Neither Before Nor After

When you are already here
you appear to be only
a name that tells of you
whether you are present or not

and for now it seems as though
you are still summer
still the high familiar
endless summer
yet with a glint
of bronze in the chill mornings
and the late yellow petals
of the mullein fluttering
on the stalks that lean
over their broken
shadows across the cracked ground

but they all know
that you have come
the seed heads of the sage
the whispering birds
with nowhere to hide you
to keep you for later

you
who fly with them

you who are neither
before nor after
you who arrive
with blue plums
that have fallen through the night

perfect in the dew
~W.S. Merwin “To the Light of September”

The light of September is a filtered, more gentle illumination than we have experienced for the past several months of high summer glare.

Now the light is lambent: a soft radiance that simply glows at certain times of the day when the angle of the sun is just right, and the clouds are in position to soften and cushion the luminence.

It is also liminal: it is neither before or after, on the threshold between seasons when there is both promise and caution in the air.

Sometimes I think I can breathe in light like this, if not through my lungs, then through my eyes. It is a temptation to bottle it up with a stopper somehow, stow it away hidden in a back cupboard. Then I can bring it out, pour a bit into a glass on the darkest days and imbibe.

But for now, I fill myself full to the brim. And my only means of preservation is with a camera and a few words.

So I share it now with all of you to tuck away for a future day when you too are hungry for lambent light. Just check out “September.”

More photos and words of light from Barnstorming available to order here:

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:

An Exuberant Soul

Whatever he needs, he has or doesn’t
have by now.
Whatever the world is going to do to him
it has started to do. With a pencil and two

Hardy Boys and a peanut butter sandwich and
grapes he is on his way, there is nothing
more we can do for him. Whatever is
stored in his heart, he can use, now.
Whatever he has laid up in his mind
he can call on. What he does not have
he can lack. The bus gets smaller and smaller, as one
folds a flag at the end of a ceremony,
onto itself, and onto itself, until
only a heavy wedge remains.
Whatever his exuberant soul
can do for him, it is doing right now.
Whatever his arrogance can do
it is doing to him. Everything
that’s been done to him, he will now do.
Everything that’s been placed in him
will come out, now, the contents of a trunk
unpacked and lined up on a bunk in the underpine light.
~Sharon Olds “The Summer-Camp Bus Pulls Away from the Curb”

photo by Gary Herbert
photo from army.mil

This is the season for graduations and commencements to the next phase of life, when students move into the adult world and don’t look back.

As a parent, as an educator, as a mentor within church and community, and over thirty two years as a college health physician witnessing this transition many times over, I can’t help but be wistful about what I may have left undone and unsaid with the generation about to launch.   In their moments of vulnerability, did I pack enough love into their hearts so they can pull it out when it is most needed?

When our three children traveled the world after their graduations, moving beyond the fenced perimeter of our little farm, I trusted they left well prepared.

As a former school board member, I watched our students, parents and teachers work diligently together in their preparation for that graduation day, knowing the encompassing love behind each congratulatory hand shake.

When another batch of our church family children say goodbye, I remember holding them in the nursery, listening to their joyful voices as I played piano accompaniment in Sunday School, feeding them in innumerable potlucks over the years.  I pray we have fed them well in every way with enough spiritual food to stick to their ribs in the “thin” and hungry times.

When hundreds of my student/patients move on each year beyond our university health clinic, I pray for their continued emotional growth buoyed by plenty of resilience when the road gets inevitably bumpy.

I believe I know what is stored in the hearts of our graduates because I, among many others, helped them pack it full of love.  Only they will know the time to unpack it when the need arises.

And now, this year, I find I am “graduating” as well, moving away from a regular clinic work schedule to whatever waits for me next. I cleaned out my desk yesterday, carrying the detritus of three decades back home with me, including a packed-away glass “tear drop” I somehow earned ten years ago for “exceptional effort.” All I really remember about that time in my professional life are the shed tears that award acknowledged unbeknownst. It was a fitting symbol for what I had been through during a hard year.

I’m not exactly climbing on a bus with my lunch packed to go to summer camp, but it feels a bit similar as I enter this new phase. I’m nervous, I’m sad, I’m excited, I’m exuberant, so much like all the graduates I’ve seen commence over the years.

And best of all for me, summer camp is right here on the farm, peanut butter sandwiches included.

A new book from Barnstorming available to order here:

It’s Time for Swinging to be Done

The porch swing hangs fixed in a morning sun
that bleaches its gray slats, its flowered cushion
whose flowers have faded, like those of summer,
and a small brown spider has hung out her web
on a line between porch post and chain
so that no one may swing without breaking it.
She is saying it’s time that the swinging were done with,
time that the creaking and pinging and popping
that sang through the ceiling were past,
time now for the soft vibrations of moths,
the wasp tapping each board for an entrance,
the cool dewdrops to brush from her work
every morning, one world at a time.
~Ted Kooser “Porch Swing in September” from Flying at Night

It is hard to just let go and let life move on, as it will do on this day’s transition to autumn, whether with us or without us.

We build our little lives so carefully; we plan and choreograph and anticipate, and all it takes is a creaky swing (or a measly little virus) to pull it to shreds.

So we rebuild, strand by strand, in the conviction that we still belong here even when everything around us is changing and will pay no attention to how we’re left hanging.

We keep trying.
We keep believing.
We keep wanting to make the world a little more beautiful.

Shift Change

I love to write at dusk,
that time of the day
when the shift is changing,

the sun is clocking out
and the moon is running late

and for just a little while
the sky
is left unattended.

~Sally Clark from “The Joy of Poetry”

I want to write with quiet hands. I
want to write while crossing the fields that are
fresh with daisies and everlasting and the
ordinary grass. I want to make poems while thinking of
the bread of heaven and the
cup of astonishment; let them be

songs in which nothing is neglected,
not a hope, not a promise. I want to make poems
that look into the earth and the heavens
and see the unseeable. I want them to honor
both the heart of faith, and the light of the world;
the gladness that says, without any words, everything.
~Mary Oliver “Everything”

I usually write at dawn during the shift change
as the light switch is flipped on
leaving me blinking and squinting
to see what the morning will bring.

I need the quiet clarity of daybreak
to prepare myself for what is to come.

Yet the fading light of dusk
and advancing shadow of twilight
soothes my soul and calms my heart
as sky relinquishes sun to moon and stars.

The stage is bare, the audience hushed,
waiting expectantly for the moment
the curtain will be pulled back
to reveal earth’s secrets once again.


Stitched Up Whole Again

 Sometimes, I am startled out of myself,
like this morning, when the wild geese came squawking,
flapping their rusty hinges, and something about their trek
across the sky made me think about my life, the places
of brokenness, the places of sorrow, the places where grief
has strung me out to dry. And then the geese come calling,
the leader falling back when tired, another taking her place.
Hope is borne on wings. Look at the trees. They turn to gold
for a brief while, then lose it all each November.
Through the cold months, they stand, take the worst
weather has to offer. And still, they put out shy green leaves
come April, come May. The geese glide over the cornfields,
land on the pond with its sedges and reeds.
You do not have to be wise. Even a goose knows how to find
shelter, where the corn still lies in the stubble and dried stalks.
All we do is pass through here, the best way we can.
They stitch up the sky, and it is whole again.

~Barbara Crooker, from Radiance

We’ve lived long enough – now over three decades – in one place so things here on the farm are starting to break and fall apart, or stop working and simply give up. Over the last several weeks we’ve been busy fixing everything from barns to lawnmowers and old pick up trucks to leaking comfy air mattresses, not to mention various appliances threatening to give up the ghost.

We wonder what will break next, or whether all this is just preparing us for our own turn to fall apart, so I’m looking around with a renewed perspective of running out of time.

Like most people who have been stuck at home over the last several months, quarantine has been a good opportunity to clean up around here, including untouched boxes of things moved from our parents’ homes when they had to move into extended care before their deaths. We’ve packed up outdated possessions and no-longer-fitting clothing, scads of magazines and books never read and not-likely-to-be, and anything else that simply isn’t needed any longer.

The older I get, the more I feel I am merely passing through. No one else should have to pick up my messes after me.

Though this will be the summer of the purge of the old and used up, some things are always fixable, and that includes me. Like a seam with missing thread or a broken zipper or a dangling button, it is possible to be carefully stitched back into place once again and thus remain, forever, hopeful and whole.

He Does Not Leave Us Where We Are: Hatched and Learning to Fly

It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird:
it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present.
And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg.
We must be hatched or go bad.
~C.S.Lewis from Mere Christianity

There is certain comfort in incubating in the nest, snuggled warm under a fluffy breast, satisfied with the status quo. I tend toward perpetual nesting myself, preferring home to travel, too easily contented with the familiar rather than stretching into uncharted territory.

But eventually the unhatched egg gets the boot, even by its parents. When there are no signs of life, no twitches and wiggles and movement inside, it is doomed to rot.

And we all know nothing is worse than a rotten egg.
Nothing.

So it is up to us: we must chip away and crack open our comfy shell, leaving the fragments behind. Feeble, weak and totally dependent on the grace of others to feed and protect us, we are freed of the confinement of the sterility of the commonplace and loosed upon an unsuspecting world.

God does not leave us where we are. We are created to fly, the breath of God beneath our wings.

God sees us as we are,
loves us as we are,
and accepts us as we are.
But by His grace,
He does not leave us where we are.
~Tim Keller

Just Singing in the Leaves

Now constantly there is the sound,
quieter than rain,
of the leaves falling.

Under their loosening bright
gold, the sycamore limbs
bleach whiter.

Now the only flowers
are beeweed and aster, spray
of their white and lavender
over the brown leaves.

The calling of a crow sounds
Loud — landmark — now
that the life of summer falls
silent, and the nights grow.
~Wendell Berry “October 10” from New Collected Poems.

Mid-October and we’ve already had our first hard frost – the leaves turned almost overnight. They are letting go, swirling and swooping in the breezes and pittering to the ground like so many raindrops.

A few more cold nights and they will be dry and crunchy underfoot; it is one of life’s great pleasures to trudge through leaves ankle deep, each footstep memorably rhythmic and audible. I would never be able to sneak up on anyone outside this time of year.

Nor do I want to. Instead I want to link arms, join hands, sing and dance in the leaves to celebrate these crisp and colorful moments.

Just singing in the leaves, just singing in the leaves. What a glorious feeling, I’m happy again!

Amen.

It Goes By Too Fast

Being too warm the old lady said to me
is better than being too cold I think now
in between is the best because you never
give it a thought but it goes by too fast
I remember the winter how cold it got
I could never get warm wherever I was
but I don’t remember the summer heat like that
only the long days the breathing of the trees
the evenings with the hens still talking in the lane
and the light getting longer in the valley
the sound of a bell from down there somewhere
I can sit here now still listening to it
~W.S. Merwin “Remembering Summer” from Garden Time

Yet another transition between seasons
and adapting to the demands of a new day ~
there is good reason things don’t stay the same.

Air and light and colors change,
as do I,
as I must.

That perfect tipping point balance
is only a moment in time;
gone by too fast
and I scramble to adjust yet again,
holding out hope I can
walk carefully, cautiously along the center line.


I Lean Toward Darkness

The moon drops one or two feathers into the field.   
The dark wheat listens.
Be still.
Now.
There they are, the moon’s young, trying
Their wings.

I stand alone by an elder tree, I do not dare breathe
Or move.
I listen.
The wheat leans back toward its own darkness,
And I lean toward mine.
~James Wright from “Beginning”

Wherever it was
I was supposed to be
this morning—
whatever it was I said
I would be doing—
I was standing
at the edge of the field—
I was hurrying
through my own soul,
opening its dark doors—
I was leaning out;
I was listening.
— Mary Oliver from New and Selected Poems, Volume 2

I am leaning back further into darkness.

Sun rays through the window blinds no longer rouse me awake. The farm animals are eager for their evening tucking in rather than lingering long in the fields. The leaves blink away their green.

I ready myself for bed early, glad for respite and stillness.

Summer isn’t over yet but its fatigue is evident.
We’re leaning back, eyes closed, ready for rest.