THE BLOG

All Decked Out: Lessons of a Novice Carpenter

03/18/2015 12:53 pm ET | Updated May 18, 2015

The following post is adapted from HAMMER HEAD: THE MAKING OF A CARPENTER (W.W. NORTON) by Nina MacLaughlin, which was published this week.

When my boss Mary and I started building a deck, the first one I'd ever been a part of, I started to notice stoops and decks and porches everywhere I went. As I moved about my little world, the blocks in Cambridge and Somerville that lead me to and fro, I saw decks everywhere, with potted geraniums and hanging ferns. Twinkly Christmas lights twisted around railings. Balusters had bikes locked to them and waterproof cushions softened seats. Decks everywhere, each with wood that had been measured and cut by someone, and here we were building one.

It was like standing front row at a parade of things I took for granted. Stairs, for example. Useful for moving between floors, for reaching your front door, for heading underground to catch a train to another part of the city. Codes regulate height and depth. We all know the feeling of a stair rising higher than the one before it, catching our toe on its lip; or more jarring, in the descent, stepping down with the expectation in your every bone that a solid thing will be there to meet you, to take your weight--and it not being there. Or it comes up too soon and sends a jolt through the ankle, up into the knee, the ugly vibration of impact. We've all felt that falling feeling right before sleep, the plunging feeling where we take a step and miss and make a fast thrash in our sheets. Muscle memory is fast formed--our bones know where the next step should come-- and it's important that steps answer those expectations.

Looking at the deck and the skeleton of the stairs we were building, I was grateful that Mary would be the one to do the math to figure out rise versus run. The phrase alone raised ghosts from school geometry class, my sullen self chanting in my brain I'll never need this the whole way through--a rationalization for my lack of effort and ability. Mary determined the height of the rise between the steps and depth of tread, and how many steps we'd need to get from the platform at the height of the back door down to the ground. I cut planks for treads and risers and couldn't believe what was happening. Three days ago, if the man who owned the house had walked out his back door, he would've fallen out and maybe knocked his skull on a deck post. Now there was a platform and seven stairs down to the ground. We hadn't built the pyramids or the Parthenon, but this was something. When we'd fastened the final post cap to the deck, I climbed the stairs, grinning, going from ground up to the landing by the door, up those seven steps. I clomped on them, tested their strength.

"Can I jump on it?" I asked Mary.

"Knock yourself out." So I jumped hard on the platform. Solid. Nothing shook. It took my weight. Mary reached up from the ground and hopped to grip the side of the deck and did a pull-up. "Pretty sturdy."

We'd built a way to get from a door down to the ground, a passage and a place to pause, to pile groceries, to stomp snow off boots on the way inside. What a thing!

From there, we bounced to the next job and the next. Each one, over some months, aided in lifting the curtain that had obscured the physical world closest to me. Now, there were doorways, shelves, and walls. Wood, glass, plaster, paint. The awareness, this new noticing, had an intense effect on my sense of my own body and place in the world. I wasn't just my own human sack of flesh, inhabiting mental space. There were walls around me, and thresholds. There were windows that let in light and sound, traffic noise, rain; panes that showed the shifting shadows as the sun described its curve across the sky. I knew now how many pieces of wood framed those windows and doorways, how they were put together. None of this stuff had occurred to me, I'd had no occasion to consider it, and now, with every day at work, with each new task and practiced act, it was being hammered home.

It's a truth of travel that we see so much more when we are away from what we know. Removed from home, we notice: shadows and birds and sirens, the shifting color of the sky, the peak of a certain roof, the way a set of stairs descends toward a river bank. We notice: the color of squirrels scattling up a tree; the sounds of chickens squawking in the road; the smell of burning garbage, of low tide, of baked bread. We're blinded by the familiar. The sirens, smells, roofs, and sky, they're all there, too, in the place you know the best. At home, awareness, open-eyedness, requires the effort of attention. The carpentry work, in these first stages, was like being in a foreign city. All this newness, it was a defamiliarizing of the most familiar: my kitchen cabinets, the doorway to my bedroom, the bathroom tiles.