All through the fall of 2015, I puttered. I was supposed to be reading for my comprehensive exams, but the more urgent work of teaching kept draining my mental energy away. I started teaching projects and events as procrastination. I was afraid of engaging with my own work because it might turn out that I would not live up to my own expectations. I didn’t get much reading done.
I puttered through a relationship that was slowly unraveling into a dead-end, despite our best intentions. I puttered through my evenings on small, low stakes projects. I made a Roy Underhill tool tote from a library book (it took me the first half of a football came to resaw the pine board). I watched Paul Sellers on youtube and tried to build my own little rabbet plane (with mediocre results). I fashioned a new walnut spacebar to replace a cracked plastic one on of my typewriters (yes, I have two). I started making a tool chest with the dimensions of the full Anarchist’s Tool Chest and the simple joinery of the baby version from the Anarchist’s Design Book. Everywhere I felt vaguely alone: no seminar conversations in the evenings, lukewarm and guarded receptions on online forums, Grubby “networking” conversations at academic conferences. I struggled to understand my own academic work or its value. It seemed like there were unspoken expectations everywhere I turned, and I wasn’t meeting them.
I did get that project functional in time for an event that I was hoping would kick me into gear a little bit. I tend to look for outside circumstances to change as a way to help me change internally. In this case, I was moving into a new space. Instead of my north facing third-floor apartment, I’d be sharing a bright little 110-year-old house with a new roommate. It was in a different neighborhood. It was cute where my apartment has been functional. I’d have stairs, nice furniture thanks to the owners, and incredibly cheap rent. It offered me space for a study/library in which to write, and small workbench sized space for a shop (in addition to a basement). It seemed like maybe this would be just what I needed.
Moving is never fun, but my wonderful friends helped me haul my shabby grad student possessions over to the new place. That included the knockdown workbench and the unfinished tool chest. It was the last day of February. At about the same time, I remember watching The Revenant and feeling that movie’s crystalline cold merged seamlessly with raw violence. The world felt icy and malevolent, and I was at a loss. I looked out at that world and tried to understand. I tried to plan for how I could contribute–how I could resist the greed and violence that seemed to be lurking just under the surface. I read Thoreau, I taught my students about Wikipedia and the power of a sentence. I looked everywhere for hope and kindness–finding it in brief moments, but still struggling to get up in the morning.
A couple weeks later, I had settled in enough that I decided to paint my tool chest. I unloaded it, photographed all my tools spread out on my workbench, and followed a recipe to make my own milk paint from scratch, with vinegar to curdle the milk, and lime leftover from a friend’s backyard oven plaster. It was St. Patrick’s day. That night, my dad sent the family a picture. Construction crews had just placed the first girder of Broadway Bridge–a project we were jokingly calling his magnum opus. He was set to retire in just over a year.
That night I was woken up in the middle of the night by a phone call from my mom. She said it was a butt dial. I went back to sleep. The next day I woke to see three more missed calls from her. I called right back. She explained that my father was missing. He had never come home the night before. She’d been out looking for him all night with my aunt and uncle. There wasn’t any sign.
After she hung up to continue her search, I called my dad. No answer. I sent a desperate text, telling him that we were all worried about him. My mom called back. My dad was dead.
He was 57 years old. He had died on his way home from work, from what would turn out to be a heart aneurysm. He had time to pull over, turn off the truck, and reach for his phone. He never made a call.
My tool box sat on the kitchen floor, where it had dried overnight. I put it in the workshop, and thought–I will never get to show my dad.
I last talked to him two days before he died. It had been unseasonably warm in Nebraska, and I rode my bicycle to a professors’ house for a meet and greet with an important guest. But I’d gotten the time wrong and arrived an hour early. So I sat on a park bench and called my dad, and we laughed and chatted for that hour, comparing notes on the weather, sharing stories of our work, making plans for the coming summer. His work ethic, his care for what he did, had inspired me again. I’d hung up feeling good, feeling energized.
That day, I collapsed on the floor of my that handbuilt house and sobbed. Nothing for the next month felt real. Writing this now, nine months later, it still feels impossible. The bridge he photographed that day is finished, and snow blanket it along with the rest of my hometown of Boise, Idaho. The world to me feels cold and worse off now than it was then.
His headstone is piled high with snow, and frozen sagebrush fill the vase. A surreptitious bronze plaque marks that bridge. His other bridges around the state don’t bear his name, and very few of those who cross them will ever have the slightest inkling of my father’s story.
It may be easy for some to sneer at all those elegies to 2016 as an annus horribilis. But for me, personally, it was. And for anyone with a sense of propriety and justice, things have taken a turn for the worse. The cold violence that always threatens to break through is that much nearer.
Hannah Arendt, one of the thinkers who offers me guidance in dark times, wrote about the value of work. By that, she meant the way that humans alter nature to provide a stable shelter for their lives. We create an enduring world, and when we care enough to make that world beautiful, our lives can be great and beautiful as well. My father believed in that idea, though he might not have phrased it that way. He spoke of engineers all too often suffering from “a poverty of the imagination.” He designed special platforms for nesting osprey on one bridge. He made sure not to block the view of a river. He wanted his bridges, all over Idaho, to be beautiful in addition to being safe. He didn’t want to add gingerbread. He wanted the bones of the bridge to be honest, clean, and pretty. He tried to find truth that was graceful, beautiful. He, unlike so many, worked rather than simply “making a living.”
I’m trying to work again, too. To seek and find truth and beauty in wood, in words, on the edges of America’s violent past. I’m looking for the light and life that holds the cold violence in check. My toolbox is full and slowly getting fuller. I was recently entrusted with some hundred-and-fifty-year-old tools. But I feel more like I stand at a beginning than an end. I now know the loneliness won’t fade. It will never be solved; it will never be healed. But that is why I must work: to keep that bright little flame that I’ve been given from sputtering out.