Why Did I Cry Today?

A second crop of hay lies cut   
and turned. Five gleaming crows   
search and peck between the rows.
They make a low, companionable squawk,   
and like midwives and undertakers   
possess a weird authority.

Crickets leap from the stubble,   
parting before me like the Red Sea.   
The garden sprawls and spoils.

Cloud shadows rush over drying hay,   
fences, dusty lane, and railroad ravine.   
The first yellowing fronds of goldenrod   
brighten the margins of the woods.

Schoolbooks, carpools, pleated skirts;   
water, silver-still, and a vee of geese.

*

The cicada’s dry monotony breaks   
over me. The days are bright   
and free, bright and free.

Then why did I cry today   
for an hour, with my whole   
body, the way babies cry?

*

A white, indifferent morning sky,   
and a crow, hectoring from its nest   
high in the hemlock, a nest as big   
as a laundry basket …
                                    In my childhood   
I stood under a dripping oak,
while autumnal fog eddied around my feet,   
waiting for the school bus
with a dread that took my breath away.

The damp dirt road gave off   
this same complex organic scent.

I had the new books—words, numbers,   
and operations with numbers I did not   
comprehend—and crayons, unspoiled   
by use, in a blue canvas satchel
with red leather straps.

Spruce, inadequate, and alien   
I stood at the side of the road.   
It was the only life I had.

~Jane Kenyon, “Three Songs at the End of Summer” from Collected Poems.

The first day back to school isn’t always the day after Labor Day as it was when I was growing up. Some students have been in classes for a couple weeks now, others started a few days ago to ease into the transition more gently, especially adjusting to classrooms and masking after a year of remote learning for so many.  Some will be return to the routine tomorrow: school buses will roar past our farm brimming with young faces under fresh masks, new clothes and shoes, stuffed back packs amid a fair amount of dread and anxiety.

I remember well that foreboding that accompanied a return to school — the strict schedule, the inflexible rules and the painful reconfiguration of social hierarchies and friend groups.  Even as a good learner and obedient student, I was a square peg being pushed into a round hole when I returned to the classroom; the students who struggled academically and who pushed against the boundaries of rules must have felt even more so. We all felt alien and inadequate to the immense task before us to fit in with one another, allow teachers to open our minds to new thoughts, and to become something and someone more than who we were before.

Growth is so very hard, our stretching so painful, the tug and pull of potential friendships stressful.  Two of my own children now make this annual transition to a new school year as veteran teachers.

For the first time in over thirty years, I won’t have yet another “first day” or new students under my care — it all feels new and unfamiliar yet again.

So I take a deep breath on this foggy Labor Day morning and am immediately taken back to the anxieties and fears of a skinny little girl in a new home-made corduroy jumper and saddle shoes, waiting for the schoolbus on a drippy wooded country road.

She is still me — just buried deeply in the fog of who I became after all those years of schooling, hidden somewhere under all the piled-on layers of learning and growing and hurting and stretching — but I do remember her well.

Like every student starting a new adventure tomorrow,
she could use a hug.

More like this is found in photos and words in this book from Barnstorming, available to order here:

Sunburst Petals

When I pray I go in, and close the door,
But what, really, do we mean by prayer?
Isn’t it anything done with full attention
Whether sinking into silent depths, or
Relishing a sun-ripe peach, or gazing
At the zinnias freshly picked this early
Morning, these multi-petaled shouts of joy,
Lemon yellow, orange, reds, a carnival of
Flame-filled light, the sweet green scent
Summer flowers.

~Sarah Rossiter “Zinnias”

My father’s mother grew a garden of zinnias
to divide the house from the woods:

pop art tops in every color—cream,
peach, royal purple, and even envy

—the sunburst petals

the heads little suns you watch die
on the stem if you want the bloom back.

~Tyler Mills “Zinnias”

As an eight year old, I grew zinnias
from a tiny package of seeds tucked inside
a Christmas card by my third grade teacher
whose rapt attention turned to her backyard garden
when school doors closed in the summer.

She nurtured each of us students
like one of her cream-colored zinnia buds
arising boldly on a single sturdy stem,
growing tall almost before her eyes, yet still undefined.

Watered and fed, her warm light shining on our bright faces,
we opened expectantly under her steady gaze,
each one a sunburst bloom smiling back at her,
which kept her coming back, year after year,
to sow a few more celebratory seeds with her sprinkling of wisdom.

Thank you to Chris and Jan Lovegren for sharing their zinnias!

Consider a gift of this new Barnstorming book to someone who loves beautiful pictures and words – available to order here:

Questions Die Away

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I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer.
You are yourself the answer.
Before your face questions die away.
~C.S. Lewis from Till We Have Faces

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Today I help greet new and returning 15,000 college students who begin classes this week at my university.  Each one seeks answers to their many difficult questions about life and how to live in this troubled time.

Every day I will see college students who are so consumed by anxiety about the questions in their lives they become immobilized in their ability to move forward through inevitable obstacles and difficulties.  They become so stuck in overwhelming feelings they can’t sleep or eat or think clearly, distracted by their symptoms.  They self-medicate, self-injure and self-hate.  Being unable to nurture themselves or others, they wither like a young tree without roots deep enough to reach the vast reservoir of answers that lies untapped beneath them.  In epidemic numbers, some decide to die, even before life really has fully begun for them.

I grieve for them in their distress.   My role is to help find healing solutions, whether it is counseling therapy, a break from school, or a medicine that may give some form of relief.  My heart knows the ultimate answer is not as simple as the right prescription.

Before the face of God, the questions fall away.

We who are anxious are not trusting a Creator who does not suffer from attention deficit disorder and who is not distracted from His care for us even when we turn away in worry and sorrow.  We magnify our difficult circumstances by staying so tightly into ourselves, unable to look beyond our own eyelashes.  Instead we are to reach higher and deeper, through prayer, through service to others, through acknowledging there is power greater than ourselves who can answer all our unaskable questions.

So we are called to pray for ourselves and for others,  disabling our anxiety and fear and transforming it to gratitude and grace.

No longer withering, no longer deaf to the answers we’ve been given, we just might bloom.

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Hiding Nothing

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You can hide nothing from God.
The mask you wear before men will do you no good before Him.
He wants to see you as you are,
He wants to be gracious to you.
You do not have to go on lying to yourself and your brothers,
as if you were without sin;
you can dare to be a sinner.

~Dietrich Bonhoeffer from Life Together

One of my Monday morning jobs in our college health clinic is to meet with any student who got so intoxicated they had to spend part of the weekend in the emergency room.  Alcohol poisonings are distressingly common on all college campuses, and ours is no exception.   What I do during our morning-after visit is review the records with the student so they have some idea what took place before they woke up hours later on a gurney in a noisy smelly emergency room– alcohol is an effective amnesia-producing anesthetic when it doesn’t manage to outright kill its consumer.   It is a humbling experience to read about what one said and did while one was under the influence of intoxicants and yet have no memory of any of it.   That is why my time is well spent with the recovering and remorseful.   Not only does their stomach lining still burn from all the vomiting, but their head hurts from acknowledging the risks they took in the name of having a good time.  It is rare that I ever need to meet again with the same student about similar behavior.

This, in reality,  is a very effective kind of hurting, one that is crucial to future decision-making: dangerous behavior is far less appealing when one still carries the scars.  Priorities change for the better.

Today I won’t be able to work in several hundred now-sober students into this morning’s clinic schedule after the unfortunate and widely publicized events that happened just a couple blocks off our college campus a little over 24 hours ago.  I suspect most of the students involved remember more than they wish to about their participation in a big-block-party-gone-terribly-wrong.  They were part of an aggressive mob mentality threatening law enforcement personnel trying to disperse an increasingly rowdy and obnoxious crowd.  Some are finding themselves in video and Instagram/Facebook documentation of their profane words and gestures, throwing potentially lethal objects, vandalizing private and city property as well as causing thousands of dollars of city resources to confront out of control drunk rioters.   These students can try to lay low but there is no place to hide from their inner knowledge of what they have done, the part they played and the irreparable damage they caused to individuals, relationships, property and as well as the reputations of the city and the university.  There is no comforting alcohol amnesia to hide within this time.

The only possible healing from an event like this is to come clean about what one has done, admit the mistakes made and work to make it right no matter the cost — to dare to acknowledge the sins committed and accept the consequences of one’s actions.

Hiding is cheap — guilt and shame remain behind the mask.
Grace and forgiveness is costly but there is no longer need to hide and be eaten away by a continually hurting soul.

My prescription for this day and in the days to come:  changed priorities ahead.  College is about obtaining a valuable and precious education, not about finding the biggest and best party of intoxicants.

Take with food and a large dose of humility.