Sundays too my father got up early and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold, then with cracked hands that ached from labor in the weekday weather made banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking. When the rooms were warm, he’d call, and slowly I would rise and dress, fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him, who had driven out the cold and polished my good shoes as well. What did I know, what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices? ~Robert Hayden “Those Winter Sundays”
As a child growing up, I was oblivious to the sacrifices my parents made to keep the house warm, place food on the table, teaching us the importance of being steadfast, to crack the door of opportunity open, so we could walk through to a better life and we did.
It was no small offering to keep dry seasoned fire and stove wood always at the doorstep, to milk the cows twice a day, to grow and preserve fruits and vegetables months in advance, to raise and care for livestock, to read books together every night, to sit with us over homework and drive us to 4H, Cub Scouts and Camp Fire, to music lessons and sports, to sit together for meals, and never miss a Sunday to worship God.
This was their love, so often invisible, too often imperfect, yet its encompassing warmth splintered and broke the grip of cold that can overwhelm and freeze a family’s heart and soul.
What did I know? What did I know? Too little then, so much more now yet still – never enough.
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The care of the disciples was the care for the day, not for the morrow; the word morrow must stand for any and every point of the future. The next hour, the next moment, is as much beyond our grasp and as much in God’s care, as that a hundred years away. Care for the next minute is just as foolish as care for the morrow, or for a day in the next thousand years– in neither can we do anything, in both God is doing everything. Those claims only of the morrow which have to be prepared to-day are of the duty of to-day; the moment which coincides with work to be done, is the moment to be minded; the next is nowhere till God has made it. ~George McDonald “The Cause of Spiritual Stupidity” from Unspoken Sermons
I come from a long line of worriers, so it comes quite naturally to me to anticipate the cares and concerns not only of this very moment, but every moment to come.
Unfortunately, medical training did little to calm that tendency as every worst-case-scenario is emphasized by every teacher to prepare the doctor-novice for any potential eventuality. Knowing about all the bad things that can happen is essential for disaster-preparedness in order to be ready to leap into action. Hospital rounds focus on the “what-ifs” as much as the “what-is” to be sure that all possible research and due diligence had been done in a particular patient’s case.
So for Jesus to say to His disciples (and us) “Do you not understand?” hits me hard because I’ve spent my life working hard to understand. My training and my human nature tells me to care in advance so I’ll be ready for what is to come; yet, true to form, just as He says, it doesn’t change what will happen.
As I watch the sun rise yet again, watching the fire in the sky light and then slowly fade, I know Who is in control, and it surely is not me. There will be enough for today, enough for tomorrow and enough for all the years to come, because God is enough.
It takes strength to believe that. And that understanding has to be enough.
Thank you to Amy Baik Lee in her essay, which led me to George McDonald’s “Unspoken Sermons” and the song below.
Late nights, long hours Questions are drawn like a thin red line No comfort left over No safe harbor in sight
Really we don’t need much Just strength to believe There’s honey in the rock, There’s more than we see In these patches of joy These stretches of sorrow There’s enough for today There will be enough tomorrow
Upstairs a child is sleeping What a light in our strain and stress We pray without speaking Lord help us wait in kindness
Really we don’t need much Just strength to believe There’s honey in the rock, There’s more than we see In these patches of joy These stretches of sorrow There’s enough for today There will be enough tomorrow Songwriters: Sara Groves / Julie Ann Lee / Sarah Dark
Man is born broken. He lives by mending. The grace of God is glue. ~Eugene O’Neillfrom Act 4, Scene 1 – The Great God Brown
None of us can “mend” another person’s life, no matter how much the other may need it, no matter how much we may want to do it.
Mending is inner work that everyone must do for him or herself. When we fail to embrace that truth the result is heartbreak for all concerned.
What we can do is walk alongside the people we care about, offering simple companionship and compassion. And if we want to do that, we must save the only life we can save, our own. ~Parker Palmer writing about Mary Oliver’s poem “The Journey”
One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began, though the voices around you kept shouting their bad advice – – – though the whole house began to tremble and you felt the old tug at your ankles. ‘Mend my life!’ each voice cried. But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do, though the wind pried with its stiff fingers at the very foundations – – – though their melancholy was terrible. It was already late enough, and a wild night, and the road full of fallen branches and stones.
But little by little, as you left their voices behind, the stars began to burn through the sheets of clouds, and there was a new voice, which you slowly recognized as your own, that kept you company as you strode deeper and deeper into the world, determined to do the only thing you could do – – – determined to save the only life you could save. ~Mary Oliver “The Journey”
We are born hollering and suddenly alone, already aware of our emptiness from the first breath, each tiny air sac bursting with the air of our fallen world~ air that is never enough.
The rest of our days are spent filling up our empty spaces whether alveoli or stomach or synapses starving for understanding, still hollering in our loneliness and heart broken.
So we mend ourselves through our walk with others also broken, we patch up our gaps by knitting the scraggly fragments of lives lived together. We become the crucial glue boiled from gifted Grace, all our holes somehow made holy.
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We don’t need to understand why a rainbow or fogbow is formed in order to appreciate its beauty, of course, but understanding the physics of rainbows does give us a new set of eyes. I call this the beauty of knowledge. ~Walter Lewin from For the Love of Physics
Ghaist o a gaw that few hae seen paintit on fog lyk a fugue o thi scheme Noah supposit thi Lord tae mean when aa were drooned, ither hauf o yin o His een thon runic roond.
Rope o smoke lyk a loop on a cable, Grisaille Cain tae thi rainbow’s Abel, ultra-blank tae infra-sable, auld noose o tow; Yin that’s strang whaur Yang is faible: faur are ye now? ~WN Herbert“The Fogbow” from Omnesia
(this is my best guess of the meaning of Herbert’s inventive English/Gaelic/Scottish)
Ghost of a rainbow bruise that few have seen painted on fog like a fugue of this scheme Noah supposed the Lord to mean when all were drowned the other half of the dark cold earth is a mysterious rune ruined.
A rope of smoke like a loop on a cable a gray pallid Cain to the rainbow’s Abel, outer-white to inner-black old noose in tow; the cold and dark is strong where warmth and light is feeble: where are you now?
Look at a rainbow. While it lasts, it is or appears to be, a great arc of many colours occupying a position out there in space…. And now, before it fades, recollect all you have ever been told about the rainbow and its causes, and ask yourself the question, Is it really there? You know from memory that if you walked to the place where the rainbow ends, or seems to end, it would certainly not be ‘there’. In a word, reflection will assure you that the rainbow is the outcome of the sun, the raindrops and your own vision. ~Owen Barfield writing about “The Rainbow”
We saw our first “fogbow” or “ghost rainbow” early yesterday on our morning walk. It happened as we were heading east toward the sun, with the fog thickening, filling in behind us. We had just turned around to check the road to be sure no cars were coming before we crossed to the other side and there was this spectral image of foggy columns curving upward over the road to barely touch one another at the top. As we moved away from it, it vanished, as they say, “into thin air.”
This is an unusual phenomenon where the light and moisture in the air needs to be just right – reading about the physics of the fogbow helps to explain it and to render it even more beautiful. But the knowledge of how it happens isn’t nearly as impactful as the fact it was there at all for us to witness. Without our vision, it wasn’t really “there.”
The “bruised” rainbow color in the sky is God’s Old Testament promise to Noah to never destroy the world by flood again, establishing an everlasting covenant with His people while giving us the capacity to witness His promise. Perhaps the fogbow is ghostly reminder of those who have perished, whose blood, like Abel’s, cried out to God from the earth.
But where are we now? Do we seek to understand, believing the promises God made to us? Or do we walk right past God and His miraculous physics of creation, oblivious to what would not even exist without our ability to see it?
Somewhere, over the fogbow, way up high…
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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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A lurking man in that half light, there where eye imagines sight, stops my heart until I see Lurking man is leaning tree.
What changed? The man? There was none. Tree? The tree was always there. Then me? I did not change. I came to see and what I saw, what was could be. ~Archibald MacLeish, from Collected Poems 1917 to 1982
Every day I look for what is obvious on the farm – the trees, the flowers, the animals, the clouds, the lighting – all the daily and mundane things surrounding me. More often than not, what I see is straight-forward, needing no extra mental processing or interpretation.
Occasionally, my mind’s eye sees more and I’m stopped in my tracks. What is it I’m seeing and how much am I simply imagining? I see what “could be” and that alone creates a new dimension to what, on the surface, is plain and simple. Suddenly what is plain becomes glorious – a flower is otherworldly, a cat transformed by light, a wet feather a thing of beauty, a tree moves and breathes as if it is on fire.
Because my mind’s eye wants to look deeper, I see more detail. Because I myself am complex, I seek out complexity. Because I need transformation and renewal, my mind seeks to transform and renew. Because nothing around me is quite as it seems on the surface, I am called upon to notice it, in its beauty and in its simplicity.
I am changed by imagining how glorious things could be.
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They sit together on the porch, the dark Almost fallen, the house behind them dark. Their supper done with, they have washed and dried The dishes–only two plates now, two glasses, Two knives, two forks, two spoons–small work for two. She sits with her hands folded in her lap, At rest. He smokes his pipe. They do not speak, And when they speak at last it is to say What each one knows the other knows. They have One mind between them, now, that finally For all its knowing will not exactly know Which one goes first through the dark doorway, bidding Goodnight, and which sits on a while alone. ~Wendell Berry “They Sit Together on the Porch”
Over our multiple decades together, the more often we see others who sat together on the porches of their lives, and one has now already gone through that darkened doorway, bidding Goodnight.
The other remains sitting alone for a time.
We know what the other knows in our one mind together: we don’t know who will bid Goodnight before the other and who will sit on for awhile.
But we know it is okay either way because this is how it is and how it is meant to be. This is why we treasure up each porch-sitting, breathing the fresh evening air together, sighing wordlessly together, knowing, and not knowing, what will come next.
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I lived in the first century of world wars. Most mornings I would be more or less insane, The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories, The news would pour out of various devices Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen. I would call my friends on other devices; They would be more or less mad for similar reasons. Slowly I would get to pen and paper, Make my poems for others unseen and unborn. In the day I would be reminded of those men and women, Brave, setting up signals across vast distances, Considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined values. As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened, We would try to imagine them, try to find each other, To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other, Ourselves with ourselves. We would try by any means To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves, To let go the means, to wake.
Juries can’t raise the dead... …a just God governs the universe, and for that reason, none of our efforts are in vain ...God is not limited by our insufficiency, but perhaps might even be glorified through using limited human instruments for his purposes. ~Esau McCaulley, New Testament Wheaton College professor in his Opinion piece today “How I’m talking to my kids about the Derek Chauvin verdict”
How to reconcile ourselves with each other? Indeed – ourselves with ourselves?
How will a single verdict make a difference in the battles fought for centuries between people all made in the image of God but fallen so far from Him?
Juries call us to the truth about ourselves. The rest is up to us: what we tell our children about how to live and love.
What poems do we write to the unseen and the unborn so they do not repeat our mistakes.
And so, now we reconcile ourselves, heeding the call to live out His purposes.
Although I favor the open mind, I certainly do not advocate that the mind should be so open that the brains fall out. ~Arthur Hays Sulzberger (among others) — New York Times publisher from 1935-1961 from “Freedom of Information”
I tell you this to break your heart, by which I mean only that it break open and never close again to the rest of the world. — Mary Oliver from New and Selected Poems, Volume Two
Few things are as condemning in this day and age than being accused of being closed-minded. In religion and politics, the most zealous liberals and hard-core conservatives are the least likely to see another point of view, much less tolerate it. They are more than willing to “cancel” anyone who might be bold enough to express another perspective.
On the one hand, when unwilling to consider a differing opinion or world view, it becomes impossible to admit one could be a little bit misinformed or just plain wrong. Some hard-heads are locked so tight because they have intentionally lost the key to ever risk being open.
On the other hand, I know those who are so open-minded, there is nothing left but blank space because common sense has spilled out — whatever feels right, anything goes, no judgment, no boundaries, no barriers, all doors and windows flung ajar with “liberating” breezes coming and going.
It is a terribly empty void to behold when one’s brains have fallen out.
As for me, moderate middle-of-the-road person that I am, I tend to keep a protective helmet on but listen for the knock on the door of my convictions and opinions to see who or what may be there, remaining receptive to some possibility other than what I think I know.
All in all, we should prefer open-hearted over open- or closed-minded. Although far costlier, Love spilled from a broken Incarnate Heart and flooded the world with undeserved Grace. It will never be closed again.
Chunky and noisy, but with stars in their black feathers, they spring from the telephone wire and instantly
they are acrobats in the freezing wind. And now, in the theater of air, they swing over buildings,
dipping and rising; they float like one stippled star that opens, becomes for a moment fragmented,
then closes again; and you watch and you try but you simply can’t imagine
how they do it with no articulated instruction, no pause, only the silent confirmation that they are this notable thing,
this wheel of many parts, that can rise and spin over and over again, full of gorgeous life.
Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us, even in the leafless winter, even in the ashy city. I am thinking now of grief, and of getting past it;
I feel my boots trying to leave the ground, I feel my heart pumping hard. I want
to think again of dangerous and noble things. I want to be light and frolicsome. I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing, as though I had wings. ~Mary Oliver “Starlings in Winter” from Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays
Out of the dimming sky a speck appeared, then another, and another. It was the starlings going to roost. They gathered deep in the distance, flock sifting into flock, and strayed towards me, transparent and whirling, like smoke. They seemed to unravel as they flew, lengthening in curves, like a loosened skein. I didn’t move;they flew directly over my head for half an hour.
Each individual bird bobbed and knitted up and down in the flight at apparent random, for no known reason except that that’s how starlings fly, yet all remained perfectly spaced. The flocks each tapered at either end from a rounded middle, like an eye. Overhead I heard a sound of beaten air, like a million shook rugs, a muffled whuff. Into the woods they sifted without shifting a twig, right through the crowns of trees, intricate and rushing, like wind.
Could tiny birds be sifting through me right now, birds winging through the gaps between my cells, touching nothing, but quickening in my tissues, fleet? ~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
…yesterday I heard a new sound above my head a rustling, ruffling quietness in the spring air
and when I turned my face upward I saw a flock of blackbirds rounding a curve I didn’t know was there and the sound was simply all those wings, all those feathers against air, against gravity and such a beautiful winning: the whole flock taking a long, wide turn as if of one body and one mind.
How do they do that?
If we lived only in human society what a puny existence that would be
but instead we live and move and have our being here, in this curving and soaring world that is not our own so when mercy and tenderness triumph in our lives and when, even more rarely, we unite and move together toward a common good,
we can think to ourselves:
ah yes, this is how it’s meant to be. ~Julie Cadwallader Staub from “Blackbirds” from Wing Over Wing
Watching a winter starlings’ murmuration is a visceral experience – my heart leaps to see it happen above me. I can get queasy following its looping amoebic folding and unfolding path.
Thousands of individual birds move in sync with one another to form one massive organism existing solely because each tiny component anticipates and cooperates to avoid mid-air collisions. It could explode into chaos but it doesn’t. It could result in massive casualties but it doesn’t. They could avoid each other altogether but they don’t – they come together with a purpose and reasoning beyond our imagining. Even the silence of their movement has a discernible sound.
We humans are made up of just such cooperating component parts, that which is deep in our tissues, programmed in our DNA. Yet we don’t exercise such unity from our designed and carefully constructed building blocks. We are frighteningly disparate and independent creatures, going our own way bumping and crashing without care, leaving so much body and spiritual wreckage behind.
To where has flown our mercy and tenderness? We have corporately lost our internal moral compass.
We figuratively and literally shoot each other in the back, trampling over and suffocating one another, in a reach for justice that seems right in our own eyes.
We even watch the daily death count rise in ever-increasing numbers, and still some resist doing what it takes to protect themselves and one another.
The sound of silence is muffled weeping.
There comes a time in every fall before the leaves begin to turn when blackbirds group and flock and gather choosing a tree, a branch, together to click and call and chorus and clamor announcing the season has come for travel.
Then comes a time when all those birds without a sound or backward glance pour from every branch and limb into the air, as if on a whim but it’s a dynamic, choreographed mass a swoop, a swerve, a mystery, a dance
and now the tree stands breathless, amazed at how it was chosen, how it was changed. ~Julie Cadwallader Staub “Turning” from Wing Over Wing