I grew up in a house that didn’t value the work of hands, deeming it lower class. The adults’ skills in this regard varied, but the important thing was that whatever skills they possessed weren’t passed along to the next generation. Intellectual work was valued, not for itself, but for what it could garner in status and in possessions that spoke of that status. This was the instruction: Never do it yourself; buy or hire. There was more instruction and graver: to work with hands is stupid; if you are stupid, you will fail, and if you fail you will starve, beg, be homeless or live in a hovel unless you die first. Alone.
When I was a kid, I often had a yearning to make something, but I had no instruction for that and no supplies. No paints (my beloved and cheap paintbox had been left behind in the old house when we moved), no coloured pencils, no paper (unless I wanted to use the white shelf paper that curled), no scissors, no kits, one ball of yarn (I can’t remember where it came from; I was eleven and it was pink and scratchy), certainly no nails, wood, saw or hammer that I was allowed.
I remember the toolbox in the furnace room, small drawers of hardware, mysterious, untouchable. In a low cupboard in the kitchen there were balls of darning thread and a big needle. I wanted to learn how to darn socks. My mother said forget it, throw out socks when they have a hole in them. My father was reputed to be handy, but I have no evidence one way or another since I was shut out of it and so were my siblings. There were no living plants in the house. As my parents’ fortunes increased, they acquired silk flowers.
This past Saturday, I took a workshop on power tools for women. It was put on by a tool shop and conducted by two women. I expected to love it but instead I was terrified from start to finish, keeping my feelings to myself and doing what had to be done at each stage. The workshop was well organized, and the instructors wonderful. My terror was absolutely no reflection on them.
We got to use about a dozen power tools, half table versions and the other half portable hand held versions of the same tools: saws, jig saws, drills, routers. It was safe, all the tools (top of the line) with guards, the instructors standing close. And I was terrified, picturing blood flying, thinking how much longer? How many more cuts, grooves, holes do I have to do? The saws buzzed, the smell of wood dust stayed with me even after I got home.
I made a toolbox. I’m proud of that toolbox even though I had to get help for the very last screw. My right hand shakes. It’s benign, hereditary, a tremor that is sometimes absent, sometimes barely noticeable but under stress it gets worse and I just couldn’t do that last, final thing. The drill kept slipping and after the second round gouge, I asked one of the instructors to do it for me.
She looked at the two small indentations, like eyes, like snake eyes in the wood, and she considered how to fix it. No, I said. I don’t mind them. They’re the imperfection that make this box perfect.
The day was arduous, not because of the tools or the other women, who were delightful, or the instructors who were funny, solid, grounded and smart, but because I was breaking the rules of my childhood.
Those rules are tracks upon the heart, deep and ingrained. To replace them requires this: lift a freight train off the tracks, hold it in the air with one hand while laying new tracks with the other, and then place the train down, ready to travel. It took that much effort and I was sick to my stomach scared, but I rode the top of the train.
I made a toolbox with snake eyes. I sanded it until it felt like silk. In my house there are no silk flowers. There are plants with roots in soil, watered and misted every day. My daughters have tools of all kinds. They have power in their hands.
Proverbs 31: 10-31
A woman of valour who can find? Her worth is above rubies…She seeks wool and flax and works willingly with her hands. She is like merchant ships; she brings food from afar…She gives food to her household and a portion to her maidens. She considers a field, and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard. She girds her loins with strength, and makes strong her arms. She stretches out her hand to the poor; yes, she reaches forth her hands to the needy…She is not afraid of the snow for her household; for all her household are clothed with scarlet… Strength and dignity are her clothing; and she laughs at the time to come… Give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her works praise her in the gates.