Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Going With The Grain

My father was a complex man. He worked as an engineer in New York City designing the cracking furnaces which break crude oil down into its useful constituent elements like gasoline and kerosene. He wore a coat and tie to work every day and spent each day in brain-breaking technological initiatives. But he had another side to him as well. He saw himself as a kind of nature guy as well. He was an avid hunter and fisher, kept meticulously maintained scrapbooks with pictures and stories about the out-of-doors, and had a wood shop in the basement of our house in which he built all his own furniture for his "den" off the dining room: bookcases, his desk, a gun rack. When I was old enough to have my own little bench he built one for me, and gave me scrap wood to work on. By the time I was eight I knew how to use a hammer, a coping saw, a rasp, a chisel, a plane. By the time I was ten I was allowed to use his electric table saw, his band saw, his drill press. My father loved working with wood, shaping it, sanding it, finishing it with stain and shellac or varnish or carnauba wax. He did not like working with cars. He had no tools for cutting or shaping metal. It was wood he was drawn to.

Perhaps that's why I've always been comfortable with wood. It's not entirely accidental that when I decided to customize the template for this site the first thing that I looked for was a woodgrain pattern for the background. I recognize that there is something a little bit discordant about a web site, of all things, going for the pastoral, but there it is. It feels like home to me. I've written elsewhere in this blog of my affinity for writers like Ted Kooser and William Stafford and for artists like Andrew Wyeth. All of them have come in for their fair share of criticism for their folksiness. Edward Hirsh made note in the Washington Post that for many readers Kooser's poetry boils down to "the abridgement of a region into seventy-five synonyms of 'homespun'; something about the way the word "heartland" seems to embroider itself in six-inch sampler letters across the covers of his books." Similarly, writing in the N.Y.Times, Roberta Smith complains, "Mr. Wyeth's fear of pleasure, his plodding diligence, his elevation of the rural and his nostalgia for a past that never existed are among the signal traits of our national character."

What is one to make of this kind of criticism? These are artists who have chosen to limit the field of their vision and to adapt their technique to what is simple and close to home rather than to what complex and beyond their reach. Why should this necessarily be seen as a failing? Is it not hard enough to learn to be present to what is in front of you?

Which brings us to Carl Larsson (1853-1919), the Swedish artist whose painting is at the head of this post. Larsson essentially made a career out of painting his home and the members of his family. I first ran across his paintings when I was starting my own family, and I envied him then, as I envy him now, in the way he was able unite his home life and his work life, in the way he was able to take the mundane and elevate it by virtue of the quality of the attention he was able to bring to it through the discipline of his craft. A lot of what I see artists doing, and see writers doing, conveys a kind of manic dissatisfaction, an attitudinalized alienation, and frankly, I don't need it. The artists I respect most seek the center.

The book which has had in my life the most profound impact on my thinking in my lifetime has been the Tao Te Ching. I was raised as a Catholic and went to Catholic elementary school, two different Catholic high schools, and a Catholic college. By the time I reached freshman year in college, I had had it up to here with the cherubim and the seraphim and the thrones and the dominations and with heaven and hell and purgatory and limbo and with mortal sins and venial sins and indulgences partial and plenary. There was all this imaginative superstructure of belief and not a shred of evidence to support any of it. Imagine my surprise, then, when I opened Lao Tsu and read

Heaven and earth are impartial;
They see the ten thousand things as straw dogs.
The wise are impartial;
They see the people as straw dogs.

The space between heaven and earth is like a bellows.
The shape changes but not the form:
The more it moves, the more it yields.
More words count less.
Hold fast to the center.

More words count less! Hold fast to the center! This was a new kind of good news indeed, a way of thinking and speaking about the world was, well, non-assertive.But what about sin? What about structures? What about the Garden of Eden? What about the ten commandments?

In dwelling, be close to the land.
In meditation, go deep in the heart.
In dealing with others, be gentle and kind.
In speech, be true.
In ruling, be just.
In daily life, be competent.
In action, be aware of the time and the season.

No fight. No blame.

I could go on for a very long time with illustrations of this kind. But—and I guess this is the point—I don't need to. Even in its vestigial form (and there are many similarly simple interlocking ideas in the Tao Te Ching), this is not a way of thinking that requires, or rewards, convoluted thinking. It's simple. That it could be that simple came as a revelation—and a considerable relief—to me when I was 20. But I still aspire to find a way toward that kind of simplicity. Given the choice, I'd prefer my life to be simple, and my teaching to be simple, and my writing to be simple. And it's not easy, particularly in a culture that floods us with information alternatives and chrome-plated high-octane technologically sophisticated enticements of every kind every moment of the day. They're out there all right. We all live in that world. But we all have access, should we choose to direct out attention to it, to the world of wood as well: wood which grows at pace so slow we never see it happening; wood which like us, bruises and bends; wood which over time matures to give us what we need to shape and plane and build the places we come to know as home.

Is Larsson's painting sentimental? Nostalgic? Manipulative? Or is it simply a careful observation of what was around him as he lived his life? I understand, I think, why some people—the same ones who dismiss Kooser and Wyeth as lightweights—might choose to dismiss it. But it speaks to something that I honor and value in my life, when I can find it. Which I guess is what my father was doing as well.

Some years ago I was sitting in my car in the parking lot of the Easton Martial Arts studio in Massachusetts, waiting for my son to finish his lesson. It was a warm late-summer morning and I had been reading Field of Vision by Seamus Heaney. I lay the book down and just sat for a while, and this poem began to take shape in my mind. I wrote my first draft there in the parking lot. I think it about sums up a lot of what I've been trying to put my finger on here:


If you gaze in one direction long enough -
it doesn’t matter which, so long as you
do it patiently, reflectively - an inkling
of the mysterious begins to assert itself:
majesty of tree against sky, reaching
after itinerant sun with imperceptible in-
clination; painstaking progress of shadow
on clapboard; faintest touch of wind
stirring the golden elasticity of living
branch and bough. Enough, after all,
to do nothing more than breathe, bear
witness, be present to such clarity.

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