Last week I made the wooden bowl pictured here. Crafting this bowl is one of my most satisfying accomplishments in quite some time. It’s also a surprise that I could actually do it, adding to the pleasure and humor of the thing. At this point you may be saying to yourself, “This poor guy has lived a pretty shallow, uninteresting life.” But hear me out. The point is that I made the bowl with my hands.
Jean Anne and I have just returned from our annual pilgrimage to the John C. Campbell Folk School, at Brasstown, North Carolina, in the Blue Ridge Mountains, far from the city. The school is one of the most creative learning centers in the country. Based on the Danish folk school model, it was founded in 1925 by John Campbell’s wife, Olive. Today it provides year-round weeklong and weekend classes for adults in craft, art, music, dance, cooking, gardening, nature studies, photography, and writing. As the school’s literature says, students’ experiences “in non-competitive learning and community life are joyful and enlivening”–exactly what we needed!
Folk schools are non-competitive, allowing students to learn at their own rate. As the website explains, “The folkehojskole (folk school) had long been a force in the rural life of Denmark. These schools-for-life helped transform [the people of] the Danish countryside into a vibrant, creative force. The Campbells . . . establish[ed] such a school in the rural southern United States as an alternative to the higher-education facilities that drew young people away from the family farm.”
This year I took a course in wood turning. I was taught by two highly skilled instructors how to carve a bowl out of a quartered log, a piece of wood in all ways similar to countless pieces of fuel I feed to our wood-burning stove with nary a thought. Another thing that was so remarkable is that at first I couldn’t imagine where the bowl “resided in” the piece of wood. Slowly, by starting out on the project though feeling I was working somewhat in the dark, I learned to see. And I recalled that after Michelangelo had completed his “David,” he was asked to explain how he’d taken a raw block of marble and carved the elegant yet strong figure of the young man. “He was in there,” the sculptor replied. “As I carved the marble away, piece by piece, I simply set him free—and there he stands.”
I chuckled to myself at that thought, knowing my 3-D imaginative gifts were far from the Italian master’s. But as I worked on the lathe, learning patience and focus, slowly finding the bowl’s best nature and adapting my hand and eye to what in nature that might be, I found myself becoming engrossed in the activity. I was soon completely caught in the moment. And I started to see, too, how therapeutic it is to work with your hands, bringing your own hands and eyes, your own energy into harmony with nature’s energy.
There is a frequent match play—a verbal game, where we fence about unanswerable, and in most cases highly impractical, questions—“What is more difficult, more trying, to work with your hands or be making a living in a manner that is less physical, more brainy?” My answer is who cares? Particularly because there is a cultural elitism that believes folks who work with their hands are a notch below cerebral wage-earners. Rather, I suggest that a more rewarding exploration would be to reflect on which type of work is more nurturing? And, following on that, how can we make the other type of work, the head-centered kind, more nurturing too?
Understand that I am not suggesting that we slide out of our current vocations and apprentice to a blacksmith or a cobbler or a wheelwright. What I am suggesting is that instead of relying on the latest self-help book to right a teetering psyche via reading the book, a mental activity, let’s think about making a quilt or binding a book—really! When Charles Darwin was worrying over a difficult issue, he would go into his garden and weed the flower beds. Winston Churchill built stone fences when his decisions and responsibilities were weighing too heavily. Surely you know countless individuals who have been eager to retire into a more intensive study and practice of their favorite hobby, often one that caused them to create things with their eyes and hands in concert.
The fact is that working with our hands is one of the most powerful forms of meditation I can imagine. When you turn wood as it spins on the lathe and your cutting tool unearths the layers of cellulose fibers, you see a constantly changing symphony of rings. Colors appear against a background as you discover embedded knots and imperfections. Can you imagine a more magical way to employ your hands and your mind! And all of this benefit is without even mentioning the obvious: at the end of the project, you have made something new, something fine that wasn’t there before; and since you are now an artisan, not an artist, the new creation is beautiful and useful.
Because of my experience at the folk school, I’ve come to see that the best way to flourish at your thought-work daily is to make sure you take time daily, or perhaps for a good part of the weekend, to work with your hands. If your business has a mission of understanding more closely the world or some aspect thereof while improving the lives of others—and whose does not?—then work toward completing that mission by sculpting, building, making something every week. Here’s why: J. Bronowski, in his 1973 book The Ascent of Man, writes that “Discovery is a double relation of analysis and synthesis together. As an analysis, it probes for what is there; but then, as a synthesis, it puts the parts together in a form by which the creative mind transcends the bare limits, the bare skeleton, that nature provides. . . . Thus, we have to understand that the world can only be grasped by action, not by contemplation” or intellectual problem-solving at our desks or in conference. “The hand is more important than the eye,” Bronowski concludes.
As I turned the lathe and carved my bowl last week, I was practicing bringing together analysis and synthesis of sensed data—wood, carving tool, force, motion, my hand in time—to make and do something—learning a practice that will help me to do a better and healthier job daily in what some people call my real work. But now I know that there’s more to preparing for that work than I thought. Plus, Jean Anne and I have a light-filled wooden bowl to use in our house.