I'm told I inherited my 'nerves' from both my mother AND my father. A double whammy of worry. My mother can worry about, quite literally, anything. My father worried himself into a stomach ulcer and a medical discharge from his Air Force Career. Me? I worry. I could take a lesson from Alfred E. Newmann.
In the course of 40 years I've tried a lot of different means to circumvent worry, and thus far not much has worked. My hindbrain, though, the primitive that lurks in his cave, huddling by the fire, HE fixes worry the old fashioned way. When the id is pouring seratonin into every pipeline, when the reptile brain part of me is screaming for a fight or a flight, the primitive and I go somewhere and perform simple tasks. We smoke a pipe, or we clean a pistol; we perform ritual. I get it from my father.
I remember very clearly and with immense fondness my father cleaning his shotgun. He'd sit in one of the big wooden chairs in the master bedroom, framed by the footboard of the massive, dark wood four-poster bed. His cleaning box would be lying on the floor, rods and brushes and brown glass bottles of pungent chemicals ranked in easy reach. There the Hoppes No. 9 Bore Cleaner, and there the mysterious, pungent lubricants and oils in their tins, but first and last was always oiling the steel; in the box of cleaning supplies there was always a scrap of rag that was dark grey with old oil. My father carefully cleaned every inch of metal with that rag, reach into every crease, carefully line each joint and join with it, until the metal shone with a soft, satin luster.
My favourite part, though, was the bore swab. It was a long, thick length of woven nylon string, once white but ivory yellowed with years of gun oil. There was a single, tight knot on one end to keep it from fraying apart and on the other end was knotted a sort of ragged butterfly shape of old, oiled cloth.
I can see him sitting there thirty years ago as plain as day; the shotgun balanced carefully upright, it's stock between his feet, the barrel held loosely in his big, work-rough hands. The breech would be locked open, and he would slowly feed the nylon string down the barrel. I'd be standing there watching the open breech with all the intensity of a hawk watching for a mouse's furtive movement, ready for my small job.
After what seemed an eternity the knot would appear in that narrow, dull silver slot and I'd look up into his eyes, and he'd nod. I'd reach down and grab the knot and tug gently, watching that oily butterfly dissapearing into the barrel, some sort of obscure reverse magic trick. I'd pull gently--softly cautioned 'not too fast, not too slow,' until the butterfly appeared in the breech and I was holding a yard or more of sweetly pungent oily ivory cord, which I'd hand to him and we'd repeat the process.
I don't get to clean rifles or shotguns nearly as much as he did--I haven't been hunting since I was learning how to, and the pistol range is a fair drive out, but like him I always have shoes to polish. The tools are simpler but the intent is the same--ritual, the same ritual I watched my father perform a thousand times.
The tools: the little metal can of Kiwi black with it's sideways lever to pop the top, the old scrap of green towel laid across my legs and the smaller, black-smeared swatch of towel for applying the polish. Careful attention to detail learned at my father's knee. Not too much polish, not too little, applied in small tight circles until the whole shoe is a dull black. Set that one aside and polish it's mirror image. Then, the little wooden-handled brush, about the length of my palm. Clutched carefully between thumb and curled little finger, middle fingers pulling it tight into my palm I make of my hand a buffing tool, able to quickly swipe the soft bristles just over the leather, warming it, brushing the polish until it is worked into a liquid shine.
When the task is done the tools are carefully gathered and put away where they belong, ready for next time. The primitive returns to his campfire, his mind occupied for a time with simple, consuming tasks, the brain taken offline for just a few minutes, allowing it to reset, regroup.
I'm profoundly glad for those tasks, those small rituals of living whose simplicity belie their importance. They are my saviors, my sanity and my grounding.