The Sculpture of Disease

When I read Robert Morgan’s poem “Maple Gall” a few days ago, the first phrases to strike me were tortured cluster of malignanciescells grow drunk… awful excess growths and, of course, I thought of the cancer that I live with, and I was drawn in.

I continued to read beauty of distortion… sculpture of disease…  And the final, astonishing lines:

…the strange
and replicating work the tree
is not supposed to yield, a flowery
production so grotesque it seems
a kind of miracle in wood
that makes this sapling both unique
and memorable by virtue of
its suffering swollen sores and scars,
the warts that are its finest art.
///

“…its suffering, swollen sores and scars, the warts that are its finest art”. Now I am no longer thinking about physical disfigurement, physical disease. I am thinking about the experiences in our lives that mark us forever. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is banal and it is also false because becoming strong is not a necessary consequence of suffering. It is a choice. The choice is not easy to make. (Not easy – ha! It is the hardest thing in the world.) But it is still a choice.

Childhood abuse and neglect breaks a person. But breaks can heal. As with broken bones, a callus develops over the broken spot, preparing it for healing. If all goes well, the bone develops into its original shape and becomes strong again. Sometimes that doesn’t happen. When non-union occurs after a fracture there is no healing and the break remains painful.

Broken personhood takes longer to heal than broken bones, but heal it can. The broken person can make the difficult choice to go on to be, not the same person they were before the break, but a better, more beautiful person “by virtue of [their] suffering swollen sores and scars”. It takes strength and courage and love and support and endless determination. It is a process of starts and stops, of two steps forward and one back, of radiant success and abysmal failure.

Sometimes there is trauma upon trauma, injury upon injury, disfigurement upon disfigurement. Living with one’s personal history, being able to identify self from other, responsibility from victimization, accepting that history and transforming it can become a lifelong process. Growing and healing, the person can come to resemble “…this sapling

…both unique
and memorable by virtue of
its suffering swollen sores and scars,
the warts that are its finest art.”

and become a strong, beautiful tree.

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