Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Building cabins

A clear view atop 40-foot scaffolding

Last weekend was a scorcher under the sun. Not optimal to be atop 50 feet of scaffolding, covered in dirt and sweat, climbing, lifting, nailing and caulking together a SIP panel cabin. And while that may sound like a form of torture, I was there by choice.

At the (rather vague) invitation of a close friend to help with constructing a cabin, I’d signed away my Saturday and Sunday of swimming and fishing for sweating and working. You know what though, I didn’t regret it once, not even when the baseball cap I was wearing was too saturated to absorb any more sweat, and the salty streams began to leak into the corners of my eyes, and the absolutely blinding sun seemed to reflect off everything, and my head was pounding and splitting, and I was spitting sand out of my mouth every couple minutes. If the job wasn’t finished, I wasn’t about to be the first to quit, so I kept working, just the same as 14 or so others, ferociously chugging water every 15 minutes to stave off heat exhaustion.

The sand got in everything. It coated my skin, clung to every bit of perspiration, and created dark lines in my ripped up hands. After the first few hours of the first day, I was beyond caring what I looked and smelt like. Because first of all, everyone else was in the same boat, and second, being filthy for a while was life affirming. The constant motion, constant exertion, constant comprehension of what was the next step, who needed the most help, and where the tool so-and-so needed was all compiled into one taxing effort that the whole group of volunteers experienced simultaneously. The conditions put everyone on the same level. The common goal united the group to one purpose.

During those two full workdays, there was never a serious complaint. Nobody ever quit, gave up, or walked away from a job. Sometimes tensions were raised by disagreements on the way wall segments should fit together or by theories on which material was best to use where, but a serious altercation there never was. Instead, everyone involved, all roasting in the relentless sun, pulled together for a common labor, and for that labor to succeed, there had to be trust, and when you build trust in a group of people, you build a community (tip of the hat to inductive reasoning).

When we talk about the difference between living in a small town and living in a city, one of the biggest pros argued in favor of small-town living is a strong sense of community. In the Northwoods, help is not always just a phone call away. There is not always a specialist at hand. There are fewer amenities available to citizens here than in the city, and as a result we need to rely on each other more; we need to trust each other more.

Last weekend I helped because I felt like I had something to offer, I knew it would be appreciated, and I have lived just long enough to know that what goes around comes around. You get out of life exactly what you put in it, right? So ask yourself this: when you’ve volunteered your time, gave something up for the sake of helping someone else, how did you feel? Connected? Selfless? Satisfied?

Often times we’re encouraged to volunteer. We’re told that donating to a cause is worth our resources (be it time or money), and that we’ll be better people for our efforts, and generally I agree. It seems to me, however, that all too often charitable acts seem too distant and out of reach of our day-to-day lives. We think about taking action for something we believe in, but we don’t know how to get our feet wet or where to start. If you find yourself identifying with this, my suggestion is simple - start small.

Start with doing the dishes when it’s not your turn, or sending a thank-you card, or writing a letter filled with the gratitude you couldn't quite convey in person. Be kind, practice humility, and give pieces of yourself away to people who respect you and people you trust. You will become fuller, and with more purpose than if you stay in your shell. The more you give, the more you’ll have to give. Life is too short to always stay quiet and keep your head down. Work hard, be transparent, be sincere.

Heights are not my forte, so while I was way up on the scaffolding, with sweaty hands and shaky knees, watching sweat drip off me and evaporate before it hit the ground, I started to think about the real reasons I was up there. I thought about the commitment I had made by just showing up for the project. I thought about how challenging myself, as much as I may sometimes resent it, is important and keeps me moving forward. I thought about what I could do to be more efficient, more helpful in getting the job done. And then I thought about the sweet tan I was getting.

My point is, lending a helping hand is a good practice to get into, even if you’re not sure what you’re getting into. The next time an opportunity arises for you to aid your neighbor, don’t hesitate to jump on it, even if its 40 feet in the air.

“A strong nation, like a strong person, can afford to be gentle, firm, thoughtful, and restrained. It can afford to extend a helping hand to others. It's a weak nation, like a weak person, that must behave with bluster and boasting and rashness and other signs of insecurity”
- Jimmy Carter
See you out there,
A woodsman in training

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