Carving out a path to happiness

In a workshop next to the trickling waters of Talent's Coleman Creek, John Capanna gently carves a leaf from a board, learning the patience and meditative mind necessary for his art.

Capanna, 51, came from Pennsylvania to learn from a woodcarving master, Russell Beebe. But he is doing it for an even deeper reason — to further the inner healing and spiritual journey begun 30 years ago when he suffered unspeakable injuries.

Capanna was operating a cutting torch while taking apart an abandoned pipeline that everyone thought contained water. Instead, the pipe contained crude oil, which exploded with the force of eight sticks of dynamite.

Capanna was doused with flaming oil, suffering burns on 90 percent of his body. The inferno burned off his nose, ears and lips, disfiguring the face of a handsome young man.

He wanted to die. And he did, seven times, he says.

He was kept on heavy narcotics for three years while he underwent 75 surgeries, then long, slow, physical and occupational rehabilitation, as well as drug recovery.

"I wanted to check out (die) in the burn unit," he says. "There's nothing more painful than burns. It was horrific. I was angry for a long time about being alive.

"My dad quit his job as a bricklayer to take care of me and get me back and forth to rehab. I felt society didn't have anything for me. There was grief and anger that no one would want me."

Surgeries in the burn unit, while tripping on a "cocktail" of pain drugs and hearing the screams of other patients, was "almost medieval," he recalls.

"The scraping off of the skin with a razor knife after they softened it in a whirlpool bath, almost like a torture chamber. I was hallucinating a lot."

The unit wouldn't let patients have mirrors, but Capanna stole a look at his face one day while en route to rehab.

"I threw up," says a now-smiling Capanna.

As he started to heal, his father set up a wood-carving workshop for him. He met Beebe last year and took to the teacher's "spiritual and natural" style.

"Working with my hands saved my life," says Capanna. "It kept me sane so I wanted to live after the accident. It was a really hard time. The first thing I carved was a crucifix for the priest who gave me the last rites seven times."

Shepherding Capanna's work in Talent this week, Beebe says he learned from a master in Bangkok, who told him, "If you can master woodcarving, you can master anything."

"Carving is very meditative," notes Capanna. "If you stop being present for it, you can really mess it up fast. It's a lot more interesting than having to learn how to walk and talk at 21."

In American society, which, he says, is so oriented to surface appearances, Capanna thought he'd never find anyone who wanted him. But was wrong. He married, had four children, and now has his first grandchild.

Physically, he's now fully functional — just a little sensitive to heat and cold. And his face and rebuilt nose and lips have healed, ending the careless comments of adults and taunts of children.

"The more I worked on accepting myself ... the less negative attention I got," he says.

Capanna is now writing a book about his harrowing journey, which showed him dimensions of the "indomitable human spirit" and opened doors for spiritual deepening that likely wouldn't have opened otherwise, he says.

It's a book not just for burn survivors, but for anyone who is undergoing trauma, healing and understanding, which, he notes, includes just about everyone at some point in their lives.

"The spiritual piece, that's what saved me and helped me want to live," he says, "and having children helped me find reasons to live."

Capanna says was inspired by "Man's Search for Meaning," the classic in which author Viktor Frankl wrote that the will to live and see meaning in life drew the line between victims and survivors in concentration camps.

"I started really praying. Recovery forced me to go inside and access places most people don't have to go," says Capanna, a longtime member of the Phoenix Society, which helps burn survivors rise from the ashes.

"That's the difference between a victim and a survivor, what you see in the Phoenix," he says. "The victim stays in the ashes."

The survivor, he notes, comes to realize the wounding is an opening to let God enter, "to bring compassion and empathy; that's how we connect with other people."

While the accident seemed random and meaningless in the first years, he says, "I don't think I'm ugly. I have a spirituality, a 'life source' kind of thing that wants the best for us and is there in prayer and meditation.

"Before, I don't think I knew what happiness was. There were so many things I should have died from. Now, I've never been happier in my whole life. I just hope, with my book, that my experience can help someone else."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at

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