How to Shear a Sheep
by Barbara Kingsolver
Walk to the barn
Take off your clothes.
on the ground:
your nylon jacket,
wool socks and all.
the cutting tools,
the shears that bite
like teeth at the skin
when hooves flail
and your elbow
comes up hard
under a panting throat:
no more of that.
Sing to them instead.
in the morning
with your entreaty.
Ask them to come,
lay down their wool
That should work.
I lectured them into the night, many hours past my bedtime, telling them how to continue the dazzling success of their father. He was there, listening, nodding his head, making sure they would never forget this night.
He and I have worked together since 1989, when we were both very young and our sons were very small. Today he is a rich and famous jeweler in a well-known city. I am the man 500 miles away who writes his ads.
His hard-working sons listened intently when I said, “People you trust and admire; people who care about you and your success, will come to you, pull you aside, and tell you with deep concern, ‘You need to change your advertising. You’re not doing it right.’ People who studied advertising in college; friends who feel certain they know what you should do, will say to you, ‘You need to change your advertising. You’re not doing it right.'”
I told the sons of my friend about the heart-piercing lessons I learned as a young ad writer. I told them about the clever things I did that I knew would would, had to work, were certain to work, that didn’t work.
I told them about all the clever things that I was taught, and trusted, and believed, that didn’t work.
I told them about the millions of dollars of other people’s money I had wasted year after year on ideas that didn’t work.
And then I told them what I finally noticed, and watched, and understood 35 years ago. I told them the counterintuitive truth that I finally had the eyes to see.
I told them what always works. I told them why it never fails to work. And I told them why no one who sees it working ever believes that it will work.
Their father nodded his head up and down. The four of us looked at each other and smiled.
And then I went home to bed.
Next week I’ll tell you the second half of this story.
Roy H. Williams
PS – “How to Shear a Sheep” is just one of the many delightful poems in a little-known book by the legendary novelist, Barbara Kingsolver. If you haven’t read her novels, you should.
Danny Heitman, during the Covid lockdown in 2020, published this book review in The Christian Science Monitor:
“Barbara Kingsolver is best known for her novels, including ‘The Bean Trees’ and ‘The Poisonwood Bible,’ and her essay collections, such as ‘Small Wonder’ and ‘High Tide in Tucson.’ She’s not as well known for her poetry, though she should be. ‘How to Fly (In Ten Thousand Easy Lessons)’ collects her best poems from the past few years. It’s a tonic for these pandemic times, reminding us of Robert Frost’s definition of poetry as a ‘momentary stay against confusion.’ Kingsolver’s poems are like that, though their clarity is less a matter of sudden revelation than the slowly ripening insight of age. The title poem, with its ironic parenthetical promise that we can learn to soar after ‘ten thousand easy lessons,’ sounds a winking dissent from all those how-to bestsellers that offer quick mastery of life’s essentials in a handful of effortless steps.”
Like I said, I really like Barbara Kingsolver. – RHW
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