It’s 6 AM, Christmas morning. Everything hurts. I have to be on a plane in 90 minutes, heading to Boston to spend the holiday break with Melissa’s family. Physically I am drained, mentally I am tired, emotionally I am doing surprisingly well considering all that has gone on these past six months, and that I am spending my first Christmas in 15 years without the love of my life.
I think I owe my emotional well-being to an overblown project I took on in late October. At this time last year I took up a new hobby. I decided I wanted to start building furniture. Why a man with four project cars needs a new hobby is beyond me, but it beats getting a fifth car.
It was born partly out of necessity. Our big Rhodesian Ridgeback, Betty, has a habit of barking at every little thing that moves. It’s loud and obnoxious, but we love her. Our neighborhood is full of lots of little kids, and our front yard has a two-foot tall block wall running its perimeter. This wall is what an insurance company would call ‘an attractive nuisance’. Every one of those kids has spent time practicing for Olympic gold balancing on it. I know this because Betty tells me every single time anyone is in HER yard. My furniture hobby was an early attempt to build a barrier between her and the front windows. In ended up being a functional midcentury modern table, designed to be wider that than the window frame in order to keep her from crashing through the glass and terrorizing every would be Simone Biles between here and Tucson.
In the course of building that first table I found that I genuinely enjoyed it. The combination of metal and woodwork reminded me of all the best parts of restoring a car, without all of the cost. It also brought me back to simpler, more carefree times. It reminded me of the shop classes I used to take in high school, and of the few summers in college that I spent working in an auto repair shop. I could be at piece in the garage, listening to Neil Young or Tom Waits on the stereo, free to make noise and a mess. Not distracted by emails or conference calls. Accomplishing as much or as little as I pleased.
I finished that first table last winter and walked away from my new hobby in favor of other interests. As the spring turned in to summer I could not have pursued it even if I wanted to. It was just too darn hot outside to be welding steel tubes together.
And then July 5th happened... and I wanted to die too.
That first night was the darkest of my life. To have so much, and then to have so little so quickly is jarring. I didn’t know how I would survive, let alone be able to ever feel anything other than pain again. I had at least one friend or family member stay with me each night for the first two weeks. Sometimes we would stay up late in to the night, talking about Melly, or physics, or just to watch a late ending baseball game. Sometimes I would go to bed at three o’clock in the afternoon.
Slowly the world has started to come back into focus. The question of what I want to do with the rest of my life has loomed large. When it first came up the first answer that came to mind was that I wanted to return to building furniture. Not necessarily for money but more just for the process. For the joy of making the materials sing. For the act of thinking about something and then making it real. For the act of building a physical reminder to the world that I was here, and despite the hurt, I was able to provide something that families could gather around. Where they could share the good times and bad, for generations.
This idea of a table or a chair as a reminder of a time or person was seeded in my mind early. My parents have large clock in the house I grew up that was built one of their good friends. When I say large, I mean very large. It is probably five feet in diameter. The kind of clock you see in a train station, not a living room.
They had a friend, Brian Gilliam, when they lived in Brooklyn back in the 70s. Brian worked for Herman Miller designing furniture, but did some freelance work on the side because he wasn’t quite satisfied with the level of craftsmanship coming out of the HM at that time. One of the first pieces he made was this giant clock. My parents bought before they had a place for it. It spoke to them, and followed them from Brooklyn to Arizona. The clock has been hanging on their wall in Flagstaff since about 1977. It stands out in my memory as a reminder of being home. When I think about the house I grew up in, I think about that clock, at the far end of the wall in the living room, watching over us. It is there in every Christmas memory, it is there in the memory of the engagement party that my parents through for Melissa and I. I learned how to tell time off of that clock.
I haven’t always known the clock was Brian’s design and hard work, but I have always loved that it spoke so directly to my parents. As I have gotten older, I have learned more about it. About the story of how it came to be and how my parents ended up with it. In a lot of ways, knowing Brian's story and how my parents came to own it makes the clock more beautiful to me. Which I why, as my life started to come back in to focus I kept returning to this idea of building something as a process to heal. To share a little of my soul with the forces of the metal and wood, and then to send the work out into the world to let the people that gather around it in the years to come inject their hearts and souls into it with every meal, with every Christmas party, and every heartache. Like my parent’s clock, these things can tell more than just time, they tell the time of our lives.
As the weather turned from blistering hot to just plain hot the desire to get out to the shop to build grew. Anyone that had an extended conversation with me between August and October heard about it. The wonderful thing was that no one tried to talk me out of it. My friends and family were rooting for me.
Then two special people, my friends Chris and Sommer, took it one step further. They staked me. Now, all of the sudden, I had patrons. Time to put up or shut up. Over the course of about a month we went back and forth on designs, finally settling on an idea for an absolute beast of a table, fully 11 feet long and four feet wide, with a wood slab three inches thick. The monolith of wood and steel would be the centerpiece of their front room. If it could be built.
It was a table that would be so large that I actually sat down with an engineering notepad and a calculator to calculate the stresses it would put on their floor. Depending on the type of wood we would use, the thing could end up weighing over 600 lbs. It would be no small feat to build this thing solo, but thinking about the challenge was bringing out a feeling I thought had been lost, an excitement to create.
Over the next few weeks our initial designs dialed back to an eight-foot by three-and-a-half-foot table, with leaf extensions that could be added to expand it out to about 11 feet. The leaf extensions could be added to the main table or joined with each other to create a separate four by four-foot table, or broken down and stored as a flat pack, out of the way.
With our directions finalized, we set about looking for the right wood top. We explored options ranging from buying butcher block counter tops from Ikea all the way through sourcing some live edge lumber slabs. Nothing quite seemed to fit.
After several weeks of searching for the right wood, and several days in the dumps without a direction or outlet for my emotions, I threw caution to the wind and bought some steel to starting putting a frame together. I was certain we would find the right wood, so why wait for it to fall into place? The momentum of the build would reveal the answers. I started cutting steel on October 28th. The thought was that I would be done in time for Thanksgiving dinner.
Working with steel has never been difficult for me. That said, I am not a pro, and I was severely out of practice. This became evident those first few days. Lots of bird-shit welds and lost angles. Lots of cutting and starting over. Lots of noise and lots of understanding neighbors.
Melissa could do a lot of amazing things. She was a wonderful teacher and a very patient and caring person, but one thing she could not do was visual what something would look like just from its parts. When I would work on projects over the years she would be openly skeptical of my work. Lots of questioning looks and subtle comments along the lines of “…that’s not the way I would have done it”. Inevitably, as things would take shape, she would come around and get excited. I think we worked so well because I enjoy the process of the parts, but can lose interest in the homestretch. She was all homestretch. It created a nice push-pull.
I think a lot of people may fall in with Melissa’s view of projects. There is nothing wrong with that. I suspect this because of the unconvinced looks I would get from friends that would come over and see my progress. In those times it has helped a lot to have a drawing that I could point to and say “…this pile of rusty metal is going look like this when I’m done.” And even then...
In mid-November Sommer sent me a text and said she thought she had found the wood, at last. It was at a reclaimed barn-wood lumber yard out in Mesa, called Old Sol. How fitting.
On the morning of November 8th, election day, I got in my old ’66 Chevy truck, a truck I bought specifically so I could build stuff, and headed out to Old Sol. I met Chris and Sommer there and they introduced me to Joe. Joe took us in to the warehouse and showed us all that they had to offer. I was like a kid in a candy store, if that candy store were full of rusty nails and capable of giving you 2” splinters. It was fantastic.
Sommer had found some old timbers that looked promising. They were eastern hemlock. Each slab was about three-and-a-half inches thick, 13-inches wide, and about 14-and-a-half feet long. They were reclaimed ceiling timber trusses, pulled from a warehouse that was built in downtown Chicago in 1908, the last time the Cubs won the World Series.
That these timbers should find us after 108 years seemed like providence. One week after the Cubs won the series again, we had found our table top.
In the coming weeks my view of the world started to change. We had an election, that I completely disagreed with but have mostly reconciled (largely by ignoring it). I stepped out ahead of my emotional fears and visited my new niece and her wonderful parents in Texas. I managed to catch a cold that laid me flat out for two weeks. I took a few weeks off from furniture work in the midst of all this to catch my breath. I came back with a fresh mind and desire to get back to work.
Over the next few weeks I cut and glued. Planed and trimmed. I sanded and polished these special timbers within an inch of their life. I have heard stories, firsthand and otherwise, of people in grief becoming obsessive to the point of self-abuse. Sometimes that means drugs or alcohol, sometimes it is the runner that pushes herself to do two marathons a day. I think I fell into this obsessiveness. For eight to ten hours a day I worked my day job as an engineer and sales manager, for the next six to eight hours I moved in to the garage, turned up the stereo, and grabbed the sanding block.
With a couple of days of hindsight, it was not the best thing to be doing. I’ve let things slide in the house a little. My dogs bark at me at the slightest hint of affection or possibility of a walk. My fridge contains half a gallon of milk and a bunch of condiments, but nothing approaching a proper meal. But still, I would walk in from the garage around 11 or 12 and feel relaxed, proud of my progress.
During these evening sessions I would think about the wood. What it must have seen in that warehouse. Where it was before it was cut to timbers. In 110 years these beams saw mankind move from airplanes made fabric and wood to a space probes sending back pictures of the surface of Pluto. These beams saw two world wars, 19 presidents, the rise, fall, and rise again of both the White Sox and Cubs.
I counted the visible rings one evening, then figured out the growth rate of Hemlock and did some back of the envelope calculations. The trees that these beams were cut from were at least 70 years old, which would mean that they were saplings during the administration of Andrew Jackson. Old Hickory indeed.
I was reminded of one of my favorite lines from one of my favorite books, Ken Kesey’s Sometimes A Great Notion. In it Kesey talks about time overlapping on itself. I’ve referenced it before, but it is worth revisiting in this context:
“Time overlaps itself. A breath breathed from a passing breeze is not the whole world, neither is it just the last of what has passed and the first of what will come, but it is more – let me see – more like a single point plucked on a single strand of a vast spider web of winds, setting the whole scene atingle That way; it overlaps… As prehistoric ferns grow from bathtub planters. As a shiny new ax, taking a swing at somebody’s next year’s split level pinewood pad, bites all the way to the Civil War. As proposed highways break down through the stacked strata of the centuries.”
The at times tragic impermanence of this world is balanced in the soul that we infuse into the people and things that we love. In that way Melissa and Matthew are and always will be a part of me. I, and now they, are a part of this wood. We have injected ourselves into it in the same way that the lumbermen who cut the trees and the carpenters that notched the beams gave it a living richness of character. It will be in the way that all of the family dinners and games nights with friends that Chris and Sommer have will infuse it with joy.
Thinking about of this surprised me with feelings of happiness. Happiness that I had not felt in months and that I worried may be gone forever. The thought of giving purpose to something that may have otherwise been discarded as old and dirty, gave me purpose and direction.
As the project wound its way to the long planned conclusion one step loomed large. The slab was 12-and-a-half feet long as joined. I would need to trim first to 11-feet as planned, and then section it to make the leafs and the ‘bonus’ table.
Looking at the grain, knowing the wood’s story, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I couldn’t cut it. I delayed and made excuses. I had Chris, and then Chris and Sommer both over to the house to see it so I could plead my case not to destroy this natural masterpiece. Thankfully, to their amazing credit, they agreed. We would not section it into four pieces as originally planned. 11-feet was still too long for their house, but a seven-foot and a four-table was not. If they needed 11-feet, we could push the seven and the four together. One cut, less stress, less work, and one less irrevocable loss.
Even with the scope scaled back, that one cut loomed large. By Friday night everything else had been completed. The cut needed to be made in order to move forward. It this was ever to be a table, I would have to cut the slab in two. I staged everything Friday night, figured my cut points, set up all my stands, built a guide fence for the saw. Time to get after it. Except I couldn’t.
I sat there for twenty minutes, admiring the wood. Thinking about cutting it in two. About how it would never be one again. Bob Dylan’s Dream came on the stereo. Dylan sings about remembering being young, with a world open to possibilities, and the regret that comes with age.
“How many a year has passed and gone? Many a gamble has been lost and won, and many a road taken by many a first friend, and each one I’ve never seen again.
I wish, I wish, I wish in vain. That we could simply sit in that room again. Ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat, I’d give it all if our lives could be like that.”
Dylan sings about how each of these open roads fracture and split until you are left, sometimes alone, on your chosen path. In the song it is a one-way street, no turning back. This necessary cut felt like one of those break points. No turning back.
The tears came, heavy and thick. I sat in that garage, starting at that damn tabletop, bawling my eyes out for ten minutes. Time to walk away. Time to sleep on it. Yes, I was crying about cutting a piece of wood, but more I was crying about that split, the fracture of one life to the next, and how I would "give it all" if my life could be like that, if just for a little while again.
The next day, yesterday, I made the cut.
It had to be done. In order to create you must first destroy.
From there it was all, mostly, downhill. It being Christmas Eve, everyone seemed to be in town and available. They wanted to come see the table, and hopefully me too.
My friend Joanne came over for a short and nice visit. Neighbors popped in to see the conclusion on the odyssey. My old college roommate, Matt, who I have criminally only seen twice in ten years, happened to be right around the corner. He came and spent several hours with us, meeting my friends old and new. We exploited his presence by making him lift heavy things.
My new neighbor and good friend Ken came over several times whenever I needed a lift, physically and metaphorically. Chris and Sommer, and several of their friends joined us. It became an impromptu celebration, the first time the table has brought everyone together, the first in what I hope will be many more.
Chris and Sommer took the main table and benches to their house, leaving me to fix a few things on the second, smaller, table. I would then deliver it with the old Chevy. I worked on it well into the evening, while families were heading to church and giving in to their children’s temptations to “just open one present tonight”. I thought again about where I was earlier this summer, and where I am now.
Am I sad? Yes.
Is it as dark as that first night? Not by a long shot.
I am a different person now. I just am. I am that person from that first night. I am Melissa. I am Matthew. I am that damn table. I am all of these things and more.
I called my neighbor Ken one last time. I needed him to come over and help me lift the small table into the Chevy. He came across the street bearing one of the greatest presents I think I have ever received. A nice pint of Guinness.
A quiet evening with a good friend. A sense of accomplishment and oneness with the world.
Things will be ok.