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Perspectives

Whittling Me Smooth

Craft, Aging, and the Beauty of Wood

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The art of woodwork captures a spirit, smoothing internal lines of yearning.

“You have to be very careful you don’t cut your finger off,” the saleswoman in the woodcraft shop warned when I inquired about basic whittling tools three years ago. “And you’ll need to wear gloves.”

For the last decade, I have yearned to caress the wood in my hands while whittling it smooth. Over and over, I have eyed the description of the wood carving class for those over 50 in the local learning center catalog. When I longed to create something from wood, I’d research the perfect beginners whittling book or starter kit convinced that I was ready.

Besides visualizing myself whittling, I love saying the word. Lips purse like a soft kiss. My tongue tickles the palate.

Whether hugging a tree or imbibing the creation of a breathtaking wooden bowl or a one-of-a-kind piece of furniture, wood speaks to me more than any other element in nature.

Swirls & Twirls Dancing in the Wood

Scott Russell Sanders captures my sentiments exquisitely in his book The Force of Spirit:

"We can see in the patterns of wood the swirls of cloud, the ripples in a creek, the tumult of a waterfall, the strata in rock, the tracings of creatures along a mud bank; we can see the branchings of our own veins; we can see the taut or tattered muscle of a heart. Woodgrain speaks to us of wildness, the push of sap from roots into the tips of branches, the stress of wind, the struggle for a place in the sun. The same current of wildness flows through us, as we are reminded by surrounding ourselves with beautiful and patient wood."

Expressions in wood grace my home (of minimal objects). They are as valuable to me as an art collector’s prized painting, an antique lover’s unique find, or a book collector’s rare book. There's a thin and delicate jagged-edged wooden bowl that I can hold in the palm of my hand, purchased at a crafts fair in Maine after my husband and I wed 24 years ago. The variegated brown hues, from honey to medium brown, swaying lines, and natural geometric patterns captivated me. It sits prominently displayed in our living room. A custom-made oval cherry dining room table mesmerizes me with its swirls, twirls, and eyes dancing in the wood.

Woodgrain & Wildness

Having entered the woodcraft shop with this deep connection to wood and years of desire to whittle, I was determined not to let the saleswoman kill my dream with her warning of possibly cutting off my finger and the necessity of wearing gloves. Would she have said that to a man or to a woman who was not up in years, I wondered? And then I had to admit to myself that even if I were younger, if anyone would be prone to cutting off a finger while whittling, it would be me.

“Let’s take one of the workshops here,” I implored my husband standing by my side. He was usually open to trying new things. “We’ll have supervision. And then I’ll feel confident enough to be able to manage the knife and whittle without a glove at home.”

“What would we take?” he asked in a supportive tone.

“Look,” I said studying the list of offerings. “Here’s one where we could carve a walking stick. We love walking!”

“Okay,” he said with both a smile and a look of concern. But life happened. And then the pandemic.

Curative Carving

Yearning to whittle has not left me. Yet I have become increasingly aware that another type of curative carving is taking place. The lines on my face began appearing at age forty-five. Almost three-and-a-half decades later, they have dug deeper.

As my external lines are deepening, internally, at another measure of depth—where there is no yearning, just acceptance—I can feel that aging is steadily whittling me smooth. This is not whittling done with my hand, but with my open heart.

Stay in the grain with "My Wooden Bowl: Container of Contentment?"