4.30.12 (Tea Ceremony: Room layout)
Tatami cover the tea room floor. A tatami is a mat of woven rush straw over a rice straw core. Tatami is Japan’s traditional flooring material. A tatami’s length is always twice its width and there are complicated rules for tatami layout, determined by abstract formal principles (“four corners must never converge”), the room’s function and the time of year. Tatami dimensions and layout determine the room’s architecture and function. A entrance might be one tatami length long. In winter, special tatami with square holes are used in tea rooms to make room for the kettle’s in-floor fire pit. A kimono’s dimensions allow it to fold over a tatami for wrinkeless storage.
The tea room I went to is an “eight tatami design”, a large square space. Each side is two tatami lengths (four widths, two widths and a length) long. The eight tatami are arranged in the following way: from the entrance—which is in a corner, second forward on the left—two tatami extend into the room to meet the opposite wall on their short sides; the tatami touching the opposite wall is met on its right long side by a third tatami’s short side. This third tatami’s short side in turn meets a fourth tatami’s long side, whose two short sides meet the opposite wall and a fifth tatami’s short side. The fifth tatami’s second short side meets the room’s the fourth corner and its long side meets the sixth tatami’s short side. The sixth tatami’s second short side meets the first tatami’s long side. These six tatami form a square with an square empty middle. The empty middle’s sides’ dimensions are all one tatami length long. The middle, then, is filled by two tatami whose orientation is like that of tatami one, two, four and five—short sides to the opposite wall and the wall with the entrance. I tried out alternative arrangements and I might be wrong but I think that this solution (or a rotation of it) is the only possible tatami arrangement for the room’s dimensions that fulfills the rule “four corners must never converge”. Going in a circle around the room, starting at the door and following the direction in the description there, we can number the outer tatami one through six and the two inner tatami seven (left from the entrance) and eight (right from the entrance).
The entrance is one tatami length long and it extends to the right from its corner, opening over tatami one’s short side and the left half of tatami six’s long side. It’s a “shoji”, a sliding paper screen in a wood frame and a wood lattice. The wall opposite the entrance is also a shoji. The right side wall has two openings, each one a tatami length long. One is the room’s alcove, along tatami four, where a flower arrangement and calligraphy scroll are displayed. One, along tatami five, is a closet that remains closed during the ceremony. The left wall has a one tatami length long shoji in the center that opens on the small tea preparation room. The tea preparation room’s left wall is a glass sliding door through which a garden is visible.
The room is nearly empty when we enter. We ring a gong on the left to announce to the tea ceremony master that we’ve arrived. On tatami two’s far half is a small stand for the tea container and cold water container. In tatami seven’s far left corner is the fire pit, where the water in the kettle is boiling over charcoal. Tatami eight is for the three guests to sit on and tatami three is for the teacher (ha ha). It is forbidden to step on the line between two tatami.
8:28 am • 30 April 2012
4.28.12 (Tea Ceremony: Sounds)
Sato-san told me: “There is no background music. So, please enjoy these sounds.”
The room is quiet during the ceremony. There is low conversation occasionally, word word word word. A few actions during preparation make a sound. The silk cloth is folded—you can hear the fingers drawing over it, folding it and pointing to the fold. Next the kettle lid is removed and, after the focus has been at the pitch and amplitude of fingers on silk, the boiling sound is a shock. Pulsing very loud. Realizing then that the boiling was audible before the lid was removed.
Water is gathered in the ladle and poured into the bowl. There is no pause in the pouring: it is a continuous lean dripping, repeating, high and gentle. I think it is the sound twin of the tea’s taste: bitter, close, quiet.
Birds twitter from the garden. They aren’t visible. One call is a hovering tone that repeats the way the water sounds and conversation sounds repeat—all together, alternating and overlapping.
There is a slow hum, high, the birds’ pitch range, that the teacher explains is charcoal smoke and the iron kettle.
The host doesn’t look at the guests so the last sip’s sound is a signal that the bowl is finished: a sharp, low inhale.
The teacher replaces the cold water container’s ceramic lid, maybe 10 in. in diameter, at it does not make a sound. It must contact the container only once. It’s right there to see and there’s no sound, it is like the inverse of the birds—what is that experience?
Often one sense is active and another inactive. My experience is that that feeling emphasizes what is available to the senses and what is not. I guess that’s a way to feel that’s been on my mind for a while—I think it’s the concrete and the abstract, reality and the imagination, metonymy and metaphor. Another example is fitting joint: you can see the seam where the pieces meet but, running your fingers over the seam, you can’t feel it. That can be sanding, tearing up the fibers into a smoothness.
8:54 am • 28 April 2012 • 1 note
4.18.12 (Word order)
One dream about communication is that word order be sensation order. I think I already wrote about Bishop’s poem “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance” in an earlier post, the lines that go, “…with outstretched arm and hand / points”. First the arm, then the hand, then the finger, pointing: you move down the arm as it stretches out, you experience the entire gesture in the order it happens.
Here’s an example in Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”: “It must move / As little as possible”. My favorite example is the end of “The Man on the Dump”, by Stevens: “Where was it one first heard of the truth? The the.” “The truth” is “The the”, then “The truth”.
It happens in names too. “Ground floor” is one example: first your imagination makes the ground and then it puts a floor on the ground, just like the building being built. “Coke bottle”: once the Coke is done, you’re left with the bottle. “Baseball bat”. “One another”. “Train compartment”. “Alphabet”, like “alpha”, “bet[a]”, then the missing “a” starts the alphabet. Some names are in the wrong order, like “magnolia blossom” and “reading glasses”. The word “elbow” is like crossing your elbows: first L shapes, then a bow.
11:08 pm • 17 April 2012 • 3 notes
4.14.12 (Techniques: Sharpening 4)
Here is photo of a sharpened chisel. It took nine hours to sharpen, an afternoon and two mornings.
I have a lot to learn still. The edge could describe a more refined line, I need to speed up, I need to stop creating a mistake every time I fix one, my stone still ended up unevenly worn—but the blade I made here is a big improvement.
There were two fixes. The first one is a position fix: now, my L.H. pointer and middle fingers hold the blade flush to the stone and my R.H. pointer finger and thumb grasp the blade’s sides and move it over the stone. In the old position my R.H. pointer finger also rested on the blade. Both my hands were pushing and holding at once, so, in addition to maintaining the blade’s flatness and evenness, I had to worry about keeping my two hands’ motions equal. The new position separates pushing (R.H.) and holding (L.H.), and that helps keep my hands from interfering with one another.
The position fix also means I can draw my R.H. pinky around the handle’s underside where the steel meets the wood. The pinky helps register the angle between bevel and stone and it’s also possible to adjust that angle by strengthening or loosening the pinky’s grip.
The second fix is a procedure fix. The old procedure was to flatten the bevel completely, then, having ended up with a slanty edge, grind the edge completely even. The problem was, evening the edge would ruin the bevel’s flatness and I’d have to repeat the first step, and then the second step, forever and ever until it was time to go home or until I got so frustrated that I just gave up (I don’t like to give up but I need my chisels to practice the actual joinery exercises, so I have to stop eventually). The new procedure is to keep an eye on the bevel and the edge and move back and forth more frequently between flattening and evening. Each fix hopefully fixes a smaller problem and causes a smaller problem and eventually I can stop fixing and start chiseling.
With these two technique changes I felt the bevel flatten and stay flat, flatter than ever before, and I knew that I could keep it that way. It was one of the best feelings I’ve had studying here so far. The sound, quiet and even on the stone. The blade changing direction and staying flush to the stone.
The sensation is a kind of quiet listening. It is sustaining a regularity with my whole arm, my shoulders, my elbows, my wrists, my hand, my fingers, and, at the same time, registering in those places any irregularities in the blade’s motion. One mystery about it is, there is no flatness anywhere. My joints are all tracing curves and the stone is gently cupped, never perfectly flat. The blade isn’t flat to begin with. My body isn’t flat anywhere. I’m not sure but it feels right now like flatness comes from consistency or sustaining. It comes from repeating the blade’s angle to the stone many times. Then there are more questions, like, how can a person know what a consistent angle is? Where could that knowledge possibly come from? How attuned am I to consistency and flatness? What if I ended up isolated in the wilderness with no tools? Could I get to flatness? Where did flatness come from? From measuring? How would you have the idea to make a flatness? So much about how I want to learn to imagine an idea about what “spirit” is or could be is involved in sharpening: thousands of curves, determined by the body, that compound and, by taking material away again and again, draw together into new and useful geometry.
2:23 am • 14 April 2012 • 1 note
4.13.12 (Techniques: Sharpening 3, two rabbits)
My teacher told me a helpful Japanese saying. I guess it basically goes, “Try to catch two rabbits and you’ll end up with none.” He told me the saying because I asked about what’s been giving me trouble recently and that question basically goes, “Sharpening, how much can your technique attend to at once time?”
For me right now, it feels like there are three dangers to pay attention to when sharpening. First, there’s keeping the bevel flat on the stone. That’s tricky because the blade changes directions, back and forth, as you draw it over the stone—changing directions is almost always an opportunity to change angles as your muscles change jobs; because your arms’ motions draw curves, not straight lines; because you have lots of joints that get involved in those motions and they all have different sizes and tasks and strengths; because the bevel might not start out flat. Second, there’s my personal body habit: the blade’s left side (holding the blade business end up and looking down at the top of the bevel) tends to get ground down faster than the right side. I end up with a slanty edge. A chisel needs a straight edge for clean and even corners. I am almost unable to correct problem number two while I am sharpening. The best I can hope for while I am sharpening is to rely on a dream that visualizing evenness will translate into a muscle fix. The problem is uneven pressure, I think, but I am not ready for a sure fix. I tried adding pressure to the side that grounds slower but it did not help. The edge stayed slanty and I broke the skin on my middle finger’s pad pressing too hard on the chisel’s right side edge. The good news is that I can correct problem number two after the fact. The after the fact fix is running the right side of the bevel, the slant’s upper side, where it’s less ground down, alone over the edge of the stone. The right side is being ground and the left side is riding on air—it’s a way to direct sharpening at the problem area only and flatten out the blade. The third problem is keeping the sharpening stone flat. As the chisel is sharpened dulled grit breaks off the stone’s surface and mixes with water and steel to form a slurry that speeds up sharpening. Breaking the dulled grit off, though, also wears the stone away where the chisel is moving. Where the blade meets the stone too often in the same place the stone will end up grooved or cupped. That’s a problem because when the stone’s cupped the angle the blade meets it at is constantly changing. Changes angles in the stone get transmitted to the blade and you end up with a wonky bevel. The best fix for problem number three is changing where on the stone sharpening is happening. In emergencies there is sandpaper over smooth, flat glass that you can run the stone over to flatten it again but that wastes grit on the stone.
So, there are the three places to focus: flat bevel, straight edge, cupped stone. They need three separate techniques: respectively, sensitivity to how body movements affect the bevel to stone angle, evenness of pressure and/or incorporating fixing after the fact, changing where the blade meets the stone so that the stone wears away evenly. Each of these three techniques takes concentration and marshaling all of them at once is what I’ve been having trouble with. When I manage a flat bevel, the edge is slanty. The after the fact fix for a slanty edge means that a tiny sliver of the bevel is meeting the stone and the smaller the surface area on the stone, the harder it is to feel and maintain the correct bevel angle: I almost always end up with a wonky bevel when I grind the edge flat. Then, it’s back to flattening the bevel, then it’s back to grinding the edge flat and so on and so on. Concentrating on either the bevel or the edge means that keeping the stone flat goes right out the window. Actually the stone itself almost goes right out the window because it gets real frustrating.
I guess the experience is not having the body and mind resolution match the tool resolution. The tools are responding to variations that I’m not even able to feel, let alone able to control. The idea that I have a “body habit” sharpening is like totally mysterious: where did it come from? How can I recognize it and not be able to fix it? It’s my body. Having your body be totally unresponsive to what you want from it, maybe that’s like mortality and all sensitivity, desire. It feels like being introduced to everything physical about myself, as a stranger, everything that dies and fails but also everything that allows me to interface with the world. James Wright calls his body “my poor brother my body” and I think I understand that better now.
8:03 pm • 13 April 2012 • 1 note