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?