Tuesday, July 14, 2009

I Am Seeing Spirit

This week has been an experience of a combination of hard work and being knocked on my ass, physically and spiritually. The beginning of the week we began work on a hammer coffin that needed to get done quickly. It was ordered by a family, apparently for an elder who just died who was a carpenter. This provided new opportunities for me to learn some very different things.

The first was construction of a new form. And by new form, I mean it was new to the crew as well. They have an old hammer coffin in the display area that is about 25 years old, which puts it in (grandfather) Kane Kwei's era. The problem with this older form as seen by Eric and his father, Cedi, is that it is too heavy and bulky in form. It is heavy for the coffin bearers to carry and too heavy in shape. They wanted to lighten up the form and make the proportions more true to a real hammer. Another problem that has to be considered is that you have to also place a body within it once it is fabricated. So, they brought out a brand new 16 oz. claw hammer and placed it on a bench and gathered everyone, including me around it and asked for suggestions as to how to proceed. A lot of conversation was carried on without my knowing what was being said. But pretty soon someone got out a piece of wood and began ripping 5 inch wide, 6 1/2' long boards. Still not understanding what the process was, I stood back and watched while the senior apprentice, Adjetey, took the four boards and began to measure and mark them into segments, all the time looking at the hammer. Once all the segments were marked similarly on each board, another apprentice, Aigbei, took one of the boards, placed it flat on the bench, took the cross-cut saw, and started cutting the first line across the width of the board. He stopped just short of cutting all the way through and kept from cutting into the bench which I assumed was going to happen. The next thing he did started to make sense to me. He started another parallel cut just a quarter of an inch to the right of his last cut. But the angle of the saw was pointed to the bottom of the first cut. When he finished the second cut he had made a 'V' cut ¼" wide at the top and stopped just short of going through the other side. I have done similar cuts with plywood that I wanted to bend. By relief-cutting the back of the plywood board every so often it allowed the board to be bent to a tighter curve. What was happening with this piece of wood for the hammer was that cutting each segment, anywhere from 10" to 18" apart, either on the front or the back allowed the board to be bent in a zigzag sort of form resembling the ins and outs of the hammer handle edge as it ran up from the bottom to where the hammer head would be connected.

Once four of them were made, each section was bent in its appropriate direction and nailed across the bend to hold its shape. Then again a big group discussion happened, and by group I mean the masters - Eric and Cedi- and all the apprentices from senior to the last. The discussion centered on the size and shape of the ends of the handle. A lot of measuring of shoulder widths and round or oval or truncated square shapes discussed. Once that was decided I was given two boards and told to edge nail them together. This became one of the ends after I cut the shape that Cedi drew on it and I smoothed the cuts with a hand plane into a roughly circular shape. Someone had cut the other end and shaped it. Now we placed the two end pieces on the ground about 6 ½' apart and laid the ends of the first zigzag board on the top edge of each end piece. The hammer was taken out again and held at arms length toward the edge the zigzag board and the board was deemed accurate, so it was nailed on to the end pieces. The other three boards were nailed on a ¼ turn from each other so that they were equally spaced around the ends. This gave the skeletal outline of the handle and all the information needed to fill in the spaces in between with the cut and fitted pieces. This process was similar to the one I had done for the airplane coffin.

Now, I was given my second lesson. Since, this a rush order, two other apprentices and I were asked to fill in all the space between the four boards to create the handle shaped form. I felt only minimally competent in creating the individual pieces, from my leisurely, learn-as-you-go experience with the airplane. Now, I was expected to contribute not only competently, but with speed, as well. I felt very intimidated, not by the speed and competence of the two other apprentices but by my expectation to do well and not make mistakes. This is where I found more of the kindness of fellow apprentices. They would step in occasionally and point me in the right direction and at other times allow me to take my time by working around my section and going to the next. I found the time used to do self-conscious analysis of each step and the need to figure what action to take each time created pressure that slowed me down. But then things became a bit easier, less thinking was going on and my pace began to pick up. So, repetition, under pressure forced me to be less self-conscious and more action-conscious, uncomfortable but successful.

And, in retrospect, the third lesson I took from the building of the hammer was the power and empowerment of collaboration. The energy, both creative and productive, was huge. Problems were solved and acted on in a very short period of time and the result was a more proportioned, sleeker and lighter hammer coffin which was the task asked of the group. This does not come from a group of individuals that work independently. These guys eat together, they joke and laugh with each other, they finish each other's work, they trust each other.

The hammer head was designed and built in a similar manner and things slowed down a bit as all the voids and spaces were filled in to finish the shapes. This was a lot of work in a very short time and I was exhausted each night, going home to bed and sleeping 8 to 9 hours each night. And then Wednesday night I was feeling extra tired I decided to have a quiet night of reading and writing and go to bed. In the middle of writing for the blog the glands in my neck felt swollen and sore. Five or ten minutes later I felt a chill, very strange for 80 degree weather. Then more and more chills. I turned off the overhead fan because the breeze felt too cool on my skin causing more chills. I went to bed and covered up, having always slept on top of the sheets since I arrived. The night before, Tuesday, I remembered that I had taken breakfast at a different place on that morning and I did not remember taking my malaria pill, Malarone. This is a daily dose of malaria prophylaxis meant to prevent any traction of the parasite in my body if bitten by a carrying mosquito. Believe me I have been advised and practice many defenses against mosquito borne disease. I got out all my Malarone pills and counted them three or four times and then compared my numbers to a calendar and figured I had taken it and just hadn't remembered doing so. But on Wednesday night, fever and chills running through my body, I was not so sure and was thinking more and more this could be malaria. Malaria is easily managed and rid from the body if you get it treated soon after symptoms start. So, the next morning, Eric took me to a doctor who specializes in malaria. After a lab test of my blood which took an hour to process, during which time I could not stay awake, the doctor explained that I did not have malaria but an upper-respiratory bacterial infection. The lab test showed that I had a high white blood cell count, and the doctor said from that information that three things were true. It was not a viral infection and it certainly was not malaria, unless bacterial infection and malaria were happening at the same time (highly unlikely). The third, she said, was that the high white cell count showed my body to be 'robust' and very healthy for someone my age! Thank you, very much.

Well, with a gazillion pills in hand I headed back to my bed some 20 minutes away and once there proceeded to sleep through 24 hours. The pills began to help, as well as, the sleep and by Friday I felt like going out to eat something. Saturday I went to the workshop for a short while, doing errands with Eric. This Sunday I finally felt like myself and I look forward to going back to the shop on Monday to work again.

While all this was going on and I was drifting in and out of sleep, I was having very vivid and odd dreams for me about death, bodies, and dead spirits. My usual dreams, if I remember them at all, are typically very benign and low key. I have been around and witnessed death and its process. It is not a frightening thing for me. In fact I see it as some of the hardest work a person can do. Especially for someone whose body is healthy, but the spirit is working to leave. It is the last, hard process we go through, both consciously and particularly physically. I don't fear my own death. On several occasions I have stopped and looked at my life choices, what I have learned and experienced, and have felt very lucky and whole. There are things I regret, but those experiences helped me grow and made for more informed choices later in life. So, if my life were to end I would be greatly saddened for the loss of my relationships. I wish those could continue forever, but I have had a good life and it could end today. So, these dreams didn't seem to be coming from a death anxiety. They were dark and colorful and if I step back and look at the content, rather gruesome. Other strange things about them are that they seemed to occur while I was in a transitional sleep state, between deep sleep and wakefulness, and the gruesomeness wasn't apparent to me while in the dream. I did not feel threatened or in danger.

I told Eric about them and he sucked in a breath and said that I have to be very careful, that these sorts of dreams tell the truth and I have to be careful how I deal with them. He went on to say that there are people who, through no cause on my part, may wish me ill will, and they can cause spirits to do me harm. He said both he and his father have felt these forces and have had to deal with them. Eric went on to explain that most of this is related to the work we are doing, creating containers for the dead. Dealing so closely with the dead opens us up to all kinds of spiritual powers. He said some people use the church and their Christian belief to help them deal with these forces and some use Ju Ju, the traditional practice to balance spiritual energy. Some, he said, suffer physical pains and stress and that is how they deal with it. He went on to say that since he has been heading the business, making it stronger, more successful, and well known, he feels protected. He feels that his ancestor, Kane Kwei, is protecting him and the shop. This is why when there are celebrations, initiations like mine, and significant things that happen with the shop and the family, Eric and others, when drinking to celebrate a special time at the shop first will first spill libations (gin) on the ground to share with his grandfather. This is why the sheep was sacrificed and the blood dripped on my feet and then to the ground to include and honor Kane Kwei and connect me with Kane Kwei, to let him know I was here and why. These tributes honor him and the ancestors, and acknowledge their protection of the shop and what the shop does and, further, their protection of the family and what they do.

I felt uneasy and a bit circumspect about my dreams as he first spoke and then more assured and then included and protected as we finished talking.

I have had no dreams since.


  1. Glad you're still with us, Michael!

  2. Dear Mr. deForest,

    I found your work through Waterstone Gallery's emails, and I love it, especially the fish! If I were to have the opportunity to pick one up, I feel that it would twist and flex out of my hands and into the nearest body of water. For me, the divergent colors and images you often include in their creation are fantastic additions to the muscularity and wild eyes of these wonderful aquatic creatures.

    Both of my parents hunted, fished, and grew their own vegetables, so a large part of my background includes the appreciation for where my food comes from, the environment that affects it, and also the beauty of every living thing that contributes to my sustenance and health.

    Thank you for your work, your philosophy, and also for your reading time. I wish you and your endeavors all the very best!


    Ethel Mays
    Artist, Poet, Writer