The large brush laden with water is drawn from the bucket by the old, steady hand and moved in deliberate strokes across the pavement. One stroke, two, three or more until the complete character develops. Luminous lines, black on grey stone he moves onto the next character. The words from the ancient Tang poem begin to take shape. Even in the afternoon sun it is bone cold, but he keeps on writing. Before he reaches the end of the stanza, the first characters have begun to fade. When he comes to the end, more than half the poem is gone – leaving no trace.
All across China, one finds elderly men practicing calligraphy in this way. In parks, on sidewalks in big cities and small towns, men armed with a bucket and a long brush incessantly trace out words from times long past. Old poems, classical tales, and bits of history they learned as young boys or men – words flowing out of their brushes and fading almost as quickly as they were born again.
They say they do this to keep their minds sharp and hands strong. Lately, I have been contemplating the spiritual or cathartic value of producing such transient and beautiful art with personal subjects. It could be so liberating! Because it is a public expression, sharing and communicating the experience stops it from being bottled up inside. As the words fade, so do one’s attachment to the events or people that formed the basis of your composition. Calligraphy therapy.
At this time of the New Year when we often contemplate our lives and make adjustments to try to live better or healthier, be kinder, more patient, less greedy etc., I thought that this image and concept might be useful to some of you.
Years ago, in graduate school I employed a sort of food-based catharsis with alphabet soup. I’d spell the name of the person or thing out on the rim of the bowl and eat it last after all the soup was gone, chewing each letter slowly to make sure it was gone completely and would trouble me no more. Not the most tasty way to eat soup, but a satisfying one if someone or something is vexing you. (Words by Laura Kelley; Photo of Old Man Practicing Calligraphy by Chen Po Chuan @ Dreamstime.com).
With a loud drumroll and a crash of cymbals we welcomed the Year of the Ox. We stood enthralled as two enormous lions careened up the marble stairway, and paused to survey the lay of the land before continuing into the courtyard. One golden like the summer sun, the other as black as a new moon night. Both bedecked with mirrors and a single horn in the middle of their foreheads, they looked left and right and then boldly strutted up the opposite sides of the room roaring and rolling their eyes and challenging the evil spirits as they came. Whether the bad spirits found harbor in the palazzo courtyard or whether they were brought in by the people come to witness their dance, the lions frightened them away and allowed peace and good fortune to reign once again.
Having some experience tracking lions in real life, these lions were formidable – which in English means something akin to, “awe inspiring”, but in French is something more like Bill and Ted’s, “excellent!” Regardless of your point of cultural reference, these lions were both and more.
As they moved through the room, they paused to consider people and spirts before deciding to pounce or move on as they cleansed the room. Like real lions they were the apex predators in the room at least for that moment in time, but unlike real lions they did not blend in with their surroundings one bit. Real lions are hard to see sometimes even when you are standing right next to them as I found myself a few years ago in South Africa. I was the sole guest at a private lodge for several days and was taught by my guides to track.
I was so good at it that I led both men right into a sleeping pride of the beasts – which of course isn’t a good thing at all. All I saw was fear in the eyes of white and black African alike as they silently motioned for me to make a steady but slow retreat. A pride of about twelve lions lay sleeping not 10-15 feet infront of us. I have no pictures of the moment, for fear of a shutter sound waking one of our slumbering sisters, but it was an incredible and exhilirating moment all the same. So perfectly adapted to the tawny hues of the wintry brush, they were impossible for both native and novice to see until we heard them heaving and huffing as they slept on that hot morning.
No, the Chinese lions undulating up and down the courtyard to the ebb and flow of the cymbals and drums today were not in the mood for camouflage like their African cousins, they were on the hunt to destroy or drive out the last of the bad spirits in time for us to welcome in the new year.
Funny, this need for redemption and new beginnings we have, isn’t it? Whether it is leaping over flames or diving into ice-cold water or attending a religious service or individual contemplation, most cultures have this common bond of rituals to mark the passing of chaos and the rebirth of peace or cosmos.
To lift one’s eyes and to say, “Today, I will start anew,” in accordance with some regular astronomical event is a fascinating characteristic that is shared by so many people. But what drives this need? Is it custom, or habit or simply that we get so easily sidetracked from the lifestyles that we have each chosen as “right” for us? Whatever the reason, year after year in culture after culture billions of people seek to begin again.
Of course there is the guilt factor that we have lived our lives incorrectly and somehow need to atone for those bad choices. Do bad spirits really accumulate over time like bad choices and need to be cleansed by a ceremony like the Southern Lion Dance we saw today? Be careful how you answer, because it is a bit more tricky a question than it seems.
Say yes, and pitch your tent firmly in the flow of tens of thousands of years of human cultural evolution. You are a cog in a giant wheel, one man or woman amongst minions who all follow (or try to follow) the ways or teaching of someone or something better than yourself. Say no, and stand firmly in the rational, existential present and reject that spirits or guilt or shared cultural values have have any power over you or your individual destiny. You have no master, divine or otherwise and have only this life and the knowledge that your senses acquire for you to work with.
I have lived a long time and enthusiastically embraced both answers at different times in my life and have found that after the perfume of the censers fades or the stench of the galoise grows faint that there is another choice possible that blends the ideas of the past with those of the present in compatible ways. What really matters is where one’s epistimological pole is set: in the world and in the senses or from beyond one’s immediate surroundings.
I think it is possible to be the master of one’s own life but still leave the door open wide enough to allow for input from elements beyond the ordinary reach of the senses. I may feel that I have sussed my world, but I acknowledge that my world may have other plans. For me this leaves the door open for the unexpected, for revelation and for wonder.
And it was wonder and joy on the children’s faces that I saw this afternoon as they watched the lions slink and roar they ways around the room. And when the golden lion let loose his gift of oranges at the end, so many little feet ran forward and little hands reached out for the prizes of that mystical, magical beast.
So, am I cleansed? By writing this yes, absolutely. I am enough of an artiste that I both seek and revel in the redemption that an act of creation brings. Did the lions make this so or would I have written this piece after say, jumping into the frozen lake behind our home instead? My words and thoughts would have been different if did anything else today, so in a way, yes, the lions did bring the writing and the cleansing into being.
In a few minutes it will officially be the Year of the Ox. This year is a year in which it is said that prosperity may be found for those who work hard and perserve. It is also a year in which those who are tolerant and patient may be favored and rewarded for their rightiousness and resoluteness.
OK, the contemplations over . . . let’s feast! (All words and photographs by Laura Kelley).