Fascinating Tangrams

English: Napoleon Bonaparte, or Napoleon I of ...
Napoleon Bonaparte – alleged Tangram addict (Wikipedia)

I speculate that the only thing I have in common with Napoleon Bonaparte is a fascination for a Chinese puzzle called the “Tangram“. If I persist with this growing obsession, will I also become a charismatic leader and a brilliant tactician, or will I spiral into eccentric neuroses?

This game was imported from the Orient to Europe in the early 1800s and quickly became a craze across the continent – it was the “Angry Birds” of its time, I suppose. I see no reason to debunk the exotic myths around the origins of the Tangram. When I am manipulating the seven geometric shapes to produce a seemingly infinite array of shapes and figures, the feeling that I’m dabbling in an ancient secret like the i-Ching is a big part of the thrill. I am ever expectant that cracking some combination of shapes will unlock another dimension of geometric reality. Perhaps this explains why tipping the black tiles out onto a table or looking at a new problem gives me the same feeling of comfortable anticipation that I used to get from pulling a cigarette out of a packet.

To “play” the Tangram (literally known as the “seven boards of wisdom” in Chinese), you need a set of seven flat puzzle pieces that are cut from a square. They consist of five right-angled isosceles triangles (two large, two small and one medium) a trapezoid and a square. The “problems” to be solved come in the form of silhouetted shapes that the player must form using all the pieces. It is often more difficult than it looks. It becomes slightly easier after about the 100th puzzle has been solved, once the player has a feel for the ways in which the shapes can combine. However, it is still fiendishly challenging at times and there are “advanced” levels of problems that require no further upgrades, subscriptions or downloads – just the same seven pieces.

It is the very simplicity of  these seven basic shapes and the infinite complexity of the shapes they can create by recombination that first appealed to me and drew me in.

Tangram image Created from File:Tangram_base_N...
Asymmetrical Symmetry (Wikipedia)

As the infection of Tangramicitis spread through my neurons, I found it particularly satisfying that the conflict between my two inner aesthetes (the recalcitrant one that loves symmetry and the boisterous one that loves asymmetry) was amicably settled. Even completing a symmetrical outline with the shapes requires that they be placed asymmetrically in relation to each other – and this is where the mind needs to scuttle sideways and look for the less obvious answer.

Outlines of symmetrical shapes, that have asymmetrical solutions are just one of the types of Tangram problem, however. Two other types of problem have their own appeal.

Goose Tangram
I wouldn’t mess with this goose.

Firstly, the pieces can be combined to make the outlines of birds, animals, characters in various poses, faces in profile, household objects, boats, buildings … virtually anything. Sometimes the sense of character or dynamic movement that these outlines seem to have is surprising and particularly delightful.

Secondly, the intermediate player can tackle puzzles known as “paradoxes”. These are pairs or series of outlines that appear to have extra parts or bits missing or otherwise seem to have a larger or smaller surface area, in spite of being made using the same seven shapes.

The  Tangram has, not surprisingly, influenced architecture, furniture design, graphics and mathematics and I feel there is mysterious potential here for the writer in me, too – if only I could get to the nub of it. One of the many stories about the origins of the game tells of a man long ago called Tan who was carrying a beautiful ceramic tile as a gift to his emperor. According to the story, he tripped and dropped the tile, and it smashed into seven pieces. His dismay turned to joy as he picked them up and saw that they could be used to make beautiful shapes of birds in flight. Other creation myths suggest a connection between the Tangram and ancient Egypt. Maybe it was a gift from our ancient alien ancestors? Who knows …

two figure tangram
Two Figure Tangram (Steven W)

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have an appointment with a broken tile and have promised myself that I may solve one more problem before lights out.


The Wisdom of Things Found

Jetsam - Terschelling Beach.

Blame three things for this post and all that follow it in a similar vein.

Firstly, I have been following a series of posts on this | liminality where Barbara has been meditating on 26 seashells given to her by a friend and posting on each of them in turn; weaving something of her present state of mind and sense of place with the thoughts suggested to her by each seashell. The idea behind this project has not only intrigued but haunted me in an unexpected way. The sense that objects can prompt insights and fire the imagination resonates with my own quest to find the supernatural dimension in the everyday and commonplace.

The ability to anchor our inner self to the outer world through the power of symbolism is a huge part of what it means to be human.

Secondly, several months ago I went to a local bead shop to purchase an array of beads for our youth group to use in making their own “prayer bracelets”. I wanted them to explore the things they had learned on a weekend away, to find beads to symbolise those things and literally bind them on their wrists. When I told the sales-person of this she became very interested and very helpful in choosing beads. But, she also showed me a bracelet that she was wearing that was made purely from items that she had found. It is amazing what gets left lying around. Every component of the bracelet, therefore, had a mysterious history and was also associated with a time and a place and a moment in her life.

It was not long after this that I developed my own string of beads as a visual reminder of my values and priorities.

Thirdly and finally, David from “My Seed of Truth” contacted me recently about writing a piece of short fiction to string together some of the themes from his life that have lead to the “My Seed of Truth” project. It was while turning over a few ideas for a story last night that I hit upon an idea for another sequence of blog posts … the wisdom of Things Found.

I’m not alone in being a hoarder of Objets Trouves, from curiously shaped or coloured pebbles and bits of glass to twigs and pine cones and broken jewelry. My plan is to bring some of these found things to light and to see what they might have to say. Sometimes God speaks unexpectedly through the things we see, sometimes they prove to be the key that unlocks an insight that has waited for the right moment … who knows what might be discovered through the Wisdom of Things Found?


Verbatim – a blog of found poetry

this | liminality – Seashells, poetry and other good stuff

My Seed of Truth

Using Beads as Visual Reminders of Values and Priorities

I periodically attempt to realign my daily activities with my values, goals and priorities in life. Being someone who has “serial passions” (i.e. I get profoundly “into” things for weeks or months and then drop them for the next thing), I am constantly needing to check that the stuff I am spending my time on is developing in line with some sort of overarching sense of meaning.

This afternoon I got into this by imagining that I was the me I hope to be in two years time, getting some thoughts on paper to send back in a time machine to the me now. Some good stuff came up and I was able to identify five categories into which I could fit all the things that matter, and that I should be doing with my time.

At various points I have worn what I call a “matter band”. This is just any old elastic band that goes around my wrist but it reminds me, whenever I see it, to ask the question, “does what I am doing right now matter?”.

Today I took this one step further, my matter band now has matter beads on it, too. Beads have been used for thousands of years to focus the mind in prayer. Putting this together was a meditative and prayerful process of re-orientation. I’m also hoping it will nail down some of what I have been trying to develop in terms of a “values based” time management system.

We have an old box full of beads so had a rummage and I made myself a bracelet with a different bead symbolising each of the five broad areas I had identified.

"Matter Beads"

1. The Heart – Loving People: This one is to do with reaching out to others, being generous with my time and skills, listening, flowing  downwards and outwards. Something Rumi said comes to mind, “step out of your house like a shepherd.” Lots of activities fit into this from staying in touch with people by letter and phone, through preparing material for the people I am mentoring, to giving practical help or sitting and listening to others. I’d love to grow in these things but I’m repeatedly foiled by being absorbed in personal projects.

2. The Butterfly – Growing Creativity: Last year I felt I emerged from a chrysalis, leaving one job to give more time to creative stuff that had been brewing for a long time. Growing creatively for me now means investing in two or three very concrete and specific projects in the now. I know what they are and need to keep them to the fore. The sense that surrounds this butterfly phase is one of giving wings to dreams and embarking on what I might call in the future, “my life’s work”.

3. The Flower – Stewardship and Providing for Needs: This is about doing the things I need to do to make sure a roof stays over our heads and food on the table. It’s not just about putting time and effort into developing income streams and keeping to budgets but also about creatively looking at meeting our basic needs through things like growing vegetables. Cultivation of this area of life is mundane but rewarding, like gardening.

4. The Fish/Alpha Symbol – Simplifying: This covers a broad category that covers putting the house in order, getting rid of clutter, paring down, being organised, practicing the presence of laundry and dishes, hewing wood and carrying water. Making space to keep the main thing the main thing. This bead is also a reminder to let “ΙΧΘΥΣ” be the “α”.

Cloisonne beads
I'm a sucker for cloisonné

5. Cloissoné – HUGS: This is the only coloured bead, blue and green cloisonné symbolising quality time with loved ones, breathing, worshipping, being in nature, enjoying life.

The bracelet serves as a reminder to be present to what I am doing at any given moment and to be conscious of how and why it matters … and, I guess, I hope, I am less likely to fritter time away on inconsequential nonsense that has nothing to do with these five things.

One final thing I noticed was that I took a very long time over choosing the beads. I passed over some of the more obvious beads to symbolise certain things, because they didn’t feel right. For instance, I initially picked the butterfly for simplicity and a sense of “touching the world lightly” but the more I looked at it, the more I realised it needed to stand for the creative development, so it displaced the star which never made it into the final five beads because it just didn’t fit even though it was saying something to me about “shining a light.” What this indicates is that although I chose the beads to fit the categories I now have an odd feeling that the beads are shedding new light on those categories. Make sense? No … ok, well, welcome to my world … this is how I roll.

Surrounding ourselves with symbols, I think, has a similar effect to the hole behind the strings in the body of a guitar. Symbols take the sound of a single note and amplify it so that it sets all the harmonics in motion and deeply enriches that simple sound. This is one of the most precious things about being human; a butterfly is never just a butterfly, it’s a thousand metaphors and it dances like a needle, stitching Heaven and Earth together. And a butterfly lives alongside other sound-holes of meaning on my bracelet of things that matter.

Other posts a bit like this one:

How to be Brilliant at Anything

Five Wise Things I Learned from My Dog

Two Little Time Management Tips

Nailing Fantasy to the Real World

A storyteller’s imagination draws down the silk of another world and nails it to certain real places and objects such that every experience, awake or asleep, real or imagined begins to resonate with the echo of one another and boil with significance. (Me)

During his time in Durham, C.S. Lewis is said to have been enormously inspired by the landscape, the Cathedral, the geography of the place and wove it into many of his writings. In fact “That Hideous Strength” is said to be set around Durham University where Lewis delivered a series of lectures in 1943.

Narnia Lantern in Durham
The Narnia Lamp in Durham

In fact, a bit of local apocrypha attributes one of the lamps by Prebends Bridge to be the very one that inspired the lantern standing at the entrance to Narnia. Today seemed like a good day to go and look at it. There are several street lanterns in the immediate area and many have been replaced with more modern ones but I fancy this old one is near enough.

As I wrote in an earlier post, “The Monstrous Awakening of Imagination“, the geography of the real world becomes resonant with the hinterland of dreams and fantasy if we just let our imagination loose.

For instance, I have been quite fixated on a pair of trees that stand in a field near my house. To my surprise, they cropped up in a story (excerpted below):

… Coming to a pair of oaks by the side of the road, the only shade for several miles of track, Malachi turned the horse aside and we dismounted to rest. I had another opportunity to study my companion, as he had very few words, and I hoped to find something more from his face. We sat opposite each other with our backs against each of the trunks. He had tilted his head back and let the shadows of the leaves play on his closed eyelids. I got little more than a sense that he was a man who was capable of being completely absorbed in whatever the present moment had to give – right now that was some shade and a natural wooden seat among the roots of an oak.

“What do you see?” he asked me dreamily, dropping the question like a key into the well of my thoughts.

“I see two trees.”

“Go on …”

Two Trees
Two Trees

I looked carefully at the two oaks. The one at my back was shorter and slightly stunted. One half of it had been torn away by a storm at some point, leaving what seemed like a mortal wound from which the tree had never quite recovered. The other was much healthier with a good spread of branches and an upright trunk, but not without it’s own wounds, too.

“I see two trees that have grown together in the same ground and yet they are unlike each other in the shape they have taken. The one has thrived better than the other. One is twisted, the other straight. One provides a good shade and the other is living half the life it could.”

“And what do you see?” he asked again, the simple question that unlocks the secrets of every present moment.

I see a choice of two ways that I could grow. Both trees have their wounds, nobody escapes that, but here is one that has become stunted and weak and failed to become what it could have been – a great shade for travellers and a home for the birds. After their own fashion both ways of growing have achieved something; but your tree over there has the better part. I was growing this way, but I think I have the choice to grow the other way.”

“And so you shall.” he said pleasantly, opening his eyes again …