Painting by Meghan Howland
I recently heard a story about Max De Pree, the former CEO of Herman Miller and well-respected mentor to many leaders.
In 1988, De Pree’s daughter had a baby who was born 15 weeks premature, and very small, at one pound seven ounces. She was given only a slim chance of surviving the next couple of days, and to make matters worse, the baby’s father had left her mother a month before she was born. De Pree writes about the experience in a book of letters called Dear Zoe.
Visiting his granddaughter for the first time in the neonatal unit, he puts his wedding ring over her fist and slides it up to her tiny shoulder, contemplating what it means to be a “perfect” child.
"Is perfection like the weather? Is constantly fine weather better than changing seasons? Where would we be without storms? Can we learn to sail without the wind?… Does being wounded make us less perfect or more perfect?"
He continues in his letter:
"While we were looking at you, a wonderful nurse named Ruth came over to chat. After a few minutes she turned to me and said, ‘For the next several months, at least, you’re the surrogate father. I want you to come to the hospital every day to visit Zoe, and when you come I would like you to rub her body and her legs and arms with the tip of your finger. While you’re caressing her, you should tell her over and over how much you love her, because she has to be able to connect your voice to your touch.’
I’m sure Ruth’s suggestion is going to be very important in our relationship together. I also have the feeling that she has given me something enormously profound to ponder.”
Indeed, in the years that followed, De Pree wrote extensively about the importance of that connection between our voice and our touch, what we say and what we do, especially as a metaphor for leaders. It can seem simplistic, but I think the more dangerous naïveté is assuming we can separate the two at all. People are constantly growing from our words and actions, no matter what story they form. That’s how people grow.
This is challenging for me, as someone interested in growing spiritually and someone who also loves to learn. I really enjoy studying culture and theology and philosophy, and I know a lot about spiritual things. I can talk the talk. But intelligence is not a prerequisite for living a better life. Am I more loving than I was? Am I more generous? Am I more honest? Am I more likely to forgive? Do I worry less? Am I more at peace with myself and others? How do I know?
Voice and touch.
"Hey Now," a cut from London Grammar’s debut album If You Wait, gets a mesmerizing new stop-motion treatment. Watch the video. Directed by Chris Ullens.
First Lesson, by Philip Booth
Lie back daughter, let your head
be tipped back in the cup of my hand.
Gently, and I will hold you. Spread
your arms wide, lie out on the stream
and look high at the gulls. A dead-
man’s float is face down. You will dive
and swim soon enough where this tidewater
ebbs to the sea. Daughter, believe
me, when you tire on the long thrash
to your island, lie up, and survive.
As you float now, where I held you
and let go, remember when fear
cramps your heart what I told you:
lie gently and wide to the light-year
stars, lie back, and the sea will hold you.
Chaim Stern for Gates of Prayer
A few years ago, I started keeping a list of small synchronicities I noticed in everyday life. The relative I ran into who had been on my mind. The tough week when three different people sent me identical notes of encouragement. The time I put off sending flowers to a friend but the timing worked in a beautiful way I could never have foreseen.
It’s informal. I keep the list in the notes section of my phone. I call it Among Miracles.
I didn’t start the list to prove anything; it’s really about gratitude, acknowledging the mystery, and remembering that goodness persists.
But mostly it’s about gratitude.
This world, with its loss and pain and ordinary Tuesday afternoons, is still worthy of awe. It’s a privilege to walk among miracles.
When I was young, I got to attend a special enrichment course during school. We’d get bussed off one day a week and do all kinds of challenging projects designed to stretch our critical thinking and expand our creative capacity. It was not easy, but it was easily my favorite school day. Anything was possible in that colorful, crazy classroom. I have a lot of fond memories of those years, and I’m still in touch with many of my peers — we called ourselves the rainbow road explorers. In college I also got to come back and teach another class of gifted students with the teacher who taught me.
The schedule allowed us to have that same teacher, Ms. Wilson, year after year, so there was a wonderful continuity to our lessons. Often we would revisit similar themes and examine them from different perspectives as we grew older, demonstrating more advanced skills as we worked our way through the cognitive domain of Bloom’s Taxonomy. One yearly ritual was Why Man Creates.
Why Man Creates is an animated short by Saul Bass and Mayo Simon, or “a series of explorations, episodes, and comments on creativity,” as is sketched on a notepad in the opening scene. Both quirky and contemplative, it won an academy award in 1968 and has since become a cult classic lauded the world over.
When I think of this film, I still remember it slightly out of focus, huge and high on a wall in my old classroom. Lights low, kids fidgeting over the whirr of the movie projector. When we were through watching it, we would have a lively discussion about one of its themes, then there was a sheet of essay questions to think about and respond to. The last question was always, “So, why does man create?”
Until recently, the film was difficult to track down. Imagine my delight a few years ago discovering it on Vimeo and seeing it celebrated by the likes of Maria Popova. Having watched it so many times as a child, certain reactions still echo from those years when I watch it now. For instance, I remember being horrified during a scene where a man is shot repeatedly on a stage — a sort of graphic allegory to taking an idea public. I cried through it. “But he just made something, why would they want to hurt him?” I still cringe, but watching the scene as an adult, I know exactly why they want to hurt him, and I also know why he shoots back into the crowd. I have been that man and I have pulled the trigger.
The strength of the film is its diversity of perspectives on the nature of creativity, in all its struggle and celebration. Some scenes have clearly aged, but the themes are still as fresh and engaging as ever. And that last question remains, why does man create?
There isn’t one answer. For me, creativity is often about connecting — with other humans, with ideas, and even with disparate parts of myself. I’m fascinated by how something I dream or design or serve can have a completely new life when viewed by someone else and everything that makes up their experience. There’s a holding on and a letting go that requires a certain dance of determination and vulnerability, and in that way, creating is a lot like loving. You are never completely in control. I also think about posture: am I making things from a place of neediness, for what I can get, or from an overflow of wholeness? And if beauty can come from either, does it really matter, and for whom?
So ends the movie with the thesis of creation as an expression of the self. I agree that creating is part of our makeup, although exploring why man creates can also be a gateway to more fundamental questions about what it means to be human, such as why man loves and why man hopes. A path for the brave ones, the insane ones, and a new generation of rainbow road explorers.
Just another day at the office. Principals at AOR Architecture building Viewpoint at scale in Uusikylä, Finland.
In the fall of 2013, I spent several days at the London Design Festival for some film work and took in as many of the events, installations, and exhibitions as I could. One of the talks I enjoyed was by emerging Finnish architects Erkko Aarti, Arto Ollila, and Mikki Ristola at The Victoria and Albert Museum on their project called Viewpoint, an urban island hideaway on London’s Regent’s Canal at Camley Street Natural Park. Here’s how the Finnish Institute in London describes the project:
As a small man-made islet on the canal, Viewpoint will act as an additional viewing platform and an invaluable new learning facility for Camley Street Natural Park. The canal and the park form a natural habitat in the center of King’s Cross, one of the most rapidly growing metropolitan areas of London. In this unique site, Viewpoint beautifully embodies the sensitive relationship between the man-made and the natural.
The public talk was called Materials Moulded by the Environment and focused on the material choices made by the firm, which were important given the project’s location on the sensitive ecosystem of the canal. But I was more interested in the inspiration for the design itself, and especially its creative emphasis on shelter, even at the expense of unobstructed views of the water and the park. Why create something people had to peek around? When I asked the architects about this, they explained that they drew their ideas from lean-to shelters Finnish hikers historically built in the forests for the purpose of sitting and enjoying nature without disturbing it. In other words, shelter is a basic human need, and when thoughtfully considered, it allows not only for comfort over time, but for a kind of freedom as well. The result with Viewpoint is a place where people want to linger — and gradually discover the beauty that surrounds them.
I stayed up late a few nights ago and watched as the downtown highrises, the twinkling trees, and the little restaurant across the street slowly disappeared into a bright thick fog. It was one of those bitter cold nights we don’t often have in the northwest, and I sat curled up on my couch, staring into the white, thinking about another night like it several years ago.
I had been visiting family in a town north of Seattle and was driving home by myself. Cutting across the rural lowlands, I remember seeing bits of mist and frost swirl over the roads. It was below-freezing, and I was thankful for my big coat and the big heater going full blast in the truck.
"You need gloves on a night like this," I said to myself.
I made it to the freeway, crossed the overpass, and then I saw her. A woman standing at the onramp thumbing for a ride. Crumpled face, shaggy dark hair, denim jacket. No gloves.
As I passed her, I felt distinctly uncomfortable, and I wondered what anyone was doing outside on such a cold night. Her hands would be numb. I drove on until it occurred to me that I could give her a ride. Nervously, I turned around at the next exit and prayed, “Okay God, if this person is dangerous, please get her off that onramp by the time I get there. If she’s still there, I’ll take it as a sign and I’ll pick her up. I’m trusting you on this one. I can’t believe I am doing this.”
She was still there by the time I doubled back. My heart lurched the moment she swung open the door, but I managed to keep my foot on the brake and told her to climb in. I began to drive and she began to talk. I don’t remember her name. I do remember what she was doing outside on such a cold night.
"My last twenty bucks," she said. "My last twenty bucks, and I figured I might as well try to win big at the casino here. But I lost it and don’t have the cab fare to get home."
Minutes passed. She asked several times where I was driving in the middle of the night, and I kept explaining that it was only a little after seven. I tried a different tack and asked whether she had been in town for Thanksgiving. She said yes, and that she would be here for Christmas too, with her brother and her small nephews.
"You know," she laughed, "Christmas and all those stories — Christmas is really just for kids."
I finally pulled over to drop her off, and as she climbed out of the truck I handed her all the cash I had in my wallet.
"It’s only about eighteen dollars," I said, "but you can have it. And you know, Christmas isn’t just for kids." I waved and drove off and cried all the way home. Still sometimes I think about what kind of hope and disillusion could make me gamble away my last twenty bucks.
As much as I love the cheer of the holidays, this time of year I’m more often aware of a bleakness that persists just underneath the merriment, where the seams stretch and twist between what we have and what we want, who we are and what we hope people will see in us. We try hard to make it all work, take risks to keep it all together, and sometimes the results are disastrous.
It’s tempting to shut it out. But I know this: another story often told and retold this time of year, the one about Jesus, is a complete disaster too. Peel back the pageantry and witness a broke unwed teenager having a baby on the road, with a few migrant workers looking on, and an insecure politician biding his time to commit mass murder. It’s a story about the choices we make, the heavy loads we carry, and strangers who meet by chance. It’s messy and mysterious and heartbreaking, filled with hope and disillusion, a little like me and a little like you — and right where God works. And in this world of change, my friends, those are tidings of true comfort and joy.
I was talking to a friend recently about how much we take for granted the changing seasons. Autumn is alive in all its damp chill and brilliance, and everyone is talking about how astonishing the colors are, how delightful the leaves are underfoot. Of course, we know that winter is next, and a warmer, greener spring will come when the time is just right, so we see beauty in the withering, the breaking, the cold misty mornings. We take a walk and enjoy the season before another begins.
When it comes to the changing seasons in my own life, however, I rarely express the same sentiments. Instead I’m the one running around with scotch tape trying to stick the leaves back on the trees, devastated that they’re turning colors and falling everywhere, making such a mess. Moves in particular are hard. I remember the first night I spent in my home in downtown Seattle. I had moved in the middle of a snowstorm, but thanks to some heroics from my movers, the boxes and tables and chairs and piano were finally through the door and shoved in various corners. A local painter had whitewashed everything, and I’d managed to drag a mattress up the staircase to the open sleeping loft with the help of a friend. Later, lying there under piles of quilts, I panicked. This place would never feel like home. How could I even sleep here? It was too stark, too open, too exposed to the street, and far too bright, the way the streetlights lit the alley. I calculated curtain measurements. My eyes traced patterns on the wooden closet doors, and I listened to the city sounds for hours.
Sometime in that early early morning with the snow, sleep came. And of course, other seasons came too. Years later, I’m still living in downtown Seattle very much at home in my loft, and I’m a bit mystified at how that change happens. Is it the unpacking, the stuff in a space that makes a place feel like home? Is it the experiences, the making of memories? Is home where you spend your time and your imagination and your resources? Is it where your habits are? Your heart? I’ve fought for my place, built it up, then torn everything down from the walls to start over. Lovers have come and gone, and guests have laughed through dinner parties. The ceilings here are high, but nooks and crannies and odd hidden spaces give way to curiosities. There are stories in the walls. And I can always see the sky.
They say the only thing constant is change. That may be true. So is the change that comes with perspective. Maybe home is less somewhere we dwell and more something we carry with us, a little bit like hope, and the simple contentment that new seasons will come when the time is just right.
More from Molly’s photo shoot can be found here.
A few autumns ago, my friend Annie asked me to write a little piece for I Live Here Seattle, her lovely photography project on people and places. So much has changed — in my life and my decor — since this shoot was done. But I still think a lot about the concept of home. And I still carry mine with me.
“You’ve seen a herd of goats
going down to the water
The lame and dreamy goat
brings up the rear.
There are worried faces about that one,
but now they are laughing,
Because look, as they return,
that goat is leading!
There are many different kinds of knowing,
the lame goat’s kind is a branch
that traces back to the roots of presence.
Learn from the lame goat,
and lead the herd home.”
The Chateau Hardware
It was always November there. The farms
Were a kind of precinct; a certain control
Had been exercised. The little birds
Used to collect along the fence.
It was the great “as though,” the how they day went,
The excursions of the police
As I pursued my bodily functions, wanting
Neither fire nor water,
Vibrating to the distance pinch
And turning out the way I am, turning out to greet you.
I was walking through the Brooklyn Book Festival with some friends last weekend and stopped to chat for a minute with the publishers at A Public Space. I grabbed an issue from the stack on the table, flipped through, and paused at one article, “Eva Zeisel’s Prison Memoir.”
Eva Zeisel was a Hungarian American industrial designer renown for her work in ceramics. Her pieces bear a warm sensuality and very human roundness of form, and she is considered one of the most important designers of the twentieth century. The article chronicles part of her life that she had relayed to family and friends, but not published broadly: early in her years as an artist and craftsman, she visited Russia and was caught up in the first Stalinist purges, falsely accused of plotting to kill Stalin. She was imprisoned for 16 months and spent much of that time in solitary confinement. The stories of her imprisonment are riveting. She recalls the details of her daily life, the mind-games of her interrogators, and the oddly charming packages sent by her mother (“A tiny, complete cauliflower, wool underpants, lemon crystals to make lemonade, crabmeat”). Darker passages recount disappearing cellmates and a suicide attempt.
Retold to her friend Arthur Koestler after her release, Zeisel’s experiences actually inspired his famous novel Darkness at Noon.
Finding this work felt like a bit of synchronicity. Two years ago, a friend and I attended a formal champagne tasting one evening in Manhattan. After several flights of bubbles, we were all a bit chatty, and the young woman next to us introduced herself as Tailsman Brolin, a photographer who lived in the village. We talked more about design, art, and entrepreneurship, and she told us that her grandmother was Eva Zeisel. Tailsman was extremely gracious and not only invited us to a party at her home, but encouraged us to come meet Zeisel. “You should see her soon,” she pressed. “Eva is not well, but she loves visitors. Come in the next few weeks.” We were saddened to receive a note from Tailsman not long after that her grandmother had died.
Well-loved by her family and well-respected for her craft, Zeisel lived a rich life. These stories are another window into it, and testament to an uncommon strength of character she forged along the way, not only in enduring imprisonment for something she did not do, but also in transcending the experience to share it. She begins wryly, half-daring us to believe what she will tell:
"Memories of long ago are not true. They have been gilded by time, the way I remember them now, with love for my youth, sentimentally, of myself — slim and energetic, resistant, sad, alert. I speak of myself as much as of the things that happened to me. None of it is true, but I shall be precise in reporting my memories."