Approaching the bandsaw

On my first day of 7th grade shop class, the teacher rolled a TV stand into the room and without any introduction, stuck a video tape into the VCR.

For 40 minutes, my classmates and I watched grisly reenactments of power tool injuries—the very sorts of tools we were supposed to use ourselves that semester. We watched footage of a real surgery to remove shards of metal and glass embedded in a man’s eye because he hadn’t worn his safety goggles.

My stomach turned. I looked out across the cement shop floor at the bandsaw and the drills and all the other tools that could turn my eyeballs into bloody soup.

Our shop teacher turned off the TV, with the injunction to, “Be safe, kids.” He then passed out a paper of 22 possible projects we could work on that semester. To get an A, we needed to successfully complete 15 of them.

I scanned the list.

My answer was simple.

Not every project required power tools. So I would complete only the assignments that did not require sharp, dangerous, eye-gashing machinery.

I did the drafting assignment with paper, pencil, and ruler. I made a flowerpot holder with some flimsy metal and a manual press. I did all the low-risk projects for half the semester, until it became clear that without power tools, I could only earn a C.

So I looked for the least-involved option: making a keychain with the bandsaw.

Four little cuts in a square of acrylic. I could do that.

I put on my safety goggles. I chose the colors for my keychain. I started up the saw, my stomach in knots. I fed the little piece of plastic through the machine…

And I loved it. The cut was slick and straight and the pitch of the bandsaw was so satisfying. I turned my keychain to the other side and made the next cut.

And then I only had half the semester left.

I’d spent terrified weeks avoiding the drills, the jigsaw, anything with a blade. But now, I didn’t have enough time to visit them all, to find out how much utility and delight they contained, right alongside all their possible dangers. Acknowledging those dangers and guarding against them was useful, but avoiding them entirely had been a loss. Every class until the end of the semester, I put on my goggles and then hurried out onto the shop floor to find the next tool that scared me and turn it on.


Finish the books.

My mantra so far this year has been, “Finish the books.”

When I received this advice in January, everything in me said: YES.

I’d left multiple books halfway read, stories partially written, photo albums half assembled. Those unfinished things seemed to call to me. So I carried that phrase with me and I pull it out whenever I have a moment of decision about what to do.

Instead of picking up my phone: “Finish the books.”

Waiting in line: “Finish the books.”

A free minute before bed: “Finish the books.”

I’m now 10 books into the year. I’m writing more. I’m finishing a long-unfinished project that isn’t even technically a book.

The phrase has been useful, but not necessarily because “finish the books” is the best advice (though it is for me right now). The phrase is useful because it points me in a direction. When a free moment comes my way, I already know what I’m going to do with it, how I want to spend it best.

Before the sun is up, I’ve already decided what to put into the nooks and crannies of my day. What comes of those small moments is bigger than I expected.

Somewhere, there’s a panda ant

For her second-grade insect report, my daughter wanted to research an unusual insect.

So we looked until we found the panda ant.

It’s actually a wingless wasp, disguised as an ant. It has a stinger near its mouth. It eats nectar. It doesn’t live in colonies like the typical wasp. It’s found on the west coast of South and Central America. And its pattern of black and white hairs make it look a bit like a panda.

Until last week, I’d never heard of it.

And then, suddenly, I was holding a hot glue gun while my seven year old assembled pipe cleaners and fuzzy pom-poms and black beans into a 3D model of this bug whose scientific name we now both knew.

We can become so accustomed to the world right in front of us–the routines that we follow, the geographical radius we inhabit–that we can start to act as if that’s all there is.

But somewhere on the coast of Chile, there’s a wasp that looks like an ant that looks like a panda.

And somehow, that small fact makes the world I live in feel larger than it used to be.

Be the best damn bagger you can be

Last year, I hit a rough, complainy patch.

I could hear it in my voice when I talked to my husband about my day. My list of complaints: meetings that dragged at work, our baby’s midnight wakings, our daughter’s homework procrastination, frustration and lack of time on every side.

I felt saddled with obligations that I myself had chosen and I couldn’t see a way forward.

As I fell asleep one night, an unbidden image came to mind of a bagger at a grocery store. An honest job, but a repetitive job. A job potentially worthy of complaint.

Giving advice to other people is easy, and I knew just what to tell this person:

Be the best damn bagger you can be.

The usefulness of this advice was obvious to me. A job well done (any job) brings satisfaction. Showing up as your best right now can’t help but move you forward. Being engaged in the moment right in front of you keeps you from wallowing and waiting for some fantastical future you’re never in.

Of course, the advice was for me.

And I repeated it to myself.

When I started to mentally glaze over in a meeting: Be the best damn bagger.
When I felt too tired to read my daughter a story: Be the best bagger.
When I wasn’t sure what to do next: Be the best.

And it helped.

Tasks I had avoided became interesting challenges. I had more influence over issues that had once seemed out of my control. I didn’t have to grump about problems because I was the best at solving them.

Whether you’re a bagger or an executive or a parent or an artist or anything else…

Whatever you are today, just be the best one that you can.

The choices after disappointment

So it didn’t work out the way you expected, hoped for, planned.

You now have choices before you.

One option: You can point to all the reasons it wasn’t your fault, all the factors that were beyond your control. These reasons are true, so you are not lying to yourself. (But do be aware that along this route, you could be snared by resentment or hopelessness.)

Another option: You can point to everything that was in your control, but that you did not execute successfully. This option is harder to swallow, but potentially more encouraging because you can do something about it. (Just make sure the reasons are true. Otherwise, you may turn personal responsibility into self-flagellation.)

And here’s the surprise: You can make both choices at the exact same time.

Identify each correctly and you’ll be wiser and stronger, so that next time, you have greater chances of success.

When things don’t work out, when you don’t get picked for the team, when your plans don’t land, don’t let the disappointment be wasted.

The discomfort is telling you something

A pregnant woman has no checklist that tells her: Today, you made toes.

Or: The lungs are finished now.

Or: Good job on the ears, both are done.

Growing a human is a massive endeavor, but the milestones along the way can’t even be seen.

Cells divide into cells exponentially. But on the surface, most of that growth just registers as discomfort: nausea or fatigue or heartburn, until plain old bigness sets in and mom can’t find a good position to sleep.

Enough people have been through this experience that we know what the discomfort means.

We trust it.

A pregnant lady can be reassured by books or doctors or other women who have given birth that yes, these swollen ankles are normal.


You don’t have that reassurance.

At times, you are slowly, imperceptibly preparing to give life to a new experience or chapter or project. And all your invisible preparation just registers as discomfort.

Something’s not working. Something’s not right. And you don’t know why.

Because personal rebirth has no set schedule, because creative labor has no reliable timeline, and because so few of us recognize our discomfort as the precursor to change, we mislabel it. We thrash against discomfort, try to delete or fix it, when we could just allow it to give us hints of a birth to come.

You have no checklist that tells you: Today, you’re closer to something new.

But if you’re uncomfortable right now, you might growing exponentially under the surface, and you just don’t know it yet.

My hope for you this year

For me, 2017 felt like a year to appreciate moments.

My husband and I celebrated 10 years of marriage. All year, my oldest child asked me to tell stories about my childhood. And my newest little one lived her first year with delight, in awe of everything: hands, grass, scrambled eggs.

The year also ended (and the new year began) with some moments so somber I don’t even know how to write about them yet. But if they had to happen, I appreciate that I got to be present to witness them.

May 2018 bring you moments worth appreciating, whatever this year holds.