WHY: we build stuff

On a recent drive back from Colorado Springs (after watching 8 of our favourite children), one of E’s favourite country songs played on the radio. It was somewhere near the crest of Monument Pass, where you could see the smoke puffing up among trees on the slopes of Waldo Canyon and you could imagine the fires raging nearby. Though we were safe, and our friends were too, it was a sobering sight. The song that came on helped to lighten the mood. E turned it up at full blast in that little VW Jetta that he affectionately nicknamed “Gretta” many years ago. I don’t know the artist or even the title but the song always make me think of North Carolina and how I imagine backwoods, country folk operate. I think that’s why E loves it so much–it reminds him of the good times back home. One particular lyric that always catches my attention says something like “If it’s broke ’round here, we fix it.” Well, that’s certainly true of E. Little Gretta has over 300,000 miles on her, because when she looses a part, he replaces it. My bike was bought at a goodwill for $40 and now it’s worth around $200 thanks to some work from E (and his years as a bike mechanic). I’ve heard the song so many times, and on that long drive back home I couldn’t but recount all the things built from scratch rather than being purchased at a store. And let me tell you, there are quite a few….

When M and I first moved into our apartment we didn’t have much counter space–we still don’t have much. So, while she was on a road trip, I set up a collapsable table in the corner of our eating nook and threw a twin sized sheet over it. There’s no point lying: it looked trashy. Eventually, there were stains not he sheet from paint and various foods. When my mum reminded me I had a crockpot and blender in the basement of their house I nearly threw a fit for lack of space. I snapped. I called E to vent and announced: “I’m going to find some wood–like old pallets or something–and I’m going to build myself a fricking shelf!” Well, E knew my shelf would probably collapse so the building process was more like… Sara rips nails out of old pallets and E assembles them into something useful and magnificent. He brought it over two or three weeks later on the top of his VW Jetta and we were rescued by some Burmese men as we struggled to get it up the stairs and into the little home in Denver’s third-world.

A couple of months ago, E built a loft for my bed. I don’t have any pictures of it currently, with the mattress on top and the book shelves beneath, sporting theology, grammar and copious class notes. There’s a shelf that runs over the head of the mattress where I keep a lamp, a few candles, three or four books, the unplugged alarm clock and my mouthguard that prevents morning headaches. The ladder has uneven steps and it’s made from an assortment of wood but it may be the most ingenious thing I’ve ever had built. It makes my room twice as large since I can now have two or three bookcases sitting under my bed just to the left of a laundry basket and still have room to sprawl out with my laptop and school books. It also makes my room the running novelty of our apartment: the kids want to climb onto it every time they come to visit.

In the same day, we went to E’s old house downtown to salvage the last of the 2×6 and 2×8’s that we hadn’t used on my loft. E had been living in a one bedroom just a few blocks from the heart of Denver. Yes, a one bedroom with three other guys. The bedroom is where my loft came from: the had a loft large enough to hold two queen size beds high in the air so that they all fit into that one bedroom. Intentional Community, or something like that.

Anyway, we grabbed the last of the boards, sorted through the few things that roommates (and roommates from previous leases) had left behind and then headed to his new place where we (and by we I mean E) set about building our garden boxes. I’ve talked about this briefly in my description of our garden but I didn’t tell you about why we built the boxes instead of buying planters and I hadn’t put up pictures.

There are a few reasons we build things. One is that we’re both very cheap (or rather–we’re frugal–I’ve been informed that’s a more respectable word for such personality traits). So we use scrap wood from previous building ventures or wood that we can acquire just by driving across town.

We also build things because it means using our hands. As a student, a nanny, personal assistant and church staff member, I sit inside a lot. Holding up a 2×6 as E drills holes into it or screws it into something else has a certain pleasure that you cannot experience elsewhere. I feel like a strong woman when I yank nails from old pallets that once transported food, building supplies, furniture, etc. There’s the moment when you know the nail is about to come free but it fights you for every last moment, screaming as you wrench it from the wood it has long called home. And with a grunt it comes apart and the board springs upward, no longer bound to the shape it was forced to. I think I looked at each nail as I took it from the back of the hammer and giggled slightly when I tossed it to the ground. It’s the same feeling I have when chopping wood for fires: the ax goes above my head and there’s a moment just before the descent where you fix your eye on the middle of the log, marking where you’ll strike to snap it in half. It feels like determination has flooded your veins as you decide that log is mine. And then, the ax whistles through the air and slices into the wood. The ax might stick the first few times or send chips flying to the air. But eventually, it cuts straight through the wood and you have two halves, ready for burning.

E says he feels so much joy when he is building. It’s the chance to create something new, to be creative when you’re using limited supplies and the chance to do something. So much of our lives are spent indoors, seated at desks or running copies, chilling in meetings with stale air running through the A/C.

But to build is to create which is to share in the divine initiative, to act on the image and likeness of God in us as creator and artist. I think that’s why we, and others, experience such pleasure in building things, in planting, sculpting and designing. Because, in the most cliche (but also true) way: it’s the way God made us.

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salvaged pallets, shelf on the car (built from pallets), assembling the loft, building the garden boxes


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