Book Reviews

Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter by Nina MacLaughlin

22253729[1]“How do we decide what’s right for our own lives? A close friend posed this question to me, and it echoes often in my head. What shape do we want our lives to take, and, if we’ve had fortune to figure that out, how do we go about constructing that life?”

The opening quote in the prologue to Hammer Head made me pause and pay attention. For how many of us have felt that the path we are on isn’t “doing it” for us? I know I have. After 15 years in the teaching industry, I myself decided to take another path. Not as extreme as MacLaughlin, going from journalism to carpentry, but into another field that woke me up.

“There is a dullness in all forms of work, a “violence-to the spirit as to the body,” as Studs Terkel put it in Working. There are repeated tasks and empty time and moments you wish you were swimming. These are unavoidable, even in jobs we love and feel proud to have; these are natural, even if you’ve found your calling. It’s when those meaningless moments pile and mount, the meaningless moments that chew at your soul, that creep into the crevices of your brain and holler at you until ignoring them is not and option. Deadening moments that lead to the hard questions, the ones that swirl, in the broadest sense, around time and dying.”

Carpentry, Nina found, activated a different part of her brain. Sitting in an office for a decade, typing at a computer became rote and unexciting, while working with tools and constructing things made her really focus on the present moment. You can’t space out when using a circular saw or laying tile. To actually see a tree, become wood, that built a wall or deck was more tangible and meaningful than what she was doing before. Being a part of building something made her look at things around her differently and appreciate the workmanship that goes into a trade.

At several times during this transition, she often wondered if she was really cut out as a carpenter’s assistant. Venturing into unfamiliar territory can be scary and that old, familiar voice of self doubt crept into her mind many times. This quote resonated with me because I tend to romanticize things: owning a horse farm, living abroad, chucking it all and living in a hut. 😉 Seriously, though, the grass is certainly not always greener on the other side.

“When we picture the lives of other people, we imagine the most exciting parts, the ones rich with drama and living…Imagination is the enemy sometimes, in how fully we can bring to life the passion our current love shared with someone else before, in how fire-filled someone else’s existence is compared to our own…Our romanticizing is perhaps an act of hope, that those sorts of lives are possible to live, that’s it’s possible to find challenge and satisfaction in our work, to have our bodies lit up with lust, to happen upon those conversations that go deep into the night when voices get quieter and truer things get said. In our imaginings of other people’s experiences exists an ambition to exist in our own in the fullest way.”

As you can tell from the amount of quotes I’ve put you through that this is more than just a book about a girl becoming a carpenter. And it’s not just a memoir making a drastic change in life, but MacLaughlin uses numerous literary references to balance out all the carpentry jargon. (I tended to skim over the in-depth and extensive tool and building details). Fair warning though: with all the literary references, you will be adding to your TBR pile and for you DIYers or those who love HGTV as much as I do, you will be looking around your house with an itch to build something.

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5 thoughts on “Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter by Nina MacLaughlin

  1. I just read HH as well, having been eagerly anticipating it for some time as a true construction nerd. It made me wish all the more I’d gone into the trades as a younger woman. But I could never make myself break away from my “career” like she did, and I have high esteem for her for doing so and knock myself on the head a bit for holding back and not taking the leap. I feed my nerd with home projects, but that’s quite different. And maybe for me doing it for a living would take that joy out of it. Don’t know, but I wish I’d found out along the line. Thanks for this review. It’s funny since you mentioned my format and being a bit in a rut about yours, but I really like your organization and how you weave in your excerpts. I wish I could be as succinct as you and not as wordy as I am.

    And I’m totally with you on the horse farm and the hut. My dream is to build a tiny house. Some day…

    • It’s never too late to change the course!! But I know what you mean about an interest or passion which becomes a career and can kill it a bit. I did a year of yoga teacher training and have been practicing for 20 years but when I went out trying to make it a career, I hated it. The whole selling of myself is not something I am good at. So I just do it on my own and for special programs. Now I find the same with working in a library. Politics and business sometimes trumps my day but after a year being there I still love to walk amongst the stacks and talking literature with all ages. And thanks for the kind words! Build that tiny house!! I’m still going to dream about my beach cottage/hut every day!

      • I can’t do it physically anymore, so my time has passed. In my next life I will wear a tool belt. 🙂 Interesting you had that experience with yoga, I have to think it’s a common occurrence. Unfortunately.

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