Acknowledging the Abyss

The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for.
~Vladimir Nabokov from Speak Memory

I think Nabokov had it wrong. This is the abyss.
That’s why babies howl at birth,
and why the dying so often reach
for something only they can apprehend.

At the end they don’t want their hands
to be under the covers, and if you should put
your hand on theirs in a tentative gesture
of solidarity, they’ll pull the hand free;
and you must honor that desire,
and let them pull it free.

~Jane Kenyon from “Reading Aloud to My Father”

Great Grandma Emma, granddaughter Andrea, great-grandson Zealand – photo by Andrea Nipges

Great Grandpa Harry holding baby Emerson, photo by mama Abby Mobley
Great-Grandma Elna and Noah

And once, for no special reason,
I rode in the back of the pickup, leaning against the cab.
Everything familiar was receding fast…

Whatever I saw
I had already passed…
(This must be what life is like
at the moment of leaving it.)
~Jane Kenyon from “What It’s Like”

The farther I am down the road, everything familiar seems to be receding fast. What I see on my journey, I have already passed by as I watch it disappear into the horizon.

I too often mistake this world, this existence,  as the only light there is,  a mere beam of illumination in the surrounding night of eternity, the only relief from overwhelming darkness.  If we stand looking up from the bottom, we might erroneously assume we are the source of the light, we are all there is.

Yet looking at this world from a different perspective, gazing down into the abyss from above, it is clear the light does not come from below –it is from beyond us.

The newborn and the dying know this.  They signal their transition into and out of this world with their hands.  An infant holds tightly to whatever their fist finds,  grasping and clinging to not be lost to this darkness they have entered.  The dying instead loosen their grip on this world, reaching up and picking the air on their climb back to heaven.

We hold babies tightly so they won’t lose their way in the dark.  We loosen our grip on the dying to honor their outreach to the light that leads to something greater.

In the intervening years, we struggle in our blindness to climb out of the abyss to see vistas of great beauty and grace as we pass through the shadows of our lives.  Only then we acknowledge, with great calm and serenity, where we are headed.

Ben packaged in a paper bag by Grandpa Hank
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Catching a Small Glimpse of Holy

Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.
~Mary Oliver, “The Uses of Sorrow”

surprising as unplanned kisses, all you haven’t deserved
of days and solitude, your body’s immoderate good health
that lets you work in many kinds of weather. Praise

talk with just about anyone. And quiet intervals, books
that are your food and your hunger; nightfall and walks
before sleep. Praising these for practice, perhaps

you will come at last to praise grief and the wrongs
you never intended. At the end there may be no answers
and only a few very simple questions: did I love,

finish my task in the world? Learn at least one
of the many names of God? At the intersections,
the boundaries where one life began and another

ended, the jumping-off places between fear and
possibility, at the ragged edges of pain,
did I catch the smallest glimpse of the holy?

~Jeanne Lohmann “Praise What Comes” from The Light Invisible Bodies”

The ragged edge of sadness and sorrow
is a box full of darkness handed to me
by Someone who knows my name.

It takes a lifetime to understand,
if I ever do,
this gift with which I am entrusted
is meant to be passed on
to another and another
whom I love just as deeply.

He cracked open the box of shadows
to allow His light in
where none dwelled before,
seeping into my brokenness
from a deep well of holiness,
giving me a glimpse of all Love can do.

Another sleepless night
I’m turning in my bed
Long before the red sun rises

In these early hours
I’m falling again
Into the river of my worries

When the river runs away
I find a shelter in your name


Jesus, only light on the shore
Only hope in the storm
Jesus, let me fly to your side
There I would hide, Jesus


Hear my anxious prayer
The beating of my heart
The pulse and the measure of my unbelief
Speak your words to me
Before I come apart
Help me believe in what I cannot see
Before the river runs away
I will call upon your name


Jesus, only light on the shore
Only hope in the storm
Jesus, let me fly to your side
There I would hide, Jesus
~Elaine Rubenstein, Fernando Ortega

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With a Whimper

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us—if at all—not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.

Here we go round the prickly pear
Prickly pear prickly pear
Here we go round the prickly pear
At five o’clock in the morning.

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
Life is very long

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

For Thine is
Life is
For Thine is the

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

~T.S. Eliot from “The Hollow Men”

Of course, the world has never existed without war. One would hope that those who are in leadership positions would pay attention to the mistakes made over the course of history and endeavor never to repeat them.

But the world is too often controlled by hollow men, headpieces stuffed with straw. They want what they want when they want it, no matter the consequences to living breathing human beings or the land where they dwell.

The shadow has fallen in Ukraine at 5 AM this morning with flashes and smoke and destruction.

Life is very long – a crippled 100+ year old apple tree in our farm orchard toppled over in a strong northeaster this week. It had been so fruitful only a few months ago; it was remarkable to find its fallen trunk rotted and hollowed. It could no longer survive the forces of the world around it having hidden its weakness so effectively for so many decades.

Yet it came down, as all hollow things must.

For Thine is the Kingdom, not ours. Anyone who crosses borders in aggression will learn this undeniable history lesson once again. For God’s Kingdom is not hollow, never hollow and is not toppled, no matter what forces beat against it.

God’s Kingdom is forever hallowed. As a result, so are we.

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Just Enough Light and Shadow

In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe
and enough shadows to blind those who don’t.
~Blaise Pascal

Be comforted; the world is very old,
  And generations pass, as they have passed,
  A troop of shadows moving with the sun;
Thousands of times has the old tale been told;
  The world belongs to those who come the last,
  They will find hope and strength as we have done.
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow “A Shadow”

The shadow’s the thing. 
If I no longer see shadows as “dark marks,” 
as do the newly sighted,

then I see them as making some sort of sense of the light.
They give the light distance;
they put it in its place.
They inform my eyes of my location here, here O Israel,
here in the world’s flawed sculpture,

here in the flickering shade of the nothingness
between me and the light.
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

I find myself seeking the safety of hiding in the shadows under a rock where lukewarm moderates tend to congregate, especially on Sundays.

Extremist views predominate simply for the sake of staking out one’s claim to one’s political turf.  There is no spirit of compromise, negotiation or collaboration – that would be perceived as a sign of weakness.  Instead it is “my way or the wrong way.”

I’m ready to say “no way,” as both sides are intolerably intolerant of the other as I watch them volley back and forth over my cowering head. As someone who is currently volunteering oodles of hours to help manage a community’s response to end COVID controlling our lives, I find myself smack dab in the middle of extremes.

The chasm is most gaping when we bring up any discussion of faith and how it influences our response to the pandemic.  Religion and politics are already angry neighbors constantly arguing over how high to build the fence between them, what it should be made out of, what color it should be, should there be peek holes, should it be electrified with barbed wire to prevent moving back and forth, should there be a gate with or without a lock and who pays for the labor.  Add in a pandemic to argue about and we become stymied and paralyzed.

In a country founded on the principle of freedom of religion, there are more and more who believe our forefathers’ blood was shed for freedom from religion and others feel there can be only one religion here.

Yet others feel we are founded on freedom from science and epidemiological data, because what possibly can those researchers know when the random person on YouTube says something far more palatable?

Good grief.

Give us the right to believe in nothing whatsoever or give us death. Perhaps both actually go together.

And so it goes.  We the people bring out the worst in our leadership as facts are distorted, the truth is stretched or completely abandoned, unseemly pandering abounds and curried favors are served for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Enough already. Time for the shadows to abate and the Light to shine.

In the midst of this morass, we who want to believe still choose to believe but won’t force belief on anyone else. It’s called freedom of religion for a reason.

There is just enough Light shining for those who seek it.  No need to remain blinded in the shadowlands of unbelief or “my way or the highway.”

I’ll come out from under my rock if you do.

In fact…I think I just did.

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

To a Heaven of Impermanence

In heaven it is always autumn.
~John Donne

The leaves are always near to falling there
but never fall, and pairs of souls out walking
heaven’s paths no longer feel the weight of years upon them.
Safe in heaven’s calm, they take each other’s arm,
the light shining through them, all joy and terror gone.
But we are far from heaven here, in a garden ragged and unkept
as Eden would be with the walls knocked down,
    the paths littered
with the unswept leaves of many years, bright keepsakes
for children of the Fall. The light is gold, the sun pulling
the long shadow soul out of each thing, disclosing an outcome.
The last roses of the year nod their frail heads,
like listeners listening to all that’s said, to ask,
What brought us here? What seed? What rain? What light?
What forced us upward through dark earth? What made us bloom?
What wind shall take us soon, sweeping the garden bare?
Their voiceless voices hang there, as ours might,
if we were roses, too. Their beds are blanketed with leaves,
tended by an absent gardener whose life is elsewhere.
It is the last of many last days. Is it enough?
To rest in this moment? To turn our faces to the sun?
To watch the lineaments of a world passing?
To feel the metal of a black iron chair, cool and eternal,
press against our skin? To apprehend a chill as clouds
pass overhead, turning us to shivering shade and shadow?
And then to be restored, small miracle, the sun
    shining brightly

as before? We go on, you leading the way, a figure
leaning on a cane that leaves its mark on the earth.
My friend, you have led me farther than I have ever been.
To a garden in autumn. To a heaven of impermanence
where the final falling off is slow, a slow and radiant happening.
The light is gold. And while we’re here, I think it must
    be heaven.
~Elizabeth Spires “In Heaven It Is Always Autumn” from Now the Green Blade Rises

I wander the autumn garden mystified at the passing of the weeks since the seed was first sown, weeds pulled, peapods picked. It could not possibly be done so soon–this patch of productivity and beauty, now wilted and brown, vines crushed to the ground, no longer fruitful.

The root cellar is filling up, the freezer is packed.  The work of putting away is almost done.

So why do I go back to the now barren soil we so carefully worked, numb in the knowledge I will pick no more this season, nor feel the burst of a cherry tomato exploding in my mouth or the green freshness of a bean or peapod straight off the vine?

Because for a few fertile weeks, only a few weeks, the garden was a bit of heaven on earth, impermanent but a real taste nonetheless.   We may have once mistaken our Lord for the gardener when He appeared to us radiant, suddenly unfamiliar, but it was He who offered us the care of the garden, to bring in the sheaves, to share the forever mercies in the form of daily bread grown right here and now.

When He says my name, then I will know Him. 
He will lead me farther than I have ever been.

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

Where Eye Imagines Sight

A lurking man in that half light,
there where eye imagines sight,
stops my heart until I see
Lurking man is leaning tree.


What changed? The man? There was none. Tree?
The tree was always there. Then me?
I did not change. I came to see
and what I saw, what was could be.

~Archibald MacLeish, from Collected Poems 1917 to 1982

Every day I look for what is obvious on the farm – the trees, the flowers, the animals, the clouds, the lighting – all the daily and mundane things surrounding me. More often than not, what I see is straight-forward, needing no extra mental processing or interpretation.

Occasionally, my mind’s eye sees more and I’m stopped in my tracks. What is it I’m seeing and how much am I simply imagining? I see what “could be” and that alone creates a new dimension to what, on the surface, is plain and simple. Suddenly what is plain becomes glorious – a flower is otherworldly, a cat transformed by light, a wet feather a thing of beauty, a tree moves and breathes as if it is on fire.

Because my mind’s eye wants to look deeper, I see more detail.
Because I myself am complex, I seek out complexity.
Because I need transformation and renewal,
my mind seeks to transform and renew.
Because nothing around me is quite as it seems on the surface,
I am called upon to notice it, in its beauty and in its simplicity.

I am changed by imagining how glorious things could be.

Imagine what your mind’s eye can see in more Barnstorming photos in this book, available to order here:

An Exquisite View

How often do we miss the fainter note
Or fail to see the more exquisite hue,
Blind to the tiny streamlet at our feet,
Eyes fixed upon some other, further view.
What chimes of harmonies escape our ears,
How many rainbows must elude our sight,
We see a field but do not see the grass,
Each blade a miracle of shade and light.
How then to keep the greater end in eye
And watch the sunlight on the distant peak,
And yet not tread on any leaf of love,
Nor miss a word the eager children speak?
Ah, what demand upon the narrow heart,
To seek the whole, yet not ignore the part.
~Philip Britts  “Sonnet 1

I saw the lovely arch
    Of Rainbow span the sky,
The gold sun burning
    As the rain swept by.

In bright-ringed solitude
    The showery foliage shone
One lovely moment,
    And the Bow was gone.
~Walter De La Mare “The Rainbow”

We are born nearly blinded, focused solely on our emptiness – a hunger to be filled and our need to be held.  As we grow, our focus sharpens to fall in love with those who feed and nurture us.

Eventually we discover, challenge and worship He who made us.

This world is often too much for us to take in as a whole — our exquisite view of shadow and light, color and gray, loneliness and embrace, sorrow and joy.

With more years and a broader vision, we scan for the finer details within the whole before it disappears with the changing light.  Time’s a wasting (and so are we) as we try to capture it all with the lenses of our eyes and hearts.

The end of life comes too soon, when once again our vision blurs and the world fades away from view.

We hunger yet again to be filled and held.

And then heaven itself will seem almost too much to take in – our hearts full to bursting with light and promise for the rest of eternity.

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Dazzled by Dahlias

August of another summer, and once again
I am drinking the sun…
All my life I have been able to feel happiness,

except whatever was not happiness,
which I also remember.
Each of us wears a shadow.
But just now it is summer again…

Soon now, I’ll turn and start for home.
And who knows, maybe I’ll be singing.

~Mary Oliver from “The Pond” from Felicity

…what I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled-
to cast aside the weight of facts

and maybe even
to float a little
above this difficult world.
I want to believe I am looking

into the white fire of a great mystery.
I want to believe that the imperfections are nothing-
that the light is everything-that it is more than the sum
of each flawed blossom rising and fading. And I do.

~Mary Oliver from “The Ponds” from House of Light

When I walk in my friend’s dahlia garden,
surrounded by vivid color,
I imagine the First Garden
must have been a bit like this.

I simply want to drink it all in,
to swim freely in the bright throes of summer,
forgetting that with blinding light
there will be shadow.

Like these blooms,
I too am imperfect,
not quite symmetrical,
starting to wither and curl at the edges.

But even so~
a stroll in a Garden
to be dazzled in the cool of the day
is what God prescribed then and now.

For a little while,
I am transported beyond this difficult world
with its constant reminders of my flaws,
and am assured of His Hand on me
and how much He loves me anyway.

Thank you to my friend Jean in Lynden who grows the most dazzling dahlias and allows me come take their portraits!

More beauty to be found in this new book from Barnstorming, available for order here:

Mist in the Fields

A girl comes out
of the barn, holding
a lantern
like a bucket of milk

or like a lantern.
Her shadow’s there.
They pump a bucket of water
and loosen their blouses,

they lead the mare out
from the field
their thin legs
blending with the wheat.

Crack a green kernel
in your teeth.  Mist
in the fields,
along the clay road

the mare’s footsteps
fill up with milk.
~Franz Wright  “Morning” from Ill Lit:Selected and New Poems

Each morning as I rise
to let the horses out to graze for the day,
I’m once again that teenage girl who awoke early
to climb on horseback to greet the summer dawn,
mist in my hair and dew on my boots,
picking ripe blackberries and blueberries as we rode past.

The angled light always drew sharper shadow lines as the sun rose
until I knew it was time to turn around,
each hoof step taking us closer to home
to clean barn, do chores, hang laundry,
weed the garden until sunset.

It is sunlight that creates and then erases
all in me that is shadow.
Eventually, only the real me remains.

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Mostly Dead

There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead.
Mostly dead is slightly alive. With all dead, well,

with all dead there’s usually only one thing you can do –
Go through his clothes and look for loose change.
~William Goldman – the wisdom of Miracle Max in The Princess Bride

You who believe,
and you who sometimes believe

and sometimes don’t believe much of anything,
and you who would give almost anything to believe if only you could.

You happy ones
and you who can hardly remember what it was like once to be happy.

You who know where you’re going and how to get there
and you who much of the time aren’t sure you’re getting anywhere.

“Get up,” he says, all of you – all of you! –
and the power that is in him

is the power to give life not just to the dead like the child,

but to those who are only partly alive,
which is to say to people like you and me

who much of the time live with our lives
closed to the wild beauty and miracle of things,
including the wild beauty and miracle of every day we live
and even of ourselves.
~Frederick Buechner -Originally published in Secrets in the Dark

May I not settle for being slightly alive or mostly dead –

I want to be fully alive
to the wild beauty and miracle of things,
to the wild beauty and miracle of every day,
and even the wild beauty and miracle of myself~~

I have known what it is to doubt,
to be discouraged, defeated, and grieved.

It is part of the package:
shadows appear when the Sun is the brightest and hottest.
I have no doubt the Sun exists, especially after the last few days.

So I must “get up!” even if I don’t know where to go next.

And then I will believe
~truly believe~
I am created to be mostly and absolutely alive this day and every day.

A new book from Barnstorming is available for order here: