The Path of Life

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Our last five minutes on earth are running out.

We can spend those minutes in meanness, exclusivity,
and self-righteous disparagement of those who are different from us,
or we can spend them consciously embracing every glowing soul
who wanders within our reach – those who, without our caring,
would find the vibrant, exhilarating path of life just another sad and forsaken road.
~Alice Walker from Anything We Love Can Be Saved

 

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During these summer weeks of orientation of new college students and their parents, I speak to several thousand people, all looking nervous in unfamiliar territory among strangers.

They are about to embark on a road that rises to meet them and leads them to parts unknown.

I try to say, as I shake each hand, and give out my card with my personal phone number:
this too will be okay.  This too will bless you.  Even when there are potholes, uneven surfaces and times when you want to turn back to more familiar territory, you will find the road to your next destination fulfilling and welcoming.

Embrace the journey…and each other.

And I embrace you.

(Thanks Ann Voskamp for sharing your message to your college-bound son here)

 

 

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Seen All and Been Redeemed

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I eat these
wild red raspberries
still warm from the sun
and smelling faintly of jewelweed
in memory of my father

tucking the napkin
under his chin and bending
over an ironstone bowl
of the bright drupelets
awash in cream

my father
with the sigh of a man
who has seen all and been redeemed
said time after time
as he lifted his spoon

men kill for this.
~Maxine Kumin, “Appetite” from Selected Poems: 1960-1990.

 

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We’ve exhausted the strawberries with only a few “everbearing” continuing to produce through the remaining hot days of summer.  The raspberries too are drying up with leaves curling.  The mountain huckleberries have had their hey-day.  The blueberries continue strong and juicy.

And now blackberries, free for the picking, hang in mouth-watering clusters from every fence line, long roads and ditches, just begging to be eaten.  Blackberry vines seem like trouble 90% of the year–growing where they are not welcome;  their thorns reach out to grab passersby without discriminating between human, dog or horse. But for about 3 weeks in August, they yield black gold–bursting unimaginably sweet fruit that is worth the hassle borne the rest of the weeks of the year.

Thorns are indeed part of our everyday life. They stand in front of much that is sweet and good and precious to us. They tear us up, bloody us, make us cry, make us beg for mercy.  In fact, man has died by thorns and been killed for the sweetness.

Yet thorns did not stop salvation, did not stop goodness, did not stop the promise of redemption to come. We don’t even need to wait to be fed and no one need die: such a gift as this was dropped from heaven itself.

 

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The First Week of August

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The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer,
the top of the live-long year,
like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning.

The weeks that come before are only a climb from balmy spring,
and those that follow a drop to the chill of autumn,
but the first week of August is motionless, and hot.

It is curiously silent, too,
with blank white dawns and glaring noons,
and sunsets smeared with too much color.
~Natalie Babbitt from Tuck Everlasting

 

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After a few days of milder summer respite, we’ve returned to temperatures in the nineties this week.  No one asked me if enduring such heat was a reasonable way to usher in the first week of August.

So here I sit silently rocking and sweating in the highest vantage point of this year’s ferris wheel ride, hanging breathlessly mid-air, appreciating the brief pause in the endless cycle of days.

Having just arrived at the top, I will venture to look down, knowing I am simply along for the ride, and Someone else is at the controls.  I might as well enjoy the view of all that is behind, alongside and in front of me, but especially what is below, holding me up in thin air.

All too quickly will come the descent into autumn, my stomach leaping into my chest with the lurch forward into the unknown.  As the climb to get here took so long, I am not quite ready for this inevitable drop back into the chill.

Hot or not, it’s best to celebrate this first week in August for all it’s splash and glare.  At least I’m swinging in what little breeze there is, endeavoring to capture the moment forever.

 

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To Get a Better View

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What struck me first was their panic.

Some were pulled by the wind from moving
to the ends of the stacked cages,
some had their heads blown through the bars—

and could not get them in again.
Some hung there like that—dead—
their own feathers blowing, clotting

in their faces. Then
I saw the one that made me slow some—
I lingered there beside her for five miles.

She had pushed her head through the space
between bars—to get a better view.
She had the look of a dog in the back

of a pickup, that eager look of a dog
who knows she’s being taken along.
She craned her neck.

She looked around, watched me, then
strained to see over the car—strained
to see what happened beyond.

That is the chicken I want to be.
~Jane Mead “Passing a Truck Full of Chickens at Night on Highway Eighty” from The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, 2015

 

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I want to be that chicken.

When life is an anxious,
even terrifying journey
and everything around me is a swirl of chaos –
I want to be able to stick my head up above the fray,
feel the wind as opportunity rather than threat
and exist content in the moment,
looking ahead to what may happen,
unperturbed.

Reaching my mind beyond what I can hardly grasp,
I want to be that chicken
who experiences life like a dog.

 

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?
~Robert Browning from “Andrea Del Sarto”

 

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The Presence of Stillness

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When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the green heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
~Wendell Berry “The Peace of Wild Things” from The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry

 

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When our young grandchild visits
and I watch her discover
the joys and sorrows of this world,
I remember there is light beyond the darkness we feel,
there is peace amid the chaos,
there is a smile behind the tears,
there is stillness within the noisiness,
there is grace as old gives way to new.

 

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Both Landlord and Tenant

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The frugal snail, with forecast of repose,    
Carries his house with him where’er he goes;    
Peeps out,—and if there comes a shower of rain,    
Retreats to his small domicile again.    
Touch but a tip of him, a horn, – ’tis well, –           
He curls up in his sanctuary shell.    
He’s his own landlord, his own tenant; stay    
Long as he will, he dreads no Quarter Day.    
Himself he boards and lodges; both invites    
And feasts himself; sleeps with himself o’ nights.        
He spares the upholsterer trouble to procure    
Chattels; himself is his own furniture,    
And his sole riches. Wheresoe’er he roam, –   
Knock when you will, – he ’s sure to be at home.
~Charles Lamb  — “The Housekeeper”

 

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I like to think of myself as carefully self-contained and safe from whatever threatens  – not dependent on others, able to bear my own burdens, completely sufficient unto today.

The reality is far different.  As sturdy and solid as I may seem on the outside, I’m nothing but soft and a bit mushy on the inside. And I have a tendency to retreat and hide inside my shell when the going gets rough.

Yet even shells can and will be broken.  I know it’s my home only for a little while.
So knock when you will:  I’ll be here.

 

For this world is not our permanent home; we are looking forward to a home yet to come.  Hebrews 13:14

 

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In Search of a Cage

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It took only a moment to decide.

As happens every day, as she sang to me, her arm reached past my perch through the open cage door, to pour fresh water in my bowl.   Just beyond her, overhead near the barn, were clusters of glistening red cherries bouncing in invitation in the morning breeze.

So I heeded, flapping clumsily over her arm as she spilled the water, her mouth an “O”.

I escaped my cage, my first time flying more than a few feet, awkward and careening.  I made it to a high branch and grabbed hold tightly, staring down at her asking me to come back.   Instead I listened to the cherries next to me, their sweet song of red juice pouring over the sides of my beak.

Cherry jubilee.

I ate more than my fill of freedom.

When the breeze picked up in the darkening hours, I missed the comfort of my indoor loft nest lined with cedar shavings and horse hair, with snug walls where I have spent many wintry nights, and soft summer twilights.   My mournful evening anthem was hushed by the wing swoop overhead of a clicking owl, anxious for dinner. I listened to the chorus of coyotes nearby and tucked my head in fear, with no wire enclosure to protect me. I fell silent, barely sleeping.

At dawn, she found me picking at cat food in the dish near the back porch, with an ancient feline crouched a few feet away, tail twitching, ready for instant breakfast.  I fluttered off, returning to relative safety of the orchard treetops, alert for hawks.   For two days I explored the trees surrounding my little home, its door still open as a standing invitation.  She filled my water bowl and brought my seeds just as she always did, singing.  I listened carefully to the familiar tune, twisting my neck one way and then another to hear her better.

The cherry song no longer seemed as sweet.

The next morning, she found me in my little nest inside my dove house, the door still wide open.  She filled my bowl with fresh water and brought me new seeds, closed the door, latching it snug and safe.

The cherries still beckoned but not to me.

Today, joyful at dawn, I woke her with my mourning song.

 

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