Circling Around @ The Still Point of the Turning World: Update from Taiwan 😷

“Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future / And time future contained in time past… / Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind / Cannot bear very much reality. / Time past and time future / What might have been and what has been / Point to one end, which is always present…

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; / Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is, / But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity, / Where past and future are gathered…

After the kingfisher’s wing / Has answered light to light, and is silent, the light is still / At the still point of the turning world…”

A few extracts from T. S. Eliot’s Burnt Norton (1935), part of Four Quartets ~ to set the scene for this update from Taiwan…

‘Circling Around @ The Still Point of the Turning World’ kind of describes what it all feels like. After our recent Covid-19 surge that arrived with a bang in mid-May, so Taiwan managed to contain the spread over the summer, and case numbers have gone way down to single figures, and on several days to zero. Having spent until the end of July under Level 3 Restrictions, we are now on Level 2, with facemasks compulsory everywhere outside the home, only taken off for eating and drinking. So life now proceeds with considerable normality, and we’ve got used to all the mandatory temperature checks, QR codes, facemasks, social distancing, hand sanitizer and crowd controls. Most people are still staying local, but hey, there’s still plenty to do locally. Over the last month, swimming pools and beaches reopened, indoor dining restarted, restrictions on national parks and mountain areas mostly lifted. In fact, the last full week of August, we had a week off, and so I was able to go to our local mountain areas, Yang-Ming Shan, Guan-Yin Shan and Chingshan Waterfall. Plenty of fruits, fungi, flowers, butterflies and views….

Although Taiwan as a whole is under Level 2 Restrictions, and gradually opening up, some areas up here in the north are seeing cluster infections, and further restrictions can / are / may suddenly be reimposed with immediate effect. Taoyuan has one Delta cluster – centred around 3 pilots, that has infected the teenage son of one of the pilots, but so far seems contained. Unconnected to that group is a different Delta cluster in the Greater Taipei area, centred on a kindergarten in southern Taipei (part of ‘New Taipei City’) with 23 confirmed cases so far. As a result, New Taipei City has today just announced ‘Enhanced Level 2 Restrictions’. Sports centers and places like libraries are to close for a week, and indoor dining is suspended. Yesterday they announced that 50 is now the max number of people allowed to gather inside, 100 outside, down from 80 / 300. This affects us, not only our Sunday services, but also St. John’s University (SJU), which started ‘Freshers Week’ (well, 3 days rather than a week) today, so adjustments to the program have been necessary. The training program for the student leaders for Freshers Week took place these past 2 days, assisted by our student fellowship. It finished with a ceremony in Advent Church yesterday, part of which included Bishop Lennon Y. R. Chang (as chair of the SJU trustees) and some of the alumni taking part in foot-washing, as they washed the feet of the student leaders…

Schools have been closed since mid-May, when classes moved online for 6 weeks or so, and then the school holidays began. The new academic year began on Wednesday September 1. Back to school has overlapped with Ghost Month, the 7th lunar month, which only ended on September 6. Many school principals, teachers and parents were worried about starting school in Ghost Month during a pandemic. Double trouble. Some schools held ‘bai-bai’ ceremonies in honour of the ghosts, to reassure parents and children of a peaceful return to school. These photos are taken from the facebook page of one of our local schools:

September 1 was also the day I returned for my first visit to the diocesan office in Taipei City since mid-May, cycling by You Bike from Tamsui. Starting out very early, though it was already 30°C, it usually takes about 80-90 minutes, first along the river to the historic Dadaocheng Wharf, and then into the city, joining all the commuters on their motorcycles….

By the time I came home mid-afternoon by a slightly different route passing the art museum, it was 36°C….

In the midst of all this so-called normal life, we have a huge vaccination program going on. Until now, virtually the only people in Taiwan who are fully vaccinated with 2 doses are medical workers, the rest of us are still waiting for vaccines to arrive, either donated by governments, or ordered by the Taiwan Government under the Covax scheme. In recent weeks, Taiwan’s own vaccine, Medigen has been released for use as well, but it’s come a bit too late for those who have already had a first dose of another brand and want the second dose to be the same. A total of 400,000 doses of the AstraZeneca (AZ) Covid-19 vaccine donated by Poland arrived in Taiwan on September 5, making it Taiwan’s third-largest vaccine donor, after Japan (3.4 million doses of AZ) and the United States (2.5 million doses of Moderna). Poland is also the 4th EU member state to have pledged vaccine donations to Taiwan, following Lithuania (20,000 doses of AZ), Slovakia (10,000 doses, unspecified) and the Czech Republic (30,000 doses of Moderna). Improving diplomatic relationships between Taiwan and Lithuania (thereby resulting in deteriorating relationships between China and Lithuania) are a developing story, affecting the wider EU.

And the effect of people’s own political views on vaccinations? Well, while almost everyone seems to be planning to be vaccinated at some point, which vaccine they choose can be determined by their political views. For political reasons, Chinese vaccines are not available in Taiwan. Suffice it to say that those supporting Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-Wen and the DPP, who are more strongly Taiwanese, and include a lot of younger people, they are far more likely to get the locally made vaccines, like Medigen ~ in fact many already have. I would have done too if it had been available earlier. Those supporting the opposition KMT, who may also be protesting against the government’s focus on what they see as developing local vaccines at the expense of importing overseas vaccines, are far more likely to be waiting for a vaccine approved by the American FDA or at least one that they hope can allow them to travel freely overseas, like Moderna. The good news is that second vaccinations of AZ for seniors should start next week, and the following week, Taiwan will begin vaccination of 1.25 million young people, aged 12-17, with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, all free and all voluntary of course. So far 44.96 % of Taiwan’s 23.5 million population have received one shot of a Covid-19 vaccine, but only 4.1 % have had the two doses needed to be fully vaccinated.

Today’s figures announced at the daily 2:00 pm press conference were 7 domestic cases (including 6 connected with the kindergarten cluster) and 2 imported cases, with zero deaths. The 9 new cases bring the total in Taiwan to 16,056, of which 14,393 are domestic infections reported since May 15, when the country first recorded more than 100 Covid-19 cases in a single day. To date, 837 people have died of Covid-19 in Taiwan, including 825 since May 15.

The Taiwan Episcopal Church runs 8 kindergartens, scattered from north to south, with a total of about 1,000 children and staff. The one I know best is St. James, Taichung, where I was based for the first 7 years of my time in Taiwan. Please do pray for them all. Our kindergartens also serve as daycare centres for children aged 2½ – 6, open all day and all year long, and have after-school classes for elementary school children in the afternoons and early evenings too. They are busy places, and as we are seeing in Taipei, they are also vulnerable to cluster infections of Covid-19. It is a worrying time for parents, teachers and children. Extra worrying because the birth rate is falling dramatically, so kindergartens are competing with each other for pupils, and the last thing kindergartens want is a Covid-19 cluster and the negative attention it will bring. Records and predictive modeling show that “Enrollment at elementary schools is to decline by 16,000 students per year, falling to fewer than 1 million by 2029 and to 923,000 by 2036.” That’s a challenge for all. And further up the age groups, for higher education institutions like St. John’s University too. About 70 new students are expected for this Freshers Week, which does not include overseas students, they’re still awaiting visas and quarantines, so may come next semester instead. As a comparison, when I first came to SJU over 10 years ago, we would have 1,500 new students attending Freshers Week. Bishop Chang, SJU trustees, SJU President Huang, faculty and staff are constantly in consultation and working on downsizing, readjusting and realigning. Your prayers are appreciated for SJU too.

Three weeks ago, as part of our week off, I took off on the You Bike as dawn broke (already 30°C) and rode up the bicycle path that winds north around the coast, then on the coast road past the northern tip of Taiwan, the nuclear power stations, Dharma Drum Mountain, Juming Sculpture Park, and plenty more – all the way along to the Yehliu Geopark, where the rock formations are stunning. The most famous is the much-admired and closely-guarded Queen’s Head….

Queen’s Head, Yehliu

though her neck is getting thinner and thinner due to erosion. Ah, it was a great day out!…

And on the Sunday I also went by bus all the way further round the northern coast to Keelung, the main centre for the Ghost Festival ceremonies, being held most evenings. These were the dragon lanterns down on the quayside….

I was there to visit St. Stephen’s Church, where our newly-ordained Rev. Chen Ming-You was preaching – Rev. Julia Shu-Hua Lin is the vicar. It’s a great place to visit! As I had left on the 6:00 am bus, I got there over an hour early. The seniors who gathered with me for a photo at St. Stephen’s Church were already there, they had all arrived over an hour early for the service too. I was most impressed!

Meanwhile, it still feels like we’re all circling round the still point of the turning world. As the seasons change slowly and summer turns to autumn, so the lazy hazy days of high heat and humidity come to an end and the school year starts up again. The church calendar progresses in its own stately way, while the lunar calendar brings its colourful noisy festivals (next one up is the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival in 2 weeks time) with long weekends and family reunions. And so we follow the rhythm of it all, day by day, week by week. That’s the turning world. But throw a pandemic into the mix, and it turns it all upside down. Thinking back these past few months of the Covid surge under Level 3 Restrictions, and moving from ‘Time Past to Time Present’, we’re all ‘wondering what might have been and what has been’. All the summer camps we had to cancel, all the trips we couldn’t take, the friends we couldn’t see, the places we couldn’t go. ‘Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind / Cannot bear very much reality.’ Too true. We move on, into Time Future, the start of a new school year, and yet not quite so smoothly. Uncertainty reigns. If these Covid clusters get out of control, we’ll be back in Level 3. How can we make plans if nothing is certain? How can we invite people to an event ~ and then face having to uninvite them if numbers need to be reduced? Who to uninvite? Or can we rely on some to uninvite themselves? Taiwan culture is deeply traditional at heart, and such decisions are difficult. Cultural conundrums indeed. And so we circle round the still point of the turning world, slowing down to look and reconsider, not daring to touch, not daring to breathe, because it’s not over yet.

Taiwan’s Minister of Health, Chen Shi-Chung at the daily Press Conference

Recently, down at the sea, before sunrise, there were fireflies along the beach, flying over the seashore, and later a kingfisher flying from rock to rock along the water’s edge. ‘After the kingfisher’s wing / Has answered light to light, and is silent, the light is still / At the still point of the turning world.’ Sometimes the sea and sky seem to merge into each other on the horizon, and the light is still. Time to breathe in wonder. But sometimes it’s wild down there. Today’s News reports say a strong typhoon is developing in the Pacific Ocean and heading towards Taiwan at the end of this week. It seems that Typhoon Chanthu (璨樹) has jumped from a tropical depression to a Category 4 typhoon within 24 hours. So much for a ‘still point’. Typhoons have a still point at the centre, with the gale-force winds circling around, but we don’t go out looking, that’s for sure.

‘At the still point, there the dance is.’ Maybe the fireflies have found the still point ~ the way they dance around is really lovely. And the kingfisher too, though not dancing as such. ‘But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity, / Where past and future are gathered…’ Maybe the ‘dance’ is the joy and anticipation of the old people who gather an hour early each Sunday for the service at St. Stephen’s Church. Maybe the ‘dance’ is the act of serving those young student leaders through washing their feet that Bishop Chang and the other SJU alumni feel is so important that they gather to do so every year. Maybe the ‘dance’ is me getting to the top of the mountain after a hot and humid climb in a facemask, seeing the view open up below and stopping to breathe. Or enjoying early morning coffee with friends, having walked up with them to Chingshan Waterfall before breakfast. Or making it by You Bike to the diocesan office just in time for the morning service at 8:30 am, and enjoying the cool air of the AirCon and blowing fans. Maybe the ‘dance’ is the Holy Spirit at work in our lives, bringing love, hope, joy and peace.

And then again, maybe it’s just the way we look at things. The first 2 photos of this blog post of circular buildings with blue sky are just buildings I pass on my way to Taipei. You can do anything with a photo app these days. One is the Ministry of Communication and Transport, near the diocesan office in Taipei, the others are apartment blocks by the river in Tamsui….

Just shows that maybe the ‘still point’ can be found anywhere, as long as we keep our eyes and ears open, our senses alert. Anywhere in time or space, in fact. And then, if and when we find the still point, that’ll be where we find the dance. Thanks be to God! So keep searching, keep looking, keep wondering!

2 thoughts on “Circling Around @ The Still Point of the Turning World: Update from Taiwan 😷”

  1. All so very interesting. I hope that you all mange to have your vaccinations, whatever kind. Here we still have many cases but have come out of lockdown. I will have my flu jab today and then i think we will probably be having booster doses of the Covid vaccination. I pray you all keep well. Anne

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