You Can Sense It In the Wood--Imperfection and Grace
MY FATHER DIED IN MAY 1985. Within a month of his death I announced to my wife that I wanted to learn fine woodworking. My father had worked with his hands as an auto mechanic, but he had never worked in wood. I was puzzled. Death often confronts us with the anxious tension of despair and creativity. A month later, I met a surrogate father. Howard, an artist with wood, spent every morning in his woodshop and every afternoon reading Scientific American. He also was a jokester: The first thing he said as I entered his shop was that we needed to get a bucket of water-for my fingers when I cut them off.
Howard had served as a squadron commander in the South Pacific during WWII; he was a head of research in the U.S. Navy after the war. He built, flew-and crashed-his own plane; he survived with a broken leg. He built his house; crafted ninety classic period pieces of walnut and cherry over decades. The last years of his life he went twice a day to be with his wife whom he had lost to Alzheimer's. Among his many life legacies were ones that blessed me-his presence as a caregiver and an artist with wood.
I still have all my fingers, and I always chuckle with gratitude as I turn on the saw. I'm more cautious around power tools than computers. They both scare me. When I enter my small shop I always think of my friend-I miss the ornery ol' curmudgeon. I see and feel his skill, his talent, his life in my own hands as I choose planks of wood to "glue up" for the sides, bottom or lid of a chest. The perfume of each plank is unique to my nose: walnut is sweet; cedar is spicy. I caress the planks and align the grains of the wood, seeking to put their best face forward. It is a slow, intimate fondling of the wood, arranging and realigning, to achieve the best possible assembly. Then Howard's words remind me, "You are not building a watch."
I can't make it perfect, but I still measure twice and cut once. Ah, the joinery-dovetails, foxtails, mortise and tenon-numerous hours of patience with routers and chisels-fitting and refitting. My grandchildren ask, "How many hours did it take you to build this, PopPop?"
"Oh, it only took all the hours necessary to make it beautiful enough for you."
When is it ever finished? When it is good enough! There are always blemishes, slight seam gaps, chips and imperfections that remain-much like the imperfections of this woodworker. And yet, these boxes are not only storage. They are warm, solid, visually inviting gifts of hope, crafted with patience from flawed wood by a flawed man.
When finished, they call out for a hand to skim across the smooth surface that was once rough-cut lumber. Perhaps, one day, in a pensive mood, my grandchildren will let their hands glide slowly across the surface and, for a moment, their hands and hearts will pick up the flawed spirits that came before and shaped their lives.
Now, like my mentor in wood, I have become a caregiver as well. I have cared for my wife, sometimes more or less intensively, over the past nine years. I now understand more about my caregiver's lessons-how he held the anxious, daily tension between despair and creativity. Almost every day in my life, creativity wins the struggle. Usually, my projects involve a promise of legacy for our grandchildren.
When my two older granddaughters turned 'sweet sixteen', I gave them each hand-crafted jewelry chests. When they graduated from high school I presented them with walnut and cedar hope chests, their monograms inlaid. My hands are not as steady now, my eyes not as discerning, so I have already begun crafting gifts for the younger grandchildren who will graduate five and seven years hence.
I am facing my mortality. But, God willing, I shall pass on gifts to them, as well.
And here is the greatest lesson I have learned: These gifts cannot be perfect. They are gifts of love, patience, persistence, devotion, practical beauty and intimate creativity. Fine woodworking always has imperfections if we look closely enough. And such is life.
Perfect is beyond my imagination, at least in this life. So, I practice a spirituality of imperfection, working to be as creative as possible under a blanket of loving grace.
Dr. Pratt's meditation, along with pictures of his woodworking, is published at http://www.readthespirit.com/explore/2013/3/4/lenton-journey-4-legacy-of-imperfection-and-grace.html