One of my wife’s great grandfathers had been a successful chip carver in Vermont. He had even been mentioned in a contemporary book on artisans in that state. All this, as is often the case, was forgotten over the generations. About thirty years ago the elderly sisters who controlled the family estate began liquidating the old family homes and contents. Among the items that poured forth were carved pieces from grandfather. Like me, he sold the number ones and kept the number two’s as reminders of how to cut the patterns. One of these little boxes found its way to my wife. I was fortunate to receive a small book of designs that he regularly carved.
As a carver, my wife’s great grandfather was praised for the accuracy of his cuts, and the effortless nature of his carving (the photo I’m including is of one of his practice pieces; all that remains of his work as a carver).
Eventually, the cleaners reached the attic of his house. In the attic were the real reasons for his accuracy, and success at carving; Boxes and boxes of practice pieces. He had been a compulsive perfectionist in his craft and saved his failures as kindling for the woodstove. At the end of his life, the last five or six shoe boxes never made it to the stove and were consigned to the attic.
This post could end with an encouragement to practice for the sake of mastery – as Coveney put it the need to “sharpen your saw.” What you do often you do well. And, this is very true, but let’s take it just a bit further. One of my senseis in Iaido ( the Japanese art of drawing the sword) likes to talk about the “fugitive nature of the art.” It’s impermanent, use it or lose it. Try laying off a skill which depends on not just your intellect, but also the sort of muscle memory needed to cut accurately and the skill degrades. Don’t do it for long enough and while your brain may remember all the steps your body is cranky. Your muscle memory has degraded. This fugitive nature of the art holds true in sword work, in hand-carving, and I’d imagine in arts like dance.
We do not just achieve mastery once. We continue to reach for it through continued use because skill is fugitive.