After the crab eyes, the fish eyes appear.

– Chinese saying about bubbles in boiling water

“Crab Eyes” is also a poem in Guide to Capturing a Plum Blossom, a 13th century book of 100 ink paintings and 100 accompanying poems by Sung Po-jen – the world’s oldest known art book. The book begins with the buds of early spring and ends with fruit plucked for the soup pot.

The buds in painting number 4 remind Sung of the small bubbles in boiling water that are called crab eyes. This leads him to imagine how the world must look through the eyes of a crab – the rough seas and unforeseeable dangers. He concludes that a crab would rather die in the wild, from any cause brought by the dawning sun (Lord of the East), than in a boiling pot.

scuttling across sands of rivers and seas
at home in the foulest wind and waves
preferring the Lord of the East
public death to the cauldron

Looking at the ink painting again, after you’ve read the poem, the painted image is transformed. You see not only the buds but also oval eyes nestled in sockets, and an idea that brings the two images together – life in an uncertain world. We live in hope, but are all at risk of the cauldron.

Translation by Red Pine (a.k.a. Bill Porter, 1995)

Photo: Karl Stull

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Life is a journey.

A google search of “is a journey, not a destination” yields 1.5 million results, mostly quotations about Life. The “life is a journey” metaphor is one of the oldest in literature, answering one of our oldest questions: Why are we here? The concept of travel helps us understand novelty and change, for it’s a wide world, and the traveler is not exactly the same person he was at the beginning of the journey.

The google results that are not about Life relate to subheadings of Life (such as Wisdom, Healing, and Sustainable Fashion). Most of these are of the “sex is not about orgasm” type. As often as Catholics used to say “It’s a mystery,” the new explainers say, “It’s a process.”

The following are journeys, not destinations:

PHILOSOPHY

Happiness, Peace, Success, Joy, Art, Education, Destiny

PRACTICAL SELF-HELP

Fitness, Nutrient management, Losing weight, Quitting smoking, Gut health, Yoga

EMO SELF-HELP

Recovery, Growth, Therapy, Creativity, Strength, Love, Trust, Home, Faith, Attachment in adoption, Stages of life: Birth, Childhood, Youth, Motherhood, Everyday Parenting, Retirement

BUSINESS MANAGEMENT

Innovation, Leadership, Diversity, Becoming culturally competent, Entrepreneurship, Communication, Team transformation, Agile transformation, Walking the talk, Total quality management, Digital transformation, Cyber security

AVOCATIONS

Food, Coffee, Tango, Photography, Writing

Some people work their entire adult lives thinking Retirement is the goal. Retirement is the beginning of another journey, leading to Death – yet another process, with stages, still not a destination.

Photo: Unknown

We are but a moment’s sunlight, fading in the grass

– “Get Together” by Chet Powers (1964)

This line from a quintessential song of the hippie movement has a biblical ring, echoing “All flesh is grass” (Isaiah 40:6), but is quite opposite to the pessimism of the prophet. Temporary as grass may be, the lyric sees a brightness and beauty that is worth reverencing.

“Dust in the Wind” (1977) by Kansas is more biblically bleak. All we are is dust in the wind? Weather in the Midwest is nobody’s idea of a good time.

Metaphors highlighting the limitedness of life form a long (and not very varied) tradition in literature. In English, the tradition includes the Venerable Bede’s comparison of life to the random flight of a swallow through one door of a jolly mead hall and out the other. For a short while, the bird is in a place of warmth and fellowship; then back it goes to the chaos of a stormy winter night (Ecclesiastical History of the English People, II.13; AD 731).

Of a feather but from the other side of the world is this musing by Su Tung-p’o, written in 1061:

Wanderings of a lifetime – what do they resemble?
A winging swan that touches down on snow-soaked mud.
In the mud by chance he leaves the print of his webs,
but the swan flies away: who knows to east or west?

Translation by Burton Watson, Selected Poems of Su Tung-p’o, 1994.

Photo: Karl Stull

Leavenworth is like “a giant mausoleum adrift in a sea of nothingness.”

– Inmate writing to his mother in 1929 (quoted in Pete Earley, The Hot House, 1992)

The Kansas tourism board most strenuously objects. Sea of nothingness? Those are the amber waves of grain out there, in a sea of plenty, which we sing about in “America the Beautiful.”

But the inmate’s metaphor is interesting for having two parts. The first part equates being in prison with being dead. The second part emphasizes how far removed the mausoleum is from the land of the living. “Far from where I want to be,” says Johnny Cash in “Folsom Prison.” Cash hears a passing train and imagines a fancy dining car in which people are “drinking coffee and smoking big cigars.” People in the land of the living “keep a-moving, and that’s what tortures me.”

In “1998,” a poem from Stone Hotel (2003), Raegan Butcher writes:

I used to sit and cry and hold a loaded gun up to my head,
but I chose a slower way of being dead.

Photo: Leavenworth Penitentiary/Wikipedia

Jesus was a sailor

Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water,

And he spent a long time watching from a lonely wooden tower.

And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him,

He said, “All men shall be sailors then, until the sea shall free them.”

–Leonard Cohen, “Suzanne”

The tower is the cross and also the mast of a ship. Jesus is like a sailor in the same way all of us are sailors — on a voyage full of peril and far from home.

(Posted on FB June 28, 2015)

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What is life?

Life is like an artichoke, bowl of cherries, cabaret, dream, echo, five blind men describing an elephant, game, highway, ink blot, journey, kaleidoscope, long house through which a sparrow flies during a winter storm, movie, ninja battle, onion, parade, qualifying examination, river, stage, tale told by an idiot, uphill climb, valley with a deathly shadow looming over, wheel, experiment, yarn snipped by scissors, zoo.

Zoo is almost not a metaphor, since the world IS a zoo without the steel bars and signage. So the bars and signage become the part worth noticing. Which side of the bars are you on today? What does your sign say?

(Posted on FB June 18, 2014)

People sometimes “lose their moral compass.”

Moral CompassA moral compass, like a navigational compass, tells you where you’re heading. Hence, life is a “journey,” and often you must choose your “way” without clear directions.

The “life is a journey” metaphor underlies a lot of literature and has led to the drawing of quite a few literal maps (you’ve seen maps of Middle Earth, Huck Finn’s Mississippi River, Kerouac’s cross-country road trip). This map from an 1813 edition of The Pilgrim’s Progress (thank you, Princeton University Library) shows a zigzag route from the Slough of Despond, past Village Morality, up the Hill of Difficulty, and through Vanity Fair to the Celestial City, which looks a bit like…Vegas?

pilgrims-progress-map

(Posted on FB June 16, 2013)