Living Outside The Lines

Color Us Content ~ c. 1950
Apricot. Bittersweet. Burnt Sienna. Cornflower. Maize. Mahogany. Melon.

Those of us who grew up between 1949 and 1957 may remember those colors with special affection. Clear and vibrant as the bits of nature whose names they bear, they are classic Crayola colors: part of the box of forty-eight crayons that became one of my childhood’s greatest treasures.

Before 1958, the year the box containing sixty-four Crayolas was introduced, the forty-eight piece box was the big box: the box you received as a Christmas gift, or for a birthday, or because you’d contracted something like measles that would keep you in bed for a while.

I received my first big box of crayons for Christmas, with some coloring books thrown in for good measure. A photograph from that year shows me in pajamas and robe, my coloring book canvas spread before me and my father at my side. Our routine — I colored, he watched — continued for several years. He rarely offered advice, preferring instead to comment about my choice of colors, or the stories I made up as I worked.

My mother’s concerns were somewhat different. Each time I settled in to color, I’d hear her gentle, cautionary advice: “Be sure to stay inside the lines.”

Her advice was well-meant, and especially appropriate in my case. Coloring-book novices often stray, smudge, and straggle their way across the pages, but I seemed particularly unable to keep things tidy. My mother worked with me, as did my grandmother. Even a neighbor or two tried a little artistic coaching. Wanting to please, I did my best to keep my apricot, corn flower, and maize inside those little black lines. But every now and then, when no one was looking, I’d sneak a piece of typing paper and just draw.  

Eventually, coloring books were set aside for bigger and better art projects: a squirrel carved from ivory soap; a ghastly papier-mâché puppet with bright yellow hair and a calico dress; a Japanese lady wearing a kimono sketched onto a piece of wood.  I learned to cut paper snowflakes, sent coiled clay vases and ashtrays to the kiln, and once created a presentable corn field with tempera paints. 

But always there was a mold, a form, a pattern to guide my artistic efforts, and standards by which to judge. A “good” squirrel was properly proportioned, snowflakes were symmetrical, and corn fields were meant to look like corn, not fence posts. If I was going to produce art, it seemed I needed to learn the rules.

There were rules to spare. In 8th grade, I was taught that real poetry always rhymes.  Not long after, I learned that real music has no dissonance, and good art always is representational. Even though my coloring books had been set aside, the importance of remaining within the lines remained unquestioned.

Later in life, the consequences of not being able to  control my metaphorical crayons became more serious. My first full-time job, as a customer service representative for Southwestern Bell in Kansas City, involved taking calls from people wanting to connect, disconnect, or change their telephone service. In those days before computers, the information we obtained — names, addresses, employers — was transcribed by hand onto forms resembling graph paper. Each letter or numeral was to be placed precisely within its own 1/4″ square, with no smudges or stray lines straggling across the paper. 

At the end of a six week probationary period, several of us were advised to seek employment “where our talents might find a better fit.” The nicely-phrased suggestion avoided stating the obvious: idiots who couldn’t stay within the lines had no place in the world of Ma Bell.

After the firing, my relief knew no bounds. I’d hated the work, and every day had been a misery.  Despite understanding company guidelines and wanting to do things properly, I seemed incapable of doing so. When friends asked, “Why not do it their way?” I had no good answer, although it did occur to me that the wisdom of my mother’s advice during my coloring-book days had been confirmed. Stay within the lines, and you’ll be fine. Get distracted, lose focus, grow restless or bored, and your days are numbered. 

For the next few years, I did my best to keep within the lines. But by 1975, I was in London on holiday, and ready to hear what the Heptones had to say on the matter.

A reggae band from Jamaica, the Heptones recorded their hit single, “Book of Rules,” in 1973. Part of a musical wave overtaking London at the time, the song appealed as much to Bob Weir — guitarist, lyricist and founding member of the Grateful Dead — as it did to me. Weir told David Gans in 1981 how he came to record the song:

It had been one of my favorite reggae cuts for the last few years.   I finally found the record and copped the tune and recorded it.  Then a few weeks ago, after the record had been pressed up and everything was happening, a friend of Barlow’s found a compilation of verse, a collection of poems from the turn of the century to about 1930.

The poem within the collection that caught Weir’s attention was “A Bag of Tools,” written by R.L. Sharpe (1870-1950).  It was included by Hazel Felleman in her 1936 volume, Best Loved Poems of the American People.

A Bag of Tools

Isn’t it strange how princes and kings,
and clowns that caper in sawdust rings,
and common people like you and me
are builders for eternity?

Each is given a list of rules;
a shapeless mass; a bag of tools.
And each must fashion, ere life is flown,
A stumbling block, or a stepping-stone.

By the time the Heptones’ Barry Llewellyn and Harry Johnson finished setting Sharpe’s words to music, the lyrics had changed a bit, but the reggae flavor of the newly titled “Book of Rules” was memorable.

The Heptones’ “Book Of Rules”

Isn’t it strange how princesses and kings
In clown-ragged capers in a sawdust ring,
Just like common people like you and me
Will be builders for eternity.
Each is given a bag of tools,
Shapeless mass and the book of rules.

And each must make in life his flowing in
Stumbling block ** or a stepping stone,
Just like common people like you and me
We’ll be builders for eternity
Each is given a bag of tools,
Shapeless mass and the book of rules.

I say it’s common people like you and me
We’ll be builders for eternity
Each is given a bag of tools,
Shapeless mass and the book of rules.

Look when the rain is falling from the sky
I know the sun will be only missing for a while
I say it’s common people like you and me
We’ll be builders for eternity
Each is given a bag of tools,
Shapeless mass and the book of rules. 

In the Heptones’ lyrics, as in Sharpe’s poem, the shapeless mass, the indeterminate tools, and the mysteriously veiled rules appear both ambiguous and compelling. The only certainty seems to be that our final creation — steppingstone, stumbling block, or surprising alternative — will depend upon which tools we choose, and which rules we choose to follow.

Letting go of predetermined forms and patterns isn’t easy.  Without obvious lines to guide us, the need for decision, discipline, and structure increases exponentially.  The blank canvas, the silent practice room, or the empty page can induce paralysis as easily as a decision to move outside commonly accepted life-limits induces vertigo.

But that strange combination of joy and terror lies at the very heart of the creative process. As we confront the shapeless mass of our personal vision, in life or in art, we’d do well to look into our bag, and open our book. It may be that the tools and the rules with which we’ve been supplied differ considerably from those received by others.

After all, Sharpe never said there was only a hammer in the bag, and the Heptones never suggested that one rule fits all.

Comments always are welcome.
**In “Book of Rules,” the phrase “stumbling block” sounds like “tumbling black” in Jamaican patois.


On Taking Goethe’s Advice

Woman Reading by Candlelight ~ Peter Ilsted, 1908

Burned onto flimsy wooden signs in souvenir shops, quoted to death on Facebook, memed on Instagram, and included in semi-inspirational books of every sort, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s words continue to resonate nearly two hundred years after his death:

One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, and see a fine picture.

Oddly, Goethe himself never spoke or wrote those words as actual advice. The line belongs to one of Goethe’s characters: a theater manager named Serlo  who appears in the novelWilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.  It was Serlo who said:

Men are so inclined to content themselves with what is commonest; the spirit and the senses so easily grow dead to the impressions of the beautiful and perfect; that every one should study, by all methods, to nourish in his mind the faculty of feeling these things.
For no man can bear to be entirely deprived of such enjoyments: it is only because they are not accustomed to the taste of what is excellent that the generality of people take delight in silly and insipid things, provided they be new.
‘For this reason,’ he would add, ‘one ought every day at least to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.’ [Book V, Chapter 1]

Setting aside for a moment the possibility of speaking a few reasonable words — a phrase generally omitted from the quotation — the relevance of Serlo’s assertion is undeniable. In a world awash in silly and insipid things, it becomes ever easier for our spirits to become deadened to the beauty and creativity surrounding us: both that contained in past tradition and that which arises from our present lives.
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Iesous Ahatonhia: The Huron Carol

“A Huron-Wendat Hunter Calling Moose” ~  Cornelius Krieghoff, 1868

Known as the first North American Christmas carol, “The Huron Carol” was written by Père Jean de Brébeuf, a Jesuit missionary and accomplished linguist who supervised the preparation of a Huron grammar and dictionary.

After arriving in Quebec from Normandy in 1625,  de Brébeuf (1593-1649) lived and worked among the Huron from 1626 to 1629, and then again from 1634 until his torture and death at the hands of the Iroquois in 1649. Canonized in 1930, de Brébeuf became one of the patron saints of Canada.

Like so many early missionaries, de Brébeuf necessarily became an explorer. After being assigned to Huronia, he found himself crossing the 800 miles that separated Quebec from the Hurons by canoe. It was far from an easy trip, as  the Dictionary of Canadian Biography makes clear:
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A Season Of Turning

Woodworker, carver, sailor, musician: Gordon Bok is an American treasure. Until several years ago, I’d not heard his name and might have missed his artistry forever, had it not been for the graciousness of a reader.

We’d been exchanging thoughts on music, and in an emailed post-script to our discussion he added, “I can’t think of a better song than Gordon Bok’s Turning Toward the Morning.”  Pointing me toward Albany, New York’s WAMC and their Saturday night broadcasts of the “Hudson River Sampler” he said, “I can almost guarantee you’ll hear something by Bok: if not this Saturday, then next Saturday for sure. And something by Stan Rogers as well. But you’ll also hear songs you’ve never heard before and will want to hear again.” Continue reading

Time To Take A Breath

Ku Klux Klan parade in Washington, D.C. ~ September, 1926
(Library of Congress)

Unless you’ve been living under the proverbial rock, you’ve no doubt noticed that things in our nation have been a little chaotic of late. Confrontation, confusion, accusations and counter-accusations: all have played a role in roiling the civic waters.  As one of my dear Southern friends likes to say, “I’m plumb wore out.” Continue reading

Jarvis and Jenkins ~ An Artist’s Perfect Pair

In a world filled with questions about the creative process, professional photographer and Creative Live founder Chase Jarvis has a few answers. In an intriguing blog entry titled “There are No Excuses,” Jarvis reveals his sensitivity to creative angst:

I’ve heard you say that there’s nothing to take a picture of. I’ve heard you say you don’t know what to make, when to make it, how to make it, what to do.
I’ve heard you say that you don’t know how to get your work “out there.” I’ve heard you say that you don’t know what to put on your blog. I’ve heard. I’ve heard. I’ve heard. And I promise you, I, too, have said all these things.

Then, he reminds his readers that such questions are rooted in an earlier time: a time when artists required permission from others for their work to be seen. Permission came in the form of being hired to shoot a news story, to write a magazine feature, or produce a graphic layout for a business.
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Ringing Out the Old, Ringing in the New


Church bells. School bells. Sleigh bells. Cow bells. Dinner bells and bicycle bells.

Poe captured their variety and vibrancy perfectly: that tintinnabulation that rang and clanged through a different, non-digital world. Generations were introduced to onomatopoeia through his rollicking, unforgettable verse:

Hear the sledges with the bells,
Silver bells!
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy air of night!
While the stars, that oversprinkle
All the heavens, seem to twinkle
With a crystalline delight;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells—
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.

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