Following the Path of Inspiration and Creative Work
This page is part of the creativity series, based on my book Grain of Truth. Each of these pages explores one aspect of the creative process: opening, grounding, inspiration, stillness, difficulty, joy, illumination, and the journey. View the introductory page for some context, or access any of the pages via the main Creativity category listing. Additionally, related pages are shown at the bottom of every page in the series.
Out here on the road, with the power lines down and early morning light from the sky my only illumination, I watch a cascade of small branches drift across the road in a gust of wind. I’m not sure where the trees have toppled over onto the power lines, but somewhere in this wide countryside the roving wind has struck with particular vigor. There are no lights on in any of the small, unassuming homes I pass, places that would at one time have been modest farms but now look as though they’re occupied by city commuters. The fields adjoining most of them are derelict. Brown grasses grown above the fence line part and sway as the excited wind rushes through. Though the lights on the highway are out, daybreak has begun to shape the landscape: evergreens vibrant and shining with rainwater, a roadside ditch clogged with a farrago of leaves, a murder of crows wheeling above a barn with a broken back.
Halloween is two days off. The moment of transformation, when the crack between worlds opens just a little wider, when the earth pauses for an instant in its descent toward the darkness of winter to collect both its lights and its shadows for the long journey inward. The weather is always wild this time of year. The air is still warm but with an undercurrent of dissolution: summer trees are bare, rain has begun to wash the forest of its color, gray November waits to wipe the year clean.
During late October the earth finally lets go of autumn’s peacefulness. Slowly, building in intensity over a period of weeks, the turbulence of nature unconstrained comes furiously forward: storms and lightning, a ferocious wind, the rolling voice of thunder. Great raging gales race in from the Pacific, flood beachside homes, seize tree branches like immense sails and carry them up into a sky of boiling air.
I stop at a pay phone because I’ve forgotten the directions to the sawmill, but I discover that without power I can’t make a call. As I stand at the edge of the road, trying to decide what to do, I become aware that despite the storm a deepening quiet pervades the morning. The electrical hum of human life has been silenced. Even the wind, rushing down the corridor of the highway, blasting wet paper and pebbles and leaves in its path, seems oddly tranquil.
It is good for me to be out in weather like this. There’s a reckless purity at work here, intense and simple, swirling around the silent heart of nature. I am drawn to that intensity, to the thunderous activity of it. It is the pulse of the world. Storms awaken in me a deep sense of aliveness, a fierce clarity that opens a space for what is most true to emerge.
I climb back in the truck and head in what I hope is the right direction. Clouds sweep across the sky, rain comes in fits and starts, thunder rattles the window beside me as I drive. I glimpse a flash of lightning over the trees to the west. I begin counting, using the method I was taught as a boy to gauge the distance lightning is from an observer. Thunder moves at roughly a thousand feet per second, so the delay between flash and crash denotes how far away the actual bolt is. One. Two. Three. And then another shuddering boom sweeps over me. Three thousand feet. Not too close, but not entirely safe, either.
The Taoist trigram for thunder shows two open lines atop a single solid line, as though a bolt of lightning has cleft the upper two lines to ground itself on the solid foundation at the trigram’s base. In Taoist philosophy thunder represents the movement of energy from formlessness and fluidity toward a fixed ground. Thunder and lightning together beckon the shape of creative endeavor, and their arrival is thus a defining moment in the creative process. They embody the moment of action.
In meteorological terms, lightning and thunder result when the electrical potential between earth and clouds (or between separate clouds) develops sufficiently to allow electrical energy to pass through the insulating barrier of the air. Something happens within the clouds themselves – scientists call it electrical activity, Taoists call it a cauldron of dancing chaos – to supercharge water or ice droplets, polarizing various regions of the clouds, roiling and intertwining them to such an extent that the energy shatters its own container. The charge bursts forth as lightning, which can seek the ground, travel to another cloud, and behave in many unusual ways. Lightning within tornadoes sometimes flashes repeatedly along the tornado’s central column, illuminating a magnificent catastrophe spiraling into the sky.
The earth is an electrified body; no one knows how or why. When the energy differential between earth and sky passes a critical threshold, lightning serves to neutralize it in two distinct steps. First comes the leader charge, an electrically negative pulse that descends in a series of steps, forging a path through the air, sometimes traveling horizontally and striking the ground as far as eight miles from the cloud. This is how lightning can strike from a clear blue sky. The leader stroke is invisible, like the cutting edge of a perfect blade.
Sometimes leader strokes move upward instead of down, arcing above the cloud in red and blue flashes, reaching skyward as far as sixty miles to the boundary of the ionosphere. These sprites and blue jets take the shape of cones, fountains, and dramatic splashes of color that can be seen only from space. Little is known about them; they are utterances in a language we do not understand.
The energy of a downward-traveling leader stimulates a positive charge from the ground, called the return stroke. This is the visible phase of lightning. It is more intense than the leader and travels upward (you can see the direction if you watch closely), passing back along the route created by the leader and terminating in the cloud. The entire process involves hundreds of millions of volts and air temperatures as high as 30,000 degrees centigrade. It is one of the most compelling actions of nature.
Thunder is the voice of lightning. It results when lightning heats up the surrounding air so quickly – within a few millionths of a second – that the air expands with explosive force, creating a sonic shock wave that can sometimes be heard twenty miles from its source. Listen closely to thunder and you’ll hear two distinct sounds – a crackling burst from the leader and then, almost instantly, the percussive wallop of the more intense return stroke. The sky speaks and the earth responds.
As creative energies, thunder and lightning bring together heaven and earth, bridge the distance between abstraction and grounding, connect idea with impulse. The moment the bolt touches the earth is the moment of action for any creative endeavor. Something happens, and suddenly the inspirational charge of the work forges a path to decisive action. The time for reflection and consideration is over; invisible forces say get moving in voices that are, well, thunderous. It’s that leader charge, challenging me to generate a worthy return. And I am always surprised by the suddenness of it, the shock, after incubation and uncertainty and anxiety about the work, of finding myself thrust imperatively down a path whose direction I rarely understand. That’s the thing about lightning: it strikes. Elusive energies that lie wrapped in the mystery of my work reach out and fill me with movement.
Lightning inspires in me a spontaneous and reckless enthusiasm thoroughly unlike the mood of receptivity – of sacred contemplation – that accompanied the making of Sadie’s funereal box. When lightning strikes, my direction is seldom clear, plans are ill-formed, attachment to results is minimal. A flash illuminates a new landscape and I set out for it, not knowing where it might lead. That’s why I’m driving around, a little bit lost, just after sunup during a lovely October storm.
It boils down to this: Bill had some trees he wanted taken down and I thought we could get some good lumber from them. A row of Douglas firs beside his house had grown tall enough to loom over the roof and make themselves vulnerable to strong winds. I don’t know why the original owner of Bill’s property planted those trees; the eventual danger to the house would have been predictable. Rows of trees or trees planted singly lack the protective buffer offered by a forest and commonly fall over, often onto cars or power lines or across roads. A great many isolated trees are encouraged to grow where there is a boundary or a property line: alongside driveways and roads, in space that’s not used much. These places are not natural habitats for evergreen trees. Eventually the solitude gets to them and they just let go into the wind.
The plan to harvest lumber from Bill’s trees, which started out not so much as a plan but a vague, abstract impulse toward the pioneering spirit, took shape the previous year when he and I cut down an old beech tree whose roots had begun to dig into his foundation. While we were trimming off the branches on the downed tree, we talked about having it milled into boards. Beech is dense, despite its light, soft color, and is great for woodworking. It is one of the most widely used woods for commercial furniture (especially upholstery frames) and tool handles. Beech also has a reputation in healing practice: salves derived from the tree help heal burns and reduce fevers. Its traditional name, “Mother of the Forest,” is well-earned.
The tree went to the mill, and a few weeks later I drove out to Langley for the boards. I loaded far too many into my station wagon, packing them onto the roof and in the tailgate, along the rear seat, angled between the two front seats and pushed up snug against the stick shift, making it impossible to get into reverse. I stuck a few through the front passenger window by way of the backseat. As I drove home on the highway, they lifted in the wind, shivering with vibration, making the sounds of imminent disaster. But they stayed in place. Every few minutes I slowed the car (why pull off, it only wastes time) and craned my neck out the window to check the roof rack: boards sticking out everywhere, shifting in the wind, bits of bark rubbing off and falling behind, dangerous as hell. But I was not going to make two trips, I pride myself on never having to make two trips, and (with the single exception of the windsurfer that one time coming back from Steveston on the highway, when the mast arrowed forward like some crazy medieval lance and the sail flopped over to cover the windshield) I’ve never had anything come seriously loose. I’ve carried loads heavy enough to bend the steel roof rack supports and indent the frame of the car where the rack is fastened, but never two trips.
Lightning inspires recklessness but is generous with luck. I got the boards home without incident and stacked them to dry alongside my house. We didn’t end up with much wood, just enough to build a good cabinet, maybe a chair or two, but the experience hooked me on the idea of milling my own lumber – more precisely, getting someone else to mill it for me – and when the row of firs beside Bill’s house came down, it was a windfall for my workshop. Not just a single tree this time but twelve, admittedly not of the same caliber as beech but perfectly respectable wood nonetheless. Because of its high weight-to-strength ratio, fir is the wood of choice for beams, roof trusses, and all kinds of construction projects. It works easily, possesses an interesting, undulating grain, and is plentiful in supply. Smells nice, too: fresh and redolent, like pine, but less refined. It’s the fragrance of open air, of suddenly emerging from the forest onto cliffs above the ocean, that moment when you realize the depthless sky keeps going, reaches out farther than you can see, and something in you acknowledges your own unfathomable depth.
Fir contains many possibilities. Unlike maple or cherry or walnut, all of which are best suited to fine furniture and cabinetry, fir may be used for almost any woodworking project. I could build a house with it, make furniture to go in the house, use a bit for firewood (but only a little) and distill the bark to make a sweet tea. Even so, twelve trees’ worth of fir is a monstrous amount for my small workshop, in which I turn out four or five woodworking projects a year. But the potential of it, the sheer seduction, is too fine to pass up. That’s the wonder of lightning and thunder as creative energies: they require only faith in the process and a willingness to be taken.
We brought in a faller to take the trees down, possibly saving Bill a hefty insurance claim for a collapsed roof. The logs were laid out in neat rows in front of his house. Unlike the beech tree, which had come to rest conveniently on the driveway, the fir logs were on the other side of the property, forty or fifty feet from the road. Bill’s front yard cascades down to the road in a series of three terraces, so we decided to roll the logs. This was great fun, pushing the huge shapes to the edge, watching them tumble off the sharp edge of the top terrace, hang for a moment in the air and then fall six feet to the ground below with a thwump. Everything went smoothly, the pile of logs on the lower terrace growing as we worked, until I got a little carried away. Too much spontaneous enthusiasm, I suppose, too much spark. Wanting to see if I could make a log build up enough momentum to leap over both terraces and come to rest at the level of the road, I pushed it as fast as I could, bark spinning across the grass, stubs of branches leaving indents in the ground, and over it went, leapfrogging the logs below, bouncing over the lower terrace, then picking up speed as it rolled toward the road. Toward my car, parked inconveniently in front of the lower terrace. I hadn’t counted on that. There was a hushed moment as we stood on the lawn, watching the log trundle toward the front quarter panel of my car, the precise spot I had had repaired and repainted a couple of weeks earlier. Then came the impact, accompanied by the sound of metal clanging indignantly. The car was pushed back a few feet. Even before the impact, I was thinking about how I would explain this to my wife.
I went down and inspected, steeling myself for what I might discover. I had been lucky, unreasonably so. The log had hit squarely on the leading edge of the right front wheel and rolled under the bumper, clearing it by a couple of inches and exerting the brunt of its force against the wheel and shock absorber column. Not a bad place to hit, all things considered: a spot designed to take impact. There was a long, ragged scratch on the column, which turned out to be abraded bark – it came off when I rubbed – and that was all. Recklessness and luck. I climbed in, turned the ignition and tentatively edged the car forward. No new screeches or squeaks, no handling problems. I drove past Bill’s property, out of the fall line of future logs, and parked again.
Bill found the incident amusing, my just reward for playing pick-up-sticks with five-hundred-pound logs. A bit later another rolling log sheared off a piece of his rock wall and he was quieter after that. The only other log that got away on us was the one that accidentally went over both terraces, gathered speed as it shot out onto the road (thankfully clear of traffic at that moment), sailed clear across, and headed straight for a new cedar fence someone had carefully built. The fence had a nice clear coat, careful construction: a good job. The log would have smashed right through it but was stopped just short by the only tree within fifty feet. The tree held and the log came to rest quietly in its shade. We went sheepishly over to retrieve it, hoping the neighbor hadn’t seen. A real professional outfit we were.
We got the logs down to the road and loaded onto the flatbed of a local trucker, who took them to the mill. A week later I got a call from Karl, the sawyer, to say the milled boards were ready. I had never used Karl’s services before, so I gave myself extra time on this stormy morning to find him. But as I’d forgotten his address, and the power to the pay phones was out everywhere I tried, and as I was too shy to ask to use the phone at any of the houses I passed, I ended up driving around in a rented truck thinking about lightning and hurricanes and the weather of creation.
Thunder and lightning are dangerous creative energies. The compulsion to work, the insistent drive to get going, can obscure all other concerns. I’ve just got to Wnish this. Last job of the day, I’ll be done in a few minutes. Such statements often precede injury, mistakes, destruction of the work. Always one last thing. It is possible to get carried so completely by the energy of lightning and thunder – there is such a deep reservoir from which to draw – that I am taken over, absorbed completely into my own determined enthusiasm, joyfully pushing the log without noticing the direction it’s going. I get lost in the magic of all that energy whirling around inside me, magical and perilous and wonderful. As the I Ching says, “When thunder comes, there is alarm, then laughter.”
The trick is to survive the strike. When the human body is hit by lightning, the electrical energy tries to find a clear path to the ground; it moves either directly through the core of the body, which is often fatal, or cascades along the surface of the skin and clothing. In the latter case, moisture on the skin conducts the electricity, diverting most of it away from the internal organs and central nervous system. Thus it helps to be wet, fluid. This phenomenon, known as the flashover effect, saves the lives of most strike victims.
Creative energy exhibits the same impulse as lightning. It passes over or through the body, scorching and liberating, sometimes painfully, all that has been restrained, cautious, tentative. It drags me from my slumber, tempting me with visions and dreams of what is possible: a chair made entirely from a single, steam-bent ribbon of wood, a tabletop inlaid with bright stones from the river, copper shimmering at the edge of a cabinet door. And all this from rough wood, hewn raggedly, stripped to its very bones with their hidden light.
When creative lightning enters deep into me, its charge amplifies all my sensations. It runs fiercely up and down my spine. I cannot sit still. Nor can I sleep, because the static inside migrates rhythmically, exploding into shapes as it fills my hands, showing me the poetry hidden in my ribs, the maps of stories that lie along my back. I become an emerging geography of the sacred, sensing the energy pass over that landscape as a searchlight reveals the territory of night.
There is no use in fighting: I must let it pass. Within a day or two the tremors in my fingers diminish, the energy settles into a quieter rhythm and I regain a sense of equilibrium. I can then work with breath that is not frantic, with muscles that do not twitch too quickly into action. And my thoughts slow enough that I can weave them into something useful, I collect them into a long thread that becomes the shape of a project. Yet by the time I can move at a manageable pace, that is, work creatively yet still make supper for my children and walk with my wife in her garden, I know that I have lost the true edge of the work, that invisible edge which is so implacably sharp it cannot be held for long. What I create is always one step removed from what I see in those moments when I am fully possessed by lightning.
Many creative artists describe a different experience of being taken up by the energy of thunder and lightning. It may jangle through them for weeks or months, and is as likely to result in physical illness as great brilliance. The subsequent, inevitable crash is almost always accompanied by deep depression.
Sometimes, when I am especially lucky, the energy of lightning is forgiving. It descends as a gentle, cleansing rain whose drops flash over me and burst into the shapes of flowers as they touch the inviting ground. This is the spiritual engagement of creative possession, when the roar of thunder gives way to the whisper of solace. When the body is buoyed up and carried, a leaf spinning in the autumn air, the flow of movement clear and precise enough that action is only the fulfillment of an inevitable perfection.
Along a stretch of road I’ve not traveled before, where small farms share the landscape with patches of forest, I begin to notice lights in the windows. The power must be back on. I’m surprised only a mile or so later to find a pay phone at which I am finally able to call home for Karl’s address. It turns out I’m quite a ways off, and it takes me another twenty minutes to navigate through truncated streets and winding, disconnected roads to find my destination.
Karl greets me at the door to his ramshackle house. He is grizzled, as I expected, in his sixties, and looks entirely unpredictable. There are several partially completed projects strewn across his front lawn: a gazebo, a deck, a security system with exposed wires dangling from an inert camera. Two concrete cherubs lounge on their sides adjacent to the front door. I imagine Karl is the sort of man in whom the energy of lightning sparks regularly. Tremendous, albeit incomplete, activity and passion for building are everywhere in evidence. Perhaps he enjoys leaving all these projects unfinished. I’m reminded of Michelangelo’s sculpture series The Captives, in which half-formed human figures struggle to free themselves from solid rock. The pieces were left incomplete, either by accident or by design, and their raw intensity imparts to them a mysterious grandeur. Karl may be a secret genius, intentionally sending an artistic message with his creative detritus. But when I look at him in his faded blue coveralls with the zipper pulled down to his chest, apparently with nothing underneath those coveralls, and there are enough stains and blotches of uncertain origin on them to give the impression of infrequent washing, I abandon my hidden-genius hypothesis and conclude that Karl is just another one of those crusty eccentrics with a generous supply of time, a dearth of social interests, and scores of projects on the go. If this is what the front yard looks like, I wonder what’s in his basement.
I follow Karl back to the open space behind his house. He jabbers on about the power outage, how difficult it was to cut up those fir trees by himself, how the estimate he gave me was too low, all the while punctuating his speech with grunts, pauses, repetitions, gesticulations, and snorts. It takes him a while to say much. Yet I find myself falling into a peculiar ease in his presence. Karl is what I would call an old-timer, or an old-world craftsman. He still has the trace of a Danish accent; there’s a lilting quality to his voice, a rhythm I’ve heard from other old-timers I’ve run across. He talks about practical things, nothing abstract or esoteric: the weather, money, physical work. Basic stuff, talk where I don’t have to worry about hidden agendas or double messages or the professional-speak I so often run across, dressed-up jargon without much substance. No, Karl is of the old school, a plain talker, a straight shooter.
I share a camaraderie with these uncommon fellows, a strong resonance for the spirit of craft that shines in them. We’re all survivors of countless creative lightning strikes. It’s not something that is normally spoken of but rather is felt in the ambience of the interaction, the way a moment is burnished by shared attention to the task at hand, the way steps are followed without having to be recited. This is an unfashionable mode of interaction today – our cultural emphasis on speech often precludes the language of silence – yet many of the richer moments of my life have been spent in the quiet cooperation of physical work. I especially remember the countless hours of childhood I spent working on boats with my brothers and father, cleaning teak and polishing brass and scraping barnacles off hulls, fussing with splices and fishing gear in the still-cold air of early spring, readying a sailboat for long summers.
I remember how my older brother and I discovered what happens when you add a full bottle of catalyst to a lump of fiberglass resin: it begins to bubble and crack, the clear substance turning cloudy from the heat and wafting acrid fumes into the sea air. We’d step back, afraid it might explode but rapt by this rough magic that was like some furious creature fashioning itself on the dock. In five or ten minutes the fumes would subside, the cracking would cease; we’d pick up the warm, solid mass and feel it still humming inside its secret life. I was shaped by those moments the way wood is shaped by the craftsman’s hand.
Karl’s sawmill is one of the new portable variety, about as long as a bus and half as high. These new mills use a bandsaw blade an eighth of an inch thick with about four feet of exposed, ribbon-like steel. They are much safer than the huge, spinning circular blades of conventional mills and produce as much as a third more wood because of their relatively thin blades. I like these machines; any property owner can mill up and use all the wood cleared for a building lot. Here on the West Coast there’s enough wood in the trees taken down to make way for houses to build the houses themselves. But it takes the energy of lightning and thunder, of inspired activity, to make it happen, and most people in our culture have moved far away from an interest in this type of work – skinned knuckles, black pitch underneath fingernails, dirty bark, wet sawdust, and endless sweat. All of which accounts for Karl’s coveralls, I suppose.
My wood is stacked in several piles at the far end of the mill. The first thing I notice, after the sheer size of it all, is the color: a plangent diversity of hues ranging from pale yellow to deep orange, striations and waves of rich, brown texture in the grain, dark knots like headlands surrounded by tones of cinnamon, chocolate, bronze, and hazel. Straight from the log, fibers still wet with sap, the wood is alive, intense, true. Possibilities crackle through me.
Karl tells me he has a bad back and shouldn’t help me load the wood onto the truck, then spends an hour and a half doing exactly that. All told there’s about fifteen hundred board feet, just about enough to frame a small house. Some of it is flitch cut, sawn as a cross-section straight along the log with the bark intact on both edges. Karl has cut most of the boards with one or two straight edges; this will make it easier to run them through a tablesaw or bandsaw later. The average board is two inches thick, a foot wide, eight feet long, and close to a hundred pounds. There are ninety-two boards.
The rain has stopped. Stands of cedar and fir behind Karl’s property still swing in the wind, but the storm has begun to move on. I climb up into the bed of the truck and Karl passes me the boards. I try to stack them evenly, keep them level, pile boards of the same width atop one another. This proves to be an unmanageable strategy; there’s too much diversity to keep everything neatly arranged. Luckily I’ve brought gloves, thick leather construction gloves that keep the stiff wood fibers from pulverizing my skin. The wood is so wet, however, that the leather quickly becomes soaked and grows slippery. As I’m positioning a board, the wood slips from my hand and lands squarely on my thumb. I’m thankful that my hands are near-enough numb from the cold and damp because it’s a wound that would otherwise have me hopping around, shaking my hand, and shouting Shit! I leave my glove on – there’s no use stopping, I’ll just have to be careful – but I notice over the next few minutes that a dark red stain has soaked through the leather.
The common belief that wearing insulating gloves or rubber-soled shoes will protect one from injury by lightning is false. The energy has passed through miles of resistant air and cannot be stopped by a quarter inch of insulating material. If one is lucky enough to have a lightning strike diverted from the core of the body by virtue of the flashover effect, the usual result is that anything touching the skin becomes instantly superheated and explodes in sundered fragments. Rubber soles dissolve into charred tatters. One is left virtually naked, frightened, and numbly possessed by energies of great power.
When all the boards are loaded, I can’t believe the truck will hold the weight. The wood presses right to the edges of the truck bed and rises almost four feet. I climb in the driver’s seat, look back, and see that the stack is higher than my head. The top boards are positioned so as to crash through the back window and impale me in the event of a sudden stop. Karl seems confident of this crazy arrangement and merrily waves me on after I pay him for his services, walking alongside the truck as I head back out to the road. And I have the consolation that at least I’m not making two trips.
I drive slowly, taking as many back roads as I can, avoiding traffic, giving myself half a mile to coast to stops. It takes me two hours to cover the twenty miles home. The sun emerges from behind clouds that no longer look menacing. When I pull into the driveway, safe at last, the stress of the trip falls away and I am instantly manic, rushing inside to call Elizabeth and the kids out for a look at my treasures. Alarm, then laughter; thunder rushing across the landscape.
I have not a single idea what to do with all this wood. Yet the first steps are clear: dry and wait. Wood freshly cut from the tree, green wood, cannot be used for most kinds of woodworking. Because of its moisture content, green wood shrinks as it dries; generally not too much – a few percent in width, very little in length – but certainly enough to preclude accurate work. I cannot make precise forms if the material changes in dimension over time. The wood must be dry, down from its current moisture content of thirty or forty percent to about seven percent. That takes, in the case of Douglas fir, about half a year for each inch of wood thickness. Since many of these boards are two inches thick, it will be at least a year before I can use them. A year between the lightning’s insistent leader stroke and my own faithful return.
Before I unload the truck I clear a space at the side of the house and lay down some two-by-fours on the wet ground. It’s important that air circulates above and below the wood, so I also prepare a number of narrow strips, called sticking, to place between the boards as I stack them. I return to the truck and begin the arduous task of lifting the boards down to the ground, carrying them across twenty feet of lawn, lowering them onto a preliminary sorting pile, then hefting them a final time to lie flat on the developing stack. This time I must do the physical work myself. I don’t have the luxury of positioning the boards any which way as I did when Karl and I hoisted them onto the truck. The arrangement must be fairly precise: four boards of equal width and length to a row, each successive row slightly narrower than the last (for stability), sticking placed in three spots along the boards to provide a solid support for the row above. Once I get the rhythm of it, the motions of grasping, slinging, lifting, and placing, the physical intensity of the work shakes me loose from my musings about possible projects and ushers me into the quiet of the body.
Lightning and thunder emerge from silence, from a sky of obscured mystery. They enter and possess, as love possesses. In my own creative practice a particular moment arrives when the work begins to breathe with its own life, when its shapes and turns cannot be claimed entirely by my hand. Lightning grasps, thunder speaks during these moments. And my ability to accomplish creative work, with its emphasis on techniques and devices that are only the shell and not the heart of creative endeavor, depends solely on my willingness to put my own thoughts – sometimes even my own instincts – aside: to be spoken through. I must give thunder permission to speak, lightning hands to possess.
The difficulty is always one of listening, of being insulated well enough to survive the strike but still open to the energy of transformation. So many voices strive to be heard, so many demands to take care of the various selves that inhabit me. Yet when I grasp the end of the board, drag it out to where it balances on the tailgate, bring my other hand over and swing the board onto my shoulder, when I walk carefully along the path with the edge of the bark digging into my neck and I cannot recall whether this is the tenth board or the fiftieth, when I am fully enclosed in this moment of balancing and striding and carrying, it is as though my swirling thoughts are laid to rest in the shadow of a larger reality. I become silent. Everything I have ever wanted to know or to be is quieted. And I come to life in a way that I rarely know, a way that reminds me of all the truths I have forgotten, the simplicities I have denied, the struggles I have needlessly engaged. All of this comes wrapped in silence, and drops me into the well of being. I reach back to the formless source of lightning itself.
Then the moment is gone. I catch my foot on a tuft of grass and it rolls my ankle joint over into what my brothers and I used to call a gimp foot. With the extra weight of the board on my shoulder it’s a mishap that could twist into a broken ankle. I manage to take the weight off my ankle by relaxing my legs entirely, turn the stumble into a short fall, and in the resulting instant of free motion return my foot to the ground, pushing myself upright again. If I’d been less engaged with my sensory experience, less supported by the cauldron of my body’s energy, I would have gone down.
After two hours of puffing and sweating, I discover that the skin on my hands is rubbed raw even through my wet gloves. The stack is four feet wide, twenty feet long, and as high as my chin. The truck’s empty loading bed has become a supervision post for Avery, who traverses from side to side, humming. His two-year-old head is perfect and luminous.
Drying green wood in a wet climate involves constructing the stack with enough air circulation that the wood will dry but not exposing it so much that the weather gets in, soaking the fibers and encouraging rot. With this in mind I use a large tarp to cover the top and sides of the pile but leave both ends open. The tarp overhangs the ends a foot or so to direct rain runoff away from the boards. This arrangement will allow air and wind – but not rain – to enter the stack from either end, tunnel through the open spaces created by the sticking and dry the wood effectively. As a final step I retrieve a dozen heavy concrete walkway tiles that Elizabeth removed from the garden path last year when we put down new gravel. Each tile measures a foot square and weighs at least thirty pounds. I distribute them at the top corners of the tarp, along the edges where the tarp meets the ground, anywhere I imagine a strong wind might get some leverage on the fabric and drag it off.
I stop when I’m satisfied the arrangement is sound, but the momentum of the work still flows through me. I wander around the monstrous pile, not thinking much, just winding down. I notice small stones on the path, watch the way our hedge just touches the tarp in places, pick up flaked-off pieces of bark and toss them down the ravine at the back of our yard. It’s only when I finally go inside, take off my gloves, and stretch out on the couch that I notice my deep fatigue. My body starts to shut down, letting go of its impulse to move as the need for movement ceases.
My back and shoulders begin to ache – the hot, swollen ache of overexertion. My thumb, pulverized by a crushing blow and then forced to work hard for hours, feels raw and badly bruised. The juncture between my shoulder and neck, which I’ve always found to be a stable niche for carrying lumber but which is inconveniently packed with sensitive tissue, is painfully inflamed. My ankle is sore. I’m wet, tired, and suddenly incredulous. Why did I work so hard? Every movement I make now is accompanied by the rough flavor of discomfort. I just want to be still, somnolent.
I have no idea what to do with all that wood. Yet there it lies, incubating, readying itself for the thunderous moment when I tear off the tarp, seize a piece with wonderfully undulating grain, and carry it off in service of some new crazy idea, knocking the drainpipe at the side of the house loose as I swing around the corner into the shop.