Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Earth & Altar

Wow. What an amazing book; very challenging. I finished reading it tonight as I sipped a hot chocolate at Starbucks all by myself, which is worth italicizing. I really like Eugene Peterson, and would like to buy about a half dozen more of his titles. Maybe I can get my parents to bring them when they come.

Earth & Altar covers eleven Psalms and shows how praying them will help release us from the self-centeredness that not only stunts our own growth but damages society as well. Lots of good stuff, but the last chapter was particularly relevant. Here's a bit of it, as Peterson delves into Ps. 45, a wedding song. He is describing the bride, a princess marrying a king in another land:
She is in a strange country. She is in unfamiliar territory, addressed in strangely accented speech, away from the cozy securities of friends and family. She is full of longings for what she has left. As long as she is attached to her childhood and her family and her customs (that is, the things that certified her acceptance and significance), she is incapable of a new venture in love.
He goes on to say:
Love launches us into new territory. To explore the new, the old must be left. It means leaving earlier levels of accomplishment and relationship and growing into new ones. Every act of love is a risk of the self. There are no guarantees in love. Much can go wrong: we can get hurt; we can be rejected; we can be deceived. But without risking these perils there can only be a repetition of old patterns, the routinization of old comforts.
And then he addresses the self:
The self cannot be itself if it does not grow, and for a creature made in the image of God to grow is to love. No living being can be static.... Self love is obsessed with keeping what it has and adding a little more of the same. That is why it is so boring. There is never anything new to say, nothing new to discover. Self-love assesses its position by what is has and is panicked at the thought of losing any of it. Forced into new relationships, into new situations, its first consideration is not of the new fields for love but of the appalling prospects of loss. So it clings. It holds. And it whines.
This has been my struggle over the last five years, knowing that great possibilities lie before me if I will only let go of the familiar. Easier said than done, although I'd like to think I've made some progress.

The book has been republished under the title, "Where Your Treasure Is." I recommend it highly.

Across the wall

This is a picture I snapped last week of the old woman who lives next door. She and her son were walking around the dirt lot that used to be her husband's guava orchard (before it became a giant rock-sifting facility and place where trees come to die). The house is quiet now, so I think she may have moved in with one of her children. One of her sons comes by a few times a week to help pick guava, but other than that it's feeling pretty deserted.

I hope I'm not coming across as some kind of stalker here. This has been a fairly public episode of their lives, and I have been intrigued, eager to glean what I can from it. How we handle death reveals so much about our culture as well as who we are as individuals. I find it fascinating.

Pineapple fields forever...

I will show great restraint and not use any more Beatles allusions. (You're welcome to hum along in your own head, though.)

This is a view of the pineapples, taken from our roof eight floors up. Not a great shot, but I did say I'd post one, so here it is. I'd like to get some close-ups of the women who work in the fields, but I'm too shy. It would require me to go walking through the rows, uninvited, and then stand there with camera in hand, butchering the little Mandarin I know as I try to explain my intentions – either that, or just boldly start taking pictures. Neither option appeals. I need to get over myself or get a better camera.

I did try to photograph the women last fall. They were working near our school and would take their midday break in the shade of the trees near our gate. Nora and I would deliver lunch to Tim and Cole, and the ladies, crouched over their noodles and tea, would smile and pat Nora's arm as we went by. After lunch, though, on our return home, we'd find the whole group of them sacked out on the sidewalk (never the grass, perhaps because of the spiders, whose little wispy webs dot the lawn in the mornings). Lying on their sides, the women would pull their coats over their heads and just check out for an hour or so. Shou syi, I think it's called – like siesta. A few times I had my camera ready, so I could snap a shot as we passed, but someone would always raise her head as I came near, and I would chicken out. Maybe that's for the best. It doesn't seem right to treat your neighbors as anthropological subjects, even though on one level that is what they are. It's the other, deeper level of our shared humanity that stops me. I wouldn't want someone to be so brazen in their curiosity of how I live. Well, come to think of it, people here are brazen in their curiosity of how I live. But I don't particularly like it, so I try not to do the same to them.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Thoughts on Geisha

I finished Memoirs of a Geisha the other night. Quite a good read. I hear the movie is well done, too; maybe Tim and I can see it next week. I like Taiwan; I like Chinese people and their culture – but I have to say that they've got nothing on Japan when it comes to raising everyday life to an art form. I used to lump the two cultures together as being artistically sensitive, and while the Chinese have produced amazing art over the centuries, the appreciation of beauty has not been incorporated into the common life here as much as it has in Japan.

The Japanese occupied Taiwan for fifty years (1895-1945). There is still evidence of that in the architecture, the language, even the faces of people, particularly here in the south of the island. The Japanese started the first schools for the deaf in Taiwan, and the local sign language still bears the mark (like Laurent Clerc's French influence on American Sign Language, albeit under very different circumstances). My impression is that most young people here hold a positive opinion of Japan. I came across this article, however, that outlines mainland China's position (and political strategy) that she and Taiwan are united against a common foe: Japan. I don't imagine that this will be very effective, especially with the younger generation here not only lacking the first-hand experience of living under Japanese occupation, but in general wanting to be much more like Japan.

So, any suggestions on what I should read next?

Winter's chill

Oh, wait, that's just the A/C.

Yes, the air-con is on again - just for a few hours last night, and just in the dining room, but this might be the beginning of summer. Our west-facing bedroom wall was warm to the touch (after two months of being cool and clammy). Once it starts giving off heat then the bedroom A/C will be called into play, too. Lots of fog these last few mornings, which I think means the temperature's making a big jump in the mornings. The humidity is up, as well.

I just added a weather sticker to my sidebar so you can check all this youself, if you're so inclined.

Not much news, otherwise. Tim is headed up to Taipei to photograph a basketball tournament this weekend. While he's gone I'm going to try to get our guest room into shape - my parents are coming in about two weeks. (Yay!) And maybe I can catch a game tonight with the guys – Citadel or Puerto Rico or Settlers. This is quite a partying group of missionaries here. No joke.

Well, Nora is patiently sitting at my feet, waiting to go out and swing, so I better scoot. More soon.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Aren't we forgetting someone?

This doesn't have anything to do with Taiwan, but when I read this story from The Observer, I recognized this man immediately as a fellow third-born:
A British man kidnapped in Iraq and held for five days by armed men who threatened to behead him was rescued last week by American special forces and astonished to discover that no one had noticed he was missing.

I feel for him, man.

What I know is...

We had an earthquake last week – not big, but enough to get my attention as I was drifting off to sleep. I mention it because I had been expecting an earthquake for several days prior. It's nothing more than being in tune with the cycles of things – I'm not claiming any special power here – but we seemed due for one, and then there it was. (This happened before the quake in November, too.) I'm not all that fond of earthquakes, but there is some comfort in knowing a place so well.

I've been thinking of the other peculiar ways I know Taiwan. My butter and salt tell me the weather (butter stays hard on cold days, and my dish of sea salt clumps up in the humidity, even when there's no discernible change inside the house). I know what color the sky turns before a big storm, although I am still caught off guard when we have rainy days in the dry season. I heard shooshing in the street this morning and thought, "What is that?" Thirty-some years in Washington should have taught me by now.

I know what other drivers are thinking, or at least I can predict the moves they're going to make. (Whether there's a thought process behind the action is sometimes debatable.) I enjoy the organic nature of driving here, like water seeking the most natural course. It's best not to fight it.

I know when people are surreptitiously photographing my children at Costco, and I can spot fellow foreigners by the way they move (as well as by the content of their carts).

I can identify almost all of the kids in our building by their various cries.

I know that congealed chicken blood tastes lovely until you know what it is.

I know how to say what I want at McDondald's, but I also know that the order will not be right.

I know that my Chinese teacher will utter the words, "What I know is..." at least once in every conversation. It always makes me smile.

I know which parking garages can accommodate our very tall Toyota Zace, including the ones that say they're too low but really aren't.

I know how coin-op grocery carts work.

I know how to use chopsticks, and how not to use them, which is just as important.

I know that I may pick my nose in public (although I don't), but never my teeth (which I sometimes do). I know I use more paper napkins when I eat beef noodles then anyone else around me. I don't know how they do it.

I know my European shoe size, my children's heights in centimeters, and what to wear when it's 16º, 21º, or 34ºC.

I know what it's like to be almost famous. We are stared at, approached, photographed, and whispered about wherever we go. Sometimes it's flattering, and sometimes just annoying.

I know there's a reason we're here, and I know there will come a time to leave. I don't know the details on either count, but God does, and that is good enough for now.

I know the next few years are going to be interesting.

Sunday, January 15, 2006


Time for a babysitting update:

Su Ruong did not, in fact, come back, but she very kindly found us a replacement. Sandy was able to come for about a month, until her nursing intership began in December. (We had fewer tears with Sandy.) She, in turn, introduced us to Rebecca, who was with us for a few weeks (she is also a nursing student), and who sometimes brought her friend Twiggy along. When Rebecca's time was up she found us Star. I understand that Star is available for two weeks, including her first visit this past Thursday. No other prospects on the horizon, so Nora may be tagging along to Bible study for a while. She behaves well, but I would prefer to go alone and not have to divide my attention.

The one good thing to come out of the whirlwind of sitters is that Nora barely makes a peep when I step out the door now. She's also good with names. When Star left last week I prompted Nora, "Say goodbye!" And she complied: "Goodbye, Star. Goodbye, Rebecca. Goodbye, Sandy. Goodbye, Twiggy. Goodbye! See you next time! Dzai Jien!"

I'll have to teach her to say "Next!" in Chinese.

Thursday, January 12, 2006


More exercise is on my horizon. Not as a New Year's resolution (my last one was circa 1989: "No more resolutions"), but as an avoidance technique. I bought a new pair of Levi's last week at Costco. No fitting room, of course, so I bought a size that resembles my impression of myself and took them home. I find that I can get all five buttons done, but another inch in the waist would have been nice. However, making a return is about as appealing as gum surgery, so I'll hit the treadmill instead. I have no gripe with my bathroom scale (don't worry, Mom!), but it would help to get a bit firmer in places.

I don't usually buy clothes at Costco - or anywhere in Taiwan - but my favorite jeans have reached a critical stage of fragmentation. A spot below the right rear pocket is going threadbare, to the point that I've been using duct tape to keep the weft in place. I tape it on the inside, which actually works pretty well. (I dropped this bit of information into conversation the other night when I was compared to Dennis the Menace's mother - you know, the perfectly polished appearance belying the fact that she's about to pull her hair out. I think my tailoring technique put a damper on that idea.)

Despite my long-standing no-resolutions resolution, I feel an urge this year to make changes: more discipline, more writing, more stretching, and stretching my boundaries, particularly regarding speaking Chinese. (Some people live in Taiwan for years and years yet speak very little of the language; I understand why it happens, but I don't want it to happen to me.) My first priority, though, is to get into a better devotion habit. I've been reading a lot of Bible-related texts lately, but if I'm going to get anything out of them I have got to spend more time in quiet meditation. Our women's Bible study is beginning a new book on prayer, so I'm hopeful that it will get me moving in the right direction.

Chinese New Year is right around the corner. I don't know if there is a resolution aspect to it; I know it's a time to be with family and to clean the house. Old debts must be paid (which leads to an increase in property theft this time of year), and red envelopes full of cash are handed out quite generously to the children. In our village it's a week of drinking and fireworks, each for casting out various demons. This will be the Year of the Dog, which happens to be my year (so for those of you who don't know how old I am, I have narrowed it down to a multiple of 12). This supposedly makes me loyal, which is not a bad attribute. I'm not a dog person, though, in general. I hope they don't kick me out of the club.

I feel like we're in a lull at the moment, with the Western holidays just behind us and the Chinese holidays over the next hill. It's good to have a breather. My parents are coming in a few weeks, which we're all very excited about. But for now I feel a bit empty, with not a lot to say (she says, 500 words later). The pineapple fields have been lovely these recent mornings, mellow browns and greens with a bit of gloss to them. I've been meaning to get a picture from the roof so you can see the patterns in them. That's a theme I've wanted to pursue, photographically: order in chaos, the places where the human hand has brought a bit of control to an otherwise unruly landscape. I think I'll work on that for next time. Stay tuned.