The holidays at last! Time to unwind and have fun. My idea of a good time is reading a book, and for this, I chose Grain of Truth – The Ancient Lessons of Craft, by Ross A. Laird, a book I had read and enjoyed over a decade ago. Guaranteed gratification? Yes, and why not? It is the holidays after all.
In “Grain of Truth”, the author takes us through the process of designing and making a series of woodworking projects. This is not, however, a technical manual or a how-to book (although it is kind of, but in a poetic sense). Organized in eight chapters named after the eight trigrams of the I Ching (Earth, Water, Fire, etc.), and each dedicated to a different project, it flows elegantly and seemingly without effort from chapter to chapter. We follow the maker as he experiences joy and satisfaction or doubt and frustration. And although it deals with woodworking projects, it is quite universal and will resonate with any craftsperson, whatever their craft may be.
The book celebrates the importance of craftsmanship, the beauty of an object made by hand, but not in a sentimental way because, the “truth” is, this practice demands deep awareness and strict discipline. The process of creating and making something by hand, like meditation, requires us to pause and ponder often. “Working with hand tools”, says Laird, “teaches, in a pragmatic way, the art of stillness” (p. 28). When working with wood, or any other medium for that matter, one needs to be receptive, to watch and to listen. Observe the file as it glides on the edge of the sheet of metal. Hear the hammer as it hits the metal. When under pressure or facing deadlines, how many times have I felt the impulse to dominate the tools, to force them to perform a specific task? It is not, Laird adds, about will power, which will only bring disappointment and frustration. Instead, it “requires a purposeful surrender, a willingness to be taught by tools (…)” (p. 29).
This book, so full of wisdom, shows us that patience and humility, backed by concentration and deep knowledge of materials and techniques, will be rewarded with a sense of wonder. In the spirit of the Tao, Laird always starts afresh with each project, open to the possibilities and with “faith in the process and a willingness to be taken” (p. 50).
Happy holidays and best wishes to all for a creative New Year.
Ross A. Laird, Grain of Truth – The Ancient Lessons of Craft, Macfarlane Walter & Ross, Toronto, 2001. ISBN 1-55199-065-2