The day after Thanksgiving I was listening to “Morning Edition” on NPR. Host David Greene was following up with Matt and Susan Simonds, a couple they reported on in the summer. Matt owned an Albuquerque, New Mexico, distillery and tap room, Broken Trail Spirits & Brew. Over the summer, like so many small business owners impacted by COVID-19, Matt was struggling to keep the bar open. In the follow-up, Matt tearfully revealed they had to shut down. You can listen to the full interview here.
As hard as it was to listen to, what struck me, though, was something his wife said about healing: Matt was building a canoe.
” … I’ve spent my time trying to give Matt the space that he needs,” she says in the interview. “He’s building a canoe in our garage. And my first thought was all the things we don’t have done in this house and you’re building a canoe. But at the same time, I understand it. It is – he likes to work with his hands. He’s good at woodworking. And this is something he can build. And you – I mean, as it gets built, you see progress. There’s a lot there. And it’s something that he can look at and say, I did this, and it was successful. He has a piece that is working for him.”
And after some back and forth Matt adds, “I think there’s a sense of control. Don’t get me wrong. There’s plenty of mistakes and plenty of screw-ups on it. But I know that they’re my mistakes. And with woodworking, with working with your hands, crafting, working in the garden outside, there’s a sense that this is mine.”
It reminded me of so many of the essays Charles Hayward wrote during World War II (many of which are featured in “Honest Labour“). It was a time of great uncertainty, loss of business, loss of life, and for many, more time than usual at home.
The following excerpt is from an essay called “A Help to Healing.” Hayward wrote it in 1944, a year in which raids targeted greater London for months.
— Kara Gebhart Uhl
“… Let things go wrong for us during the day and immediately our minds will fasten on these incidents to the exclusion of all else, exciting ourselves, hurting ourselves and bolstering up our own conceit. It is a poor world when we fill it with ourselves. But the world that has real things in it is a very different story, a world with real jobs to be done that will leave us feeling refreshed and renewed instead of gloomy and discouraged. The man who finds occupation in woodwork, for instance, finds something to be done that will absorb both hands and brain, and this is work in its most curative form. The men in prison camps know the value of such work. They know only too well the huge blank boredom, the deadlines of the mind preying on itself, and they learn from stark reality what a blessing work can be.
“The rest of us cannot complain of the lack of it at the present time. But it is all the more important, as our antidote, that we shall do the right kind of self-directed work in our leisure to counteract war weariness, anxiety, and mental strain. A zest for life is something that has to earned, especially in war-time. A passive attitude is fatal, and modern conditions do undoubtedly foster passivity. All the more reason to fight the thing, and the best kinds of weapons are tools. For when we have tools in our hands we are down to fundamentals, to the primeval urge to make things. We become in our own way man the builder, man the creator, fulfilling our own deepest instincts, and the long-forgotten skill of our ancestors tingles in our veins. For, whatever the tool, men have acquired the necessary skill to use it, from the polished flint to the mediaeval carpenter’s axe, which chopped out many a piece of rustic beauty. That is the one thing that cannot be taken from us while hands and brains are nimble, the one indestructible thing that can live beyond the wreckage of a world and build another.”
— Charles Hayward, The Woodworker magazine, 1944