85 Sunflower Seeds


How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.

Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

A day such as this, in which I endure

a measure of sickness or unease,

is a reminder that the redemption of all

things is not yet complete. It is a reminder

that this body will decline and one day fail,

and so it is also a reminder that the ways

I spend my days matter—for my hours,

revealed like veins of gold beneath a rushing

stream, are a limited resource to be

purposefully mined or forever lost.

A day such as this is a reminder that good

health and vigor are gifts to be consciously and

gratefully enjoyed, and to be invested while they

might, in eternal things. So let me finish this

day, O Lord, wiser than I began it.

Douglas Kaine McKelvey, from “Liturgy for a Sick Day”
1-125,000,000, Ai Weiwei, Tate Modern (2010)

A decade or so ago, a Chinese artist name Ai Weiwei designed an exhibit for the Tate Modern, an art museum in London which is housed in an old power station on the south bank of the Thames. Called at the time 1-125,000,000, the exhibit consisted of a room full of sunflower seeds, over 100 million of them, each individually sculpted from porcelain and hand-painted. No two seeds were alike.

The Tate Modern is itself a marvel, containing some of the world’s best modern art inside one of London’s ugliest buildings. Inside this grim structure, adjacent to several floors of modern art lining the walls in proper gallery style, is a cavernous room, several stories high and dimly lit, called the Turbine Room, which houses rotating contemporary exhibits. When Ai’s exhibit opened in 2010, the sunflower seeds filled the floor of this giant room, forming a vast, flat field of seeds. While Ai originally intended to invite patrons to walk on top of the hardy seeds, immersing themselves in the tangible reality of a number that seemed theoretical, at best, the dust from the black paint proved to be a problem. By the time I visited London, the following spring, visitors could walk around the seeds, but not through them. Hearing this, I decided instead to assist the students I was accompanying on a field trip in visiting Buckingham Palace by bus, missing the seeds entirely.

Though I never saw it in person, the exhibit, which was later renamed Sunflower Seeds, still looms large in my imagination. Until beginning to write this post, I actually thought that Ai himself sculpted each of the sunflower seeds. I imagined him sculpting and painting seed after seed, for hours, weeks, years, no detail too small in service of the whole. I used to think about this piece while I did anything I found a bit tedious or too detail-oriented, while pitting plums or embroidering a face on a Ruth Bader Ginsburg doll I made for my sister (as one does). “Ai Weiwei made millions of sunflower seeds by hand,” I’d remind myself. “You can certainly be bothered to do a thorough job frosting this bear-shaped birthday cake.”

Having spent a decade believing this, I was somewhat let down to learn recently that he actually oversaw a team of 1600 artisans, from a porcelain-producing region of China, in producing the seeds. At first, that seemed like quite a bit of outsourcing, and seemed to ruin my point about patience and attention to detail and such. But really, my reaction just proves Ai’s point more thoroughly. Sunflower Seeds is about many things (I encourage you to read the excellent summary of it here), about labor and politics and manufacturing and China, but the whole point was that these millions of seeds could easily have been mass-produced, but they weren’t. And, once I did a little math, it was still impressive. (Perhaps more impressive, given that one person sculpting 100 million of anything in a lifetime is probably impossible.) Even with 1600 people in on the project, each individual artist had to make 62,500 seeds, at the rate of more than 85 a day for two years. That’s a lot of seeds.

The exhibit that I’d always thought about as an example of the heroic importance of care for small details meant something else entirely to me; suddenly, this was about persistence. About crafting something, again and again, with care and attention, for a good long while. I wish I could hear from someone who made 62,500 seeds, could ask how it felt to make the first one, the last one, or honestly the 34,367th one. What did it mean to keep doing this thing, even surrounded by many others, day after day?

The image of the field of sunflower seeds has returned to me this spring, when life has somehow felt extremely full and extremely repetitive. A school day is a thing of ritual, from the lunches to the outfits to the precise drop-off and pickup times. There have been variations, days that masks were optional and days they weren’t, and so many sick days, as we’ve spent most of the spring catching colds, having colds, or getting over colds. I wish I’d thought to count the number of COVID tests we’ve taken just in the last few months, the 15-minute timers set, the waiting for one little line to appear. I started to think of each day like a porcelain sunflower seed, bearing the same essential qualities as its brother and sister seeds, but still requiring attention, patience, and care of me to make it look like anything at all. Day after day, seed after seed.

Except that right now I’m not making any seeds at all. Because now, for the last two days and the next few, I’m hiding out in a house not far from my own, having gotten the COVID-19 I’d successfully avoided until now. I’m hardly alone—apparently I’m joined by more than 100,000 people who got it the same day just in the United States—but in another sense I am as alone as I’ve been in a while. Eating (delicious food brought by my heroic husband), sleeping, drinking tea, reading, watching Call the Midwife. I’m neither mildly nor severely ill; just plain, regular sick. It could be much, much worse, so I’m thankful for everything that, even now, has gone right.

But more than that, having stepped for a moment off of my field of sunflower seeds, I’m thankful for the ritual of the days I’ve been given. These quiet days, I suppose, but more than that the normal ones, the repetitive ones, the busy Tuesdays in late January of it all. I don’t know precisely how long these particular rhythms will last, as new jobs and life stages inevitably bring changes along with them, but honestly, this one—the routines of Kindergarten and preschool—has been pretty sweet in itself.

Our lives are made up of repetitive motions, all of them, whether it’s the routes we drive to work or the loaves we shape in our bakery or the faces we see walking around Green Lake. It’s easy for them to blend together, to zoom out from all of these and see them as a vast canvas called “Work” or “Home.” This spring, as I’ve thought about the millions of sunflower seeds, I’ve often asked myself, “What am I doing with this meal? Or this hug goodbye? Or this day at co-op preschool?” I’ve imagined a tiny lump of porcelain, a tiny amount of black paint on a brush, starting to work on my 85 seeds for the day. And then, summoning the patience I’d need for that task, I turn back, more gladly, to my own.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Wow, your writing, your creative processes continue to astound me! I’m glad to get to read these musings. And I can’t wait to read your first novel! Very interesting post, amazing art. My girlfriend took me to the Tate once when we met them in London. She loves JMW Turner, and after seeing some of his paintings, I could see why. She also loves the modern stuff at the Tate; I’m more traditional. Give me the impressionists and the Musee d’Orsay in Paris any day!! 😉 But I did love reading this article and seeing this exhibit. I even skimmed the link. All I can say is these sometimes tedious days that feel like they’ll go on forever will soon be past. I hardly talk to my children any more, as much my fault as theirs. They’re busy, we message & What’s App, we try to call once or twice a month. My younger one is so involved with a new job, a new girlfriend and disc golf, that it’s hard to get on his schedule. If I bug him enough, he’ll call on his drive home. I miss the days before cell phones or when cell phone calls were quite expensive, so you waited for your free weekend minutes. He was just out of college, and I called him most Saturdays. Life changes, and we’ve lost that closeness. I am thankful for messaging and Zoom calls, but I miss hearing his voice every week.

    So sorry you’re suffering with Covid. I had it in April as soon as we returned from our 3 weeks in Europe. Someone brought it to our TeachBeyond conference, and probably 10% of us caught it. I’m glad you have somewhere to rest; and I’m also glad that your wonderful Timmy brings you food! It took me 2 weeks of daily naps (45 min- 1 hr) to finally get to feeling better. You’re not so old, and probably your life won’t allow that much rest, especially since school is out, but do be careful! Hope you enjoy summer walks around your pond/lake and in the woods.

    Keep writing & hugs to all of you,

    Sent from Mailhttps://go.microsoft.com/fwlink/?LinkId=550986 for Windows

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