Apprentice End of the Year Reflection

Please enjoy this beautiful and deeply thoughtful reflection by our apprentice En Sawyer ’19.

Here at the Carpenter’s Boat Shop, there is a post-meal tradition of sharing an article, thought, video or activity for the community to chew, swallow and digest.  Very early on in our apprenticeship year, Darin, our fearless boat restoration instructor, shared an excerpt from the late David Pye’s The Nature and Art of Workmanship. True to the transformational magic of sharing, the article has served as a reference point for my thoughts throughout the year. In reaction to the withering of traditional craft as mass production began enthroning itself firmly onto the arms and legs of furniture in the 70’s, Pye attempted to articulate a spiritual difference between approaches to creation.  On one side is the ‘workmanship of risk’, which is “simply any kind of technique or apparatus, in which the quality of the result is not predetermined, but depends on judgment, dexterity and care which the maker exercises…  The essential idea is that the quality of the result is continually at risk during the process of making.”  In other words, the outcome is not guaranteed. He contrasts this to the ‘workmanship of certainty,’ which he defines as any production process that, once started, the expression of the piece cannot be altered.  In the process of mass production there will be hardly any distinction from one product to another whereas in the worksmanship of risk, each product cannot help but be different. Though Pye admits it is an “uncouth” distinction, as power tool craft is patently not void of judgment and dexterity, there is yet a certain element of truth in that power tools are designed to produce preset results.  The table saw blade will stray not one smidgeon once locked in (when used properly), whereas without skill and focus the handsaw may wander like buoys in the sea.

This was not the first time I heard the phrase ‘workmanship of risk.’ From the very first time I heard the concept, I have felt a strange umbilical connection to it.  This year, however, it has grown to mean something more than a mere approach to craft.  It may come as no surprise that an apprentice such as I would have deep questions about the way society operates and how to carve out an authentic and responsible way of being within that context; if that is not enough, there’s the perennial relentless challenge of dealing with emotions, paying bills, and confronting existential quandaries.  I do indeed struggle with all of that and then some more. Once upon a time, whenever I opened up a product I would read the instructions and dutifully follow them.  Fast-forward to the current me, it’s been a while since I’ve earned enough money to need to pay taxes like a good ‘ol upstanding citizen.  I would like to say that that’s based on some higher principled living like war tax resisting, which I’m sure would be part of the equation if I did earn enough, but in many ways I’ve simply opted out of prescribed paths; on good days it feels liberating and revolutionary, but on most days it comes with the sinking feeling that perhaps I will not emerge out of the thicket.  It’s a risky path that I’ve intentionally subscribed to, though unwitting of all the cascading physical and psychological impacts. When I first heard Martin Luther King Jr.’s words on the need to shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society—”When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered”–I am right there in the Riverside Church, New York in 1967 shouting electrified amens, because that is where I want to go.  Yet, it is easy to say no to something that exists, but to make manifest that which does not yet exist requires vision, dedication and risk.  The unceasing doubt of what ifs seem to be constant companions on my metaphorical hitchhiking journey through life.

When we start building a new boat often what we have is either a binder of instructions and a strong back (a sort of boat mold that the carcass of the boat is built onto), or some drawings and a table of offsets, which is a matrix of dimensional points of the boat.  From that apparent vacuum, judgment, dexterity and care tempered with experience, knowledge, and persistence births a boat.  Though we do use power tools to rough out stock, all final fittings are done with hand tools.  The boat’s curves and subtle transitions are anathema to the power tool’s exacting nature.  I remember the pressure and fear early on of fitting ribs to the boat’s planking.  Fitting a piece of wood to the sides of lapstraked (or overlapped) planks that are all curving at different rates seemed quixotic at best.  The risk of taking one wrong shaving off the rib added immense pressure to each swipe.  The process of placing the in-progress rib on to the planks, diagnosing what needs to come off for a better fit, making that adjustment at the bench, walking back to the boat to find something else out of whack, then returning to diagnose and so on and so forth, sometimes for the whole day, had a way of smothering one’s faith in their worthiness to craft a vessel that delicately float atop the potentially lethal ocean.

Yet inevitably the ribs would eventually fit.  Sometimes a rib or two were added to the kindling box, but redemption always lay within reach as long as I persisted in the dutiful pilgrimage from bench to plank and back. I never knew which swipe would be the final one, but I would repeat to myself that just as all previous apprentices had succeeded I too was capable. 

Ostensibly, I am risk averse; feelings of dread and wanting to vomit are not ones that I prefer.  I am also aware that risk is essential for growth. I believe we are all called to return to the vocation of crafting: Crafting the things that we use, crafting relationships, crafting new values, narratives, societal constructs and well-lived lives–in sum, crafting ourselves.  The wholesale crises we are encountering are largely a product of ill-designed constructs of the past, the undoing of which will require immeasurable quantities of thoughtful reflection, conversations and actions.  It will also require immeasurable quantities of mistakes and failures, the hallmark of risks well taken.  Boat building has taught me over and over about the indescribable rewards that await on the far side of the torrential currents of risk.   However, this reflection is not just about building of boats.  Boat building was but the vessel for transmitting deeper lessons of life to me.

As we close in on our final leg of our apprenticeship, I feel a deep sense of gratitude for all those who made this experience possible, because as much as the journey was personal, it has never been a solitary venture.   And therein lies my greatest learning.  An environment that encourages risk can only exist if there’s a community that values, prioritizes and supports the invaluable lessons garnered in risk taking and it is from this encouraging soil that growth emerges.   For a workmanship of risk to exist, there must be a culture of risk that underpins it.  Before I mention those I feel gratitude for, I feel it is important to acknowledge that all these lessons were built on theft and colonization of indigenous land and culture, in this case of the Wabanaki people.  It is the great paradox that we must encounter the darkness that lurks in even the most positive experiences. 

Though I cannot name all who contributed to my time here, I feel especially indebted to the visionary founders who undoubtedly had no idea of what this project would evolve into but steadfastly maintained their course, committed to their values and their partnership. The board of trustees who passionately dedicate time, resources, and expertise in keeping the place afloat.  To the countless selfless donors, volunteers, neighbors and friends who keep the Boat Shop a tuition-free experience, while simultaneously adding personal flair to their generosity with events like sea-shantying and trips to minor league baseball games. To family and friends who look after us in ways known and unknown.   To the staff who unselfishly share tools, books, experience, knowledge, wisdom and love, even after all these years of witnessing how apprentices are magnets of mistakes and misuse.  And to the other apprentices of my year, previous years, and all the years to come who dare to embark on a journey with no clear destination in sight, only the promise of encountering yet unmet sides of oneself, and to dream dreams one has not yet dreamt.   Though the Boat Shop has broadened the concept of spirituality beyond its specifically Christian roots, the web of relations and generosity that has created this wonderfully countercultural existence is emphatically spiritual. 

The late beloved activist, philosopher, and writer Grace Lee Boggs spoke of the urgent “need to bring to our communities the limitless capacity to love, serve, and create for and with each other.  We urgently need to bring the neighbor back into our hoods, not only in our inner cities but also in our suburbs, our gated communities.”  I will soon be returning to my fledgling intentional community in Detroit called Taproot Sanctuary, recommitted to Boggs’ vision.  The example of the Carpenter’s Boat Shop has been a powerful reminder of how hearts dedicated to a higher vision, and skilled hands dedicated to work, can create spaces that transcend what numbers and words can describe. I am committed not just to that craft of risk, but also to the culture of risk, a culture of daring that is tempered by caring.  “Thank you” is too short of an expression to appreciate all who are part of this community for the love you share; so may the lengthiness of this piece be a provisional expression of my sentiment. It is my humble attempt at capturing a trace of the embodied magic of my time here.