To Dwell in Sovereign Barns

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photo by Nate Gibson

 

The grass so little has to do,—    
A sphere of simple green,   
With only butterflies to brood,
And bees to entertain, 
    
And stir all day to pretty tunes        
The breezes fetch along,
And hold the sunshine in its lap   
And bow to everything; 
    
And thread the dews all night, like pearls,
And make itself so fine,—            
A duchess were too common 
For such a noticing.   
    
And even when it dies, to pass    
In odors so divine,    
As lowly spices gone to sleep,        
Or amulets of pine.    
    
And then to dwell in sovereign barns,    
And dream the days away,— 
The grass so little has to do,
I wish I were a hay!
~Emily Dickinson

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This is the week of the year our barn is at its emptiest, right before it fills up again. There is something very lonely about a barn completely empty of its hay stores.

Its hollow interior echoes with a century of farmers’ voices:
soothing an upset cow during a difficult milking,
uncovering a litter of kittens high in a hay loft,
shouting orders to a steady workhorse,
singing a soft hymn while cleaning stalls,
startling out loud as a barn owl or bat flies low overhead.

The dust motes lazily drift by in the twilight, seemingly forever suspended above the straw covered wood floor, floating protected from the cooling evening breezes.

There is no heart beat left in an empty barn. It is in full arrest, all life blood drained out, vital signs flat lined. I can hardly bear to go inside.

The weather is cooperating so the grass was cut two days ago.  Today it will be tossed about on the field to dry in a process called “tedding”, then tomorrow raked into windrows and baled for pick up by our “family and friends” hay crew.

Suddenly, the barn is shocked back to a pulse, with the throb of voices, music blaring, dust and pollen flying chaotically, the rattle of the electric “elevator” hauling bales from wagon to loft, the grunts and groans of the crew as they heft and heave the bales into place in the stack. This often goes on late into the night, the barn ablaze with lights, the barnyard buzzing with excitement and activity. It almost looks as if it is on fire.

Vital signs measurable, rhythm restored, volume depletion reversed, prognosis good for another year.

A healthy rhythm is elusive in this modern age of full time jobs off the farm, necessitating careful coordination with the schedule of the farmer who cuts and bales for many neighbors all within the same window of good weather. The farmer races his equipment from field to field, swooping around with a goliath tractor taking 12 foot swaths, raising dust clouds, and then on to the next job. It is so unlike the rhythm of a century ago when a horse drawn mower cut the tall grass in a gentle four foot swath, with a pulsing shh shh shh shh shh shh tempo that could be heard stretching across the fields. It is an unfamiliar sound today, the almost-silence of no motor at all, just the jingle of the harness and the mower blades slicing back and forth as the team pulls the equipment down the field. We’ve lost the peacefulness of a team of horses at work, necessitating a slower pace and the need to stop at the end of a row for a breather.

The old barn will be resuscitated once again. Its floor will creak with the weight of the hay bales, the walls will groan with the pressure of stacks. The missing shingles on the roof will be replaced and the doors locked tight against the winter winds. But it will be breathing on its own, having needed only a short rest these last few weeks.

Inside, once again, filled to the brim, life is held tight by twine, just waiting to be released.

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Photo of Aaron Janicki raking hay with his Oberlander team in Skagit County courtesy of Tayler Rae

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A Field To Go Back To

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You wake wanting the dream
you left behind in sleep,
water washing through everything,
clearing away sediment
of years, uncovering the lost
and forgotten. You hear the sun
breaking on cold grass,
on eaves, on stone steps
outside. You see light
igniting sparks of dust
in the air. You feel for the first
time in years the world
electrified with morning.

You know something has changed
in the night, something you thought
gone from the world has come back:
shooting stars in the pasture,
sleeping beneath a field
of daisies, wisteria climbing
over fences, houses, trees.

This is a place that smells
like childhood and old age.
It is a limb you swung from,
a field you go back to.

~Scott Owens “The Arrival of the Past” from Down to Sleep

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Returning to my mother’s Palouse country to meet again with my aunt and cousins:

(her brother’s widow, now 97, her nieces and nephews–those who still farm and those who wish they still could)

I know these wheat fields lie deep in my DNA and my heart is comforted by the familiarity of the tone and hue of the soil, the freshness of the breezes, the undulation of the grain over the hillsides, the lilt of the meadowlark’s song.

This is always a welcome return home as I feel my mother’s genes rise up within me to greet this family, and know that yes, to this too I belong.

It is a rare and abiding comfort.

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Why Do We Bother?

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Why do we bother with the rest of the day,
the swale of the afternoon,
the sudden dip into evening,
then night with his notorious perfumes,
his many-pointed stars?
This is the best—
throwing off the light covers,
feet on the cold floor,
and buzzing around the house on espresso—
maybe a splash of water on the face,
a palmful of vitamins—
but mostly buzzing around the house on espresso,
dictionary and atlas open on the rug,
the typewriter waiting for the key of the head,
a cello on the radio,
and, if necessary, the windows—
trees fifty, a hundred years old
out there,
heavy clouds on the way
and the lawn steaming like a horse
in the early morning.
~Billy Collins “Morning”
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Dawn is a new gift every day,
even if the shortest night was sleepless,
and the longest day won’t return for another year.We get up
to see just what might happen
as you never know what might be
just over the horizon
as we round the solstice corner
to face the darkening.That’s why we bother.

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Snake Skin

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Pruning back the old spirea bushes
that sprawled for years in summer’s heat,
I bared the snake skin, a yard and a half long:
its naked empty length rippled in the streaming wind
lifting its ghostly coils from the dead shoots
that scraped the slough from the slithering body
that shed it in that narrow, shaded space.

I paused—who wouldn’t?—shears poised,
slipped off gray canvas gloves, extracted
the sere, striated casing from the brown stalks
that had held it, silent, hidden.

I coiled the paper-thin curling sheath with care,
delicately, eased it into a simple squatty box
for keeping, for care, for my daughters
to take to school, to show, to explain
how some sinuous body we’ve never glimpsed,
that haunts about our shrubs, our porch,
left for us this translucent, scale-scored wrapper,
this silent hint of all that moves unseen.
~Stephen Behrendt “Snakeskin”

 

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Cast off on a sunny spring day
onto a warm manure pile,
a wriggled-free fresh molt snakeskin,
nearly covered by my fresh load~
lay blended with old hay, horse hair, shavings,
tucked among what is already digested,
dumped and discarded.
This, an intact hollowed shadow
of a still living creature
who has moved on:
I too need to leave my old self
shrugged off onto the manure pile,
shed when it no longer fits
the ways I’ve grown hallowed,
a fitting remembrance of
who I once was,
yet left behind.
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Yesterday’s Unwashed Dishes

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She rarely made us do it—
we’d clear the table instead—so my sister and I teased
that some day we’d train our children right
and not end up like her, after every meal stuck
with red knuckles, a bleached rag to wipe and wring.
The one chore she spared us: gummy plates
in water greasy and swirling with sloughed peas,
globs of egg and gravy.
 
                                Or did she guard her place
at the window? Not wanting to give up the gloss
of the magnolia, the school traffic humming.
Sunset, finches at the feeder. First sightings
of the mail truck at the curb, just after noon,
delivering a note, a card, the least bit of news.
~Susan Meyers “Mother, Washing Dishes”
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My thoughts went round and round and it occurred to me that if I ever wrote a novel it would be of the ‘stream of consciousness’ type and deal with an hour in the life of a woman at the sink.

….I had to admit that nobody had compelled me to wash these dishes or to tidy this kitchen. It was the fussy spinster in me, the Martha who could not comfortably sit and make conversation when she knew that yesterday’s unwashed dishes were still in the sink.
~Barbara Pym from Excellent Women
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I trace the faltering American family to the invention of the automatic dishwasher.

What ever has happened to the human dishwasher with two hands full of wash cloth and scrubber, alongside a dish dryer armed with a towel?

Where is the list on the refrigerator of whose turn is next, and the accountability if a family member somehow shirks their washing/drying responsibility and leaves the dishes to the next day?

No longer do family members have to cooperate to scrub clean glasses, dishes and utensils, put them in the dish rack, dry them one by one and place them in the cupboard where they belong. If the washer isn’t doing a proper job, the dryer immediately takes note and recycles the dirty dish right back to the sink. Instant accountability. I always preferred to be the dryer. If I washed, and my sister dried, we’d never get done. She would keep recycling the dishes back for another going-over. My messy nature exposed.

The family conversations started over a meal often continue over the clean-up process while concentrating on whether a smudge is permanent or not. I learned some important facts of life while washing and drying dishes that I might not have learned otherwise. Sensitive topics tend to be easier to discuss when elbow deep in soap suds. Spelling and vocabulary and math fact drills are more effective when the penalty for a missed word is a snap on the butt with a dish towel.

Modern society is missing the best opportunity for three times a day family-together time. Forget family “game” night, or parental “date” night, or even vacations. Dish washing and drying at the sink takes care of all those times when families need to be communicating and cooperating.

It is time to treat the automatic dishwasher as simply another storage cupboard and instead pull out the brillo pads, the white cotton dishtowels and the plastic dishrack.

Let’s start tonight.

And I think it is your turn first…

 

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A Twittering World

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Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning…

…Not here
Not here the darkness, in this twittering world.
~T. S Eliot from Burnt Norton (1936) part of Four Quartets

 

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Eliot didn’t have birds or future tweets of the 21st century in mind when he wrote Burnt Norton in 1936.  He was far more concerned about the concept of time and redemption, using the analogies of a garden, a graveyard, and most disturbingly, a subway train of empty-souled people traveling under London in the dark.  Only the present matters as the past cannot be changed and the future remains unknown, trusting the reassurance and salvation of Logos, the source of  the natural and creative order of all things.   Only God Himself remains outside of the constraints of time and place.

Perhaps Eliot predicted the unknowable future.  It now is a “twittering world” in a way that Eliot, critical of dehumanizing technology of his time,  somehow was prescient enough to foresee.

When birdsong begins on our farm in mid-June at 4 AM in the apple, cherry, chestnut, and walnut trees outside our bedroom windows, I am brought face to face, eyes and ears wide open, with the immediate present, distracted from the distraction of my dreams by the distraction of wakening to music of the created order among the branches,  amid dew-laden blooms and cool morning air.

Once the birds settle into routine conversation after twenty minutes of their loudly tweeted greetings of the day,  I sit down bleary-eyed at my computer to enter the twittering world of technology, too often filled with fancies, or meanness, or completely empty of meaning.

Yet, I’m determined.  Not here will darkness be found on this page, if I can keep it at bay.

No darkness here.

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photo by Harry Rodenberger

Beauty Is Not Enough

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Oh, is it not enough to be
Here with this beauty over me?
My throat should ache with praise, and I
Should kneel in joy beneath the sky.

O beauty, are you not enough?
Why am I crying after love,
With youth, a singing voice, and eyes
To take earth’s wonder with surprise?

I, for whom the pensive night
Binds her cloudy hair with light,—
I, for whom all beauty burns
Like incense in a million urns?

O beauty, are you not enough?
Why am I crying after love?
~Sara Teasdale from “Spring Night”

 

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When you stand before the most amazing sunset

or when you see the beauty of a human face,
whether it’s a little baby
or a lovely  wise old person,
there is a haunting quality to it,
as though it’s not just complete in itself. 
It’s a signpost to a larger truth
that is just around the corner,
just out of sight.
We can’t grip it,
can’t get our hands on it.
It’s as though we’re hearing the echo of a voice,
and we’d love to hear whose that voice is
and what story it’s telling.
Part of the joy of beauty
is the realization that it is part of a larger whole,
most of which appears to be just out of sight. 
We are drawn forward toward something…
and left waiting, wondering.
~N.T. Wright from Life, God and Other Small Topics

 

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Beauty is the link that connects,
the magnet that brings us home,
the encouragement
to look beyond,
to think more deeply,
to believe in something beyond our grasp~
Beauty leaves us crying after love
that bleeds for us
and heals all that is broken in us.

 

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