Note: This is a version of a piece I wrote for the blog at the Carnegie, a small learning community at my high school in its first year of work. I’ve adapted it here because it speaks to the challenges faced by anyone trying to build something new.

It took me about three years to build the stone patio beind my house.

What got me started wasn’t any great desire to learn the ways of the stonemason, but a cranky thriftiness I no doubt inherited from my father. We had piles and piles of rough-cut bluestone left over from construction. Why should I pay for boring manufactured pavers when I had this stone waiting to be shaped into something beautiful?

So one spring day, I cleared the space, laid a bed of 1A gravel, and began laying out stone. Not, as Thoreau did, “for the sake of tropes and expression, to serve a parable-maker one day,” but simply to create something both practical and beautiful.

Of course, I found when I started that shaping and cutting stone was a tricky job. Unlike factory-made pavers, the stones behind my house were…unique. Every one different, no two alike. Some of them worked wonderfully together, fitting perfectly. Others seemed almost completely incompatible with each other.

One can cut stones, shaping them to fit patterns. Simply score them with a hammer and chisel, breathe deeply and make the cuts. But there are limits. Stones have a funny way of breaking the way they want to break, refusing to fit any preconceived notions you might have of how they should look. In the end, I often found it best to simply leave the stones alone, looking carefully for the best ways to fit them together. Gravel helped fill in the gaps, supporting the stones and helping them work together as a group.

Had I the ability to focus exclusively on the patio, I might have finished it in a few weeks. But life, of course, interrupted as it will, with bills to pay and diapers to change. And to be honest, there was only so much schlepping of stone I could do each day before I got tired. So it took me three years to finish the work.

When I look at the patio now, I’m proud of what I’ve done. But I also see the mistakes. The areas where, because I rushed and didn’t correctly level a section, the rainwater has pooled and cracked the stone. The parts where stones have shifted. And I also see places where time and nature have had their way, leaving me with places that need to be carefully observed, taken apart and rebuilt.

Today, I’m privileged to spend much of my day working in a historic Carnegie library newly renovated for a 21st century purpose. During the renovation, one of the foreman told me the stone quarried for the building was likely cut and laid by local stoneworkers who would later go to the library to learn English. It’s hard not to wonder, as you look at the craftsmanship of the builders, if they were aware of the long-term significance of their work. Does this explain the care that went into even the smallest details of the building?

In school, we work not with stones, but with human beings. Our students are shaped not by wind and water, but by the social forces at play in their environment. And, like my patio, we’re always building something new. We learn a lot from books. But it’s in our daily work and reflection that we truly learn.

Change takes time. But with luck, we can build foundations that will support our castles in the air.


3 thoughts on “Stoneworking

  1. Pingback: Small Stone Poem #24 by Elizabeth Kate Switaj | Elizabeth Kate Switaj

  2. Nice work on the patio! I can tell that you and I think alike in many ways. For one thing, I, too, hate paying for new materials, when something I already have can be used creatively to fill the need. Keep up with the building, both at home and in your teaching.

  3. Pingback: Shaping My Life In Stone « Publish N Prosper

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