And on the other hand...

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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Flowering of Yin

It was strange that it took a stranger (a Facebook friend)  to remind me of something I usually am very aware of: yesterday's summer solstice, the zenith of yang about to give way to the gathering of yin.  I probably didn't notice the cresting and crashing of this wave because I've been fighting tooth and nail the past week, literally, overcoming an ill-fitting molar crown and an ingrown toenail.

No wonder classic torture involves drilling of teeth sans anesthetic and ripping out of nails.  I was seriously considering the idea of declawing myself, (something I would never do to the bloodthirsty Yellow Emperor who sometimes attacks me in tooth-and-nail kitty kung fu sparring).  And by far the most harrowing scene in Tom Hanks's Castaway is not the plane crash, but knocking out his own tooth with the help of an ice skate blade.  I wonder if he used it to trim his nails.  Eric Weiner says, in Man Seeks God, that he had trouble meditating in Kathmandu because he kept thinking of nail clippers and his possible lack of them. I can relate.

But all that is behind me now, the angry nail is filed, the disturbed tooth is settling,alleviating two of the most annoying and relentless kinds of pain.   So I can now better concentrate on my latest Chinese painting class assignments.  It is a blessing that my teacher returned for a session (even though she is going away again, but leaving us in the talented hands of a Chinese man who does landscape and portraits).

I was pleased to have produced for her a flower or two.  A couple of years ago she (the bird and flower painter teaching me the techniques of landscape painting) said, "Maybe in two years you paint a flower."  And over the past few months, I have been doing that.  My peonies, partly inspired by peonies I photographed a year ago in Beijing, passed muster, although I think the leaves leave something to be desired.

My Pretty Little Peony
Then Laoshi taught us another flower.  Another student had attempted a large flowering tree from a small reproduction, but it was hard to tell just what it was.  Was the profusion of yellow and red a representation of plum blossoms? Peach blossoms? Cherry blossoms?  Bougainvillea?

The note on the reproduction was "Ceiba pentandra" but no one knew what that was.  As I consulted my handy iPad, Laoshi started spontaneously painting a small group of the individual flowers for a sample for the student.

"It's kapok," I announced to the class. A tropical tree, which I always have pronounced, I think correctly, 'kay-pock', it is also known as silk cotton, with which I was familiar from life vests and flotation cushions in my boating childhood. The fluffy stuff from the kapok's seed pods is water resistant and buoyant and used to be the standard filling for such things. (Now a synthetic material is used.)
Like cotton from a tree
"Ah, kah-poke," all the Chinese speakers of the class said as they looked at the Google images of the trees and flowers.  All the while, my teacher was completing her xie yi interpretation of the kapok flowers. Without reference to any photo, she perfectly captured the cup-like blossoms of what I found, on searching, was the flower of the kapok tree.

Laoshi's Kapok Flower
No matter the pronunciation, never mind the images, we still had never seen the real flower.  Names are names and only point to the images, which only represent the real thing.

Kapok, the eponymous city flower of Panzhihua, Sichuan Province, China
"The name that can be named is not the eternal name"...the image that can be painted or photographed is not the eternal image.  I may never see a real kapok tree (although according to the Wikipedia entry there is at least one in Hawaii) but I "know" it now. (And through research, that it is the city flower of a prefecture-level city in southwest China.)  It existed before I knew its name, before I saw its picture.  The kapok's flowers will bloom and fall, its seed material will float away on the wind or stream, possibly saving the life of a bug or a sailor caught in a torrent of water. It doesn't know itself as kaypock or kahpoke, and certainly not Ceiba pentandra. (But perhaps panzhihua.)

Reference to verse 1 of the Dao De Jing is probably appropriate on this first day after the summer solstice, a moment that calls attention to the drama of the cycle of yang and yin, flowering and going to seed.


sybil law said...

I LOVE your peonies!! I actually like them more than Laoshi's kapok painting!

baroness radon said...

Oh...I have a fan!!! (Pun intended.) Mahalo plenty.

Brandon said...

That bit about "nail clippers and the possible lack of them" made me laugh. Interesting post; once again, I too missed the solstice, as is my custom.