Taking It All Away

As parents will to children and teachers to students, most craftsmen seem to enjoy passing on accumulated wisdom in the form of pithy sayings. Some are humorous, like my carpenter friend’s reversal of common-sense advice that always leads to giggles. “Measure once, cut twice”, he intones with a straight face before we both laugh, knowing how many disasters from the past still lie scattered along that ill-advised path. Other snippets of practical wisdom are more serious and reverberate with truth. No less a wall-tender than the poet Robert Frost knew the distinction between a job and a career. He described it as the difference between working forty hours a week  and sixty, a reality some discover too late, and much to their chagrin.

After years of varnishing boats for a living, I’ve come to appreciate other truths embedded in a multitude of old varnishers’ adages – including the rueful acknowledgement that there’s no such thing as a “last coat of varnish”.  However diligent the varnisher, however attentive or cautious, there’s no escaping the realities of the physical world.  Insects, pollen, humidity, wind, fog, rain, dew, heat and manic yard crews toting an assortment of mowers and blowers always are lying in wait, determined to wreak frustration and chaos upon the creative process.

When the assorted Horsemen of the Varnishers’ Apocalypse show up, there’s nothing for it but to start again, sanding, varnishing and polishing away until the wood is smooth, glossy and reflective. Sometimes, near-perfection is achieved. Usually, the “Rule of Good Enough” applies, and a satisfied customer takes the boat away.

Like every good life-lesson, the story of the search for the perfect final coat of varnish fits neatly into more than one context. Discussions among varnishers always bring to mind a story I was told years ago, a delectable story of another craftsman who lived in Italy during the rule of the House of Medici.

The man spent his days working in a studio where huge bronze doors were cast. His job was the last step in the creative process – polishing and burnishing their glorious detail.  Day after day he stood, rubbing and rubbing with his soft cloth until the doors fairly gleamed.  One day, a visitor to the studio watched him labor through an entire morning, certain he would tire. As the hours wore on, the man showed no sign of exhaustion and no inclination to stop work.  The visitor finally asked, “How do you know when you’ve completed the job?”  “That’s easy enough,” replied the man with the cloth.  “They take the door away.”

It’s occurred to me recently that the story provides encouragement for writers as well as varnishers.  Everyone who writes even the shortest piece – a term paper, a job application, a magazine article, a blog entry – knows the temptation to toil away, polishing words until they gleam.  Those who engage themselves in more complex projects such as long-form essays, short stories or book-length fiction and non-fiction often find themselves in the same situation, albeit on a larger scale.  Day after day passes while a finite number of words are rearranged an infinite number of times and in an infinite number of ways.  Sometimes, the effort leads to a sense of satisfaction, a conviction that things have come out “right”.  Just as often, an editor, a publisher, a deadline or simple exhaustion puts an end to the process by “taking the writing away.”

Whatever our chosen craft, the same dynamic touches each of us simply by virtue of our humanity. Caught up in youthful enthusiasm, we design and cast our dreams, beginning the process of creating a self.  With the passage of time, we learn to shape and mold those dreams, dedicating ourselves to bringing them to fruition.  And at the end – after all the decisions have been made, all the experiences lived and all of the responsibilities accepted – Wisdom will stand with her cloth, polishing our lives in patience and love as we await the day of completion, that day when even our gleaming and burnished lives are taken from us and we pass through our final door.

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90 thoughts on “Taking It All Away

    1. Julie,

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it. When I finished this, I did have some left-over words. Maybe we could weave them into tiny little nets to trap – uh, whatever – is running around over your head!

      Thanks so much for stopping by – I do appreciate it.


  1. Layers upon layers can be added to our toil. I learned in my career of high school teaching there were lessons to be planned and executed, and then the reflection on how to make a lesson better. Then when the everyday imparting of lessons and assessments became routine, I learned there was PR work — communication with parents, administrators and the community.

    There were extra curricular activities to sponsor and attend. There were workshops and seminars to attend, so our craft of teaching could impart more to a deeper depth and reach more learners: the kinesthetic, verbal-linguistic, the spacial learners, the scientific-mathematical learners, the musically inclined, the inter-personal and the intra-personal, yes, even the naturalists in the group.

    What a relief it was when our leader reminded us “Your home should not become a classroom annex.” And even more so when a history professor said “You know. Some things are just good enough.”

    On another note, I listened to a screenwriter recently who said, “Hollywood is not patient. Be sure you are ready to send off that screenplay because it only has one chance…one read to be accepted.” That was a very sobering thought.

    I know my father would have loved your story of the Italian craftsman.

    This is another very thoughtful post. Love the photographs.

    1. Georgette,

      Reading about your teaching career, and feeling your relief at the word of permission to allow your home to remain your home – a place of relaxation, refuge and love – I was reminded of a discussion I’ve been hearing more often among corporate people. Folks seem less willing to be at the beck and call of bosses 24/7, just because they can be. Blackberries and smart phones do nicely for connecting people to their work, but that tether easily can become a noose.

      It’s interesting to look back over fifty years and compare what used to be considered “good enough” in the classroom to what seems necessary today. We had chairs, desks, blackboards with chalk, printed or cursive letters around the walls, an American flag, bulletin boards, books and a teacher. That was about it.

      As we moved on to junior and senior high, things got more complicated because the courses changed. You need more and different supplies for biology and chemistry than you do for third grade. Still, it was simple, and it was good enough.

      My own random thought: people also thought it was good enough for teachers to teach.They supervised the playgrounds and the lunchrooms and met with parents, but they weren’t expected to be babysitters, police, psychologists and so on. On the other hand, they had nearly absolute support from the parents and were free to innovate from time to time. I think I’m feeling nostalgic again.

      Interesting, about Hollywood and the “one chance”. I suppose the same is true for authors pitching a book. Every now and then I take a peek into the world of queries, agents, self-publishing and so on. Then, I back out, very quietly. It’s chaos out there.

      I do know this. My dad would have loved that story, too. Wasn’t it fun to grow up in an age when people truly appreciated fine craftsmanship? There still are craftsmen around, but they’re becoming an endangered species.


  2. Seems like a very good argument about letting go when good enough is good enough.

    Almost everything can be better…But, knowing when it’s good enough is perhaps the lesson we all need to learn.

    This post has put me in a very reflective space this wet and rainy Saturday morning. Thank you.

    1. Gary,

      Hasn’t it been a wonderful day? We had a dry afternoon, but it looks like more rain may be coming in. I hope so.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Good enough may not be perfect, but sometimes it can be very, very close. Going back to varnish jobs for a minute, the problem’s easy to see. if you have a piece that’s perfect except for that embedded pair of love bug legs, you’ve got three choices: leave it as is, polish out the legs and leave a tiny imperfection, or do it over.

      The problem is, if you do it over, you may end up with no bugs but with a dusting of pollen. You could go on forever, exchanging one imperfection for another. On a piano, you might. On a boat? Not so much. It’s that old cost-benefit ratio.

      Enjoy your rainy reflections!


        1. Now I’m really laughing. I had a pair of sex-crazed mallards land on a freshly varnished cockpit coaming once. It was dry enough that the duckies may have escaped without sticky feet, but the imprints were clear. The owner was so taken with the footprints he asked me to leave them. He had his own chuckle every time he saw them, until it was time to varnish again.

  3. Hi Linda
    This beautiful, wise post has put me in a reflective, philosophical mood. It has also evoked a memory from my days as an astrology teacher, when my major teaching aid ( with their permission) was to draw up and give each student their Birth Chart or Horoscope, a complex document very far removed from popular sun sign astrology.

    I included my chart in the mix, so that the whole class would have copies of one another’s charts and of mine. We would then explore how far the interpretations of the symbols were true to the people they felt themselves to be – and to the perceptions of their fellow students. It was powerful, dynamic and fun to be part of their journey.

    In giving them an image of what the complex Horoscope circle before them, full of symbols and intersecting lines, represented, I used to say: “Think of this as a static image of a chip of vital energy, a tiny vibrant particle, part of the Cosmos. Your job, symbolically speaking, is to polish this chip throughout your lifetime, bringing up the best shine you can. When you leave this earth and hand it back ( to Whom? ) may it glow and gleam more brightly than it did on the day of your birth….”

    Polish until the door is taken away, indeed.

    1. Anne,

      I just checked – my horoscope says I’ll be visited today by a learned woman from the East. It didn’t say how far east – I think you qualify!

      Obviously, I jest. Your work’s pretty well separated from stock newspaper filler. It’s so interesting to hear stories of your teaching. Clearly, what most of us call “horoscopes” have little to do with the complex charts you draw up. Asking your students to compare their self-perceptions to the charts is one thing. Adding the perceptions of others is quite another – I suspect it was great fun, and perhaps more surprising than some expected.

      How marvelous that you described those charts as a bit of the Cosmos, just waiting to be polished. Of course we have our role to play in the polishing, but I like to think of Wisdom overseeing it all – perhaps even asking some of the same questions set forth in that marvelous passage from Proverbs:

      “Wisdom cries out in the street, in the squares she raises her voice.
      At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?”

      It will take a bit more time to answer those questions, I suppose. In the meantime, I suspect none of your students have forgotten their lesson. Maybe instead of “Rock On!” they tell one another, “Polish On!”


  4. Morning Linda:

    With everything you do, you must try to do it the best you can. After that, you have to stop and move on. If not, you will do only one thing all your life. When enough is enough, leave it at that, do something else. True perfection is a literary illusion. Nothing is perfect here on Earth. Nirvana, Heaven, God, Justice, Beauty are are all perfect because they are constructs. Once you try to give them life, imperfection creeps in.

    The most brilliant bronze door will have thousands of imperfections under a magnifying glass; the same applies with all physical things (e.g., paintings, sculptures, jewels, poems, books and so forth).

    I believe in doing your thing to the best of your abilities, and then move on, there are other things to do, “until the door is taken away.”

    Your images are awesome as well as your writings. Food for the soul.

    Best Regards,


    1. Omar,

      Perfection’s a slippery concept. On the one hand, you’re right that most things in the physical world are imperfect. The strawberries are blemished, the lizard’s missing a tail, there’s a glazed-over chip in the china.

      Still, we talk about a perfect afternoon, a perfect sunset, a perfect concerto, a perfect gift. Obviously, in those cases we’re judging by different criteria. Those criteria probably are quite personal and loose enough to allow for what others might see as “flaws”.

      When it comes to my own work, there’s a small clutch of things I’ve done that I consider perfect. I don’t mean they’re the quality of a writer like Durrell or Dostoevsky, I mean that I wouldn’t change, add or subtract a word. It doesn’t happen often, but it happens. No one else may see that perfection (!) but I know it, and it’s immensely satisfying.

      The trick, I think, is to strive for perfection while accepting our limits. With each of my posts, of whatever quality, I don’t hit “publish” until I’m satisfied. But once I do publish, that “moving on” you speak of is critical. My rule is: “Write, and let go”. If we don’t let go, we’ll spend entirely too much time congratulating ourselves or beating ourselves over the head!

      And, as you so rightly point out, we’ll end up doing the same thing forever. What fun would that be?


    1. Wendy,

      Ah, yes. Been there, done that, in a multitude of ways. There was that first home ec sewing project, for example. I made a skirt, gathered onto a waistband. The fabric was a stupid border print with stilt-legged chickens. By the time I got that thing done and had to model it – well, let’s just say it’s a good thing we can’t wish ourselves dead or I’d have been gone long ago.

      Of course, that was pure silliness compared to some of the grown-up situations that came down the road. There were a few times when I was caring for Mom that I just had to say, “Well, somebody else might be able to cope with this better than I am, but I’m doing the best that I can.” And that had to be good enough.

      How to recover from failure’s as important as knowing how to avoid it, I suspect. Once upon a time I walked two miles a day for three months, listening to nothing but this . Eventually, it did the trick, and I moved on – just a little sadder, but a whole lot wiser.

      Just remember – sometimes our worst is a whole lot better than we realize. ;)


      1. “Our worst is a whole lot better than we realized.” Wisdom, there it is. (And we have Home Ec. sewing failures in common. We made a sleeveless shift, and my teacher let me put the zipper in backwards TWICE. I laugh now and wonder how in the world? But I’m not a “spatial” person, and I think one must see things backwards and inside out in order to make a good seamstress! I’m just much too literal for that!) Thanks for the continued gracing of words and smatterings of wisdom, Linda.

        1. That’s ok. We may be home ec rejects, but I can bleed an engine, you can find the fish and we both can read the weather without a television. I’ll take that over a gathered skirt and a shift any day.

  5. Your theme of molding your work and your life instantly reminded me of this beautiful favourite poem written by George Washington Doane entitled Life Sculpture!

    Life Sculpture

    By George Washington Doane (27 May 1799 – 2 April 1859)

    Chisel in hand stood a sculptor boy
    With his marble block before him,
    And his eyes lit up with a smile of joy,
    As an angel-dream passed o’er him.

    He carved the dream on that shapeless stone,
    With many a sharp incision;
    With heaven’s own light the sculpture shone,
    He’d caught that angel-vision.

    Children of life are we, as we stand
    With our lives uncarved before us,
    Waiting the hour when, at God’s command,
    Our life-dream shall pass o’er us.

    If we carve it then on the yielding stone,
    With many a sharp incision,
    Its heavenly beauty shall be our own,
    Our lives, that angel-vision.

    1. Judy,

      It’s a lovely poem, and made me think in turn of these words from Michelangelo, who knew a thing or two about sculpture: “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”

      Of course, it’s always good to remind ourselves that these artists and geniuses were human, and lived in the same world we inhabit. Holland Cotter, art critic at the NY Times, wrote about Michelangelo that,

      “[he] was a terrible kvetch. His back forever ached; popes were slow with the paychecks; the local food was always an insult, a disgrace. No one worked half as hard as he did, and slacker artists made him nuts. “Draw, Antonio; draw, Antonio; draw and don’t waste time,” he scrawled on a sketch he gave to a lackadaisical young pupil and studio assistant, Antonio Mini, in 1524.”

      There’s our rallying cry! “Photograph, Judy! Write, Linda! Time’s a-wastin’! Get out the polishing cloth!”

      Michelangelo says so!


  6. Your posts always gleam, and this one is no exception–indeed a superlative example of your enviable writing craft.

    I am taking an online poetry course (“ModPo,” for short) that I’m finding remarkable, and what you write here puts me in mind of one of the compelling riffs Al Filreis (the professor) did in a mini-talk on William Carlos Williams’ poem, The Rose Is Obsolete.

    Speaking, in the context of the poem, about what modernism is, he said: “Make it new. Let’s try it again. Let’s say it again. This is what Hemingway was doing at his best. This is what Stevens was doing. Let’s try the blackbird again. Let’s try it again. Let’s get it right. You can’t get it right. So if you can’t get it right, Here it is, if you can’t get it right, show what you do as you do it, show the work, show the process.”

    1. Susan,

      I will say that Prof. Filreis’ comments make more sense now that I’ve read Williams’ poem, and Stevens’ about the “Thirteen Blackbirds” – but they’re still a struggle for me.

      I certainly grasp his point about trying it again, saying it again. And it makes sense to me that the repetition (with variations) could be seen as a way to do it over, and over, and over until it’s gotten right. (Poetry as “Groundhog Day”! Who knew!?)

      But I’m going to have to think more about his comment that, “If you can’t get it right, show what you do as you do it, show the work, show the process.”

      That feels wrong to me – as though I’ve left brushstrokes in my varnish. It’s one reason I try so hard to “get it right” before I publish, and the primary reason some marvelous ideas still are sitting in my files. Certainly the process is as important as the product, but I’m not sure a reader is – or should be – particularly interested in process. Having too much process lying about can cause problems – like sending someone into an unfamiliar, darkened house to trip over furniture and walk into walls.

      I did see your tweet about this, and appreciate having a bit more context for the quotation. I’m going to give it more thought – and I’m so glad you’re enjoying the course!


      1. “Poetry as “Groundhog Day”! Who knew!?” Love that. I wouldn’t say I’m ready to embrace the idea that all poems should be about process, but I will say I was fascinated with what he was demonstrating (Willams’s Portrait of a Lady is a particularly fascinating example. Had I read it on my own, I would have thought, what the . . . now at least I understand a bit of what’s going on.)

        1. And of course, there’s always the possibility that “showing the process” is part of what makes it right for that poet, that poem.

          I woke up thinking about modern architecture, and the way some buildings allow the structure to become more visible, more integral to the experience of the building.There’s a sense in which “Blackbirds”, for example, allows the reader to walk around in the words in the same way that we walk through certain buildings.

          It tickles me that Le Corbusier apparently translates as crow or raven-like. Maybe Stevens was trying to give us the bird’s eye view in his poem!

  7. I find it strange when people ask “how do you know when you’re finished?” I mean, if you’re at all creative, surely you just know? It’s an inner feeling.

    1. Val,

      I do know that feeling, and trust it. That’s one reason certain pieces end up back in the files. If I work and work and still don’t feel a piece is right, I set it aside for a while, and let the subconscious work go on.

      In the same way, I’ve always been curious about folks who lay down certain rules for themselves, like “every blog post should be 500 words”. I’ve always thought it’s best to use as many words as is necessary to say what I have to say – be that 300 or 1200. Sometimes a piece needs to grow, and sometimes it needs to be trimmed. I’ve never yet had a first draft that was “just right”!


  8. Wow… I love the ending of your post. And I’m reminded of a poster back in the 70’s, it says “Please be patient, God is not finished with me yet”. Aren’t we all work in progress?

    When it comes to blogging, like your previous commenter, I depend solely on my feel. I know it may sound intuitive or even irrational. Of course, I’d have checked to make sure the grammar, spelling, idiomatic usage (you don’t know how much I’ve to do for every single post, being an ESL practitioner) and all the info are correct before I post, but the final click of the key ‘publish’, I depend totally on my feel. And I admit, I do it apprehensively every time, after 5 years of it.

    1. Arti,

      I smiled at your mention of idioms. Omar, who comments here regularly, is a native Spanish-speaker who’s intent on improving his English. Every now and then he posts about idioms and the difficulties of identifying and understanding them. There was an interesting back-and-forth in his blog recently about an all-purpose word that’s used only in the Chiriqui province of Panama. Language really is amazing!

      I’m glad you like the post’s ending. That single paragraph took more work than the rest of the post – or at least more time. Like you, I do a lot of fact checking. After I wrote the words “design and cast our dreams”, I suddenly thought, “Is that right? Am I using ‘cast’ properly?” So it was off to sites about sculpture and metalwork – so much to learn!

      Here’s another little tidbit about that last paragraph. One line sounded so familiar – I was worried that I inadvertently was plagiarizing someone. Eventually, I figured it out. It’s not an imitation or a re-working, but it is a faint echo of one of my all-time favorite Bob Seger songs. I’ve listened to it so much, it seems to have embedded itself in my psyche and re-emerged as a part of this post. It really is amazing how bits and pieces of life just lie around, waiting to be used.

      As for that “publish” button – I understand the apprehension. It always feels to me a bit like releasing a bird back into the wild. I always wonder, “Is it going to be able to fly?” and “Where will it go?”


    1. Z,

      After what you posted about Don, I’m honored that you’d consider using words like “sensitive” and “wise” here. And it pleases me that you like the ending, too. That tells me the extra attention was worth it.

      I love the image of being carried in a word hammock – we just have to hope our word-weaving doesn’t unravel!


  9. I cut this thing three times and it’s STILL too damned short!

    The rule of “Good Enough” is one of the hardest for people to learn. When I first started working in a boat yard I put in a lot of time in “paint prep” for the yachts that were brought to us. I asked the painter what the hardest part of his job was and he said, “Knowing when to stop sanding and start painting.”

    1. Richard,

      Thanks for the laugh! How many times have we seen people using just that logic? It reminds me of that fun definition of insanity – repeating a mistake over and over, and expecting a different result.

      Not only is the Rule of Good Enough hard to learn, there can be some interesting discussions when conflicting definitions emerge. The first one I can remember occurred when I was about ten. When it came to cleaning up my room, my “good enough” and mom’s were quite different!

      Your remark about paint prep reminds me of every person over the course of twenty years who’s said, “Why don’t you get someone to do your sanding for you? Then, you can do the fun part – the varnishing. Anyone can sand…” Except no, not everyone can. Most people stop too soon, and if the prep is lousy, a hundred coats of perfect varnish never will make up for it.

      You know that, and I know that. And I know a few people who have learned that, much to their regret (and my behind the scene chuckles!)


  10. Ah, but you left out the part about “the next one.” I have a friend who makes wooden harps in his garage. He makes each one the best he knows how. He spends hours lovingly crafting it and finishing it. But with every one he makes, he learns something new, a part of the process he didn’t quite understand before; and each time he finishes a harp, he’s already thinking, “The next one I make will be better because now I know . . . ”

    Yes, he sells the harps he makes, but he does not make them to sell. He makes them because he loves making them. The only reason he sells them is to get money to buy the materials to make the next one, and to free up space so he has the room to make it.

    We tend to get focused on “this one” and on dotting all the “i’s” and crossing all the “t’s” and gilding all the lilies. We forget that the way to perfect the product is to perfect the process. With every door that gets taken away, we need to ask ourselves, what did we learn from it? What better understanding do we have about the process that will make the next one better? If we stay focused on the process, it becomes easier to let this one go and start the next one.

    1. WOL,

      I did leave out the part about “the next one” – quite intentionally. In a book about all this, it could be a chapter. In a blog post, it’s another topic for another day – at least from my perspective. My useful little paraphrase of the good Kierkegaard is “purity of prose is to write one thing”. I can be sorely tempted to stuff entirely too much into a single post, and occasionally have to give myself a talking-to. On the other hand, when I wrote my “Simplify, Simplify” piece, I added that we don’t write “only one thing”. We write one thing, and then we write again, and again, and again.

      Which is to say I agree with you that both process and product are important. But in the midst of writing, I never think about the process. That’s for later, when I ask myself, “What worked? What didn’t? What would I do differently? What makes me really happy about this one? What’s so bad I should bury it in the back yard?”

      When I’m writing “this one”, it has all my attention, all my focus. Once it’s taken on cyber-life, it’s time for the other questions.

      One thing that’s changed for me, and that makes this even more interesting, is the very definition for blog. When I started, I considered the entry “the blog”. Later, the blog and the associated comments seemed to form a whole. Now, with the passage of time, the current entry, the comments and the archives have formed a whole. As the history develops, and a consistent readership, the relative importance of individual posts lessens. Not only does the writer consider each post in relation to the whole, so do readers. There’s more room for experimentation, taking a chance.

      That’s my current theory, anyhow!


  11. This is beautiful, Linda. Another blogger posted today that her 100-year-old grandmother is in the process of dying. One hundred years is a lot of polishing and burnishing. She said that she’s ready. Isn’t that what we all hope for, that we’re ready and it’s good enough?

    1. Bella Rum,

      You’ve just reminded me of another kind of polishing that was part of that older generation’s life: polishing the silver service. Whether your friend’s grandmother did that, of course I don’t know. But over the decades my mother and her friends certainly did, especially if a holiday or great occasion was in the offing.

      It bored me to tears when I was made to help. It’s taken me this long to see it differently – a time to polish, burnish and reflect on family history even as the family treasures began to gleam.

      It’s so simple, and so complicated – being ready, and being secure in the knowledge that it’s good enough. Nothing’s sadder than one who’s ready because they’re convinced it hasn’t been and never will be good enough. I’ve seen that up close and personal, and wouldn’t wish it on anyone.


  12. That’s a great anecdote about a piece of work being done when someone comes to take it away from us. Sometimes, even often, I spend time touching up a post to try to make it ever so slightly better; I could probably use the time for better things. Maybe people who create things should volunteer to be one another’s takers-away.

    1. Steve,

      My guess would be you spend more time “touching up” your “Spanish-English Word Connections” site than “Portraits of Wildflowers”, simply because the entries always are clear and understandable. Despite the etymological complexities involved, the posts are easy to read – which means even more fun for word-geeks.

      The thought of a corps of takers-away has its appeal. On the other hand, anyone who tries to take away my cat’s mousie before she’s done with it (or my ice cream, for that matter) has a bit of a tussle on their hands. Volunteers would be the way to go.


  13. My husband is a polisher – making sure that every word is correct & beautiful. I, on the other hand, am a :git ‘r dun” person – my goal is to fly through & be done with it already! Sometimes I end up with something of worth – most of the time I have a piece of fluff. And I really don’t mind because I know that some people LIKE cotton candy!

    You, on the other hand, are a craftsperson of the written word – it’s always a joy to read what you have to say (whether you think you’re done with it yet or not!).

    1. The Bug,

      You bet there are some of us who like cotton candy – not to mention funnel cakes and Peeps. I used to like Sno-Cones, too, until the syrup got to be those ghastly colors and entirely too sweet.

      But your musings, photos and poetry don’t quite make it as cotton candy. They’ve got too much nourishment in them. ;)

      I’m not sure I’d call myself a “craftsman” yet. I would be willing to go with “apprentice”. I learned my varnishing that way, and if I’ve got enough years left, it might work for writing, too.

      In any event – what’s important is that you enjoy what I come up with. Thanks for saying so!


  14. What Sunday lessons I’m receiving today.

    Your words speak to my own and to my life and therefore to my heart, too. These days, I toil away, lost in time, in the wee hours of the morning before dawn breaks. Sometimes words flow. But just as often I feel I’m chiseling stone. But sometimes, on those stone-dust mornings, just as I’m about to give up and let go for the day, the ‘right’ words come. And they are not mine, or anything I’ve ever thought of before, but I know when they come, they are the stuff of best wishes and dreams. Grace. And I wonder now, as I write this, if the words come better when my hold on them grows slack.

    The image of that magnificent door heading your piece is lovely. Is there a story there? No matter — the story of the Italian master craftsman suffices very well as does the image of that final door of life, cast from your imagination to mine.


    1. Janell,

      I live in a world of doors, but beautiful, cast-bronze doors are in short supply around here. So, once I knew I’d be centering on the story of the door-polisher, I thought of Ghiberti’s doors and went looking for a nice photo. And that’s the story, except that I just realized I neglected to indicate the individual panel is from the same set of doors. I’ll tidy that up in a bit.

      I know you’ve been tied up with “Anna Karenina”, but I assumed you still were on your writing schedule. I’m filled with admiration. I do feel some energy returning now that the season itself is turning and the heat has broken. All of August and September I found it extraordinarily difficult to come home from work and do anything, and despite my efforts to become a “morning writer”, it just doesn’t happen.

      At least by writing at night, if I get stuck in some way, I can go to bed and let my mind continue on. More often than I can explain, I wake in the morning with a word, a sentence, a new thought that’s obviously a continuation of the previous evening’s work. I suppose that’s the “slackened hold” you speak of.

      As for the passage of time and a slow process, it’s worth remembering that Ghiberti’s doors took twenty-seven years to complete. Ironically, their just-completed restoration also took twenty-seven years. The reproductions in place at the Baptistry will remain in place, and the originals will be displayed in a museum, under controlled conditions. There’s a nice BBC video about the process here .

      So good to have you stop by! Now I need to come visit and see what you think of Tolstoy.


  15. My version of “Measure once, cut twice” is “Buy high, sell low.” Not that I do that intentionally; I just do it consistently.

    I love the story of the craftsman working on the bronze door. In fact, the very word, craftsman, gives me hope, and reminds me of what amazing things the human race has accomplished. Whenever I read your blog, I have the same image of you — “polishing and burnishing their glorious detail.” That drive seems to be growing scarce as most of us succumb to the accelerating pace of life. Let’s hope it never disappears completely.

    1. bronxboy,

      My dad used that “buy high, sell low” expression a good bit, always ruefully. He and his friends had an investment club, and were pretty well split between good and bad decisions.

      It’s not just acceleration that eats away at craftsmanship. The love of all things disposable does, too. And cheap. We don’t hear the word “shoddy” much any more because what used to be considered shoddy is the new normal.

      That attention to detail does still exist, though. I think of the furniture makers I know, the artists and the gardeners. No one pays more attention to detail than a good gardener, whether they prefer veggies or flowers. And way off in the Texas hill country, there’s a certain automotive garage, where the breeze blows through a single bay, and the perfectly polished tools are laid out like surgical tools on a towel, and people will wait as long as necessary to have their work done.

      As long as people still can recognize real craftsmanship, we may have a chance.


  16. As I read your post, I could see myself at work, rereading that email, editing out extraneous words, adding in a few sentences when I’ve been too abbreviated, and then — because there are other emails to return — hitting SEND. Often, the temptation is to hit ‘send’ too soon before I noticed that typo or copy/paste wreckage.

    And who knew you were a varnisher?! Though now one of words rather than boats.

    1. nikkipolani,

      A varnisher, yes. And even now, more of boats than of words. I’m still working full time at it, and will be for some indeterminate time, though the twelve and fourteen hour days that were common when I was starting the business have been given up.

      It’s been so long since I’ve worked in an office I never thought about this post’s applicability there, though of course it does apply. And isn’t it strange, how we can read and re-read and never see the typos and such until we’ve hit “send”? That happens to me especially with comments on blog posts. I’m sure it’s fine, I post it, and then there it is – the transposed words, the misspelling, and so on.

      I mentioned gardens to bronxboy, just above. Clearly, one of your versions of “polishing and burnishing” is pruning and tilling!


  17. I am not much of an admirer of humanity in general, but I do have the utmost respect for those few who keep on working, keep on thinking, keep on doing what they want to do most, until there is no more time for any of it.

    1. montucky,

      When you mentioned “those few”, the first person who popped to mind was the fellow who brought you your logs. What an amazing – and inspirational – fellow. On the other side, of course, there’s the evidence of what humans are capable of in your post today – thoughtlessness at best, determined destruction at worst.

      In a way, “thoughtful work” may be the best definition of “craftsmanship” I’ve found. When thought and work are combined, it certainly becomes more enjoyable.


    1. Gerry,

      In truth, don’t we all? On the other hand, some projects, like the historical ones you love, take a little more time. It takes patience to build as well as to polish.

      If you haven’t seen this story about Vivian Maier , I think you’ll enjoy it. I’m as fascinated by the patience of the curator as by the prolific work of the photographer.


      1. I just watched the video. Thank you very much. How do you find the energy and patience and skill to dig so deep in the great trash heap and treasure chest?

        1. Some people prefer a cane pole and a red-and-white bobber. I drag a seine net around with me, toss my catch in a tank and pull out what what I need, when it seems useful. ;)

  18. Amazing writing! You have a talent for words and, while we’ve not met, I can tell you are person of extreme detail. I admire the person that has the patience and attention to detail that goes beyond the definition of meticulous.

    Were you always attentive to the details growing up? Just curious…because if you were…I’m never going to get there. :)

    Enjoyed reading this entry. Thank you!


    1. Larry,

      Oh, my! No, a love of details and attention to them certainly wasn’t a part of my young personality. Instead of the “rule of good enough”, I lived by the “rule of just enough”. My idea of cleaning my room was to push everything under the bed, into a drawer or into a trash basket. Mom had to keep an eye on me.

      I did enjoy school projects, and often would go the extra mile on projects in classes like history and Western Civ (there’s a blast from the past). But I depended on natural talent more than effort, even when it came to writing.

      Things started to change when I worked in LIberia. I learned creativity in problem-solving there. Then, after a time back in the States, I started my varnishing business, and began learning patience and attention to detail. Now, creativity, patience and attention to detail have shown themselves useful here!

      Glad you enjoyed the post!


  19. Ghiberti’s doors are considered by some to be the first sign of the emerging Renaissance in art (the use of perspective for one thing – which was probably done by Uccello who apprenticed there). Those doors are fascinating…want to see them live someday!

    Now you know why I avoided varnishing on the boat…it’s perfect and then there’s that bit of dust that jumps in…ugh! In college we had a stage/drama phrase for things: “Good enough for summer stock” – extent of fretting over completion needs to vary with function and project’s time line? As always a thoughtful well constructed post.

    (Still nice with windows open for Dixie these mornings…but warming up a little now…guess we should enjoy it!)

    1. phil,

      Ah, yes. Perspective. Important for art, important for life. Maybe we need a new Ghiberti to arise and help us begin seeing in a new way. I hope you do get to see the doors in person one day. At least it’s possible now that they’re back on display, and in a museum.

      The only thing about that phrase “good enough for summer stock” is the implied assumption that summer stock audiences aren’t as discerning or deserving as the opening-nighters on Broadway. The irony is that they’re sometimes the better audience because they’re more interested in and knowledgeable about the production than they are about who’s with whom or who’s wearing what!

      I just noticed this morning that our reinforcing cold front is on the way – down to the 50s on Sunday! I saw a huge flock of white pelicans on…Monday? Tuesday? swinging over the big bridge. There had to be 150 birds, and maybe more. They’re always the sign of the first real front – bring it on, says me!


      1. Oh the summer stock was the realization that when you have a new show every weekend, you can’t fret over every detail. The sets must be done well enough to create the magic, but quickly.
        Summer audiences are more willing to suspend belief and accept the cardboard boat on the James River for one or two productions…especially if there are fireworks at the end. Summer audiences do enjoy theater so much – and do know what it all takes to put it on….sometimes they do mouth the words along with the actors. Great time
        I saw a couple of huge flocks about that time, too. Today’s 91 degrees is a bit too warm for me

        1. On that kind of schedule, you bet. And the cheesiness transitory nature of the backdrops and such adds to the charm. When I lived inside the loop, TUTS at Hermann was a favorite!

          Just saw a note that the front’s draped between Ft. Worth and San Angelo. Bring it on!

    2. Just got out my Sibley’s. I’m sure it was a Great Egret. If you see it again, look for a long yellow bill and black legs – the combination is unique among egrets.

  20. i know what you mean. the words float around in my head and i think how wonderful they’ll sound if i could just get them on paper, but i’ll be busy or away from home. on occasion i’ve spoken them into my phone and later decided, “why did i think that was a good thought?” definitely stopped that urge;-)

    always best to write it out and then as you’ve said, tweak, tweak, tweak and finally, just print it. it is what it is. (btw, now i understand varnish gal)

    1. sherri,

      That’s why I keep a notebook with me at work. There’s not a lot to do out there on the dock besides sand, varnish and think, so it’s good to have a way to record the thoughts that come to mind. People have suggested tape recorders or phones, but the number of screwdrivers and transistor radios that have gone into the water keep me from trying that.

      One of the things that interests me is the fact that the more thinking I do about an entry, the easier the writing is. I suppose that should be considered self-evident, but you don’t hear people talking much about the role of thought (musing, pondering, brooding, etc) in the writing process.

      “It is what it is” reminds me of some of my childhood suppers. “There it is,” Mom would say. “Take it or leave it.”


  21. I wish I could love anything I do for my job so much that I couldn’t stop tweaking till they took it away from me. Seems like I’m churning work through my space with the speed of Lucy and Ethel’s assembly line, and sometimes with the same amount. As they found out, when you cram too much chocolate (or work) down you, you really don’t ever want to see anymore.

    I’m longing for the time to “not quit till they take it away from me.” Someday. Some way.

    1. jeanie,

      What a perfect metaphor. When you say “Lucy and Ethel”, it takes only a nanosecond for some of us to have that visual in mind! Well, and those three little (dreadful!) words: “speed it up!”

      I suspect it’s not your lack of love for what you’re doing that makes the tweaking impossible, but the inevitable call for more production. When you’re working on your projects up at the lake, you decide what’s going to be made and how much time it requires. It’s a different context, a different “boss”, and an entirely different process.

      Have you ever read Jaron Lanier? He wrote “You Are Not a Gadget” A Manifesto” – a critique of digital technologies including Wikipedia, Facebook and Twitter. He showed up at South by Southwest in Austin in 2010, and told the crowd, “If you listen first and write later, then whatever you write will have had time to filter through your brain, and you’ll be in what you say.” I think he’s right.

      Every August and September I swear I’m going to retire. Then, October rolls around and I think, “Why would I do that?” I’m one of hte few people in the world who can work and think at the same time! You’ll get your time to tweak, and polish, and think very soon now – even though it feels like it’s forever away!


  22. Oh brava Linda! I wondered what on earth you were going to say when you began with a photo of those beautiful doors in a post that you called “Taking it all away”…

    I love the story of the man polishing the doors.

    “…Day after day passes while a finite number of words are rearranged an infinite number of times and in an infinite number of ways….”

    The secret is knowing when to send the doors on their way. I think we can too easily take what was once an OK sentence and re-edit it until it’s so polished that it’s lost whatever flavor it once had… so words that would snap-crackle-and pop in the mouth end up tasting like stale bubble gum.

    1. dearrosie,

      Aren’t the doors beautiful? They’re so intricately detailed I can imagine the job of polishing them could keep someone’s interest for quite some time.

      Your highlighting of that one sentence reminds me how often I’ve thought of a kaleidoscope as the perfect metaphor for the creative process. The same bits always are present, but each turn rearranges them, and there’s a multitude of ways to arrange the bits. Each of us has the same word-bits available to us – it’s the arranging that’s the trick.

      I love your point about snap-crackle-and-pop ending up as stale gum. And the opposite can be true, too. Have you ever run into one of those highly decorated cakes – at a wedding or birthday, perhaps – where the frosting roses and leaves and garlands and piping is so thick it’s obnoxious? The only way to enjoy the cake is to push all that sugary excess away. I think another word for that is “editing”. :)


  23. Linda; You have gifted us with another stunning piece! I may not always have time to post a response to your blogs, but I always find something in them that piques my interest; however, this one definitely resonates as my mind wafts back to my many years of varnishing, polishing; making tired, well-used boats look spritely and eager for the coming season.

    I was brought up in the spirit that “a job worth doing was worth doing well” and I tend to labor over minor things that no one else would ever notice. I have a hard time letting go of perfection, but I guess that’s what made me a good finish painter. As you know I am a life-long writer, and I, too, have struggled to find that sequence of words that will lie in the paragraph just so and make my story take flight.

    Like the man polishing the door, I find contentment in the crafting of things- be it the finish on a boat, an article, a knitted sweater or even a loaf of fresh-baked bread. Some jobs are never done, but that’s life. I hope that I can always count on some kind of busy-work that will take me to the end of my days so I will have that satisfaction of being productive and “a job well done”.

    BTW, in addition to this wonderful blog, I also enjoyed it’s artistic presentation. You do such a great job on making it visually appealing as well as presenting us with a feast for the mind! ~ Beth

    1. Beth,

      I thought about you while I was writing this. There’s just nothing in the world like restoring a boat. I don’t mind gray hair, but I surely do mind a boat with gray, tired wood!

      I’ve been pondering a good bit about work recently. So many people seem to consider it a curse, something to be avoided at all costs. And yet the rewards are so great – not only in terms of the finished product, but also because of the joys inherent in the process. Work teaches so many lessons – patience, creativity in problem solving, self-reliance. You can expect to see more about this in the (near) future.

      It’s interesting that “hand-crafted” has become a terms associated with breweries now, and that more and more people seem to be returning to the joys of baking, knitting, gardening and such. Living in a purely mental world – as so many bureaucrats and politicians do – can warp perspective in some dangerous ways. The real world – the world of flour and yeast, needles and yarn, varnish and brushes – offers resistance, and an objective way to measure our skills. Forget the baking powder and no matter how hard we argue, that cake is going to declare our mistake to the world!

      I just love the way images can enhance and support the words of a piece. When I found those photos of the doors, I was ecstatic. They were exactly right!


      1. Linda; I was thinking of you today while I was beginning the process of refinishing an old oak table which I’d recently purchased for $25. I haven’t had much cause to sand and varnish in the last decade, but it felt like old times as I went through the heavier grits to the finer grits of sandpaper and at last, after a lot of elbow grease, applied to first of many coats of varnish. As I worked, I wondered if you were sanding and varnishing just then, too.

        You are so right about the rewards of hand-crafted projects; just as I know that I’ll get many years of enjoyment out of this dining table; the same can be said for so many things we do for ourselves. And besides, I’m a firm believer in being as self-sufficient as possible- not only is it a money saver but making things just the way we like them enhances our homes and our lives. I agree about those who live in a purely mental world; I’ve been amazed to talk to people who had no idea how milk came out of a cow… talk about detached from real life!

        The images of the doors are beautiful, but the same can be said for all your blogs; your presentation is so professional-looking!

        ~ Beth

        1. Your table’s a perfect example of another truth about hand-crafting. A beautiful, factory-produced table can be admired, but it doesn’t begin life already filled with memories, mistakes and pleasure. When I look at the oak blanket chest my grandfather built out of my grandparents’ first dining table, I remember my grandparents, their house, grandpa’s workshop, and my refinishing. It’s not just a “thing”, it’s a living link to the past. You can’t buy that at Wal-Mart!”

          Thanks for your kind comment about my blog. It needs just a touch more work, but i do love the way it looks, too. I suppose it makes sense I’d still be using an “old-fashioned” theme. ;)

  24. I delayed having children. I was waiting until I got my act together.

    I have a beautiful daughter, but still haven’t gotten my act together. The body, wiser than the mind, told me I never would, and it was time.

    1. Claudia,

      What a marvelous example of the kind of dallying we all do. It’s just so human. “When I (fill in the blank), then I’m going to (fill in the blank). It’s partly garden-variety procrastination, and partly that urge to have things perfect before making the next move.

      I have my own worries about retirement these days, but one worry I don’t have is that I’ll miss having the experiences I wanted to have. I’ve known so many people who’ve said, “When I retire, I’m going to….” and then ill health, family difficulties, financial reality or whatever intervenes. The unluckiest of all was a woman I knew who retired, planned her cruise of a lifetime and then died of a heart attack the day before she was to leave. I may not get to retire for several years, but I’ve come to realize I don’t mind all that much. I did my sailing, my traveling, my “adventuring” while I was young and healthy. As long as my mind cooperates, I have my memories.

      It’s not always possible, but to the extent it is possible I think it’s good to follow Nike’s advice: do it now.


  25. What gorgeous images! It is if they were stamped into the blog as reliefs… polished at that.

    There is always the varnished truth about anything… smile. I had to pun that-varnished truth. I used to do decoupage and so enjoyed getting that just right varnished look over a selected look or image. My, I cannot imagine varnishing a boat!

    Enjoyed your writing and the meaning that went with as well. Indeed concerning your poetic well-versed last paragraph:

    “And at the end – after all the decisions have been made, all the experiences lived and all of the responsibilities accepted – Wisdom will stand with her cloth, polishing our lives in patience and love as we await the day of completion, that day when even our gleaming and burnished lives are taken from us and we pass through our final door.”

    1. Anna,

      From what I’ve read about Ghiberti, the reason the images of his doors “pop” here on the blog is that they’re almost impossibly beautiful in real life. I started reading about them and was fascinated. I especially love that he included a bust of himself peering down from one of the panels!

      One of my treasures as a child was a small cedar chest. I think they were given out as salesmen’s samples. My grandmother gave it to me – it had three decoupaged English countryside scenes on top of it. (Perhaps that’s why I loved your latest photos so much – they do have a bit of the same look.) I never tried the art myself, but at one time many of my friends enjoyed it and created some lovely things.

      I find myself thinking about that final passage more these days – not in any kind of morbid or fearful way, but only as an acknowledgement that, as my great-aunt Rilla liked to say, “Tempus fidgets”. It does, indeed – we’d best be making use of it!


  26. Your word crafting never ceases to amaze me. I probably have more to say, but it is 12:30, I can’t think, and I need to get some sleep…

    I just wanted to let you know I was here, and I loved it, and now I must go to bed. ~ Lynda

    1. Lynda,

      Hope you had sweet dreams – thanks for letting me know you were here, and that you enjoyed the read. I’m glad you were smart enough to choose sleep over commenting – wisdom takes many forms!


  27. Once again, your post came right in time. I just finished writing a post, translating each word as well and truly as possible. That is, thinking in French and trying to communicate my thoughts in a way that would be correctly understood in English. Not always easy; it needed many changes of words, expressions and grammar. Quite a few busy hours but what a relief when I finally stopped writing and thought of letting go. Knowing I had done my best. Or maybe not ?

    Thanks Linda, your writings are a pleasure and an inspiration.

    1. Isa,

      Your English flows so beautifully – and artfully – that it takes a close reading to realize it isn’t your native tongue. The irony, of course, is that people like you and Omar (who comments here from Panama) often make use of our language far better than we do!

      I wonder – we complain so much here about texting and social media degrading the language. Are there the same complaints in your country? It certain affects spelling, capitalization and grammar – no question about that.

      It is a relief to let go, sometimes.One thing I realize now is that certain posts simply are more appealing than others, and no amount of work is going to change the nature of the less appealing. It’s just the way of the world. Not every meal is equally tasty, not every flower is as attractive as every other. The natural variety around us gives us permission for a little variety in our work, too!

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the post – thank you for saying so.


  28. Who or what made you put away the keyboard this time? For surely this is as polished and honed a piece of writing as you’ve ever done.

    I hope you are collecting your essays elsewhere, it would be sad if they were to disappear into the vast mass of inferior writing which is blogland far too often.

    1. friko,

      Who or what made me stop? Finally being “done”! Everything went fine until the last paragraph, which required tweaking ad nauseum. Finally, I just thought, “That’s close enough”, and was done with it.

      I went through pretty much the same thing with the new post that just went up, except that it required applying the scalpel. I cut away three hundred words, four photos and one of my favorite quotations before I was done, all the while thinking, “But these are GOOD photos!” They just didn’t fit.

      I’m glad you liked this one. My current big project is going back and saving all these entries as word/text documents. One I have them collected, with multiple backups, then I’ll figure out what’s next. But I don’t dare start tweaking with the whole mess of them until they’ve been secured from the dangers of The Cloud!


  29. My grandfather, a carpenter, claimed the good thing about hitting your thumb with the hammer was it felt so good when the pain went away.

    So, when we pass through the final door will there be another one awaiting us?

    1. Preston,

      I know I replied to this comment – or at least I thought I did! I’d better watch myself. My mother used to do that – she’d carry on conversations with me in her head, and then get snippy when I didn’t respond!

      In any event, you reminded me of my family, where the saying was “The good thing about hitting yourself in the head with a hammer is that it feels so good when you stop!” Of course, the thumb business is accidental and hitting ourselves in the head is intentional, but that’s a discussion for another day.

      Gosh – another door? I’ve no idea. And you know – I don’t really think about that sort of thing too often. It’s like trying to think our way back to the Big Bang, or figure out what’s beyond space. I have too much trouble keeping track of my car keys and remembering to renew my driver’s license to ponder the Big Issues. I’ll leave that to others!


    1. Andrew,

      Thanks! It certainly is true that having time to just ponder during the work day is a gift. People often ask me if I don’t get bored, and of course I don’t. There’s too much wondeful to think about, and a good bit around me to watch that’s very interesting!


  30. True that. It took me a long time to realize but now I’m happy with the idea that my life is not state but a process.

    1. LowerCal,

      It is true. I’ve lived four or five “lives” – but in each case, it hasn’t been only a matter of “doing something different”. I’ve also become a different person. There’s continuity, of course – but I’m not at all the person I was twenty-five years ago, and I’d probably be unrecognizable to some who knew me fifty years ago. (Being able to make a statement like that really brings home the process! )


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