Devotion and Paradox

On the way home from Aikido tonight I heard a story on As it Happens about Graham Short, an engraver in Birmingham (England, not Alabama) who engraved the phrase “Nothing is Impossible” on the edge of a razor blade. To put the size of this into perspective, a human hair is about 100 microns wide, and the sharp edge of a razor blade is about 20 microns wide. The phrase is only visible when viewed through a microscope. (There’s an image of the engraving here.)

The first thing that struck me was how similar this engraver is to the miniaturist in Stephen Millhauser’s short story, “In the Reign of Harad IV”. Both are intent on pushing the limits of their craft and go to extremes to do so. It seemed a little eerie to have reality match art so closely.

The second thing that struck me is the passion one would need to have the focus and dedication necessary for such an exacting pursuit. To do his engravings, Short straps his right arm down and works with a microscope (to see what he’s doing) and a stethoscope (to keep track of his heart so he can work in between heartbeats). He works between 10pm and 5:30am to avoid vibrations from traffic outside his workshop. To keep his resting heart rate as low as 30 beats per minute, he swims 5,000-10,000 meters a day, takes potassium and magnesium supplements, and does a series of breathing exercises before he begins work.

What’s interesting to me is how his work is dependent on both relaxation and tension. He needs to relax to keep his heartrate low, but he’s also learned that creating tension in his right arm helps to keep it still enough to do the intricate work he does. And of course, there’s the intensity of mind necessary to do the work, too.

This is something we talk about in Aikido, too. Two of the four principles of Aikido are “relax completely” and “extend ki (chi).” “Relax” is about releasing tension, and “extend ki” is about intensity and directing one’s energy. It’s seems like a paradox (or like something from Jedi training).

Paradoxical, too, is how I both crave the experience of Aikido and shy away from it. I love the calmness of mind I get from taking in a new move with my intellect and then relaxing and practicing to transfer that knowledge to my body. I love the trust that is necessary between me and my partner, trust both that she isn’t going to hurt me and that I’m not going to hurt her.

But still, every week I think, “Man, I just don’t want to go to Aikido tonight.” I think it’s intense and it’s intimate, both with someone else and with myself. Sometimes I just don’t feel like going that close, even (or especially) with myself. I’d rather update my Facebook status and blog about my dinner, then read a little and go to bed without journaling and after my husband’s already asleep.

I wonder how Graham Short sustains the intensity of his passion for his work? He refers to it as an addiction. I wonder whether he’s addicted to pushing the limits, or if he’s addicted to that all-consuming time in the workshop, with the quiet all around him, everything still, including the beating of his heart.

How does one come by that level of devotion? How does one face that intensity—and oneself—every night for hours and hours?

4 Replies to “Devotion and Paradox”

  1. Your article has made me think more about my addiction than anything else I’ve seen written about me. My aim has always been to push the limits of micro-engraving to levels never seen in the world before. But you are right, I am also addicted to the quiet and stillness of the night. Often, whilst sitting quietly in the still of the night, I worry whether I’m pushing my body too hard. I worry about dying while sitting alone. Strangely, what frightens me most is that nobody would know the actual time of my death.

    I work after midnight and I have come to love this time of the day. It is so peaceful. While engraving, I often look back at my life, in search of meaning and contributions. I think a lot about the people I’ve known throughout my life. I think about the regrets. I can easily forgive – and desperately want to be forgiven for so much. Very often I’ve accepted life’s closure whilst sitting, looking through my microscope. Many times I have come to terms with my eventual death because my heart-beat, although not weak, is almost flat-lining. Then I awake from this state when my senses have been dulled. I’m never really sure how long I have been in this meditative state.

    Every few weeks, I undertake a course of botox injections around my eyes. The muscles and nerves remain rigid for quite a while, then it wears off, and more injections are required. I take tablets during the night to help keep my pulse rate down. All of this is extreme, I know, but I can’t stop now. This obsession has taken over my life.

    Kind regards,

    Graham Short


    1. Mr Short,

      Thank you so much for your comment. I continue to find you and your work fascinating. You describe this kind of draw your work has for you, even as you fear it. Which, I suppose, is part of why you refer to it as your “addiction.” It’s a comfort to me that amid all of this, you derive some amount of peace and pleasure from the meditation in which you engage each night.

      I am so grateful that you’ve gotten something of value from my post and that you took the time to comment here.



      1. Hi again, you have certainly made me think deeply about what I am doing, and why I am going to such extremes. Purely because of you, I’ve now decided to read up on the basic principles of Aikido which aim to unify mind and body. I know I am very close to this in my work. I think it will help me a lot.

        Thanks again for making me aware. I really appreciate it.


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