On my days off and evenings, I’ve been adding on to our tool shed. There’s not much room between it and the fence at the back of our lot. But a four-foot extension provided storage for bicycles and a few of my clunkier carpentry tools that I’d rather not lug up from the basement for projects like building an extension to our shed to hold the aforementioned tools.
There’s something circular in buying tools to build storage for the tools you’ve bought. Some might see a balanced and elegant symmetry in this circularity. For others, it’s a picture of futility.
In 2002, the Craft Yarn Council found that participation in their craft had increased more than 150 percent in the 25-34-year-old age group during the year after the 9/11 attacks. There was not a corresponding 150% increase in the need for scarves and mittens that year. It could be that in times of deep uncertainty, we need little realms of control. I can’t defeat ISIS or COVID19, but I can knit neat little rows of yarn with my needle or cut rafters out of two-by-fours or bake bread or mow the lawn.
Put this way, our projects sound like little more than diversions or even forms of denial. And I don’t think a little diversion is the worst thing for the soul in times like these. But maybe a surge in the making of things during difficult days is a way of remembering with our bodies that we are each of us part of the fruitfulness of the earth. We are not essentially consumers of goods or extractors of resources but created by God to create and to put gifts and goodness into the world.
The making process can also be a remedy for the false sense of scarcity that can afflict us even here in the richest nation on Earth. To watch a child make up a game with an empty milk carton and a spool of thread is to see again that the world is strewn with stuff waiting to be assembled into something new. The same goes for casseroles and flowerbeds and carburetors and anything else we simply pay enough attention to to make it a little more than it was.
If there’s a formula, maybe it’s something like this. Add time and attention to some actual thing out in the world, and the mind can let go of its worry about everything it doesn’t have possession of or can’t control and turns its energy toward the abundant possibility of the one thing in front of it.
Emily Dickinson said, “Consider the lilies” was the only commandment she ever obeyed. I like that. I think Jesus was saying we should live like the lilies. But I also think he may have been telling us to simply turn our attention to them and see if it relieves us of the kind of worry that is nothing but a toilsome spinning that’s actually no help at all to me or you or the lilies of the field.
I know. These are the reflections of someone with the privilege and stability in his life for moments of such perspective. There is such suffering and brutality in this world, in our city. Most of which I’ve somehow been spared from. But if there’s no room in our lives for a simple, attentive delight in some aspect of the world outside our heads, I don’t think we’ll have the resources to be of any real help to that world.
Jack Gilbert puts it this way at the end of a poem titled “A Brief for the Defense.” After recounting the sorts of horrors and hardships that can make one’s happiness feel like a heartless affront to it all, he says:
“If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
…We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.”