9780743249775

The Treehouse: Eccentric Wisdom from My Father on How to Live, Love, and See

Wolf, Naomi

ISBN 10: 0743249771 / 0-7432-4977-1
ISBN 13: 9780743249775
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: 2005
Binding: Hardcover
About this title:
Synopsis:
Leonard Wolf, a retired professor now in his early eighties, is the kind of person who likes to use a medieval astrolabe, dress in Basque shepherd's clothing, and convince otherwise sensible people to quit their jobs and follow their passions. Leonard believes that inside everyone is an artist, and that happiness in life depends on valuing and acting upon one's creative impulse. In The Treehouse, her most personal book yet, Naomi Wolf outlines her father's lessons in creating lasting success and happiness, and offers inspiration for the artist in all of us.

Drawn from Leonard's lecture notes, the chapters of The Treehouse remind us to "Be Still and Listen," "Use Your Imagination," and "Do Nothing Without Passion," and that "Your Only Wage Will Be Joy" and "Mistakes Are Part of the Draft." This is a journey of self-discovery in which the creative endeavor is paramount.

The Treehouse is a stirring personal history, a meditation on fathers and daughters, an argument for honoring the creative impulse, and a unique instruction in the art of personal happiness.

About the Author:
Naomi Wolf made a sensation with her landmark international bestseller The Beauty Myth in 1991. The author of four books, she is also the cofounder and president of the Woodhull Institute for Ethical Leadership. She lives in New York City.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Introduction

Leonard Wolf, my father, is a wild old visionary poet. He believes that the heart's creative wisdom has a more important message than anything else, and that our task in life is to realize that message.

Leonard has spent a lifetime identifying his own heart's desires, and it shows in the things that surround him. He has twenty ancient typewriters. He has a kukri knife, used to behead bullocks in a single stroke. He has an elaborate filigreed toiletry set used to remove the earwax of a Persian caliph. He has driftwood in piles, and heaps of seaworn glass in bushel baskets lying around the house. He has a box of horseshoe nails "because horseshoe nails are intrinsically beautiful." Those are all part of his heart's desires because they are symbols of a life of adventure and discovery.

Among the things he does not have: current maps for a given destination. Like most men, he does not wish to ask directions, so my mom, my brother, and I often find ourselves patiently biting our tongues in the backseat while he navigates by memories of foliage and lyrical years-old impressions of passing landmarks. ("Can the Golden Gate Bridge be on the right? When did that happen?") However, he happily brought home from one trip a collection of silk paratroopers' maps dating from World War II, which show roads and boundaries of countries that no longer exist. He gave them out as useful gifts. The idea is that you keep the silk map handy in your breast pocket as you are parachuting into, say, Prussia, so you can find your way around once you hit the ground.

My father does not have a cell phone or a personal organizer. He is the only person in America who kept the impossible-to-remember generic e-mail address that AOL assigned him. I have been trying to explain to him the principle of compound interest for my entire adult life. He overlooks these details because they have nothing to do with what he thinks really matters.

One of his greatest treasures, one that sat proudly displayed on the bookshelf in San Francisco when we were children, is a set of medieval Arabian astrolabes. They are crusted over with what looks like recent antiquing, and are probably mass-produced. He needs them because Chaucer used an astrolabe. Most of these were bought in North African bazaars for exorbitant prices that my father, who is far from wealthy, was always glad to pay.

It makes him happier to pay more for something he can believe is a medieval astrolabe than it does to pay less for what he must then acknowledge is probably not a medieval astrolabe. The very words "medieval astrolabe," and the way they flow off the tongue, add to the objects' value. North African souk dealers see him coming from miles away, and when they part, they do so, after many glasses of sweetened mint tea, as the dearest of friends.

("How do you know they are not real?" he wrote in a testy hand upon reading this.)

Why did Leonard accumulate a series of astrolabes? After all, he does not live on a ship: "You live in Manhattan," someone might say.

"It's surrounded by water," he will point out. Why, he feels, should you accept that your life will never call upon you to navigate by the stars? How sad would that be?

My dad is still a very handsome man: six feet two and distinguished-looking. He has an aquiline nose, fierce white eyebrows that seem to have lives of their own, gray-white hair that, depending on how it is brushed, makes him look either like an elderly Lord Byron seated at a formal dinner or like a homeless man having an alarming vision, and smiling hazel-brown eyes.

He is a teacher, and has taught in every kind of setting, for almost sixty years. He changes people's lives because he believes that everyone is here on earth as an artist; to tell his particular story or sing her irreplaceable song; to leave behind a unique creative signature. He believes that your passion for this, your feelings about this, must take priority over every other reasoned demand: status, benefits, sensible practices. This book is about why he believes this, and what this belief does to the people around him. Most of all, it is about the power of the imagination.

Leonard feels that your medium may be words or music or paint; it could also be the guiding of an organization, the baking of a certain kind of cake, the edging of a garden, the envisioning of a new kind of computer network, or the gesture that brushes the hair away from the forehead of a hurt child. What matters to my father is not whether the creative work is valued in the marketplace; what matters to him is whether or not it is yours.

He wants to know you have put your emotion into it, driven your artist's discipline into it, seen it through to completion and signed your name to it, if only in your own mind. If you do, he believes, your work comes alive and gives life to those around you. And it gives life, he is sure, to you.

My dad makes Xerox copies at Kinko's of the phrase Verba volant / Scripta manent -- "Spoken words fly away, but writing remains" -- meaning, get it down, do your creative work, whatever it is. He passes out the Xeroxes to everyone he thinks needs reminding: his grandchildren, his acquaintances, the guy at the cleaners.

He believes that each of us arrived here with this unique creative DNA inside us. If we are not doing that thing which is our innate mission, then, he feels, no matter how much money or status we might have, our lives will feel drained of their true color. He believes that no amount of money or recognition can compensate you if you are not doing your life's passionate creative work; and if you are not doing it, you had better draw everything to a complete stop until you can listen deeply to your soul, identify your true heart's desire, and change direction. It's that urgent.

Leonard believes if that particular story of yours is not told -- if storytelling is your medium -- or if that certain song is not sung -- if you are meant to sing -- and even if there is almost no one to hear it at the end, then it is not just the artist who has sustained a quiet tragedy; the world has, too.

Leonard believes that you can learn how to live from literature, from art, and that the key to leading a happy, meaningful life is to be found not primarily from the self-help section of a bookstore or from a therapist's couch, but from paying careful attention to poetry, to whatever constitutes poetry for you.

All my life, I have seen how his faith in this possibility -- that an artist inheres in everyone -- actually does change people's lives: the students he has taught over the course of four decades are changed, but so are the lives of people who are simply passing through. His faith in ordinary people's innate artistry gives him a kind of magic touch. I have seen how his belief has led people with whom he has come into casual contact -- friends of mine, friends of his, strangers he meets on trains, the staff in his building -- to suddenly drop whatever is holding them back from their real creative destiny and shift course; to become happier.

When people spend time around my dad, they are always quitting their sensible jobs with good benefits to become schoolteachers, or agitators, or lutenists. I have seen students of his leave high-paying jobs that were making them miserable, or high-status social positions that had been scripted by their families, and follow their hearts in the face of every kind of opposition to become, say, dirt-poor teachers of children in the mountain villages of the Andes. I've seen the snapshots they send back to him, of themselves with their tattered, clowning kids, their faces suffused with joy. They have found their poetry.

My father believes in passionate love, in placing passionate love at the very top of your list of priorities, and in making room for passion at the center of your romantic life, no matter how domestic it is. He believes no one should settle for less. His students are always leaving safe but not essential relationships and finding something truer -- whether it is a fierce attachment to someone they would have overlooked before as being "unsuitable," or whether it is taking the risk of solitude in a renewed search for their soul's real mate.

My dad routinely addresses the artist in them, and his students respond accordingly: as artists. This is not calculated on his part; it is truly what he sees. Other teachers have used similar unself-conscious tricks; I think often of Martin Luther King Jr., who always addressed the innate peacemaker in everyone to whom he spoke -- even those people who were trying to wipe him from the face of the earth. I think the great teachers always speak to the potential they see in their students as if through an X ray, and not to the actual student as he or she appears at that moment to the less intuitive eye.

My father is never surprised at the treasures that come back his way. The superintendent of my father's building, John Maudsley -- a man who is very good at his job -- talked to my father one day and disclosed his secret passion: in his off hours, he painted: he was "a sign painter and frustrated artist," as he put it. Leonard did whatever magical thing he does -- which is as simple as saying a matter-of-fact "Yes, of course, this is your calling" -- that ignites the power of imagination in otherwise "ordinary" people.

Now, in buildings throughout the neighborhood, you can see the masterpieces that emerged from Mr. Maudsley's basement: a rocking horse painted a gleaming sky blue, with velvet-black reins festooned with crimson roses, as if it has escaped from a merry-go-round; a persimmon desk-and-bench set scaled to the size of a toddler, with gold and violet edging -- all are influenced by the brilliant palette of his mind's eye.

He is still a super, and still a good one. But over time, the super's office seems to me to have changed, showing the artist, too: there is a mock-Tiffany lamp illuminating the steel-gray file cabinets with particolored light, and a line of toy antique trucks, orange, black, and yellow, is parked across f...


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