(Note: I’m writing a book about woodworking and life, a collection of old stories from this blog and new ones that you haven’t read yet because I haven’t written them yet. What follows is probably going to be my introduction chapter. Thanks for reading it, and for reading all that other stuff. I’ll keep you posted on progress.)
I didn’t know who she was, the woman in the corner. Old and bent with sharp, deep-set eyes, a darkish complexion, and long, wiry black hair. In her lavender sweatpants and oversized Hard Rock Cafe t-shirt, she looked something like a carnival gypsy who had taken a sick day.
Workers scrambled back and forth, Windexing glass, touching up paint, polishing doorknobs. Outside three men set up tables under a white canvas tent. In two days, the First Lady and Vice President of the United States would come here, to this almost-finished house, for a fundraising dinner. The whole scene vibrated like a kicked anthill.
But the old woman stood out of the way, just watching.
We were there to deliver a dining table. I was 28, four years into the woodworking apprenticeship I had landed in a desperate attempt to avoid using my seminary degree. Michael, my mentor, had trusted me to design and build a dining table for these new clients, all on my own, without his help. He was nudging me out of the nest. I guess he thought I was ready.
While the blanket-wrapped 16-foot-long table waited in the truck, Michael and I stood looking around the greatroom, taking it all in. It was a sophisticated and unfriendly building, the sort of place that clearly has no patience for your nonsense. The colors were cold, steely grays and blues. The materials were modern and sharp — concrete, glass, metal. The only reminder of nature was a limestone wall at one end, which was poorly lit and seemed forgotten.
I didn’t belong here. This house spoke a design language I didn’t understand, extended the sort of welcome meant for someone other than me. And worse, I feared, for something other than the honey-colored pine-wood table I’d brought. I’d come to a catered black-tie reception carrying a covered dish.
Michael was wrong, I thought. I’m not ready. Not for this.
I should have felt thrilled instead of terrified, proud instead of intimidated, confident rather than inadequate. But I’ve never been good at telling myself how to feel. I just wanted to run away. Who was I, a young ex-minister with no real training in design, to attempt sophisticated architectural furniture for wealthy power brokers and politicians? What if they hated it? Or what if we dropped it carrying it in? Or what if it’s not as well made as I think it is? What if, two evenings from now, Mrs. Clinton leans against it while telling a funny story and it collapses and she falls and hits her head and dies? Would it be my fault? What are the rules? Would I have to shave my head (I had hair back then) and flee to Mexico? Whatever the going rate was for bribing the Federales to hide me from the CIA, I didn’t have it.
We made our way around the room asking workers if Catherine, the owner, was around. We needed to know which way to bring the table in and where to put it. Nobody had seen her today. We’d have to figure it out ourselves.
The old gypsy watched, expressionless, as we exited for the truck.
Minutes later we returned with the new table, carefully rounding a steel-trimmed doorway. Suddenly, before Michael’s end had even cleared the turn, the old woman jumped to attention and moved straight toward us. She made to the side of the table, grabbing it firmly with both hands as if to help. Her bright smile quickly melted away the dark gypsy energy I had wrongly assigned her.
“So you’re the furniture makers!” she said happily, scooting along sideways.
“That’s us,” Michael panted. It had been a long trip through the dark labyrinthine house. “And you are…?”
“I’m Elaine, Catherine’s mother,” she said. “She told me you were bringing the table today and so I came to see it. I’ve been here for hours, waiting.”
“Hours, yes.” She said, shuffling slowly along. “I saw you in here a few minutes ago but I didn’t realize who you were or I would have said hello. And maybe you said who you were but my hearing is not so good, ever since I had a bad piece of fish in the Solomon Islands in 1977, where I was on vacation with my husband, God rest his soul.”
Michael nodded to me to indicate that we were now at about the right spot in the room. We set the table down gently and stood back.
Elaine, however, continued clutching it with great purpose. “One night I was lying there in our hut and everything just went quiet all of a sudden. I called my doctor the next morning and the very first question he asked was had I had any fish. And I said yes I had, and he said what kind, and I said…”
“Does this look about right?” I interrupted, indicating the placement. “Do you think this is about where the table goes?”
“What? I don’t know, how would I know?” she shrugged. “I never know what she’s thinking, she never asks my opinion about anything. I mean look at this place.” She released a hand from the table and waved it around the room. “All rock and steel and glass and cement. Not a piece of wood anywhere! I keep telling her it’s not good, that a house needs wood, but she doesn’t listen. They don’t listen. I’m just an old lady.” Michael snuck a smile at me as her hand again found the table top.
“But this,” she said, lovingly stroking the longleaf pine top as one would a young mare, “ahhh yes. This is wood. Woooood.”
“Do you like it?” Michael asked.
“She loves it.” Catherine appeared in the doorway. “Trust me, she loves it. It’s all she’s been talking about for weeks now.”
The daughter swept in carrying a leather clad checkbook in one hand and a gathering of red flowers in the other. She was a beautiful woman, at this moment both perfectly poised and doggedly frazzled. “What do you think about these, mother? For the tables outside?” Elaine shrugged at the flowers. Catherine looked at Michael. “She always says I never ask her opinion so I’m asking her opinion, and for once she doesn’t have one. Make a note of the date everyone,” she mock-announced to no one, “it might not happen again for a very long time!”
Her mother dismissed her with a tired wave.
“How much do I still owe you?” Catherine asked. Michael handed her the invoice. She set it on the table, along with the flowers, and stooped over to scratch numbers onto a check. “Thank you so much,” she smiled, ripping the paper out and handing it to him. She smiled, picked up the flowers and started to move away.
“Mrs. Martin!” I blurted nervously, stopping her just before she reached the door. I wanted to know. “Do you like it?”
“The table?” she said, perhaps not entirely sure who I was. “Absolutely! It looks just great, and I can’t wait to get the chairs around it. Did I show you all a picture? Very cool, all metal with black leather cushions. They arrive tomorrow. I hope, anyway!” She laughed and knocked twice on the table, and hurried out to the courtyard. I could see her through the window, gesturing changes to the men arranging the tables.
A small hand suddenly grabbed mine. I turned and looked down — very far down — to meet Elaine’s bright eyes. “It’s beautiful,” she said. “Absolutely beautiful. The clean lines, the shape of the feet, the way you arranged the boards, the perfect finish, the deep colors of the wood. Longleaf pine, is it?” I nodded yes. “I knew it. I asked my daughter before you got here what kind of wood it was and she couldn’t remember.” She gave me a Can you believe that? look before considering the table again. She breathed in deeply. “Ahhh, it’s just gorgeous.”
She gestured for Michael and I to come closer, as if she were about to tell us a great secret. “What you two do is a good thing. A good thing! Do you know that? Do you know the good you do?”
“We enjoy it,” I said, tasting the pathetic blandness in my words as they passed over my tongue.
“That’s good, I’m glad you do.” she said with a hint of dismiss. “But you need to know that it’s important. It’s a noble calling. Because…,” she touched a crooked finger to the center of my chest, lowered her voice, and all at once the sharp-eyed gypsy returned. “Because wood is good for the soul.”
A warm chill spilled down my arms and back. I felt exposed, somehow. The old woman squared herself to the table with slow, dramatic intention. She reached out and patted it gently with both palms. A priest consecrating a new altar. “Wood is good for the soul!!”
I thought she was crazy. Wood is good for the soul? What does that even mean?
For two decades now these words have been circling in my head, refusing to land. I’ve never really figured out what they mean. Maybe that’s why I still remember her so well, because I’m still trying. Or maybe it’s just because I want her to be right, I want to believe that what I’ve dedicated my life to is bigger than it seems. That working with wood is actually a spiritual calling.
After twenty years spent making wood furniture every day, I’m still not sure I could convincingly draw a straight line from the wood shop to the deepest places of my soul.
But what I can say without hesitation is this: Working with wood has healed me. Many times I’ve carried a shattered spirit into the shop and left, hours later, somehow put back together. Exactly how this works is a mystery to me, I just know that it usually does.
Creativity is always therapeutic, of course. But it’s more than just that. It’s specifically about wood. Wood, if you’re able to listen, will teach you about yourself. It will tell you a story. Made of growth rings, wood is a story. A frozen-in-time accounting of decades spent rooted in a single place. A time-lapse photograph of a summer when it rained more than usual, a diseased spring, a great winter fire, and many unremarkable years. It’s all there, in those lines.
By the time it reaches my shop, a piece of wood contains a wealth of wisdom. I believe that. It has lived many years, suffered and survived, struggled and thrived. It’s given birth to tiny leaves only to let them go, grown young branches only to see them snap off and fall. It has learned to bend against violent gusts so as not to break. Wood is made of stories. That’s all wood is, really. A gathering of stories, told from the inside out.
And story, my father taught me, is where the real wisdom is kept. The wisdom that actually helps. Detached ideas and disembodied philosophies are fine for a circle grad students sharing an evening bottle of red. But when you’re broken, really broken and confused, it’s a well-timed, well-told story that puts you back together. Someone has been where you are, felt what you feel. This is what they did, and this is how it turned out. You’re not alone. You’re not the first to go through this.
When I was nineteen I nearly died. I had a very rare sort of tumor growing in my chest, next to my heart. It was as big as a grapefruit, and the doctors didn’t even know what it was. Nobody could tell me what was going to happen, or whether or not it was even malignant. Friends from my parents’ church visited my hospital room in a steady stream with encouragements about how good these doctors are and how strong God’s healing power is. It was all very kind, but none of it helped.
Then one night a man I barely knew, a man named Bob I think, came in and sat down. “When I was your age,” Bob said, “I had a huge tumor in my chest. They didn’t know what it was. I nearly died. They took it out, it never grew back, and I was fine. I came to tell you that.” I looked at him, probably sixty years old and seemingly very healthy. He smiled, patted my hand, and left. Something deep inside of me let out a long breath. Bob was fine. I will be fine. The next morning, rolling down the hallway toward surgery, I closed my eyes and pictured Bob’s smiling, healthy face. It was all I needed.
Working with wood is like listening to Bob. It gives me wisdom I can actually use. Unlike Bob’s story, though, wood shop stories offer their wisdom as metaphor. Like all the great fables and parables. I have to do a little work to consider how a bullet embedded deep inside a board of mesquite, healed over years ago and hidden but still in there, is like the time in fifth grade where the prettiest girl in the class called me fat. Or how planning a frame-and-panel door to allow just the right space for the panel to move with the changes in humidity (so it won’t buckle if it swells too big or gap if it shrinks too small) is like navigating space in a relationship, trying to figure out what is too much and what is not enough.
I doubt I’m the only woodworker who considers these sorts of things. In woodworking there is, after all, plenty of time to think. Which may be why all the woodworkers I’ve ever known are gentle, generous people. This work teaches us, heals us, grounds us, humbles us.
This book, then, is a love letter to woodworking on behalf of all woodworkers. An extended Thank You note for all the ways it has made us who we are, for all the tools it has given us to move through the non-shop portions of our lives. My hope is simply to gather a collection of woodshop wisdom-stories, parables to prove the old lady right. That wood really is, as it turns out, good for the soul.
But it’s not only, or even primarily, a book for woodworkers (as if the world needs another woodworking book). It’s more an invitation to you, the non-woodworker, to visit the inner-sanctums of our shops and share their soul healing power. It’s a monastery with an open door, calling the weary traveler to come inside, quiet yourself for a time, be still, and let the wood do the work.