Free as a bird
By Lee Chang-kook
``Free as a bird" is a phrase I like to murmur to myself whenever I see a bird flying in the sky.
It is a simple and common expression, a poetic simile, and yet a very powerful one for me. It immediately brings a beautiful picture to me. It takes me high up into the sky although I do not have wings. It enables me to feel as if I could go wherever I wanted as the birds can. It even frees me momentarily from the cares and worries of the world. It gives me a vision of an ideal state or condition of life ― freedom and happiness.
I always yearned to be as free as a bird. It was a dream from my childhood through my youth to my old age. When I retired from teaching years ago, I thought that my long-awaited dream would be finally fulfilled, since I would surely be freed from the work, duty and obligation that had bound me fast and so long. With the freedom and the wisdom of life having accrued to my advanced age, I thought, I could live freely and happily hereafter like a bird in the sky.
Now I think I am free, but I have to admit with reluctance that I am not so happy. I am lonely. No one calls me. I don't feel like calling anybody either. My spirits are usually low. I grow weary, melancholic and restless day by day. My hair turns gray and every part of my body pains me. Nothing excites me much. Even books don't delight or console me as much as they did before. I continually reflect on my life, but most of my reflections are not comfortable ones. I constantly worry about something. From time to time I am afraid of death.
I feel confused and lost. What is wrong with me? What is wrong with my hard-earned freedom? What's the use of knowledge or wisdom of life acquired through reading so many good books? Who said that we become wiser by growing older? Why am I not as happy as I am free? Am I wrong in understanding or interpreting the phrase ``free as a bird?" Should I put all the complaints or blame on my advanced age?
In order to dispel my blues I usually go out to take a walk after lunch for about an hour along the stream that runs through the town where I live. When I moved to this suburban part of Seoul about 30 years ago, the stream was so deplorably polluted that not even a sign of life was there to be seen in it. It stank. It was a dead stream.
But now it has revived owing to the efforts from the city authorities concerned. It is alive with all sorts of life. The road for the walkers and bicycle riders along the stream is well paved and tended. I feel free and happy walking along this road, especially this time of the year when either edge of the stream is fringed with the full-grown white reeds dancing in the autumnal wind.
With the improvement of the water quality fish began to appear in the water. It was simply a miracle. At first it was a shoal of fry swimming together. They grew up rapidly day by day taking the shape of little fish. Now in some parts of the stream where the living conditions for the fish are better with its depth, food and shelter, a large number of carp the size of my hand are easily found. It is a thrill to watch them swim regally and majestically together. And, along with the fish, birds of some sorts also began to flock together by the stream. They are mostly wild ducks, wild doves and white herons.
Very fortunately and unexpectedly I have a good opportunity to watch these birds long from a short distance and, to my mild surprise, I realized that I was wrong in understanding the life of birds. Quite contrary to my vague notion of the birds, I find they are not free at all. They are simply so busy. They are always at work, constantly moving and engaged in and preoccupied with some activity ― getting food, eating, mating, breeding the young, flying up and settling down, pruning their feathers. They seem never to take any rest. They always watch out for some enemies or dangers. Even in the sky they are not free. Their flight is restricted or limited to a certain space within which they are only allowed to fly.
Watching the birds, I see myself, myself at my best when I was young, when I was at work, when I was chained to hard work, and therefore I was less free than now, but happier. Now I realize I am having a too long vacation in which I have grown lazy and idle in spite of myself. What I need is something that tires my body and mind. No more unnecessary thinking about the future or looking back to the times that have passed. No more dozing in my rocking chair like an old dog spending most of its time asleep in the sunshine.
I hasten my pace back home to sit before my word processor. I realize anew and afresh that I have not written, nay have not even attempted to write an essay for the past three or four months in the lethargy of freedom. I feel a new wave of energy surging up inside me after a long while. I feel quite excited already. I am ready to lock myself up in the rigor and agony of mental as well as physical concentration. This work of writing will free me from the cumbersome freedom that hinders my happiness, and consequently make me as free as a bird.