“Art is not a handicraft, it is the transmission of feeling the artist has experienced.” ~ Leo Tolstoy.
Leo, this resonates with me. Woodworking has become my coping mechanism of choice.
Creating beautiful things in times of hardship has transformed into my favorite cathartic hobby. As a mere woodworking novice, I’m still able to pour my love, heartache, stress, anxiety, grief, and overwhelm into a roughly cut slab of black walnut or cherry wood to forge a piece of artistry.
Amidst the global pandemic, my small family, consisting of my husband, six-year-old son, two rescue pups, and myself, chose to spend our “safer at home” time building a campervan in our suburban Boulder, Colorado apartment driveway. We coined the project, “Our Life-Sized Covid Jigsaw Puzzle” with which we’d be able to spend years to come making memories of family adventure throughout the United States.
We were new to Colorado. Our two pups, Albert, a mixed breed who was born of a pack of wild dogs in Kentucky and embodies fierce loyalty to his new pack family, and Kaya, a smaller terrier mix who’s also from Kentucky and exhibits a vivacious, nurturing energy and love for cuddles, both fully embraced the opportunity to partake in Colorado dog-culture lifestyle. They got to tag along everywhere with their much-loved humans.
A few weeks into our van build, Kaya was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of liver cancer.
Her food was switched to a homemade, organic, and raw diet which my husband, Ryan, thoughtfully prepared for her twice daily, to the point where he partially cooked it in her own special mini fry-pan. The partial cooking may have defeated the purpose, but she wasn’t interested in eating otherwise. The fragrance had likely triggered her appetite.
This process would always draw smiles as Albert would be wedged between Ryan and the stove, as he snoops around Kaya’s vitality-packed meals. Kaya, on the other hand, would wait, with her tail wagging and ears perked up, while gingerly anticipating gobbling up her meal, always eating around the blueberries.
We worked on our van every evening after our day jobs were done. With gratitude, our only commute was closing our laptops and changing into our well-worn, faded shorts and old cut-off T-shirts. Every half hour or so, we would peek in through the garage, up the staircase, and there Kaya would be, laying on the top step with her wagging tail thudding against the carpet, gleeful for us to finish up and come back inside.
This went on for weeks as her energy level waned. We knew we needed to hurry if we wanted to get out for at least one trip as our current family of five.
Building a campervan from scratch comes with an abundance of steps, including sound deadening, insulating, adding electrical equipment, constructing walls, carefully designing furniture that maximizes the 60 square foot space, and a handful of other tasks.
My personal must-haves for our design were: a mini wood stove for heat and entertainment value, an interesting, colorful nature-inspired aesthetic, and a unique table made of reclaimed live edge wood that had to be both beautiful and functional.
This table became my labor of love, from painstakingly choosing the clover-shaped trunk slab of reclaimed 60-year-old cherrywood, narrowed down from 30-plus favorited options on Etsy, to buffing in the final coat of natural linseed, oil wood finish.
My dog was dying and I was creating a table for us to cherish while adventuring without her.
Choosing to sand this table with my own hands was both practical and slightly insane. The roughly cut and jagged edges of cherry hardwood took more than elbow grease. It took like an entire rotator cuff and all adjacent muscle groups grease.
Between lending my hands with Ryan on other aspects of the van build, I generally dedicated five hours a week to our soon-to-be table. Chipping off the thick, outer protective bark to expose the lustrous cambium layer, delicately sanding the loose fibers away–just enough to stay above the sapwood, then sanding, sanding, and more sanding of the tabletop.
My mind would drift in and out as my hands guided the varying grits of sandpaper in a circular motion, pausing to blow the dust out of the slowly declining crevices and to feel the slightly softened difference created.
While sanding, my right arm was often burning—sometimes in almost unbearable pain, which felt like a genuinely welcomed break for my bleeding heart and emotionally exhausted mind.
A few days before our first family joyride to the Rainbow Lakes Trailhead for a picnic, the table and heart of our campervan were complete with their last coat of natural sealant. While the process of building the table (and campervan as a whole) was an enjoyably challenging project, getting out to play was a vast improvement in the fun category.
Taking in the giant pines, lush meadow, and towering the still slightly snow-capped mountains—all while feasting on a charcuterie assortment of apricots, pistachios, sesame crackers, and aged, white cheddar cheese, washed down by local CBD sparkling water with our dogs in tow—was nothing short of an iconic Colorado experience.
Kaya, our Canine Cancer Warrior, had rapidly declined and passed away three days later.
While it was obviously heart-shattering to endure, I wouldn’t trade that month of my life for anything else. Coping with deep grief is actually deep love—for which I will always be grateful.