A friend of mine asked me why a poem by the Chinese poet Tu Fu is posted on the front of this site, so I thought perhaps others may be curious about that as well. And the answer is that I’ve loved this poem for many years… it’s long been one of my all-time favorites… and it stimulates a kind of merged physical, spiritual, intellectual response in me when I read it.
I consider this a Taoist poem, even though Tu Fu was a hardcore Confucianist at heart. It reflects his love of the Taoist ideal of being ‘one’ with life… of detaching from the constructs of society to embrace natural systems. But we know from various scholars that Tu Fu was committed to the order and morality taught by Confucius.
Did Tu Fu have a lot of internal conflict? I don’t know… he wasn’t a friend of mine. But I’m guessing he had the same type of internal conflict that’s common in many people. Me, for example.
For most of my life I have wanted to be that empty boat, floating, adrift. I still want to be that boat today. But like Tu Fu, I’m conflicted because I also seek a sense of order in my world. Taoism, which I quite by chance discovered in the library where I had recently begun my first year of college at the age of seventeen, accounts for this inescapable conflict by acknowledging that every coin has two sides.
We can’t have order without chaos. We can’t have light without darkness. Or freedom without restraint. It seems to me that in many of life’s situations, the restraint that reins in absolute free will takes the form of the social responsibility that Confucius taught. I believe that for most people, meaning those who do not walk at either edge of self-expression but rather exist somewhere in between, nearly every encounter we have with life requires a negotiation between freedom and restraint.
For me, the drifting boat in Tu Fu’s poem expresses my true nature… the tendency I’ve had my entire life to drift. I am a drifter… in my mind and in my relationship with the world. I’ve never sought many attachments because I’ve never felt particularly comfortable with them. And the attachments I have maintained have always felt fragile… people and places I experience with genuine love, but also with limitations I’ve struggled with but rarely overcome.
There are, of course, some attachments, like those with my children, that are always worth the effort needed to maintain, as joyous or painful as those attachments might be. After all, I helped them begin the work on their boats. But they are building them to sail their own oceans… to travel their own channels. I will, however, wave to them with love when our channels cross.
And then there’s my wife, Lisa. We were traveling down the same river when we met, and we’ve never left it. I doubt we ever will. She is not a drifter like me. She’s an adventurer. But, even though we have different ways of experiencing the world, our boats are made of the same wood. We love the same water. And I cherish her heartfelt reminders to always patch my leaks and never fear the rain.