On the Utility of Failed Metaphors, Or the Clock, the Iron, and the Buckthorn

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes the failure of language points us toward wonder.

Over the course of the long weekend, metaphors arrived at my feet, floated to me like wishes made on dandelion puffs. They arranged themselves into a series of vignettes and waited for me to make sense of them.

First, there was the clock. I sometimes watch a show about antique and vintage items being repaired by a hodgepodge collection of craftspeople in England. In one episode, a woman brought in a badly damaged clock which had fallen from its perch on a side table. The clock had been made in the 1800s, and as the horologist began to take apart and clean and repair the time piece, he discovered that on the hour wheel within its mechanism, there was a date wheel, yet, there was no corresponding place on the clock’s face to indicate a date. He explained that this oddity was indicative that a repair was made at some point with this additional foreign part. He noted, “That’s not a terrible thing, it’s just part of the clock’s life.”

I was struck by this. The idea that we are comprised of things not native to ourselves; life adds functioning parts to our brains and hearts that we were not born with. And we keep on, we keep time, we move forward. It isn’t good or bad to be acted upon, intruded upon in this way; it is simply the way of things. At first, it seemed beautiful, this idea that we incorporate into ourselves these non-native mechanisms, ways of functioning we might not have considered before. At the same time, I recalled the painful ways people have attempted to repair within me what they believed was broken. Too much this, not enough that, here let me help you. I once had a boyfriend who, when he believed I was not understanding his perspective, because I was not agreeing with it, would insist he was trying to help me. In these moments he would say my name over and over, so much so that I grew to loathe the syllables.

Well-intentioned repair can nevertheless leave us feeling altered, worse off than we were before; transformed in a way we didn’t chose. The clock metaphor becomes muddled, I turn it over and over in my mind, the tick-tocking heartbeat of it hiccups, starts, stops. I set aside for now.

Second, there was the iron table, my love’s, a treasured piece from his past. We considered its making. Weighed the notions of cast versus wrought.

Cast – poured into a mold; wrought – shaped by tools. I had never thought about the distinction before.

Later, as I walked the dog, I wondered whether love could be considered this way, as either cast or wrought.

I think of the molds we create throughout our lives, the way we shape ideas about what love is supposed to be, then pour our experiences into this fixed space. We expect everything to fit, our love to hold the shape we’ve told ourselves it should take. Alternatively, if or when we are wiser, we may fashion the shape of it as we go. We hone, engaging in an act of perpetual creation, knowing better now what any skillful craftsman knows: we must diligently attend to what we are making.

Still, I keep reconsidering these ideas and starting over, because the metaphor seems at once to have some truth, but feels a little flawed, maybe forced. It seems to want me to land on a conclusion, to go from an if to a then, to state something about strength or craftsmanship, but perhaps love is wilder and more organic than iron, whether cast or wrought. [Though, it is worth noting, that according to a quick bit of research, wrought iron is stronger than cast iron, and at least in this way, the metaphor comes together.]

Third, there was the buckthorn. Little buckthorn shoots are benign things, proliferate, but just another weed to pull out. Wait a week, and they develop enough root that a simple tug will not loosen them easily from the earth. Wait a few summer weeks, and they are saplings with trunks about one and a half inches in diameter, fully mature with berries, and possessing the thorns that give them their name, thorns as long as the trunk is thick, nearly.

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I woke this morning with a mysterious weepy red scratch between my thumb and forefinger. The mark sprouted like a little branch off of my life line, which is one of the few things I know of palmistry. Playing back my yesterday, I recalled my discovery of the thorns on the mature buckthorns. I remembered that when I was cutting up the saplings my love had felled in the little wayward woods at the back of the yard, I’d been snagged by a particularly determined thorn. This morning, I was struck by the placement of the wound it created, the scratch joining perfectly with the life line.

Of course, I cannot help but see metaphor here. My mind wends through possible meanings, maybe about the stubborn insistence of wildness to be in our lives, to shape us, to mark us. Maybe it is about how eagerly love thrives when the conditions are right, how quickly and sturdily it can grow. Again though, as a metaphor, it is faulty. To shape it to my purposes I must focus on the buckthorn’s heartiness and resilience, and little else.

So, as I wondered about this trio of metaphors throughout the day, I stumbled, often and roughly. What to do with it all? Why did I return to these ideas so adamantly – the clock, the iron, the buckthorn?

At the end of the day, what has made itself plain to me is this: there is a richness to life that offers itself up to us when we are of a mind to see it. I am happy to consider various ways of looking at a clock mechanism, the prettily wrought iron table leg, the buckthorn and its sturdiness and its thorns. It is a delight to contemplate deeper meanings, to cherish the beauty in the way objects and words wish to position themselves in proximity to each other, even if in the end, we determine these couplings to be inadequate ciphers for understanding the complexities of love.

My perspective this weekend revealed a world honeyed with meaning. I may not grasp it all, not all at once, but there is power in what we can glimpse of ourselves and each other and our connections in these little moments, in everyday objects and occurrences, when we allow ourselves the space to notice. Keep noticing. Enjoy the metaphors, even if they fall apart a little when scrutinized. Look at what the world nudges you toward and enjoy the wonder of it all.

Love, Cath

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