No Before or After

Now in the blessed days of more and less
when the news about time is that each day
there is less of it I know none of that
as I walk out through the early garden
only the day and I are here with no
before or after and the dew looks up
without a number or a present age
~W. S. Merwin “Dew Light” from The Moon Before Morning

Dear March—Come in—
How glad I am—
I hoped for you before—
Put down your Hat—
You must have walked—
How out of Breath you are—

~Emily Dickinson

I measure time by calendar page turns…

there is less left of time each day
as I look to the sky to see the sun come and the sun go

I greet the new month as the old one passes
reminding myself there won’t be another like it

The morning dew light fades without a before or after
only a moment of blessing
now.

How can this not be the way of things?

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Lost and Precious

How swiftly the strained honey
of afternoon light
flows into darkness

and the closed bud shrugs off
its special mystery
in order to break into blossom

as if what exists, exists
so that it can be lost
and become precious
~Lisel Mueller “In Passing”

None of us will remain as we are now.

For some, that is a source of deep regret as outer beauty fades, hair is lost or graying, skin wrinkles and strength weakens. Pulled along time’s ever-rolling stream to something new and eternal, we will become something far more precious than what our frail bodies could ever yield.

It is a special mystery with which God surrounds us: a thousand years is like an evening gone to Him. He guards us through our troubles now like irreplaceable treasures, even when we feel hopelessly lost.

We are mere buds now, waiting to open wide to a world far more glorious.

A thousand ages in thy sight
Are like an evening gone;
Short as the watch that ends the night
Before the rising sun.

The busy tribes of flesh and blood,
With all their lives and cares,
Are carried downwards by thy flood,
And lost in following years.

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.

Like flowery fields the nations stand,
Pleased with the morning light;
The flowers beneath the mower’s hand
Lie withering e’er ’tis night.

Our God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Be thou our guard while troubles last,
And our eternal home.

~Isaac Watts

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Supper Will Be Soon

Twilight comes to the little farm
At winter’s end. The snowbanks
High as the eaves, which melted
And became pitted during the day,
Are freezing again, and crunch
Under the dog’s foot. The mountains
From their place behind our shoulders
Lean close a moment, as if for a
Final inspection, but with kindness,
A benediction as the darkness
Falls. It is my fiftieth year. Stars
Come out, one by one with a softer
Brightness, like the first flowers
Of spring. I hear the brook stirring,
Trying its music beneath the ice.
I hear – almost, I am not certain –
Remote tinklings; perhaps sheepbells
On the green side of a juniper hill
Or wineglasses on a summer night.
But no. My wife is at her work,
There behind yellow windows. Supper
Will be soon. I crunch the icy snow
And tilt my head to study the last
Silvery light of the western sky
In the pine boughs. I smile. Then
I smile again, just because I can.
I am not an old man. Not yet.
~Hayden Carruth, “Twilight Comes” from From Snow and Rock

I am well aware how precious each day is, yet it necessitates effort to live as though I truly understand it.

So many people are not living out the fullness of their days as they have been taken too soon: either pandemic deaths or delayed treatment of other illness, tragic fatalities due to increased overdoses, accidents and suicides. I try to note the passing of the hours in my mind’s calendar so I can appreciate the blessings I have been given.

Each twilight becomes a benediction for preparation for the meal ahead. I pause to see, hear, touch and taste what is before me and what awaits me. And it never fails to make me smile.

I’m always hungry for the supper that awaits me, provided from the land through sacrifice and handed to me in love.

I’m not too old, at least not yet, to look forward to the gift of each next day until, in the fullness of time, there will be no more.

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Unravelling

How briefly a day
lasts, unravelling so fast
you can’t keep pace.
You are at the morning
bus stop, wondering
if you definitely
locked the hall door
when, what seems
like seconds later,
sunset struts by
in all its sky-draped
finery, its evening
wear, and you are
unlocking the hall door.
~Dennis O’Driscoll
“Time Pieces”

Time slips by faster and faster
like an unravelling spool of thread
fallen to the floor and racing away from me.

If I pull on the end to gather the thread
it leads me on a merry chase
through mornings and evenings
and everything in between.

I wind up missing the journey
when I only focus on what lies ahead,
wishing if I could only slow things down,
I would catch up.

For time has caught up with me,
reminding me once it leaves the spool –
it’s gone forever
and it is up to me to be sewing something
beautiful before it escapes completely.

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Mending the Fraying Tapestry of Time

Now winter downs the dying of the year,   
And night is all a settlement of snow;
From the soft street the rooms of houses show   
A gathered light, a shapen atmosphere,   
Like frozen-over lakes whose ice is thin   
And still allows some stirring down within.

These sudden ends of time must give us pause.
We fray into the future, rarely wrought
Save in the tapestries of afterthought.
More time, more time.

The New-year bells are wrangling with the snow.
~Richard Wilbur from “Year’s End”

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.
~Lord Alfred Tennyson “Ring Out, Wild Bells”

I know there are still communities where the New Year begins at midnight with church bells ringing, just as in days of old.

Here in the frontier of the rural Pacific Northwest, all we can hear from our farm are gun shots, bottle rockets and (what sounds like) explosions of cannon fire and mortar shells.

So much for larger hearts and kindlier hands.

Even without being able to hear wild bells ringing out the old and ringing in the new, I want to begin the new year with singing in harmony, mending the frays in the tapestry of time, behaving with good manners and care for those around me, and abandoning a thousand years of war to find a thousand years of peace.

Let the darkness make room for the Light
that was and is and will ever be.

Amen and hallelujah!

I will sing with the spirit
Hallelujah, hallelujah

And I will sing with the understanding also
Hallelujah, hallelujah

I will sing (I will sing)
With the spirit (sing hallelujah)
I will sing with the spirit
Hallelujah, hallelujah

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Sweating Under the High Arc of Midsummer

What is the hayfield in late afternoon
that it can fly in the face of time,

and light can be centuries old, and even
the rusted black truck I am driving

can seem to be an implement born
of some ancient harvest,

and the rhythmic baler, which spits out
massive bricks tied up in twine,

can seem part of a time before now
because light glitters on the hay dust,

because the sun is sinking and we sweat
under the high arc of mid-summer,

because our bodies cast such long shadows–
Rebecca, with the baby strapped to her back,

the men who throw impossible weight
to the top of the truck, the black and white

dog that races after mice or moles
whose lives have been suddenly exposed.

How does the taste of my sweat take me
down through the gate of childhood,

spinning backwards to land in a field
painted by Bruigel, where the taste of salt

is the same, and the same heat
rises in waves off a newly flattened field.

In the duskiness of slanted light, we laugh
just as we laughed then, because there is

joy in what the earth gives, allowing
our bodies to mingle with it, our voices

small on the field, our work assuring the goats
can give milk, the sheep can grow wool,

and we will have in our bones the taste
of something so old it travels in light.
~Susie Patlove “First Cutting” from Quickening

photo by Nate Gibson
photo by Nate Gibson
1994
2005
2011

There is a timelessness to mid-summer hay harvest that goes back generations on both sides of our family. The cutting, raking and gathering of hay has evolved from horse-drawn implements and gathering loose shocks of hay to 100+ horse power air-conditioned tractors and huge round bales wrapped and stored in plastic sheathing rather than in barns.

Our farm is happily stuck somewhere in-between: we still prefer filling the haybarn with bales that I can still lift and move myself to feed our animals. True hay harvest involves sweat and dust and a neighborhood coming together to preserve summer in tangible form.

I grew up on a farm with a hayfield – I still have the scar over my eyebrow where I collided with the handle of my father’s scythe when, as a toddler, I came too close behind him as he was taking a swing at cutting a field of grass one swath at a time. I remember the huge claws of the hay hook reaching down onto loose hay piled up on our wagon. The hook would gather up a huge load, lift it high in the air to be moved by pulley on a track into our spacious hay loft. It was the perfect place to play and jump freely into the fragrant memories of a summer day, even in the dark of winter.

But these days it is the slanted light of summer I remember most:
-the weightlessness of dust motes swirling down sun rays coming through the slats of the barn walls as the hay bales are stacked
-the long shadows and distant alpenglow in the mountains
-the dusk that goes on and on as owls and bats come out to hunt above us

Most of all, I will remember the sweaty days of mid-summer as I open the bales of hay in mid-winter – the light and fragrance of those grassy fields spilling forth into the chill and darkness, in communion of blessing for our animals.

photo by Tayler Rae
Pieter Bruegel “Hay Harvest”
My grandparents Leslie Polis and Kittie Lovelace standing in a hayfield with loose hay shocks — 1915

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Like Time’s Insidious Wrinkle

Like Time’s insidious wrinkle
On a beloved Face
We clutch the Grace the tighter
Though we resent the crease
~Emily Dickinson

People are more than just the way they look.
~Madeleine L’Engle from A Wrinkle in Time

1971 – not a wrinkle in sight
2021

Just a glance in the mirror tells me all I need to know:

the creases I see remind me
each wrinkle shows my life in action,
so tangible, so telling, so mobile –
they multiply particularly when I smile and laugh
so I must do both more often.

I won’t hide them
nor tighten them away
or inject them smooth.

Instead I’ll grin at the wrinkle of time’s passing
knowing each line gained
is grace clutched tightly
in my otherwise loosening grasp.

A book from Barnstorming is available for order here:

Waiting at the Edge of a Petal

Life is a stream 
On which we strew 
Petal by petal the flower of our heart; 
The end lost in dream, 
They float past our view, 
We only watch their glad, early start. 

Freighted with hope, 
Crimsoned with joy, 

We scatter the leaves of our opening rose; 
Their widening scope, 
Their distant employ, 
We never shall know. And the stream as it flows 
Sweeps them away, 
Each one is gone 
Ever beyond into infinite ways. 
We alone stay 
While years hurry on, 
The flower fared forth, though its fragrance still stays. 
~Amy Lowell “Petals”

It is at the edge of a petal that love waits.
~William Carlos Williams from Spring and All (1923)

Here is the fringy edge where elements meet and realms mingle, where time and eternity spatter each other with foam.
~Annie Dillard from Holy the Firm

It is common to look for love only inside the heart of things,
watching it pulse as both showpiece and show off,
reverberating from deep within,
yet loud enough for all the world to bear witness.

But as I advance on life’s road,
I find love lying waiting at the periphery of my heart,
fragile and easily torn as a petal edge – 
clinging to the fringe of my life,
holding on through storms and trials.

This love is ever-present,
protects and cherishes,
fed by fine little veins which branch
from the center to the tender margins of infinity.

It is on that delicate edge of forever I dwell,
waiting to be fed and trembling with anticipation.

A new book from Barnstorming is available for order here:

I Nearly Said I Loved Him

“Hold on,” she said, “I’ll just run out and get him.
The weather here’s so good, he took the chance
To do a bit of weeding.”


So I saw him
Down on his hands and knees beside the leek rig,
Touching, inspecting, separating one
Stalk from the other, gently pulling up
Everything not tapered, frail and leafless,
Pleased to feel each little weed-root break,
But rueful also . . . 


Then found myself listening to
The amplified grave ticking of hall clocks
Where the phone lay unattended in a calm
Of mirror glass and sunstruck pendulums . . . 


And found myself then thinking: if it were nowadays,
This is how Death would summon
Everyman.

Next thing he spoke and I nearly said I loved him.

~Seamus Heaney “A Call” from ‘Poems That Make Grown Men Cry’

My father was a complex man. I understand better now where my own complicated nature comes from.

As inscrutable as he could be, there were things I absolutely understood about him:

he was a man of action
– he never just sat, never took a nap, never wasted a day of his life without accomplishing something tangible.

he was a man of the soil
– he plowed and harrowed and sowed and fertilized and weeded and harvested

he was a man of inventiveness
– he figured out a better way, he transformed tools and buildings, he started from scratch and built the impossible

he didn’t explain himself
– and never felt the need to.

Time keeps ticking on without him here, now 26 years since he took his last breath as the clock pendulum swung in his bedroom. He was taken too young for all the projects he still had in mind.

He handed off a few to me.
Some I have done.
Some still wait, I’m not sure why.

My regret is not understanding how much he needed to hear how loved he was. He seemed fine without it being said.
But he wasn’t.

I wish I had said it when I had the chance.

Ben packaged in a paper bag by Grandpa Hank
Pouring the sidewalk by hand

How Hungry Could I Be?

One taste

and the rest
is what came after.
Little berry,

you’re the flavor
of my best,
most necessary

kiss. Fit
for a tongue tip,
exactly.

You were nothing
until I picked
you once.

How long
do we willingly
live without?

How hungry
would I be if
I’d kept walking?
~Kathleen Flenniken “Thimbleberry” (2012 – 2014 Washington State poet laureate)

I’m glad I stopped
where I was going
what I was doing

to admire and taste
a little thimbleberry ~

an extraordinary moment
suspended in time,
never to come again

A hunger so sweet
and achingly sad

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