The Witless Clunkery of a Third-Rate Mind

Monday, January 08, 2007


It's a common custom in Japan to sit down at New Year's and write something indicating your wish or your resolution for the new year. My shodo (Japanese calligraphy) class got together today and had a calligraphy-writing party.

First, we sat down for a lunch of traditional Japanese New Year's foods. The modern Japanese diet has a lot of meat in it, even the things that Japanese people themselves think of as "traditional," like sukiyaki. (Traditional to most people just means "pre-McDonald's".) But in fact, these meat dishes are quite modern as Japan was a vegetarian country before it re-opened to the West. The dishes they have at New Year's reflect the "real" traditional foods, and are things like soup with rice balls, dried fish, black beans, seaweed wraps, and sticky rice with red beans. To be honest, I don't like most of it. There was one point where I was munching a mouthful of whole, dried minnows covered in a hard, candy-like coating where my eyes were watering as I struggled not to gag. It's not that it really tasted so bad, but it was just the idea of what I was eating, plus the texture of hard, little fins poking my mouth and tongue. Blech. Well, it wasn't so bad. Here's our little group:

The teacher laid out big felt covers for the floor, and provided us with paper, brushes, and ink. (Lots and lots of ink! I was amazed how much ink we used.) Then, she helped us find something we wanted to write, and first wrote an example for us to copy from.

This scroll literally reads, "Intention like the highest clouds" or something to that effect. The actual meaning is more like, "It is my intention to rise up [morally, personally] like a towering cloud in the sky." As my teacher succinctly put it, "Aim high!"

Naoko, on the right, was making a scroll for her older brother, who just built a new home. Her scroll reads something like, "House full with nourishing spirit"; obviously reflecting her wish that his new home be a peaceful place where everyone can be happy and healthy.

These are two versions of the same scroll, as written by my teacher. The one on the left is more "artistic" or abstract, and the one on the right is slightly more formalist. I suppose that it might just look like scribbles, but I assure you that each stroke is carefully measured and considered, and that the finished product balances strict formalism with the uncontrollable randomness brought by a brush dripping full of ink. (That sounds like a load of bullshit, doesn't it?)

But seriously, good calligraphy is damned hard. It's awesome to watch my teacher write. She throws the brush down, causing a splatter of ink to spray across the paper; this makes you think "Oh, it's just like modern art, throwing paint onto a canvas!" But then the next stroke is slow, and exacting. Suddenly, the brush darts across the paper, flicks this way, then that; alternately light and heavy, fast and then slow. It's really remarkable, and the end effect is that a good piece balances weight with a feeling of lightness; strength and delicacy; control and chaos. I can't write about it without it sounding ridiculous, so I'll stop here.

Suffice it to say, you might look at it and think "My 5-year-old could do that." But then you try it yourself, and you look at what you wrote and you think, "Wow, now this is childish crap!" It's quite humbling. And, believe it or not, extremely exhausting! Your whole body becomes tense, and your face turns red; you break into a sweat, and you get muscle spasms in your back and shoulders. You don't realize it until you stop, but somehow when you really put your whole heart into writing, you feel like a wrung-out dishrag after writing a few characters. It's amazing! No wonder calligraphy has long been associated with religion here...


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