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Feb 26, 2019

The Kindness of Donald Keene

Donald Keene

I find the daily obits in the NYTimes interesting and informative. Today I noticed a name that sounded familiar: Donald Keene. Is he the translator I once sought out I wondered to myself, only to read in his death notice to find out that yes, this was someone with whom I’d corresponded.

His name stuck with me because he had been so kind to me when my book Soul Proprietor was going into print. We’re talking 2001 here. I saw a poem posted at a textile exhibit at FIT and didn’t realize that even though it was attributed to someone from the 19th century, the translator, Donald Keene, needed to be acknowledged. I had to seek permission to use his translated words. I wanted to be respectful and not simply hope that no one would catch me.

I wrote to his office. He was traveling, but because I mentioned I had a deadline, his assistant said she’d try to reach him. With great generosity, she got back to me within my timeline and granted me permission, via Dr. Keene, to use this translation. When someone offers that level of kindness, you don’t forget, which is why his laudatory obituary touched me and reminded me of our exchange so many years ago.

Below is Lesson 24 from Soul Proprietor: 101 Lessons from a Lifestyle Entrepreneur where his translated poem appeared. It’s still a relevant lesson.

Lesson 24 – There are always days that are slated for growth or learning. Stay with them and don’t get upset.

Pedro Boregaard, a jeweler I know, described a situation I am familiar with. He had worked on a pin for days, and the more he worked on it, the more he knew it wasn’t the way he wanted it. He completed the brooch, but knew that it still wasn’t right. He moved on. The next dozen or so pieces were effortless and perfect.

I find if I stay with a difficult process, there is a lesson to be learned.

For example, a woman commissioned me to make an egg celebrating the iron gates at Brown University that were opened only two times a year, at convocation and graduation. She wanted it as a gift for her daughter who was graduating from Brown.

I had to paint that majestic image on an eggshell. I worked out a design, dyed the egg, and proceeded to lay it out. Haflway through the process, i was fairly certain that the black dye was not dark enough. But I continued anyway because I wanted to see if I could get away with it and if the rest of the design would work. When I completed the egg and removed the wax to reveal the colors beheath, my heart sank. It was just okay. It wasn’t great. The wrought iron gates were closer to gray than black and didn’t seem to convey enough power. A friend who taught art stopped by the next day, and I asked his opinion, hoping that since he didn’t know what I was striving for, the egg would still appeal to him. I really didn’t want to do it over again. His words were nonjudgmental, but final, “My eye wants to see more contrast.”

I started over, making sure this time the bath of black dye had totally saturated the egg before I proceeded. The egg came out perfectly–I had achieved my original goal. The customer called me as soon as it arrived to thank me profusely.

I’m always looking for the shortcut, but sometimes there isn’t one. it’s best to push for the correct solution.

I saw this poem recently that described the process perfectly.

It is a pleasure
When, after a hundred days
Of twisting my words
Without success suddenly
A poem turns out nicely

It is a pleasure
When spreading out some paper
I take a brush in hand
And write far more skillfully
Than I could have expected.

Haiku by Tachibana Akemi (1812-1868)
Translated by Donald Keene

With a deep bow to this generous man, thank you for your fine work.



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  1. Barbara Hemphill

    As always, you have shared multiple life lessons in this blog. Thank you!

    • Jane Pollak

      @Barbara Thank you for that acknowledgment!


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