Broken Bowl, Repaired

A few months ago, I was killing time by meandering through the Columbia Museum of Art one Sunday (free admission day!), babywearing Espen while he napped (the quiet and dimness of the museum was so soothing to him), while Eric was in a meeting with a client. I make a point to drop into the Asian art rooms every time I go because the pieces there — pottery, statues of horses and gods and buddhas, jade tablets etched with gold — are so satisfying and soothing. It’s the understatement that resonates with me, the simplicity of monochromatic hues and lines belying complex processes, techniques, and symbolism.

It must have been there a while, but it was the first time I noticed it — a simple celadon-hued ceramic bowl with seemingly haphazard golden veins streaking the surface. Struck by its idiosyncratic beauty, I read the card beside it to learn more. It was a kintsugi bowl — a regular bowl that had broken and was repaired using lacquer resin mixed with powdered gold. I’d never come across anything like it before, and the meaning behind the technique hit me hard — the bowl, average in wholeness, when broken became singularly exquisite. The lines created an interesting pattern in an otherwise run-of-the-mill object, the gold complemented by the muted hue around it. Rather than covering the cracks up, the repairer celebrated them, honored them.

As notable writer on Japanese ceramics Christy Bartlett explains:

Not only is there no attempt to hide the damage, but the repair is literally illuminated… a kind of physical expression of the spirit of mushin….Mushin is often literally translated as “no mind,” but carries connotations of fully existing within the moment, of non-attachment, of equanimity amid changing conditions. …The vicissitudes of existence over time, to which all humans are susceptible, could not be clearer than in the breaks, the knocks, and the shattering to which ceramic ware too is subject.

This is a lesson for everyone, about everything. It hits home for me personally because I often struggle with feelings of inadequacy because I’m not (nor can I be) perfect. I have made mistakes — some big, some small — and, even beyond mistakes, I am extremely quirky. I’m also fairly vain because I tend to be insecure. Throughout high school especially, I tried so hard to project normalcy; I publicly distanced myself from anything geeky or weird for much of my adolescence. I wanted to be accepted in the mainstream, to embody that wholesome lifestyle that our culture projects and applauds in various ways.

But, to paraphrase Cyndi Lauper, I am so unusual. And I’ve been learning, a little at a time, that that’s okay. It’s also okay for me to make mistakes. It’s okay for me to not try so hard to be the ideal others want me to be that I walk on eggshells around people out of fear of offending them. Of course, that’s not to say that I (or anyone else) has carte blanche to be cruel or rude or bigoted or prejudicial. It just means that it’s okay for me to accept that some people will always be prone to criticism and maljudgement, and that it’s not my job to kowtow to the rest of the world in a solitary effort to keep the peace. I will always strive to be kind and to become a better person than I’ve been, but I also have to acknowledge that it’s a process and that I am the sole person who gets to define what “better” means for me.

I have been broken. I am fusing myself back together. And I’m using gold to do it so that people can see the cracks that have been made. Because the cracks are the experiences that allow me to become better than I was — more interesting, kinder, and wiser. So that the repaired bowl is more beautiful than the original.

I don’t want to glorify brokenness per se. A bowl in pieces is useless — it serves no one and nothing, least of all itself. It’s when it’s put back together that it becomes stronger and more beautiful. It’s also important to note that a broken object repaired with mortar is less appealing, and a bowl repaired with Scotch tape is less durable, than one repaired with lacquer and gold. Not all repair mediums are created equal — the beauty and strength of the repair depends on these. I’ve had help — various people and ideas have gone into the repair work — but the main two have been Taoism and a supportive partner. With these as support, I fought against the things that drove the pieces of me apart, and I’ve replaced them with the wisdom that (and this is just an example list):

– everything has an equal-but-opposite counterpart that depends necessarily on its other in a cycle to exist
– beauty is not only relative but also not all that important
– relaxing and accepting things as they are — people, world events, change — is to my benefit (and I still struggle daily with this)
– I don’t have to wave a banner for every single issue (or for any issue in particular) to be valuable
– perfection does not exist, and I should not expect myself (or anyone else) to be perfect

No, I am not perfect; I am not the ideal anything, nor will I ever be. I am, however, mostly repaired. I’m still getting some of the pieces fitted back into their places — and some of the pieces have been lost and need(ed) to be replaced, or the spaces they’ve created may just be left open to let the air pass through — but I’m not the shattered person I once was. I am better, more whole. I am more understanding of weakness and flaws in others because of my understanding of my own, and I will be able to teach my son things that are good for him to know because of where I’ve been. To go even further, I am good and deserving of goodness, at least as much as anyone else is.

So this is my message to the world:

You may have shattered at some point; or you may just get chipped now and then. Either way, we all have broken at least a little in the past. It’s inevitable. But you can be repaired; you may already have been repaired, or at least started the work. I don’t expect you to be perfect — my version or anyone else’s. Just be sure that the medium you use to repair yourself makes you feel more whole — peaceful, compassionate, satisfied, less angry and seeking confrontation, and so on. If it fuels anxiety or indignation or self-righteousness or shame, it’s not going to hold. If it makes you feel enlightened (particularly in the sense of removing weight — darkness will always be there, but the weight of it doesn’t have to be), understanding, and accepting, it’ll make you stronger and better. It’s okay to let the cracks show.

The Circularity of Infinity: In Memory of Borges on His Birthday

I discovered Borges in undergrad around the same time that I discovered the Chuang Tzu and the two are linked in my mind. It’s not just that I came upon them at roughly the same time; they communicate similar concepts in similar ways, and I consider Borges to be perhaps the chief of Taoistic Western writers. Both Borges’ work and the Chuang Tzu address chance and fate (as in Borges’ “The Lottery of Babylon” and “The Garden of Forking Paths”), language as mutable and infinitely subjective (as in “The Library of Babel” and “An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain”), and the possibility of perceiving the whole of existence in a single, enlightened moment (“The Aleph”). Borges’ work also shares with the Chuang Tzu a love of language-play and a wry sense of humor; both are complex and subtle and require more than just a passing glance. All things I love in literature. I was pleasantly surprised today to see that Google produced a doodle in commemoration of his 112th birthday and decided, in that same spirit, to present some Borges quotes I love. Enjoy!

“Rumor had it that The Secret Mirror was a Freudian comedy; this propitious (and fallacious) interpretation determined its success. Unfortunately, Quain had already reached the age of forty; he was totally used to failure and he did not easily resign himself to a change of regime. He resolved to avenge himself. Toward the end of 1939 he issued Statements: perhaps the most original of his works, doubtless the least praised and most secret. Quain was in the habit of arguing that readers were an already extinct species. ‘Every European,’ he reasoned, ‘is a writer, potentially or in fact.’ He also affirmed that of the various pleasures offered by literature, the greatest is invention. Since not everyone is capable of this pleasure, many must content themselves with shams. For these ‘imperfect writers,’ whose name is legion, Quain wrote the eight stories in Statements. Each of them prefigures or promises a good plot, deliberately frustrated by the author. One of them — not the best — insinuates two arguments. The reader, led astray by vanity, thinks he has invented them.” (from “An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain”)

“Heraclitus of Pontica admiringly relates that Pythagoras recalled having been Pyrrho, and before that Euphorbus, and before that some other mortal. In order to recall analogous vicissitudes I do not need to have recourse to death, nor even to imposture.” (from “The Babylon Lottery”)

“The faraway king of the birds, the Simurg, drops an exquisite feather in the middle of China; weary of their ancient anarchy, the birds determine to find it. They know that their king’s name means ‘Thirty Birds’; they know that his royal palace stands on the Kaf, the circular mountain which surrounds the earth. They undertake the almost infinite adventure. They fly over seven valleys, or seven seas; the next-to-the-last one is called Vertigo; the last, Annihilation. Many of the pilgrims desert; others perish. Thirty of them, purified by their labors, set foot upon the Mountain of the Simurg. At last they contemplate it; they perceive that they are the Simurg, and that the Simurg is each one of them and all of them.” (from “The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim,” in a footnote)

“Differing from Newton and Schopenhauer, your ancestor did not think of time as absolute and uniform. He believed in an infinite series of times, in a dizzily growing, ever spreading network of diverging, converging and parallel times. This web of time — the strands of which approach one another, bifurcate, intersect or ignore each other through the centuries — embraces every possibility. We do not exist in most of them. In some you exist and not I, while in others I do, and you do not, and in yet others both of us exist. In this one, in which chance has favored me, you have come to my gate. In another, you, crossing the garden, have found me dead. In yet another, I say these very same words, but am an error, a phantom.” (from “The Garden of Forking Paths”)

“Once dead, there will not lack pious hands to hurl me over the banister; my sepulchre shall be the unfathomable air; my body will sink lengthily and will corrupt and dissolve in the wind engendered by the fall, which is infinite.” (from “The Library of Babel”)

“An n number of possible languages makes use of the same vocabulary; in some of them, the symbol library admits of the correct definition ubiquitous and everlasting system of hexagonal galleries, but library is bread or pyramid or anything else, and the seven words which define it possess another value. You who read me, are you sure you understand my language?” (from “The Library of Babel”)

“I have known what the Greeks did not: uncertainty.” (from “The Babylon Lottery”)

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What’s your favorite Borges quote?

On Action vs. Non-action vs. Wei-wu-wei

This is Part II of my conversation with a friend about Taoism and Christ. He suggested that one has reached true emptiness when one gives oneself so fully to a greater cause that the self is forgotten.

You touched on a debate I’ve been having with myself for a long time about action and non-action in Taoism — fighting for a cause or doing nothing and letting nature (human or otherwise) take its course. There are so many different ways to act or not act for a cause that I think it really depends on the cause and the action. In the extreme of “acting for a cause greater than oneself” are suicide bombers and political extremists; I think we both agree that that’s not the way to act for a cause and that that kind of rash selflessness doesn’t enact positive change, if any real change occurs at all. People die and the living remain, or are perhaps further, polarized. Then again, the extreme of “not acting for any cause, regardless of the situation” can result in something like […] a totalitarian, suffocating society, where people don’t contend for so long that it becomes nearly impossible to do anything at all, even when life really sucks for everyone. It’s hard to say which extreme is better because both end badly. Filling oneself with a cause — to the point that one’s life, along with that of others’, becomes meaningless — isn’t necessarily a complete Good, but neither is emptying oneself of a sense of what’s best (and therefore the desire to act) to the point that one becomes a virtual or actual prisoner. I should mention that, because of Taoism’s moral ambiguity [or apathy], there’s not much that Taoists would find necessary to act for or against. Even so, when a Taoist sage (that is, an ideal Taoist) really feels that changes need to be made, s/he is pretty cautious about how s/he goes about making those changes. So much of Taoism is about “action through non-action” (wei-wu-wei), which is as much about efficiency as it is proceeding in such a way that as little damage is wreaked as possible, of which I think Christ is a great example. It seems to me that he was all about action through non-action: he was there to teach those who wanted to be taught, but didn’t force anything on anyone. He was a receiver [and giver], rather than an aggressor. Even when the priests came for him near the end of his life, he didn’t fight; instead, he healed the one whose ear was cut off. […]

Still, if one were to [sacrifice one’s life], one has to first ask the question: Is it better for me to sacrifice myself to make a statement, or would I better serve my cause by living? And, of course, you have to think long and hard about whether your cause is really the right one. For Christ, from the Christian perspective, that question is easy to answer — as the Son of God, yes, his cause was the Ultimate Good, and his human life was much less important than the salvation of humankind […] But for regular people, I think it’s good to entertain the idea that what one perceives as a Total Good usually contains some potential for Evil/Bad and that there is often some potential for Good in a Bad/Evil idea or situation (enter the Taijitu, or Yin/Yang symbol), and that it’s almost impossible for people to tell which is best because we’re so near-sighted — one can’t really see the ultimate end of any action. Which is why it’s best to wait and see, or to tread lightly in action. Or, to put it in a Christian perspective, it’s not possible for a regular person to completely understand or foresee God’s plan, so forcing an action in either direction could be a mistake because what a person sees as an Evil might be, from God’s perspective, an avenue to a true Good. So I think that getting rid of the ego is ideal, but I think that also involves getting rid of one’s presumptions about what’s right/useful and wrong/useless in a given situation. And that, depending on one’s perspective, can either make life really difficult (if one is always trying to sort out Good from Bad, considering all the infinite variables and roads) or really simple (if one decides to let go of trying to be overly moral [or valiant] and just live life, taking each moment as it comes). I tend to do the former, spending unnecessary amounts of time trying to figure out where I stand on complex issues, but I’m trying to teach myself to do the latter and am slowly coming along. I do think it’s easier and healthier to just let go, to a certain degree, to be more like a tree than a mule.

The ultimate goal of Taoism is to be natural — that is, not to get caught up in petty human struggle and instead just be compassionate and simple and humble (the three Taoist treasures, which can be found in the Tao Te Ching in Ch. 67). Again, I think Christ is a great example of a Taoist sage, especially when considering lines from Ch. 67: “From mercy comes courage; from economy comes generosity; / From humility comes leadership.” He seems (to me, at least) much less preoccupied with law and sin (though he was concerned with those things, of course) than teaching and exhibiting compassion, humility and simplicity.

I’m open to further discussion, so feel free to post comments below.

Oscar Wilde: Victorian Taoist

I’m always interested in finding Taoist elements in Western literature, and I find a lot of them in Oscar Wilde’s work. In honor of the 110th anniversary of his death, I’ve decided to display a few of them here, along with corresponding Taoist quotes. Enjoy!

Wickedness is a myth invented by good people to account for the curious attractiveness of others.
“The Way has never known boundaries; speech has no constancy. But because of [the recognition of a] ‘this,’ there came to be boundaries. Let me tell you what the boundaries are. There is left, there is right, there are theories, there are debates, there are divisions, there are discriminations, there are emulations, and there are contentions… As to what is beyond the Six Realms, the sage admits it exists but does not theorize. As to what is within the Six Realms, he theorizes but does not debate… So [I say,] those who divide fail to divide; those who discriminate fail to discriminate. What does this mean, you ask? The sage embraces things. Ordinary men discriminate among them and parade their discriminations before others. So I say, those who discriminate fail to see.” (Chuang Tzu, Section 2).

The well-bred contradict other people.  The wise contradict themselves.
“Now I have just said something. But I don’t know whether what I have said has really said something or whether it hasn’t said something.” (Chuang Tzu, Section 2)
“Straightforward words / Seem paradoxical.” (Tao Te Ching 78.4)

To become the spectator of one’s own life is to escape the suffering of life.
“To serve your own mind so that sadness or joy do not sway or move it; to understand what you can do nothing about and to be content with it as with fate — this is the perfection of virtue.” (Chuang Tzu, Section 4)
“If you are content with the time [you have to live] and willing to follow along [with death], then grief and joy have no way to enter in.” (Chuang Tzu, Section 3).

Only the shallow know themselves.
“Tzu-ch’i said… ‘Now I have lost myself. Do you understand that? You hear the piping of men, but you haven’t heard the piping of earth. Or if you’ve heard the piping of earth, you haven’t heard the piping of Heaven!’ — Tzu-yu said, ‘May I venture to ask what this means?’ — Tzu-ch’i said, ‘ The Great Clod belches out breath and its name is wind. So long as it doesn’t come forth, nothing happens. But when it does, then ten thousand hollows begin crying wildly. Can’t you hear them, long drawn out? In the mountain forests that lash and sway, there are huge trees a hundred spans around with hollows and openings like noses, like mouths, like ears… They roar like waves, whistle like arrows, screech, gasp, cry, wail, moan, and howl… In a gentle breeze they answer faintly, but in a full gale the chorus is gigantic. And when the fierce wind has passed on, then all the hollows are empty again. Have you never seen the tossing and trembling that goes on?’ — Tzu-yu said, ‘By the piping of earth, then, you mean simply [the sound of] these hollows, and by the piping of man [the sound of] flutes and whistles. But may I ask about the piping of Heaven?’ — Tzu-ch’i said, ‘Blowing on the ten thousand things in a different way, so that each can be itself — all take what they want for themselves, but who does the sounding?'” (Chuang Tzu, Section 2).

A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.
“Yen Hui went to see Confucius and asked permission to take a trip. — ‘Where are you going?’ [Confucius asked.] — ‘I’m going to Wei.’ — ‘What will you do there?’ — ‘I have heard that the ruler of Wei is very young. He acts in an independent manner, thinks little of how he rules his state, and fails to see his faults. It is nothing to him to lead his people into peril, and his dead are reckoned by swampfuls like so much grass. His people have nowhere to turn. I have heard you say, Master, “Leave the state that is well ordered and go to the state in chaos! At the doctor’s gate are many sick men.” I want to use these words as my standard, in hopes that I can restore his state to health.’ — ‘Ah,’  said Confucius, ‘you will probably go and get yourself executed, that’s all.'” (Chuang Tzu, Section 4).
“What starts out being sincere usually ends up being deceitful.” (Chuang Tzu, ibid.).

Always! That is the dreadful word … it is a meaningless word, too.
“Hence a gusty wind cannot last all morning, and a sudden downpour cannot last all day. Who is it that produces these? Heaven and earth. If even heaven and earth cannot go on for ever, much less can man.”  (Tao Te Ching 23.2).

Such a Thing as a Thing to Say

Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
-T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

Begin to wonder what you do write about. Or if you have anything to say. Or even if there is such a thing as a thing to say.
-Lorrie Moore, “How to Become a Writer, or Have You Earned This Cliche?”

These are the thoughts that plague me, not only in my fiction but in writing this blog as well. Perhaps more so with this blog because there’s no story in which to gradually reveal meaning; I have to be as concise and direct as possible. Every time I consider making a post, I run the topic through the gamut: Is this something obvious that everyone already knows to be true? If not, would anyone care? Is this a significant contribution to the blogging community? Do I have anything significant to contribute at all? Is there anything I can say that I feel is absolutely true, without exception? Should I even bother?

Taoism is largely to blame for this impotence in writing. As written in the Tao Te Ching, “To use words but rarely / Is to be natural” (23.1-2). The Taoist sage does not presume; he or she says and does as little as possible. Listening is valued above speech and silence above noise. This is because the sage realizes that human perception is limited; one can’t see all the facets of an issue and one can’t foretell exactly the outcome of any given action or decision. I’ve had a lot of foot-in-mouth moments in my life and I know exactly how it feels to make a statement half-cocked and come to regret it later. It’s in the interest of self-preservation for one to be silent, to listen rather than speak. During the Warring States period in China, where Taoism was born, one’s life could be saved by keeping silent because change was rampant and one’s enemy one day might turn out to be one’s leader the next, and one’s leader could just as quickly become one’s enemy.

My situation isn’t so precarious, but self-preservation is still valuable in terms of dignity and peace. Aside from human rights issues, I can’t pretend to know the value or outcome of any law or political decision, so I veer away from blogging about politics. And there’s so much that I don’t know about religion, or art, or literature, or people in general that I hesitate to make any hard-and-fast claims about any of that, either. All I know is what I see before me, and I know that my sight can only travel so far. I don’t know that anything I see or feel is valuable to anyone but me, or even correct.

So how should I presume? Why have a blog? Why write at all? Why not just stay silent? I’m not sure, really. Part of it is vanity, a desire to be heard and praised. Another part is a desire to create something beautiful for the sake of beauty. It also comes from a desire to express myself, to take those sparks within me and make them manifest. To make myself vulnerable and, through that, connect with other souls who have the same questions and preoccupations. Communication is about connection, after all. And perhaps my hesitation stems from a fear of not finding those connections, of further alienation. I think it’s also about the desire for meaning, but not the meanings that others create. It’s to construct and discover my own meanings, to find truths for myself. Silence is good for contemplation; expression makes those contemplations solid, real, allows me to test them out. And still another part of me writes — creates — to exorcise those demons that lie within, to put them to good use, to turn them into something beautiful and valuable, if only for me.

Whatever the reason, I continue to write. I still don’t know if there’s value in anything I have to say, but that doesn’t quell the impulse to speak. So I waver between doubt and hope, fumbling in and out of whatever spotlights I make for myself, searching for answers and meanings hidden in the shadows.