Slow and Steady Wins the Race

Years ago, while attending community college as an adult, I took a class in Calligraphy.  I always wanted to have beautiful handwriting; both my father and sister had lovely penmanship, but mine was just the opposite.  Sometimes, I couldn’t even read my own writing!  So, I thought calligraphy might be something to help me craft a nice hand. 

Each week, we completed another project, focusing on a particular type of lettering, using different instruments – quill pens, wooden pens, paint brushes, each giving a different look and feel to the letters.  And, we would use different mediums – sometimes ink, sometime paint.  We’d letter on paper, on thin slices of bark, on cloth.  And each week, when I turned in my finished project, I knew it just wasn’t very good.  My instructor was positive though and kept the encouragement coming – this was not an easy thing, at least not f or me. 

Most of the time, I received a C or lower.  After a few weeks went by, I started to think that maybe I just wasn’t meant to do this – I was no artist after all; maybe I just wasn’t cut out to pen lovely, flowing letters and phrases.  But, each week, I tried again, turning in my work, knowing that I could do better – but it just wasn’t happening. 

Then, finals week arrived.  We were given our final assignment.  We could do anything we wanted – we could use any kind of lettering style, any kind of instrument, any kind of medium, and the subject was also completely up to us.  I panicked at first, but then, I thought of a dictionary full of pressed autumn leaves – ones I had collected nearly 20 years before, growing up back on the east coast where you can collect these colorful treasures.  Everything came together. I found a poem by Robert Frost titled “Gathering Leaves,” went and purchased tubes of oil paint in the exact colors of fall leaves – burnt orange and russet red and amber yellow.  I picked out a very special angled brush; I mixed the paints and matched my leaves exactly.  Then, I got out a huge piece of very expensive, hand-made paper I had been saving.  I arranged the leaves around the border and very painstakingly took brush in hand and slowly, slowly, carefully, I transferred Frost’s lines to my page.  I used my favorite lettering style that we’d learned, one called Oncial, a nice rounded, typesetting style used in the Middle Ages.  I liked the way it felt and as my brush created each reddish-brown letter, I remembered picking up the leaves and how wonderful they smelled.  When I was finished, I stepped back and nearly gasped – it was perfect.  All of it.  Proudly, I turned in my final project and received a A+.  I just realized now what the difference was – of course, it was a consistent progression of skills, but in the end, when I was “let go” to run with whatever felt right, all my skills merged into one and flowed directly onto that paper.  I think of this often when I am discouraged, when I feel slower than the rest, when it seems that I keep trying and nothing changes.  I know, in the end, I will have a masterpiece.

Gathering Leaves
                            by Robert Frost

Spades take up leaves
No better than spoons,
And bags full of leaves
Are light as balloons.

I make a great noise
Of rustling all day
Like rabbit and deer
Running away.

But the mountains I raise
Elude my embrace,
Flowing over my arms
And into my face.

I may load and unload
Again and again
Till I fill the whole shed,
And what have I then?

Next to nothing for weight,
And since they grew duller
From contact with earth,
Next to nothing for color.

Next to nothing for use.
But a crop is a crop,
And who’s to say where
The harvest shall stop?


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