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March 31, 2012

Scrubbing the boards and hull

At a Quaker meeting on a recent Sunday, I'd settled into the silent worship, asking Christ's Holy Spirit, our guardian and guide, to take charge of my thoughts and prayers. After a while, two images began circling in my mind. Both were from my past.

One was of Anne's and my Fly Creek barn as it was about a dozen years ago: a solid post-and-beam structure, but covered on the outside by very old, discolored white paint. The paint was cracked and flaking; some pieces had pulled free and were hanging half loose from the boards. What was called for was a really thorough scraping, followed by couple of coats of barn paint.

To save work on the scraping, I rented a heavy-duty pressure washer. What fun that was! I blasted away with the powerful stream of water, and old paint went flying. After a few days' drying, plus some scraping to tidy up, the barn was ready for me to swab on the thick paints a deep barn red. What a change in appearance, and no more worries about wind-driven rain rotting away the old boards.

The second image came from about 50 years farther back. It was of a wooden rowboat that our family kept tied down at the creek near our home. Pop and I would untie it and row across the creek to the shady shallows to troll for pike, a big fish and a real fighter when hooked.

I'd do the rowing, and as a summer progressed, the job got steadily harder for an 11-year-old. Pop, who'd be readying lines and affixing minnows, would smile sympathetically.

"We're hauling a lot of barnacles, son. Can you feel them?"

I could, in my arms and shoulders, with every pull on the oars.

Sometime that summer I hooked my first big pike, about 18 inches. It bent my rod almost double and I remember Pop's calm voice coaching, "Play him, son -- he's big. Don't reel until he turns and your line slacks off. Then, wind it in!"

I did, and I got him -- saw him first swimming right below the surface. That's when I raised him out of the water and stared open-mouthed at the still jumping, twisting fish. And that's when Pop shouted.

"Swing him over the boat, son -- quick, before he shakes free!"

And I did, and the fish shook free but fell onto the boards between our feet. My hair still rises at thought of that day, when I rowed home without a moment's thought to those barnacles dragging against my strokes. For every stroke brought me closer to running up the driveway and in the kitchen door to hold up my prize before my mother. I did run up the hill, leaving Pop to tie up the boat and carry the oars and rods up after me. I don't think he minded a bit. He understood.

When that fall came and we'd hauled the boat up and into our yard, my older brother and I attacked those barnacles. It was hard work, scraping away at those thick, brittle shells. We got it done, though, and when the overturned boat had dried from a thorough hosing down, we laid on a new coat of bottom paint.

I remember the day, hot and humid, and my brother, now an old man like me, pushing black hair out of his eyes as we scraped on, side by side.

Why those two images, I wondered. And then it came to me. I need scraping. My own soul is coated with troublesome layers _ past egoism, selfishness, indifference to others' needs. It's full of barnacles that slow it down, impede its journey home.

I need power-washing. I need scraping.

But I can't do the job alone. I can't get at my soul. And I begin dimly to see that, for humans, pain and physical impairment may be the Spirit's very own tools.

The French writer Leon Bloy nailed it, I think: "There are parts of the soul than cannot grow until watered by our own tears."

He was talking about our own pain, and how our suffering, great or small, can bring growth. And not just in ourselves, but in real empathy for others' suffering.

There's a magnificent economy in our lives that I don't pretend to understand. It's a part of the plan of God, who is love as we dimly know it, but raised to an infinite degree. For, we are told, "God is Love."

Jim Atwell is a member of the Quaker community, and a columnist for The Cooperstown Crier, which The Daily Star publishes weekly.

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