The Work of Hands

Last week I removed the tub in Grandma’s bathroom and replaced it with a full walk-in shower. This setup will accommodate her better in her declining years. It wasn’t a big project. My work required four days to complete, and I needed extra help only when removing the old tub. The entire remodel went about as I expected. I told Grandma that in the best circumstances I would finish in three days, so four days means it went about average. A remodelling project in an old house always has issues that new construction does not.

I am experienced at dealing with the vagaries of old construction so I adapted to deal with the problems that cropped up–and those weren’t as bad as they could have been. In the end most of the remaining issues were neatly covered up with trim and caulk. The only points that remain to irk me are, firstly, that I would have bought a new faucet fixture because the old one was showing its age but Grandma wanted to save money with the reuse. Second, there is a minor trim issue but if I didn’t mention it perhaps your less critical eye wouldn’t even notice, so I’m not going to point it out. When that is the sum of what stands out in a really negative way to me I consider that pretty good.

I found the project a nice change of pace. I had the feeling while I did this bathroom project that there were a lot of other things not getting done that I ought, and needed, to do–but if I just ignored that sensation then I enjoyed the work. For many people that would be a very odd statement indeed (bathroom renovations can be a deep mine of horror stories), but I enjoy working with my hands. That reality is one of the difficult truths for me as I follow a writing career.

Creative work is nebulous and my conscience struggles with that vagueness. I like concrete, countable, results from my daily work. With a ledger to tally up I can quantify what I’ve done and give myself a congratulatory pat on the back. I can feel good about myself. I’m not proud of that craving for self-congratulations, but it is true.

Hard labor feels more morally simple. Every day I see what I have done, and I know I have worked. But with creative work often much of the creation is done within my mind with nothing visible to the world. A lot of that secret work–uncountable, without any quantification, can feel like wasted time. How can I prove it was anything but selfish daydreaming? even when I move on to writing in its concrete form it is a long time before those words reach an audience–months if not years before my words touch and perhaps change someone. Even good hours of writing can feel like wasted hours because it seems to have accomplished nothing. When those words finally reach someone I’ve forgotten about the labor of the writing.

In writing there can be a huge disjunction between labor and reward. They don’t exist in the same space and this leaves me constantly struggling with the thought that I am just a lazy person lacking in diligence who is pretending that his delusions have meaning. It is a constant struggle in my mind. It is there, somewhere, every day. I can never get away from it. But when I replace a tub with a shower stall–for just that brief time–I don’t feel delusional, I don’t doubt that I have accomplished something. My labor doesn’t feel vaporous and nebulous. I can look at what my hands have done, and I can see that I have changed the world. I have done something tangible.

I often think to myself how in a different life I could have been happy as a laborer. Wealth has never held an appeal to me, and I make a good ditch digger. I am an adequate carpenter and roofer. Unlike many people, I can enjoy those labors. Life could have been so much simpler if I had taken the route of working hard, and thinking less. I wouldn’t have all these doubts that gnaw at me when the day closes and I wonder how much I am living the delusions of someone who imagines his words have impact and meaning.

But that shower stall, that house, does not live and breathe and feel. The deepest impacts are often the most unseen–and that is the truth that draws me on, a reality that has helped shape my life. If, at times, for a moment I think about the different lives I could have lived as a tradesman–well, the thought doesn’t linger long. I deliberately turned away from that life path years ago, and I know why. Words breed in me, and stories are like a fire in my bones. I can’t escape writing, even when I can’t defend it, or make logic of it. Perhaps I am delusional, but I hold that the best things, the most meaningful works, are often not seen for a long time. The intangible can be the most meaningful, often seen only by what is left in their wake and felt the unseen wind. Perseverance is like that. It is one of the hardest lessons of life, and I know I still need to learn that secret, for it is the secret for both writing and knowing its worth. Ultimately that finds root not in the work of hands, but in the work of the heart.

4 thoughts on “The Work of Hands

  1. Jim O'Keefe

    As you get older you realize that work of the hands is also work of the back, knees, shoulders, eyesight, etc. It’s nice to have an income that’s not tied to the condition of your body. A lot of my carpenter friends have worn out bodies but no choice but to work through pain. That said a lot of us with desk jobs are heart attacks waiting to happen. Striking the balance, as always is the key. Being a writer/carpenter seems like a pretty good mix. Might try it myself. Creativity is an approach to life. There is nothing inherently more creative about writing than bathroom remodels. Helping a client through the tough choices about modifying their home towards a result that your both thrilled about takes many types of creativity.

    1. Thief Post author

      Very true, Jim. I don’t believe any form of work is truly more noble than another so this post was more an exploration of my own personal psychological makeup with its weaknesses. Like you I find life most rounded and full when I keep things mixed up. But I’m not convinced that route is the best way to keep food on the table 😛

  2. Patricia McClain

    My first reaction was, “making renovations in an old house requires as much creativity as developing good dialogue in a story.” I know exactly how you feel about the sense of accomplishment you feel from the fruit of your physical labors. It feels good to tick thins off of my physical to-do list, particularly if I came up with an innovative solution to a home repair project. The days I spend on the computer filling out forms, emailing with teachers, running errands, hauling kids to the doctor, those are the days I feel like I didn’t get anything done. But all that stuff that doesn’t feel productive is part of rearing children to be productive adults. Like your writing, it will take years to see the results of my efforts and the effect it will have on others.

    1. Thief Post author

      Exactly, Trish. Motherhood is one of the most profound (and often unseen) long term labors which takes massive perseverance.

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