Slow Writings, Done Not So Slowly


I’ve been thinking a lot about how to continue my progress from the monastery visits, but in more of a practical way, something that is more communicable to other people. Sitting on a misty mountain top, constantly wrestling with the mind, sounds like a really inspiring movie-esque way to find a deep sense of satisfaction, but clearly not practical. So, just following some kind of inner compass I continue to be involved in everything that I get a sniff of as I’m going through my day around the University. One of the first things that led me to, was Chinese Calligraphy. The older PhD student in our lab, Zhang, is very knowledgeable about ancient Chinese traditions, especially when it comes to Chinese Calligraphy. It’s also convenient that we’ve become good friends.


I’ve also told him about this young woman who I’m, somehow, more and more interested in after every opportunity we have to spend time together. She also was a big part of getting my Calligraphy started. During our Chinese lesson, she brought in a brush pen and paper for me to practice. She wrote her name for me and said that two of the three characters that make up her name are very complicated. Perfect, a challenge and an opportunity to really impress her. I immediately ran back to Zhang and said that I wanted to continue to practice and I wanted to start with her name. I wanted to show my appreciation for her sitting down with me to really give it a try and more importantly to show her that I’m not just any other foreigner. So, each day that whole next week I took one of the characters and kept writing it over and over again. Zhang, would come in and look at what I’ve done, make some guttural sounds, nod, and then tell me how to adjust what I’m doing. I continued this until finally he said, “Yes, that’s it!” I would ask him, “So, it’s really beautiful?” He would smirk and then tell me that “For you, it’s very good.” Hey, what’s that supposed to mean!?


By Sunday in the afternoon I had finally finished all three characters and was racing to finish the project before my next Chinese lesson with this young woman, who, to avoid confusion, we can call by her English name, Annie. I never call her by that name, always by her Chinese name; I’m trying to be different, remember? But of course calling someone by their name in a different language is confusing, especially in Chinese. When you address people of higher rank you have to use a title with their name. But, the title comes after their name … my head is already spinning. To make it worse they also reversed the order of their names, putting their family name first. Anyway, she’s not my superior, so I can just call her without a title. Easy right? Not so much, because when you call someone by their surname and given names (most people have one or two given names), it puts a bit of a formality to it and creates a distance between you and them, on a personal level. So friends call each other just by their given names, but it only happens when friends are “very close” as I’ve been told. So after all that, I really actually don’t call her by either name, I just grunt and point. I might be a different foreigner, but I’m still a typical man.


So, here I am on Sunday with three torn out pieces of paper with the each of the best three characters I wrote to make up her name. I call Zhang over, in a slightly sweaty panic, to help me put this together for her. He immediately recognizes the look on my face and runs over, despite whatever, much less importantly, he might have been doing for his silly PhD. He gets a big piece of paper, a glue stick, and then starts to puts the words together, but in the same left to right format we do with our names. I groan and tell him I’m trying to go in the opposite direction of my culture, so I want them to go from top to bottom, or diagonally, or in a circle, okay, just do it the way Chinese people do it, and fast! He tells me that if it’s just a name, (which is never something that is written by itself in calligraphy), then it should go from left to right, surname to given names. The only time you would write a name from top to bottom is when it is accompanied by a poem or other work of art, which are traditionally written from top to bottom and right to left. Okay, that’s far ahead of my Calligraphy journey, so let’s do it the foreigner way. He looks at the paper from many different angles and then finally gets them placed down with the correct proportion or “gravity” as he puts it. Then we grab some books and let them sit on top of the work to flatten it out.


Finally, it comes time for class and since there were so many people around us I find some time to slip her the work and tell her to look at it later, like we’re in second grade and I just gave a crush a Valentine’s Day present. I didn’t mean it to be that way, but I also have no idea about the nuances of when to give someone a friendly gift. Anyway, she liked it or actually she was just really nice and burst out laughing when she saw its hideousness. Either way here’s a picture of what I finished:


1st calligraphy


Her name in Chinese in Pinyin is Dai4 Jia1 Xin1. The numbers are the tone markers to help us outsiders read their language. 4 is a falling tone, from high to low. 1 is a high, constant tone. (Good luck with that one.)


As I talked about in a post before I tracked down the ex-president of Peking University and ended up having dinner with him. He was a very kind and humble man, who really worked his way up from being hungry, every day, to being a famous person in Beijing and probably even all of China. We really connected when we talked about Calligraphy and he showed me some of his projects. Then, I showed him mine and told him about my week long fury to finish something decently good looking. Right after looking at the picture he blurted out “You’re a genius!” Maybe he was just being kind and maybe there’s also a little bit of natural talent coming from somewhere there. Either way the benefit I got from the process was enough to keep me coming for more. I got the same kind of relaxed release as when I was once decent at my yoga practice.


Naturally, I run back to Zhang and tell him that I want to try something more difficult. I want to find a subtly romantic poem about something searching and finding something wonderful. We finally pick an eight character poem from ancient China. He says that the poem has a very deep meaning to it that most people won’t understand, unless they really search hard for it or know a lot about the ancient culture. Since my girl writes her own poetry and has a traditional family background, I think she’ll be able to figure it out. The reason it’s so hard to understand is that back in the Han dynasty people used to write on bamboo as their paper, but it was very heavy to deliver, so they had to communicate their messages using as few characters as possible. I think this is where Chinese characters get their very deep meanings from. The people also used different meanings in their spoken Chinese, opposed to their written Chinese. Eventually they mended their more simple spoken Chinese to be used in every aspect, leaving the old written meanings, as the ancient past. Those meanings are what is represented in the poem I’m writing. Whoa, this is sounding way over my head here, good thing I have Zhang to help me through this navigation.


So now I’m writing this poem up to down, right to left, closer to the actual way I’m supposed to do things if I’m trying to embrace their culture. The difficult part about that is that not only does this now bring in the proportions of each character to each other, but it also brings in the challenge of doing it correctly for all eight characters. I can’t tell you how many times I got it down and then choked on the last character, a few times even the last stroke of that character. I practiced it for the better part of this past month. Because I’ve really gotten a hands-on experience of the practice, I’ve been able to talk to Zhang and make jokes about life, related back to calligraphy. I was talking with him about how to develop relationships with traditional Chinese women, so he started talking about calligraphy, but of course the double meaning was about her as well. He told me that every move needs to be done slowly and with total awareness. He said that when things are done in that way they are natural and only then, can the true beauty emerge. Something in what he said really struck me to the core, more than just with this young woman. I started to think about every other aspect of my life and thought that the key that I’ve been looking for is in doing things slowly. I’m not saying that I’m going to float through everything I do with no kind of purpose. I see it as more about the process of things themselves. I started to think back to going through things in my past and realized that I’m so focused on results in my life, that I have lost the focus of the importance of really enjoying and surrendering to the wonder that comes with just doing something and enjoying where I am with that at that moment. Whether it was learning guitar, a new language, or pursuing a beautiful woman, I was obsessed with reaching goals and spent too much time figuring out how to get there, instead of having a healthier, long-lasting, and slower approach to the development of something. Unfortunately rushing the process led to a lot of burned out interests. It clearly doesn’t apply to everything, like gluing that damn project together, “faster, class is in 30 minutes!”, but it’s something I’ll keep in mind going forward.


So, after the better part of a month, I’ve completed the poem and just in time to give it to Annie, I mean Ms. Dai, I mean Jia Xin…( I give up, grunting is suitable), as a present for Christmas. Anyway, here’s a picture of the finished work of something that might possibly be considered art. One funny side note is that when I was writing my name on the completed project, I spilled some ink (just below the third one on the left) and nearly screamed. I tried to wipe it and only made it worse, but decided that it’s not that big of a deal and maybe might add something to it. Zhang laughed at me and told me that it’s okay, it only slightly ruined it.


Calligraphy Poem


I gave her the poem and she said she couldn’t believe that I wrote it and it’s something so strange for a foreigner to know about or be able to do, ‘cha-ching’! Then, she proceeded to tell me the story of the author and about that time in China’s history. It’s amazing most people my age I talk to about the poem sort of know what it’s about, but more as a distant memory from a class they’ve nearly forgotten. She knew it like the back of her hand.


I just left everything the way it was with nothing more, just trying my best to be grateful for where I am, right now. I have a foggy idea and some much clearer desires for where things are headed, but at least for the moment I’m aware of my impatience to get to the next ‘rung’. Maybe someday, I’ll really be able to fully live the slow beautiful style of life.


Stop Thinking and Write It Down!

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