Monday, June 02, 2008

How My Father Would Handle This

A blessing in disguise, really.
Our neighbor's kitchen is above our bedroom, and some time during the winter, a slow leak developed a water supply hose to their dishwasher. Underneath this built-in appliance, water slowly dripped over time, seeping through and over the wood beams between their kitchen floor and into our bedroom, taking color along the way, and blooming out into a frightening yellow stain across our ceiling, which also began to crack.

After some initial upset involving calling the neighbors, long discussions, emphatic denials of any problem at all then turning into a maybe, then finally an agreement for a plumber to check it out and eventually fix the very slow leak upstairs, we were on our way to a solution. It took some time, but finally the wheels rolled into motion to bring us to last week, when workers came to do the repairs at our house.

We lucked out with the man our contractor sent to oversee the work, an old pro. On the verge of retirement, this fatherly figure has 48 years of experience. He has worked on lots of big jobs, sometimes gutting the interiors of old apartments, removing walls and replacing windows. When people don't specifically request to save the hardware during the remodels, he salvages the bits and pieces that would otherwise be thrown away. Hooks, handles, sometimes stained glass, even fireplaces get removed from structures sometimes hundreds of years old to accommodate new plans, new tastes. You would be surprised at what gets discarded. He brought me a bucket of doorknobs on his second day on the job, after we'd discussed some architectural details in this little Belle Epoch apartment. It was very nice of him. And it got me thinking.

Sometimes, especially when you're communicating in a foreign language, you get into a discussion where a word comes up repeatedly and if the discussion isn't too complicated, the back of your mind can work on the words, the language. For example, this word, poignée. Funny little word. It means handle or knob, but I first began to use it steadily at the market, because the word also means "handful". Good for spinach and mixed greens, dried Soissons and mushrooms, cherries heaped into mountains on the first weekend in June, Mirabelles, just about anything that you can pick up and scoop with your hands into your market basket. We often don't need any more than a handful, do we? I learned it years ago from the sellers at the market, and thought about it carefully again last week. In fact, every time I open a door, I also think on the many levels of this word.

The Chinese have a thing for these kinds of similes. They infer meaning by word choices, knowing that there may be 8 or more different words represented by a certain syllable, depending on the inflection. Part of the beauty and richness of Chinese linguistic communication comes from a choice of words, with a knowledge and special attention paid to the underlying meaning in the overall scheme of things. It makes Chinese literature extremely rich with symbol and hidden meaning. It also makes it easy to ease an idea into a discussion, slowly, maybe an idea you'd never hit straight on for reasons of politesse.

I made a decision during this past year to commit to a pretty big project, and to do it right. In many ways, commitment to this project opened a new door for me. At first, it seemed quite a natural thing to do, and I began to tackle it with joyous abandon and scattered energy. Then, when it came down to the nitty gritty, I realized that I was going to have to suffer to get this thing under control. It was much bigger than me. As it bucked and kicked around, I began to think of its scope and get frightened. That's when I remembered my father. In his spare time, he worked on creative projects that were simply extraordinary. Anyone who knew John Sellers can attest to this. For example, the boat. He didn't just have a knack with wood. It was something spiritual. And it was all his.

His creative projects came to represent his spiritual livelihood, and after he died, this spirit became his legacy. The beauty of it all was that he was never under the gun. Not under contract, never any reason to rush through any project or cut corners. Throughout his life, he was able to maintain a level of concentration on distant goals that resulted in, quite frankly, his achieving an artisan's mastery over wood and the wind that fed his soul and that of everyone around him. A man of few words, he would break down a project into little pieces, and tackle them silently, one by one. Thinking of the beautiful projects my father undertook throughout his life and his handful by handful approach to them gave me great comfort as I slowly get a handle on my own.



Blogger christine said...

It´s hard not to get overwhelmed by a big project. I am always envious of those people like your father who can take apart a project and work through it piece by piece. I have such a struggle with that.

I love your doorknobs!! Can you hang onto his card? We have a doorknobless house and those look wonderful!

6:18 PM, June 03, 2008  
Blogger Tracey said...

I can't believe your dad built that boat on his own! It is stunning. I see the creative gene runs in the family.

3:11 PM, June 04, 2008  
Blogger ArneSalvesen said...

My 17 year old is dealing with this exact issue. Graduation is on the horizon and he's feeling overwhelmed at the thought that the decisions he makes today are going to have a profound impact on the rest of his life.

His answer? Make no decisions at all. In fact, give up. Thankfully we've caught this in time and along with his Bestefar (grandpa in Norwegian) we've managed to show him how to deal with big projects ... une poignée à la fois.


11:00 PM, June 09, 2008  

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