I made for grief a leaden bowl and drank it, every drop. And though I thought I’d downed it all the hurting didn’t stop.
I made of hope a golden sieve to drain my world of pain. Though I was sure I’d bled it dry the void filled up again.
I made of words a silver fork and stabbed love in the heart, and when I found the sweetness gone I chewed it into art. ~Luci Shaw “What I Needed to Do”
How can I stow away our hurt and grief when it keeps refilling, leaking everywhere? Where can hope be found when all feels hopeless? When I have been loved beyond all measure, with bleeding hands and feet and side; why not turn to the Word, its sweetness never exhausted no matter how often I chew through it in my hunger.
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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 keep, 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 Stottfrom 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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To see clearly, not needing a drink or pill or puff of any pipe to know I’m alive. To come home, peel off sandals and step onto the cool tile floor needing only the rush of water over strawberries I picked myself and then a knife to trim the dusty green heads from each one, to watch them gleam cleanly in a colander in a patch of sun near the sink. ~James Crews “Clearly” from Healing the Divide: Poems of Kindness and Connection
As a child, I could see some people I loved struggling with daily life like a never-ending wrestling match.
Can’t relax? Have a drink. Feeling irritable? Have a smoke. Can’t wake up? Strong coffee. Can’t lose weight? Amphetamines. Can’t sleep? Valium.
I watched as one after another after another lost the wrestling match with the life’s sharp edges, sometimes dying too young from their self-medication.
As a result, I never could reconcile experimenting with my brain, staying stone cold sober throughout 21 years of school, bored to tears at parties watching others get hammered and stoned. As a physician, I spent half my career trying to help people stop wrestling with life and find their sober selves again.
Like berries picked into a colander, we all need gentle handling, rinsing and hulling, to wash away the dust of the field, the spiders and slug slime.
No more wrestling. Restored to sweetness and sparkling beauty.
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Nothing is so beautiful as Spring – When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush; Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing; The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.
What is all this juice and all this joy? A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning In Eden garden. – Have, get, before it cloy, Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning, Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy, Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning. ~Gerard Manley Hopkins “Spring”
Once, we were innocent, now, no longer. Cloyed and clouded by sin. Given a choice, we chose sour over the sweetness we were born to, giving up walks together in the cool of the day to feed our appetite that could never be sated.
God made a choice to win us back with His own blood as if we are worthy of Him. He says we are. He dies to prove it. Every day I try to believe our earth can be sweet and beautiful again.
When I take the chilly tools from the shed’s darkness, I come out to a world made new by heat and light.
Like a mad red brain the involute rhubarb leaf thinks its way up through loam. ~Jane Kenyon from “April Chores”
Over the last two weeks, the garden is slowly reviving, and rhubarb “brains” have been among the first to appear from the garden soil, wrinkled and folded, opening full of potential, “thinking” their way into the April sunlight.
Here I am, wishing my own brain could similarly rise brand new and tender every spring from the dust rather than leathery and weather-toughened, harboring the same old thoughts and patterns.
Indeed, more wrinkles seem to be accumulating on the outside of my skull rather than the inside.
Still, I’m encouraged by my rhubarb cousin’s return every April. Like me, it may be a little sour that necessitates sweetening, but its blood courses bright red and it is very very much alive.
I stop the car along the pasture edge, gather up bags of corncobs from the back, and get out. Two whistles, one for each, and familiar sounds draw close in darkness— cadence of hoof on hardened bottomland, twinned blowing of air through nostrils curious, flared. They come deepened and muscular movements conjured out of sleep: each small noise and scent heavy with earth, simple beyond communion, beyond the stretched-out hand from which they calmly take corncobs, pulling away as I hold until the mid-points snap. They are careful of my fingers, offering that animal-knowledge, the respect which is due to strangers; and in the night, their mares’ eyes shine, reflecting stars, the entire, outer light of the world here. ~Jane Hirshfield “After Work”from Of Gravity and Angels.
I’ve been picking up windfall apples to haul down to the barn for a special treat each night for the Haflingers. These are apples that we humans wouldn’t take a second glance at in all our satiety and fussiness, but the Haflingers certainly don’t mind a bruise, or a worm hole or slug trails over apple skin.
I’ve found over the years that our horses must be taught to eat apples–if they have no experience with them, they will bypass them lying in the field and not give them a second look. There simply is not enough odor to make them interesting or appealing–until they are cut in slices that is. Then they become irresistible and no apple is left alone from that point forward.
When I offer a whole apple to a young Haflinger who has never tasted one before, they will sniff it, perhaps roll it on my hand a bit with their lips, but I’ve yet to have one simply bite in and try. If I take the time to cut the apple up, they’ll pick up a section very gingerly, kind of hold it on their tongue and nod their head up and down trying to decide as they taste and test it if they should drop it or chew it, and finally, as they really bite in and the sweetness pours over their tongue, they get this look in their eye that is at once surprised and supremely pleased. The only parallel experience I’ve seen in humans is when you offer a five month old baby his first taste of ice cream on a spoon and at first he tightens his lips against its coldness, but once you slip a little into his mouth, his face screws up a bit and then his eyes get big and sparkly and his mouth rolls the taste around his tongue, savoring that sweet cold creaminess. His mouth immediately pops open for more.
It is the same with apples and horses. Once they have that first taste, they are our slaves forever in search of the next apple.
The Haflinger veteran apple eaters can see me coming with my sweat shirt front pocket stuffed with apples, a “pregnant” belly of fruit, as it were. They offer low nickers when I come up to their stalls and each horse has a different approach to their apple offering.
There is the “bite a little bit at a time” approach, which makes the apple last longer, and tends to be less messy in the long run. There is the “bite it in half” technique which leaves half the apple in your hand as they navigate the other half around their teeth, dripping and frothing sweet apple slobber. Lastly there is the greedy “take the whole thing at once” horse, which is the most challenging way to eat an apple, as it has to be moved back to the molars, and crunched, and then moved around the mouth to chew up the large pieces, and usually half the apple ends up falling to the ground, with all the foam that the juice and saliva create. No matter the technique used, the smell of an apple as it is being chewed by a horse is one of the best smells in the world. I can almost taste the sweetness too when I smell that smell.
What do we do when offered such a sublime gift from someone’s hand? If it is something we have never experienced before, we possibly walk right by, not recognizing that it is a gift at all, missing the whole point and joy of experiencing what is being offered. How many wonderful opportunities are right under our noses, but we fail to notice, and bypass them because they are unfamiliar?
Perhaps if the giver really cares enough to “teach” us to accept this communion meal, by preparing it and making it irresistible to us, then we are overwhelmed with the magnitude of the generosity and are transformed by the simple act of receiving.
We must learn to take little bites, savoring each piece one at a time, making it last rather than greedily grab hold of the whole thing, struggling to control it, thereby losing some in the process. Either way, it is a gracious gift, and it is how we receive it that makes all the difference.
At lunchtime I bought a huge orange— The size of it made us all laugh. I peeled it and shared it with Robert and Dave— They got quarters and I had a half.
And that orange, it made me so happy, As ordinary things often do Just lately. The shopping. A walk in the park. This is peace and contentment. It’s new.
The rest of the day was quite easy. I did all the jobs on my list And enjoyed them and had some time over. I love you. I’m glad I exist. ~Wendy Cope “The Orange”
I close my eyes, savor a wafer of sacred cake on my tongue and try to taste my mother, to discern the message she baked in these loaves when she was too ill to eat them:
I love you. It will end. Leave something of sweetness and substance in the mouth of the world. ~Anna Belle Kaufman “Cold Solace”
Each day brings something special to my life, so I peel it carefully to find what hides inside, all the while inhaling its fragrance then carefully, slowly, gently lifting it to my mouth to savor it, knowing only love, only loving, could taste this sweet.
We hadn’t seen each other for days, only three days, to be exact, but when I came through the door and she turned her head, the way she smiled changed me again from one who passes from this world to the next, back to one who falls into his wife’s arms and rests his head on her shoulder and feels when they lie down together her warm heart beating against his chest, her hands hungry for his holding, his hands alive to her happiness. ~Shann Ray, “Mountain Homecoming” from Balefire: Poems
On this day,
this tragically public day
when lives shatter before cameras
it is important to remind myself
that not all couplings happen
in blinding drunkenness
in a power differential
in utter selfishness
in a way the truth can never be known
I need to know
this travesty called investigation
has nothing to do with truth and justice
but is politically sanctioned assault
of two people.
I won’t give it my approval by watching.
I want to know
in our joining
there is joy,
there is sweetness
and staying steadfast,
still alive, always alive
We’ve exhausted the strawberries with only a few “everbearing” continuing to produce through the remaining hot days of summer. The raspberries too are drying up with leaves curling. The mountain huckleberries have had their hey-day. The blueberries continue strong and juicy.
And now blackberries, free for the picking, hang in mouth-watering clusters from every fence line, long roads and ditches, just begging to be eaten. Blackberry vines seem like trouble 90% of the year–growing where they are not welcome; their thorns reach out to grab passersby without discriminating between human, dog or horse. But for about 3 weeks in August, they yield black gold–bursting unimaginably sweet fruit that is worth the hassle borne the rest of the weeks of the year.
Thorns are indeed part of our everyday life. They stand in front of much that is sweet and good and precious to us. They tear us up, bloody us, make us cry, make us beg for mercy. In fact, man has died by thorns and been killed for the sweetness.
Yet thorns did not stop salvation, did not stop goodness, did not stop the promise of redemption to come. We don’t even need to wait to be fed and no one need die: such a gift as this was dropped from heaven itself.