Are There Signposts In Life?

August 26, 2013


cruise 049Some time ago I found an ornate, black stick on the stairwell of my building. It looked like one half of a pair of Geisha hair sticks. I kept it, intending to give it to someone. Months later I have taken up calligraphy and now my desk is full of nibs, penholders, and inks. Searching through a drawer I came across that Geisha hair stick, gathering dust at the back. I immediately recognized it for it is–a pen holder. And I was looking to buy myself another one! It made me wonder: was it just a random find? Or was this a sign from the Universe that I was pursuing what I was meant to do?

In Asian cultures people tend to believe in omens, signs and portents. They take comfort in this secret language which hints at order behind the chaos of the world. “Nonsense,” said Todd, “there is nothing rational behind it.” Todd fancies himself as a scientist because he studied chemistry in college, even though he is a pen-pusher for a big national bank. “The world is chaos and everything happens randomly, including life.”

One of my writing mentors, Wayson Choy absolutely believes is paying attention to signs. It is how his illustrious writing career got started. He was in a writing workshop taught by Carol Shields where the students were asked to pick a random piece of paper from a hat. Each chit had the name of a flower and the assignment was to write a short story using their serendipitous  flower. Wayson’s chit said peony. He was at a loss for a story with peony as its theme. Later that day he visited his aunt for tea. She handed him a gift, a jade peony that had once belong to his mother. In that instant the idea struck him he should write about his upbringing as the child of indentured Chinese labourers in 1930s Vancouver. The short story, titled “The Jade Peony,” so impressed Carol Shields that she submitted it for the UBC Alumni Chronicles. It has since been anthologized a dozen times and it spawned a full-length novel, The Jade Peony which won the Trillium Award for best fiction. “Be alert for signs,” he advised me with a knowing grin.

I appreciate Wayson’s ability to link seemingly unconnected events, it informs much of his writing, yet I struggled with it. Did this mean that whenever obstacles clutter my path, I am to read them as signs that I was pursuing the wrong thing? The writing life is fraught with rejections, some of them entirely random. I know from experience at a literary magazine that submissions are sometimes rejected wholesale because the reader was not in a good mood, perhaps she was hungover or just wanted to be somewhere else. If I or Wayson or any other writer were to give up because of these obstacles, then there would be no more writers left in the world. Sometimes obstacles are meant to be overcome, they teach us to improve ourselves. I believe in facing challenges by developing new character skills. I worry that reading signs can sometimes be an excuse for defeatism and weakness.

Whatever the logic or illogic behind signs, these facts are indisputable:

1) The  world is experienced ONLY through the medium of the mind. Take away the mind (as in sleep) and there is no world.

2) If the medium is chaotic (like that drunk editor), the information processed through it will be a confusing mess.

3) If the medium is uncluttered, then the information processed through it will be orderly and sensible.

So perhaps Todd and his kind, who experience the world as chaotic, do so only because their minds are confused and chaotic? (Todd’s personal life is as messy as his apartment). Then perhaps persons like Wayson who see omens and signs everywhere, do so because their minds are beginning to de-clutter? Hence for them the world has some purpose and order?

Perhaps. I don’t it is always clear-cut which obstacles are worth fighting, and which are signs that it is better to give up before you punish yourself further. While I don’t have all the answers, I find a clear mind does helps to distinguish when to fight and when to admit defeat.

Of course the whole issue of signs and portents leads to big questions about destiny versus free will. If signs are real than does that mean I am a mere puppet of the gods? If all is preordained than do I have any choice at all? I’ll save that question for next week’s post. Who would have thought a simple pen holder could raise such huge questions?

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