Wheels of baled hay bask in October sun: Gold circles strewn across the sloping field, They seem arranged as if each one Has found its place; together they appeal To some glimpsed order in my mind Preceding my chance pausing here — A randomness that also seems designed. Gold circles strewn across the sloping field Evoke a silence deep as my deep fear Of emptiness; I feel the scene requires A listener who can respond with words, yet who Prolongs the silence that I still desire, Relieved as clacking crows come flashing through, Whose blackness shows chance radiance of fire. Yet stillness in the field remains for everyone: Wheels of baled hay bask in October sun. ~Robert Pack “Baled Hay” from Rounding it Out: A Cycle of Sonnetelles (1999).
Each day I am called to see and listen,
to open fully to all that is around me.
From the simple stillness of the fields
surrounding our farm,
to the weeping of those who sit with me
day after day
in their deep fear of emptiness,
their struggle with whether to try to live
or give up and die.
Their deep fear of emptiness renders me silent;
I struggle to respond with words
that might offer up a healing balm
assuring them even in the darkest time
hope lies waiting, wrapped and baled,
radiant as fire,
ready to spill out fragrant,
to bear us silently to a new morning,
to a stillness borne of grace.
Just as a painter needs light
in order to put the finishing touches to his picture, so I need an inner light, which I feel I never have enough of in the autumn. ~Leo Tolstoy
Let’s go I said.
I need to find some light, but not just any light I said — now.
Sure he said.
He loves to drive winding roads to breathe chill alpine air.
We headed east an hour before sunset to try to make it in time.
The highway so empty going up.
Gas tank nearing empty with no time to fill up.
Only tripod photographers still there, waiting for a full moon rise.
What we see from our backyard forty miles away overwhelms
when standing awestruck in its front yard.
My tank nearing empty slowly filled part-way.
This intentional overdose of light should last me until next autumn.
I am overcome even when it is never enough.
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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
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.
And now brothers, I will ask you a terrible question, and God knows I ask it also of myself. Is the truth beyond all truths, beyond the stars, just this: that to live without him is the real death, that to die with him the only life? ~Frederick Buechner from The Magnificent Defeat
[The Incarnation is like] a wave of the sea which, rushing up on the flat beach, runs out, even thinner and more transparent, and does not return to its source but sinks into the sand and disappears. ~Hans Urs von Balthasar from Origen: Spirit and Fire
We are approaching the week of emptying that leads to the fullness of Easter morning. It is impossible to approach this time without feeling hollowed out and emotionally drained, our empty spaces to be filled to the brim with grace.
More over, through commemoration of these historical events, God on earth once again sinks deeply into our lives, pours Himself onto our earthly soil and into our fleshly souls. He washes our dirty feet, feeds us at His table, and pleads on our behalf for forgiveness when we deserve none of it.
He loses Himself in us. Through Him, we are renewed and refilled, welcomed home, whole and holy.
Hollowed, then hallowed.
Let him kneel down, lower his face to the grass, And look at light reflected by the ground. There he will find everything we have lost. ~Czeslaw Milosz from “The Sun”
Experiencing the present purely is being emptied and hollow; you catch grace as a man fills his cup under a waterfall. ~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
I am often unprepared for the rush of challenges each clinic day brings and lately far into the night.
Each call, each message, each tug on my arm, each box of kleenex handed over, each look of hopelessness — I empty continuously throughout the day to try to fill the deep well of need around me. If I’m down and dry, hollowed to the core with no more left to give, I pray for more than I could possibly deserve.
And so it pours over me, torrential and flooding, and I only have a mere cup to hold out for filling. There is far more cascading grace than I can even conceive of, far more love descending than this cup of mine could ever hold, far more hope ascending from the mist and mystery of doctoring, over and over again.
I am never left empty for long. The hollow is hallowed, filled to the brim and spilling over.
We are being warned by local meteorologists that the Pacific Northwest will be hit by a powerful windstorm blowing in off the ocean over the next two days. We are told to “batten down the hatches” and prepare for power outages. This reminds me of another November windstorm a few years ago that took down a ninety plus year old orchard tree on our farm.
The old Spitzenberg tree, the favorite variety of Thomas Jefferson, had been failing over the previous ten years. It was rotting centrally with holes that housed squirrels and their treasure trove of filbert nuts, and bearing fruit that was startling red and sweet but diminishingly small and scabbed, dropping to the ground beneath like so many drops of blood. Blue jays loved the branches and quarreled relentlessly with the squirrels over prime real estate and mountain view property in the crown of the tree.
No more. As it was eased on to its side in the night storm, swept up in the torrent of air and rain, it went quite peacefully, gracefully with nary a broken branch as they reached out to touch the ground, almost gratefully, breaking neatly at the base of its trunk, not even disturbing the sod. The roots remain covered underground, still clinging to rocky soil, with no where to pump to any longer. The old tree had simply bled out.
Somehow we needed to dispose of the remains. As my husband made several chain saw cuts through the trunk to make pieces easily movable, the extent of the astonishing hole in this old tree became visible. It was suffering from an extreme equivalent of human osteoporosis with a brittle skeleton that somehow had lasted through innumerable windstorms until this week, even while still bearing apples, still trying its best to be fruitful.
When it fell, the trunk oriented itself so it provided a view right through to the barnyard down the hill, telescoping what the tree had surveyed for so many years of its life. Clearly this had been a holey trunk for some years; within the cavity at the base were piles of different size rocks stashed there by the Lawrence children two generations ago and more recently our Gibson children. There was also a large tarnished spoon, lost decades ago into the dark center of the apple tree and now retrieved at its death. At some point in the last quarter century, a Gibson child playing a farm version of frisbee golf must have flung a bucket lid at the hole in the tree, and it disappeared into the gap and settled at the bottom.
All this, like a treasure trove of history, was just waiting for the time when the tree would give up its secrets at its death. There were no gold or silver coins, no notes to the future like a glass bottle put out to sea. This well hidden time capsule held simply rocks and spoon and lid.
I realized as I stared into the gulf of that empty trunk that I’m hollow too, more hollow than I care to admit. Like so many of us, stuff is hidden deep inside that we’d just as soon not have discovered. Our outside scaffolding braces against the buffeting by the winds and storms of life, as we cling to this mortal soil. It is clear we’d be much stronger if we were wholly solid throughout, filled with something stronger even than our outsides.
But we tend to get filled up with a lot of nothing, or even worse than nothing, a lot of garbage. This is stuff that weakens us, furthers the rot, shortens our fruitful life, doing nothing to make us more whole and holy.
I’m looking more critically now at what fills my empty spots since staring down the barrel of that old apple tree trunk. May the hollow be hallowed.
The call came in the middle of a busy night
as we worked on a floppy baby with high fever,
a croupy toddler whose breathing squeezed and squeaked,
a pale adolescent transfusing due to leukemia bleeding.
It was an anencephalic baby just born, unexpected, unwanted
in a hospital across town, and she needed a place to die.
Our team of three puzzled how to manage a baby without a brain–
simply put her in a room, swaddled, kept warm but alone?
Hydrate her with a dropper of water to moisten her mouth?
Offer her a taste of milk?
She arrived by ambulance, the somber attendants
leaving quickly, unnerved by her mewing cries.
I took the wrapped bundle and peeled away the layers
to find a plump full term baby, her hands gripping, arms waving
once freed; just another newborn until I pulled off her stocking cap
and looked into an empty crater — only a brainstem lumped at the base.
Neither textbook pictures nor cruel jokes about frog babies had prepared me
for the wholeness, the holiness of this living, breathing child.
Her forehead quit above the eyebrows with the entire skull missing,
tufts of soft brown hair fringed her perfect ears, around the back of her neck.
Her eyelids puffy, squinting tight, seemingly too big
above a button nose and rosebud pink lips.
She squirmed under my fingers, her muscles strong, breaths coming steady
despite no awareness of light or touch or noise.
Yet she cried in little whimpers, mouth working, seeking,
lips tentatively gripping my fingertip. A bottle warmed,
nipple offered, a tentative suck allowing tiny flow,
then, amazing, a gurgling swallow.
Returning every two hours, more for me than for her, I picked her up
to smell the salty sweet scent of amnion still on her skin as she grew dusky.
Her breathing weakened, her muscles loosened, giving up her grip
on a world she would never see or hear or feel to behold
something far more glorious, as I gazed
into her emptiness, waiting to be filled.