I shall open my eyes and ears. Once every day I shall simply stare at a tree, a flower, a cloud, or a person. I shall not then be concerned at all to ask what they are but simply be glad that they are. I shall joyfully allow them the mystery of what C.S. Lewis calls their “divine, magical, terrifying and ecstatic” existence. ~Clyde Kilby in “Amazed in the Ordinary”
An open heart is alive to wonder, to the sheer marvel of “isness.” It is remarkable that the world is, that we are here, that we can experience it. This world is not ordinary. Indeed, what is remarkable is that it could ever look ordinary to us. An open heart knows “radical amazement.” An open heart and gratitude go together. We can feel this in our bodies. In the moments in my life when I have been most grateful, I have felt a swelling, almost a bursting in my chest. ~Marcus Borg from The Heart of Christianity
Most of the time I’m sleep walking through each day, oblivious, as if in dense fog with unseeing wide-open eyes. There is a slow motion quality to time as it flows from one hour to the next to the next. I stumble through life asleep, the path indiscernible, my future uncertain, my purpose illusive.
Am I continually dozing or shall I rouse to the radical amazement of each moment?
When I’m simply glad, everything becomes more vivid, as in a dream — the sounds of geese flying overhead, the smell of the farm, the layers of a foggy landscape, the taste of an autumn apple right from the tree, the string of fog-drop pearls on a spider web, the intensity of every breath, the purpose for being.
So wake me -please- to dream some more. I want to chew on it again and again, simply savoring and simply glad.
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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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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
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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To the shepherd herding his flock through the gorge below, it must appear as if I walk on the sky. I feel that too: so little between me
and The Fall. But this is how faith works its craft. One foot set in front of the other, while the wind rattles the cage of the living and the rocks down there
cheer every wobble, your threads keep this braided business almost intact saying: Don’t worry. I’ve been here a long time. You’ll make it across. ~Matthew Olzmann “Letter to a Bridge Made of Rope”
I have never walked a rope bridge though I’ve seen one from a distance in Northern Ireland. It swayed far above a rocky gorge, hanging almost miraculously in the air as walkers trekked blithely across.
Not for me, I said.
I feel disoriented and dizzy when the surface beneath my feet sways and moves with the wind and due to my own movement. I make my own wobbling worse with my fear. The rocks below seem menacing; I don’t trust my own ability to navigate over and through them.
Oh, me of little faith. So little between me and The Fall.
Simply crossing a narrow wooden bridge built over a fallen large old-growth tree trunk takes all my courage. I try to focus on my feet taking each step, testing the solid wood beneath me rather than looking down at the rushing water and sharp rocks below.
In the course of life, I have to take steps that feel uncertain and unsupported. I freeze in place, afraid to move forward, reluctant to leave the security of where I am to do what it takes to get safely to the other side.
Yet I need to trust what holds firm for others will hold firm for me.
Christ is the bridge for those like me who fear, who don’t trust their own feet, who can’t stop looking at the taunting and daunting rocks below. He has braided Himself around me to keep me safe, no matter what and no matter where. He’s been here a long time and will always be.
I can step out in that confidence.
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You are alive. It needn’t have been so. It wasn’t so once, and will not be forever. But it is so now.
And what is it like: to be alive in this one place of all places anywhere where life is? Live a day of it and see. Take any day and LIVE IT. Nobody claims that it will be entirely painless, but no matter.
It is your birthday and there are many presents to open. The world is to be opened. It is the first day because it has never been before and the last day because it will never be again.
When I was very young, I would trace my finger over the long scar that curved along the front of my mother’s neck and ask her what happened. She would tell me her thyroid gland had been overworking so she had to have it removed before I was born. That’s all she had to say about that and I never thought to ask more. Somehow I knew, just as my knowing my father would not talk about his experience as a Marine in WWII, my mother was hiding more than her big scar under high collars or a pearl necklace.
Hers was a deeper scar I couldn’t see or touch.
However, my older sister – about five at the time – remembers my mother’s illness. Mom was a little over thirty when her hands began to tremble, her pulse raced and she was irritable with trouble sleeping. My parents were hoping for a second child, but unable to get pregnant. Once her doctor diagnosed thyrotoxicosis , Mom had the option to try a new medication that had been recently developed – propylthiouracil – meant to suppress the function of overactive thyroid glands.
It didn’t work for her and she felt worse. It caused more side effects and my mother’s symptoms grew so severe, she was unable to leave her bedroom due to severe anxiety and paranoia made worse by insomnia. My paternal grandmother came to help since my father needed to continue to work to support the family but there was little that could be done other than sedation to ease my mother’s symptoms. My sister recalls not seeing Mom for days, unnerved by the wailing she heard from the bedroom. From her description, I now wonder if Mom was experiencing the beginning of thyroid “storm” (extremely high thyroid levels) which is potentially life-threatening with severe physical and emotional side effects.
After Mom was hospitalized and her entire thyroid was removed, she was placed on thyroid hormone supplements to take daily for the rest of her life. It took months for her to recover and feel somewhat normal again. Her eventual hormonal stability resolved her infertility as well as most of her other symptoms. She remained chronically anxious and had heart palpitations and insomnia the rest of her life, like a residual stain on her sense of well-being, although she lived another 55 years. The trauma of how her illness affected my dad and sister was never fully resolved. They all suffered. I can understand why those months remained as hidden as my mom’s surgical scar.
I was born about two years later – the second baby they never expected could happen. My brother was born 20 months after me.
From my family’s suffering came the solace of new life.
So I nearly wasn’t.
I’m reminded on each birthday: I needn’t have been here yet by the grace of God I am. I need to BE ALIVE and LIVE THIS DAY because it will never be again.
This is a truth for us all to cling to.
Each day is a gift to be opened and savored. Each day a first day, a last day, a great day – a birthday of amazing grace.
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Mown meadows skirt the standing wheat; I linger, for the hay is sweet, New-cut and curing in the sun. Like furrows, straight, the windrows run, Fallen, gallant ranks that tossed and bent When, yesterday, the west wind went A-rioting through grass and grain. To-day no least breath stirs the plain; Only the hot air, quivering, yields Illusive motion to the fields Where not the slenderest tassel swings. Across the wheat flash sky-blue wings; A goldfinch dangles from a tall, Full-flowered yellow mullein; all The world seems turning blue and gold. Unstartled, since, even from of old, Beauty has brought keen sense of her, I feel the withering grasses stir; Along the edges of the wheat, I hear the rustle of her feet: And yet I know the whole sea lies, And half the earth, between our eyes. ~Sophie Jewett “In Harvest”
Autumn harvest happens outside of me despite sudden coolness of the air, thanks to showers that green the fields for one more month of grazing, midst the smell of the dying of vines and roots.
Autumn harvest is happening inside of me as I slow down my walk, curl up within the lengthening nights, the color of my thoughts turning to bronze and gold and red
before I let go before I let go
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Come, Holy Spirit, bending or not bending the grasses, appearing or not above our heads in a tongue of flame, at hay harvest or when they plough in the orchards or when snow covers crippled firs… ~Czeslaw Milosz from “Veni Creator” inSelected and Last Poems
The cows munched or stirred or were still. I was at home and lonely, both in good measure. Until the sudden angel affrighted me––light effacing my feeble beam, a forest of torches, feathers of flame, sparks upflying: but the cows as before were calm, and nothing was burning, nothing but I, as that hand of fire touched my lips and scorched my tongue and pulled my voice into the ring of the dance. ~Denise Levertov from “Caedmon” inBreathing the Water
The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil; It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil Crushed.
And for all this, nature is never spent; There lives the dearest freshness deep down things; And though the last lights off the black West went Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs— Because the Holy Ghost over the bent World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings. ~Gerard Manley Hopkins from “God’s Grandeur”
Today, when I feel at times without hope, as mute and dumb as cattle chewing the cud, as the bent world reels with illness, blood and violence, I remain in hiding: my faith feels frail, love seems distant.
I wait, stilled for the moment I am lit afire ~ when the Living God is seen, heard, named, loved, known forever burning in my heart deep down, brooded over by His bright wings: His dearest in this moment and for eternity.
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The great thing is not having a mind. Feelings: oh, I have those; they govern me. I have a lord in heaven called the sun, and open for him, showing him the fire of my own heart, fire like his presence. What could such glory be if not a heart? Oh my brothers and sisters, were you like me once, long ago, before you were human? Did you permit yourselves to open once, who would never open again? Because in truth I am speaking now the way you do. I speak because I am shattered. ~Louise Glück“The Red Poppy”
What would poppies tell me if they could speak?
They would remind me that my existence is solely dependent on my Creator God who made me from dust, just like a seed. My color and fullness and growth is due to His sun and His rain and His breath blowing life and soul into me.
So I open slowly, eager to be known, to be loved and to love until the fire shining in the heart of me is like His fire, reflecting His glory.
And so I will shatter here — yet I know there is more. Even my God planted himself here, opening up His beauty, thrived, then died here, and raised from the dark here.
God shatters so I can thrive and flourish, to be ready to open again.
Forever and ever.
A new book from Barnstorming available for order here.
Never say there is nothing beautiful in the world anymore. There is always something to make you wonder in the shape of a tree, the trembling of a leaf. ~ Albert Schweitzer
Long ago I gave up striving for perfect symmetry, strong shapely limbs, the straightest trunk, the most luscious foliage and colorful blooms.
Instead, my life is as fruitful as possible, even if I bend more in winter storms, my roots not anchored as deep, despite bare and broken branches, falling leaves, crooked trunk, and increasing lumpiness.
I try to provide the best of which I’m capable, with a minimum of scab, rot and hidden worms.
The promise of breathtaking beauty for eternity makes getting up in the morning worth the effort when we would rather hide our homeliness and decay under the covers.
Yet nothing can be as beautiful as the reality of broken people giving their all for other broken people.
It is for this we are created; our imperfections on display, continually pruned and refined to produce needed fruit, abundantly filling and ever so sweet.
It’s enough to make you wonder…
A new book from Barnstorming available to order here