Big expectations are a two-edged sword, er, wood chisel

Edge of a chisel blade, detail. Well, the Siren hasn't been calling over the past few days -- too much playing catch-up with tasks and goals for the new year.

I'm sure that plenty of you can relate to that (although you have been far more faithful to your blogs than I, my dear friends).

Yesterday, in the middle of a hectic day, I dropped everything and turned to David Esterly's book for some mental relief. I wrote about Esterly in my last post -- he's a carver who tackled some daunting restoration work and wrote about it in his lyrical semi-memoir "The Lost Carving."

I just needed a mental palate-cleanser, and this passage did the trick for me:

Now when I break something the wood is usually sending a different message: the problem here, it's saying, isn't your technique but your design. The composition you've drawn asks too much of wood, no matter how adept you may be with a chisel. You've persuaded yourself that a spray of leaves has to arch across the grain just so, because it answers to that other spray over there, or because it adds richness to effect, or simply because it's beautiful; but an aesthetic triumph can't change the temperament of wood. When writers use similar arguments to justify an unneeded beautiful sentence, editors famously tell them to "kill their darlings." If you're a carver, the wood sometimes kills your darlings for you.

The grace of such writing is its metaphysical quality. Sure, it's about a woodcarver's experience, but the lessons he's learned can apply to any of us.

There's a temperament to more than just limewood: This realization comes easily when you're in the midst of filling out a to-do list (as yours truly has discovered).

So, as you're planning out a busy 2013, and piling the work on your plate, just remember: Be reasonable.

That's my advice to you, my readers. Take it easy on yourself.

Tools of the trade: for the resolution-weary

A balance between soul and sense: David Esterly finds his in "The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making." Most of us spend our days -- most of our lives, to be specific -- in an office where we execute projects we don't always enjoy because they pay the rent, right?

If you had a chance, over the holidays, to relax a little bit and consider your priorities for the new year, your resolutions might have included this one: "I want to be involved in work that's more meaningful."

My cherished set of readers, if that doesn't happen for you in 2013 -- please, you mustn't get discouraged. Such simple wishes sometimes require a long time to unfold (trust me, I know that for a fact).

While you wait, there are always books to teach you patience. Wonderful, glorious books, in which authors realize the dreams that we're still in the process of reaching.

Like author and sculptor David Esterly, whose occupation provides the ideal harmony between feeding the soul and feeding one's family: He's a carver of limewood.

As you work on your own dreams this year, I recommend that you treat yourself to Esterly's exhilarating memoir of the carver's trade, "The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making" (Viking Books).

lost-carvingEsterly describes his efforts to recreate the masterful marginal carvings of Grinling Gibbons destroyed in a fire at Henry VIII's Hampton Court in the 1980s. Gibbons' creations weren't centerpiece work like a Grecian maiden or warrior: No, he perfected the art of carving foliage -- vines and leaves, flowers -- that twisted and stretched along palace walls and seemed as real as what you find growing in a field or beside a sparkling brook.

That's why you can call the works "marginal" -- but it's not intended as a slight. Thanks to these wondrous works, Gibbons became recognized as a 17th century master.

Before Gibbons came along, carvers produced "inert flowers... in dully conventional swags and drops. Gibbons turned them into blossoms that seem to have the juice of real life in them, seem actually to be made of plant material..."

Esterly marvels at the artistry of Gibbons work. And so do we.

"[T]hose flowers would be modeled with all the attention a high European sculptor might give to the face of a saint," he writes.

And, inside Hampton Court, as he faces his task, Esterly's awe turns to humility.

"On the Hampton Court scaffolding I was a beginner again. This time the crack of wood taught me about the special frailty of Gibbons's carving that comes with its age," he reflects.

Esterly's quest in "The Lost Carving" is spiritual; his intimate knowledge of the carver's trade is fascinating.

You won't find a more satisfying story in 2013 ... I'll risk saying that right now, on Day 3 of the New Year.

And, what's more, you'll never again insult any task -- like one's dull work chores -- by using the word "marginal" ... not with the lesson of Gibbons and Esterly in your pocket!

Happy New Year, my friends.