The Shadow’s the Thing

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Be comforted; the world is very old,
  And generations pass, as they have passed,
  A troop of shadows moving with the sun;
Thousands of times has the old tale been told;
  The world belongs to those who come the last,
  They will find hope and strength as we have done.
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow “A Shadow”

 

 

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The shadow’s the thing. 
If I no longer see shadows as “dark marks,” 
as do the newly sighted,
then I see them as making some sort of sense of the light.
They give the light distance;
they put it in its place.
They inform my eyes of my location here, here O Israel,
here in the world’s flawed sculpture,
here in the flickering shade of the nothingness
between me and the light.
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

 

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A shadow is hard to seize by the throat and dash to the ground.
~Victor Hugo from Les Miserables

 

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In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don’t.
~Blaise Pascal

 

These days I find myself seeking safety hiding in the shadows under a rock where lukewarm moderates tend to congregate.

Extremist views predominate simply for the sake of differentiating one’s political turf from the opposition.  There is no discussion of compromise, negotiation or collaboration as that would be perceived as a sign of weakness.  Instead it is “my way or the wrong way.”

I’m ready to say “no way,” as both sides are intolerably intolerant of the other.

The chasm is most gaping in any discussion of faith issues.  Religion and politics have become angry neighbors constantly arguing over how high to build the fence between them, what it should be made out of, what color it should be, should there be peek holes, should it be electrified with barbed wire to prevent moving back and forth, should there be a gate with or without a lock and who pays for the labor.   In a country founded on the principle of freedom of religion, there are more and more who believe our forefathers’ blood was shed for freedom from religion.

Give us the right to believe in nothing whatsoever or give us death. Perhaps both actually go together.

And so it goes.  We bring out the worst in our leadership as facts are distorted, the truth is stretched or completely abandoned, unseemly pandering abounds and curried favors are served for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Enough already.

In the midst of this morass, we who want to believe still choose to believe.

There is just enough Light for those who seek it.  No need to remain blinded in the shadowlands of unbelief.

I’ll come out from under my rock if you do.

In fact…I think I just did.

 

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A Soft-Dying Day

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Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, 
        Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too, —
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day, 

        And touch the stubble plains with rosy hue —

~John Keats, lines from “To Autumn”

 

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The trees are undressing, and fling in many places—
On the gray road, the roof, the window-sill—
Their radiant robes and ribbons and yellow laces;
A leaf each second so is flung at will,
Here, there, another and another, still and still.
~Thomas Hardy from “Last Week in October”

 

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We think we are mere witness to this,
this transformation happening before our eyes
as unforgiving wind strips leaves from trees
left bare and naked in their bones–

yet we too will be exposed for who we are
under the window dressing we spend so much to create,
too soon nothing is left to cover our flaws
and our bones alone will tell our story of redemption.

 

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All the Airy Words We Summon

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The world does not need words.
It articulates itself in sunlight, leaves, and shadows.
The stones on the path are no less real
for lying uncatalogued and uncounted.
The fluent leaves speak only 
the dialect of pure being.

The sunlight needs no praise piercing the rainclouds, 
painting the rocks and leaves with light, then dissolving
each lucent droplet back into the clouds that engendered it.
The daylight needs no praise, and so we praise it always–
greater than ourselves and all the airy words we summon.
~Dana Giola from “Words”

 

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The words the world needs is the Word itself;
we are
because He breathed breath into us
and said that it was good.

Whatever we have to say about His Creation
pales compared to His
it is good

But we try
over and over again
to use words of wonder and praise
to express our awe and gratitude and amazement
while painted golden by His breath of Light.

 

 

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The Black Walnut

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My mother and I debate:
we could sell
the black walnut tree
to the lumberman,
and pay off the mortgage.
Likely some storm anyway
will churn down its dark boughs,
smashing the house. We talk
slowly, two women trying
in a difficult time to be wise.
Roots in the cellar drains,
I say, and she replies
that the leaves are getting heavier
every year, and the fruit
harder to gather away.
But something brighter than money
moves in our blood – an edge
sharp and quick as a trowel
that wants us to dig and sow.
So we talk, but we don’t do
anything.

What my mother and I both know
is that we’d crawl with shame
in the emptiness we’d made
in our own and our fathers’ backyard.
So the black walnut tree
swings through another year
of sun and leaping winds,
of leaves and bounding fruit,
and, month after month, the whip-
crack of the mortgage.
~Mary Oliver from “The Black Walnut Tree” from Twelve Moons

 

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photo by Dan Gibson

 

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We bought this old farm twenty five years ago:
the Lawrence family “Walnut Hill Farm”~
a front yard lined with several tall black walnut trees
brought as seedlings in a suitcase from Ohio
in the ought-1900’s.

These trees thrived for 80 years on this hilltop farm
overlooking the Canadian mountains to the north,
the Nooksack River valley to the west,
the Cascade peaks to the east,
each prolific in leaves
and prodigious in fruit.

The first year we were here,
a windstorm took one tree down.
A neighbor offered
to mill the twisted trunk for shares
so the fallen tree became planks
of fine grained chocolate hued lumber.

This old tree lines our kitchen cupboards,
a daily reminder of an immortality
living on in a legacy left behind~
sturdy while imperfect,
so beautiful to the eye and the heart.

 

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Fall’s Warm Milk of Light

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portrait of Dan’s mom, Emma Gibson, praying, by granddaughter Sara Lenssen

 

I sit with braided fingers   
and closed eyes
in a span of late sunlight.   
The spokes are closing.
It is fall: warm milk of light,   
though from an aging breast.   
I do not mean to pray.   
The posture for thanks or   
supplication is the same   
as for weariness or relief.   
But I am glad for the luck   
of light. Surely it is godly,   
that it makes all things
begin, and appear, and become   
actual to each other.
Light that’s sucked into   
the eye, warming the brain   
with wires of color.
Light that hatched life
out of the cold egg of earth.
~May Swenson from “October”
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I know all too well that the end of October means the light changes, the colors fade, and the chill sets in.  I grasp and bundle up what scenes I can preserve now, like harvesting hay to be tied up in bales and stored safely until the middle of winter.  Then, at the right time, when I’m most hungry for color and light,  I loosen the strings and let the images tumble out, feeding me like mother’s milk.
And I am filled…
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A Most Unusual Job Interview

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Standing outside a non-descript door in a long dark windowless hallway of offices at the Stanford Medical Center, I took a deep breath and swallowed several times to clear my dry throat. I hoped I had found the correct office, as there was only a number– no nameplate to confirm who was inside.

I was about to meet a childhood hero, someone whose every book I’d read and every TV documentary I had watched. I knocked with what I hoped was the right combination of assertiveness (“I want to be here to talk with you and prove my interest”) and humility (“I hope this is convenient for you as I don’t want to intrude”). I heard a soft voice on the other side say “Come in” so I slowly opened the door.

It was a bit like going through the wardrobe to enter Narnia. Bright sunlight streamed into the dark hallway as I stepped over the threshold. Squinting, I stepped inside and quickly shut the door behind me as I realized there were at least four birds flying about the room. They were taking off and landing, hopping about feeding on bird seed on the office floor and on the window sill. The windows were flung wide open with a spring breeze rustling papers on the desk. The birds were very happy occupying the sparsely furnished room, which contained only one desk, two chairs and Dr. Jane Goodall.

She stood up and extended her hand to me, saying, quite unnecessarily, “Hello, I’m Jane” and offered me the other chair when I told her my name. She was slighter than she appeared when speaking up at a lectern, or on film. Sitting back down at her desk, she busied herself reading and marking her papers, seemingly occupied and not to be disturbed. It was as if I was not there at all.

It was disorienting. In the middle of a bustling urban office complex containing nothing resembling plants or a natural environment, I had unexpectedly stepped into a bird sanctuary instead of sitting down for a job interview. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do or say. Jane didn’t really ever look directly at me, yet I was clearly being observed. So I waited, watching the birds making themselves at home in her office, and slowly feeling at home myself. I felt my tight muscles start to relax and I loosened my grip on the arms of the chair.

There was silence except for the twittering of the finches as they flew about our heads.

After awhile she spoke, her eyes still perusing papers: “It is the only way I can tolerate being here for any length of time. They keep me company. But don’t tell anyone; the people here would think this is rather unsanitary.”

I said the only thing I could think of: “I think it is magical. It reminds me of home.”

Only then did she look at me. “Now tell me why you’d like to come work at Gombe…”

The next day I received a note from her letting me know I was accepted for the research assistantship. I had proven I could sit silently and expectantly, waiting for something, or perhaps nothing at all, to happen. For a farm girl who never before traveled outside the United States, I was about to embark on an adventure far beyond the barnyard.

(published in The Jane Effect in honor of Jane’s 80th birthday)

A new documentary “Jane” is in theaters and is reviewed at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/18/movies/jane-review-jane-goodall-documentary.html

photos courtesy of The National Geographic (www.nationalgeographic.com)

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To Thank the Light

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Now a red, sleepy sun above the rim 
Of twilight stares along the quiet weald, 
And the kind, simple country shines revealed 
In solitudes of peace, no longer dim.
The old horse lifts his face and thanks the light, 
Then stretches down his head to crop the green. 
All things that he has loved are in his sight; 
The places where his happiness has been 
Are in his eyes, his heart, and they are good.
~Siegfried Sassoon from “Break of Day”

 

 

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I am growing older along with my horses. I think of them out to pasture throughout my workday as I continue to climb in the harness to pull the load as fast and hard as I can muster, returning home in the evening sore and weary.

I think of them with the morning sun on their withers, the green blades under their feet, as they search for the sweetest tender patch to munch.

They remind me to bring the calm of the pasture inside to balance the noise and bustle and troubles found in the clinic.  There still is peace and light to be found; I have only to look for it.

 

“To practice medicine with good spirit does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. It means to bring your calm and loving heart right into the midst of it.” from www.theheartofmedicine.org

 

 

 

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