Leonard Wolf, my father, is a wild old visionary poet. He believes that the heart's creative wisdom has a more important message than anything else, and that our task in life is to realize that message.
Leonard has spent a lifetime identifying his own heart's desires, and it shows in the things that surround him. He has twenty ancient typewriters. He has a kukri knife, used to behead bullocks in a single stroke. He has an elaborate filigreed toiletry set used to remove the earwax of a Persian caliph. He has driftwood in piles, and heaps of seaworn glass in bushel baskets lying around the house. He has a box of horseshoe nails "because horseshoe nails are intrinsically beautiful." Those are all part of his heart's desires because they are symbols of a life of adventure and discovery.
Among the things he does not have: current maps for a given destination. Like most men, he does not wish to ask directions, so my mom, my brother, and I often find ourselves patiently biting our tongues in the backseat while he navigates by memories of foliage and lyrical years-old impressions of passing landmarks. ("Can the Golden Gate Bridge be on the right? When did that happen?") However, he happily brought home from one trip a collection of silk paratroopers' maps dating from World War II, which show roads and boundaries of countries that no longer exist. He gave them out as useful gifts. The idea is that you keep the silk map handy in your breast pocket as you are parachuting into, say, Prussia, so you can find your way around once you hit the ground.
My father does not have a cell phone or a personal organizer. He is the only person in America who kept the impossible-to-remember generic e-mail address that AOL assigned him. I have been trying to explain to him the principle of compound interest for my entire adult life. He overlooks these details because they have nothing to do with what he thinks really matters.
One of his greatest treasures, one that sat proudly displayed on the bookshelf in San Francisco when we were children, is a set of medieval Arabian astrolabes. They are crusted over with what looks like recent antiquing, and are probably mass-produced. He needs them because Chaucer used an astrolabe. Most of these were bought in North African bazaars for exorbitant prices that my father, who is far from wealthy, was always glad to pay.
It makes him happier to pay more for something he can believe is a medieval astrolabe than it does to pay less for what he must then acknowledge is probably not a medieval astrolabe. The very words "medieval astrolabe," and the way they flow off the tongue, add to the objects' value. North African souk dealers see him coming from miles away, and when they part, they do so, after many glasses of sweetened mint tea, as the dearest of friends.
("How do you know they are not real?" he wrote in a testy hand upon reading this.)
Why did Leonard accumulate a series of astrolabes? After all, he does not live on a ship: "You live in Manhattan," someone might say.
"It's surrounded by water," he will point out. Why, he feels, should you accept that your life will never call upon you to navigate by the stars? How sad would that be?
My dad is still a very handsome man: six feet two and distinguished-looking. He has an aquiline nose, fierce white eyebrows that seem to have lives of their own, gray-white hair that, depending on how it is brushed, makes him look either like an elderly Lord Byron seated at a formal dinner or like a homeless man having an alarming vision, and smiling hazel-brown eyes.
He is a teacher, and has taught in every kind of setting, for almost sixty years. He changes people's lives because he believes that everyone is here on earth as an artist; to tell his particular story or sing her irreplaceable song; to leave behind a unique creative signature. He believes that your passion for this, your feelings about this, must take priority over every other reasoned demand: status, benefits, sensible practices. This book is about why he believes this, and what this belief does to the people around him. Most of all, it is about the power of the imagination.
Leonard feels that your medium may be words or music or paint; it could also be the guiding of an organization, the baking of a certain kind of cake, the edging of a garden, the envisioning of a new kind of computer network, or the gesture that brushes the hair away from the forehead of a hurt child. What matters to my father is not whether the creative work is valued in the marketplace; what matters to him is whether or not it is yours.
He wants to know you have put your emotion into it, driven your artist's discipline into it, seen it through to completion and signed your name to it, if only in your own mind. If you do, he believes, your work comes alive and gives life to those around you. And it gives life, he is sure, to you.
My dad makes Xerox copies at Kinko's of the phrase Verba volant / Scripta manent "Spoken words fly away, but writing remains" meaning, get it down, do your creative work, whatever it is. He passes out the Xeroxes to everyone he thinks needs reminding: his grandchildren, his acquaintances, the guy at the cleaners.
He believes that each of us arrived here with this unique creative DNA inside us. If we are not doing that thing which is our innate mission, then, he feels, no matter how much money or status we might have, our lives will feel drained of their true color. 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 direction. It's that urgent.
Leonard believes if that particular story of yours is not told if storytelling is your medium or if that certain song is not sung if you are meant to sing and even if there is almost no one to hear it at the end, then it is not just the artist who has sustained a quiet tragedy; the world has, too.
Leonard believes that you can learn how to live from literature, from art, and that the key to leading a happy, meaningful life is to be found not primarily from the self-help section of a bookstore or from a therapist's couch, but from paying careful attention to poetry, to whatever constitutes poetry for you.
All my life, I have seen how his faith in this possibility that an artist inheres in everyone actually does change people's lives: the students he has taught over the course of four decades are changed, but so are the lives of people who are simply passing through. His faith in ordinary people's innate artistry gives him a kind of magic touch. I have seen how his belief has led people with whom he has come into casual contact friends of mine, friends of his, strangers he meets on trains, the staff in his building to suddenly drop whatever is holding them back from their real creative destiny and shift course; to become happier.
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 have seen students of his leave high-paying jobs that were making them miserable, or high-status social positions that had been scripted by their families, and follow their hearts in the face of every kind of opposition to become, say, dirt-poor teachers of children in the mountain villages of the Andes. I've seen the snapshots they send back to him, of themselves with their tattered, clowning kids, their faces suffused with joy. They have found their poetry.
My father believes in passionate love, in placing passionate love at the very top of your list of priorities, and in making room for passion at the center of your romantic life, no matter how domestic it is. He believes no one should settle for less. His students are always leaving safe but not essential relationships and finding something truer whether it is a fierce attachment to someone they would have overlooked before as being "unsuitable," or whether it is taking the risk of solitude in a renewed search for their soul's real mate.
My dad routinely addresses the artist in them, and his students respond accordingly: as artists. This is not calculated on his part; it is truly what he sees. Other teachers have used similar unself-conscious tricks; I think often of Martin Luther King Jr., who always addressed the innate peacemaker in everyone to whom he spoke even those people who were trying to wipe him from the face of the earth. I think the great teachers always speak to the potential they see in their students as if through an X ray, and not to the actual student as he or she appears at that moment to the less intuitive eye.
My father is never surprised at the treasures that come back his way. The superintendent of my father's building, John Maudsley a man who is very good at his job talked to my father one day and disclosed his secret passion: in his off hours, he painted: he was "a sign painter and frustrated artist," as he put it. Leonard did whatever magical thing he does which is as simple as saying a matter-of-fact "Yes, of course, this is your calling" that ignites the power of imagination in otherwise "ordinary" people.
Now, in buildings throughout the neighborhood, you can see the masterpieces that emerged from Mr. Maudsley's basement: a rocking horse painted a gleaming sky blue, with velvet-black reins festooned with crimson roses, as if it has escaped from a merry-go-round; a persimmon desk-and-bench set scaled to the size of a toddler, with gold and violet edging all are influenced by the brilliant palette of his mind's eye.
He is still a super, and still a good one. But over time, the super's office seems to me to have changed, showing the artist, too: there is a mock-Tiffany lamp illuminating the steel-gray file cabinets with particolored light, and a line of toy antique trucks, orange, black, and yellow, is parked across from the Formica desk and the standard-issue office chair. The sensibility changes the room, the job, the life, though it is the same room and job and life. In addition, something unique to him that derives from his upbringing, as well as from his own individual eye, is blooming in the living rooms of Manhattan. Mr. Maudsley seems to me a happy man.
This outcome doesn't surprise Leonard. He believes that the creative act is the secret of joy, and in spite of his occasional fits of pro forma testiness, Leonard is the happiest man I have ever known. My father's sense of optimism that the world would always be full of surprises was helped by the fact that he thought of his own persona, from day to day, as a surprise.
Leonard owns some unusual clothing. He has a cowboy's jacket, cut long to protect the rider's legs when rounding up cattle on the range; a Stetson original, now a bit battered; a Basque shepherd's shirt with ruffles down the chest, made of red flannel for those cold nights in the hills of northern Spain; a white linen sharpshooter's shirt complete with epaulets for extra cartridges, if you happen to find yourself in a duel; a Persian goatskin coat ("made by the Kashgai tribes that wander across the Iranian desert," said Leonard), with tribal embroidery and primitive bone buttons, that was heavily worn in the winter after the Summer of Love: it still smells of tanning pits. He has a professional bush photographer's vest, with netting over the pockets so the veld flies don't get tangled in one's equipment. Its many small compartments for film and cameras flap when he walks down city streets in the insectless breeze.
Leonard has some unusual possessions, too. A saddle English equestrian, naturally, made of fine old leather perched on his computer, though it has been years since the horse passed away. He likes having the saddle handy. You never know.
His belief goes something like this: Why stick to one identity? Why limit your limitless self every day to the costume of a suburban housewife, if once in a while you can be Salome? Why dress in the costume of a stockbroker or a retired college teacher all the time if you can sometimes be a Zouave horseman?
I believe my father's insistence on creative freedom may be the secret to happiness. I wanted to gather his central ideas about writing and about life, which to him are the same, to frame a portrait of a moment and a man. And I wanted to trace the little worlds, off the mainstream of midcentury America, that formed my father. This book will tell how Leonard came to believe the things he does, about how your heart's creative desire in his case, poetry can change your life, and can, in certain ways, set you free.
My father came often, over the course of six months, to a house my husband and I own in the woods in upstate New York, to help us build a treehouse for his granddaughter, our daughter, Rosa. During the time Leonard and I worked, we talked in a way that I had been too busy or rather, resistant to do since I was a girl. As we hammered and sanded, Leonard talked about his favorite poems, what they meant to him, the lessons they held. 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.
Finally, I decided I did not want to get just the glimmers of insight scattered here and there; I wanted him to teach me, too, formally, what he had taught his students for the decades during which he gave a famous class in poetry and creative writing and, many of his students felt, in how to live a life at the school he eventually settled into, San Francisco State University. He obliged me by finding his yellowed lecture notes.
The notes came down to twelve basic lessons. I learned their titles with a tremendous sense of recognition, though I had never heard them before; they were the background music of my childhood. "Be still and listen"; "Use your imagination"; "Destroy the box"; "Speak in your own voice"; "Identify your heart's desire"; "Do nothing without passion"; "Be disciplined with your gift"; "Pay attention to the details"; "Your only wage will be joy"; "Mistakes are part of the draft"; "Frame your work"; "Sign it and let it go"...these themes struck me again like a bell I carried within that had stopped resonating so long ago I had forgotten the sound. I realized slowly and painfully, because I did not want to at first that everything sensible that had ever guided me rightly was there in them, not just about writing but about life; and that when I had gone astray, it was because I had deliberately ignored, or insisted on forgetting, as daughters do who are trying to forge their own identity in the world, one of those twelve lessons about literature lessons that are really, or equally, about life.
While he was there, teaching me, a multitude of friends and family came to stay, or passed through. Some friends of mine, whom I will call Sophia, Teresa, and Clara; Leonard's son, my half brother, Julius; David Christian, a landscape worker; a then-three-year-old grandson, Joey; a then-seven-year-old granddaughter, Rosa; and several young women from the Woodhull Institute, a leadership organization with which I am involved: I will call them Madeleine and Eva and Alison. I saw him teach them, too, directly or indirectly, because he is a teacher and that is what he does naturally. He can't help it. I watched yet again, as I have all my life, how people turned in an instant into students, artist-apprentices would talk to him, or hear his suggestions, and think about what he had said, and slowly or abruptly shift direction.
I too let myself be a student to him, letting go of the daughter's resistance, and I shifted direction a bit, too. I let his lifelong advice and example sink in, and started to give the heart, including my own, the respect I had for many years reserved only for the head.
Leonard has taught poetry all his life, in a thousand contexts. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche," he chortles about his adventures, quoting from Chaucer's description of the Clerke in The Canterbury Tales (the man will quote Chaucer at the drop of a hat). He taught at twelve universities; he taught orthodox Jewish Yemenite immigrants at the University of Be'er Sheva, and Catholic men at a single-sex college in a tiny California town, and Muslim students at the Shiraz University in Iran.
Leonard says, "Teachers are the people who are the living signposts of your life. They see you coming, and, prescient, they know in which direction you ought to go, and they point to it. They see into the heart of your matter."
He is a teacher who is a humanist, because he has found that great poetry crosses all boundaries; that all human imaginations tune to love, music, death, and loss in similar ways. In the shah's Iran, he taught Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" to students who had never seen an ocean. ("I said, 'Go out and find a pond. Make it bigger, and make it bigger. And make it bigger. Just keep making it bigger, and add salt and waves, and you've got the sea.'")
Just keep making it bigger, and add salt and waves; I am afraid that if I don't get it down, I will forget how to do that in my life when I cannot see the ocean, and my father is no longer here to remind me that I can always see the ocean.
I wanted to tell the story of what I discovered from my eight-decades-old father for myself, and for others who will never get a chance to know him. I have met so many people who are artists in some way but do not realize it; 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. All these people who may not be professional painters or writers or musicians but whose heart's desire is to live a creative life deserve to know why at least one man believes they are the real world-changers. I wanted, too, to write about his kind of teaching, because in the course of that summer, I accepted my own role as a teacher; and I came to notice that whenever I said something that changed a young person's outlook, it had come straight from my years of having been around my father. Finally, I wanted to capture some of what he taught me about love, happiness, loss, and, above all, about the power of the imagination, as I learned from him how to build a treehouse in the woods.
Copyright © 2005 by Naomi Wolf