When I was 22, I was working on a schooner up in Maine one spring when I had an accident. The boat was hauled out at a shipyard so we could sandblast and repaint her bottom, and I was carrying big chunks of iron to shore that had been used to weigh down balks of timber, sloshing knee deep up the concrete slipway bearhugging this fifty pound lump of metal when I slipped and fell. My chin hit the top of the iron pig, and while I shook it off and kept working, later that summer when my left arm stopped working, a chiropractor would discover that that accident had pinched a nerve in my shoulder, and that this combined with flaking anchor chain three times a day every day had exacerbated the situation to the point that I had tendonitis.
At that time, the only solution was to stop doing all the things I was doing. Stop sailing, stop using my arms in all the strong physical ways that I was used to. It took several months for the symptoms to totally clear up.
Throughout the ensuing 12 years, I have skittered again and again along the edge of tendonitis, carpal tunnel, hand and arm inflammation, numbness, whatever you want to call it. My career choices have probably not helped: farmer (milking cows, transplanting and harvesting vegetables), zip line tour guide (clipping and unclipping thousands of carabiners every day), professional scyther, editing (all the time at a keyboard), Christmas tree farmer (clipping greens and tying wreaths) and now spoon carving.
I have been cautious, and I have taken breaks when I needed to. With the spoon carving in particular, I have been careful to only carve what I can sustainable do. Over these last two years, I have slowly ramped up my production, and have been pleased with how my body has strengthened and been able to handle carving a spoon a day, then two, then three or four, day after day. This is no small victory.
There place where I struggle, year after year, is with the Christmas tree farm. There is a finite window before Thanksgiving where almost all of the wholesale orders need to be made, and financially it has been an important opportunity for us. Many days I use clippers the entire time. Every year I have suffered increasing numbness and pain in my hands and forearms, waking up at night with my hands asleep. I have tried different things over the years, hiring help to do some of the clipping with me, wearing wrist braces, taking different anti-inflammatories and intermittent icing.
The only that has worked, in the end, is to do less. The problem with all the other solutions is that I ended up using them as a crutch to continue doing the same amount. Have someone working with me? Great, we can say yes to more jobs. Not feeling any pain because of the ibuprofen? Great, I can keep going.
I was worried this year about all the spoon carving sending me into the season with already stressed out hand muscles, but that appears to have not been the case. If anything, the greater hand strength seemed to be a help. But this last week I filled a big order for roping and that is what finally set me off. Making roping (or garland) is tough on the hands. The right hand (I'm a lefty) in particular does a lot of squeezing to hold the greens in place. The height of the machine I use also exacerbates the problem, and I forgot to stand on something this year to raise myself up and thus lower my arms.
So the last few days I've been taking it easy, making all my deliveries but otherwise not trying to carve anything, tie any wreaths or do anything else that would stress my hands out (playing instruments or doing any floor exercises are the big things that fall to the wayside this time of year).
Tomorrow I will harvest more greens and tie wreaths, but hopefully these couple of days will help me claw back to a healthy place. Because, in the end, we each only get one body. And while it is easy to forget in the throes of filling an order, our body is priceless.
Okay, so I find myself at the time of year when, more than ever, my days are filled and dictated by the demands of production. I get up at 5 AM to carve two spoons before my girls wake up. Production. I go to the farm and harvest bales of balsam greens or tie wreaths. All day. Production. I edit manuscripts in the evening. Production.
There are times, particularly with the wreaths, that the scale of the task is overwhelming, the time stretching out ahead filled with an amount of work that is daunting on a good day. On a bad day it can crush you.
So here's what I do about it. There are four layers to my approach, and each successive layer gets deeper into the heart of what makes for a good life. The first layer is mastery. If you are faced with a job you intend to do, the first thing to do is to get really really good at it. Tie wreaths until you can do it with your eyes shut. Carve spoons until you can do it at five in the morning, bleary eyed, and have your work come out better and better. Edit until you can spot a typo when scanning at top speed or catch a subtle misstep of logic. Own your task. Crush it.
This obviously takes time, but striving towards this sort of mastery keeps you engaged with the task at hand, and constantly improving. The next layer down is variety. When possible, I carve different spoons one after another, or tie wreaths one day and harvest greens the next. I mix up editing with these more physical tasks. Spreading around the production I'm asking my body and mind to accomplish means that I stay sharper and fresher than if I had all my eggs in one basket.
Even if you only do one thing, you can very the day-to-day tasks it involves, and emphasize different cognitive and physical skills intermittently. If this is not possible, proceed directly to the third layer, which is diversion. I work mostly alone. I lean heavily on podcasts, music, daydreaming, and yes, Instagram to give my brain something to chew on or bliss out to, and in the case of Instagram it gives me a community that I interact with daily. This helps structure an otherwise solitary day. When I'm struggling through a really difficult manuscript, I'll even entice myself along by watching movie trailers between sections of editing. Whatever it takes.
The last, deepest layer is purpose, and that is the heart of the matter. I produce these things to earn money, and that is important but it is also only a piece of it. There is a deeper purpose that informs why I am dedicated to these activities. With the spoons it is sharing these objects and these skills with the world. With the editing, it is the relationship I have with my father from creating this business with him. With the Christmas tree farm, it's carrying this farm into the future, both as an example of what is possible, and to preserve the tradition of all the families that come here. Whenever I hit bottom with one of these activities, this purpose is down there waiting for me. It reminds me why I'm doing it in the first place. It reassures me that underneath the flash and the chatter, this is important. Worth doing. And it reminds me that underneath it all is the relationship with other people. It's not about the task or the object or the experience. It's about the people. Always was and always will be.
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.