I woke yesterday with an acrid smell in my nostrils. I’m cleaning a bunch of rusty tools I bought at a yard-sale for twenty bucks, trying to make them fit for use by students in the design lab. That involves soaking them in a solution of salt and vinegar. This literally bubbles off the rust on the tools, and in some cases the japanning as well (japanning is the black enamel coating on some tools, on the parts farthest from the cutting surfaces). I’d put the tools to soak in this mixture overnight (the saw I’m going to have to soak separately, after I remove the wooden handle. And it would be good to replace the wooden handle by making a new one to spec).
By yesterday afternoon, when I came home from school, the acrid smell was overpowering. Walking into the apartment hit me with a burst of scent I could hardly imagine. Yikes. I went to the next steps. These were to remove the tools from the vinegar-salt mixture, and bathe them for about ten minutes in a water & baking soda mixture, a scrubbing with steel wool and then follow this up with a pair of rubdowns with denatured alcohol and camellia oil.
I would like to say that I followed this process faithfully.
I didn’t. I forgot the steel wool the last time I went to market, and I didn’t have camellia oil ‘to hand’. But I couldn’t let this vinegar-salt solution keep eating away at my new-old tools. So, into the baking-soda/water mix they went, and then on to a wipe-down in denatured alcohol.
What does this have to do with tai chi?
Well, maybe it has nothing to do with it. But consider: Vinegar-salt solution is a pretty strong acid. It can remove rust from iron, and pretty quickly at that. Baking soda and water neutralizes the acid in the vinegar-salt. And denatured alcohol wicks away the moisture from the neutralizer-solution, so the material doesn’t rust again.
And this is a pretty deliberate metaphor for what I do in my tai chi practice. I’ll have a few weeks where I’ll soak my practice in vinegar and salt — (“This has to be changed. My work is terrible! We have to clean off the rust, and strip the form down to its essentials, and loosen the crud from what’s still useful!”) Then I soak my form in baking soda and water (“I have to preserve what remains, practice the essentials of the form, eat away the rust but not the steel underneath.”) And finally, I do the wipe-down in denatured alcohol. (“The shine is really coming through! I’m awesome!”)
And this is a type of alchemical process, really: the rust is stripped away by the acid, which loosens and shreds the crud and gets it off the tool. The baking soda and the water neutralize and wash away the acid, leaving the good steel. The good steel then has to be protected from future rust through the product of fermentation, which pulls away the moisture and strips the worked steel of all but the essentials, leaving good steal ready to endure. Sounds like a great metaphor for studying a martial art.
But it’s important to remember that there are three steps missing from this process as i’ve described it. First, it’s important to realize that the scrubbing and polishing with steel wool is missing. It’s great to soak your work in vinegar, and loosen the rust and the crud from your old iron. But there’s some elbow grease, not just soaking, that’s currently missing from my process. And, second, there’s the application of oil that hasn’t occurred — the tool needs a protective coating, some lubricant to help it shed the moisture that brings the rust back.
But the third step we haven’t talked about at all. And that’s sharpening.
And the thing that’s really missing from this whole discussion today is that it’s great to bring tools back to a high state of shine and readiness. It’s good to clean the rust off, and get the steel shining again, bright and new-ish. But without a sharp edge, that carefully-cleaned and protected iron does no good. The cleaning and the oiling is only the beginning of the preparation. Then comes the sharpness, through skillful preparation of the clean steel.
And after all that, of course, comes the work. Because why go to all that trouble, and that smell of salt and acid in your nose, and that sweat on your brow from the labor of scrubbing and sharpening, only to leave the tool to rust again?
First the cleaning, then the sharpening, and then the work.