Grace Lin: Within the Spiral Eye

Watercolor, ink, India ink on paper

Day 338 and Grace Lin

Stories have the power to transport us into other places, other times, and into the lives other people. Only within stories do we even get close to becoming someone else. The sometimes fictional recounting of life and thought and emotion, the act of entering someone else’s world, makes our own world that much larger, that much more interconnected.

Storyteller, illustrator and author, Grace Lin has mastered the magic of transporting a reader into another’s life through empathy and imagination, legend and mythology, words and image. 

When my sister and I first read Lin’s book “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon”, we were both very young. We listened as our mother read the story aloud to us and felt, through the colorful images and retellings of Chinese legends, as if we had spiraled out of our life and into main character Minli’s and from Minli’s life into a magical place where history and myth and the present all become one.

This spring I met Grace Lin at an event here in Traverse City. There, I watched her weave stories in front of an opera house full of coughing and incredibly attentive children. There, we spoke for a few minutes and I photographed her eye. And perhaps I knew deep down, even as my introverted self felt incredibly overwhelmed by all of the people in such a condensed space, that life too has a spiraling-story-magic of its own.

The skies in Lin’s illustrations are home to a multitude of swirls. And as I reflected on the newly autographed copy of “Where The Mountain Meets the Moon”, I was reminded of my drawings as a child; from perhaps the ages of seven to nine, nearly all of my drawings were home to at least one spiral. Spirals where what I called “my trademark”, they were a joyous expression of skill—consistent spirals are hard for small hands to draw— and of some unfolding and unending possibility. 

Alongside my reflection, I came across Lin’s essay “Swirls” in which she references the swirls as her “illustration trademark”. Lin goes on to write that,

“ a right‐turning swirl had symbolic meaning in Chinese culture. The swirl (like the endless knot) could be seen as symbol for the eternal circle, the continuity of life without a beginning or end and is always interconnected. And by spiraling to the right (clockwise), the swirl echoes the movement of the sun, moon and stars against the celestial sky.”

Just as spirals find commonalities between points in my life, so do they in nature. The mathematical Fibonacci sequence, built by adding two terms of the sequence together endlessly (example: 1+1=2 1+2=3 2+3=5…), is at the base of the golden spiral. Together the Fibonacci and golden spiral are patterns found over and over again in our natural world: in pineapples and pinecones, in turbulence and bivalves, in mushrooms and heart muscles, in the flight pattern of a fly and whirlpools, in the growth of plants and of mushrooms…and on and on.

Golden spiral: courtesy the Creative Commons

Michael S. Schneider in his book on the delights and philosophy of geometrical math, “A Beginner’s Guide to Constructing the Universe”, writes,

“Look for the “eye” [of a spiral]. Whatever its substance, the eye is always mysterious and hypnotically fascinating to watch and to contemplate as the source of the spiral.”

“A Beginner’s Guide to Constructing the Universe”, page 147

Grace Lin’s stories are the “eyes” of a kind of personal spiral that expands us through each other’s worlds and cultures and lives and experiences. All stories are origin spaces, places in which we can expand and learn and open our eyes. 

And if you look up, you’ll see all the spirals overhead, endlessly collecting and connecting. 

My sister and I interviewed Grace Lin and are currently working on an article for our nonprofit’s website The Books For Walls Project, we’ll be posting the article soon, so subscribe by email and keep your eyes out!

338 days done, 27 to go.