The Work of Many Hands

All good work is the work of many hands.

I subscribe to a daily poetry post created by Joe Riley.  It’s called Panhala.  Because the poems he selects, so often speak to me personally, I find it a good way to start my day.  And yesterday to my amazement, the poem to start my day was one of my own about my brother David who builds and rebuilds wooden boats:

Wooden Boats

I have a brother who builds wooden boats,
Who knows precisely how a board
Can bend or turn, steamed just exactly
Soft enough so he, with help of friends,
Can shape it to the hull. 

The knowledge lies as much
Within his sure hands on the plane
As in his head;
It lies in love of wood and grain,
A rough hand resting on the satin
Of the finished deck.

Is there within us each
Such artistry forgotten
In the cruder tasks
The world requires of us,
The faster modern work
That we have
Turned our life to do?

Could we return to more of craft
Within our lives, 
And feel the way the grain of wood runs true,
By letting our hands linger
On the product of our artistry?
Could we recall what we have known
But have forgotten, 
The gifts within ourselves, 
Each other too,
And thus transform a world
As he and friends do,
Shaping steaming oak boards
Upon the hulls of wooden boats? 

~ Judy Brown ~
The Sea Accepts All Rivers & Other Poems)

The poem’s wisdom about beautiful work being the work of a master craftsman and at the same time the work of many hands, gave me food for thought.  Recently I’d written about work that seemed like a marathon, turning out to be a relay.  A passing of a baton. And that shift of perspective changes everything. From marathon to relay.  From solitary effort to the work of many hands. 

So I decided to note how the poem came about, in the hands of many, and how it has traveled with the help of others:

In about 1997 I was working with a corporate group on employee engagement, and I said in passing, “I have a brother who builds wooden boats.”  A woman named Mary Anne said “That sounds like the beginning of a poem.”

So I wrote the line down, and the entire poem fell out of that line, onto the page.  Uneditable.

About five years later, my friend Geno asked me to teach a session on reflective practice.  “I do dialogue,” I said, “not reflective practice.”  I wasn’t even sure what reflective practice was.  “Everything you do is about reflective practice,” Geno said.  And since I was going to have to teach about it, I began to collect a notebook of everything I could find in my work, that might fit into that frame. The notebook turned into the manuscript for A Leader’s Guide to Reflective Practice.  And in 2005, it was all done, all but the cover. 

My friend Rick Jackson forwarded me a west coast poetry posting I’d never heard of called Panhala.  “I thought you might want to see this,” he said.  It was a post of my poem, “Wooden Boats” with a picture of a wooden boat at anchor.  The perfect picture for the cover of the reflective practice book.  I searched everywhere on the internet for a source for the photo, but none could be found.  So I made it the cover of the book, and said if the photographer who took it would let me know, I’d be happy to credit the person.

No one has ever responded. It remains the perfect cover.

Then yesterday, 20 years after I wrote the poem (or rather, the poem wrote itself) when I was having one of my days of wondering if the world needs more words, more poetry, the Panhala post came in.  It was “Wooden Boats” again. Funny how the Universe wades in and answers questions we aren’t even asking out loud. 

The result: a dozen encouraging and appreciative notes from friends; a request to include the poem in a collection of “Poetry of Presence”; a notice from my Quaker Meeting about a gathering this Sunday to write poetry (with Wooden Boats at the end—a spot often taken by Mary Oliver or William Stafford).     

This circling experience of a poem that grows itself out of a single line, recognized by another, and circles around us, returning again, brings to mind a fragment of Rilke’s poetry:

I live my life in growing orbits

Which move out over the things of the world.

Perhaps I can never achieve the last,

But that will be my attempt.

I am circling God, around the ancient tower,

And I have been circling for a thousand years.

And I still don’t know if I am a falcon,

Or a storm, or a great song.

         Ranier Maria Rilke (translated by Robert Bly)


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