О Greater Light, we praise Thee for the less; The eastern light our spires touch at morning, The light that slants upon our western doors at evening. The twilight over stagnant pools at batflight, Moon light and star light, owl and moth light, Glow-worm glowlight on a grassblade. О Light Invisible, we worship Thee! ~T.S. Eliot from “O Light Invisible”
Look, in the early light, Down to the infinite Depths at the deep grass-roots; Where the sun shoots In golden veins, as looking through A dear pool one sees it do; Where campion drifts Its bladders, iris-brinded, through the rifts Of rising, falling seed That the winds lightly scour— Down to the matted earth where over And over again crow’s-foot and clover And pink bindweed Dimly, steadily flower. ~Michael Field “The Depths of the Grass”
We wove hip-high field grass into tunnels
knotting the tops of bunched handfuls the drooping heads tied together.
My seven siblings and I sheltered ourselves
inside these labyrinths in a galaxy of grasses. ~Heather Cahoon “Shelter”
As a child I liked to go out far into our hay field and find the tallest patch of grass. There, like a dog turning circles before a nap, I’d trample down the tall waving stems that stretched up almost to my eyes, and create a grass nest, just cozy enough for me. I’d sit or lie down in this tall green fortress, gazing up at the blue sky, and watch the clouds lazily drift over top of me. I’d suck on a hollow stem or two, to savor the bitter grass juice. Time felt suspended.
Scattered around my grassy cage, looking out of place attached to the broad grass stems, would be innumerable clumps of white foam. I’d tease out the hidden green spit bugs with their little black eyes from their white frothy bubble encasement. I too felt “bubble-wrapped” in my green hide-a-way.
My grassy nest was a time of retreat from the world. I felt protected, surrounded, encompassed and free –at least until I heard my mother calling for me from the house, or a rain shower started, driving me to run for cover, or my dog found me by following my green path.
It has been decades since I hid away in a grass fort trying to defoam spit bugs. Surely, I’m overdue: instead of being determined to mow down and level the grass around me, I long for a galaxy of grassy bubble-wrap.
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Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself. ~C.S. Lewis from Mere Christianity
Whether bunker or cottage or palace, when I seek shelter, safety or simplicity, it is not enough. I am not a dwelling for God until His remodel project is finished~
He puts down His chisel, hammer and saw, sees what He has salvaged from the junk heap, looks me over and declares it good.
My father’s treehouse is twenty seven years old this summer, lonesome and empty high up in the black walnut tree in our front yard. It remains a constant reminder of my father’s own abandoned Swiss Family Robinson dreams.
Over the years, it has been the setting for a local children’s TV show, laser tag wars, sleep overs and tea parties, even my writer’s retreat with a deck side view of the Cascades to the east, the Canadian Coastal Range to the north and Puget Sound to the west. Now it is a sad shell no longer considered safe to visit, as the support branches in its century-old tree are weakening with age and time. It is on our list of farm restoration projects, but other falling down buildings must be prioritized first.
My father’s dream began in February 1995 when our sons were 8 and 6 years old and our daughter just 2. We had plenty of recycled lumber on our old farm and an idea about what to build. My dad, retired from his desk job and having recently survived a lymphoma diagnosis and treatment, had many previous daunting building projects to his credit, and a few in his mind that he was yet to get to. He was eager to see what he could construct for his grandkids by spring time. He doodled out some sketches of what might work in the tree, and contemplated the physics of a 73 year old man scaling a tree vs. building it on the ground and hoisting it up mostly completed. I got more nervous the more I thought about it and hoped we could consider a project less risky, and praying the weather wouldn’t clear enough for construction to start any time soon.
The weather did clear just as my father’s health faded. His cancer relapsed and he was sidelined with a series of doctor’s appointments, hospitalizations and treatment courses. He hung on to that hope of getting the treehouse going by summer, still thinking it through in his mind, still evaluating what he would need to buy to supplement the materials already gathered and piled beneath the tree. In the mean time he lost physical strength day by day.
I decided his dream needed to proceed as he fought his battle, so I borrowed library books on treehouses, and hired two college age brothers who lived down the road to get things started. I figured if my dad got well enough to build again, at least the risky stuff could be already done by the young guys. These brothers took their job very seriously. They pored over the books, took my dad’s plans, worked through the details and started in. They shinnied up the tree, put up pulleys on the high branches and placed the beams, hoisting them by pulling on the ropes with their car bumper. It was working great until the car bumper came off.
I kept my dad updated with photos and stories. It was a diversion for him, but the far off look in his eye told me he wasn’t going to be building anything in this world ever again. He was gone by July. The treehouse was completed a month later. It was everything my dad had dreamed of, and more. It had a deck surrounded by a protective railing, a trap door, and staircase up the trunk. We had an open tree celebration and had 15 friends and neighbors up there at once. I’m sure dad was sipping lemonade with us as well, enjoying the view.
Now all these years later, the treehouse is tilting on its foundation as the main weight-bearing branch is weakening with age. We’ve declared it condemned, not wanting to risk an accident. As I look out my front window, it remains a daily reminder of past dreams fulfilled and those yet unfulfilled. Much like my father’s body, the old walnut tree is weakening, hanging on by the roots, but its muscle strength is failing. It will, inevitably come down in one of our frequent fierce windstorms, just as its nearby partner did a few years ago.
The treehouse dream branched out in another way. One of the construction team brothers decided to try building his own as a place to live in his woods, using a Douglas Fir tree as the center support and creating an octagon, two stories, 30 feet off the ground. He worked on it for two years and moved in, later marrying someone who decided a treehouse was just fine with her, and for 20+ years, they’ve been raising five children there. The treehouse kids are old enough to come work for me on our farm, a full circle feeling for me. This next generation is carrying on a Swiss Family Robinson dream that began in my father’s mind and our front yard.
I still have a whole list full of dreams myself, some realized and some deferred by time, resources and the limits of my imagination. I feel the clock ticking too, knowing that the years and the seasons slip by me faster and faster as I near the age my father was when he first learned he had cancer. It would be a blessing to me to see others live out the dreams I have held so close.
Like my father, I will some day teeter in the wind like our old tree, barely hanging on. When ready to fall to the ground, I’ll reach out with my branches and hand off my dreams too. The time will have come to let them go. Thank you, Dad, for handing me yours.
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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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Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock. “Now they are all on their knees,” An elder said as we sat in a flock By the embers in hearthside ease.
We pictured the meek mild creatures where They dwelt in their strawy pen, Nor did it occur to one of us there To doubt they were kneeling then. So fair a fancy few would weave In these years!
Yet, I feel,If someone said on Christmas Eve, “Come; see the oxen kneel,“ In the lonely barton by yonder coomb Our childhood used to know, ”I should go with him in the gloom, Hoping it might be so.“ ~Thomas Hardy “The Oxen”
Says a country legend told every year: Go to the barn on Christmas Eve and see what the creatures do as that long night tips over. Down on their knees they will go, the fire of an old memory whistling through their minds!
So I went. Wrapped to my eyes against the cold I creaked back the barn door and peered in. From town the church bells spilled their midnight music, and the beasts listened – yet they lay in their stalls like stone.
Oh the heretics! Not to remember Bethlehem, or the star as bright as a sun, or the child born on a bed of straw! To know only of the dissolving Now!
Still they drowsed on – citizens of the pure, the physical world, they loomed in the dark: powerful of body, peaceful of mind, innocent of history.
Brothers! I whispered. It is Christmas! And you are no heretics, but a miracle, immaculate still as when you thundered forth on the morning of creation! As for Bethlehem, that blazing star
still sailed the dark, but only looked for me. Caught in its light, listening again to its story, I curled against some sleepy beast, who nuzzled my hair as though I were a child, and warmed me the best it could all night. ~Mary Oliver “Christmas Poem”from Goodness and Light
The winds were scornful, Passing by; And gathering Angels Wondered why
A burdened Mother Did not mind That only animals Were kind.
For who in all the world Could guess That God would search out Loneliness. ~Sr. M. Chrysostom, O.S.B. “The Stable”
Beholding his glory is only half our job. In our souls too the mysteries must be brought forth; we are not really Christians till that has been done. A mystic says human nature is like a stable inhabited by the ox of passion and the ass of prejudice— animals which take up a lot of room and which I suppose most of us are feeding on the quiet. And it is there between them, pushing them out, that Christ must be born and in their very manger he must be laid— and they will be the first to fall on their knees before him. Sometimes Christians seem far nearer to those animals than to Christ in his simple poverty, self-abandoned to God. ~Evelyn Underhill“Light of the World” from Watch for the Light
Growing up on my childhood farm, remembering the magic of Christmas eve night, I bundled myself up to stay warm in our barn, to witness an unbelievable sight.
At midnight we knew the animals knelt down, speaking words we could all understand, to worship a Child born in Bethlehem town, in a barn, long ago in a far away land.
They were there that night, to see and to hear, the blessings that came from the sky. They patiently stood watch at the manger near, in a barn, while shepherds and kings stopped by.
My trips to the barn were always too late, our cows would be chewing, our chickens asleep, our horses breathing softly, cats climbing the gate, in our barn, there was never a neigh, moo or peep.
But I knew they had done it, I just missed it again! They were plainly so calm, well-fed and at peace in the sweet smelling straw, all snug in their pens, in a barn, a mystery, once more, took place.
Even now, I still bundle to go out Christmas eve, in the hope I’ll catch them just once more this time. Though I’m older and grayer, I still firmly believe in the barn, a Birth happened amid cobwebs and grime.
Our horses sigh low as they hear me come near, that tells me the time I hope for is now, they will drop to their knees without any fear in our barn, as worship, all living things bow.
I wonder anew at God’s immense trust for His creatures so sheltered that darkening night – the mystery of why of all places, His Son must begin life in a barn: a welcoming most holy and right. ~Emily Gibson “In the Barn” (written Christmas Eve 1999)
Let it come, as it will, and don’t be afraid. God does not leave us comfortless, so let evening come. ~Jane Kenyon, from “Let Evening Come”
Latin text O magnum mysterium, et admirabile sacramentum, ut animalia viderent Dominum natum, iacentem in praesepio! Beata Virgo, cujus viscera meruerunt portare Dominum Iesum Christum. Alleluia!
English translation O great mystery, and wonderful sacrament, that animals should see the newborn Lord, lying in a manger! Blessed is the virgin whose womb was worthy to bear the Lord, Jesus Christ. Alleluia!
Sing O the wild wood, the green holly, The silent river and barren tree; The humble creatures that no man sees: Sing O the wild wood.
A weary journey one winter’s night; No hope of shelter, no rest in sight. Who was the creature that bore Mary? A simple donkey.
And when they came into Beth’lem Town They found a stable to lay them down; For their companions that Christmas night, An ox and an ass.
And then an angel came down to earth To bear the news of the Saviour’s birth; The first to marvel were shepherds poor, And sheep with their lambs.
Sing O the wild wood, the green holly, The silent river and barren tree; The humble creatures that no man sees: Sing O the wild wood. John Rutter
Jesus our brother, strong and good Was humbly born in a stable rude And the friendly beasts around him stood Jesus our brother, strong and good “I, ” said the donkey, shaggy and brown “I carried his mother up hill and down I carried his mother to Bethlehem town” “I, ” said the donkey, shaggy and brown “I, ” said the cow, all white and red “I gave him my manger for his bed I gave him my hay to pillow his head” “I, ” said the cow, all white and red “I, ” said the sheep with curly horn “I gave him my wool for his blanket warm He wore my coat on Christmas morn” “I, ” said the sheep with curly horn “I, ” said the dove from the rafters high “I cooed him to sleep so he would not cry We cooed him to sleep, my mate and I” “I, ” said the dove from rafters high Thus every beast by some good spell In the stable dark was glad to tell Of the gifts they gave Emmanuel Of the gifts they gave Emmanuel
In the dark, a child might ask, What is the world? just to hear his sister promise, An unfinished wing of heaven, just to hear his brother say, A house inside a house, but most of all to hear his mother answer, One more song, then you go to sleep.
How could anyone in that bed guess the question finds its beginning in the answer long growing inside the one who asked, that restless boy, the night’s darling?
Later, a man lying awake, he might ask it again, just to hear the silence charge him, This night arching over your sleepless wondering,
this night, the near ground every reaching-out-to overreaches,
just to remind himself out of what little earth and duration, out of what immense good-bye,
each must make a safe place of his heart, before so strange and wild a guest as God approaches. ~Li Young Lee “Nativity Poem”
As alone as we may feel during this odd time without the comfort of ones we love now near, as separate as it is without shared meals and laughter, there is one thing a virus can’t take from us:
we are the shelter for God comes newborn we are the womb He seeks we are the safe place hidden from the storms of the world and He grows here in our hearts – invited and wild and strange – so nurtured and so nurturing.
No presents, no candy, no treat No stockings hung by the fire No parties, no family to greet No angel’s heavenly choirs
Bells are ringing all over the world Bells are ringing calling the light Bells are ringing all over the world All over the world tonight
No doorways, no windows, no walls No shelter here on the ground No standing and no safe place to fall Just the promise of this distant sound
Bells are ringing all over the world Bells are ringing calling the light Bells are ringing all over the world All over the world tonight
Wherever you’re walking tonight Whoever you’re waiting for Somehow by the stable’s faint light Peace in your heart is restored
Bells are ringing all over the world Bells are ringing calling the light Bells are ringing all over the world All over the world
Bells are ringing all over the world Bells are ringing calling the light Bells are ringing all over the world All over the world tonight ~Mary Chapin Carpenter
The trees are coming into their winter bareness, the only green is the lichen on their branches. Against the hemlocks, the rain is falling in dim, straight lines… This is the time of year when all the houses have come out of the woods, edging closer to the roads as if for company. ~Verlyn Klinkenborg “The Rain It Raineth”
The deciduous trees in our part of the country have all been stripped bare, having come through rain and gusty winds in the last week. It forces typically leaf-hidden homes out of camouflage and I’m once again startled at the actual proximity of our neighbors. It isn’t as obvious in the summer given the tree buffer everyone has carefully planted. Now we’re reminded once again we are not alone and actually never have been.
Even the mountains that surround us from the northwest to the southeast seem closer when the trees are bare and new snow has settled on their steep shoulders.
We think we have autonomy all wrapped up but it takes the storms of autumn to remind us we are unwrapped and vulnerable, stark naked, in desperate need of company when darkness comes early, the snow flies and the lights are flickering.
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The room darkened, darkened until our nakedness became a form of gray; then the rain came bursting, and we were sheltered, blessed, upheld in a world of elements that held us justified. In all the love I had felt for you before, in all that love, there was no love like that I felt when the rain began… ~John Updike from “The Blessing” from Collected Poems.
As the rains return, we shelter together, blessed by years and miles, our unknown become known, our understanding breathed in silence. Though we be gray as the clouds above, our hearts beat in synchrony each pulsing moment more sacred than the last.
The neighbor’s horses idle under the roof of their three-sided shelter, looking out at the rain.
Sometimes one or another will fade into the shadows in the corner, maybe to eat, or drink.
Still, the others stand, blowing out their warm breaths. Rain rattles on the metal roof.
Their hoof prints in the corral open gray eyes to the sky, and wink each time another drop falls in. ~Jennifer Gray
The September rains have returned and will stay awhile. We, especially the horses, sigh with relief, as flies no longer crawl over their faces all day seeking a watery eye to drink from. With no flies around, there are also no longer birds tickling pony backs looking for a meal.
Our Haflingers prefer to graze under open gray skies not bothering to seek cover during the day; their mountain coats provide adequate insulation in a rain squall. Darkness descends earlier and earlier so I go out in the evening to find them standing waiting at the gate, ready for an invitation to come into the barn.
Their eyes are heavy, blinking with sleep; outside their muddy hoofprints fill with rain overnight.
It is a peaceful time for us no-longer-young ponies and farmers. We wink and nod together, ready for rain, ready for the night.
The cold has the philosophical value of reminding men that the universe does not love us…cold is our ancient companion. To return back indoors after exposure to the bitter, inimical, implacable cold is to experience gratitude for the shelters of civilization, for the islands of warmth that life creates. ~John Updike from “The Cold”
We’ve had a string of sub-freezing temperature nights and days with crystal clear skies once the frozen fog abates. There has been no northeaster to send the windchill plummeting. Everything shimmers with diamonds of frosty glitter all day long. It is the kind of cold this pacific northwest native can actually enjoy. It is not the cold of the midwest plains, or the Alaskan frontier. This is civilized, “kill the bugs and the allergens” cold that helps balance out the ecosystem as well as our internal thermostats. It is just not seemly to live at 70 degrees year round, toasted by the stove in the winter, soothed by conditioned air in the summer.
We are not always so lucky as this. The cold that sometimes descends from the Arctic can blast through the strongest Carhartt clothing, sneak through drafty doors and windows, and freeze pipes not left dripping. It leaves no one untouched and unbitten with universal freezer burn.
A bitter cold snap ensures even independent fair-weather individualists must become companionable when the going gets rugged, mandating shelter with others for survival. It can even mean forced companionship with those we ordinarily avoid, with whom we have little in common, with whom we disagree and even quarrel, with whom sharing a hug or snuggling for warmth would be unimaginable.
Our nation is in such a cold snap today, terribly and bitterly divided. If we all together don’t come in out of the deep freeze, we each will perish alone. It is time to be thankful we have each other, such as we are. At least we can generate heat, even if we can’t lighten up.