Wooden Kabuki

Human beings are kind of strange. I most recently thought this at a Bunraku puppet show that my mom and I went to see this week.

Bunraku is basically kabuki with puppets. In other words, we created wooden figures to emulate our own bodies, but it’s hard to make a Bunraku puppet do kabuki, maybe harder than it is for an actual person to do it. It takes three people to manipulate one puppet.

These black-clad people march the puppet around the stage and make it jump, dance, or weep. You know the people are moving the puppet, but it feels more like they are serving the puppet—not like enthralled minions but rather with love, as if they are lining their actions up with the puppet’s instead of the other way around.

Because the audience was unfamiliar with Bunraku, the puppeteers gave a demonstration of how they move the puppet together. The moves are not choreographed in advance. The two people moving the legs and the left arm follow the lead puppeteer according to subtle signs: the movement of his legs or the direction the puppet is looking. Sometimes. Other times they just have to be in tune enough to know his intentions.

Why do we do this? Why do we carve puppets and train for years to be able to move together as a whole to bring that puppet to life when we could just watch a human being do kabuki far more gracefully?

The show started with a plain puppet—no clothes, no face, just a three-dimensional outline of a human being—that came out and interacted with the audience, bowing and shaking hands. One man looked as if he wanted to treat the puppet with respect and act appropriately. One woman beamed with delight. Each person clearly interacted with the puppet, which displayed a definite personality.

Maybe this question is no different from asking why we write books or make movies or paint representations of our world on canvas. There must be thousands of answers. Perhaps one of them is that we are creators, and when we do these things, the spirit of the One in whose image and likeness we are made flows through us, through our work, and through those who shake hands with the puppets.

Blue Man Wow

You know how if someone asks you what a strawberry tastes like you can’t say because it only tastes like itself? The performance team Blue Man Group is equally unique.

After watching their show, I left the theater feeling anything was possible. So often we think that our creative ideas are impractical, uninteresting to others, or simply not that good. In the spirit of Bob Newhart’s tobacco sketch, here’s a possible description that Blue Man Group gave when first trying to sell their act:

“We’ll shave our heads and put solid blue makeup all over them. We’ll play drums covered with paint and put strange things in our mouths, chew them up, and spit them out. And it will be funny. Oh, and we won’t talk.”

They may have bankrolled the first few shows themselves.

I once heard a talk by a psychologist who explained how, because of the way our brains work, we can’t picture something we haven’t built any neural pathways for. After saying the word “apple” and asking everyone in the room to get a mental picture of it, she flashed up a slide showing a red apple, a green apple, and the current Apple logo and asked how many people had pictured each one. A third to half of the room raised their hands for the Apple logo. She pointed out that in 1980, that result wasn’t possible because the current apple logo didn’t exist.

Yet that’s what we do when we create—we picture things that have never been before. They might take flight from past events and experiences—certainly apples preceded Apple—or other people’s creations, but that doesn’t mean they’re not new. And they can transform the way we see things, even change what our language means.

As someone who sometimes doubts her own ability to change, I find that tremendously exciting, and I’m grateful to Blue Man Group for the brilliant reminder and for the laughs.

In keeping with the National Poetry Month theme, here is a poem by the fourteenth-century Sufi master Hafiz that I think speaks to the same topic.

We Have Not Come to Take Prisoners
By Hafiz

We have not come here to take prisoners
But to surrender ever more deeply
To freedom and joy.

We have not come into this exquisite world
To hold ourselves hostage from love.

Run my dear,
From anything
That may not strengthen
Your precious budding wings.

Run like hell my dear,
From anyone likely
To put a sharp knife
Into the sacred, tender vision
Of your beautiful heart.

We have a duty to befriend
Those aspects of obedience
That stand outside of our house
And shout to our reason
“O please, O please,
Come out and play.”

For we have not come here to take prisoners
Or to confine our wondrous spirits,

But to experience ever and ever more deeply
Our divine courage, freedom, and

From The Gift, translated by Daniel Ladinsky

Bring on the Beauty

I just received in the mail my first in a long time ridiculously expensive relative to my income bracket purchase, perhaps the first ever that is not a bicycle. It’s way too nerdy and grown up of an item for such an event, but I’ve been staring at my new “upcycled wooden desk trays,” vintage distressed French country style, and feeling really happy ever since I opened the package. Perhaps nothing I’ve bought in my life has come with so many adjectives attached.

wooden desk trays labeled "in" and "out" with scrabble tiles
Upcycled wooden desk trays from Vintage Chichibean on Etsy

Let me express my appreciation for the word “upcycled.” I am generally not a fan of creating words unless you can do it as well as Roald Dahl, but upcycled is a brilliant marketing word, appealing to people’s vanity and environmental consciousness all at once.

I admire not only the description but also the physical presence of my desk trays. I like the size and shape of them, the heft, the way they’re cleverly slotted together. I like the unevenness of the paint and the yellow-green color that is more attractive than yellow-green has any business being.

The way buying new stuff can make us happy used to worry me. I have a complicated relationship with the physical, which I suspect I share with many Americans. On one hand, we are deluged with marketing telling us that our appearance matters more than anything else, and on the other, we hold onto our Puritan forebearers’ attitude that physical things are not particularly worthy or holy and possibly downright sinful.

But we are physical beings, and we are drawn to and enlivened by beauty of various types, many of which we experience through our senses. Few would argue that a painting by Rembrandt or Monet is shallow because its beauty is physical.

I’m not saying I’m going to sprinkle holy water on my desk trays (that would be blessed vintage distressed French country style), but I welcome them both for the enjoyment they’re already bringing me and for the reminder that beauty comes in many forms, and we need them all.