Translation of the Chinese Poem “Drinking” # 5, by Tao Yuanming (a.k.a. Tao Qian, 365-427)

結廬在人境      Though I may dwell amongst the populous

throng,

而無車馬喧      By din of cart and horse I’m quite unvexed.

問君何能爾      How, you ask, do I maintain my calm?

心遠地自偏      “The wand’ring mind, no clamor may

molest.”

 

采菊東籬下      Unreal chrysanthemums bloom all about.

悠然見南山      In fancy, too, I spy Lu Mountain’s peak;

山氣日夕佳      Its mists are splendid, as the sun fades out.

飛鳥相與還      Then, with the flying birds, my mind

retreats.

 

此中有真意      For here is where the truest pleasure lies:

欲辨已忘言      Beyond my words, the world seen with

closed eyes.

My Millionth Meditation on the Rain, Part II: Sound

When the rain actually starts, extraneous sounds are banished, along with excessive light. A heavy downpour produces a dynamic variety of white noise, which, unlike mere static, fluctuates in intensity, with each pelting sheet; while lighter rain serenades us with the patter of individual drops. In either case, the effect is calming: it muffles external clamor, and it also harmonizes us to more natural rhythms.

I remember when I was a boy, if ever we were out driving in the rain, upon our return home, Dad would turn off the engine, and the wipers and radio would fall silent, too. Before running for the house, we would always sit for a moment, listening to the gently drumming rain on the roof. Nothing else was of any concern, during that precious interval.

Is the rain a mantra or drone that, in focusing our attention upon it, diverts us from our travails and other vexations? If so, I can imagine nothing as efficacious.

Poor Little Boy in New York City

One particularly bleak day in New York, I walked down Broadway to a stationery store. My plan for the weekend was to buy a purple pen and thus salvage a tiny part of my individuality.

As I completed the transaction at the counter, I noticed a young mother conducting her six year old son away from a set of shelves against the wall, where there were a number of stuffed animals on display. When they reached the counter, next to me on the right, the boy could not see over it. He looked up at the shopkeeper and pointed back at the stuffed animals.

‘Excuse me,’ he said in a fledgling, timorous voice. ‘How much is the big brown teddy bear?’

The proprietor, an Asian man in his fifties, didn’t answer. Perhaps he was only accustomed to fielding questions from adults, and he looked up, not very interestedly, at the boy’s mother, just to see if she endorsed his inquiry.

She ignored both her son’s voice and the man’s eyes, though, fiddling instead with her pocketbook.

‘Excuse me,’ the boy tried again. ‘How much is the big brown teddy bear? The big brown one.’

I checked awkwardly back and forth between the shopkeeper and the mother, waiting for one of them to attend to the boy.  Neither one did. The woman had found her wallet by then and was completing her purchase. She held her head unnaturally high, looking only at the man behind the register, determined never to direct even a single downward glance at her son, as though endeavoring to avoid eye contact with a panhandler. Her impatience and discomfort were becoming obvious; still she managed to keep pretending nobody was there. The boy continued to say ‘Excuse me….Excuse me,’ in his plaintive voice, until he finally gave it up. He looked down and around at nothing in particular, a resigned, hopeless look on his face, similar to the expression worn by King Kong before he falls off the Empire State Building.

By the time I made it to the door, I was crying. Halfway down the block, on the sidewalk, I almost fell down. I leaned over for support against the side of the building for a while, gasping and sobbing. I gave myself about five seconds. Then I pulled myself together and started walking up Broadway again.

My Millionth Meditation on the Rain, Part I: Light

Yuka says it’s because I have light-colored (green) eyes, but for whatever reason, I find glaring sunlight very oppressive, especially during the morning commute, with the sun just on the horizon and always in my face, slamming, boring into me. The southern haze is an all-subsuming intensity, light without color.

A cloudy sky can tame the sun’s tyranny, allowing all under its dominion to retain its natural shade. Perhaps it’s merely because the graininess of the air is removed as a factor (just as nighttime dispels the opaqueness of the atmosphere and permits us to see the heavens); perhaps it’s that everything we see is bathed, not drowned, in the light that remains; yet the world appears more clearly.

Though I’m no photographer, maybe all I’m talking about is the difference between an overexposed and a properly-exposed picture. Mellower light brings out subtlety, of hue and of texture. It makes our surroundings seem softer, more whole, and more interesting. I don’t think I’m exactly echoing Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows, for he loved darkness for its capacity to conceal, and I, for its capacity to reveal. A better example from art would be Closely Watched Trains, a dark, black and white film, whose visual elements seem almost glowing, almost touchable.

Overcast itself can be beautifully marbled and inlaid, converting the overexposed world to a vast hall with an ornate ceiling. Like a soft, familiar blanket, it provides cover and comfort.

This old painting, from my parents’ house, perhaps illustrates what I’m trying to say about the glowing richness of subdued light.

Mellow Sky Painting

It’s so hospitable and friendly (“lovely, dark, and deep”?). Harsh sunlight would wash it all away.