Never Got Wet

When the doctor suggested surgery
and a brace for all my youngest years,
my parents scrambled to take me
to massage therapy, deep tissue work,
osteopathy, and soon my crooked spine
unspooled a bit, I could breathe again,
and move more in a body unclouded
by pain. My mom would tell me to sing
songs to her the whole forty-five minute
drive to Middle Two Rock Road and forty-
five minutes back from physical therapy.
She’d say, even my voice sounded unfettered
by my spine afterward. So I sang and sang,
because I thought she liked it. I never
asked her what she gave up to drive me,
or how her day was before this chore. Today,
at her age, I was driving myself home from yet
another spine appointment, singing along
to some maudlin but solid song on the radio,
and I saw a mom take her raincoat off
and give it to her young daughter when
a storm took over the afternoon. My god,
I thought, my whole life I’ve been under her
raincoat thinking it was somehow a marvel
that I never got wet.
~Ada Limón “The Raincoat”

When I was 13, I grew too quickly. My spine developed a thoracic scoliosis (curvature) — after inspecting my back as I bent over to touch my toes, my pediatrician referred me to a pediatric orthopedic specialist an hour away from my home town.

The question was whether I would need to have a metal rod surgically placed along my spine to prevent it from more misalignment or whether I would need to wear a back brace like a turtle. The least intervention would be physical therapy to try to keep my back and abdominal muscles as strong as possible to limit the curvature.

Since my father didn’t have much flexibility in his work schedule, my mother had to drive me to the “big city” for my appointments – as a nervous driver, she did it only because she knew it was necessary to get the medical opinion needed. She asked me to read aloud to her from whatever book I was reading at the time – I don’t think she listened closely but I think she knew it would keep me occupied while she navigated traffic.

At first, we went every three months for new xrays. The orthopedist would draw on my bare back and on my spine xrays with a black marker, calculating my curves and angles with his protractor, watching for a trend of worsening as I grew taller. He reassured us that I hadn’t yet reached a critical level of deviation requiring more aggressive treatment.

Eventually my growth rate slowed down and the specialist dismissed me from further visits, wishing me well. He told me I would certainly be somewhat “crooked” for the rest of my life, and it would inevitably worsen in my later years. I continued to visit PT for regular visits; my mom would patiently wait in the car as I sweated my way through the regimen.

The orthopedist was right about the curvature of my aging spine. I am not only a couple inches shorter now, but my rib cage and chest wall is asymmetric affecting my ability to stand up totally straight. Just last week, I had an xray of my collar bones as even those joints have developed wear and tear changes. I consider being crooked a small price to pay for avoiding a serious surgery or a miserable brace as a teenager.

What I didn’t understand at the time was the commitment my mother made to make sure I got the care I needed, even if it meant great inconvenience in her life, even if she was awake at night worried about the outcome of the appointments, even if the financial burden was significant for my family. She, like so many parents with children with significant medical or psychological challenges, gave up her wants and wishes to make sure I received what I needed. As a kid, I just assumed that’s what a mom does. Later, as a mom myself, I realized it is what moms do, but often at significant personal cost. As a physician, I saw many young people whose parents couldn’t make the commitment to see they got the care they needed, and it showed.

I was one blessed by parents who did what their kids needed to thrive.

My mom constantly offered me her raincoat so I wouldn’t get wet. Meanwhile she was being drenched.

Thank you, Mom, for making sure I was covered by your love. I still am.

Original Barnstorming artwork note cards available as a gift to you with a $50 donation to support Barnstorming – information here

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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Radical Gratitude

There is always an enormous temptation in all of life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for itsy-bitsy years on end. It is so self-conscious, so apparently moral, simply to step aside from the gaps where the creeks and winds pour down, saying, I never merited this grace, quite rightly, and then to sulk along the rest of your days on the edge of rage.

I won’t have it. The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous and bitter, more extravagant and bright.

We are making hay when we should be making whoopee;
we are raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain,
or Lazarus.
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Other than a few exceptional circumstances in my life, I have always played it safe: a down-home, don’t rock the boat, work hard and live-a-quiet-life kind of person. My grandparents lived that way, my parents lived that way so I feel like it is bound in the twists and turns of my DNA.

Even so, I do know a thing or two about sulking on the edge of rage, lost in a morass of seething bitterness about the state of the world.  Yet if I were honest about it, my discontent is all about me, always about me. I want to have accomplished more to deserve taking up space in my days on earth.

But that’s a problem we all have, isn’t it? We’re never worthy of such unmerited grace as has been shown to us.  It is such a pure Gift I wait for, borne out of God’s radical sacrifice that warrants from me a life of radical gratitude, even when I choose to live it out a little quietly, making hay and raising tomatoes.

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A Heart I Cannot Fathom

Today, when I could do nothing,
I saved an ant.

It must have come in with the morning paper,
still being delivered
to those who shelter in place.

I have coffee and books,
time,
a garden,
silence enough to fill cisterns.

It must have first walked
the morning paper, as if loosened ink
taking the shape of an ant.

Small black ant, alone,
crossing a navy cushion,
moving steadily because that is what it could do.

Set outside in the sun,
it could not have found again its nest.
What then did I save?

It did not move as if it was frightened,
even while walking my hand,
which moved it through swiftness and air.

Ant, alone, without companions,
whose ant-heart I could not fathom —
how is your life, I wanted to ask.

I lifted it, took it outside.

This first day when I could do nothing,
contribute nothing
beyond staying distant from my own kind,
I did this.
~Jane Hirshfield from “Today, When I Could Do Nothing”

The other day, as I sat down in the grass to take pictures, I felt a tickle at the nape of my neck. I reached up, picked up something, and when I looked to see what it was, I found a tiny ant crushed in my fingers. Suddenly it felt like things were crawling everywhere on me, especially my scalp. I shook out my hair and clothes and found there weren’t any more ants. It was only one very unfortunate defenseless victim who chose the wrong place and time to inhabit me – unexpected, unwanted and unwelcome.

As a child, I was fascinated by the ant hills in the woods and fields of our small farm. I would track yards and yards of ant trails from the busy mounded colonies to tree trunks and other sources of food, watching the single file single-minded insects heading through all sorts of terrain to sustain their community. Having ants crawling on me wasn’t a problem then – they were part of my exploration of creation and sometimes they explored me.

How is your life, I wanted to ask.

Now as an adult, I confess I pay regularly for someone to come to the farm to spray around our house to prevent a resurgence of carpenter ants that threatened our foundation and walls some years ago. It works pretty well so I don’t have to deal with the reality of nature/creation invading my personal space. My wholistic acceptance of my co-existence with ants ends at my front door. No welcome mat for them, thou shalt not trespass.

I don’t seek to fathom their heart or a felt need to find food.

So now our country is embroiled in the polarizing issue of whether to protect the defenseless when they are unexpected, unwanted and unwelcome, especially when it may pose great personal risk to another. Many of those most upset by the judicial decision have a voice to protest today because their mother let them live, even though their conception was unexpected, unwanted and unwelcome. They were not prevented through prophylactic means, they were not squished in an intentional self-defensive move.

They were indeed part of creation.

They are living and whole and as angry and anxious as I was when I thought I was crawling with ants.

How is your life, I want to ask. How is it to feel what you are feeling right now?

I fathom your beating heart and that of a mother’s loving heart of selfless sacrifice.

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A Good Place For Us All to Live

This country will not be a good place for any of us to live in unless we make it a good place for all of us to live in.
~ Theodore Roosevelt

What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected, now shines on the stream:
Tis the star-spangled banner…
~Francis Scott Key – excerpt from the rarely sung second verse

I grew up with a flag pole in our front yard; the American flag was raised every morning by my WWII veteran father and lowered at dusk every evening. This was far more than a ritual for my father; he saw it as his obligation and privilege after the three years he spent as a Marine officer in the South Pacific. He had the freedom, as well as the necessity, to declare our hard-won liberty to any who passed by. The flag was his reminder, a tangible symbol of having fought beneath it, watching others shed blood and die for it.

My father was not one to weep – ever. But his eyes filled up when we visited the original The Star-Spangled banner in its display at the Smithsonian Institute in the 1960s, and again as we stood before the Iwo Jima Memorial Marine flag-raising sculpture. The fact the flag meant so much to him is impressed and imprinted upon me.

He would have been horrified at how the flag is currently misused as a symbol of “my patriotism is more true and pure than yours” — it was displayed like a talisman by the rioters who stormed the Capitol building on January 6, 2021. The American flag has been through many tough times since it was designed – during my lifetime it was burned as an expression of free speech and ignored when people are asked to recite “The Pledge of Allegiance.”

The flag now seems to be Exhibit A representing our deep divisions rather than our unity.

June 14 (Flag Day) no longer has the impact that it had over a century ago when it was first declared, observing the day in 1777 the Second Continental Congress passed a resolution to create a flag for the new United States. My mother, growing up in the isolation of the Palouse wheat farms in eastern Washington state, would reminisce about Depression-era Flag Day parades, picnics and celebrations in the small farming communities of Waverly and Fairfield. It was a mere warm up for the all-out patriotic gatherings planned for July 4 – indeed a community on display.

As I place our flag out on our porch today, I am honoring it as a symbol of a country which values the freedoms of all people.

May this banner fly proudly for many generations to come.
Here is the proof, through all the dark and contentious nights of our country’s history, that our flag is still here.

Let’s ensure this is a good place for all of us to live in.

The Star Spangled Banner – Smithsonian Institute
Iwo Jima monument – Arlington Cemetery

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Seeing It Through

I wanted you to see what real courage is,
instead of getting the idea
that courage is a man
with a gun in his hand.
It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin,
but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.

~Harper Lee from To Kill A Mockingbird

I know. It’s all wrong.
By rights we shouldn’t even be here.
But we are.

It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end.

Because how could the end be happy?
How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow.

Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why.

But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going, because they were holding on to something. That there is some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for.
~J.R.R. Tolkien – Samwise Gamgee to Frodo in The Two Towers

Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. 
It means a strong desire to live
taking the form of a readiness to die.
~ G.K. Chesterton from “The Paradoxes of Christianity” in Orthodoxy

This is another day, O Lord…
If I am to stand up, help me to stand bravely.
If I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly.
If I am to lie low, help me to do it patiently.
And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly.
— Kathleen Norris citing the Book of Common Prayer

What courage it takes to step out one’s front door these days.

I never know where I might be swept off to
or what I might be swept into.

When I feel overwhelmed and discouraged,
when it seems the world is cast in nothing but shadow,
I am reminded I too am part of a great story
and the plot progression is, by necessity, a mystery.

While the darkness seems to never end,
I will pass through shadows and feel great fear,
I will be asked to do things that threaten my well-being
because it is the right thing to do for another.

Yet we are promised Light and Joy at the end of this epic story.
There is still good in the world and it is worth fighting for.

It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door. You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off too.
~J.R.R. Tolkien – Bilbo to Frodo in Fellowship of the Rings

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Secret Purple Wisdom

There’s always an iris
amusing and amazing.
Today, wildly purple stretching
to search dark colors,
open and about to reach.
Reach.

Even the vase holds on,
shows courage for both
who touch the beautiful,
alive and color to color,
evoking how one can love another.
Longer to live, shorter to die.
~Eloise Klein Healy “Iris”

What word informs the world,
and moves the worm along in his blind tunnel?

What secret purple wisdom tells the iris edges
to unfold in frills? What juiced and emerald thrill

urges the sap until the bud resolves
its tight riddle? What irresistible command

unfurls this cloud above this greening hill,
or one more wave — its spreading foam and foil —

across the flats of sand? What minor thrust
of energy issues up from humus in a froth

of ferns? Delicate as a laser, it filigrees
the snow, the stars. Listen close — What silver sound

thaws winter into spring? Speaks clamor into singing?
Gives love for loneliness? It is this

un-terrestrial pulse, deep as heaven, that folds you
in its tingling embrace, gongs in your echo heart.

~Luci Shaw “What Secret Purple Wisdom”  The Green Earth: Poems of Creation 

He gave Himself to us
to wrest joy from our misery-

A mystery is too much to accept
such sacrifice is possible.

We are blind-hearted to the possibility:
He who cannot be measured unfolds before us
to reach us, overwhelming our darkness. 

I prefer remaining closed in my bud,
hidden in the little room of my heart
rather than risk opening by loving another
in full blossom and fruitfulness.

Lord, give me grace to open my tight fist of a bud.

Prepare me for embracing your mystery. 
Prepare me to unfurl,
to reach out beyond myself.
Prepare me to bloom wildly purple.

What is the crying at Jordan?
Who hears, O God, the prophecy?
Dark is the season, dark
our hearts and shut to mystery.

Who then shall stir in this darkness
prepare for joy in the winter night?
Mortal in darkness we
lie down, blind-hearted, seeing no light.

Lord, give us grace to awake us,
to see the branch that begins to bloom;
in great humility
is hid all heaven in a little room.

Now comes the day of salvation,
in joy and terror the Word is born!
God gives himself into our lives;
Oh, let salvation dawn!
~Carol Christopher Drake

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Learning to Fish for Happiness

If winter is a house then summer is a window
in the bedroom of that house. Sorrow is a river
behind the house and happiness is the name

of a fish who swims downstream. The unborn child
who plays in the fragrant garden is named Mavis:
her red hair is made of future and her sleek feet

are wet with dreams. The cat who naps
in the bedroom has his paws in the sun of summer
and his tail in the moonlight of change. You and I

spend years walking up and down the dusty stairs
of the house. Sometimes we stand in the bedroom
and the cat walks towards us like a message.

Sometimes we pick dandelions from the garden
and watch the white heads blow open
in our hands. We are learning to fish in the river

of sorrow; we are undressing for a swim.
~Faith Shearin, “The Name of a Fish” from The Owl Question

We can be swallowed by our sorrow,
flowing past our feet, threatening to sweep us away.
Yet we might pull off our shoes and wade right in
looking for what happiness we might catch,
or simply watch it swim by, taking comfort in knowing
it still swirls around us.

It is possible to feel sadness and to rejoice all at once,
to hold infinity gently in the palm of my hand,
ready to disperse from a casual breeze
or intentional breath.

This sacrifice of One is only the beginning. 
A Breath started it all and ends it all.

How can it be when nothing is left, everything is gained?

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.

When the Soul Slept in Beams of Light 
God Appears & God is Light
To those poor Souls who dwell in Night 
But does a Human Form Display
To those who Dwell in Realms of day
~William Blake from “Auguries of Innocence”

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A Darkened Path

We grow accustomed to the Dark —
When Light is put away —
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Good bye —

A Moment — We Uncertain step
For newness of the night —
Then — fit our Vision to the Dark —
And meet the Road — erect —

And so of larger — Darknesses —
Those Evenings of the Brain —
When not a Moon disclose a sign —
Or Star — come out — within —

The Bravest — grope a little —
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead —
But as they learn to see —

Either the Darkness alters —
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight —
And Life steps almost straight.

~Emily Dickinson

photo by Bob Tjoelker

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 Hirschfield from “The Weighing”

I admit that I’m stumbling about in the dark right now,
bearing the bruises and scrapes of
random collisions with objects hidden in the night.

My eyes must slowly adjust to such bare illumination,
as the Lamp has been carried away.
I must feel my way through this time of life.

I suspect there are fellow darkness travelers
who also have lost their way and their Light,
giving what they can and sometimes more.

And so, blinded as we each are,
we run forehead-first into the Tree
which has always been there and always will be.

Because of who we are and Who loves us,
we, now free and forgiven,
follow a darkened road nearly straight, all the way Home.

May you see God’s light on the path ahead
when the road you walk is dark.
May you always hear even in your hour of sorrow
the gentle singing of the lark.
When times are hard
may hardness never turn your heart to stone.
May you always remember when the shadows fall–
You do not walk alone.

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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: Crushed and Oozing

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.   
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;   
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed.
~Gerard Manley Hopkins from “God’s Grandeur”

What took Him to this wretched place
What kept Him on this road?

~Stuart Townend and Keith Getty from “Gethesemane”

photo by Bob Tjoelker


Jesus said, wait with me. But the disciples slept.
Jesus said, wait with me. And maybe the stars did,
maybe the wind wound itself into a silver tree, and didn’t move, maybe
the lake far away, where once he walked as on a
blue pavement,
lay still and waited, wild awake.
Oh the dear bodies, slumped and eye-shut, that could not
keep that vigil, how they must have wept,
so utterly human, knowing this too
must be a part of the story.

~Mary Oliver from “Gethsemane”

You could not watch one hour with me–James Tissot

Today marks the crushing of Christ in the Garden of the Oil Press: Gethsemane -a place of olive trees treasured for the fine oil delivered from their fruit. And so, on this night, the pressure is turned up high on the disciples, not just on Jesus.

The disciples are expected, indeed commanded, to keep watch alongside the Master, to be filled with prayer, to avoid the temptation of their weakened flesh at every turn.

But they fail pressure testing and fall apart. 

Like them, I am easily lulled by complacency, by my over-indulged satiety for material comforts that do not truly fill hunger or quench thirst,  by my expectation that being called a follower of Jesus is somehow enough.

It is not enough.
I fail the pressure test as well.

I fall asleep through His anguish.
I dream, oblivious, while He sweats blood.
I give Him up with a kiss.
I might even deny I know Him when I’m pressed hard.

Yet, the moment of His betrayal becomes the moment He is glorified,
thereby God is glorified and we are saved. 

Crushed, bleeding, poured out over the world –
He becomes the sacrifice that anoints us.

Incredibly,
mysteriously,
indeed miraculously,
He loves us anyway, broken as we are,
because He knows broken like no other.

Van Gogh – Olive Grove 1889

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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