A Pile of Boards

Ends of stacked lumber

I am reading Kitchen Table Wisdom by Rachel Naomi Remen, a traditionally trained medical doctor turned wholistic healer.  This book is written from the heart.  As I read her stories, I am often choked up or brought to tears.  She speaks plainly and forthrightly about what really matters in life.

In one of her chapters, she includes a parable about three stonecutters building the Notre Dame Cathedral (she attributes the story to the Italian psychiatrist, Roberto Assagioli).  As the stonecutters were working, a passerby stopped to talk with them.  Gazing up at the cathedral, the passerby asked them how they felt about their work.  The first stonecutter quickly complained, saying “I am so bored with this repetitious, dirty work, cutting one stone after another with no damn end in sight.”  The second stonecutter answered, “I am so grateful for this work.  I can provide food and a decent home for my family, and I know I will never have to seek work elsewhere.”  The third stonecutter replied, “I am more than grateful. I am honored to be a part of this magnificent, beautiful cathedral which will bring peace, joy, and comfort to people long after I am gone.”  Three men doing the same tedious work, but each one of them living the experience very differently!

This story reminded me of an experience I had as a teenager one summer while working at a local lumber company.  My most frequent task that summer was unloading boxcars of lumber, sheetrock, cement, roofing, and other building materials.  The boxcars, usually filled within three feet of the ceiling, required me to crawl in on my belly to begin.  I detested unloading the sheetrock and cement because of the weight, dust, and grime, but I liked emptying the lumber.  The scent and feel of newly milled wood invigorated me.  I usually paired with someone, one of us handed the boards to the other, who stacked them until the pile reached ¾ of a story high.  I relished being the piler!  Stacking each board straight, and finishing a pile without it tilting in any of the four directions, became an obsession!

“Bud” was the yard foreman.  Probably in his late 50’s or early 60’s, his lean, hard, upright body and deeply tanned leathery-lined face had seen a lot of sun, wind, and rain.  His thick gray mustache was whiskey-stained, and occasionally, I found empty whiskey bottles in the nooks and crannies of the various storage buildings.  Gruff and sometimes quick to anger, I did not want to displease Bud.

As the summer passed, I learned Bud had a big heart, and he knew how to motivate young men.  Often, he made his rounds inspecting the yard, much like a general inspected his battlefield troops, seeing that everything was where it should be and neatly done to boot.

One day, I had been stacking 12 foot long 2” X 6” boards.  Having nearly emptied the entire boxcar, the pile of boards stood almost a story tall when Bud came strolling.  He paused at the foot of the pile, looked up, and stood there wordlessly.  He sized up the pile as carefully and thoroughly as he might have a curvaceous woman.  I waited.  Then, he exclaimed, “By damn, you sure know how to make a hell of a straight pile of 2” X 6”s!”

A rush of pride surged through me.  Pleasing Bud meant a lot to me, but more importantly, I knew this rough-hewn, seasoned man appreciated order, balance, and symmetry.  Together, we shared the beauty in a pile of boards. (To read about the importance of affirmation go to “Some Things Never Change.”

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