Saturday, November 24, 2012


It's Thanksgiving weekend. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday; I have developed some pleasant rituals for myself and enjoy cooking a big, delicious meal for my family. This autumn, I have been thinking about Everyman (the play they make all the English majors read during the first semester survey of British lit) and, one thing leading to another, my Thanksgiving ruminations focused on memory.

(So far this isn't about woodworking. I know. Please bear with me.)

How did Everyman lead me to think about memory? The play teaches an important lesson that I wasn't ready to receive as a 21-year-old: everything we have will be stripped away eventually. Money, friends, family, health - - Everyman relies on each to pull him through his existential crisis, and none of them do the trick. (If you've read the play recently, you probably realize I haven't read the play in a long, long time. This digression is all about my memory of my reaction when I read it 26 years ago in Craig Kallendorf's class.) In the 1980's, in the United States, the average 21-year-old white male was still in a phase of life that involved far more gain than loss: I was still gaining new experience, knowledge, and skills so that I could “begin” my career. Being told by a medieval morality play that everything I was working towards would be taken away from me was not a welcome message at all! My strong denial stuck with me, for some reason, and I found that as I lived my way through my twenties and thirties and forties, I gradually came to understand and accept the wisdom of Everyman. Seeing the slow physical deterioration and death of loved ones; gaining and losing some truly wonderful friends through career moves and misunderstandings and missed connections; witnessing unexpected losses of life and property among my peers; getting and losing jobs and houses and money as time and chance happened to them all: these taught me that yes, Everyman was right. It's all temporary.

(Still no woodworking! But just another paragraph or two, I promise.)

Memory is something I treasure, now that I have lost some people and places I love. As I cooked Thanksgiving dinner, I thought of all the people I've shared Thanksgiving dinners with. Many of them are no longer in my life. Time and chance does that. As long as I have memories, though . . . but guess what? Memory can be stripped away too. Alzheimer's is in my family, so there's a chance I'll lose my cherished memories. And even if I don't, remember Roy Batty's dying monologue in Blade Runner? “All those moments will be lost in time . . .” So this Thanksgiving, I am thankful for memory.

However, loss of memory has at least two sides. Early this month I was in Wisconsin, in the patch of woods I own. I knew that I had carefully stacked and covered some walnut boards there, about 15 years ago when I still lived in Iowa and had just bought the place in Wisconsin. A friend in Iowa gave me a small walnut log, which I split into quarters and then cut into quartersawn boards on a bandsaw. Every once in a while through the years, I have passed the covered stack in the woods and thought to myself I ought to bring the lumber home and use it. This fall I took action. And what a treat! The stack was in very good shape. I had covered it with pieces of steel roofing to shed water, and I think the fact that the cover overlapped the pile by quite a bit was what saved it.

The wood in the stack was all in good shape! Let's hear it for well-made piles!

And then I found the gift that I had given myself: inside the pile, a couple of pieces of crabapple. 

They aren't big, they aren't the best quality, but I had assumed that all the crabapple I bandsawed back in Iowa had been lost or burned. Apple is one of my very favorite woods. Hard, heavy, fine-grained, and with a glorious color that just keeps on improving with age, like cherry's older, more sophisticated sister. Finding these pieces of wood, probably only big enough to make a couple of tool handles or drawer pulls, was like a small gift I had given myself thanks to forgetfulness. This Thanksgiving, I'm thankful for forgetfulness.

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