These Dark Days of Autumn Rain

My Sorrow, when she’s here with me,
     Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;
She loves the bare, the withered tree;
     She walks the sodden pasture lane.

Her pleasure will not let me stay.
     She talks and I am fain to list:
She’s glad the birds are gone away,
She’s glad her simple worsted gray
     Is silver now with clinging mist.

The desolate, deserted trees,
     The faded earth, the heavy sky,
The beauties she so truly sees,
She thinks I have no eye for these,
     And vexes me for reason why.

Not yesterday I learned to know
     The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow,
But it were vain to tell her so,
     And they are better for her praise.
~Robert Frost “My November Guest”

November,
this month of rapid darkening,
transforms itself
to a recounting of gratitude
of our daily thanksgiving and blessings~~
it is good to dwell on our gifts.

Even so, it is right
to invite Sorrow
to sit in silence with us,
her tears ever-blending with ours.

These deepening days
of bare stripped branches
feed our growing need
for the covering grace
of His coming light.

The mountains are steep and the valley’s low
And already I’m weary but I have so far to go
Oh, and sorrow holds my hand and suffering sings me songs
But when I close my eyes I know to whom I belong
And who makes me strong
And I will be free, I will be free to run the mountains
I will be free, free to drink from the living fountain
Oh, I’ll never turn back ’cause he awaits for me
Oh, I will be free
A wise man, a rich man in pauper’s clothes
A shepherd to lead us through the land of woes
Though many battles I have lost so many rivers yet to cross
But my eyes behold the Son who bore my loss and who paid the cost
I will be free, I will be free to run the mountains
I will be free, oh, free to drink from the living fountain
Oh, I’ll never turn back ’cause He awaits for me, oh
Oh, I will be free, oh
Oh and I’ll dance on silver moonlight and I’ll walk through velvet fields
Oh, and I’ll run into the arms the arms that set me free
Oh, I will be free to run the mountains, I will be free
Free to drink from the living fountain
Oh, I’ll never turn back ’cause He awaits, oh
I’ll never turn back
Don’t you ever turn back
‘Cause someday, someday we’re gonna see
That we will be free
Songwriter: Cindy Lavonne Morgan

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Spark of Consciousness

This was our pretty gray kitten,
hence her name; who was born
in our garage and stayed nearby
her whole life. There were allergies;
so she was, as they say,
an outside cat.
But she loved us. For years,
she was at our window.
Sometimes, a paw on the screen
as if to want in, as if
to be with us
the best she could.
She would be on the deck,
at the sliding door.
She would be on the small
sill of the window in the bathroom.
She would be at the kitchen
window above the sink.
We’d go to the living room;
anticipating that she’d be there, too,
hop up, look in.
She’d be on the roof,
she’d be in a nearby tree.
She’d be listening
through the wall to our family life.
She knew where we were,
and she knew where we were going
and would meet us there.
Little spark of consciousness,
calm kitty eyes staring
through the window.

After the family broke,
and when the house was about to sell,
I walked around it for a last look.
Under the eaves, on the ground,
there was a path worn in the dirt,
tight against the foundation —
small padded feet, year after year,
window to window.

When we moved, we left her
to be fed by the people next door.
Months after we were gone,
they found her in the bushes
and buried her by the fence.
So many years after,
I can’t get her out of my mind.

~Philip F. Deaver, “Gray” from How Men Pray

Our pets witness the routine of our lives. They know when the food bowl remains empty too long, or when no one offers their lap to stroke their fur.

They sit silently waiting and wondering, a little spark of consciousness, aware of our family life. They know when things aren’t right at home. They hear the raised voices and they hear the strained silences.

Sometimes a farm cat moves on, looking for a place with more consistency and better feeding grounds. Most often they stick close to what they know, even if it isn’t entirely a happy or welcoming place. After all, it’s home; that’s where they stay, through thick and thin.

When my family broke as my parents split, after the furniture was removed and the dust of over thirty five years of marriage swept up, I wondered if our cat and dog had seen it coming before we did. They had been peering through the window at our lives, gauging what amount of spilled-out love might be left over for them.

I still can’t get them out of my mind – they, like me, became children of divorce. We all knew when we left behind the only home we had ever known, we could never truly feel at home again.

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The Universal Theme

It’s good for the ego, when I call and they come
running, squawking and clucking, because it’s feedtime,
and once again I can’t resist picking up little Lazarus,
an orange-and-white pullet I adore. “Yes, yes, everything will be
okay,” I say to her glaring mongrel face. Come September,
she’ll begin to lay the blue-green eggs I love poached.
God dooms the snake to taste nothing but the dust
and the hen to 4,000 or so ovulations. Poor Lazarus—
last spring an intruder murdered her sisters and left her
garroted in the coop. There’s a way the wounded
light up a dark rectangular space. Suffering becomes
the universal theme. Too soft, and you’ll be squeezed;
too hard, and you’ll be broken. Even a hen knows this,
posing on a manure pile, her body a stab of gold.

~Henri Cole “Hens”

Every few minutes, he wants
to march the trail of flattened rye grass
back to the house of muttering
hens. He too could make
a bed in hay. Yesterday the egg so fresh
it felt hot in his hand and he pressed it
to his ear while the other children
laughed and ran with a ball, leaving him,
so little yet, too forgetful in games,
ready to cry if the ball brushed him,
riveted to the secret of birds
caught up inside his fist,
not ready to give it over
to the refrigerator
or the rest of the day.
~Naomi Shihab Nye “Boy and Egg”

I’ve bonded with chickens since my birth, living in a farm house adjacent to a large chicken coop. I was taught to gather eggs at a very young age, learning to approach the hens respectfully and steathily, ignoring their scolding clucks as I reached under their feathered bellies to find a smooth warm treasure. Carrying eggs to the house was a great privilege, knowing what a delicious meal they would become. I became a grateful friend to those hens.

I also learned that chickens were tragic figures, either sacrificed young as meat birds so large they could barely walk or after a few decent years of declining egg production for the hens. Participating in their butchering made me respect them even more for their unwitting willingness to suffer the indignity of the process to give their all for the survival of our family.

They are an ideal farm animal; the coyotes, weasels and raccoons think so too, digging into the chicken yard at night to steal unsuspecting hens from their nighttime roosts. Our compost pile has absorbed too many chickens murdered by varmints and left partially eaten in a pile of feathers.

Suffering is universal in this sad weary world. Somehow it is offset by an amazing ability to produce a perfect egg day after day after day.

Thank God for the muttering hens.

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

A blue horse turns into
a streak of lightning,
then the sun —
relating the difference between sadness
and the need to praise
that which makes us joyful,
I can’t calculate
how the earth tips hungrily
toward the sun – then soaks up rain —
or the density
of this unbearable need
to be next to you. It’s a palpable thing —
this earth philosophy
and familiar in the dark
like your skin under my hand.
We are a small earth. It’s no
simple thing. Eventually
we will be dust together;
can be used to make a house,
to stop a flood or grow food
for those who will never remember
who we were, or know
that we loved fiercely.
Laughter and sadness eventually become
the same song turning us
toward the nearest star —
a star constructed of eternity
and elements of dust barely visible
in the twilight as you travel
east. I run with the blue horses
of electricity who surround
the heart
and imagine a promise made
when no promise was possible.

~Joy Harjo “Promise of Blue Horses” from How We Became Human

Birds embody the shapes of my heart
these days


holding the warmth of a hug
in their feathers


the gleam of a kiss in
their eyes


building a home for my love
in their beaks


and spreading, with their song,
the promise of blue horses.

 

“A blue horse turns into a streak of lightning,
then the sun—
relating the difference between sadness
and the need to praise
that which makes us joyful.”
~Marjorie Moorhead, “That Which Makes Us Joyful” from Literary North

Even when my heart isn’t feeling it, especially when I’m blue (along with much of the rest of the world on this September 11 anniversary), I need to remember to whisper hymns of praise to the Creator of all that is blue as well as every other color.

I’m reminded of the goodness of a God who provides me with the words to sing and a voice to sing them out loud.

That reality alone makes me joyful. That alone is reason to worship Him. That alone is enough to turn blue days, blue horses and blue hearts gold again.

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Taking Care Where I Step

I didn’t stay for the closing
hymns and prayers. I felt
out of sorts, so I left.

Someone was before me
at the door: a child, gazing
at a spot on her wrist.

She said, “Can you help me?”
“What is it?”
“A ladybug,” she said.

So I opened the door,
and she said, “It jumped off.”
We stood looking around.

“It’ll be all right,” I said.
She went in, and I left,
taking care where I stepped.

~Louis Simpson “At the Church Door” from The Owner of the House.

Maker of All Things,
including appetite,
including stealth,
including the fear that makes
all of us, sometime or other,
flee for the sake
of our small and precious lives,
let me abide in your shadow—
let me hold on
to the edge of your robe
as you determine
what you must let be lost
and what will be saved.

I will try.
I will step from the house to see what I see and hear

and I will praise it…

But this too, I believe, is a place
where God is keeping watch
until we rise, and step forth again…
~Mary Oliver from “Red Bird”

Even when I am out of sorts,
even though my mind is already out the door
and the rest of me not far behind,
even though I am supposed to have a smile on my face
and encouraging words on my lips,
even though I should be focusing on who needs my help
rather than my own helplessness.

Then, somehow, there is solace.

I am plucked out of my doldrums
and given a chance to reset and start over –
God intervenes in the least likely way
so that I see things differently,
by watching where I am stepping to protect the defenseless
rather than plunge, lurch, stumble, crush my way back to the world.

I am a rescuer rescued, encouraged by encouragement, ready to step forth in compassion.

God is keeping watch over the mere lady bug and merest me.

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The Pain of the Empty Nest

If you notice anything
it leads you to notice
more
and more.

And anyway
I was so full of energy.
I was always running around, looking
at this and that.

If I stopped
the pain
was unbearable
.

If I stopped and thought, maybe
the world can’t be saved,
the pain
was unbearable.
~Mary Oliver from “The Moths” from Dream Work

Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention.

They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go next.
~Frederick Buechner from A Crazy Holy Grace

It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for a bird to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.
~C.S. Lewis from Mere Christianity

For the past eight days of August on our farm, we have heard loud cries from the sky, starting soon after sunrise and becoming more frequent before sunset. Every few minutes from one high tree top or another, we hear a shrill “kree” which sometimes sounds angry, too often mournful and full of pain.

These cries come from a young red-tailed hawk whose nest is emptied and whose parents have left it to fend for itself. Old enough to hunt, but not ready for that heady responsibility.

This is one unhappy bird, a fellow creature in distress, feeling abandoned in a confusing and often hostile world. I understand the distress; I felt it as well when I was young and still feel it at times now when the world feels hopelessly lost.

My new overly-vocal hawk neighbor will eventually find a home and its destiny in a new nest. Its wings and voice remain strong and are strengthening daily with constant exercise. And I will stop noticing the sting of tears in my eyes every time I hear its voice calling out its loneliness to me.

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A Voice Like No Other

More than once I’ve seen a dog
waiting for its owner outside a café
practically implode with worry. “Oh, God,
what if she doesn’t come back this time?
What will I do? Who will take care of me?
I loved her so much and now she’s gone
and I’m tied to a post surrounded by people
who don’t look or smell or sound like her at all.”
And when she does come, what a flurry
of commotion, what a chorus of yelping
and cooing and leaps straight up into the air!
It’s almost unbearable, this sudden
fullness after such total loss, to see
the world made whole again by a hand
on the shoulder and a voice like no other.

~John Brehm from “If Feeling Isn’t In It”

photo by Brandon Dieleman

We all need to know love like this:
so binding, so complete, so profoundly filling:
its loss empties our world of all meaning
as our flowing tears run dry.

So abandoned, we woeful wait,
longing for the return of
the gentle voice, the familiar smile,
the tender touch and encompassing embrace.

With unexpected restoration
when we’ve done nothing whatsoever to deserve it-
we leap and shout with unsurpassed joy,
this world without form and void is made whole again.

photo by Nate Gibson

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Postpone Until Monday

I was relief, once, for a doctor on vacation
and got a call from a man on a window sill.
This was New York, a dozen stories up.
He was going to kill himself, he said.
I said everything I could think of.
And when nothing worked, when the guy
was still determined to slide out that window
and smash his delicate skull
on the indifferent sidewalk, “Do you think,”
I asked, “you could just postpone it
until Monday, when Dr. Lewis gets back?”


The cord that connected us—strung
under the dirty streets, the pizza parlors, taxis,
women in sneakers carrying their high heels,
drunks lying in piss—that thick coiled wire
waited for the waves of sound.


In the silence I could feel the air slip
in and out of his lungs and the moment
when the motion reversed, like a goldfish
making the turn at the glass end of its tank.
I matched my breath to his, slid
into the water and swam with him.
“Okay,” he agreed.

~Ellen Bass “Phone Therapy” from Mules of Love

Love your neighbor as yourself is part of the great commandment.

The other way to say it is, ‘Love yourself as your neighbor.’ Love yourself not in some egocentric, self-serving sense but love yourself the way you would love your friend in the sense of taking care of yourself, nourishing yourself, trying to understand, comfort, strengthen yourself.

Ministers in particular, people in the caring professions in general, are famous for neglecting their selves with the result that they are apt to become in their own way as helpless and crippled as the people they are trying to care for and thus no longer selves who can be of much use to anybody. 

It means pay mind to your own life, your own health and wholeness, both for your own sake and ultimately for the sake of those you love too. Take care of yourself so you can take care of them.

A bleeding heart is of no help to anybody if it bleeds to death.
~Frederick Buechner from Telling Secrets

We are reminded every time we hear safety instructions on an airplane before a flight takes off: “in the event of a sudden pressure change in the cabin, oxygen masks will appear – remember to put your own on before helping others with their masks.”   

If we aren’t able to breathe ourselves, we won’t last long enough to be of assistance to anyone around us.  We must breathe, we must stay afloat to save the drowning. Too often,  sacrificing our self-care threatens others’ well-being.

A headline appeared in my email from the American Psychiatric Association this morning: “Physicians Experience the Highest Suicide Rate of Any Profession” – there is rampant depression and burn-out among those who should know best how to recognize and respond to the danger signs — for women physicians, nearly 1 out of 5 are afflicted.   Yet the work load only seems to increase, not diminish, the legal and moral responsibility weighs more heavily, and the hours available for sleep and respite shrink.  In forty plus years of practicing medicine (my father liked to remind me “when are you going to stop ‘practicing’ and actually ‘do’ it?”),  the work never got easier, only harder and heavier to carry.

I saw suicidal patients every day and am immensely grateful I myself have never been suicidal, thank God, but anxiety is embedded deep in my DNA from my non-physician fretful farmer ancestors.  Anxiety becomes the fuel and driver of the relentless physician journey on long lonely roads, spurring us to stay awake too many hours when we should be resting our eyes and taking a break to breathe, just breathe.

However, we are trained to respond to our own anxiety from the first day in anatomy class:
“and while you, Miss Polis, are trying to think of the name of that blood vessel, your patient is exsanguinating in front of you– drip, drip, drip….”

Terror-stricken at the thought I was inadequate to the task of saving a life, it took years for me to realize the name of the vessel didn’t bloody matter as long as I knew instinctively to clamp it, compress it, or by the love of the Living God, transfuse my own blood from my bleeding heart into my patient’s.

I learned those many years ago:
to save another life, I must first preserve my own.

Your bleeding heart, in your hands –
It’s been there a while you’re just now noticing –
I wish I could help you –
The way that you want me to –
We all have our own bleeding heart to attend to –

Your bleeding heart, let it go –
You feel like it’s hopeless, but you never know –
I wish I could help you –
The way that you want me to –
We all have our own bleeding heart to mend
~Kim Taylor
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I Know Why I’m Here

my mother wants me to
go to college

the closest she has ever been
is this
the dorm

her father had needed her
to dig the potatoes
and load them into burlap bags

but here she is
leaving her daughter

on the campus in the city time to go

we go to the parking lot

old glasses thick graying hair
she is wearing a man’s shirt
has to get back to the job

we stand beside her Ford and it is
here she undoes the buckle of the watch
and holds it out to me

my father’s watch
keeping good time for him
and then for her

she says she knows I will
need a watch to get to class
we hug and she gets in

starts the car
eases into traffic
no wave

the metal of the back of the watch

is smooth to my thumb
and it keeps for a moment
a warmth from her skin.
~Marjorie Saiser from “She Gives Me the Watch off Her Arm” from 

I Have Nothing To Say About Fire

When I decided to attend college out of state, to a campus I had never seen before, my mother decided she couldn’t handle the goodbye in a strange place, so sent me on a two day drive with my dad. She was a very emotional person and he wasn’t, so he got the job of dropping me off.

It was a quiet car ride with only my dad and myself together. I think we both dreaded the upcoming parting moments.

When the moment came – my things scattered chaotically about my dorm room, marijuana smoke haze filling the dorm hallway and noise everywhere with loud music and the partings of students and parents – I looked at him with foreboding and desperation at this foreign environment to which I must learn to adapt. His eyes filled with tears — the first time in 18 years I had seen him cry — and he said “you know what you are here for,” hugged me tight and turned around and left.

My father didn’t give me anything but those parting words, but they still ring in my ears every day whenever I am feeling somewhat desperate, even now fifty years later.

It was a rough start at college for me, homesick as I was, in an unsupportive unstructured dorm environment. I came home at Thanksgiving that quarter and didn’t return until the following fall. But I finished strong and never looked back. You can’t go home again, not really.

Now I know what I am here for.

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A Morning Luminous with Mystery and Pain

Heart,
I implore you,
it’s time to come back
from the dark,
it’s morning,
the hills are pink
and the roses
whatever they felt

in the valley of night
are opening now
their soft dresses,
their leaves

are shining.
Why are you laggard?
Sure you have seen this
a thousand times,

which isn’t half enough.
Let the world
have its way with you,
luminous as it is

with mystery
and pain–
graced as it is
with the ordinary.

~Mary Oliver “Summer Morning”

I love to stay in bed
All morning,
Covers thrown off, naked,
Eyes closed, listening.

There’s a smell of damp hay,
Of horses, laziness,
Summer sky and eternal life.

I know all the dark places
Where the sun hasn’t reached yet,
Where the last cricket
Has just hushed; anthills

Where it sounds like it’s raining,
Slumbering spiders spinning wedding dresses.

The good tree with its voice
Of a mountain stream
Knows my steps.
It, too, hushes.

I stop and listen:
Somewhere close by
A stone cracks a knuckle,
Another turns over in its sleep.

I hear a butterfly stirring
Inside a caterpillar.
I hear the dust talking
Of last night’s storm.

Farther ahead, someone
Even more silent
Passes over the grass
Without bending it.

And all of a sudden
In the midst of that quiet,
It seems possible
To live simply on this earth.

~Charles Simic from “Summer Morning”

Reading headlines about yet more unimaginable losses and grieving people is extraordinarily painful on a summer morning when all should be luminous and lighthearted. My heart isn’t feeling the light at all; I struggle to leave behind those dark places where the sun hasn’t reached yet.

Yet if I’m still and quiet, I can hear life going on all around me. My sadness doesn’t change the mystery of a world God created in beauty and peace, now overshadowed by our fall into darkness, yet redeemed by a sacrificial Love we cannot possibly comprehend.

What a summer morning revelation. It’s as extraordinarily ordinary and simple as that.

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