Clumsy is fine (下手でいい, heta de ii); clumsy is good (下手がいい, heta ga ii) — clumsy sums up the spirit of etegami (絵手紙, lit. “picture letter”), a Japanese folk art consisting of an impressionistic, naïve illustration, postcard-sized, accompanied by a brief message or phrase, drawing and text both alluding to the season or thoughts and feelings of the sender.
I was introduced to etegami by No. 2 son, when I visited him some years back, while he was working in Yamaguchi Prefecture. He’d been practising for half a year, and their teacher came all the way from Chiba, near Tokyo, once a month. The lessons, which took the whole afternoon, were capped by an evening meal that everyone pitched in to prepare. I was very impressed by No. 2 son’s results. The whole point to it, he said, is to make it as effortless as possible. My first attempts were not encouraging. My past sumie lessons hindered rather than helped. One of the women in his class, an architect, was also impressed with No. 2 son’s work. Hers, she told me, just didn’t gel — she was too impatient and her thoughts had been rather more on the meal to come.
The plums we’ve been buying from the Central Market in L’Ametlla over the past weeks have been so fresh, with the powdery bloom on them still intact, and so intensely coloured that after photographing each new batch for some days now, I thought it was time to renew my acquaintance with etegami with the plums as my subject.
Assured by the etegami credo that clumsy is fine, clumsy is good, I took out colours and brushes inherited from No. 2 son.These were my first results. They’re larger than standard etegami – and I hadn’t actually intended to send them off as letters. Not yet anyway. I’m just pleased to have my fingers touching paints and brushes again. It was good to rub the stick of sumi on its stone and enjoy the slow rising of its incense-like scent.
Unlike sumie which leaves me feeling slightly dissatisfied with my results, I find the spontaneity and light-heartedness of etegami liberating. I don’t have to have perfection. Etegami are in a sense like my regular grace journal posts. I dash one off when I’ve got something to share. Etegami are the graphic equivalent. Both have to be done at white heat –- when a thought or mood or feeling strikes – get it down. And finish it. No going back another day to edit. No deliberating about a word or phrase – if senior momentitis strikes and there is that one word I cannot recall — tough! I just have to make do. Getting the feeling or thought down is all.
With etegami, the brush is deliberately held at the very tip. Rather awkward but it releases my fingers and my mind and intentions from control. No doubt that is the whole point. I regard my subject and follow its contours with the brush tip, trying not to look at the resulting effect. If I do, then concentration is lost and that’s when I realize that I have been aiming at the endpoint – the goal. In other words, the entire subject. And the line that results is a contrived line, not a natural one. I find that the trick is to move the brush with my breath. It is like meditation. Correction: it is meditation.
And on the third attempt, left devoid of colour, the shapes of the mandarins are the closest to their natural selves. Perhaps because I let the brush move in cadence with my breathing without any striving. I put down my thoughts on the drawing thus: [Being] in the moment is the way. [Being] in the goal, lines go awry. Keep to the moment.
On this 220th day of my grace journal, I remind myself of things to be grateful for. There are a whole lot, but I’ll just share these few. First and foremost, I am grateful to enjoy continued good health, with all my senses intact. As I age, I become more aware of my body’s physical state and how much of what I had taken for granted 5 years ago or even last year cannot as effortlessly be done now. I am thankful too that I continue to be able to write and to be inspired by simple things that grace my days — the fruits and vegetables from the market, their colours, their tastes. The views and seaweed-laden scents of the sea. All the novelty that goes with a new setting, of being a stranger in this not-quite-so-but-still strange land. I am grateful for the friendliness and kindness of my new neighbours. I had not anticipated that I would be on a new adventure at this stage of my life, and for this unanticipated pleasure, I am thankful. That M and I are able to enjoy the pleasures of good, simple food grown and produced locally is one of the best aspects of this latest adventure. Above all, I am grateful to friends and readers who continue to follow my journal and encourage me with their kind and insightful comments. Thank you, thank you all!!