Soul Spoon

A worried woman, a wood-carver husband, and the simple thing that calmed her.

- Posted on Jan 25, 2015

Nancy and Sherial at their ShadeTree Bowls & Things workshop

Nope.Walking around our backyard, taking in the green of new spring leaves and the azaleas bursting with lavender blossoms, wasn’t going to do it this time. My worries were again growing like kudzu, threatening to take over and choke off my joy in life. I found myself wandering farther out back, to my husband’s workshop at the edge of the woods.

It’s a simple three-sided shed with a dirt floor, nestled under the trees. Sherial is a wood-carver. He uses old-fashioned hand tools to transform raw logs into the most beautiful bowls and spoons I’ve ever seen. They’re works of art, really. As a visual person, a graphic designer, I’m drawn to the curves and shapes of the pieces he creates. For the past year or so, I’d been giving him a hand with the finishing touches, fine-sanding spoons.

Now I saw him in the shed, at his workbench, hollowing out a bowl from a slab of black walnut with his adze. Please let him need my help today, I thought. I’ve got to get outside myself.

It was quiet. No roar and rumble of machinery because Sherial doesn’t use power tools. He looked up at the sound of my footsteps. “I was hoping you’d take a break and come out here,” he said. “I have something for you.” He put down the adze and went to the shelves in the back of the shed. He returned with his latest spoon. “Isn’t it the cutest little thing?” he asked.

I took the spoon. It was little, all right, carved from wild cherry. I trailed my fingers along the slender handle.

My task was to sand the rough spots until the wood was so smooth it felt like silk. It usually took me several hours to finish a spoon, and I loved doing it. Sherial had even set up a little place in his shed for me, close to his workbench.

I sat down with the little spoon. Sherial had wet it with a water-soaked rag. That raised the grain—made the loose wood fibers (from the cutting and carving he had done) pop up—so I could feel the rough, gritty spots that I needed to sand away. I rolled up my sleeves, grabbed a piece of fine-grit sandpaper and went to work.

I rubbed the sandpaper against the wood. There was something comforting about the soft scratching, a sort of rhythm and order to it. Unlike all the noise in my head.

It was hard to believe that only a couple of weeks earlier I’d been dancing around my home office, waving the phone and shouting, so excited Sherial probably could have heard me all the way out in his workshop. I’d landed a project so perfect it had to be an answer to prayer.

I’d been asking God for a job that would stretch my abilities and let me grow. Not only would this project do that, it would last several months—a major bonus when you’re self-employed.

Then, a few days ago, I got another call. My client told me the terms of the project had changed. Now it would amount to little more than a week’s worth of work and barely nudge my abilities.

I tried not to let my thoughts spiral downward, but as usual, I couldn’t do a thing to fend off the feeling of impending disaster. I’m a born worrier. I even worry about worrying. If I lost the perfect project just like that, what else could I lose? My business? My home?

I turned the spoon over in my hands. Pretty smooth now. But this was just the first round of sanding. I wet the wood again. The grain popped up. Still a number of coarse spots and score marks that needed to be worked away. It usually takes four to six rounds of wetting and sanding, each time with a finer grit of sandpaper, before a spoon is finished.

While I waited for this one to dry for the next round, I watched Sherial carve the slab of black walnut. The inside of the bowl was taking shape. He glanced up at me for a moment, his eyes sympathetic. The way they were when I’d told him about the second phone call.

I hadn’t even had to explain where my thoughts were headed. He’d spent almost 30 years watching me go through these bouts of all-consuming worry. “Nancy, you’ve got to let it go,” he’d said. “It’s just a job.”

He was right. I knew my reaction was over the top. Knowing didn’t matter. Worry had taken over. I was sick of it. “I’d give up the last ten years of my life if I could just stop feeling this way,” I’d blurted. I think Sherial was shocked. I know I was.

I sighed and picked a finer-grit paper. Time to get back to sanding. I slid the paper back and forth. When the spoon felt smooth, I wet it again. Raised the grain. Let it dry. Started the third round. I wouldn’t have minded if this spoon needed 10 rounds.

I don’t know if it was the repetitive rhythm or simply doing something with my hands, but sanding was strangely soothing. It was as if smoothing away the rough spots in the wood smoothed the sharp edges of worry that had been poking at me.

Finally I was done, the spoon silky smooth. I showed Sherial. “You know, I’ve never made a spoon with such a small bowl,” he said. “But a bad place showed up in the wood when I was carving, so I just made it half the size I’d planned.”

I looked down at the spoon, tracing the curve of its dainty bowl with my finger. Sherial could have discarded the piece when the flaw turned up, when things didn’t go the way he’d planned. But he didn’t give up. He went with the flow.

“Do you want to keep it?” he asked.

My answer came without thinking. “No,” I said. “This spoon is meant for someone else.”

Friday night we set up our booth at the Charleston, South Carolina, City Market, where we sell a selection of Sherial’s work almost every weekend. People browsed and we sold quite a few items. I kept waiting for someone to pick up my little spoon, but it lay there untouched. At the end of the night, I was getting our sales sheets from under the table when a woman said, “I’ll take this one.”

I stood. A tall, strong-looking woman held out the cherry spoon.

“Ahh, that one,” Sherial said. “It’s very special to my wife. Of all the spoons I’ve made, that’s the one she’s most fallen in love with.”

“Maybe you should keep it,” the woman said to me.

I stared at the spoon, the way its handle gracefully flared into the bowl, the warm glow of the wood. It should’ve looked out of place in her strong hand, yet it seemed as if it belonged there. “No,” I said. “It’s yours.”

I wrapped it up for her. She lingered for a moment. “My late father loved to work with wood too,” she said. “He used to make me spoons.”

A peace settled over me then. I was meant to let that special spoon go to her. Just as I was meant to let go of my worries and turn them over to God. Hadn’t I asked him for a job that would stretch my abilities and give me a chance to grow?

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