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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Dreaming of Rain

Mine, O thou Lord of life, send my roots rain
~Gerard Manley Hopkins  “Thou art indeed just, Lord”

it rained in my sleep
and in the morning the fields were wet

I dreamed of artillery
of the thunder of horses

in the morning the fields were strewn
with twigs and leaves

as if after a battle
or a sudden journey

I went to sleep in the summer
I dreamed of rain

in the morning the fields were wet
and it was autumn

~Linda Pastan “September” from Carnival Evening

Even though we are experiencing outlandishly brilliant and sunny late summer weather, I am longing for rain – it has been much too long without a decent soaking and I’m antsy and anxious when the ground is all dust and the air is in need of a good cleansing.

It’s true that my spirit can be just as dry and dusty as the ground, and my roots are parched. I know the need for a drenching renewal isn’t just for the soil.

Lord of Life,
send your refreshing rain to quench my continual thirst.
Reach down with your torrential Love and bathe my roots.

Original Barnstorming artwork note cards available as a gift to you with a $50 donation to support Barnstorming – information here
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As the Sky Broke Open

The clouds had made a crimson crown
Above the mountains high.
The stormy sun was going down
In a stormy sky.
Why did you let your eyes so rest on me,
And hold your breath between?
In all the ages this can never be
As if it had not been.
~Mary Elizabeth Coleridge “A Moment”

Thunder blossoms gorgeously above our heads,
Great, hollow, bell-like flowers,
Rumbling in the wind,
Stretching clappers to strike our ears . . .

Full-lipped flowers
Bitten by the sun
Bleeding rain
Dripping rain like golden honey—
And the sweet earth flying from the thunder.

~Jean Toomer “Storm Ending”

A thunderstorm swirled above us last night as we finished our farm chores, dropping noisy raindrops and then passing until the next cloud rolled over and dumped some more. I climbed to the top of our hill and looked out at a busted-up sky trying to mend itself. It was trying to zip itself together again but once fractured, it was broken forever, pouring gold rays of sunbeams like honey onto the landscape.

In that moment of broken sky, I was doused in a Light that breathed golden breath on me, reminding me not to forget:
He is here.

God does not leave us comfortless in the storms of our lives so be not afraid. He is still here in the morning.

Let it come, as it will, and don’t   
be afraid. God does not leave us   
comfortless, so let evening come.
~Jane Kenyon “Let Evening Come”

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A Wet and Trembling Solstice

The light stretched and tangy, up on its horse
and riding through the ripening meadows,
buzzing the leaves and the
birds who’ve been at it for hours.
Light that in its excess has become something else.
The way you look from a hill’s highest point,
your head full of chlorophyll,
heart shucking winter like a clayload of guilt,
like pollen with its open fire policy
compensating loss. You exceed yourself,
tanked on the light and the birds
who’ve been singing forever.
~Donna Kane from Summer Solstice

Green was the silence, wet was the light
the month of June trembled like a butterfly
~Pablo Neruda from “Sonnet XL”

Why do we bother with the rest of the day,
the swale of the afternoon,
the sudden dip into evening,
then night with his notorious perfumes,
his many-pointed stars?

This is the best—
throwing off the light covers,
feet on the cold floor,
and buzzing around the house on espresso—
maybe a splash of water on the face,
a palmful of vitamins—

but mostly buzzing around the house on espresso,
dictionary and atlas open on the rug,
the typewriter waiting for the key of the head,
a cello on the radio,
and, if necessary, the windows—
trees fifty, a hundred years old
out there,
heavy clouds on the way
and the lawn steaming like a horse
in the early morning.
~Billy Collins “Morning”

Early this morning, the northern hemisphere transitioned to summer, but aside from the date on the calendar, here it would be difficult to prove otherwise.  It has been unseasonably cool and wet, the skies stony gray, the rivers running full and fast, the ground peppered with puddles. Rain has chosen to fall at night, hiding behind the cover of darkness as if ashamed of itself.   As it should be.

What all this moisture will yield is acres and acres of towering grass growth, more grass than imaginable, more grass than we can keep mowed,  burying the horses up to their backs as they dive head long into the pasture.  The Haflingers don’t need to lower their necks to graze,  choosing instead to simply strip off the ripe tops of the grasses as they forge paths through five foot forage.   It is like children at a birthday party swiping the frosting off cupcake after cupcake, licking their fingers as they go.  Instead of icing, the horses’ muzzles are smeared with dandelion fluff,  grass seed and buttercup petals.

Here in the northwest, June can tend to shroud its promise of longer days under clouds.  Outdoor weddings brace for rain and wind with a supply of umbrellas, graduation potlucks are served on covered porches and Fourth of July picnics stay inside, sheltered and dry. 

Despite the cool and wet, people here still have that universal wary anticipation of solstice as it signals the slow inexorable return of darkness from which we have not yet fully recovered.

I got up early this morning to witness the beginning of summer just to see what might happen. You never know what might be just over the horizon as we round this corner to face the darkening.

Trembling, I splash through this squishy morning, quivering like a wet butterfly emerging from its cocoon ready to unfurl its wings to dry, but unsure how to fly and uncertain of the new world that awaits.  In fact the dark empty cocoon can look mighty inviting on a rainy June night or during a loud mid-day thunderstorm.   If I could manage to squeeze myself back in, it might be worth a try.

After all, there is no place like home, sweet (but damp) home.

Daylight comes and nighttime goes, nighttime falls, day flies
Round and round the cycle goes,
we live and then we die and then we live and then we die.
The seasons of my life go round, the sunshine and the rain
The fallow and the fruitful days,
the joy and then the pain and then the joy and then the pain.
As light below, so light above, so light in all we see

The light is in the act of love, the light that sets us free,
yes, it’s the light that sets free.
Daylight comes…
~Libby Roderick

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Bowing Low to Wind and Rain

Light and wind are running
over the headed grass
as though the hill had
melted and now flowed.
~Wendell Berry “June Wind” from New Collected Poems

The rain to the wind said,
‘You push and I’ll pelt.’
They so smote the garden bed
That the flowers actually knelt,
And lay lodged–though not dead.
I know how the flowers felt.
~Robert Frost “Lodged”

All that I serve will die, all my delights,
the flesh kindled from my flesh, garden and field,
the silent lilies standing in the woods,
the woods, the hill, the whole earth, all
will burn in man’s evil, or dwindle
in its own age. Let the world bring on me
the sleep of darkness without stars, so I may know
my little light taken from me into the seed
of the beginning and the end, so I may bow
to mystery, and take my stand on the earth
like a tree in a field, passing without haste
or regret toward what will be, my life
a patient willing descent into the grass.
~Wendell Berry “The Wish to be Generous” from Collected Poems

The abundant grasses in the surrounding hay fields were hit hard with heavy rainfall and wind yesterday, collapsing under the weight of the pelting moisture.  Countless four foot tall tender stems are now lodged and flattened in undulating bent-over waves of green, embracing the earth from which they arose.  If the rain continues as predicted over the next several days, the grass may not recover, unable to dry out enough to stand upright again, nor are the fields dry enough to bring tractors and equipment to the rescue. 

It is ironic to lose a crop from too much of a good thing– lush growth demands, but often cannot withstand, quenching rains.  It has matured too fast, rising up too lush, too overcome with itself so that it can no longer stand. The grass keels over in community, broken and crumpled, likely now unsuitable for cutting or baling into hay, and unless chopped quickly into silage to ferment for winter cattle feed, it must melt back into the soil again.

However–if there are dry spells amid the showers over the next few days, with a breeze to lift the soaked heads and squeeze out the wet sponge created by layered forage–the lodged crop may survive and rise back up. It may be raised and lifted again, pushing up to meet the sun, its stems strengthening and straightening.

What once was so heavy laden and down-trodden might lighten;
what was silent could once again move and sing and wave with the wind.

The hill pasture, an open place among the trees,
tilts into the valley. The clovers and tall grasses
are in bloom. Along the foot of the hill
dark floodwater moves down the river.
The sun sets. Ahead of nightfall the birds sing.
I have climbed up to water the horses
and now sit and rest, high on the hillside,
letting the day gather and pass. Below me
cattle graze out across the wide fields of the bottomlands,
slow and preoccupied as stars. In this world
men are making plans, wearing themselves out,
spending their lives, in order to kill each other.

~Wendell Berry “In This World” from Farming: A Handbook

What stood will stand, though all be fallen,
The good return that time has stolen.
Though creatures groan in misery,
Their flesh prefigures liberty
To end travail and bring to birth
Their new perfection in new earth.
At word of that enlivening
Let the trees of the woods all sing
And every field rejoice, let praise
Rise up out of the ground like grass.
What stood, whole in every piecemeal
Thing that stood, will stand though all
Fall–field and woods and all in them
Rejoin the primal Sabbath’s hymn.
~Wendell Berry, from “Sabbaths” (North Point Press, 1987)
.

From The Nicene Creed

Et expecto resurrectionem motuorum.
Et vitam venturi saeculi. Amen. Alleluia. 

And I look for the resurrection of the dead,
And the life of the world to come. Amen. Alleluia

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Raise Your Hands in Wonder

Here, where this present
darkness presses in, pushes
down, imprisons you in
ice and stone to wall you up
alive or crush you into dust,
even here, the gold glimmers
through a crack in the rock, splits
the stones as it flames up
in the ruby hue of a tulip
bursting into bloom, droops
down in the blushing pink
of a cherry blossom fluttering
in the breeze, sings in the
trilling call of a finch,
shines in dewdrops sparkling
on a spider’s web. Oh the gold
pulsing in graced moments
of camaraderie and laughter,
in the warmth of gentle hands
caressing a cold brow, in quiet
words of love that brim
the hearer’s eyes with tears.
And the gold that rises up
like incense when you raise your
eyes, your heart, your hands
in wonder, thanks, and praise.
All this golden glory! Light
and love. And life. And life. And life!

~E.M. MacDonald “The Double Strand”

It feels as if everything is emerging from the darkness:
birdsong is earlier and louder,
grass squeaks with growth,
buds unfurling with vigor,
light glowing with promise.

There is much momentum
running pellmell into longer days;
so much glory bursting all at once.

As showers blow in
from clouds gray and thick with menace,
we are stilled and quieted in the drenching,
waiting, arms raised, for a shaft of light
to break through again,
turning everything from gray to golden.

photo by Natalia Burke

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But For Rain…

Every valley drinks,
        Every dell and hollow:
    Where the kind rain sinks and sinks,
        Green of Spring will follow.
 
    Yet a lapse of weeks
        Buds will burst their edges,
    Strip their wool-coats, glue-coats, streaks,
        In the woods and hedges;

    But for fattening rain
        We should have no flowers,
    Never a bud or leaf again
        But for soaking showers;

    We should find no moss
        In the shadiest places,
    Find no waving meadow grass
        Pied with broad-eyed daisies:
 
    But miles of barren sand,

        With never a son or daughter,
    Not a lily on the land,
        Or lily on the water.
~Christina Georgina Rossetti from “Winter Rain” from  Poems of Christina Rossetti (1904)


Reading the news of ongoing drought in the U.S. Southwest being the worst in over a thousand years, I look at our over-filled Northwest rain gauges with renewed appreciation and gratitude. We’ve had more “fattening” rain than typical over the last several months, which at times resulted in devastating flooding and damage, impacting hundreds of homes and businesses. Yet, but for rain, we too would become miles and miles of barren sand, with nothing able to thrive and grow, no sons or daughters or the beauty of the lilies.

I love our “kind” rain: the wet, the drizzle, the mist, the gray, the clouds, the mud, the moss, the slosh and the “evening dews and damps.”

“In the beauty of the lilies, Christ was born across the sea…”
The rain transfigures us all.

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
                       His truth is marching on.

I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:
                       His day is marching on.

I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
“As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
                       Since God is marching on.”

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat:
Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet!
                       Our God is marching on.

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me:
As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
                       While God is marching on.
~Julia Ward Howe (published 1862)

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A Cache of Love

January’s drop-down menu
leaves everything to the imagination:
splotch the ice, splice the light,
remake the spirit…

Just get on with it,
doing what you have to do
with the gray palette that lies
to hand. The sun’s coming soon.

A future, then, of warmth and runoff,
and old faces surprised to see us.
A cache of love, I’d call it,
opened up, vernal, refreshed.
~Sidney Burris “Runoff”

When I reach the end of January in all its grayest pallor, it is hard to imagine another six weeks of winter ahead. It can feel like nature offers only a few options, take your pick: a soupy foggy morning, a drizzly mid-day, a crisp northeast wind, an unexpected snow flurry, a soggy evening.

Every once in awhile the January drop-down menu will add a special surprise: icy spikes on grass blades, frozen droplets on birch branches, hair ice on wood, crystallized weeds like jewelry in the sun, a pink flannel blanket sunrise, an ocean-of-orange sunset.

Then I realize January’s gray palette is merely preparation for what has been hidden from me the whole time. There is Love cached away, and as it is revealed, it will not let me go.

photo of hair ice in King County, Washington taken by Laura Reifel

O Love that will not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
That in thy ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.

O Joy that seeks me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain,
That morn shall tearless be.

~George Matheson

(“O Love” was inspired by the words of Scottish minister, George Matheson in 1882. Blinded at the age of nineteen, his fiancé called off their engagement and his sister cared for him as he endured new challenges.  Years later, on the eve of his sister’s wedding, he faced the painful reminder of his own heartache and loss as he penned the words to this hymn.) from ElaineHagenborg.com

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Never Enough Light in November

Taken from our farm–cornfield stubble and feeding swans

That country where it is always turning late in the year.
That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist;
where noons go quickly,
dusks and twilights linger,
and midnights stay.
That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun.
That country whose people are autumn people,
thinking only autumn thoughts.
Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain.

~Ray Bradbury from The October Country

Just as a painter needs light
in order to put the finishing touches to his picture,
so I need an inner light,
which I feel I never have enough of in the autumn.
~Leo Tolstoy

A few days of heavy rain in November transforms our farm to mush. Puddles are everywhere, the ground is saturated and mushrooms are sprouting in the most unlikely places. It’s ideal weather for the trumpeter swans and snow geese who glean in the nearby harvested cornfields, filling up on dropped corn kernels. They fly overhead to head out to the fields, noisily honking, their wings swooshing the air as they pass over.

The wet weather means chores are more challenging on our farm. Some of the stalls in the barn have started to get moist from the rising ground water, so the Haflingers appreciate diving into fresh shavings for a good roll and shake. I can appreciate the relief they feel as I like getting back to solid footing too at the end of the day. Much of my day also seems to be spent navigating slippery slopes and muddy terrain, both real and figurative.

It isn’t always apparent what ground is treacherous from appearance alone. The grassy slope heading down to the barn from the house looks pretty benign until I start navigating in a driving rainstorm in the dark, and suddenly the turf becomes a skating rink and I’m finding I’m picking my way carefully with a flashlight. The path I seek is to find the patches of moss, which happily soak up the water like a sponge carpet-like, so not slick to walk on. Even if moss ordinarily is not a welcome addition to lawn or pasture–I appreciate it this time of year.

Another challenge is pushing a wheelbarrow with two 60 pound bales of hay back up that slope to the stalls for the day’s feeding. There is no traction underneath to help my feet stick to the ground for the push uphill. I can feel particularly foolish at this futile effort–my feet sometimes slide out beneath me, landing me on my knees down on the ground, soaked and humiliated, and the wheelbarrow goes skidding right back down to the barn door where it started.

Trusting the footing underneath my feet is crucial day to day. If I am to get work done most efficiently and make progress, I must have solid ground to tread. But the stuff of real life, like our farm’s ground, doesn’t come made to order that way. Some days are slick and treacherous, unpredictable and ready to throw me to my knees, while other days are simple, easy, and smooth sailing. Waking in the morning, I cannot know what I will face that day–whether I need my highest hip boots to wade through the muck or whether I can dash about in comfy house slippers. My attitude has something to do with it too–sometimes my “internal” footing is loose and slippery, tripping up those around me as well as myself. That is when I need most to plant myself in the solid foundation that I know will support me during those treacherous times. I need my faith, my need to forgive and experience forgiveness, my family holding me as I fall, and to help pick them up when they are down. Without those footings every day, I’m nothing more than a muddy soiled mess lying face down on the ground wondering if I’ll ever walk again.

There is good reason I end up on my knees at times. It is the best reminder of where I would be full time if it were not for stronger Hands that lift me up, clean me up and guide my footsteps all my days.

A book of beauty in words and photography, available for order here:

My Delight to Linger

Yet one smile more, departing, distant sun!
One mellow smile through the soft vapory air,
Ere, o’er the frozen earth, the loud winds run,
Or snows are sifted o’er the meadows bare.
One smile on the brown hills and naked trees,
And the dark rocks whose summer wreaths are cast,
And the blue gentian flower, that, in the breeze,
Nods lonely, of her beauteous race the last.
Yet a few sunny days, in which the bee
Shall murmur by the hedge that skirts the way,
The cricket chirp upon the russet lea,
And man delight to linger in thy ray.
Yet one rich smile, and we will try to bear
The piercing winter frost, and winds, and darkened air.
~William Cullen Bryant “November”

The window of richness is brief these early November mornings,
enough time to feed and water animals,
watch the geese fly overhead,
capture the light and fog in soft vapory air
before it dissipates back to
just another ordinary day.
This blessing of light is
beyond my understanding,
beyond my ability to preserve,
beyond any gratitude I can offer.
It is freely given with a smile
and I delight to linger…

A book of beauty in words and photography – available to order here: