On Margins and Craft

This was written as a reflection/speech for the March 1, 2015 service at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto. It’s been slightly edited to be read instead of spoken. 
Do you know the restaurant Maggiano’s? There’s one in Santana Row in San Jose. It’s one of those places my wife and I go on a date. It’s relatively fancy, italian restaurant. You know the kind, they have pictures of the Rat Pack on the walls, some nice jazz, waitstaff in white and black and big plates of pasta. They spent a lot of effort on the little things. One of the little things I liked was their receipt. It was this beautiful heavyweight paper that just felt right in the hand. That paper was excellent. A fittingly precise end to a lovely evening.
I am a fan and admirer of craft. Craft of any kind, but especially that kind of craft where it’s clear someone spent serious time sweating the details. Seeing a beautiful painting, cuddling under the quilt lovingly stitched by my grandmother, listening to “that” poem that reminds me of the beat of my heart, hearing the give and take of the jazz groups syncopated rhythm that indicates they have worked together long enough to trust each other. These are all things I enjoy. That Magianno’s receipt? An appreciated detail.
Ten years or so ago, I went to Burning Man. If you are not familiar with it, it’s described by Wikipedia as an experiment in community, art, radical self-expression, and radical self-reliance. It takes place in the Black Rock Desert near Reno Nevada. I went twice, and both times the desert, drugs and porto-potties I could have done without, but the art that was on display was stunning. For instance, someone had towed out a multi-ton rock that was bigger than I was and put it on this metal structure so you could spin it like a top. I cannot imagine the kind of work that went into that.
But I appreciated the effort that went into bringing a giant stone into the desert for random people to spin. I probably would have appreciated it even more if I knew what it took to make it happen. But that knowledge isn’t required to admire it.
Craig Mod is a writer, designer, poet and MacDowell fellow who wrote an essay titled “Let’s talk about Margins” that inspired this reflection. In it, he says, “Consider buildings. Although you may not be an architect, you can be touched by a graceful space. The kind of space where you close your eyes and feel the gentle hand of the architect reveal itself in the way sound and air moves around you. Try it sometime. Go to your favorite space. Close your eyes and breathe slowly and intuit the goodness. Conversely, you can sense neglect or disregard the same way. There’s a building in Tokyo that feels like it hates the world. Standing in its shadow, the wind becomes portentous, howling, angry. It will swallow you if you close your eyes. It does not want you there…. It is not a nice building. You are not an architect but you know this: The building is bad.”
Regardless of how you view the outcome, the process of craft is also important. The focus, the love, sometimes the frustration, climbing that hill, learning, failing and completing – it’s all in there when you take something on, especially if it’s bigger than you. However, in the moment of true engagement, that flow, is happiness and joy. A beautiful dopamine release.
In “Let’s talk about Margins” Craig Mod is sharing about making a book. He says: “Thoughtful decisions concerned with details marginal or marginalized conspire to affect greatness. The creative process around these decisions being equal parts humility and diligence. The humility to try again and again, and the diligence to suffer your folly enough times to find the right solution…The physical book is difficult. If you haven’t made one, it’s tough to imagine just how difficult it is. Every detail requires deliberation. There are many details. .. believe me when I say, if you think about them all before you start, you will never start. The rabbit hole is deep. The truth of any craft.”
“The truth of any craft.”  Do you consider yourself crafts-person? I propose you are, in some way, a craftsperson. Even if you don’t consider yourself a crafty person or a “maker” in that current sense of the word, you are crafting something in the world. Do you pay attention to that craft? Do you strive to continue learning? What about parenting? Is that a craft? Those of you that are parents, if you had have had to think about all of the details of child rearing before you started, would you have? That is one deep rabbit hole. Luckily, we don’t have to. We can choose to hone our craft, whatever it is, as we go. We can learn from others, learn from books, learn from success, learn from failure.
Failure is an interesting way to learn. This could be a whole other reflection, so I’m not going to spend much time here, but consider the possibilities if you just quit your current project?  Imagine that for a minute, then continue.
Would it feel better? Maybe you, like me, have dozens of half-completed projects in your garage. Is it time to let go of them and lift that weight? Or maybe it’s time to complete a few? Recently we decided to stain a book case that I’ve owned, waiting to be stained, since I was 22. “Should be easy to stain”, I said naïvely. The project ended up taking two weeks and 4 trips to the hardware store. I think it might have been easier and possibly cheaper to have just purchased a new shelf. But I completed it and it felt good. Check.
Every craft, every project, lives within boundaries. When we are young, we may have been told to “color in the lines.” Some choose to, some choose to not. Each choice is valid and instructive. Staying inside the lines takes patience and focus. Choosing to break out means crossing a line and possibly mixing your colors.
The size of the page, the length of time, your budget (or lack thereof), the support of your community, your skill – all things that affect the outcome of a craft. For me, the worst step of any project is the so-called “empty page” – the first step.  Here the boundaries can provide  comfort. Consider the haiku. A 3 line poem with 5, 7 and 5 syllables. Here is an example I found online:
Space is limited
In a haiku, so it’s hard
To finish what you
Or the rhythm in a book length poem that only used 50 words:
I would not, could not, in the rain.
Not in the dark. Not on a train,
Not in a car, Not in a tree.
I do not like them, Sam, you see.
Not in a house. Not in a box.
Not with a mouse. Not with a fox.
I will not eat them here or there.
I do not like them anywhere!
I do not like Green Eggs and Ham.
I do not like them, Sam I am.
Hard to argue with the fourth best-selling English-language children’s book of all time. The result of a bet between Dr. Suess and his publisher that he could not write a book with only 50 words. That is a difficult limit. And what greatness sprang forth!
So, margins and boundaries can limit us but can allow us to focus on the things we can affect. From Craig Mod’s essay again, “…cheap, rough paper with a beautifully set textblock hanging just so on the page makes those in the know, smile (and those who don’t, feel welcome). It says: We may not have had the money to print on better paper, but man, we care. Caring does not require capital, simply attention and humility and diligence. Caring is the best feeling you can imbue craft with.”
Examine your boundaries. Maybe they aren’t limits. Maybe they are more like a good place to start.
Obviously, craft is not always a solitary activity. There are many projects and crafts that involve more than one person. It strikes me that Unitarian Universalism is a crafted, living religion. While we have sources that inform and influence our choices, we do have the freedom to shape our individual beliefs to match our needs and internal realities. There are still those boundaries though. “Free and *responsible* search for truth and meaning,” “the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” and the other 5 principles are what we’ve all agreed to as we travel together. Ministers have spent entire sermons on those individual words, but for now I see them as that comfortable place to start or reset your search for belief (or the lack thereof).
We can look at our Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto as an example of group craft. There are obvious, real world limitations we live within – such as limited financial resources and the physical structure of our buildings. But there are the more subtle boundaries too. We, like any group of similarly minded individuals, like each other’s company and can forget to welcome guests and strangers into our midst. But we are continually striving to improve. For instance, the coffee hour being out in our new front garden is an effort to make us visible to the larger community. It’s a way we are working together to create a space for “magic” to happen.
Those of us that stand up here every Sunday work to create a service that will serve your needs. We spend hours thinking of the hymns and writing and editing our words. We take care to respect the rhythm of the service. Go too far out of tempo and it might get uncomfortable – although occasionally that’s a good thing to do. Tempo, time, the size of the stage, whether the choir is going to have an anthem – these are all things that have to be considered. I even come in early and check to see that the chalice isn’t crooked to make sure that those of us for which such things matter are not distracted during the entire service.
Well done group craft is often hidden and can take many people caring about the smallest details to get it right. You may not even consciously notice it when it’s not done well, but I believe you feel it.
Guess what? The last time we went to Maggiano’s, they’ve changed the receipt paper.  They’d gone to the same paper everyone else uses, that slimy, thin paper. Now, this may not seem like much, but my wife will tell you I ranted on this to some length. I may be unusual in my obsession with this little detail, but I guarantee you that there’s an unconscious hit there for other people, too.
So, within the boundaries here at our church, this craft that we are all working on together, what little detail can you affect to make it a better experience for each other? What is your equivalent of that little receipt paper?
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