Attention on the Fly

In Sleeping Beauty’s castle
the clock strikes one hundred years
and the girl in the tower returns to the world.
So do the servants in the kitchen,
who don’t even rub their eyes.
The cook’s right hand, lifted
an exact century ago,
completes its downward arc
to the kitchen boy’s left ear;
the boy’s tensed vocal cords
finally let go
the trapped, enduring whimper,
and the fly, arrested mid-plunge
above the strawberry pie,
fulfills its abiding mission
and dives into the sweet, red glaze.

As a child I had a book
with a picture of that scene.
I was too young to notice
how fear persists, and how
the anger that causes fear persists,
that its trajectory can’t be changed
or broken, only interrupted.
My attention was on the fly;
that this slight body
with its transparent wings
and lifespan of one human day
still craved its particular share
of sweetness, a century later.
~Lisel Mueller “Immortality” from Alive Together

Little fly,
Thy summer’s play
My thoughtless hand
Has brushed away.

Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?

For I dance
And drink and sing,
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.

If thought is life
And strength and breath,
And the want
Of thought is death,

Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.

~William Blake “The Fly”

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –….
~Emily Dickinson

A fly made the news this past week. It became more important than the issues being discussed in the room in which it buzzed and landed. Maybe it has come to symbolize our helplessness in the face of our anger toward one another, which has become just another way for our fear to express itself.

There is nothing more humbling than a wayward fly buzzing in the room or landing uninvited on my head.  No matter whether I live in a slum or a castle, a fly will find its way to me, just because it can.  I must learn to coexist with what I can’t control; this is no time for frustration nor fear nor anger to raise my hand, ready to kill the offender.

When I’m feeling bugged, which happens all too often these days, the buzzing may overwhelm my stillness but I won’t let it overwhelm me.  I will put down the swatter. I will breathe deeply and admire the ingenuity of such a brief life powered miraculously by two transparent wings.

On Small Wings

I am stirring at the sink,
I am stirring
the amount of dew
you can gather in two hands,
folding it into the fragile
quiet of the house.
Before the eggs,
before the coffee
heaving like a warm cat,
I step out to the feeder—
one foot, then the other,
alive on wet blades.
Air lifts my gown—I might fly—

This thistle seed I pour
is for the tiny birds.
This ritual,
for all things frail
and imperiled.
Wings surround me, frothing
the air. I am struck
by what becomes holy.

A woman
who lost her teenage child
to an illness without mercy,
said that at the end, her daughter
sat up in her hospital bed
and asked:


What should I do?
What should I do?

I carry the woman with the lost child
in my pocket, where she murmurs
her love song without end:
Just this, each day:
Bear yourself up on small wings
to receive what is given.
Feed one another
with such tenderness,
it could almost be an answer.
~Marcia F. Brown from “Morning Song”

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

~Naomi Shihab Nye from “Kindness”

It is the gentle tenderness I miss most – this world aflame with anger, distrust and bitterness, resentment, suspicion and cussed stubbornness. There seems no relief in sight; we must find a way through.

It is time to accept help when needed.
It is time to receive mercy without shame or scorn.
It is time to be lifted up with soft small wings.

We are saved by kindness, by grace given freely, thrown like a lifeline to us when we are overwhelmed. Such love can never be as ephemeral as a morning dew gone by noon.

Pounding the Earth

Nothing approaches a field like me. Hard
gallop, hard chest – hooves and mane and flicking
tail. My love: I apprehend each flower,
each winged body, saturated in a light
that burnishes. I would make a burnishing 
of you, by which I mean a field in flower,
by which i mean, a breaching – my hands
making an arrow of themselves, rooting
the loosened dirt. I would make for you
the barest of sounds, wing against wing,
there, at the point of articulation. Love, 
I pound the earth for you. I pound the earth. 

~Donika Kelly (2017) “Love Poem: The Centaur” from Bestiary

When Haflingers gallop in the field, it sounds like thunder as their hooves pound the earth. It can be a particularly ominous sound, especially in the middle of the night when the pounding hooves are going past our bedroom window which means only one thing: their field gate or the barn door has been breached. Haflingers are also Houdinis.

Their hooves may hug the ground, treading clover blossoms and blades of grass but I can see invisible wings as I watch them run. Their manes and tails float free even when the rest of their bodies are entirely earth-bound.

I know most of the time I move ponderously over the earth as well leaving my footprints behind. Some days I feel literally tethered to the ground, with no lightness of being whatsoever.

But once I breach the gate, I grow wings. The ground cannot hold me any longer and it rises to meet me as I fly.

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.

The Bent World

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. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;   
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;   
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
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 “God’s Grandeur”

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.
Luke 13:34

for him to see me mended,
I must see him torn…
~Luci Shaw
from “Mary’s Song”

Today marks the crushing of Christ in the Garden of the Oil Press, Gethsemane. 

“Gethsemane” means “oil press” –a place of olive trees treasured for the fine oil delivered from their fruit. And so, on this Thursday night, the pressure is turned up high on the disciples, not just on Jesus.

The disciples are expected, indeed commanded, to keep watch alongside the Master, to be filled with prayer, to avoid the temptation of the weakened flesh thrown at them at every turn.

But they fail pressure testing and fall apart. 

Like them, I am easily lulled by complacency, by my over-indulged satiety for material comforts that do not truly fill hunger or quench thirst,  by my expectation that being called a follower of Jesus is enough.

It is not enough.
I fail the pressure test as well.

I fall asleep through His anguish.
I dream, oblivious, while He sweats blood.
I might even deny I know Him when pressed hard.

Yet, the moment of betrayal becomes the moment He is glorified,
thereby God is glorified. 

Crushed, bleeding,  poured out over the world
— from wings that brood and cover us —
He becomes the sacrifice that anoints us.

Incredibly,
indeed miraculously,
He loves us, bent as we are, anyway.

VERSE 1
Let us praise Jesus, the Washer of Feet;
Jesus, the Lordly who gave up his Seat;
Jesus, the Maker of all that there is;
Jesus, the Servant to all who are his.

REFRAIN
We praise Jesus
We praise Jesus

VERSE 2
Let us praise Jesus, the Blesser of Bread;
Jesus, the Off’ring who suffered and bled;
Jesus, the Royal who knelt in the dust;
Jesus, the Priest in whose Blessing we trust.

VERSE 3
Let us praise Jesus, the Shepherd alone;
Jesus, the Lover who gathers His own;
Jesus, the Wounded who died for us all;
Jesus, the Christ on whose goodness we call.

VERSE 4
Let us praise Jesus, the Savior adored;
Jesus, the Sonnet of praise to our Lord;
Jesus, the Gracious whose own life He gave;
Jesus, the Lowly who came down to save.

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

How It’s Meant to Be


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

…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

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

Watching the starlings’ murmuration is a visceral experience – my heart leaps to see it happen above me.  I feel 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 of air rushing past wings.

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 learn from our designed and carefully constructed building blocks.  We have become frighteningly disparate and independent creatures, each going our own way bumping and crashing without care.

We have lost our internal moral compass for how it is meant to be.

The rustling ruffling quiet of wings in the air is actually muffled weeping.

We Are No Longer Alone: When Enough Was No Longer Enough

For hours, the flowers were enough.
Before the flowers, Adam had been enough.
Before Adam, just being a rib was enough.
Just being inside Adam’s body, near his heart, enough.
Enough to be so near his heart, enough
to feel that sweet steady rhythm, enough
to be a part of something bigger was enough.
And before the rib, being clay was enough.
And before clay, just being earth was enough.
And before earth, being nothing was enough.
But then enough was no longer enough.
The flowers bowed their heads, as if to say, enough,
and so Eve, surrounded by peonies, and alone enough,
wished very hard for something, and the wish was enough
to make the pinecone grow wings; the wish was enough
to point to the sky, say bird, and wait for something to sing.
~Nicole Callihan “The Origin of Birds”

photo by Harry Rodenberger

We were created to be enough,
but for us enough was no longer enough so we reached for more.

We ended up stripped and stark — as if fall and winter would be the ending of all things, but of course they are not. We will not sleep forever.

When I am down to my bare and broken essentials — the bleak and muddy and the too-early dark — I am the pinecone in the dirt wishing for the strength of wings and miraculously granted the gift of flight and a voice to sing.

I know this darkness is not the ending. 

Never has been.  Never will be.

Whence comes this rush of wings afar
Following straight the NoÎl star?
Birds from the woods, in wondrous flight
Bethlehem seek this Holy Night

“Tell us, ye birds, why come ye here
Into this stable, poor and drear?”
“Hast’ning, we seek the new-born King
And all our sweetest music bring.”

Hark! how the greenfinch bears his part
Philomel, too, with tender heart
Chants from her leafy dark retreat
Re, mi, fa, sol, in accents sweet

Angels and shepherds, birds of the sky
Come where the Son of God doth lie;
Christ on earth with man doth dwell
Join in the shout, “Noël, Noël!”
~French Carol

A Horse with Wings

O! for a horse with wings! 
~William Shakespeare from Cymbeline

photo by Bette Vander Haak

One reason why birds and horses are happy is because they are not trying to impress other birds and horses. 
~Dale Carnegie

photo by Bette Vander Haak

When I bestride him, I soar, I am a hawk:
he trots the air; the earth sings when he touches it;
~William Shakespeare from Henry V

photo by Bette Vander Haak
photo by Bette Vander Haak

We all should have a buddy who will simply hang out with us, helping to keep the biting flies away by gobbling them up before they draw blood.

It is symbiosis at its best: a relationship built on mutual trust and helpfulness. In exchange for relief from annoying insects that a tail can’t flick off, a Haflinger serves up bugs on a smorgasbord landing platform located safely above farm cats and marauding coyotes.

Thanks to their perpetual full meal deals, these birds do leave “deposits” behind that need to be brushed off at the end of the day. Like any good friendship, having to clean up the little messes left behind is a small price to pay for the bliss of companionable comradeship.

We’re buds after all – best forever friends.

And this is exactly what friends are for: one provides the feast and the other provides the wings. We’re fully fed and we’re free.

May we ever be so blessed.

photo by Bette Vander Haak
photo by Bette Vander Haak

Our Wings Ruffled

Birds afloat in air’s current,
sacred breath?  No, not breath of God,
it seems, but God
the air enveloping the whole
globe of being.
It’s we who breathe, in, out, in, in the sacred,
leaves astir, our wings
rising, ruffled — but only the saints
take flight.  We cower
in cliff-crevice or edge out gingerly
on branches close to the nest.  The wind
marks the passage of holy ones riding
that ocean of air.  Slowly their wake
reaches us, rocks us.
But storms or still, 
numb or poised in attention,
we inhale, exhale, inhale,
encompassed, encompassed.
~Denise Levertov “In Whom We Live and Move and Have Our Being

God reminds us when we are at our most anxious and needy:
He cares for the birds and feeds them, lifts their wings in the wind and their feathered down keeps them warm. He gives them air to ride upon and air to breathe.

If them, then He cherishes us as well.

We too breathe in, breathe out, ruffled and fluffed, surrounded by the air we need and the air that lifts us. Lacking down, it is His breath keeping us warm.

Encompassed.