Answers and Tools   Leave a comment


Our lean-to, with wood drying for next winter, ’16-’17.

After a long absence, Wadin Tohangu stopped by again to talk. The old Druid grinned broadly at my surprise in seeing him.  Though I shouldn’t have been so surprised, I know. Usually, if I’ve been thinking about him, he appears sooner or later.

The unseasonably warm November weather in the 70s over the last few days made it a perfect time to be outdoors. I was carrying log lengths of willow to our woodpile after some trimming and pruning work by a tree service company we’d hired a few weeks ago.  Willow is a soft wood and isn’t all that suitable for burning. It doesn’t provide much heat, but it can be useful to work with for other purposes. Some of it might form the edging for a new compost pile, and rot back into the earth itself.

Without any preamble, Wadin got to the point. “You’ve been doing some firming up of your understanding. I can see changes in you.”

“That’s … interesting,” I said, letting an armful of logs fall to stack later. “I feel less certain about a lot of things I thought I knew. Like what love is, and what my purpose or focus should be, for instance. You’re sure you’re not seeing doubt and uncertainty instead?”

He chuckled, and pushed a log into a firmer position between two others. “Part of deepening understanding can mean you rely less on ready verbal formulas and definitions, and in their place you turn more to any wisdom you’ve earned. It may feel less certain, because you can’t summon it in quite such a convenient mental form, or immediately rattle it off if someone asks. Do you do any cooking?”

“Um, yes,” I said, still surprised sometimes by Wadin’s quick shifts as he developed a point. “Mostly baking, actually.” I turned to walk back to the pile of fresh-cut willow lengths. The wheelbarrow I’d normally use to make quicker work of this had a flat tire. But I didn’t mind. The weather was just too splendid to miss.

“Well,” said Wadin, keeping pace beside me, “if you bake bread, for instance, you know at several points that familiarity with the process lets you make decisions about timing that you learn best by practice, not by rule.”

“True,” I said, grabbing an armful of logs. Wadin did the same. “Bread dough that’s going to rise well has a certain feel to it. And up to a point, there are tricks and back-ups you can do with a batch that’s not turning out so well.”

“But,” he said, shifting the logs into a more comfortable position, “that feeling and those tricks aren’t easy to put directly into words, even though you know them well.”

“True,” I said.

“People often treat understanding the same way. They may say, ‘I want answers,’ but they could find that a tool might be more useful to them in the end than any answer.” He dropped the logs and brushed his hands.

“Would you explain that a little more?” I asked him.

“Answers tend to have a compact form,” he replied. “Someone else has done at least part of the thinking, so when we ask a question, the answer arrives with a definite shape and size, and maybe even drags with it some definitions, or some do’s or don’t’s attached to it. It may not fit our needs and awareness. It can be like a key in a lock. Sometimes the key just doesn’t fit. Nothing turns. Even though that key may open plenty of other useful doors, it doesn’t open this one.”

“I guess I understand what you mean. So what about tools?” I picked up three more smaller logs. Wadin grabbed the last couple of strays.

“A tool isn’t meant to provide a final conclusion,” he said. “It simply helps with a particular step, or with a set of steps. It’s part of an open-ended process. A screwdriver applies force, or rather torque, in a way that the human hand unaided cannot. It doesn’t do this by itself — a human hand must wield it. But a screwdriver allows us to open or close things with screws, or do some light prying of covers, perhaps. The screwdriver goes back in its slot (at least in a neat work-area) until you need it again.”

“O.K.” I said, thinking.

“An answer, though, often implies a close, an ending.” He dropped his armful on the pile. “A tool keeps things moving. One helpful strategy is to practice seeing all your answers as tools. There’s nothing final about them, and neither is there anything wrong with that. They’re exactly what they’re supposed to be. They just help move you to the next step you need to take. Put them away when they don’t achieve that, keep them all in good condition, and find another tool that will do what you need at that moment.”

“So you’re talking about a kind of flexibility.” I leaned against a woodshed post.

hammer“Yes,” he said. “The same tools are generally available to everybody, but in the hands of a master craftsman, the right tool saves time, accomplishes the task smoothly, and contributes to the flow of work. The master doesn’t curse his tools, or despair when the tool he insists on using doesn’t do what he wants it to. He knows what each tool can do, just as he knows how each tool feels when he uses it. Part of his mastery is knowing from the feel of the tool in his hand whether it can accomplish what he intends.”

“And part of the joy of mastery is knowing there’s always more to learn. What would it mean, after all, if there was nothing more to aspire to? If you truly knew it all, you’d get bored. What’s the point? The beauty of mastery is its delight in always learning something new, not being discouraged by it, but inspired instead by endless possibility. Sharing what you have learned, communicating that delight simply by doing, and marveling how each person develops an individual style. All right. That’s enough for today.” He smiled and turned toward the afternoon sunlight. I blinked, and he was gone.

If I asked “Is he real?” or “Was he really here?” any answer I received probably wouldn’t be as useful as what I learned. His gift wasn’t some kind of proof that he “existed,” but simply a few more tools he left for me to work with. Answer, tool. A useful distinction. I sent out gratitude, confident it would reach its destination.

/|\ /|\ /|\

Images: hammer; saw.


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