‘Find the heart of the work’ – wisdom from Tomie dePaola



The U.S. Postal Service just released a stamp that bursts with nostalgia: an homage to the beloved author and illustrator Tomie dePaola. It depicts his best-known character, Strega Nona, who earned him a Caldecott Medal in 1976, clutching her pasta pot and smiling at her peacock.

The stamp inspired me to sift through my Tomie dePaola collection – his saint books, his condensed histories, his quirky stories and spooky tales. So much of Tomie’s Catholic upbringing appears in his richly colored folk art – the nuns and friars, the churches and baptisms – and the depiction of family life often mirrors his own Irish-Italian rituals.

Tomie treated young readers with intelligence, addressing their natural questions about life and death with books like “Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs” and the hauntingly beautiful “The Clown of God.”

Painting in his New Hampshire studio in a 200-year-old barn, Tomie worked out his own aging. Books like “Now One Foot, Now the Other” and “Quiet” celebrate a gentler, slower pace. The very titles of some later books capture his philosophy of life: “Angels, Angels Everywhere,” “Let the Whole Earth Sing Praise” and “Look and Be Grateful.”

Tomie was once asked to offer guidance for creators of children’s books. Advice for artists often doubles as advice for living.

His response did not disappoint.

“If I look at my early things, it’s not there yet,” Tomie said. “I’m too full of myself, too full of showing off, showing how well I could crosshatch, for instance. I think that’s the progression of a young artist. You show off and then you – or I – suddenly find the heart of the work. I suddenly began to be faithful to the heart: the humor, the pathos, whatever is there.”

In the age of Instagram, not showing off can feel counter-cultural. We view other people’s lives as highlight reels filmed at golden hour and put to acoustic music. We are tempted to play along.

All ages are guilty. We show off on playgrounds and in boardrooms. We brag, we fake it, we one-up each other.

Overcoming the desire to show off is a turning point in the spiritual life. It is the beginning. It’s a launching pad for all worthy endeavors – be it the development of a craft or a relationship. It enables us to say important things.

“I don’t know.” “I don’t like that.” “I’m scared. “I need help.” “I was wrong.”

We can confess fear and remorse, and we can express delight and affection.

“I’m excited!” “I’m amazed!” “Wow!” “I love you!” “I want to be with you.” (My favorite kindergartener says this to me, and it feels like the ultimate compliment.)

There is freedom in reaching this point and also responsibility. We are free to simply embrace what is, rather than force what we want it to be.

But this doesn’t come easy. We must pay attention long enough and open our hearts wide enough to recognize the heart of the matter. And then, as Tomie instructs, we must be faithful to it.

What is the heart of your work? What is the crux of your vocation when you step back and consider the big picture?

It’s not the to-do list, the meeting agenda, the meal plan. It’s not our commitments – that stuffy space between calendar and clock.

It’s none of the day-to-day shuffle.

It’s how we make people feel.

It’s how we spend our precious time, how often we laugh and pray and play, whether we notice the sunset and the birdsong and utter “how great Thou art.”

It’s not what we do but why we do it and who we are – our identity rooted in Christ, his beloved sons and daughters.

Find the heart and cling to it. Everything else will fall into place.

Christina Capecchi is a freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota.