Sharpening Our Tools


There’s always a lesson for me in the garden, especially when I’m the teacher.

The young men gathered around the table, looking at me, leery about the day’s agenda. The pile of our trusty and well-used pruning shears, weeding forks, and trowels, and my odd assortment of files, oil cans, rags and steel wool was raising some puzzled looks.

“We’re going to sharpen our tools,” I said. “And that will make us better gardeners.”

I talked about dirt and grit, and how dull, rusty tools slow us down, and make our work harder. I talked about rain and damp, and getting rid of rust with a bit of oil wiped on a newly cleaned surface.

“If you take care of your tools, they will last a lifetime,” I said. “It’s a great gift to yourself.”

I talked about how pruners work, whether anvil or bypass, and why the blades are different. I picked up a file, showing them how to hone a blade, bringing out the edge. Doing a good job was all in how you finished it, by gently taking off the burrs on the edge, bringing out the best of the blade, and ourselves.

The metaphors were not lost on these young men, struggling to remake their lives, and move on to managing their lives in a decent, productive way.

I showed them how to do the work, and then urged them to pick a tool, and do their magic.

“The right tool for the right job,” I said, echoing my grandfather’s wisdom I’d heard when I was a young man.

Curious, eager minds asked dozens of questions, and, again, I showed them how to hone the blades, taking their eager hands into mine, helping them grip the file and set to work.

They found their way, getting a sense of that feel, of file meeting blade, steel against steel, until the newly bright edges met their standards of completion and excellence. Rust and dirt were buffed away, and a new coat of oil made hinges and springs smooth and silent. Grime and dirt were banished, the young hands feeling how they brought back the life and beauty of the tools they’d used this past year.

One young man kept doing it differently, missing what I was trying to teach. I was gentle with him, explaining everything again and again. I felt my patient grandfather in me, as I took his hand and the file, and began the lesson again.

Uncertain frowns gave way to smiles and shared accomplishments, the pleasure of making something as good as new. I saw young men restoring something to its original good purpose, gaining pride in who they were, and knowing what they could do.

We sharpened all of our tools today, and we sharpened some lives, too. I sensed my grandfather’s arm around me, holding me tight, whispering how proud he was of how I sharpened my tools.

–Neal Lemery 1/23/2016

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