So many people are shut up tight inside themselves like boxes, yet they would open up, unfolding quite wonderfully, if only you were interested in them. - Sylvia Plath
“Miss, es no bueno wood, es caca!”
So said Lisa’s tree guy when she asked him to save her a chunk of the enormous limb that was currently lying across her front yard. She’d told him her friend Mark was a woodworker and wanted to make something out of it.
“Porque el quiere?,” he pleaded. “Es caca!!”
Assuming my Spanish still works, I don’t think Julio was impressed by the quality of this branch. When I finally picked it up at Lisa’s house last week I could see why. Es verdad, it definitely looks like caca.
Months ago we had an epic windstorm in Texas. Lots of damage. Trees and power lines across the state took a mad beating. Lisa, my friend since Jr. High, lives a couple of hours away. She posted a picture on Facebook.
I got excited. I couldn’t tell exactly what kind of tree it was, but it was definitely hardwood. And I immediately noticed the knots and burls sticking out all around. Most people see these as ugly imperfections, brought on by stress and damage and traumatic injury. Bulges and bumps that interfere with the visual flow and pleasing proportion of the tree.
Caca. Porque el quiere?
But like a kid holding an unbroken geode, woodworkers can sometimes see past the outer ugly of a tree and right to the inner stunning. We know what knots and burls on the outside mean for the inside.
“Save me a piece!,” I barked. She did.
Five months later I’m rolling the three foot log down her driveway toward my van. Bugs and rotting wood are falling out of the center from both ends. Julio is starting to seem like a very perceptive man. I privately wonder if I’ve done the right thing by asking her to keep it.
The next morning at my shop I pull it out of the van and look more closely. The center is completely rotten, which leaves an outer cylinder about three inches thick at best. I grimace in doubt and pull the ripcord on my chainsaw, hoping to carve something – anything – usable from this big chunk of firewood at my feet. It’s not going to make boards or planks of any real length.
Maybe a bowl.
There was a man at the church where I worked named Bert. His personal mission was to help us all care more about the older people among us. I don’t mean care for them, I mean care about them. I think we cared for them okay, by which I mean visiting them when they were sick, providing classes and activities, being kind to them on Sundays. But caringabout them means, ya know, actually really caring. Finding them genuinely interesting to be around and spend time with.
I can only speak for myself and confess that I didn’t really care about the older folks, not in that way. Given the choice, I’d decide to hang out with someone my own age every time. I’m not really proud of this, I guess, but I don’t think it’s all that unusual either. It’s a reality of life that most people are okay with.
But Bert was not. He’d been a member at that church since forever, he’d grown old with these older people. He’d known most of them since they were my age or younger. He knew there was a lot more to them than meets the eye, that within their gray heads and weakening hearts were incredible untold histories, impossible talents, and unfathomable passions. Most of these memories were deeply buried now, however, beneath decades of silence.
And it broke his heart to watch us all blindly walk past them to get to the ‘more interesting’ people.
Bert simply wanted us to see these hidden things and be interested in them. He wasn’t wanting any new programs or resources from the church, he didn’t have an agenda or a proposal for the leadership. He just wanted us all to see what he sees. Like when you play a new favorite song for a friend and sit quietly hoping they’ll love it as much as you do.
So years ago Bert came up with a simple plan. Collect as many stories from the old people as they would offer and then tell them to as many young people as he could get to listen. That’s it. Now retired, Bert had nothing but time, energy, and a car that would take him to houses and nursing homes all over Austin. Once there he would simply ask questions, listen, and take mental notes.
I found a round knot on one side of the log, where a branch had broken off years ago, that looked big enough to maybe become a bowl. Not that I’ve ever made a bowl before, but I’ve seen people do it on TV. And I have a confidence (bordering on arrogance) that I can figure anything out. (This belief is not supported by the actual events of my life, I should quickly say.) So I carved a small bit away from the log, silenced the saw, and brought the piece into the shop.
To get the piece ready for the lathe I needed to flatten what would become the bottom of the bowl on the bandsaw, a very tricky proposition since there’s really no flat bit anywhere on the piece that can rest sturdily against the saw’s table as I cut it. Half way through the cut the massive saw ripped it from my fingers with great, noisy violence. The chunk slammed against the table and spun off onto the floor. The suddenly-bent blade now thump-thump-thumped on its wheels. Ruined. Before reaching for the off switch I quickly counted all my fingers. Ten. I replaced the blade and finished the cut, more carefully this time.
I screwed the flat bottom of the piece to my never-before-used ‘bowl chuck’ and attached it to the lathe. The whole thing was so heavy and unbalanced that when I turned it on the poor machine immediately started doing the washing-machine dance across the floor. But there wasn’t much to be done about it, I’d already made it as round as I could on the bandsaw. So I grabbed my gouge tool and started cutting.
I followed the lathe around the shop, the two of us looking like some slow dance where one partner has had way too much coffee and is jittering uncontrollably. At every rotation the wood banged violently against my tool. Tiny chips flew everywhere, bringing the blank slowly, slowly, slowly into round — more balanced — which in turn slowly calmed the nerves of my over-caffeinated dance partner. After a time she began to spin more steadily, so I dragged her back where she belongs and started carving out the inside of the bowl.
“Es caca!,” I heard Julio saying. “Porque are you doing this? The wood is rotten, it’s going to shatter into pieces. Es not worth your time, amigo!”
“Shut up Julio! Quit being so negativo!!” I was mentally yelling at a man I’d never met as I dug my gouge deeper into the bowl, knowing that as I removed more and more material and the questionable wall grew thinner and thinner there was every chance it would shatter into splinters. And I’d be left with nothing but a floor full of wood crumbs, a ruined saw blade, and a small failure-pain in my heart.
Bert must have known that it could backfire. Whenever he asked for time in Sunday morning worship to show a video-biography he’d made about one of his elderly friends, whenever he interrupted the ‘important’ matters of an elders meeting to tell a story from the 1940′s, whenever he disturbed the forward momentum of the church family to make us stop and look back, he must have known there was a great risk we’d be annoyed rather than moved. He’s a smart man.
But Bert carried on anyway. Not because he’s particularly aggressive by nature, but because he knew without any doubt that there was profound beauty beneath the aging skin of these people that needed to be seen. That begged to be appreciated. For the good of us all.
And I will confess that I did find it an annoying interruption at times. I wanted to move on plans, talk about goals, push into the future. And Bert made us stop and consider the past. In his presence I often felt like a little kid who’d had too much Koolaid, forced to sit still in a circle and listen while the teacher reads a story.
But I also have to admit, now looking back, that what Bert did had a profound effect on me. Because of Bert I know things about those gray-hairs I never would have guessed, things I still remember today even though all my ‘important’ goals and plans have now long been forgotten. I know that Stewart drove General MacArthur’s jeep during the war, that Judy and Joan (both preacher’s wives) used to dress up as nuns and knock on random church members’ doors and sing, and then run away, just for kicks. I know how and why Phoebe became the amazing artist she was, that Ruth attended the same church for all of her 92 years before she died, that Jack was once the chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court. I now know some of the painful stories too, the ones of burying spouses and siblings and even children, of surviving depression and disease, of fighting in wars and watching friends die. I see so much more in these people now than I once did.
And through this, Bert helped me develop a new habit of looking for the beauty within. Looking deeper, past the knots and burls and scars of time. Knowing from experience that there is something underneath it all that’s worth knowing about, something you could never have guessed without taking the time to uncover it.
After about an hour of slowly, patiently digging away at the now-much-smaller piece of wood, I turned off the lathe to take a look. My heart surged. The bowl was far more beautiful than I’d even hoped it would be, swirled with deep luminescent colors and wildly contrasting textures. Each one telling a story of something the tree had been through. A storm, an unusually severe season, a disease, and unexpected stress, a year of abundant rain. A symphony of stories, happy and sad, together in one little bowl. None of which would ever have been known had I not taken just a little time to draw them out.
Take that, Julio.