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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Heart Sore

The trees are in their autumn beauty,   
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water   
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones   
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me   
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings  
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,   
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,   
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,   
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;   
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,   
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water,   
Mysterious, beautiful;   
Among what rushes will they build
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day   
To find they have flown away?
~William Butler Yeats “The Wild Swans at Coole”

All is changing
yet even though
my pace has slowed
from younger days,
my heart aches
to know I finally behold
this mysterious beauty,
a witness now because I no longer
choose to hurry headlong through life.

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So Like a Queen

She seems to hide all looks that have ever fallen
into her, so that, like an audience,
she can look them over, menacing and sullen,
and curl to sleep with them. But all at once

as if awakened, she turns her face to yours;
and with a shock, you see yourself, tiny,
inside the golden amber of her eyeballs
suspended, like a prehistoric fly.

~Rainer Maria Rilke from “Black Cat”

photo by Nate Gibson
photo by Nate Gibson

With the recent loss of Queen Elizabeth II, I must honor a queen of our own here on our farm:

Bobbi was a young calico who arrived on our farm after two years of a luxurious indoor life in town. She couldn’t accompany her physician owner to life in the big city to move in with a cat-allergic boyfriend, so Bobbi arrived to the farm in a van full of her own cat furniture – a climbing tree, a personal chair, toys, and special cuisine. When she strode out of her cat carrier, took a look around and immediately climbed into the nearest real tree, she never looked back at the accoutrements of her former pristine yet restrictive indoor life.  She became Queen of the farm, undisputed and regal, watching the goings-on from a carefully calculated and royal distance, never interacting with her subjects unless it was absolutely necessary.

She tolerated other cats, but barely. They scattered when she came in view.  She thought dogs were a waste of fur covering empty skulls, but when they met her needs, like on a chilly night, she would happily bunk down with them. They were baffled but grateful for her royal blessing when she climbed over their kennel fencing to sleep curled up between them: a two-dog and one-cat night.

She chose only one human to be subject to: our daughter-in-law Tomomi.  On Tomomi’s initial visit from Japan years ago, Bobbi approached her and decided then and there they were meant for each other. During Tomomi’s annual summer visits, Bobbi brought her mice on the welcome mat and followed her like a puppy, coming only when Tomomi called, and deigned to allow her to touch her calico coat.

When she was 16 years old, Bobbi took over the front porch bench throne when our long-lived black cat Jose died.  She preferred a closer view of our comings and goings, seemingly less disdainful and distant.  When two kittens arrived to live in the barn yet within a week formed a coup and took over the front porch, Bobbi retreated again to her other retreats on the farm. I worried a bit that she had given in too easily with no yowls or flying fur.

Still, I was surprised to find her one morning lying still on the grassy slope of our front yard as she was never one to take her naps where her subjects could see her. So I knew her long life of queenly surveillance and service was over.

Long live Queen Bobbi. You remain irreplaceable. May you forever continue to reign in our hearts.

photo by Nate Gibson
Tomomi and Bobbi, photo by Nate Gibson
Original Barnstorming artwork note cards available as a gift to you with a $50 donation to support Barnstorming – information here

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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The One Who Sees and Knows

Yesterday,
running slowly
in the gravel
I saw
a tiny bird
feathered pulsating globe
of white and gray
on its back
black pinprick eyes
pointing up to the sky.
I stooped down
closely
to peer.
We stared at one another—
creature to creature—
for a small eternity.
I scooped him
into my hands
and placed him gently
an offering
upright
onto the grass
whispering
a prayer to the One
who sees
and knows
each one
every sparrow
and every sorrow.
~Karen Swallow Prior “Creature to Creature”

photo by Harry Rodenberger

Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God.  Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.
Luke 12: 6-7

Typically, I hear sparrows more than see them most of the year. They are shy little birds and fly away any time I approach them. But during the winter months when the northeast arctic winds are blowing, they cling to the rose bushes beneath my bird feeders, fluffed up to try to stay warm, buffeted about by the breeze, just trying to stay alive. Singing is the last thing on their little minds.

This is when we need each other the most; the sparrow is hanging on the best it can to make it to spring and so am I, seeking to nurture some small part of Creation in order to keep simmering my hope for the future. Although there is no sparrows’ song lilting in the air during the coldest months, I know it will return.

So I sing for them.

I sing because I’m happy.
I sing because I’m free.
His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me.

Why should I feel discouraged,
Why should the shadows come,
Why should my heart be lonely,
And long for Heav’n and home,
When Jesus is my portion?
My constant friend is He:
His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me.

Refrain

I sing because I’m happy,
I sing because I’m free,
For His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me.

Let not your heart be troubled,
His tender word I hear,
And resting on His goodness,
I lose my doubts and fears;
Though by the path He leadeth,
But one step I may see;
His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me.

Whenever I am tempted,
Whenever clouds arise,
When songs give place to sighing,
When hope within me dies,
I draw the closer to Him,
From care He sets me free;
His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me.

Lyrics by Civilla Martin

ot one sparrow is forgotten,
E’en the raven God will feed;
And the lily of the valley
From His bounty hath its need.
Then shall I not trust Thee, Father,
In Thy mercy have a share?
And through faith and prayer, my Mother,
Merit Thy protecting care?

                Shaker Hymn (Canterbury Shakers Hymnal, 1908)
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Roaming Soft About the Slope

The mare roamed soft about the slope,
Her rump was like a dancing girl’s.
Gentle beneath the apple trees
She pulled the grass and shook the flies,
Her forelocks hung in tawny curls,
She had a woman’s limpid eyes,
A woman’s patient stare that grieves.
And when she moved among the trees,
The dappled trees, her look was shy,
She hid her nakedness in leaves.
A delicate though weighted dance
She stepped while flocks of finches flew
From tree to tree and shot the leaves
With songs of golden twittering;
How admirable her tender stance.
And then the apple trees were new,
And she was new, and we were new,
And in the barns the stallions stamped
And shook the hills with trumpeting.
~Ruth Stone, “The Orchard” from What Love Comes To

Our retired mares are aging, the oldest now thirty and the others only a few years younger. Born on this land, they have served us well over the decades, birthing us their foals and working when asked. They deserve this easy life on pasture for as long as their legs and feet will carry them up and down the slopes of our hilly farm – they are more and more resembling our ancient crooked crippled orchard trees, some of which have already toppled in the winter winds..

I’m thinking we are close to the end of these loyal mares’ long lives; hard decisions must be made at some point and I don’t feel quite prepared to determine when they are no longer enjoying their time under the sun but I don’t want them to topple over like an old hollow tree in the wind. I listen for their nickers as I come into the barn each morning and still see their eagerness to be set free to the fields. I look in their eyes when they come in at night to discern what they have to say about how their day went out on the grass.

Perhaps I too identify a bit much with the stiffness as they move and their need for frequent napping times in the field, swishing at flies while they dream of younger days of flirting with stallions, nursing babies, having suppler joints and a wild gallop at twilight.

I’ve been singing a sad lullaby to myself and them as I work about the barn with slow deliberation, knowing there is somber sorrow when life eventually must come to its inevitable end.

Ah, all the pretty little horses…

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Hour of Dawn

The rising sun had crowned the hills,
            And added beauty to the plain;
O grand and wondrous spectacle!
            That only nature could explain.

I stood within a leafy grove,
            And gazed around in blissful awe;
The sky appeared one mass of blue,
            That seemed to spread from sea to shore.

Far as the human eye could see,
            Were stretched the fields of waving corn.
Soft on my ear the warbling birds
            Were heralding the birth of morn.

While here and there a cottage quaint
            Seemed to repose in quiet ease
Amid the trees, whose leaflets waved
            And fluttered in the passing breeze.

O morning hour! so dear thy joy,
            And how I longed for thee to last;
But e’en thy fading into day
            Brought me an echo of the past.

 ‘Twas this,—how fair my life began;
            How pleasant was its hour of dawn;
But, merging into sorrow’s day,
            Then beauty faded with the morn.

~Olivia Ward Bush-Banks “Morning on Shinnecock”

The heart of a woman goes forth with the dawn,
As a lone bird, soft winging, so restlessly on,
Afar o’er life’s turrets and vales does it roam
In the wake of those echoes the heart calls home.
~Georgia Douglas Johnson from 
The Heart of a Woman and Other Poems

For what human ill does not dawn seem to be an alleviation?
~Thornton Wilder
from The Bridge of San Luis Rey

There are some days, as I look at what tasks lie ahead, when I must fling my heart out ahead of me in the hope before the sun goes down, I might catch up and retrieve it back home to me.

I wonder if anyone else might find it first or even notices it fluttering and stuttering its way through the day.

Perhaps, once flung with the dawn, my heart will wing its way home and I’ll find it patiently waiting for me when I return, readying itself for another journey tomorrow.

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A Day Well Spent

If you sit down at set of sun
And count the acts that you have done,
And, counting, find
One self-denying deed, one word
That eased the heart of him who heard,
One glance most kind
That fell like sunshine where it went —
Then you may count that day well spent.

But if, through all the livelong day,
You’ve cheered no heart, by yea or nay —
If, through it all
You’ve nothing done that you can trace
That brought the sunshine to one face —
No act most small
That helped some soul and nothing cost —
Then count that day as worse than lost.
~George Eliot “Count That Day Lost”

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

~Naomi Shihab Nye from “Kindness”

I tend to forget – in my own self-absorption – the privilege I have to help make the world a better place for someone else each day — to share a drop of sunshine in some way. Each morning I’m given another chance to treat the day like the gift that it is and hand it off to someone else in a continual “pay it forward” act of kindness.

Only kindness makes sense in this fallen world. We have been steeped in sorrow for so long. I don’t want to lose one more day to anything less than a depth of kindness and comfort that never leaves my side, still present as the sun goes down into darkness.

Only such Loving Kindness will raise the sun again in the morning.

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Seeing It Through

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

~Harper Lee from To Kill A Mockingbird

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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