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”
Your father enters the poem early, storying past the metal splinter in your palm.
I set your paternity —and the poem— aside, to reach back for my mother and try to remember
what kind of day it was when I played by the barn where, it is said, my own father raised pigs (I do not remember this).
And what kind of day it was when I found the barn, door open, silent
and tried to pluck silver lines from silver webs long-left, then tendered my hand on noiseless silvered wood
until my palms were rife with the evidence of my trying,
and mother spent the night with a silver tweezer, counting as she went… ninety-eight ninety-nine one hundred—
a ritual for my tears.
And now I wonder, Li-Young—did you cry, and who was in the story, and how many times have you counted it since, to forget, and to remember. ~L. L. Barkat, “Li-Young Lee’s Splinter” from Love, Etc.
I did, without ever wanting to, remove my child’s splinter, lance a boil, immobilize a broken arm, pull together sliced skin, clean many dirty wounds. It felt like I was always crossing 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 child 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 own 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, wanting it our way, not His way, 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.
Mo sheasamh ort lá na choise tinne You are the place where I stand on the day when my feet are sore. ~Irish saying translated by poet and theologian Pádraig Ó Tuama
We need strong feet to carry us through the hardest pathways of life, stumbling into holes, treading carefully over sharp rocks, scrambling up steep climbs and through the muddiest mire.
Our feet get sore: blistered and calloused, develop tendonitis and fasciitis, suffer bruised toes and fallen arches. When every step is a reminder of our failures and frailty, we beg for a soft landing with each stride.
But more than comfort, we need a stable place of trust to put our feet, to stand firm when standing feels impossible.
Lord, be our landing place when we hurt. May your gentle road rise to meet our sore feet.
The cold grows colder, even as the days grow longer, February’s mercury vapor light buffing but not defrosting the bone-white ground, crusty and treacherous underfoot. This is the time of year that’s apt to put a hammerlock on a healthy appetite, old anxieties back into the night, insomnia and nightmares into play; when things in need of doing go undone and things that can’t be undone come to call, muttering recriminations at the door, and buried ambitions rise up through the floor and pin your wriggling shoulders to the wall; and hope’s a reptile waiting for the sun. ~Bill Christopherson “February”
Just when you think it is safe to go out in shirt sleeves and sweats, subzero wind chill blasts through your bravado and reminds you February is still WINTER on the calendar and in reality.
February can be a month of regret and recriminations, of “should-haves” and “should-not-haves” while waiting, frozen and immobile, for spring to bring us back to life. Like cold-blooded creatures, we need the sun to warm us up so we can move again. This sun today, bright as it is, only lights up our flaws and holes – no warmth whatsoever.
And it’s not just me struggling to stay upright in the storm. Our old red barn, waiting for its spring date with a talented rehab carpenter, hasn’t many roof shingles left after this latest blow, and a recent partial wall collapse in the wind prompted a neighbor to ask if we had meant to create a new door into our barn.
The old barn is kind of like how I feel at times: lacking a decent foundation, a bit shaky on my underpinnings, a lot sagging in the middle, broad in the beam and drafty where I shouldn’t be.
So much to be shored up, fixed, patched and restored. So much need for a talented Carpenter who knows how to mend and strengthen the broken and fallen.
Suddenly it is August again, so hot, breathless heat. I sit on the ground in the garden of Carmel, picking ripe cherry tomatoes and eating them. They are so ripe that the skin is split, so warm and sweet from the attentions of the sun, the juice bursts in my mouth, an ecstatic taste, and I feel that I am in the mouth of summer, sloshing in the saliva of August. Hummingbirds halo me there, in the great green silence, and my own bursting heart splits me with life. ~Anne Higgins “Cherry Tomatoes” from At the Year’s Elbow
Is there another sensation as blissful as a cherry tomato bursting inside my mouth?
Yes, I can think of one or two.
But never like this, when restoration is needed in the middle of a sweaty hot day, in a garden that needs weeding, when all else feels lost.
The earth invalid, dropsied, bruised, wheeled Out in the sun, After frightful operation. She lies back, wounds undressed to the sun, To be healed, Sheltered from the sneapy chill creeping North wind, Leans back, eyes closed, exhausted, smiling Into the sun. Perhaps dozing a little. While we sit, and smile, and wait, and know She is not going to die. ~Ted Hughes from ” A March Morning Unlike Others” from Ted Hughes. Collected Poems. London: Faber & Faber, 2003
Spring emerged slowly this year from an exceptionally haggard and droopy winter.
All growing things were a month behind the usual budding blooming schedule when, like the old “Wizard of Oz” movie, the landscape suddenly turns from monochrome to technicolor.
Yearning for the annual greening to commence, I tapped my foot impatiently as if owed a timely transformation from dormant to verdant. We all have been waiting for the Physician’s announcement that the patient survived some intricate life-changing procedure: happy to say the earth is alive after all and restored, wounded but healing, breathing on her own but too dozy for a visit just yet.
And now her recovery has happened in an overwhelming rush — the colors, the scents, the bird songs, the softness more than overwhelming the sharp-edged bare barbed wire of winter.
I waited impatiently for her emergence and now celebrate my immersion in her healing.
She is very much alive, this temporary home of ours.
No invalid this patient.
She lives, she breathes, she thrives,
she is blooming with everything she’s got
and now so am I.
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may): I sha’n’t be gone long.—You come too.
I’m going out to fetch the little calf That’s standing by the mother. It’s so young, It totters when she licks it with her tongue. I sha’n’t be gone long.—You come too. ~Robert Frost “The Pasture”
We all need an invitation to work together about now. In these times when it feels like everything is going to hell in a handbasket, we all have some picking up and cleaning and clearing to do — and we can accomplish more if we do it side by side.
The world is continually trying to renew itself despite our attempts to destroy it so we need to pay attention. The air and water can clear if we put in some effort, there is new life all around us ready to thrive if we tend it lovingly like a mother.
Come with me to do what needs to be done. You are invited. We sha’n’t be gone long.
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Straws like tame lightnings lie about the grass And hang zigzag on hedges. Green as glass The water in the horse-trough shines. Nine ducks go wobbling by in two straight lines.
A hen stares at nothing with one eye, Then picks it up. Out of an empty sky A swallow falls and, flickering through The barn, dives up again into the dizzy blue.
I lie, not thinking, in the cool, soft grass, Afraid of where a thought might take me – as This grasshopper with plated face Unfolds his legs and finds himself in space.
Self under self, a pile of selves I stand Threaded on time, and with metaphysic hand Lift the farm like a lid and see Farm within farm, and in the centre, me.
~Norman MacCaig “Summer Farm”
Most of my life, a barn has stood a few dozen yards from my back door. As a small child, I learned to ride a tricycle on the wooden planks of the chicken coop, sat on the bony back of a Guernsey cow while my father milked by hand, found new litters of kittens in cobweb-filled hideaways, and leaped with abandon into stacks of loose hay in a massive loft.
As a young girl, I preferred to clean stalls rather than my bedroom. The acoustics in the barn were first rate for singing loud and the horses and cows never covered their ears, although the dog would usually howl. A hay loft was the perfect spot for hiding a writing journal and reading books. It was a place for quiet contemplation and sometimes fervent prayer when I was worried: a sanctuary for turbulent adolescence.
Through college and medical training, I managed to live over twelve years in the city without access to a barn or the critters that lived inside. I searched for plenty of surrogate retreats: the library stacks, empty chapels within the hospitals I worked, even a remote mountainous wildlife refuge in central Africa.
It is hard to ignore one’s genetic destiny to struggle as a steward of the land through the challenges of economics and weather. My blood runs with DNA of wheat and lentil growers, loggers, cattle ranchers, dairy farmers, work horse teamsters, and flower and vegetable gardeners. A farm eventually called me to come back home and so I heeded over thirty years ago, along with a husband from a dairy farming background himself, and eventually there followed three children, now grown and flown far from the farm.
Like a once sturdily built barn now sagging and leaning, I too am buffeted by the gales of mid-life. My doors have been flung open wide, my roof/lid lifted and pulled off, at times leaving me reeling. More and more now I need restoration, renewal and reconciliation. And so I set to work to fix up my life with all the skill I can muster: setting things right where they’ve been upended, painting a fresh coat where chipped and dulled, shoring up rotted foundations.
If only I can get it done well enough, with sufficient perseverance, I surely can recover from the latest blow. But my hard work and determination is not enough. It is never enough. I am never finished.
The only true sanctuary isn’t found in a weather-beaten barn of rough-hewn old growth timbers vulnerable to the winds of life.
The barnstorming must happen within me, in the depths of my soul, comforted only by the encompassing and salvaging arms of God.
There I am held, transformed and restored, grateful beyond measure.