I asked Jules (age 4) what we were doing in this drawing, and he said, “Eating porridge.” (Like The Three Bears, duh.) It was later pointed out to me that the drawing bore some resemblance to Vincent Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters.
“Do you ever grow anything in the garden of your mind? Sure! You can grow ideas in your mind. You can think about things and make believe things and that’s like growing something of your own. You have wonderful ideas. All you have to do is think about them and they’ll grow.”
I’ve been drawn to plants and drawing them.
My wife has sent me several excerpts from The Liberty Hyde Bailey Gardener’s Companion. They all seem to me to have profound connections to making art and doing creative work.
“The Garden Of The Mind” begins:
Like the love of music, books and pictures, the love of gardens comes with culture and leisure and with the ripening of the home life. The love of gardens, as of every other beautiful and refining thing, must increase to the end of time. More and more must the sympathies enlarge. There must be more points of contact with the world. Life ever becomes richer. Gardening is more than the growing of plants: it is the expression of desire.
“General Advice,” speaks to limitations and constraint, making do with what gifts you have, and loving what shows up:
Every family can have a garden. If there is not a foot of land, there are porches or windows. Wherever there is sunlight, plants may be made to grow; and one plant in a tin can may be a more helpful and inspiring garden to some mind than a whole acre of lawn and flowers may be to another. The satisfaction of a garden does not depend upon the area, nor, happily, upon the cost or rarity of the plants. It depends upon the temper of the person. One must first seek to love plants and nature, and then to cultivate that happy peace of mind which is satisfied with little. He will be happier if he has no rigid and arbitrary ideals, for gardeners are coquettish, particularly with the novice. If plants grow and thrive, he should be happy; and if the plants which thrive chance not to be the ones which he planted, they are plants nevertheless, and nature is satisfied with them. We are apt to covet the things which we cannot have; but we are happier when we love the things which grow because they must. A patch of lusty pigweed, growing and crowding in luxuriant abandon, may be a better and more worthy object of affection than a bed of coleuses in which every spark of life and spirit and individuality has been sheared out and suppressed. The man who worries morning and night about the dandelions in the lawn will find great relief in loving the dandelions. Each blossom is worth more than a gold coin as it shimmers in the exuberant sunlight of the growing spring and attracts the bees to its bosom. Little children love the dandelions; why may not we? Love the things nearest at hand; and love intensely. If I were to write a motto over the gate of a garden, I should choose the remark which Socrates made as he saw the luxuries in the market: ‘How much there is in the world that I do not want!’
(Bailey said that paragraph was worth more than a book, and I agree.)
“To One Who Hath No Garden” points out that there is something other than just possessing your own plot:
There are two parts to gardening,—the growing of the plants in the soil, and the garden in the mind. The desire to have a garden comes first; then comes the season of planning, the pleasant discussion of the kinds, the tools, the construction of hotbed and frame, and the layout worked over and over again until the area, the desired products, and the purse are all accommodated and made to fit; finally comes the putting of the plan into execution.
I know persons who are musicians and yet have no musical instruments. Some of them can perform on instruments and some of them cannot. If they are performers, they miss the instruments more. Do not most of us, with high taste for music, secure our satisfaction in it from those more fortunate or more skillful than we?
I know poets who do not write poetry, artists who do not paint, architects who do not build. I know gardeners who do not garden.
It is not for me to depreciate the joy and value of a garden that one makes in the good earth with one’s own hand; yet the garden is an appreciation. It is an appreciation of activity, of color, of form, of ground smells, of wind and rain and sun, of the day and the night, of the things that grow. Good critics of gardens, good lovers of gardens, may yet not be good gardeners; and good growers may not be deep appreciators of gardens.
To the one who has no garden (my sympathy is his!) there still remains some of the essential joys of the garden,—the wonders of the catalogues, the invitation of the soil, the discriminating knowledge of the plants. A garden is only a piece of the world,—a piece that one picks out and arranges for one’s own exercise and pride. Beyond it are others’ gardens, also the open greensward of fields, and the abounding atmosphere. One may sit at another’s garden gate, and feel its beauty; one may wander afield in any afternoon of holiday; one may be open to the suggestion of garden and beauty as one travels back and forth, missing nothing.
(All emphasis mine.)
Filed under: gardening
“With all the will in the world
Diving for dear life
When we could be diving for pearls.”
—Robert Wyatt, “Shipbuilding”
“Race to the Top; what a horrid metaphor for education. A race? Everyone is on the same track, seeing how fast they can go? Racing toward what? The top? The top of what? Education is not a race, it’s an amble. Real education only occurs when everyone is ambling along their own path.”
Here are points 2 and 3 in full:
2. Always work (note, write) from your own interest, never from what you think you should be noting or writing. Trust your own interest. I have a strong interest, at the moment, in Roman building techniques…. My interest may pass. But for the moment I follow it and enjoy it, not knowing where it will go.
Let your interest, and particularly what you want to write about, be tested by time, not by other people—either real other people or imagined other people.
This is why writing workshops can be a little dangerous, it should be said; even the teachers or leaders of such workshops can be a little dangerous; this is why most of your learning should be on your own. Other people are often very sure that their opinions and their judgments are correct.
3. Be mostly self-taught.
There is a great deal to be learned from programs, courses, and teachers. But I suggest working equally hard, throughout your life, at learning new things on your own, from whatever sources seem most useful to you. I have found that pursuing my own interests in various directions and to various sources of information can take me on fantastic adventures: I have stayed up till the early hours of the morning poring over old phone books; or following genealogical lines back hundreds of years; or reading a book about what lies under a certain French city; or comparing early maps of Manhattan as I search for a particular farmhouse. These adventures become as gripping as a good novel.
I love those verbs: following your interests, pursuing them, trusting that they will lead you somewhere.
Ambling along your own path… even if it’s deep into an unknown woods…
Related read: “Have you tried making yourself a more interesting person?”
Yesterday, before I even heard the British election results, I was driving around listening to Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows”:
Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died
Everybody talking to their pockets
Everybody wants a box of chocolates
And a long-stem rose
There’s a 1965 Canadian documentary called Ladies and Gentleman… Mr. Leonard Cohen, which follows the poet and songwriter around at the age of 30. At one point they show him having this irreverent exchange during a TV interview (this clip really reminds me of Bob Dylan in Don’t Look Back, which was shot around the same time):
INTERVIEWER: How can you write poetry if you’re not bothered by something?
COHEN: I’m bothered. When I get up in the morning, my real concern is to discover whether or not I’m in a state of grace. And if I make that investigation and discover that I’m not in a state of grace, I try to go to bed.
INTERVIEWER: What do you mean by a state of grace?
COHEN: A state of grace is that kind of balance with which you ride the chaos that you find around you. It’s not a matter of resolving the chaos, because there’s something arrogant and warlike about putting the world in order.
Later in the day, I was talking to a friend on the phone about the cognitive dissonance between the long-term prospects of civilization, which are grim, and the present-day experiences of our day-to-day lives, which are quite good.
“God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”
Just half an hour ago, Sam Sifton posted his mother’s obituary. Elizabeth Sifton said this about The Serenity Prayer, which was popularized by her father, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr:
Every single day one has to think, ‘Is this something that I should accept with serenity, or is this something I should try to change?’ That’s the deep conundrum that serious people think about all the time.
Filed under: grace
Signed a bunch of books at Bookpeople yesterday. Many thanks to the Bookpeople staff and everybody who placed orders for holiday gifts! The deadline has passed for shipping this year, but that doesn’t mean you have to wait until the next holiday. There are links on all of my book pages to order signed copies. They ship everywhere, anytime, year-round!
“I find the annual celebration of contemporary writing, the Xmas lists of 2019 books, quite offensive,” said Lucy Ellmann, author of the prize-winning Ducks, Newburyport, in a recent interview. “It seems so arrogant. These lists suggest that the most relevant books must be the ones most recently published. That’s daft.”
In fact, Ellmann takes things to the extreme and says she only reads books before World War II:
Some time ago I pretty much decided to read only books written before the atom bomb was dropped, when everything changed for all life on Earth. The industrial revolution’s bad enough, but nuclear weapons really are party-poopers.
I don’t stick strictly to this policy, but I often find it more rewarding to read what people thought about, and what they did with literature, before we were reduced by war and capitalism to mere monetary units, bomb fodder and password generators. And before the natural world became a depository for plastics and nuclear waste.
Anger and alienation have resulted, and they’re fine subjects, but there are times when you’d like to remember some of the higher points in the history of civilisation as well, and the natural world before we learned to view it all as tainted. The intense humour, innocence, sexiness and play of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, for instance – could this have been written after Hiroshima? Could Gargantua and Pantagruel? Don Quixote? Emma? I don’t see how. Thanks to the offences of patriarchy, a lot of the fun has gone out of being human, and I like books that look at life in less constricted ways.
How should you read? What should the diet of your reading be? Read the best writers from all different periods; keep your reading of contemporaries in proportion—you do not want a steady diet of contemporary literature. You already belong to your time.
I was disappointed to discover this year when putting together my year-end book list that the only two books I read published before WWII were Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio (1883) and the Japanese Ghost Stories of Lufcadio Hearn, who died in 1901. (Thoreau’s journals end in the year 1861, but it feels like cheating to include them, since I read pretty much read them on a loop.)
I’ve threatened for years to read nothing but books 150 years old or older, but, like other reading restrictions, it goes against my “Read at whim!” beliefs. Still, I want to spend a little more time in the past next year.
In case you’d like to beef up your own reading list, here’s a list of old stuff recommended to me from Twitter followers a few years back:
Related reading: Steal old stuff.
Art supplies are some of the best gifts you can give kids, but so many art supplies made for kids are straight-up junk. Here are five gift ideas that aren’t terribly expensive that my boys love:
Regular crayons are cheap and they don’t make a mess, but they’re hard to hold in tiny hands and kids have to really press hard with them to get any kind of decent result.
These Slick Stix are easy to grip and they lay down a really silky smooth line.
Give some of these to your kids along with some big pieces of paper and pretty soon you’ll have a bunch of Jean-Michel Basquiats to hang around the house.
My youngest son had trouble making circles early on, so he loved to use these for wheels on cars, faces, etc.
If you print them on top of each other, they mix color, so you can do a little Toddler Color Theory.
This tip comes from my wife:
If your kid has a favorite color of marker, instead of buying another 8-color pack from Target or wherever, go online and buy a box of a single color in bulk.
(Our youngest goes through a ton of black.)
4. Ed Emberley books.
My all-time favorite drawing book is Ed Emberley’s Drawing Book: Make a World, which takes a collage-like approach to drawing:
Here’s a sample of one of the spreads:
5. Don’t forget paper. Lots and lots of paper.
Worry less about the quality and more about the quantity. We just go to Costco and buy whatever gigantic boxes of cheap copy paper they have and let the kids use as much as they want. (People would probably be shocked if they knew how much paper our 4-year-old goes through. But it’s worth it.) My friend buys paper for next-to-nothing in thrift and re-use stores.
I came across these lines yesterday when I was flipping through Ursula K. Le Guin’s translation of Lao Tau’s Tao Te Ching. (I like the title she chose, “Hushing.” It reminds me of the “Locking” season.)
I once mentioned to my five-year-old son that his favorite band, Kraftwerk, had won a Grammy.
“What’s an award?” he asked.
“It’s like a prize that you get for doing something well,” I said.
“Oh,” he said. “What’s a prize?”
It made my day. Imagine a world with no gold stars!
It’s not easy to sit down every morning with next-to-nothing and try to make something appear. But we do it because doing it beats not doing it.