This past Monday evening, as the nationwide snowstorm reached metro Detroit, I watched the falling flakes intensify from the warmth of the cozy studio apartment where my wife and I live. In the bedroom, which doubles as our living room and triples as our office, I sat lounging on our bed. Through the double-awning, cast-iron window that opens up to the woods across the street, I was afforded a clear vantage point to the world outside as it steadily filled up with snow.
As I watched, my mind wandered to a favorite Chinese poem of mine, “River Snow” by Liu Zongyuan (柳宗元，江雪), a Tang Dynasty poet and scholar-official. Because it is so short, I thought I might as well attempt my own translation:
Of a thousand hills—all birds away have flown,
On ten thousand paths—of humans none are known.
In a lonely boat sits an old straw-garbed man,
In frigid river snow—he fishes all alone.
To me, the poem evokes imagery of quiet resilience and independence. I get the sense that the old fisherman possesses an uncanny mental fortitude—that he is content freezing his ass off in the snow on the cold river, with no need for emotional support, despite the fact that all other life has taken shelter.
Inspired by the old man, I readied myself to meet the coming snow with a spirit of self-reliance. However, the next morning brought, along with twelve inches of snow, two occurrences in quick succession that reminded me that self-reliance might not be the best model for facing harsh conditions.
First, an older man from our building who lives on the floor below helped me shovel out my wife’s car from the parking lot, where the plow truck had predictably boxed it in. He appeared in the parking lot, shovel in hand, just as I was looking rather perplexed about what to do. He offered me his god-sent tool and said, “We’ve all got to come together when things get bad like this!” After helping me, I told him my name, learned his, and thanked him. Rick then went on his merry way to assist another poor soul at the other end of the lot.
The second occurrence happened about twenty minutes later. My wife, who had insisted on keeping her blood donation appointment, called to say she was stuck in the parking lot entrance at the local Mormon church where the blood clinic was hosted. In order to drive out to meet her, I would first need to dig out my own car from our apartment parking lot. Before I could depart, though, she happily called to inform me that “a team of very cheerful young Latter Day Saints” had pushed her out, all wearing dress pants, some without coats, and one even clad in a short-sleeved dress shirt with a floral-print tie.
Relieved, I could only smile. Two providential instances had completely thwarted my self-resiliency and, I admit, it felt good to be helped. It had taken a snowstorm and a buried car for me to meet one of my neighbors, someone I regularly see but had never introduced myself to. My wife, likewise, benefited from the unforeseen kindness of willing strangers and was so thankful.
When the author of “River Snow,” Liu Zongyuan, wrote the poem in 805 A.D., he was living on the outer edges of China as a banished scholar-official. His fall from grace had come from supporting a failed reform movement. Alone in a strange land, without political prospects, and likely unable to even speak the local dialect to converse with people, his position was very similar to that of the man on the boat in the snow. It’s no wonder, then, with how successfully the poem captures the natural winter beauty and the man’s solitary, indomitable spirit, one also finds a sense of bitterness and isolation.
The poem is beautiful literature, but upon further reflection—especially in this wintry, pandemic moment we find ourselves in—it offers a depressing vision of life. I am confident that I do not want to be like the man in the boat, alone to face the howling winds and blustering snow. After a year of isolated life under the pandemic’s thick pall, I yearn to break free from independence and let go of my tendency toward self-reliance. I want to know my neighbors, to help and be helped by others, and to live in community. I hope that, someday soon, we can again venture out into the cold and snow of the river waters, together in one boat.