Fighting with Wood

October 31, 2013

I am taking a woodworking class called Zen and the Art of Joinery.  To be clear there is nothing Zen or Artful about what I have done so far.  And, in case you don’t know, joinery is what it sounds like:  getting different pieces of wood to stay together without nails or screws.  I am finding it truly challenging on a number of levels that fascinate me.  And honestly, it’s watching all this play out that is keeping me going back each Tuesday evening despite the gravitational pull to stay home and the dread of feeling lame again.

Last week we were going to learn how to use a chisel.  The teacher was looking to use someone’s piece of wood with the  proper cuts and lines already in place. He took mine.  Looked at it.  Raised his eyebrows.  And looked for  a different one.  My cuts were crooked and of various depths and I was missing a crucial line that should have been drawn.  I felt a bit like an idiot.  Not because I can’t take a little ribbing, but more because I realized that this type of work doesn’t come naturally to me.  A lot of things come naturally to me and I’m used to picking things up easily.  Not woodworking.

So the teacher demonstrated how to use a chisel (on someone else’s piece of wood!) to create the space to make a joint.  (I should know what the joint we were making is called, but I don’t.)  I watched his demo carefully and was ready to try my hand on my piece of wood.  I picked up the chisel and immediately felt confused.  How was I supposed to hold it?  Where was I supposed to start?  I asked the teacher for help and he immediately got the “No Stop!” look on his face when I put the chisel on the wood.  He asked, “Does that feel comfortable?  Does it feel good?”  No, it didn’t.  He said it was like I was fighting my own body.  He showed me again what to do, but again, when I picked up the chisel I got in an awkward position.  I was making it much harder and more painful than it had to be.  Not because I wanted to do that…I didn’t.  But my body wanted to contort.

Using my fullest concentration and awareness, I was able to get in the right, most “natural” position and I did a passable job on the joint.  But I couldn’t stop thinking about how hard I had made it for myself.  And that made me think about how hard we can make other things for ourselves.  How maybe some things don’t need to be so painful if only we could shift our position.  For example, exercising regularly could be really hard and painful, but is there a position/way of thinking/strategy that would make it flow?  Or, looking for a job.  Is there literally a way to adjust how you do it so you’re not battling yourself.

The challenge, as I found out in my woodworking adventure is that often the new posture/position feels weird and unnatural.  As painful as the way we’re doing something feels, it’s what we know.  And it can be difficult to distinguish between one form of pain and another.  The thing to remember is that with practice, the better position/approach will become easier.  But the one in which you’re working against yourself will just continue to be hard.  If I keep practicing using the chisel in the correct way, I might someday be good at it.  If I keep doing it my instinctive way, I’m sure to quit woodworking as soon as this class is over.

Where do you fight yourself and possibly make things harder than they need to be?