The Importance of Starting
The riddle goes like this: Three frogs sit on a log in a pond. All three say they want to hop into the water. So, how many are left on the log?
Three. The frogs only said they wanted to, but they didn’t. Too bad. Even the word splash sounds more riveting than croak.
I suspect the frogs were old toads. Four hundred years ago Francis Bacon, a man of science who wore an oversized bonnet and a lace collar the size of a dog-cone after visiting the vet, wrote that men “object too much, consult too much, adventure too little, and repent too soon.” Children, on the other hand, want to invent rather than judge, do rather than advise, and explore rather than sit on a log and croak.
Fashions of clothing have changed, but our angst hasn't. I thought I fully understood the importance of starting something, anything, no matter how small. Then, I got an email from a woman asking the same question that big-bonnet Francis Bacon was writing about centuries ago.
Scarcely a Seed Out of a Seed Packet
It happened when I was slouching about on my own toad log in lawlessly loose flannel pjs and a standard issue gray hoodie with a when-did-I-do-that coffee stain. I took myself to (at least for gad’s sake) read the morning’s emails. I deleted shop-now e-blasts and scrolled over eye-candy design blogs to then see an email with the subject line: Maybe a start?
I clicked on it. It was from a college junior, whose Facebook profile cast her as the kind of ginger-haired maiden you’d want to lift astride the white horse in the emerald forest. Go fast, my lady, and don’t look back! She was writing me (Dear Tipsy Tomato) about a turn in life she’d just made: “It’s not much, but it’s a start. Right?”
For a minute, my chin felt my fingers pinch its flesh with mild self-rebuke. My scruffy flannel loungewear informed me that, I’m pretty sure, I was not the sprightly sage that this young woman imagined she was seeking. I could have pretended, but I didn’t.
Instead, I replied that, on most days, I’m scarcely a seed out of my seed packet. What’s more, hiding out in a proverbial seed packet is tempting. The peep of one eye leans out of the packet to survey the grounds: Nah, I’ll just stay in here where it’s dry. No reason to put myself out there, exposed to the elements.
Does she ever feel this way? I asked. Even in a long-ago era of candlewicks and corsets, before lightbulbs and loungewear, the epic poet Johann van Goethe wrote:
Not Much Is Good
But, Goethe did. He put himself out there. He started. So, with a twist of typical expression, I typed to the young woman: "Not much" is good. Just one small start each day builds quietly into something bigger. Little by little, a mound becomes a mountain, lofty above the valley of never-did-get-around-to-that. The law of physics suffices: add an ounce of anything little by little and soon "not much" becomes much. But, I'm not into physics and my new Dear Tipsy pen-pal wasn't writing me for a science lesson either.
My mind fixed on this woman's email, even though the clock let me know I had less time before my appointments than I assumed. Besides, my mouth was regretting the bark-like aftertaste of the coffee gone cold; a good round with Listerine and Sonicare was in order. I could even put some real clothes on, I thought. Give my Woolrich plaid, tie-string, loosey-goosey wear a rest or even a wash. Yet, I stayed put. I reread those few words: "It's not much, but it's a start. Right?"
That's when it occurred to me just how come "not much" really is, well, really good. My love of loose scruffy wear had a role in all of it, along with my front yard. My front yard's gravel and weeds could have auditioned for a leading role in a crime scene. Through the window, I’d wrestle it in my mind. It won every time.
Finally, I set out. I had no more alibis; I couldn't let the new barn's cedar scent fade before I gave it the courtyard I'd imagined. Shoveled hole by shoveled hole, I wheelbarrowed the rocks and clay away, replacing the gaps with one teeny boxwood after another. When migraines or lethargy weighed down my confidence, I’d head out to work in my scruffy pajamas, just to make an effort.
Russian Jigs and Toddler Bibs
The sight! My XXL pajama legs ballooned out of my mudboots, making a Russian jig with squatted legs and crossed arms a possibility. After weeks of my muddy hands wiping on it, my jacket looked worse than a toddler’s bib after a chocolate pudding fest. A pink bandana corralled my hair off my face; plus, I told myself, it gave me a redeeming cute factor. But, then when the guttural drone of a truck rose up my drive’s hill once, I flung the shovel and fled. Did the UPS guy spot the confused clown stumbling for cover in her backyard?
Never mind my attire, I felt stupid about my efforts overall. At garden centers, I would skulk over to the palettes of grass seed. I’d faintly run my fingertips over the fifty-pound sacks and murmur: Go ahead. Forget your project. Toss lawn seed down and be relieved of the whole thing.
Keep Going with "Not Much"
The whole thing: I was creating a knot garden, the sort of approach that a British baroness enjoys at her country mansion, like in a Downton Abbey episode. No lawn. All boxwood, planted in geometric curves and squares with a herringbone sidewalk escorting you to my door. In actuality, my efforts weren’t nearly like these images in my head; each day gave one more temptation to stop, to quit.
Recalling this, I wrote more to the woman: When you think you’re “not much,” keep on going even in your pajamas. Fresh in mind from my last blog, I quoted Emerson:
In short, we can only work with who we are and what we've got. If we don’t, we have no soulful nourishment.
I Didn’t Know I Couldn’t.
Usually, we tell ourselves what we can't do, what we're not capable of. If you haven’t seen the 2008 documentary called A Man Named Pearl, do. If you're pressed for time, watch the brief video by National Geographic from last year. It’s about a basic, humble man named Pearl Fryar, the son of a sharecropper who with little education of any kind taught himself topiary on an internationally grand scale.
From the scrapheap of a nearby nursery, Pearl salvaged discarded plants. He’d work his twelve hour days at the cannery where he’d begun at the age of fourteen. With nightfall, Pearl would head home. Using canteen lights strung high on make-shift posts, he would nurture and sculpt his shrubs until the night was almost morning.
In the documentary, driving in his rundown pickup with the dust kicking up in the cab, Pearl chuckles. He looks at the cameraman riding beside him and says, “'Experts visit and say you can’t do that. You just can’t do that with that plant. All the books say you can’t do that.' I tell them, 'Well, I didn’t know I couldn’t.' ”
The Slightly Reckless Passion of an Amateur
Enter modern times' Daniel Boorstin, the utter opposite of Pearl in education and worldliness: a Rhodes Scholar, professor at Cambridge University and the University of Chicago, the twelfth Librarian of U.S. Congress, and a published world historian by Yale, Harvard, and more.
Boorstin wrote in “The Amateur Spirit” that the reason many of us don’t grow is not because of our ignorance but because of our arrogance. We want to appear more impressive than we are; we don't want to look average or foolish, so we never start anything new. We avoid being beginners. He adds:
According to NPR's Julie Burstein, author of Spark: How Creativity Works, Boorstin argued this well into his final years, “that while professionalism of the good kind (knowledge, competence, reliability) has its place, it is the curious, excited, slightly reckless passion of the amateur that we need to nurture in our professional lives...”
Frogs, Flannels & Reassurance
I reread my drafted email to the woman. She had written me for reassurance. Her project wasn’t much, she told me. She's just a college junior, she confessed. So, at least, it was a start. Right?
Right. In fact, better than right. Fabulous.
Maybe she didn’t need to hear about Goethe and Emerson, how they also felt like they weren't much compared to others’ greatness. Maybe she didn’t care about Pearl Fryar and Daniel Boorstin, as the unlikely duo who, from opposite worlds, both know that the novice triumphs over the expert. Maybe the plain frog metaphor was plenty. Or, maybe she was just looking for the likeness of herself in a pajama-clad gardener, who despite lots of education will always feel tipsy, too.
After all, even in my scruffy flannel pajamas, my front yard moved out with all the wheelbarrows of rock and clay, and my knot garden moved in with each season's small plantings of alliums, peonies, and lavender. Not much became much.