Tree house

Time to share another book I have loved: Naomi Wolf’s The Treehouse. Discovered on a shelf in a used bookstore last year, this was the unearthing of a real treasure.

You, like me, probably associate Naomi Wolf with her other, more sensational book…The Beauty Myth. This is a completely different species of book. I’m not sure why I was attracted to it (serendipity?) but one guess is that it has something to do with the subtitle: Eccentric Wisdom from My Father on How to Live, Love, and See. (I have a pretty eccentric father too, and I like to think that he has taught me a thing or two over the years.)

Naomi’s father, Leonard Wolf, was a poet and retired humanities professor who came to her home over the course of six months to help build a treehouse for his granddaughter. Naomi says that as they worked, We talked in a way that I had been too busy–or rather, resistant–to do since I was a girl…After each conversation, I found that I wanted to share the insights with close friends or students whose problems were pressing on me–and his insights also called me, uncomfortably but unmistakably, to reevaluate my own life.

What she learned from him is organized into the form of 12 lessons/ chapters:

1. Be still and listen
2. Use your imagination
3. Destroy the box
4. Speak in your own voice
5. Identify your heart’s desire
6. Do nothing without passion
7. Be disciplined with your gift
8. Pay attention to the details
9. Your only wage will be joy
10. Mistakes are part of the draft
11. Frame your work
12. Sign it and let it go

Her father, like mine, is a larger than life figure in many ways.  He is also a human being, with shortcomings (also like mine, sorry dad.) I don’t find everything that I need here (I believe in calling as well as creativity; Leonard is a humanist-atheist, I am a Christian.) But there’s lots of wisdom to be found here (God-given wisdom, in my opinion), and I am still mining this book for more transformative insights.

His call to creativity is very compelling. Here’s a short taste from the introduction…

My father believes that each of us arrived here with this unique creative DNA within us…He believes that no amount of money or recognition can compensate you if you are not doing your life’s passionate creative work; and if you are not doing it, you had better draw everything to a complete stop until you can listen deeply to your soul, identify your true heart’s desire, and change directions. It’s that urgent…When people spend time around my dad, they are always quitting their sensible jobs with good benefits to become schoolteachers, or agitators, or lutenists…I wanted to tell the story of what I discovered…I have met so many people who are artists in some way but do not realize it (Leonard believes that everyone is an artist); or who, even if they are struggling to do creative work, feel erased as artists by a culture that picks losers and winners on a commercial basis and gives the rest the message that their creative vision does not count.

And from Lesson Five: Identify your heart’s desire

My dad believes that in order to be a fully realized person, you need to have your heart’s desire. He believes, too, that your heart’s desire often appears to you first as a symbol. To discover your heart’s desire, he feels, you should notice what symbols you are drawing into your life…Symbols are sometimes more important than concrete reality…

In all your relationships, every day, a literal exchange is taking place, but so is a symbolic one. This is why so many people are confused about their heart’s desire. They are paying attention to literal meaning–say, the size of their paycheck–but ignoring the symbols that are crowding around them: say, the fact that they keep gazing out the window at birds migrating. Where are those birds migrating to for you? Believe me, you will find your heart’s desire there. But you won’t be able to identify the direction unless you notice the birds, and notice your own interest in them, as living symbols in your life. You ignore those things at your peril…

If you can understand the myth you want to make out of your own life, explained Leonard, you can identify your heart’s desire.

Here I was at forty, heavily scheduled to talk abstractly in various venues, but completely preoccupied with constructing a child’s treehouse. What was that about? I should, I realized, take my dad’s advice for myself and be curious: why a treehouse–why now?

The treehouse–and Dad’s lessons–were about everything I was not doing in my life. They were about everything I needed to learn.

I had to face the fact that there was not one more thing I could learn in my life from one more plane trip, one more opinion piece, one more argument. My focus on talking at the expense of listening–my well-rewarded rightness–had, if not hurt, certainly shortchanged my loved ones.

If I was going to grow, I would have to stretch a part of myself that would continue to ache: a part that was new to me, that I was unskilled with, in order to become a teacher, not to mention a better wife and mother; the part that listened and took things in; the intuitive part–the soul part. The change in my life was going to hurt; there was no way it wouldn’t. That’s why I was so so scared.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood… I thought of the Frost poem. Which road? One was easy and smooth, but it was taking me in the wrong direction. One was full of difficulty and uncertainty, but it might take me, in every way, home.

What is your treehouse? Which symbols keep appearing in your life? Do they compel you to take a different path in the wood? Does the prospect make you frightened or excited?

My treehouse symbols have been many: The euphoria I felt at putting my hands into the dirt to plant a flower, a story that made me cry every time I heard it, a quote by Göethe, the words of my friends, Jeremy playing Danny Boy on the violin in the kitchen…and there are many, many more.

But I’ll have to write about how I began to notice the symbols and what happened to my life because of them another day.