Presences of Absences

The sunlight now lay over the valley perfectly still.
I went over to the graveyard beside the church
and found them under the old cedars…
I am finding it a little hard to say that I felt them resting there, but I did…

I saw that, for me, this country would always be populated
with presences and absences,
presences of absences,
the living and the dead.
The world as it is

would always be a reminder
of the world that was,
and of the world that is to come.
~Wendell Berry in Jayber Crow

Today, as always during the last weekend of May, we have a family reunion where most turn up missing.  A handful of the living come together with a slew of the no-longer-living. Some, who have been caught napping for a century or more, are no-shows.

It is always on this day of cemetery visiting that I feel keenly the presence of their absence: the great greats I never knew, a great aunt who kept so many secrets, my alcoholic grandfather (who I remember as a very old man) who died of sudden cardiac arrest at the age I am now, my grandmother from whom I inherited inherent messiness and the love of things that bloom, my parents who divorced for ten years late in life, yet reunited long enough for their ashes to rest together for eternity.

These givers of my genes rest here in this beautiful place above Puget Sound, the Cascade Mountains with shining snow beside them. It is a peaceful spot to lay one’s dust for eternity.

It is good, as one of the still-for-now living, to approach these plots of grass with a wary weariness of the aging.  But for the grace of God, there will I be sooner than I wish to be.  There, thanks to the grace of God, will I one day be an absent presence for my children and grandchildren to ponder if they keep up this annual tradition of the cemetery-visit.

The world as it is…remembers the world that was. 

The world to come calls us home in its time, where we all will be present and accounted for — our reunion celebration where we pray no one is missing.

All in good time. All in good time.

A new book from Barnstorming – available for order here

Each One Knows What the Other Knows

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.

A new book from Barnstorming, available to order here:

Waiting in Wilderness: The Light Unseen

Six days of work are spent
To make a Sunday quiet
That Sabbath may return.
It comes in unconcern;
We cannot earn or buy it.
Suppose rest is not sent
Or comes and goes unknown,
The light, unseen, unshown.
Suppose the day begins
In wrath at circumstance,
Or anger at one’s friends
In vain self-innocence
False to the very light,
Breaking the sun in half,
Or anger at oneself
Whose controverting will
Would have the sun stand still.
The world is lost in loss
Of patience; the old curse
Returns, and is made worse
As newly justified.
In hopeless fret and fuss,
In rage at worldly plight
Creation is defied,
All order is unpropped,
All light and singing stopped
~Wendell Berry “Sabbath Poem V”

On the calendar, this past pandemic year contained just as many Sabbath days as any other year. Even so, we Christians allowed these fifty-plus precious days of rest to be broken by our own impatience and anger.

As a result of pandemic concerns and government regulations, many churches stopped meeting and even now continue to only worship virtually. Others blithely ignored the risks and continued to meet as they always had. Some tried to find an uneasy middle ground, meeting with restrictions on seating and indoor singing.

It felt like the Son Himself and His Light had been broken in half — the body of Christ divided.

The pandemic may be in its waning months but how will the church recover? Will friends find unity again after months of separation, disagreement and antipathy? Can healing reach into our pews and bond our prayers back together?

I have struggled to find rest on these Sabbath days, to look forward to meeting together with my brothers and sisters in the body. I am challenged by my tendency to fret and fuss. I need forgiveness for my attitude and I need to show forgiveness for those who see things differently.

The Lord knows what He is doing with His people, illuminating our divided hearts. Even in the darkest hour, He took on all our imperfections and failings and made them right.

May His broken Light be healed, our corrupted hearts be made whole and may our singing begin once again.

Waiting in Wilderness: Heaven and I Wept Together

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And so you have a life that you are living only now,
now and now and now,
gone before you can speak of it,
and you must be thankful for living day by day,
moment by moment …
a life in the breath and pulse and living light of the present…

~Wendell Berry from Hannah Coulter

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~Lustravit lampade terras~
(He has illumined the world with a lamp)
The weather and my mood have little connection.
I have my foggy and my fine days within me;
my prosperity or misfortune has little to do with the matter.
– Blaise Pascal from “Miscellaneous Writings”

foggyfield
photo by Nate Gibson

I laughed in the morning’s eyes.
I triumphed and I saddened with all weather,
Heaven and I wept together,
and its sweet tears were salt with mortal mine.
Against the red throb of its sunset heart,
I laid my own to beat
And share commingling heat.

Rise, clasp my hand, and come.
Halts by me that Footfall.
Is my gloom, after all,
Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly?
Ah, Fondest, Blindest, Weakest,
I am He whom thou seekest.
Thou dravest Love from thee who dravest Me.

~Francis Thompson from “The Hound of Heaven”

supermoonbarn

My days are filled with anxious and sad patients,
one after another after another. 
They sit in front of their screen
and I in front of mine,
so close yet so far from each another –
a wilderness of unexpressed emotions.

They struggle to hold back the flood from brimming eyes.  
Each moment, each breath, each heart beat overwhelmed by questions: 
How to take yet another painful breath of this sad life?  must there be another breath?  
Must things go on like this in fear of what the next moment will bring?

The only thing more frightening than the unknown is the knowledge
that the next moment will be just like the last or perhaps worse. 
There is no recognition of a moment just passed
that can never be retrieved and relived.  
There is only fear of the next and the next
so that now and now and now is lost forever.

Worry and sorrow and angst are more contagious than any viral pandemic.
I mask up and wash my hands of it throughout the day.
I wish there was a vaccine to protect us all from our unnamed fears in the wilderness.

I want to say to them and myself:
Stop this moment in time.
Stop and stop and stop.
Stop expecting this feeling must be “fixed.”
Stop wanting to be numb to all discomfort.
Stop resenting the gift of each breath.
Just stop.
Instead, simply be
in the now and now and now.

I want to say:
this moment, foggy or fine, is yours alone,
this moment of weeping and sharing
and breath and pulse and light.
Shout for joy in it.
Celebrate it.
Be thankful for tears that can flow over grateful lips
and stop holding them back.

Stop me before I write,
out of my own anxiety over you,
yet another prescription
you don’t really need.

Just be–
and be blessed–
in the now and now and now.

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Like a Century Ago

I like farming.
I like the work.
I like the livestock and the pastures and the woods. 
It’s not necessarily a good living, but it’s a good life. 
I now suspect that if we work with machines
the world will seem to us to be a machine,
but if we work with living creatures
the world will appear to us as a living creature. 
That’s what I’ve spent my life doing,

trying to create an authentic grounds for hope.
~Wendell Berry, horse farmer, essayist, poet, professor

When I pull open the barn doors,
every morning
and each evening,
as my grandparents did
one hundred years ago,
six rumbling voices
rise in greeting.
We exchange scents,
nuzzle each others’ ears.

I do my chores faithfully
as my grandparents once did–
draw fresh water
into buckets,
wheel away
the pungent mess underfoot,
release an armful of summer
from the bale,
reach under heavy manes
to stroke silken necks.

I don’t depend
on our horses’ strength
and willingness to
don harness
to carry me to town
or move the logs
or till the soil
as my grandparents did.

Instead,
these soft eyed souls,
born on this farm
two or three long decades ago,
are simply grateful
for my constancy
morning and night
to serve their needs
until the day comes
they need no more.

I depend on them
to depend on me
to be there
to open the doors;
their low whispering welcome
gives voice
to the blessings of
living on a farm
ripe with rhythms and seasons,
as if today and tomorrow are
just like one hundred years ago.

Born Out of Nothing

Look at the birds. Even flying
is born

out of nothing. The first sky
is inside you, open

at either end of day.
The work of wings
was always freedom, fastening
one heart to every falling thing.
~Li-Young Lee “One Heart”

I.
What banged?

II.
Before banging
How did it get there?

III.
When it got there
Where was it?
~Wendell Berry “On the Theory of the Big Bang as the Origin of the Universe” from Leavings

Creation ex nihilo is a way of saying that although we are nothing, in our natural capabilities, God might yet make something of us…
~Dr. Nathan Chambers from Reconsidering Creation Ex Nihilo in Genesis 1

“In the beginning, God…”

We came, out of nothing, from Him, not randomly, not by chance, not a cosmic accident but an intentional act.

That first day -“and there was evening and there was morning, the first day” – is built within our very DNA. We are created with everything we need to support our freedom, our wings bearing our hearts aloft.

Our choice to fall is ours alone; it was not what God intended for us.

From nothing, God might yet make something of us – let our wings bear our hearts to Him who made us.

And He will raise you up on eagles’ wings
Bear you on the breath of dawn
Make you to shine like the sun
And hold you in the palm of His hand

~Michael Joncas

Thirty Nine Years Ago Today

Sometimes our life reminds me
of a forest in which there is a graceful clearing
and in that opening a house,
an orchard and garden,
comfortable shades, and flowers
red and yellow in the sun, a pattern
made in the light for the light to return to.
The forest is mostly dark, its ways
to be made anew day after day, the dark
richer than the light and more blessed,
provided we stay brave
enough to keep on going in.

~Wendell Berry from “The Country of Marriage”

I want to remember us this way—
late September sun streaming through
the window, bread loaves and golden
bunches of grapes on the table,
spoonfuls of hot soup rising
to our lips, filling us
with what endures.
~Peter Pereira from “A Pot of Red Lentils”

Lovers must not live for themselves alone. 
They must finally turn their gaze at one another
back toward the community. 
If they had only themselves to consider,
lovers would not need to marry,
but they must think of others and of other things. 
They say their vows to the community as much as to one another,
and the community gathers around them
to hear and to wish them well, on their behalf and on its own. 

It gathers around them because it understands how necessary,
how joyful, and how fearful this joining is. 
These lovers, pledging themselves to one another “until death,”
are giving themselves away… 
Lovers, then, “die” into their union with one another
as a soul “dies” into its union with God. 

And so, here, at the very heart of community life,
we find … this momentous giving. 
If the community cannot protect this giving,
it can protect nothing—and our time is proving that this is so.
~Wendell Berry from Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community

Before God and this gathering, I vow from my heart and spirit that I will be your wife/husband for as long as we both shall live.

I will love you with faithfulness, knowing its importance in sustaining us through good times and bad.

I will love you with respect, serving your greatest good and supporting your continued growth.

I will love you with compassion, knowing the strength and power of forgiveness.

I will love you with hope, remembering our shared belief in the grace of God and His guidance of our marriage.

“And at home, by the fire, whenever you look up, there I shall be–and whenever I look up, there will be you.”

(wedding vows written during a lunch break on the roof of Group Health on Capitol Hill, Seattle Washington in July 1981 before our September 19, 1981 wedding at First Seattle Christian Reformed Church)

*the last line is adapted from Thomas Hardy’s  “Far From the Madding Crowd”

Better Than Any Argument

However just and anxious I have been
I will stop and step back
from the crowd of those who may agree
with what I say, and be apart.
There is no earthly promise of life or peace
but where the roots branch and weave
their patient silent passages in the dark;
uprooted, I have been furious without an aim.
I am not bound for any public place,
but for ground of my own
where I have planted vines and orchard trees,
and in the heat of the day climbed up
into the healing shadow of the woods.
Better than any argument is to rise at dawn
and pick dew-wet berries in a cup.
~Wendell Berry “A Standing Ground”
from The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry

This is an age of argument: silence is labeled violence so we’re induced to have our say and look for others to listen and support our point of view. Without mutual agreement, there is plenty of fodder for argument with a duel-to-the-death determination to win others over to our way of thinking.

Agreeing to disagree doesn’t seem to be an option any longer. Why can’t our debates simply settle down to get on with life and find a way to live alongside each other? Instead, if I don’t see it your way, I’m morally deficient or hostile or worst of all I’m not an ally, so by modern definition, I’ve become the enemy.

But I’m not the enemy and never want to be.

It’s enough to make one retreat from the fray altogether. Those of us who have been around awhile know: anger puts a match to feelings that burn hot inside and outside. Initially debate is energizing with a profound sense of purpose and direction, yet too soon it becomes nothing but ashes.

I refuse to be furious for the sake of fury and indignation. Arguments, tempting as they may be in the heat of the moment, don’t hold a candle to the lure of sharing sweet fruit of the garden and the cool shadows of the forest with those who need it most.

So come in and help me eat berries and cherries but leave your arguments at the door. You can pick them up later on your way out if you wish, but most likely they will have forgotten all about you and wandered away while you were busy living life.

Fickle things, arguments – they tend to fizzle out until someone decides to light a match to them again.

Staying Brave Enough

Sometimes our life reminds me
of a forest in which there is a graceful clearing
and in that opening a house,
an orchard and garden,
comfortable shades, and flowers
red and yellow in the sun, a pattern
made in the light for the light to return to.
The forest is mostly dark, its ways
to be made anew day after day, the dark
richer than the light and more blessed,
provided we stay brave
enough to keep on going in.

~Wendell Berry from “The Country of Marriage”

Our daughter and her new husband started their married life yesterday with a ceremony on the farm. God invites them into the orchard and yard where His garden is blooming. It is here where His light illuminates the darkness, and where, each day for the rest of their lives, their covenant with one another mirrors their covenant with God as His children.

Even on the dark days, the light pursues them.
Even on the dark days, their brave love will bloom.

You Never Know

What shall I say, because talk I must?
That I have found a cure
for the sick?
I have found no cure
for the sick

but this crooked flower
which only to look upon
all men
are cured. This
is that flower
for which all men
sing secretly their hymns
of praise! This
is that sacred
flower!
~William Carlos Williams from “The Yellow Flower”

The nail of each big toe was the horn of a goat.  Thick as a thumb and curved, it projected down over the tip of the toe to the underside.  With each step, the nail would scrape painfully against the ground and be pressed into his flesh.  There was dried blood on each big toe. 

It took an hour to do each big toe.  The nails were too thick even for my nail cutters.  They had to be chewed away little by little, then flattened out with the rasp, washed each toe, dried him off, and put his shoes and socks back on.  He stood up and took a few steps, like someone who is testing the fit of a new pair of shoes. 

“How is it?”

“It don’t hurt,” he said, and gave me a smile that I shall keep in my safety deposit box at the bank until the day I die.

I never go to the library on Wednesday afternoon without my nail clippers in my briefcase.
You just never know.

~Richard Selzer from “Toenails” from Letters to a Young Doctor

I know for a while again
the health of self-forgetfulness,
looking out at the sky through
a notch in the valleyside,
the black woods wintry on
the hills, small clouds at sunset
passing across. And I know
that this is one of the thresholds
between Earth and Heaven,
from which even I may step
forth and be free.
– Wendell Berry from “Sabbath Poems”

Whenever I lose perspective about what I’m trained to do
and who I am meant to serve,
when I wallow in the mud of self-importance
rather than in the health of self-forgetfulness~

I wash out a plug of wax from a deaf ear
and restore hearing
or remove a painful thorn in a thumb
or clip someone’s crippling toenails
so they can step forth in freedom
or I simply sit still as someone
cries out their heart’s pain.

I cling to the crooked flower
of healing and forgiveness I was handed
over forty years ago in order to share
its sacred sweetness.

I’ve been given these tools for a reason
so need to continue to use them.

You just never know.