Tai Chi Y3D125: Opening

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It was a pretty good day for tai chi. I did ten push-ups in the kitchen. I have to say, the quality of my push-ups is still really uneven. Some days they’re good and I can crank out 15 no problem, like yesterday. Some days, like today, I get ten really cruddy ones.  Building strength is hard, especially when you have to start out moving three hundred pounds this way.

Then I went outside to do Eight Pieces of Silk, the druidry exercises, and Five Pieces of Silk. And then the tai chi form.  I did the first five or six postures, and then slipped from there to the last sequence that begins with “fair lady works shuttles.” Ooops. I had to start over again, slower and with more deliberateness, to get on the right track.

And I had it in mind to write some poetry about each of the named steps in my practice:

At the opening, breathe in deep three times,
and soften the eyes to see land and sky —
Begin at once, at the day’s dawning chimes,
before the pigeons have a chance to cry
or the wren has chittered in the branches.
Begin with bent knees, but so your toes show;
tuck your buttocks in and tense your haunches;
begin to move, and turn from the waist slow.
Lift the left foot, and widen out your stance—
lift both hands, and then push down and away.
Move, as in syrup, in water, or trance,
with muscles in tension and mind at play.
Be all curves, and relaxed in this rebirth,
suspended from heaven, anchored in earth.

Tai Chi Y3D124: Work

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Book of geometry: square orthogonal to a line

A square set orthogonal to a line.

I’ve spent a fair bit of time on my geometry book over the last few days.  I’m at my parents’ house, and my mother has been very encouraging of my work as an artist.  She works on her art, and I work on mine. Thanks to some new tools (namely a transparent plastic ruler with lines running parallel to the straight edge), I’ve been able to shorten the amount of time it takes to make one page, from about two hours to about half-an-hour.  I’ve produced ten pages in the amount of time it used to take me to do four.

Today, as I did tai chi, I was reflecting on this combination of challenges. Some work we want to do fast, like completing an art project such as this book of geometry that I’ve been working on for months (I’m three pages away from finishing side one, and maybe 15 hours from finishing side two… although side two has a lot more complicated geometry, so maybe it will take longer).

Some work, like tai chi, we want to do more slowly.  I get that.

Book of geometry

Doubling squares and halving them by means of geometry.

The trick is in not mistaking fast work for slow work, and vice versa. My father, tender loving guy that he is, told me today how proud he is of the work I’m doing, and how proud he is of me, and of the way that so many aspects of my life are in my command and under my control.  And yet, as he pointed out (because with Dad, there’s always a yet), I don’t have mastery of my weight.  I’m not sure, after two years and a third of tai chi, that it’s actually shifting my weight at all.  I mean, I probably have denser bones and stronger ligaments, but the push-ups have done more to bulk up my musculature than the tai chi has.  And, further, I haven’t really changed weight at all — I’m still a pretty solid 300# even after two years. Maybe I’ve shifted some weight from my gut to my bones, or from my gut to my biceps… but I don’t think so.

My doc says my cholesterol is up.  My good cholesterol is rock-solid good; my bad cholesterol is up more than it should be. This could be diet, this could be genetics, this could be the beginning of health issues. Every body is an experiment, as one of my doctors used to say.

Maybe it should say that Every life is an experiment.

Today is my birthday. Happy birthday, me.  I’ve begun to change my diet (again).  I’ve begun to be an artist (again). I’ve begun to reconnect with old friends (again). I’ve begun again so many times, that the experiment feels new and different every time.  Now we begin again, again.

But there’s an underlying order to the work.  In tai chi, as in geometry, each line and each angle and each ligament and each muscle has a sense of what it wants to be, and what it wants to do.  When joints creak in pain, we listen to them. When we over-extend a line or an arc, we listen to them.  When we discover truths about ourselves that others have made before us, we listen to them.  When we find a movement with power and grace, we listen to that. These are the building-blocks of our reality.

Today’s tai chi was much like yesterday’s tai chi; and tomorrow’s presumably will be similar to today’s.  We build successes and power a little bit at a time, by slow degrees and by slight changes — and eventually we come to a place where further changes are both commanded and needed.  We master the basics so that we can move on to the advanced work.  We return to the basics when the advanced work becomes too hard.  We re-discover how advanced the basics are when return to them.

May the year ahead be full of wonder.

Book of geometry

the book in all of its fold-out magnificence, so far.

Tai Chi Y3D123: Nightingale Floor

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Still at my parents’ house. The guest bedroom has a creaky floor. I was awakened by an unexpected text message a little before 5am, and was so thoroughly awake that I simply got up, did my push-ups (15 today), my two qi gong forms, the druidry exercises, and tai chi.

I tried to be sensitive to the nightingale floor in the bedroom, though.  There was a book called Across the Nightingale Floor, which was about assassins in a Japan-like fantasy world trying to sneak across the floor in the room adjacent to the Emperor’s bedroom. The floor had been deliberately designed to creak and sing when crossed, so that no one could sneak up on the Emperor without him being aware.  It was an OK book, as I recall, but I remember being fascinated by the idea of moving without making sound when crossing a noisy floor.

The floor in my parents’ guest room is noisy.

And I am not a small guy who can stand on a floor without it creaking.  Nonetheless, I tried.  I failed, but I tried. How does one try to move on a floor without it creaking? Well, first of all, it involves shifting the weight much more slowly from one foot to another, so that the floor has a chance to adjust before taking the full weight. This is the first possibility. The second is to understand that weight has to go somewhere — it doesn’t just hang in space, but it’s attached to the earth via gravity, and so the connection has to be made — first to the floor and then to the load-bearing timbers under them, and then to the wall, and then to the ground below the wall’s foundation.   Third, if one knows the room very well (much better than I know my parents’ room!) one can have a sense of where the floorboards are likely to creak, and move away from those spots.

I am only a beginner at this.  But it seems to me that part of tai chi is learning to ‘read the room’ with new eyes, and have a sense of the floor — whether it will creak or no, whether some parts of it are sturdier or more capable, whether the furniture or furnishings are fixed or moveable.  I regularly move the bed to one side when doing tai chi in this room, for example; but today I did it in the narrow space with the bed in its usual place.  Had I moved the bed, my tai chi should have been more expansive. But there is sometimes advantage in limitation.

Tai Chi Y3D122: At Home

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Today I’m at my parents’ house.  Even years after I moved out, I still think of this house as home in many ways.  It’s not easier knowing that the house is in a neighborhood that’s gone so upscale that the place will likely be ripped to the ground about 40 minutes after the closing.  But it remains one of the places that I think of when I think “home”.

I didn’t get to my entry this morning because almost before I’d even finished doing tai chi this morning, my dad came in to the guest room all bustle and business and asked me if I wanted to go for a swim. So we went swimming. Ten laps later, and several large bubbles of apparently-stale air popped out of me as burps.  Strange: for all the work that I do at deep breathing, it’s hard to imagine bad air accumulating inside of me, but swimming always seems to find a few pockets of extra-smelly air inside of me, from my lungs or from my digestive tract.  I immediately felt better, like I’d been exorcised.  Swimming in water does this to me nearly every time — pushes out bad air, somehow, and brings in good air.

The practice was… OK, I guess.  I’ve got some new ideas about how to change things up, though, which is good.  I think I have some things to push around breath work, for one.  For another, I’ve gotten pretty good at slowing down the first half of the form, but the second half of the form could really drop from slow to slower speed, or even down to tortoise.  And third, I’m starting to work on doing the whole tai chi form as an isomorphic exercise, working with the dynamics of speed and muscle control to make the whole thing an exercise in tension-control.

Oh, and Christina: I bought that Kathleen Norris book about Acedia. I started reading it last night. So far, so good.

Tai chi Y3D121: pessimism

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I came home from my annual retreat to the mountain on Sunday. It took until today for me to feel as though my practice was back to something resembling normality. Today’s practice was great. And it touched the ecstatic places that I had touched on during my retreat to the mountain.

But in conversation with a friend last night, I realized (mostly because he told me so) that I’m understanding the world from a very pessimistic viewpoint right now. And that my tai chi is a kind of bulwark against all that: “at least there is this one thing I’m doing that I can control.”

But it’s very easy to slip from pessimism to sadness or depression. When one believe the world is slipping into chaos and madness, it’s very hard not to give into despair. My friend lifted me a little, but despite the exhilaration and joy of this last weekend, I’m still in a mindset where I think the world is spiraling the drain and it’s all downhill from here.

My birthday is Monday. That may have something to do with it. :-)

In the midst of the sadness and worry — about foreign affairs, about manufactured celebrity, about crises foreign and domestic — there is the practice. I nodded at two others of my neighbors this morning during tai chi. No one is batting an eye or caring that I’m doing something weird. No one cares at all.

There’s a power and a joy and a hope in that, I think. The world will not likely change. There will always be crises foreign and domestic, broken attitudes and broken nations and broken systems. And sometime, eventually, my tai chi practice will fail. In the meantime, we practice as we intend to go on. We let others live as they wish, and hope that they let us live as we wish — and we practice what we mean to become.

Athanor: Learning to Make A Crucible

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Part of my continuing effort to learn “caveman chemistry” through Kevin M. Dunn’s book of the same name, Caveman Chemistry. One of the upcoming chapters of work for me is the creation of a crucible which can serve as the key operating tool of four mastery projects — the smelting of metal from ore, the creation of lime from stone, the creation of glass from silica, and the firing of ceramic. The last of these is actually the most important; if I can’t do that, then I can’t really do any of the other three.

Crucible

Maybe it will get the job done… maybe it won’t.

So, this is my first attempt to shape and create a crucible. And this entry that accompanies it are some of my lab notes on the project. I bought a kind of clay from Michael’s arts and crafts store called CraftSmart® natural clay. My friend Albert, a master potter, is really concerned about firing it. It handles like clay, it looks like clay, it sorta smells like clay… but it was in a box without firing instructions, and with really unclear directions about how to dry and prep it for firing.

I laid out a copy of my monthly Connecticut Freemasons newspaper (seemed appropriate) after reading it, as the surface for working. I first made a pinch-pot, which you can see in the background, that became too large and unwieldy too quickly. A crucible has to be formed from one lump of clay without air bubbles; the one in the back became too wide too quickly.

So I cut a new ball of clay, and prepped it as before. I shaped this crucible from a single piece of clay in the form (as the book instructs) of a chalice with a foot. Mine isn’t as pretty as other people’s, or the one shown in the textbook. I think it will serve, though. The walls are a centimeter thick or a little less, including in the foot. It’s pretty much a pinch pot, and though it still needs some smoothing with a spoon after it’s bone dry, it should fire well (assuming this kind of clay can be fired to cone 06, which isn’t clear).

Once the crucible was formed, I let it dry for a couple of hours, and then I formed the lid. The lid has to be formed before the crucible body was fully dry, because clay changes shape as it dries, and shrinks quite a bit as it does so.

Lucifer: How to make fire

an earlier page-set from my ‘lab notebook’. If it’s worth doing well, it’s worth doing over-the-top

The lid is in the form of a dish. This is so that, when it’s in the kiln with some chunks of malachite (for smelting copper) and some charcoal inside as well as in the lid, along with some investment material, the crucible will focus and store heat and melt the malachite into a small copper ingot. This is the theory anyway.

Before any of this can happen, of course, the kiln has to have its way with the crucible for the first time — to drive out the excess water, and functionally change the chemical structure of the clay, to vitrify it. And I’m hoping that the whole structure will survive vitrification, but there’s no guarantee. The lid may break, or the crucible, or both. They may survive the firing, but not get fired at cone 06. A lot can go wrong. We’ll see.

Progress to Date 

I had hoped that I would be able to complete considerably more projects in “Caveman Chemistry” this summer, and really ramp up my skills. Alas, life has sort of gotten in the way in a number of ways.  I’ve managed to start fires with a bow drill, make an arrowhead, learn to work through Unit Factor Analysis problems, made mead, and now created a crucible (even though I haven’t fired it yet). I’ve also made a few beautiful pages in a medieval-style grimoire-book of the relevant chapters and exercises, as a way of learning the work more effectively (though not necessarily efficiently).  Progress made, not finished.  Five steps is better than zero steps, it’s not as good as twenty-eight steps.  Still, there was some cheese-making in there too.

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