Monday, May 3, 2010

Jo and the Spoons

It was raining when I woke up this morning, the trees in Whitefish, Montana are budding and the grass is starting to grow out of control. We got into the car, the smell of our hot coffee curling around us, making the rain against the windshield and the mist rising off the river seem quaint and beautiful and that much colder. We drove up Highway 2 into Glacier Park and the rain turned to sleet and finally to snow, melting before it hit the angry green river, the red willow lining the banks, and the ochre trees, their new branches bending and budding against the April storm.

We headed further into the park, Bob Dylan on the radio, the emptiness and promise of what life could be playing out like a fairy tale all around us. It doesn't really happen that way, does it?

We crossed the border heading to Two Medicine, and suddenly, miles from anywhere, we pull up in front of a little storefront called the Spiral Spoon. "We've got to go in here" he says to me.

Are you kidding? I'm thinking. It’s a spoon store. It’s got to be like "The World's Largest Doughnut Hole" or something. Well, hell, I'm always up for an adventure. We're out adventuring in a storm; it might make a nice story —some Montana folks who sell spoons. Why not?

I hear my closed judgmental self and I think, wow. Where did that come from? Where's that open adventurous person who is excited to meet anyone, wherever they are on their path, and be open to the lesson they might teach me?

We open the door, and at first, I'm so ready to see kitsch and nonsense that all that registers are the little plaques on the walls with quaint sayings. I'm amused and pleased that Michael is so giving of his heart that he's made friends with the old cowboy minding the shop, so I don't have to engage and talk. I'll look around and be interested, and then we can get back on our program. I hear the prejudice in my own heart, and I'm ashamed. And then I look to my left, and hanging on the wall is a spoon. Not a spoon, but a deep hollowed out ladle. A dipper.

I move to it, I want to hold its weight in my hand, I want to feel the thickness of the wood, and I'm shocked by how it feels, I'm shocked at its energy, at its aliveness, at the tree it came from and the hand that made it. I don't want to like the carving, I want to see it as kitschy craft art, but all I can feel in this dipper is this overwhelming feeling of hearth. The carving curls around it and follows and flows with this spoon, its been loved out of the wood it was born from.

As I'm holding it, I become aware of the fact that I'm caressing it, my hands are wrapping around its bowl and I'm thinking of a family of eight, four boys, a girl, my mom, and my love, feeding their bellies, of soup, of stock, of celery and carrots and cooking, of the steam off my crock pot like the mist outside, of my kids coming in out of the cold and this dipper going down into carrot soup, corn soup, tomato soup— home made, thick, creamy, filling and hot, scalding little tongues. Crusty bread dipped into it. Sopping up last dribbles, crumbs and butter on the table, this spoon, tired and stained orange, lying in the empty soup tureen.

I look up and realize that they surround me. I start to walk, a bit dumbfounded, from spoon to spoon. There is a long black one with some sort of twisting, winding handle hanging from the wall, and I walk up to it, in my mind it goes into a dish of tortellini with fresh tomato, basil and mushroom, wine reduction with gooey melted Parmesan dripping off of it, laughter, crisp white wine in the glasses, the kids must be in bed, my mom is feeding us, no I'm feeding her after all she's given to us.

It’s the hearth again. This little place is full of it. Michael and the cowboy are talking about the kinds of wood, which is the densest, the strongest, and I have some burning pride that he can always find the thing to say, he's asking questions about what this man loves, I've assumed that he's the carver. I'm glad that Michael is there to ask the questions and give this man what he deserves, respect and time, because I'm selfishly busy being enthralled by something else I've found—they make magic wands. In the next room, there is a case full of wands to make any Harry Potter-obsessed fan convinced that the entire thing is real.

I can't resist. I know it’s ridiculous, but I pick one up and it sits in my hand like an old friend, I find myself knowing that if I were ten, this would be my wand, I'd hold it and love it and tuck it into my belt and believe it was real. I'd lie in a field and cast a spell on Robbie Davidson, the only boy I ever knew who could turn his eyelids inside out; hoping that he would love me, too.

Michael and the cowboy are still at it, talking about origins of wood, of processing, of cost of materials, and a beautiful young woman whom I've been talking with distractedly on and off since we came in comes back over to me.

"They really are magic, you know," she says.

"They really are." The cowboy joins in. I almost want to believe it.

"Its true," he says. He opens the back door of the shop. "They made that car," he says, and points to a brand new Ford Explorer parked outside. The daughter grins, her beautiful face lit with pride, her tattoos standing out in defiance on her forearms. "It’s true. It’s called Merlin."

There is a lesson here. I open my ears and my heart. I realize that the spoons feel like hearth because the hearth is standing right here in front of me. "She's carving right now because it’s a full moon, so she's hard at work."

I'm skeptical, I'm pretty sure they are having me on, I mean, things are labeled "full moon" but that's just something that people say to add to the lore, right? And then I realize that the sound that I've been hearing is the sound of the sanding wheel, and that someone is, indeed, hard at work.

"It’s Jo, my wicked stepmother. She's gonna work all day to turn these out."

"Can I take a picture?" I ask. Could I really? She made all these spoons, this woman, this force in the back somewhere, she's made all this magic all around me, things I can't stop touching, baby spoons, I imagine what it would be like to feed a child from the heart of a tree hand carved by a woman who is loved so well. I am a fool.

I walked into this place thinking it was Indian coins and t-shirts. The world’s largest spoon. I didn't realize I was walking into my own fairy tale. The life of a woman, loved unflinchingly by her husband and her stepdaughter, literally carving out a world of peace at the gateway to a million of the most beautiful acres on earth.

"Let me ask her," the cowboy says. "She's in her world right now, I don't want you to walk up and startle her."

I picture some wild hippie woman at work at a lathe in a secret room in the back, casting spells while the wood bends to her command. The cowboy walks to the back of the very same room I'm standing in and bends over. She's been there this whole time. She's so covered in dust and so intent on her work that I haven't even seen her. He whispers something in her ear, he bends over her, grateful for who she is and what she does, and I watch this love and respect go between them in the air all around them, and again, I feel grateful to be here, grateful to Michael for stopping, grateful to this woman for making these spoons, and foolish to have been so ready to see what I was expecting to see.

Jo looks up from her work and nods, goes back to work. I step back into her space, over piles of sawdust and chunks of white wood, all of which looks the same to me, and I see the crude shapes of the wands taking place. She pulls her mask down. "This one I've already put the feathers in. I've sealed it with brass you see."

She's not kidding. The care she takes with these wands is serious. The pattern, the life of the wand emerges with her intuition, she crafts each one as though were the right child to hold it, it really would work magic. I almost believe it.

"Why don't you look around a spell and we'll visit in a minute." she says. She's going to take a break. She's going to spend her break with me. Michael feels ready to go, he and the Cowboy have exhausted their topics. I want so badly to buy a spoon for my mother, the huge dipper, I want to get my kids some wands, but I'm not even sure I have enough money to drive back to Colorado, so I know I can't risk it.

The cowboy, who I now think of as a guardian, a keeper of pride— it glows off of him and reflects off each one of these pieces— invites me to look at the wands again. "After you choose your wand, we tell you what kind of wood it is and what's inside it, and what the significance of each is. "

They come with polishing kits and wax, you can buy a book on the making of a wand and what goes into it. It’s serious business. She shapes them on the full moon. The Phoenix feathers she puts inside, she gets in Phoenix, Arizona. I ask for an information sheet on the wands, I want to read all about it, and the cowboy looks at me, almost guilty. "I'm sorry, but you have to buy a wand to get all this information."

Again, I think he's having me on. "Really, it’s important, we give it to you after you've chosen your wand."

He shows me the registration for each wand, each piece has its individual certificate telling the story of the wand, what’s in it, what it’s made of, when it was made, all of it.

I realize I couldn't buy wands for my kids anyway, they have to come here and let the wand choose them. I've decided that we are coming back in June. I'll save up to buy my mom that ladle, and my kids will choose their wands.

The sanding wheel goes off and Jo is getting up from her dusty seat. The evil stepdaughter opens the door to the brisket barn next door and invites us to hustle across the gravel and back out of the cold; Jo will join us shortly.


The brisket barn is a new construction, one room full of a smoker grill, and the adjoining room a cozy, homey place to hang out and have a beer. Which she offers us. Two Rainier's are cracked open and tucked into Brisket Barn cozies, and we head into the finishing room. There are final pieces soaking in a bucket full of beeswax and mineral oil, Amber begins to pull the pieces out of the tub, dripping with wax, the deep yellow and brown and red suddenly showing through. I watch her dip her hand down into the bottom of the bucket and I suddenly long for this life.

Happy. All three of them. Amber has been challenged by Jo to begin shaping her own spoons, and she's daunted by the idea of it. She's worked for weeks on a certain kind of wood that keeps cracking, and has finally set that aside and moved to a softer wood. She's glowing with pride as she shows me the little pinkie spreaders she's made, the successful spoons that she hopes will hold the power of promise that her step mother's do.

Jo comes on in, and we settle down to tell stories around the table. She tells me about being an English teacher, Charlie was a stock broker. They moved to this little town inside the park boundaries in 1997 and she made her first spoon.

They don't sell them on the Internet because Jo believes that you need to come in and touch them and feel them. They are made to be used, to be loved, to be part of eating and feeding. She says she'll add a 50% art tax if anyone tells her they are going to hang it on the wall.

Charlie sits, watching Jo with a mix of awe and love, and we bullshit for a while. Jo tells us that she's had a heart attack last year, and Michael asks about it. "Did you go by ambulance?" he asks. He's a flight paramedic for ALERT, there's a chance he would have been her medic if they'd taken her by helicopter. "Yes, they wanted to fly me but we went in the ambulance."

They talk for a while about what it’s like to be that person, on medication, so close to loosing everything, and the feeling of gratitude increases in the room. Jo begins to talk about what it’s like to be unafraid to do what you love, to decide to make spoons and let the rest sort itself out, and I realize, these are people who aren't afraid to live their lives. The choice they made as a family is spoons. The choice Mike made is to go to Africa and be a remote medic. The choice I made is to ski. But the common element is that we all chose something different than what society thinks is right.

The spoons are beautiful because these people know how to love each other. This barn is cozy and homey and I don't want to leave because of the love that made it. This daughter is here because she can't get enough of being a part of this life and love. She's going to learn to make spoons. She wants to be a part of the business, and she needs to start now.

Charlie and Jo and Amber have a brisket bake once a month, the one in June is on the 18th, and they invited us to come. Heck yes, we'll be there. We'll be up in Whitefish camping, and we'll make it a point to bring a dish, come on out to the brisket barn in Glacier, and sit around the room with a whole passel of people who believe in feeding each other and connecting to each other.

We leave that afternoon feeling blessed to have stumbled upon this little heaven. How did that happen? What better way to spend your day than in the company of people that know how to love each other? How good did that beer taste sitting around that table, listening to Jo chide Charlie, "You ain't got your ears on, do you honey?" she says, slapping playfully at them.

There's love there. There's a lesson there. Jo said it, "It’s like field of dreams, all my friends said, ‘Build it and they will come.’ Well, by golly, they did, I got more work than I can handle."

"You ever sit down and try to figure out how long it takes to make a spoon? What your hourly wage really is?" Mike asks, after a conversation about some visitor from New York offering her $30 for a $40 bowl (this was a while ago, that dipper I want is $225 now.)

Jo looks him square in the eye as Charlie and Amber both laugh, knowing the answer. This isn't about money. This is about sitting at the wheel buffing out the piece before you dunk it in the mineral and eating brisket and drinking beer with your friends around the wood stove.

"Honey, the day I do that is the day I quit doing this," she says.

Visit the Spiral Spoon in Glacier National Park in Montana, and say hi! Its worth the drive. ("Our website is horribly out of date, and I don't really care. I want to meet the folks who buy my spoons. They can come up here and hold them and say hi if they want to buy. And they do!)

4 comments:

judyanne said...

oh wow, what a magical day at Glacier you two had, I am thinking the wands work.

Kate Howe said...

Thanks, Judy! It was quite a good lesson.

Jongira said...

Thanks for sharing this uplifting episode about people who have found and live in their love... and the first lyrical paragraph especially is some of the finest pure writing you have done recently, evocative, and a joy to read!

Nisha said...

I came across your experience when I visited the Spiral Spoon website. Thank you so much for sharing! My husband is currently in East Glacier building a bridge and I went and spent last weekend with him. I had the privilege of visiting The Spiral Spoon and had a very similar experience. That little shop, the people, and the spoons are amazing!