How To Move A Tree

Early one morning in a park in Taiwan I came across a man who had stopped off on his way home from the market to harness himself to a tree.   For a moment it looked as if he were trying to move the tree to another place, maybe drag it home for his front yard.   I had to laugh at the crazy thought.   That tree wasn’t going to budge.   The man was obviously engaged in some kind of exercise.    Most likely, he brought his harness out every morning to do the same practice.   I once read in a book of eastern philosophy that if you had a fish in a pond and you wanted it to get big and strong you put a stone in the middle of the pond.   The fish would swim around and around the stone trying to get to the other side.   No matter what side of the stone he was on, the other side always beckoned.   And so he kept swimming.   In time, he would be much bigger and stronger than a fish in a pond without a stone in the middle.  

It seems crazy to attempt the impossible, and yet it brings about a strength that can’t be gotten otherwise.   This man will never move the tree; but he will become very strong.   I may or may not become the writer I set out to be in my youth, but the effort has really changed my life and I feel it’s made me a better person.   The fish, no matter what side of the stone he gets to, never reaches the “other” side.   He’s always on the side he’s on.   The other side, though, by being there, eventually makes of him a superior fish.  

A man, a tree, a fish, a stone; a blank page, a writer — no matter how hard we try, there is that which we can never quite reach.   But then one day we find that somehow it has reached us — and recognize, with surprise and astonishment, the other side.

 

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What’s Forgotten

Walking alone through a Taipei park, I came across what looked to be a writer’s notebook wedged in the crotch of this tree.  I could only guess it had slipped out of the poet’s pocket without him noticing and someone picked it up from the path and stuck it in the tree so it wouldn’t get trampled and ruined.  Would the writer remember to come back to this place to look?  I didn’t even think to steal a look at someone’s private words but took this photo and e-mailed it to an American poet I knew in Taipei who used the same kind of notebook.  He wrote back it wasn’t one of his.  I left for Taichung the following day. 

 

Late one evening many years ago I sat alone in my New York apartment to watch a movie I’d rented about the life of a great British writer.  Midway through the story the man said to his students a few words so filled with truth and beauty that they cut me to the quick.  I reached for the remoter, switched off the movie and sat there in the dark for a few sad moments.  For years I’d been waking up early every morning to write in my journal but to hear such profound words from the mouth of that great man made me realize I didn’t have it in me to be a writer.  I recognized how pitiful it was that I’d tried so hard at writing for so many years when I had no talent.  I couldn’t imagine what had ever made me think I could do it to begin with.  I got up and went to the bathroom; then came back and started the tape up again to watch the rest of the movie.  Afterwards I went right to bed.

 

In the morning I woke and went to my desk.  I wrote about the episode and my realization.  Then, as was my habit after the morning writing, I went back to read the entry I’d made on the same day the previous year.  Imagine my surprise to find I’d had an experience that day that had brought me to exactly the same insight the writer had expressed in the film — only in my journal entry I said it better. 

 

Should it come as any surprise that every single one of us has inside the same greatness?  Or that, like the notebook in the park, this so easily gets mislaid and then forgotten? When we are touched by the deep truth of a writer’s words, we recognize greatness.  It makes us feel small.  Because we’ve forgotten the greatness is our own.

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