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The Soul Still Trembles …. CMS Link Letter #84

Accumulation – Searching for the Destination

Published today by the Church Mission Society, my latest link letter, click on the link below…

The title, The Soul (Still) Trembles is taken from the exhibition by Shiota Chiharu running at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum until Sunday October 17. Accumulation – Searching for the Destination is the title of one of the exhibits, as mentioned in my link letter…

Accumulation – Searching for the Destination

But the link letter already needs updating! Since I wrote it 2 weeks ago, things have improved further in Taiwan’s pandemic situation, most notably new rules that say facemasks are no longer required outside in ’empty open spaces’, like beaches and mountains. Yippee! Two more countries, Israel and Indonesia have just come off Taiwan’s list of high-risk countries facing enhanced quarantine rules, which now leaves only 3, India, Myanmar and the UK. More good news is that the number of people who have received their first Covid-19 vaccine has now reached the milestone of 60%. The rollout of second vaccines has just started too, though it’s not easy to get a booking locally – I had to go into Taipei on Tuesday for mine, coinciding with Typhoon Kompasu passing by. It was very very wet. #SoakedButVaccinated is the new hashtag. #VaccinesNotWarships could be another, as related to my link letter. Grateful anyway. Peering at the hospital through the rain ……

It’s the time of the year when the Asia-Pacific region has its annual military exercises, plus Mainland China and Taiwan each celebrate their own national days this month with displays of military might and patriotism, so there’s a lot of tension, as you will have seen in the international news. Thanks to all who have sent messages of concern. Taiwan has also been in the international news today after a deadly fire last night in a high-rise residential building in Kaohsiung, at least 46 people known to have died. Such a tragedy. One of our students lives in the same street as that fire, and watched it all happen. Really terrible.

It’s also the time of the year when we have our annual earthquake, tsunami and WanAn air-raid drill, receiving a text message for each event ….

Actually this year’s WanAn air-raid drill was held on the day we were all at the diocesan office in Taipei for our monthly birthday celebration lunch, kindly hosted by Bishop Chang for the diocesan office workers, plus others. In past years we would have to stay put for the 30-minute drill, due to restrictions on movement outside, but this year, due to the pandemic, there were no such restrictions. Anyway we had a wonderful lunch! Thanks to all these lovely people in the photo who helped everything go smoothly at recent church events: Rev. Chia-Kuei Wu’s ordination service, Yu-Lin and San-Yuan’s wedding and Rev. Samuel K. L. Liao’s Memorial Service.

I had cycled to the diocesan office that morning ~ and back in the late afternoon too. It’s such a fun way to commute to Taipei, along the riverside paths and into the city at the Dadaocheng Wharf, passing the RC Cathedral ….

Anyway, back to the typhoon, we had another typhoon a few weeks ago too, also with lots of rain, but not so much wind. Still, a few trees fell down on our St. John’s University (SJU) campus and the sea was rough for days afterwards….

The bank had covered up the SJU ATM machine as a precaution…

Otherwise, in-between typhoons, the SJU campus and the sea down below have been looking beautiful!

Last week, we joined the local junior-high school children from Xian-Xiao on a beach clean-up. The weather was stunning….

And over at the local elementary school, we celebrated Taiwan’s success at the Olympics (photos supplied by the school)….

And we also celebrated the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival with a 4-day weekend. Great chance for mountain climbing – and we went last weekend too. It’s the silvergrass season up in the Yangmingshan Mountains, while elsewhere, like Guanyinshan, its the citrus and chili season, plus spiders galore!

And finally, we all need a good book to read on a long trip to a vaccination centre in a wet and windy typhoon, and I recommend the latest in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Series… it’s so lovely!

Thank you all so much for your support. The soul may still be trembling with all that’s going on in the world, and in this region particularly, but your prayers are most appreciated.

感謝上帝 (Gǎnxiè Shàngdì) Thanks be to God

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!

Cicada Summer: Update from Taiwan 😷

“Nothing in the cry of the cicada suggests they are about to die” やがてしぬけしきはみえずせみのこゑMatsuo Basho, Japan (1690)

Cicada

What a great attitude to have, and especially in the midst of a pandemic! Follow the way of the cicada. Live life as noisily, joyfully and enthusiastically as possible, even if you have no idea what tomorrow will bring. And even if you hate injections. Don’t look, just keep on pressing that camera shutter, and before y’know it, it’s all over!

There’s 4 of these photos, all slightly different, ha ha! 😂

Anyway, this haiku poem by Matsuo Basho really made me laugh, and it feels like it should end in an exclamation mark, cos it is just so true. Nothing, absolutely nothing in the cry of the cicada suggests they are about to die! The cry of the cicada is truly deafening, and it goes on from dawn to dusk, all summer long. On some nights, in the early hours, a sleepless cicada will call for a few minutes and wake up the whole neighbourhood. It sounds like a continuous loud buzz, and apparently can reach 90 decibels, which is a similar frequency to lawn mowers, hedge trimmers and food blenders spinning at top speed. It is the defining sound of summer, and here in Taiwan people say that summer only really starts when the cicadas appear.

This is 20 seconds of their sound I recorded a few days ago down by the sea below St. John’s University. Just listen….

Now in mid-July, the cicadas are coming to the end of their short adult lives. While the tree tops are still full of their sound, down below at ground level, dead and dying adults are starting to fall.

Otherwise they are very difficult to see, though one of our cherry blossom trees finds itself a gathering place (feeding / egg-laying?) for the cicada adults. They let out strong distress calls and take off if someone approaches too close, so I prefer to view them from a distance…

“Most cicadas go through a life cycle that lasts 2–5 years. After mating, the female cuts slits into the bark of a twig where she deposits her eggs. Both male and female cicadas die within a few weeks after emerging from the soil. Although they have mouthparts and are able to consume some plant liquids for nutrition, the amount eaten is very small and the insects have a natural adult lifespan of less than two months. When the eggs hatch, the newly hatched nymphs drop to the ground and burrow. Nymphs have strong front legs for digging and excavating chambers in close proximity to roots, where they feed on xylem sap. In the final nymphal instar, they construct an exit tunnel to the surface and emerge. They then moult, shedding their skins on a nearby plant for the last time, and emerge as adults. The exuviae or abandoned exoskeletons remain, still clinging to the bark of the tree.”

Their abandoned exoskeletons do indeed remain, clinging to the bark of the tree trunks….

They seem like ghosts of time past, and only when you peer inside through their backs, can you see that each one is split open, empty, the body gone. And all around overhead come the calls of the newly-emerged adults shouting down to us to stop wasting our time looking at their empty shells, and instead to look up and see them buzzing around in the tree tops. We’re not down there, they seem to say, we’re up here. Alive and full of hope. Some say they are symbols of resurrection and immortality, the abandoned exoskeletons perhaps reminding us of the abandoned grave clothes in Jesus’ tomb. There are some similarities. But I prefer to think of them more as symbols of transformation, because the nymph, the body inside that abandoned exoskeleton, was not dead, but rather growing and maturing, changing, transforming into an adult. A bit like the caterpillar in the cocoon emerging as a beautiful butterfly.

Anyway, one thing is for sure, absolutely nothing in the cry of the cicada suggests they are about to die. They have such enthusiasm and passion for life!

It was Gandhi who said, ‘Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever’. That’s our challenge!

In the plant world, it’s also coming to the end of the flowering season, with the lotus flowers fading and the seed pods ready for harvest…

And here in Taiwan, we also hope that we are coming to the end to this recent Covid surge. Our case numbers have been going down each week, and we’re now down to less than 30 cases a day, sometimes less than 20.

Overall statistics are 15,378 confirmed cases, of which 13,931 are domestic infections reported since May 15; and 763 deaths, all but 12 of them since May 15 when the current surge began.

As there is still community transmission happening, so the central government has announced that Level 3 alert (of a 4-tier system) continues for a further 2 weeks, but with some restrictions lifted, like the opening of the great outdoors, including parks and mountain hiking trails. Some indoor areas too are opening, like museums, cinemas and some gyms where numbers can be strictly controlled, though with no eating or drinking allowed. The central government also announced the opening up of indoor dining in restaurants, subject to strict guidelines, but all local governments (except for the island chain of Penghu), encouraged by the general public, are treading cautiously and have delayed that decision at the local level for another 2 weeks.

Throughout Taiwan, facemasks are still required outside the home and life continues to be based mostly at home or as local as possible. Facemasks are impossible when swimming, so swimming pools and beaches are still closed. Our local seaside area apparently doesn’t qualify as a beach, so it is spared, and the raised walkway is popular with our local neighbours first thing in the morning for fishing – and exercise. Me too, I’m going every day, usually soon after 5 am, when the sun comes up. Living on the west coast means that we are used to chasing sunsets rather than sunrises, but still, it is possible to get a good view if we get there early enough! These photos are taken from dawn to dusk….

The very good news is that Taiwan’s vaccination program has really moved along in the last few weeks with the arrival of millions of doses donated primarily by Japan and USA, plus some ordered and paid for directly by Taiwan. First dose rounds for the over 65s are more or less complete, and vaccination for the next age group, 50-64 year-olds launched today. I was there, very excited, in Sanzhi Junior High School!

It has taken Taiwan a long time to get to this stage in the vaccination program, and not because Taiwan is a poor country. The money is there to pay for vaccines ordered. But questions about Taiwan’s international status, with possible pressure from Mainland China on governments and on the vaccine companies have resulted in long delays. And with local vaccines now on Phase 3 trials overseas, so we continue to wait for them too. But now, Japan and the USA have each sent Taiwan several million vaccines, and smaller numbers have come from Lithuania and Slovakia, at least partly in response to Taiwan’s generosity last year in sending out donations of facemasks around the world. Astra-Zeneca (AZ) and Moderna are the only 2 kinds that have arrived so far, and for our age group only AZ is available for the next few weeks…

It is true that the USA has not authorized AZ vaccines for public use within the USA, and so is sending them all overseas, and while Japan has approved AZ for the over 60’s, the take up in Japan has been low, so they too are sending many overseas. There are plenty of other countries queuing up with their requests for vaccines, so it is good that Taiwan is high on their list. ‘Beggars can’t be choosers’, as they say, so most of us are happy to take what Japan and the US don’t want, and people who are worried about the possibility of terrible side-effects are waiting for Moderna in a few weeks’ time. Having waited so long, and watched the rest of the world getting their vaccines months ago, so there is a certain air of excitement as everyone registers online, gets their text message to say to go ahead and book, then choosing the time and place for the appointment – plus show off the obligatory photos, taken before and almost after….

Yes, it’s a great feeling to be finally catching up with the rest of the world in the vaccination program. We have learned from this recent Covid surge that complacency is dangerous, and that we cannot just rely on strict border controls in the future. It is up to us all to do our bit, to work together for the good of society as a whole. Seeing everyone’s enthusiasm to sign up for vaccinations, even AZ vaccine with its famous side-effects, is really quite amazing. Hope is renewed.

Frangipani

It all takes me right back to the cicadas and their enthusiasm to celebrate life, even though they are soon about to die. I guess they don’t worry too much about that. Once they break out of those old exoskeletons and fly off to the tree tops, transformed, so they leave behind all the old stuff that contained and restricted them for so long. For just these few weeks, they are free to fly around and fill the world with their cries as they try and find a mate, and so start the cycle again. For us, the transformation may be less physical. After all, much as we might like to break out from all that contains and limits us under Taiwan’s current Level 3 Restrictions, it is impossible. For one thing, everywhere we go, even in the high humidity and 35°C temps of summer, and even in the remotest place, like the newly-opened-up mountain trails, we still have to wear a facemask. And if people don’t, then we worry about getting too close to them. So, any transformation for us will have to happen in our minds and hearts.

Maybe that’s where faith comes in, as we pray for God to release us from our fears, worries and despair about the pandemic, even as it continues to worsen for our friends in neigbouring countries of Indonesia, Myanmar, Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines and Vietnam. May God transform our fears and worries into faith, and our despair into hope and joy. And may we celebrate with the cicadas the joy of just being alive here and now, filled with hope in this present moment!

Advent Church Centre & Labyrinth

Thank you again for your ongoing concern and prayers, all much appreciated ~ and if I have any side-effects from today’s vaccine, I’ll let you know next time. Until then, enjoy this photo of dawn breaking over Advent Church at 5:00 am this morning….. it was such a stunning sight!

(With the exception of the first cicada photo, which I took last year, all photos were taken this month in or around St. John’s University, Taiwan)

PS Updated July 18, 2021: I have since been reminded by my Taiwan friends of the phrase, ‘金蟬脫殼’: 1) lit. the cicada sheds its carapace (idiom); fig. to vanish leaving an empty shell 2) a crafty escape plan. Wikipedia describes it thus: “The cicada symbolises rebirth and immortality in Chinese tradition. In the Chinese essay “Thirty-Six Stratagems“, the phrase “to shed the golden cicada skin” (金蟬脫殼) is the poetic name for using a decoy (leaving the exuviae) to fool enemies.” More food for thought!

‘The Meaning is in the Waiting’: Update from Taiwan 😷

“Moments of great calm, / Kneeling before an altar / Of wood in a stone church / In summer, waiting for the God / To speak; the air a staircase / For silence; the sun’s light / Ringing me, as though I acted / A great role. / And the audiences / Still; all that close throng / Of spirits waiting, as I, / For the message. / Prompt me, God; / But not yet. When I speak, / Though it be you who speak / Through me, something is lost. / The meaning is in the waiting.” (‘Kneeling’ by R. S. Thomas)

What a great poem for a pandemic! Though R. S. Thomas was hardly the most cheerful of poets, some of his more melancholic poems, like this one, ‘Kneeling’, seem fitting for a time like this. Like everything else, our church here is closed – so we’re not kneeling in a church as such – but the sentiment remains, many of us searching for meaning as we wait for this pandemic to run its course.

‘The meaning is in the waiting’. Well perhaps, anyway. But really we have little choice but to wait, and so we do just that, wait. And hope. And pray. And wonder about the meaning of life in pandemic times.

Taiwan has now been on Level 3 restrictions since May 15, the day that Taiwan’s recent Covid-19 surge really began. We’ve been more or less grounded in our local areas ever since. The first 3 weeks of the surge were fairly chaotic, but by the beginning of June, things seemed to be calmer, and numbers started to stabilize and then fall. From a height of 535 daily cases on May 17, the general trend in numbers is steadily downwards; we’ve now had several days in a row with less than 100 cases. Today the reported figures are 54 confirmed cases and 8 deaths.

Current overall statistics are 14,748 confirmed cases, of which over 13,300 are domestic infections reported since May 15; and 643 deaths, including 631 since May 15. The vast majority of cases continue to be in the Greater Taipei area, and virtually all of the Alpha Variant. So far, the Delta Variant has appeared only in a cluster of 14 confirmed cases in the far south of Taiwan, but fear of it spreading and / or coming into the country with arriving passengers has led to increased travel restrictions on arrivals from 7 countries where Delta is a major problem, including the UK.

Level 3 restrictions are now scheduled to last until July 12. The government has extended it by 2 weeks each time, so we expect another announcement a few days before July 12 as to what will happen next. Vaccines are slowly arriving, donated so far by Japan, USA and Lithuania, with others ordered through COVAX and direct from vaccine companies. Some have been delivered, but the political and logistical problems are immense, so each actual arrival of vaccines is a cause for much rejoicing. The vaccination program has a clear list of priority groups and is strictly administered, currently they are vaccinating frontline workers, care home residents and those over 75 with their first dose. Vaccination Statistics: Total doses given: 1.93 million, people fully vaccinated with 2 doses: 36,700, which is 0.2% of the population. Clearly we have a long way to go. Thankful for progress so far, the rest of us wait for more vaccines to arrive, then another wait for our turn in the line.

In other good news, there’s been lots of heavy rain in the last few weeks in central and southern Taiwan, and reservoirs are being well replenished. Our worst drought for over 50 years may well now be a thing of the past. The typhoon season is already here, so we hope for more rain this summer. We’ve had rain up here in Greater Taipei as well, it’s so refreshing. And there’s been rainbows too, lots of them! It’s also the lotus season. Check out these nearby fields of delicate pink lotus flowers…

With the end of the school year, so our university campus is very quiet. Much is cordoned off, including our basketball nets and footpaths, gates are locked and there are signs all over with instructions for what to do and what not to do. Usually at this time of year, our student fellowship along with Advent Church members would be busy preparing for our annual summer camps for local children, but for the first time ever, they’ve all been cancelled, so it’s even quieter than usual. Our students have now gone off to find summer jobs, but with all the local restaurants closed, many are finding it difficult. For those in financial need, we are providing meal coupons to keep them going over the summer.

St. John’s University Campus

It’s high summer, with temperatures in their 30’s all day, top 20’s all night and high humidity all the time. Today it says it’s ‘32°C, feels like 40’. This comes just after sweltering our way through the hottest month of May since 1947, average temperature 27.8°C. All that sun means our solar panels, which cover almost every flat roof on the campus, are put to good use…

High summer also means we are inundated with cicadas, famously the world’s noisiest insects. From sunrise to sunset they make their presence felt, it is truly deafening! Inside, I have all windows open to let the breeze through, with electric fans blowing in all directions, rather than relying on air-conditioning. With cicadas chirping and fans blowing, a ‘quiet’ campus is definitely a misnomer. Very nice though to see a kingfisher here a few days ago, enjoying a quiet early morning visit to the pond.

Sunrise from St. John’s University with the solar panels on the library building in the foreground

Just outside the campus on the road to the sea, the abandoned buildings, like this old factory, add to the silence, reminders of times gone by….

while down at the sea, below the campus, the rhythm of the day is decided by the tides as much as by the sun. At one end of the small bay is an abalone farm, where the abalone are kept in tanks of bubbling water under black mesh…

and at low tide, the workers go along to the other end of the bay to collect up the seaweed which they then feed to the abalone.