Death Wins the Short Game

Death, my old friend

I’m afraid we are at an impasse.

We’ll just need to agree

to disagree.

 

You come to take all my beloved.

I can’t let them go.

 

I’ll look the other way

pretending not to notice.

You’ll carry on

taking what you can.

 

But know, my friend

this arrangement is not forever.

 

And time will come—

 

When all you’ve gained will be lost.

And all I’ve lost will be gained.

 

Our charade will be over—

 

No, not friends, old death.

Not friends at all.

 

But carry on, death

you hold all the cards, for now

I’ll look away while you take the pot.

 

Take it all

and carry on,

but only for a little while longer.

 

~FS

Paths of Desire (part 15)

Small gray monkeys were a favorite pet of the Taiwanese people, although many of the little creatures passed their days in cages, mostly neglected, and some in misery. One such unfortunate monkey was owned by my neighbors in Luku. They kept him in a cage in the open lot that separated our property and theirs. Occasionally, he was let out and tied to a tether which allowed him more room to move about; but it was difficult to see his loneliness and sorrow spending most days sitting alone in his cage.

It was especially sad to see him out there in bad weather and at night; so one day, I couldn’t take it anymore and I asked the neighbors if I could take care of him for them. They were surprised but agreed to let me look after him. They stressed to me that they weren’t giving him to me, and they expected him to be there when they wanted him, but I could interact with him and care for him as well. The first thing I noticed was that he was incredibly dirty and needed a good washing. Having never washed a monkey before, I decided the easiest thing to do was bring him with me into the shower. I had no idea how difficult this project would be and how much little gray monkeys hate the shower. In my host family’s home the shower was a concrete stall at the end of an outside walkway, nestled against a corner of the house. It had a door and was fully self-contained, which turned out to be a good, because things became very lively for the two of us behind that closed door.

All was well as I carried my little friend into the stall with me and shut the door but once the water was turned on, it was as if I had been lowered into a blender. He exploded and went berserk, flying round and round the little stall, up and down my body, and finally perching himself atop my head. His little hands and feet clutched savagely at my hair and scalp and he refused to let go or be coaxed down from his lofty promontory. As I attempted to pry him off my head he sunk his teeth into my finger; sharp little teeth which drew blood, and I immediately began to imagine what new, strange and unknown disease I might have just contracted. Hadn’t AIDS come from a monkey? Well, nothing to be done now but clean my finger, which I did, while he remained nervously attached to my scalp like an exotic, living, fascinator. While he was up there I was able to bring him into the shower stream several times and at least give him a quick rubdown before finally giving up the venture.

We dried off and then I brought him into my room, which he loved. I closed the bedroom door and let him down onto the floor and he was elated to be free to roam and jump, without a tether, and free of the tiny confines of his cage. If he could have spoken to me I wouldn’t have understood his joy as clearly as he communicated it by his running and jumping and playing. He leaped up onto my bed and used the mattress as a springboard to launch himself up onto the wall above my pillow where he immediately pushed off and then did a somersault in the air before landing on the mattress again. This became his favorite thing, which he repeated over and over again as I watched with a smile. Occasionally he stopped and looked over at me to make sure I was watching him and I voiced approval which was his cue to begin his acrobatics again.  Eventually he tired himself out and we both laid down for the night. I climbed under the sheets, and he lay down on my chest, with his little arms extended across my shoulders, his tiny head nestled against my neck, and went to sleep. For the remaining few weeks of my stay in Luku I brought my little friend in for the night; and we both enjoyed the warmth and shelter of my room, and also the warmth of our newfound friendship; but I never again tried to give him another shower.

At the conclusion of the semester in Taiwan, our group spent the last few days together debriefing at a rustic site in the mountains within Taroko National Park.  There, we discussed what we had learned and how the trip had changed us. Among other things, I found that this trip exposed and called into question some deeply held assumptions I had about the superiority of individualism. I come from a culture that places great value on the individual: the self-made man, the person who climbs up out of obscurity and makes a name for him or herself, one who overcomes and wins and does all of this in the face of the mediocre crowds, rising above mediocrity, finding victory in personal accomplishment. I came to Taiwan with all of this deeply ingrained in me and was certain of its veracity, but it wasn’t long before I realized that I was looked on with pity by the Taiwanese for these very traits. They saw in my individualism something sad and to be avoided. Instead, they believe that how one fits into the larger society, the group, is the important thing, and one’s value is found as a part of the whole, with the others, not apart or alone. Of course this is a generalization, and in the twenty five years that have elapsed since my time on the island I suspect they are now much more like the west, but at the time I was there, and of those I met, this was the belief and the philosophy that guided their lives.

St Paul admonished the church to be of one mind and one spirit, to flee from a competition of ideas, to find resolution to differences, and to foster harmony within the whole. St Paul went on to tell us that, though we may have diverse and individual gifts, they are for the benefit of the entire body, and we, as parts of the body, should find our value in how we benefit and enhance the other members of the body. In so many ways the beliefs of my culture are at odds with Christian ones, and have been at odds with them for many centuries.

After our group debriefing we all went our separate ways. I had booked a flight through Seoul, with a layover for a couple days to see that city, and then on to Tokyo to visit a friend, and travel for two weeks in Japan before heading back home again. My flight didn’t leave Taiwan for another day or two so I spent some time hiking in the area. It appears there have been many slides, renovations and changes to the trails since I was there in 1990, but at that time, the trailhead I took was at a cave entrance on the side of the highway, and one began by walking for a very long way through the mountain.

There is something strange and claustrophobia inducing about walking alone straight through a mountain by way of a small tunnel. In this particular case the light at the other end of the tunnel appeared very far away and looked as if someone was holding a single LED bulb very far in the distance. I began walking through the tunnel towards the light but it never seemed to get any closer. After a while of walking I turned and looked behind me and the entrance now looked just about as far as my destination; I calculated that I must be about mid-way through the mountain. The air was cool and damp and deathly silent. I could see nothing except these pin-lights at my two poles. I imagined the mass of earth and rock above me and thought how impossible it would be to reach me in a slide or collapse. Besides, nobody knew I had climbed into this tunnel, so they wouldn’t even know to look for me. But it was peaceful and so very silent and exciting too. I continued walking through the mountain and after a while the light on the other side did begin to look larger. My imaginations about a collapse provoked me to begin a faster pace and this stimulated my anxiety which in turn prompted me to break into a trot, and then a run in hopes of getting out of the mountain before something calamitous might happen.

The tunnel opened out onto a beautiful gorge and stream, and the trail continued up alongside the waterway and into the mountains. I had heard there were many more caves and tunnels up ahead, although most were short; and up to twenty-eight waterfalls on the trail, with some cascading down onto the trail inside the caves. I had brought an umbrella and light raincoat with me for the day, and a banana or two and a water bottle. I encountered a few other hikers at the beginning and again near the end but other than this the trail was mine. The solitude gave me time to reflect as I hiked alongside the stream, crossed the gorge on several footbridges, and walked through shallow streams, in the darkness of the caves, while water rained down upon me.

Opening an umbrella underground is an incongruous activity and leaves one feeling odd; finding oneself in a torrential downpour while walking through a cave strains our ideas of normalcy. I enjoyed this immensely. I felt alive and free again, as the stream poured down over me through the myriad fissures in the rock overhead; the Year of the female was behind me, and I felt I could breathe once more. I liked nearly all of the women I had travelled to Taiwan with, and all of those I had called my family the past six months, but at the same time I was glad to be alone now, without anyone to answer to, and immersed in beauty.

I emerged from the cave and back into the sunlight, wet and happy. My shoes and socks were soaked through, as were my shorts, but I didn’t mind. All I could see ahead was a wide open freedom calling to me, coaxing me through the next tunnel, across the next foot-bridge, further up into the clouds; and no petty annoyance could keep me grounded here and now. My body was wet and worn, but my spirit was taking flight; I could see beyond this trail into a bright, though unknown future. I had South Korea to visit, then Japan and then the rest of my life to unfold.

(to be continued)

~FS

December 26

A person released from long captivity is not so full of joy as the intellect freed from its attachment to sensible things and winging its way towards the heavenly realm that is its native land.

No one can pray purely if he is constrained by the passions of ostentation and ambition. For the attachments and frivolous thoughts in which these passions involve him will twine around him like ropes and during prayer will drag his intellect down like a fettered bird that is trying to fly.

~Ilias the Presbyter

December 24

Within the visible world, man is as it were a second world; and the same is true of thought within the intelligible world. for man is the herald of heaven and earth, and of all that is in them; while thought interprets the intellect and sense-perceptions, and all that pertains to them. Without man and thought both the sensible and the intelligible worlds would be inarticulate.

~Ilias the Presbyter

Paths of Desire (part 14)

That same year a small group of my friends and I produced a play which one of my friends had written. It was well-received, and this inspired us to work together on additional new productions. Over the next few years we wrote and produced five or six new works, and I came to conclude that there were few things in life that I enjoyed as much as being a part of a team, a small group with a common creative purpose. The exchange of new ideas between us was invigorating, and the process of translating these ideas into a cohesive story that was entertaining and edifying was challenging and purposeful.

One of our productions, I began writing while living oversees in Taiwan. My semester abroad had been organized to take place in Shanghai, China however, several months earlier the Tiananmen Square protests took place, and out of concern for our safety the school administration changed plans and directed us to a language institute in Taichung, Taiwan instead. Each of us were placed with a host family in Taichung for three months while we studied language and culture, and then we moved to the mountains and spent the next three months placed with a different host family in a small village named Luku, which was located in one of the premier green-tea growing regions on the island. My play was loosely autobiographical about my time on the island, within the challenges of living in a new culture and facing conflicting values; but it was primarily about the inner life of the main character and his battle to achieve balance and harmony amidst conflicting forces operating within his soul. These forces were personified predominantly in characters I named ‘Chaos’ and ‘Spirit’ who each fought for preeminence and authority within him and wanted sovereign control and the destruction of the other, but the main character’s struggle was to determine the place each of these forces should play in his life, and create a state of balanced inner peace. I took many of the ideas I was learning that year from Taoism and integrated these concepts into the storyline and the arc of the main character.

This was also the year of the female. This isn’t one of the Chinese zodiac, but it was the overarching, and overwhelming principle of my life in Taiwan. I was the only male in the group that traveled to Taiwan. Our group consisted of six other classmates and our program director, all women, and me. In addition to this I was placed in a host family in Taichung, with three daughters, and all of my professors at the language institute were women.  There were certainly many advantages and enjoyable aspects to this situation but when things got tense and stressful, as they invariably can when traveling for an extended period with others, I was nearly always the odd man out. I was a foreigner in a strange land and a stranger amongst my own people. Being the only male in the group meant that I was unique confidante to my peers one moment, and estranged outcast the next. By the end of the six months in Taiwan, I think I went a little batty.

While living in Taichung I attended a Tai-chi class on the rooftop of a high-rise building downtown. I had bought a scooter from a classmate and braved the streets of this large city, driving it between classes and my host-family’s home near the eastern city limits.  The rides through town were never without some excitement and anxiety since drivers in that city viewed road signs and traffic lights as optional recommendations, and considered sidewalks as an extra lane for traffic. Somehow I managed to survive the months on these city streets without incident, though there were several close misses and narrow escapes. By the time I arrived to my Tai-Chi class, I was in need of the soothing and relaxing effects of this ancient martial art.

One of the touted benefits of Tai-Chi is longevity and youthfulness. Our instructor was the embodiment of these effects since he looked as though he was about eight years old. This comes across as hyperbole, but when I first saw him I thought someone had brought their child along with them to the class. When he walked to the front of the group and began instructing I was completely amazed; by the moonlight I examined him intently, and giving him the benefit of the doubt, I decided he could maybe be as old as twelve. For no other reason than his apparent youthfulness, I was hooked on this class; because I was mesmerized by this man-child and was fascinated to watch him because he defied everything I understood about aging. I didn’t understand him very well since my Mandarin was very basic, but I did learn from others in the class that not only was he an instructor, but he was a master practitioner and an instructor of instructors. So he clearly was an adult, and apparently fully into middle-age, but he was the youngest looking adult I have ever seen. His class was exceptional and the setting was quintessentially exotic. Standing on a rooftop filled with Taiwanese Tai-Chi students, in the middle of their large city, at night, under the silver moonlight was a transcendent and magical experience. Doing so with this age-defying human as our instructor gave it all an air of mystery and fantasy as well.

Luku Township was about an hour scooter ride to the southeast from Taichung. This little village was set amidst deep green mountains and immediately surrounded by verdant terraces lined with rows of Camellia sinensis, from which green tea-leaves are cultivated. We arrived during the harvesting season and the entire town and countryside smelled of green tea. In my new host-family’s home, my bedroom was adjacent to the tea-drying room, in which was a long tumbler with a heater-blower attached, into which leaves were poured and dried. I marinated in the smell of green tea many days and nights, falling asleep to the sound of the tumbler as it rotated, drying the tea leaves; it was a natural and healthy intoxication that I felt throughout the harvest season.

In Luku, laundry was done in the streams which meandered along roadsides. In the center of the town there was an area where most people did their laundry. Laundry was only done by women and by me. In keeping with the Year of the Female, I discovered that I was the only man that did laundry in this stream, and as a by-product of my effort, I also provided the townswomen with new entertainment and cause for hilarity. Seeing me scraping and banging my clothes against the rocks, knee deep in the stream, brought joy to women and children alike, and the fact that I was the only white male in the area, I think added to the peculiarity of it.

It was unadvisable to hike in the countryside here too extensively due to the number of dangerous snakes. Venomous snakes had been bred on the island during WWII and after the war they were released into the wild and they propagated. While I was living in Luku one of the farmers unfortunately encountered one of these snakes while harvesting leaves and he didn’t survive. In addition to venomous snakes you might also encounter a large constrictor which is what happened to me one evening as I was riding my scooter to the town swimming pool. I was riding on a narrow road, flanked on both sides by tall reeds, when I rounded a curve and there, up ahead of me, appeared to be a fallen log across the entire road. As I approached it, a sudden chill went up my spine and I stopped abruptly, as the ‘log’ continued to slither into the reeds. It was a very large snake, perhaps six or seven inches in diameter; I couldn’t see its head, which was somewhere in the reeds to my right, nor could I see its tail which was someplace still back in the reeds to my left. The road had to be at least fourteen feet across, perhaps wider, since two small cars could pass each other on it. This snake continued to slither for quite a while, slowly but steadily before the tail finally came into view. I was completely repulsed, but nevertheless something in me wanted to go up and touch it. I pondered this idea for a moment as I continued to watch it slide off the road to my right, and then I determined it was better to leave this snake alone.

(to be continued…)

~FS

December 23

Raindrops moisten the furrows, and tear-laden sighs rising from the heart soften the soul’s state during prayer.

It is less hard to check the downward flow of a river than for one who prays to check the turbulence of the intellect when he wishes, preventing it from fragmenting itself among visible things and concentrating it on the higher realities kindred to it. This is so in spite of the fact that to check the flow of a river is contrary to nature, while to check the turbulence of the intellect accords with nature.

~Ilias the Presbyter

Paths of Desire (part 13)

My summer Alaska trip had been a complete success, I had made enough money to pay for books the coming year, in addition to some tuition and spending money. Equally important I had a better sense of myself, my strengths and weaknesses in the face of difficulties, and a deeper understanding and compassion for others who find themselves in tough circumstances and need a helping hand, or friendship, or simple kindness.

I had fallen away from organized religion over the past few years, though I still had an inner appreciation and love for my idealized version of it, but I still carried within me many aspects of a social gospel that I had learned while in church; love for the downtrodden, empathy for those that are hurting, willingness to help others where I could. The golden rule had been inculcated within me and though I was by far an imperfect practitioner of it, at least I kept it as a standard to strive towards and measure myself.

I also continued to learn what I could about my inner spiritual life, to notice my inner motivations and my true feelings, and to make sense of the jumble of ideas and thoughts that ran constantly through my head. Meditation and theater rehearsals still provided me with tools and opportunities to practice inner awareness but I was still several years removed from engaging in something approaching spiritual warfare, or an active and consciously applied effort to fight and win against spiritual things detrimental to myself and others; and the time of applying myself to this fight systematically and with ongoing determination would be something I wouldn’t be initiated in, or begin to practice, for quite some time.

To this very point, I recall a conversation I had with my step-mother at the time. She was bringing up some failings of mine, and observing that I was out of control in some significant ways in my life. I couldn’t disagree with her because she was correct, but I explained why I felt this was the case; I offered a comparison of my inner being to a complicated M1 tank. In my view, I had been dropped into myself without an owner’s manual and suddenly I had to learn what all these levers and buttons and controls and screens meant, in order to operate myself properly, and frankly, I hadn’t a clue how to operate myself properly. I was just going through life guessing, and making things up as I went along; doing a little trial and error here, a little self-correcting there, experimenting with this and with that, and hoping I wouldn’t mess up too badly. Admittedly, it was an imperfect practice, and I yearned for something better, but I made the best with what I knew.

Soon after returning to California from Alaska I began my next school year. I started studying Mandarin Chinese in preparation for a semester abroad the following year. I lived on campus, which was situated in the hills south of Petaluma; a bucolic and serene setting perfect for contemplation and immersing oneself in nature. On a daily basis I could watch deer walking by my first floor dorm window and often resident raccoons could be seen congregating around the front door, eating from our dorm-kitty’s food dish. Having grown used to sleeping on the ground in Alaska, and indeed much of my life, I gave my mattress to the facilities manager for safe keeping and spread a colorful Mexican blanket over the plywood bedframe in my dorm room and used this as my bed for the year.

Chinese language and culture appealed to me because of the mystery involved; the written language was so different from my own, and the cultural history, from the various dynasties up through the Long March and the Cultural Revolution was strange and different and captured my imagination. As part of this exploration I began to read the Tao Te Ching, the basic philosophical and religious text of Taoism written by Lao Tzu. It didn’t enthrall me in the same way as the Bhagavad-Gita but I was impressed by the value it placed on things counter-cultural to my way of thinking; things like passivity and weakness which my culture disdains, and the harmony and balance one can achieve when one embraces these alternatives, along with their opposites, in a unified whole.

As a complement to this study I began taking Aikido at a local Dojo in town. While this martial art is from Japan, not China, and Taoism and Aikido don’t share a common lineage, for me Aikido seemed to embody concepts I was learning in Taoism. For instance, in Taoism there is a famous image about the strength of water in relation to rock, and how over time the water is stronger and wears down the rock; while in Aikido, one meets one’s opponent or aggressor in a way similar to water, allowing the force and violence of one’s attacker to flow past one, and to redirect their violent energy into a more constructive energy that harms no one. I enjoyed applying the theory of the Tao in a practical and active method through Aikido.

Against the backdrop of studying Mandarin and my other classes I was also involved in several theatrical productions. As I’ve mentioned earlier, theater was more important to me for what I could learn about myself and about other people and less about the production or the finished product. In our theater community that year, we had a visiting director from Poland who had worked with the renowned Polish director Jerzy Grotowski, so we were excited to learn what he brought with him from his experience. We were working together on a scene from Martin Buber’s play, Elijah and discussing how best to translate Buber’s interpretation of the Biblical account into modern terms to reach a modern audience. In the course of this discussion the director began to speak about Buber’s own philosophy and his method of Biblical interpretation, or hermeneutics. He went on to explain that as actors, writers, producers we are also engaged in hermeneutics in how we approach the text of the play, and how we translate that into action and perform it for an audience. The question was how to make the Biblical story understood to the audience in the deepest, most visceral and dramatic way, simply and without artifice but with sincerity and honesty and power.

This discussion reoriented me and gave my life new purpose. I had never heard the term, hermeneutics before and I was so excited by the prospect of interpreting sacred scripture and joining that to theater for the purpose of making spiritual truths known and understood by an audience. This idea was a seed of a new life’s purpose; I wanted to write plays which would somehow interpret sacred truths in an accessible way, presenting them to an audience so as to make the unknowable knowable, and to inspire and instruct in these truths to open people to hidden realms so they could know that there is more to life than just what we see and touch.

I wanted to bring the mystery down to earth in some way, to battle the cold rationalism, and the narrowness of the literal, data influenced culture of my society where things are only true and only matter if you can prove them beyond a shadow of a doubt, with lots of facts and charts and graphs to prove your point. I knew in the depths of my heart that God wouldn’t be known this way, that He couldn’t be known this way, and my peers were losing faith in droves because they were trying to find Him in the wrong ways and with the wrong means and because of this they were giving up and dismissing faith as a fairy tale. I wanted to reverse that trend.

(to be continued)

~FS