Photograph by Luci Shaw
Maybe I've reached a stage in life where my course feels pretty well set. At 87 I'm still enchanted by words and meanings, still longing to join earth with heaven in poems. But I wonder — does my vocation as a writer feel a bit too comfortable? Am I in a literary or spiritual rut? As strength and energy wane am I likely to take the easy detour, or veer away from God's calling?
I am no carpenter. But my doctor son, with a degree in tropical medicine, volunteers for a humanitarian agency in Burma, exercising his skills with bodies and souls. He is also a poet and artist. His hobby, and a way of calming his mind and expressing his sense of shape and beauty in the midst of suffering and destitution, is to find odd pieces of wood and fashion from them objects beautiful or useful, exposing the wood's inherent quality. Tables, chairs, bowls, spoons! He’s skilled with a scalpel, either on human bodies or on the striated muscles of something that used to be a tree.
Without knowing it, he has given me a metaphor to live by—the sizing up of my trajectory in life. The term “true” applies not just as a description of moral or theological verities but to something straight or level or undistorted. A quality I long to apply to my own life and its direction.
So here's what I found myself writing to God:
I have a few requests of You.
They're not questions so much as
inquiries—open longings like coffee cups
that need refilling.
One need that I mention, if I'm honest,
(like taking the cork out of a bottle):
Am I too late, or is there time for You
to make a useful thing of me, the way
a woodworker might choose an old rough board
from his pile, examine the grain for possibilities,
for interesting knots, knurls, streaks,
for cup, curl and bow, to play with?
A builder will sight along
a length of plank and ask: Is it true?
My woody self, my heartwood, needs You to
show me where I warp, need correction.
I beg You, true me. Level me,
Great Shaper, Tree from whom I am hewn.
Give me persistence to endure
being planed, sanded, stained, varnished,
re-crafted with joints that fit without a
creak or groan. Maybe a drawer that
pulls out easily and smells of the cedar tree
from which its wood was sawn,
censing the woolen garments
stored within. Even a spoon, a bowl,
turned subtly smooth, and fit for use,
polished with the oil of your sculptor hands.