In 2010 I was staying at the Alexander Hotel in Bethlehem (on Manger street—not kidding; look it up). In the gift shop they were selling hand crafted souvenirs made of Olive wood—mostly nativity sets and other religious paraphernalia. But it wasn’t just things, it was a statement. One local patron was supporting other local patrons and together they were creating an economy.
A few shops down from the hotel I found a local woodworker. I say “woodworker” because it was hard to define him. His shop was scattered with furniture, cabinets, carvings, etc. Honestly, he had a little of everything (including a vast array of tools) and I was mesmerized by it all. With the free time that I had, I would go and stand at the door and watch while he worked.
On one occasion he waved for me to come over and help. He was moving the headboard he was working on and wanted me to help him prop it against the wall. When we had it in place, he pointed at the panels and then begin handing me options for trim. There was a language barrier, but I picked up that he was trying to decide which to use and wanted my opinion. We would tape a small piece in place and stand back to look at it from different angles. Then we would remove that piece and tape in another. And then go back to the previous piece. It was a dance to get it “just right.”
If you know anything of the area, you know that it is not exactly a happy place. Bethlehem is positioned within Palestinian territory and happens to be a piece of dirt that people have been fighting over for a long time. They have a wall too, meant to keep them shut out or trapped in depending on the perspective. All of this political detritus was going through my mind while we were exchanging pieces of trim and I couldn’t help but wonder why the trim mattered so much?
Because it wasn’t just a piece of trim. It was a small way to make the world a better place and that is always worth fussing over. And the fact that I was invited in meant that walls could be breached. That craftsman (I never knew his name) was creating a sort of economy too; he was teaching me to embrace criticism, trust my eye, and open my mind. Without saying a word (that I could understand) he used the common language of craft to challenge me to look beyond what was there to what could be– to look again.