Today I started pruning the Christmas tree groves, but really there was very little actual pruning of trees and much, much more clipping and cutting of the endless waves of saplings that grow up through the conifers, along with a certain amount of cutting all the extra growth from the balsam stumps themselves. There is so much of this to be done that I never get to all (or even most) of it in any given year.
As such it is a great example of overwhelming work, the kind of work that feels unbreakable, never ending, eternal. Sisyphus rolling the stone up the hill. I have ten acres of trees, and each year I'm lucky if I can do this to two or three acres. My goal is to leave an area completely clean, all the trees well defined by clipping branches to make that clear 10" of trunk that helps people really see it, the right smaller trees and sprouts leapfrogging off the stump, and the general growth of the branches allowed only in the right directions where they won't crowd out the trees themselves. I cut back all saplings except those I'm keeping for poles (I need about 30 a year, a pace the local forest edges along the road can't sustain) and the really good ones I'm pruning up super high to grow into full sized trees. The undergrowth gets clipped when necessary, except for azaleas and rhododendrons, and paths get carefully cleared and all the brush piled up out of the way.
When I'm done with an area, I don't need to return to it for several years, and when I do it is in much better shape than it was originally. This process, leaning intensely on a portion each year, works much better than trying to do the minimum amount to everything. When I have tried to do the minimum amount to everything, nothing got better and in fact everything slowly slipped farther and farther into chaos.
I think this is a good approach when applied to any overwhelming work, one that you can never hope to completely take care of at any one time and that will continue to need work in the future. I take this approach to maintaining our house (each year I tackle the most pressing three projects) and with the grounds (I tend to ignore thickets or tangles of stuff until I tackle it completely). The important thing is to do just a bit, and to do it as thoroughly as possible, so that it won't need your attention for years to come.
Slowly, bit by bit, the ratchet of improvement lifts everything up.
Summertime holds so much promise. You wake up to a fan, and bare feet on the floor, and there is no fire to light in the stove, no snow to shovel. Getting dressed takes half a second, and everything is easy.
But then there are the other demands the season places on your time. The lawn needing to be mowed. The meadow needing to be mowed. The garden to be weeded and planted and fertilized and thinned and turned and planted again. The repairs to the house and the projects you would never undertake in the colder months, rebuilding the chicken run or clearing brush.
It is easy to lose the sense of ease that the summer brings. I used to work jobs (sailing, farming) that required me to work the hardest during the summer. More recently, I worked most weekends of the summer, either going to markets or teaching at home or elsewhere. There was money to be made and I was hungry to make it.
This year is the first year that I have deliberately refused to teach on the weekends, keeping them open instead for projects and family time. This is also the first year in many years that we have stayed on top of the garden, keeping it watered and weeded. Who knows? Maybe it will be the first year in many when I truly relax into the easy promise of summer.
One thing is for sure. It will only happen if I make that choice. Because that ease? That's a vacuum. And everything, at all times, tries to relentlessly fill a vacuum.
Here's how it works: I go through life cramming more and more into the space and time I have, until I hit a breaking point. With physical objects it manifests as a need to rearrange. With my time, this shows up as a need to recalibrate how I articulate TO MYSELF how I spend my time.
I am at one such moment. I sort of have known this was coming, but there are so many variables of how opportunities and obligations come my way that I don't know for sure if I'm there until I'm there.
I know I'm there when the story I tell myself of how I should be spending my time doesn't match up well with how I actually need to spend my time, and I find myself doing things like just now, axing out an order of blanks on a weekend, generally cramming more and more work into every available moment. Time to take a step back and review.
What's actually happening is several things are piling up, and I need to take a day or two to deal with them before filling more orders. I have two manuscripts needing to be edited by midweek; I need to write an article for the magazine and send all the articles and photos from all the contributors to our new format guy (very excited about that, but it does mean that I can't shove it off til later like I'd been planning); I need to box up and send out almost 50 polishers and burnishers; I need to do a regular post office run with all the orders from this last week and I need to prepare and make a bank deposit. That may all fit into tomorrow, but likely it will spill over into Tuesday, especially editing the manuscripts. Then, by chance, I'm teaching half of Wednesday, all of Thursday, and half of Friday. I have tried very hard to hold teaching to one day a week, but somehow I booked all of these.
To top it all off, I've been getting less and less certain of when I'm actually booking work now, as my day planner has gotten muddled. So today I actually ordered a new day planner, and I will be re-writing all orders from here on out, adding in all the new obligations I know of now, and we'll see where that gets me. I'm getting close to the cut-off date of when I need to close non-local orders for the year, and I won't know until I write everything out again.
So I'm due for a recalibration, and I need to clear the decks a bit. I'll see you on the other side.
This weekend I put in my yearly couple of days of attending to the outside of the house. Some years it's building wraparound stairs to a porch, or ripping out a bunch of rot and rebuilding walls and siding. This year is was repainting about a third of the house and attending to the small pockets of rot that this process uncovered.
My process is unsophisticated but effective enough. Scrape any loose paint. Probe any rotted areas, rip out only what seems truly soggy, stabilize the rest with wood hardener applied with a syringe, patch with wood filler if necessary and paint that sucker.
The nice thing about paint is that it allows a house to age gracefully. It always amazes me how the gnarliest section of rot, if treated this way, can be completely inconspicuous, unnoticeable against the view of the house as a cohesive whole.
Now don't get me wrong: if a board is totally rotten, I think it's a good idea to rip it out and replace it. But sometimes now is not the appropriate time to rip it out and fix it properly. In which case, this quick fix that takes five minutes is miles better than doing nothing at all.
The thing is, we all need a way to age gracefully. I used to groan at having to paint the house, swearing that I would never live in a white house with a white picket fence (I grew up with both). So much painting! But what I failed to appreciate was the way that paint allows you to tolerate imperfection for awhile longer, and then awhile longer still. Failings can be covered up, forgotten. Repairs can be blended in with the original, creating one joint effort between me and everyone who ever built or worked on this house.
I am a man of quick fixes. I don't bite off more than I can chew in these couple of days of house repair each year. I am not interested in living in a construction zone for months while I slowly piece together the parts of some complicated renovation. Paint is the ultimate arbiter for someone like me. Do the best you can, paint it and move on. Paint is temporary. Paint is powerful. Paint is life.
The other day, I got approached to see if I might be interested in taking over the local paper's food and farming column, a monthly thing that I could run with almost complete autonomy.
I'm leaning towards saying yes.
It's a strange feeling, being approached to see if I want to write for money. For my whole life, my writing is something I've produced almost entirely apart from money. Sure, there have been a couple of magazine articles for pay, and yes, there is the book. But for the most part, the monthly column I used to write for an even smaller paper, these blog posts, the mini blog posts I write for my instagram account, all those WORDS, they are all put out there with the hope that someone, somewhere, will find some use in them. For sure no one asked me for them.
Which honestly is as it should be. Whatever you love most should come from a place of loving to do it, NEEDING to do it, first. You do it and do it and do it and do it. No one listens at first. No one even knows you exist.
This is a good thing. You really don't want anyone's attention while you're figuring things out.
Bit by bit you get better, usually by unlearning all the things you added on top of what is actually quite simple. Still, no one is beating down your door. But maybe they are okay with you showing up.
Stick with me a bit further here, because it's still a long road. You see, in order to write anything, you first need to know something. The younger you are, the less you know (trust me on this 20-somethings). So live a little. Keep writing.
At this point, you can probably ask people if they want to hear from you, and they will usually say yes. Because by now you have something to say and you are practiced in saying it. Which is only because of all the times you have practiced saying it and fell short. Still, you keep at it. Beyond all reason, beyond all payback, beyond all patience, you do this thing because you have to. Because it is how you make sense of the world. Because it is how you can make an impact. You keep at it even when you'd rather be doing something else and you get back on that horse when you fall off.
And then maybe, if you stick around long enough, just maybe, someone asks you to write something.
I was teaching a spooncarving lesson this weekend when I found myself saying, in different situations, the same thing: shift your hand a half inch. Sometimes it was when axing, or using a knife, or how to hold the spoon being carved. Each time, it increased power, or control, or just flat out made something possible that the student was struggling with. I was struck at what a small change each of these instances was, and what a huge difference they made. What had been a struggle became easy. What had been impossible became possible.
Of course, me being me, I'm not satisfied to let this just remain a lesson inherent to spooncarving, but feel the need to extrapolate from it to life at large. So many times, the smallest of changes have an outsized affect on the outcome, or our abilities. We make some small change to our habits, and then everything flows differently from there.
I recently installed a chin-up bar in our house. I had originally purchased one of those ones that hang from the door trim, only to find when it arrived that all of the doorjams in our house are too wide for it to fit. After sulking for a day or two, I just went and made one from a section of ash sapling and two chunks of 2x6. The rule (or habit shift) is that every time I go through this doorway, I do one pull up.
Now, I can't remember the last time I did pull ups regularly. Maybe never. We had one in our house growing up but I didn't use it in any habitual way. I'm strong, but I quickly found that pull ups use a set of muscles that I am currently lacking. One pull up, at first, was hard. And one might not seem like much, but the way we use our house (and the location of the bar) means I now do 10-20 pull ups a day. I used to do zero.
In the last week, then, a single pull up has no longer become hard. It's too early to see any other ripple effects from this small change (although I realized the other night that my stomach muscles are sore, another good sign), but I suspect, so long as I continue the habit, that they will be many.
Often when we want something different in life, we think that we need to make drastic changes to achieve it. The problem is, drastic change, unless you have no choice and your life is just different now, is unsustainable. No amount of momentary desire will keep you on that diet and crazy exercise plan. But one tiny change? That's where all the power and control flows from, strange as it sounds.
So go ahead. Nudge your hands over a half inch. See what happens.
So the last few days I've been sick. Just a head cold, but anyone who knows me will tell you that I'm at my absolute worst with full sinuses. As part of coping, I watched some rom-coms at night, and by chance, the two I watched both had protagonists who found, through many plot twists and turns, the joy of being single.
On a seemingly random and yet related note, we just got 15 pullets (young hens) after a winter of being chickenless except for a rooster who we wanted to keep because he is a very good rooster. Some roosters are mean. Some are stupid. Some are useless. It's worth hanging on to the kind, gentle ones that actually watch over their flock.
This rooster had a long, cold, lonely winter, and so it is a true delight now to watch him interact with the new flock. One of the things that is most evident is that he has a PURPOSE again. Now he can scratch up tender grubs and make little chucking noises to call over the nearest hen to eat it. Now he can crow at potential threats and have that alarm have real meaning. Now he can keep a vigilant eye on things from the top of the compost heap for someone's benefit other than his own.
Seeing Solo (his name is almost too perfect given his lonely winter, I know, but I swear we named him because he was the last surviving chick of his clutch) rediscover his purpose has got me reflecting on my own purpose in life, and how much of that revolves around creating a home and providing for my family. Many of the things I do are to create the experiences for my girls, or to make a home life that feels a certain way. If I lived alone, would I wash the dishes? Would I vacuum the floors? Probably, but the point is not whether I'm doing these things for me or for them. The point is that I do it for them, and then I get to enjoy it, too.
What I'm realizing is that this service to my family is my purpose in life. Sure, there are other goals of service, having to do with what I do for a living, but I do those things SO THAT I CAN PROVIDE FOR MY FAMILY.
Which brings us to the central question: if you are single, or don't have kids, what the heck are you supposed to make of this? Is life just a waiting game of playing at adulthood until you have a family and then that all changes?
I don't think so.
I think that this service to others is not just something we give to our families. It can be a way of approaching the world, extended to our family, friends, acquaintances. It can be the basis of business and it can be how we seek to make the world a better place than how we found it.
I believe it is important to be self-aware enough to know what you need to be happy, and to fight for that, but I also think that you can go too far down the road of self-realization, and end up taking care of only yourself. And ultimately, that won't hold a candle to the pleasure of taking care of others.
So it's good for me to see Solo stalking around the chicken meadow, a couple of chickens in tow. It's good for me to have two tiny whirlwinds of chaos in my life to clean up after. It's good that it's not just me, looking after me. I do better, and I think we all do better, when our actions are at least partly done for the sake of others.
This weekend has been a big family weekend, with my brother and his family coming down from Burlington. They are bigger gardeners than even we are, so the conversation turned to the spring season, what had done well and what was lagging behind. It has been cool, without surprise frosts but all the things that like some heat are taking their sweet time while all the things that benefit from an extended cool period (like spinach) are going crazy.
I mentioned how this year, for the first time in a long time, I had failed to go into the spring with an established planting of spinach or even a new round sowed as early as feasible. I was using the hoophouse to axe out blanks until mid April, and the intensity of it this year had me questioning if it was even worth trying to squeeze in a little sowing of spinach in the corners. I felt like I was using the space to the max already. And then when I cleared out of the hoophouse I convinced myself that it wasn't worth planting spinach because it was just going to warm up and it would bolt and we'd get barely any life out of the planting.
As it turns out, with the long cool spring, we would have done quite well if I'd just taken the half hour to get it done. And that is kind of the point, because as I was relating this to my brother and sister-in-law, it occurred to me that this very diversification, that means that if you plant a little of everything that each year some stuff will do poorly and other stuff will do great, that same principle is actually at work in all areas of life. You don't know what the weather will be so you hedge your bets by planting a bit of everything, and that way you know something will work out. Similarly, you don't know how life will turn out, so you hedge your life-professionally and personally- so that even if some stuff doesn't pan out, other stuff will. Friends come and go in ways that you can't control, so make a lot of them. Some work opportunities succeed while others don't for reasons as inscrutable as the weather, so have lots of irons in the fire.
The benefit of this sort of diversity is so obvious that we often don't even see it. Instead, we convince ourselves that we know what we want, or are choosing quality over quantity, or are following our passion. But I think we are fooling ourselves. We are as much in control of the outcome of any individual part of our lives as the tomato controls whether or not there will be a late frost that nips it in the bud. The thing we CAN control is how many shots at success we give ourselves.
So plant that spinach, because you never know. Nurture those friendships you've been neglecting. Send that exploratory email, start that pipedream. Much will fall by the wayside, but even the most difficult growing season is a goldmine for something. And if you don't appreciate the bumper crop of zucchinis the world has bequeathed you when you would have preferred basil and potatoes, roll up your sleeves and get planting.
In the diversity is your success.
So it's no secret that I make my living selling spoons, blanks, burnishing tools (although that is much more a service to the community) and teaching spooncarving. This all accounts for a third of what I do. But it's definitely my most public side.
Sales have been good this last week, after a period when sales were slow that had me second-guessing if I was doing something wrong. It's ironic that sales have been so good this week because I feel like my social media engagement is way down, in that I haven't had anything go remotely popular, let alone viral (and if I'm being honest NOTHING I've done has gone viral) in several weeks. I'm not sure to make of that, if I should be worried, or changing what I do, or tweaking things more.
Or maybe I've gotten sloppy? Or maybe Instagram is changing? Or maybe the community is changing?
For sure everything is shifting, all the time, and it's incumbent on each of us to assess what might be working, make small changes, and try, try try until something starts to stick, and then do more of that thing.
On the other hand, that logic is how you get feeds that feel oddly bereft of any person, or that don't give you any sense of a life being lived.
It's nice to be reminded, in these moments when social media and self-promotion seems baffling, that sales of what I do are not tied so tightly to how many likes I get. It sure feels like they are, because they are, in a broader sense, connected. Of the 8000 people following me, fully 7500 don't see my stuff or engage or are even using their accounts. So you need to attract the new people, the ones exploring, but you also need to make it worthwhile for people to stick around, too. In the end, however, it is easy to panic when either social media or sales feel off, without recognizing that there is a disconnect between the two.
And it is easy to lose sight of what social media can be in the first place, how it can serve and enrich our lives, bringing us opportunities, community, and a way to document things we would like to remember and be known for.
I'd like to think if I can remember to do that, then the sales will take care of themselves.
This morning, I got up with my wife at 5 am. She was heading off to a clinical rotation as part of nursing school; I was heading off to the couch.
My task was to label and stuff copies of Spoonesaurus Magazine, the spooncarving magazine I publish with my partner Matt White (the guy who makes my knives). I had two big boxes of printed magazines, two cases of manila envelopes, and an enormous spaghetti pile of printed label stickers I had printed the night before. I pulled then end of the string of labels over, peeled one, stuck it on an envelope, grabbed a magazine and slid it inside, pulled the cover on the sticky flap and smoothed it down. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
My earliest job was washing eggs at a local farm. Then it was harvesting strawflowers in bunches to be dried. Later on I helped transplant flowers and harvest squash and mustard at a different farm. Then when I met my wife, we farmed together growing vegetables and helping start a yogurt business, both situations rife with repetitive tasks. My current work at the Christmas tree farm is a minefield of them. Even the spoons and blanks I make repetitive in their way. So I am no stranger to the nuances of how this goes.
When you first start a repetitive task, your mind is fresh. Your body doesn't hurt and you are thinking a lot about what you are doing. That lasts for 15-30 minutes. Then you get into a pleasant hum of routine where your mind starts to wander, and sometimes (but not always) you make important creative leaps. That lasts for another indeterminate length of time, depending on how uncomfortable the task is, your state of mind, the quality of the day or your company.
Then you hit the wall. As anyone who's ever done much running can relate with, you reach that place where your mind resists continuing doing what you're doing. Sometimes it's because it hurts (transplanting long rows of crops comes to mind) and sometimes it's just because you feel done.
But you push past the wall, and coast from then until the end. In this respect, it is helpful if the task doesn't require much alertness (driving a car or operating machinery or power tools, for instance, are not situations where you'd want to push through the wall; stop and take a break). I finished labeling and stuffing all the magazines in about an hour and a half, and I was grateful to be done.
We often demonize repetitive tasks, go to great lengths to avoid them, but I think they offer something valuable, particularly in situations where you are deciding for yourself how long you do them, when to stop and take a break or do something else. First of all, we are fooling ourselves if we think that life doesn't require repetitive tasks. If we aren't doing them, someone else is on our behalf. Leaning in to the repetitive tasks in your life is a way of being grateful for all of the work of that sort that others do for us, whether we realize it or not. Leaning in is also good for my mind. I don't meditate, but I am convinced that all the repetitive tasks in my life serve the same purpose. I wouldn't want them to predominate my day (and I know intimately what that's like), but I am glad that I have a hefty dose of them, and I start to feel unmoored when I don't have something like that required of me.
The other benefit repetitive tasks (at least real, physical ones, not so much digital tasks) provide is a sense of accomplishment you get from looking back at a greenhouse full of seedlings, or a truck full of harvested produce, or, in my current case, a couch full of magazines ready to be mailed. There is something about the sameness of it that lends to this satisfaction, making it more poignant, perversely, than a more linear task like building something. It is the deep animal part of our brain, I think, pleased to be stockpiling something, anything, against the coming winter.
My blog has evolved into a series of short essays on the nature of entrepreneurship, craftsmanship, and their overlap. If either of these topics is something you think about, you will probably like this.