Sometimes I wonder – to learn about life, how much would I have to actually live it? I mean, could I get the gist of it by just reading other people’s stories? A Chinese phrase, 一葉知秋 (“you learn about autumn by watching a leaf fall“), seems to intimate certain legitimacy of my way with life.
I am not the adventurous type. By adventure, I mean ordinary things people do all the time. For instance, I never tried tattoo. Nor did I have my earlobes pierced. If one day I got it done, it would be an adventure for me.
I never made a spread-wing pose on a higher stand either, like the one we see in Titanic, where you balance on the front deck of a ship, with arms outstretched and eyes half closed, letting the wind mess up your hair and lift up the clothing, while calling out something like “I’m flying” … I never did that. If one day I partake in something similar to it, it would be an adventure for me.
Not that I don’t like romantic plot. I am just not the dramatic type. Even if in love, I would mostly remain as still as usual, pursing my heart petals into an inner smile, as if watching a bloom of orchid cactus in secret, feeling as wistful as an abalone in deep sea.
I can only be me, born with a birth bundle, destined to be a particular kind. Among the 10,000 things allegedly one should do in life, I probably would end up having very few done. There is Mt. Everest I never climb, or Death Valley I never camp in to stargaze, and there is Amazon Rainforest I never trek or hike. Not even have I ever climbed up to a treehouse, or learned how to ride a scooter in the back alley.
One thing strenuous I ever tried is a marathon I ran. During the six month of training, it felt as if I got a purpose in life, making progress toward a goal. The feeling was so compelling that I planned to run a marathon every year from then on, until I die of natural causes at age 123.
Then the race day came. It was such an uneventful day – I ran the marathon, finished it at a pace, received a ‘medal’ so embarrassingly bulky, and had sores and aches all over for the next two or three days. I didn’t experience any ‘runners high’, the sense of bliss you’re supposed to feel after a long run. All I got is a thought stuck in the mind – now what? What’s the point of all this?
Always there is a gap between the imagination beforehand and the experience afterward. The tourist attractions you visited turned out to be less scenic than expected. The writer we find admirable in their writing most likely will be less inspiring in person. The adventure I never took remains fascinating as long as I don’t take it.
Sometimes I feel there’s so much to do in life, that I would barely have enough time to do it. Other times I suspect there isn’t much I would miss out, even if I don’t do anything at all. At all times, being an adventurer in my mind is basically all I ever do.
But people strive to ‘have it all’; we have been this way throughout the long history of mankind. Now with coronavirus lurking in plain sight, people are getting even more unsettled and scratchy, generating an energy field ever so antsy, suggesting you better have it all fast, otherwise you might die a death worthless and futile.
Still I can’t take it too seriously. The innate tendency to be an observer rather than a partaker is a dominant force. I will learn about autumn by watching the leaf swirl. And the interesting story behind this idiom 南柯一夢 (“a fond dream on the south branch”), only propels the twirl –
Long ago a man named Fen was a drinker. One day he got drunk under an old pagoda tree. In the haze, he saw someone invite him into a carriage, taking him to the great Kingdom of Pagoda, a land of luxury and splendor.
In the Kingdom, the king appointed him as the governor of “South Branch State”, and let him marry his daughter, Princess of Golden Branch. Everything in Fen’s life went well, he had successful career, nice family and good reputation. In a blink years had passed.
One day, a neighboring country invaded the Kingdom of Pagoda. As a commander appointed by the king to fight the war, Fen met his waterloo. And his wife, the Princess of Golden Branch, got sick and died. Then his rivals defamed him in front of the king, so he was exiled from the country.
As soon as his carriage left the Kingdom, Fen found himself lying under a pagoda tree, awaking from a nap. Around the tree roots was a large ant hole, tunneling into a branch facing south, where the sun turned its color into golden.
So the whole thing was a hangover dream by an ant hole. All the purpose and meaning in life disappear as you wake up. Fen wrote a verse to sum it up –
“Take a nap in the breeze and dream a fond dream, you may call it the art of doing without doing.”