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separate ends

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.

7 Comments

  1. Patrick wrote:

    Longfellow is only partly right, or only right part of the time. I left home over 20 years ago, and when I go back and meet old friends, it’s as if we’re picking up a conversation that was briefly interrupted. We exist in 4 dimensions, not 3, and we are in continuity with our former selves–the trees I climbed in the back garden have grown some in 40 years, but I still know how the branches go, and where the handholds are. In some ways, my old friends are closer to me than the friends and neighbors I have here–nearer the roots, I guess, and nearer the heart. Your experiences make you more, not different. You will always have your family and your friends.

    How does that saying go: “Before I practised the Way, A cloud was just a cloud and a mountain was just a mountain. After I’d studied the Way, a cloud was no longer a cloud, a mountain was no longer a mountain. Now that I understand the Way, A cloud is again just a cloud, a mountain is just a mountain. “

    Tuesday, November 5, 2002 at 1:17 am | Permalink
  2. donny wrote:

    hope china isn’t twisting you too much. miss the states yet?

    btw, what’s the sentiment over there about this whole north korea business, both the nukes and the special economic zone on the border with china?

    Tuesday, November 5, 2002 at 5:34 am | Permalink
  3. Wilson Tai wrote:

    Hi, I think your friends will be doing the same thing in the same place when you return home. They most likely will be the same but you’ll be a lot different because of your experience in a different culture and society. You’ll still “love” them, too. It’s only one year, which seems a lot at your age – but you’ll find out sooner or later, one year is nothing or everything.

    Tuesday, November 5, 2002 at 5:37 am | Permalink
  4. Nico wrote:

    Half the people I knew, they all hated each other by the time we all graduated from Select. Half of them I couldn’t stand. And we could all admit that we’d most likely drop off of each other’s respective social radar.

    But for all my cynical “realism,” man, I’m really homesick. There was a life here that I thought I wanted to live, and then, when I wasn’t living it, I started feeling sorry for myself. Then I realized that stories fueled by shitty keg beer and in-jokes really aren’t that interesting to anyone who wasn’t there and drunk along with you. So, yeah. I miss home, and damn near everyone I was still talking to by the time I had to leave.

    Anyhoo, it’s time to stop talking about myself and come up with something useful to say–so I’ll say this. You’re changing, and with ten months to go, you aren’t done, not by a damn sight. But you don’t need to lose yourself halfway across the planet for a year to grow up. So you’re going to have to do more than readjust–you might end up havingto start over again.

    And if you don’t like what you see–hey, you can start the whole thing over again. You’ve got a whole planet.

    Tuesday, November 5, 2002 at 6:42 am | Permalink
  5. Anonymous wrote:

    What do you expect us to say to that?

    I’m sorry, Brendan, I haven’t come across any ficus trees recently. We’ve continued to plod on with our drab, quotidian lives, unaware that we were supposed to interact differently with you in Harbin than with those merely hundreds, rather than thousands, of miles away.

    I’m assuming that you can look at the IP address, so I’m leaving this unsigned–but for just one fraction of a second, consider the fact that there may be people whom you’ve hurt with this post.

    Thursday, November 7, 2002 at 2:06 am | Permalink
  6. jacky wrote:

    of course we will, bokane..
    =)

    Thursday, November 7, 2002 at 4:13 am | Permalink
  7. Vlad wrote:

    You’re still pretty fortunate. You have roots you can come back to. You have roots, period. Swearing mickle and heartfelt oaths to stay in touch was in no way a part of my week before graduation; I sometimes wonder how Masterman pretty much managed to pass me by.

    As for the trees I played on in my childhood, they are things I will quite likely never see again. Everytime someone talks about a friend they’ve had since childhood, I’m reminded of this fact and of many others.

    Friday, November 8, 2002 at 3:33 am | Permalink

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