These days you are changing and growing fast. Your body is growing so large and tall – you look like a six year old! I’ve been noticing your beautiful face – your whole beautiful body – afresh the last few weeks, seeing how your tiny features are planted in the center of your big soft face; how strong and large your hands are becoming; how skinny and muscular your boy’s body has grown to be. You are stronger and more adept. Your style is changing, too – growing with you. I was talking with some other moms last night and one of them was saying how she’d heard boys experience a surge of testosterone around age 4-5 that changes them. It made perfect sense to me, because the last few days I’ve been thinking “Oh Crap. Here we go.” about the things you do.
I’ve always been very hands-off and permissive. You are welcome to do whatever you like. It’s been easy because you’ve been cautious. Until this past week I’d think nothing of your playing with my heavy wood-and-metal garden tools. Yesterday I saw you wield one of them and my heart almost stopped when I saw new bursts of strength in your body. You can do more than drag it like a darling little thing now: you can raise it above your head and chop at the ground. With a vision of what else you might do – intentionally or otherwise – with that potential weapon, I heard myself saying what I’d never said before: “Jacob, that is not safe for you to play with unless Mommy is helping you. Please go put it away.”
An hour ago as we were all in your room preparing you and Meredith for naps you stood up on the tiny wooden rocking chair and proceeded to rock backwards into the ladder of the bunk bed. Daddy began, and I heard the words he was about to say, as they changed. “Jacob, that is just about the dumbest…” He trailed off, “That is ONE OF the dumbest…” He hesitated: “That is one of the dumbest things I’ve seen you do…” And remembering this week he finished: “…in the last 24 hours.”
It used to be that we spent endless time coaxing you to take a risk or two. Hours and hours were spent in the pool last summer before we finally convinced you to jump into our arms. You’ve always been aware of risk and wise – or perhaps even cowardly – about it. It all changed, seemingly overnight, in the last week. Yesterday I looked out the back door to see what you were doing and stopped you just in time. You’d dragged the neighbors little trampoline right over to the edge of the rough wooden picnic table (all this on a rock floor) and had just climbed to the top of the picnic table, poised for a jump. My mind was blown, not just that you would do that, but that you weren’t afraid to do it. (I didn’t let you do it.)
The way you told the story of Friday to a friend who’d come for dinner on Friday night as you sat on my lap watching an invalid’s share of TV was surprisingly full of guile: You’d had an accident, you explained, and a nail had gone into your foot. Actually, you were hanging out with Daddy while he was beginning to build the banister in our new house. He’d just pried up an old strip of wood flooring and had set it beside him, nails pointing up. Suddenly there you were, standing on the board, gently testing those nails with the bottom of your shoe. And just as Daddy opened his mouth to say “Jacob, stepping on nails is not a good idea,” you put your weight down on one, 100% foolish boy-curiosity. Needless to say, it went through your shoe and into your foot, and that was the last you walked until midday yesterday, when you’d forgotten about it enough to go pull the picnic-table-trampoline stunt.
The summary of all this is: You are making me old.
What I’ve been wanting to tell you lately is about craft and what you do and what you will maybe do someday. You informed me with great seriousness the other day as we sat eating lunch in our shambles of a new back yard that if my pipes were ever broken all I had to do was just call you on the phone because you were a plumber so you knew how to fix pipes. You looked me straight in the eye and spoke with serious confidence. I didn’t laugh at you or tell you how cute and funny you were, I just thanked you and said that sounded like a good idea. The fact is, you do know about fixing pipes: loads and loads more than I ever will. You aren’t a plumber yet, but you aspire to be. And when you’re not aspiring to be a plumber you are aspiring to drive a delivery truck or to be the guy who takes care of traffic lights if they aren’t working.
Our contractor, a wise man in his 50s with two grown sons, told his sons they had to go to school before they were ever allowed to cast their lot with the hammers like their Daddy. He’d never imagined another life for himself, picking up his dad’s work where he’d left it off. Never having gone to school, he had no other options for a profession and sometimes, as his buddy ages, I think he regrets that. But he is clearly proud of his trade, and there is no doubt about the reality that it is more than a trade to him – it is an art and a craft. He just wanted his boys to find out if there was anything else out there. Turns out one is brilliant in the IT world and one is becoming a pastor.
I think we academics – the sort who grew up assuming college was the next step of the dance after high school graduation, and college was important because it was a pivot into grad school and career – we often operate by an implicit snobbery, looking at “blue collar” work as though it is for lesser mortals. What I want to say to you is that this is not true. If you grow up feeling as though you’re making less of yourself by choosing to be a plumber once you’ve had a fair chance to weigh the options – or just as bad, if you grow up feeling as though we think you’re making less of yourself… What a failure this would be! If there’s one thing I’ve observed this spring it’s that there are deep layers of skill, excellence, nobility, and human strength and wisdom in the trades that don’t seem to reach as high as academia can take a person. So if you end up being the guy who plans the sewers or monitors traffic to prepare for a construction project or fixes the traffic lights or even fixes my pipes, I will be so proud of you. And if every stranger that ever meets you is an indication, this is very likely. Within 3 minutes of talking to you, everyone remarks to me that you are going to be an engineer.
While I painted our new ceilings last week I listened to an audio recording of a new book by Peter Korn, a master woodworker. He described the discontent with what he saw in his father’s generation – the assumption that if you weren’t working a meaningless desk job you weren’t affording yourself the security and comfort you might – and how it led him into tradesman’s work, and how tradesman’s work led him into a deep understanding of the spirituality and nobility of it; how in it he discovered himself over many decades and had the opportunity to reflect on what makes life worth living. His book is called Why We Make Things and Why It Matters and I hope you’ll read it someday.
This morning I read something else that made me think of you and of all this, a letter of advice written by a young man to his friend in 1958.
…As I said, to put our faith in tangible goals would seem to be, at best, unwise. So we do not strive to be firemen, we do not strive to be bankers, nor policemen, nor doctors. WE STRIVE TO BE OURSELVES.
But don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean that we can’t BE firemen, bankers, or doctors— but that we must make the goal conform to the individual, rather than make the individual conform to the goal. In every man, heredity and environment have combined to produce a creature of certain abilities and desires— including a deeply ingrained need to function in such a way that his life will be MEANINGFUL. A man has to BE something; he has to matter.
As I see it then, the formula runs something like this: a man must choose a path which will let his ABILITIES function at maximum efficiency toward the gratification of his DESIRES. In doing this, he is fulfilling a need (giving himself identity by functioning in a set pattern toward a set goal), he avoids frustrating his potential (choosing a path which puts no limit on his self-development), and he avoids the terror of seeing his goal wilt or lose its charm as he draws closer to it (rather than bending himself to meet the demands of that which he seeks, he has bent his goal to conform to his own abilities and desires).
In short, he has not dedicated his life to reaching a pre-defined goal, but he has rather chosen a way of life he KNOWS he will enjoy. The goal is absolutely secondary: it is the functioning toward the goal which is important…
What I’m trying to say is this: When you grow up I hope you will have the joy of soul to know what you are good at and what you love. And then I hope you will have the freedom of soul to do it without regard to anyone’s estimation of you (except your wife, I guess). And finally, I hope you will have the integrity and strength to do it as well and as fully as you possibly can, just because you believe that’s the only way anything is worth doing. And if you want to know what this looks like, my best advice is to take a look at your dad.
I love you.