The Art of Repetition


The Temple of Heaven Park in Beijing is full of people doing ordinary things like Tai Chi and Tibetan Dance. At least they seem ordinary to the people doing them. To me, it seems odd and beautiful that so many people are moving slowly, intentionally together in public. In the middle of the park, an old man practices calligraphy. Bright white hair peeks out from underneath his dark baseball hat. He wets a long paintbrush with water from a bucket, hunches over slightly, and writes on the pavement. Every few characters he pauses, referring to a poem he is holding in his left hand. The graceful symbols evaporate in just a few moments. He repeats the same lines over and over and over again. Slowly, mindfully. Dip, stroke, stroke, stroke, dip. His writing hand moves like he is conducting an orchestra in an underground pit. I look out across the expanse of pavement and see years of art, layers of words encased there. Whispering to us about life and death and love and heartache. The poem waits briefly to be discovered before it fades in the afternoon sun. If only I knew how to read Chinese. I suddenly mourn the fact that I do not yet know Chinese.

The fleetingness of the water, the holy detachment of his practice has something to teach me. I know it in my bones. I can’t take my eyes off him, dipping and stroking as if he had all the time in the world.

What a curious man. Does he come here often? Why this poem, this practice? Is it penance? Obsession? Devotion? Maybe it’s a love poem he’s sending out to the one he lost, repeated in sorrow and grief. Or maybe he simply believes in the art of repetition, the pure goodness of beauty and the fleeting nature of things.

I think of Daniel’s kisses– generous beyond counting– stroking my lips, cheeks, breasts, thighs over and over again. Gentle art, wet poetry, evaporating. Layers of love becoming part of my story, part of my body. Small moments of beauty encircling me on a journey.

I think of my yoga practice. I can count miles run or pounds lifted, but I push myself to return to my mat day after day simply to practice. To see what is mine to learn in a new moment, as a new self. There is nothing to count. Every day there is something simple and profound in the practice, a journey to seek truth in me and around me. Then, in corpse pose, I detach from it all and let it go. I walk out, sweat evaporating, glistening with newness.

There is no keeping score.

I think of hours spent poring over holy books, digging through translations, wading through concordances, seeking insight and light. Taking a moment, closing my eyes, swimming through my mind for the right word to capture a floating feeling of an idea. Luring the transcendent to become imminent for just a glimmering moment. Knowing only that it feels as though I’m walking in the right direction and that deep in the seeking is goodness. The rigor is intoxicating.

I watch the Chinese characters, hoping they stay a bit longer. I don’t want this moment to fade. But it does.

I am driven to use ink. To write my own words instead of basking in the wisdom of others. To make a mark, to be recognized for excellence. I want it to count. I want to count. I want to use permanent marker and oil paint. I want to be immortal, to stick, to go on.

I think we are sold the lie that we will get there. That there is a destination. We can earn it, we are entitled to it. There is no room there for quiet devotion, for vulnerable dependence, for committed practice, for the mundane. When we get there, we will plant a flag and then we will matter. We will conquer. We will be whole, happy. There, life will be easy. We will have arrived.

And practicing poetry in the park will not get us there.

I do dishes with Daniel every night. He washes. I dry. I watch the soap suds disappear into the embroidered rag and place the square, white dish back in the cupboard for tomorrow. I fold blue towels and green sheets. I chop sweet potatoes and dice garlic. I sit in traffic and stand in line. This is it. I am scared of monotony and mediocrity. Breakfast, lunch, laundry, dinner, bathe, repeat. What if it kills me?

I could go to the park today with a poem and a brush. I could choose to think, to stay alive, to treat others with compassion. I could practice being human in all its messiness and mortality. I could decide what has meaning. I could decide what to worship. I could choose to fold laundry and sip soup and kiss Daniel and find dignity in devotion and dependence. I could proclaim, “This is life.” I’m arriving every fleeting moment. Hidden in plain sight before me is something on fire with sacredness. There is poetry trapped on the pavement at my feet. There is art evaporating all around me. I am held in the holiness of life. I simply have to choose to pay attention.

I could learn Chinese.

(Thanks to Jamie Clearfield, for sharing the picture and idea with me)