Being born in 1951 placed me in a unique position in many ways. One, very obvious is a mid-point in a century. Another is being born immediately after the cataclysmic event of the 20th century, World War II. There was no escaping a sense of history similar to those born in the aftermath of the Civil War. My generation, often called the “Baby Boomers” grew up in a period of American prosperity and a political period that witnessed and encouraged the growth of a great middle class in America. We also grew up in a period that expanded civil rights and recognized the history that made the struggle for civil rights so necessary.
But there was another setting in this time that is often forgotten. It is the setting I am most grateful for. I grew up with grandparents that were born in the prior century, the 1800s. I had a connection to the past that was really prior to the great industrialization of America. Being in Vermont made this setting more prevalent as Vermont has often been a place that time passed by. Life could be simpler without an intentional effort to make it so. I loved this and the peace it gave us. Maybe this will help to understand, our supply chains were really no greater than our communities, our neighbors, and the efforts of our own hands.
I am most comfortable with hand work and doing something by hand. More recently, I had a neighbor who loved machines. He was a little younger than me in years, but in mindfulness, really from a later generation. He would sometimes say to me, “Why do anything with your hands that a machine can do?” My answer was, “Because I want to.” We had many differences, but this was really at the heart of so much that separated us.
Hand work is not only comforting, but it is peaceful and also allows for thinking time. It does not add much to the noise of the world and the product is one of the heart, not of a machine. It keeps us human and reminds us of the beauty in the work we can do just with our hands. Handwork is often work embedded with kindness and represents the human need for art in our lives.
I was always fascinated with tools, hand tools. I loved and still do working with hand tools building, repairing, and doing the work of everyday lives. In high school, I started working for a French carpenter, Paul. This gave me an opportunity to learn how to do the work that is most meaningful for me.
Paul worked building houses and repairing homes. Paul was from a time when you learned all of the skills, working with wood, plumbing, masonry and stonework, electrical, and in the beginning for me, just plain labor. Paul and his wife Olive kind of adopted me as part of their family. I ate breakfast with them most mornings and the work for the day was planned out. I learned enough to build two of our homes mostly myself. Our final home, a traditional Vermont cape style house built in 1830 has given me lots of handwork over the last 38 years and hopefully, it will provide more for whoever comes after me.
I sat down to write about having a footprint in the past as well as the present. For those born at the midpoint of the 20th century, many of us had strong connections to the 19th century because of family. Place also had much to do with this and growing up in Vermont reminded me every day of our roots to the past and to an earlier way of life more connected to the land. We lived in a working landscape.
For some of us coming of age in the 1960s the turmoil and strife of this time fostered a yearning for a simpler way of life. That working landscape beckoned us to a peaceful way of living that often rejected the materialism and narcissism of late 20th century America. We still had the fresh imprint of our grandparents. Now, having lived more than half a lifetime past my coming of age, I notice how this generational quest to return to a simpler way of life was somewhat unique to my generation. I say somewhat unique as there has been some who followed us and wanted the same, but it has not marked a generation like it marked us.
Today, in 2022, I am the quintessential fish out of water. I am reminded of an index card I have pinned to the wall in the shed with some words I typed on it in the days of manual typewriters. The card reads, “When the world wearies and ceases to satisfy, there is always the garden.” I can thank an early 20th century poet, Minnie Aumonier for these words that restore some balance to my life.
I will continue to revere hand work and the labor of life.