I made a spoon.
While visiting my parents’ house in the country last weekend, I found a chunk of crab apple branch in the wood pile that seemed like it was meant for greater things than a campfire. After going at it with a hatchet for a half hour and carving it down with a pocket knife over the last four days, I can confidently say that I now have something that could be called a spoon. It’s maybe the third or fourth one I’ve ever tried to carve, and definitely the first time it’s come out looking halfway decent.￼
While I do have a bit of interest in old-timey woodworking shenanigans like this, my pursuit of that interest (and most others) has generally been limited to watching videos of other people make the things I would like to. Which makes sense, to a certain extent; as a college student living in an urban apartment, woodcraft is not the most accessible hobby and definitely not the best use of my time.
Living vicariously through other people via the Internet is far easier, to be sure, but it is nowhere near as satisfying as doing it for yourself. While I was carving I would get so engrossed in the work that an hour could pass unnoticed, and even while working in a crowded park or outside the student center I felt like I was in my own microcosm.
But the most satisfying (and surprising) part of the process came towards the end as I was puzzling over how to turn the overlarge and lopsided spoon-shaped chunk of wood in my hand into a usable utensil. For hours, I just stared at it, taking off a few furtive shavings here and there without a real plan of how to complete it. But after puzzling over it to the point of mental exhaustion, I crossed some kind of perceptual threshold where I no longer saw the piece of wood, only the spoon inside of it. To be honest, I felt a bit like Neo at the end of The Matrix. I could clearly envisage the finished product, all that remained was to remove anything that wasn’t the spoon.
Interestingly, each of these experiences–losing track of time, detachment from the ego, feeling unable to stop working, and the perception of the work creating or revealing itself instead of being made–are all signs of “flow”. Theorized by psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, flow is a state of mind in which everything falls away from one’s consciousness except the task at hand. It is marked by feelings of serenity and being in one’s element and is associated with increased productivity and overall mental wellbeing–all of which are typically in short supply for me.
Working in an office, sitting in class, watching Netflix, browsing social media and many other activities that occupy the daily grind seem to promote whatever the opposite of flow is (wolf?). The workday drags on, focus on droning lectures is difficult to maintain, and letting one’s mind ride at anchor in front of a screen, while relaxing after a long day of the former, is not a fulfilling way to spend one’s life.
This creates real issues, apart from making life less fun. When I get a bad grade on a test, I’m not inspired to try harder next time, it’s just one more in a long list of bummers. But when I see the imperfections in the spoon, for instance, I just want to carve another one without those issues. My desk job is about as easy as it gets, but the boredom can be grueling and I always dread going in. Wood carving can be hard, as the numerous blisters and scratches on my hands attest, but while I’m working I barely even notice the discomfort.
It would be easy to condense this issue into a cut and dried Human Nature versus The System™ polemic, but in fact that doesn’t have to be the case. In fact, entire educational regimes have been built off the idea that making handicrafts for their own sake improves one’s academic performance, employment prospects, and overall quality of life. Slöjd (sloyd) is such a system, developed in Scandinavia in the mid-19th century and still taught in schools there today, which tasks students with a series of handicraft projects in conjunction with their ordinary schoolwork. Students typically progressed from papercraft to fiber arts and finally wood- or metalworking, moving up a spectrum of increasing challenge with each project. The purpose of this was not to prepare children for careers in sewing or carpentry, necessarily, but to develop the manual, observational and planning skills that come along with proficiency in these areas. Slöjd is introduced at the primary school level where the first thing taught is the use of a knife–an alarming proposition for some, but standard child rearing practice in most cultures worldwide. As students develop their skills and complete more and more difficult projects, they grow more competent and become better-rounded individuals. I would bet that slöjd instruction is a major reason that Finnish schools, the home of the practice, are generally the best in the world.
In conclusion, I made a spoon. Not because I needed or even really wanted one, but because I was tired of not making spoons. Watching other people pursue my interests is relaxing after a long day, but it had become something of a vice for me and the creative urge that I was trying to sublimate in the first place had begun to atrophy. Being able to hold in my hand a concrete reminder that I can and did create something I am proud of and have fun doing it is really a wonderfully empowering thing. So if you also feel stuck in life, I highly recommend some DIY therapy. Cook a meal you’ve never tried before, buy a pound of clay and make a sculpture, or take up topiary. Don’t worry about getting it right the first time; I can almost guarantee you won’t (I know I didn’t). But if you persist you’ll be surprised at how much better you feel afterwards. Stop procrastinating with your creativity, just pick up a knife and go with the flow.