(Every man should) plant a tree, have a child, and write a book. These all live on after us, insuring a measure of immortality.
– attributed to the Talmud and Jose Martí, Cuban revolutionary and poet
On my last day of vacation in Chicago a few weeks ago, while on my vintage hunt, I met Carlos, the owner of Vintage Underground (1507 N Milwaukee Avenue, 773.384.7880), a shop that carries clothing, accessories, and jewelry dating from the mid-century. He was receptive to me taking pictures of his store for my blog, and when I finished making my way around the huge basement-level shop, he asked me what my blog was about. I told him it was my way of celebrating entering my 50s by living creatively, fully, and meaningfully. When I mentioned having finished my first novel back in 2006, only to be crushed by receiving 60 rejections from literary agents, Carlos scoffed.
“Sixty?” he repeated. “That’s nothing!” He proceeded to tell me that he would have stopped at 100, if that. “‘Plant a tree, write a book,'” he said. “Ever hear of that?” When I shook my head, he advised me to look up the Buddhist saying on the Internet. [When I came home, I indeed looked it up and found that there is disagreement about its provenance, but most references seem to give the nod to either the Talmud or Cuban revolutionary and poet Jose Martí. The order of the commandments is also varied. Carlos, as you can see, left out the part about having a child and the reason for doing these things.] For Carlos, the purpose of planting a tree and writing a book was not just about immortality but also expressing yourself, taking delight in these activities, and simply being.
He showed me a turn-of-the-century handbag that sported two compartments. He had attached watch parts and gears to one side of the handbag. On the inside, he had inserted various things – a lipstick case and a toy gun – in the elastic straps. He also showed me a necklace and cuff he had made especially for a party he was attending. The watch hanging from a thick chain sprouted wings, while watch parts embellished the wide polished sterling silver cuff. All three pieces evoke a Steampunk aesthetic.
When Carlos told me making jewelry was his form of therapy, I laughed. But he was serious. Why pay someone money to listen to you talk about what’s troubling you and then you leave and that’s that? Here in his shop, he can create something beautiful and feel good about it. The act of creation is joyful, soulful, and meaningful. Other people also appreciate and purchase his creations, and he takes pride knowing they are wearing what he has designed. What he creates lives on. Carlos was on to something. And I fully agree with his philosophy on creation.
When I came home and found the full reference to the quote, at various times during that day and following days I pondered how it applied to me. Taken literally, I have done all three – we have planted fruitless cherry, ginkgo, and peach trees in our backyard and twin Aristocrat pear trees in our front yard; I have two children; and I’ve written my first novel, though it still needs one more round before I am ready to say that it’s done. But I realize having done all three is not the end of the journey. Our deciduous trees need their leaves to be raked and composted every fall. Their branches need to be pruned. They need watering. Our children, especially as they head into adolescence, will need just as much guidance, albeit with an invisible hand and eye, as when they were toddlers. And writing a book is a life-long process – one in which you get better as you get older and draw from your life experiences and wisdom. And then the next book is an extension, a growth of the first one, a growth of you. I am a better writer with each piece I write, whether fiction or nonfiction; I am a better writer than certainly seven years ago and even two years ago.
For me, the original saying could not have come at a better time, when I’m going to be spending the next month and a half doing one last revision on my first novel and then figuring out how to set it free out in the world. There can be variations on the theme – plant vegetables or flowers, help birth babies or baby animals, adopt or mentor a child, write and record a song or design a building or paint a painting or choreograph a dance. Plant a tree, have a baby, write a book – such poetic, yet fierce words. Find your variation on a theme. Rejoice in the act. Become “immortal.” Simply be. Fully alive.