Soul-building? It’s Nitty-Gritty Work.

Years ago, my husband immersed himself in the art of drystone-stacking.  To understand the romance, travel to England (or New England) and stand beside one of those ubiquitous low stone walls that ramble across fields and over hills.  The farmer who built those walls not only wanted to keep sheep from danger–the work evidences the soul of a poet.  Not one stone is out of place; the whole has stood for a century or more.  If you feel moved by this almost beyond comprehension, you may understand my husband’s obsession.

The lore surrounding this time in our family’s life is epic.  My husband constantly scanned ditches, neighbor’s yards, even graveyards, for stray stones.  Once spotted, he’d go to what I thought were ridiculously great lengths to secure them, trampling into the dense Pennsylvania woods through brush and trash to unbury stones that he would load into our old pickup truck.  At home, I watched in some consternation as he ran his hands over each stone, considering them as carefully as a parent studies her child.  Then he groaned under their weight, heaving each into place.

As each stone found its home, my consternation turned to wonder.  Morning turned to afternoon and ripened into twilight.  He seemed to be completely unaware of time passing, or of our children needing dinner–or anything.  He was locked in silent conversation with the stones.

Stones don’t want to be trapped in mortar, he told me.  As time passes, they need to be able to expand and shift.  That will make the wall stronger.  If built right, he said, it will last longer than we will.

Finding exactly the right place for each stone is crucial.  The process can’t be rushed or your wall will topple. I watched from the window as he intuited the perfect place for each stone according to their shapes.  When he was finally done–days, weeks later–the wall was beautiful and strong, and looked as if it had always been.

I feel drawn to the souls of people I love and admire, and it’s easy sometimes for me to forget that their magnetic, quiet beauty has been crafted painstakingly, stone by stone.

In this week’s Consider, Lindsay unfolded Keat’s idea of soul-making.  While the concept of soul is shot through my mystery and has much to do with gift, the actual business of soul-making is practical, everyday work.  I can take steps to build my soul into a beautiful, strong thing or I can give up and hope it will be done for me.  The choice is mine.

Like my husband’s stone-stacking, this is patient work.  It is I who must heave each stone into place in this nitty-gritty work of soul-building.  In the silence of suffering, in the greatness of joy, in every small choice I make or word I speak, I am constructing my own identity.  If the stones of my becoming are hidden, half-buried in the woods, will I have the courage to unearth them, claim them for my own?

It is comforting for me to remember that this business of soul-building is not a wholly solitary venture.  Some stones just weigh too heavy for me.  Will I have the vulnerability to ask for help from my fellow stone-builders?

For as Keats says, this world is a vale of soul-making.  I do not work alone.

Photos:  Lake District 2016.  From the hillsides (at top) to the walls (left, above).  This is one of many photos my husband took of stonewalls during our trip to England!

Consider: The Essential Work of Soul-Making

Dear Friends,

This mid-May morning we woke to a surprise: every tree bent beneath a tremendous weight of spring snow. In the early dawn hours, my husband hefted a pole and riffled through the plum and mountain ash, the lilac and aspen, relieving them of whatever burden he could. For some branches, it was too late. Full of yesterday’s blossoms, they littered the yard.

For some reason, as I looked on this unexpected conjunction of winter and spring, snow and blossom, I thought of John Keats’ descriptor of the world as “The Vale of Soul-Making.” This lyric phrase has something both sad and luminous about it. I hear in it Keats’ attempt to reconcile his world of frailty and illness with the limitless “sparks of the divinity” he intuited in himself and others. Keats was not alone in feeling this tension between two true things: we are limited beings in time, and yet, always some intrinsic part of us opens into eternity. Every day, we encounter this paradox.

Keats’ words help orient me to what’s really at stake within the granular moments of my day. The essential and holy work of soul-making is literally hidden in plain sight amid the choices and commitments of daily life, amid the harried morning routine, the second cup of tea, the momentary glance at finches pressing tiny footprints around the feeder.

It’s tempting, I think, to expect such cardinal work to have a little more pomp and pageantry to it, a little more signaling to pay attention. It doesn’t. This vale, as Keats calls it, is full of humble, forgettable, common things, and at times beset by unexpected snowfall. And yet, out of this swale our souls are being made.

I don’t know about you, but most of the time, I feel both rife with blossom and bowed with snow. Like the lilac outside my window, such are the conditions into which we must lean.

On Friday, Kim will be exploring this theme on our blog. Also, this Consider will be posted there with a comment section. As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts.

Here’s to cultivating wonder,