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Axe Handles

I mentioned in The Wild Rose I am reading Gary Snyder and Wendell Berry. I read this poem several times over the last few months trying to make sense of it. At first, I thought it was a personal and it begins that way. Gary Snyder describes his work teaching his son to throw an axe and shaping the axe handle to fit the work.

As I reflected on the poem, I realized it is about important traditions passed from parents to children. We hone and polish what we wish to retain forming the axe handle. It is a handle for us and our children which provides security as we polish and remove the unwanted.

Most of the time, we are unaware of the work we do without taking time and reflecting. In those moments, we realize what changes, what remains, and what is added knowing each generation makes its own adjustments.

To do it well, we mindfully and attentively approach the work remaining fully present.

One afternoon the last week in April
Showing Kai how to throw a hatchet
One-half turn and it sticks in a stump.
He recalls the hatchet-head
Without a handle, in the shop
And go gets it, and wants it for his own.
A broken-off axe handle behind the door
Is long enough for a hatchet,
We cut it to length and take it
With the hatchet head
And working hatchet, to the wood block.
There I begin to shape the old handle
With the hatchet, and the phrase
First learned from Ezra Pound
Rings in my ears!
“When making an axe handle
the pattern is not far off.”
And I say this to Kai
“Look: We’ll shape the handle
By checking the handle
Of the axe we cut with-”
And he sees. And I hear it again:
It’s in Lu Ji’s Wen Fu, fourth century
A.D. “Essay on Literature”-in the
Preface: “In making the handle Of an axe
By cutting wood with an axe
The model is indeed near at hand.-
My teacher Shih-hsiang Chen
Translated that and taught it years ago
And I see: Pound was an axe,
Chen was an axe, I am an axe
And my son a handle, soon
To be shaping again, model
And tool, craft of culture,
How we go on.

The Wild Rose

I am reading poetry and prose written by Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder. What links the writers, is a shared belief humans live in the world. This fits with my dissertation about pedagogy. Humans are relational and social. When we live relationally and socially, our senses and heart open up to the world differently than living as passive observers.

Relationships are risky. Sometimes it is tempting to step back at times and be outside relationships. In the analytic mind, there is more risk than we want. Literally and metaphorically there are rewards. Literally, when we are present in the world we see wild roses and other natural manifestations bloom. Metaphorically, we see relationships with spouses, children, friends, students, etc. unfold and blossom like wild roses Wendell Berry mentions.

When we are in relationships, there is pleasure and pain mixed. Thomas Merton said we call it falling in love, because it is hard work. When I think of the most wonderful (wonder-filled) occurrences in my life, it is the ones I worked hard at. I found comfort in the hard work even when it hurt. Being mindful and attentive to the blooming in our lives is an essential part of relationships we enter.

Sometimes hidden from me

in daily custom and in trust,

so that I live by you unaware

as by the beating of my heart,

Suddenly you flare in my sight,

a wild rose blooming at the edge

of thicket, grace and light

where yesterday was only shade,

and once I am blessed, choosing

again what I chose before.

 

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