The Strength of Damaged Things

Sometimes it feels good to save something, even when it might not make sense. One Sunday at the emergency clinic, a chipmunk-sized stray kitten arrived in a cardboard box. He shivered under a coat of maggots, with a large botfly larva burrowed in his neck. I discarded logic instead of the kitten, and spent an hour with my coworker cleaning up the little guy, who rewarded us by eating ravenously. Two years ago, our barn was similarly beyond repair—not worth the time and not even very useful by current economic standards.

Sometimes it feels selfish to save something. At the end of my emergency shift full of losses, I looked at the euthanizable kitten and felt unable to kill him. I saved him to save myself. After leaving many dear places, and seeing the destruction of our family farm, a fragile part of me resisted dismantling this old barn.

Buildings, unlike kittens, do not usually inspire my affection. Since childhood, I have mistrusted human structures. Tall buildings seem to waver. Bridges cross implausible spans. Parking garages make me cold sweat. So I surprise myself by sitting calmly astride century-old hemlock beams, firing a nail gun at chin level. This is an ailing dairy barn, built by Dutch settlers, that has been used and abused by generations until the foundation crumbled.

Now, this is our barn. We have spent months un-building and rebuilding it. My hands have learned various power saws, crowbars, sledgehammer, angle grinder, nail gun, a bit of plumbing. My body has been in a trench, up to my shoulders, and on a lift, forty feet high. Somehow I trust this barn. As it often happens, familiarity has dissolved fear.

This barn is no longer an unknown, and, being human, I tend to trust what I know. I understand how the posts and beams fit together. I have stood inside the barn and lifted it with my one arm pumping a bottle jack until thin daylight appeared under a post. Sturdy creaking sounds describe this movement, and I have listened with respect, but not panic. There is surprising strength in damaged things.

My work this summer relies on that strength. I go from removing a pair of underwear that clogged a dog’s small intestine to soldering a new joint onto the old water line. Taking off my surgery-stained scrubs, I pull on overalls smeared with the dark red of our new barn siding. Hoping my reconstructions hold and none of my plumbing leaks, I realize that the outcome depends on strength that is already there.

Repairing damages is not heroic; it is messy and ordinary. It is not solitary work. At home and at the vet clinic, I am shoulder-to-shoulder with people I love, people who teach me. Many times, things do not go as expected. Important boards break. Patients die. We estimate wrong. We communicate poorly. Healing is slow. Progress is slow.

In this work, we gain intimacy with each other and with the damaged, with our own damages. Again, closeness brings understanding. We feel less afraid. We keep working, and sometimes wounded kittens sleep with full bellies. A barn stands tall, ready for whatever the next hundred years will bring.







16 thoughts on “The Strength of Damaged Things”

  1. Thank you Abbie. Once again I have tears of appreciation for the shared sentiments that you so beautifully express.

  2. Wow, Abbie, this is the most beautifully unrecognizable barn I’ve ever seen. Good work. I’m proud of you.

    1. Thanks, Regina! Now I understand your wisdom about the amount of work that barn represented. I guess stubbornness is both a weakness and a strength 🙂 Love you!

  3. It was good to see the before and after pictures. You accomplished much and the barn will serve you well!

    1. Thank you! We were so sorry to have missed you, but glad you stopped by. And have been enjoying the evidence of your visit left on the mudroom bench!

  4. The transformation is amazing! Many people woud have razed it, knocking it it down or cutting it up, but instead you raised and rehabilitated it. We humans need to do that; looking for the good in the other and offering help and encouragement, instead of writing them off because of one or a number of annoying faults.

    1. Thanks! So true, Jon. I guess we’re lucky to do what we can where we are. Thanks for looking for the good where you are, too.

  5. This is beautiful Abby! Thank you for sharing your wisdoM with us 🙂 I would love to come see the barn!

  6. Beautiful words and even more beautiful sentiments. Every time I read your work, I find myself missing you and the boy more… Just now, early memories of the four of us (excluding mesa and peat) eating homemade enchiladas in your tiny apartment’s kitchen/dining room came flooding back. I miss you both and give the other two-last named Andrew my love….

  7. Hey Abbie – wow, the barn looks amazing! I wanted to come by before we moved, but it just didn’t happen. Best to you, Andrew, Sam, and Stella!

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