A few months back, we got an oblong box in the mail. Out of the blue. Unexpected. Heavy. Curious, I opened it very carefully. It was a tomahawk. Beautiful. Very sharp. Full sized. Weighty. Later, on reflection, I was glad I had opened the box very carefully, on the end with the handle, not the blade.
It came from Eric, a participant in a leadership development program that I have helped design and lead. In the box with the tomahawk was a scroll that described the tool, and why he had made it specifically for me.
The tomahawk now hangs on the wall in our home. It is beautiful against the cedar paneling, and it is a constant reminder of the wisdom it offers me. Wisdom that I wanted to pass along to you—too good to just keep to myself! First let me share the words on the scroll, and then share with you the insights the tomahawk has given me over the several months that I have lived with it. The influence it has had on me. And finally, I will sketch the questions I think it poses to all of us.
The Tomahawk scroll says:
The tomahawk was highly prized by Native Americans and its name comes from the transliteration of the native Virginian Powhatan Algonquin word. Native Americans, including those of your native lakes, islands and forests of Michigan, held this item in high esteem because of its extraordinary versatility. With that in mind, I set to work putting this piece together for you.
Its hickory haft was sanded smooth and boned to compact its fibers and strengthen its core. It was at once stained with natural pigments to heighten its beauty and pay due respect to the roots and branches from which it was born. Here in lies the strength of the tool. May it remind you to reflect upon your core and to remember your strength lies in your inner resolve. Stay true to your core….it is there you derive your might.
Its head forged from the great heat and power of flame was once dark and flat. From heal to bit and the cheek between it was first cleansed, then buffed and finally painstakingly honed to a razors edge. Its polished sheen unique only to it….its fingerprint. The strength of the core wields the power of the head. May its polished head remind you that your mind is moved by the power and vigor of the core. May its razor edge help you to split ideas, whittle thoughts and sharpen your tongue. The head affixes to the haft through its iron eye. The haft shaped and curved to connect the two in a relationship of strength and mutual respect. On their own they pale in comparison to the strength of their unity. May this remind you that your eyes connect your core and your mind and through them you see the world.
Its poll or butt, the blunt end opposite its sharp bit, is another versatile characteristic. The heaviest appendage of the tool may be used for many tasks. May you use it to break through walls, to crush thoughts into pieces all the better to sow your words with. May you pound through frustration and break into light.
The leather, taken respectfully and thankfully, that adorn the haft so too serves a multipurpose. At first glimpse its cross wraps and braids add a feature of artistry, whimsy for the eye. When held in hand its utilitarian form is clear. As you grip it may it remind you that our hands are the extension of our eyes, mind and core for they are our tools that draw our pictures, write our words and fulfill the will of our soul. As you hold this tool, it completes a connection a synapse which began at the core and finishes at the bit.
This is now yours….remember its versatility….
Use it when necessary to defend your hands, your eyes, your tools….
To attack with ferocity those who assault the thoughts, opinions and memories that are yours….
And to plow, sow and harvest the fruits of your soul.
I’ve been watching the influence of the tomahawk on me, as it hangs there on the living-room wall of my home: I think of myself as a poet, a gentle soul, a person who integrates ideas, who links people. My daughter Meg used to say “Mom’s a softie.” Not at all “tomahawk-like.”
But the presence of the tomahawk has reminded me of other capacities—often hidden, even from myself: clarity, resolve, the ability to respond with a clear “no”. The capacity to define the sharp, long arc of something important. The ability to see the essence of a story, of a narrative. It’s essential skeleton.
Perhaps each of us has a way of seeing our own gifts and we need to be reminded, by an image, or an out-of-the-blue gift in the mail from a colleague, that we also possess what seem like opposing gifts. Or balancing capacities. Not to be denied. To be exercised when needed.
So this is what I have noticed: I am clearer about my reasoning for designing a leadership program in a particular way—and not designing it in more conventional ways. The sharpness of design matters. Now I am more likely to hold more firmly to the design integrity of a retreat or a program. To be clearer and more outspoken about my reasoning from the start.
And secondly the tomahawk has influenced my writing, particularly in a collaborative writing project—I am co-author with 9 others in a book that links spirituality and sustainability. The book’s working title is “Flourishing” and for this month it is in the hands of our editor at Stanford University Press. But for the last several weeks, I’ve been involved in editing it, yet again. Refining it.
I have found myself clearer about what goes in the book, and what is, “A different book—important, but not this book.” Rather than trying to make everything that nine of us (including me) want to put into the book, to make what we all have to say somehow fit into a swirling mosaic, I have felt clarity about the “arc of the narrative; the integrity of the skeleton of this particular, specific book.” As my colleagues and I have passed the manuscript back and forth weaving ideas and cases into it, I have found myself needing to be more “tomahawk-like” clearer, more decisive. I wield the tomahawk with greater ease now: “Great idea, great case, but not for THIS book. It’s for another book.” “Tomahawk-Judy” my editing colleagues have called me. Aptly.
And I suppose a third impact is one I felt yesterday—as David handed me an early birthday present—Fiskar’s loppers (long-handled pruning shears, in Michigan dialect) and I began to work on the azaelas that are in wild and full bloom here. I felt a kind of brush-clearing clarity about these wonderful old plantings around our house—for health and beauty, they needed a good whacking back. And I did.
The gift of the tomahawk raises these questions:
What do you see as your gifts, your nature?
And is there an opposite side of you, hidden even from yourself, that if allowed to have a voice in your life would be of great service—to your vitality, and to those things you most care about?
How do you want to begin to work with the insights of that other dimension?
For me, they are the questions suggested by the gift of the tomahawk.