“I just want to help”

Every firefighter, every service member among us, has uttered those words at one time or another. So when she told me she was moving to a new house, my first reaction was to try and help, but we weren’t there anymore. Firemen are often said to be strong of back and weak of mind, willing to work for beer, barbecue or the prospect of just doing the right thing. I wasn’t going to be asked to help moving her into the new house, not this time. What could I do? How could I help, from a distance?

“Well, I guess I need three bar stools. Maybe you could find some on Craigslist or something. That would help.”

Craigslist, my left foot. And new wasn’t an option, because that would be the easy way, and that just makes no sense in my warped mind. As luck would have it, the old brewery right next to the distillery where I work had been tossing out their old broken bar stools in the abandoned alley we share. With the advice and help of my friend Sara, an accomplished finish carpenter, those broken down pieces of trash migrated down to my basement to begin the process of rebuilding and refinishing. And there is where I had to face the hard prospect of trying to create something with meaning from beneath my home, hoping she’d like the results.

Three years ago, I had a large shop next to a large house out in the country, with a wide complement of woodworking tools that allowed me to build things as inspiration struck, often with mixed results. I now rent a small house in town with a cramped basement, and most of my tools have been sold to pay off debt or just out of a sense that that particular phase of my life was over. I kept a few, but I really hadn’t done much in years. I found myself at an odd crossroads of trying to be a part of a change in life that she wasn’t too sure she wanted me in, and yet was off-handedly given the opportunity to BUILD a new part of it. If you are going to try and rebuild yourself, rebuild your relationships, it often seems that the best forms of therapy can come from rebuilding someTHING with your hands. It might also explain why I took up baking things this winter. I can build delicious treats for people, start with raw ingredients and CREATE something that makes someone smile. Woodworking and baking. Weird.

So that’s how I found myself in a cramped corner of my tiny basement, looking my old belt sander in the eye for the first time in several years, its tattered old belt still worn out from whatever the last project it worked on, seemingly a lifetime ago. The time had come in the project to sand down the hand-built stool tops, one of the final phases of the rebuild. Each step of the way has been therapeutic for me, as I imagine the lives these stools have lived in the very brewery that her great-grandfather actually started, imagine them in the future bringing a comfortable place in her kitchen for  her family and friends to sit, relax, eat and visit. I find myself grinning as I witness the former worn glory of the oak being brought out with each sanding and coating and finishing. Such a beautiful and simple medium, wood; so easy to lose yourself in the grain. Working here and there in the evenings was a way for me to stay connected to her as we weren’t talking much, and by pouring my soul into the wood, I was able to let my heart relax and mind let go, if only for a little while. The belt sander is a powerful, curious and glorious tool, one that can strip away so much roughness of a project so cleanly, that you’re left with the realized vision of what once only appeared to be a rough idea in your mind. Clamped down, with a fresh belt of 120 grit slid onto its rollers, I plugged it in for the first time in far too long.

There was no way I was going to wear a dust mask. Not this time. I’d waited too long to smell the fresh shavings, to not get coated in a super-fine layer of that dust that comes from that last shaping. Alone in a cramped tiny room of my basement, the dull buzz of the sander working its way across the project, and I realize that I’m smiling, genuinely, for the first time in so long. Shaping as therapy. Shaping wood, shaping mindsets, shaping my very soul back to where it feels right.

I’d spent so long trying to buck whatever systems I found that going against the grain had become a second nature to me. Now, as I stood alone in my basement I realized how much more rewarding it felt to be productive FOR someone, FOR something, FOR a good reason. I was trying to rebuild my life, and hoping to begin to rebuild my relationship with her. It’s taken the shape of rebuilding some old bar stools in my basement. Who knows where it will lead, but as she told me recently, “if it seems tricky, try going WITH the grain.” 

My old belt sander and a new beginning. Going with the grain. That’s reason enough to make your soul smile if only for a moment.