This morning is a time of quiet, happy anticipation over what lies ahead: the first meeting of a new group of kids who will form the “Write YOUR Story” team for Spring 2019! I only know two of the nine children enrolled, and as all teachers know, this moment before the names on the list take on the faces, voices and personalities of real people, is a thrilling time. You wonder who will be the silly, and who has a more serious turn of spirit, who will be a force of calm, which one will chat nonstop, and which one will remind you of still waters running deep. Of course, the same child can incarnate all those qualities, if you know them and see them long enough: we are all changeable creatures.
But the news was so awful today as most days; I almost felt numbed into sadness after reading the daily papers and weekly magazines we get here… Until something reminded me of my role, which is to inspire people, and pushed me to seek out a finer sort of sustenance. And so I returned to Mai-Mai Sze’s Tao of Painting for a refresher.
What Mai-Mai Sze reminded me is that the little group of writers will create a spirit, an esprit de corps, that is unlike any other. It will come from each of us and form a collective feeling. How that happens is a mystery to me. But I find it endlessly fascinating anyway and I know no-one like Mai-Mai Sze to guide such reflection. Here, then, are some of her key thoughts on the Ch’i:
“Ch’i is an elusive term, one whose meaning can be sensed without difficulty but which no simple definition can cover. … it has to be grasped through intuition.
Its significance is perhaps best suggested by its literal meaning of ‘breath,’ if one remembers the ancient concept of breath as soul and spirit.The Sanskrit prana, the Greek pneuma, and the Latin spiritus have the same import as ch’i, likewise ruah in Biblical Hebrew and the term nefesh, described by Zohar as the breath and substance of the Fourth Sphere, the world of physical existence. […]
The character ch’i is composed of ch’i (vapor) and mi (rice or grain). It is supposed to have meant originally the spirits distilled from rice or the vapor rising from the fermentation of rice or other grain. Ch’i (vapor) also stands for ‘clouds,’ and its old forms closely resemble bands or ribbons of clouds. […] the original form of the character was made up of three wavy strokes, indicating clouds or vapors. The three strokes, the shortest at the top, the longest at the bottom, suggest the form of an ascending spiral, the sign of circulation upward and One-ward. […]
Ch’i is manifest in men and things as breath and soul and spirit. In painting, Ch’i is both the creative resources of the painter and the essential vitality–spiritual, divine, and creative–that can be transmitted to a painting and perceived by the spectator. […]
That the meaning and importance of the concept did not essentially change may be seen in a passage from the XVIIIth-century painter Chang Kêng: ‘Ch’i yün may be expressed by ink, by brushwork, by an idea, or by absence of idea … It is something beyond the feeling of the brush and the effect of ink, because it is the moving power of Heaven, which is suddenly disclosed. But only those who are quiet can understand it.'”
–Mai-Mai Sze, The Tao of Painting pp. 52-55.
As you go about your day, stop for a second and witness life happening. In the short-term, you might consider the fact that you are still breathing, though you may have forgotten to do so. Secondly, look up! The winds are still creating swirling patterns of cloud and light, though you may rarely gaze upon them. Those are short-term examples of life going on. But what are you doing that is so important right now? Why not take a minute to consider the long-term implications of your time on this planet, too…
My work (self-imposed; I do it for fun!) is to meet with a group of young children and begin a new semester of “Write YOUR Story.” That is, my job is to inspire kids with patience and camaraderie (and a bit of toughness, to take criticism in stride) in order that we will be able to write a book together as a group. Then we’ll illustrate it, and finally, when all that is done, each child will write his or her own story. Their boundless energy and excitement may make it hard for them to sit still and listen, at first. Their nerves may make it hard for them to read aloud in smooth rhythms; they may stumble over the words, at first.
But I guarantee that sometime in the next fourteen weeks, an amazing thing will happen and only those who are present will witness it. (But you can make it happen too, wherever you are!) Even the youngest children witness it, every semester. It is creativity: the ch’i in its purest essence, bounding to life again… and once it is expressed, our lives will be changed forever more. We will feel and remember that joy; it will give us wings!