The Comfort of Axe Biting into Wood

Linda Crouteau, "Woodpile"

Linda Croteau, “Woodpile”

Spiritual Sunday

A couple of months ago my book discussion group read Paul Harding’s Pulitzer-winning novel Tinkers, which is about a dying man remembering his childhood. In it there is a meditation on the spiritual meaning of cold. Cold, we learn, forces us to focus on our fragile lives and remember what is important.

In other words, if you are currently battling frigid temperatures, don’t complain. This passage will give you another way of thinking about them.

In Harding’s book, George Washington Crosby thinks of cold mornings as being filled with “heartache about the fact that . . . we are not at ease in this world.” Nevertheless, he embraces the ache in the heart and the confusion in the soul because our pain reminds us that we are still alive:

Your cold mornings are filled with heartache about the fact that although we are not at ease in this world, it is all we have, that it is ours but that it is full of strife, so that all we can call our own is strife; but even that is better than nothing at all, isn’t it? And as you split frost-laced wood with numb hands, rejoice that your uncertainty is God’s will and His grace toward you and that that is beautiful, and part of a greater certainty, as your own father always said in his sermons and to you at home. And as the ax bites into the wood, be comforted in the fact that the ache in your heart and the confusion in your soul means that you are still alive, still human, and still open to the beauty of the world, even though you have done nothing to deserve it. And when you resent the ache in your heart, remember: You will be dead and buried soon enough.

 Yes, death is the ultimate reality principle. But, like cold, that’s not all a bad thing.

Further thoughts

There is a Mary Oliver poem, “Cold Poem,” which follows a related line of thought, although parts of the poem puzzle me. She too talks about how cold can take us back to essentials, and she may be talking about the vision that Harding’s dying man achieves when she writes about “the beauty/of the blue shark cruising toward the tumbling seals.” Memories of warmer times feed her in the cold times, like “lifesaving suet,” but I’m not sure how to take her comment about becoming “cruel but honest.” Is it a good thing (in human relations, anyway) to “tak[e] one after another/the necessary bodies of others”? There seems something slightly Hobbesian, or Ayn Randian, in her talking about “the hard knife-edged love
for the warm river of the I, beyond all else.”

Maybe it’s a necessary perspective for people who don’t value enough their own needs and desire and who consequently fail to live fully. In any event, “Cold Poem” intrigues me.

Cold now.
Close to the edge. Almost
unbearable. Clouds
bunch up and boil down
from the north of the white bear.
This tree-splitting morning
I dream of his fat tracks,
the lifesaving suet.

I think of summer with its luminous fruit,
blossoms rounding to berries, leaves,
handfuls of grain. 

Maybe what cold is, is the time
we measure the love we have always had, secretly,
for our own bones, the hard knife-edged love
for the warm river of the I, beyond all else; maybe 

that is what it means the beauty
of the blue shark cruising toward the tumbling seals.

In the season of snow,
in the immeasurable cold,
we grow cruel but honest; we keep
ourselves alive,
if we can, taking one after another
the necessary bodies of others, the many
crushed red flowers.


A note on the artist: Linda Croteau’s paintings can be found at

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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