N is for Niggle, the main character in Leaf by Niggle, a short story by J. R. R. Tolkien.
Recommended reading for the retreat at Laity Lodge, I read it on my way there. At LaGuardia.
I’ve always loved the word “niggle”. Niggles are those gentle proddings — not nagging, just nudging. They are the post-it notes hanging in the back of your mind to remind you of something you should do.
And such is the main character of the story. Niggle is an artist so caught up in his work that he doesn’t always want to do the things he should, like preparing for his journey, because he would rather finish the tree he is painting.
But he stops to help his neighbor, albeit a little begrudgingly, because
He was kindhearted, in a way. You know the sort of kind heart: it made him uncomfortable more often than it made him do anything; and even when he did anything, it did not prevent him from grumbling, losing his temper and swearing (mostly to himself).
Ralph Wood, in one of his talks on Tolkien at Laity Lodge, said this, “It is extremely difficult to be an artist and a parent.”
How well I know that! For years whenever I would sit down to write, or even think, and I would be interrupted to tend to someone else. Most of my children are grown now, so it happens rarely — and, truth be told, long ago I learned to embrace Henri Nouwen’s sentiment that my interruptions are my work.
Niggle, though, represents that tension — between creating and tending to the mundane, between painting and fixing the roof, between art and helping a neighbor in need.
The most important job I have ever been given was being a parent. If I had to choose between writing and parenting, parenting would win easily.
These days, it’s the writing part that niggles at me.
Funny how that works.