That Balm in Gilead

Monday, February 27th, 2017

There is a balm in Gilead
To make the wounded whole.

There is a balm in Gilead
To soothe a sin-sick soul.  

Those lines in my favorite spiritual are running through my head tonight because I sang them Sunday morning at the early service at the Episcopal Church.

(Some of you are probably saying, Whoa! What's a Quaker doing at an Episcopal Church? Well, there's no Quaker meeting in Cody. The Episcopal Church is in walking distance, and boasts really glorious music thanks to music director Jim Hager, plus insightful sermons by the rector, Rev. Mary Caucutt. And I have good friends in the congregation.)

This last was something new to me, a hymn-sermon service. No words from Rev. Mary, who always seems to say something I needed to hear. Still, as Warren Murphy, the previous rector, and Jim talked about each hymn, Warren interpreting the history and meaning of the words, and Jim the music, I found myself fascinated by these new perspectives on familiar verses and melodies.

And then when we got to the final hymn, There is a Balm in Gilead (click to listen to one particularly good choral recording), my whole spirit just lit up. What I love about this spiritual that has become a hymn is that refrain. There is a balm in Gilead... 

There really is a balm in Gilead. (I realize there's a metaphor about Jesus as the balm, but I like to know real-world truth under the metaphor.) The balm is an fragrant ointment made from the resinous sap of a small tree called Gilead or Mecca myrrh (Commiphora opobalsumum). The tree, native to the Mideast around the Red Sea, is in the same family as other small desert trees species that produce Frankinsence, Myrrh, Copal, and incense.

Botanical illustration of the tree, and its leaves, flowers, and fruits from an antique German flora

The sap of the Gilead tree is what has the healing properties. (It has been studied recently for its efficacy in preventing and healing gastric ulcers, among other uses.)

By now, you are wondering where I am going with this spiritual, and the real or metaphoric balm. Here's where:

I didn't realize, until I moved into this badly neglected house with its beautiful bones, how much I needed a balm, a project that would heal my heart, wounded from losing my mom and Richard five years ago, and freshly hurt by the bitterly divisive politics in my former small town and now the nation. 

This place is my balm. The house with its big windows and great light, the sheltering forest of too-many spruce trees it is tucked into, my restoration project in progress, my small circle of friends and the warmly welcoming larger community, and this expansive landscape studded with fragrant sagebrush, my personal healing plant--all are working to heal wounds I hadn't realized were still aching, and to soothe my soul, sickened by the violence and hatred and mean-spirited tribalism that seem to be flourishing in our world today. 

I moved home knowing intuitively that I needed to be here, but not really sure why it felt so urgent. Now I understand: this is my balm in Gilead. 

So when I'm not writing (my current project is a feature article for Wildflower Magazine), I am continuing to work on bringing Spruce House, as I have begun calling it, back to life. While my contractor, electrician, and plumber focus on the big stuff (like building walls, making the wiring safe and functional, and installing working fixtures in the bathrooms), I'm doing smaller projects.

Over the weekend, I focused on the basement stairs. Saturday I spent about four hours filling in as many of the nail holes and gouges and I could, repeating to myself "They're basement stairs; they don't have to be perfect." (And they're clearly not, as the photo above shows!) 

Then I sanded the filler, and washed each tread and riser with oil soap. After which came priming the stairs; that took most of yesterday afternoon. And then, last night, I painted the first couple of steps with their new color: Cloudless, a sky-blue that just happens to match the vintage wall-oven in my kitchen (and the couch where I am stretched out, feet up writing this blog post, as well as my new living room rug). 

Primer coat on, still not pretty, but definitely lighter and brighter... 

And then that blue, a huge change from the filthy brown carpet I pulled off the steps a week ago. 

I've started installing bath hardware in the one bathroom where all three fixtures work (one of which is the beautiful granite basin Richard carved), and I'm continuing to strip the dingy gray paint from the beautiful copper door handles and drawer pulls in my kitchen.

New towel ring... 

Each task accomplished (19 handles cleaned, 24 to go...) is one more step toward restoring this house to healthy life; each is also a personal triumph. I can do this!, I remind myself as I pick up a tool or tape measure, as I scrape paint. "Tool girl" doesn't come naturally for me; it is a skill I only learned after Richard died. So I am continually surprised and proud of myself that I can build, maintain, repair... And that the work gives me such a positive boost. 

Just look at those shining copper-coated handles!

We all need a balm in tough times, something literal or figurative to heal us and soothe our spirits. Depending on our needs and the times, that balm might be a vacation, a new spiritual practice, creative or constructive work, family and friends, a new exercise regime, a volunteer project, a resolve to eat more healthfully or sleep more... 

I am grateful to have found my balm right here in the home of my heart, in this house I didn't know I needed, in a community and landscape I had forgotten how much I loved. 

Come spring, I'm going to plant some sagebrush in my yard. Then I'll truly be home. 

Big sagebrush growing on the hill above my neighborhood.