I periodically have a dream that, generically, is not uncommon, though I suspect its content might be. It is the dream in which one discovers a previously unknown room in one’s house. In my version, I am in the basement, walking past the furnace, when I suddenly notice a door in the space behind it. I am astounded. The space behind the furnace is not especially dark or obscured from sight. How, in the twenty years I have lived in this house, did I not notice a door in the wall behind the furnace? This defies reason, I dream myself thinking. I walk to the door, open it, and peer in. I see a cavern that has been hewn into the earth with obvious care and is illuminated with a yellowish-white light, the source of which is hidden from view. Intrigued, I enter, walk about 20 yards, follow the bend to the right, and come upon a pile of neatly stacked lumber and several professional-grade woodworking tools: a table saw, a radial arm saw, a planer, a band saw, a router table, and a drill press. I am delighted, for woodworking is my hobby. It never occurs to me that someone else might own these tools. No, those tools, more numerous than, and vastly superior to, the ones I own are obviously there for my use. And on that note of delight, the dream ends.
Theories about why we dream abound. Some consider them clairvoyant, even precognitive. Freud considered dreams the place where the riotous id came out to play. Jung believed dreams featured archetypal symbols that connected us to the collective unconscious of the human race. Some cognitive scientists claim dreams are the means by which we process the events of our days and ways; others, that they are a kind of sanitation crew sweeping away the debris of our conscious lives; others still, that they are nothing more than the random detonation of neuronal bottle rockets and roman candles. My sense is that dreams are not forewarnings, not symbols for something other than what they feature, not a quality-control processing station, not a janitorial service, and not haphazardly firing neurons. Rather, I see dreams as transparent metaphors for embodied experience, for that which in our ordinary lives we invest considerable mental energy and strong feeling.
I took up woodworking some eighteen years ago because it required a set of skills and offered an end result that my professional work as a teacher did not. In a sense, I have never been delivered from the womb of education. After being graduated from college, I taught high school, which I left to attend graduate school, from which I entered university teaching. I came to worry that such an immersive experience would cause an inbent, progressively narrowing spiral of subjectivity. I did not want my thinking and feeling to gutter like a candle flame in its own wax. I wanted my horizons expanded, not my views reinforced. In woodworking I found the motor skills required to handle tool precisely and efficiently, the judgment necessary to gauge the best way to cut wood to minimize waste and chipping and splintering, the consideration demanded by the thickness and grain and type of wood I worked with, the mathematics involved in cutting arcs and stair stringers and roof runs and dovetail joints, the reading skills entailed in making sense of cutting diagrams and blueprints and tool manuals, the language of kerfs and dadoes and rabbets and mortises and tenons I was compelled to learn, the sensual delight of wood itself—its look and feel and smell, the shaping of it, its receptive materiality.
And in woodworking I found that a well-planned sequence of tasks led to a material result—so unlike teaching, where the most scrupulously crafted lesson can produce no observable result; where whether or how well students have learned is often not immediately apparent, if it ever is. I liked the teleology of wordworking—a conception calling forth and sequencing my action, an end explaining the means. Woodworking produced a visible testament to my competence, or incompetence; something I could point to in pride, or humiliation; a practical purpose rendered wel,l or imperfectly; an aesthetic intention made into an object to be seen; a realization of my ability, my craftsmanship, that does not rely on words, that is not subject to interpretation, but is plainly, or maybe painfully, apparent. I was sometimes successful, and I felt pride. I sometimes made mistakes, and I learned from them. I sometimes failed, and I learned to start again, to be more attentive, more mindful, better.
Everything we make, it seems to me, is purposeful striving embodied, will made visible. It is ourselves inside out, constituting what appears. We are transitive. We pass into what we make. We leave traces, revelations of mind and heart and hand. A piece of us takes its place in the world of intentional things. Our makings are a sign of our reach and our limitations, our triumphs and our flaws, our status as self-governing subjects and as material objects governed by laws beyond our choice or influence. Our makings are, finally, our selves, a humble offering to the often generous but always critical gaze of a judging world.