A Benediction of Mourning

The waning October moon reluctantly rose,
pulling back from the full globe of a few nights before.

I drive a night darkened country road, white lines sweeping past,
aware of advancing frost in the evening haze,
anxious to return home to fireplace light.

Nearing a familiar corner, a stop sign loomed,
to the right, a rural cemetery sits silently expectant.

Open iron gates and tenebrous headstones,
in the middle path, incongruous, a car’s headlights beam bright.
I slowed, thinking: lovers or vandals would seek inky cover of night.

Instead, these lights illuminate a lone figure, kneeling graveside,
one hand resting heavily on a stone, head bowed in prayer.

A stark moment of solitary sorrow,
invisible grieving of the heart
focused by twin beams.

A benediction of mourning; light piercing their blackness,
as gentle fingertips trace the engraved letters of a beloved name.

An uneasy witness, I withdraw as if touched myself
and drive on into the night, struggling to see
through the thickening mist of my eyes and the road.

Angel of Grief–Stanford University

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Unanswerable Questions

Under the harvest moon,
When the soft silver
Drips shimmering over the garden nights,
Death, the gray mocker,
Comes and whispers to you
As a beautiful friend
Who remembers.

Under the summer roses
When the flagrant crimson
Lurks in the dusk
Of the wild red leaves,
Love, with little hands,
Comes and touches you
With a thousand memories,
And asks you
Beautiful, unanswerable questions.
~Carl Sandburg, “Under the Harvest Moon”

As we enter the season
of all that is lush and lovely
which starts to wither and decay before our eyes,
we know the flowers and trees aren’t alone.
Death, whispering within its gray night’s cloak,
has been stealing the young and old since time began,
but never as boldly as during a pandemic.
Millions of family members are left
with nothing but bittersweet memories
of their loved ones now buried deep.

The harvest moon – not nearly bright enough,
as a poor reflection of the sun –
mocks us who covet light
during a rampage of contagious illness and death.

As we endure the searing beauty of yet another dying season,
let us treasure those we protect through our care and concern.
Let us cherish the memories of those we’ve lost.
There can be only one answer to the unanswerable questions:
Love itself died to become Salvation,
an ever-sufficient Light that leads us home.

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We May Or Might Never, Meet Here Again

My great grandfather had some fields in North Carolina
and he willed those fields to his sons and his sons
willed them to their sons so there is a two-hundred-year-old
farm house on that land where several generations
of my family fried chicken and laughed and hung

their laundry beneath the trees. There are things you
know when your family has lived close to the earth:
things that make magic seem likely. Dig a hole on the new
of the moon and you will have dirt to throw away
but dig one on the old of the moon and you won’t have

enough to fill it back up again: I learned this trick
in the backyard of childhood with my hands. If you know
the way the moon pulls at everything then you can feel
it on the streets of a city where you cannot see the sky.

I may walk the streets
of this century and make my living in an office
but my blood is old farming blood and my true
self is underground like a potato.

I have taken root in my grandfather’s
fields: I am hanging my laundry beneath his trees.
~Faith Shearin from “Fields”

It just isn’t possible to completely take me off the farm – I have generations of farmers extending back on both sides of my family, so I have dug myself a hole here, resting easy in the soil like a potato and ventured out only as I needed to in order to actually make a living.

A gathering of all my vaccinated clinic colleagues came to our farm yesterday to help me celebrate my retiring from office life. They brought beautiful flowers, plentiful food, kind and restoring words, thirty year old photos and lovely parting gifts, as well as my singing doctor buddy sharing a sea shanty about bittersweet parting. It is helping ease my sorrow at leaving regular doctoring behind, knowing there are more days to come, more time to grow things in the ground, more blissing out over sunrises and sunsets and more hanging laundry on the clothesline.

My dear friends know where they can find me – on the hill above our farm – we may or might never, meet here again but it was such a fine time together yesterday, thank you!

Kind Friend and Companions, Come join me in rhyme,
Come lift up your voices, In chorus with mine,
Come lift up your voices, all grief to refrain,
For we may or might never, all meet here again
Here’s a health to the company and one to my lass,
Let us drink and be merry, all out of one glass,
Let us drink and be merry, all grief to refrain
For we may or might never, all meet here again
Here’s a health to the dear lass, that I love so well,
For her style and her beauty, sure none can excel,
There’s a smile on her countenance, as she sits on my knee,
There’s no man in this wide world, as happy as me,
Here’s a health to the company, and one to my lass
Let us drink and be merry, all out of one glass,
Let us drink and be merry, all grief to refrain
For we may or might never, all meet here again,
Our ship lies at anchor, she’s ready to dock,
I wish her safe landing, without any shock,
If ever I should meet you, by land or by sea,
I will always remember, your kindness to me,
Here’s a health to the company and one to my lass,
Let us drink and be merry, all out of one glass,
Let us drink and be merry, all grief to refrain
For we may or might never, all meet here again
Here’s a health to the company and one to my lass,
Let us drink and be merry, all out of one glass,
Let us drink and be merry, all grief to refrain
For we may or might never, all meet here again

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I Pray Watch Over Them

Echo of the clocktower, footstep
in the alleyway, sweep
of the wind sifting the leaves. 


Jeweller of the spiderweb, connoisseur
of autumn’s opulence, blade of lightning
harvesting the sky. 

Keeper of the small gate, choreographer
of entrances and exits, midnight
whisper travelling the wires. 

Seducer, healer, deity, or thief,
I will see you soon enough–


in the shadow of the rainfall, 
in the brief violet darkening a sunset —

but until then I pray watch over him
as a mountain guards its covert ore 

and the harsh falcon its flightless young.
~Dana Gioia “The Prayer” (written in memory of his infant son who died of SIDS)

When we think of those who wait for us on the other side,
including our baby lost before birth 38 years ago…

We pray those from whom we are parted are loved as we have loved.

I know God will watch over all these reunions;
He knows the moment when our fractured hearts
heal whole once again.

I will see you soon enough, sweet one. Soon enough.

photo by Kate Steensma

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The Soul’s Sap Quivers

To think that this meaningless thing was ever a rose,
Scentless, colourless, this!
Will it ever be thus (who knows?)
Thus with our bliss,
If we wait till the close?


Though we care not to wait for the end, there comes the end
Sooner, later, at last,
Which nothing can mar, nothing mend:

An end locked fast,
Bent we cannot re-bend.

~Christina Rossetti “Summer is Ended”

The soul’s sap quivers. There is no earth smell
Or smell of living thing. This is the spring time
But not in time’s covenant. Now the hedgerow
Is blanched for an hour with transitory blossom
Of snow, a bloom more sudden
Than that of summer, neither budding nor fading,
Not in the scheme of generation.
Where is the summer, the unimaginable Zero summer?

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;


And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

~T.S. Eliot – lines taken from “Little Gidding”

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 — our soul’s sap quivers — something very sad had happened to our country, something or someone had tragically ended, warranting our silence and our stillness.

For twenty years 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.

We are so bent. Will we ever be mended again?

Eliot wrote the prescient words of the Four Quartets in the midst of the WWII German bombing raids that destroyed people and neighborhoods. Perhaps he sensed the destruction he witnessed would not be the last time in history that evil visits the innocent, leaving them in ashes. There would be so many more losses to come, not least being the horror of 9/11/01.

There remains so much more sadness to be borne, such abundance of grief that our world has become overwhelmed and stricken. Yet Eliot was right: we have yet to live in a Zero summer of endless hope and fruitfulness, of spiritual awakening and understanding.  Where is it indeed? When will rise again the summer Rose of beauty and fragrance?

We must return, as people of faith to Eliot’s still point to which we are called on a day such as today.  We must be stilled; we must be silenced. 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 God’s unbounded grace and His Rose may bloom recognizable again.  

“There Are No Words” written on 9/11/2001
by Kitty Donohoe

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

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By the Shade of Thought and Dreams

In the high woods that crest our hills,
Upon a steep, rough slope of forest ground,
Where few flowers grow, sweet blooms today I found
Of the Autumn Crocus, blowing pale and fair.
Dim falls the sunlight there;
And a mild fragrance the lone thicket fills.


Languidly curved, the long white stems
Their purple flowers’ gold treasure scarce display:
Lost were their leaves since in the distant spring,

Their February sisters showed so gay.
Roses of June, ye too have followed fleet!
Forsaken now, and shaded as by thought,
As by the human shade of thought and dreams,
They bloom ‘mid the dark wood, whose air has wrought
With what soft nights and mornings of still dew!
Into their slender petals that clear hue,
Like paleness in fresh cheeks; a thing
On earth, I vowed, ne’er grew
More delicately pure, more shyly sweet.

Child of the pensive autumn woods!
So lovely, though thou dwell obscure and lone,
And though thy flush and gaiety be gone;
Say, among flowers of the sad, human mind,
Where shall I ever find
So rare a grace? in what shy solitudes?

~Robert Laurence Binyon “Autumn Crocus”

The early September emergence
of autumn crocus is always unexpected,
surprising even when I know where they hide
in the shade of spent peony bushes.

They are bound in waning summer dreams beneath the surface,
their incubation triggered by retreating light from above,
unlike their springtime cousins who emerge to the sun through snow.

The autumn crocus waits with thoughtful temerity,
summoned forth from earthly grime
to remind us the end of summer is not the end of them or us.

A luminous gift of hope and beauty
borne from a humble bulb;
plain and only soil-adorned.

Slowly unfurling on a pale leggy stem,
the tender lavender petals peel back to reveal golden crowns of saffron,
brazenly blooming when all else is dying back.

In the end, they too painfully wilt, deeply bruised and purple –
under the Sun’s reflection made manifest;
returning defeated, inglorious, fallen, to dust.

Yet we know – they remind us – they (and we) will rise again.

we know what is coming behind the crocus. The spring comes slowly down this way; but the great thing is that the corner has been turned. . . It remains with us to follow or not, to die in this winter, or to go on into that spring and that summer.
C.S. Lewis from God in the Dock

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Realizing Who I Have Offended

He is a hard one to write a poem about. Like Napoleon.
Hannibal. Genghis Khan. Already so large in history. To do it
right, I have to sit down with him. At a place of his own
choosing. Probably a steakhouse. We take a table in a corner.
But people still recognize him, come up and slap him on the
back, say how much they enjoyed studying about him in school
and ask for his autograph. After he eats, he leans back and
lights up a cigar and asks me what I want to know. Notebook in
hand, I suggest that we start with the Little Big Horn and work
our way back. But I realize I have offended him. That he
would rather take it the other way around. So he rants on
about the Civil War, the way west, the loyalty of good soldiers
and now and then twists his long yellow hair with his fingers.
But when he gets to the part about Sitting Bull, about Crazy
Horse, he develops a twitch above his right eye, raises his
finger for the waiter, excuses himself and goes to the restroom
while I sit there along the bluffs with the entire Sioux nation,
awaiting his return.
~David Shumate “Custer” from High Water Mark

Bighorn Battlefield – National Park Service photo

When my family took two cross-country trips by car, once in 1963 and another in 1965, my father, a former officer and battalion leader in the Marines during WWII, was the primary driver and keeper of maps and deadlines. He could be convinced to stop at any number of state and national parks, points of interest and historical markers, but all four times we passed the sign indicating the Battle of the Little Bighorn, he would not stop despite our pleading.

“You’ve seen as much as there is up there,” he would say as we sped past, pointing at the marble monolith at the top of the hill where the battle took place. I would look around at the desolate countryside of brown grass with no trees, in the middle of nowhere, and wonder how this place could ever have warranted a battle to the death.

Then I would get mad at my dad’s refusal to stop to learn more.

I had certainly learned about General George Custer’s Last Stand in my elementary school history lessons. But my interest was primarily driven by a 1958 Disney movie “Tonka Wakan” that I had seen in the theater and then later on Sunday nights on “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color.” I thought I understood the tragedy of that day from the standpoint of the U.S. Calvary and the only surviving horse Comanche, who in the Disney-imagined version of the battle, was raised and trained by a young Indian boy who turned the horse over to the calvary and then later was part of the Little Bighorn Battle in defense of Indian territory.

So I had a very skewed and Disney-fied version of history and my father was not helping me understand more deeply. It wasn’t until much later that I realized the likely reason he was so reluctant to stop and examine the history of the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

My father was ashamed of it. He was a humble man who knew there could be no pride or sense of honor in that place.

He had very likely been trained in his Marine Officer’s Training in 1942 to understand that the poor decision-making of a cocky, overly self-assured General Custer led to the slaughter of five companies of the 7th Calvary Regiment as well as their Indian scouts in addition to dozens of Lakota and Dakota Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapahoe warriors.

My father had lived through three South Pacific island battles where poor decision-making was a death sentence. He didn’t feel the need to rehash the history in this desolate part of Montana.

As an adult, I’ve visited the Battlefield with my husband and children several times, have learned more about what led to the battle, what took place that day and how the indigenous people of the region have memorialized the spot from their own perspective. When we approach this spot on our cross-country drives, I’m filled with regret and remorse at the loss of life and the eventual loss of a Native American culture that could never again be as it was, despite the defeat they handed to the cavalry that day. I learned more when our son lived and taught high school math on the Pine Ridge Reservation of the Lakota Sioux people and we visited the site of Wounded Knee, another tear-drenched place in U.S. Cavalry and Native American history.

We, all descendants of immigrant Americans, comprise the U.S. government and military which doesn’t always make the best or wisest decisions. This is haunting us again this week in the miserably managed ending of the twenty-year war in Afghanistan that has cost so many American and Afghan lives – certainly beyond the scale of the horrific one day defeat at the Little Bighorn River. This long drawn-out complicated response to the attacks we suffered on 9/11/01, ended with yet more tragic bloodshed as we left so many vulnerable behind.

War, suffering, loss and death cannot and should not be Disney-fied. History is more complex than a paragraph in a textbook.

We have so much to learn about our shame and our need for greater humility. We need to understand who we have offended, not just how offended we feel. We can’t hide in the bathroom or drive on past the sites of these bloody conflicts, hoping it will all be forgotten.

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My Secret Place

It’s in the perilous boughs of the tree
out of blue sky    the wind
sings loudest surrounding me.

And solitude,   a wild solitude
’s reveald,  fearfully,  high   I’d climb
into the shaking uncertainties,

part out of longing,  part   daring my self,
part to see that
widening of the world, part

to find my own, my secret
hiding sense and place, where from afar
all voices and scenes come back

—the barking of a dog, autumnal burnings,
far calls,  close calls—the boy I was
calls out to me
here the man where I am “Look!

I’ve been where you

most fear to be.”
~Robert Duncan “Childhood’s Retreat”

Behind the house in a field
there’s a metal box I buried

full of childhood treasure, a map
of my secret place, a few lead pennies
from 1943.
The rest I’ve forgotten,
forgotten even the exact spot
I covered with moss and loam.

 
Now I’m back and twenty years
have made so little difference
I suspect they never happened,
this face in the mirror
aged with pencil and putty.
I suspect even
the box has moved as a mole would move
to a new place long ago.
~Dan Gerber “The Cache” from Particles

I came upon an oak where once when I was twelve
I had climbed up and screamed for Skip to get me down.
It was a thousand miles to earth. I shut my eyes and yelled.
My brother, richly compelled to mirth, gave shouts of laughter
And scaled up to rescue me.
“What were you doing there?” he said.
I did not tell. Rather drop me dead.
But I was there to place a note within a squirrel nest
On which I’d written some old secret thing now long forgot.

{Now} I lay upon the limb a long while, thinking.
I drank in all the leaves and clouds and weathers
Going by as mindless
As the days.
What, what, what if? I thought. But no. Some forty years beyond!

I brought forth:
The note.

I opened it. For now I had to know.
I opened it, and wept. I clung then to the tree
And let the tears flow out and down my chin.
Dear boy, strange child, who must have known the years
And reckoned time and smelled sweet death from flowers
In the far churchyard.
It was a message to the future, to myself.
Knowing one day I must arrive, come, seek, return.
From the young one to the old. From the me that was small
And fresh to the me that was large and no longer new.
What did it say that made me weep?

I remember you.
I remember you.
~Ray Bradbury from “Remembrance”

As a child, I left secret notes to my future self,
in hidden crevices of old barns,
and attic lofts up rickety stairs,
and yes, even in trees,
but never went back to retrieve them
except in my rare dreams of growing up
on Friendly Grove Road.

Back then my ten year old heart
tried to imagine me sixty some years hence
(counting out how old I would be in 2020 something)
as I squirreled away in some secret place.

What fears and joys would pass through like pumping blood,
what wounds would I bear and cause to bleed,
what smiles and tears would trace my face?

I have not forgotten who I was then.

No, I have never forgotten that girl who kept secrets,
who dreamed of a someday gray-haired grandma
who now looks back to my secret places,
and remembers being remembered.

A book of Barnstorming photos and poems by Lois Edstrom is available for order here:

Summer, Go Not Yet Away

Fair Summer droops, droop men and beasts therefore:
So fair a summer look for never more.
All good things vanish less than in a day,
Peace, plenty, pleasure, suddenly decay.
Go not yet away, bright soul of the sad year;
The earth is hell when thou leavest to appear…. 

What, shall those flowers that decked thy garland erst,
Upon thy grave be wastefully dispersed?
O trees, consume your sap in sorrow’s course,
Streams, turn to tears your tributary course.
Go not yet hence, bright soul of the sad year;
The earth is hell when thou leav’st to appear.

Ah, who shall hide us from the winter’s face?
Cold doth increase, the sickness will not cease,
And here we lie, God knows, with little ease.
From winter, plague, & pestilence, good Lord, deliver us.

~Thomas Nashe from “Summer’s Last Will and Testament” (from a stage play performed in 1592)

Summer 2021 so far has been hell for much of the world and we still have nearly a month left of more Summer to endure: the fall of Afghanistan, another earthquake in Haiti, floods in Europe and central U.S., storms in the east with drought and fires in the west, and last but certainly not least, the explosion of the Delta COVID variant everywhere.

COVID has demonstrated that plague and pestilence clearly isn’t limited to cold weather and winter. This virus enjoys easy transmission among those who continue to live without any defenses – the unmasked and those who remain unvaccinated either by choice or lack of access to vaccine. We, through our behavior, have invited an opportunistic virus to spread among us through this “bright soul” of the year which ordinarily should be “plague-free.”

Will we continue to roll out the red carpet for COVID, welcoming it into ours and other’s homes, noses and lungs, even as summer itself dies away along with thousands of more pandemic victims?

Deliver us, O Lord, from our own reluctance to accept that viruses care not whom they infect, particularly those with little defense.

Deliver us, O Lord, from our preference for our own self-determination over a concern for the needs and vulnerability of others.

Deliver us, O Lord, from our continued blindness – doing what is right in our own eyes without seeing what is best for all.

Go not yet away, fair Summer, as here we lie, God knows, with little ease.

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Thorns that Thwart Sweetness

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.

We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d ke
ep, knew they would not.
~Seamus Heaney “Blackberry Picking”

…Do not be afraid, though briers and thorns are all around you
Ezekiel 2:6

In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death.
~John Stott
from The Cross

Today I will make wild blackberry cobbler, facing down the brambles and briers that thwart my reach for the elusive fruit – in this heat, it is important to harvest blackberries before they shrivel up and rot on the vine. I aim to gather more berries than scratches to prove that thorns and rot must never win and I will not yield to them.

Painful thorns and decay have always been part of life. They barricade us from all that is sweet and good and precious. They tear us up, bloody us, make us cry out in pain and grief, cause a stink, and deepen our fear that we may never overcome such a sorrowful destiny.

Yet even the most brutal crown of thorns or the rot of the grave did not stop the loving sacrifice, can never thwart the sweetness of redemption, will not spoil the goodness, nor destroy the promise of salvation to come.

We simply wait to be fed the loving gift that comes only from bloodied hands.

Flesh will fail and bones will break
thieves will steal, the earth will shake
Night will fall, the light will fade
The Lord will give and take away

Put no trust in the earth
in the sod you stand upon
Flowers fade into dust
The Lord will make a place for us

Because of His great Love
We are not overcome
Because of His great Love
We are not overcome

Have no fear for your life
Turn your cheek, turn your cheek
Bear the yoke of love and death
The Lord will give all life and breath

Because of His great Love
We are not overcome
Because of His great Love
We are not overcome

(from Bifrost Arts)

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