Friday, January 14, 2011

The Beginner Mind of Woodworking

Alvah Simons comments on the patience of the Inuit people.  He writes

"...the patience of the Inuit are legendary.  Their minds and bodies move to longer rhythms than those of temperate-zone peoples.  Their coming of dawn is measured not in hours but in months.  Their days last great portions of a year and so their nights, not neatly balanced in diurnal convenience.  In their storms, to press on is to perish; one must wait, remaining always subserviant to the cruel forces of nature, moving when and how allowed.  In the Arctic, one must be bold but never brash, a lesson I might yet learn.  There one needs endless acceptance of what is, spending little time in a world of what was, or what might be.  It is the "beginner mind" of Zen teachings."  (p. 14, North to the Night, 1998 Broadway Books)

Almost ten years ago I left my fast paced, frantic, crisis managing position to find a simpler, saner life on 35 feet of sailing fiberglass that was tied at the time to a rickety dock on the Fraser River in the lower mainland of British Columbia.  The journey that began with that fateful decision to move aboard began a long, difficult and often painful pilgrimage of self discovery, for in the end the worst person you take with you is yourself.

Sailing northern waters soon teaches you that the wind and the sea are two indiscriminate forces that think little of our own agendas and schedules, and the person that learns to bob and weave with the changes is not only the happiest and most content but can often literally be the only one left standing.  This clashed directly with my operational mindset; a mindset that was deeply rooted from years of cultural indoctrination.  It was a tough transition from the city rat-race to one of patience and acceptance; shaking and moving to sitting in silence.  Gradually the new, softer me began to evolve with each day spent contemplatively in the cockpit.

Lack of space prevented us from keeping most of our possessions, and those items we did bring aboard were few and practical.  My tool inventory took a substantial hit, and what was left fit neatly in three, small, rectangular boxes.  A new appreciation of hand tools was born.  My workshop became any available dock-space and my supplier became whatever materials I could salvage or buy within walking distance of the harbor.  Life was radical and the change scary, yet deep inside I felt the comforting stirrings of something significant coming to life.

I've never looked back.  Though I confess we no longer live on a boat, those years aboard were years I wouldn't trade for anything.  Those years taught me the patience I needed to wait for circumstances to change, which they almost always inevitably did.  They also taught me to allow myself the flexibility to change course midway, and be OK with that.  Not everything we planned to do needed to turn out the way we envisioned.  The years aboard also taught me that consumerism doesn't bring happiness; contentedness does.  I learned to love the journey as well as the destination.  The moments spent in community and conversation were never wasted.  And the moment was something to be celebrated; the past was gone forever in our wake, and we never knew what lay around the next corner.

Those lessons continue to come back to me when I am now puttering on my shop stool fashioning some material into something I find useful or beautiful.  The process of the moment becomes something to treasure along with the end product.  Every step can become a project in itself, and the joy of seeing my labors slowly become a creation is more rewarding than all the toys and accomplishments I accumulated in my old life or in any of the people I see trapped in the clatter of the world around me.  It's all artificial contrivance and chaos, and every day I become a little more thankful for another opportunity I have to spend one more moment in quiet solitude, allowing my tools to teach me a little more of patience, contentment, and acceptance of what is.

For ultimately it's simply
"all a matter of becoming who we already are."  
Fr. Richard Rohr

Friday, January 7, 2011

In Honor of a Special Man

There are times when words or speech simply cannot adequately express the groaning of the heart and it is in those times that we pray our actions may truly speak for us.  How do you comfort a loved one in sorrow?  What words can console someone who is shattered with grief?  Everything you say ends up sounding hollow and foolish, lacking substance and meaning.  It is then that I look to my hands to speak for me.

I found a short section of tigerwood stock in the remnant section at our local hardwood store and re-sawed it into 1/4" widths that I could book-match into one board, 11" wide by 4 feet long.  I loved the pattern in the grain of this wood - the contrast between the light and dark - so characteristic of the joys and sorrows in life, all swirling and weaving together to become a beautiful, sacred mosaic.

The box joints added to the symbolism, each "finger" interlaced with another, very much a representation of two hands folded together.  These where very much the hands of Florian; either folding in prayer, or walking beside his wife, helping one of his four children, or being involved with his community.

The base took shape from a piece of Honduran mahogany, the edge routed to soften the transition and add interest to the overall shape.  This particular piece of wood had been left over from a cradle I had built to celebrate the birth of our first grandchild - a lovely girl yet to see her first birthday.  The paradox of life and death, held in tension within a human heart that can celebrate life yet at the same time grieve another that has left us so soon.  Joy and sorrow - two primal elements tumbling through my world within my quiet workshop.

I adorned the lid with an inlay of a simple compass rose into the face; a symbol of a voyage that charted its way through many waters.  His commitment, his faith, and his loyalty kept his course sure, be it through calm water or storm.

The date of his death was carved with simple Roman numerals into the front base, then finished the piece with a beautiful application of shellac and a final buffing of wax.

Kitchen science altered the shiny, brass fastenings to a more mottled grey and black.  The hinges and clasp secured, the box was now gently closed for the last time in my shop.  It was now ready to ship to my sister, who has stood so strong and so dignified throughout her time of deep sorrow.

Every part of this project, every step and every cut was led by my heart, brimming with memories and shaded with sorrow.  As the box began to take shape, an understanding also began to emerge from within the wood, for this wood had also once lived and now had somehow found its way into my shop; into my hands.  These small pieces were a small part of something bigger; a quiet nobility that spoke of being at one time majestic and strong.  For that is the way of things - even the mightiest among us will also arrive one day at the end of our own path that so many before us have found.

It lies before us now to decide how our journey to that inevitable end will look.

For my good brother-in-law, that journey was one of an honorable man.

And the honor is mine to be able to create the urn that will hold all our memories of that man.

You are loved and missed.

Life is eternal, and love is immortal,
and death is only a horizon;
and horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight
~Rossiter Worthington Raymond

Tigerwood on mahogany base, maple and jatoba inlay, amber shellac and paste wax finish.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

A Home for the Abused

Everyone needs a place of their own.    

Temporary book bags and pack sacks are fine for a time, but sooner or later you need a place to call home.  And if it can be among friends, so much the better. 

So we were delighted when Popular Woodworking came up with a Victorian Side Table for the “I Can Do That” project for November.   


Constructed with recycled wood and finished with amber shellac and wax, it became just the spot for us to hang our proverbial hats.                                                                        

No more lying in piles on the floor, getting kicked about by stumbling buffoons heading for their favorite chair, or crashing off the kitchen table when dinner clearing would roar into full swing.  Finally we can get a little dignity, a little respect, and a little R & R for our aging spines.    

Believe me, the way things were starting to look around here, it wasn’t any too soon in coming.