Held My Breath

We drove across high prairie,
the Mississippi behind us,
nothing ahead for miles
but sky,

a loamy sky, thick enough
to put a trowel into,
but off to the south
clouds pulled


away from one another
as if to stand back
take a long look,
and in that


space what light was left
of the sun
already gone below
the horizon


flowed up and held there
and we did too hold
our breaths at the sudden
beauty.
~Athena Kildegaard “We drove across high prairie…” from Cloves & Honey.

We didn’t drive this time;
instead we boarded a plane
with other masked people,
holding our breath with the unfamiliarity
of being so close to strangers—
rather than a response
to the beauty of what we saw.

The vast landscape appeared below
rather than stretching out before us,
its emptiness stark and lonely from the air
as well as from the road.

We hold our breath,
awed by the reality
that we are truly here.
Really here, one way or the other.

In two hours, rather than two days.
Masked, but never blind to the beauty.

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Full of Mystery

It’s strange to be here. The mystery never leaves you. 
~John O’Donohue from Anam Cara

We must learn to acknowledge
that the creation is full of mystery;
we will never entirely understand it.
We must abandon arrogance
and stand in awe.
We must recover the sense
of the majesty of creation,
and the ability to be worshipful in its presence.
For I do not doubt that it is only
on the condition of humility and reverence before the world
that our species will be able to remain in it.
~Wendell Berry from  The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays

How did we come here and how is it we remain?

Even when the wind blows mightily,
the waters rise,
the earth shakes,
the fires rage,
the pandemic persists…

~we are here, granted another day to get it right. And will we?

It is strange to be here,
marveling at the mystery around us –
recognizing we are the ultimate mystery of creation,
placed here as its witnesses,
worshiping in humility, with reverence and obedience.

We don’t own what we see;
we only own our awe.

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Starting the Day

My father taught me how to eat breakfast
those mornings when it was my turn to help
him milk the cows. I loved rising up from

the darkness and coming quietly down
the stairs while the others were still sleeping.
I’d take a bowl from the cupboard, a spoon

from the drawer, and slip into the pantry
where he was already eating spoonfuls
of cornflakes covered with mashed strawberries

from our own strawberry fields forever.
Didn’t talk much—except to mention how
good the strawberries tasted or the way

those clouds hung over the hay barn roof.
Simple—that’s how we started up the day.

~Joyce Sutphen, “Breakfast” from First Words, Red Dragonfly.

By the time I was four years old, my family owned several Guernsey and Jersey dairy cows who my father milked by hand twice a day. My mother pasteurized the milk on our wood stove and we grew up drinking the best milk on earth, as well as enjoying home-made butter and ice cream.

One of my fondest memories is getting up early with my dad, before he needed to be at school teaching FFA agriculture students (Future Farmers of America). I would eat breakfast with him and then walk out into the foggy fall mornings with our dog to bring in the cows for milking. He would boost me up on top of a very bony-backed chestnut and white patchwork cow while he washed her udder and set to work milking.

I would sometimes sing songs from up there on my perch and my dad would whistle since he didn’t sing.

I can still hear the rhythmic sound of the milk squirting into the stainless steel bucket – the high-pitched metallic whoosh initially and then a more gurgling low wet sound as the bucket filled up. I can see my dad’s capped forehead resting against the flank of the cow as he leaned into the muscular work of squeezing the udder teats, each in turn. I can hear the cow’s chewing her breakfast of alfalfa and grain as I balanced on her prominent spine feeling her smooth hair over her ribs. The barn cats circulated around us, mewing, attracted by the warm milky fragrance in the air.

Those were preciously simple starts to the day for me and my father, whose thoughts he didn’t articulate nor I could ever quite discern. But I did know I wasn’t only his daughter on mornings like that – I was one of his future farmers of America he dedicated his life to teaching.

Dad, even without you saying much, those were mornings when my every sense was awakened. I’ve never forgotten that- the best start to the day.

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Riding at Dusk

At dusk, everything blurs and softens…

The horse bears me along, like grace,
making me better than what I am,
and what I think or say or see
is whole in these moments, is neither
small nor broken.  Who then
is better made to say be well, be glad,

or who to long that we, as one,
might course over the entire valley,
over all valleys, as a bird in a great embrace
of flight, who presses against her breast,
in grief and tenderness,
the whole weeping body of the world?
~Linda McCarriston from “Riding Out At Evening”

“Last Light” photo of Twin Sisters at dusk by Joel de Waard

We all need to remember transcendent moments in our lives, those brief times when all was well, our worries left behind in the dust.

Wounds healed, hearts full, senses filled with wonder, feeling whole rather than broken.

The summer evening rides of my younger years were just such a time: lifted by such powerful grace and transported to another time and place. It can feel like flying but mostly it feels like an embrace, one creature with another, exploring the world together.

All these years later, I am held fast by the memories and in remembering, I weep.

Surely, someday,
heaven will be something like this.

Sure on this shining night
Of star made shadows round,
Kindness must watch for me
This side the ground.
The late year lies down the north.
All is healed, all is health.
High summer holds the earth.
Hearts all whole.
Sure on this shining night I weep for wonder wand’ring far
alone
Of shadows on the stars.

~James Agee

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Unlocked By Hollyhocks

Old-fashioned flowers! I love them all:
The morning-glories on the wall,
The pansies in their patch of shade,
The violets, stolen from a glade,
The bleeding hearts and columbine,
Have long been garden friends of mine;
But memory every summer flocks
About a clump of hollyhocks.


The mind’s bright chambers, life unlocks
Each summer with the hollyhocks.
~Edgar Guest from “Hollyhocks”

The endless well of summer
lies deep in the heart of old-fashioned flowers,
but no well is so deep as hollyhocks –
the veins of their petals
pumping color
as they sway on long-nubbined stems,
carefree in the breeze.

My mind is suddenly unlocked,
opened by a hollyhock key.

hollyhock

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All Puppies and Rainbows

The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening.  It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.
~
Henry David Thoreau from Walden

I don’t know about you, but there are some days I wake up just longing for my life to be all puppies and rainbows.

I hope to find sparkling magic around every corner, little wiggly fur balls surrounding me, happy tails a-wagging with a promise of glee and glitter. I’m eager to feel pure joy untainted by the realities of every day.

Perhaps I’m clutching at a kind of cartoon version of life without considering the wicked witches and monsters present in the ever-present dark forbidding woods of our human existence. Life just isn’t all puppies and rainbows. I know this…

Of course, puppies grow up. Rainbows fade and become just a memory. And I am growing older with all the aches and pains and uncertainties of aging. Even so, I still tend to clutch a “puppies and rainbows” state of mind when I open my eyes in the morning and when I close my eyes for sleep – hoping for a bit of stardust to hold.

I believe in promises. I believe in the God who made those promises. He is who I can hold onto and know with certainty, He won’t ever let go of me.

photo by Nate Gibson
photo by Brandon Dieleman
photo by Nate Gibson

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Wonder in Their Eyes

Serene the silver fishes glide,
Stern-lipped, and pale, and wonder-eyed!
As through the aged deeps of ocean,    
They glide with wan and wavy motion.   
They have no pathway where they go,
They flow like water to and fro,    
They watch with never-winking eyes,
They watch with staring, cold surprise,    
The level people in the air,  
The people peering, peering there:
Who wander also to and fro, 
And know not why or where they go,    
Yet have a wonder in their eyes,  
Sometimes a pale and cold surprise.

~ Max Eastman, “At the Aquarium”  Max Eastman: A Life

The fish are drifting calmly in their tank
between the green reeds, lit by a white glow
that passes for the sun. Blindly, the blank
glass that holds them in displays their slow
progress from end to end, familiar rocks
set into the gravel, murmuring rows
of filters, a universe the flying fox
and glass cats, Congo tetras, bristle-nose
pleocostemus all take for granted. Yet
the platys, gold and red, persist in leaping
occasionally, as if they can’t quite let
alone a possibility—of wings,
maybe, once they reach the air? They die
on the rug. We find them there, eyes open in surprise.
~Kim Addonizio “Aquarium,” from The Philosopher’s Club

Our shadows bring them from the shadows:
a yolk-yellow one with a navy pattern
like a Japanese woodblock print of fish scales.
A fat 18-karat one splashed with gaudy purple
and a patch of gray. One with a gold head,

a body skim-milk-white, trailing ventral fins
like half-folded fans of lace.
A poppy-red, faintly disheveled one,
and one, compact, all indigo in faint green water.
They wear comical whiskers and gather beneath us
as we lean on the cement railing
in indecisive late-December light,
and because we do not feed them, they pass,
then they loop and circle back. Loop and circle. Loop.
“Look,” you say, “beneath them.” Beneath them,
like a subplot or a motive, is a school
of uniformly dark ones, smaller, unadorned,
perhaps another species, living in the shadow
of the gold, purple, yellow, indigo, and white,
seeking the mired roots and dusky grasses,
unliveried, the quieter beneath the quiet.
~Susan Kolodny “Koi Pond, Oakland Museum”

The water going dark only
makes the orange seem brighter,
as you race, and kiss, and spar
for food, pretending not
to notice me. For this gift
of your indifference, I am
grateful. I will sit until
the pond goes black, the last
orange spark extinguished.
~Robert Peake from “Koi Pond”

the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. 
Matthew 13: 47-48

I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in a corner of his mouth.
He didn’t fight.
He hadn’t fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely. 
I looked into his eyes
which were far larger than mine
but shallower, and yellowed,
the irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.
They shifted a little, but not
to return my stare.
– It was more like the tipping
of an object toward the light.
I admired his sullen face,
the mechanism of his jaw,
and then I saw
that from his lower lip
– if you could call it a lip
grim, wet, and weaponlike,
hung five old pieces of fish-line,
or four and a wire leader
with the swivel still attached,
with all their five big hooks
grown firmly in his mouth.
Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.
I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
around the rusted engine
to the bailer rusted orange,
the sun-cracked thwarts,
the oarlocks on their strings,
the gunnels- until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow! 
And I let the fish go. 
~Elizabeth Bishop  from “The Fish”

All my life, I’ve taken care of a variety of fish in tanks and ponds.  As a child, I would watch, mesmerized, as our tropical fish glided around, happily exploring their little ten gallon world.  I willingly cleaned away the algae, rinsed the gravel and changed the filter. As a teenager, I boasted at least three different tanks aerating away in my bedroom, my own little aqua-cultural world of bubbles and fins.

During college and medical school, I chose to share my room with goldfish and bettas, thriving on their apparent contentment within a clear glass bowl.  I didn’t think of them as emotional support animals, but there was a joy obvious in their albeit limited existence: they still thrived when I was away, not missing me, but were always thrilled when I fed them, and tolerated my messing with their home maintenance.

My current thirty gallon aquarium is decades old and boasts over two dozen fish and plenty of furry algae and plants. Some of my watery friends have lived ten years or more and when they pass, I miss them.  Even the dozen koi and goldfish in our farm pond have expressive faces and individual personalities that I’ve gotten to know well as they come when I call.

I know the heart of compassion I feel for any creature I’m responsible for, as I know and have experienced the compassion of our Creator.

I would hope when the time comes that I end up in His net, that He’ll look me in the eye, see the wonder there as I gape at Him. He’ll count my blemishes and wounds and the number of hooks in my mouth from the times I’ve been caught and escaped, and if He’s not yet ready to take me home, or deems me not yet ready to leave this world, He’ll throw me back rather than throw me away to keep trying to get it right.

He has promised us that.

Rainbows, rainbows, rainbows indeed…

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The Same Simple Welcome

All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.
~Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

He saw clearly how plain and simple – how narrow, even – it all was;
but clearly, too, how much it all meant to him,
and the special value of some such anchorage in one’s existence.
He did not at all want to abandon the new life and its splendid spaces,

to turn his back on sun and air and all they offered him
and creep home and stay there;
the upper world was all too strong,
it called to him still, even down there,
and he knew he must return to the larger stage.
But it was good to think he had this to come back to,
this place which was all his own,
these things which were so glad to see him again
and could always be counted upon for the same simple welcome.
~Kenneth Grahame, from Wind in the Willows about the Mole and his home at Mole End

Folks need a safe place to call home, where everybody knows their name, and they’re always glad you came – that same simple welcome is a given.

I, for one, am mighty grateful for this place I can wander and wonder about what I see and hear around me. I am gladly anchored here to everything that is meaningful to me.

Too many around the world wander homeless without an anchor – settling randomly wherever there is cover, or a clear grassy spot, or within the hidden-away seclusion of a woods. Even when offered secure housing, they often reject being anchored, not wanting to be subject to rules when home is about making compromises necessary to get along with others.

How do we make “home-more” for the home-less? How can we be convincing that more “anchorage” is a special value?

May we offer the same simple welcome to all.

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Waiting at the Edge of a Petal

Life is a stream 
On which we strew 
Petal by petal the flower of our heart; 
The end lost in dream, 
They float past our view, 
We only watch their glad, early start. 

Freighted with hope, 
Crimsoned with joy, 

We scatter the leaves of our opening rose; 
Their widening scope, 
Their distant employ, 
We never shall know. And the stream as it flows 
Sweeps them away, 
Each one is gone 
Ever beyond into infinite ways. 
We alone stay 
While years hurry on, 
The flower fared forth, though its fragrance still stays. 
~Amy Lowell “Petals”

It is at the edge of a petal that love waits.
~William Carlos Williams from Spring and All (1923)

Here is the fringy edge where elements meet and realms mingle, where time and eternity spatter each other with foam.
~Annie Dillard from Holy the Firm

It is common to look for love only inside the heart of things,
watching it pulse as both showpiece and show off,
reverberating from deep within,
yet loud enough for all the world to bear witness.

But as I advance on life’s road,
I find love lying waiting at the periphery of my heart,
fragile and easily torn as a petal edge – 
clinging to the fringe of my life,
holding on through storms and trials.

This love is ever-present,
protects and cherishes,
fed by fine little veins which branch
from the center to the tender margins of infinity.

It is on that delicate edge of forever I dwell,
waiting to be fed and trembling with anticipation.

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The Forgiveness of Sleep

The children have gone to bed.
We are so tired we could fold ourselves neatly
behind our eyes and sleep mid-word, sleep standing
warm among the creatures in the barn, lean together
and sleep, forgetting each other completely in the velvet,
the forgiveness of that sleep.

Then the one small cry:
one strike of the match-head of sound:
one child’s voice:
and the hundred names of love are lit
as we rise and walk down the hall.

One hundred nights we wake like this,
wake out of our nowhere
to kneel by small beds in darkness.
One hundred flowers open in our hands,
a name for love written in each one.
~Annie Lighthart “The Hundred Names of Love”

In the lull of evening, your son nested in your arms
becomes heavier and with a sigh his body
sloughs off its weight like an anchor into deep sleep,
until his small breath is the only thing that exists.

And as you move the slow dance through the dim hall
to his bedroom and bow down to deliver his sleeping form,
arms parting, each muscle defining its arc and release—
you remember the feeling of childhood,

traveling beneath a full moon,
your mother’s unmistakable laugh, a field of wild grass,
windows open and the night rushing in
as headlights trace wands of light across your face—

there was a narrative you were braiding,
meanings you wanted to pluck from the air,
but the touch of a hand eased it from your brow
and with each stroke you waded further

into the certainty of knowing your sleeping form
would be ushered by good and true arms
into the calm ocean that is your bed.
 — Alexandra Lytton Regalado, “The T’ai Chi of Putting a Sleeping Child to Bed” author of Matria

Each of those countless nights of a child wakening,
each of the hundreds of hours of lulling them in the moonlit dark,
leading them back to the soft forgiveness of sleep.

I remember the moves of that hypnotic dance,
a head nestled snug into my neck,
their chest pressed into mine,
our hearts beating in synchrony
as if they were still inside.

Even when our sleep was spare and our rest was sparse,
those night times rocking in unison
were worth every waking moment, trusting
we’re in this together, no matter what,
no matter how long.

We’re in this together.

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