I had actual, living proof of the improvement of my skills as a calligrapher, artist, designer and creator yesterday. Three years and a month ago, I created this scroll as an art piece for an awkward location in an a local shop owned by a friend of mine. You can click through, and see the piece in greater detail. You can also see the box of Sharpie markers in the right-hand edge of the image; so you know how this image was created.
It’s not bad. I’d argue that it’s even pretty good. Sure, the lettering isn’t all the same size, and the border is weird, and the illustration is kind of dense and not very good — almost medieval in its lack of clarity — but that very much played into the overall design of the piece. If it didn’t look medieval and vaguely ancient, it would not have been successful.
What a difference three years makes.
This is the piece I finished last night. Much better calligraphy. Much better illustration — in fact, I had space for two illustrations, one of a geometric problem, and one of Mercury. This time, the illustration has a background in addition to a figure. And the frame is more complete and realistic and interesting. It’s still Thomas Taylor’s poetry, but this time it’s the Hymn to Mercury-Hermes (although in the colophon in the lower right, I call it the Orphic Hymn to Apollo — I can’t get everything right, apparently).
Much better — the text is all the same size this time, and the font is more for less the same all the way through. The illustration is much more consistent in its use of color. And while I didn’t erase the lines here which underlie the work, and form the grid upon which I worked, they form a part and parcel of the whole piece. The type of paper makes it virtually impossible to remove this grid; but maybe it doesn’t have to go away, anyway.
And that made me think about tai chi practice this morning. OK, yes, I spend a quantifiably larger amount of time on tai chi now – today – than when I started. When I began, it was all I could do to drag myself out of bed at 5:00am and do tai chi for 10 minutes. Now, I wake up (most days) at 5:00 am ready to begin. I have my off days, but the transformation has been from “I don’t want to, but I will,” to “I want to do more.”
But there’s also been a qualitative change. Today was two qi gong forms, and four tai chi forms. That’s been the standard to meet for a few days now — is it as much as two weeks? I consider how much less awkward and funky I look now, though. I’ve practiced these moves every day for nearly four years — just as I’ve practiced my drawing skills every day for three years (actually, more or less since August 2009). Yes, my characters are still cartoony and are drawn from Sachiko Umoto’s books for kids. My backgrounds owe a lot to Ed Emberley and Nigel Jackson who does the illustrations for Christopher Warnock’s astrology books, and both of them are brilliant). But in illustration, there’s this clarity of line and color, a confidence in the creative process, there’s a growing comfort with the tool-set — which is visible from one illustration three years ago to the new one last night.
I’ve drifted far from talking about tai chi, of course. Which is OK, because I’m talking about practice: Anything that you do every day, whether deeply or poorly, whether carefully or lackadaisically, you’re going to get better at that. Sure, I’ve had days and weeks where I’ve ‘gone too fast’ or been casual about how much tai chi or how many times through the form ‘counts’ as a completed day. Sometimes it’s been so rushed that it shouldn’t have counted. Sometimes I did it after midnight, but before bed. But I did it — well or poorly, doesn’t matter nearly as much on the day-to-day level as doing it.
There’s another issue though. My barista had a shirt on yesterday, that said, “Your body is the only thing that you carry with you from the day you are born until the day they put you in the ground.” I’ve drawn these two scrolls on paper. They’ll last, but only as long as the paper lasts… and even so, until then I can go and see them every day. They’re not going away. But tai chi? I’ve written this into my body. I will go as low as I can on the knee bends and squats, for as long as I can. I will stretch my arms and legs and neck as I am able, for as long as I can. Someday, I will have to stop doing tai chi.
But I hope that it is not for many years. I hope that I shall continue to wake, and move, and write, and create art, for as long as the spirit of the breath keeps going in and out of me.