Things Grown Piece by Piece

“You string words together like beads to tell a story.”
Anne Lamott

Let us contemplate parts and wholes. The progression of many into one. It’s human nature to assemble, but what do we form when we do?

In Illuminations, German philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin welcomes us into his library—a pile of books yet unpacked, promises of greatness:

I am unpacking my library. Yes, I am. The books are not yet on the shelves, not yet touched by the mild boredom of order. I cannot march up and down their ranks to pass them in review before a friendly audience. You need not fear any of that.

Instead, I must ask you to join me in the disorder of crates that have been wrenched open, the air saturated with the dust of wood, the floor covered with torn paper, to join me among the volumes that are seeing daylight again.

When does a pile of books become a library? When they are organized? When they are touched and loved?

“The way my walls are made, stone upon stone, is like growth,” sculptor Andy Goldsworthy writes of his art. Goldsworthy repositions rocks and stone in walls, cairns, and arches, shapes that both amplify and slink into their surroundings. “I think the main difference between a design process and a sculptural process is that the latter is close to the way things grow.”

When does a pile of stone become a wall? For Goldsworthy, this transference occurs when the sculptural process begins; the first brick of a wall is a wall.

For Benjamin, similarly, the distinction doesn’t exist. His boxes of books are a library.

We are likely to agree with either or both. It is the power of gestalt, the human tendency to make out of many one.

"Graft" by Roxy Paine, 2009. Featured in "Things Grown Piece by Piece."
“Graft” by Roxy Paine, 2009. More than 35 individual steel pieces have been welded together to form a fabricated tree 45 ft high. Learn more.

This mental assembly of things occurs with both physical and abstract entities.

Anne Lamott’s highly influential writing guide Bird by Bird, published twenty-five years ago and widely read today, suggests the nature of writing—and creating—should be done through placement of one piece after another:

[S]omehow in the face of it all, you clear a space for the writing voice, hacking away at the others with machetes, and you begin to compose sentences. You begin to string words together like beads to tell a story.

We see this piecemeal assembly of work and creativity in the work of John Steinbeck, who—famously, twice—chronicled his writing process in creating The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden. Steinbeck stings together words, pages, and himself.1

In his journal kept while writing The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck tracks his daily progress in an attempt to map the actual working days and hours of a novel, omitting not one day, not one state of being. It gives us a rare glimpse of an author producing—his novel and himself—“bird by bird.”

My nerves are very bad, awful in fact. I lust to get back into it. Maybe I was silly to think I could write so long a book without stopping. I can’t. Or rather, couldn’t. I’ll try to go on now. Hope to lose some of the frantic quality in my mind now.

Unlike Goldsworthy and Benjamin, Steinbeck does not recognize that his day-by-day bricklaying has become a novel. He uses phrases like “the work” and “my story.” He calls it a “book” but only in the future tense: something it will become. When he is halfway done, Steinbeck notes “the story which will be so much greater than I am,” and by the end of the next month, he uses the phrase “the hardest, most complete work of my life” but, again, in a subjective future tense.

The last page in the diary, October 26, 1939 Steinbeck closes with “Finished today. I hope to God it’s good.”

Even with a completed stack of pages before him, Steinbeck is reluctant to name the work as a whole.2

"Graft" by Roxy Paine, 2009. Featured in "Things Grown Piece by Piece."
“Graft” is part of Paine’s Dendrite sculpture series, tree-like structures formed piece by piece to evoke man-made and natural environments. One side of the tree is gnarled and weathered, the other (pictured here) is smooth and elongated. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Gestalt means “unified whole” and comes from theories of visual perception developed by German psychologists in the 1920s. These theories “attempt to describe how people tend to organize visual elements into groups or unified wholes when certain principles are applied.”3

Navigating from a brick to a wall or a book to a library, even pages to a novel, is a cognitive, psychological step we make, even if when we make that leap differs.

What if we get even more abstract, however, like Alan Lightman does when he contemplates the stardust that forms all humans. When, Lightman asks, does the summation of atoms become a human?4 When she has a name? When she can say “I”?

Is she human when she is loved?

It is a fundamental tension of humanity: after the edge of material and before the wellspring of being, there is a chasm.5

There’s no mark that equals hair, there’s no mark that equals skin or anything else. It’s a little bit like an architect choosing a brick. The brick doesn’t determine anything about what kind of building will be built from it. You stack up the bricks one way and you make a gas station, or you stack up the bricks another way and you can build a cathedral. Both of them will be very different experiences, but it wasn’t the brick that determined the nature of that experience.

Perhaps there is no artist that allows us to float between a human whole and its pieces better than American portraitist Chuck Close.6

Through his use of grid scaling, Close makes the whole and its pieces simultaneously visible. A complete, detailed human face with every detail intact and yet, not a face at all, just the summation of pieces.

I believe a person’s face is a road map to their life, and embedded in the imagery is a great deal of evidence if you want to decode it. If a person has laughed his or her whole life, they’ll have laugh lines… It’s not necessary for me to have them laughing or crying or anything in order to have people be able to read them.

Like these portraits, we are formed of pieces, and those pieces coalesce into our concepts of being.

We shore up our fragments and say “I.”7

"Graft" by Roxy Paine, 2009. Featured in "Things Grown Piece by Piece."
Paine also replicates natural structures that form and grow using carbon copies of themselves in his Replicate series. The meticulous relationship between parts and whole, the original and offspring and repetitive forms in nature are all explored in Paine’s work. Learn more. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

In art, in politics, in socio-economic systems, in religion, in science, in the basic family unit, and most of all in our concept of self, we are asked to move fluidly between the parts and the whole. To embrace all in value and meaning.

In this enormous complexity, I struggle to care, to prioritize, to discern, to assemble.

With all this change, how can we, the assemblage of atoms, ever feel truly whole. Full. Complete. Done?

There is poetry. A prism of knowledge, poetry strips language, images, and metaphors of meaning and returns them to us able to reassemble as needed.

Poetry allows us to visualize the invisible.

With her characteristic grasp of the finite and the infinite, poet Mary Oliver delivers us a robust, inclusive concept of sea:

I go down to the edge of the sea,
How everything shines in the morning light!
The cusp of the whelk,
the broken cupboard of the clam,
the opened, blue mussels,


It’s like a schoolhouse
of little words,
thousands of words.
First you figure out what each one means by itself,
the jingle, the periwinkle, the scallop
full of moonlight.

Then you begin, slowly, to read the whole story.

from ‘Breakage’

Goldsworthy’s walls break down, Benjamin’s Library was burned by Nazis, Close’s portraits are dissembled visually by a few steps towards the canvas. Things grow and decay.

While you can, while it lasts, read the whole story, piece by piece, sit in the complexity, sit in the beauty.

The Gifts of Inheritance

“What do we inherit, and how, and why?”
Dani Shapiro

One of my favorite concepts is called “two-handed giving.” Leaving no hand open for receiving. The height of altruism.

Gifts of inheritance are more like heavy parcels that abseil from the sky. They knock us over, and we’re forced to claim them, carry them. Are they appreciated? It remains to be seen. They are definitely nonreturnable.

Vladimir Nabokov believed that memory—or more specifically, “the act of vividly recalling a patch of the past”—was a hereditary trait.

British novelist Graham Greene claimed he inherited a fear of bats and birds from his mother, while Penelope Lively surmised her love of gardening was an inherited trait passed through the female line.

Roald Dahl credited his love of nature to his father’s overwhelming need to take his pregnant wife for “glorious walks” in the woods, hoping an in vitro experience of beauty would take hold.

What are gifts of inheritance? How do they affect us? Do they make us who we are?

Wedding dress. Featured in "The Gifts of Inheritance."
My wedding dress. Something mothers traditionally to pass on to daughters. Photograph by Chris Cook.

you look just like your mother
I guess I do carry her tenderness well…

Rupi Kaur, “Inheritance”

Genetics, snapshots, keepsakes, spaces. The physical things we inherit, keep, claim, and pass on.

But what about nonphysical items?

What we really inherit is consciousness. A sense of who we are.1

This inheritance anchors us. It is so fundamental to our sense of self and our connection to who we imagine as our “kin” that we fail to see it as its own thing—like a mirror that shows everything but itself.

Until, like a mirror, it shatters.

When a genetic test proved beyond doubt that writer Dani Shapiro was not related to the father who raised her, she undergoes a disintegration of identity, an investigation of truth and a reconstruction of self.

“If my father wasn’t my father, who was my father? If my father wasn’t my father, who was I?” Shapiro demands and tries to answer.

I woke up one morning and life was as I had always known it to be. There were certain things I thought I could count on. I looked at my hand, for example, and I knew it was my hand. My foot was my foot. My face, my face. My history, my history. After all, it’s impossible to know the future, but we can be reasonably sure about the past.

By the time I went to bed that night, my entire history—the life I had lived—had crumbled beneath me, like the buried ruins of an ancient forgotten city.

Shapiro’s sense of self becomes so fractured that she feels physical detachment. “My body wasn’t my body,” she mourns. As she reassembles her new self, piecing together what happened, and what it means, Shapiro tries to make sense of what her parents knew, especially her father. She ultimately finds empathy towards herself by extending it to someone else first.

Did she learn that empathy from her father?

Photos of booties. Featured in "The Gifts of Inheritance."
Crocheted booties worn by my mother-in-law and my daughter. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Where did you get those big eyes?
My mother.
And where did you get those lips?
My mother.
And the loneliness?
My mother.
And that broken heart?
My mother.
And the absence, where did you get that?
My father.

Warsan Shire, “Inheritance”

For most of us, inheritance is more than genes; it’s the steadfast progression of what others—our caregivers, teachers, relatives—want for us.

Principles. Boundaries. Morals. Direction. Happiness.

No wonder people have so much fidelity and pride in family, nationality, and heritage. Through these links we extend ourselves beyond corporal limitations into infinity.

In his radiant memoir, The Beautiful Struggle, American essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates chronicles a young life shaped by a father: “An intellectual, born as it happened among people who could not see a college campus as an outcome.”

Young Coates was molded by his dad’s pressing need for his son to awaken and embrace a full measure of self.

This is all my father wanted—for the long struggle to wake us up to be present in class as it was at home. The struggle infused all his dealings with me. Whenever he could, he violated my weekends with his latest pet lesson.

Coates gained consciousness of the plight of the young black man; he became aware of the systematic silencing of black voices and awake to the reality of a repressed future.

I believed in the intellectual of all of us, that mine was the legacy that aligned pyramids and spotted the rings of distant planets with only the naked eye. That was my greatest inheritance. But I turned this good news to bad ends, and ran with the sort of crew that surveyed all these new teachers, and picked out the ones who would never understanding.

From his father, Coates also inherited a deep desire to give that consciousness to others so that we too might feel enlightened.

Somewhere, somehow, on this road to our self-formation, we claim personhood. We say “I am.” A fierce act of independence that breaks us from our kin and from our parents as I am me is often followed by I am not you.

Footprints. Featured in "The Gifts of Inheritance."
My daughter’s footprints at birth. She has my high arches, her father’s straight toes. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Look, my eyes are not your eyes. You move through me like rain heard from another country.

Ocean Vuong, from “For my Father/For my Son”

“My eyes are not your eyes,” writes Vietnamese poet Ocean Vuong in his collection of odes to identity, fathers, and personhood.

The majority of me came from my parents. But my parents do not contain all of me. I didn’t see this as significant until I had my daughter.

My daughter is bold and charming and has a searing temper—much, much more than me and my husband and all our kin combined. And if she is more than me, that means there is still a part of me that is not her.

Personhood is our complete concept of self. Expandable, contractible, but with boundaries, definitions. I am this.

I worried when I became a mom that I’d lose the “I am this.” That the “I” would disappear, and the “this” would blur.

Your eyes are not my eyes, nor do we see the same thing. But we are still, as kin, connected. Vuong’s poem continues: “This means I am touching you—this means you are not alone.”

Maya Angelou wrote that she inherited/learned anger from her mother. I learned anger from my father. But I learned how to manage that anger from my husband. And a lifetime of work. I’ll show my daughter how.

We are more than what we inherit. A lifetime of more. We are more than what we give our offspring.

I think of the poet Keats. John Keats inherited the family disease, tuberculosis. He knew he was going to die. And he did die. Young, like his mother. But Keats, glorious, lustrous Keats also wrote incomparable poetry that ballasts the holds of heaven.

Where did the poetry come from?

Can Knowledge be Gained Through Feelings?

“Ours is not to know but to understand.”
Elie Wiesel

What are the limits of knowledge and how do we transcend those limits? Can knowledge be gained through feelings? Can we trust that knowledge?

For years, I’ve stirred a bit over the rather classic supposition by Nobel Prize–winning physicist Richard Feynman that science enhances our knowledge and, thus, our appreciation of it. Feynman refutes aesthetic knowledge as the only way to process beauty. This is certainly fine. It’s the lengths to which he takes that supposition that stirs me.1

I have a friend who’s an artist and he sometimes takes a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say, ‘Look how beautiful it is,’ and I’ll agree, I think. And he says, ‘You see, I as an artist can see how beautiful this is, but you as a scientist, oh, take all this apart and it becomes a dull thing.’ And I think that he’s kind of nutty…. At the same time, I see so much more of the flower than he sees.

I see so much more of the flower than he sees.

Does that mean without the scientific knowledge our understanding of something is sorely limited? Does that mean any knowledge without science is valueless?

I’d like to make a case for emotional knowledge in its own right.

Canterbury Cathedral. The oldest, most exquisite cathedrals of Europe are monumental expressions of the power of emotions. The size, the use of light and shade, the boundless stretches of seemingly impossible architecture, they bore into our hearts. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

“Science isn’t the only avenue to arrive at knowledge,” wrote physicist Alan Lightman in his own search for certainty within the unknown of the universe. But what knowledge is outside science? Can we trust that knowledge?

Feynman championed science in the appreciation of a flower. He argued that one need be a mathematician to appreciate the universe and its contents. Stars for example…

And yet, there is Emerson. Glorious Emerson.

“If one be alone, he has only look to the stars,” wrote Emerson in his early work, Nature. “The rays that come from these heavenly worlds will separate between him and what he touches.”

Emerson believed the stars provided some level of knowledge. What Emerson alluded to was an interconnectedness of humans—what I feel when I see stars is similar to what you might feel. What all humans feel.

This kind of intelligence has a modern name. With his 1995 publication of Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ, science journalist Daniel Goleman changed how we think about intelligence. Goleman argued for a harmony between our rational and emotional minds and coined the term emotional intelligence.

These two fundamentally different ways of knowing interact to construct our mental life. One, the rational mind, is the mode of comprehension we are typically conscious of: more prominent in awareness, thoughtful, able to ponder and reflect. But alongside that there is another system of knowing impulsive and powerful, if sometimes illogical—the emotional mind.

Like Lightman, Goleman argues there is more than one and perhaps incomparable means to arrive at knowledge. Even without understanding the functionality of our brains our feelings of fear, anger, sadness, and happiness mean something.

Il Duomo, Florence. For centuries cathedrals catered to the illiterate and uneducated, bringing community and meaning into lives. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Up against Feynman’s weighty appreciation of science, I proffer beloved film critic Roger Ebert, a man who was the quintessential guide to the emotional core of movies for more than fifty years.

Although Ebert understood technical aspects of film, even he admitted that when he didn’t understand a film, he wrote about how it made him feel.

Applying this advice early in his career to films like Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ebert developed the ability to connect even the most frustratingly complex films to our most human natures.2

Opposite the critic is the artist, and indeed many artists want their work to be interpreted emotionally. Primarily and sometimes exclusively.

Francis Bacon desired that his work would affect people’s nervous systems directly, while British modern sculptor Barbara Hepworth sought to express in sculpture what was beyond words.

Would Bacon’s paintings mean more if we knew what his studio looked like? Or the exact nature of blue light?

Perhaps. Scientific context certainly embellishes.

But regardless art means something to even the most uninformed viewers. I defy anyone to view Bacon’s work and not feel the artist’s pain. Pain in general.

Rouen Cathedral, France. The grandeur of these places sought to communicate the grandeur of the Divine. Is that the same as knowledge? Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Feeling might not be the same as knowledge, but it is some form of understanding.

Understanding of our feelings leads to understand of others’ feelings. This, argues Goleman, is the nature of empathy and the root of our human connection.

When the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe was built in Berlin, there was controversy that it did not say enough. Few doubted the emotional impact, but the knowledge it was supposed to present – who died and how and why – was inadequate.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin featured in post "Carrying the Burden of Witness."
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

“Ours is not to know but to understand.” wrote Elie Wiesel in Night, a singular story of the limits of humanity.

Wiesel addresses the issue of collective memory. How do we ensure future generations remember something they never experienced? The purpose of memorials.

Wiesel knew he couldn’t. But what he could do was make people care for him and, thus, for everyone who had been affected by the Holocaust. The emotions one feels when reading Night—and the emotions one feels at the Memorial — create empathy and understanding for things we did not experience and people we will never know.

That feeling becomes our new truth. We become witnesses of those feelings.

Feelings are the binding sinews of humanity and the means by which we “know” one another.

We cannot compel people to listen, to understand and certainly not to care. But we can push our society to allow feelings to mean something. To acknowledge our emotions and find ways to make sense of them.

Feelings are not the end of the knowledge, but they are a critical beginning.