Whittling

Recently, as I was on the road through the suburban edge of a small city, I noticed something unusual. Sitting on the grass, under a large pine tree, a child of about nine or ten was whittling. Absorbed in his task, he ignored the traffic going by; he had no cell phone or mobile device, no electronic game. He simply remained intent upon the knife and the stick in his hands, shaving off layers of wood.

Seeing him brought back memories of my own childhood. I loved to whittle. I had a Girl Scout pocket knife, and there were plenty of twigs littered around the yard, streets, and sidewalks where I lived. Whittling occupied minutes of boredom, when no friends were around to play with, when I did not feel like reading or had run out of books for the time being (we didn’t always get to the library soon enough for me!). On camping trips with the Scouts or with my family, I whittled for a sort of purpose: pointy sticks on which to spear hot dogs or marshmallows. I attempted to fish as the native people did, with spears–an endeavor that never brought success. Several times, I tried to whittle fishing hooks.

Most of the time, however, whittling served no particular purpose. I shaved away at a stick until it was too slender to remove any more wood safely. I whittled to see how slim a stick I could make. I whittled to pass the time until something more interesting occurred.

While whittling, I imagined things. Told myself stories, remembered books and characters, wondered what would happen if…thought up inventions that might be useful or fun, dreamed up games to play with friends, pictured far away or fantasy places and how I would explore them. Probably I looked as intent and absorbed as that boy under his pine tree.

I noticed him because he wasn’t engaged with an electronic device. I noticed him because he did not notice me, or any of the vehicles zipping past his front yard. I noticed him because I identified with his busy hands and intent mind. There is a kind of Zen experience that can come through the process of whittling: busy hands busy mind; followed by busy hands, imaginative mind; followed by busy hands, quiet mind.

It has been awhile since I have done any whittling. But I have a few nice, sharp pocket knives in the house. Maybe I’ll try it again soon.

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Reverie

“The image can only be studied through the image, by dreaming images as they gather in reverie.” ~Gaston Bachelard

I’m immersed in Bachelard’s The Poetics of Reverie, which has a subtitle I adore:  “Childhood, Language, and the Cosmos.” In the book’s first section, however, I felt myself a bit bogged down because the reverie of words (language) he describes deals with word gender. That works for French, and for most languages [or so I understand], but not for English.

Initially, then, I found myself wondering why I was reading the text. But I like Bachelard’s style, enthusiastic and looping and always replete with inquiry upon inquiry; and I love his dedication to and defense of poetry. Not all philosophers have been so kind to poetry.

As I was driving to work one morning, however, I found myself dwelling upon the above chapter about the reveries words can inspire. I fell into a recollection of myself as a very young child, the way I loved to peruse the dictionary. Even before I could read, the heavy tome with its onion-skin pages and glossy color plates of the flags of the world or of gemstones appealed to me as a room in which to become lost, a forest of leaves in which to cover myself or to lie upon, a river of language in which to be immersed. When I was older and a more capable reader, I browsed the examples, the multiple meanings and uses, the parts of speech and the etymologies of the words.

Ann E. Michael

Bachelard, I realized, is correct. The contemplation of words themselves leads to reverie, to thinking about thinking, to making dreamlike concatenations that chug through the consciousness and lead to imagination. His example involves contemplations and imaginings about the genders of words and how they suggest all kinds of interweavings and reactions, but noun gender need not be the motivating inspiration. For me, etymology accomplishes the same ends.

Contemporary adult life offers few chances for reverie. My commute to work is often the only time during the week when I can daydream a bit. My best opportunities for reverie are during a walk outside or while gardening, but I don’t get to do those things every day. I agree that reverie or daydream leads, very often, to poetry or to philosophical innovation or understanding; and Bachelard’s initial chapter on the rambling, amusing, aimless process of reverie makes me wish to go back to my childhood days of less responsibility and more imagination. Of course, that is impossible, but of course, that is part of what the philosopher intends (there is a later chapter on childhood reverie…I will be reading that pretty soon).

Boredom invites reverie. Who, in these busy times, with the many entertainments we carry in our pockets, is ever bored? So many of us, when bored, simply turn off the iPhone or the TV and sleep.

“It is a poor reverie which invites a nap.” ~Gaston Bachelard

My upcoming musings on this book will probably include garden reveries. Or memoir. Or etymology. Who can tell?