The Soul’s Sap Quivers

To think that this meaningless thing was ever a rose,
Scentless, colourless, this!
Will it ever be thus (who knows?)
Thus with our bliss,
If we wait till the close?


Though we care not to wait for the end, there comes the end
Sooner, later, at last,
Which nothing can mar, nothing mend:

An end locked fast,
Bent we cannot re-bend.

~Christina Rossetti “Summer is Ended”

The soul’s sap quivers. There is no earth smell
Or smell of living thing. This is the spring time
But not in time’s covenant. Now the hedgerow
Is blanched for an hour with transitory blossom
Of snow, a bloom more sudden
Than that of summer, neither budding nor fading,
Not in the scheme of generation.
Where is the summer, the unimaginable Zero summer?

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;


And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

~T.S. Eliot – lines taken from “Little Gidding”

As a grade school child in November 1963, I learned the import of the U.S. flag being lowered to half mast in response to the shocking and violent death of our President. The lowering of the flag was so rare when I was growing up, it had dramatic effect on all who passed by — our soul’s sap quivers — something very sad had happened to our country, something or someone had tragically ended, warranting our silence and our stillness.

For twenty years since 9/11/01, our flag has spent significant time at half mast, so much so that I’m befuddled instead of contemplative, puzzling over what the latest loss might be as there are so many, sometimes all happening in the same time frame.  We no longer are silenced by this gesture of honor and respect and we certainly are not stilled, personally and corporately instigating and suffering the same mistakes against humanity over and over again.

We are so bent. Will we ever be mended again?

Eliot wrote the prescient words of the Four Quartets in the midst of the WWII German bombing raids that destroyed people and neighborhoods. Perhaps he sensed the destruction he witnessed would not be the last time in history that evil visits the innocent, leaving them in ashes. There would be so many more losses to come, not least being the horror of 9/11/01.

There remains so much more sadness to be borne, such abundance of grief that our world has become overwhelmed and stricken. Yet Eliot was right: we have yet to live in a Zero summer of endless hope and fruitfulness, of spiritual awakening and understanding.  Where is it indeed? When will rise again the summer Rose of beauty and fragrance?

We must return, as people of faith to Eliot’s still point to which we are called on a day such as today.  We must be stilled; we must be silenced. We must grieve the losses of this turning world and pray for release from the suffering we cause and we endure.  Only in the asking, only in the kneeling down and pleading, are we surrounded by God’s unbounded grace and His Rose may bloom recognizable again.  

“There Are No Words” written on 9/11/2001
by Kitty Donohoe

there are no words there is no song
is there a balm that can heal these wounds that will last a lifetime long
and when the stars have burned to dust
hand in hand we still will stand because we must

in one single hour in one single day
we were changed forever something taken away
and there is no fire that can melt this heavy stone
that can bring back the voices and the spirits of our own

all the brothers, sisters and lovers all the friends that are gone
all the chairs that will be empty in the lives that will go on
can we ever forgive though we never will forget
can we believe in the milk of human goodness yet

we were forged in freedom we were born in liberty
we came here to stop the twisted arrows cast by tyranny
and we won’t bow down we are strong of heart
we are a chain together that won’t be pulled apart

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A Sultry Day

It is a sultry day; the sun has drunk
The dew that lay upon the morning grass;

There is no rustling in the lofty elm
That canopies my dwelling, and its shade
Scarce cools me. All is silent, save the faint
And interrupted murmur of the bee,
Settling on the sick flowers, and then again
Instantly on the wing. The plants around
Feel the too potent fervors: the tall maize
Rolls up its long green leaves; the clover droops
Its tender foliage, and declines its blooms.
But far in the fierce sunshine tower the hills,
With all their growth of woods, silent and stern,
As if the scorching heat and dazzling light
Were but an element they loved.


…I woo the wind
That still delays his coming. Why so slow,
Gentle and voluble spirit of the air?
Oh, come and breathe upon the fainting earth
Coolness and life! Is it that in his caves
He hears me? See, on yonder woody ridge,
The pine is bending his proud top, and now
Among the nearer groves, chestnut and oak
Are tossing their green boughs about. He comes;
Lo, where the grassy meadow runs in waves!
The deep distressful silence of the scene
Breaks up with mingling of unnumbered sounds
And universal motion. He is come,
Shaking a shower of blossoms from the shrubs,
And bearing on their fragrance; and he brings
Music of birds, and rustling of young boughs,
And sound of swaying branches, and the voice
Of distant waterfalls. All the green herbs
Are stirring in his breath; a thousand flowers,
By the road-side and the borders of the brook,
Nod gayly to each other; glossy leaves
Are twinkling in the sun, as if the dew
Were on them yet, and silver waters break
Into small waves and sparkle as he comes.

~William Cullen Bryant from “Summer Wind”

In the Pacific Northwest, we are going through another string of hot dry days with smoky landscapes and horizons. This is becoming all too familiar: the temperatures are rising each year, the forests are burning, our usual pristine air quality deteriorating.

Even the birds are silent in this weather. The bees, discouraged by the wilting blooms, don’t linger. Our animals covered with fur are listlessly seeking shade and anything green in the pasture.

So I pray for relief – any breeze to move this humid air – something, anything that can break this cycle of sweatiness.

Yesterday, in the midst of 102 degree temperatures, out of nowhere came a northeast wind – as strong and determined as our northeast midwinter arctic blasts – but hot. It was so disorienting to be blown about by furnace heat. Branches and leaves fell from bewildered and already stressed trees. Plants withered as the moisture was sucked from leaves and blossoms. The garden sagged.

As suddenly as it came, it was gone again. And all around me – me included – wondered what had just hit us.

I am reminded to be careful what I pray for, knowing that my petition may well be heard and heeded. Perhaps the answer to prayer won’t be quite what I hoped for or expected, but it is nonetheless an answer.

I only need to listen…

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Dazzled by Dahlias

August of another summer, and once again
I am drinking the sun…
All my life I have been able to feel happiness,

except whatever was not happiness,
which I also remember.
Each of us wears a shadow.
But just now it is summer again…

Soon now, I’ll turn and start for home.
And who knows, maybe I’ll be singing.

~Mary Oliver from “The Pond” from Felicity

…what I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled-
to cast aside the weight of facts

and maybe even
to float a little
above this difficult world.
I want to believe I am looking

into the white fire of a great mystery.
I want to believe that the imperfections are nothing-
that the light is everything-that it is more than the sum
of each flawed blossom rising and fading. And I do.

~Mary Oliver from “The Ponds” from House of Light

When I walk in my friend’s dahlia garden,
surrounded by vivid color,
I imagine the First Garden
must have been a bit like this.

I simply want to drink it all in,
to swim freely in the bright throes of summer,
forgetting that with blinding light
there will be shadow.

Like these blooms,
I too am imperfect,
not quite symmetrical,
starting to wither and curl at the edges.

But even so~
a stroll in a Garden
to be dazzled in the cool of the day
is what God prescribed then and now.

For a little while,
I am transported beyond this difficult world
with its constant reminders of my flaws,
and am assured of His Hand on me
and how much He loves me anyway.

Thank you to my friend Jean in Lynden who grows the most dazzling dahlias and allows me come take their portraits!

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This Garden Entrusted to Me

The wind, one brilliant day, called
to my soul with an odor of jasmine.

“In return for the odor of my jasmine,
I’d like all the odor of your roses.”

“I have no roses; all the flowers
in my garden are dead.”

“Well then, I’ll take the withered petals
and the yellowed leaves and the waters of the fountain.”

The wind left.  And I wept. And I said to myself:
“What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?”
~Antonio Machado “The Wind, One Brilliant Day” translated by Robert Bly

This garden bloomed with potential,
entrusted to me for 32 years:
the health and well-being of 16,000 students,
most thriving and flourishing,
some withering, their petals falling,
a few have been lost altogether.

As the winds of time sweep away
another group of graduates from my care,
to be blown to places unknown,
their beauty and fragrance gone from here.

I marvel at their growth,
but also weary weep for those who left too soon,
wondering if I failed to water them enough –
or is it I who am parched in this garden
with a thirst unceasing, my roots reaching deep
into drought-stricken soil,
ever so slowly drying out?

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Trumpeting Spring

Thou yellow trumpeter of laggard Spring!
Thou herald of rich Summer’s myriad flowers!
The climbing sun with new recovered powers
Does warm thee into being, through the ring
Of rich, brown earth he woos thee, makes thee fling
Thy green shoots up, inheriting the dowers
Of bending sky and sudden, sweeping showers,
Till ripe and blossoming thou art a thing
To make all nature glad, thou art so gay;
To fill the lonely with a joy untold;
Nodding at every gust of wind to-day,
To-morrow jewelled with raindrops. Always bold
To stand erect, full in the dazzling play
Of April’s sun, for thou hast caught his gold.
~Amy Lowell “To An Early Daffodil”

Fair Daffodils, we weep to see
You haste away so soon;
As yet the early-rising sun
Has not attain’d his noon.

Stay, stay,
Until the hasting day
Has run
But to the even-song;
And, having pray’d together, we
Will go with you along.

 
We have short time to stay, as you,
We have as short a spring;
As quick a growth to meet decay,
As you, or anything
.

We die
As your hours do, and dry
Away,
Like to the summer’s rain;
Or as the pearls of morning’s dew,
Ne’er to be found again.
~Robert Herrick “To Daffodils”

We are springing late,
with chill winds and everlasting rain.

The daffodils melt on the stem
unable to sustain the battering
while hordes of bugs and slugs luxuriate
with unending voracious appetites for their petals.

We ourselves aren’t much different
than these tender blooms –
though we hope not to be chewed to death,
this past year reminds us that
we are, after all, here today, gone tomorrow. 

When our bud bursts to blossom,
we flame hearty with such exuberant joy,
then wither until we are no more,
a mere bulb resting, waiting to be called from the ground
next year.

We, for our brief days,
trumpet our blooming relief:
a reflection of the Sun itself,
just as we were created to be.

Packed Up and Gone Home

On the fire escape, one
stupid petunia still blooms,
purple trumpet blowing
high notes at the sky long
after the rest of the band
has packed up
and gone home.
~Sarah Frehligh “December” from Sad Math

Despite two killing frosts,
heavy melting rains
and blowing gusts of 45mph,
some of us still remain standing.

Despite all that comes at us,
whether expected or unexpected,
we’re still here
even when everyone else has packed up
and headed home.

We’re still blooming,
still breathing,
still shouting
at the top of our lungs:

~life is pretty good~

so as not to forget
blooming out of season beats giving up.

This Bleak World

Tis the last rose of summer
Left blooming alone;
All her lovely companions
Are faded and gone:
No flower of her kindred,
No rose-bud is nigh,
To reflect back her blushes,
Or give sigh for sigh.

I’ll not leave thee, thou lone one!
To pine on the stem;
Since the lovely are sleeping,
Go, sleep thou with them.
Thus kindly I scatter
Thy leaves o’er the bed,
Where thy mates of the garden
Lie scentless and dead.

So soon may I follow,
When friendships decay,
And from Love’s shining circle
The gems drop away.
When true hearts lie wither’ d,
And fond ones are flown,
Oh! who would inhabit
This bleak world alone?

~Thomas Moore “The Last Rose of Summer”

The last rose of the season is one tough bud. It has persisted through months of prunings and aphids and withering heat and frost-tipped mornings.

It doesn’t elegantly swell and swirl like its summer cousins adorned with pristine petals and silky smooth surface. It is blotchy and brown-tipped and not-a-little saggy.

Yet the last rose bud of the season is what I am. I would rather stay out on the bush than be plucked and admired in a vase. I would rather, plain as I am, weather my way through the elements to the fullest bloom possible and then drop, petal by petal, piece by piece to litter the ground below. I am meant to become the ground that will bear beauty next spring.

Rather than born for display, the last rose of October is born for hope.

Leaves and Lives Falling Away

If we could,
like the trees,
practice dying,
do it every year
just as something we do—
like going on vacation
or celebrating birthdays—
it would become
as easy a part of us
as our hair or clothing.


Someone would show us how
to lie down and fade away
as if in deepest meditation,
and we would learn
about the fine dark emptiness,
both knowing it and not knowing it,
and coming back would be irrelevant.


Whatever it is the trees know
when they stand undone,
surprisingly intricate,
we need to know also
so we can allow
that last thing
to happen to us
as if it were only
any ordinary thing,


leaves and lives
falling away, the spirit, complex,
waiting in the fine darkness
to learn which way
it will go.
~Grace Butcher, “Learning from Trees” from Poetry of Presence

If I were to die as a leaf,
I would want to change my clothes just bit by bit,
overnight oozing gradually to scarlet,
bleeding into the green a little bit more,
until I’m so unrecognizable,
I’ll seem brand new.

That would be ideal.

The reality is a fading to grey and brown,
my edges withered and torn,
bug-bitten with holes and weather-beaten bruised,
dangling and fearful of letting go
and so forgotten.

So I remember:
no one, not one, falls
without its Maker knowing.
No one, not one, dies
without being made brand new.

He Sees Us As We Are: Petals on a Bough

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
~Ezra Pound “In a Station of the Metro”

All flesh is as grass,
And all the glory of man as the flower of the grass.
The grass withers,
And its flower falls away,
But the word of the Lord endures forever.
1Peter 1:24-25

We won’t be visiting Japan this spring as we have the past several years – we were there over Christmas to meet a new grandson and with the specter of coronavirus has dampened any desire to travel. There are millions of people there and here wondering how this new reality will impact their daily lives. It already has: the store shelves are bare of basic necessities as nervous families stockpile.

In the past, during our time in Tokyo, we are overwhelmed by the sea of faces — each man, woman and child with a place to go to work or school, a place to return home to, a bed to rest upon. Millions pass through the same place in one day and each person, each hair on their head, is cared for and counted by God.

Yet, we are like the transient flowers, reminded again by the emergence of a potentially lethal viral protein packet: we are mortal, each of us, in our clinging like petals to a wet bough – the word of the Lord, our Creator. Only then we become more than apparition.  We bloom where God has planted us.

This year’s Lenten theme on Barnstorming:

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

An Opened Palm of Offering

These woods
on the edges of a lake
are settling now
to winter darkness.
Whatever was going to die
is gone —
crickets, ferns, swampgrass.
Bare earth fills long spaces of a field.
But look:
a single oak leaf
brown and shining
like a leather purse.
See what it so delicately offers
lying upturned on the path.
See how it reflects in its opened palm
a cup of deep, unending sky.
~ Laura Foley, “The Offering” from Why I Never Finished My Dissertation

Winter still has us in its chilly grasp for another four weeks. We feel caught up in its wintry web as viruses continue to swirl among us despite efforts to monitor and quarantine, and we wonder when our own turn will come.

The natural world, its joys and its threats, has always had the upper hand. We are dumbfounded, never quick enough to catch on to its tricks and sly mutations, unprepared to respond in the moment.

Like a withering leaf soon to become dust, we offer up what we can when we can: our reflection of the light, our hope of better things to come, our gift of beauty back to a despairing world.

Winter never has the last word.