Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Getting Hands On

Growing up, I was so attracted to books, to the idea of sitting in a far off room by myself, getting lost in a story that having to put my book down and do something else, anything else, always seemed like a punishment. Especially being required to work with my hands. Be it doing laundry, dishes, vacuuming, mowing the lawn, weeding gardens, or helping organize the garage or basement, if there was a task to be done, it was a task I would do anything to avoid.

Coming from a family filled with tradesmen, I was always the anomaly. From time to time, in the summers, I might join my father or my grandfather and work a little construction. I'd shovel dirt, hang drywall, cut board, and choke on the lung shredding particulates of fiberglass pink. The first I fell asleep on what seemed like foamy, comfy pink pillow of soft strands was also the last time, as I learned that spun glass has a way of making you pay for your indiscretions for a very long time, clinging tenaciously to the most inconvenient and hard to reach cracks and crevices a human body has. I learned and relearned a basic fact - I had no wish to follow in either my father or grandfather's footsteps. The trades were not for me.

Yet here I am, at the dawn of my fourth decade, finding that those very things I eschewed when young, have become the very things I feel a yearning to do. Visceral memories of time spent in my grandfather's workshop come flooding back. Helping him build bookcases, chairs, cabinets, and beds. Feeling the grain of the wood, smoothing it with sand paper, varnishing it, and sealing it. I remember my father taking me by the giant geodesic dome at Vancouver's Expo '86, pointing at it and proudly saying "I helped build that." And as I watch my kids tumble around the house, upending everything from one end to another, each day and every day, I cannot help but feel something inside, something urging me to go forth and make, to build. I see small beds, chairs, dressers, toy boxes, tree forts and more. Living, as I do, in a small apartment, there is no room for a workshop, for a large collection of tools, so all these thoughts are just that - thoughts.

Matthew Crawford, in his essay in the New York Times, Shopclass as Soulcraft, describes something similar to my own complaint. He was an academic, a reader, one who eschewed working with hands in order to pursue better goals, higher goals. But at some point he had an epiphany, that what he had thought was a higher goal, was more noble or better, became something else. Something less. When he finally decided to give up white collar work, trading life in the knowledge economy for days spent in greasy dungarees, it was as if he had found himself, and found where he needed to be.

I can't say that I have had the same experience as Crawford, but I feel the inclinations coming on. Maybe, one day, when I finally go back home, and find a home for myself and my family, a real home with a nice lawn, and space for a shed out back, I'll have a chance to find where that inclination leads.

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