Raise your hand if you’ve ever been there. I know I have. That moment when you think, “wow, I know I trained for a completely different career but wouldn’t it be great to just be out in the shop building furniture all day, every day.”
The truth is, as much as we hate to admit it, that’s never going to be economically viable for most of us. Vic Tesolin offers some great thoughts on the subject in the End Grain column of the current issue of Popular Woodworking, and what he wrote has been on my mind all week. The short version is that he supposes there is a lot of fulfillment to be had in woodworking as a hobby that becomes elusive when it’s a job.
For me, even though the line between woodworking as hobby and source of income has been increasingly blurred over the last few months, I think of it as more of a spiritual practice than anything. Woodworking, especially with hand tools, grounds me to the natural world in a very direct and powerful way. I count rings in end-grain and marvel at the years it took for a tree to grow. I read a board the wrong way and the grain tears out and I am reminded to take more care in my work. I smell the freshly cut pine, walnut or cherry and I rejoice in the intricacy and beauty of life.
I so often live in a world of thoughts, concepts and ideas, but time at the bench is time for me to connect to the “real”. The best word for this, I think, is incarnational. Literally, in the flesh. Christians use this word to describe Jesus as the earthly manifestation of God, but what is that concept other than our way of characterizing the divine and material coming together in mystic communion?
For me, woodworking is incarnational. It is a moment when I am present in the flesh and the spirit (however you might define that) to the material world. It is similar, perhaps, to the Buddhist concept of mindfulness. It is contemplative but also tactile, like giving thanks for water every time you wash your hands.
Insight cannot come from sheer intellect alone. Intellect is only part of our being and I don’t think it’s coincidental that as the world veers ever more to the virtual and abstract, many of us have the urge to sharpen a plane iron and create something by the sweat of our brow. (This is literal for me. It’s hot in North Carolina right now.) We seek incarnational work to tie our consciousness and our own matter to the matter that surrounds us.
That’s interesting to me, and something I think I would lose if this was how I put food on the table. I’m thankful for all the work that comes my way, but for now, I’m glad my mortising still leaves room for meditation.