Playing to an Empty House

 

photo by Joel DeWaarda Mt. Baker photo by Joel DeWaard

 

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The Old Testament book of Micah answers the question of why we are here with another: 
“What doth the Lord require of thee but to do justly, 
and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”

We are here to abet creation and to witness it, 
to notice each thing so each thing gets noticed. 
Together we notice not only each mountain shadow 
and each stone on the beach 
but we notice each other’s beautiful face 
and complex nature 
so that creation need not play to an empty house.
~Annie Dillard from Life Magazine’s “The Meaning of Life”

 

 

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I started out a noticer,
a child who crawled on the ground
to follow winding ant trails from their hills,
then watched nests bloom with birds,
and sat still as a lizard sunning himself on a rock.

Next I was a student researcher of great apes,
following wild chimpanzees deep into an exotic forest
to observe their life in a community so much like our own.

Then came a profession and parenting and daughtering,
with mounting responsibilities and worries and cares,
and I stopped noticing any more,
too much inside the drama
to witness it from outside.

Creation played to an empty house
and the empty house was me.

Slowly now,
I’ve returned to noticing again~
buying my ticket, finding my seat,
smiling and nodding
applauding
hooting and hollering
begging for an encore.

It’s a non-stop show of the miraculous
where I’m less a player of parts
transformed to an appreciative audience
preparing to write a great review.

 

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The Pearl of Great Price

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The secret of seeing is, then the pearl of great price. 
If I thought he could teach me to find it and keep it forever 
I would stagger barefoot across a hundred deserts after any lunatic at all. 
But although the pearl may be found, it may not be sought.

The literature of illumination reveals this above all: 
although it comes to those who wait for it, 
it is always, even to the most practiced and adept, 
a gift and a total surprise.

I return from one walk 
knowing where the killdeer nests in the field by the creek and the hour the laurel blooms. 
I return from the same walk a day later scarcely knowing my own name.

Litanies hum in my ears; 
my tongue flaps in my mouth. 
Ailinon, alleluia!
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

 

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Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to.
You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see
and my self is the earth’s shadow
that keeps me from seeing all the moon.
The crescent is very beautiful
and perhaps that is all one like I am should or could see;
but what I am afraid of, dear God,
is that my self shadow will grow so large
that it blocks the whole moon,
and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing.

I do not know You God
because I am in the way.
Please help me to push myself aside.
~Flannery O’Connor from A Prayer Journal

 

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Sometimes the hardest thing is to step out of the way so that my own shadow no longer obscures what provides illumination.  I am regularly so blinded by busyness and distraction that I lose sight of God Himself.

Surprise me, dear Lord.  Though I regularly lament in the shadows, help me lift my voice in praise and gratitude for your gift, the pearl of great price you hold out for me to take each day.

 

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As the Light Went Out

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The second before the sun went out we saw a wall of dark shadow come speeding at us. We no sooner saw it than it was upon us, like thunder. It roared up the valley. It slammed our hill and knocked us out. It was the monstrous swift shadow cone of the moon. I have since read that this wave of shadow moves 1,800 miles an hour. Language can give no sense of this sort of speed—1,800 miles an hour. It was 195 miles wide. No end was in sight—you saw only the edge. It rolled at you across the land at 1,800 miles an hour, hauling darkness like plague behind it. Seeing it, and knowing it was coming straight for you, was like feeling a slug of anesthetic shoot up your arm. If you think very fast, you may have time to think, “Soon it will hit my brain.” You can feel the deadness race up your arm; you can feel the appalling, inhuman speed of your own blood. We saw the wall of shadow coming, and screamed before it hit.

This was the universe about which we have read so much and never before felt: the universe as a clockwork of loose spheres flung at stupefying, unauthorized speeds. How could anything moving so fast not crash, not veer from its orbit amok like a car out of control on a turn?

Less than two minutes later, when the sun emerged, the trailing edge of the shadow cone sped away. It coursed down our hill and raced eastward over the plain, faster than the eye could believe; it swept over the plain and dropped over the planet’s rim in a twinkling. It had clobbered us, and now it roared away. We blinked in the light. It was as though an enormous, loping god in the sky had reached down and slapped the Earth’s face.

When the sun appeared as a blinding bead on the ring’s side, the eclipse was over. The black lens cover appeared again, back-lighted, and slid away. At once the yellow light made the sky blue again; the black lid dissolved and vanished. The real world began there. I remember now: We all hurried away.

We never looked back. It was a general vamoose … but enough is enough. One turns at last even from glory itself with a sigh of relief. From the depths of mystery, and even from the heights of splendor, we bounce back and hurry for the latitudes of home.
~Annie Dillard from her essay  “Total Eclipse” in The Atlantic about the February 1979 eclipse in Washington State

 

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In February 1979, I was working as a medical student on an inpatient psychiatric unit in a large hospital in Seattle, less than a hundred miles from the band of total eclipse Annie Dillard describes above happening just to the south.

Our clinical team tried to prepare our mostly psychotic and paranoid schizophrenic patients for what was about to happen outside that morning.

Our patients were clearly more anxious than usual, pacing and wringing their hands as the light outside slowly faded, with high noon transformed gradually to an oddly shadowy dusk. The street lights turned on automatically and cars moved about with headlights shining.

We all stood at the windows in the hospital perched high on a hill, watching the city become dark as night in the middle of the day. Our unstable patients were sure the world was ending and certain they had caused it to happen.  Extra doses of medication were dispensed as needed while the light faded away and then slowly returned to the streets outside. Within an hour the sunlight was fully back, and most of the patients were napping soundly.

We all breathed a sigh of relief, having witnessed such glory from the heavens, acknowledging we did not cause it but a power far greater did.  The eclipse swept, with its racing shadow followed by restoration of light, the edge of our sanity to accept that our light can indeed be taken away.  For some, they live their whole lives consumed by shadow.

Miraculously, the Light has been returned to us.  We may not be able to look if in the Face —  too blinding — but we need never dwell in darkness again.

 

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My Voice, Unsought

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To find your voice you must forget about finding it,
and trust that if you pay sufficient attention to life
you will be found to have something to say which no one else can say.

…that will be your voice, unsought,
singing out from you of itself.
~Denise Levertov from The Discovery of Voice

 

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At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace. It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your fists, your back, your brain, and then – and only then -it is handed to you.

From the corner of your eye you see motion. Something is moving through the air and headed your way. It is a parcel bound in ribbons and bows; it has two white wings. It flies directly at you; you can read your name on it. If it were a baseball, you would hit it out of the park. It is that one pitch in a thousand you see in slow motion; its wings beat slowly as a hawk’s.
~Annie Dillard from “Write Till You Drop”

 

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Some days my voice feels weak,
as if I have said too much
and grown hoarse
choking on the smoky haze surrounding me.
I take a swing and miss,
always listening, looking, living
for that connection
that only words can make.

 

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Set Down Bewildered

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Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed?

Can the writer isolate and vivify all in experience that most deeply engages our intellects and our hearts?

Why are we reading, if not in hope that the writer will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage and the hope of meaningfulness, and press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so we may feel again their majesty and power?

What do we ever know that is higher than that power which, from time to time, seizes our lives, and which reveals us startlingly to ourselves as creatures set down here bewildered?

Why does death so catch us by surprise, and why love?

We still and always want waking.
~Annie Dillard from “Write Till You Drop”

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It’s true.

I am bewildered by life most of the time. Anyone looking at these online pages can see the struggle as I wake each day to seek out what I’m called to and how to make this sad and suffering world a better place.

I have so little wisdom to offer a reader other than my own wrestling match with the mysteries we all face.

When a light does shine out through darkness,  I am not surprised.  It was there all the time, but I needed the eyes to see such beauty laid bare.

 

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An Audience of Terminal Patients

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Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case.
~Annie Dillard from “Write Till You Drop”

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You’re going to feel like hell if you wake up someday and you never wrote the stuff that is tugging on the sleeves of your heart: your stories, memories, visions, and songs–your truth, your version of things–in your own voice. That’s really all you have to offer us, and that’s also why you were born.

~Anne Lamott in a recent TED Talk

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I began to write after September 11, 2001 because that day it became obvious to me I was dying, albeit more slowly than the thousands who vanished that day in fire and ash, their voices obliterated with their bodies.   So, nearly each day since, while I still have voice and a new dawn to greet, I speak through my fingers and my camera lens to others dying around me.

My good friend, Sara, who I’ve known and loved half my life, is fighting for her life in an all day cancer surgery today, having fought a chronic disease and a totally different cancer once before and won.  She knows well the hard cost of winning even when the odds aren’t good,  yet still has a courage in her to fight once again.

That will to fight is heavy on my mind today.

We are, after all, terminal patients, some more imminent than others, some of us more prepared to move on, as if our readiness had anything to do with the timing.

Each day I too get a little closer, so I write and share photos of my world in order to hang on awhile longer.  Each day I must detach just a little bit, leaving a small trace of my voice and myself behind.  Eventually, through unmerited grace, so much of me will be left on the page there won’t be anything or anyone left to do the typing.

There is no moment or picture or word to waste.

 

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A Great Door That Does Not Look Like a Door

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And as you sit on the hillside, or lie prone under the trees of the forest, or sprawl wet-legged on the shingly beach of a mountain stream, the great door, that does not look like a door, opens.
~Stephen Graham from The Gentle Art of Tramping

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That great door opens on the present, illuminates it as with a multitude of flashing torches.
~Annie Dillard (in response to the Graham’s quote) from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

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There is a second or two in each day
(and some days I must watch hard for it)
when there is a moment of illumination
like a multitude of flashing torches,
when I can see just beyond what is here and now.
It feels like a promise.

When I miss it,
this opened door that is not a door~
too busy to notice-
too blinded to see-
having turned my face away,
nevertheless it happens without my witness.

It saddens and gladdens my heart to know that
it will be offered up again tomorrow.

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