Monday, February 18, 2013

Following the Curves

As I sat, a senior in high school, bent over the Tlinget carving I was working on as an apprentice to a master in the Northwest coast native art forms, tracing the smooth curves he had helped me transfer to my piece of spruce with the blade of my simple carving tool, deepening the grooves with angles and then scooping out curls of wood as I beveled in the depressions in my design, I thought of how the motion, when I caught the feeling of it and did it correctly, was so similar to dancing, and to driving, and to writing.  

I thought of dancing because it was something I had done since I was young, and though hard to describe, the feeling of holding the tool and applying just the right amount of pressure and using the grain and pushing into the wood and finding it do just what I wanted, a softness and compliance, a motion that made me feel as though the wood was expecting and wanting me to do just what I did, as I was doing it—this feeling was so different from when I got it wrong, from when I opposed the grain for a moment and there was discord and the wood and I did not listen to each other, resulting in a small chunk breaking out that I had not wanted.  

Sometimes when you dance—more often, if you are any good—you catch the groove, you find the grain in the music and it feels like there is no forcing, but without effort your body does what makes sense and it seems the music was expecting just what you did, as you were doing it.  There is a logic—not hard like math logic, but soft and fluid.  I was, then, just learning how to be a good driver.  Driving had not come naturally to me, and I had to learn to apply these same principals in that sphere.  As I drove home from these carving sessions, I would imagine I was carving the road with my car—following the curves that were so natural, anticipating what motions the road ahead expected. 

As mentioned, I thought too about writing—about the disconnect, the jagged edges that are created in writing, when the curves are not followed and, divergently, the way you encounter words scooping like water around a bend or a bevel through a piece of spruce when you allow them to.  It all takes a stepping back, a softening of focus while seeing beyond, a giving in.

In one of my anthropology classes, Cultures of Asia, I thought back to this idea again as we read a Japanese parable in which a man becomes a butcher, but is unsuccessful.  He tries so hard to carve the meat correctly—to make the perfect cuts, but the jagged, sloppy edges are offensive compared to the flawless cuts the other, more experienced butcher in town.  He finally asks the other butcher what it is that makes his meat so perfect.  The good butcher tells him that he doesn't make the cuts at all, that they are already in the meat—his job is to find the cuts that are already there.  When going with the natural grain of the meat, almost effortlessly, the knife blade glides through the seam and produces the cut of meat that was meant to be produced. 
In Taoism, the following of this principal is called Wu Wei—"doing nothing" or "non-striving."  In Christianity we refer to this as not "kicking against the pricks."  From California in the 80s, came the phrase, "Go with the flow."  This does not mean to be idle or lazy, but to find the natural creases and flow like water within them.  As you act, live, move in this way, you find something beautiful being created before you, opening before you, in a way that seems almost effortless and feels as if your very life expects your motions, as you move, as you live it.

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