This morning, T and I sat in the den, me reading and her knitting, as snow peacefully but steadily fell, filling the roads, paths, and trees around us with a sign that winter is pretty well here. The solstice is a few weeks away yet, but the first weekend of December seems as good a time as any to mark the season.
I was continuing The Farmer’s Wife, which I mentioned briefly last week. The last chapter (ish) is set in a snowstorm on the Rebanks’ hill farm, a storm whose steady snow cuts them off from most infrastructure. The family steps up, each playing their part (as best they’re able) to keep the family and farm in good health through the snow. Though all our modern conveniences were in order, it felt fitting and relatable, as our world was also slowly blanketed in white.
A conversation between Sara Hendren and Krista Tippett was a good discussion of the in/inter/dependence theme I touched on in last week’s issue, albeit from another angle. It had me thinking quite a bit about independence, something that’s prized in Western culture (particularly its North American flavour), but is really maybe not all it’s cracked up to be.
Discussing this with my therapist, he pointed out how the North American “norm” of leaving the house after high school, striking out on one’s own, has deep flaws, expecting people to grow into independence without supports. Yes, you can learn to walk a tightrope without one, but why not use a safety net, if one’s available?
This reminded me of a pattern in A Pattern Language, that idealistic 1970s architectural tome by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa and Murray Silverstein. In it, they advocate for a “teenager’s cottage”, a room or space adjacent or nearby to their family’s house, in which they can grow and learn independence in community with their family—highlighting that independence is rarely about true separation from those around us.
A number of more recent reads explore this very issue, from Deb Chachra’s How Infrastructure Works, to Waubgeshig Rice’s Moon of the Crusted Snow, to the aforementioned Helen Rebanks’ The Farmer’s Wife. A common theme is that by pursuing independence, we can end up lacking connection, social bonds—whether at the personal or community level—that make life that bit more worth living. Independence isn’t sustainable: at some point, no matter what, we depend on others, often because of changing ability or circumstance. Also, independence is rarely real: most of us depend on whole networks of infrastructure—visible and invisible, physical and social, and so on—to make our lives possible, even the ones we see as relatively independent.
I’ve also been wrestling with this as I further explore and learn woodworking as a hobby. It’s exciting and uncomfortable to be such a beginner. Depending on the week, I’ll either be puttering away at projects at home with hand tools, or down at the community workshop where I have a membership, using (moreso) power tools.
But the difference between the two isn’t just the nature of the tools on offer—it’s also the presence (or lack thereof) of people around me, mostly people with far more experience woodworking than I have. Invariably, I arrive at the shop a bit nervous. Even if I have a decent plan in mind for how to spend my time that day, it can be intimidating to share space, to have my newness so clearly on display. So much self-consciousness and self-doubt rises up, even though I’ve now got a decent facility with the tools.
But where does that come from? In part, I think, from a sense that I “should” be independently capable at all I do, that I “should” be able to work wood without asking others for help. Which is bunk, of course! Every time I’ve gone and asked others for help, I’ve been rewarded in spades with good ideas, encouragement, and conviviality. I learn so much faster just by asking others—and yet there’s still that knot in my stomach each time, that sense that I don’t belong.
A good knot to keep untying, I think, through this upcoming winter of interdependence and (healthy) dependence.
(Before I go, a great interview on woodworking, a conversation between Ray Deftereos and Tim Ewald. Ewald had previously given a talk called “Programming with Hand Tools” that related his software development profession to his woodworking hobby—you can probably see the appeal for me. But what I enjoyed most about this interview was when Ray and Tim talked about how they teach their kids woodworking and other handy skills partly as a means of self-reliance, but also as a way of understanding how they can give back to others, by putting their skills to use for others who may not have them.)
All the best for the week ahead!