Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Entropy


I like a living space with contemporary and Spartan design but I know it will be difficult to keep such a place neat and tidy. My study room (formerly my daughters’ study room) is chaotic as there are stacks of books everywhere. A couple of weeks ago, there was a book sale and my family ended up buying more than a dozen books and they are now occupying space on my writing desk which was formerly my daughters’ writing desk when they were in school.

I have read about espresso book machine that print books on demand. How does it feel to walk into a book shop where you do not see books?  It is always a pleasure to meet book lovers as only book lovers know how it feels to hold a printed book and run their fingers over the pages as their eyes devour the writings.

During the recent book sale, I picked up the debut novel written by Will Wiles. Care of Wooden Floors is not a manual for caring of the wooden floors but a satire. As the description on the back cover aptly describes : ‘Care of Wooden Floors is about loneliness, friendship and the quest for, and struggle against, perfection. And it is , a little , about how to take care of wooden floors.

The  unnamed protagonist, a freelance copywriter from London has been asked by Oskar, an old university friend to housesit his nice and pristine flat which is located in an unspecified part of Eastern Europe. The story is narrated by the unnamed protagonist in first person’s voice. Oskar is a minimalist composer who has to be away in Los Angeles to deal with his divorce. Oskar is a “borderline obsessive- compulsive” and despite having left very specific instructions on numerous notes throughout the flat to instruct the narrator about how to care about his cats and the expensive French oak floors, the narrator spills red wine on the floor and in trying to salvage the damage, the result is disastrous. From the beginning, you could smell something catastrophic particularly after reading about Oskar’s four A 4 pages long of instructions, one of them being ‘DO NOT put any drinks on them without  a coaster’ and  If anything should spill, you MUST wipe it up AT ONCE!!! So that it does not stain the wood. Be VERY CAREFUL. But if there is an accident (!) then there is a book on the architecture shelf that might help you . CALL ME if something happens.’

On Day Two, the narrator discovers a wine stain.
I stopped. A drop of wine or two must have made their way to the base of the glass on one of my many refills. There was no coater beneath it. ( In my mind’s eye, Oskar winced. ) A 45- degree arc of read wine marked his precious floor, a livid surgical scar on pale fresh.’

The narrator immediately runs a dish cloth under the tap starts to  rub and scrubbing
 There was still a mark. The slightest, faintest curved, blush, hardly noticeable in the natural grain of the wood. A birthmark awaiting its final laser treatment. But now my eye was unstoppably drawn to it – as if was as large, as black, as inescapable as the sofa.’

Over a period of eight days, the narrator proves to be an unreliable house-sitter. On day five, one of Oskar’s cats has been killed by the piano lid that was left open when the narrator had forgotten to close the top of the piano after having it propped up. He recalled that he had disobeyed Oskar’s note “ Please do NOT play with the piano” and as he fiddled with piano keys, hit a key, the phone rang. The phone call was from Oskar and after he hanged up, he completely forgot about the piano.

The piano lid had dropped onto the cat, breaking its spine. So the piano had been open – I had left it open. The cat must have jumped up and dislodged the strut that held up the lid;may be it had stood on the edge, rubbing against the strut. The caricature drunk supporting himself on a lamp post . Slam. Had it been quick? There was no blood on the outside, no scratch marks. The body would have to be moved, I thought. I made a mental edit :I would have to move the body. It could hardly be left like this . But where?

The humour is wry and  dark. The writing is contemporary and stylish. Will Wiles writes about the scene after the protagonist spent a late night with Oskar’s colleague:
‘DAY FIVE
White noise. Indistinct sound, beneath hearing, the growl and whoosh of blood forcing through tight passages. A two-part beat, the slave-driver’s padded drumsticks rising and falling as an exhausted muscle trireme heaves across a treacle ocean. A heart, pumping hot, thick goo in place of blood. Cells striving and dying. The electricity of the brain whining like an insectocutor. A cascade of neural sparks, an ascending, crackling chain reaction, synapses firing. Sensation – the sensation of no sensation. Then, awareness.’

Sometimes we should leave a tiny oversight alone.  I find that the more we fuss about something and strive for perfection, it turns entropy. Care of Wooden Floors is about the absurd, a dark and funny story. It tells about how we lose sight of what should matter and what should not.



Thursday, June 16, 2016

Wabi-sabi


The randomness of fate spares none of us. All we can endeavour is not to make life more complicated than it is. The world is fragmented so are its inhabitants. As we carry on doing the things that we do in the hope that we have a good life, we experience happiness, sadness, boredom, excitement, anger, disappointments and anxiety. When we are confronted with conflicts and quandaries, we believe that we have to be true to ourselves when we make our decisions. To me, life is about continuing education and finding some kind of balance and synergy with the universe and there is no perfect recipe.

In their book entitled “The Path”,  Professor Michael Puett and Christine Gross- Loh discuss the work of the ancient Chinese philosophers and explain the wisdom imparted from the mid-first millennium B.C. thinkers such as  Confucius, Mencius, Laozi and Zhuangzi who make us rethink how  we think and what we have come to believe. The authors begin the book with chapters entitled  the Age of Complacency and the Age of Philosophy and discuss various Chinese philosophers under different headings : relationships, influence, vitality , spontaneity and humanity.

On Relationships, the authors discuss Confucius and As-if Rituals. Confucius taught that we can cultivate goodness through rituals and that we should concentrate on what we can do in the here and now to bring out the best in those around us. The authors explain that for Confucius, ancestor worship could better relationship between the deceased and the living that had been imperfect and fraught thus the as-if ritual was essential because of what it did for the people performing it. The ritual also changed the feelings of the living toward one another as family members gather to perform the ritual.

The authors write,
Of course , the ritual always ends. Family members walk out of the ritual space, and the moment they do, they are in the messy world again. Over time the fragile peace falls apart once more. Siblings squabble, cousins rebel, the father and son are still at odds with each other. That is why families returned to the ritual repeatedly. The fragile peace might crumble once they left the temple, but gradually, by doing the rituals again and again and re-creating these healthier connections, the improved relationships among the family members would begin to manifest more in daily life.’

The authors explain that “break” with reality is the key for allowing the participant to begin to work on their relationships. The authors make analogy to the as-if rituals that existed in European society where up to three centuries ago, social relations were still defined entirely by hereditary hierarchy. However  as markets began to develop in the cities, rituals develop between buyers and sellers as if they were equal hence the “please” and “thank you” exchange in market places where the participants could experience a semblance of equality.

 The authors write, ‘If we were always “true” to ourselves and behaved accordingly, we would be stuck in old behaviours, never forgiving, and limiting our potential to transform.’
Change doesn’t happen until people alter their behaviour, and they don’t alter their behavior unless they start with the small.’

Yet it is only once we conduct our lives with goodness that we gain a sense of when to employ rituals and how to alter them. This may sound circular, and it is. This very circularity is part of the profundity of his thought. There is no ethical or moral framework that transcends context and the complexity of human life. All we have is the messy world within which to work and better ourselves. These ordinary as-if rituals are the means by which we imagine new realities and over time construct new worlds. Our lives begin in the everyday and stay in the everyday. Only in the everyday can we begin to create truly great worlds.

On Decisions, the authors talk about Mencius ‘who would argue that the very things we believe to be true when we plan out our lives are also the things that, ironically, limit us.  How we live and make decisions comes down to whether we believe we live in a world that is coherent and stable or one that is – as Mencius taught –unpredictable and capricious.

Mencius believed, the world is fragmented, in perpetual disorder, and in need of constant work. And it is only when we understand that nothing is stable that we can make decisions and live our lives in the most expansive way.’

Mencius disagreed with Mozi on the belief that Heaven was a moral deity who laid out clear guidelines of right and wrong and humans would be rewarded if they did if not, they would be punished.
 Mencius found Mozi’s ideas would not result in a world of social harmony and universal caring. Instead , they would result in a near Pavlovian world where people had been conditioned to what they had to in order to gain rewards and avoid punishment. It would be a world , in fact ,in which people had been trained to think of their actions purely in terms of self- interest :What do I do to get what I want ?

Mencius believed that the world is not coherent but capricious nonetheless we all have the potential to be good . To Mencius, ‘what set good people apart from others was that they had not lost touch with their emotional side, instead, they held on to and assiduously cultivated their emotional responses. And that was how they knew the right thing to do –the right decision to make – in any situation.

It’s a  very different vision from asking grand questions such as “Who am I?” and “How should I plan out my life?” Instead, we work constantly to alter things at a small, daily level and if we’re successful, we can build tremendous communities around us in which people can flourish. And even then , we continue to work. Our work – of bettering oneself and others to produce a better world – is never over.’

In Mencius’ world, ming prevails. Ming has been translated variously as Heaven’s commands, fate, or destiny. But for Mencius, it was a term for the contingency of life : the events, good and bad, that happen outside our control. Ming explains that windfalls ( such as a job opening) and tragedies (such as a death) happen no matter what we have planned or intended.”

Mencius spoke of the heart-mind to guide us . We must learn to work with whatever befalls us. ‘As Mencius tells us, “ One who really understands his ming does not stand beneath a falling wall. One who dies after fulfilling his way has corrected his destiny.”’

On Influence, the authors refer to the recipe for influence in Chinese philosophical texts such as the Laozi, also known as the Dao de jing. It derives from appreciating the power of seeing weakness, understanding the pitfalls of differentiation, and seeing the world as interrelated. Rather than think that power comes from strength prevailing over strength, we can understand that true power comes from understanding the connections between disparate things, situations, and people. Laozi in Chinese simply means “old master”.  We don’t know when Laozi lived and there is debate over whether Laozi was the name of a real person. The Way is about seeing the world as interconnected.

The authors write,
For Laozi, the Way is the original, ineffable, undifferentiated state that precedes everything. It is :
a thing inchoate and complete,
born before Heaven and earth.
It is that from which everything in the cosmos emerges and to which everything in the cosmos returns.’

In  the chapter on Vitality : The Inward Training and Being like a Spirit, the authors write about how we can learn to refine our senses in order to see things clearly.
Music, poetry, art , and literature are composed of discrete elements such as words, notes, sounds, rhythms, and colours. The more we immerse ourselves in them, the more we understand how discrete things resonate with one another, just as qi resonates with qi. They represent how qi relates constantly to all of the other forms of qi around it – for better or for worse.’

In the chapter on spontaneity, the authors write about Zhuangzi and the famous story of the butterfly. ‘What if you were not merely a human being but were actually a butterfly dreaming you are a human being? What if we could transcend our humanity and know what it means to see the world from all perspectives, we could experience life more fully and spontaneously.’ According to the authors, for Zhuangzi, the Way was about embracing absolutely everything in its constant flux and transformation. ‘Zhuangzi referred to the terms yin and yang, or darkness and light, softness and hardness, weakness and strength. The Way , he argued , is a process of constant interactions between these two elements that seem to stand in opposition but actually complement each other.’

Grass grows, when it dies, it decomposes, and its  qi is channeled into other things. Worms and bugs in the grass are eaten by birds, which in turns are eaten by larger birds or animals. These larger beasts, too, die over time, decay, become part of the earth, and transform into soil, grass, and other elements. Everything slowly becomes everything else in a cycle of endless change and transformation.’

But don’t be mistaken, spontaneity for Zhuangzi isn’t about doing whatever we want whenever we want. The authors explain,
True spontaneity requires us to alter how we think and act in the world, to open ourselves up to endless flux and transformation all the time.’

Zhuangzi urge us to open ourselves up to the world, to the Muses in turn ‘to a river of creativity’. Zhuangzi’s trained spontaneity means thinking differently and shifting our perspectives and 'freeing ourselves of a conscious mind that is by definition restricted to a single self' as' our mind often gets in our way, causing us to battle against rather than flow with the Way.' 

On Humanity : the authors write about Xunzi who famously likened human nature to a crooked piece of wood, one that had to be straightened forcibly from the outside. Xunzi who lived about two hundred fifty years after Confucius synthesized the works of all the thinkers who came before him as he would likely  remind us ,’each of our personas is constructed. Even when we think we’re being natural and “real,” being like that is a choice, and thus it is a kind of artifice too.

The authors write,'Xunzi wanted us to harness the mind to improve upon our natural selves and our natural world and become the best human beings we can be.'

In ‘The Path’, Professor Michael and Dr Loh show how the teachings of the ancient Chinese philosophers can offer possibilities for thinking afresh about ourselves and about our future. In its foreword, the authors said, ‘none of these ideas are about ‘embracing yourself’ , ‘finding yourself,” or following a set of instructions to reach a clear goal  In fact, they are the very antithesis of that sort of thinking .’

 In a nutshell, the book tells us that the Chinese thinkers would be skeptical of the existence of a true self as they understood that we are multifaceted, messy selves and we form our personalities through everything we do and our interaction with things and others. We must be aware of our complexity and learn how to work with it through self- cultivation. The Path reminds us that we can achieve emotional stability and become better people by cultivating balance and alignment in our everyday ordinary living. In its last chapter entitled ‘ the Age of Possibility’, the authors write :

The process of building a better world never ends because our attempts to build better relationships are never finished. But as we learn how to better our relationships, we will learn how to alter situations and thereby create infinite numbers of new worlds. We will open ourselves up to the possibilities in these philosophical ideas that point the way to a good life.’

If the world is fragmented, then it gives us every opportunity to construct things anew. It begins with the smallest things in our daily lives, from which we change everything. If we begin there, then everything is up to us.’

The Path is a commendable read. clickhere
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