Decorating the world

I’m lying in bed when Ken finishes his work for the night. As he walks into the bedroom and starts lowering the blinds, he asks:

“What about Fanta-seashells?”

Ken is a programmer, and for the past few years he’s spent a lot of free time using code to recreate patterns from nature. Think of the flocking of birds, the splitting of cells, and the way slime molds evolve (yes, really). At the moment, my lovely, nerdy husband is building a seashell pattern generator, and — at 11PM on a Saturday night — coming up with a name. (I green-lit Fanta-seashells, by the way. Excellent choice.)

Ken’s slime mold simulation

The fact that Ken’s brain is so different from mine is one of my favorite things about him. I’ve never looked at a seashell and wanted to write an algorithm to recreate its pattern. I might not even know it was possible if I weren’t his partner, living in a house full of books like Artificial Life and The Computational Beauty of Nature. (This is a mutual experience; Ken, in turn, shares a home with titles such as Church Dogmatics and a truly alarming number of Bibles, which I cannot seem to make myself stop collecting).

I love seeing the world through Ken’s eyes; learning that he picks up a shell and wants to use math to piece it apart and put it back together, like he did with the remote as a teenager. There are many seashell patterns you can recreate through programming; you can even use similar algorithms to generate other patterns in nature, like the spots of a cheetah or the splotches on some deep-sea fish. When I see Ken or other programmers do this, I like to imagine they’re teasing out the codes that were used to write the universe.

Ken programming a seashell pattern on a train to Paris.

What I find especially delightful, however, is his compulsive drive to do something creative with this curiosity. It’s not enough to understand how a pattern like this works; he has to make it himself. Ken looked around at the world and thought: this place is not complete without a digital, technicolor seashell generator. How wonderful! How delightfully weird.

It feels so intrinsically human, somehow. All of us are creative; every child loves to draw, and as we get older we find our own unique means of self-expression. Fashion, music, architecture; yarn-bombing (something I truly cannot relate to and find delightfully human nonetheless). My dad makes immaculate PowerPoint presentations for his classes; my mom designs shadow puppets to teach kids about history. Whatever the form, we humans seem to have an innate compulsion to make; to leave our handprints on the wall; to decorate the world.

Ken’s first Valentine’s gift to me, ten years ago now: a pomegranate paper cutting with our initials carved around it.

I can relate to this drive especially well. I’m always throwing myself into different creative projects, from writing, to programming, to sewing, 3D printing, and photography. For years, I’ve been trying to get everything in me out there, swearing up and down that one day it would all add up. That eventually I’d find a career that combined everything I loved to do, fulfilling some unmet need within myself. But I realized recently — while trying to staple all these skills together like some kind of Franken-job — that it’s not true, and it doesn’t need to be.

I finished my first novel a few months ago. Somewhere in the process of writing it, I rediscovered a part of myself, and stumbled across the reason I feel I’m here. The mission statement I’ve found for myself is to tell the truth with beauty. This is about more than a craft or vocation, of course, as any good mission statement needs to be. But writing is for me, I realize, like the best friend who’s been there all along; the one you look at one day and suddenly realize you’ve loved your whole life.

It is my own little way of decorating the world; of living a thousand lives; of unravelling this place and knitting it back together. And if I let if be that — whether my writing ever sees the light of day, or finds an audience — it frees my job to be a job, and lets my creative hobbies breathe without needing to justify themselves.

The realization has given me a certain sense of peace. I’m 29 as of this weekend, and as I get older, I find that I have less to prove; that I’m settling into my place in the family of things a little more each year.

It’s enough to create, I find. It’s enough to delight in the world around you, and tack on a little bit of yarn of your own. As long as there is time to create, there is room to savor. As long as there is room to savor, there is time to live.

Sara Laughed

Hey hey! I'm Sara, an American writer living in the Netherlands and working as a product manager.

  1. Jose Camps says:

    Hi Sara,

    I just found your blog after looking for articles regarding how to keep a healthy long-distance relationship and I have found this one, after.

    I only wanted to thank you for your kind and beautiful way of describing your experiences, thoughts, and life point of view. It is so delightful to read and you transmit so much hope with your words. I only wish you have mentioned the name of your book because I would have gone straight away to acquire one.

    I hope you keep writing this blog, I’m not used to them but yours is like fresh air.

    Sorry if I made this too long.

    The best of luck with everything,

    Kind regards,

    1. Sara Laughed says:

      Hi Jose! Thank you so much for reading and for taking the time to comment. My novel is unpublished (for now!) but I am so grateful to hear that you would want to read it if it were out. I’m really happy to have you reading along and I hope to have some new posts up soon. Many thanks again for taking the time to read and letting me know what it meant to you.

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