The World of Hands and of Heft

by way of intro – I’ve been so cut off my writing for so long, as the sparsity of posts here shows. Trying to find my way back, and the first story my brain needed to tell is this, an essay about a man and his 5 gallon bucket of assorted nails and screws and bolts and nuts, about the Midwest and what I miss most about it.

Still, after all these years? Always.

The World of Hands and of Heft

During this long-awful isolation event contained within the acronym COVID I’ve met on Saturday nights at 7 pm with a group of friends from college.

“Group of friends” being a loose term for people I shared 2-4 years of my life with in the early 80s. One of them I’ve stayed close to nearly all the years in between, the others I’ve not talked with since those all-night gaming/drinking/talking sessions in the basement of Bushnell in Beloit, Wisconsin.

My life has taken the largest veer from who we all were back when, and many nights I’ve felt only odd outsider – I came out as lesbian right after leaving college, shifted my whole life to feminist activism, then moved to the east coast, converted to Judaism, and built my life for nearly 30 years around a religious culture that barely existed on that campus (oh, how I’ve learned since that being a Jew at my beloved little college meant living a balance between stranger and target).

Yet and yet and yet again the sinew strung through every pivot is how I remain profoundly Midwestern, a set of values and seeing-ways that make me only-outsider out East but so so at home in grandma’s kitchen/dad’s garage with these old friends. We’d bonded in college not because we were all in the sci-fi club, which we were, or the same majors, which many of us were, but because we were the small-town Midwestern kids, working class, mainly first generation college students, which made us kin even on a Midwestern college campus, a campus where we all first met people from other parts of the U.S., people from families with money and access and passports and all the accoutrements we’d only read about or seen on TV.

Life-kin and heart-kin are for so many of us so often not the same kin, not for those of us who world-hop boundary-break continually-try-on-other lives. My life-kin now are feminist, progressive Jews, and that’s my reference world, my calendar world, my ground from which conversations spring world. But my heart-kin – well, that’s several motley tribes, spread across decades of moving in and out of apartments and jobs and lives. I can fall from the sky into any conversation among ex-lesbian separatists and be laughing honest and rich within minutes, for when one doesn’t have to list the million awful realities to prove the war against women is real, there opens the capacity for joy in the face of what we know, with the extra spice of laughing at our own political excesses and criticizing the excesses of the current young versions of who we were. The far-too-few times I and another Peace Camp Dyke meet eyes a time-bubble opens and we dive in, dwelling there again together – fire pit, barn, shitters, carpet squares, bolt cutters, and the songs, oh the songs and also still the stabbing loss of it all.

My Saturday night Midwestern heart-kin, though. Let me tell you a story, for we are a story-telling clan. I signed in last weekend as Chaz was telling the store of the 5 gallon bucket of loose nails and screws he’d just moved from his old house into his new garage workspace. He’s now taking on the task of sorting through it a bit at a time, which is proving useful, he said, because hardware stores are not getting shipments of 8 penny nails right now. They are so rare that when a shipment is coming contractors line up outside early in the morning, and each is allowed to buy only 5 pounds. If there are any left after everyone has a chance, then each person can buy a few more. “So good luck,” Hardware Guy told him. But going through his big bucket, he’s been able to pull out all he needs, at least for now. I started laughing and said, “This is the most Midwestern Man conversation I’ve walked in on in many years” and then we all laughed because it so was.

Do you see why? If you’re a Midwesterner, you do.

To understand Chaz’s story you need to understand that me and my heart-kin come from the world of the Made, the world of Makers. And not “my ancestors were cobblers in Europe” Makers, but immediate, all-around, EveryoneMakers. Our parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins were Makers. They built our houses, built or repaired our cars and trucks, sewed our clothes, quilted our blankets, grew and canned our food, made or re-made or reupholstered our furniture, made the art in our homes, wove the rag rugs, sewed the curtains, crocheted the mysterious and ever-present doilies, saved scrap leather to repair harnesses, built the sheds in which to store materials to build more sheds.

Chaz, child of Makers, had slowly accumulated that 5 gallon bucket from years of taking things apart to fix them, or just taking broken things apart to save the resources to use for something new or renewed. Every Midwestern garage has such a bucket, but such a bucket is only usable if you actually know what each kind of screw and nail IS, and what it is used for, and what size it is, and what’s it made from  – nail buckets only matter if you have an encyclopedic knowledge of fasteners. And the bucket and the encyclopedic only matter if you actually find it pleasurable to just sit for a couple hours and sort through what you have – best done if you also have a wall of cubbies or little drawers in which to store your sorted treasures.

See how big the physical world of that bucket suddenly is? But that garage bench with work lights and drawers and a wall of hand tools and the motor-lubricant smell of the power tools only matter in a much larger moral world, and it is that moral world I miss so much. My life-kin, as much as I love them, are mainly consumers. They buy and they talk about what they buy and many also recycle of course, often with a very self-satisfied arrogance about the quality of their recycling habits, and they are proud of bargains they find and most are also proud of donating to thrift shops but of course they are not the people who shop at Thrift Shops except for some intentionally-fun social outings. To them, my life-habit of getting most of what I need through Craigslist is just a quirky fact about me, or something they know I do because I sell books for a living and that doesn’t pay enough to engage in their levels of buying. Which is to say they utterly mis-understand my entire moral universe. Repairing and re-using furniture and clothes and appliances and cars is thrifty, yes, and that’s one Midwestern value.

But the economics of “thrift” is a far distant second place to the inherent respect for the World of the Made – the world of hands and of heft.

The World of the Made is a world of religious awe – when we bought used furniture, or stopped the truck to pull an old stove out of a ditch, or rescued some sentimental needlework from the last-chance-bargain table at a garage sale, we weren’t doing this because we were thrifty, or because we were cash-poor, even those both of those were mostly true. We hauled home Made objects because we are Makers, the children and grandchildren and great-grands of Makers, and the World of the Made is precious to us precisely because someone made each object.

The World of the Made is nearly the polar opposite of the World of the Bought.

The World of the Made is the opposite of the World of the Bought, even though someone somewhere did manufacture everything Buyers buy. But manufacturing objects for endless assembly line hours is not the same as Making. Stamping out millions of clones of one tiny part that is shipped across the globe to join a thousand other one-of-clones parts is not the same as Making. A made object is only part of the World of the Made if the maker wanted to make it, if person using it cares about how it was made and who made it and if that caring becomes respect for the Made object not for its economic value but its moral value.

I have this clock on my wall, electric with a plug whose cord is faded a permanently dirty off—white. Its motor makes a faint constant buzz you can hear when the house is quiet. I got it at a garage sale, somewhere and sometime, and it is so clearly a wife-husband project. It’s in a wooden box, reused wood, stained dark brown, with a hinged glass door and tiny little jewelry-box latch. The clock face is fabric, crewel embroidery in a floral pattern and color scheme that just screams I AM FROM THE EARLY 70s AND A NOT-HIP PLACE. Central to that screaming is the clock’s hanging hardware, which is an old-style steel beer tab. While I once planned to pull out the fabric and put in something I would make, I fell in love with the object as it was made. Some woman found the pattern in a magazine and stitched it, and ordered the little clock motor and hands through the mail, and then gave her husband the task of building a case for it, and he did, from clearly reclaimed lumber and perfectly fitted glass. The final thing it needed – something to attach it to the hook on a wall – he just pulled from his beer (or maybe from a 5 gallon bucket of leftover hardware – I’m equally happy to believe either scenario). This clock is from the World of the Made, and while I could buy any other clock, one that would run silently with batteries rather than extension cord, that bought object would have neither the hand nor the heft nor the echo of lives lived that my Made clock has.

And lest I sell my Life-Kin short, I do say this – I could go to a craft market and buy a clock that is a Made object, and talk to the person who made it, and bring it home with a story attached to it and that clock would have, also, moral value. My Life-Kin often do this – the homes I visit have beautifully Made objects, objects that are valued not for their cost but for their Made-ness. That process of buying does honor the World of the Made, but as tourist trade, a vacation to the World of the Made, a treasure found and brought back home. Different from the honest gut of the World of the Made, which is not coming back home but home-body, the Makers part of the family or kin or kith, or the objects pulled from a dump or old barn and lovingly cleaned and enlivened by kin or by kith.

To be Midwestern is never one only one thing, cutting across huge swaths of land and coming from waves of colonizers and immigrants, but also it is one process – Making. Everyone Makes, from the beautiful to the practical to the nearly too proud of itself to even be Midwestern decorative. Those who Make well – those who Make best – are known and valued, not for the price tag on their objects but because everyone knows the skill and experience and time and attention and love imbued into the object by the Making.

My Life-kin consider the homeland of my heart-kin to be only “flyover states” full of reactionary, conservative white people, but the Midwest I know, and yearn for, the Midwest that lives in me, the Midwest that formed me incapable of sitting to watch TV unless my hands have a project, is a realm of wizards, a land of alchemists, transmogrifying scraps and supplies into the useful, creating the Made, declaring it good, and turning back to create more.