Beyond the Reach of Meaning

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At sundown when a day’s words
have gathered at the feet of the trees
lining up in silence
to enter the long corridors
of the roots into which they 
pass one by one thinking
they remember the place
as they feel themselves climbing
away from their only sound
while they are being forgotten
by their bright circumstances
they rise through all the rings
listening again 
afterward as they
listened once and they come
to where the leaves used to live
during their lives but have gone now
and they too take the next step
beyond the reach of meaning
~ W. S. Merwin “To a Leaf Falling in Winter”

 

 

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“Last forever!” Who hasn’t prayed that prayer? You were lucky to get it in the first place. The present is a freely given canvas. That it is constantly being ripped apart and washed downstream goes without saying.
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

 

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…writing was one way to let something of lasting value emerge
from the pains and fears of my little, quickly passing life.
Each time life required me to take a new step into unknown spiritual territory,
I felt a deep, inner urge to tell my story to others–
Perhaps as a need for companionship but maybe, too,
out of an awareness that my deepest vocation
is to be a witness to the glimpses of God I have been allowed to catch.

~Henri Nouwen

 

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For too much of my life I have focused on the future, bypassing the present in my headlong rush to what lies ahead.  There is always a goal to achieve,  a conclusion becoming commencement of the next phase, a sunset turning right around in a few hours to become sunrise.

Yet the most precious times occur when the present is so overwhelming, so riveting, so tenderly full of life that I see a brief glimpse of God.  I must grab hold with all my strength to try and secret it away and keep it forever.  Of course the present still slips away from me, elusive and evasive, torn to bits by the unrelenting movement of time.

Even if I was able to take a photo to lock it to a page or screen, it is not enough.  No matter how I choose to preserve the canvas of the present, it is passed, ebbing away never to return.

I must wonder at the present by focusing less on the foreshortening future.

So I write to harvest those times to make them last a little bit longer.  Maybe not forever; they will inevitably be lost downstream into the ether of unread words.

Even if unread, I am learning that words, which had power in the Beginning to create life,  bring tenderness and meaning back to my life.   How blessed to live the gift twice: not just in the moment itself but in writing words that preserve and treasure it all up, if only for a moment before they fall, completed.

 

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Twice Seen

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The winter woods beside a solemn
river are twice seen–
once as they pierce the brittle air,
once as they dance in grace beneath the stream.

In air these trees stand rough and raw,
branch angular in stark design–
in water shimmer constantly,
disconnect as in a dream,
shadowy but more alive
than what stands stiff and cold before our eyes.

Our eyes at peace are solemn streams
and twice the world itself is seen–
once as it is outside our heads,
hard frozen now and winter-dead,
once as it undulates and shine
beneath the silent waters of our minds.

When rivers churn or cloud with ice
the world is not seen twice–
yet still is there beneath
the blinded surface of the stream,
livelier and lovelier than we can comprehend
and waiting, always waiting, to be seen.
~Parker Palmer “The Winter Woods”

 

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May today there be peace within.
May I trust God that I am exactly where I am meant to be.
May I not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith.
May I use those gifts that I have received, and pass on the love that has been given to me.
May I be content knowing I am a child of God.
Let this presence settle into my bones, and allow my soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love.
It is there for each and every one of us.
― adapted from Thérèse de Lisieux

 

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And which am I today?

…the naked bones of trunk and branches reaching stark into the gray winter sky
or a shimmering reflection, soft and variable, in the water-mirror at my feet?

…do I change with the wind or the surfacing of a fish, one moment still and quiet and another moment churned and churning?

…or do I remain steadfast and predictable, unchanging in the storm?

Knowing there are infinite possibilities, I am content to be both, knowing as reflection, I’m still called to be an image of God, sometimes clear and unquestioning, and other times cloudy and barely discernible.

Yet I know, without seeing or reflecting Him perfectly,  He is there.

 

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Never and Always At Home

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It is merely
a question of continuous
adjustment, of improvising a life. When I’m far from friends
or the easing of a wind
against my back, I think of lichen—
never and always true to its essence,
never and always at home.
~John McCullough from “Lichen”

 

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We are lichens on a grand scale.
~David Haskell

 

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Closer, with the glass, a city of cups!

Why are they doing this?

In this big sky and all around me peaks &
the melting glaciers, why am I made to
kneel and peer at Tiny?
~Lew Welch from “Springtime in the Rockies, Lichen”
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The lichen raised its fragile cup,
and rain filled it, and in the drop
the sky glittered, holding back the wind.

The lichen raised its fragile cup:
Now let’s toast the richness of our lives.
~Helvi Juvonen  “Lichen Cup”

 

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I’ve lived in the Pacific Northwest for most of 63 years, and on this farm for 24 years.  The grandeur of the snow-capped mountains to the east and the peaceful shore to the west overwhelms everything in between.  I’ve walked past these bare antique apple trees autumn after autumn, but had never stopped to really look at the landscape growing on their shoulders and arms.  There is a whole other ecosystem on each tree, a fairy land of earth bound seaweed, luxuriant in the fall rains, dried and hidden behind leaves and fruit in the hot summer.

This is the world of lichen, a mixed up cross between mold and fungus, opportunistic enough to thrive on rock faces, but ecstatic on absorbent bark.

I had never really noticed how proudly diverse they are.  I had walked right by their rich color and texture.

Yet it hasn’t bothered them not to be noticed as they are busy minding their own business.  As John McCullough says,  they thrive happily where they find themselves “never and always true to their essence, never and always at home.”

 

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But what is life to a lichen?
Yet its impulse to exist,
to be,
is every bit as strong as ours —
arguably even stronger.
If I were told that I had to spend decades
being a furry growth on a rock in the woods,
I believe I would lose the will to go on.

~Bill Bryson

 

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An Everyday Epiphany

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“Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies,
those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.”
~ John Milton

 

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Our farm looked like it had a remodel update this past week by the winds and rain, covering the yard with a yellow brown shag carpet of leaves thicker than ever I remember in our two 25 years here.   This transformation is temporary until the leaves start to rot under the burden of endless days of wintry drizzle and freezing weather, but transcendent over plain green sod nevertheless.

I need to remind myself that only 8 months ago, none of these leaves even existed.  They were mere potential in bud form, about to burst and grow in a silent awesome explosion of green and chlorophyll.   After their brief tenure as shade and protection and fuel factory for their tree, last week they rained to the ground in torrents, letting go of the only security they had known.

Now they are compost, returning to the soil to feed the roots of the trees that gave them life to begin with.

Transcendent death.

 

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The Other Side is Salvation

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Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
~Mary Oliver, “In Blackwater Woods”

 

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When the earth and all that is in it glows golden
with the fire of sunrise and sunset;
just opening my eyes to see it
takes my breath away.
I can’t imagine letting it go
even when what is left is ashes
of the darkest night.
On the other side of loss is salvation.
My life depends on it.

 

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A Soft-Dying Day

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Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, 
        Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too, —
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day, 

        And touch the stubble plains with rosy hue —

~John Keats, lines from “To Autumn”

 

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The trees are undressing, and fling in many places—
On the gray road, the roof, the window-sill—
Their radiant robes and ribbons and yellow laces;
A leaf each second so is flung at will,
Here, there, another and another, still and still.
~Thomas Hardy from “Last Week in October”

 

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We think we are mere witness to this,
this transformation happening before our eyes
as unforgiving wind strips leaves from trees
left bare and naked in their bones–

yet we too will be exposed for who we are
under the window dressing we spend so much to create,
too soon nothing is left to cover our flaws
and our bones alone will tell our story of redemption.

 

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Fall’s Warm Milk of Light

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portrait of Dan’s mom, Emma Gibson, praying, by granddaughter Sara Lenssen

 

I sit with braided fingers   
and closed eyes
in a span of late sunlight.   
The spokes are closing.
It is fall: warm milk of light,   
though from an aging breast.   
I do not mean to pray.   
The posture for thanks or   
supplication is the same   
as for weariness or relief.   
But I am glad for the luck   
of light. Surely it is godly,   
that it makes all things
begin, and appear, and become   
actual to each other.
Light that’s sucked into   
the eye, warming the brain   
with wires of color.
Light that hatched life
out of the cold egg of earth.
~May Swenson from “October”
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I know all too well that the end of October means the light changes, the colors fade, and the chill sets in.  I grasp and bundle up what scenes I can preserve now, like harvesting hay to be tied up in bales and stored safely until the middle of winter.  Then, at the right time, when I’m most hungry for color and light,  I loosen the strings and let the images tumble out, feeding me like mother’s milk.
And I am filled…
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