The Healing Day

Sometimes you write something and it connects in ways you don’t expect. Last week’s “Roughneck Grace” column was one of those.


Lately I’ve been leaning pretty heavily on “The Healing Day,” a song by Bill Fay. It’s a gentle number. Somewhere between lullaby and hymn. Fay was 69 years old when the song was released, and it’s a good thing, because it’s a piece whose proper delivery requires some prior living. I’ve known some fine studio hands, and Auto-Tune’s a wonder, but you can’t chef up empathy.

Fay sings as if he’s smoothing a child’s brow. It’ll be okay, he sings, barely above his breath, his voice acknowledging the darkness all around even as he breathes his belief in the light. I hear it and think of the times I have sat on the edge of my own child’s mattress, doing my best to soothe the small creature when thin threads of dread hung above the bed. How many times do we hold our children close under the guise of comforting them when in fact we are clinging to them as if they were the last buoy in a cold sea?

“The Healing Day” lands on my ears as an unanswerable conundrum. The flat-footed, clear-eyed, windburned part of me knows no song so fragile, sung by a voice so frail, can withstand—let alone overcome—these hardhearted days. Or the vicious fools among us. You would do just as well to block a bulldozer by propping a blown glass ornament against the blade. And yet I accept the comfort of the song, because the comfort is real. It is ephemeral, but then in the big picture, so are bulldozers.

Every battleground, sings Fay, is a place for sheep to graze. Nine words acknowledging the damage we humans do ourselves, conveying the implication that some of us will not survive, or escape unscathed, but allowing that one day the blood and dirt will grow up in pasture. It is the perfect image; no animal grazes unless it feels safe. Forty years my dad raised sheep; Fay sings and I can see them, flocked and cropping grass in the mist.

Last night in bed I read a pair of Wendell Berry profiles. Berry is 85 and still working his dozen acres. Less than before, but then he’s got plenty of labor banked. I found myself growing impatient with some of his insistences. Not because I think he’s wrong, but because I don’t see how enough of us can be Wendell Berry. Because I don’t see how a couple tending twelve Kentucky acres is a credible bulwark against—let’s go ahead and run the tracks off this metaphor—the bulldozer of consumer demand and simple venal greed. The disciples are outnumbered.

But there was something in Berry’s words that plucked a harmonic in my subconscious. It took me a bit, but after I snapped the bedside light off, it came to me: I was sensing the interplay between Berry’s words and Bill Fay’s music. Both men understand the battle is pitched against gentler folk, but peaceful persistence is its own reward. It isn’t a matter of winning, it is a matter of dignity. Be at peace with yourself, sings Bill Fay in another song, and at the edge of sleep I recite those words against the universe, hoping my children will hear them.


Originally published in the Wisconsin State Journal, other columns here.

“The Healing Day” by Bill Fay here.

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