When August Burns Low

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Further in Summer than the Birds
Pathetic from the Grass
A minor Nation celebrates
Its unobtrusive Mass.

No Ordinance be seen
So gradual the Grace
A pensive Custom it becomes
Enlarging Loneliness.

Antiquest felt at Noon
When August burning low
Arise this spectral Canticle
Repose to typify

Remit as yet no Grace
No Furrow on the Glow
Yet a Druidic Difference
Enhances Nature now 
~Emily Dickinson

 

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“…one of the great poems of American literature. The statement of the poem is profound; it remarks the absolute separation between man and nature at a precise moment in time.  The poet looks as far as she can into the natural world, but what she sees at last is her isolation from that world.  She perceives, that is, the limits of her own perception. But that, we reason, is enough. This poem of just more than sixty words comprehends the human condition in relation to the universe:

So gradual the Grace
A pensive Custom it becomes
Enlarging Loneliness.

But this is a divine loneliness, the loneliness of a species evolved far beyond all others. The poem bespeaks a state of grace. In its precision, perception and eloquence it establishes the place of words within that state.  Words are indivisible with the highest realization of human being.”
~N. Scott Momaday from The Man Made of Words

 

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On the first day I took his class on Native American Mythology and Lore in 1974 at Stanford, N.Scott Momaday strolled to the front, wrote the 60 words of this Dickinson poem on the blackboard.  He told us we would spend at least a week working out the meaning of what he considered the greatest poem written — this in a class devoted to Native American writing and oral tradition.  In his resonant bass, he read the poem to us many times, rolling the words around his mouth as if to extract their sweetness. This man of the plains, a member of the Kiowa tribe, loved this poem put together by a New England recluse poet — someone as culturally distant from him and his people as possible.

But grace works to unite us, no matter our differences, and Scott knew this as he led us, mostly white students, through this poem.  What on the surface appears a paean to late summer cricket song doomed to extinction by oncoming winter, is a statement of the transcendence of man beyond our understanding of nature and the world in which we, its creatures, find ourselves.

As summer begins its descent into the dark death of winter, we, unlike the crickets, become all too aware we too are descending, particularly when the skies are filled with smoke from uncontrolled wildfires in the north, the east and the south.  There is no one as lonely as an individual facing their mortality and no one as lonely as a poet facing the empty page, in search of words to describe the sacrament of sacrifice and perishing.

Yet the Word brings Grace unlike any other, even when the cricket song, pathetic and transient as it is, is gone.  The Word brings Grace, like no other, to pathetic and transient man who will emerge transformed.

There is no furrow on the glow.  There is no need to plow and seed our salvaged souls, already lovingly planted and nurtured by our Creator God, yielding a fruited plain.

 

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The Sun Got Round Behind You

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… if you ran, time ran. You yelled and screamed and raced and rolled and tumbled and all of a sudden the sun was gone and the whistle was blowing and you were on your long way home to supper. When you weren’t looking, the sun got around behind you! The only way to keep things slow was to watch everything and do nothing! You could stretch a day to three days, sure, just by watching!
~Ray Bradbury from Dandelion Wine

 

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Late summer is a time to slow down and just watch, to stretch the days out as long as possible.

I have a tendency to race through the hours granted to me, heedless of the sun settling low behind me; I don’t want to surrender the day to the advancing march of darkness.

So I choose for now to be observer and recorder rather than runner and racer, each moment preserved like so many jars of sweet jam on a pantry shelf.

The sun may be setting, but I want it to take its time.

 

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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

 

darkhedges2antique

 

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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Not Done Watching the Sun

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centralroadlane
My friend, old and passing, said,
“There is more to life than staying alive.
Don’t rescue me too much.”

On his farm, twelve miles out
by rough gravel roads, he is done

with plowing, spraying, harvesting.

But he is not done watching the sun
sink below the windbreak or listening
to the nighthawks above his fields.

Don’t make him move to town.

There is more to tragedy
than dying.

~Kevin Hadduck “A Note to His Doctor”

 

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Look, the world
is always ending
somewhere.

Somewhere
the sun has come
crashing down.

Somewhere
it has gone
completely dark.

Somewhere
it has ended
with the utter quiet
that follows the news
from the phone,
the television,
the hospital room.

Somewhere
it has ended
with a tenderness
that will break
your heart.

But, listen,
this blessing means
to be anything
but morose.
It has not come
to cause despair.

It is simply here
because there is nothing
a blessing
is better suited for
than an ending,
nothing that cries out more
for a blessing
than when a world
is falling apart.

This blessing
will not fix you,
will not mend you,
will not give you
false comfort;
it will not talk to you
about one door opening
when another one closes.

It will simply
sit itself beside you
among the shards
and gently turn your face
toward the direction
from which the light
will come,
gathering itself
about you
as the world begins
again.
~Jan Richardson from Circle of Grace

 

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paintedsky

 

Today I honor the passing of a beloved pastor in our small community of local churches:
Pastor Ken Koeman, who rests today in the arms of Jesus.

He had only a few weeks between doing his vigorous daily work to absorbing the reality of a devastating diagnosis to accepting there is more to life than living, and a greater tragedy than death.

He never lost the hope he knew abounds in heaven and eternal life.
He was never done watching the Son.

Sir, we would see Jesus. (John 12:21)

Lord Jesus, we know Ken sees you now
and as he did in life, he points the rest of us to you.

 

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To Become Light

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We humans contribute to the world’s gloom,
like dark shadows on a dark landscape.…
But now this man from Nazareth comes to us
and invites us to mirror God’s image,
and shows us how.

He says:
you too can become light, as God is light.
What is all around you is not hell,
but rather a world waiting to be filled with hope and faith.
This world is your home as surely as the God who created and wrought it is love.
You may not believe it, but you can love this world.

It is a place of God.
It has a purpose.
Its beauty is not a delusion.
You can lead a meaningful life in it.
~Jörg Zink “Doors to the Feast

 

 

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In this dark world we search for inspiration and a sense of purpose in the most unlikely places:

this past week, we were awestruck by the devotion of a mother killer whale in nearby Puget Sound who has carried her dead baby on her nose for over a week,  unwilling to abandon the lifeless body to the sea.

There is tragic beauty in such demonstration of profound love, a recognition of our own losses and helplessness in the face of death.

We too are carried by our Savior through His relentless devotion and love for us, never to abandon us.

Even in the face of loss and consumed by the darkness of the world, we love as we are loved, body of His body.

 

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photo from the Center for Whale Research

 

HOW TO SWIM AN ELEGY

Lo, let that night be desolate;
let no joyful voice come therein.
Let them curse it that curse the day,
who are ready to rouse up leviathan.
—Job 3:7-8

This is a job
for your barnacle-wrecked body.
Grief, it turns out, is too much
for the mind. It enervates
the yellowed enamel of your
ground-down molars; chafes at
the skin sack separating your water
from the world’s water. Keep
your chin up. Not because
the sympathy cards tell you to,
but because the horizon’s gone,
replaced by a blubberless body
you must dive for again and again,
as it slips and sinks—body of your body
that you must propel to the surface
over and over, each time discovering
for the first time the lie of perfect form.
Three days and three nights,
across the Sound, afterbirth
trailing behind, swim
until your forehead becomes
an open tomb. You must balance
the weight of your old life on your nose
until the sky disappears and you become
a spectacle for pleasure-boaters.
Engines throbbing, they will point
as if the calf’s a rubber ball
you can’t put down.
The captain will turn on his mic:
No-one knows why. Instinct? Spirit?
It’s almost human. This will be
your signal. Swim closer, closer
until the binoculars come down
and they flee the railing,
recognizing in your dead
their own.

~Craig Van Rooyen—from Poets Respond

 

Whirling in Circles

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Now all the doors and windows
are open, and we move so easily
through the rooms. Cats roll
on the sunny rugs, and a clumsy wasp
climbs the pane, pausing
to rub a leg over her head.

All around physical life reconvenes.
The molecules of our bodies must love
to exist: they whirl in circles
and seem to begrudge us nothing.
Heat, Horatio, heat makes them
put this antic disposition on!

This year’s brown spider
sways over the door as I come
and go. A single poppy shouts
from the far field, and the crow,
beyond alarm, goes right on
pulling up the corn.
~Jane Kenyon, “Philosophy in Warm Weather” from Otherwise

 

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spiderdrizzle

 

Whether weather is very or very cold, so go our molecules — indeed our very atoms are constantly awhirl to keep us upright whenever we sweat or shiver.

This summer my doors and windows have been flung wide open; I’m seeing and hearing and feeling all that I can absorb, never to forget the gift of being human witness to it all.

Like a dog trying to catch its tail, I’m whirling in circles, trying to grab what will always elude me.

 

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A Residual Celestial Heat

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“Somehow the question of identity is always emerging on this farm. I found the body of a barn swallow lying just inside the barn the other day. There was no telling how it died. I noticed the intense particularity of its body, its sharply cut wings, the way its plumage seemed to glow with some residual celestial heat. But it was the particularity of death, not the identity of life, a body in stillness while all around me its kin were twittering and swooping in and out of the hayloft.”
~Verlyn Klinkenborg from “A Swallow in the Hand”

 

 

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molepaw

 

Stumbling across death on the farm is always startling.  The farm teems with life 24 hours a day: frogs croaking, dawn bird chorus, insects buzzing and crawling, cats stalking, coyotes yipping, raccoons stealing, dogs wagging, horses galloping, owls and bats swooping.  Amid so much activity, it doesn’t seem possible that some simply cease to be.

An ancient apple tree mysteriously topples over one morning, a beloved riding horse dies of colic, another dies of lymphoma, an old cat finds her final resting place in the hay loft, another old cat naps forever under a tree,  a newborn foal fails to break free of its amniotic sac, another foal delivered unexpectedly and prematurely lies still and lifeless in the shavings of the stall, a vibrantly alive dog is put to sleep due to a growing tumor,  an old dog passes during an afternoon nap, a predator raids the dove cage and leaves behind carnage, our woods bears its own tragic history.

Yet, as often as it happens,  there is a unique particularity about the end of life.  The stillness of death permits a full appreciation of who this individual is, the remarkable care that went into creating every molecule of its being.

The sudden presence of absence is a stark and necessary reminder of what I myself want to leave behind.

In truth, we will glow with residual celestial heat, still warm even after our hearts cease to beat.  We are distinct individuals in our own particularity:  living and dying at a particular time and place as a unique creature, given a chance in the cosmos of infinite possibilities.  The Creator knit us together specially, every feather, hair, bone and sinew a unique work of His Hands, and what we do with what we are given is the stuff between our first God-given breath and our last, handed back to Him.

May we not squander our particular role in the history of the world.

 

redfinch

 

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