Hammer and Tongs

The shooing of the soul to its home, that is our work. The releasing of a shower of sparks to fill the day, and creating a light so we can find our way through the night, that is our work….

Fear is a poor excuse for not doing the work. We are all afraid. It is nothing new. If you are alive, you are fearful.

—Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run with the Wolves, 98-145

A little while back, I felt in need of a few hours of hammering something very hard, and betook myself to the local blacksmith. There I whaled away at half a steel horseshoe on an anvil strapped to a tree stump, inaccurately at first, dropping hot steel onto stump when I did not clamp the tongs tightly enough.

In and out of the propane forge the metal went, because the steel only became malleable when golden, at 2000°F, and cooled quickly. Once I had battered half the metal long and flat and thin, I tapped along where the edge would be to angle and round it and straighten the spine. Then—with help—I sighted down the handle and smacked the blade to align the two.

Once the blacksmith approved of my work, I quenched the hot metal in a bucket of water and scrubbed off the rust that forms with hammering. Belt sanders and bench and angle grinders, spewing sparks, put edge and finger-guard on the blade. And then it was sharp, beautiful, and useful, to be oiled and set aside until needed. When the awl and canvas thread that I ordered arrive, I will make a leather sheath for it and wear it into the woods.

If it were not for the heating to unbearable temperatures, I said to a friend, and the beating, rusting, and heating again, the scraping, grinding, sanding, and sparks, the metal would be blunt and formless, of no use to horses or people. But because the metal has endured all these things, it becomes keen and lovely and fit to its purpose.

And we are shaped the same way, not knowing why or for what reason we endure the flame and the hammer, not knowing how long we must endure. But if we consent to the remaking, we emerge as tool or fastener, hinge or handle or edge, critical for plowing, or drawing water, or harnessing a horse.

It’s a rather grim way of looking at things, I said. But she did not think so, for she has passed over the anvil as well.

However much I disliked the experiences, the fires I have been placed into, the hammer-blows, the scouring, have all fashioned me into a particular form, with a specific purpose, shaped for my maker’s hand.

I know what I am today: a pen and a sword. While wielded, they are “sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and… a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.”

Mostly, though, I wait to be of use.

Tomorrow I may be returned to the fire and remade into coulter, moldboard, or ploughshare. The day after, I may be unmade. The choice is not mine, but I consent.

John Donne, of course, arrived here four hundred years before I did. His Divine Sonnets, published two years after his death, included the following:

Batter my heart, three-person'd God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

(For those who prefer to hear their poetry, the sonnet is set to music in John Adam’s opera, Doctor Atomic.)

In high school, I loved Donne’s chocolate-box of love songs. They were witty, fantastical, and arrogantly hot, which is what I thought valuable at the time.1 (There is much that I valued then that I hold lightly now.) I could parse and deconstruct Donne’s Divine Sonnets well enough, but found them dry, metaphysical exercises, bereft of the flashing natural wonder and joyful word-hoard of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poems. (For the record, Hopkins remains precious to me.)

One sore arm, half a lifetime, and many bell-blows later, I better appreciate “Batter my heart” and its enchained and truthful paradoxes. Belatedly investigating Donne’s life, I learn with amazement that the eloquently, elaborately concupiscent Donne took holy orders in 1615. Swords to ploughshares, indeed.

When all’s said and Donne, the wild trajectories of our shooting-star lives, and the smithing of our star iron into useful and beautiful things, require burning, shining, breaking, bellows-blowing, and beating, whether in the sky or upon the anvil. Whether writers, shipwrights, or ship-righters, if we move molten with the hammer blow, we shall also be toughened in our quenching and sharpened in our sanding, and afterwards suited for higher purposes. Our feelings and our fear do not matter, in the end. Whatever has come before, whatever shall be, we are here for a wonder-work, every one of us, if we will it.

For we are fearfully and wonderfully made.

Here’s the bit at the end where, once in a blue moon, I remember to make newsletter noises. I’m not very good at remembering to do that.

  • We were supposed to record the small opera I wrote a libretto for, with composer Steven Tran, at the Seattle Opera yesterday, but our session was canceled and has not yet been rescheduled. Stars Between should be viewable about a month after recording, most likely in July or August.

  • “A Love Letter to Libraries” appears in Uncanny Magazine issue 40, May/June 2021. Incidentally, my local library has just reopened; I got to see On Fragile Waves on the shelf.

  • In April, I wrote about my early love of Tamora Pierce, Patricia McKillip, Diane Duane, and A.S. Byatt for Fantasy Book Cafe.

  • Lightspeed will be reprinting “Three Variations on a Theme of Imperial Attire,” from Nisi Shawl’s anthology New Suns, possibly as soon as next month.

  • “The Sugar Castle of St. Lucia” will appear in Shadow Atlas this fall. (Submissions for Shadow Atlas will open for a week on June 21.)

  • Originally accepted in 2019, “An Account, by Dr. Inge Kühn, of the Summer Expedition and Its Discoveries” will appear in Lost Worlds & Mythological Kingdoms this fall, after the pandemic delayed publication of the anthology for a year.

  • The next three essays for paying subscribers, one a month, will be highly technical and focused on craft. The next free essay will be on trout fishing.


Estés: “When I work with older teenage girls who are convinced that the world is good if only they work it right, it always makes me feel like an old gray-haired dog. I want to put my paws over my eyes and groan, for I see what they do not see, and I know, especially if they’re willful and feisty, that they’re going to insist on becoming involved with the predator at least once before they are shocked awake” (44).

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