Trade School

IMG_0424Two weeks ago, I visited the North Bennet Street School in Boston. It is one of the oldest trade and vocational schools in the country, founded in the 1880s. I stepped  into the school from a hot bustling day in Boston, with tourists herding down the street to behold the Paul Revere house and the Old North Church. It’s quiet inside, with a beautifully restored antique bandsaw and a wall of furniture leg patterns. The gift shop has a mix of coffee mugs and fine furniture that costs close to what I make in a year.

I had emailed ahead, and so I got to take a walking tour through the workshops with Rob O’Dwyer, the director of admissions for the school. It was mostly empty, but there was a three month intensive furniture making class going on, and some students and instructors were in their shops working. Their tool chests were works of art, inventive and proportional. The space was full of natural light, though each individual work bench had little more room than I have in my own little shop. Most of the work is done with handtools, though there is a machine room in the center to speed up production.

There was an instructor there who had made an incredible federal style table. It was inlaid, had a folding top, beautiful banding. He was working on it “just to try it out.” I felt the awe and envy come over me that always does in the presence of people who’ve devoted themselves fully to a task. He asked if I was thinking about attending the school–and I groped for an answer. Of course I was holding that dream in my mind. But I also told him that I was one year away from finishing my PhD in American Literature. And as he said, “Well, sure. If you’ve given your prime years to that, you’ll want a career in that.”

If only it were so easy. A PhD in American Literature, sadly, is not a degree that garauntees much in the way of job prospects. Certainly there are English professors, but there are far more PhD holders than there are tenure track professor positions (largely a result of running universities as businesses, but I digress).

So I always have a certain degree of dreaminess about my work. I followed this path not because it would lead to a good job, but despite the fact that it may not. An undergrad professor, when I was just starting my program, asked me: “In five years, would you rather have done the PhD and not continue, or look back after five years of working and wish you’d done the PhD?” Then it seemed obvious. I suppose it still does. But I also wonder about all the paths taken or not.

The idea behind Sloyd education (as practiced at the NBSS) is that craftsmanship is a moral and spiritual training as well as a manual one. That in connecting a student to the values of good workmanship, honesty, perseverance, justice, and a suitably humble estimation of the self will take root in the soul.

I wonder, dabbler that I am, how to practice those virtues without giving up my acquisitive curiousity. Is it possible to be devoted to these many things? To scholarship and teaching, to craft and honesty, to nature and the best that has been thought and written?

I’d like to take that three month class someday, but I probably never will. I’ll instead devote time to reading and teaching. To finding ways to open up students to the world around them that isn’t clamoring for their attention and doesn’t need their money. I will enjoy that beautiful high end furniture, and maybe make a peice or two someday. I’ll practice violin until I can play without embarrassment, but I’ll never solo with a symphony. I’ll keep flyfishing and rock climbing and sailing; without record fish, first ascents, or round the world voyages.

I don’t know that I’ll ever really make my peace with that, but I’m always inspired to be in the presence of that devotion, and glad that places exist to foster it.

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A Pilgrimage

So, this post will be about Walden. Not Walden, Henry David Thoreau’s magnificent gift to us all. Instead, it’s about the pond.

A little background: I first read Walden during my junior year of high school. Looking back, I think I was pretty insufferable at that point in my life.  I was a moody know-it-all (problems that still haunt me today) who thought I was too good for Idaho.  I had dreams of going to a fancy school back East–I was into the idea of The Great Books in a very big way.

But, I loved the outdoors of the West (how much wasn’t yet clear to me) My family went on a trip to Yellowstone, and being a pretentious teenager, I packed a cheap recently purchased blue Barnes and Noble Classics edition of Walden (I also had Adventures of Huck Finn to read for English class). But, even if I had questionable motives for bringing it along, reading that book at that moment changed my life. Not all at once, but slowly. Here was someone who was a judgemental as I was. But he included himself. And he was funny, witty. But he was also compassionate and impassioned. Wise. It was like I had found a soul that spoke to mine.

Now, getting close to 20 years later, I visited Concord for the first time. I’ve read Thoreau consistently since then, and written a Master’s thesis and several seminar papers trying to gain more insight into a man I have come to feel is a friend. Yes, I know he’s dead. But he also lives on. I read his words and hear him speaking as if from the next town over. We’re on a first name basis, Henry and me. And I’d learned that we share a birthday, July 12th, 168 years apart. We both graduated from college into profound economic downturns: his in 1837, mine in 2008. But through all this, he’s taught me to be me. To observe closely, not just the phenomena, but my own experience of them. To love both neighbors and solitude. To value making things for the making and for the new ways making shows me to grasping the world. He loved sailing, sought justice, was awed by the beauty of the natural world. He is the man whose life I most would like to emulate in its details as best I can.

So I had been planning to visit Concord and Walden pond for several years, ever since I realized it would be his 200th birthday. And how glad I am that I did. At dawn, my AirBnB roommate and fellow Idahoan, Jake, and I went to Walden. We walked with Richard Smith, a talented Thoreau impersonator who welcomed us especially–the only two first time pilgrims in a group of at least 20. When I stepped inside the foundations of his cabin, I removed my hat–almost without thinking. I stood ankle deep in the water, a sort of communion and baptism at the same time. It was a most auroral hour.

Later in the day, Laura Dassow Walls, one of the most generous and brilliant scholars in my field, released her new biography in Concord on July 12th. We’ve had several conversations and she is as warm and inviting as I imagine Henry was to his friends, or to the fugitive slaves he housed in his cabin. She inscribed it, “Happy Birthday to you, and Henry too!”

The day was full of speakers, Henry’s friends from several continents, speaking in the First Parish church which he attended until his conscience made him resign. Over the week, we presented in spaces that he had lectured in. I visited his grave, which modestly reads merely, “Henry”. I left my pencil, a tool he did much to modernize, back engineering–somehow–the process the French were using to make a uniform graphite-clay amalgam. I walked from Concord to his family farm, something over two miles outside of town. That evening, rain poured down on Concord in a deluge unlike any on record. It momentarily flooded the streets to impassability, requiring us all–the whole town–to pause. The TVs and cell phones went out. Thunder rumbled and water streamed like rivers down the windows. We all stopped. We listened to the earth, the water, the wind. We were being invited to wake up.

Thank you, Henry. Happy Birthday, dear friend.