When I’m with a writer, I lose my narrative.
In the company of a storyteller, I forget the fabric of my voice.
Then I see dancers move, and I wonder at the twisting shadows of their bodies—and feel all the disconnections in my own.
What is it we have to do after witnessing such crafted beauty— to see, to recognize, to admire, and yet then to continue the conversation? What’s the trick to that?
In adulthood there is often time you can claim outside of work which has the potential for use. These leftovers, delicious mostly in their potential, are what many of us fill with our own voice. A task, a skill, a pursuit, a hobby—these then become the distinguishable sounds to that voice. The vowels and consonants solidify over time to make this particular investment of time your own personal music.
We are so lucky, oh so lucky to discover what this sounds like in others, and this is only because they may choose to share it.
I once taught a student who was so clumsy I had trouble enough teaching him to walk past a grouping of desks without tripping, let alone hold his pencil in a correct way in order to shade properly. But, once, he grew excited over the craft of a woodworker I was pointing out at the beginning of class. He was just bursting with happiness after when he showed me the pens he made from wood. Beautiful, handcrafted writing instruments he made with his father. Clearly proud of his work and that he had shown it to me, he added much more to the conversation after that. Any woodcraft or craft dealing with metal or even paper he felt understood better. He took ownership over that area he deemed himself a part of. And to watch the face of this young man, veritable walking hazard to any grouping of desks and even opening doors, light up when he felt a part of what we were doing—well that changed the conversation entirely, if subtly.
Now there are people like him who will share once they find an opening. They’ve been honing their craft inside their world for long enough that they have something to show when the chance arrives. But what with all our walking desires? To hear a songbird and want the same. Sometimes you can trick yourself in laying your voice over the professional’s projected in your mind. In those moments, eyes close and shower walls reverberate. The purity of your desire is rewarded by fantasy. But to share it, or to hear another singing what you’ve replicated ghost-like in the shower before you’ve honed it— before anyone could teach you what you needed to know to sing in the way you wanted. Before you could teach yourself what it is to sing in your voice. That can just crush a fledgling desire.
Maybe not all of our pursuits are meant to be shared. The knowledge of them might be plenty. Who would have known that a close family friend taught himself the strange-to-our-city-ears art of taxidermy. No doubt full of trials, much like the trials of living in an isolated small town with a surplus of free time and roadkill. Have I seen evidence of them, these mammalian and feathered statued beasts? Not a chance. But to hear the stories of that pursuit is, in this case, pleasure enough.
To spend time with your desire is to open up a new understanding of yourself. You take yourself under your wing. We know the majority of people even in our close-circle know only some of who we are. The fabric of us may be visible but the batting inside is folded and hidden, stuffed with memories borrowed and earned, successes and failures of the same nature. Even to ourselves we are a mystery, so often do we deal with the fabric and rarely with what’s within. That’s where the extra time comes in.
If you’re a lucky one, in my mind, you’ll have the one or the two paths you travel down in extra time. Things you can really spend devoted hours on, incrementally whittling down the rough nature of beginning into something fine and worthy of a lifetime’s minutiae of crafting. Whole afternoons spinning real and tall tales in conversation (we all know a natural, gifted storyteller like this) at the pub or on the phone. Weekends sewing period-accurate clothing. Casting lines into the river and picking precisely the right fly for the hatching season, for the conditions, for the fish. The beautiful package deal of a winning game and the release of hormones in your sweat, the post-game shower, and a seat at the big, wooden table with everyone sharing a victory pizza. What sweetness the hours of your honing can bring.
But you, whittler of time like I whittle mine, you know what comes next. The flaming and unfurling of yet another desire. The spark of your first flight. The burning of your beginner’s shame. You know yourself enough to know that what you love more than the juggling of craft is the sharing of it. No sooner has the chunk of wood been carved bluntly that you carry it with you under your arm, handing it to the first person you see. And the expectations and the letdowns, rehearsed like fantasy ghost-songs in the shower, reverberate within your mind until its mimicking voice is all you hear.
Whittler of mine, you love them all— the writers, the songbirds, the dancers, and poets. You love them and you want to share in their conversation. To bask in the light that comes from that honing and sharing, when it is ready, to the rest of the un-writers, un-songbirds, un-dancers, un-poets.
So what is this whittler to do, when you are not singing the praises of the ones you love? What if you also feel the time in you free to clothe the skeleton framework of what could be something, someday?
After all, a craft is not mist and mirrors. It is practice, and patience, and effort. It is also joy. A joy not of being caught in the cage of expectations or hierarchies in the herd of others in the same craft, not yet. Not until you’re ready. A joy in the space you create, in the time you have only for you, in the parts of your brain you haven’t yet allowed to form into action or images yet.
Let yourself be surprised by yourself, in the way a lifetime partner can be surprised as only Mary Oliver could be as she observed her own—
"All of a sudden she began to whistle. By all of a sudden I mean that for more than thirty years she had not whistled. It was thrilling. At first I wondered, who was in the house, what stranger? I was upstairs reading, and she was downstairs. As from the throat of a wild and cheerful bird, not caught but visiting, the sounds warbled and slid and doubled back and larked and soared.
Finally I said, Is that you? Is that you whistling? Yes, she said. I used to whistle, a long time ago. Now I see I can still whistle. And cadence after cadence she strolled through the house, whistling.
I know her so well, I think. I thought. Elbow and ankle. Mood and desire. Anguish and frolic. Anger too. And the devotions. And for all that, do we even begin to know each other? Who is this I've been living with for thirty years?
This clear, dark, lovely whistler?”
Can you be the whittler and the whistler both?