Mahogany is a wood I’ve been working with a lot lately. The tree has an odd habit of growth: every season, it grows in a spiral around the trunk, but in different directions each year: sometimes clockwise, sometimes counter-clockwise. The wood then builds up over time with the grain running in opposite directions, like the layering up of plywood.
It’s called cross-grain lumber. It can be cussedly hard to hand-plane or machine no matter which direction you work the plank. The wood tissue tends to tear out below the surface in a way that makes me want to tear out my own hair tissue! Often I’m forced to get out the brutal belt sander and just grind my way to perfection.
But because of this odd quirk, Mahogany is also tougher, harder to split, and more resilient than some other species. Finishing up the installation of a recent project, it occurred to me that I have a similar habit of growth.
Some days I move in a downward spiral. I give in to arrogance, prejudice, anger, or intolerance. I become thoughtless, self-centered, or lazy. I’ll suddenly snap at someone for no reason and later wonder, “What the heck did I just do?”
Or I find myself, instead of admiring the accomplishments of others (…and this is one of my go-to behaviors, I’m afraid), being jealous of what they’ve done, as if their work somehow demeans my own by having the sheer effrontery to exist on the same planet. Or I let them know (…and this is the other one) that what they’ve come up with is nowhere as good as it could have been if they’d had the good sense to ask me first. Certainly nothing like what I would have done!
But other times, often to my own wonderment and surprise, I find myself being generous to someone with no expectation of reward, thanks, or notice. I forgive someone for cutting ahead of me in a checkout line, and just cool my jets instead of getting all up in their face. I decide to show kindness to someone even though I will never see them again.
Or I’ve been holding a grudge for days, weeks, even months, and I suddenly realize it’s time to let both of us get off this mad merry-go-round: there’s nothing to be lost and peace of mind to be gained by just dropping the whole muddy, murky mess off the edge of a high cliff.
I imagine we’re all like this to some extent, growing in two directions, often at the same time. You’d think our opposite motions would cancel each other out, we’d be stuck in place, inert, immobile. It’s a miracle we aren’t.
Sometimes when I feel these two forces tugging against one another inside me, I do indeed get stuck. I’m not sure what saves me from that unbearable push-pull tension, that stasis that masquerades as stillness but is in reality full of combative, combustible energy. Sometimes just honoring that it’s a part of my nature, simply floating there in my own bowl of crazy-soup watching myself happen, with full and intentional awareness, is enough to move the needle.
Then it feels okay. If it’s my nature, I may as well honor it. Let it be. It is what I am. It’s the cross-grain of me. It’s how I grow. Striving for light but aware of the dark. Then I’m more kind, gentle, and compassionate with everyone else, too, because I see that we’re all in the same soup.
I watch the lively grain emerge as I smooth and polish the Mahogany surface to a fine finish, then apply the clarifying oil. Light reflected from the two different directions creates a stark and pleasing contrast, displaying the deep beauty of the wood’s dual nature, its inner contradictions, its two opposing halves forming a unified whole.
The resulting kaleidoscope of color and tone gives the finished piece a life and sizzle that I wouldn’t miss for the world.