When I open AIM, there is a group of people on my Buddy List marked ’01.’
These are my high school classmates, and I set up this group during the period – about a week before graduation – when we went around swearing mickle and heartfelt oaths to stay in contact always, to be the most bestest friends forever and ever.
And as much as we meant it at the time, that stuff lasted for a month or two, in most cases. We’re busy people; we all have our own new, non-highschool-related lives now, and new friends, and any number of other reasons for not keeping in touch. But I keep that group there anyway, to remind me of what I was.
And whenever I see those names, and think about June 2001, it all seems so unimaginably long-ago and far-away that I can’t help but wonder if it was a dream. I thought the same thing last year, after a month or so of university: I had a few friends that I still chatted to on AIM, and then I had another 50 or so who had passed, without my knowing it, completely out of my consciousness.
There’s a set of couplets in the Chinese novel A Dream of Red Mensions that made me think of this when I read them. They occur at the beginning and the end, respectively, and highlight the development of Baoyu, the novel’s protagonist, who goes from being a somewhat degenerate, spoiled aristocrat to a Daoist illuminate.
And yet the poems are fundamentally the same, just as Baoyu himself is fundamentally the same person.
The first couplet is carved onto the gateway of the Void of Illusion, and reads:
TRUTH BECOMES FICTION WHEN THE FICTION’S TRUE;
REAL BECOMES UNREAL WHERE THE UNREAL IS REAL.
The second is carved on the gateway to the Paradise of Truth:
WHEN FICTION DEPARTS AND TRUTH ARRIVES, TRUTH DEFEATS FICTION;
ALTHOUGH THE UNREAL WAS ONCE REAL, THE REAL IS NEVER UNREAL.
And while I don’t claim to have had any kind of epiphany, or to be (as my professor in Chinese last year called me jokingly) Bodhisattva Brendan, I can say that when I think of myself, circa June 2001 – angry, bitter, lost in grief for a collegiate future that I felt myself to have been cheated out of – and myself now, I can’t help but feel that I have a bit more perspective on things, and that I have a lot more experience under my belt; that I am not the person I was, and never can be again, and that maybe this is not a bad thing.
But if I felt alienated from most of my friends after nothing more than a month in Beijing and a year at Temple, how much more so will after I return home? I’ve been here for almost 4 months – less than a third of my time here – and already – while there are some friends I can always talk to, and while I do like talking to everyone else as well – I feel like there are so many things that I’ve seen and done that people don’t understand, and can’t unless they do them themselves.
Another poet – Longfellow, this time, so you won’t be burdened by my awful translation – summed it up beautifully. In ‘The Fire of Drift-Wood,’ Longfellow writes about old friends who reunite in their old haunt, and the bittersweet feeling that their meeting produces:
We spake of many a vanished scene,
Of what we once had thought and said,
Of what had been, and might have been,
And who was changed, and who was dead;
And all that fills the hearts of friends,
When first they feel, with secret pain,
Their lives thenceforth have separate ends,
And never can be one again
The first slight swerving of the heart,
That words are powerless to express,
And leave it still unsaid in part,
Or say it in too great excess.