My great grandmother was a very old woman when we planted the apple tree. She softly sang a song filled with harmony while we worked, with the movement of her hands instructing me how deep and wide to dig the hole. I sometimes dream of the music but when I wake the melody has faded. The apple tree was but a sapling, a broken branch she had rooted in water. I remember how she gleefully rubbed her hands together after we planted it telling me with a twinkle in her eyes how good the apples would taste.
I remember it was late in the fall so she said we had to take care of the little tree; she showed me how to pack mulch around its tiny base after instructing me to drive a stake into the ground beside it so as to tie it lest the snows of winter break it off before it had time to strengthen itself against the rages of the world.
Though I was just a young boy I was old enough to know she would never live long enough to collect a harvest from that tree. Still, all things start small. The taste of the fruit is magnified with the years. This is what I have learned my great grandmother in her wisdom was attempting to share with me.
I remember how she always gave me a big glass bottle of soda pop—they didn’t have cans or plastic in those days—and how she got a stomach ache one day and it didn’t go away. When the family made her go to the hospital the doctor told her she only had a couple weeks to live; the cancer eating her from the inside was late stage; all they could do was to make her comfortable. The last thing she said to me before leaving the house for the final time was to take care of that apple tree. I promised her I would; it was one promise out of ten thousand I kept.
Writing is like planting trees. Starting with but an acorn a splendid oak unfurls its twisting boughs to the universe. Starting with but a single thought a magnificent book weaves its web of characters to the reader.
As a writer I tend to discount what a reader says about my creative work. It isn’t that I don’t appreciate the readers of my work; I do! It just seems to me that a reader subordinates their own creativity; unless they are an author as well they will never understand what it means to sit in front of an empty monitor or an empty notebook to witness it filling with words of their own.
It is easy to teach the art of writing; there are rules of grammar, sentence construction, plot and theme, and many other aspects of writing that anyone can learn. It is impossible to teach the art of creativity. No one knows where it comes from.
Creativity arises from the mystery. By practicing non-doing my monitor overflows with words. By practicing non-action I tap into the mystery that is as boundless and vast as I am empty and small.
Despite my obstinance I was brought to her hospital deathbed, to say goodbye, I suppose. I must have been four years old. I wanted no part of approaching that sad sack of withered skin and bones who used to be my great grandmother. She didn’t know me any more than I knew her. I remember my mother softly saying: grandmother, your great grandson is here. But the old bald-headed woman only moaned in pain and rolled over to face the wall. Though they all thought they were doing me and my great grandmother a kindness the family should have left us to our memories of each other.
When I came into this life I let out with a single cry. When I began this sentence I started with a single letter. When I started this book I began with a single word. By increasing the few I magnify the small. By seeing the simple in the complex I achieve much through small things. By singing her simple song and planting apple trees my great grandmother left me with an enormous legacy.
All sound arises from the mind; music is the intercommunication between minds. Even animals know sounds but not its modulation. Most everyone knows the modulations but few hear the music. On this account I must discriminate the sounds to know the airs; I must know the airs to hear the music. By knowing the music I understand the character of others. Having attained this I set order to the world.
If another person doesn’t know the sound I cannot speak to them about the airs; hence, I cannot say a word of the music. Knowledge of music leads to the subtle springs that underlie the rules of ceremony like planting trees in the autumn of life. By possessing knowledge of both the music and the ceremonies I walk the path of virtue. By this I mean realization of self.
Music is the modulations of voice, the source of which is in the affectations of the mind as it is influenced by external things. When the mind is sorrowful the sound is sharp and fading; when the mind finds pleasure in things the sound is slow and gentle; when the mind is joyful the sound is exclamatory and soon disappears; when the mind is moved by anger the sound is coarse and fierce; when the mind is reverent the sound is humble and straightforward; when the mind is moved by love the sound is harmonious and soft.
When the feelings are moved within they are manifested in the sound of the voice. When those sounds are combined so as to form compositions, this is called airs. The greatest achievements in music are not in the perfection of airs but rather the teaching of people to regulate their likings and dislikings and bring them back to center. My great grandmother’s song was much more than a little ditty; it was her way of teaching me a lesson where words would never suffice.
The evolution of the universe is made up of small steps. Great performances are done as if they are easy. Working without doing is called practicing non-action. Like the apples on my great grandmother’s apple tree I know by tasting the tasteless I reward bitterness with care.
I never attempt anything big; taking things lightly in the beginning only results in immense difficulty later. Since I confront the difficulties from the beginning I never experience difficulties.