This page is part of the creativity series, based on my book Grain of Truth. Each of these pages explores one aspect of the creative process: opening, grounding, inspiration, stillness, difficulty, joy, illumination, and the journey. View the introductory page for some context, or access any of the pages via the main Creativity category listing. Additionally, related pages are shown at the bottom of every page in the series.
The tips of my fingers are grimy and black, like a coal miner’s. Dark, umber streaks trace their way up my index and middle fingers, smudging into the pores of my skin, outlining the bloody scratch where the blade slipped off the sharpening stone. The area surrounding the nail of my right index finger is sore, the skin stretched from too much pressure, back and forth, back and forth over the stone. I’ve put a fabric bandage, the tough industrial kind, over the tip of my finger as a buffer. It, too, is black and wet, dyed by the swarf washed loose from sharpening. The index and middle fingers of both hands form a horizontal V over the top of the blade, right under left, the weight of my arms and shoulders pushing down on the stone as the blade glides forward. I begin each stroke at the top edge of the stone, holding the blade securely at an angle of thirty degrees, steadying my arms, drawing a breath. Then I push down, hard, and guide the blade onto the stone, clear along its length, lifting it up at the end and easing the pressure. As it moves, the blade makes a sound like tiny pebbles washing up on a wayworn beach.
The rhythm of the work is precise and demanding. There must be sufficient pressure on the stone to remove metal from the blade, but too much force can skew the blade’s smooth path. Moreover, the surface of the stone must be kept absolutely level. This is accomplished by covering its entire surface in the sharpening process, going over the center as well as the edges. Repeatedly following the same path with the blade wears down the center of the stone and creates a shallow valley that curves the blade while sharpening it. This is sometimes useful for specialized work but is generally a frustrating nuisance. And this steel: it’s not the soft stuff that goes into factory-made planes from the hardware store – this is far harder, more susceptible to corrosion but tougher by what feels like orders of magnitude. I can sharpen a new production blade to high tolerances in about ten minutes; I’ve been at this for at least half an hour, my back aches from the exertion, and only now am I seeing the bright signal of polished steel appear near the edge of the bevel. The bevel of a blade, not the cutting edge itself but the ramp that leads up to the edge, must be smooth and flat enough that you can clearly make out your reflection in it – no indolent muddiness. That’s what I’m going for here.
I apply considerable compressive force against the fresh steel, pushing it onto a Japanese water stone hundreds of times in a rhythmic motion that has me puffing and sweating. Bits of the stone are coming loose, sloughed off by the blade’s hardness, mixing with water and tiny particles of steel to make the dark mess covering my fingers. The stone is supposed to wear away like this, the used-up grains breaking off and exposing new and sharper grit. But this seems excessive: the stone is being diminished layer by layer, the equivalent of many regular sharpenings, while the steel slowly, like a glacier casually carving through a mountain, takes shape.
I’m getting tired. Rowan, my five-year-old daughter, keeps calling me to come inside and get her some juice. I tell her it will be just another minute or two. Four times I’ve said that, and I don’t like doing it. I don’t want to be a dad who never follows through. And I’m not. But the damn steel is so stubborn, so implacable – it wants to wear me out, wants me to prove that I have the strength to meet it, to hold it, to use it. At least that’s what it feels like. There’s a battle going on, a fight for control of the power inside this gleaming shard of tempered iron. When I hold it up to the light, it shines like a fragment of a star, a jewel brought out into the light after long darkness.
One last rush, a final push through twenty or thirty hard strokes on the stone, checking and rechecking the edge where the two angles of the steel meet. I want the bevel and the back to come together crisply and precisely so that the fierce edge leaves no room for light to make a reflection. I want my eye to follow the quicksilver brightness of the blade down to where it disappears, its light abruptly ending at the moment of greatest refinement. Absence of light is what marks an edge as truly sharp; a blade that shines at its edge is dull. The perfect blade is invisible.
Such philosophical considerations make the act of sharpening more than what it would otherwise be: a long, tedious process of wrestling with materials that resist me at every turn, hard physical exertion punctuated by moments of sharp pain as the blade sinks into my skin after a second of inattention. And though the blood washes out, dark stains from the swarf do not. It takes several days for new skin, soft and destined for hardship, to emerge out of the cracked landscape of the old. Yet of all the rituals of working with wood, all the diversity and challenge of it, sharpening is among the most meditative acts. The most physical and the most ethereal. It’s not a clean meditation, not refined or rarefied or purely ecstatic – no, it is a meditation of the earth, of sweat and blood and dark stone. Sharpening sluices away thoughts of being elsewhere, of being greater or lesser, of calculated plans and secret schemes, of expansive future and protected past, of hunger in all its forms, of specialness and wisdom and imagined clarity. Sharpening slices through the illusion that being human is something greater than the earth itself. It presents the simple truth of the body, stained hands and useless protests creating a tiny shard of nothingness. Sharpening makes everything disappear into that invisible edge.
This ragged wrestling between the steel and my stubbornness is a negotiation. The steel asserts its own dignity, its insistence that I treat it with the reverence it deserves. I must never forget that anything we accomplish together is a collaboration. And I assert my own strength, my demand that the steel allow itself to be guided by my vision of what is true – right angles and level surfaces but also the more elusive truths this work presents. In this collaboration I must eventually surrender to that which takes shape between the tools and myself, or stop altogether. I am building and refining relationships with the tools, they are spirits in a real way, and no amount of personal inflation or enthusiasm can diminish the fact that they enable the work to flourish. I am their guide, perhaps, their steward, but tools make the wood come alive.
Two more strokes. One more. My arms ache. As the final stroke glides off the edge of the stone, I turn the motion into an upward swing and bring the steel into the light. I lean forward to check my work. I can’t see any scratches on the bevel or the back. My reflection is clear. The wedge tip of the blade shines almost to the leading edge, where it abruptly grows dark, inscrutable.
I come in from the shop and pour a glass of apple juice for Rowan. She’s reading a kids’ magazine at the kitchen table and calls me over to look at pictures of a Komodo dragon wreathed in volcanic steam. She asks me if there are still other kinds of dragons, fairy-tale dragons, on the earth. I think of the field of green that is visible from the lake, the place of all vanished creatures and fantastic beings yet to be born.
At the kitchen table, looking out onto one of Vancouver’s first crisp days of autumn and feeling myself observed by the slitted eyes of the Komodo dragon on the page, I consider the project before me. I am making a small and simple box, a vessel to hold the ashes of Elizabeth’s grandmother. I am embarking on a journey of reverence for a soul traveling into the invisible. This is why I need my blades to be sharp, my tools as true as I can get them. When the box is completed it will be placed within the earth, eventually to be reclaimed with the treasure it contains. The box is an offering to the earth, and because of this I need my work to be honest, purposeful, compassionate. I must not forget my own source.
Back in the shop I lay the wood pieces on my worktable: six boards of different sizes, all Brazilian purpleheart, a hardwood noted for its toughness on tools but deep finished luster when worked properly. This wood has no need of varnishes or stains; simply polishing the surface with a small amount of beeswax yields a deep glow, the distinctive indigo silk of prayer flags fluttering in a smoky wind.
I clamp one of the pieces in the vise, long edge up, and run my plane with its new blade across the surface. Small purple twists of shavings glide to the floor. I run my blackened finger along the edge, checking for bumps or ridges that would indicate a problem with the plane. Everything seems fine, at least with the tools and materials. But I’m nervous. This is no coffee table or bunk bed; it is a sacred object. This makes me more cautious, less certain, aware at every step of a peculiar feeling that pervades the shop. I must not be cavalier, or impatient, or allow myself to fall into the many traps I set for myself in the work. This box, which will carry Sadie’s ashes across an unfathomable threshold, must be worthy of its task. And so I must be worthy of mine. Sadie would laugh at this high-minded tone. She would want something utilitarian: no fuss, no extra effort. That’s the way she was. With this in mind, and with the Komodo dragon still peering at me from inside my head, I begin.
I spend an hour at the tablesaw, first checking the intended size of the six pieces – top, bottom, and four sides of the box – then cutting to final dimensions. I’ve decided to use mitered joints for the sides and bottom as this will allow the corners to meet precisely at their edges and create the effect of the grain wrapping itself around the box. I make sure the sides are cut from a single board and number them with bits of masking tape so they can be fitted in sequence.
Cutting miters is a tricky business if, like me, you routinely make errors in measurement. The blade of the saw seems always to be angled too far over, I can never remember which way the miter is supposed to go, I can’t decide whether to cut from the left or the right, toward or away from the angle of the blade. I make close to a dozen test cuts in scrap stock and mark every piece of purpleheart with a length of tape that says “inside,” so I know which side faces up on the saw. Each tape segment also has a diagram of which way the cut should slope and two arrows that point to the mitered edges. This is more information than I need, but I’ve made too many baseboards half an inch short by cutting the miter in the wrong direction. I need a fail-safe strategy.
Making an enclosed box is straightforward in some ways; only six pieces, and the joinery is uncomplicated. Yet a well-made box is not easy to construct. The small number of pieces means higher tolerances are required. Fewer joints means more stress on each joint. The miters must fit together with no slop at all and be absolutely square. Otherwise the entire box will be misaligned as inaccuracies accumulate from one corner to the next. Nowhere in woodworking is accuracy more fundamental than in box-making. Here then, at the beginning, I must make all the parts straight and true. This process requires of me the same qualities that I am trying to coax from the wood.
Sawing the miters is accomplished without incident but with much anxiety. I pause after each cut, wondering if I’ve inadvertently put the tape on the wrong side, inventing things that could go wrong. What if the lights suddenly go out? What if I have low blood sugar and fall over onto the blade? What if I looked at the wrong side of the ruler when I measured, and transcribed the wrong cut marks? (This happens frequently, so as a possible catastrophe it’s not too inventive.) Whenever I must use the tablesaw, these kinds of fears boil up inside me.
A tablesaw is a frightening machine. It is wondrously fast, accurate, and powerful, but it is also a demon. It can seize a piece of wood in its teeth and hurl it back at me, a missile of purpleheart or soft cedar or finely grained maple transformed from an object of beauty into a lethal projectile traveling faster than the top speed of my car. I have two ragged scratches in my shop from such incidents: one on the front wall, the other on the garage door. Both mishaps occurred during my first year in this craft, when I thought I was smarter than the spinning blade.
Certain procedures on the tablesaw are noted for their danger, for their likelihood of kickback. Few craftsmen, and fewer hobbyists, follow the recommended safety procedures. Not too long ago I saw a neighbor out in his driveway with his small tablesaw up on a couple of sawhorses: no shirt, no safety glasses, no hearing protection. He was sending through small cedar boards for his backyard fence, crosscutting them to size, making repetitive cuts, not watching what he was doing. The method he was using to feed the wood, with the material inadequately secured as it passed through the blade, allows the wood to twist toward the blade, where it can be suddenly drawn into the throat (as the opening for a blade is ominously termed), gobbled up, and spit out with whatever fingers happen to be holding the wood at the time. Crosscutting unsafely on a tablesaw is the best way to ensure you’ll never use chopsticks again.
My neighbor was lucky; he kept his fingers. But the disturbing trend in woodworking is toward diminished anatomy as one’s experience in the craft increases. I want, rather strongly, to avoid that fate. Thus I am hyper-vigilant when using the tablesaw, careful that the finicky blade guard – the first thing the typical owner of a new tablesaw removes – is firmly in place. I stand to the side of the blade to avoid surprising projectiles, make sure no one else is in the shop, wear short sleeves so nothing can get caught in the machinery, muffle the sound with extra-insulated hearing protectors, wear special high-impact safety glasses, and sweep the floor so there’s nothing I can trip on. I slide the wood into the blade as though I were feeding a crocodile. For many woodworkers a peculiar, contrary attitude prevails: a machismo, a willful recklessness. Personally, I am quite receptive to the reality that any number of things in this work could kill me. The tablesaw is an angel of death. I try to respect that.
The whine of the tablesaw, which I imagine is the screeching and lamenting of all unready souls captured by its whining teeth, slows after the last cut and finally halts, the blade’s claim on my fingers deferred yet again. I begin to relax.
Now the real work starts, the work of hands in simple moments, of quiet and attention and the rhythm of time. Although I appreciate the raw muscle and speed of power tools, I’m ambivalent about them. They are indifferent to the quality of my work, cutting without regard for the beauty and diversity of the materials. Hand tools, conversely, will purr and cough and shout. They change with the way I work, adapt themselves to the materials, remind me of their music at every turn. Pick up a well-used and loved plane, one with a history of being cared for, and see how it skates incisively across the grain even when the blade is dull. Listen to the distinctive whisper it makes as shavings spiral smoothly from its throat. Those shavings are the individual notes a plane makes in its song.
Try to shave down anything at all, even soft redwood, with a plane that is either new from the factory or has lain in neglect. Immediately the blade jams in the wood, tearing out chunks of the grain, rattling on the surface, making the sound of boots crunching on wet gravel as small shavings grind unevenly out. It is one of the unspoken truths of woodworking that tools speak to the craftsman; they respond to a gentle and caring touch.
If I am receptive enough, working with hand tools is always a discovery. The tools point to new ways of doing things, new possibilities for drawing out the invisible and refined energy of the work. The ancient Taoist sages spoke of opening to mystery, opening through stillness, as the first act of understanding. Working with hand tools teaches, in a pragmatic way, the art of stillness. Tools teach this so well because they come from the earth, from stone and wood and fire. They have not forgotten the language of that source.
The symbol that begins this chapter, the Taoist trigram for Earth, contains an open column of emptiness between two sets of lines. The common way to think about this image is to view it as three broken lines, three lines with a gap. But then the focus is on the lines and not the white space. The important element is the column of emptiness; it denotes the potential of energy to flow through. This requires a purposeful surrender, a willingness to be taught by tools or the wind or a horse leaping a fence. As the Taoists say, “Taking the lead, one goes astray; following, one finds the master.”
The tablesaw yields a cut that requires final trimming with a plane, so I arrange the boards on my worktable and inspect the cut surfaces. Then I place the pieces one at a time in the vise, and taking care to keep the sole of the plane absolutely flat on the surface of the cut – I don’t want to round over the edge or trim the miter out of true – I slowly pare away the pattern of small ridges left by the saw’s carbide teeth. Almost no effort is required, no cajoling or forcing. Small indigo strands flutter through the throat of the plane.
There are twelve mitered faces to trim: the four sides of the box each have two, and the bottom has four. When I’m done, I test-fit the pieces, wrapping long elastic bands around the four sides. The grain match around the corners is excellent. The bottom fits nicely in the angled niche created for it by the surrounding sides. The overall effect of the wood is rich and warm but without ostentation. It’s the kind of thing Sadie would have liked.
The assembled pieces take up about one square foot on the benchtop. I retrieve the single uncut board that will become the lid and carefully slide it over the assembly, watching that the joints do not shift out of alignment. I trace around the perimeter of the box, making the pencil lines clearly visible on the lid. Then I return to the tablesaw and cut the remaining piece to size, leaving a small amount of excess to trim off during the final fit.
I’m not working from a plan here, or even from something I’ve seen. I’m designing as I go, improvising. Sometimes this approach can be wasteful, especially when I get halfway down a particular path and then realize I’m doing things in a way that doesn’t seem right. But this project is simple enough, despite its faces and grooves and angles, that I can envision the entire process without needing to map it out on paper. Part of the appeal of this strategy is that it leaves me the opportunity to modify things, adapt the piece to its own natural way of being as I work. Once a plan is on the page I find it difficult to change things. When I let the process stay fluid, sketchily mapped out inside myself, my experience in the construction often leads to unexpected and rewarding changes.
When I have the main pieces together, tentatively unified by the elastic bands, I can see that my original idea for the design of the top would be heavy and ponderous, something the person it is designed for was not. The box requires a lightness, a sense of open solidity: present but not imposing. I decide to make an enclosed tongue-and-groove assembly that will allow the top to slide in from the front of the box. This requires a set of grooves, or dadoes, on three of the sides to act as a sliding mechanism for the top. The fourth side, the front of the box, must be trimmed down so the top can slide over it. And a tongue on the sides of the top must be shaped as well: all told, a dozen more cuts on the saw.
I take risks working in this way, designing in stages, always subject to arising problems that might have been avoided two or three steps back. But in planning out all the details I lose the possibility of discovery, the sense of adventurous not-knowing. Receptivity is sacrificed for certainty. Without a spirit of discovery, the work is just a technical exercise.
Many things have been lost in this craft, sometimes lost ages ago, things I might be rediscovering as I practice my own work. Imagine: the ancient Egyptians devised monuments and artifacts and sacred objects so refined that we cannot reproduce some of them today. In my little workshop garage I might rediscover the secret of craftsmen who, almost 5,000 years ago, made tall stone vases with long, narrow necks and wide, rounded bases. It’s difficult to see how this was done; the Egyptians had no tools (as far as we know) capable of drilling and carving such interior shapes. Many of the hollowed-out bases were shaped to match the outside contours to such fine tolerances that the material is translucent. They did not leave tool marks to assist us in deciphering the mystery.
We could not reproduce those vases today; we do not possess tools of sufficient mastery to pass through a long, narrow stone neck and then, from the inside, carve out a wide base to match an exterior shape. Contemporary lathes equipped with special jigs can do similar work, but only on small pieces, and with much less accuracy than the Egyptians routinely achieved.
Many times in the work of craft I must devise a means of accomplishing tasks that seem unreasonably difficult, painfully labor-intensive, or downright impossible. Inventiveness, craftiness, is part of the process. Somehow the ancient Egyptians refined their creative instinct in such a way that marvels became commonplace. They discovered a great deal, some of which we are still deciphering. We do not know how, and to what purpose, they created the most architecturally demanding structures in the world, the pyramids at Giza. The range of theories about how it was done is impressive because the feat itself is so baffling. We could hardly lift the stones today, let alone set them in place. And the absence of steel – I have to remind myself of this, it seems so incredibly audacious, like forging a vast rainbow with sand.
There’s magic in these works. Yet they were devised by simple craftsmen devoted to their trade, reaching to the furthest edge of their ingenuity, snatching the improbable from the jaws of the impossible. The magic is a human magic. Every craftsman, whether in wood or stone or words, strives in the shadow of hidden possibilities, searching for a means of making the mystery visible. What happens in my shop is no exception, though sometimes I must sit in silence for a long while, waiting for the answer to come, opening to the descent of the unfathomable.
Once the various grooves are cut to accommodate the top, and the tongue has been shaped to a tolerance slightly larger than its final dimensions (I will pare it down for a smooth fit later), the box is ready to be glued together. This is a simple procedure, as the mitered surfaces are unhindered by traditional splines, small wood segments inserted perpendicular to the angle of joints to increase their solidity. Modern high-strength glues make most splines unnecessary, though they are still used by many craftsmen for common procedures such as joining the boards of a tabletop. The boards will hold together just as securely without the splines, even past the breaking strength of the surrounding wood if the joint is finely made, but the tradition prevails. Old ways of working have remarkable persistence.
I make sure all the pieces are sanded smooth and ready for assembly. Then I wax the parts of the interior that lie alongside the joints; this way, even if there is some spillover, the glue will cure on the wax surface and not seep into the pores of the wood. The residue can then be sliced cleanly from the wood and the wax washed off with alcohol. Many such details accompany any glue-up: fiddling with clamps, dry-fitting the parts, managing the order of assembly. These automatic routines free my attention and allow me to think about Sadie, to remember why, and for whom, I am engaged in this work.
Of the many stories and vignettes and remembrances of Sadie, I am consistently drawn to just one image: she’s at the lake, on the concrete path, bent over her cane and intently, fiercely, squashing ants with its rubber tip. Sadie did not like ants. She was not a violent person by nature, but when it came to ants, with their implacable drive to infest the cabin, she was ruthless. Slowly, so much more slowly than the ants that she must have missed all but the most feeble adversaries, Sadie would grasp the scythe-like curve of the cane’s handle, sight down the foreboding black shaft of her weapon, and strike with a sudden fervor, planting the end firmly, as firmly as one can press with a shock-absorbing tip, on her surprised foe. She’d pause, sometimes grinding the rubber in to catch any ants that might have hidden in pebbled crevices, then lift up for another shot. On it would go, a few minutes out of each day, this avenging angel in the shape of an old lady come to wrest from the encroaching hordes a sense of property and boundary.
I suppose the reason this story stays with me has something to do with its incongruity. Sadie was the archetypal grandma: sewing quilts and knitting afghans, baking cookies, always providing for her grandkids a safe haven. Someone from an earlier time, the kind of person our society has increasingly turned its back on. Old, simple values. When she became unable to care for herself, she lived with Elizabeth’s family; later, when her needs grew and no one in the family possessed the skills to care for her properly, she moved to an extended-care residence. She was visited there virtually every day by someone in the family. It took some effort to reconcile my knowledge of the deep, continuing connection and intimacy in Sadie’s life with the sight of more than a hundred people gathered quietly in the massive common room at the residence, watching television, suffering from various degrees of being forgotten.
The joints glue together without any trouble. I remove a single small bead of cured adhesive on an inside corner with a light twist of the chisel. Now the top, which will require careful fitting. When finished, the box will be opened only once, to place Sadie’s ashes inside, and then closed again forever. Any insistence on precision here is likely excessive, but for me the box cover has a metaphoric meaning: it represents the Gate of Life in Chinese medicine and alchemy, the Ming Men. That gate should open and close smoothly, without obstruction, squeaks, or scratches.
As I work on the sliding mechanism, paring the pieces carefully down by a few thousandths of an inch and test-fitting, paring again and testing again, I become aware that this project is slowing as I reach its final stages. This matches my usual rhythm in the work: mad rushing at the beginning, stolid persistence in the middle, relaxed quiet near the end, when the difficult tasks are completed and the weight of challenge lifts. Sometimes I worry so much at the beginning and in the middle – many things can go wrong – that I lose the joy of the work. That’s when I stop, if I remember, and stay out of the shop for a few days. I’m almost always at ease near the end, when I know how much more time the project needs, when the likelihood of being surprised by something difficult diminishes, when whomever I’m making the piece for visits the shop and starts to see the final shape emerge from clouds of sawdust and swarms of tools. I have never sold a work of my craft. I make gifts of them, and in turn I am drawn up, enclosed by a feeling of great solace that I can make something that pleases and heartens another.
Only the inlaid cross and final finishing remain. I’ve chosen Australian silky oak for the inlay, a wood that will contrast well with the purpleheart. Where purpleheart is muted, its indigo grain a rippled sea glimpsed from high above, silky oak is brighter, the color of tropical sand on a flat tidal beach: furrows and channels of grain weave languidly through the wood.
I begin the inlay by cutting the shape of a cross, a narrow and modest cross centered on the lid of the box. I use a router, making the cut about an eighth of an inch deep. The motor whines like a cyclone as the carbide bit slices into the wood. I stay away from the pencil lines that mark the edge of the cross. A router removes a great deal of material quickly and easily, but following a straight line on small work is difficult. With larger pieces a router can be set up to follow a straightedge or guide; for something as small as this cross I’m better off using a sharp chisel to incise the edges.
Think of a scalpel and an ax; chisels can function as either. They are either the most refined, elegant tools or a means of butchery, depending on how I work. Most modern hardware-store chisels are designed as small axes, with thick shafts and tough plastic handles able to withstand strong blows from a mallet. It is possible to use the tapered tip as a wedge to force the wood fibers apart, hammering away to get at the right depth and leaning on the tool for leverage. Another approach is to think of the chisel as a small plane designed to slice off a series of thin segments. In terms of the inlaid cross, a more ax-like approach would be to start at the penciled line, hammer the tip of the chisel into the wood the full depth of the inlay, then chip out the waste between the pencil line and the routed cut in large chunks. I’m going the other way: starting at the edge of the router cut, shearing the wood off in tiny increments, without hammering or forcing, until I reach the pencil line and can incise the wood neatly, leaving a smooth face for the inlay.
I make the cross on the bandsaw. Unlike my tablesaw, with its voracious, roaring appetite, the bandsaw is modest and restrained. It is less ominous than almost any other power tool. The cutting procedure on a bandsaw goes much more slowly, giving ample time to react if something goes wrong. Because its blade is strung tight, like a musical string, there is music to the work when things go well; problems with the cut can immediately be detected in the landscape of the sound. A bandsaw will never seize and eject the workpiece like a tablesaw. It is more generous in this and other ways.
I return to the box and to my chisels, test-fitting the oversized cross and slowly paring it down so it fits exactly in the inlay. This takes some delicate fiddling. When the fit is precise, I lay down a small bead of glue and secure the piece. The cross is slightly thicker than the depth of the inlay and lies a tiny bit proud of the surrounding top. This excess height allows me to plane down the cross when the glue has dried, leaving it flush. Later, when I run my fingers across the top with my eyes closed, I can just feel the edge of the inlay. When the wax goes on, that edge will be impalpable.
A final inspection of the box is required before finishing. I use a cabinet scraper to smooth a few spots and apply a wash of alcohol to check for any flaws or scratches I’ve missed. Then I apply a coat of beeswax every day for a week, rubbing the soft wax into the pores of the wood, letting it sit for a few minutes and buffing with a clean cloth. The lustrous sheen of the grain begins to emerge, showing the rippled depth of the wood. It reminds me of polished bone, ancient and dark; scrimshaw caressed by generations of loving hands.
Already this box has the feel of something timeworn, a vessel for a long journey. The artifacts in those Egyptian tombs were designed to facilitate the soul’s voyage into eternity, to offer sustenance and companionship, to guide and advise. This small piece in my hands is more modest, yet it, too, is a talisman, a gift of the spirit. There are no answers to the questions posed by guardians of the afterlife inscribed here. This object is simpler, fashioned by the energy of receptiveness, designed to protect as well as surrender. Yet there are aspects of this workmanship that would have baffled the ancient Egyptians: the strong mitered joints, without splines, would have been impossible for them. Human magic.
Time to let go, to send this small vessel of my prayers into the earth, where it will be reclaimed and set free. On a warm day, when wind ruffles the colors of the yard, I open the garage door and let bright light and air into the shop. I sweep dark shavings from the floor, wipe the film of sawdust from the worktables, return tools to their niches in various drawers. Elizabeth comes to retrieve the box for its journey to Calgary, where the inurnment ceremony will take place. We cannot all go; I will remain in Vancouver with the kids.
Elizabeth takes the box to the back garden, where evergreen boughs make a canopy over a cedar bench I made. She sits on the bench, head turned to one side, as though a faint, distant sound calls and she has turned her ear toward it. She rests the box in her lap, places Sadie’s ashes within, and slides the lid closed. She remains outside a long while, watching shadows deepen in the yard.