I’ve Seen All Good People

Nora’s on the scent again.

For about six years, she’s been tracking the spinning wheels of Samuel Morison (1775-1862), a Quaker wheelwright and generally talented guy from our region of the Vermont/New York borderlands. So far, she’s found about forty of his wheels. Twenty five are variously called great wheels or walking wheels or wool wheels, the giant ones you think of when you see an antique store sign on the side of the road.

The Vermont official roadside iconography

The other fifteen or so are sometimes called treadle wheels or flax wheels, used for making linen. You sit at a treadleboard, turning the wheel by foot while spinning with both hands. Think Rumplestiltskin.

How many stereotypes can YOU count?

Nora owns three or four Morisons herself, but more fundamentally, her research is in support of both nonfictional and fictional writing projects. So whenever she learns of a new one, she goes to visit it if she can, takes careful measurements and detailed photos so that she has a rigorous material culture record of one man’s expression of a way of life.

She now has tons of allies in the hunt, gets calls and messages from friends who imagine that they might have spotted a Morison on an Ebay auction or an Etsy shop. And last week, she got a call from a friend whose friend might have seen one at a local history museum. Nora called the museum, told them what to look for, and they confirmed that it was indeed an S Morison wheel.

We drove over today to photograph and measure it, and left absolutely assured of its origins in his shop. But as I was doing the final picture-taking upstairs, Nora was talking with the museum’s director down in the main gallery. And among the many things they talked about was how few people came to the museum. “I don’t know if we’re doing something wrong…” the director said in some despair.

I can’t tell you how many fabulously talented people I know who are in that same situation. They do elegant, thoughtful, beautiful, rigorous work that hardly anyone sees. They sing or build cabinets, they play darts or write novels, they teach continuing-ed courses that don’t fill, give book talks attended by eight.

When I was at Bread Loaf a couple of years ago, I was sitting on the porch of the great house one morning, talking with my workshop leader Peter Ho Davies. He said, “It doesn’t make any sense for a writer to be greedy for money. But we can absolutely be greedy for readers.” And that’s really it. None of us pursue our craft because we want to be rich. We’re not trying to spin our straw into gold. What we want is for our work to bring someone pleasure. What we want is for someone to say, “That was awesome. I learned a ton. I really appreciate the care that you take.” What we want is for someone to see the world just a little differently because of what we’ve made.

So, to all good people laboring in private, making and creating work that you fear may never be seen… you are part of a vast, invisible community of good will and good faith. You add to the world’s inventory of beauty and compassion. Don’t wait for it to be seen. Show it. Bring it out and put it on display. It was a hundred years ago this year that Yeats wrote, “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Let’s rise up and prove him wrong. Let’s be a force of grace in a difficult world, the resistance army of joy.

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