Have I Wasted My Life?
If you visit my wood shop and look around for a while, you'll probably notice them, and you'll probably say something.
Something like, "Wow that's a lot of nice looking wood in those barrels. You just gonna burn all that?" And if you're a blunt person -- say, not from the South -- you might shake your head and add, "Seems like a waste if you ask me."
It's right now in the calendar, October, when my scrap wood supply levels always peak. No fires in the stove since March means I've been packing away all the little end cuts and strips and mess-ups from seven months of woodworking. Like some balding oversized squirrel, I hoard/prepare for winter all summer long.
And it's nice wood, mostly. Expensive hardwoods like walnut, about $12 per board-foot. So if I cut, say, six inches from the end of a board that's ten inches wide and two inches thick, that's a $10 little piece of firewood in that barrel. One of dozens.
Woodworking leaves scraps. As hard as I try to use the whole pig every time, it's just not possible. There's no convincing the trees to grow to my exact specifications, so for every wooden part I have to start with a board that's bigger than it should be.
Some crafts just work this way. Michaelangelo once said, "I see the angel in the marble and then I carve until I set him free," which surely left big piles of beautiful, expensive stone all over his floor. Piles that made his friends shake their Italian heads at the wastefulness. "Mama mia!," they would say, twisting their pointy waxed mustaches.
We worry about wasting things. And we should. Waste is economically foolish and environmentally irresponsible.
We worry about wasting time, too.
I'm at that age when "Have I wasted my life?" starts to creep into the list of horrific questions that keep me awake at 4 a.m. Not that I stay awake til 4 a.m., ever. That's just when I lie back down after answering Mother Nature's text* and then, in the total and terrifying darkness, I worry instead of sleep. About my kids, about money, about America, about my reputation since the divorce, about my wife, about that new pain in my arm. And these days, increasingly, about all my choices that led to this moment and how many of them have meant wasting a significant fraction of the only life I was given.
And the older I get, the more impotent the platitude "Don't look back, only look forward!" starts to seem. There's just not as much forward any more, proportionally. Most of my story is back.
Have I wasted my life?
I have a friend, my age, who just went through her second divorce. "All that time," she says, "all that sacrifice, all that energy. All that love. For what?"
I have another friend, a few years older, who has worked very hard his whole life at a big faceless tax firm, trying to climb the ladder, only to get a few rungs up. He rarely enjoyed any of it, he tells me, and now he's facing retirement. He barely knows his kids, he doesn't have any hobbies. For what?
I don't know anyone my age or older who doesn't sometimes fantasize about getting in a time capsule, whizzing back to themselves at age 18, grabbing themselves by the shoulders and shaking some sense into themselves to make better choices. The closest we can get is urging our kids not to make our same mistakes, which we all do by the way.
But the thing you might not know about the scraps in my firewood barrel, from first glance, is that all of them contributed a lot to the final product. Each of them, without exception, played an important part in the piece of furniture that eventually emerged. Even as they sit here in the garbage waiting to be burned.
This piece here, before I cut it off the end of that table leg, was where I clamped the whole thing down to work on it. I could never have made that leg without it, even though I eventually cut it off.
That one, that's an errant dovetail joint, my first try at those drawer dovetails. They were way too loose, so I reset the jig accordingly and the next ones were perfect.
This long curved scrap, the one with the small knots. That piece of wood wasn't quite right for the chair leg, but having it here as an option allowed me to make the better choice.
And by the way, all of them will soon serve to keep my shop warm and my fingers from getting numb as I work on my next piece this winter.
Waste? Waste is an interesting idea, because it doesn't really exist. Waste is always an interpretation, always a meaning that's been given to a piece of wood, or a chunk of time, or a sum of money. Nothing in itself is waste unless we choose to believe it is.
If I think about my wood scraps this way, the $12 per-board-foot no longer hurts. They are necessary -- absolutely necessary -- for me to make my furniture as good as it is. I can toss them into the stove without even a wince.
And if I look back on all of my wasted years, wasted energy, wasted love, wasted time, wasted ambition, and realize that every single bit of it helped form me into the person I am right now -- whom I happen to like, by the way -- I can fall asleep a little easier as I listen to the toilet refill.
My own first marriage and first career, what a massive amount I learned from those "wasted" times. About how to treat people, about how not to treat people. About how to love, about how not to love. About who I am, about who I am not. I look at my own heart and realize it's so much bigger, so much more tender and open and wise than it was when I was 18, or 25, or 32, and how it only got here because of all the time I "wasted." And how no amount of shoulder-shaking from future-me would have grown me into the person I am right now. There was no other path, no other choices that would have gotten me right here.
And my two friends, those tender, compassionate souls. And so many others I love so much. We are all like rocks sitting on a beach for centuries while waves and sand pound us without mercy, slowly scouring our edges away and sculpting us into impossibly beautiful, imperfectly perfect shapes. Warm, smooth, heavy, earthy, healing to the touch.
Can anyone call that wasted time?
* Nobody actually calls anymore.