Jeweller of the Spiderweb

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Echo of the clocktower, footstep
in the alleyway, sweep
of the wind sifting the leaves.

Jeweller of the spiderweb, connoisseur
of autumn’s opulence, blade of lightning
harvesting the sky.

Keeper of the small gate, choreographer
of entrances and exits, midnight
whisper traveling the wires.

Seducer, healer, deity or thief,
I will see you soon enough—
in the shadow of the rainfall,

in the brief violet darkening a sunset—
but until then I pray watch over him
as a mountain guards its covert ore

and the harsh falcon its flightless young. 
~Dana Gioia “Prayer”
(written in memory of his infant son who died of SIDS)

 

 

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When we think of those who wait for us on the other side,
including our baby lost before birth 35 years ago…

Who then will we long for when it comes our time to wait?

I know there is One who watches over all these reunions,
knowing the moment when my fractured heart
heals whole once again.

I will see you soon enough.

 

 

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A Cloudy Greeting

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To make myself understood and to diminish the distance between us, I called out:
“I am an evening cloud too.”
They stopped still, evidently taking a good look at me.
Then they stretched towards me their fine, transparent, rosy wings.
That is how evening clouds greet each other.
They had recognized me.

~Rainer Maria Rilke from Stories of God

 

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From this hill, we can see for miles.  At certain times of morning and evening, it can feel as if we are aloft, closer up to the clouds, seeing the terrain from their vantage point.  There are the snow-covered peaks to the east, the craggy Canadian coastal range to the north, the stretch of river valley to the north west, the Salish Sea to the west and the forest to the south.

Surrounding us is the farmland and the good people who feed this community: the expanse of dairy land and its vast pastures, the corn fields, berry rows and potato mounds, acres of orchard espaliers and local farm-to-market and CSA growers.

The ever-moving, ever-changing immensity of the clouds covers us all.  As those clouds touch, embrace, release, mold and transform, they show us how connection with others is done.  As we county folk pass on the roads during an evening walk, as we are running late to town jobs, as we meet in the store or at church or community events, we too should touch and greet one another, nod and encourage, acknowledge the shared light that comes from beyond us that restores and transforms us.

Most of all, like the clouds, we are too often full to brimming, a shedding of shared tears at how easily this land can be taken away — whether remembering the sad history of people group domination and removal from their ancestral homes, or the ravages of hurricane or flood or volcano, the effects of drought and wildfire, of blight or sickness, or the over-regulation of government ensuring no farmer can afford to continue to do what they know best to preserve the land, the habitat, their animals and their crops.

We weep in recognition, like these clouds, to make ourselves understood and to diminish the distance between us.

 

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Today’s Edges So Sharp

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The ghosts swarm.
They speak as one 
person. Each
loves you. Each
has left something undone.

Today’s edges
are so sharp

they might cut
anything that moved.
~Rae Armantrout from “Unbidden”

 

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The grace of God means something like:
Here is your life.
You might never have been, but you are…
Here is the world.
Beautiful and terrible things will happen.
Don’t be afraid.
I am with you.
~Frederick Buechner
 in “Wishful Thinking and later” in Beyond Words

 

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Seventeen years ago
a day started with bright sun above
and ended in tears and bloodshed below.

It is a day for recollection;
we live out remembrance
with weeping eyes open,
yet close our eyelids
to the red that flowed that day.

The day’s edges were so sharp
we all bled and still bear the scars.

We must not be afraid.

 

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When Life Provides Chicken Soup

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I have sharpened my knives, I have
Put on the heavy apron.

Maybe you think life is chicken soup, served
In blue willow-pattern bowls.

I have put on my boots and opened
The kitchen door and stepped out

Into the sunshine. I have crossed the lawn.
I have entered

The hen house.
~Mary Oliver “Farm Country”

 

 

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What did I love about killing the chickens? Let me start
with the drive to the farm as darkness
was sinking back into the earth.
The road damp and shining like the snail’s silver
ribbon and the orchard
with its bony branches.
All eighty-eight Cornish 

hens huddled in their crates. Wrapping my palms around
their white wings, lowering them into the tapered urn.
Some seemed unwitting as the world narrowed;
some cackled and fluttered; some struggled.
I gathered each one, tucked her bright feet,
drew her head through the kill cone’s sharp collar,
her keratin beak and the rumpled red vascular comb
that once kept her cool as she pecked in her mansion of grass.
I didn’t look into those stone eyes. I didn’t ask forgiveness.
I slid the blade between the feathers
and made quick crescent cuts, severing
the arteries just under the jaw. Blood like liquor
pouring out of the bottle. When I see the nub of heart later,
it’s hard to believe such a small star could flare
like that. I lifted each body, bathing it in heated water
until the scaly membrane of the shanks
sloughed off under my thumb.
And after they were tossed in the large plucking drum
I loved the newly naked birds. Sundering
the heads and feet neatly at the joints, a poor
man’s riches for golden stock. Slitting a fissure
reaching into the chamber,
freeing the organs, the spill of intestines, blue-tinged gizzard,
the small purses of lungs, the royal hearts,
easing the floppy liver, carefully, from the green gall bladder,
its bitter bile. And the fascia unfurling
like a transparent fan. When I tug the esophagus
down through the neck, I love the suck and release
as it lets go. 
I’m empty as I rinse each carcass,
and this is what I love most.

It’s like when the refrigerator turns off and you hear
the silence. Even in just this one thing:
looking straight at the terrible,
one-sided accord we make with the living of this world.
At the end, we scoured the tables, hosed the dried blood,
the stain blossoming through the water.
~Ellen Bass from “What Did I Love”

 

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For a number of summers, we spent most of the morning and afternoon of Fourth of July with neighbors at a farm down the road doing that most American of activities:
communally butchering chickens.

There is some risk to writing about killing living creatures.  I also pull carrots, radishes and onions from the ground, dig up potatoes and weed-whack thistles in the field.

It is what farmers do. As we shop at the local farmers’ market or grocery store, we are insulated from this harsh reality, this terrible one-sided accord humans have with the land and growing things.

It is how food ends up sustaining us, supporting the next generation and the next, and these living creatures deserve our blessing of gratitude.

I grew up on a farm where we raised our own meat and my parents, who also grew up knowing the animals that would eventually be on their plate, encouraged us kids to watch and participate in the process so we understood what it meant to sacrifice an animal or a plant for our benefit.  We knew that animal from birth, we named them, looked them in the eye, we petted and held them, we fed them, cleaned up after them, and when the time came, we watched them slump to the ground, their hide or feathers stripped and their steaming carcass prepared.

I cannot take this lightly.  These creatures, who I respected and cared for, were breathing heart-beating beings just minutes before, and have been sacrificed.

It has been quite a few years since we raised our own meat as a family, since those summers our children growing up also learned this relationship with the food on the table.  As a group of neighbors, we would combine our chicken butchering together on Fourth of July so we had an efficient assembly line approach to the process of putting dozens of chickens in the freezer all within a few hours.  There were catchers, holders, choppers, boilers, pluckers, gutters, rinsers and baggers. We all took turns doing different aspects of the task. There was an irreverent reverence to the day, a bit more joking and laughing than was warranted as blood is intentionally spilled.

We had to acknowledge the tight intertwine of life and death though none of us could bear to eat chicken for dinner that night.

We too bore the stains of the remains of the day.

 

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The First Gray Hair

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The foliage has been losing its freshness through the month of August, and here and there a yellow leaf shows itself like the first gray hair amidst the locks of a beauty who has seen one season too many.
~Oliver Wendell Holmes

 

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August has been particularly wearing on so many folks this year, aging us beyond recognition after weeks of smoke-filled horizons.  Those whose forests and homes have burned have nothing but cinders to return to.  My concerns are mere in comparison, as the ash sent forth from such destruction is only irritant and inconvenience, rather than the residue of lost life.

Yet no one thrives in a world of fire and ash as we go gray as the sky, as if we have lived one summer too many.

I dream of what was: green and lush foliage and cool rains with the occasional welcome glimpse of a yellow, rather than red, sun.

Color the gray away to thwart the inevitable?  Not this woman.  I await a different beauty, even if only in my dreams…

 

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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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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.

 

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This Trembling Globe

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How I loved those spiky suns, 
rooted stubborn as childhood 
in the grass, tough as the farmer’s 
big-headed children—the mats 
of yellow hair, the bowl-cut fringe. 
How sturdy they were and how 
slowly they turned themselves 
into galaxies, domes of ghost stars 
barely visible by day, pale 
cerebrums clinging to life 
on tough green stems.   Like you. 
Like you, in the end.   If you were here, 
I’d pluck this trembling globe to show 
how beautiful a thing can be 
a breath will tear away. 
~Jean Nordhaus “A Dandelion for My Mother” from Innocence
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This is how I remember my mom at the end:
fragile, trembling,
a wispy white crown of hair,
clinging stubbornly to what was left of life
with roots that went so deep
there was no pulling them out.
Yet it only took that one last breath,
one quiet will-there-be-another
breath
to blow her away.
And she left us behind,
clinging stubbornly to those roots.
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