A Man's Life: The Gift of Shame

When I was a boy on a northwest Iowa farm, I was sure of only one thing: I wanted to get out of there. Whatever my vision for the future, I knew it wasn’t cow manure on my shoes and that telltale white forehead where the hatband leaves off above a sunburned face. I didn’t want to smell like, I didn’t want to look like, I didn’t want act like, a country hick.

But, alas, my model of manhood was my farmer father. In his striped overalls and ankle-high buckle-up work shoes, he was the alpha male in our neighborhood. Young and old men alike tried to mimic his strength and endurance as he stacked bales until sunset, then hurried off to the evening chores of shoveling feed to the steers and pigs. In his prime, his working hands were so hard that when he grabbed a barbed-wire fence the barbs put little dents into his palm but didn’t puncture his flesh. As a boy, I’d hear neighbors respectfully seek his advice about seed corn and feeder pigs. When their animals were sick, they’d call my father before they called the veterinarian. Castrating bulls, vaccinating pigs, treating steers for hoof rot—he was ready for any task. Smart, decisive, and strong: he had it all. It’s no wonder the others followed his example. Or attempted to.

How could I not admire this man whom all the neighbors envied? If anything, I resented him for being so good at something that didn’t interest me. Even though he was highly accomplished at what he did, he represented everything I didn’t want to be. I didn’t want his striped overalls to be my overalls. I didn’t want his sweat to be my sweat. I didn’t want his callused hands to be my hands. I didn’t want his people to be my people, nor his house my house. I wanted no part of any of it.

What I wanted was to break free from farm life, to soar like an eagle, not wallow like a pig. I wanted a life that started in my brain, not my biceps. I wanted freedom to explore the unknown, especially art, literature, and music. Far from identifying with my father, I identified with the young calves butting against the fence, trying to get out. I knew how they felt: Give me freedom! Give me the wide-open spaces of worldly adventures!

My special inspiration was a Hereford bull-calf that felt trapped in the barn. His nervous twitches were my twitches. His wild eyes were my eyes. One morning the bull-calf’s imagination took over. He flung his four-legged body at a small barn window that was five feet off the ground. He got his forelegs and head through the window but fell back into the barn with his hairy white forehead sparkling with shattered window glass.

I loved that animal’s spirit, but he made two mistakes: he should have found a bigger window, and he should have taken a few practice runs in a safer venue. I would avoid his mistakes, but leap I would! Of that I was certain.

It has been a long leap indeed. I took my practice runs at freedom by learning to play piano, to act, to sing, and, especially, to read widely. My windows of opportunity were not in the barn: they were the college-prep classes in high school, the double-major in college, and two rounds of graduate school—one in literary scholarship and one in creative writing. Finally my leap was complete: I’m not a farmer; I’m a writer and college professor. My hands are not the callused hands of my father: my fingertips are so soft that I can feel the letters on this keyboard as I type. I do not read cattle and grain price reports after dinner; I read novels and poetry. I couldn’t be farther from my father’s world.

Or could I? When I was a boy on the farm, I not only disliked the drudgery of the work; I disliked the nonchalant violence of it all: the dehorning of steers, the castrating of pigs, the beheading of chickens. I always imagined myself as the animal, and I saw my father as a key player in the disturbing treatment of animals.

But on a visit home shortly after I graduated from college, a single event shook the foundations of my little house of negativity.

I went out with my father to check on a sow that had farrowed ten pigs the week before. Most farmers had by this time converted their pig house birthing areas into metal cage-like structures that were not much larger than the sow and kept her from lying down on, or stepping on, her young. Like someone who’d rather write sonnets than free verse, my father had chosen to stick with the old ways: a rigidly-shaped eight-by-eight-foot pen where the sow could walk about as she got ready to deliver. A sow’s natural instincts tell her to take the time and space to prepare an appropriate nursery. She actually makes a birthing nest, taking mouthfuls of straw to construct an oval-shaped dam of straw the size of her own body. She’s her own nursemaid. When the oval-shaped nest is ready, she flops down inside it and waits for those bristly waves of contractions to begin.

Those old-fashioned farrowing pens had a lot of romance to them, but not much safety. All too often the sow would stand up and step on her young or lie down and smother them.

Smothering is exactly what had happened the morning of my visit. As we walked into the hog house, the sow stood up. Nine little pigs scurried away, but one Chester White pig lay lifeless in the straw. I remember my father’s disgust at the sight of another dead pig. He grabbed the limp animal and threw it across the hog house onto the manure pile. But when it landed like a little sand bag, it emitted a grunt. And then a tiny gasp. My father ran and retrieved the pig. With his big hands he gave the rib cage a gentle squeeze. The small throat opened and gasped for air. For the next tense minute, I watched his large hands tap on the rib cage while he blew little bursts of air into the pig’s mouth and squeezed rhythmically with his other hand. I can still hear the “tap tap tap” on that little pig’s rib cage. I can almost feel it.

It’s hard to witness a miraculous little resurrection like that one without experiencing a few heart thwangs. Wendell Berry once wrote that we tend to romanticize what we first despise. Seeing my father’s gentleness at that moment of the successful resuscitation may have been the very moment when I started to romanticize what I first despised.

It certainly was a key event in my re-envisioning both my father and farm life. I came to see that there may have been economic practicality in the way he treated animals all the years I remember from my youth, but there was more to it than that. There was an underlying affection for his work and for the creatures who were part of that work.

When I started to write, I tried to disguise my rural roots. In my poems I used grand, pipe-organ sounds that tried to out-resonate the resonant voice of the poet Dylan Thomas. My short stories had sentences so long and complicated they might have been written by a young Henry James or have been English translations of a young Immanuel Kant trying to write fiction. I tried to deny who I was. I was ashamed of it. But like a person who fakes good posture, I inevitably slumped into my natural farm-boy self. And, surprise: the subjects I was best prepared to write about were farm subjects, and the story-telling voice that readers found most interesting sounded strangely like the voice of my farmer father.

There’s a Grant Wood painting titled “Study for Breaking the Prairie” that hangs in New York’s Whitney Museum. A prominent part of the rural, mural-like scene is a quotation from Daniel Webster that practically dictates how viewers should respond:

When Tillage begins, other arts follow. The farmers
Therefore are the founders of human civilization.

I had never thought of my father as an artist while I was growing up. At that moment of his saving the small pig’s life, I realized that some part of him always harbored the sensibility that I aspired to reach through education. His alpha-male behavior may simply have been his way of making sure he could provide me with the means to develop that sensibility. Fortunately, I am realizing now, I never really got much farther than that bolting Hereford. I got my head through the window and into the blue skies of education and artistic adventures, but the bulk of me is still on the farm. The longer I have had to live and evaluate my life, the more I realize the real model for my grand adventure was not that stupid animal, it was my father. It is no wonder that today I tell my aspiring writing students, “Everything in your life that you’ve been ashamed of is a gift to you as a writer.”

Jim Heynen is a poet and author of fiction and non-fiction and best known for his short-short stories about “the boys,” which have been heard often on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” and featured in several collections. The most recent, The Boys’ House, earned the Editor’s Choice for Best Books of 2001 from Newsday, Booklist, and The Bloomsbury Review.

Heynen lives in St. Paul, Minnesota with his wife, the journalist Sarah T. Williams, and is writer-in-residence at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota.

Learn more about his work at: www.jimheynen.com