herself.

Once outside, she’ll stand at the water barrel just inside the pasture gate, and pretend to drink water for several minutes (I’m convinced she doesn’t actually drink a drop) while the other mares wander into the field to find their preferred grazing spot.

Once the others are clearly settled, she joins them at a safe distance. Then the worst bully will approach her, just as Belinda has started to eat, and will start to groom Belinda’s withers with her teeth. This is a clear invitation to be scratched back, so despite being hungry and clearly fearful, Belinda mutually chews/scratches for at least ten minutes with her mortal enemy. I’d like to think this is their brief truce in the battle for status every day; one clearly has a need and wants Belinda to comply. Belinda is more than willing to set aside her own needs if it means keeping peace in the herd.

At the end of the day, Belinda stays up in the field until the other mares have returned to the barn and are back in their stalls with the doors latched. I know she counts the number of doors she hears closing because she will refuse to come in from outside and return to her stall until she hears the last door closing, knowing it is then safe to some into the barn.

The first thing she does returning to her stall is to drop a pile of manure right inside her door. It is her claim of “mine” – no other horse here does that, since they would have to walk through manure to leave the stall, but for Belinda, it is a way of saying if for some reason the closed door isn’t enough to keep her secure, the pile of manure at least marks her territory.

She does not always have a peaceful night alone in her stall as I would expect. Her stall floor is churned and messy in the morning, as if she continues to be on the move even in the darkness, or perhaps she is a mare having nightmares.

I know her long life has been one of constant worry and vigilance despite always having access to plenty of food, a safe place to rest at night and always being part of a community, though not one that has supported her.

She reminds me that everyone, especially the lowest on the totem pole, deserves kindness because I cannot possibly understand the battles they are fighting, both day and night.

And they deserve respect: to simply survive, they are much smarter than I am.