Brain Pickings

Design and Violence: An Intelligent Invitation to Nuanced Discourse in a Culture of Black-and-White Binaries

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Pause-giving meditations by William Gibson, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Rob Walker, and more.

“Construction and destruction alike satisfy the will to power,” Bertrand Russell wrote in contemplating the pillars of the good life in 1926 — an era of brief respite between the World Wars that marked two of the most violent episodes in human history — “but construction is more difficult as a rule, and therefore gives more satisfaction to the person who can achieve it.” Nearly a century later, Parker Palmer observed in his magnificent commencement address that “violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering.” And some of our greatest suffering stems from having our creative energies stunted and suppressed — a form of internal violence that we direct outward in destructive impulses. This relationship between violence and the creative impulse is as immutable as it is complex — nowhere more so than in the things we create that are meant to destroy, from firearms to fundamentalist ideologies. And nowhere do we stand a greater chance of ending the eternal war with our inner contradictions than in understanding the complexities of this osmotic relationship between creation and destruction.

In the fall of 2013, MoMA curator Paola Antonelli — a trailblazing thinker about our relationship with objects and the visionary responsible for acquiring the iconic rainbow flag into the museum’s permanent collection — and Jamer Hunt, director of the Transdisciplinary Design graduate program at Parsons, undertook a most unusual and ambitious curatorial experiment. Subverting the conventions of traditional exhibitions and transcending the limitations of museum hours and gallery walls, they launched an online project and series of live public debates exploring the complex relationship between creation, destruction, and the fabric of everyday life.

Teardrop tattoo (Photograph: Klaus Pichler)

Each week for a year and a half, Antonelli and Hunt selected one piece of design that somehow embodies violence — from the 3-D-printed gun, which unsettles our assumptions about civil liberty and censorship, to the STUXNET computer virus, which exposes the dark side of the digital universe, to the stiletto heel, which calls into question the brutality to which our culture’s beauty standards subject women’s bodies — and asked one prominent thinker outside the design world to write a short essay in response.

The result is a masterful and urgently necessary invitation of nuance amid a culture that increasingly commodifies life into black-and-white binaries.

'The stiletto heel—named after the slender Italian dagger of the Renaissance—first appeared in the 1930s. The inventor of this long, often steel-spiked, thin heel remains in dispute, but today many attribute its rise in fame to Roger Vivier’s work for Christian Dior in the early 1950s. The stiletto has woven its way in and out of fashion history, but remains a highly charged symbol of sexuality, aggressiveness, and fetishism.'

Design and Violence (public library) presents a curated condensation of this online experiment — “curated” not in the misused, overused sense made vacant of meaning by our contemporary vernacular, but in the proper sense of contextualized and cared for with great thoughtfulness and intentionality.

Inspired in large part by Harvard psycholinguist Stephen Pinker’s controversial assertion that, statistically speaking, violence has declined over time, Antonelli and Hunt instead argue that violence has mutated rather than subsided — we have moved from more visceral forms of violence, like public executions and the legal impunity for wife-killers, to less visible but no less pernicious manifestations, ranging from cyberattacks to environmental destruction to the devastating injustice of a criminal justice system that renders black men six times more likely to be incarcerated than their white peers.

Antonelli and Hunt write in the introduction:

Not only does violence appear to be morphing, but how we experience, perceive, and assess it is also shifting.

[…]

Where there is transformation, there is design: indeed, the reshaping of everyday experience is at the core of the designer’s work… [But] design’s history of violence, unless linked overtly to political and social suppression, too often goes unexplored.

[…]

Throughout this experiment, one simple mission has inspired us: to wade into the ethical mire that design, and every act of human intention, draws us into. Considering the broad influence of design on the world and the contemporary pace of innovation — requiring continuous alterations and adaptations — design shoulders a heavy, yet shadowy responsibility. It needs to be brought into the light and grappled with. This project is our attempt.

They offer a helpful definition as a backdrop for the project:

Violence evades easy definition primarily because the term accommodates so many configurations, spanning the symbolic and the real, the individual and the collective. As we define it for this project, violence is a manifestation of the power to alter the circumstances around us, against the will of others and to their detriment.

The range of contributors is as varied and dimensional as that of the objects — science fiction legend William Gibson contemplates a collection of unofficial embroidered patches from the secret world of classified military intelligence; former Ugandan child soldier China Keitetsi confronts the AK-47; Grammy Award-winning musician and United Nations Goodwill Ambassador Angélique Kidjo tackles a poster campaign for female genital mutilation awareness; Judge Shira Scheindlin, who famously declared NYPD’s stop-and-frisk tactics unconstitutional, responds to the plastic handcuffs and anti-bite/spit mask; political scientist Anne-Marie Slaughter considers a vial containing a scent designer’s olfactory approximation of the smell of violence, made from sweat samples collected at cage fighting matches and chemically analyzed via gas chromatography.

'Violence' by scent designer Sissel Tolaas and photographer Nick Knight

In her essay on the vile veil, Slaughter examines violence as a highly contextual experience — a silhouette cut out from the negative space surrounding it:

The thought of a smell wrung from the sweat-soaked t-shirts of cage fighters creates a ripple of distaste and even fear at the imminent prospect of inhaling, a sensory reaction before the sense in question is even engaged.

The vial is incongruously clear and white and sterile-seeming; I imagined a blood-red glass rose, with twisted petals and a black heart. The smell seems to hit me even before I uncap it — old socks? No, it is far, far stronger — too strong to hold to my nose for more than a second or two. It is rank, but rank like musk, and held at a distance it summons images of stags or musk oxen or elk fighting—horns locking, hoofs pawing, the raw pushing of strength against strength. The violence of sex.

Would those images come to mind without the context of cage-fighting? I cannot know. But once the initial disgust at the smell inhaled deeply and close has worn off, and I smell it again and again, a transformation takes place. The smell itself separates from its context and becomes a spectrum of different scents, as if it is flattening and elongating under my nose. I think, for an instant, that I catch a whiff of rose, surely suggested by the pictures of torn petals but also reminding me that roses have many different scents blending into one. Again and again I smell it, until it begins to become denatured — an essence, yes, but of what?

Surely not of man. As I kiss my sons goodnight and press myself against my husband’s back in bed, I think about how we know each other by scent just as we recognize voices — instantly and individually. Lovers know each other years later by the deep smell of skin; parents inhale their children’s hair and neck and chubby folds. So perhaps the violence here is the transformation of the individuality of all men into the hormones that define them as male; the testosterone that creates the characteristics we identify with men rather than women. That is the transformation of design, the claimed search for an essence that is in fact a brute reduction and destruction of infinite variation: the distinctive features and feelings even of the two men fighting in a particular cage on a particular night with a particular set of instructions, much less of all the men who fight and love and work and care and create.

But by distilling something to an essence — not the essence but an essence — we also create building blocks for something new. We reduce complexity to simplicity to build a different complexity. If that is the violence of creative destruction, it feels far gentler than grappling for a death-grip in a cage. But I may never again look at a vial of perfume without thinking of torn petals and crushed calyces, a violence at the heart of beauty.

The Liberator by Defense Distributed, a firearm that anyone could fabricate using a 3-D printer

In his response to “The Liberator,” an amply unnerving 3-D-printed open-source gun designed Cody Wilson and his Texas-based nonprofit, Rob Walker exerts his formidable powers of cutting through the many layers of surface motives to unearth the very core of a cultural problem:

The real function of The Liberator has very little to do with making an excellent weapon, and everything to do with making a point. Wilson, whose Liberator work competed with law school studies, is a strident Libertarian. He might choose a different label, but clearly his project means to express a point of view about the individual’s relationship to the state in general, and gun regulation specifically. Thus the Liberator has—consistent with that self-important name—been promoted with bombastic, sometimes bellicose, and essentially propagandistic rhetoric and aesthetics. Wilson and his associates, for instance, operate under the name Defense Distributed. They are freedom-loving rebels, you see.

This is why it’s almost more useful to think of the Liberator not as an object but as an example of “design fiction”—the practice of devising plans for or prototypes of objects and systems that, while impractical, express some critique of the present or vision of the future. It’s a trendy strategy these days, but I’m guessing almost no one associated with it shares Wilson’s politics. Similarly, tech enthusiasts who have rhapsodized about the “disruptive” possibilities of 3-D printing frequently strike quasi-libertarian notes, but they have largely recoiled from Wilson and his Liberator.

But really, he has done nothing more than call their bluff. He didn’t subvert the dream of a future where we can all manufacture whatever we want, whenever we like. He’s hijacked it. And in doing so, he’s made plain the full stakes of that dream — something that should probably happen more often in our global discourse about how to reckon with technology’s powers.

3-D-printed parts of The Liberator pistol

Spectacular as the forty-three essays may be, some of the most provocative and piercing insights come from the co-called public, emerging in the comment section of the online exhibition. In response to John Hockenberry’s essay on the seemingly unassuming and old-fashion box cutter, designed in the 1920s and used by terrorists in the September 11 attacks, one woman observes:

I am struck by how remote violence is from all of us contributing to this site. We are either the lucky survivors expunging our guilt or we’re harboring wounds too deep to share.

Euthanasia Coaster by Julijonas Urbonas: Challenging the physical and psychological limits of the human body, this speculative design is intended to slowly ascend 1,700 feet into the air before launching passengers down seven loops at a mind-boggling speed of 330 feet per second. The roller coaster aims to give its riders a diverse range of experiences from euphoria to thrill, tunnel vision to a loss of consciousness and, eventually, to the end result: death.

In response to a piece in which neuroscientist Antonio Damasio eviscerates the Euthanesia Coaster — a hypothetical design by a former amusement park engineer, using “gravitational aesthetics” to offer a more humane and euphoric alternative for those who have chosen to end their lives — one reader exposes the breath-stopping dimensions of the issue visible only to its true stakeholders:

Your post extends from a singular premise — that death is necessarily a tragedy.

As somebody who is in pain every day, I do not believe this is the case. Sometimes life is the tragedy. When one’s only experience is overwhelming pain, it is a tragedy to be prevented release. For many there is only one option for release and that is the final option. I feel it likely that one day in the distant future I may choose this option myself. Doing so through the experience of something so amazing that the human body cannot withstand it sounds a whole lot better to me than a boring gray room.

To remove all violence from humanity would be to utterly sanitize life, to remove the experience of anything but grays. Certainly the specter of interpersonal violence is undesirable, but I WISH to be violently happy, violently sad, violently moved. I wish to feel violent acceleration and violent relief.
Conflating violence with anything that challenges us is to remove all value from the human experience, to paint the world gray.

Complement the profoundly pause-giving Design and Violence and its online archive with Hannah Arendt — a major influence for Antonelli and Hunt — on violence, Leonard Bernstein’s moving speech on the only true antidote to violence, delivered shortly after John F. Kennedy was shot, Tolstoy and Gandhi’s little-known correspondence on violence and human nature, and Martin Luther King, Jr. on the six pillars of nonviolence.

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Nikki Giovanni on What Amoebae Know About Love

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“We live in a world requiring light and Darkness … partnership and solitude … sameness and difference…”

“For one human being to love another,” Rilke wrote in contemplating what it really means to love, “that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks… the work for which all other work is but preparation.” And yet we hardly know how to prepare, for we hardly understand what love is at all. We try to define it, we even try to calculate it, and yet it remains a mystery.

Both not so and very much so for writer, activist, educator, and queer icon Nikki Giovanni (b. June 7, 1943). From her altogether magnificent 1975 collection The Women and the Men (public library) comes a beautiful and unusual prose poem about the dualities with which we must live and the human conceits which we must relinquish in order to truly know love.

LOVE: IS A HUMAN CONDITION

An amoeba is lucky it’s so small … else its narcissism would lead to war … since self-love seems so frequently to lead to self-righteousness …

I suppose a case could be made … that there are more amoebas than people … that they comprise the physical majority … and therefore the moral right … But luckily amoebas rarely make television appeals to higher Gods … and baser instincts … so one must ask if the ability to reproduce oneself efficiently has anything to do with love …

The night loves the stars as they play about the Darkness … the day loves the light caressing the sun … We love … those who do … because we live in a world requiring light and Darkness … partnership and solitude … sameness and difference … the familiar and the unknown … We love because it’s the only true adventure …

I’m glad I’m not an amoeba … there must be more to all our lives than ourselves … and our ability to do more of the same …

I was particularly struck by the second verse: Four decades before marriage equality came to the forefront of cultural discourse and rose triumphant to the highest levels of legislature as a basic human right, Giovanni elegantly satirizes the absurd arguments with which bigots have historically tried to limit love. It makes one wonder how much faster we might have gotten to the golden age of “love is love” had we sent a poet, not a politician, to the Supreme Court.

The piece was later included in The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni: 1968–1998 (public library), which assembles a lifetime of wonder and wisdom. Complement it with Giovanni’s marvelous poems about friendship and loneliness, then revisit the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh on how to love.

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Leisure, the Basis of Culture: An Obscure German Philosopher’s Timely 1948 Manifesto for Reclaiming Our Human Dignity in a Culture of Workaholism

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“Leisure lives on affirmation. It is not the same as the absence of activity … or even as an inner quiet. It is rather like the stillness in the conversation of lovers, which is fed by their oneness.”

“We get such a kick out of looking forward to pleasures and rushing ahead to meet them that we can’t slow down enough to enjoy them when they come,” Alan Watts observed in 1970, aptly declaring us “a civilization which suffers from chronic disappointment.” Two millennia earlier, Aristotle asserted: “This is the main question, with what activity one’s leisure is filled.”

Today, in our culture of productivity-fetishism, we have succumbed to the tyrannical notion of “work/life balance” and have come to see the very notion of “leisure” not as essential to the human spirit but as self-indulgent luxury reserved for the privileged or deplorable idleness reserved for the lazy. And yet the most significant human achievements between Aristotle’s time and our own — our greatest art, the most enduring ideas of philosophy, the spark for every technological breakthrough — originated in leisure, in moments of unburdened contemplation, of absolute presence with the universe within one’s own mind and absolute attentiveness to life without, be it Galileo inventing modern timekeeping after watching a pendulum swing in a cathedral or Oliver Sacks illuminating music’s incredible effects on the mind while hiking in a Norwegian fjord.

So how did we end up so conflicted about cultivating a culture of leisure?

In 1948, only a year after the word “workaholic” was coined in Canada and a year before an American career counselor issued the first concentrated countercultural clarion call for rethinking work, the German philosopher Josef Pieper (May 4, 1904–November 6, 1997) penned Leisure, the Basis of Culture (public library) — a magnificent manifesto for reclaiming human dignity in a culture of compulsive workaholism, triply timely today, in an age when we have commodified our aliveness so much as to mistake making a living for having a life.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Open House for Butterflies' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

Decades before the great Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast came to contemplate why we lost leisure and how to reclaim it, Pieper traces the notion of leisure to its ancient roots and illustrates how astonishingly distorted, even inverted, its original meaning has become over time: The Greek word for “leisure,” σχoλη, produced the Latin scola, which in turn gave us the English school — our institutions of learning, presently preparation for a lifetime of industrialized conformity, were once intended as a mecca of “leisure” and contemplative activity. Pieper writes:

The original meaning of the concept of “leisure” has practically been forgotten in today’s leisure-less culture of “total work”: in order to win our way to a real understanding of leisure, we must confront the contradiction that rises from our overemphasis on that world of work.

[…]

The very fact of this difference, of our inability to recover the original meaning of “leisure,” will strike us all the more when we realize how extensively the opposing idea of “work” has invaded and taken over the whole realm of human acton and of human existence as a whole.

Pieper traces the origin of the paradigm of the “worker” to the Greek Cynic philosopher Antisthenes, a friend of Plato’s and a disciple of Socrates. Being the first to equate effort with goodness and virtue, Pieper argues, he became the original “workaholic”:

As an ethicist of independence, this Antisthenes had no feeling for cultic celebration, which he preferred attacking with “enlightened” wit; he was “a-musical” (a foe of the Muses: poetry only interested him for its moral content); he felt no responsiveness to Eros (he said he “would like to kill Aphrodite”); as a flat Realist, he had no belief in immortality (what really matters, he said, was to live rightly “on this earth”). This collection of character traits appears almost purposely designed to illustrate the very “type” of the modern “workaholic.”

Illustration from 'Herman and Rosie' by Gus Gordon. Click image for more.

Work in contemporary culture encompasses “hand work,” which consists of menial and technical labor, and “intellectual work,” which Pieper defines as “intellectual activity as social service, as contribution to the common utility.” Together, they compose what he calls “total work” — “a series of conquests made by the ‘imperial figure’ of the ‘worker'” as an archetype pioneered by Antisthenes. Under the tyranny of total work, the human being is reduced to a functionary and her work becomes the be-all-end-all of existence. Pieper considers how contemporary culture has normalized this spiritual narrowing:

What is normal is work, and the normal day is the working day. But the question is this: can the world of man be exhausted in being “the working world”? Can the human being be satisfied with being a functionary, a “worker”? Can human existence be fulfilled in being exclusively a work-a-day existence?

The answer to this rhetorical question requires a journey to another turning point in the history of our evolving — or, as it were, devolving — understanding of “leisure.” Echoing Kierkegaard’s terrific defense of idleness as spiritual nourishment, Pieper writes:

The code of life in the High Middle Ages [held] that it was precisely lack of leisure, an inability to be at leisure, that went together with idleness; that the restlessness of work-for-work’s-sake arose from nothing other than idleness. There is a curious connection in the fact that the restlessness of a self-destructive work-fanaticism should take its rise from the absence of a will to accomplish something.

[…]

Idleness, for the older code of behavior, meant especially this: that the human being had given up on the very responsibility that comes with his dignity… The metaphysical-theological concept of idleness means, then, that man finally does not agree with his own existence; that behind all his energetic activity, he is not at one with himself; that, as the Middle Ages expressed it, sadness has seized him in the face of the divine Goodness that lives within him.

We see glimmers of this recognition today, in sorely needed yet still-fringe notions like the theology of rest, but Pieper points to the Latin word acedia — loosely translated as “despair of listlessness” — as the earliest and most apt formulation of the complaint against this self-destructive state. He considers the counterpoint:

The opposite of acedia is not the industrious spirit of the daily effort to make a living, but rather the cheerful affirmation by man of his own existence, of the world as a whole, and of God — of Love, that is, from which arises that special freshness of action, which would never be confused by anyone [who has] any experience with the narrow activity of the “workaholic.”

[…]

Leisure, then, is a condition of the soul — (and we must firmly keep this assumption, since leisure is not necessarily present in all the external things like “breaks,” “time off,” “weekend,” “vacation,” and so on — it is a condition of the soul) — leisure is precisely the counterpoise to the image for the “worker.”

Illustration from 'The Lion and the Bird' by Marianne Dubuc. Click image for more.

But Pieper’s most piercing insight, one of tremendous psychological and practical value today, is his model of the three types of work — work as activity, work as effort, and work as social contribution — and how against the contrast of each a different core aspect of leisure is revealed. He begins with the first:

Against the exclusiveness of the paradigm of work as activity … there is leisure as “non-activity” — an inner absence of preoccupation, a calm, an ability to let things go, to be quiet.

In a sentiment Pico Iyer would come to echo more than half a century later in his excellent treatise on the art of stillness, Pieper adds:

Leisure is a form of that stillness that is necessary preparation for accepting reality; only the person who is still can hear, and whoever is not still, cannot hear. Such stillness is not mere soundlessness or a dead muteness; it means, rather, that the soul’s power, as real, of responding to the real — a co-respondence, eternally established in nature — has not yet descended into words. Leisure is the disposition of perceptive understanding, of contemplative beholding, and immersion — in the real.

But there is something else, something larger, in this conception of leisure as “non-activity” — an invitation to commune with the immutable mystery of being. Pieper writes:

In leisure, there is … something of the serenity of “not-being-able-to-grasp,” of the recognition of the mysterious character of the world, and the confidence of blind faith, which can let things go as they will.

[…]

Leisure is not the attitude of the one who intervenes but of the one who opens himself; not of someone who seizes but of one who lets go, who lets himself go, and “go under,” almost as someone who falls asleep must let himself go… The surge of new life that flows out to us when we give ourselves to the contemplation of a blossoming rose, a sleeping child, or of a divine mystery — is this not like the surge of life that comes from deep, dreamless sleep?

This passage calls to mind Jeanette Winterson’s beautiful meditation on art as a function of “active surrender” — a parallel quite poignant in light of the fact that leisure is the seedbed of the creative impulse, absolutely necessary for making art and doubly so for enjoying it.

Pieper turns to the second face of work, as acquisitive effort or industriousness, and how the negative space around it silhouettes another core aspect of leisure:

Against the exclusiveness of the paradigm of work as effort, leisure is the condition of considering things in a celebrating spirit. The inner joyfulness of the person who is celebrating belongs to the very core of what we mean by leisure… Leisure is only possible in the assumption that man is not only in harmony with himself … but also he is in agreement with the world and its meaning. Leisure lives on affirmation. It is not the same as the absence of activity; it is not the same thing as quiet, or even as an inner quiet. It is rather like the stillness in the conversation of lovers, which is fed by their oneness.

With this, Pieper turns to the third and final type of work, that of social contribution:

Leisure stands opposed to the exclusiveness of the paradigm of work as social function.

The simple “break” from work — the kind that lasts an hour, or the kind that lasts a week or longer — is part and parcel of daily working life. It is something that has been built into the whole working process, a part of the schedule. The “break” is there for the sake of work. It is supposed to provide “new strength” for “new work,” as the word “refreshment” indicates: one is refreshed for work through being refreshed from work.

Leisure stands in a perpendicular position with respect to the working process… Leisure is not there for the sake of work, no matter how much new strength the one who resumes working may gain from it; leisure in our sense is not justified by providing bodily renewal or even mental refreshment to lend new vigor to further work… Nobody who wants leisure merely for the sake of “refreshment” will experience its authentic fruit, the deep refreshment that comes from a deep sleep.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. Click image for more.

To reclaim this higher purpose of leisure, Pieper argues, is to reclaim our very humanity — an understanding all the more urgently needed today, in an era where we speak of vacations as “digital detox” — the implication being that we recuperate from, while also fortifying ourselves for, more zealous digital retox, so to speak, which we are bound to resume upon our return.

He writes:

Leisure is not justified in making the functionary as “trouble-free” in operation as possible, with minimum “downtime,” but rather in keeping the functionary human … and this means that the human being does not disappear into the parceled-out world of his limited work-a-day function, but instead remains capable of taking in the world as a whole, and thereby to realize himself as a being who is oriented toward the whole of existence.

This is why the ability to be “at leisure” is one of the basic powers of the human soul. Like the gift of contemplative self-immersion in Being, and the ability to uplift one’s spirits in festivity, the power to be at leisure is the power to step beyond the working world and win contact with those superhuman, life-giving forces that can send us, renewed and alive again, into the busy world of work…

In leisure … the truly human is rescued and preserved precisely because the area of the “just human” is left behind… [But] the condition of utmost exertion is more easily to be realized than the condition of relaxation and detachment, even though the latter is effortless: this is the paradox that reigns over the attainment of leisure, which is at once a human and super-human condition.

This, perhaps, is why when we take a real vacation — in the true sense of “holiday,” time marked by holiness, a sacred period of respite — our sense of time gets completely warped. Unmoored from work-time and set free, if temporarily, from the tyranny of schedules, we come to experience life exactly as it unfolds, with its full ebb and flow of dynamism — sometimes slow and silken, like the quiet hours spent luxuriating in the hammock with a good book; sometimes fast and fervent, like a dance festival under a summer sky.

Leisure, the Basis of Culture is a terrific read in its totality, made all the more relevant by the gallop of time between Pieper’s era and our own. Complement it with David Whyte on reconciling the paradox of “work/life balance,” Pico Iyer on the art of stillness, Wendell Berry on the spiritual rewards of solitude, and Annie Dillard on reclaiming our everyday capacity for joy and wonder.

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The Little Gardener: A Tender Illustrated Parable of Purpose and the Power of Working with Love

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A sweet celebration of all that is alive and wonderful, inside us and in the outside world we shape together.

When I was a child in Bulgaria, my mother came up with a fictional character named Nokkut — Bulgarian for “thumbnail,” for he was a tiny, thumb-sized boy. Every night before bed, she told me fanciful tales of his adventures.

As young working parents struggling to make ends meet, my parents benefited from the great luxury of Europe’s highly efficient system of free childcare: grandparents. Every spring, I was handed off to my grandparents in the countryside. They had an orchard and a large garden full of flowers and strawberries and all kinds of vegetables. I loved the garden with all my heart — I loved digging into the moist dirt with my bare hands, I loved biting into an heirloom tomato fresh off the vine, I loved helping my grandmother plant the pumpkins, I loved waking up early to tend to the gerber daisies with my elephant-shaped watering jug.

Although I did not yet have the words to name the awareness, those were my first brushes with gardening as a spiritual experience — a sacred communion with the earth, a meditative activity with a special kind of prayerfulness to it.

Back in the city during the school year, and especially during the cold winter months, I missed my grandmother’s garden terribly. To alleviate my wistfulness, my mother would tell me stories of Nokkut and his garden. Eventually, she even sewed a miniature rag-doll version of him, clad in a brown corduroy jumpsuit — made of my father’s old trousers — and a tiny gardener’s hat.

Imagine my delight when, many years later, I came upon The Little Gardener (public library) by Hawaiian-born, British-based illustrator Emily Hughes. On the heels and in the spirit of her wondrous Wild, one of the best children’s books of 2014, Hughes tells the story of a tiny boy, no larger than a thumb, and his garden.

The charming, immeasurably sweet tale calls to mind what Van Gogh wrote to his brother: “Whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is well done!” It is at heart a parable of purpose — tender assurance for anyone who has ever undertaken a labor of love against seemingly insurmountable odds and persevered through hardship, continuing to nourishing that labor until the love emanates out, becomes contagious, and draws in kindred spirits as a centripetal force of shared purpose and enthusiasm.

Hughes’s illustrations, vibrant and deeply alive, capture that strange tapestry of tenderness and wilderness of which the human soul is woven.

This was the garden.
It didn’t look like much, but it meant everything to its gardener.
It was his home. It was his supper.
It was his joy.

But the little gardener, joyful and hardworking as he is, isn’t “much good at gardening,” for he is “just too little” — a beautiful metaphor for that feeling familiar to any artist and entrepreneur at the outset of a creative project, that sense of smallness in the face of a seemingly enormous endeavor, that moment where humility and faith must converge in order for one to surmount the mental barrier and march forward.

Mismatch of task and capability notwithstanding, the little gardener’s hard work pays off and one thing does blossom.

It was a flower.

It was alive and wonderful.

It gave the gardener hope and made him want to work even harder.

And so he does — he toils day and night, tirelessly tending to his jungle of a garden.

Even so, it begins to perish, his home, his supper, and his joy all at stake.

One particularly hopeless night, the little gardener peers out the window of his tiny straw hut and sends a single wish into the night sky — he wished that he could have some help, so his beloved garden would be saved.

No one heard his little voice, but someone saw his flower.

It was alive and wonderful.

It gave the someone hope.

It made the someone want to work harder.

As he blows his wish into the cosmos with a heavy heart, the little gardner drifts into sleep just as heavy — he sleeps a whole day, a whole week, a whole month. But, meanwhile, the Gulliveresque girl enchanted by that single flower — the little gardener’s sole labor of love — begins tending to the whole garden.

By the time the little gardener awakens, the garden is transformed into a blooming wonderland, nurtured by the largeness of a contagious love the seed for which he had planted in the heart of another.

This is the garden now.

And this is its gardener.

He doesn’t look like much,
but he means everything to his garden.

The Little Gardener, a heartwarming delight in its entirety, comes from independent British picture-book powerhouse Flying Eye Books, makers of such treats as Hug Me, Monsters & Legends, Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space, and the illustrated biography of Shackleton. Complement it with Hughes’s debut, Wild, then revisit one medieval gardener’s beautiful meditation on the spiritual uses of fruit trees.

Illustrations courtesy of Emily Hughes / Flying Eye Books

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