Working in Wood

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It’s somewhat ironic that I’m working through the Druidic curriculum on Fire at the moment, because I’m doing quite a large amount of work in wood. It’s strange, of course, because wood is flammable, and is not really thought of as a permanent material; fire seems more connected with alchemy and metal work. And yet, here I am: working in wood.  The Adirondack chair has really served as an initiation — it got me comfortable sawing and measuring; and now you couldn’t keep me out of the sawdust if you tried.

Above, you’ll see the puppet armature doing a semblance of a walk. This will be part of an ‘army’ of puppets walking across the stage as part of the spring musical.  That’s not all of it, of course; we’ll have to make costumes for it.Wood working And the costumes will have to fit.  That will be rather difficult, of course; I’m good at sewing, but I’m no puppet tailor.  Much work to be done here.

All the same, the basics of the design are set.  The puppet has a stick for a head, some jointed arms and legs, and a block attached to its spine (a wooden dowel) for the puppeteer’s handling-pole.  The legs are similarly jointed.  Basically, the whole thing is styrofoam, basswood and balsa wood doweling, and some steel eye-screws.  Not much to work with.

But enough.  Once we dress it up in a uniform made of red and black felt, and a tennis ball head, and some bits of gold braid hot-glued into place, it will be hard to pretend it isn’t a tiny soldier in a 19th century ‘redcoat’ uniform.  It will be somewhat impressive. There’s likely to be a good outcome on this one. I’m off to a good start.

And then there’s the little magnet toy.Untitled This is a funky little wooden frame that supports a magnet above the ground on a swing arm; and at the base is a string with a needle tied and glued to it.  We made four of these yesterday in the Design Lab — and the kids had a blast. From their perspective, they were making magnetic toys. From my perspective, they were safely learning to use drills, saws, C-clamps, sanding tools, a utility knife, and a hot-glue gun.  Pretty impressive, altogether.  I was pleased.

The thing that’s particularly useful about these two tiny toys is that they teach complicated tool use, and interesting things about the human body or about magnetism, for not a lot of money.  They present really powerful learning opportunities for not a lot of money; and my three students continued to refine and develop these toys far beyond what I planned on teaching — they also overstayed the end of the class by almost 40 minutes.

The chair, of course, is the big project right now.  I’m working on that at the Eli Whitney Museum, which has great programs for kids and at least some programs for adults (I’m saving my pennies for their hand-built kayak class!).

Adirondack chair class The chair has taught me a good deal about this kind of furniture design, and I’m thrilled with what I’ve learned.  But more than just learning how to make a chair, I’ve learned how to work with wood; and I have a good many ideas about the next couple of projects that I intend to build.  This is going to get exciting, I’m sure.

But think about that:  In the space of a few months, I’ve gone from being a non-worker in wood, to a worker in wood.  Sure, I built a loom with my friend Matt a few years ago.  That was awesome.  But it wasn’t initiatory in the same way that the chair was.  It wasn’t an introduction to all of the tools of carpentry, in the same room with ten other people struggling with the same crafts and the same issues of measuring and drilling and planing and carving and chiseling.

Carving a knife handle

And then there was the knife handle.  Wow, that was hard.  I gave myself numerous blisters and almost — almost but not quite — cut myself numerous times.  And then, all of a sudden, about fifteen hours into the project of making that knife handle, things … shifted.  Suddenly, my hand just sort of knew which kind of chisel to use, and how deep, and when it was time to sharpen the carving tool again.  I shifted from being an utter rube at the skill, to being an apprentice.

Think about that.

Somehow, in the process of working with one material over several weeks (years if you include the loom), half a dozen skills all came together at once — how to put in screws, how to connect different pieces of wood, how to think through a larger project from beginning to end, how to frame next actions as a To Do list, how to develop my own ideas into a complete project from beginning to end.

That’s design thinking.  In my school’s nascent design tradition, I did research, I asked for help from experts, I brainstormed solutions to problems, I prototyped some designs, I visualized (drew) and chose (critiqued) a specific set of design parameters in several projects.  I encountered problems, I named them, and I solved them (in one material, at least).  Others may be farther along this curve than I am, with this or with other materials.  But I’ve learned some key skills along the way — and having a process for executing the design (carrying it from raw materials to finished products, through several setbacks or difficulties), seems to give me a leg up on learning the skill.

How do we design such initiatory experiences for our students, when we’re starting up Maker curriculums in our schools?  How do we provide students with the key skills needed to work with paper, or with wood or with metal or with glass or with computers?  How do we keep those projects from becoming static and ordinary?

Tai Chi Y3D225: Too Fast

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It’s hard to do tai chi too slowly.  There’s always a way to take it down another speed level — increasing the number of breaths per movement for example, or deliberately changing the typing.

It’s really easy to do it too fast, though, and that was the deal today.  Once I’ve started at a given speed, it’s really hard to slow down.  It’s like the car has been put into gear and it’s moving; but there’s also a downhill start to take into consideration; the brakes are also not as functional as I’d like them to be.

And this suggests that there’s a lesson here that I haven’t taken advantage of yet — how to regulate my speed in the middle of a tai chi progression. I should be able to start slow and end fast; and I should be able to start fast and end slow.  Curiously enough, this is an essential practice. Being able to shift speed is to be able to mess with a putative opponent’s timing. When one considers that the “greatest enemy” in tai chi is the self, this makes a great deal of sense. Learning to move according to one’s own wishes for timing is a tremendous power.  It’s the super-power, in fact (or one of them, anyway).Being able to manage one’s own time, and one’s own movement, is both discipline and freedom.

Clearly, I have some things to work on.

Tai Chi Y3D224: Finding What Matters

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John Michael Greer’s column today is about the problem of marginal costs, and return on investment. That’s sort of a boring way of saying that he’s explaining what happens when disintermediation occurs — when the folks who insert themselves into the pay structure between you and your doctor, say, like insurance executives and adjusters, malpractice lawyers and so on, can no longer be afforded, not by a single doctor, but by a society as a whole.  It’s an interesting piece, and I recommend it.

Adirondack chair class

Chiseling out the arm-pocket

Yesterday, I completed the construction of the principal structural elements of my Adirondack chair, at the Eli Whitney Museum. It’s coming along nicely, but I still have to saw and shape the front skirt of the chair.

the most interesting part of yesterday’s class was chiseling out the back-support board.  A chisel turns out to be very much like an unboxed plane with a very sharp edge.  I didn’t cut myself, nor did anyone else in the class, but the resulting smoothness was worthy of respect.  Holy cow, I thought, I did that with nothing but a sharpened blade and hand-strength?

In that context, today’s tai chi practice took on a new cast.  What we practice, we become.  If I practice carpentry, even if it is only to make Adirondack chairs, I will get better at this skill.  My chair designs will become more regular, more orderly, and more beautiful.  I will get better at judging the angle for the back, and planting the screws accurately. I will drill elegantly-shaped countersinks of exactly the right depth.  My apprentice chair will serve as a useful model for what comes next.

Adirondack chair class

The chair, without the backplate installed yet.

The apprenticeship of my tai chi practice was back in the late 1990s, under Laddie Sacharko of Star Farm Taiji.  And I did a hundred-day commitment to tai chi practice back in 2006, which ended on March 8 2006.  During that sequence, I was only writing an entry every ten days or so (here’s day 90, and day 45, and day 30), or really when I felt like I had something to say about tai chi.

And what I see, is that this earlier effort to begin a tai chi practice on a daily basis contains the seeds of what I’m doing now as a school teacher — a maker of digital code and a maker of physical objects. It leads me to believe that I’m on the right path these days: because I continue to be a maker of physical objects, and a digital creator, and I continue to be a tai chi practitioner.

I said in my interview the other day that having a daily practice is making a commitment to some kind of unfolding-of-self.  We don’t know what emerges from ourselves when we make a commitment to a daily practice, but something will emerge.  A seed, under the right conditions, must blossom into the kind of plant that it is; and we, too, are seeds.  Daily practices — whether of tai chi or meditation, or magic, or druidry, or carpentry or improv or what-have-you — are about creating the right conditions so that we open, blossom and bring forth fruit.

Tai Chi Y3D223: Dynamic Motion

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It was a good practice today.  I did the two qi gong forms reasonably well. There was some cracking and crackling during Five Golden Coins, though. I haven’t really revved up this form in a few days, and there was some built-up tension that got released.  Awesome.

I really screwed up the tai chi form, though.  I got halfway through, lost my place, and had to begin again because I couldn’t sort out where I was in the form.  The second time through was nearly perfect, and very close to the correct speed.

Sort of a busy day today.  I’m not sure what’s coming my way, aside from the Adirondack Chair class this evening and quite a bit of make-up work from some of my classes.  But my spider-sense is tingling, as Peter Parker might say.  It feels like it’s going to be an important day.

Tai Chi Y3D222: Keep Working

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It’s funny. Things that I thought would never take off, take off; things that I think will take off, somehow never do.  I was fairly sure that For the Mighty Dead would be a great poem for this time of year, and lots of people would read it (as in, hundreds of people in just a few days); and that my Imbolc Hymn, which brought a mighty wave last February and March (as in, thousands), would sink in obscurity.  The most popular post of all time on this blog? Learning to Draw the Tree Of Lifeonly slightly ahead of The Art of Memory.  My post on teaching creativity by model, language and value? Basically no one has read it, even though I thought it would be hugely important.

Shows you what I know.  Shows you what anyone knows: not much.

And I think that’s the point of daily practice.  When I look at the site analytics, it’s surprising: not one of these tai chi posts made the top hundred posts on my blog; they barely made the top five hundred posts.  If you read this one entry, chances are you’ll push this one post over fifty views — the vast majority of the tai chi posts on this website have been read fewer than 20 times (not counting the people who read them on the main blog page).

In that context, today’s tai chi practice seems unimportant. Small.  Virtually no one will pass by these words again; they’ll vanish into obscurity — and, if ever bandwidth or hard drive space becomes scarce, they will disappear like snow in July in South Dakota… not completely unexpected, but ephemeral nonetheless. Whether it happened fast or slow, whether it was a good or a bad practice day, is less important than that it happened.

For the practices change us. Whether it be writing sonnets some times, or just gutting our way through the entry, or just phoning it in, every day we practice and do not shirk is teaching us something. We’re making the extraordinary work mundane — invisible to ourselves, but visible to others.  And whether it is meditation or martial arts, music or comedic improv that we practice, we’re working through stuff. Some days, like today, the body is stiff and unyielding; unhappy to be moving at so early an hour. Other days, it’s easy, and we give thanks for that.

Keep working. You don’t know which days are going to bring great success or just the ‘little failure’ of not being as good as that amazing day last week or last month or last year.  Our own ability to sense what our best work is becomes compromised when we work all the time.  Let history be the judge, if it wants to be; for now, practice.

Tai Chi Y3D221: Typical Morning

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I was up late last night, performing my new poem, For the Mighty Deadand this morning’s tai chi practice was… weak, I guess is the best word.  I feel bad about this, because yesterday I gave an interview to Peggy Freeh, who interviews people about their daily practice.  I listened to three of her shows on the drive home last night, and it’s pretty awesome.  I’m honored to be in such company.

But as I said to Peggy in the interview (which she said will be out on Wednesday), sometimes your practice is up, and sometimes it’s down.  I stubbed my toe the other day, and the damaged toenail came out in my sock when I took off my shoes at the end of the day today.  That made doing push-ups this morning impractical —the toe that would support my weight is sore and raw right now.  And the resulting throbbing throws off my martial arts practice.  Here I am trying to be all fierce and disciplined and practice my moves; and I can’t do it as well as I’d like because my foot hurts.

But it’s a lame excuse, and it’s a lame excuse in light of yesterday’s tai chi practice and follow-up comments. As Topher pointed out, the writing and the tai chi are separate practices; so, for that matter, is the Druidry practice, and the push-ups.  Each of these is an element in a larger whole.  The core element is the tai chi form — the rest of the practice at the start of my day is really just an unfolding of that basic element. And it’s the nature of a daily practice to undergo iteration and expansion and unfolding: the repeating of elements from the practice in the morning and evening; the deliberate effort to improve some portion of the practice (as I did with the sonnets earlier this year, or when I was making an effort to slow down deliberately); or the effort to add elements to one’s daily practice or re-order them in some fashion so that they flow more easily.

Peggy asked a lot of good questions, and I look forward to being able to link to the interview.  But she also got me thinking about my practice in another way, which is that it ebbs and flows like the tide. Some days, I’m really committed to the practice, and it’s easy to get up and get started on it. Some days, I’m on the verge of giving up.  In the past, I’ve called these things the Dweller on the Threshold, and the Noonday Demon (thanks, Christina, for that!): these are the sense that your practice is stupid, and you should stop before you get too deeply embedded in this foolishness; and the despair that your practice is great, but that it’s not really for you.  It turns out that the most important thing is to keep going…

Poem: For the Mighty Dead

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composed 25 October 2014, for the Earthspirit Community’s perpetual but non-exclusive use.  

The Earthspirit Community, an earth-based spiritual group in western Massachusetts, asked me to compose a poem of invocation for the ancestors, for their annual ‘Open Samhain’ event yesterday (Sunday) evening in Northampton, MA.

All you Mighty Dead, silent and unseen,
now gather at this crossroads of the worlds,
to walk these barren fields that once grew green
ere changing to the hues of harvest golds.
Come, you Mighty Dead, you sepulchral throng,
you company of those who’ve gone before.
Come, ye shades, ye ghosts, ye ancestors bright:
This time is yours; in this place, you belong.
For we invite you from the farther shore,
and ask your presence in this place, this night.

Come, Honored Dead of our own kin and blood,
fathers of our fathers who labored long
hammering hot steel, digging in cold mud,
loving, fighting — sometimes right, often wrong.
Mothers of mothers, across Time’s oceans,
birthing children, and spinning out the thread
of the long lineage back to the start
of our kindred: we greet with devotions
aunts and uncles of our own family’s dead,
those buried and burned closed to our heart.

We turn to the heroes, renowned in name,
both makers of myths and doers of deed:
we call you, lawgivers of honest fame;
soldiers who brought peace, who in times of need
brought safety to the people and the land;
sages and inventors, whose art and skill
gave insight, light and life; healers who found
the cures; teachers who spoke truth with command;
musicians whose harmonies reach us still.
We name and call you to this sacred ground!

And likewise, the Nameless, in teeming crowds,
the ancestors of every tribe and race,
the spirit-host that fills each street, and floods
the city square, and the remotest place,
and every wood and furrow in between —
that undiscovered country without breath,
whose subjects made language, and kindled flame,
the  first to sharpen steel with edge so keen;
the first to laugh — the first to laugh at death;
the first to love — the first to speak Love’s name.

Come, Mighty Dead, our families, heroes, friends.
Impart you wisdom to us in the dark.
For your presence frightens us, and yet mends
our hearts much, for wounds from Death’s scythe cut start.
Now we must choose, for the hour is here:
a bloom, to feed the dearly-departed;
a stone to seek guidance from ghostly guest;
a seed, as an oath to an ancient ear.
With flowers, seeds, or stones are paths charted,
to chain the aid of the dead in their rest.

And when we, the Living, depart this hall,
you Ancestors, return to your custom:
between us and you stands an ancient wall,
a border to which we all are destined.
We’ll stand on our side, and you on yours,
until our turn comes to cross that bridge of sighs.
Great Ancestors, aid us, but not so near.
As this rite ends, retreat behind your doors,
and do not linger. With gentle good-byes,
depart from us — knowing we hold you dear.

Notes (below the cut): More

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