On chain mail and other things.

In the ancient times, in a kingdom definitely somewhere else, there lived a great and famous tailor smith, known for his skill to all in the land. One day, the local king called the tailor to him and said, “Tailor smith, I hear that you surpass all others in your craft. Will you make me a mail-armor tunic that is as beautiful as it is strong, to become the envy of all other kings?” The tailor agreed.

He worked tirelessly night and day for thirty months, and finally the tunic was ready. When the king put it on, everyone gasped, so perfect and beautiful it was. For a long time they admired the tunic, and the king could not find the words. Finally, all turned to the smith, and the king said, “This is the most spectacular achievement I have ever seen. You are truly the greatest master smith in the world. Tell me, of what in this amazing tunic are you the most proud: the cut so precise that it makes me look taller and stronger? The mail so finely fitted that it blinds the enemy but shines with a guiding light to the eyes of friends? The pattern so heavenly one look at it could stop a battle and put an army into a trance? What was the hardest part, the greatest achievement?”

The tailor smiled and said, “The hems.”

Don’t ask me where this story came from. I honestly don’t know. I dreamt it last night in a dream. I might have remembered it from some ancient myth, or assembled it from several stories in my mind, or simply made it up. But it doesn’t really matter, it’s just an allegory. All folk stories start out this way sooner or later. The point is, we’ve all been there, haven’t we? I had a friend recently confide in me that her efforts were going unappreciated by others, even though the results of her work are appreciated, and I could see she was truly suffering from this. Every master of any craft knows what it’s like to have the perception of his efforts, masteries, or achievements distorted by those foreign to the field — or simply unappreciated because he “makes it look easy.” Even in the most benevolent, most adoring of settings (like our tailor’s reception), the spectators rarely understand the intricacy of the art they admire. It can be frustrating sometimes for the artist, but really, is it entirely a bad thing?

mail armor 1

Not long ago I wrote a story about Peter and the apostles hanging out on the shore of the Sea of Galilee — it is one of the stories in a Bible-themed collection I am preparing for publication. In this story, at one point I needed Peter to curse at his fellow fishermen before he turned around and jumped into the lake. A tiny thing. A throw-away phrase we barely think about in everyday language. Peter calls James a name in the first-century Galilee.

I spent days doing research for this one sentence. This isn’t easy research, mind you. What would be an appropriate sentence of annoyance at a friend, among Jews in the first century, in Judah or Galilee, rude enough but not mortally so, casual, common, endemic to the culture of the region and the time but so that my readers would have at least a chance of understanding what it was about? There are no books about this, no dissertations (as far as I recall), no encyclopedia entries. I had to wade through obscure articles and online forums, one mention leading to another of something tangential, false leads one after another, and start again. I had to battle Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. I was dazed and exhausted, but at the end I had it: a perfect curse. A throw-away sentence. It’s what Peter really could have said to James who’d gotten to him, translated into English.

It is one sentence in my story, and no one understands the achievement of it. No one, not even the writers in my writers’ workshop, paid attention to it, remarked on it, or thought twice about it. No one gets how proud I am of this sentence: the epitome of my historical-literary research.

mail armor 2It can be frustrating sometimes, but really, it’s not a bad thing. It’s a good thing, actually. It’s because, if we, the masters of our respective crafts, have succeeded in our efforts, we have made it look easy. The sentence reads organic and doesn’t stand out. The hem is perfect and neat and tucked and doesn’t call attention to itself, no matter how maddening it was to make it so with this particular fabric. The legal argument sounds grounded in case law and natural and obvious. The piano passage spills out like pearls from a broken thread from under our fingertips, like it’s nothing. Like it’s easy. That’s the goal. Only the privileged few will know our struggles, and the rest will enjoy only its fruits. And tomorrow, we will go to enjoy the fruits of some other master’s struggles, happily ignorant of what makes it so hard. Such is the order of things. We couldn’t enjoy it otherwise.

My first piano teacher told me a long time ago something I’ve always steered by: “After the concert,” she said, “if people come up to you and say, ‘How well you’ve played!’, it is not good. It is good if people come up to you and say: ‘What beautiful music you’ve played!'”


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