Craft: Why Choosing Things Done Well Strengthens the Soul
In a small bakery, the smell of cedar wafts and mingles with the aroma of rye bread and melting cheese. The small shop only seats ten people and sits in a renovated elementary school. The spiced air and the cold brick walls create a feeling I want to linger in forever. Olivia and I are waiting for a treat that is only available on Saturdays: pizza. This isn’t just any pizza. This pizza is made on artisan crust you could eat by itself, with ingredients that are fresh and locally grown or made. It is a reinvention of pizza. It is the platonic form of pizza. And the bakery only makes it on Saturdays. As word has begun to spread about this hidden gem, we had to get to the bakery early before they sold out, and even still, we were 72nd to place our order.
Obviously, this isn’t your frozen pizza; this isn’t your take-it-home and finish baking it pizza. To call it pizza is almost unfair, like calling Les Miserables a “good book.” This place uses only “heirloom grains,” meaning real, actual grains – nothing genetically modified. They only grind the flour they need to make what they are currently baking (grinding the grains opens the oils to decomposition; rancid oils make things taste bad). And everybody wants it. Evidently, originality is not the essence of desirability. Quality is. This is true for many aspects of my life.
After spending several months working as a roaster at a local coffee shop, I began to understand the difference between the coffee of Folgers and Starbucks and the specialty coffee that is ever growing in popularity. I hear people say in incredulous voices, “five bucks for a latte?? What are you paying for!?” And to those people I respond, “Have you ever tasted one?” I am not saying that the Good Life is paying through the nose for specialty everything. I am saying there is a difference between creating something and creating something well.
The idea of craft came to me in the coffee world. The passion and dedication the owner of the coffee shop and roaster possessed towards his craft was intense and intimidating. Where the coffee is grown matters. The soil the coffee is grown in matters, the residual temperature of the roaster every thirty seconds matters, the weight of the extracted espresso to the tenth of a gram matters. Why does it matter? Because the owner loved it. And he loved creating something so good the flavor would linger on your tongue for an hour.
After coffee, I fell in love with this idea of craft in many areas. From the small company in Spokane, Washington, that makes oil tinctures for your beard, to the local bourbon distillery that creates only one type of bourbon, to the pizza that is only served on Saturdays. There is an intoxicating intentionality when people pour their skill, energy, time, and talent into a single idea or product. I believe this is the heart of what it means to be fruitful.
It’s started to occur to me that this might be an issue of the heart.
CS Lewis makes a simple point in his essay “Good Work and Good Works”: “When our Lord provided a poor wedding party with an extra glass of wine all round, he was doing good works. But also good work; it was a wine really worth drinking.” Sure, we can take it for granted that God would do something well. But I think doing things well does something for your soul. It gives you substance. It speaks to a view of the world that carefully engages, rather than just using to throw away.
To make something so well it is considered craft requires passion, and it requires time. The distillers of Lagavulin love scotch and have dedicated decades to its quality. The craftsman who builds furniture, or the perfect felling axe, spends their life honing their craft. Because it takes time and passion, craft also necessitates specificity. It is an old maxim that you can do many things poorly, or a few things well. The more specific a craft is, the better it is likely to be.
Still, I work in a school. Not all of us can make scotch or pizza. Very few of us get to push a block plane, or grow a great coffee bean. But I think there’s a key part of this in how we choose to eat and buy and spend our time.
It’s easier to choose convenience. By this point, I am no stranger to the brittle veneer of quality that covers consumerist culture like lipstick on a llama. In the rat race for profit, the products thrown at me are made as cheaply as possible and designed to look as good as possible. I grow weary of learning what product has been newly discovered to be something other than what it presents itself to be or what product has been exploiting our body’s chemistry in order to get us hooked on it. I walk down the grocery store isle bombarded with the best branding money can buy completely skeptical of what is behind the packaging. Consumerist culture creates a mentality of expendability, products are made to break or be used once, and a mentality of exploitation. Where consumerism is a game of cat and mouse, a culture of craft is an invitation into someone else’s passion and skill. It’s a way of finding substance in a substance-less world.
The more you engage substance, the more substantial you become. The opposite is true the more you engage the cheap, fake, and convenient. This requires intentionality, but it doesn’t have to be complex. I get to choose the pizza from a local bakery: it is delicious, not because it is filled with fat and sugar, but because the crust is masterfully made and each ingredient is fresh and expertly grown. It’s a simple choice, but still, it’s part of a process of choosing a more soulful life.
There’s one more thing. To achieve craft, you have to care about what you are making. As Lewis says, “There are two sorts of job. Of one sort, a man can truly say, ‘I am doing work which is worth doing. It would still be worth doing if nobody paid for it’…The other kind of job is that…which need not be, ought not to be, or would not be, done by anyone in the whole world unless it were paid.” Craft is not about profit or exploitation. It is about creating something wonderful because you love it. Even if you’re not an expert, the care and dedication is hard to miss and so is the enjoyment value. The essence of craft is the idea that what is being created matters and that it makes the world a more full and rich place. Engaging it builds that quality. You become someone who cares about substance, who cares about the world, rather than someone who is indifferent, disconnected, and ready to throw it all away.