Throughout my high school years and through college, in the home where I grew up, above the nightstand beside my bed was a simply-framed bunch of words. I never looked at the frame or the words and no one mentioned it. It was just there, constantly hanging above my clock and lamp and nightstand – an ornament, a placeholder, a decoration, something to fill a little empty space but nothing really – nothing important. I never paid the least attention to it.
I remember clearly a day late in my college life, returning home to my old, comfortable, familiar room with model airplanes and model birds and my desk, chair, dresser, bookshelves, and bed, I looked across the room and focused on that ‘decoration,’ and was curious, I walked over and read it. It had been so invisible to me in the past that I was surprised to realize it was a poem, a poem about a carpenter asking a question – Cut the line out or leave the line in?
Then I realized that this wasn’t some random decoration. It had been selected and placed there by my father, with no fanfare, no lesson, no preaching, not a single word. It was there for me to discover in whatever random way I would, and finally, after years of teenage oblivion, I did.
The poem was about carpentry, and that has meaning to our family. My grandfather was a remarkable carpenter, having built a fine late Victorian home in North Little Rock when he was 16, then moving to Hot Springs where his firm did both new work and a lot of renovation/restoration work. He even built a gigantic snowman on a trailer for the Hot Springs Christmas parade. Carpentry to us is a skilled, noble profession that results in a quality, tangible product. Today I have a boat paddle my grandfather made for me when I must have been about eight years old, I have his big, handmade toolbox, a few of his tools, but I am no carpenter.
Beyond carpentry, I realized the poem was about life and about best practice. The decision, the planning, of whether to make the cut beside the line and thus leaving the line on the finished board, or cutting right on top of the line, cutting it out, makes only a few millimeters of difference –but that can be the difference in a “right and tight fit,” an OK fit, or no fit at all.
Today I realize that life is a lot like my father, putting messages, opportunities and experiences out there for us and waiting for us to find them. Sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t, and sometimes it takes a while.
The carpenter’s poem was about an approach to life. It was about thinking and planning and acting in the best possible way so that life “fits right and tight.” In our work we have opportunities and decisions daily, Do we make decisions that ‘fit right and tight’ with policy? With mission? With theme? How close do you get to best practice? Do you cut the line out or leave it in?
2 thoughts on “The Carpenter”
What a great little essay Jay! My grandfather taught cabinet-making (and history.) Although I was much too young when he died, I’ve always thought that my love of both is somewhere in my genes. One thing that I know about carpentry is that I can usually predict how well something will go by the feel of the first cut, which is why it’s so doggone important to not only measure twice to cut once, but also to carefully envision your piece and indeed, know which side of the line to cut on.
It’s the same with interpretation, but you measure the themes, you calculate the intended impact, the intended audience, and the better you can plan & conceptualize those, the better your program or exhibit or brochure will be when you assemble it. You become more familiar with your tools over time– rhetoric, presentation mechanics, visual and aural design, even your personality and presence. Carpentry, like interpretation, is both a skill and an art, and it’s always a joy to watch a true craftsman doing what he or she does best.