The craftsman picked a piece of wood out of a basket full of it, and and let it roll round in hands, evaluating it. I know the feeling, I do it with a chunk of clay when I start on a new sculpting project.
“Pick one,” Justus pointed at the basket with wood. Behind it lay pieces of clay. I suggested I'd limit myself to that. Clay was a more familiar playground for me. I knew I was able to produce something worth while and above all, I could finish it in one afternoon.
Wrong move, I saw it by the way the corners of Justus' mouth twitched disapprovingly. His eyes narrowed in concert, creating little crow's-feet. Or should I say jackdaw's-feet?
“Don't you want to learn more about carving wood?”
“What's not to like, right?”
“What do you love most, wood or clay?”
“No! Don't answer my question with a question.” Justus got angry. “What do you love most?”
Love? I hated being there and I hated him. For being right. “What gives you the right ?” I started, but he cut me off again. “Just answer my question.”
“Great.” He placed the chunk he had picked, in my hands. “Then why did you pick clay?” Where had he learned to ask questions that way? At the KGB?
“Instead of asking questions about me, you should be answering questions about yourself.” He turned away from me and started to clear an area at the workbench and then placed woodcarving tools on it. Obviously he had made the choice in my place.
“Do you have an answer yet?”
I started to feel like a five year old, mixing up shame, belligerence and a feeling of being outranked. Should I throw in a tantrum as well?
“Joanne, listen.” Justus turned to look at me. His voice had lost its sharpness and its wit. He sounded concerned. When was the last time someone sounded like that, when talking with me? It hurt, it just hurt.
“Just a yes or a no. Do you want to spend the rest of your life like you are now? Aloof, defensive, making choices out of efficiency, doing what the world expects from you? Making it look interesting by serving it up with an icing of cynical humor and tough talk? You can fill up a whole lifetime with that. But is that what you want?”
“What's the other side of the medal?” Oops, another question. But Justus didn't loose his patience.
“Having the guts to be more caring. Having the guts to let others care for you. It means daring to be vulnerable and probably being hurt. Badly at times. But at least you'll be living from your heart. Doing things with your heart. Acting out of love.” The piece of wood throbbed underneath my fingers. I used to work with wood to chase out bad moods, to commune with my soul and regain balance. Clay was great too, but never helped me reach as deep as wood did. I hadn't done any wood work for a long time.
“I'm offering you a chance to take a good look at yourself. If you want that, stay. Else leave.”
He still looked straight at me, while I had been avoiding his eyes constantly. Their frankness hurt, just as the concern in his tone. But he was right. I was shutting out pain. And as a consequence, shutting out joy too. I had to tighten the muscles around my stomach, just to be able to look back at him. But I did. “Yes, I want to stay. For I want the other side of the medal.”
“Good. There are two rules. First: no questions about who I am. And second: stop avoiding pain. Just answer all the questions that come up, even if the answers mortify you .”
I had escaped being undressed physically by Randy. And now I was offering to undress myself mentally? So what, didn't the woodcarver see through me, anyway? Maybe I should leave?
Justus grabbed my arm and drew me to the extra workspace at his bench. “Look out,” he teased. “You're close to breaching both rules now.”
He handed me the tools he had laid out for me. I was to sharpen and polish them, with a disc sander and felt wheel at the other side of the studio. This put me to the test right away: I didn't know how to sharpen gouges and chisels and I dreaded working with machines. I can't register quick movements very well, no matter whether it's me moving about, or a moving object. Justus saw my hesitation and made fun of me. “Afraid to ask me to help you?”
“I don't know how to sharpen these.” I was to be straight, right?
“I'll help you, but next time ask me, don't let me take the lead all the time.” He turned on the sander and explained how to hold the chisel and let the turning disc do its work. When I had finished the other tools, I actually dared to ask how to polish the chisels and gouges. From a distance he explained how the felt wheel worked and I went ahead. I wasn't even bad at it!
When I came back to the workbench, Justus was working on the bird mask, working away surplus wood to make the birds beak and eye come out better. The beast looked more and more like the young jackdaw I had met this morning.
Without looking up from his work, Justus asked me again whether I was afraid of asking for help.
No escape from mortification, I had promised that. “Yes, I am.”
“I don't know. I just am.” My host considered that folly. One had to know why in order to cure it.
“What do you feel, or see, when you have to ask for help?” he continued on the subject.
I picked up a gouge to replay the situation in my mind. “I'm afraid of being a nuisance.” I said, eying the tool.
“If I were to ask you for help, would you consider me a nuisance?”
I shook my head. I often like it, when people ask me for help.
“Than what's the difference?” he had picked up his sharp tone again. I put away the gouge and looked out of the window behind the workbench, through the trees to the sky. Staring like that made it easier to concentrate.
“I see the sky's your home,” Justus joked.
“Maybe that's my problem. I often feel I shouldn't be here. I feel unwanted and like I'm in everybody's way. ” I pictured myself at the supermarket. Always hurriedly stashing things away, making room for others.
Justus voice broke my thoughts. “You must have had that feeling even during your childhood.” The mask balanced idly on his thumb, index and middle finger. “You said you were often scolded by your classmates at kindergarten. What were the other schools like?”
“They rarely called me names then. I guess they didn't dare. I would pitch a fight if they would. But,” the memory ached more than I thought, “I was completely ignored. Like I didn't exist. Even my friend didn't play with me at school time. Only after school.” I had to stop, since I couldn't fight my tears this time. Until a funny thought helped me out. “Except when I studied biology at the University. I became so popular, that at times I wished I was alone again. I used to hide in the library then.” We both laughed over this. Then Justus went back to work. I looked at the wood block in front of me. It was an uninspiring, cumbersome giant. It reminded me of Randy. I pitched it back into the basket and chose a flat board. I could cut an ornamental edge here, ad at home I would burn a picture in the middle.
Justus eyed the plank with curiosity. I grinned and said nothing. He didn't need guidance to ask any questions, now?
“I may see right through you often. But I'm not a mind reader,” he started. “What are you going to do with that? ”
“Just cut out an edge. And burn a picture in the middle.”
“I have some examples of simple decorative designs. To give you an idea. Would you like to see them?”
“Yes please.” I expected to have to defend my choice, but instead I found myself accepting his offer with ease.
Justus produced some loose strips of wood, in which plain, but tasteful patterns were cut. One look at it and I knew how to mimic these on my plank. I felt the woodcarver look from the corner of his eye, as I chose a gouge. No need for comment, I picked the right one and started to scrape away chips of wood.
Justus set back to work on the mask again. We worked in silence for some time. I felt good, my heart song had returned to me, after a long long time. I didn't even care if my work would turn out alright or not. Just working at it was fun.
“Why did you say you wanted work with clay?” The question came out of the blue.
“Because I know I get an agreeable result from that.”
“So it's the result that counts? Not the process, the journey?”
He had me there. In theory, no, the result doesn't count. But in actual practice, yes. That was my viewpoint and I told him so. Of course he demanded me to explore that thought. It brought me back to my adolescence. Until then I had mostly done things that I liked, or done things the way I liked to do them. But after I had finished my masters at the University I found out that people made decisions for me. Whether to give me a job or not. Whether to let rooms to me or not. The answer was always 'no'. No matter how hard I tried. Another period of being unwanted.
That experience had changed me. And modern day psychology - brought by team builders at the office, and by career advisers during my outplacement trajectory - just reinforced that feeling. You were either supposed to choose what you were good at, or had to be trained to get better at what expected from you. Being average was intolerable. One just had to deliver.
Justus eyed his mask critically. Meanwhile asking whether I knew the expression <<True masters are those who make a life, instead of a living>>.
“Yes, I've seen Conversations With God,” I replied. “But it's easier to say when you don't have an empty stomach.”
Silence. I broke it: “I guess that answer proved I'm not a true master, right?”
My host eyed me blankly for a moment. Then shrugged and shifted his attention back to his work. He took his mask more serious than me, it seemed.
“I think you've got certain talents. But you lack the stamina that a True Master is supposed to have.”
“Stamina, eh? ” The nickname I gave myself, came up. “Like I'm the Queen of Unfinished Projects?”
Justus laughed. “There you go again. Back to delivering. The result that counts.”
“Don't say that. We're just having a discussion. What's so bad about not finishing a project?”
“It shows you have either no strength, no interest, no capability. Or no 'commitment'.” I hated that word, therefore pronounced it with irony.
He shook his head jokingly, acting as if he was shivering from disgust. “Only narrow minded people come up with that. Just to get down on you.” His eyes were friendly, just when I expected them to be critical.
“The reason you don't see unfinished things here, is because I light my fireplace with them. An unfinished piece has served its purpose before it ever got finished. It taught me, it kept me in shape or it inspired me to start an even better project. Don't let people talk you into the obligation of finishing everything you start. Commitment is not restricted to a result. It can be to a process, an endeavor. If being a woodcarver is your commitment, you don't have to finish every mask that you start. Just as long as you keep on carving wood. From the heart.”
He put the bird mask in my hands. I felt the curves, the smooth edges.. Even with my eyes closed, I could feel this bird was smart and straight. And kind.
“Did people ever tell you , that you do not know how to commit yourself ?”
“Often.” I gave him back the mask.
“Do you know what your problem is?” I was about to say 'no but you are sure going to tell me'. Held back just in time. I didn't want to sound cynical, our conversation was too valuable for that.
So I just shook my head.
“You let people talk you into commitments. Then you do things halfheartedly. Or you just have too many false 'commitments' laid on your shoulders. Like people forcing you to finish what need not be finished. You waste energy. Pick your own commitments.” He was right, I always did things against my better judgment. Just because I felt intimidated. Or did I feel dependent? I asked Justus.
He thought for a moment. Then answered with a question: “How were your folks?”
“Yes. Your father for instance. How did you two get along?”
That was a call for negativity. I thought of what to say, how to say it. Suddenly I remembered something I had felt shortly after my father had died. “He left me nothing, except for one very beautiful thing. Total freedom.”
“Now you are saying a lot, a tremendous lot, with only a few words.”
“Yes. First your father and you obviously weren't friends. And second... someone else must have been taking your freedom.” Justus didn't fall for my positive twist, he saw what was behind it. Wow.
He pulled up two high work stools from somewhere near the workbench, seated himself on one. I took the other one.
“First tell me about your father.”
I sighed. “Do I have to complain about my parents? I think all parents make mistakes. Does it help me, change my past, to blame them?”
“Then don't call it blaming. Besides, you don't have to change your past. However you may change how you are now. And only you can do that. It helps if you know where your 'challenges' arose from. So...” He made a welcoming gesture with his hands and bent a little forward, ready to hear my story. Having such a good listener made it easier to talk about my parents.
About my father, who was always quick to criticize but never gave a compliment. Whose punishments did not depend on what you did, but on his mood.
About the change in my relationship with my mother. As a child I adored her, but recently I began to see how she let me take care of her ever since I was a preschooler. She had phobias and was depressed at times. I had to keep her company to distract her.
“Wow. Talking about having commitments laid upon you, huh?”
“Yes, I see that now. I try to remind myself that my mother never consciously made use of me. I'm a mother, I know I am making mistakes too.”
I picked up my gouge and turned to my project. Justus didn't.
“Didn't you ever consider your father's role in this?”
My father's role? What did he mean? My father had hardly played any role in my life, that's how I thought of it.
Justus explained. “By being negative to you, you had no choice but to hang on tightly to your mother. And not just that. He probably ignored your mother's needs, so she had to rely on you for help. Your father palmed off his duty to you.”
Justus' viewpoint caused me to feel relieved. It took care of my grudge against my mother, without actually worsening my thoughts about my father. This was something to ponder on while doing more woodcarving.
While shaping my own piece of wood, I followed Justus movements. His own crow-like blackness, leaning over the white wooden mask of a blackbird, was a contrast I appreciated. He worked out the other eye of the bird with considerable force. His hand slipped and started bleeding anew. I stared at a red drop on the mask while Justus held his bleeding hand in the other one. He walked off to the kitchen, where I had left his first aid kit. My eyes went back to the stain on the mask. If I didn't do something quickly, the blood might seep deeper into the material and removing it would become impossible. I wanted to do something, but felt petrified.
“Could you please remove the stain?” Justus spoke up loudly from the kitchen, where he was trying to apply a bandage to himself with one hand. I mobbed up the drop with a tissue and assessed the damage. The stain was only on an unfinished part of the mask. It took some light scraping with a gouge and I had the blood removed.
“Is it OK now?” Justus was still muddling along in the kitchen.
“Then why in the h...” He stopped short, “Just come over and help me.”