The VigilanceVoice
Monday-- February 25, 2002—Ground Zero Plus 167

Blood On The Totem Pole
A Lesson in Vigilance Communication

Cliff McKenzie
Editor, New York City Combat Correspondent News

        GROUND ZERO, New York City, Feb. 24--I stabbed myself last yesterday.  It was a deep, painful wound.  Blood spilled upon my totem pole, mixing with the raw nature of the wood shavings, saturating into the grain, mixing mortality with immortality.
        I knew I was going to stab myself.  
        The day before I thought:  "Really good wood carvers must cut themselves occasionally.   If I'm really good, I will eventually become a "brother of the blood and wood."
        It isn't as though I planned on cutting myself, or purposely designed it.   Instead, it was like the ice skater who knows to achieve excellence in learning new routines he or she must be prepared to fall, must be able to withstand the rock-hard ice slamming against his or her body when the execution of the move is not perfect.
        Or, like when I used to sail a sailboat in Mission Bay.   My friend who owned the other half of the boat, Mike Kotlan, had sailed across the North Atlantic on a small craft.  He reminded me you weren't a real sailor until your boat had tipped over and you learned how to right it.
        Life, lived properly, is about learning from our mistakes.  One cannot push the envelope of the self and evolve without risk, without peering over the edge and walking on the thin ice of new achievements, new adventures.
        There is little return unless there is greater risk than the investment.  
        Wood carving is about weaponry.  
        I started out using sharpened screwdrivers.  They were crude but they dug at the wood, exposing the vision I had under it.   I had never carved wood before, but always admired the craft, the art of it.  Shaping something from nothing seemed alluring to me.
       As a writer I knew I could create anything with words.   I knew the magic of creation, and the hard work of uncovering and discovering the magic of words.   I make thousands of mistakes in writing on the first draft.   Long sentences, confusing thoughts, misspellings, improper tenses fill the page.   Then I start to carve.   Once the rough wood of the words are formed, I take a red pen and slice at the copy, routing out the confusion, digging at the run-on sentences, chiseling away the passive Voice with bright, active verbs that brings what I have to say to clear focus, and makes it alive.
        Then I go over it again and again, refining, polishing, sometimes re-cutting, reshaping what I said to make it even clearer than before.    Often, I put what I write aside and in a couple of days look at it afresh, imagining myself a reader not the writer, trying to cast away my ego and becoming a critic so I can slice and cut any waste, quicken the pace, sharpen the images.
       Even when I am finished, it is unfinished.  There is no perfection, there is only satisfaction that I have done the best possible job--that it is ready for viewing, even with its imperfect perfection.   Then I publish it to an editor or a reader, and wait for the final word that is good or bad, marketable or unmarketable in that person's eyes.   That's when a writer bleeds.   I bleed waiting for acceptance.
       Carving is similar.  Except the bleeding comes in the editing of the wood.   It comes when I forgot to be Vigilant.  
       I had purchased some new carving tools.   Two chisels from the Ace Hardware store.   They were good for roughing out the wood, but the fine work, the real carving of intricate hands or angles to reflect light seemed beyond the scope of the chisel.  I went to New York Art Supply on 3rd Avenue, packed with real and would-be artists of all sizes and shapes.    I was looking for more and better carving tools.    They presented me with a giant box filled with them.  I was a kid in a candy store.   I bought one of each, scoopers, routers, knife blades, groovers.  I was elated.  
       I rushed home and began to work on the hands of the totem.  I had been to New York's famous Museum of Natural History and taken many photos of totems and carvings from around the world and studied them so I could apply the principles my mentors had left for guys like me to try and replicate in our crude way.   I called them Sentinels of the Wood.   They were there to remove my fear and intimidation that I wasn't worthy of carving, to urge me take the chisel to the wood, to risk growing as they had when they first chipped their first carving.    I felt the complacency washing away as I went from hall to hall in the museum, studying, photographing, even standing on the benches to get closer views of the shapes of hands, or how the carvers had created angles that caught the light and made the image more realistic.
      There was just one flaw in my training--no one spoke from the statues and carvings.  No one told me how to keep myself safe.   No one warned me about the errant gouging tool that would slip off the hard wood as I rushed to dig out the wood and spear into the palm of my hand, burrowing deep in the meat of my flesh, cutting so close to a tendon that I felt the pain curl my toes.  I didn't notice the 'veterans of carving display' with severed fingers and dried pools of blood - but I did observe most of the totems were red in color.  
      Vigilance is learned lots of ways.   Had I taken a lesson in "how not to stab yourself" I might have escaped the deep and gripping wound in my left hand.   I learned the hard way.
      Art of any form requires patience.  When you hurry, you rush Nature.  And  Mother Nature cannot be rushed.  She works at her own speed.
      Working with children is a prime example.   First, you have to kneel down to their level when you communicate.  That's hard for most people to begin with.   Most parents stand when they communicate with a child, forgetting they impose upon the child this giant wall of authority, this Gestapo figure who wags fingers and has giant hands that can whack the bottom or, worse, injure the child with its Goliath frame.
       Kneeling down to eye level with a child is the first step of Vigilance when communicating with them.  Walt Disney taught me that.   He built Disneyland from the eyelevel of a child.   If you walk down Main Street as an adult, you see the things an adult sees.   But the engineers didn't build the buildings from that viewpoint.  Instead, Walt had his engineers kneel down and make all their perspectives from that of a child's eyes.   If you want to see Disneyland as it really is, duck walk through it.  You'll see another world.
        On the same level with a child, you create a world of safety between yourself and the youth.  The fear, intimidation and complacency of your adultness melts.  The child and you are now on equal levels, and the odds are you and the child will communicate as one.  You can build trust with the child at his or her level, and the child will tell you things from its heart and its innocence with greater revelation than if you're standing.
        Nature forces good things to happen with patience.   When I talk with my grandkids, I try to get down to their level, and not have them "look up" at me.   I want to look at them.  And they at me.  We equalize ourselves that way.  I say "look in to my eyes, look at me."
        Impatience destroys communications.  If I'm in a hurry and talk from my six-foot four-inch vantage point, I'm just a tower to a child, something so far out of reach that the child can't imagine being equal with me, being honest.   And, at that distance, neither can I.  For standing, I cannot see the child's world, I cannot enter it.


       Like an adult in a rush with a child, I didn't get down at eye level with my wood.   I was rushing, in a hurry to expose the hands of the Chupacabra I was carving.   I jammed and shoved my tools at the wood, muscling all two-hundred and seventy pounds of myself to route out a curve of the creature's hand.
         I was excited.  I had my left hand holding the wood and my weight forward, shoving the thin, sharp routing tool as hard as I could in the groove of chips when it slipped.  Like an arrow, it shot over the wood, glancing up and into the meat of my hand with great force.   I clamped my jaws, my toes curled, my face turned white.   Blood dripped onto the wood as I extracted the shaft from hand.   Throbbing pain hammered to my brain.
        I sat there saying nothing for a few seconds, realizing that I had forgotten Vigilance.  That in my mad rush to unearth the wood, to make my "prize" I hadn't respected the art of patience.   I had become complacent, invincible.   The goal of ending my creation became more powerful than the art of creating it.   I forgot to work with the wood, and had worked against it.  I had intimidated the wood with force and speed and it refuted my speed and anxiety by rejecting my pressure.
       "You Okay," my wife asked.   "Yeah, just made a mistake and stabbed myself."
       I put some ice on it and wrapped it up, and went back to carving.    The ice numbed the pain.   I come from the old school where when the horse bucks you off you climb back on it and ride again, to show the horse you're not afraid and to face your fears.    This time I used the tool with respect, with patience, and even though drops of red oozed down my hand from the ice, it felt good.   I was learning a lesson in wood carving Vigilance.
       Once the ice had numbed my hand I poured hydrogen peroxide on  the wound and my wife wrapped it for me. She was concerned I would get my blood on the totem.  She suggested I should wear a glove on my left hand, the one I used to hold the wood was I carved.  I got a thick glove and put it on.   It was my Shield of Vigilance.  I felt much safer now.
        Lessons in Vigilance can be found just about everywhere--especially when we make mistakes.  They often come in the form of:  "I should've," "I wish I had," "If only I had," "Why didn't I," and so on.   These are stabs.   The work of Vigilance comes after we say these things.  Unfortunately, complacency usually takes over and we don't correct our mistakes.   We repeat them instead until we give up trying.
       When I stabbed myself, at least I knew I was going to do it, at some time in the future.  I had taken the "macho viewpoint," the one that says:  "I'm not a man if I don't bleed on the wood at sometime."   That was folly, of course.   The pain in my left hand is proof of it, and the fact I could have cut a tendon and rendered my left hand useless or disabled would have been a severe price for "machismo."
       But I had the courage to face my fear.   I now wear a glove on my right hand.  I now stop before I start carving and ask the wood to keep me patient, to remind me that we are one, the wood and I, and not to allow me to forget the wood is my partner not something I use to seek my end.
       A Parent of Vigilance does the same thing with a child.   Before talking to the child, the Parent of Vigilance takes a moment to get down to eye level with the child.  Even if that means climbing out of the comfortable chair and sitting on the floor cross-legged.   It means the Parent of Vigilance realizes they are the Goliath and the child a David.   It requires Courage and Conviction to take the extra effort to "be one with a child."   And, it requires Action to replace the Complacency of "talking down" to a child. 
       A child is like a piece of wood.   Parents shape the child, carve its beauty or mar its potential.   As a grandparent I am more aware than ever in my life about the importance of being "one" with a child.   As big as I am, and as hard as it is for me to climb down onto the rug and get eye-level with my grandchildren, I do my best to equalize myself with my grandchildren.
      If I am going to add to the carving of a child's magic, to his or her beauty, as I attempt to do with the wood I am carving, I must respect the child's world, just as I must respect the grains of the wood I carve, and let my tools flow rather than shove and bully the wood.  
      The wound on my left hand is a lesson, a lesson in Vigilance.   The blood that flowed were the Tears of Impatience, Neglect, Complacency.
      I'm going to wear the Glove of Vigilance, not only when I carve wood, but when I communicate with my grandkids.
      Semper Vigilantes--Always Vigilant.

     Go To Feb. 24--Vigilance Of The First Thought

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