It was gone. For nine and a half years he had been chipping away at it, and now it was gone. A table, on top of which sat wood carving tools, a lamp, and a large magnifier, now stood lonely and useless on a dusty concrete floor.
Nine and a half years ago, there had been a block of wood sitting here. It was, as Ned believed at the time, the largest block of wood in existence. Ned did not know what kind of tree it came from. The wood felt and smelt of pine, but the color was too dark for pine; too dark even for cedar. It stood six feet in height, and each side measured four and a half feet in width.
It had come to Ned by surprise the afternoon he had returned home from Europe. He entered his garage, and there was a block of wood. A note was attached to the side:
Your request has been granted. The commission must be completed in ten years’ time, or any rights to compensation shall be forfeited.
Respectfully Yours –
The note had not been signed. Behind the note a picture had been attached. It was the head and face of Christ, in agony, with a crown of thorns on his head. The face frowned, looking down in pain and exhaustion, as though trying to concentrate his thoughts to something other than the torture he felt. Though Ned thought it must be a painting, the image was so real it looked like a photograph.
Ned cast one last bewildered glance over the block of wood, and something resolved in his mind. He took up the commission, even though he knew there must be some mistake and perhaps this delivery had been intended for someone else; someone who at least knew something about such things as sculpting wood. Ned knew, somehow, that this was meant for him to carve. He knew this, not only from the subtle inference of the picture behind the mysterious note, but also becomes when he looked at the block of wood this time, he could see in his mind the finished product: a three-dimensional likeness of that picture of Christ.
“I have taken up sculpting,” he told his mother when she came for dinner later that evening. She looked him up and down for a moment, taking in this tall, lanky, bespectacled young man in his mid twenties. She did not like the beard he had grown during his travels abroad. Her late husband had had a beard, but his was black. Ned’s hair was too red. Men with red hair, she believed without justification, should not grow beards.
“Sculpting?” she said with a look of growing disapproval on her face.
“Just something to fill the weekend, mom. I don’t know whether anything will come of it.”
“How was your trip? Did you manage to find – what was it you said – your life’s purpose?”
Ned instantly regretted ever saying this to his mother. “No, mom,” he replied. “Not really. No. The sights were beautiful, and I learned a lot of history along the way, but not much else happened.”
“Maybe you just need to explore more, locally?”
“What will you sculpt?”
“I’ve, um, been commissioned.”
“Commissioned?” He always hated how his mother repeated him in the form of a question. “By whom?”
“By, well, someone who, um, thought I would make for a good artist.” This lie seemed to satisfy his mother (and later anyone else who asked), so he stuck with it.
Ned knew he should devote all his free time to carving the head. He began to study the art of sculpting, first by reading books on the subject. He took up a beginner’s art class at a local art shop, where after two weeks he mostly learned how to draw the back of his hand. A month later, his mother visited again.
“Ned,” she said. “I thought you said you were commissioned to make a sculpture? You haven’t even touched that block.”
“Yes, mom, but I need to practice first; learn a bit more about how to sculpt.”
“Ned,” she said, changing her tone. “You can’t even draw!” Ned turned, as if he had been slapped from behind. “Why don’t you find yourself a respectable job,” she continued, “and maybe a nice girl. Some other artist can handle this commission.”
Ned turned his back to her, saying nothing for several minutes while a plan began forming in his mind. Finally, just as his mother inhaled to sigh in despair at the foolish ambitions of her wayward son, Ned replied, “Yes, mom. I think you’re right. The commission should go to someone else.”
His mother put her hands on his shoulders approvingly, comfortably, reassuringly. “Good,” she said with maternal comfort, “I think you’ll be much happier in the long run.”
The next week, Ned got himself a respectable job as a coffee shop barista. He forced himself to go out on the weekends, sometimes with co-workers, sometimes alone. He read books and articles on how to attract women. When he smiled at them, some of them even smiled back. He used his modest income to take a few of them on rather expensive dates. If he managed to go so far as a second date, they were usually disappointed. Ned had to save up for two months to take them anywhere more impressive than the local pizzeria.
Then one day he met a girl who refused his offer of a fine seafood restaurant. She refused the steakhouse, too. And the fine Italian restaurant.
“Imagine,” she said to Ned as he looked at her with disappointment on his face, “that we have been married for ten years now, neither of us needs to impress the other, and you are completely and totally in control of where we go and what we do for a date. Now, what would you like to do?”
Only one ridiculous idea came into Ned’s mind, and he said it aloud without thinking: “Beer and hot-dogs at a Cubs game.”
“Perfect,” she said, and it turned out to be the best date Ned had ever enjoyed with a girl. They were married four months later.
As for the commission, it did not go to another artist. Ned was promoted to manager after a few months of work, and he used his new income to purchase a small house and move out of the one he was renting. His new house, a previous foreclosure which kept Ned busy with repairs on the weekends, included an old barn out back, which Ned quietly converted into a workshop to fill the time before his marriage. He had his block of wood moved to this new facility, purchased the finest and most expensive woodcarving tools he could find (after another two months of saving), and commenced his practice of carving using bars of soap.
He told his wife, Lisa, about the project while they were enjoying beers and hot dogs at a Cubs game during the sixth inning, two weeks before they were to be married.
“And you have no idea who gave you the wood?”
“But you said it was after you came home from your trip to Europe?”
“Yes, it was there when I got home.”
“You don’t think… I know this will sound crazy, but you don’t suppose it was an answer to your prayer?”
“You went to Europe to find a purpose in life.”
“That’s hardly what I would consider a prayer!”
“Then why did you go? Did you expect a purpose to just float up in front of you from between the teutonic plates of the continent of Europe? A golden plane ticket to Willy Wonka’s factory of self-actualization?” Ned laughed, and knew she was telling him the truth about himself. “You must have gone,” she continued, “because you believed there was something over and above you that might reveal, well,” she paused a moment in thought, “that might reveal yourself to yourself. Something out there knew who the real you was, because you didn’t, and you needed someone to know who you really were. So, you went as a kind of prayer to that greater something.” She took a sip of her beer and looked away toward the field, saying, “that’s how I read it anyway.”
“Maybe,” he said, after a moment of silence. “I hadn’t given it much thought,” he lied. “Look. Maybe the while thing’s just some stupid prank. I don’t know why I’m bothering with it, or bothering you with it. It’s probably just a big waste of time.”
“Oh, no! Don’t you dare give up on this, Ned. I think it’s fascinating. How many people on this earth wake up every morning wishing and praying for a purpose in life, only to go back to the grindstone of work that they hate? Seriously, it’s like God answered your prayers. How many years have you got left?”
“You believe in God?”
“Yes. Now how many years do you have left?”
“And you’ve never done any sculpting or artwork before this?”
“No, but I am practicing. I’ve been carving soap.” He expected her to laugh, but she listened to him attentively.
“That’s good,” she said, “ but I think you need to start carving wood. My brother used to work for a lumberyard. Let’s reach out to him and see if he knows where we can get some materials for you.”
After they married, Ned took classes in sculpting at a local community college. He practiced carving blocks of wood and soap (when the wood ran out) every night after work. Eventually he sold the carved soaps through a local retailer to make money on the side. He carved not only his intended Christ’s head, but also other cartoonish faces as well. The soaps were very popular, and he nearly added half his manager’s salary to his income.
“I need to work with larger materials,” he told his wife over dinner one night.
“So get some larger materials.”
“I need a chainsaw.”
“So get a chainsaw.”
So he did. Ned installed a cooling system in his shop. He ordered large blocks of ice, not quite as large as the wooden block, but a close approximation. Two more years of practice followed. So did the birth of Ned’s son, which with work and all kept him so busy he was unable to carve out more than three ice sculptures before giving up sculpting for almost a year and a half.
“Ned,” Lisa told him one night in bed, as they were about to drift off to sleep. “I think it’s time for you to work on that block of wood now. I think you are ready. I think you’ve been ready for a long time.”
Ned took a deep sigh, sat up straight in bed, and said: “Yes, dear. I think you’re right.”
He spent the next six months planning the initial cuts and penciling them in on the side. At last, carefully, he made the first cut. Then a second. On the third cut, he went too deep.
“Shit!” he said, feeling a sudden wave of guilt and terror over his mistake.
He stood back, muttered a few more curses, and then picked up his pencil and re-drew the lines, this time scaling down as a compensation for his error.
He checked and re-checked all his measurements one final time, and began again. This time, the cuts were sound. After the first five, he felt entirely competent with the saw, and could see the finished product just under the wood he still needed to cut through.
He worked long hours late into the evenings. After two weeks of work, he told his wife:
“I think I’m almost finished.”
“I won’t celebrate until you’re done, and neither should you.”
Mildly discouraged, he began to leave the room. Then she said, “You learn by finishing things, Ned. Almost isn’t good enough.” And he knew she was right, and so he went back to work.
The next evening, Ned sat on a work stool chiseling around the earlobe. Then something struck him in the head, and he fell backward off the stool, hitting the back of his head on the concrete and feeling a weight press against his chest. His vision blurred momentarily. When he sat up, he saw what had happened. The left ear had broken away cleanly from the sculpture. The wood beneath was smooth, as if a huge blade had cut through it like butter.
He sat staring at the broken head for a long time. Images of how he ought to react came into his mind. He rejected them all. After that, another ten minutes passed. He stared at the blemish, unmoving. At last, he picked up his pencil, and began re-drawing the lines, scaling down to compensate for the error.
Again, he chiseled the earlobe. Again, the ear broke away. Again he sat and stared. This time, he laughed before picking up the tools. He remained calm. Cutting. Chiseling. Cutting.
Again, when he reached the ear, it broke. He rotated the head, redrew, cut, chiseled. He worked all night.
The head was now only a scale or two larger than his own. Again, the ear fell off. He threw the stool against the far wall. Again, and again. The head, once huge and filling most of the workshop, now sat on a workbench. The face stared down in agony, only slightly larger than an infant’s in size.
Again and again. The head now appeared no larger than the soaps he used to cut. A panic overtook him: He could not even recall whether the ear had actually fallen off the last time, or if he had only imagined it. Had he carved and re-carved so much that it now became a habit beyond all reason to start over, even without a mistake?
What difference does it make? He thought, and a sudden masochistic urge to cut the ear off the sculpture before it could fall off on its own came over him. He re-drew, cut, chiseled. He bought a magnifying glass, a desk lamp, and smaller chisels, and went to work at it again. Again, the ear fell off. It did not seem to matter how careful he was, or how he rotated the wood. Always it was the left ear.
At last, the head was whittled so small he could no longer carve it by hand. Surrounded by wood chips and sawdust and scrapped wooden ears, he sat on the floor, broken, and wept.
Years passed. Nothing ever came of his failure to carve the head. His wife consoled him with kind words. No one came asking about the project either, and Ned never discovered who had delivered the wood nor who had authored the note. He used the scraps of ears to create a new art piece, called “The Listener.” It was a wood board with the ears mounted from the smallest on the left, no larger than the head of a pin, to the largest on the right, about the size of a bicycle wheel. It sold in auction for enough money to pay most of his son’s college tuition. Ned then gave up sculpting altogether. He walked through life like Abraham, holding his great dream in one hand and a knife in the other.
His grandson came to live with him for a time during the summer in which Ned turned sixty. Jake was only ten. His parents were going through a rough divorce, so Jake was to stay with his Grandpa Ned until things cooled down at home. They hiked and fished and Ned read Thoreau to Jake to put him to sleep when they camped outside.
One night, sitting over a campfire after a good day of fishing, Ned noticed Jake whittling at a stick with the swiss army blade. The knife had been a birthday present from Ned for Jake’s ninth birthday.
“Whatcha doin’?” Ned asked him.
“Just carving on a stick. I’m trying to carve my face in it.” He cut a few more bits off the stick, then looked up at his grandpa. He reached down at his feet and picked up a piece of wood, about the size of a bar of soap. “Grandpa, can you carve my face into this?”
Ned looked at the knife, and at the piece of wood, then into his grandson’s eyes. “I used to be good at carving faces, but that was a long time ago.”
“Maybe you could try?”
“Maybe,” said Ned, and he took the wood and the knife and began to carve. He carved the head of Christ, exactly as he had remembered carving it. This time, the ear did not fall off.
When he finished, Jake looked in wonder at the little sculpture. The eyes were sad and touched a place deep in his battered, ten-year-old soul, giving him a kind of wisdom beyond his years. He recognized the eyes: they belonged to his grandfather, who now looked at him with the same expression, and a much deeper and older kind of wisdom.
I currently tutor a middle-school student in writing. One of my assignments was to write about a “musical memory,” a-la James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues.” I wrote the following example for my student, but I am sharing it here because I like this little memory.
I have a bad habit of closing my eyes when I sing or perform in front of others. It’s not that I’m nervous. I don’t suffer from stage fright, or anything like that. The only excuse I can come up with is that I hear better with my eyes closed. I shut down all my senses except the aural, and then I can feel the beat and my place in it. I do this even when I am playing solo.
One afternoon, as a high school student, I found myself alone in the large middle school auditorium with my guitar in its case next to me on the stage. I sat waiting for the afternoon practice for our musical theater production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” It was still early in the production, so the stage was a bare rectangle of large, black, wooden boxes. Not having anything else to do, I pulled my guitar from its case, grabbed a pick and my capo, and began playing a familiar song.
I closed my eyes, and felt inclined to sing, so I sang. I heard my voice echo around the large, open space of the auditorium, and being rather pleased with myself, I sang a bit louder as the verse led into the chorus. I felt lost in the chords and melody of the song, and I imagined an audience in front of me as large as that of a U2 concert I had seen on a poster. I imagined myself on stage with the lights and a mic stand and my guitar, and ten-thousand paying spectators all holding up lighters and singing along with me on the chorus. In my imagination, I stopped playing the guitar, letting the band cover the harmony, and put a hand in the air, eyes closed and concentrating on pulling out every nuance of feeling from every note. I thought this as I strummed loud and passionately. The song drew to a close beneath my fingers. I listened to the ring of the final chord bounce off the concrete walls of the large, empty, open room.
I heard clapping. I opened my eyes and saw a dozen or so people gathered in front of me, including the concert band conductor, Mrs. C.
“Nice song,” she said. “Now would you mind if we practiced in this space for a bit?”
“N-no. I mean, s-sure.” I said, as I fumbled with my guitar trying to quickly pack it away.
Ever since then when I’m playing or singing, I try to open my eyes, just a crack, to make sure the right audience is listening.