Voices and Power

There are times when I feel tiny and vulnerable… it’s amazing what can make a person feel this way. For me, it’s often because I think I don’t know what I’m doing with hardware and lumber and power tools. It’s that for so long, I actually didn’t know how to build anything. And I used to feel like an idiot. Like I’m somehow ugly and dainty and pink because of this. But I know how to cook. Yes, I can cook like a real fucking woman. Because you have to have a penis to use tools, didn’t you know?

I felt dirty going to the hardware store that day with my boyfriend and having to ask him questions about the paint. They weren’t very simple questions, and they weren’t very stupid questions. It was the fact that I had to ask at all. I felt worse when he asked me “Do you know what hardware you need to hang the light in your bedroom?” Because there were male employees nearby, I puffed up, and responded with “What do you think, I’m a girl or something? Of course I know what to look for.” Because girls don’t play with tools, you know, or so I’ve learned through repetition: advertisements, sitcoms, kids at school so long ago. If I am to do anything for myself, then I can’t not know what I’m doing in a place like that. You see, even if I don’t know, I have to fake it, or they’ll tell me to go home and play with my dolls or bake them a pie, just not in those words. When I walk into a hardware store alone, I feel them looking at me like I’ve transgressed some kind of insurmountable boundary by just being there, like I’m suddenly a criminal… or a unicorn. If I’m with a male, I become a dainty accessory. When they talk down to me, I want either to cry or disembowel them on the spot.

I can look back and I know exactly, exactly what started this feeling of fear and awe toward craftspersonly pursuits. I wasn’t allowed to touch any of my dad’s tools when I was a kid, neither hand nor power, wasn’t even allowed into the garage or basement when he was working on something– but I’d sneak to a window, the cellar stairs, curl up in a corner, anyway– anything just to watch something take shape under his hands. He’d get very angry with me if I came near the drill press or the table saw, even when they were off, even when no one was using them and they were unplugged. I’d get near them anyway. When he wasn’t there, I’d touch them, I’d inspect the buttons and switches (and the depth stop, the huge wheel on the side of the drill press that lowered the chuck down to whatever you were working on– its three handles protruded like some kind of star) and I’d unplug the machines myself so nothing would happen while I ran my fingers over them. Looking back, it was almost sexual, it was almost like love.

Do you know when I’ve felt most powerful? It’s when I could make something else, when I’ve been in control of something beyond myself, outside of my own body. It’s the only time I’ve felt competent. When I modify my own bondage equipment, painting my loft and getting the extra nuts and washers so the eyebolts wouldn’t twist when cuffs were attached, when I chose the eyebolts because I knew they were stronger than screw eyes, when I chose the lumber myself for straightness, back when I worked on things in shop class, back when I fixed the cabinet doors for my mother, when I fix my own bicycle, when I play with fire learning to forge weld, when I made a chef’s knife for a friend’s brother. Hells, even the simple task of making my wand, cutting it to length, whittling away the bark and sanding down the rest through different grades of paper then steel wool until it was polished shiny and smooth–these times have been my most powerful times. And it isn’t just a sense of power… it’s the only time I really feel whole. When I write, it’s like drinking fire; when I make, it’s like all the pieces fall back into place and there I am, a whole being, myself, deciding, shaping, modifying, taking something and giving it a new form.

When my grandfather died of cancer, I didn’t know how to deal with any of my feelings. I certainly knew I wasn’t allowed to talk about it. My parents wouldn’t speak to me of it, or if I cried, they told me I was being over dramatic. After all, my father had suffered the worst of us; it was his father who had died. Instead, I asked to go down into my grandfather’s workshop in the basement of my grandparents’ house. I took out all the tools I knew, asked permission of my grandmother to use the wood I found there. My grandmother was the only one who had authority over this stuff now; it was my grandfather’s, and so now hers. I knew she wouldn’t tell me no. If she had, I think I would have broken. I never mentioned it to any other adult male for fear they’d stop me, tell me no, tell me I’d hurt myself. It was my mother, grandmother, and aunt at the table when I asked. I remember. It was like a conspiracy.

It was a thin board. The only saw was a coping saw, though I had no curves to cut (I didn’t break the blade, oh Gods, I didn’t break the blade; if I had, it would have been a mortal sin). There was a ratchet brace. I didn’t have a ruler or pencil. It was so uneven when I was done; I couldn’t find any sandpaper, none. I made a hornbook. I even got a ball point pen from my grandmother and put the alphabet and Lord’s Prayer on a sheet of paper which I glued down with wood glue, because there was nothing else. It was so misshapen. But I was powerful as I made it; it was all-consuming under my hands, while taking shape. I could have cried at how it came out. I was both ecstatic and horrified. It looked terrible, lopsided, deformed, and I wish I had never showed it to anyone. My mother and aunt were kind enough to say good things about it; I think they knew that if they didn’t, I’d crumble. I wish I had smashed the thing, broken the uneven handle right off. But I couldn’t. I ended up throwing it out. It hurt to look at it, so inept and fumbling an attempt. At the same time, I had felt like a god while cutting it out, the wood held fast by the jaws of the vise. I was whole again, while I made it. But only while I made it.

How stupid does it all sound? How dumb? So when those voices say, “Go back, little girl, go play with your dolls and bake a fucking pie. Leave the tools to the real men,” I answer, “Never.”

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