Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Crossing Lines

Up sleepless a few nights back, I pulled a book by my friend Jonathan Chaves out of the bedside stack and read this translation of a poem by the Sung Dynasty poet Yang Wan-Li:

Crossing Jun-p'o Bridge

I started to walk over Jun-p'o Bridge,
wondering when I will reach Chiang-tung.
Suddenly I notice a marker in the middle of the bridge
and realize that half my foot is already there.

I have always loved boundaries and that odd feeling of accomplishment that comes from crossing a state or even a county line. It is a kind of game we humans play with ourselves: Draw an imaginary line across a piece of the world and live as if it were as real as the landscape. But nonetheless, I never tire of the idea that, with the first step you are one place, with the second you are someplace else entirely. In the poem cited above, a twelfth-century Chinese scholar-bureaucrat amuses himself with the same thought, showing that my observation is neither new nor original.

It brings to mind an old joke about a man in his late 90's who has lived all his life on what he thought was the Canadian side of the U.S./Canadian border. As the joke goes, a survey crew stops by and tells him that, with their new instruments, they have determined that he is actually an American citizen and ask how he feels about it all. The old man considers it for a moment and says he is greatly relieved, because he really didn't think he could survive another Canadian winter. I know; it is not that funny, but it's always been a favorite of mine and seems to capture exactly the oddness of our habit of drawing lines on maps.

A friend told me that once, at Four Corners New Mexico, starting at the point where the map lines came together, she danced through Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Arizona and back.

1 comment:

Trix said...

Har Har. I will take that as a good-natured Canadian and concede... but surely, we may have our winters, but there are other "storms" to weather...
I was given a book of poems by Li Ch'ing-chao, a 12th century poet and surely the earliest female poet I've ever read, and she spends much time travelling and moving, mainly to escape political situations and persecution, but I am struck not only by the drawing of lines but by the leavings that those lines define - usually who we are, and where we come from.