Hello Friends

I’m writing to tell you that I am well.

I am on a journey of recovery and I feel confident that God will see me through.  These last few weeks, I had some unhappy times but it also brought me great joy and I’m so thankful for it.

Thank you for your attention and thank you for your understanding.  Communication is not easy for me right now.  And thank you for your prayers but know its hard to overstate the extended kindness i have experienced in the last months or more.  I am still here, Abbe is still here, Selai is still here, Rose is still here and even my mom is still here!

Please pray that I gain strength so I can return the favor to those who’ve supported me as I continue to heal.

My journey to healing is quite interesting.  I have this funky PT who is so keen to see me walk and move.  His favorite phrase is ‘Happy Days!’  He says this with a big grin and total abandon. He is just so positive, just what i need right now!

And then there is Abbe’s project.  She calls it the ‘wonky table’  I overhear Abbe, Karen and Jim fixing this wonky table beside my bed.  Their vocabulary is from another world.

My view from my bed is framed by the window and has endless activities throughout the day.  Some days I see the mailman trundling along in his mail truck, loaded with his boxes of mail for the community.  Other times I see the sunset thrown across Castro Valley as the day winds down and the evening begin to fall.  The afternoon sun is often filled with brilliant rays as if the day is making its last-ditch effort to paint the sky with light before nightfall.

As for my diet, I am now eating so much healthier, I suspect I will soon start to sprout some vegetables myself!  So if you come visit me and see some suspicious color, please let me know as the chef may have gone rogue!

I also get to hear some singing in the house.  Seems like Bach or Beethoven have started ‘de-composing’ as the notes that float around me are ‘out-of-this-world’

My first goal is to sit in a chair. Please continue to agree and pray with me that I reach my first goal soon.

I had a very good chat with my primary care physician and I felt it was very constructive in that he listened to me and my concerns and then helped me with referrals and suggestions.  So I am feeling positive for the future.

And I am so thankful that my sister Abbe and my mom are here.

Happy Juneteeeth

Juneteenth, to rpvide one more reminder, celebrates the day that the union army entered  Texas to announce the end of legal slavery in the United states. For some reason I always assoicate those days with the celebratory  music such Scott Joplin/s , such as the Maple Leaf Rag.And, of course I still mourn the recent loss of my old friend Joplin Julie

 

 

piano pieces, such as the alwaysassociate it with the famous Ragtime pianist  Scott Jopline, who

 

Even more I associate it with Joplin’s welll-known opera Treemonisha.   Click here to hear the llast few minutes if this opera.

 

I am still here, which is a miracle considering where I was just several wfeeks ago, after the brain bleed, much like a massive stroke, punched me into the weirdest malf-blind and kaleidoscopic state  that I would ever imagine Meanwhile, massive  prayer from so many friends friendsacross the world supported me my healing, and now the initial wound has in large part disappeared. It’s a miracle.

On the other hand, I’m not quite out of the woods yet. On Wednesday I be getting  a new new MRI scan that will reveal how much mealing may still be left to go.

 

 

Meanhile my home health carer Salai continues to help me on a daily basis with everything from .reading tounderstandiding smart phones pages  and other homey chores, she is reminding me how to pray and how to play I’m learning to place Jesus in the center of my life in ways that I haven’t practiced in  many years.

I’ve also discovered what a marvelous storyteller and pastor she is. I’ve been truly blessed by her friendship. Meanwhile I’m understanding the tremendous weight of my past, as wonderful as it is,  as a drag on whatever tasks God may give to me in the future. So right now, I’m in a process of deciding what to keep and what to move on from, as well as how to reconstruct my shattered body. .

Again, just to type out these fewthoughts is, for the present, still  sticky and difficult. This is why my written communication has been so incomplete.

 

Thus, many people did not receive my previous update which details the tremendous and sudden change in my lifeI It is still ill posted on my blog and available t read here.

One last thing, just because it’s interesting to me.  Kaiser keeps sending me various health care workers to work on me. Last week they sent a physical therapist whom, from his body language, immediately struck my body as threatening. He measured my blood pressure as too high to work with Normally my blood pressure is135  This time is was 185. fifty points higher. It took two days for it to come back down to normal. I was surprised at how emotional states can phyisically aixmanifest themselves so clearly

Happy May Day!

As I sit here by my computer in Castro Valley, a large sign hangs from the wall next to me. It contains only the word “Portland” written in six-inch high white letters on a dark brown back ground.  But sometimes it does not contain “Portland but “Artland” because that’s what I saw when I  first approached it this morning.  I knew there is no such place as “Artland,” exist so I looked again and then the letters blinked and changed in positions and now it said “Portland” again.

This sort of switcheroo  happens throughout my reading life these days. So, for example, I have a bottle of Losartan from which I must take one 50 mg tablet each day, so Selai tightly  circled the words “Losartan 50 mg tablet” in bright red ink to make the words easier for me to find. So that I would take the correct medicine.

Now whenever I first take the bottle off the shelf,  only  the words “50 mg” appear.  But I know that there must be more, so  in the next few seconds the rest of the letters in the red circle appear and adjust to accommodate the new number of letters that can fit inside.

Meanwhile my friends attempt to understand what has happened to me.  They may imagine that my vision is blurry.  They may imagine that my vision is dimmed.  They may imagine that I have a cataract or other lens defect but none of these are correct.  The real answer does not have anything to do with my eyes.

So how did I come to this state.  Somewhere in the night of Friday, April 7th, I became awake and I did not know why.  While pacing back and forth in the family room, I noticed the calendar on the wall, the numbers on the calendar were winking on and off.  And everything else was normal.  And I did not panic because I have had visual migraines which are harmless and have similar symptoms.  But the blinking and winking did not stop as they would for a visual migraine.  So I fetched my neighbor JoAnne and asked her to drive me to ER which she did.  It was probably around 4am on Saturday morning.

In the ER they gave me x-rays and CAT scans to determine what was wrong.

Eventually I saw Dr. Rock, who is not a Marvel’s comic character.  He told me that there was  bleeding in my brain and I should expect to lose part of my vision.  He held up his two index fingers to the left and right of my face.  He asked if I could see his fingers and I could.  Then he asked me to close one eye and look at one of his fingers and tell him if the other finger was moving.  When I looked to see if the other finger was moving, it was gone.  It was not only not moving, it was gone.  I had lost part of my visual field.

To be clear, only the finger was gone, nothing in the background.

I stayed in the ER for three days. It is one of the most miserable experiences I have ever had.  Don’t ever go to an ER unless there is no other choice.  I was under constant surveillance because they fear I might fall.  Every time I got out of bed, alarms rang.

Next I was transferred to the hospital which was not as crazy.  I continued to be monitored and so then on the 11th of April, in the morning, I was told I would be leaving in a few hours.  My sister, Abbey, delayed this action and I finally left on the 12th.  I was not allowed to leave the hospital unless I could prove I had 24hr care waiting for me in Castro Valley.  Fortunately, my sister’s best friend, Martha, had connections to an organization that provides Home Health Care.  One of their members, Selai, was dispatched to Castro Valley to help me on the day I was discharged, which was the 12th April.  She has been here ever since.

Selai herself tells it this way – I was in the middle of another job when I received a text an hour before I clocked off. I was told that I would be going to attend to another case which would be in Castro Valley.  I was also told that it was top priority and I was to start the very next day, which was Wednesday, April 12th.  I did. For the record, the urgency of this case was very unusual as it was marked top priority.

My health now is almost back to my normal out-of-shape condition, except for occasional bouts of dizziness and my vision.  And Selai has been helping me with both.  She is also working on my diet so that I eat healthy and well.  More critically, I cannot read or write without her help.  I expect in the future that my health will improve but it will take a while.  In the meantime, the most frustrating thing is my inability to read even though I can see all the letters eventually.  But imagine that all the sentences in the passage are like the ‘Losartan’ prescription that I mentioned above, jumping back and forth, appearing and disappearing all the time.

So I am gaining new appreciation for the condition of persons with dyslexia. But remember the letters are never blurry, they just wink on and off or change positions.  Meanwhile I am practicing my verbal communication skills.

I am extremely grateful to the friends who have stopped by to help me.  As well as texted messages and made calls on the phone.

Thank you and thank God that you were able to help me.

 

Happy Easter!

Health Report

I’m  not particularly suffering these days but my oncologist says that my cancer drugs are losing their efficacy. So what does that mean?  I certainly can’t be good, but tests and scans will hopefully clarify things in a positive light when I return to Portland in a couple weeks.

The squatter in my condominium

As for my condominium, after a year of non-payment of rent, ignoring all notices to evict, and trashing the place, the delinquent and squatting tenant finally left the hard way, by dying from a heart attack.
This was a sad situation all around. On the one hand, I lost tens of thousands of dollars to him, and many thousands of further losses as we’re refurbishing the place, rebuilding parts of it. But on the other hand, as my property manager pointed out, had our earlier efforts to evict him succeeded, he probably would have died on the cold street somewhere. In contrast, even with all my losses I still have a roof over my head. So as things worked out, he was able to live out his final year in a warm home. I just wish he hadn’t trashed the place so thoroughly. Cat and Dog pee, anyone? Poop in the closet? A carpet of dead flies under the window? Spending several thousand dollars to start cleaning it up.

Openness

Meanwhile, I had mentioned a few weeks ago that I would be pulling back on my intention to be more open, forthright and transparent in my personal relationships, mainly because (as my sister Eileen likes to put it) I kept getting my heart stomped on. Well, I’ve since discovered that once that path is taken, it develops a beautiful inertia of its own.  So I’ve been drawn back out again, to participate in life more thoroughly and to understand the world in more detail, and to experience a joy so deep that I would never have guessed it would be granted to me, especially given the circumstances.
And what strikes me most these days is how central the role of love is in everything we do, both personally, and as a society. Indeed, I hope that anyone who reads this finds themselves immersed in love, even if their heart gets stomped on from time to time.

Tutorials

I’ve been volunteering to tutor middle school kids after school this year ( mainly helping them with homework) but an unexpected student showed up — the pastor who organizes the tutorial program. This is a man who truly walks the walk, and it shows in the respect he’s earned from the kids. It’s natural that such a man would be interested in how education works to begin with, and that’s a subject which is practically my whole reason for existing.
His schedule is tight, but he does have to walk to his car after sessions, which is normally parked close to mine. And so we’ve talked about education, a little bit each day. on the way to the car. I suggested that he try one of my writing exercises (the one about Carlbob), because you only understand the lesson if you do it yourself. And I knew he was interested in writing because he’d already shown me part of a memoir about his childhood.
Well he apparently has a fictional dog who devours all homework, fictionally, day after day, so promised papers never materialized.
But then last Thursday almost no kids showed up for help because, after days of rain, the weather was stellar, the ark returned to land, and Friday was a holiday for Cesar Chavez, so no one had homework due until after Easter, over a week and a half away. So we tutors just talked among ourselves.

The power of writing your love

In particular, I continued my on-going conversation with the pastor. And with basically no students in the room, there was no escape from my invitation to try a writing exercise, because we could try it during the regular tutorial time.
He searched for something to write on – and searched and searched, eventually settling on a Chromebook, which he kept fiddling with to adjust and readjust it.  And all this task avoidance from a man who really did want to write. This is how the educational system has stymied even the writers among us. I grabbed a yellow pad, because teachers should always do their own assignments.
The task was called “Write a hundred words.” Write fast or slow, anything that comes to mind, but no stopping until a hundred words are written. If you honestly can’t think of what to write next, you just repeat the last word or phrase until something new appears in your mind.
Ready … set…. GO !!
I began writing about elementary school education, still an obsession, but then drifted to a specific activity – teacher for the day,” where students lead the class. It made me think that teachers are instructing ourselves out of a job, as the students need us less and less.  That’s and interesting topic!  At a hundred words I called halt. I didn’t share my draft, but verbally shared about it, and how it felt to write with such freedom.
Meanwhile, the pastor’s writing had taken off, almost literally — 171 words already! 171 words about fly fishing. Fly Fishing!!, which he only has time for about once a year, but he loves it. He gabbed on and on about it, cheerfully stating that it had never occurred to him that he might write about it, or that anybody else might read it. He also did not share his draft, but he verbally shared what was in it, and how the writing of it made him feel.  And with every lull in the conversation, (which included other adults in the room), he enthusiastically jumped in again with more fly fishing memories. He just couldn’t bear stopping himself.
So the “hundred words” exercise, among other things, can help you discover something you really love and really want to write about.
Back in the day, I taught writing through a writer’s workshop. Every kid was free to discover and write about whatever they cared about.  So, for example, one student wrote about mating hamsters, not a common topic in English textbooks. Some teachers marveled that I never had trouble getting my students to write. Actually, it could be hard to get them to stop, because they wrote about their joy, as I do now.
I reminded the pastor that real writers write about their loves, their passion. And so should he. And if he ceases to love fly fishing, he should change topics, because you need that love to give life to your writing and help structure what you want to say. He now intuitively understood that point,  deeply, from personal experience. He announced that he would try teaching this to his below-level tutorial students over the Easter break. And as he said this, my chest swelled with an intense and warm physical pleasure, because the most beautiful and meaningful moment for a teacher is when the student not only acquires the lesson, but takes it to the next level on their own, and no longer needs the teacher’s guidance.

Sunny

I’ve mentioned Sunny briefly over the years, but the truth is that we’ve shared so many adventures, and even more meals, in China. I’ve now known her for twenty-five years, making her my longest-known and dearest Chinese friend. And she also has an adorable daughter.  And despite the many changes happening in China, we keep in touch and I care for her.
Recently, Sunny has been traveling three days a week, checking on the suppliers for the company she works for. This schedule entails some boring down time. So she has decided to fill it by writing a blog, where she can write about the things she loves, or at least finds interesting, particularly those she comes across during these travels.
So Sunny has written the following post about toilet paper in China.
By way of background knowledge, I would add that until recently, toilet paper was never given out in public washrooms. If you wanted some, you brought your own. But in higher-scale shopping areas, you might find it available now, even for free.
If you have any response to her writing, let me know, and I can forward it to her.

What you give up in exchange for toilet paper.

Guess what this is?

Hint: it’s found near the entrance of a public restroom in a shopping mall in China.

It’s a machine that dispenses free sheets of toilet paper.

The restrooms in shopping malls are generally clean, in order to attract customers, so they have long provided clean toilet paper to the customers but in a more conventional way, as shown in the picture below.

But it’s too easy for people to abuse this convenience. Some people might take their entire weekly family usage of toilet paper from the dispenser, thus bankrupting the provider. So the providers have found multiple ways to discourage toilet paper overuse, such as posting stickers like the one pictured here, sponsored by Coca Cola, below the tissue container.

The sticker attempts to persuade customers to use less paper with slogans like “Sufficiency is better than plenty” (above the dolphin) and “We care.” (below it)

But the slogans failed to persuade, as indicated by the abandoned tissue container, now replaced by the hi-tech machine mounted on the opposite wall.

The picture of the sweeping man on this machine is actually a notice to the public that no one is using the toilet.  You communicate with the machine by scanning the QR code displayed on the upper left with your smart phone. Alternately, you can touch the brass-colored rectangle to its right and the machine will scan your face and identify you.
Who knows whether it’s only keeping track of the sheets used on this one occasion or if it’s adding up the total amount of toilet paper that you have collected nation-wide and thus ensuring that you don’t exceed your personal quota. A message on the screen in a small font states that “we do not upload any information collected.”

Once the machine wakens, it will deliver a long sheet of toilet paper – about a meter (three feet) in length.

This sort of face scanning has become alarmingly unavoidable in China. During the Covid pandemic, the photos taken by cameras on the street without a subject’s awareness could even be used to trace the contacts between people who might have the disease.

Frequent travelers are no stranger to how information is collected on them.  It used to be that facial recognition was collected by hand at the train stations and hotels. Now, with the second generation Chinese ID card (Shen Fen Zheng), at all stations, you board a train by scanning this ID card on a reader and then looking at the camera for a split second so the machine can compare your face against a nation-wide data base

The majority of passengers take this option instead of a QR code, which is mainly used by those who have not been able to obtain a second-generation ID card. Those passengers have to take the slow line for a manual check-in.

Occasionally the machine gets confused and requires assistance from nearby staff. But to me its operations are more certain than my iPhone, which seems to hesitate every time I change the mask that I’m wearing.

Compared to the scanners found in train stations, those found in hotels are more diverse or sophisticated. One even rated my face scan as 85% accurate compared to what’s on my ID card. Luckily I passed the test and so I had a roof over my head that night.

Still it’s a surprise to see that this facial scan technology has spread to the level of dispensing free toilet paper.

So take note – if you ever find yourself in China, it might help to put a package of tissue in your bag, or maybe it’s easier to purchase one from any convenience store upon arrival to your destination.

Elephants

I think I’ve forgotten the happy elephants lately. Here’s a clip now:

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

St. Patrick’s Day Greetings from America, home to the world’s largest population of Irishmen and the original source of the St. Patrick’s Day parade. (little-known facts.) I took this picture while  on my 1986 visit to Cork, the most authentically Irish part of  Ireland. Still, it’s the Lakes of Killarney.

St. Patrick’s day this year I’ll begin a month-long trip to California to expedite a host of errands, and to quench the loneliness that I generally feel up here. If any Californians would like to get together, I’ll be available. I might even practice my flute for the community band.

Julie Lipkin

And in the midst of America’s huge population, there is only one Julie Lipkin. Only one, I tell you — one of my oldest friends, as I’ve known her since 1970. And I think you might see where this is going. This month she enters hospice care near her home in Chicago, a victim of cancer.

Julie was one of my dorm-mates at German House, a small dorm on the Davis campus of the University of California, where we revered her as “everybody’s Jewish Mother,” a source of unlimited smiles and treats.

Julie dreamed of becoming a doctor, yet that goal eluded her . . . .  at first.  So she took the road less traveled, which led her to medical studies in Milan ( at right) and Perugia, Italy, followed by internships in America.  I was lucky enough to visit her in both of these Italian cities where she also introduced me to my Swiss friend Gerda. And then Julie spent several decades in Chicago working as a healer while caring for a family.

My main memories of Julie have to do with our time in college, or with later gatherings of former college friends.One of my strongest Julie memories has to do with her German House birthday. In a dorm with friendships that tight, the story of one is the story of all, through our customs and traditions. So I can start with Randa and Janet, and it’s still about Julie, too.

Birthday Kidnapping Adventures

One of German House’s many proud traditions was the Birthday Kidnapping. So, for example, on my birthday, several of the young men kidnapped  me by lifting me over their shoulders, and carrying me into a bathroom, which actually had a bath tub. They filled the tub with water and threw me in.  Just to show there were no hard feelings they brought me a cake . . . . . made of foam rubber. It did have chocolate icing. And yes, that is Julie in the picture, supervising my cutting the rubber cake in the dorm lounge.

The Abduction of Janet

Two of Julie’s best friends were Randa (at left) and Janet. Randa went to study for her junior year in southern France, in a little town called “Pau.” Naturally we all missed her dearly. But Janet had a birthday coming up.  Hm . . .  The college idiots began to plan.

For Janet’s birthday kidnapping, we would sweep her off to Esparto, a tiny one-horse town just west of Davis. It was nothing more than a bend in a road that snaked its way through hundreds of orchards, and was therefore the butt of every city-guy’s jokes. There wasn’t an obvious bathtub there, not even by the road, but there was a phone booth – the tall green boxy kind that Superman used for changing into his uniform.  And there was a bar.  You know, I think Janet would have preferred being kidnapped to a bar with a few friends .  Shirley Temples all around!!  But that was not the plan.

We hatched the plot, kidnapped Janet  (shown at left), plopped her into a grocery cart, which we wheeled over to our car, wrapped her in a mask, drove her to Esparto, eschewed the bar, and popped her into the phone booth. However, the phone booth door did not open out, but folded in. So the only way we could keep her from escaping was to post somebody in front of the door, somebody who took care that she couldn’t escape through his legs, which would put her in the bar where they should have corralled her in the first place.

Then we waited. At that very moment, Randa was supposed to call Janet in the phone booth from Pau, France. It would be a “collect” call because nobody knew how to pay for an international call from a phone in France.

Well, as you might have predicted, the college idiots hadn’t correctly calculated the time zone difference. Janet waited and waited. Of course, we later found out that you couldn’t accept a “collect” call in a public phone booth, anyway.

One of us had had the presence of mind to make a back-up plan, which was for Randa to call the dorm directly.  When she did, a new plan was designed – which was for Randa to call the dorm again in two hours.

But wait a minute – Janet and the guards were still in Esparto, and nobody had a cell phone to tell them to come back. Someone had neglected to invent them, after all. Then we finally remembered the bar.  We called them and asked them to go outside and tell the young  man guarding the phone booth to bring everybody home.  where at least the cake and cookies were ready for Randa’s call.  And Janet was there, too.

Taking Julie Hostage

Okay, having suffered such an embarrassing failure with Janet, we decided to go all out with a more straightforward plan for Julie. Julie’s Parents were the “cool” kind, the kind that we all loved. No generation gap there. So we called them up in Southern California, and got them to drive up to a mall in Sacramento that had a restaurant, (Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour) where they would preside over a long table in Farrell’s banquet room that would be filled with food and ice cream and college idiots to welcome their daughter to her new age.  Sacramento was the nearest city to Davis (and not a podunk town like Esparto)

Having made a plan, we put it into action. We kidnapped Julie. We wrapped a mask around her face, drove out to Sacramento, and  circled round and round inside the mall’s parking lot, while we described the fictional landscape that we were driving through – the roads across cliffs, the dangerous streams and cascades, the herds of cattle, etc. etc.  We often had to swerve to avoid these obstacles.

Finally we got bored of circling the parking lot, so we pulled up at the restaurant and helped Julie, who was still masked, out of the car. We held her upper arms so she couldn’t get away and began marching her inside. Now, Julie was a sensible girl who had grown tired of this stupidity long before the rest of us had.

So when we entered the restaurant, she exclaimed, in a very loud voice, “Rape!” “Rape!” And we were whispering in her ears, “No Julie, It’s us! It’s not what you think!” Progress through the restaurant was slow and our faces turned red, though I think Julie’s didn’t. Luckily, since it was an ice cream restaurant, yelling kids were everywhere, which somewhat masked Julie’s calls. We entered the banquet room. Finally, somebody thought to remove her mask, and once she saw her smiling parents, all was forgiven and forgotten amidst the tears and hugs.

That’s Julie above. See what makes UC Davis so great?

Happy Swede-Finns Day !!

                  Hello, everyone. It’s February 24  in Portland, Oregon, Swede-Finns Day, and I’m stuck indoors because there’s half a foot (or more) of snow on the ground outside (as well as on the roofs and bushes) and roads have been impassable all over the city.The largest snowfall in about 80 years. It’s not like this in California.

Yesterday’s outside temperature was  24 degrees Fahrenheit (-4.5 Celsius) for the  entire cloudy day.  Today is starting off clear and windy at 21F (or -6C)

My mother is still pulling through, though she sleeps an awful lot. I’m doing fine. Abbe’s doing better. Don’s good.

Before I wandered up to Portland, I stopped by Mark and Eileen’s place in San Leandro for Swedish pancakes, to be cooked by yours truly. Eileen, who always loves a challenge, has taken it upon herself to reconfigure me into a cook. She just might do it. Another  project  of hers is to get me to feel comfortable hugging people when I greet them or see them off, and to feel more comfortable smiling and laughing.  She’s the only one I know who can pull off all these modifications. That’s why I often characterize her friendship (and sisterhood) as indispensable

Take, for example, this photo, a “selfie” taken at Eileen and Mark’s place, on the night of the living pancakes. For the first time in several decades I not only smiled freely : -) but  I played around with my smile as well. It felt wonderful. Amicable, even. I’d almost forgotten what it was like. The last time I laughed so freely was in Tianjin thirty years ago, while I was taking part in a silly skit with several students, including my beloved Li Xiang, They all turned to face me, jumped and tackled me to the stage floor. That was not in the script! Yeah my face glowed with that same silly expression as in this photo. Thank you, Li Xiang, and thank you, Eileen.

Laughs, hugs, and revelations

My present shenanigans (hey, is that another Irish word?) are part of my grandiose plan to become more open and transparent, and authentic – to reveal the genuine self and the genuine history that has lain hidden (at least in large part) for so long and to use my newly unhidden self to explore new ways of connecting more positively and genuinely to other people  because it’s my genuine self that’s forging the connection.  So that photo is a milestone of sorts.  It represents not just silliness, but an expanded set of emotional and creative resources. Maybe my writing might improve, too!

Having now achieved the milestone of a silly laugh (with no help from John Cleese) It’s now time to reel in my newly-revealed authenticity back a bit even though I have forged some sounder relationships. But as I’ve learned the hard way, there’s a reason  why I kept my true self, and my true opinions, hidden (at least partially) for so long.  Sometimes such lessons can really sting. But I’ll be back. Despite some real setbacks, the rewards are too great. but I need to take a break.

Well, that was  a rather brief message this time. But of course I can fix that.

The First (Initiating) Emperor of Qín

Back in the late 1980’s, the state of California decided that in a few years, we’d all be teaching ancient history in sixth grade instead of the traditional Latin America and Canada that I had learned in sixth grade. I kept thinking that probably no California kid would ever again understand the significance of Ottawa or Teotihuacán.

In the interim, we teachers were given a choice:
a) keep teaching the old curriculum for awhile or
b) supply your own ancient history materials.

I decided to go with choice b.  And I quickly discovered that books for kids about ancient China simply didn’t exist in America back then. Not at all. At least, not in English. Heck, there were barely any of them written for lay adults, either. Luckily I still had my library card for the University of California. But copying passages from professional literature would not do for sixth graders.

Well, I had recently taken a writing course at the Bay Area Writing Project, so I decided to go for it; to write my own book of Chinese history for my class.  But I would also have fun with it, and fold it into the class’s Writers Workshop project.  I would title it China-Tek : the Construction of a Civilization. I had decided, as a writing exercise, to write a somewhat stream-of-consciousness chapter with plenty of flashbacks, to see if I could pull it off.

To find out if I did pull it off, read the story of Yíng Zhèng, (pronounced Ying Juhng – Pictured above) the future emperor of China. Just click on  on this phrase, it will download a pdf of six pages from my book. I hope that those with time to read it will enjoy it.

Well, that’s the end of my story, Oh no!! I almost forgot the elephants (see below).

 

 

 

 

 

Happy Valentine’s Day

Long Enough

This is the second half of my trip to Taizé in 1975. The first half is found in my previous journal entry. I sent out the first half a week ago. My two trips there in 1975 and 1984 constitute the fulcrum of my life. Yet almost none of my friends know this about me. Nor do they know what  Taizé is in the first place. It’s a place that celebrates the love of God. So I guess it’s an appropriate topic for Valentine’s Day.

It was tempting to abbreviate a subject so large, But what would I leave out?Well, Eileen pointed out that it’s my expression, so write the whole thing.  So I did.

I now feel that I have fulfilled my promise to my old friend to write about my religious journey – not the catechisms that I learned as a boy, but my real-life wrestling with it as a man.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reconciliation

To review from the first half of this story: Joyous bells accompanied my first Taizé morning. Crowds entered a circus tent while I sought out the “welcome” office to record my presence. From there they sent me to breakfast.  When the crowds reappeared I spent the morning hanging out with them.  That’s what I’d come for, after all.  These people were just as gentle and peaceful and thoughtful as I’d heard.  The picture above was taken long before breakfast while everybody was still asleep. (except for me)  Yeah, I had a thing about not taking pictures of people that year.  And film was really expensive.

By the time the bells rang again around noon, I knew that they were a call to prayer. So this time, I shyly followed everybody into the circus tent, which covered the  wide open back wall of  a huge concrete building called the Church of Reconciliation. In the summer, when thousands (yes thousands) of visitors arrived every week, the Church on its own just hadn’t the capacity to fit everybody in, like it might in early spring when visitors were fewer. So they opened the back wall and added the tent.  Taizé  is very straightforward and practical. This was one example. And every year, they have about 100,000 visitors in total.

On my way into the church, I was handed a small stapled booklet of mimeographed (Yes, mimeographed – remember them?) song lyrics. And different songs were printed in different languages. There were languages that I didn’t know. How was that going to work out?

The church interior was sparingly, but tastefully decorated, with a scattering of stained glass windows along the side walls and and colorful abstract patterns up front. Candles or other small lights peeked out everywhere. Significantly, there were images from Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox traditions. This Church of the Reconciliation, like Taizé itself, had been built to promote reconciliation between the various branches of Christianity, not to replace them but to value their diversity and encourage fellowship among them.   And reconciliation is so much stronger than unity can ever be. They also promoted reconciliation between individuals or groups.

A choir, with a few instrumentalists, found places to gather together at the front of the church, right of center. Left of center sat an organist and a harpsichord.

There were precious few chairs or seats, except for some bleachers under the tent. But that’s okay, I was young, so sitting on a carpeted floor for an hour was just no big deal. A rectangular section of the floor, like a wide stripe running front to back in the middle of the church, was reserved for the Brothers of Taizé, the Protestant monks. They soon wandered in, clad in bright white monk’s robes. They seated themselves onto tiny wooden boxes in a neat pattern within the rectangle. Last to arrive was Brother Roger, the prior and founder of Taizé. He led two or three children by the hands, and they sat near him at the front.

Preparation for Prayer

There were no sermons or homilies, or what would normally be recognized as a  “church service” or a “mass.”  Instead we would have a prayer, an intense prayer that each person needed to prepare for individually. This preparation would take a half hour, and it would be beautiful. It would be beautiful.

Each brother, in his own language, offered a short message or Bible verse, a phrase or two calmly spoken out and into the resonance of the church. Nobody bothered to translate anything, so some understood the words and others didn’t. But translation wasn’t strictly necessary Eventually one of the brothers would use the same language that you do. And if nobody ever did, the message was not conveyed by words exclusively, anyway. One felt its impact and sensed its meaning in the quality of the brothers’ voices themselves.  And it felt like . . . distilled worship.  And since the use of a particular language was not critical, I thought of Zen, which also refuses to be bound by the demands of language.

As this sharing of verses and praises continued, one’s mind naturally turned toward the divine, no reminders or suggestions necessary.  So what do you want to say to God today? Maybe you knew already, or if not, perhaps the thoughts shared by the brothers might inspire you. Or perhaps inspiration might come through the songs.

Yes, the songs . . .  .  . Everybody sang. The mimeographed lyrics proved superfluous in many cases, because the tempo was slow and the songs repetitive. So even if you didn’t know a song’s language, you could still pick up on the words and sing along. It reminded me of the groups outside the building earlier, singing English pop songs when they couldn’t speak English at all.  They, too, had picked up the words from a certain kind of spirit.

And to keep the tune from becoming tedious, soloist singers or instrumentalists inserted themselves into the repetitions, kind of like a call and response.

We sang several of these songs/chants to prepare our hearts for prayer or to meditate. It’s hard to imagine a better place to accomplish this than when surrounded by that simple, plain, and oversized, Church of Reconciliation, and the crowds within it. Some sat in meditation, others prayed already.

A video put together by members of the Taize community during the Covid Pandemic lock-downs demonstrates  how the songs function. The tune is called Veni Sancte Spiritus. Probably anybody who has ever set foot in Taizé has sung it. The title and short verse is Latin for “Come, Holy Spirit,” but knowing the translation is not as important as allowing those beautiful repetitive harmonies to focus your mind on your upcoming personal time with God. The YouTube version sounds a bit thin in tone because of the intervening technology. But listen to it calmly and think of our miraculous gift of life.  And try not to mind that the singers are not professionals.

Here’s another example, a tune called “In resurrectione tua Christe coeli et terra laetentur! (In your resurrection, Christ, heaven and earth rejoice!)  For this one, a glance at the mimeographed lyrics could be helpful, since the repeated verse is longer.

Proceeding with Prayer

After a half hour or so of preparation, the time to actually pray was at hand.  All voices and music fell silent and remained so for around ten minutes. My head and heart seemed to bloom with bouquets of thoughts and emotions. Could I pick one thought from the bouquet and hand it to God?

This sort of prayer was a revelation.  It was nothing like the dry and formal recitations of my Presbyterian childhood,  where one person speaks and everybody else kind of listens or reads along. That sort of prayer always felt like a duty, an inconvenience to show that you’re willing to put up with some minor discomfort to demonstrate the sincerity of your devotion.

These prayers at Taizé, however, were something else again.  For one thing, they felt good. And they felt comforting. Who ever heard of a prayer that you enjoy as pleasure in your body and warm comfort? Well, the African American church probably did, though their style was not to be silent.

The prayer at Taizé wasn’t formal, really. It wasn’t exactly casual either. It was . . . well . . . to me, something new and contemplative.  That is, I could sense prayers forming in my heart and mind and I seemed to feel them when  they left my soul to receive God’s embrace, and I thought, yes, I had been heard. I had been heard. I surely knew that I had been heard. I don’t know exactly how I knew it, or how it all worked, for that matter.

But according to the warm beating of my heart there was a connection. Honestly, nobody had ever told me that a simple prayer between just me and God could be so moving, so spectacularly rich in quiet joy and consequence.

What about the other people in the church? Were they also soaking in the same mystical sea that I was? Probably not all, considering the plethora of church traditions that they represented. Probably a lot of them just meditated. But surely,  most people must have.

So such a prayer, enveloped in that mystical silence, was available to me three times a day to fill my heart with a tangible deep joy.  Sign me up. Count me in.  I never missed another prayer at Taizé .

After the prayer, a few more recitations and rounds of songs closed out the hour until next time. A few brothers commandeered some of the scarce chairs and sat themselves around the periphery of the room to interact with members of the congregation who wished to talk to them. Maybe it’s questions. Maybe it’s confession? Maybe  it’s sharing and expressing what had been gained during the prayer?  Could be anything.

And again, it was all so simple and straightforward, so unadorned.  No multimedia slide shows. No staged plays or lectures. No singing of Bach tunes or psalms with complex verses and four-part harmony or contemporary gospel tunes. No long analytic sermons or homilies. No taking notes. No stopping for an offering with keyboard accompaniment. No speaking in tongues. No recitation of the apostles’ creed.

Of course, such things may have their place, but not in a prayer like this. where they seemed like distractions from a conversation with a cherished friend or from the embrace of one’s beloved wife.  No wonder the day in Taizé is structured around the prayers.

Integral components of Taizé

My description of Taizé is fragmentary. It’s only what a happy-go-lucky guy like I was would pick up on in three days. So, lest I be accused of completely misrepresenting Taizé,  I’ll quickly outline just some of what I left out.

I’ve shown how Taizé, particularly during the summer, looks like a multilingual drop-in church camp. And to be fair, the world could use some church camps like that, just as you see them, promoting community, diversity, the joy of joining in (which is a spiritual act) and reconciliation between neighbors.  The commitment to helping various ethnic groups to reconcile is  (and reconciliation is more resilient than unity.) literally finds a way to a better life for all.

And at Taizé  this “church camp” component is not separate from everything else. And It comes directly from the brothers’ practice of charity, this charity being the willingness to contribute one’s life (or at least part of it) without expecting anything in return.

Thus, the community itself is not just a pleasant hang-out.  It’s an extension of the prayers and charity into everyday life.  A spirit of reconciliation drives the entire community-building process. And as one person once said, it’s a process so gentle that it’s indestructible.

Charity and reconciliation are at the core of Taizé’s identity and purpose, which is expressed in countless ways, both major and minor, even though happy-go-lucky guys like me may not have looked deeply enough at what was in plain sight, right in front of him, to grasp it.

But how is that charity?

Taizé’s very location reveals its charitable roots. Brother Roger, the first prior, spent the run-up to World War II casting about in eastern France for a place mired in poverty that could benefit from the brother’s skills. That would be the village of Taizé.  He and the brothers, his fellow Protestant monks, moved into some fixer-uppers next to a simple country church. Rent was cheap. The brothers knew crafts, farming and literacy skills which could benefit the community, so they got to work. Today they still contribute in that manner to the people in the area.

Taizé might not have expanded beyond that local village focus but for the intervention of God and World War II. The brothers were Swiss citizens, which enabled them to smuggle Jews and other targets of the Nazi state into their Taizé  house (located on the border of Nazi controlled France) and then to Switzerland and safety. They were eventually found out, however and had to sit out much of the war in Switzerland.

They returned to Taizé  at war’s end and returned to work. But this time, German war reparations  were available for constructing buildings and other projects. This was too good an opportunity to pass up. They decided to think big.  The war had betrayed a deep poverty of spirituality, charity, community, prayer and reconciliation in the European population. Such poverty was just as tangible as the material poverty suffered by the villagers of Taizé, but on a much grander scale.

So the brothers would declare a “council of youth,” an open invitation to young people (and some  oldsters as well) to explore or even establish a Christian faith, by considering or  practicing it during the summer. This “council of youth” is what I had inadvertently dropped in on.

Most of the German war reparations were devoted to constructing the huge church building, designed by one of the brothers who was an architect.

Everything else about Taizé  then grew step by logical step in response to the exigencies of the moment, from the council of youth and from the brother’s other charitable practices. Thus, the reasons why Taizé functions in any particular way (such as the songs, for example) come from practical solutions to problems at hand. It’s not just style. And it all rests on works of charity. So Taizé  is an organic and inseparable part of its tiny corner of France the same way a Frank Lloyd Wright building is an organic and inseparable part of the ground that it rests on.  If you take just parts of it, they won’t perform as intended.

I left out some activities that were part of the week-long council of youth. These included Bible studies given by the brothers or just among tent-mates, and activities meant to honor and express meaning through the different branches of Christianity.  There were also social activities such as meeting others from your country (the USA meeting was a blow-out)  and also to meet individuals of different generations.

Taizé across the globe.

The council of youth was never intended to be a branch or denomination of the Christian church. Participants are expected to return to their home church at the end of the session (almost whether they want to or not!) Some exceptions are made for those who may feel called to join the brothers. They and others who need similar resources for meditating on their future might, as one example, spend a week in absolute silence.  And there are a variety of ways that one can serve the community on a more long-term basis as volunteers (that is, workers). Or perhaps you’ll be inspired to serve your home communities.

Taizé  later expanded across the globe in two forms, one consisting of small groups of brothers moving into a troubled or impoverished community (including one in the USA) to live there on a long-term basis to contribute to its development as a charity, just as they had in France. The other form was holding something like councils of youth in various places (usually urban — like Cologne, for example) on a short term basis.

For me, Taizé as that place most Christian in spirit (Pope John called it that little springtime). It’s one of the most significant centers of Christianity in today’s world, and it’s unique.  I left Taizé with a whole new frame of mind about Christianity, and my place in it, which I carry to this day and every time I pray or even just perform activities throughout the day.  If not for Taizé I would probably not be a Christian today.  With it, how could I not be?

And why is that?The reconciliation between otherwise distinct ethnic groups is enough right there. So very few Christian churches can handle that.

And I’d be lying if didn’t tell you that a big reason is simply that it is beautiful.  It’s a beauty that you can fall in love with, beautiful in my eyes, whether or not I’m there to see it. It’s not just beautiful in forms or musical harmonies, but in actions.

And just like how my partying eyes were opened to the practice of charity that was taking place right in front of me, I wish I could help people who want to open their eyes to the beautiful multiplicity of humanity that surrounds us everywhere in America, and find some way to help them reconcile.  Again, reconciliation is so much more resilient than unity.

And by the way, I occasionally hear about or attend a “Taizé  service” here in California. So far, these services may be enjoyable and sincere, but they usually incorporate only parts of Taizé’s inseparable components, usually the songs, sometimes recitations in a variety of languages But why the variety of languages? Where we live is mostly monolingual in public.

Similarly, I’ve heard of a group starting a center modeled on Taizé back east somewhere. But are they starting by performing charitable works and living among the poor? I don’t know.

Well, if you, the reader has made it this far, I am truly honored. You must care for me a lot to wade through it all. Thanks for thinking so much of me and the unique center of Christianity that guides me wherever I go, that changed the course of my life.  I promise to write shorter messages in the future. . . .simply about the events that happen around me that people outside of California or Oregon might find interesting.

Oh! I almost forgot to recommend videos.  Here’s a YouTube playlist of three-minute versions of a few Taizé songs.

Here are some clips from my “jazz Valentine,” Cécile McLorin Salvant.  First of all, an album recorded in her early years when she adhered closely to jazz standard forms

And here are a couple examples from her second-most recent album.

Bye for now – I’d love to hear from you and perhaps know the people and places that changed your life.

Happy Lunar New Year

Health Report

Greetings from California! We’re all well — Mom, sister and me. And I never thought I’d be writing that sentence in 2023.  I’m so glad that I can.  I’ll probably be in California through February 17th.

Amazingly, my mother’s treatments of Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy have lent her the strength to live on her own (mostly) again, at least, according to the therapists.  Yeah, her strength is amazing.

Meanwhile, sensations are returning to my toes. I hadn’t noticed that my big toe was not only numb, but black under the nail, as if somebody had hit it with a hammer.  Now the normal color is returning.

Numbness is not the only issue  — the motor nerves were also affected by the chemotherapy. So the rest of my toes were not only numb, they lay completely flat on the floor. They looked like short pieces of ribbons attached to my foot.  I thought it was the result of my age, but no, as the innervation restored itself, these toes regained their normal arched shape. Something similar has happened to the arches on my feet.  I Can’t wait to find out what else in my body might start re configuring itself again. (As long as it isn’t more tumors)

I am reminded that my Portland friend Mary told me that it took years for the effects of  her chemo treatments to fade. I’m also reminded of how the Portland nurse described chemo therapy — “We throw everything we can at it, and then pull back a bit so we don’t kill you.”  Dosage is everything, I guess.

Happy New Year (again – the real one)!

Happy New Year! Xīnnián Kuàilè!

The New Year’s holiday in China is celebrated for two weeks altogether. And every year, I think of my friend Andy in Tianjin, who invited me to celebrate New Year’s Eve with his family. Traditionally, one’s extended family gathers together on New Year’s Eve to make dumplings by hand. These dumplings, which are actually called jiǎozi, are nothing like the dumplings that one might find in British cuisine.

You roll out a tiny pancake, wrap it around the filling of your choice, and press the edges together to seal it into a sort of pregnant crescent shape, which then is boiled or steamed. The fillings can consist of literally almost anything edible, and in fact Tianjin showcases a restaurant that serves over fifty different fillings. The dipping sauce is usually aged vinegar. The family in the photo above is making for another occasion

The  jiǎozi in this picture was given to me by my friend Audine. It’s ceramic, and fashioned as a chopstick holder.

At the time that I visited Andy, his grandfather was still alive. He was a quiet, gentle and welcoming man. Andy commented that, yes, his grandfather was one of the old Communists.  I thought to myself that  in my country, the phrase “Chinese Communist” did not usually bring to mind such a kindly and hospitable man.

Those of us who didn’t fit around the jiǎozi-making table headed to the couch to view the annual “New Year’s Variety Show” on television. It’s kind of like the old Red Skelton show, but even cornier.  Almost everyone in China who owns a television watches it faithfully, every year. Here’s last year’s show, which the Chinese government posted on YouTube, a web site that they have blocked in China.

Transparency

The Rabbit year is here at last! And just to be transparent, everyone should know that I myself am a rabbit. A bunny to my friends. And this is my year!  Mine! An ideal time to continue my voyage of retraining and self-discovery. But will such a focus on myself just make me self-centered or arrogant? If that starts happening, I’m depending on old friends to take me down a peg.  I’ve certainly given them enough ammunition over the years to do so.

But I am changing in ways that I like. I’m more forthright, more authentic.  I’m not so afraid of looking like an idiot (or not so afraid when I look like an idiot), even as I accrue more idiotic opportunities.

And I’m more robust emotionally. My big bugaboo, though, is still loneliness, particularly in the years since I returned from China. My new metaphor for it is a twist of bittersweet taffy that I’m forced to consume.

It often causes me intense pains at night, and until recently, intense pains during the day as well.  Indeed, it’s one of my main motivators for developing transparency, because how, at some point in the future, will my friends be able to assuage these pains with affection, if they don’t know who I really am? Or if I don’t know who I really am?  And how will I ever be able to assuage the pains of others?

But lately, even if needles of pain keep me up all night, when morning arrives, I’m able to pull out of it. I could not do that before. Of course, it’s better not to get stuck in taffy in the first place.  Meanwhile I reach out more transparently to the people around me.

I’ve actually asked friends if they have noticed any difference in me. They usually say I seem a lot more laid back than before.

A France in the Dark

Speaking of being more open  . . . . .the following story about Taizé is one of my longest ever – about 5000 words. I’ll write it in two halves – for this time and for next time.  I cannot condense it because it’s the fulcrum of my life and particularly my religious life, as my old friend had requested I write about. And as Eileen reminded me, this is my expression about a key moment in my life, so it should not be arbitrarily abbreviated.

And so I apologize in advance to those who’d wish that I wouldn’t write so much, though sometimes I’m also reminded of the scene in Amadeus where Emperor Joseph II tells Mozart that he plays too many notes. Well, if i was as talented as Mozart, maybe my long-winded expression would be easier to take. But still, it is my life and I hope to offer it whole, it’s “bones” unbroken.

It was the summer of 1975. Last time, I  was in Barcelona and my jaguar had just made contact. Later, more adventures, not exactly religious – would come  fast and furious, but they’re mostly off topic. Eventually I found myself in France with crowds of Dutch people in the Dordogne Valley gazing at prehistoric cave paintings.  From there I’d travel eastward to Dijon, to taste the mustard and explore my French grandmother’s homeland, to see what I could discover about her. But before I got there, I would take a detour, one of many that summer.

My new German friend Andreas had recommended that, along the route to Dijon, I stop in a small village near Mâcon called Taizé (pronounced TEH-zay) He said the people there were gentle and peaceful. No reservations required — you just drop in. Much more about it he never got around to telling me.  I set out eastward from Limoges, taking a seat in a compartment with another passenger. And like every other time that I sat in such a compartment with somebody, we fell into a conversation.

He was a teenage French boy, traveling by himself around Europe, staying a couple weeks in each country to learn its language. He thought language learning was trivially easy. But then, he only studied languages related to French — Italian in Italy, Spanish in Spain, Portuguese in Portugal — all easy. He was amazed that I seemed to find these languages at all difficult. I decided not to tell him that he’d have to learn Romanian next if he wanted to keep up the pace.

He did know enough English  to hold a simple conversation (Very unusual for a Frenchman). And it turned out that he would be de-training in Mâcon, same as me. His father would pick him up there, but he promised to show me the bus stop for Taizé before they headed out.

We whiled away the evening. Like Andreas, he knew just a little about Taizé, mainly that I’d find gentle and peaceful people there.  When we reached Mâcon, it was 1:30 A.M. True to his word, while his family was waiting somewhat impatiently, he showed me the stop for the Taizé bus. It was a metal pole with a schedule tacked onto it. I settled down where I could sit against the pole until morning. This would not be the first time nor the last time that I would avail myself of such Spartan lodgings.

Suddenly, my thoughts were interrupted by a discussion between the teenager and the rest of his family. Soon he came galloping back and said, “Come, get in, we will drive you to Taizé. I was so grateful. All polite protestations flew out the window, and I jammed my backpack and myself into the back seat of their old, black Coupe. We shot out into the darkness of a warm French countryside. Every few minutes, we hit a traffic circle, and as we curved around it, the car’s  headlights aimed past the edge of the road so I could see what was there. Well, nothing was there but short trees and bushes. We drove for a half hour or forty five minutes, dancing through traffic circles and slipping through small towns. There was no other traffic.

And there it was – the sign for Taizé. The road led up a low hill. We stopped at the top of it in front of a tall closed gate.  And pacing back and forth in front of the gate was a young man in jeans, with a long, dark and fluffy German beard. Anybody who looked like that would surely speak English.

I popped out of the car, and I shook the father’s hand and gave him a merci. I told the boy how fortunate it was that our destinations had lain in the same direction. He cleared his throat and told me that, actually, their home lay in the opposite direction. They sleepily drove off, back towards Mâcon. I never even got their names, which was unusual for me.

The German guy at the gate, as expected, spoke English. Since it was so late, he said that I should stay in his tent. Then in the morning I could queue at the registration.

“What? Cue? What?” I said. His eyes narrowed like he was inspecting me and he said, “Queue!” and “Do you speak English?”

How embarrassing to be found Incompetent in my own native language.  I’d never heard of the word “queue” before. His tent turned out to be huge, with a wooden floor and door-flaps at the entrance. Around twenty people lay unconscious in there. I threw my sleeping bag into the corner that he showed me and I instantly snuffed out.

It Dawns on Me

When I woke, it was light and no one was home. Bells rang in the distance. I stepped out into a sea of tents, basking in the sunshine, and beyond them lay shallow flowing hills, covered in a deep green carpet of French countryside, so pretty that it was painful to gaze upon. People strolled in from all directions towards the five ringing bells, which hung from a simple wooden beam that swung back and forth from the top of a simple wooden campanile. Everything was simple here.  And everything seemed gentle and peaceful.

I had operated my own college campus’s campanile when I had attended there. Compared to that one, these bells sang for joy. People passed beneath them and into a huge brightly-colored circus tent. What could that be for? I quelled my curiosity about the circus for the moment, and I found the welcome and registration facility, called “Casa,” where I would report in. They asked if I wished to continue staying in the tent where I had already settled, which was occupied by Germans and Flemish, or did I want to find a tent with more English speakers?

I chose the Flemish and Germans, since English seemed so ordinary.  And maybe I’d pick up more German from them..  Besides, I was sure to bump into native English speakers anyway, wasn’t I? Americans were everywhere in Europe, including some from that new state with the mysterious maple leaf flag.

The Casa directed me to breakfast. Food was very simple, of course. The tools for eating it were also simple. I was handed a thin and flexible blue plastic bowl, which also served as a plate, and a metal spoon, which also served as a knife or fork, and a red plastic glass. They looked very simple to keep clean, and they were used for all meals. No sporks allowed! They were too disposable. Besides, they hadn’t been invented yet.

Volunteers contributed most of the labor. Often they were solicited from one tent or another. Some stayed all summer as volunteers. Of course one could always find something to help out with even if it wasn’t your group’s turn for chores.  But I was so taken by the place, that I volunteered only sparingly, in favor of exploring and meeting people.

Thousands of participants, yes, thousands of them, mostly in their twenties (like me), walked here and there, or sat in small groups. Occasionally somebody would break out a guitar, and lead a group in singing, usually American pop songs.  How could people who didn’t even speak English sing the English lyrics to pop songs so well?

Most people were  Christian, but many were not. I’m sure there were Jews or Muslims aplenty, let alone atheists. Taizé was open to all who felt drawn there, especially those who wished to explore matters of spirituality and faith.  Of course, I just wanted to hang out.  And I loved it. The people were just as gentle and peaceful as Andreas had said.

I was fascinated by the polyglot atmosphere.  It was just like San Francisco, but more loving and casual. German and French were the most common languages, and English, well, not so much.  I never found a North American in Taizé that year. and all the native English speakers that I did find were Europeans.  And I thought how sad it was that nobody in America seemed to know this place.

And I found myself to be suddenly outgoing. How did that happen? That’s not my personality, neither before or since (until lately). Maybe it was the gentle atmosphere that encouraged me to feel so free.

So I found this young French woman, who fascinated me because she so closely resembled old pictures of my French grandmother. When I tried to speak with her I quickly ascertained that she only spoke French while I basically only spoke English. (sigh)  What could we do given a dearth of English or French native speakers  who might be able to translate our conversation?

We actually tried the simple translation route using a French teenager who claimed to know English well. He didn’t. I asked how much English he’d studied. He said “Two Years.” The first year was to memorize grammar rules. The second year was to study Shakespeare’s plays.  No wonder he couldn’t do English. And other Frenchmen were not likely to fare any better.

But I remembered what I’d learned from spending time in caves with the Dutch. In those days, every Dutchman learned at least one foreign language, usually English, French or German. So I found two Dutchmen —  one who had studied English and another who had studied French.  My new friend and I sat at opposite ends of a picnic table while the Dutchmen sat between us. So if I said something, the student of English translated it into Dutch and told the other Dutchman, who then translated it into French for my friend. Ah, so clever!!  Later, we two friends kept in touch throughout the following year, but finally the language gap and the geographic gap took their toll. Maybe things might have turned out differently if the Internet had existed back then.

But as wonderful as it was to hang out with gentle, peaceful people, and get to know them rather deeply, considering the short time available, that’s just the appealing surface.  On that trip, I never did get to the core of Taizé, originally fashioned from the blood, sweat and iron of World War II, but I did get closer, which I’ll describe next time.

Happy Martin Luther King Day

Hello everyone from Portland, Oregon, where it starts getting dark at 3pm

Mom’s health

Mom was in a rehabilitation facility for a couple weeks, and everyone except for her thought that she should stay in rehab one more week.  So she came home.

The impending Martin Luther King holiday sees her continuing to strengthen, though more easily confused. She’s not yet strong enough to leave the house. So either Abbe or myself lives with her full time.  Physical therapists, occupational therapists, and social workers have dropped by to show Abbe and I how we can better work with her.

At times, she’s been more cheerful than she was before. Everybody is happy about that.

My Health — If not now, then when?

As for my own health,  I’m hoping that no news is good news. My numb toes continue to slowly regain their feeling.  And I’ve discovered that other parts of my body had also been numbed, but I hadn’t noticed, and now they, too, are regaining their feeling. I have mixed feelings about that – if these body parts start thriving, does that mean that the tumors will, too?  Hope not.

I had lunch last week with Mary, who is my only non-family friend residing in the Portland area. Mary’s sister has a cancer analogous to mine. She expects to live just a couple more years. Before she dies, her whole family next fall is taking her on a cruise from the St. Lawrence River to Boston, sort of a Last Hurrah.  I was sorry to hear about all this, and it reminds me that, though I feel pretty good these days, it could be something  of an illusion. So I try not to waste time. Lunch with Mary, of course, is not a waste of time. In fact I plan to lunch again with her sooner than later.  And we lunch at our local Shandong restaurant, complete with fortune cookies.

I find myself feeling more and more like an adolescent. All the issues I’d avoided since my actual adolescence have stuck around to torment me. I thought they’d fade away with time and good living!!  Turns out they won’t.  Who knew? In the meantime, I’m glad to have some extra time now to deal with them.  I hate leaving tasks undone.

A couple old friends serve as key confidants in this process. One is Doug from Berkeley, my bike-riding friend. The other is my playful friend Eileen who, along with her husband, has howled at the full moon every month for the past fifty years.  I mean, if you can’t trust a werewolf, who can you trust?

If not last spring, then when?

My condominium in Danville is about 20 minutes from Castro Valley. I paid it off about twenty years ago, at which time my mother injured her brain, so I moved back in with her in Castro Valley after her  surgery to keep an eye on her. What to do with the condo? Rent it, of course. I got a great property manager. Mom and I split the profits, which became her main source of income for many years when she moved up to Portland. The pictures here are of that condo.

Well . . . . about nine or ten months ago, our tenant stopped paying rent. Normally, that calls for an eviction, but the pandemic changed the rules. So he’s still there, without my permission.  A few months ago, we retained a lawyer and went to court. The judge found in our favor, so now the delinquent tenant  owes me a court-ordered judgement of $16,000. Or he did. By now, it should be much more. I don’t expect to ever see any of that money.

Whenever the sheriff’s office puts it on their calendar, they’ll go and evict him. But still we wait. The property manager has located new tenants, but still we all wait. The property manager says he’s never seen anything like it in the thousands of rentals that his company manages.  But still . . .  .

Living in the past — Zen

I got an email today from my good friend Simon in Queensland. He was surprised to read about my interest in religion, which I wrote about in my last update. I guess I’ve been hiding it. Well, there was a reason to hide it in China.  But since a lot of my life actually revolves around religion or spirituality, maybe I should write about it on this list, to continue tearing down metaphorical walls between my separate circles of friends, including my religious friends. I’ll continue chronologically from where I left off last time.

Zen —  a Buddhist sect or independent of cultures or religions? It explicitly crops up more these days than it did in the seventies when I studied it. So when Mary and I went to lunch, I got a fortune cookie that said “A Master can act without doing anything, teach without a word.” It’s not exactly Zen, but it’s close.

It’s taken from page 2 of the Dao De Jing, a fundamental text of Daoism {Taoism). And Zen (called 禅 (Chán)in Chinese) is an amalgam of Buddhism and Daoism, Given where we were, a more Zen-like fortune might have said “Are the dishes washed?”  In other words, don’t cogitate about it. Just do it! Dharma, anybody? Be present in the world and not lost in reverie. This concrete practicality made me love Zen, even though I’m actually lousy at doing the dishes.

The Japanese Zen master D. T. Suzuki, sort of a Zen ambassador to the West, once stated that the most important thing in Zen is love. His statement impressed me because Zen is usually known for unflinching efforts at meditation and discipline in the pursuit of personal enlightenment, and not something soft-edged like love.

As I mentioned last time, Zen absolutely distrusts verbal expression, particularly for provoking enlightenment, but also for more mundane situations. (which . . . also may provoke enlightenment).

Well, I never did achieve Zen enlightenment, but I did adopt its deprecation of language. For one common Zen exercise, simply eliminate language from your thoughts.In other words, stop talking to yourself in your mind!  A lot of people aren’t even aware that they’re doing it. It’s surprisingly difficult to stop.  Try it!

Back in college days, I got pretty good at stopping the chattering voice in my head. At first it was just a challenge.  Then I noticed that it freed my mind from modes of thought imposed by years if language use. I focused more solidly on the non-verbal existential reality before me, noting that varied logical and linguistic ambiguities arose from the same reality.

I got better at mentally (and non-verbally) deconstructing my world and reassembling it in different ways. It broadened my appreciation of existence as well as social systems and religion. It’s a mental tool that I use to this day.

Living in the past — Alternate Realities.

While cultivating my interest in Zen, I had some rather strange experiences. But  this was the seventies, so I took it all in stride. Adolescence is a time for visions, and I had strings of them back then, probably like most people.  We might call them vivid dreams, though they feel nothing like dreams.  They are as solidly real as  a Zen exercise. The earliest one that I remember was quite simple. I woke up in my dorm room, but before I could get out of bed, I began floating up, so  I had no traction on the floor. I gently rose like a balloon, softly bouncing off the ceiling. I looked down and there I was, still in bed, lying on my side. It was absolutely real. I was absolutely awake. It was wonderful.

Eventually I slowly  sank down, joined my body and woke up again. This time I could gain traction on the floor and could walk away from the bed.  Back then, we heard a lot about  out-of-the-body experiences, so I  was happy to have experienced one myself.

Another way that I dabbled in dreams was to wake myself up within a dream and then take control of it.  It’s great fun. Anything you can imagine can take place right when you want it to. It’s the ultimate magician’s kit.

These strange experiences sated my appetite for visions and hallucinations, so I never was tempted to use drugs. I already had enough to make me question reality (or at least re-analyze it), a practice which I would eventually bring into religion.

The Vision Quest

Another common practice back then, derived from certain Native American customs, was the vision quest and the discovery of the ally, which is a spiritual animal guide or helper. For the longest time I could not locate my ally. But in 1975, I spent the whole summer traveling, kind of like one long vision quest, and I did have some hallucinatory visions.

One day, I was dozing on a bed in a Barcelona boarding house, when I was awakened by a rustling sound with soft padding coming up behind me. For a while, I just listened. Had a thief broken in? I looked.

No, it was a jaguar. And it was very very real. I was beside myself with fear.

The jaguar was a panther, dark without spots, but dark grey, not black. It was larger and more muscular than any that I’d seen before. Its panther face was a bit narrower than normal and slightly resembled a polar bear’s. I realized that this animal had to be my ally. It was in fact real and scary, but . . . different. I couldn’t afford to be afraid of it. Full of maturity, self-control and confidence, It quietly paced over to me, and then past me, heading forward and away.

I had to catch its attention before it left,  I just had to.

So I summoned some courage and reached out with my left hand.  I touched it on the  cheek behind one eye. It paused and turned its head back to  look at me and smile. Its eye narrowed and began to glow.  How can a panther smile?

It headed towards a cheap wardrobe on the wall next to the bedroom door. An old and worn mirror hung on its face. The panther casually  proceeded through the mirror and was silently gone. We had shown ourselves to each other.

So ever since that day, I’ve been running around with a fully self-confident panther.

Yeah, one could possibly deconstruct my experience and reassemble it into something more ordinary and rational with less grit and drama, so people won’t think me a psycho, and I considered trying that here,  but dammit, I was there. I know what I saw. I know the terror that I felt.  It’s simpler to just say what it was, and not over- rationalize it, particularly since its effects continue in my life.

For example, what else could it have been, if not my ally, that wracked my body with coughs for several months last year, to catch my attention, which led the doctors on an endless wild goose chase to find a cause, only to find cancer instead, which they found early enough to give me a few extra years. The rattling coughs immediately stopped upon the cancer discovery, like a big cat disappearing through a mirror,  before I had even received any further treatments.  And who had let loose this ally in the first place so it could flag my attention with coughs?  Could that have been the Lord God?

Where I’m most aware of my ally is when I’m relating to people. It manifests itself as a feline sense of maturity, self control and confidence that I mainly associate with teaching school.  That sense usually (usually)tells me  when I’m on the right track. (depending upon the situation)

This is what I mean by an ally. Do you have such an ally, too?

Wow, that was fast.

I feel like I just  now started writing and it’s already over 2000 words. So what about the elephant herd? And what would it be like to have an elephant as an ally?

And Happy Martin Luther King Day!

Today’s excellent opinion piece by Jamelle Bouie in the New York Times  expands upon the idea that’s there’s a lot more to MLK than a speech. You can access it at this link.

And here is the conclusion of my own favorite King Speech, given in support of striking workers in Memphis, Tennessee.  The conclusion is electrifying  as he compares himself to Moses and predicts his own death the following day. I cry whenever I hear it.

Merry Christmas. Just plain Merry Christmas

Greetings from Castro Valley  in California– oops — from Portland, in Oregon. I came ‘up here on the 22nd — oops- on Boxing Day. Oops — on the 28th.  Note to self – never trust Southwest Airlines’s schedules.

My own health seems not to have changed much — good news, nothing much to say.

On the other hand, my hundred-year-old mother’s condition has changed a lot, in some ways that surprised me.

While exiting a car last week, she blacked out. She fell and bounced her head on a lawn. She cracked her femur and split open some blood vessels in her brain. She was taken by ambulance to a hospital where she treated the nursing staff the way she so often has in the past – like dirt, yelling at them to leave her alone and let her go home and being as uncooperative as possible. My sister, who had expected this, was there to mellow her down, but to limited effect. So this  chaos went on for a couple days in the ICU and then a further couple of days in the regular hospital.  And then  . . . .

Mom reached a conscious decision that she was going to change her attitude. She even told me about her intention over the phone. And then . . .

She simply got it done. The change was remarkable. and for the last several days she became the favorite patient of all the nurses on that floor. Partial credit goes to my Sunday School class who had been praying like crazy for peace in the situation. But what a surprise!

My mother is probably the strongest person I know, and certainly the strongest willed. And she’s accomplished something similar on other occasions. A few decades ago, her second husband, Clay, lay dying in a hospital from lung cancer, caused by a lifetime of chain smoking. Mom brought me to the hospital, essentially to say good bye to him. Clay had once been bigger and stronger than I was, but now he had shriveled down to the size of a fifth grader, wracked with pain.

As we strolled down the hall to his room, I kept reminding myself to thank him for taking Mom to visit relatives in Sweden, which had been her lifelong dream. And then Mom broke into inconsolable, sobbing sheets of tears and grief. But this was not the face that she wanted to show Clay. She wanted a face that celebrated their affections for each other, that helped them experience that happiness one more time. We stood before the door to his room. Mom broke out a tissue and by the time we had passed the threshold, all traces of sadness had vanished. “Hello, honey,” she threw out a smile, a real smile, not a forced one.

Traveling to Portland

So now it was Mom who was in the hospital bed. I had been scheduled to fly Southwest Airlines to Portland on December 22nd, but should I come earlier? Abbe and I talked it over, and given the crowded planes making it hard to find seats, it seemed best that I just keep to the schedule, There wouldn’t be many days difference, and there wouldn’t be much for me to do, anyway, but there would be lots more later. And, as it turns out, there was really lots more to do with Southwest Airlenes.  Meanwhile I kept in touch by phone many times each day.

So for December 22nd, Castro Valley’s weather forecast had afternoon temperatures in the fifties (like 13 Celsius.). Portland’s overnight temperatures (including wind chill) would be like 3 degrees (like minus 16 Celsius) There would also be high winds, snow, and an ice storm causing widespread power outages. Did I really want to fly into that?  Did I ever mention how much I love the California climate?

But I already felt delinquent, for having stuck to the schedule. I would not delay any longer, weather be damned. But God had different plans. Southwest Airlines cancelled the December 22nd flight at the last minute anyway. And then the first date with an open seat was Boxing Day, December 26th, a date forecast to have much milder weather, so I took the reservation for the December 26th.

Meanwhile, Mom left the hospital around noon on the 23rd, after having obtained pre-approval for transportation from the weather.

So did I finally fly out on boxing day? Nope. The flight was canceled again, along with several thousand other flights, almost all of them on Southwest Airlines.

With the help of Jim Cauble and John Challenor, and taking three tries at the Alaska Airlines web site, I got a rather expensive ticket for a nighttime flight on December 28. And this time, the Alaska flight was not canceled. Greetings from Portland!   And I think I may see more of Alaska Airlines in the future, and less of Southwest.

An adventure to embrace this time

Meanwhile I’m continuing  to lift the cover from my heart and allow others to see who I really am and who I have been all along. And not only others, but myself as well.

So, for example, last time, I mentioned my suffering a broken heart last fall. Actually there were two, and the second was so severe that Mark and Eileen had to come over and scrape me off the floor, and then plop me into a seat at a local diner until I could think straight.

I have never felt free to talk about such tragedies, not with anybody, but this time I did discuss it with Mark and Eileen. Our conversation excised my injured “mental tissues.” And in the subsequent days, an increased stability and capacity for joy and laughter took their place.  I hadn’t known that I could do that. Really, how had I done that? And how should I use that previously-buried capability in the future? And despite the eventual salutary results, I’m not really enthusiastic about the prospect of incurring another broken heart just so I can achieve greater mental stability. But I’m not afraid of it, either.

And no, I’m not trying to turn bipolar, nor am I trying to cry or laugh more, nor am I training to be a standup comedian. These are merely the entertaining side-effects of accepting tragedy and pain, and thus gaining a deeper understanding of self and life.

I’m re-balancing my life. Sometimes it kinda feels like being covered with thousands of boxes, and my job is to stack them neatly, when it’s hard enough to just get out from under them. Sisyphus, anyone? But I will get there.

I was especially heartened by a response to my last update penned by my brother/friend Lonnie, who wrote this:

I like the path you have been on recently…..about opening up and being vulnerable with things that may seem scary to share.   I really liked your story of your encounter with the German-Italian girl on the train…..and the thoughts of opportunities lost.    I think this is a great path you are on, and is good for all the people you have been in relationship with to be able to see what you have behind the curtain.   Scary (being open) but freeing (in the love/acceptance received back).   You are a loved and dear friend.   I love hearing / seeing the true you.

Yes, that’s it.

And the Point is Christmas

Recently one of my best friends asked me to write about religion, which is probably the largest single topic of mine that I keep hidden even today, even from the people I attend church with.  So to write about it would be quite extensive. But because I care for her a lot and she asked, I will write it all out. But I may end up sending the resulting volume directly to her.

But I can start here, at least.  I also already wrote, a few months ago, about my reading of 1 Corinthians 13, a chapter which, to me pretty much completely defines what Christianity actually is.

As a child, I enjoyed my Protestant church, except the part about dressing up in uncomfortable formal clothes, too early on Sunday mornings.  Funny — according to the pictures, God never had to dress in such clothes.

The people in church were kind, and oriented towards serving the local community. But I hated most of the hymns, where we sang about joy while wearing no smiles.  We seemed to be “sending mixed messages.” Yeah, I once had a girlfriend like that.

College at UC Davis

So when I attended college, and could schedule my own life, I gave up Sunday mornings, and everything that went with them. Instead I began reading about Buddhism, particularly Zen. These Buddhist systems never seemed to ask you to believe, particularly not in something you hadn’t seen yourself, which was a relief to me. They were more like an extension of psychology than what I usually thought of as a religion.

And Zen fed my long-standing interest in Japanese culture. I was particularly drawn to its challenge to perceive reality directly, including the emptiness between objects, without categories or labels. In fact reality is simply beyond verbal description.   I still think that way, but, obviously, this idea is completely at odds with any religion based on a written book. And this has been a fundamental and fruitful conflict in my thinking ever since. Most of my Christian friends do not know this about me. Some of my pagan friends might.

Anyway, for my sophomore year, I earned the lowest grades of my entire life, including elementary school. But what a wonderful year in forming permanent friendships, exploring reality and relationships, living in the “German House” dorm, and playing like kids even though we were technically adults. It was worth a few low grades. In fact just last week, I visited with a friend from that year’s “German House.”

And I began taking fun electives, starting with “Introduction to African American Music” by the choral director and professor Albert J. McNeil. As you may know, “African American Music” includes just about every form of American popular music, such as Big Band Swing, Traditional New Orleans style, jazz, blues, gospel, rock and roll, hip hop, and even bluegrass. Many of these forms had roots in two kinds of houses. One was a house of worship, and the other was not.

The Sacramento House

Well, the latter kind of house was not available to the university, but the former could be found right across the river in Sacramento. It was a mostly African-American Apostolic Church which Professor McNeil required us to visit on a Sunday. He assured us that it featured music that was authentically African-American. Perhaps we could attend and listen for typical musical components. I figured I’d hear something stately like Mahalia Jackson.

So, on a Sunday evening, a few of us class members pooled our cars, drove out to Sacramento and reached the church on time.  We said hello to the greeter and attempted to squeeze around her into the back rows. But just our luck to encounter a greeter both gracious and welcoming. She intercepted us and led us to the very front row, where empty seats had been cordoned off for our convenience. As most of us were white and most of the congregation was decidedly not, we stuck out like lights on a Christmas tree.  So much for our plan to remain inconspicuous.

But this room, in contrast to my old church in Castro Valley, was alive with energy, even before anybody did anything. The pastor stepped to the podium to begin the worship. In a ringing voice he welcomed the visitors from UC. We smiled, but what else should we do? The choir piped up, their voices swelling as they burst into an infectious rhythm and the entire congregation joined in. We looked in vain for that customary little piece of paper with the words to the songs.

Well, here there were different customs. And every few minutes, something happened (but cued by what? We didn’t know)  Members of the congregation stepped forward to express how happy they were to be Christian, and how thankful they were that God had shown them mercy that week. But their speeches weren’t given in that unassuming manner of Protestant testimonials, but in a voice almost shouting for joy. And then, BAM. Everyone jumped to their feet to sing (but singing what?) tambourines appeared out of nowhere and pushed out trills and rhythms. And then BAM again, and it was quiet, and the pastor returned to speaking.

And believe you me, when they sang about joy, they expressed joy, sincere joy, with every vibration of their vocal chords. I had never seen anything like it. So one could simply and loudly express joy in a religious setting? Who knew? It made me want to know more about why these people were so full of life. I realized that there was a lot more to Christianity than what I had known. And it was sincerely distinct. And oh, yeah. the music was African American. Definitely.

Our ride had an appointment, so after the first two hours of worship, we made our way to the door. If we had stayed another hour, we would have observed that the platform supporting the podium slid to one side to reveal a baptismal.  And two of our class members got baptized that night (Don’t forget to shout “Praise the Lord!”)

And the next day, Professor McNeil made sure everyone knew that conversion and receiving baptism were not course requirements.

Obligatory Elephants

This time it’s a short one where our favorite Elephant herd stands up to a Rhino.