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).

A Story Without a Morel

The trilliums were—are—blooming; it was the right time of year. I drove a hundred miles into the Cascades with a map of past years’ fires, hungry for the miracle that arises after burning. But about eight miles out from the burn, the right turn I needed to make was blocked by a fallen pine and three inches of snowpack. My colleague and I lugged half a broken tree aside, but the main trunk was hopeless. We conferred and decided to hike in as far as we could, which turned out to be four miles, over a decent amount of snow and many more downed trees, before turning around. Sixteen miles in one day would have been too much, and at that late hour, with emergency assistance emphatically blocked by several dozen wind-felled pines, and not enough water on our persons, unwise.

The walk was hot, dusty, and dry. Now and then we stepped over scat into a cloud of orange fritillaries that had been sipping the salts therefrom. Pale blue butterflies (whether silvery blues, blue coppers, Anna’s blues, or Boisduval's blues, I could not say) also kept us company. A couple of inch-long frogs, mint green (Pacific tree, I think) and speckled brown (perhaps Columbia spotted), hopped along the path. Snowmelt trickled and streamed and gushed, and the moss grew lush and green where it poured. We were amply compensated for our time.

But I was sorry I couldn’t show her what I wanted to, which was more than the morels themselves, pitted and wrinkled and magical as witches, their names an incantation: Morchella tormentosa. Morchella snyderi.

It’s a kind of knowledge that you put your knife to, and lay in your basket, and cook and eat, so that it becomes part of you and can’t be lost. It’s knowing that after the fires that rage through the woods, after windows shut in the summer heat against ash fall and smoke, after the death and the loss and the grieving—a year later, when the trillium is blooming again, and the snow is melting, out of the charcoal and the wide gray scar on the mountain comes a wild fruiting and glory of dark deliciousness, where we’d expect there to be nothing at all.

I’m sure the morels are fruiting in the ashes now, undisturbed.

We left them there.

On Joan

“Orleans will never forget the 8th of May, nor ever fail to celebrate it. It is Joan of Arc’s day—and holy.”

It’s fascinating to find what sorts of seeds slip through the cracks in the pavement and come up violets and peonies. I’ve adored Mark Twain for the longest time, reading straight through a shelf of his books in my high school library (directly under a shelf of Steinbeck, which I also devoured). But until this year, I had no idea that Mark Twain, at the age of sixty, wrote a novel about Joan of Arc, nor that it was his favorite of all his works. It is the only book that he dedicated, with breathtaking love and warmth, to his wife. At the age of seventy-three, he wrote: “I like the Joan of Arc best of all my books; & it is the best; I know it perfectly well.”

In a 1985 essay for American Heritage, Coley Taylor recalls approaching the aged Twain as a boy, expressing his enthusiasm for Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, and being scolded by the great writer:

“Now listen to what an old man tells you. My best book is my Recollections of Joan of Arc. You are too young to understand and enjoy it now, but read it when you are older. Remember then what I tell you now. Joan of Arc is my very best book.” I had never seen him so cross. I can see him yet, shaking that long forefinger at me.

I agree with the author’s self assessment. And much as I wish I could have read the book sooner, I would not have understood it at the age of eighteen. There was hard living to be done, first; the acquisition of experience and wisdom and certain hard, bitter truths about human nature; and for me, the very real understanding of “12 years of preparation and 2 years of writing” that went into his book.

That book! It captures perfectly and lovingly the faith and humanity of an illiterate peasant girl whose religion he did not share, whose language he had to learn (and compose poetry in), who represents a country and a national myth entirely foreign to him, while adhering strictly, and with great beauty, to recorded historical fact, such that Joan’s own words in the original French, placed here and there, shine the brighter for his setting.

The knowing reader will notice my bias here, even before I tell you that, like Joan, I am recently of illiterate peasant stock, and like her also understood at the age of seventeen what I was to do, and how. But Andrew Lang loved the book as well, and wished to dedicate his own book on Joan to Twain; and in his 1912 biography of Mark Twain, Albert Bigelow Paine calls Joan “this marvelously beautiful thing,” “exquisite in its workmanship.” So I am not alone.

Paine, again: “When the book itself appeared the general public, still doubtful as to its merits, gave it a somewhat dubious reception. The early sales were disappointing.”

Rather too optimistically (this was 1912), he continues: “To-day the public, that always renders justice in the end, has reversed its earlier verdict. The demand for Joan has multiplied many fold and it continues to multiply with every year. Its author lived long enough to see this change and to be comforted by it, for though the creative enthusiasm in his other books soon passed, his glory in the tale of Joan never died.”

Ah well. Passez outre.

I suspect what makes the book extraordinary and miraculous is what has kept it from popularity in America: it is a book full of love and faith, in a country that badly lacks both while denying the fact; it is a beautiful book, in a country that sneers at beauty; it is a book about the verified and attested achievements of a teenage girl, in a world that despises girls and only suffers the existence of such accomplishments in the walled garden of fantasy, making vicious attempts to destroy any such incursions (Greta, Malala, Ruby Bridges) into reality. Worst of all, perhaps, it is a book that contains wisdom, intelligence, and understanding, none of which are recognizable by those without. And the book makes great demands of the reader. Is it any wonder this country prefers Twain’s slight and drossy books of boy’s adventures?

And that is a great pity, because we need this book, now more so than ever.

Joan is warm and laughing and kind, even toward the swaggering braggarts and cowards, even toward the small-minded and doubtful, all of whom repent or grow and learn and do honorably at the last. Its cutting edge is for those who knowingly and repeatedly sell out their country, or integrity, or a child, for profit or high position or convenience. It knows girlhood, knows it deeply and impossibly, as Miyazaki does. Before this book, all I knew of Joan was sword and armor, and the burning. Twain shows Joan red-faced and crying with laughter into a pillow at a bad story earnestly told, and I remember the bus ride back to school from an unfortunate three-person stage adaptation of Crime and Punishment, my classmates and I howling, the tears pouring down our faces, all the way from Philadelphia to New Jersey, all of us sixteen or seventeen, mimicking Raskolnikov, eating clementines, and perfectly happy.

But above all else, this book exhorts the reader, as Joan exhorted France, to take heart—to have courage—to believe that more is possible than what lies drearily before our eyes, that the world is more beautiful than we know, and that God is faithful in his promises. Joan is the living embodiment of Phil 4:13 (“I do all things through Christ who strengthens me”) and not in a fleshless, frozen, fairy-tale way, but in a real and human one, for her words and behavior are documented in the court records of the Trials and Rehabilitation, where her contemporaries, including the generals she fought beside, provided sworn eyewitness testimony concerning her. As Twain writes in the appendix: “Among all the multitude of biographies that freight the shelves of the world’s libraries, this is the only one whose validity is confirmed to us by oath.”

In Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, over and over we see that there is evil and baseness of character in the world, and that this is inevitable; but that evil would be ineffectual if we, if all of us, had the courage to rise from our apathy. There is such joy waiting for us, such triumph, if we could only receive this courage from God—if we could be brave enough to listen to our own quiet Voices and obey.

What is at stake is, in the most literal sense, Joan herself, and through her everything that is good and true and lovely about ourselves. Take courage, the book cries; do not let these priceless things burn.

I leave you with the book’s epigraph, so that you are already on the first page, as it were:

Since the writing of human history began, Joan of Arc is the only person, of either sex, who has ever held supreme command of the military forces of a nation at the age of seventeen.

—Louis Kossuth

Small Mercies

On certain days that are dark and hard, as well as some days that are bright and easy, I pour British-style tea1, Earl Gray or cardamom black or blackcurrant, from a Japanese ceramic teapot glazed with irises into an English bone china teacup with gilt lip and painted flowers, of the kind one is pretty much certain to find for $3 at any Goodwill at any time.2 Then, because I live recklessly, I add a dash of whipping cream.

The cold white cream vanishes utterly into the amber liquid, as if it had never been.

One breath later, it blooms upward in pin-sized white flowers.

Another breath, the slightest shake of the cup, and the tea shows a stack of alternately translucent and opaque layers, like a cirrus-streaked sky or a summer sea.

At this point, it doesn’t matter much whether I drink the tea or not. It also does not matter as much that the ceiling is leaking, that various ships in one’s life have wrecked or gone adrift, or that the world is a hard and uncaring place, with a remnant of kind people in it, scattered like stars.

One can bear hard things more easily, given a drop of beauty.


I specify, because there are ~1.5 billion people on this planet who would have conniptions at the thought of mixing tieguanyin or pu’er or sencha with milk, and that is far too many enemies to make. Also, I’m one of them.


It strikes me that this, too, is magic.

Loading more posts…