This Notable Thing

Chunky and noisy,
but with stars in their black feathers,
they spring from the telephone wire
and instantly

they are acrobats
in the freezing wind.
And now, in the theater of air,
they swing over buildings,

dipping and rising;
they float like one stippled star
that opens,
becomes for a moment fragmented,

then closes again;
and you watch
and you try
but you simply can’t imagine

how they do it
with no articulated instruction, no pause,
only the silent confirmation
that they are this notable thing,

this wheel of many parts, that can rise and spin
over and over again,
full of gorgeous life.

Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us,
even in the leafless winter,
even in the ashy city.
I am thinking now
of grief, and of getting past it;

I feel my boots
trying to leave the ground,
I feel my heart
pumping hard. I want

to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.
~Mary Oliver “Starlings in Winter” from Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays

Out of the dimming sky a speck appeared,
then another, and another.
It was the starlings going to roost. 
They gathered deep in the distance,  flock sifting into flock,
and strayed towards me, transparent and whirling, like smoke.
They seemed to unravel as they flew,
lengthening in curves, like a loosened skein. 
I didn’t move; they flew directly over my head for half an hour. 

Each individual bird bobbed and knitted up and down
in the flight at apparent random, for no known reason except
that that’s how starlings fly, yet all remained perfectly spaced.
The flocks each tapered at either end

from a rounded middle, like an eye.
Overhead I heard a sound of beaten air,

like a million shook rugs, a muffled whuff.
Into the woods they sifted without shifting a twig,
right through the crowns of trees, intricate and rushing, like wind.

Could tiny birds be sifting through me right now,
birds winging through the gaps between my cells,
touching nothing, but quickening in my tissues, fleet?
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

…yesterday I heard a new sound above my head
a rustling, ruffling quietness in the spring air

and when I turned my face upward
I saw a flock of blackbirds
rounding a curve I didn’t know was there
and the sound was simply all those wings,
all those feathers against air, against gravity
and such a beautiful winning:
the whole flock taking a long, wide turn
as if of one body and one mind.

How do they do that?

If we lived only in human society
what a puny existence that would be

but instead we live and move and have our being
here, in this curving and soaring world
that is not our own
so when mercy and tenderness triumph in our lives
and when, even more rarely, we unite and move together
toward a common good,

we can think to ourselves:

ah yes, this is how it’s meant to be.
~Julie Cadwallader Staub from “Blackbirds” from Wing Over Wing

Watching a winter starlings’ murmuration is a visceral experience – my heart leaps to see it happen above me.  I can get queasy following its looping amoebic folding and unfolding path.

Thousands of individual birds move in sync with one another to form one massive organism existing solely because each tiny component anticipates and cooperates to avoid mid-air collisions.  It could explode into chaos but it doesn’t.  It could result in massive casualties but it doesn’t.  They could avoid each other altogether but they don’t – they come together with a purpose and reasoning beyond our imagining. Even the silence of their movement has a discernible sound.

We humans are made up of just such cooperating component parts, that which is deep in our tissues, programmed in our DNA.  Yet we don’t exercise such unity from our designed and carefully constructed building blocks.  We are frighteningly disparate and independent creatures, going our own way bumping and crashing without care, leaving so much body and spiritual wreckage behind.

To where has flown our mercy and tenderness?
We have corporately lost our internal moral compass.

We figuratively and literally shoot each other in the back, trampling over and suffocating one another, in a reach for justice that seems right in our own eyes. 

We even watch the daily death count rise in ever-increasing numbers, and still some resist doing what it takes to protect themselves and one another.

The sound of silence is muffled weeping.

There comes a time in every fall
before the leaves begin to turn
when blackbirds group and flock and gather
choosing a tree, a branch, together
to click and call and chorus and clamor
announcing the season has come for travel.

Then comes a time when all those birds
without a sound or backward glance
pour from every branch and limb
into the air, as if on a whim
but it’s a dynamic, choreographed mass
a swoop, a swerve, a mystery, a dance

and now the tree stands breathless, amazed
at how it was chosen, how it was changed.

~Julie Cadwallader Staub “Turning” from Wing Over Wing

Losing Foliage

In the shallows of the river
After one o’clock in the afternoon
Ice still
An eighth of an inch thick.
Night never disappears completely
But moves among the shadows
On the bank
Like a glimpse of fur.
Meanwhile
Trees
Grass
Flies and spiderwebs
Appear alone in the flat air.
The naked aspens stand like children
Waiting to be baptized
And the goldenrod too is stripped down
To its bare stalk
In the cold
Even my thoughts
Have lost their foliage.
~Tom Hennen
“At the Beginning of Winter”, from Looking Into The Weather.

My thoughts are stripped bare these days,
no flowers or flourishing foliage left behind-
just stark rows of naked branches, waiting,
orderly and plain.

It is the nature of winter
to think only of the essentials
when night is always creeping
around the edges of midday.

There is silence outside
and echoing in my head,
while waiting for something,
~anything~
remarkable to bud out
and bloom.

The Snow of Home

You wake up on a winter morning and pull up the shade, and what lay there the evening before is no longer there–
the sodden gray yard, the dog droppings, the tire tracks in the frozen mud, the broken lawn chair you forgot to take in last fall.
All this has disappeared overnight, and what you look out on is not the snow of Narnia but the snow of home,
which is no less shimmering and white as it falls.


The earth is covered with it, and it is falling still in silence so deep that you can hear its silence.
It is snow to be shoveled, to make driving even worse than usual, snow to be joked about and cursed at,
but unless the child in you is entirely dead,
it is snow, too, that can make the heart beat faster when it catches you by surprise that way,
before your defenses are up.


It is snow that can awaken memories of things more wonderful than anything you ever knew or dreamed.
~Frederick Buechner “Sudden Snow”

There will be rest, and sure stars shining
     Over the roof-tops crowned with snow,
A reign of rest, serene forgetting,
     The music of stillness holy and low.

I will make this world of my devising
     Out of a dream in my lonely mind.
I shall find the crystal of peace, – above me
     Stars I shall find.

~Sara Teasdale “There Will Be Rest”

We had a surprise snowfall on the first day of winter last week.

In the Pacific Northwest, snow is often a once-a-winter event and usually doesn’t stay long. Here in the upper NW corner close to the Canadian border, it is accompanied by frigid northeast winds, blowing and drifting and making us all frankly miserable.

Yet this fresh-into-winter snowfall came down gently for several hours, without wind or drifts. It covered a multitude of messes that had accumulated over the previous year, making all things shimmer with newness. It made magic where before previously there had been drudgery.

And it silently lingered, like a long-lost memory I wanted to cling to, rolling it over and over in my mind like a snow ball that grows with each turn.

After a night of warm rain, it vanished and all was back to as it was.
Yet I am better for having been visited by an unexpected snow, reminding me how my memories and dreams are not buried so deep that they are lost forever.

Turning Darkness Into Light: Hope Happens

Was certainly not winter, scholars say,
When holy habitation broke the chill
Of hearth-felt separation, icy still,
The love of life in man that Christmas day.
Was autumn, rather, if seasons speak true;
When green retreats from sight’s still ling’ring gaze,
And creeping cold numbs sense in sundry ways,
While settling silence speaks of solitude.
Hope happens when conditions are as these; 
Comes finally lock-armed with death and sin,
When deep’ning dark demands its full display.
Then fallen nature driven to her knees
Flames russet, auburn, orange fierce from within,
And brush burns brighter for the growing grey.
~David Baird “Autumn”

We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience.
~Dietrich Bonhoeffer from Watch for the Light

The shepherds were sore afraid.   Why aren’t we?

The scholars say Christ was more likely born in the autumn of the year ~ so fitting, as the reds and oranges of fall fade fast as we descend into winter soon. 

Murderous frosts have wilted down all that was flush with life and we are desperate for hope for renewal in the midst of the dying.

And so this babe has come like a refiner’s fire and we who have gotten too comfortable will feel the heat in the middle of the chill, no matter what time of year.

Hope happens when conditions are as these…

Deep in the cold of winter,
Darkness and silence were eve’rywhere;
Softly and clearly, there came through the stillness a wonderful sound,
A wonderful sound to hear.

All bells in paradise I heard them ring,
Sounding in majesty the news that they bring;
All bells in paradise I heard them ring,
Welcoming our Saviour, born on earth, a heavenly King.

Chorus:
All bells in paradise, I heard them ring,
‘Glory to God on high’ the angel voices sing.

Lost in awe and wonder,
Doubting I asked what this sign may be;
Christ, our Messiah, revealed in a stable,
A marvelous sight, a marvelous sight to see.

Chorus

He comes down in peace,
A child in humility,
The keys to his kingdom belong to the poor;
Before him shall kneel the kings with their treasures,
Gold, incense, and myrrh.

Chorus
~John Rutter “All Bells in Paradise”

Make These Words More Than Words

This is another day, O Lord.
I know not what it will bring forth,
but make me ready, Lord,
for whatever it may be.
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.
Make these words more than words,
and give me the Spirit of Jesus.
Amen.
~Book of Common Prayer

Most days I am overwhelmed with words, whether they come from the radio, TV, podcasts, books, magazines, social media or simply dwelling in my own thoughts. I’m barraged with what to think, how to think, who to believe, who not to believe, and why to think at all.

I’m left desperate for a need for silence, just to quiet myself.
All I need is to know what I am to do with this new day,
how to best live this moment.

Then I come to the Word.
It explains.
It responds.
It restores.
It refreshes.
It consoles.
It understands.
It embodies the Spirit I need far more than I need silence.

The words I seek to hear are far more than Words.
They are God Himself.

Amen
and again
Amen.

Nature’s Scream

I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.
~Edvard Munch
describing his inspiration for his famous painting
“The Scream”

I get the sense there are now millions of people who just want to scream about the situation the world is in. In my telehealth visits with my patients whose worlds have been turned upside down in the last two months – plans canceled, jobs lost, schooling disrupted, finances uncertain, social support only through screens – I hear the words “overwhelmed,” “isolated,” “frustrated,” in addition to their usual “depressed” and “anxious.” Labeling these feelings “normal” just doesn’t seem to cut it. They want life to feel normal again and don’t want to accept that normal is a moving target and things won’t ever be quite the same again.

They don’t know what’s next for them and neither do I, but we are living it out, one day at a time, all in the same rocking bouncing (perhaps sinking) boat together.

I know Mr. Rogers always counseled to “look for the helpers” when something scary and unpredictable happens, and it is gratifying to see the immense support being given to the thousands of workers who are doing just that – at great personal risk. Even grocery store clerks are no longer unsung heroes but have become the real deal and I never fail to thank them when I go get my one week food supply.

There are other great efforts to make us smile together such as John Krasinski’s “Some Good News” reports on Youtube and the worldwide participation in Facebook’s “View from my window” page. Zoom Virtual Choirs and Orchestras are entertaining us and late night TV hosts are broadcasting from their own bedrooms.

In our angst, we may forget that nature itself is full of its own powerful emotions, and this year is no different. I’ve read somewhere the high pitched sound of sap rising in trees in the spring is like a shriek beyond our capacity to hear. The sound of a bud growing, bulging and eventually unfolding must be like an exhalation of relief. Seeds and bulbs erupting through the soil surely groan and mutter in their strain.

Nature has also yielded mutated viruses attaching with vigor to a new host’s cells, and if we had microscopic microphones, the release of the duplicated RNA packets from a decimated living host cell probably sounds a bit like a scream as all the other cells prepare for a deadly virus on the move. It is like the Revolutionary War all over again in microcosm.

I do think a little screaming is in order.

So I remind myself and my patients: anxiety is normal. Discouragement is normal. But so is our need to scream out loud every once in awhile – even if all that comes out is the sound of silence.

Edvard Munch “The Scream”

He Sees Us As We Are: O My People

O my people, what have I done to you?
Micah 6:3

The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.

O my people, what have I done unto thee.
~T.S. Eliot from “Ash Wednesday”

We spin uncontrolled in our individual orbits,
impervious to the silent stillness of God.
He is there, steadfast and faithful,
whether we acknowledge Him or not,
whether we listen to his Word.

The Word is within, the Word is for the world
yet we, so unstill, whirl out of control.

May the light shine on our darkness.
May we be stilled,
stunned to silence
by the knowledge of the Lord
who sees us as we are,
knows us,
and loves us anyway.

This year’s Lenten theme on Barnstorming:

God sees us as we are,
loves us as we are,
and accepts us as we are.
But by His grace,
He does not leave us where we are.
~Tim Keller

How It’s Meant to Be


There comes a time in every fall
before the leaves begin to turn
when blackbirds group and flock and gather
choosing a tree, a branch, together
to click and call and chorus and clamor
announcing the season has come for travel.

Then comes a time when all those birds
without a sound or backward glance
pour from every branch and limb
into the air, as if on a whim
but it’s a dynamic, choreographed mass
a swoop, a swerve, a mystery, a dance

and now the tree stands breathless, amazed
at how it was chosen, how it was changed.

~Julie Cadwallader Staub “Turning” from Wing Over Wing

…yesterday I heard a new sound above my head
a rustling, ruffling quietness in the spring air

and when I turned my face upward
I saw a flock of blackbirds
rounding a curve I didn’t know was there
and the sound was simply all those wings,
all those feathers against air, against gravity
and such a beautiful winning:
the whole flock taking a long, wide turn
as if of one body and one mind.

How do they do that?

If we lived only in human society
what a puny existence that would be

but instead we live and move and have our being
here, in this curving and soaring world
that is not our own
so when mercy and tenderness triumph in our lives
and when, even more rarely, we unite and move together
toward a common good,

we can think to ourselves:

ah yes, this is how it’s meant to be.
~Julie Cadwallader Staub from “Blackbirds” from Wing Over Wing

Out of the dimming sky a speck appeared,
then another, and another.
It was the starlings going to roost. 
They gathered deep in the distance,  flock sifting into flock,
and strayed towards me, transparent and whirling, like smoke.
They seemed to unravel as they flew,
lengthening in curves, like a loosened skein. 
I didn’t move;
they flew directly over my head for half an hour. 

Each individual bird bobbed and knitted up and down
in the flight at apparent random, for no known reason except
that that’s how starlings fly, yet all remained perfectly spaced.
The flocks each tapered at either end from a rounded middle, like an eye.
Overhead I heard a sound of beaten air, like a million shook rugs, a muffled whuff.
Into the woods they sifted without shifting a twig,
right through the crowns of trees, intricate and rushing, like wind.

Could tiny birds be sifting through me right now,
birds winging through the gaps between my cells,
touching nothing, but quickening in my tissues, fleet?
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Watching the starlings’ murmuration is a visceral experience – my heart leaps to see it happen above me.  I feel queasy following its looping amoebic folding and unfolding path.

Thousands of individual birds move in sync with one another to form one massive organism existing solely because each tiny component anticipates and cooperates to avoid mid-air collisions.  It could explode into chaos but it doesn’t.  It could result in massive casualties but it doesn’t.  They could avoid each other altogether but they don’t – they come together with a purpose and reasoning beyond our imagining. Even the silence of their movement has a discernible sound of air rushing past wings.

We humans are made up of just such cooperating component parts, that which is deep in our tissues, programmed in our DNA.  Yet we don’t learn from our designed and carefully constructed building blocks.  We have become frighteningly disparate and independent creatures, each going our own way bumping and crashing without care.

We have lost our internal moral compass for how it is meant to be.

The rustling ruffling quiet of wings in the air is actually muffled weeping.

We Are Forever Changed

there are no words there is no song
is there a balm that can heal these wounds that will last a lifetime long
and when the stars have burned to dust
hand in hand we still will stand because we must

in one single hour in one single day
we were changed forever something taken away
and there is no fire that can melt this heavy stone
that can bring back the voices and the spirits of our own

all the brothers, sisters and lovers all the friends that are gone
all the chairs that will be empty in the lives that will go on
can we ever forgive though we never will forget
can we believe in the milk of human goodness yet

we were forged in freedom we were born in liberty
we came here to stop the twisted arrows cast by tyranny
and we won’t bow down we are strong of heart
we are a chain together that won’t be pulled apart
~Kitty Donohoe “There are no words”
written on 9/1/11

As a grade school child in November 1963, I learned the import of the U.S. flag being lowered to half mast in response to the shocking and violent death of our President. The lowering of the flag was so rare when I was growing up, it had dramatic effect on all who passed by — something very sad had happened to our country, warranting our unified silence and our stillness.

Since 9/11/01, our flag has spent significant time at half mast, so much so that I’m befuddled instead of contemplative, puzzling over what the latest loss might be as there are so many, sometimes all happening in the same time frame.  We no longer are silenced by this gesture of honor and respect and we certainly are not stilled, personally and corporately instigating and suffering the same mistakes against humanity over and over again.

There remains so much more sadness to be borne after that tragic day 18 years ago – such abundance of grief that our world has become overwhelmed and stricken and it seems we’ve lost all imagination for the “milk of human goodness.” Instead it seems we have become more divisive, pulling ourselves apart.

We must return, as people of faith, to that stillness to which we are called on a day such as today.  We must be still; we must be silent. We must let the bells toll and the names be read out. We must grieve the losses of this turning world and pray for release from the suffering we cause and we endure.  Only in the asking, only in the kneeling down and pleading, are we surrounded by grace.   A flag half lowered may have lost its power to punch our gut, but we are illuminated by the Light,  forged in freedom, born in liberty.

We must stop allowing our chain links from being pulled apart.

The Ebb and Flow of Sound

What I remember is the ebb and flow of sound
That summer morning as the mower came and went
And came again, crescendo and diminuendo,
And always when the sound was loudest how it ceased
A moment while he backed the horses for the turn,
The rapid clatter giving place to the slow click
And the mower’s voice. That was the sound I listened for,
The voice did what the horses did. It shared the action
As sympathetic magic does or incantation.
The voice hauled and the horses hauled. The strength of one
Was in the other and in the strength was impatience.
Over and over as the mower made his rounds
I heard his voice and only once or twice he backed
And turned and went ahead and spoke no word at all.
~Robert Francis “The Sound I Listened For” from Collected Poems

In the rural countryside where we live, we’ve been fortunate enough to know people who still dabble in horse farming, whose draft teams are hitched to plows and mowers and manure spreaders as they head out to the fields to recapture the past and experience working the land in a way that honors the traditions of our forebears.

A good teamster primarily works with his horses using his voice. No diesel engine means hearing bird calls from the surrounding fields and woods, along with the steady footfall of the horses, the harness chains jingling, the leather straps creaking, the machinery shushing quietly as gears turn and grass lays over in submission. No ear protection is needed. There is no clock needed to pace the day.

There is a rhythm of nurture when animals instead of motors are part of the work day. The gauge for taking a break is the amount of foamy sweat on the horses and how fast they are breathing — time to stop and take a breather, time to start back up and do a few more rows, time to water, time for a meal, time for a nap, time for a rest in a shady spot.

This is gentle use of the land with four footed stewards who deposit right back to the soil the digested forage they have eaten only hours before. This is gentle to our ears and our souls, measuring the ebb and flow of sound and silence.

The horse-drawn field mower is a sound I listen for, if not next door then in my dreams.

Photo courtesy of Aaron Janicki
Photo courtesy of Aaron Janicki