Art & Craft (lines from Hamlet)

“More matter, with less art.”
- Gertrude, Hamlet 2.2

I was going to write something about Kansas. Kansas is the subject of not one, but two lovely essays by Erin, and I thought I might find some inspiration there too, some spark to elevate my thought and prose closer to hers. But I didn’t get very far.

It’s not that I had nothing to say. I started the essay; I knew where it was headed; I even had a couple of nifty lines pre-cast and waiting in the margins. It’s just that, as I realized last night right with the gentle fog of sleep rolling in, I started by saying the wrong thing.

I started by talking about photos, and by saying that I am not a photographer, which in an obvious sense is false. I take photos every day and I get paid for them. It is literally part of my job to take pictures—in fact, it is the part of my job that takes the most time. I took my job at Habitat for Humanity, working in communications, because of the writing, but it turns out writing is no longer a primary mode of communication. Writing just offers an interpretation (optional) for the gauzy images that dwarf it on the spread of each newsletter, brochure, and webpage produced. So I take about two photos for each word I write, and that is my job.

But of course I meant, and intended to explain, that I am “not a photographer” in a different sense, that more essential sense that Socrates would pursue when wrapped in a dialogue—surely there was one like this—about the “true photographer,” the one who does it in the right way at the right time, with both knowledge and love of his art. That is not me. The muse of photography, whoever she is, has never lighted on my shoulder, whispered in my ear. I am a hack. I widen the aperture, set the exposure and change the shutter speed, in desperate and mechanical imitation of anyone who appears to know what she’s doing. I feel like an chimp, just aping people with a toy I can manipulate but not understand. The results are sometimes interesting but largely random. Most of my photos go right to the recycle bin.

Thus there is one subject for which I am not a photographer in any sense: our family photos. My clumsy attempts to “capture memories” produced enough limbless people and unrecognizable buildings that we tacitly agreed, at some early point in our marriage, that Erin would take all our keepsake pictures.

So my photography career progresses within a comical irony: I am a paid professional, but I am so poor an artist that I am not allowed to be an amateur.

This, of course, has everything to do with Kansas, and I was going to explain how . . . but then in that midnight epiphany I saw how wrong my beginning was. It was fiction based on falsehood.

The myth of the muses I accept—not as literal truth, but as a fitting poetic description of the mystery of genius. Some art seems inspired, breathed into the artist by something external that he himself cannot explain. Some artists appear, in a truly passive sense, to be “gifted.” What a blessing to our lives.

But art in most instances is not Art in this way. It is not blind rapture or divine possession. It is really less Art than craft, the practice of principles that accrues, however slowly and imperceptibly, into perceptible skill. This we were taught as freshman English students, bewildered at the low marks on our essays; perplexed at the sudden failure of our old method: writing what came to us;  hoping for some new word from Parnassus to solve all our problems. A fresh muse wasn’t what we needed, or at least it wasn’t something we would get. Practice and study—and a few tours through The Elements of Style—was what we needed. Our senior papers attest the truth of that. No one became Samuel Johnson or Evelyn Waugh with a few year’s practice, but we could craft our sentences with purpose and effect. We got better.

To divide the the world of art simply into haves and have-nots is falsehood. Certainly the distribution of gifts varies, and certainly there are geniuses for whom art seems all ease and no effort. But the rest of us aren’t just stuck in deficiency.

And thus my own narrative of hopeless artistic deficiency was a fiction. The thing about humans is that we are not apes. Even when we think we’re just aping someone, something distinctly human happens to us if we do it long enough. We start to understand.

That happened just last week to me. I even felt it happening. I glanced up from my desk and realized the light outside was ideal for shooting our garden at work, so I grabbed my camera. I trolled around and suddenly saw a lovely structure for the background. I took some photos, saw they weren’t quite what I wanted, and took a few more till I got it right. In 30 minutes, I was a demonstrably better photographer.

The months of trial and error preceding that felt like futility, but they were more like fertilizer, preparing the soil for sudden growth.

It’s true that there was something like inspiration—the sudden, unexpected realization, coming as it were out of thin air. But I would call it intuition, and I think it’s something earned and developed, not exactly received. Or perhaps, more accurate, it’s a kind of receptivity that’s earned and developed. Maybe the muses do speak to the rest of us, or at least let us overhear them. We just need to learn their language.


In one of Cormac McCarthy’s novels, he mentions mountains like crumpled butcher paper, which at the time I believed to be probably one of his more imaginative metaphors, fanciful and untethered to reality. I had seen mountains,* hiked mountains, skied mountains, rode horses through mountains, and they all had pine trees and sundry scratchy shrubs and often snow. They were green and grey and craggy, but not deep brown and not crumpled. Even McCarthy has to stretch sometimes, I assumed, to evoke that godless-wasteland feeling so necessary to his novels.

But then, while we were living in Phoenix, I flew back into the city from the north, crossing a stretch of desert. I remember gasping audibly—mountains like crumpled butcher paper. Those mountains were perhaps the most startling landscape I saw in Arizona, although we saw the Grand Canyon, and forests of Aspens near Flagstaff, and, my favorite, Oak Creek Canyon in the fall. But the fearful vastness of these butcher paper mountains—even from the plane they were all I could see. This land can kill you.

It is, perhaps, no surprise that we left Arizona. There were practical reasons, but there was also the fact that life there seemed always a mirage—temporary, improbable, foolhardy. And of course now we live in West Michigan, the third coast, the promised land, where everything grows.

But my soul will always be Kansan. Not just because it is a modest, quiet place, but because it is the land that I find beautiful. Perhaps only people from the Midwest, by birth or adoption, find it beautiful, but the older I get the more I wonder that I never noticed it as a child.

I was driving with my mother east on I-70 toward Kansas City a few weeks ago, and the many shades of green rolled over me like a flood. The many grasses, the hedgerows planted and then abandoned by farmers long ago, the few trees like sentinels guarding their domain, each its own varietal of green. The darkest greens are the leaves of the trees, and then down to the shrubs and weeds, and finally the pale green of the grass, drawing the eye ever downward to the earth, rooted. This is where we dwell, this is where we stay.

"Morning Mist - Kansas River Valley" by Rod Steel

“Morning Mist – Kansas River Valley” by Rod Seel

When the wind blows, one can see the nether leaves of every bush and tree, all silver hued and cold; the heightened contrast of green against silver makes each leaf visible, and the effect is of sharpened, quickened senses. Each blade, each stalk, each branch curves into an arc—vital, dynamic. It is very like the sea, I think.

Whenever I see the prairie, I can’t help but think of all the stories of pioneers that I was told or read as a child. I don’t know if other Americans hear these stories in such great number, or if it is just us plain-states children, nestled in the valley of the country. If tales can be believed, each of these pioneers was a saint, strong and tireless and brave. I don’t know if everyone else sees pioneers as the real heroes of the country, or if that’s just us too.

Sometimes I get embarrassed now, thinking of those early settlers. They moved from strength to strength, but I tend more to move from crisis to crisis, each one less worthy of emotion than the last. It occurred to me only very recently that I could perhaps stop living like that, if I wished. It would take time, and I would have to start small, but I might someday be stronger than I am. I could take as a touchstone the vitality and energy of the plains and decide to live that way, looking toward the quiet peace of Providence and saying, this is where I dwell, this is where I stay.


*I remember vividly the first time I saw a mountain. I was quite young, and I was eager to reach the top of the mountain, because in my mind it would be as sharp as a needle, which is how mountaintops looked in my drawings, where they resembled upside-down v‘s. I was devastated, truly devastated, when my mother told me we were at the top. There was plenty of room to park and walk around, and it was not pointy at all. For all I know this was the beginning of my melancholy nature, which tends to expect disappointment.

This Good Earth (Lines from As You Like It)

And I in such a poverty of grace
. . . shall think it a most plenteous crop
To glean the broken ears after the man
That the main harvest reaps; loose now and then
A scattered smile, and that I’ll live upon.
– Silvius, As You Like It, III.5

Last Saturday Erin and I woke up early to pick strawberries on a local farm. It was a respite I had looked forward to all week, a leisure ripe from anticipation—and to my younger self it would have been a chore I cringed at all week, a drudgery soured by dread. Such is the miracle of adulthood: those boring pastimes so inscrutable to children are reborn as delights.

When I was ten, gardening was the black spot on my summers, the scourge of my Saturdays. We didn’t grow anything at my house, but my grandfather grew everything at his, and through the perpetual conspiracy between him and my mother, my brother and I were conscripted as laborers.

Every Saturday in high summer, we were roused and shuttled to Grandpa’s never ending rows of beans, corn, squash, beans, cucumbers, and more beans. (The actual size of that small farm is impossible to verify now. To my childhood mind, the place could only have been measured in acres. That it all managed to fit in Grandpa’s back yard casts some doubt on that now, but the important thing is that it felt like acres.)

Worse than the scope of the labor was the climate. This was Texas, and East Texas, so Texas hot and Louisiana humid. It was truly oppressive. Picking beans for an hour felt like swimming in a bog of quicksand while wearing a lead apron. Add the constant scratch of stalks and tendrils and the continual menace of bees and wasps, and you see the just grounds we had for revolt against child slave labor.

We, however, never did revolt, choosing instead the high road of nonviolence—namely, complaining.

To that beleaguered child, it must seem a scandal and a betrayal that, without even a whimper of protest, I would reenact those same persecutions now, moved by not an ounce of obligation but only by what must be recognized as joy. And what explains the change? Maybe gardening can be cataloged with the other chores of domestic life—mowing the yard, washing dishes and laundry, dusting off bookshelves—that earn some affection merely by familiarity and rhythm.

But there is something more here. Gardening—planting and waiting and worrying and harvesting—is unique. Gardening is a world ordinary and even dull at first glance, but saturated with meaning and fertile with metaphor when dwelt in.

The heart of hortiphilia, I think, is really an encounter with mystery. We say we grow things. That is an imprecision. We plant things, we water them, we prune them, we harvest them; they do the growing themselves. There is something entirely outside us at work, something that may respond to our skill and art (or may not) and may be described by our science but cannot be mastered by either will or study. Growth is a phenomenon, shrouded from our senses, that is fundamentally an encounter with grace. We prepare what we can, we participate where we see how, but ultimately we simply receive what we are given.

A garden, then, is a perfect metaphor for the whole of life and a tireless teacher in how to live it. The endless didacticism of the garden seems mostly to burden children, for whom it means work instead of play, but to a slightly jaded adult searching for a gentle voice, its lessons are a balm. When I was a child, thinking and acting like a child, patience was superfluous. No need to work or wait for something; something else just as interesting could always be done. When I became a man, patience, if not more natural, at least became more necessary for happiness.

Patience is harvested in bushels from a garden. There is the more obvious patience, the patience of investing, of waiting to reap what you’ve sown. But there is another varietal, one with less florid fruit but deeper roots. That is the patience of not reaping what you’ve sown, the patience of failure.

Last year, our first year in amateur agriculture, we were all hope and no expectation. Failure seemed just as likely as success. But Michigan, that “other Eden in the summertime,” rains on both sinner and saint, and the harvest was bountiful in spite of our clumsiness.

This year looks even more promising. But things started poorly. My pet project failed decisively. We had planned an addition to our leafy greens—strawberries grown in lengths of vinyl gutter—but I mounted the gutters too high on the fence, right along the top, where the squirrels can run. It was a perfect buffet. Not a single bud survived, we missed the window for re-planting, and now the gutter sits there, sagging under the weight of barren soil until next year when I can try a different spot.

And that is the thing about failing in a garden. Sometimes you can’t fix things until next year, and that fix might fail as well. With the cycle of trial and error stretched to such long intervals, error can feel almost permanent. This staggered me.

Why was I distraught over a lost handful of berries? It was more than the fruitless expense of time, labor, and money. It was, I finally saw, that this particular kind of failure is a brush with mortality. It reveals things as finite—the limit of your abilities and your window to improve them. When you can try again tomorrow, failure is negligible, success almost assured. There are plenty of tomorrows, each coming immediately, and that sequence quietly elides failure into the arc of success.

But you can number your summers, and they come so slowly. Success is no longer in your grasp. Until the next summer does come, you have to live in your deficiency.

The simpler things I work and wonder at are not this way. Wiki blurbs and YouTube tutorials can mend gaps in knowledge and skill instantaneously, painlessly. But this is the state of the truly important things—our philosophy, our theology, our friends, ourselves. We are beings “on the way,” as Pieper says in his essay “On Hope,” and the way is long, and its end is not actually in our view.

Recognizing this, once I had dug down to the root of my frustration, did not root out that frustration, but it did graft on a few shoots of hope. It’s good to be thwarted. It’s good to be stuck for a while, waiting and not even working. It’s good to pause and contemplate for a season the limits of labor and the limits of self. The frustration it arouses, when probed, comes to be felt as the pain of growth. A little more knowledge, a slightly fuller hold on reality. There it was, where I didn’t see it, happening anyway.

Growing (lines from Love’s Labour’s Lost and Brideshead Revisited)


At Christmas I no more desire a rose,
Than wish a snow in May’s new-fangled mirth;
But like of each thing that in season grows.
–Berowne, Love’s Labour’s Lost, 1.1

Beyond and about us, more familiar still, lay an exquisite man-made landscape. . . . The woods were all of oak and beech, the oak grey and bare, the beech faintly dusted with green by the breaking buds; they made a simple, carefully designed pattern with the green glades and the wide green spaces—Did the fallow deer graze here still?—and, lest the eye wander aimlessly, a Doric temple stood by the water’s edge, and an ivy-grown arch spanned the lowest of the connecting weirs. All this had been planned and planted a century and a half ago so that, at about this date, it might be seen in its maturity.
– Brideshead Revisited

The hardest part of gardening, at least for me, is not gardening. The gardening part comes simply, if you live in Michigan, as I do. What you plant grows, what you drop on the ground grows, what you forget to dig up before winter grows again next year. This other Eden, Michigan in the summertime.

Winter, on the other hand, is a hard, barren stretch. March is harder yet, because it feels like the time to plant, but it isn’t, not yet. Everything is gray and flooded for days on end. It stops snowing, but the sun seems shy, and everyone has to continue trudging toward spring. Garrison Keillor says that God created March to show those who don’t drink what a hangover feels like.

But the hardest time of all is after you plant. (Planting, of course, is a foretaste of paradise. Often I find myself digging around in my work clothes, with my wedding ring and all my other jewelry, and I wonder how exactly I got there.) After you plan and dig and toil and plant, there’s nothing to be done but wait, and sometimes anxiety sets in. Of course you water when it doesn’t rain, and fertilize sometimes, but for whatever reason, things don’t seem to grow at first. The seeds sprout, but they stay very small for a long, long time. It’s hard not to become a little desperate. Last spring my father, a farmer’s son and a lifelong gardener, had only one piece of advice: Calm down.

But then, one day, the plants explode. It is almost always about a week after you stop checking on them daily—not by works, so that no one can boast, I assume. How odd that so much toil is required, when in the end it seems that there is growth just when you ease off. And yet, if gardening were mechanical, if it were an input-output relationship, I doubt we’d be so drawn to it. It would, in that case, be like an assembly line. The expert gardeners at Philip’s work told him that gardening is a lifelong experiment. “Sometimes things that have always worked stop working, and sometimes things that have never worked before do work,” they told him.

Indeed, there is something miraculous every time plants flower and vegetables produce. That’s probably why gardening figures so heavily in spiritual metaphors. You can’t see seeds germinating in the soil, and you can’t explain why one day there are no tomatoes and the next day there are dozens. But clearly something is working behind the veil, something that has nothing to do with you.

I was thinking the other day about how much this reminds me of Josef Pieper’s ratio and intellectus. In Leisure, The Basis of Culture, Pieper differentiates between the two: ratio as discursive knowledge, which takes some real work and effort, and intellectus as receptive knowledge (like the eye taking in a landscape), which is effortless and given to us by grace. It’s tempting to see these two as opposed, but while it seems that one cannot pursue both ratio and intellectus in the same breath, Pieper does suggest that man’s spiritual knowledge is the result of both. While the highest form of knowledge (intellectus) comes effortlessly to man like a gift, it is often preceded by a great effort of thought (ratio), and, he says, perhaps this must be so. In other words, for academic types and for gardeners, both ratio and intellectus are necessary for growth.

I’m not sure why it can’t be one or the other. I don’t know why we can’t just open ourselves up and receive divine inspiration every moment of the day, or, failing that, why we can’t just “achieve” it by laboring. Either of those seems simple enough, “doable.” But in fact, divine inspiration is not doable at all, which is the point, because it is grace. But it also does not come to those who do not prepare themselves for it; it comes unexpectedly, but not unbidden.

Because I tend in all things toward neurosis, I often see this tension between toil and receptivity as a dualism that can only induce anxiety. But in the best moments, the moments when I realize that I’m digging in the ground in a dress and my good watch, there is no anxiety but only this other thing, this simultaneity of the pleasant now and the future joyful harvest, a thing I think they call hope.

I was watching a YouTube video about how to plant bleeding heart the other day, and an elderly British man with a fully furnished gardening shed showed me how to bury the bare root completely underground. He was planting a new varietal, and he’d never seen it before, but he was so excited for the day he would first see the new blossoms. At the very end of the video, he said, so very, very casually, “Life is anticipation. But this one, I’ve got a feeling, is going to be a good one.”


Trading Gladness (lines from Antony and Cleopatra)

                                               For his bounty,
There was no winter in’t; an autumn ’twas
That grew the more by reaping . . .
–Cleopatra, Antony and Cleopatra, 5.2

My father, noble man that he is, was raised on a farm, feeding cattle and doing chores before school. I grew up on a cube farm.

At least, my two summer jobs during college took place in enormous windowless offices. I was shy, and I hadn’t yet learned how to cover that up, so I smiled at everyone but struggled with the small talk. I struggled so much, and so dreaded elevator rides, that I started memorizing the little throwaway lines other people used so that I could use them later, almost like a foreign language student learning conversational English. It was an elaborate mental catalog to maintain, because I couldn’t re-use a line on the person from whom I’d lifted it. That would be ungainly, like re-gifting or telling someone else’s joke.

Though “Got any weekend plans?” and “How are things on the fourth floor?” seem embarrassingly obvious to me now, having spent a childhood avoiding strangers at all costs leaves one ill-prepared for defense against the dark arts. Or small talk or whatever.

I was thinking of this lately when I ran into one of our office volunteer in the dead of March and said, with effortless informality, “It’s not getting any warmer out there, is it?” How absolutely meaningless, how artlessly familiar and jovial! A milestone.

I still struggle with office relationships, though. I fail to say hello and goodbye, because it simply doesn’t occur to me. And I often forget to find out whether my coworkers have spouses or children until it’s much, much too late and I have no decent excuse for not knowing.

Back when we were teaching, I heard about a student with Asperger’s who did well enough with other students in class but had trouble socializing outside of class because there was no structure to the interactions. Anyone could talk at any time, and the topic was not predetermined by the day’s lesson plans. Maybe I have Asperger’s, I thought.

And not unrelated is the fact that I do friendship strangely. I’ve relocated from Kansas to Michigan to Arizona to Michigan, which means I have several discrete sets of friends. I do not “keep up” with them, but I love them ardently. I would never, never for any reason call to “catch up,” but if they showed up at my door unannounced, I would gladly welcome them into my home for any amount of time. My fondness for people does not wane over time, though unfed.

The other day, someone called me a misanthrope (albeit jokingly). I did not know we still used that word outside of literary analysis, but I suppose I’m bringing it back. I was complaining because my husband wants us to have dinner with some people who seem really nice. Too nice, probably, I was telling someone. I think one of them is a teacher. That seems too nice. I don’t usually like nice people.

So all this is to say that every friend I have, from new acquaintance to kindred spirit, is a gift and a mercy.

My coworker friends are perhaps the most valiant in this regard because they have to navigate both my office awkwardness and my friendship awkwardness. For my birthday, I invited them to sushi with me, but my invitations are always shy and graceless, based on the assumption that almost everyone almost always has something better to be doing. I wondered if there was some unknown office etiquette that dictated my buying everyone food or something; honestly, nothing would please me more than generosity in the name of celebration, but perhaps that wasn’t done. Or perhaps it was done. Or perhaps it wasn’t. Before I could figure out if it was meet and right so to do, a friend told me that she would be buying all of my food for the occasion. It seemed wrong to decline, so I gladly accepted.

But really, how fitting to celebrate with giving, regardless of direction. Though giving and receiving seem counterpoised, perhaps it need not be so. They are in some ways the same, a rejection of survivalist calculus. Giving is an obvious vulnerability, for in the end one has slightly fewer material goods than before. But receiving can also make one vulnerable; I think often of Aristotle’s magnanimous man, who will not receive favors or loans, lest he be indebted. “He is disposed to confer benefits, but is ashamed to accept them, because the one is the act of a superior and the other that of an inferior. When he repays a service he does so with interest, because in this way the original benefactor will become his debtor and beneficiary.”*

This sameness seems only present when there is true mutual fondness. When I exchange gifts with my sister at Christmas. Two months later, I’m not entirely sure what I gave her or received from her, but the joyful trading of symbols of affection, with no rivalry or scorekeeping, illuminates me year-round, leaving us always anticipating the next holiday or birthday.

Trading gladness; this is giving and this is friendship.

*The Nichomachean Ethics, 1124b, trans. J. A. K. Thomson