I loved the smell of my high school carpentry shop. The shaved wood and sawdust emitted this odor of earth and life. Alas, they say that smell is our most powerful sense for recalling the memory of our experiences… smells can trigger powerful recall of moments in our life and people who have graced us.
Walking around our newly constructed house these past months as it was framed up from the ground, I have recalled my high school shop in that familiar smell of cut boards and planks. Mr. Johnson, the shop teacher, comes to mind. He was one of those wise and thoughtful teachers that one is fortunate to have. (I have another story together with him at a Hutterite colony at Pincher Creek involving listening to bootleg country music and drinking cherry wine… I write about that to speak of the breadth and diversity of his impact on my life.)
The most vivid memory I have of Mr. Johnson was learning how to use the hand planer. I recall my first project was a bread board. It was not going well. I had laminated the small planks of wood together with strips of mahogany between the larger ones of pine. I adjusted the depth of the blade of the hand planer for a shallow first pass. It felt sharp to my testing thumb. I held it in the way that Mr. Johnson has showed us. One hand firmly on the handle: the other on the guiding ball-grip at the front. As I pushed forward in what I thought was a smooth action for the full length, I was shocked to feel it grab and hesitate in the wood. It chattered on the surface. I pulled back and tried again. This was worse. By the third attempt, my bread board was becoming marked with missing chunks of wood and with grooves. I had chips and torn out pieces. Instead of a steady flow, the planer had grabbed and damaged the wood. I had none of the telltale rolls of even veneer coming from the planer that I had seen in the demonstration. Instead, I had fragments of butchered splinters and shards.
I called Mr. Johnson over. His explanation was something that he had said before, I must admit. It had not made sense until this moment. He gently took the planer from me as moved to the other end of the bench. And he pointed to the patterns in the wood I had not noticed before. The pattern was visible in lighter and darker lines from the way that tree had developed: the imprinted memory of the many seasons of life it had experienced as it struggled to live. This was the grain of the wood. It was my first meaningful introduction to the beauty and to the limitations of this wonderful medium.
As he pushed now with the planer, effortless thin ribbons appeared as his hands moved in one steady pass. It erased much of the mistakes of my failed attempts. My chips and grooves began to disappear as the wood yielded to the steady pressure of the planer. I could feel with my fingertips how the wood was now smooth as it lay over on itself in incredibly fine layers. I understood now how the blade of the planer glided over the layers when it moved in the same direction as these layers. My attempts had made a mess of things because I had tried to push the blade against the grain.
How often have I tried to make something beautiful of my life, to find a glide and flow, and to instead experience damage, chaffing, chipping and chattering?
Is this from working against my grain: not appreciating that I too have an ingrained pattern of being?
Do I take the the time to understand my layers: layers resulting from birthright gift and my growth in the seasons of life?
Do I feel with my fingertips the direction of my spiritual DNA and my steady weathering?