The greatest love of small
No matter how seemingly trivial or nonsensical an act is, if it is done for love it is noble
When I was a small boy I had a neighbour who was building two boats. The first boat was the one everyone knew about. It was a big rusting eyesore, an empty hull that sat on his front lawn, waiting to be welded or soldered or caulked or keelhauled or whatever it is you do with boats. He sometimes took out a deckchair and sat in the bow in the evenings and smoked a pipe and drank a brandy and dreamed, I imagine, of palm-lined islands and white-veined waves and thunderhead clouds over the wide Pacific, and I don’t know if he knew but we all certainly knew that that boat was never going to be finished.
But he was also making a different boat, and he showed it to me once. It stood on a metal table in his garage and it had masts and sails and tiny perfect strings of rigging that he had tied himself. He pulled one small section away to reveal the inner world of the ship – the miniature hold with miniature cargo; a tiny cabin with tiny hammocks and a tiny swinging lamp; a gunroom; some sort of intricate galley. He was attending to the inside with a very fine brush, varnishing here, a speck of paint there. It was endless, finicky work and seemed to frustrate him no end, and as much as I was delighted that the magic of this little ship didn’t stop on the outside, I wondered why he didn’t just stop already. Who was going to see the inside of that tiny cabin? What difference would it make?The American podcaster and general oddball John Hodgman once wrote a book of humour that consisted of a variety of invented tidbits of information – a kind of fictional Scott’s Miscellany. One of the sections purported to list the names of 700 different 1930s hobos: Simon Squirrelskin, say, or Trainwhistle Ernie Roosevelt, The President’s Long-lost Brother. Why 700? It was just a number that seemed large enough to be funny. The entire joke consisted in having pages and pages of hobo names, and the thought that someone sat there inventing them. Of course no one would ever read through all the names. At most you would read the top few, then one or two random names just to satisfy yourself that they really were all different, and then, with a smile, pass on to the next section.
And yet, having set himself the task, he had to come up with 700 unique 1930s hobo names. That may sound easy, but it is not. Try it yourself – you run out of steam around the 150 mark. Hodgman himself later described it as one of the most painful and psychologically ruinous tasks he had ever attempted. You or I – certainly, I – might have tried to sneak by with 698, or 685, but he made the full 700. I know this, because I have counted them. And although it is just a somewhat absurd joke, the fact of all 700 being written out in full makes it more than a joke to me. They are inspiring, a sign of the love an artist has for his art and for his audience, even if the art is just a silly book of humour, and the audience just a bunch of weirdos like me.
Before she died, the writer Jenny Diski turned 60, and in her memoir of dying she recalls how her poet husband wrote her a poem for her 60th birthday, made up of 60 lines, each line taken from page 60 of a different book from their shared library, each line mentioning windows. Why windows? I don’t know. It must be a private joke.It’s obviously an extraordinarily lovely gesture, to weave together a work of art culled from the riches of your shared passion and the life you’ve gathered around yourselves, but come on, that’s just nuts. How many books in the world mention windows? Quite a few, but how many of those books are in your library? Not as many, and of those that are, how many of those mentions will be precisely on page 60? Exactly how many books did this guy have to go through in order to find 60 page 60s mentioning windows? The more I think about it, the more embarrassed I become, because I can imagine myself hatching such a plan, and finding the first three or four lines and high-fiving myself for being so literate and romantic, but a couple of hours later throwing down the umpteenth book and swearing loudly and deciding that five lines will be fine for this stupid poem. Short poems are better than long poems, aren’t they? It’s the thought that counts.
But really in life it’s not the thought that counts. Any fool can have a thought. All sorts of fools are having thoughts right now – just look on the Internet. What matters is the wholeheartedness to convert a thought into something else, something as full and as finished as it can be, something that puts something into the world. I have read the poem that Jenny Diski’s husband made from the sixty lines about windows, and don’t get me wrong, it’s a terrible poem, but the application and perseverance, the love embodied in carrying out that task – it turns that terrible poem into a universe.
Making something is an act of love, and the world would be a better place if there were more acts of love.