The Scar of Proud Flesh

There are names for what binds us:
strong forces, weak forces.
Look around, you can see them:
the skin that forms in a half-empty cup,
nails rusting into the places they join,
joints dovetailed on their own weight.

The way things stay so solidly whenever they’ve been set down –
and gravity, scientists say, is weak.

And see how the flesh grows back across a wound, with a great vehemence,
more strong than the simple, untested surface before.

There’s a name for it on horses, when it comes back darker and raised:
proud flesh, as all flesh is proud of its wounds,
wears them as honors given out after battle,
small triumphs pinned to the chest –

And when two people have loved each other,
see how it is like a scar between their bodies,
stronger, darker, and proud;
how the black cord makes of them a single fabric
that nothing can tear or mend.
~Jane Hirshfield  “For What Binds Us”

Scars come in various sizes and shapes, some hidden, some quite obvious to all.  How they are inflicted also varies–some accidental, others therapeutic, and too many intentional. 

The most insidious are the ones so deep inside,  no one can see or know they are there.

Back in our woodlot stands a sawed off stump of a cedar that was old growth in virgin forest over a hundred years ago.  One day clearcut loggers came through and took every tree they could to haul to the local sawmills to become beams and lumber for the growing homesteading population in the region.  This cedar once was grand and vast, covering an immense part of the forest floor, providing protection to trillium at its feet and finches’ nests and raptors hunting in its branches.   It nurtured its environment until other plans were made, and one day, axes fell on its sides to cut out the notches for the springboards where two loggers stood either side of the proud trunk to man the saw which brought the tree down. 

Where the wood went is anyone’s guess.  It could be one of the mighty beams supporting our old hay barn roof or it could have become the foundation flooring of a nearby one room school house.  It surely had a productive and meaningful life as part of a structure somewhere until rot or carpenter ants or fire brought it once again to its knees.

But this ghost of a stump remains, a tombstone of remembrance of a once grand tree, the notch scars embedded deep in its sides, nursing new seedlings from its center and moss, lichen and ferns from its sides.

I come from logger stock so I don’t begrudge these frontier settlers their hard scrabble living, nor minimize their dangerous work in order to feed themselves and their families.  It’s just I’m struck by those scars over one hundred years later — such a visible reminder of what once was a vital living organism toppled for someone’s need and convenience.

Trees are not unique.  It happens to people too.  Everyday scars are inflicted for reasons hard to justify.  Too often I see them self-inflicted in an effort to feel something other than despair.  Sometimes they are inflicted by others out of fear or need for control.

Sometimes they are simply the scars of living – on our horses they are a dark tough scar of leathery “proud flesh”. These are the wounds that accumulate on our journey through our numbered days.

None of them are as deep and wide as the scars that were accepted on our behalf, nor as wondrous as the Love that oozed from them, nor as amazing as the Grace that abounds to this day because of the promise they represent. 

These are scars from the Word made Flesh, a proud flesh that won’t give way, lasting forever.

As a result, that Tree lives, and so do we.

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A book of beauty in words and photography, available to order here:

Holding Back My Heart

The others bent their heads and started in.
Confused, I asked my neighbor
to explain—a sturdy, bright-cheeked girl
who brought raw milk to school from her family’s
herd of Holsteins. Ann had a blue bookmark,
and on it Christ revealed his beating heart,
holding the flesh back with His wounded hand.
Ann understood division. . . .

Miss Moran sprang from her monumental desk
and led me roughly through the class
without a word. My shame was radical
as she propelled me past the cloakroom
to the furnace closet, where only the boys
were put, only the older ones at that.
The door swung briskly shut.

The warmth, the gloom, the smell
of sweeping compound clinging to the broom
soothed me. I found a bucket, turned it
upside down, and sat, hugging my knees.
I hummed a theme from Haydn that I knew
from my piano lessons. . . .
and hardened my heart against authority.
And then I heard her steps, her fingers
on the latch. She led me, blinking
and changed, back to the class.

~Jane Kenyon “Trouble with Math in a One-room Country School”

I avoided all potential trouble in school by avoiding the trouble-makers.
I never was disciplined or even looked at crossly by a teacher. They loved me and I wanted badly to be loved by them.

I looked away whenever another student got in trouble; I didn’t want to be a lookie-loo enjoying the travails of another child. It was painful for me to see another kid disciplined. I know I would have been crushed to be publicly called out, sent to the hallway, name on the board, or worse yet, banished to the principal.

So my heart broke when I saw another child cry,
or be defiant or be removed from class.
I knew I couldn’t fix it or them.
I knew I couldn’t help the teacher to like them.
I knew some kids have their own secret pain they endure.
I knew it would change me to know what their pain felt like.
So I just imagined being good and compliant and rule-abiding and lovable.

Forever.

Of course, I wasn’t and I’m not, sixty years later.
I too changed, just like everyone else.
It still makes me sad to think how much we change, how many hearts we break,
how our innocence is so fragile and as a result, how badly we need forgiveness
so we can learn to love ourselves as we are loved.

A book of beauty in words and photography available to order here:

In My Hunger

I made for grief a leaden bowl
and drank it, every drop.
And though I thought I’d downed it all
the hurting didn’t stop.

I made of hope a golden sieve
to drain my world of pain.
Though I was sure I’d bled it dry
the void filled up again.

I made of words a silver fork
and stabbed love in the heart,
and when I found the sweetness gone
I chewed it into art.
~Luci Shaw “What I Needed to Do”

How can I stow away our hurt and grief
when it keeps refilling, leaking everywhere?
Where can hope be found when all feels hopeless?
When I have been loved beyond all measure,
with bleeding hands and feet and side;
why not turn to the Word,
its sweetness never exhausted
no matter how often I chew through it
in my hunger.

A book of art in words and photography, available to order here:

Waiting in Wilderness: Removing a Splinter

To pull the metal splinter from my palm
my father recited a story in a low voice.
I watched his lovely face and not the blade.
Before the story ended, he’d removed
the iron sliver I thought I’d die from.

I can’t remember the tale,
but hear his voice still, a well
of dark water, a prayer.
And I recall his hands,
two measures of tenderness
he laid against my face,
the flames of discipline
he raised above my head.

Had you entered that afternoon
you would have thought you saw a man
planting something in a boy’s palm,
a silver tear, a tiny flame.
Had you followed that boy
you would have arrived here,
where I bend over my wife’s right hand.

Look how I shave her thumbnail down
so carefully she feels no pain.
Watch as I lift the splinter out.
I was seven when my father
took my hand like this,
and I did not hold that shard
between my fingers and think,
Metal that will bury me,
christen it Little Assassin,
Ore Going Deep for My Heart.
And I did not lift up my wound and cry,
Death visited here!
I did what a child does
when he’s given something to keep.
I kissed my father.
~Li-Young Lee, “The Gift” from Rose

I did, without ever wanting to, remove my own children’s splinter, lanced a boil, immobilized a broken arm, pulled together sliced skin, cleaned many dirty wounds. It felt like I crossed the line between mommy and doctor.  But someone had to do it, and a four hour wait in the emergency room didn’t seem warranted.

My own children learned to cope with hurt made worse by someone they trusted to be comforter.

I dealt with inflicting pain, temporary though it may be, to flesh that arose from my flesh.  It hurt as much as if it were my own wound needing cleansing, not theirs.

Our wounds are His – He is constantly feeling our pain as He performs healing surgeries in our lives, not because He wants to but because He must, to save us from our own destruction. Too often we yell and kick and protest in our distress, making it all that much more difficult for both of us.

If only we can come to acknowledge His intervention is our salvage:
our tears to flow in relief, not anguish,
we cling to His protection rather than pushing Him away,
we kiss Him in gratitude as we are restored again and yet again.

Waiting in Wilderness: The Deal with Pain

The pain I feel now is the happiness I had before.
That’s the deal.
~C.S. Lewis from A Grief Observed

The beach at Tohoku, Japan where the tsunami hit 10 years ago today.

For thus says the LORD of hosts,
Once more in a little while,
I am going to shake the heavens and the earth,

the sea also and the dry land.
I will shake all the nations;

and they will come with the wealth of all nations,
and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the LORD of hosts.
Haggai 2:6-7

the rubble still piled on the beach at Tohoku, Japan, a year after the 3/11/11 tsunami
She recognizes its crest in the way he looks at her. 
The wave is as vast as the roiling mass in the Japanese
Print they had paused in front of at the museum,
Capped with ringlets of foam, all surging sinew.
That little village along the shore would be
Totally lost. There is no escaping this.
The wave is flooding his heart,
And he is sending the flood
Her way. It rushes
Over her.

Can you look at one face
For the whole of a life?

Does the moon peer down
At the tides and hunger for home?

~Michele Wolf “The Great Tsunami”

In March 2012, we stayed with our friends Brian and Bette Vander Haak at their cabin on a bluff just above the beach at Sendai, Japan, just a few dozen feet above the devastation that wiped out an entire fishing village below during the 3/11/11 earthquake and tsunami. We walked that stretch of beach, learning of the stories of the people who had lived there, some of whom did not survive the waves that swept their houses and cars away before they could escape. We walked past the footprints of foundations of hundreds of demolished homes, humbled by the rubble mountains yet to be hauled away to be burned or buried and scanned acres of wrecked vehicles now piled one on another, waiting to become scrap metal. It was visual evidence of life suddenly and unexpectedly disrupted.

This was a place of recreation and respite for some who visited regularly, commerce and livelihood for others who stayed year round and then, in ongoing recovery efforts, was struggling to be restored to something familiar. Yet it looked like a foreign ghostly landscape. Even many trees perished, lost, broken off, fish nets still stuck high on their scarred trunks. There were small memorials to lost family members within some home foundations, with stuffed animals and flowers wilted from the recent anniversary observance.

It was a powerful place of memories for those who lived there and knew what it once was, how it once looked and felt, and painfully, what it became in a matter of minutes on 3/11. The waves swept in inexplicable suffering, then carried their former lives away. Happiness gave ground to such terrible pain. It could never have hurt as much without the joy that preceded it.

We want to ask God why He doesn’t do something about the suffering that happens anywhere a disaster occurs –but if we do, He will ask us the same question right back: why don’t you do something about the suffering you see around you?

We need to be ready with our answer and our action.

God knows suffering, far more than we do. He took it all on Himself, feeling His pain amplified, as it was borne out of His love and joy in His creation.

Now ten years later, on March 11,  beautiful Tohoku and Sendai, and its dedicated survivors have mostly recovered, but their inner and outer landscape is forever altered. What remains the same is the tempo of the waves, the tides, and the rhythm of the light and the night, happening just as originally created.

In that realization, our pain gives way as God soars above the storm. Pain cannot stand up to His love, His joy, and His sacrifice on our behalf.

photo by Nate Gibson at Sendai, Japan

Hide me now
Under Your wings
Cover me
Within Your mighty hand

When the oceans rise and thunders roar
I will soar with You above the storm
Father, you are King over the flood
I will be still, know You are God

Find rest, my soul
In Christ alone
Know His power
In quietness and trust

Balancing Upon a Broken World

This afternoon was the colour of water falling through sunlight;
The trees glittered with the tumbling of leaves;
The sidewalks shone like alleys of dropped maple leaves,
And the houses ran along them laughing out of square, open windows.
Under a tree in the park,
Two little boys, lying flat on their faces,
Were carefully gathering red berries
To put in a pasteboard box.
Some day there will be no war,
Then I shall take out this afternoon
And turn it in my fingers,
And remark the sweet taste of it upon my palate,
And note the crisp variety of its flights of leaves.
To-day I can only gather it
And put it into my lunch-box,
For I have time for nothing
But the endeavour to balance myself
Upon a broken world.

~Amy Lowell, “September, 1918” from The Complete Poetical Works of Amy Lowell

Am I the only one who awakes this morning with a prayer
asking that today be the start of healing
rather than conflict and hostility and pain,
that the barbaric destruction of yesterday
transform to reconciliation and understanding–

no more angry mobs,
no more inciting speeches,
no more windows bashed,
no more doors breached,
no more explosives hidden away,
no more conspiracies hatched,
no more untruths believed as gospel…

no more rising infection counts
no more overflowing ICUs
no more mounting deaths…

Am I the only one who awakes this morning with a prayer
to seek only
to celebrate the sunrise
to watch the clouds glide past
to praise God in His heaven
to watch His Light slowly replenish itself
after weeks – no, months – no, years – no, decades
of darkness,

to take out this one day and taste it
and find that it is good,
especially in the midst of deprivation
then put it away for self-keeping
to share when and if I find someone else
as hungry for grace and mercy as I am,

so as to balance myself somehow
in the beauty of this world while
teetering on its brokenness?

I am not the only one.

I know I am not.

Turning Darkness into Light: Cloistered Immensity

Salvation to all that will is nigh;
That All, which always is all everywhere,
Which cannot sin, and yet all sins must bear,
Which cannot die, yet cannot choose but die,
Lo! faithful Virgin, yields Himself to lie
In prison, in thy womb; and though He there
Can take no sin, nor thou give, yet He’ll wear,
Taken from thence, flesh, which death’s force may try.

Ere by the spheres time was created thou
Wast in His mind, who is thy Son, and Brother;
Whom thou conceivest, conceived; yea, thou art now
Thy Maker’s maker, and thy Father’s mother,
Thou hast light in dark, and shutt’st in little room
Immensity, cloister’d in thy dear womb.
~John Donne “Annunciation”

What next, she wonders,
with the angel disappearing, and her room
suddenly gone dark.

The loneliness of her news
possesses her. She ponders
how to tell her mother.

Still, the secret at her heart burns like
a sun rising. How to hold it in—
that which cannot be contained.

She nestles into herself, half-convinced
it was some kind of good dream,
she its visionary.

But then, part dazzled, part prescient—
she hugs her body, a pod with a seed
that will split her.
~Luci Shaw “Mary Considers Her Situation”

Sometimes
for the light to replace
where darkness thrives,
there must be a wounding
that tears us open,
cleaving us enough so joy can enter into
where we hurt the most.

A Joy So Violent

She lay on her back in the timothy
and gazed past the doddering
auburn heads of sumac.

A cloud – huge, calm,
and dignified – covered the sun
but did not, could not, put it out.

The light surged back again.
Nothing could rouse her then

from that joy so violent
it was hard to distinguish from pain.

~Jane Kenyon, “The Poet at Ten” from The Best Poems of Jane Kenyon

I have a mare who journeyed as a foal
from overseas alongside her mother,
a difficult immigration to a new life and farm,
followed by the drama of weaning and separation,
then introduced to a new herd who didn’t speak her language
so she couldn’t always understand what was being said.

She was shy and fearful from the beginning,
knowing she didn’t belong,
worried about doing the wrong thing,
cringing when others laid back ears at her or bared their teeth,
she always hung back and let others go first,
waiting hungry and thirsty while others had their fill.

What she did best was be a mother herself,
devoting herself to the care of her foals,
as they became the light of her life
though still covered with the cloud of not belonging,
she grieved loudly at their weanling goodbyes.

Still, two decades later, in her retirement,
she is shy and submissive, still feeling foreign,
as if she never quite fit in,
always letting others go first,
concerned about making a misstep.

I think of her as an immigrant
who never felt at home
unless she had a baby at her side~
to live alongside one to whom she finally belonged:
how does one measure the pain of true joy and love
while knowing the violence of separation is inevitable?

thank you to Lea Gibson Lozano and Emily Vander Haak for their photos of Belinda and her babies

An Unchanging Flower


 
Like the small soft unchanging flower
     The words in silence speak;
Obedient to their ancient power
     The tear stands on my cheek.

 
Though our world burns, the small dim words
     Stand here in steadfast grace,
And sing, like the indifferent birds,
     About a ruined place.

 
Though the tower fall, the day be done,
     The night be drawing near,
Yet still the tearless tune pipes on,
     And still evokes the tear.

 
The tearless tune, wiser than we,
     As weak and strong as grass
Or the wild bracken-fern we see
     Spring where the palace was.

~Ruth Pitter “On an Old Poem” from Poems 1926-1966

When I write
a poem, sometimes, there is a kind of daze
that lifts, and I can see
what I couldn’t before, as if my mind
was in a fog, a cloud,
and only wanted

a poem to lift it out. I wanted
the rhythm, just the right
word, the crescendo from whisper to loud
celebration, and found them in the days
of trying poems. And I don’t mind
telling you: poetry has brought complacency

to a (wanted) end, turned upside-down days
aright, settled my unquiet mind,
and allowed me to clearly see.

~Monica Sharman from What Poetry Can Do”

When the world is topsy-turvy
and all seems immersed in fog and cobwebs,
it helps to put down images and words
to clarify and highlight.

Daily I need reminding to stay centered,
daily I acknowledge what makes me weep
and what is worth celebration.

It is a new day to illustrate with words and pictures
what is unchanging in my life:
thank God for a new day,
everyday.

This Field, This Sky, This Tree

What words or harder gift
does the light require of me
carving from the dark
this difficult tree?

What place or farther peace
do I almost see
emerging from the night
and heart of me?

The sky whitens, goes on and on.
Fields wrinkle into rows
of cotton, go on and on.
Night like a fling of crows
disperses and is gone.

What song, what home,
what calm or one clarity
can I not quite come to,
never quite see:
this field, this sky, this tree.

~Christian Wiman, “Hard Night”

Even the darkest night has a sliver of light left,
if only in our memories.
We remember how it was and how it can be —
the promise of better to come.

While the ever-changing sky swirls as a backdrop,
a tree on a hill became the focal point, as it must,
like a black hole swallowing up all pain, all suffering,
all evil threatening to consume our world.

What clarity, what calm,
what peace can be found at the foot of that tree,
where our hearts can rest in this knowledge:
our sin died there, once and for all
and our names are carved into its roots for all time.