Wednesday, August 24, 2005

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Every trip has a low point or, I suppose, we might miss the fun of all the high points. My low point came (as they usually do) in the middle of the night.
The train trip from Suzhou back to Jinan had promised to be excruciating. We were only able to procure ourselves hard seats on a moderately fast train that would land us in Jinan at about 1 am. But the train was late and the day got longer, and I was just plain worn out from the heat and the exercise and the constant bickering of my friends.
And so it came to pass that I found myself sitting in a hot compartment full of people who didn't speak the same language as me, and who further didn't share anything but the basic physical components with me. I realized then that I had never felt so disposable, so completely trivial--that I had never felt less human in my life. I couldn't shake the idea that these points are just not adding up to a worthwhile story, that I am telling all the wrong things and forgetting the right ones. I knew, then, that some day very soon the promise of future hugs is just not going to be enough to fill in the holes.
All I wanted was out of that stifling close country, out of its crowds and its noise and its unfamiliar traditions. I wanted to come home.

Fortunately, of course, trips also have their high point, a moment that cancels out those dark nights whimpering on trains.
The Lion Grove in Suzhou is a garden that was built in the 1300's by a monk who created it in memory of his mentor. It's made up of a labyrinth of limestone, a little maze and a miniature mountain right there in the middle of the city. Climbing through the labyrinth the rocks are often hard to hold on to, hard to stand on--they're shiny and smooth.
While I was in the process of tripping through the rocks I realized that the reason the rocks were all worn smooth is because people have been touching them in the same spots for almost 600 years. Emperors have hung onto them, poets have looked around those corners, beautiful women have cooled themselves by those pools. Millions and millions of everyone else have stood there and understood the same things I knew only then.
It's hard to realize in China just how much history has passed, to know that for 5,000 years people have been being people there. But it was standing there in the Lion Grove, sliding my palms over silky stones, that I felt myself connected to all of those other people. History has always felt like such a heavy weight to me, like it is pressing on the back of my eyeballs. Only it turns out that it's not history that I carry, it's the past--and looking actual history in the face, the past just isn't that important.

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