I took a different road home from work last week. The mountains were slick between storms, the trees dangerously green against the darkening sky. Instead of NPR, I was listening to Bruce Springsteen singing some old gospel. “Paul and Silas, bound in jail, had no money to pay their bail…thought they was lost, dungeons shook and the chains flew off.” Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on. Drive a new road, you could end up anywhere, I thought. Poplars flashed in the breeze.
Ahead of me, a pickup was stopped on the road. The driver inside held his hands out the window, pointing, and when I turned, I saw what he wanted me to see: the rounded black body of a bear, clambering onto his feet. He was inches from the road, and as I watched, he stretched one blunted paw, then the other, before padding up the mountain. Laurels bent beneath his weight, their belled blossoms trembling. I stopped the car, turned on my lights. The other driver, satisfied that his post was filled, drove on, leaving me with the bear. “Freedom’s name is mighty sweet, and soon we’re gonna meet.” The sound was tinnier now, in the face of the bear. I turned the radio off, watching until long after the bear was gone.
The CD was still in the car when, after church last week, I stopped by a friend’s barn to help with sheep shearing. An itinerant worker, a sheep-shearer, and, like my friend, a Quaker, had arrived for the job; his work carries him up and down the east coast, and you have to catch him when he’s here. His son, recently graduated from Earlham, was working alongside his father. Their twinned bodies, the father with his thick gray beard, his son in a cap, were pale silhouettes in the barn’s dim light. Each man held a sheep between his legs, working swiftly with the electric shearer.
Each shearing started at the belly, where the wool is dingiest and most uneven. That first-cut wool, cast aside, left a strip of sweet stubbled flesh, nippled and bare. The remainder of the coat was shorn in one piece, as if peeling a fruit. The shearers moved up one side of the sheep, and down the other, each movement smooth, confident, impossibly gentle. The wool peeled off the body as if it were shedding its coat.
I asked the son why the sheep seemed so easy to hold; after all, a 200+ pound animal who wanted to escape surely could. He’d led one out by holding its chin and leading it backwards into the shearing space, then tipped it over, holding its forelegs.
The son grinned. “Oh, he could roll over,” he said. “But he doesn’t know it. He thinks he’s stuck like this.” Two muscled forelegs were propped between the man’s legs as he spoke. Behind him, the sheep gazed at me, as if from a great distance; she looked at me like someone would after a massage. Interested, but not very, replete with herself, too content to absorb anything new. Meanwhile, a great sheath of wool, four or five inches thick, slid above his shearing tool. His shearing tool never stopped moving. Light fell through the cracks between the chestnut walls, solid with dust. Light is both wave and particle, I remembered from somewhere. It could have been any time at all.
When he finally stopped, the son handed the shorn wool to my friend. It was vanilla, impossibly soft, slick with lanolin. You could fold it, like a coat. “The only thing we did was wrong…stayin’ in the wilderness too long.” The tune played mercilessly in my head. “The only thing we did was right, was the day we started to fight.” Meanwhile, the shearer turned to the sheep’s hoofs with his clipper. Splinters of dense hoof scattered in the dust. Keep your eyes on the prize. Hold on.
I thought of how often I’d been like that sheep, believing, sincerely, that I was stuck. I know the look in her eyes, the peace of resignation to the inevitable, to what is. But what is is comprised as much of my own belief as it is of fact. I choose my beliefs, daily. We all do. A bumper sticker: Don’t believe everything you think. I believe, for instance, that acceptance of what I’m currently powerless to change is as much of a virtue as I could hope for; yet I’m dimly, increasingly, aware of my complicity in accepting things that I could change.