Being an early riser who go to bed too early, I feel somewhat inferior to night owls – they get to watch late-night shows in time, they can enjoy multi-course late dinner and still have ample time to digest it, they will be the first to learn about the earthquakes that are doomed to take place around midnights, and they seem more attuned to higher forms of creativity that strike only in darker hours … In other words, they are the ones who stay wakeful on top of the most interesting happenings on earth, while I have to sleep through the greater part of the party. But it’s all been prewired, there’s nothing I could do about it.
In the wee hours before dawn, I got up, brushed teeth, got myself a cup of tea, and listened to the house. A floorboard creaked somewhere. The refrigerator let out a dubious sigh. The houseplants swayed in obscure corners, in tune with the hiss and whoosh of air vents. And there’s some mimic buzzing in the ears, like the faint sound of a cricket or cicada from faraway meadows. The world was at its sleep stage of vivid dreaming, while I sat awake in the quiet, relishing the most coolheaded hours of my life. Hopped on to my lap, the imaginary cat curled its soft woolly body into a bundle of endearment and warmth, like marshmallow in honeyed cocoa.
If I go to the window and look out, I’d see a dove-grey sky with scattered glimmers of fading stars. Trees disperse their boughs and branches upward in the gloom, like dervishes positioning for prayers and swirls. The vague outlines of houses loom in silence, accommodating people’s fitful sleeps and colored fragments of dreams. Occasionally, a light can be seen from some window – that must be another early riser, sipping their first cup of morning brew.
Sometimes, I’d see a headlight wobbling up and down along the trail laid beyond the trees that fence the back of my house. It must be a runner still holding on to his New Year’s Resolution. Is he training for his first marathon? Or a triathlon even? Or simply endeavoring to cultivate a new routine? Exerting oneself in a biting cold before dawn can’t be all that pleasant, but the passerby on the trail is doing it. Training for a sub-2-hour marathon must be agonizing, but runners everywhere carry on to attempt at it. It seems to be a common human trait, that we have to engage in some sort of struggle always, mental or physical, toward a self-important goal, as long as we live on. The process of actualizing any idea is never pleasurable – the more glamorous an idea is, the more arduous the process is bound to be. At any point in life, we are either painstakingly striving for some goal, or consumed alive by guilt for not trying.
As if we never realized that everything is fundamentally futile, and all efforts are pathetic in essence. Like a hamster running a staged wheel, or a beetle rolling a ball of dung, we can be just as unsuspecting.
All this inner chafing, where will it lead to when we die? There are various theories on life after death. The most platonic one for my liking is the one suggesting that the entire universe is a fruit of one’s imagination, that once you die the universe will no longer exist. But the more common crops of imagination mostly revolve on three outlines – we may return to dust, we might go to heaven, or we could start another round of birth and death, in the endless cycles of samsara.
The notion of ‘dust to dust’ has a special appeal of simplicity. There is something down-to-earth about it, unadorned and uncontrived. Nothing is left to linger or cling further. What’s done is done. But it’s kind of sad and at a loose end, given that all the efforts you had ever made – small or big, lighthearted or heavy-minded, playful or solemn, would just amount to dirt in the end.
On the other hand, eternal life in heaven sounds a bit overmuch extravagant. At first glance it’s auspicious, but once you start envisioning a soul drifting gleefully in the sky, like one of those ‘smiley face’ fireworks discharged on the 4th of July, only in a more perpetual manner than mere transient of fire and smoke, you begin to wonder if it would be worth all the prayers beforehand. With no occasional blues as the backdrops, what would glee even mean? If there’s no longer need to strive for anything – no room for improvement whatsoever – why would eternal life be something desired and needed? It would be like a prolonged act of tickling, at every risk to become weary. By essence, a drift in heaven seems to me almost an equivalence to the nullity in dust, only a difference of polish and gloss … But what do I know for sure?
The notion of reincarnation conjures up mixed feelings. It’s comforting to know that all efforts are not going to get wasted – everything will accumulate and contribute to the wholesomeness of next life. Say, if you play on a musical instrument this lifetime, and keep fine-tuning your craft, it might increase a slim likelihood for you to be a Mozart or Beethoven in next rebirth. Meanwhile it’s daunting to anticipate though, that many more cycles of painstaking act are still lined up ahead, like an ultramarathon that never ends. Imagine how Robin Williams and Anthony Bourdain would feel, if right after they freed themselves from the burdens of lives, they only found themselves running smack into yet another round of living – probably with less skillful means this time, and absolutely no more artistic outlets. What an unthinkable cruelty. It makes you heartbroken just considering the possibility.
In the first crack of dawn on my deck, I saw the air teem with billions of dust specks – a cloudy day must be the forecast. The most curious question remains elusive to the unenlightened mind, while death could be a breath away, for anyone asleep or awake, young or old, ready or unprepared. Even if life seemingly goes on, it really goes nowhere but a dead end, if you view it from a long enough range. The only thing in life that will go on and might go somewhere, is nothing else but the plain old wonder called death …
Now the quiet hours are over, distractions of all sorts – external upheavals in parts but mostly inner noises, they overwhelm and prevail. This shifting, flickering mind is like some candle flame in an open doorway, susceptible to all winds from everywhere, never able to keep itself focused for long, on the one thing that matters.