issue 04: craft
A collection of spinning tops made by John Beasley. Courtesy Anna Adami. Photo: Stephen Adami.
Here is a wooden top that never stops spinning. Its wood is smooth, its balance uncanny. Drop it from the hip, it still lands on its feet. Such a toy can make a girl believe in magic. Here, too, in this drawer, is a yo-yo. It is the size of a rock and the weight of a feather, with a string that never snags. Swing it up, down, around, it will always come back, eager for hands, hungry for holding.
My uncle eulogised my grandpa, maker of wooden gifts, as “a lifelong learner.”
“You can learn to do anything from a book,” my grandpa told me.
As many books as I’ve read, I’m still not convinced I have learnt how to write. Here is my craft: seeking.
Grandpa asked me once, “What do you plan to do next?”
“I don’t know,” I told him.
“Good,” he said.
Truth is, unknowing makes me uneasy. Even now, writing this, I’m unsure of what I’m reaching for, unsure I’ll ever know. But while unknowing creates anxiety, it also creates mystery and curiosity, adrenaline and gratitude. Human unknowing is a spiritual space of seeking and of awe. My grandpa knew this, I like to think. The divine was imagined not in creation itself, but in not knowing how creation came to be.
I don’t know the language of wood. I can’t differentiate oak from walnut, or tell you which is best for turning. I can’t understand how what was once a tree is now a bowl, so perfect and so open, like two soft palms awaiting communion.
A writing teacher told me, “The more you study what you love, the more you break apart how it was made, the less magic it seems.”
I imagine a magician learning sleight of hand: the art of attention. She awes audiences. To her, tricks are choreography. She knows the steps. She’s practised. To everyone who doesn’t know how she does what she does, they are magic. A gift.
Here is a jar made of plywood stained pink: the cheapest of wood, the relic of hands. It holds the quarters my grandpa saved, just for me. It holds the glint in his eye.
We are often unaware of our own magic, even as we’re making it.
“There’s an absence,” my uncle said after my grandpa died. “Something’s missing. You can feel it.”
I, too, miss feeling my grandpa in a room. His humour and his wisdom. His love. Sometimes still I do feel him—a whisper of him, a warmth. A soul can smell thick like sawdust. It can be worn in the pattern of plaid, can live residually in brothers and mothers, fathers and cousins. Like a hum, I hear it in patience, an inheritance, a paintbrush that doesn’t rush. A story we don’t stop telling.
Here is a man on his knees beside the fire: how he works to keep a family warm.
“We can talk to those who have passed,” the deacon said, “We still live with them in the love of God.”
The Catholic faith hints that something more inexplicable, more ethereal, more essential than flesh connects us. The spiritual plane transcends both life and death.
“I do talk to him,” my grandma said, “I ask him, why aren’t you here?”
My grandma does needlework while watching golf. Textiles are her language of love. When my mom was growing up, Grandma sewed all her clothes. When I left home, Grandma crocheted an afghan the colour of cream. I carry it with me through every move. She made Christmas stockings for each grandchild, then their parents. The detail on the stockings is precise, not a stitch out of place. We will keep them forever. They are beautiful and made just for us.
Like my grandpa, my grandma will leave behind objects of her making. These objects feel significant in a way that store-bought items don’t. I will never feel sentimental about a couch, but I will always feel attached to the stockings and the bowls. They carry soul. They immortalise my grandparents. As do we.
We watched my grandpa’s body—once limber, ready always for adventure—change. His skin hung thin against his bones. His lungs seized against his voice. Everyone said, “You’re fine, you’re going to be fine.”
Frustrated, he said, “No, I can hear what my body is telling me.”
No one can hear the body speak but its resident. Even then, too often its language is foreign. My grandpa had never experienced dying before. He had no reference point, only the unknown.
“I haven’t been able to read,” he told me.
I wonder, is there an art to death, a practice? To life, there is. We show up to the shop, figuratively, day after day, working with that which we’ve learnt, and with that which we still don’t know, making something new—out of the wood, the cotton, the dirt. Out of the heart, the mind, the hands. Out of the pain. The joy, too.
Like writing and loving, the art of living has no tangible output, no clear marker of “done.” It has only, “I’ve tried my best.” Only, “I’ll always be growing.” More than only, “I am here.”
When my mom and her sisters were young, my grandpa packed up his golf clubs and stored them in the attic. One day, there would be time for golf. But first, he would tend to the role of fatherhood, walk the yard with his wife, have dinner with his family. This, my therapist would say, is an example of balance. You can do everything you want, just not all at once.
“We’ve done nothing magnificent,” my grandpa said at his 50th wedding anniversary, children and grandchildren around the table. His legacy: a family that loves without pretending, forgives without condemning, that there, in the room with many windows, plates wiped clean of cake, took turns, one by one, telling stories of how they’d been moved, each personally, intimately, by his and grandma’s life. “It’s been a simple life,” he said, “But a good one, and that’s been enough for us.”
My grandpa never sold his art, always gifted it. He stopped working in the shop a year before he died. “Nothing’s inspiring me,” he said. “I’ve done it all.”
It’s hard now to know if his passion faded because all things fade or because the cancer was already leeching his zest. “I’ve done it all” sounds sad in one sense—losing inspiration, giving up. In another sense, it sounds satisfied, at peace with finishing, accomplished. In contrast, my friend Amanda anticipates, “I will still be editing words on my deathbed.”
Like her, I’m not sure my story will ever feel complete. Did my grandpa’s, really? I wanted passion for him in life. But in dying, only rest.
Here is what one day I’ll leave behind: an archive of unknowing.
My dad worries about dying. It is a weight he carries. He wonders how he’ll be remembered.
I, too, carry worry. A week ago, immediately upon waking, blinking in the groggy light of morning, I turned to my love. “Do you ever think about your parents dying?” I asked.
“Um,” he stumbled, “Yes? But not now. Let’s not think about that now.”
It’s a preoccupation I have, temporality. It’s the reason I moved from Chicago back home to Texas. To play with my brother before he’s grown. To sit around the table with my family. To share the gift of time.
On my 27th birthday, I watched Dick Johnson Is Dead, a documentary in which filmmaker Kirsten Johnson meditates on her father’s inevitable decay.1 They hire stunt doubles and film fake deaths. With glitter and movie magic, they create a heaven of chocolate cake and wiggling toes. Most heart-wrenching, they invite an entire congregation to celebrate Dick’s funeral while he’s still alive.
His best friend tells Kirsten, “I don’t think what you’re doing is a fantasy… Everybody has to sort of prepare because everybody dies.”
When he gives the eulogy at Dick’s mock funeral, he collapses into sobs.
Maybe we can’t prepare for death. Or the way to prepare is to live. Fervently, simply, lovingly.
“It would be so easy if loving only gave us the beautiful,” Kirsten narrates in her film, “But what loving demands is that we face the fear of losing each other. That when it gets messy, we hold each other close. And when we can, we defiantly celebrate our brief moments of joy.”
My dad shouldn’t worry. I have catalogued his love. My grandpa’s, too. What we make outlives us; there is knowing in that.
1 Kirsten Johnson, Dick Johnson Is Dead (2020), Big Mouth Productions.