Watch The Bird Dance

by Dot

The best part about bird documentary for me, is watching the mating dance of a male bird.

That fervent little creature in his splendid attire, hoists his crest, puff up his chest, elongates his tail plumage. He sways a few steps left and then right, he jerks back and forth, he circles and then twirls … He dances to a love song in his head. He is as valiant as a bullfighter, as flamboyant as Michael Flatley in the Riverdance.

To perform the best dance of his lifetime, it takes arduous work just to set up the stage. Sometimes he has to meticulously polish up his scratchy makeshift of a little dance floor in the messy woods. Or he has to spend ages painstakingly weaving the elaborate structure of a magnificent nest, employing visual illusions when necessary. And he might even go as far as teaming with his rivals to perform group dance, just so to slightly increase the likelihood of attracting an audience. Not to mention the hours and hours of rehearsal he has to carry out every day, while awaiting the slight chance for a female to drop in and to show interest.

But the female bird, who holds all the cards in the avian world, puts on a rather practical attitude. She turns her back on him, proceeds with her own business, occasionally darts a shrewd look at him. Or she cranes her neck to scrutinize his behaviors, constantly shifting her perches so as to investigate from all angles. As if in her little brain, she’s calculating – how many extravagant eyespots there are on his feathers, how many glittering objects he has gathered in his bower, how many good genes he could pass on to her offspring …

I want to say to her, for God’s sake, stop the calculation, just watch the dance, be amazed by the pure beauty and marvelous creativity!

But I suspect birds are unlike human, they don’t use that much of their brain, they just follow their natural calling. The only one who think too much is me. I even project my own assumption and conception onto that unsuspecting little creature, trying to speculate and judge what is going on in her brain.

Why can’t I just watch the bird dance, single-mindedly be amazed by the beauty and creativity in it?

In a Zen koan, a fifty-year-old student says to his teacher, “I have been studying this subject of enlightenment all my life, but one thing I just don’t understand – it says even grass and trees will become enlightened. To me it seems incomprehensible.”

“Of what use is it to ponder how grass and trees become enlightened?” The master replies, “Do you ever attend to your own enlightenment?”

Now I have no ambition to realize, not even enlightenment to attain. I will just watch the birds following their natural calling.

Must Be The Hoe

by Dot

In the beginning of a season, there’s renewed interest getting astir in midair. Spring must be looming somewhere. I decided to go for a run, circling my finite trajectory of a small town.

The cherry trees alongside my path are deep into an apathetic existence, trademarked by winter. Yet somehow you can tell, beneath their bated breath they’ve been quietly embracing themselves for another round of transient blossoms, which might come with the spring, before everything recedes into a humdrum again – that would probably last for the rest of the time.

A few other people came out to stretch their legs too. Joggers in this season are self-absorbed, perspiring an air of quiet introspection. Squinting their eyes into narrow slits, typically they fixate on some invisible inner thoughts.

Somehow it reminds me of Google Plus, my favorite social media of a bygone era, a virtual playground for dreamers of all ages, full of beating hearts and throbbing pulses. Where almost everyone had in mind composing this great song of their own, or painting that masterpiece of all time. Writing a bestseller to appeal to the mass population, or contriving some esoteric philosophy to content a select few. Where you would see someone deep in the winter of his life still anticipating a life to truly begin, a grand mission of some sort to be accomplished, or an unconventional love story to come to fruition.

As unassuming as you might seem to be, the buzz is there, dormant underneath every surface. You could almost hear the whistle of an upcoming train getting started, gathering speed from the far end of an underground tunnel.

You direct your gaze far off into the distance, over the hazy blue mountain peaks; you feel something infill your chest to the brim – ah, those remote seashores, they are places you have yet to sightsee.

You look back on the crowded streets around, with people performing some mundane routine, with the merry little everyday life flowing by, you feel as if being stuck in the middle of a place desolate, a dead traffic light hanging overhead, time suspended in an infinity …

Once, I came across a website designed for people to post their life story in one sentence. Like cold-pressing a handful of olives into a mere drop of extra virgin oil, people condense the gist of their tale into a few words –

“She would have got more done, but she had cats.” A woman drafted her own epitaph this way.

“Found true love, married someone else.” Someone wrote his memoir in six words.

A comic summed up his show-biz career, “He started at the bottom; he aimed for the top; he ended up somewhere below in-between.”

Another person reflected on life with an open-ending question, “What am I so afraid of?”

As I remember it, there’s inner chafe in every case. So much was said in a single sentence, although everyone is basically saying the same thing – if they got to choose, they would start over and rewrite the story, taking it up a notch. The stark contrast between inner ideal and outer reality is a recurring theme in all stories. Turns out all people have been one person living the same life, only in disparate exterior forms and different time periods, while the intrinsic narrative is a same old story ever repeating.

What enables you to endure the everyday humdrum, is this unproven yet tenacious faith that the current situation must be provisional, merely a necessary means to some better end. The present moment is for practice only, just to get you ready for the best that is yet to come. Deep down you hold on to an idea – I am special; I deserve something better than what I have now; I am a rarer breed, one of a kind, destined to unfold into something interesting. If all you’ve been living so far is a life unexceptional, you feel as though you’ve never truly lived.

It’s a mystery how you got this groundless notion “I am special” in the first place. Occasionally, you take a look in the mirror, and all you see is something plain ordinary. Yet we feed on the self-charging idea “I am special,” like Everest climbers clutching at oxygen cylinder – life for sure would become invalid if the grip was ever slackened.

Every now and then, I try to remind myself of this Zen parable –

There was a farmer who’d spent his whole life plowing a field with a hoe. His hard work brought about some harvest, but the harvest always gave rise to further desire. He felt like being towed by an invisible hand, treading the same circle over and over again. One day, a Zen master walked by, happy and free. The farmer wanted to attain that kind of liberty, so he got rid of everything to follow the master.

The only thing he carefully stored away, is the hoe. After all, it’s a fine hoe. Throughout his whole life, he had been depending on the hoe for a livelihood.

So he became a diligent disciple of Zen. After many years in the pursuit of enlightenment, however, he still wasn’t happy. Then one day, he realized something – rushing back home he took out the hoe, and he threw it into a river. A mighty splash! Finally, he’s truly free.

This unsubdued desire to actualize oneself, this obscured yet never letup wish to be someone special – what is it? It must be the hoe.

Catch Me You Can

by Dot

(on March 20, 2020)

By nature I am a city dweller; I like crowded streets. As introverted as I am, I find crowded streets comforting – you can reap the benefits of togetherness without actually socializing. One of my favorite cities in China was Hong Kong, where the cliché “people mountain people sea” was originated, a perfect place for people watching.

To do that, you can take a tram, the old-fashioned two-story kind with no air-conditioning but wide-open windows. Make sure you have the front seat of the upper deck. If the seat is not available, wait for the next tram. With a paper-sack of roasted chestnuts in hand, you can spend a Sunday morning riding high up, overlooking the busiest streets, while the tram slowly staggering from one end of the Island to the other end.

There’re all kinds of business going on along both sides of the thoroughfare, and netlike bystreets extending from the main road into back alleys, as if a lifelong dream got sidetracked to every other direction.

People from all walks of life were on the streets. Real estate agents in suits on a Sunday, hurrying around to showcase tiny apartments. High-strung parents escorting sleepy kids to extracurricular activities. Construction or delivery workers streaming into Jockey Clubs to place their bets on a horse.

Career women shopping for high fashion to sharpen their competitive edges for corporate ladder climb. Middle-aged men queuing outside toy stores for limited edition of comic hero figures. Retirees on their way to attend direct sales seminar for newly discovered formula that cures all disease. And domestic helpers from Southeast Asia gathering around city squares to exchange tidbits and gossips …

Now I don’t have the proximity to crowded streets. Except for occasional dog walkers, no one goes outdoors in town. People mountain people sea are to be found online only.

It’s been 80 days since I started on WordPress for people watching. I thought blogging was dead but it is not yet. Plenty of people are still performing the act. There are poets, musicians, photographers, travelers, cartoonists, foodies, preachers, comedians, fashion designers, network developers, art collectors, dream weavers, animal lovers, spiritual gurus …

Everybody plays a character or two. You could be Snow White or Prince Charming, Cinderella or Unicorn, the Beauty or the Beast. Friends practice acupuncture or chiropractic on each other, to help reduce hidden stress or relieve that chronic pain. Every corner you turn, there is Don Quixote, who recalls the old saying you can be anything you want to be, and decides to start anew and live that dream.

A select few really dream big – a bestseller is in the making; a blockbuster will come on the heels; a Nobel Prize would not be something entirely unimaginable on the horizon … You are no longer just people on Hong Kong streets, going about their mundane courses running of the mill.

I heard someone at the height of his escapade say, “The best part of blogging is, when I die, my digital profile will live on. Is there a better way to achieve immortality?”

I was about to reply, “The minute you’re dead, instantly your website would look like your headstone.” Fortunately I got hold of myself. Sometimes the best we could do for someone, is to help them live in their dreams.

The notion of death comes up naturally, with coronavirus looming every minute in the news. Before this, death was at the far end of worries. Now watching people fighting over toilet papers, suddenly you realize we are animals facing imminent slaughter, fish gasping for air in the net, fugitives getting caught and thrown back into a primitive state of being. The sense of impermanence has never been so acute, although it feels somewhat surreal.

Despite all the dramas in the news, I haven’t actually done anything to prepare. All my stock is running low. The innate tendency to be a watcher makes me procrastinate about everything until it’s too late. Would it eventually cost my life?

As I contemplate the reality of my nonentity, the Chinese idiom story 滥竽充数 comes to mind –

Once upon a time, there was a king who enjoyed having a large group of musicians playing a wind instrument called Yu. And there was a guy named Nanguo who didn’t know how to play, but somehow he managed to have a position in the group. Every time the orchestra performed, Nanguo would put on an act, making believe he’s playing, without producing a real sound. After the king died, the prince inherited the throne. But the new king loved listening to solo. So Nanguo had to flee the palace overnight.

I can relate to him! Before coronavirus made its fame, life used to be like a group play. Where one could do all the empty talks without making a real sound. Where we put up endless flotillas of bubbles to create the illusion we’re game. Where you filled every moment with activities making believe you live a full life. It can be so convincing until death comes. You then suddenly feel like being washed ashore all alone to a foreign land. All things familiar and well invested would appear to be just irrelevant on that other shore. The hopes and dreams you hold on with such single-minded passion would be hot-air balloons deflated.

Once all the makeshift identities are stripped away at the time of death – the greatest judge of all time I am destined to face, how would I do the solo play, with no knowledge of who I truly am?  With or without coronavirus, there is no place on earth where death cannot catch me so unprepared.