Make it nice. It’s the role of effort. Is it worth it? Can things be made better than they are? A lot of things life throws at you can make you believe otherwise, that there is no point in trying. People can sometimes make this even worse because of our tendency to disappoint.
And then you become a woodworker. At least, that is the thing that time and again gives me faith, through small lessons that can be writ large.
You have to take something really gnarly to bring this lesson home. Perhaps a rotted old stump of wood will do, something bound for the dump or the burn pile. Could it become something better with a bit of human intervention?
Cutting the wood apart reveals the story of entropy - nature working on something to bring it to ruin. The tendency of rot is written all over the face of the wood, nature in decay, en route to death. It’s the same tendency we fight in the human soul, the rush to ruin that all things seem to be pursuing like lemmings over a cliff. It’s perhaps what makes people feel hopeless in the first place, the sense that at the end of all this, we will be no more, and maybe there is not much purpose to the short time we have on earth.
The stump became a pair of side tables. It took a lot of intervention on my part. Care really, to make bad things better, then to my surprise, beauty at the end of it all. It’s a strange punch line that nature, combined with a bit of sweat equity can arrive at beauty, in some clumsy walk toward eternity that we cannot yet fathom.
All of woodworking is an object lesson in this kind of process. You start out with rough interventions to shape a piece of wood. Next comes a bit of fine tuning with a form in mind that has not yet come to be. The wood is still unsightly. Slowly, things turn around and you sit back in wonder realizing miracles can happen in unexpected ways.
That set of side tables was so well liked that my daughter asked for a set of bedside tables to match. It was the same process all over again, finding spalted maple to bring back from the dead. It looked pretty bad. Cutting and book-matching the top made a useful surface for all that twisted grain to happen. Still there were the voids and holes, cracks in the wood. I applied epoxy resin with some dry earth pigments added in. Interventions like this prolong the ugly phase that you are forced to live with meanwhile, wondering. I have to hold back the tendency to doubt, and to wait things out long enough to move the project along to the next step.
Sanding out the epoxy, the ugly cracks and voids blended in with the grain, like something that was supposed to have been there from the beginning. The wood is starting to become surprisingly beautiful. I believe there is a lesson in all of this I must learn over and again, that things won’t always be ugly, that added effort helps, that progress is hard to gauge close up. We really need a bit of time to see things flesh out. It’s part of the process when you want to make something bad, better.
The time invested was not really meaningless. Staring at something which has become beautiful teaches you that. It’s the lesson human beings never really seem to take in, that the object in the end is beauty. We can’t believe it, because in our mechanical and scientific world, little place is given to beauty. We reduce it to matters of attraction between a man and a woman, but really it is much more. Life is supposed to be beautiful. I believe it. Every time I pick up a plane to smooth something that is rough, to make straight something that is crooked, I hear the words of scripture ring out in the back of my mind. It’s the purpose Jesus proclaimed for himself, like the voice of one crying out in the wilderness;
“Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain. The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together”
Looking down the end of my plane, my scraper, the pieces of sandpaper that will all take part in shaping and moulding this piece of wood, my heart leaps within me. Beyond what seems meaningless and ugly, in spite of myself, and all other evidence to the contrary, we are bound for beauty. I believe it. You and me, and along the way, some pieces of wood that are teaching me some object lessons about faith.