Good, Safe Carpentry Work Demands That We be Present
CARPENTRY IS MEDITATION
I once worked in the 1950s with a framing carpenter, Paul, who taught me a real-life lesson. We were partners working as piece workers cutting rafters, building, and sheathing roofs. In warm So. Calif. we started work at 7 a.m. Around 10:00 in the morning, Paul would finally wake up. Until then he was dangerous to be around–“unsafe at any speed.” Simply put, he was there with his body, but his mind was elsewhere. Twice he dropped a rafter on my right foot breaking one of my toes each time. To protect myself, I used to swing a long 2×4 around early on in the day and try to whack him in the shins to wake him up. It was a case of either him or me. Finally, one morning it happened. We were sheathing a roof and he, with his mind elsewhere, cut a huge gash in his forearm with a circular saw. This time it was him not me. The muscle was gaping open spurting blood. I ripped a piece of cloth from my shirt, put a tourniquet on his arm, got him down from the roof, and drove him to an emergency room. That was the last time I saw Paul. I heard later that he joined the Fire Department. I wished them well.
Mindfulness = safety
Being on a construction site, or even in a shop, is often dangerous. As framers, we work around small overhead cranes carrying heavy loads, forklifts, and all kinds of power equipment like saws, routers, and pneumatic nail guns. In order to avoid getting injured, carpenters need to be mentally present all day long—mindful of what we are doing. The more we can be present, the safer the job will be for ourselves and fellow workers. I can say with assurance that every time I have been hurt at work it was because my mind was elsewhere.
Yes, more than once, I have been hurt on a job site and every time it happened my mind was elsewhere. It can happen like this—One day I was cutting rafter tails to length up on a two story apartment building. Someone called my name from across the building. Instead of being mindful of what I was doing and finishing the cut, I looked up, and the circular saw dropped into my shoe laying open a gash in my poor toe. The MD put a few stitches to seal off the cut, but I couldn’t get him to work on my slashed open boot.
I taught carpentry in a community college for years. A teaching partner, using a jointer and talking to students, forgot to lift his middle finger when finishing the cut on a piece of wood. Not a good finger to mess with. To this day he walks around with one less finger nail.
So that’s why I say that Carpentry IS Meditation. By meditation I mean being aware of what we are doing and where we are. Our mind is joined with our body in the present moment. We can spend our time wandering around our past lives or thinking about our future, but the present moment is really all we will ever have, no?
Meditation is a simple practice that all of us do every day as we go about our lives. We think about (meditate) on many aspects of our lives. Many of us work at training our body to be healthy and athletic. We can, if we wish, take it a step further and train our minds to be present and calm. Believe me, this can make a big difference in our job site safety and in our everyday lives with our partners, children, and friends.
These days meditation practice is being taught in centers all around our country. It is an ancient practice that is sometimes called mindfulness-awareness practice or mindfulness-stress-reduction practice. Even here on the Oregon coast, meditation practice is being used in our medical clinic to help patients heal by reducing stress. A stressed out body and mind doesn’t heal easily, right? Being stressed out on a job site is a recipe for injury.
Meditation is not a difficult practice and is especially useful in our hurried lives. We have all had moments of mindfulness that are filled with peace, stillness, and joy. Why not train to enjoy this more often?
Find a peacful place
We live on a slight hillside that had a disaster of a deck when we moved in. Below the deck was an area filled with the former owner’s junk. I find this to be one the joys to work as a carpenter. I can take tools and materials and create a new and beautiful place with my own hands. So what I saw was the possibility of building a couple of small, quiet rooms below as I rebuilt the deck.
One of the rooms is 7 ft. x 8 ft. that we use as a place to stretch out and as an extra bedroom when children come to visit. The other is 8 ft. x 9 ft. that I call a quiet, sacred room. Inside the quiet room I built a bookshelf and a place to sit and read. The walls and ceiling are finished with local western red cedar from a contractor who had it left over on a big custom house he built. On the laminate wood floor is a wool rug given to me by a woman I helped. She had no money for the job I did for her, so she insisted that I take the rug. This, along with some cushions to sit on, gives the entire place a feeling of elegance fit for an old carpenter like me.
So for the past twenty years, I have learned to sit on my cushion in this room and do nothing, paying attention to my breath, allowing my rattle-on mind to calm down and be present.
Long ago poet Rumi said: “Don’t go back to sleep.” I urge you to at least think about what I have written. We can train our minds to be here, right here, present at work, with family, bird sounds, and even with my wife’s dog who tolerates me at best.
In a small room, I created a quiet place where I can just sit and be, training my mind to be present.
It only take a moment to turn a distraction into a disaster