The Philosophy of Handmade
When I was about 16 I became fascinated with hand tools. I didn’t know why at the time. I did however, carve out a 12x12” (large-ish) bowl with a 3/8” (tiny) curved chisel. It’s what I had, and I didn’t have a lathe to save me. It was just me and the chisel until it was finished, or it wouldn’t have been finished. It took several weeks and I almost gave up, several times. I had to sharpen the chisel more times than Tom Brady has won the Super Bowl and it was basically retired afterwards, or rather, promoted to a desk job.
I was super proud of the achievement – and I vowed never to do it again. Even though I did, but that’s another story.
The whole thing got me to thinking about older times and the slowness of doing things by hand. We are so short on time these days that we don’t have time for anything that might cause us to be slow.
100 years ago, everything was slow.
There was something special about spending that time on the bowl even though it brought me to the edge of quitting several times. I spent a lot of time thinking during the process. I’d think about school, and my future, and my girlfriend at the time. I’d wonder if I was doing everything I could to be happy and content. I’d wonder if my girlfriend loved me truly, or if my grades were good enough to go to an architecture school.
I feel those were the first days of self-reflection in my life. They were truly formative, and I wonder if I hadn’t started looking intently at my life then, would I have ever started? And when? And how much do I owe to the time I set aside for carving out the bowl?
I later rejected architecture on the basis I didn’t want to be in a corporate job (I didn’t know I had other options at the time) in favor of a career in music (which was obviously my only option).
While in music school spending countless hours practicing my instrument (drums), I can remember playing grooves and getting lost in the repetitiveness of them. That repetitiveness made for an easy bridge to self-reflection. I’d wonder, “Am I happy? Am I doing everything I can to get better and to be a better person? It became a spiritual experience, and one that I’d ache for every day. I’d find the zone and just lock in to looking directly at myself and my life. I’d pray, even.
After college I reconnected with the outdoors and began doing some back country hiking, which led to some foraging and then some hunting so that I could survive, indefinitely, in the wild if I wanted to.
In the back country it is so quiet that every little movement of a zipper pull sounds like there’s a microphone on it. In that kind of quiet it is impossible not to think and to reflect. That sort of quiet will force you to deal with yourself. For me I start remembering every lie that I’ve told, every decision I’ve made out of fear, every time I didn’t speak up for myself when it was important to me, and every relationship that ever failed, or was failing. It was just me hashing out my own thoughts and hopefully, by the end of the trip, know more about myself and be at peace with my life, and in my life.
The slowness of carving out a bowl with a tiny chisel, of practicing a single groove for hours on end, and of trekking on foot tens of miles at a time all leave a profound impact in my life. They are all instances that allow me to go deep into myself to bring any depression, fear or anxiety to the surface so that I can be more at peace, and look at the parts of myself I am ashamed of. And they are all examples of slowing myself.
When a mountain biker rides a trail he has to be more focused on what’s right in front of him, which is an important skill in life. We all need to look at what’s close, what’s present. A hiker though, will have a completely different view of the trail. He will be able to notice the height of the trees, the different shades of green, and the rays of light shining on the landscape. He’ll have a better picture of his surroundings, and perhaps be more in-tune with the sights and sounds. With a faster pace he will miss out on those things.
Taking the time to slow down, to take a hands on look at where we are and what we are doing will give us (or at least me) a bigger picture of what’s going on. If all we are able to look at is what’s right in front of us, we will only know how to be reactive, rather than proactive.
With the technological advances we have now it’s increasingly difficult to slow down in order to reflect. For some of us it’s been so long since we’ve done any self-reflection that we fear what we might have to come to terms with if we did. It can be a lot of work, but its good work.
So making shoes by hand is a bit of a protest, or a statement. It’s in opposition to the way we produce everything now. The aim is to reclaim the parts of us we have lost in the hustle and bustle. It’s an act of saying, “No, I am not going to follow that example that always leaves me feeling empty. I am instead going to produce work that makes sense, and that makes a difference.”
We have to buy things that matter, not just things that are cheap. We have to add value to the world, rather than just adding to the world’s landfills.
And we have to learn contentment in our lives. For me, so much of that means slowing down to the pace of handmade. My handmade shoes are an expression not just of craftsmanship, but of a handmade life.