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.


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.