In the early spring of 2002, I had a vision in the West Virginia mountains. I’d wandered away from the meadow where my friends were enjoying the afternoon sun after the freezing temperatures that had frozen our water bottles solid the night before. I followed a path along the ridge. After only a few strides, the meadow was invisible. I glimpsed the sun through the trees, threw myself down among the tree roots, and understood that happiness was not only possible, but that I could have it for the rest of my life. The wind came down the valley and crashed in the trees like ocean surf. Invisible particles surged through me unimpeded. It was the purest joy I’d ever experienced. I was, as they say, one with the universe.
“But what is there to write about when you’re one with the universe?” my own voice asked.
“Shit,” I thought.
Bob Marley was floating above the valley where the sun had been. “I can’t do this,” I told him.
“Yes you can,” Bob Marley said.
I thought about that. I looked down and saw that I’d been pushing the edge of my bootsole along the path, raising a tiny ridge of dust and sand. No, I knew, you can’t be one with the universe and be a writer. Bob Marley, if he was the real Bob Marley, would understand that. A cloud covered the sun; the wind smashed through the trees and washed me like cold water. I knew I’d made a decision.
I know I wasn’t really offered universal oneness on Spruce Knob when I was twenty-two. But I also know I renounced it in full faith that I was. I’m proud of my choice, but I’m troubled by the assumption underpinning it: that happiness is incompatible with artistic ambition. For the last ten years, I’ve grappled with this paradox: how to be an artist, immersed in analysis and narrative, and also be happy, which I am convinced can only come from releasing judgment and accepting the chance and silence of the universe.
In the first three parts of this long essay, I’ve used the city and the country to make this paradox concrete. I feel torn between the humanity of the city—“a vast constellation of words”—and the wordless calm of nature. David Abrams explains this conflict by describing how literate people have transferred a fulfilling connection with nature to a less fulfilling connection with the the written alphabet. I like this as an explanation for the two sides of the paradox, but it leaves me with another question, how can this paradox exist at all? How do a few thousand years of symbolic writing trump millions of years of evolution in the natural world? It seems absurd on its face, that a state of mind as self-evidently, all-encompassingly desirable as happiness should not only compete with the desire to create art, but that it should be so consistently beaten. If I devoted a fraction of the energy and time I spend on writing to meditation, church, puppies, camping, or my relationship with Liz, I would almost certainly be measurably more happy and less stressed than I am today, but to do so would be a betrayal I couldn’t bear.
All of this begins to make a little more sense if you consider something I heard a few years ago on Radiolab: that it wasn’t knowledge of the written alphabet that cast us out of paradise, but language itself. The episode describes a series of experiments in which researchers let a rat watch them hide a biscuit in one corner of a rectangular room, then they spun the rat to disorient it. In a room with identical white walls, the rats ran to the correct corner only by chance. But in a room with one blue wall, the rats also ran to the biscuit only by chance. Rats can see blue, as can young children, who were the next test subjects. Researchers at Harvard found that until the age of about six, young children performed exactly as well as rats. After six, they performed as well as human adults, which is to say, nearly flawlessly. They concluded that rats and young children both lack the same tool: spatial language.
There is a blue wall. There is a biscuit. But children’s brains can’t link these concepts until they develop the capacity to learn and understand linguistic constructions like “left of” and “right of.” It is only after we have the word that we can understand the concept, and only after we have the concept does the brain grow the neural pathways that link sensory inputs like biscuit and blue wall in a useful way. Words don’t simply describe the world, they transform our minds so that we see the world with greater precision, orient ourselves by a multitude of physical features and abstract judgments, then make a decision and act with purpose, strategy, and efficiency. They also make us miserable.
In the same Radiolab episode, neurologist Jill Bolte Taylor describes what happened when she had a stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain, the one that processes language. One morning, the hemisphere began stuttering on and off; panicked internal monologue alternated with calm and blissful silence. Eventually Bolte Taylor woke in the hospital with no left-brain function, an utterly silent mind and “a peace inside of myself that I had not known before.” She inhabited an eternal present moment, composed of the awareness of her own body as a collection of perfect cells with no disconnection from any other element of the surrounding world. There was no place she began or ended. The word she uses to describe the silent connectedness is “joy.” And she lived in joy for about eight years until she relearned language. Giving up the silence to resume her relationships and career, to become fully human again, was, in her words, “a sacrifice.” Asked if she would rather go back to wordlessness, Bolte Taylor stammers, “Yeah, you know if, uh, if I had to choose which is essentially what you’re saying, if I had to choose… Um… that would be a really, really, really tough decision.”
Bolte Taylor’s silence arrived effortlessly and unwanted, but I’d argue Buddhist monks and other meditators find joy by arduously training their minds to detour around the powerful neural pathways created by years of using concepts like “left of” and “because of,” in essence: to regress. And artists do the opposite: they arduously strengthen the same neural pathways until they’re capable of creating spatial relationships that no human has ever seen or causal relationships no one has ever discerned. They are the members of society who dedicate themselves to the mental capacities that make us suffer for the sole purpose of creating objects that both represent and transcend suffering. They are trying to justify the human condition. And they’ve been trying for a very long time.
On our trip to the Boundary Waters Wilderness this summer, Liz and I visited an Anishinabe petroglyph on North Hegman Lake. It was our second time visiting such a site. Each time, we carried detailed instructions on how to find it, and each time the instructions were unnecessary. First we’d paddle through enormous granite boulders rising from the water. Then we’d find the petroglyph painted on the highest cliff.
This petroglyph is a few hundred years old, but it is an art form about 40,000 years old. Among other things, the image probably represents the constellation the ancient Greeks called Orion. Like Orion, this star man may also be a hunter. He seems to be using a traditional practice of using dogs to drive moose. The site overlooks a narrow wildlife corridor, and in winter these stars would rise directly above the image. The dog and moose may represent two major stars near Orion, and the three canoes may be the Path of Souls, The Milky Way. The North Hegman petroglyph is a star chart, a hunting manual, an icon, and an illustration: part of the pattern that explains the Anishinabe’s world and the story they tell to explain themselves. Pictographs were the most significant, manmade objects of permanence that generations of Anishinabe would ever see. Artists went to great lengths to ensure this permanence, mixing iron hematite with rendered sturgeon spine to create a durable paint. Every petroglyph is a sacred site where days of fasting and prayer transport the worshiper to the world beyond the world of appearance.
Here in the city, where a discarded plastic bottle will last 500 years, it is willful impermanence that transports the viewer. I wouldn’t consider fasting at one of the innumerable graffiti images that cover the surface of the city, but the good ones do give me a jolt of happiness when they catch my eye. Someone felt the urge to augment the constructed landscape, to populate I-beams, pylons, pedestals, and poured concrete with strange creatures and ambiguous designs, to make the city a little more like the forests and savannas we evolved on, random, mysterious and teeming.
My favorite graffiti is the most impermanent of all. I first spotted one of HOTTEA’s unassuming patterns of yarn and chainlink on the Hiawatha Bike Trail, which is surely among the ugliest trails in the country, wedged between the light rail, a major road, and a strip of windowless buildings. I love the trail because it’s as utilitarian as the rest of the city. It treats bike commuting as a practical matter rather than a pleasant pass-time. And twice a day, HOTTEA’s work offered a brief, improbable moment of transcendence beyond the utilitarian environment. I began seeing it everywhere.
I passed these images for years before I bothered to learn who made them. I liked the mystery, as if the city itself was sprouting yarn. When I finally googled HOTTEA, I learned he was a traditional tagger who was forced to reconsider his avocation after being tazered by the police and jailed for three days for spray-painting a wall beside a freeway. It was a clear-cut choice between happiness, in the form of freedom and physical safety, and making art. HOTTEA made the obvious decision. He switched his medium to yarn. It offered him a way to connect with his grandmother, and was less likely to get him arrested.
Unlike the Anishinabe artists, who chose the most dramatic cliffs above the most dramatic lakes, HOTTEA seeks out spots that are forlorn. “I gravitate toward vacant spaces,” he told one interviewer. “Give them new life, so to speak.”
In the wilderness, Anishinabe artists connected to their ancestors and their descendants by making artificial, permanent marks on the natural world. In the city, more and more artists are connecting to their mothers and grandmothers by working in wool. These tenuous creations in forlorn places tell us not only about the creative drive of urban artists but the generations of farmers’ wives who used their spare time to knit, sew, weave, crochet, and quilt. There’s no environment too harsh, too ugly, or too lonely to kill our drive to make things complex and beautiful.
My mother graduated with a B.A. in Art History from Rice University, but never figured out how to turn her intelligence and talent into a satisfying career. She was a wonderful knitter, and when my brother and I were small she bought two knitting machines with the idea of earning a little money while she stayed home with us. But soon after those machines appeared in our house she stopped knitting almost completely. In 1996, she earned a Masters in Social Work, and in 1997 my father asked for a divorce. Mom began knitting again when she moved home to western Kentucky in 2004. She bought a house next to her Aunt Emily, with whom she has a special bond. Since then, nothing has deterred her from knitting.
Mom’s duties to her clients in the day and her aunt in the evening require an awe-inspiring commitment of time and energy. But she fits knitting into every free moment, a row here, a row there. Sometimes it’s something for herself, usually it’s for someone else. With sons in Virginia and Minnesota, and friends and family scattered just as widely, Mom knits herself a social network far beyond the confines of her isolated town.
She recently sent me a pair of mittens, the latest in a long line of socks, scarves, hats, and other mittens she’s produced for Liz and me since I moved to Minneapolis. Their pattern comes from the Komi, nomadic reindeer herders who arrived in western Russia around 1000 AD.
Charlene Schurch describes how knitting is central to Komi culture. Brides were expected to present a certain quantity of textiles to the groom’s family: more than two dozen towels, a hundred yards of cloth, three dozen pairs of knit stockings, three dozen mittens, and one or two dozen shirts. A girl began this work around the age of ten, and the better the quality of her knitting, i.e. the more complicated her patterns, the more desirable the girl became. This was more than aesthetic appreciation on the part of Komi men. It was deeply pragmatic. The multiple strands of yarn must be carried along the back in “floats” that create an extra layer of warmth. A more complicated pattern is a warmer pattern.
Mom would have needed a stick to beat away the Komi suitors.
More than four generations of women in her family have lived in the fertile river bluffs around Henderson and Corydon, Kentucky. All of them were driven to create art and all of them seem to have struggled with the happiness trap, the paradox of ambition and acceptance. They wanted to do more than their world allowed most women to do—go to college, teach, paint—and they seem to have suffered for it.
My Great-Great-Great Aunt Net—Jeannette Floyd Compton—knitted, tatted, crocheted, and quilted. As a girl she lost her teeth, her hair, and her mother to a Civil War typhoid epidemic. Except for a stint at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and a teaching job at the Hiawassee Georgia Settlement School (from which she mysteriously returned after only a brief time) she lived her entire life in the house of her sister and brother-in-law, my great-great-grandparents.
Aunt Net made a flower garden quilt, a delicate crocheted tablecloth, and a knitted afghan for all her great nieces, including my grandmother and my great-aunt Emily. On summer evenings, Aunt Net played word games on the porch with the two little girls, raising her voice above the sound of the crickets and peeping frogs in the dark fields all around.
My Great-Grandmother Mary traveled all the way to Virginia to find a women’s college—Randolph-Macon—that would prepare her for more than life as a housewife. She became a popular teacher back in Corydon, but the school board forced her to give up her career when she got married. My great-grandfather, brought her to live on a farm with no plumbing or electricity. Mary was a teacher, not a farmer’s wife. She couldn’t clean or cook, and though she had an extraordinary eye for fashion, she was a terrible seamstress. Her clothes were elegant outside and a mess of loose thread inside. My Grandmother Jean, who inherited her mother’s love of teaching as well as her depression, said Mary was a great teacher because she loved her students and she loved learning.
Like her mother and her Great-Aunt Net, my Great-Aunt Emily left Kentucky to get an education, unlike them, she never returned to Henderson County.
At the height of the Great Depression, Emily won a scholarship to study art at Tulane. Then she won a fellowship to study in Paris. Her mother Mary ordered a bolt of green Harris Tweed from Marshall Fields in Chicago and made her daughter a suit for the trip. Aunt Net knitted a matching green vest. Emily traveled across the Atlantic in five days on the Ile de France and still remembers the sparkle of the phosphorescence in the great ship’s wake. She watched television for the first time in a London department store. At the end of her journey, she moved into a studio on the fifth floor of the Fondation des Etats-Unis, overlooking the Boulevard Jourdain and a park. Her room had a loft bed, a wardrobe, a wash basin, and a large easel below a skylight, where she painted the self-portrait above. It was 1937.
View Larger Map
A teacher at Tulane had told her to learn organization by finding a Cubist. So she asked Fernand Leger if she could study in his small ecole. For a year she painted in her studio all morning then studied with Leger in the afternoon.
By the end of her time in Europe, she was wearing a hundred dollar bill sewn into a cloth satchel around her neck; but she returned on schedule to the US more than a year before Hitler invaded Poland. After working briefly for the WPA, Emily spent a decade teaching at various colleges. For one class at Indiana University, she had to show aspiring art teachers how to use a table loom. So she taught herself to weave, by making a simple wool scarf, and never stopped weaving until she went blind.
In 1955, Emily traveled to Finland, which was experiencing a craftmaking renaissance, to study a diamond-patterned knitting style that can be traced back to the second century BC. The pattern is associated with Finno-Ugric language speakers, who now range from Hungary to Finland, but originated in the Ob River basin of central Russia. Archaeologists working in this area have found 4,000-year-old pottery with a distinctive diamond pattern. They believe the diamonds were used in fabric even before they were added to ceramics.
View Larger Map
The nomadic reindeer herders who lived here 4,000 years ago eventually migrated west. One group settled in northwest Russia and became known as the Komi. We can not only trace their cultural DNA backward in time and westward in space, but forward and eastward. Nineteenth century Scottish merchants and fishermen traveling to the Baltics probably carried the pattern to the Shetland Islands, where it became the basis for the famed Fair Isle knitting tradition. A century later, an American artist traveling by airplane learned the same diamond patterns from teachers in Finland, then created something no human had ever seen by marrying those ancient patterns to the weaving traditions of the Ohio River Valley and the Cubist Modernism of twentieth century Paris. Fifty years later, a western Kentucky social worker found an obscure book in a knitting store, ordered yarn online, and knitted a pair of warm mittens for her son in Minnesota.
The Komi were a preliterate people. The art at the center of their culture had to be passed orally from one generation of women to the next, but the patterns themselves were instructions for their own creation. “Most of the patterns that evolved did so around a system that made remembering them easier,” writes Charlene Schurch. “Every Komi village had its own distinct variations of the basic patterning, and a person who knew the patterns could tell where another person was from by looking at their knitted garments.” The most complicated patterns were elaborations on very simple rules.
When I look at the pattern that my mom used to make my mittens, I can’t help but think of the Game of Life, British mathematician John Conway’s effort to create the simplest possible code that could reproduce itself. Conway created a grid in which every cell is activated or deactivated based on just two rules: a live cell with less than two or more than four living neighbors dies; a dead cell with three living neighbors turns alive. Many starting configurations, immediately go extinct or expand uncontrollably, but a surprising number create organisms that change in place, “glide” through space, and even produce and “shoot” simpler shapes that collide with others to produce constantly changing environments.
Conway and his followers have found that grids programmed with just these two rules can achieve infinitely complex patterns, and can even become a Turing Machine capable of making any computation. The Game of Life is widely seen as a demonstration of how complex life could have evolved from extremely simple elements obeying a few physical laws. The number of individual blocks necessary to build a Game of Life machine that can reproduce itself is roughly equivalent to the number of atomic particles that make up a living organism.
And now I return to the mountainside to ask myself, was Bob Marley right? Did I base my decision on a false distinction between nature and art? After all, what is life except the expression of a simple, self-replicating pattern; four nucleotides spun into helixes and knit into chromosomes? It’s a pattern more complex than Komi knitting, but perhaps on par with the phonetic and alphabetic systems of human language—letters grouped into words strung into sentences chunked into chapters, books, libraries, the internet. Is life just information expressed in proteins? And what if it is? How do I apply this suspect intellectual leap to my own emotional experience? How do I integrate the language of DNA and RNA with the language of Emerson and Hemingway? “I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me,” Emerson wrote in Nature. “But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars.”
There was one more experiment the Harvard researchers ran in the blue wall room. To test whether it was truly language that was allowing a six-year-old to do something a four-year-old couldn’t, they tested what would happen when adults were asked to listen to an iPod and repeat every word. This time, they performed as well as the rats. Remembering and repeating someone else’s words prevented them from forming thoughts like, “I just watched the biscuit get hidden to left of the blue wall.”
When I am reading, I am the adult with the iPod in the blue-wall room. I am lost in narrative, repeating someone else’s words and unable to interject my own relentless thought-making. The ambitions and ideas that separate me so firmly from nature, so firmly from joy, are paralyzed. I enter a world completely: Cromwell’s London, Nick Adam’s Michigan, Levin’s meadows. I am more fully there than I am when I am riding through a real city, fishing a real lake, or walking through a real meadow, with a screen of analytical words separating me from the direct experience. And when I am writing I get to be fully engaged in my own words, not someone else’s. Hours can slip like minutes, marred only by the stress of pushing a few overworked neural pathways to their limit, trying to create something that no one has ever thought, but is worth thinking, obscuring, for those few blessed hours, the knowledge that I’ve almost certainly failed.
My Great-Great-Great-Aunt Net, I have no doubt, gave my Great-Aunt Emily the courage to go to college, then to Paris, to become an artist. My Great-Aunt Emily gave my mother the love and affirmation she needed to leave home and study art, to express herself in paint and yarn, to offer her two sons the unconditional love her own mother denied her, to offer her clients the time, empathy, and respect that many of them get nowhere else. And my mother gave me countless hours of language when I was too young to give it to myself. For days, she’d patiently read me my favorite book, The Wind In The Willows, and when she’d finished the last sentence, I’d take the pages, flip them back, and say, “again.” And Mom would start again: “The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home.”
About three and a half billion years ago, the nucleotides G, A, U, and C somehow grouped into the self-replicating chain that eventually became the base code of RNA. That simple code grew more complex until the earth was covered with a living pattern dominated by seven billion beings capable of creating their own patterns. So this is how I, John Teschner, can pick out a pattern that explains myself: four generations of creative women growing up in west Kentucky’s fields and hardwood forests. And I can weave all sorts of threads through this pattern: the bright threads of loving art, learning, students, and the natural world, the black thread of depression.
We discover our patterns and then we reproduce them on every surface we can find, from granite cliffs to chainlink fences to online magazines. We are programmed to seek patterns and we make ourselves miserable searching for them when they aren’t there. We look so hard for the pattern that we can’t see the wilderness, the randomness, and simply appreciate the extraordinary gift of being alive to perceive it at all. But if we didn’t seek patterns we couldn’t knit ourselves together, from drawing lines between the same stars, to keeping ourselves warm and known and beautiful and beloved by knitting strands of wool in particular ways, to establishing international laws that makes us less likely to go to war or gas each other, and we could never create one vast, networked pattern of information everyone on earth can share. Here’s a new pattern I see in the city, one that gives me a weird sort of hope, though I don’t even have a phone that can read it.
The patterns are flowing through the ether now; we can snatch them at will and share them. They don’t offer peace of mind, but they do offer peace, somehow.
John Teschner’s stories and essays have appeared in The Iowa Review, The Florida Review and other journals. He is completing a collection of linked stories and beginning his first novel. He lives in Minneapolis.