The Blessings of an Autumn Day in the Flint Hills

Until I came to Kansas,
I never knew how many hues, tones and colors
could be caught and cast in the base, blades and stems
of grass passing from growing to dying:
miles of native prairie strands,
weaving and bowing like a fiddler’s hands,
shifts of greens and golds, tans and orange,
yellows and browns, and even shades of beige
swayed by the sun.

Add in the rich runs of hardwoods along the banks and bluffs,
the clumps of sumac crimson among the grays of limestone outcropping,
the yellows and golds of low-growing buckbrush
and the puffs of delicate suede as seed pods nod in the breeze
above drying leaves sheened silver in heaven’s shining
as I take my time in following the run of Kansas One-Seventy-Seven.

The rounded rise of the Flint Hills ripples a slight spine
for southern Kansas where washed cuts carve ditches and gullies
that empty into thin-veined creeks bedded with stone and rock
beneath the rustling cover of cottonwood trees the age of ranches.

Cattle graze in October’s fading warmth as ponds shrink
and the wind combs furrows across the sweeping tallgrass.
A pair of mares grazes a hundred feet from the corner
of a thousand acre field.

I am not in a hurry and I will not keep myself from yielding to this;
I pull over, park the truck and walk over to the fence.

The bay comes first and I offer a clump of soft grass
from a flattened hand.
She sniffs the blades and nimbly lips what she wants of the offering.
The palomino joins us, both seemingly grateful
for the gentle scratching of face and muzzle.

I stand with both arms lifted and they move closer,
heads hanging over the rusted iron rails that anchor the gate
for whatever blessing it may be that I can offer from empty hands.

Whatever else lies before me on this good day will wait a little longer.
This, too, is part of what the Lord has made
and I will rejoice and be glad in it.

H. Arnett

Posted in Metaphysical Reflection, Nature, Poetry, Spiritual Contemplation | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Changing Seats

In response to one of my essay posts, a reader responded: “I understand that without the valleys, we wouldn’t appreciate the mountaintops, but why are there more, and deeper valleys, and the mountaintop experiences are so fleeting?????”

I’ve been thinking about that and to some degree I guess the question isn’t completely answerable. At its core, it’s the perennial conundrum of life. Why is life the way it is? “Because it’s life,” some might respond. And they have a point.

It takes so much preparation, so much work, so much effort, so much focus to get to the mountaintop. We do not have the time, the energy or the luxury of staying there long. We cannot sustain that level of intensity. We celebrate, bask in the moment, drink in the exhilaration. And it’s not the being there that makes it so wonderful; it is the triumph of the trek to the top that triggers our powerful response. And then, we head back down the mountain.

On the way down, if we happen to notice, we might see that a single valley can wind its way in between a host of mountains. Childbirth happens once, birthday celebrations once a year, and milestones such as baptism and marriage are lightly scattered through the years that weave between.

Another part of the enigma is to some degree, simple definition. We call these things “mountaintop experiences” because they are so rare. If they happened every day we’d eventually start to yawn and say, “Ho hum. Another spectacular view. Already saw this, got the tee shirt.”

Another element has to do with perspective and choice. Some people find out they have cancer and immediately slide into the pit and wallow in it the rest of their life. Others say, “Screw you, Cancer. You may kill me but not today. You’re not taking my joy.” In spite of all else, they choose to focus on every blessing, every simple goodness in their life.

It’s kind of like two passengers riding on a train that travels along a river through the mountains. On the one side, you look out the window and all you can see is the closest hundred feet of bare stone face of the bluffs rising up and disappearing above you. On the other side of the train, you look out and see a beautiful mountain stream, rumbling and tumbling its way around the boulders. You see riffles and rapids. On the opposite bank, aspen in the splendor of autumn. Beyond that, majestic mountains.

Both passengers riding on the same train, moving through the same terrain, headed to the same destination. One of them stares out the window, cursing the mountains. The other chooses to look out a different window.

A few of them even move to the other side.

H. Arnett

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A Cup of Cold Water

We have walked the peaks and valleys of life’s ebbs and flows,
through the gasping highs and the aching lows
and all those things that lie between
the knowing of strength and the finding of grace.

Whether looking out over miles of mountain meadows
or stepping face first into the shadows of a moon so full
it seems to sag the sky and pull us so near
we could hear the sounds of stars singing,

We may believe it is this bringing of wonder
that makes us think we could walk right over yonder ridge,
stride bridges and rivers, walk right up
and well shake hands with the Giver of Life.

In darker moments, the knife and hammer of those ebbs and lows
come piercing and pounding right through our knowing
and the dark-bellied aches seem to stack up like storming clouds
until they shroud the sun in cold layers of bruising wind

And the thinness of our own faith cuts right through us.
Somehow through this comes a faint and comforting sound
that sifts through the surrounding aloneness,
finds us and reminds us that even in this

We are not left on our own to drift through the mist and pain,
that there is gain even in loss and all the dross of darkness
must be driven loose in the refining furnace
until what is pure and good and lasting

Can be fully burnished until we are polished in the glow
of Knowing As Being Known.
Until then, being readied by the Hand of a Better World
we may better live in this one.

Instead of on the mountain, we may stand at the sink
with one hand wet and one hand dry,
and come to think with a soft and warming sigh
that even a drink of cold water is better given from a clean cup,

lifted up in love.

H. Arnett

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Strangers in the Church

As soon as Randa and I got to church yesterday, one of the members told me, “There’s a woman here who wants to talk to you. She’s wearing the brown coat and sitting on the bench over here.” I had intended to use a couple of minutes to tune up my guitar for the special music Randa and I would sing. Instead, I sat the twelve-string and my Bible on the front pew and then headed back to speak with Carol.

“Is there somewhere we can talk?” She queried, “I don’t want the others to hear. People can get pretty nosey, am I right?”

I led her into the church office and pulled out a couple of chairs. She leaned over and set her large handbag on the floor. “Oh, I tell you, some days I think I’d just like to head out into the woods and say ‘To hell with the world.'” She straightened up and grinned at me as I eased into the other chair, “You know what I mean?”

For the next ten minutes or so, she gave me the day’s version of her history, starting with her husband dying of cancer in Louisiana. While she talked, I studied her a bit.

Her short, thick hair had been brushed but not combed. Her face was browned and finely furrowed and her eyes carefully lined. There was a faint smell of perfume and her clothes looked to be clean. If she was any leaner she’d need a skin graft. I guessed her age to be somewhere between sixty and seventy-five. Life can sometimes add a lot of years in a short time.

She admitted to being from New York (“It’s been forty years but they say I still have the accent; I know I still have the attitude.”) She talked about being on the road and how she’d been harassed by different people and how it’s illegal to be poor in this country. After a while she paused and got to the near nugget, “Is there any work I can do for the church? I need to make fifty dollars. And I need a ride to MacDonald’s in Wellington. Do you know where Wellington is? I’m starting a job at Wellington tomorrow taking care of somebody and living in their home.”

In the pause, I caught the sound of singing and I was pretty sure it wasn’t a group of angels cued by the mention of the county seat of Sumner County. She went on to say, “Now of course I know how this works. You can ask me to say the ‘sinner’s prayer’ and I’ve said it a thousand times. That alone ought to be enough to get me into heaven, am I right? I’ll say whatever anybody wants me to say if that’s what I have to do to get help.”

My response may not have been quite on cue. “Carol, I need to get back out there. You’re welcome to stay with us through the service but you don’t have to for us to help you.”

She said she’d stay and I said we’d help her out and give her a ride to Wellington. She stayed and after Sunday School, we kept our end of the bargain.

We stopped in the parking lot and I gave her some cash lifted from the church’s unofficial benevolence fund. She counted it, twice, before getting out, “Oh, green is the color of life. I love it; I love money.” And then she kissed the bills. “Now give me a minute; it’ll take me a minute to get out.” She took hold of one side of the door frame and pulled herself up and out of the back seat.

She was certainly one of the most interesting people I’ve helped out over the years. She might be a professional con artist or she might be another one of those folks that got bent by life and folded into a small pocket of the universe. I guess she could be both at the same time. It doesn’t much matter to me; we had the opportunity to help and I’m glad that we did. I’d rather we get taken in by a hundred strangers than have a single one of them say we wouldn’t take them in.

Am I right?

H. Arnett

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Of Coffee & Scones and the Owning of Love

In the early rising of another day’s dawn,
Before the feel of sleep is quite gone from my mind,
I find enough of it to run water for coffee,
separate filters and measure the needed grind.

The first few drops steam the sides of the pot,
hot water carrying the rich darkness
drawn from ground beans into a new form
of meaning and being shaped into a simple gladness.

I turn then to the making of scones,
my own recipe of sorts, a gentle pilfering
of the key parts with a bit of tailoring—
a mix of whole wheat and all purpose,

spices shifted from pie to biscuit as it where,
dried cherries and chopped walnuts,
and almost enough shortening
finished out with a bit of some celebrity’s coconut oil.

Randa will rise soon, glad for fresh coffee
and the smell of cinnamon baking.
And though this is but a small making
of all that is love, devotion and the constant motions

Of both giving and receiving,
the demands of life and matters of the heart,
in such small makings as this,
love finds a pretty good start.

H. Arnett

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Against the Odds

It is already late by the time Randa and I put the leash on Layla and head out for our nightly walk. When we first hit the street, a half-moon is shining through a thin, scalloped cloud. Within a half minute the cloud’s passing finishes a blanketing shroud that domes the surrounding sky.

Even with the light of the moon diffused through the screening drift, there is still a surprising brightness that lets us see more clearly than we expected. We can see yards and trees even in between the spaces of streetlights and yard lights. Ten minutes later as we walk along the gravel of F-Street, we can see the rows of soybeans between the last line of houses and the railroad a half-mile away. I can see the pasture beside the radio station and the posts that set the fence line along its boundary.

I study this mystery of brightness and absorb the quietness of eleven p.m. in a neighborhood of modest homes and dead-end streets. I have seen this before, the hovering of low skies over towns and cities, a gentle halo often visible from thirty or forty miles away. The soft illumination of city lights is held and reflected in the low sky, bringing a surrounding glow to the streets below.

Even in the darkness of a senseless massacre and the ensuing madness of searching for answers and explanations, there is still good in the world. We are not abandoned in the long nights and agonizing days of our most piercing pains and our greatest tragedies. The light of God’s Love still lives in the hearts of those who love him and love others. Though but a dim reflection from flawed and aching lives, its diffuse glow is still brighter than the darkness, still illuminating the care and calling of a higher living. In the midst of angst and anger and our deepest sorrows, the Light still offers hope and comfort and strength for the morrow.

Even when we cannot clearly see the Source, we know its power and presence.

H. Arnett

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Old Farmhouse

While chatting with some other visitors at the Winfield Chamber of Commerce yesterday, I noticed a picture of an old frame house. Unless my imagination was playing tricks on me, it is a picture I’d seen there before. For some reason, Bill Graham’s “White Farm House” had a more profound effect on me yesterday, and I’m really not sure why.

Somehow, the watercolor rendering reminds me of the place where Pap and Grandma Bazzell lived near Coldwater, Kentucky. It reminds me of their place even though it looks nothing like it. Maybe it’s the simplicity of clean lines and the lack of ornate embellishments. The honesty, if you please, of the construction: wood boards nailed to wood frame, painted white.

Maybe it reminds me of the people I knew and loved in Todd County and in Browns Grove. Raymond Stokes, Preach Simmons, Roy Morris. Jack Harrison, Alvie Farris, Fred Harrison. A host of others connected by faith and family, culture and sub-culture. Years of crops and cows, harvests and milkings. Friday night frog gigging, hay curing in the sun, church on a summer Sunday morning. A cappela singing and funeral home fans fluttering along lines of hardwood pews. Softball and ice cream on Sunday afternoons.

Maybe it’s something even deeper than all of that.

Even though I’m pretty sure I’ve been in several similar houses, I’m really not certain that I was ever in a house even close to being exactly like that. And yet there was something powerfully familiar and homey about it.

Maybe it’s the sense that I could step up on that porch and already know which board will creak the loudest. Maybe it’s the feeling that if I reached out to knock on the door, it would open for me and warm voices would welcome me inside. I’m pretty sure that I would smell supper cooking on the stove and see a fresh pie sitting on the enameled counter of an old sideboard. There would be an extra place already set at the table and a chair waiting for me. For some intriguing unknown reason, I think that painting gives me the sense of being welcomed home to a place I’ve never been before.

I can’t explain it and maybe I don’t have to; maybe it’s something so primal, so mysterious that it’s deeply embedded in each of us, even though it might be triggered by different things. That sense that there’s a better place waiting, a place wonderfully new and yet fantastically familiar. A place where people we’ve loved and lost will be sitting around, sharing stories and joys and wondering why it took us so long to come home.

By God’s good grace I will one day stroll through Heaven’s pearly gates. Once I pass by where all the big houses and grand mansions are, I’ll eventually get over to my new place. If it turns out it’s just an old wood-frame farmhouse, that’ll be just fine with me.

I hope you’ll drop by and visit for a century or two…

H. Arnett

Old Home-pict

Posted in Aging, Christian Devotions, Christian Living, Death & Dying, Family, Relationships, Spiritual Contemplation | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment