Withdrawing

 

 

 

      He is already tired out…

      He doesn’t know since then, but he has been haunted by a strange or ineffable lethargy that renders him apathetic about everything and everybody, including his own life.

      Indeed, he is tired of having had to accumulate wealth like a petty money-making machine since his teenage years, tired of chasing something all the time while he is never sure if he actually needs it for himself or not, tired of dealing with stupid people hanging around him, tired of being forced to play games with smart fellows, especially those villains, psychopaths or sociopaths ready to jump for a deadly bite like rattlesnakes, tired of changing masks for different human situations, tired of saying something against his natural inclination, tired of telling lies for various reasons, tired of shooting all kinds of troubles for family and friends, tired of facing the consequences of those errors made by others, tired of having been a self-motivated village boy, an outstanding student, a promising young man, a popular ESL teacher, a capable college administrator, a diligent first generation immigrant starting from scratch, an efficient newspaper editor, a hardworking delivery driver, a talented and skillful translator, an enthusiastic stock promoter, a much-lauded independent tutor, a trustworthy ghost writer for university students, a widely published poetry scribbler, a conscientious part-time produce clerk, a reliable husband, a loving father, a devoted son, a self-abused human, an overdrawn and overacting character in his own melodrama, or God knows who else he has or has not been.

      So tired that for at least three hundred times before sleep at night, he has imagined himself leaving this world of red dust quietly, more or less like an African elephant too sick, too weak or too old to continue journeying with its herd, ready to set off all alone for a thick jungle, where he would find a suitable spot for a profound respite before dying without disturbing anything or anybody else.

      So tired that he no longer cares about the fact that close by or far away, unknown or celebrated, virtual or natural, there are still many more locales he may need to go, to visit, or to experience, with crowds of fellow travelers struggling to join in, or reluctant to drop out of, the journey, whereas there are fewer and fewer places where he could really return to, much less with someone, except perhaps his own shadow.

      Yes, the only part of his consciousness that still remains sharp, active and focused is the idea of departing, which is bubbling in his marrows at this very antlike moment.

      Yes, the time seems to have finally come for his departure, for which he is fully prepared now that he has won all he has been trying hard to gain, or whatever a good life can possibly offer to a human being on this planet, including a reasonably good health, an elegant and well-mannered wife, a decent mortgage free house located in a high-end neighborhood in one of the best places to live in the world, a quite handsome investment portfolio managed by two carefully-chosen financial advisors, a couple of sons each highly successful with his career, a doctorate extremely difficult for someone from a remote Chinese village to obtain, a solid name with an impressively long list of writing credits, and a half dozen women with whom he has had an intimate relationship since junior high school, among many other things all desirable for any man of his age.

      He has, that is to say, every reason to feel content with his life, and he actually is. However, despite all his earthly achievements, he is, in the heart of his soul, constantly bothered by the way he has become tired of living. Perhaps this is mainly because he has gradually lost his direction or purpose of life. Or because he has failed to find its true meaning after all. Were it not for the irresistible inertia of life as a natural force per se, he might well have killed himself.  

      In fact, he did do some private research and tried to find the surest and most decent way to end his life several winters ago but, alas, he realized that the only viable method is to use potassium cyanide, which he has no access to, while all other suicidal recipes are either too painful, too uncertain or too dramatic. For instance, jumping from a tall building does not necessarily guarantee death; sleeping pills are not always efficacious enough; and cutting one’s wrist is simply too bloody. Besides, he doesn’t want to make a scene of himself, even when he dies. For every reason, or no reason at all, he would prefer to follow the African elephant tradition.

      Naturally, for the past few years, he has nurtured a strong desire to run away from his home in Vancouver, as well as his life in the fast lane, which is always so overfilled with sound and fury, but where to go? Apparently, within the boundaries of Canada where he chose to live since more than thirty years ago, there is no place like an African jungle for the dying elephant. He often thinks of Tibet, yet with a deformed heart muscle he would experience more ischemia or chest discomfort than he could bear over there. He finds it appealing to go to Mt Zhong-nan near Xi’an and join tens of thousands of contemporary hermits scattering in the vast mountainous area, but he doesn’t like the idea of living alone in total isolation, nor can he really live on wild fruits or grass seeds only. After much deliberation, he decides to follow the advice of an ancient Chinese sage: the ‘lesser hermit’ lives in wild seclusion, whereas the ‘greater hermit’ does so amidst city dwellers.

      So, today is the perfect time to depart. Just fully recovered from his bad jet lag after flying home from Beijing to Vancouver, he feels like taking a long walk to somewhere, or nowhere. Also, the weather seems to be particularly accommodating. As snow begins to melt, the days of winter are numbered. Seeing the sunny sky from the window, he finds himself truly light-hearted for the first time after a whole week of gloomy-weather depression. As cars swish by along the ever busy Granville Street, he recalls that during his recent sojourn in his native place in central China, he paid off all his debts, emotional, social or honor-related, as he had done with all the bills, mortgages and insurance policies under his name. For instance, he treated a group of high school classmates, who were forced like him to labor together on a forest farm by the Yangtze River during the Cultural Revolution, to a rich dinner after forty two years of separation without knowing one another’s whereabouts. In particular, he met Hua at the gathering, and confessed to her that she was the very first girl he had ever had a crush on. With all the balances becoming zero, he feels no longer obliged in any conceivable or perceivable way. No longer in need of anyone or anything, no longer needed by anybody anywhere either, he is truly emancipated, inside out, from all shackles, once and for all.

       The time has come to close all his accounts in his home bank of life. Like any other normal day in Vancouver, there is no striking local news being reported; nothing noteworthy is taking place within the Chinese community; nobody is trying to get in touch with him and no emails or WeChat messages are waiting for his responses. While all is perfectly right with the world, his wife has gone to work at YVR, leaving enough cooked food for him for the whole day as a rule; his younger son has gone to his accounting firm for a long morning meeting. The neighborhood is quiet as usual, except for the house owner across the street, a mean and nasty single crone who is parking her little dumb black Honda again right in front of his gate. Having stretched himself to his heart’s content after a good nap, he turns around, picking up a pen, tearing a sheet of paper off from one of those stacks of writing paper as gifts from unknown realtors, and writing: Honey, I’m gone; no bothering to find me please.

      As if to celebrate his departure, the last leaf hanging on the lilac tree in his front yard paved with arrayed pine cones falls on him just when he steps out of his house. Sitting on his metal fence, a crow greets him with a loud caw. Somehow, he recognizes the creature as the one he flirted with in the dream he has just had during his nap, which looks as white as a summer cloud. He remembers feeding it with fog and frost until its feathers, its flesh, its calls and even its spirit all turned into white like winter washed. In this short but perplexing dream, he named the bird after Qu Yuan, for its wings would, he believes, never melt when it flies close to the sun, somewhat like Qu’s poetic fame, which never fades away even amidst the dark shadows of all the influencers on the Chinese soil.  

      As he walks closer to the crow, his inner eyes find that it has a quasi-white soul that used to dwell in the body of one of his closest ancestors, which may well have come down all the way just to tell him its little secret, the way he has escaped from darkness, as well as the fact that both its body and heart are filled with shadows cast by the truth about being a dissident, reminding him of that unwanted color as something ill-omened in his country of origin, on the other side of this world. For a moment, he wonders if there is also a crow hidden deep in his own heart, not necessarily blacker than his spirits, but much more so than his hair or eyes.

      With no specific destination in mind, he looks straight and attentively into the crow’s small but shiny eyes like two bosom friends engaged in silent communion with each other. Instead of continuing to sit there still or flying far away, Qu Yuan flaps its wings against the chilly afternoon air and jumps onto an approximating bough from the skeleton of an ash tree on the roadside, as if waiting there or inviting him to join its trip. Just before he approaches the tree, Qu Yuan flies to another bough about ten yards farther down the road, pausing again for him to catch up. After a few more repetitions, he realizes that Qu is leading him, consciously or otherwise, to the Buddhist monastery where he used to work once a week as a volunteer a few years ago.

       Aha, that’s the ideal place to go! He thinks aloud and then bows to Qu, with his palms pressed together, to show his gratitude for its wise guidance. In fact, for more times than he can recall, he has thought of going to live in a church or temple after retirement. Though never really a religious person, he has recently come to feel closer to Christianity in a spiritual sense as it upholds love as the supreme principle. In the words of a TicTok content provider known as Yuese Ruxi: if you believe in me, I will love you; even if you do not, I will still love you. But culturally he feels more affinity with Buddhism, not because both his father and grandma were devoted Buddhist followers, but because a Buddhist monastery offers a setting where he can speak his mother-tongue and eat like a true Chinese vegetarian. For him, Buddhism is not really religiously attractive, for in practice it is overly self-interested: I will bless you only if you have faith in me. However, taken as a living philosophy, Buddhism is definitely more agreeable to him.

       Back in the late summer of 2015, during his prolonged stay in Jingzhou, where his mother lives next door to his brother in an old spacious building designed for local bank leaders, he planned to spend at least two weeks in the Temple of Great Mercy located in the hilly suburb of Songzi, just a mile away from the little thatched cottage where he was born. After giving a red envelope containing three thousand yuan, he was quite shocked to see how disappointed the abbot looked. Knowing his father as an extremely dedicated and generous lay believer, the abbot as well as other registered monks had expected him to make a big cash contribution to the Temple but, contrary to their expectations, he did not intend to slap his own face to look fat, nor would he like to be pressured to do anything against his free will.  

      No matter what, to gain some field experience as a monastic practitioner, he took the tonsure and began to follow the rules of the Temple in the strictest sense of the word. Every morning, he got up at 4 o’clock, then prayed and chanted Buddhist sutras with other monks for two hours among the most aggressive mosquitos he had ever endured. After breakfast, he did exactly what his father had used to do there: sweeping the yards, mopping the floors and cleaning all the tangible surfaces with a dry cloth and long-handled duster. For him, to do all this was not merely a way to stay connected with his late father, but also to practice being a registered monk in a real temple. After an early supper and before the evening chanting session, he would spend nearly an hour walking alone in the orange orchard in front of the buildings.

      He had hoped to stay in the monastery until the end of his vacation, but on the seventh night, he felt a terrible pain in his back, which he later learned had resulted from the way he mopped the floors, a physical movement too strenuous for his vulnerable spine. Unable to get up even for the washroom the following morning, he had to call one of his cousins in Songzi to transport him directly to the treatment room in a hospital his mother had arranged beforehand. On leaving the temple, he thanked the abbot for allowing him to be a part of his monastery and reenact what his father had done every autumn before death. On his way back to Jingzhou, he decided that he would never become a real monk, not in the traditional sense of the term. As he had found it out, living a monk’s life was functioning like a clumsy robot repeating Buddhist prayers and sutras in a mechanical fashion every day. A life without any meaningful self-expression or spiritual communication was something unthinkable and unbearable. The only good memory he had about his monkish experience was the fried seeds of bitter melon he ate as a typical Temple dish for the first time. Of course, his solitary walks among orange trees at twilight, which reminded him of a dramatic presentation about Qu Yuan’s last days, were very delightful.

      He is still quite lost in his dreamlike memories about his own as well as his father’s monkish experience when he is awakened by a wave of loud caws. Looking up, he sees Richmond Chan Centre looming behind a row of tall luxuriant trees right across the street. After making a deep bow to the crows, whose exceptionally high intelligence often makes him think that they will be the ruler of next earthly civilization, he walks quickly towards the center but only to find that it had been converted into a free public market.