Brief bio sketch

Lloyd Haft (1946- ) was born in Sheboygan, Wisconsin USA and lived as a boy in Wisconsin, Louisiana and Kansas. In 1968 he graduated from Harvard College and went to Leiden, The Netherlands for graduate study in Chinese (M. A. 1973, Ph. D. 1981). From 1973 to 2004 he taught Chinese language and literature, mostly poetry, at Leiden. His sinological publications include Pien Chih-lin: A Study in Modern Chinese Poetry (1983/2011; published in Chinese translation as 发现卞之琳: 一位西方学者的探索之旅 in 2010) and Zhou Mengdie’s Poetry of Consciousness (2006). His most recent sinological book, a liberal modern Dutch reading of Laozi's Daode jing, was published as Lau-tze's vele wegen by Synthese in September 2017. His newest book of poems in Dutch, Intocht (Introit) has been available as a POD from the American Book Center since June 2018.

He has translated extensively into English from the Dutch of Herman Gorter and Willem Hussem, and from the Chinese of various poets including Lo Fu, Yang Lingye, Bian Zhilin and Zhou Mengdie.

Since the 1980s he has also been active as a poet writing in Dutch and English. He was awarded the Jan Campert Prize for his 1993 bilingual volume Atlantis and the Ida Gerhardt Prize for his 2003 Dutch free-verse readings of the Psalms (republished by Uitgeverij Vesuvius in 2011). His newer poems are published (some republished) on this blog. His newest book of poetry in Dutch is Intocht (Introit), issued by the American Book Center in June 2018.

After early retirement in 2004, for a number of years Lloyd Haft spent much of his time in Taiwan with his wife Katie Su. In June 2019 he was named a Distinguished Alumnus of National Taiwan Normal University. In addition to writing and translating, his interests include Song-dynasty philosophy and taiji quan. For many years he sang in the choir of a Roman Catholic church of the Eastern Rite in The Hague.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Muus and the Tai Chi Masters (story; Part 6 of 8)

(from Strange Tales from a Sinological Studio 漢齋誌異 by Lloyd Haft)

With her whole weight resting on the needle-sharp point of one white heel between the pebbles of the driveway and the unweighted leg arching gracefully ahead and slightly to one side, like a tai chi adept Vera brought up her hands in an easy, floating motion. One hand carried the lighter to her mouth while the other shielded it from the wind. The posture reminded me of ‘Step Up to the Stars,’ I thought, standing next to her and doing my best to fight off Matt.
I could see she had been crying. I was going to lay my hand on her shoulder but she caught my hand halfway. Wrapping my wrist in her hand, she pressed her thumb into my palm.
        ‘How’d it go?’ I asked.
        She nodded. ‘I’m glad I went back. I’m really starting to worry about Ed. He gets to feeling like the whole world rejects him, and then sometimes I’m afraid he might do something rash, the way he just sits there in the house all alone – ’ Matt had put both his front paws on her and looked about to leap up. She took him in both arms. ‘Oh, Matty, Matty, why must you be so jealous? Can’t Mommy just talk to Daaf for a minute? Come on, Mommy still loves you!’ The smoke from the cigarette in her mouth, thinning out in the morning air and blending with the scent from the jasmines along the driveway, reached my nostrils. I was enjoying it when suddenly we heard a scream from inside the house.
        Through the window we could see Muus standing behind the couch. His hands were pressing down on Jiang Wei’s shoulders. Wei sat balled up on the couch laughing.
‘Well,’ I said, ‘looks like everybody’s cheered up a little, at least. Let’s go see how they’re doing!’ I tapped against the window. Muus and Wei looked up and I pointed to the kitchen door.
        At the door, Vera was going to stay outside to finish her cigarette, but Muus grabbed her arm and pulled her inside. ‘Don’t be ridiculous! Even in this Americanized day and age, it’s still legal to let your friends smoke in your own house!’ He put his arm around her and kissed her cheek.
Surprised but sportsmanlike, she kissed him back. ‘Should I make a pot of coffee?’ she asked.
        ‘Good idea!’ said Muus – ‘but just for you guys. I’m going to have a beer.’ He took me by the arm: ‘You want one too?’
        ‘No thanks, it’s a little early for me.’
Meanwhile, Jiang Wei was standing close in front of Vera, who was holding both her hands. They talked very quickly in Chinese. No details were given, but ‘something unexpected’ had happened, and we would just have to ‘find another solution.’ Several times, Vera asked what had happened; the answer was always ‘It’s okay, it doesn’t matter.’ Obviously they would need to get out of earshot of me.
       Jiang Wei began to cry, trying to hide her face, trying to stifle the sound. Vera took her by the arm and the two women walked off to ‘the room,’ whispering.
        Muus took out a cold bottle of Dommelsch, opened it, and took a big swig. ‘Jesus!’ he said. ‘What a couple of great women!’ He looked tired but also pleased, glad that all these new things had descended upon him.
‘Wow, you guys got done in a hurry !’ I said. ‘But – is there something wrong?’
        He laughed. ‘Something wrong! Well, you can be damn sure there’s something wrong! ’cause as of now...I quit!’
        ‘How’s that, “quit”?’
        ‘I mean: count me out. Out of the film and the ridicule, the bullshit criticism – ’
        ‘Yeah! To criticize the hell out of tai chi, wasn’t that the whole point of all this?’
        ‘But now you’re saying you quit.’
‘That’s right. I quit criticizing, quit ridiculing, quit everything. I’ve found out it’s not ridiculous, I’m ridiculous. My great magnum opus about it is never going to get written. I’m done.’
        ‘Hey, what the hell! Listen, you can’t do this! I need your magnum opus, I’m counting on it, and so are a lot of other people!’
He dug his index finger into my chest. ‘Then you’ll have to write it yourself!’ He laughed: ‘I really mean it! ’cause I’m not doing it, I’m out of it!’ He turned around, walked out onto the patio with his bottle, and stood there in the sun looking out over the green yard and the green distance.
Meanwhile, Vera was back. Behind her, through the open door I could see Jiang Wei lying on the couch again. Very un-Chinese, I thought: to let the host see that she wasn’t feeling well. There must be something going on.
        ‘Daaf,’ Vera said, ‘we’ve got a problem going. Wei says she isn’t going to make that film this afternoon.’
‘That makes two of them! Muus said the same thing! Vera, what’s happening?’
        ‘Well, Daaf, like – Wei is Chinese through and through. She’s sometimes very indirect in expressing herself. But what it comes down to is, she’s sick and tired of being sexually harrassed by all these Dutch men!’
        ‘By Muus too! By the Anti-Sex Guru!’
She laughed. ‘I’m not sure what to make of it yet. But what she’s saying now is, she wants to go right back to China. She wants me to drive her to Steenwijk right now so she can get on a train to Amsterdam. She can spend the night there at a friend’s place, and then she’ll try to get on a flight to Beijing tomorrow.’
        ‘Hey, but listen, we made some plans, we signed some agreements...’
‘Of course we did, no, this is no good. The Foundation has a contract with the cameraman. One way or another, we have to make a movie. And tomorrow whether we like it or not, twenty people are going to show up for the workshop. But what did Muus say, why does he want to back out?’
        ‘I’m not sure yet. He says he doesn’t want to “criticize and ridicule” tai chi. But he’s not saying a lot about it.’
‘Well, that’s up to him. We agreed to pay him five hundred euros. If he’s willing to let that go – but hey wait a minute, I’m thinking...what would happen if you and I made that movie together?’
        ‘But...would that be okay with the contract?’
        ‘Sure it would. As long as the cameraman gets paid, he doesn’t care who the actors are. I’m treasurer of the Foundation; I can still move any way with this.’
        ‘But I’ve never practiced with you!’
        ‘Well then it’s high time!’ She burst out in an explosive laugh. ‘But no, I mean it! We can just go out right now and practice a little and, let’s face it, who’s going to know how good we are? There’s a certain make-believe element in all of this stuff anyway. We can bring it off! Come on, let’s! It’ll be fun! But listen...I’m not going to take her anywhere right now, whatever she says. I’ll call Ed and ask him to bring over two of my jogging suits. You can fit into one of them. The shoes too; otherwise you can just do it barefoot! So today we make the movie; tomorrow Wei’s calmed down, and tomorrow she and I can give the workshop. What do you think?’
        ‘If you say so! Sounds fine to me!’

Half an hour later Muus, Vera and I were just finishing our coffee when a cascade of horrible loud outdoor sounds ended the morning peace and announced the coming of Ed. Matt more than redoubled the bedlam.
        I asked Vera: ‘Is it a classic Harley?’
‘No, a three-wheeler. A trike.’ As she stood up, the legs of her chair screeched against the floor tiles: ‘You guys just wait here; he can just give me the things.’
‘That’s ridiculous!’ said Muus. ‘Tell him to come in and join us! No, really, it’s been so long since we even said hi to each other!’
 ‘That may be, but you’ve got to know how to handle Ed, and just take it from me, this isn’t the time to have a nice get-together with Teacher Puilenbroek!’
        ‘Well then, I’ll go out with you,’ I said. ‘I want to see the trike.’
        ‘Me too!’ said Muus, and from the tranquil shade of the kitchen the three of us stepped out into a sunny dayworld where Matt was still yelping and Ed had not turned off his motor. Despite its big fat rear wheels, the bright-shining, expensive-looking conveyance under Ed looked too small for him. His imposing figure was made extra top-heavy by the orange day-glow backpack hung tightly around his shoulders. There was a complicated seat belt running between his outsize belly and various parts of the trike, but he had not pulled it tight.
‘Jesus!’ Vera cried over and above the loud raging of the motor: ‘You can at least fasten the seat belt decently!’ She made to adjust it herself, but Ed raised his potentate’s hand and she desisted.
        The two gurus took each other’s measure. They may have looked different – Muus thin as a rail and pale, Ed bloated and now somehow red in the face and neck – but there were similarities. The forehead with deep grooves. The bags under the eyes.
Muus was the first to extend a hand. He smiled as if to say, We’ll both be dead before you know it, let’s acknowledge each others’ existence.
        Still not smiling, Ed took off his right glove, took Muus’ hand firmly in his, and held it for full seconds. The motor kept running. Vera was starting to take off the backpack.
Suddenly Ed broke out in a wide grin, not so much friendly as triumphant. Through the tumult of the motor he shouted: ‘Maybe you guys can get something out of that inhibited Confucian bitch, I can’t!’
Now Muus laughed too, whether at the content of Ed’s message or its form. Suddenly Vera pressed the red button at the end of the handlebar and the motor fell dead. Going on swiftly with her next movement, she started examining the backpack’s contents: jogging suits: one red, one turquoise. Two pairs of black Chinese canvas shoes. A folded-up red nightshirt, a toothbrush – ‘Hey, Ed, will you cut it out? Did you change the lock on the door? Can’t I get in tonight even to brush my teeth?’ She abruptly gave the whole pile to me and took Ed in her arms as she had done to Matt. ‘Come on, Ed-dd-dy! Mommy still loves you!’ Ed-dd-dy’s long-suffering gaze hovered over the distant fields while Mommy’s hands moved down to adjust his seat belt.
Muus made a friendly offer of ‘a cup or a glass of whatever,’ but Ed said no; there were things at home that he had to take care of. Turning his lumbering chariot around, he nodded mechanically when Vera urged him to ride carefully. Advancing a few yards to get in position for the blastoff down the road to the highway, he started the motor. As on cue, Matt went wild.
‘I’m always scared when he’s on that damned thing,’ said Vera. ‘Especially in moods like this.’
        In an instant Ed shot forth like a rocket down the narrow road sleeved with elders and jasmines that stood there in silence like props from an earlier stage of evolution. When he got to the main road he braked with loud backfires but did not stop.
        ‘Sometimes I wish I still believed in God,’ Vera said. ‘Then I could pray for him.’
‘Just thinking that, is your prayer,’ said Muus. ‘It’s a prayer when you think about somebody.’
        ‘Thanks, Muus. Hey, thank you for saying that!’ She put her arms around him, gave him a couple of comradely pats on the back, held him for a few seconds. When she let go, he had tears in his eyes. So did she. Quickly she grabbed the little pile of clothes in my arms and started for the kitchen.
‘I can’t make any sense out of Puilenbroek,’ said Muus. ‘He’s with that woman, and he’s still not happy.’
        ‘Well, you say he’s “with” her, but I’m not real sure what that means in this case.’
        ‘That’s the beauty of it! They’re not sure either! They haven’t gotten around to the stage of considering each other part of the furniture. Speaking of which, let’s go in and sit down!’

[to be continued]

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Muus and the Tai Chi Masters (story; Part 5 of 8)

(from Strange Tales from a Sinological Studio 漢齋誌異 by Lloyd Haft)

Next morning shortly before six, I was not surprised to be the first one awake. The night before, while Muus lay fast asleep on the couch, I had already reconnoitered the kitchen and now, walking over the pleasantly chilly stone floor tiles in my stocking feet, I took out a bowl, some muesli, and a tea bag. I had taken the whistle off the tea kettle to let Muus sleep – he had had a lot to drink last night. Listening to the nostalgic homely whisper of the gas flame, I hoped he would be in shape for the strenuous morning to come. In any case, the weather looked good. Sun; a few high white clouds; judging from the leaves in the back yard there was no wind. The idea was to make the film out on the little stone-tiled patio behind the kitchen. If the cameraman stood in the right place, it would look as if Muus and Jiang Wei were sparring in an idyllic rural setting.
I was just about to take the boiling kettle off the burner when the phone rang in ‘the room.’ I turned off the gas and ran: ‘Hello, this is Muus Aarts’ residence!’
        ‘Hi Daaf, it’s Vera. I hope I didn’t wake you up?’
        ‘No, but Muus is still upstairs.’
‘Okay. Daaf, listen – last night, sort of – well, last night turned out sort of different than we expected. Wei didn’t get much sleep at all. Wei’s awake now, and we were thinking maybe – would it be okay if we just came over right now?’
        ‘Well, sure – it would be fine with me, but Muus is still asleep. Where are you guys now?’
‘We’re still at Ed’s place. We spent the night here, but that’s the whole point’ – her voice was lower – ‘I’ll tell you when we get there, it turned out kind of weird. It’ll be better if we don’t stay here right now, let everybody kind of catch their breath.’
        ‘Wow, sounds like you better come right over! Should I make coffee or tea?’
        ‘Coffee. Strong.’

When I heard the wheels grinding up close on the gravel outside, the coffee had already worked its way down through the filter and I had just taken the blood-sopped piece of toilet paper off my fresh-shaven chin. I walked out onto the driveway to welcome them – and saw the sharp-pointed unbeautiful high-strung head of the afghan sticking up in the back of the van.
Too bad they brought him along, I thought. We have things to do this morning, we have to be able to concentrate. But then all my attention went to the two beautiful Chinese amazons emerging from the doors on both sides of the van.
The one on the left was obviously from Mainland China, not Taiwan or the diaspora. From the North, I thought: she was tall, almost as tall as Vera but without that hint of Indonesian blood. Her hair was cropped short, hovering close and almost sphere-like around her head – the style that during the Mao era had been humorously called the ‘rat’s head.’ The look in her eyes was somehow vague, the focus somehow uncertain – not sharp and glowing but reserved as if in another dimension. I was reminded of what Ed had said, about her face having two independent halves.
        She had a curiously charming athletic suit on, made of thin light-blue synthetic that looked like silk. The jacket was fairly long and started at the top with a high collar, clearly modeled on the ‘Shanghai dress’ or qipao. Under the collar was a row of buttons of the tight-woven, hard-to-open-and-shut Chinese type, ending at breast level. The pants had long loose legs narrowing down to the level of her white jogging shoes. All in all, I would not have called her a ‘beautiful’ woman, but she was impressive and exciting.
But then, on the right: Vera. Since yesterday, she had found time to dye her hair red. It was as if in the meantime she had grown still taller; now she was wearing very high white sandals with a thin ankle strap, in high sensual counterpoint with her short turquoise basketball pants. All this under a looser-fitting lady’s version of a man’s white shirt with the sleeves rolled up. Her upstanding breasts made it impossible to call her slender waist ‘boyish.’ With her long lavish red pony tail, I thought: you’d almost take her for a transvestite, she’s more feminine than any woman! But that thought was pure self-defense: think what I might, by now she had me very firmly in the palm of her hand.
At about nine-thirty, when Muus finally declared himself fit to come downstairs, Vera was standing at the kitchen door, ready to take Matt for a walk. She turned around when she heard him approaching with his half-awake 68 years, his Einstein-Kant hairdo and his through-the-mill yet jovial expression. Muus stood there for a moment enjoying the rays of morning sun as they swathed warmly through the kitchen and joined in the smiles of the twin amazons.
‘Well, good morning!’ he said.
        ‘I’m so sorry,’ said Vera; ‘we had to come a little earlier. Did we wake you up?’
        ‘No, I was just taking my time to come back down to earth.’
        ‘Well, let me introduce you two,’ she said. ‘Muus, this is Master Jiang Wei.’ In Chinese, she quickly explained that Jiang Wei could call him Teacher Peace – based on the long a sound of ‘Aarts,’ she had chosen for him a plausible Chinese family name, An, that also means ‘peace.’ As an experienced middleperson, she now mediated between the plain-but-congenial Dutchman and the stylized hyper-enthusiasm of the Chinese woman.
We all switched to English, and although Jiang Wei had to search for her words, communication was easy.
        Muus took Jiang Wei into ‘the room’ to show her the new Dutch DVD. It turned out she had never yet seen it.
        As soon as I was alone with Vera, she said: ‘I need a smoke. Let’s go out and talk.’ On the way to the driveway I asked her: ‘What’s going on?’
‘Well, originally we – see, Wei and I were originally supposed to share a room in a hotel in Leeuwarden; that was all arranged ahead of time. But then Ed called up to say that he wanted us both to come spend the night at his place instead. Actually it was stupid of me to agree. I know Ed in those situations. With women.
‘Anyway, and so last night – as usual, Ed had been drinking. And as time went on, he started expecting Wei to do all sorts of things that she just didn’t feel at home with. And she couldn’t take it.
        ‘And I mean, understandably! Hey look, imagine: you’re a Chinese woman, you just got to Europe for the first time, you’re lying in a strange bed and then all of a sudden here’s this big drunk smelly dike-jumper who gets in bed with you and starts saying: I want you to be strict with me, please scold me and punish me, I want you to spank me! And mind you, he’s the Director of the Foundation that invited you over and paid your air ticket!
‘Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have any problem with that stuff. To me it’s just first aid, it’s one way that I can be a Good Samaritan to Ed when he needs it. Without that, he never would be able to get some relief. People don’t know it, but – Ed’s impotent. Does that surprise you?’
        ‘Not necessarily. Why should it?’     
‘Well I mean – judging from his books, The Orgasm: Fuel for Your Future and all that, you’d think: this guy must really be numero uno in bed! But that’s not how it is. He does think it’s important and everybody needs it for their health, but when the time comes, he can’t get it done. The only way he can have an orgasm is to get spanked across Mommy’s knees!’
‘And then go back out there and tell everybody what a drag Big Sister is!’
        ‘You got it!’
        I followed the movements of her lips as she stuck the tip of a cigarette between them, lit up, and took the first puff. The color of her lipstick, just slightly darker red than her hair, accented the broad freckle just above her upper lip.
‘Anything’s possible in that whole area,’ she said. ‘Did you know there are men that actually come just from watching a woman smoke a cigarette? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean now – ’ She laughed again and I thought: Oh no, nothing like that.
‘ – but I really have to get back to Ed now. The way he was just now, when we left – sometimes he really crawls into an emotion, it’s like a whole different body he’s in. And that’s what he wants, that’s what he believes in – just let it all change, let it all come, make room for whatever comes. “Just let it come, that’s what a womb does. Be a womb!” he always used to say’ – She had a tear in each eye now.
‘What do you mean, “used to”?’
        ‘Well – in the groups. But that was then. I don’t think he could even handle a group now. He’s been through too much himself. I said to him not so long ago: I’ve come into your life just in time to prepare your crash pad.’
 ‘Wow. When I saw him yesterday, I didn’t think he looked so bad.’
‘Oh no, he can still make that Big Man impression, sure.’ She looked down. With the heel of her right shoe she nudged at the gravel, played with a few loose pieces. ‘Especially when he’s on the hunt.’
        ‘Could you maybe take the dog back?’
        ‘I’d rather not. I’m afraid Ed will let him run around loose today. He does that when he’s mad. He uses Matt to vicariously break out. But that’s illegal in this country, you know, to let an afghan run loose.’
        ‘Illegal. Big Sister again!’
        ‘Big Sister again!’ We both laughed. Relief brought the tears down out of her eyes and onto both cheeks. She looked at me. In her eyes I felt sorrow, but also the peace of recognition.
        I heard my voice saying: ‘You know – I really like you!’
        She said nothing but smiled, looked at the gravel, laid her warm hand around my elbow: ‘I won’t be long. Maybe an hour. Will you take Matt out for a walk in a little while?’
‘Sure. Be careful.’
        She got in the van, started up, and waved goodbye with a fiery smile from behind massive sunglasses. I stood waving until she disappeared and then joined Muus and Jiang Wei.
They were standing on the patio in the warm morning sunlight. Jiang Wei had taken off the jacket of her athletic suit. What she had on under it was a white basketball shirt printed in red and blue characters: ‘Institute for Martial Arts, Changsha.’
‘Don’t laugh!’ Muus called, standing there in faded blue jeans with a red tropical shirt and a blue baseball cap. I saw that he was wearing brand-new tennis shoes – not wise, I thought. He was going to have to make some unaccustomed turning and twisting movements, and I knew from experience that the rubber soles might cling to the stone surface and throw him off balance. But the patio was the only place they could make the film; the lawn was too bumpy.
‘Okay, I’m going to take Matt for a walk now,’ I said. ‘I’ll be back in a while.’ Jiang Wei was already showing Muus where and how to stand.
As Matt and I walked down the gravel, I said to him: ‘You don’t need to do any exercises, right? You don’t have to find your way back to nature – you’re already there!’ Suddenly I had to pull hard on the leash to hold him back as he lunged off into the grass by the side of the road. He had seen something he wanted. It turned out to be a dog turd, which he promptly began to eat.

When Matt and I got back to the house, I saw that Vera’s van was still gone. I tied Matt to a tree and walked around to the back – but there was nobody on the patio. The back kitchen door was standing wide open.
        I walked through to ‘the room’ – and found Jiang Wei lying on the couch on her side, her face hidden away in the back cushion. She was not asleep. When she heard my footsteps, she turned around.
‘Jiang Wei!’ I said: ‘What’s going on? Are you okay? Where’s Teacher Peace?’
        ‘It’s okay, Teacher’ she said. ‘Teacher, it’s all my fault. I must not have explained it well enough. Teacher Peace isn’t feeling well right now. He went upstairs to change his clothes.’
‘To change his clothes.’ I thought, What’s going on. ‘But – is everything allright, I mean – did you guys get your preparation done, for this afternoon?’
‘Teacher,’ she said; and I thought Please, please quit calling me Teacher. But I knew it would confuse and embarrass her if I insisted she call me by my name; to her it would seem she was treating me like an inferior or a child – ‘the way it is right now, I think – maybe this afternoon we should change our plans just a bit, for the filming. I think Vera should replace me, she’s very good at tai chi.’
‘But – she’s never practiced with Teacher Peace before.’
‘They can do it as soon as she gets back.’
‘Well – yeah. But – ’ She had sat up now, and sat running the fingers of both hands through her short-cropped but ample hair. I heard water running upstairs. The shower.
‘Teacher – I’m going to have to go right back to China. I’m sorry. There are some things over there that really need my attention; my mother’s health is very shaky.’ Outside, I heard the van arriving on the gravel.
        ‘Has she had an emergency, or –’
‘Well, not really an “emergency,” but...Teacher, I should have realized. It’s my fault. I shouldn’t have been so selfish as to leave her and come to Europe.’
        ‘Oh, Matt-ty!’ It was Vera’s voice, now in its Mommy-in-Control register. ‘Did they leave you all alone?’
Through the window I could see Vera bending down from the height her white heels gave her, letting Matt nestle into the warm cove of her bare arms and legs.
        ‘Lucky bastard!’ I said in Dutch.
        ‘What did you say, Teacher?’

[to be continued]

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Muus and the Tai Chi Masters (story; Part 4 of 8)

(from Strange Tales from a Sinological Studio 漢齋誌異 by Lloyd Haft)

Next, we saw Master Shen himself, dressed in a white jogging suit with white tennis shoes, performing Wild Horse Spreads its Mane, smiling from beginning to end from under half-closed eyes. When he came to the point where in my experience the posture should have been finished, he went on with additional movements. His rear arm kept moving forward; then he pulled both arms back and thrust them forward again as if pushing something or somebody in front of him. He stood still in that attitude while a superimposed image appeared: a large glass pane in front of him, his hands pushing against it.
‘Wait, wait,’ said Muus: ‘stop right here.’ He leaned back in his chair and picked up his glass of jenever. ‘This is a beautiful example of what I was telling you. That all these tai chi “postures” are actually symbols of inner states. A “horse” that wants to run “wild,” shake loose its “mane” – that’s vitality! That’s the prehistoric animal inside you that gets tired of marching in line! And then that it runs up against that glass, that window – that’s consciousness, that’s what the body hadn’t foreseen, can’t understand. It tries to understand, but it can’t. It’s just like a little kid standing with its nose against the window and watching it rain outside. It wants to go out, but it can’t.’
His voice wavered and he got tears in his eyes. He took a big swig of jenever, set the glass down, and with the same movement grabbed his cigarettes and his lighter. ‘Sorry about that. Since Bea died, once in a while I have my weak momentssss – ’ The long sibilant s blended into the sputtering sound of the lighter.
‘Sure, no problem,’ I said and looked away toward the screen. I thought of the movements we had just seen. Why had Teacher Shen added those last two movements, the fist and the push? I was familiar with those movements, but not in a Yang-style context. I remembered they were typical of the Chen style, supposedly an older form of tai chi that the Yang style was derived from. Shen was presenting a latter-day synthesis, combining the fiery assertion of Chen with the gentle receptivity of Yang. Like Vera, I thought: being a woman, but with an implicit man in the background. Or Jiang Wei’s face with its tough top and warm bottom half. Trying to get all the energies in, embody them all.
I had trouble appreciating the movements. Unlike some of the magnificent elderly Masters one sees, Shen looked to me simply old and tired. He could produce the Postures, but it was as if he had to keep his mind on it. Did he move so slowly to protect his Inner Energy from undue turbulence, or was he just not able to move faster? One way or the other, there was something cumbersome, something unwieldy about him, that contrasted rudely with the dreamy flute music. Another objectionable feature were the superimposed images of visualizations that you were supposed to do while making the movements. They appeared every few seconds, showing a platinum-white ‘ring of energy’ circling around Shen’s hips like a hula hoop, or a golden ‘cord hanging from Heaven’ that his head was suspended from. The technical brilliance of the images made Shen’s body appear all the more dull, slow, plodding.
I looked at Muus. He was shaking a new cigarette out of the pack. ‘Muus, what do you think of this DVD? I mean – it’s kind of a hassle to watch, right? with all those images, those “visualizations” floating in and out – ’
‘Oh, no, I like those!’ He lit up but hardly took a puff, holding the cigarette in the air like a pointer: ‘See, in a way, our whole body is nothing but a visualization. We act like we’re familiar with it, we know what it is, and we tell ourselves it’s something harmonious and friendly, it’s on our side. “The wisdom of the body” and all that. But nobody knows what the body is. That’s the great mystery. Always has been, always will be.
‘But to him too,’ he said, pointing at the screen with his cigarette; ‘it’s a mystery. That body is a problem to him, you can see it. He’s trying to be positive about it, make it seem more peaceful, more harmonious than it is. Secretly he’d like to just jettison the whole thing, be rid of it. I saw that in the book; it says you should consciously be imagining your body has no density, it’s just a collection of “response points” in space. Actually, I’m for that, I think that’s a beautiful idea.’
‘Well, that may be, but it doesn’t fit in with what you see on the screen. What I see is that he’s way overweight!’
‘Sure he is! But that doesn’t change the fact that he has a need’ he began to cry and looked away.
Wow, I thought. Maybe we shouldn’t have got started talking about his wife. But he’s the one that started it.
        ‘Okay,’ he said. ‘I’m back now, I’m okay.’
‘That’s all right,’ I said; ‘and then that “advanced” part later on in the book, where he talks about all sorts of movements that your hands and arms can make – and he says they’re all variations of the same thing...hugging a big ball, a “sphere of feeling” that connects you with the world...’
        ‘Right, and that takes us right back into astrology – the idea of an imaginary sphere that connects you with the whole world. I think that’s another beautiful idea.’
        ‘Hey, what is this? I thought you didn’t believe in astrology!’
        ‘No, right, I don’t believe in it. But I wish I could believe in it, because the idea behind it is so beautiful...That there’s something that connects you with every single thing that’s happening. That’s what astrology is really saying. Really should be saying; I’m not talking at the level of the horoscope page in a newspaper. And I wrote that stuff, I crucified astrology, didn’t have a single good thing to say about it...and yet in the long run, it left me with some beautiful ideas. And that’s the way it’s always been in my life. I have to first attack something, destroy it...and then I get the realization of how beautiful it was! I had that with Bea, too...’
His eyelids started to flutter and he grabbed the jenever bottle. I quickly released the pause button and moved on to the next Posture. It was called ‘Stork Spreads Its Wings.’ We read its poem:

Where the four walls were too narrow, now
I dwell in the wind.
What hands could never reach: now
here under my wings.

‘See, just like I was saying!’ Muus said. ‘Again, he wants to dissolve the body, get rid of it. He’s saying, Look at me, I don’t even need hands any more, I have wings! I’m not tied down to that big heavy troublesome planet Earth, I can go anywhere I want; I’m a bird!’
I pressed Fast Forward to skip the details. ‘And now watch, Muus; this next one, this is the one you’re supposed to do on the film tomorrow, with Jiang Wei.’
        ‘What’s this one called?’
        ‘Guard the Knee on a Cross Step.’
        ‘Wow, that’s a mouthful.’
        ‘Can’t help it. The translations aren’t mine.’ Meanwhile the poem had come on:

Where the heart at last relaxes,
the next step emerges.
Where Yin and Yang are moving,
my heart is also moved.

Tomorrow morning, Muus and Jiang Wei were supposed to simulate a martial application of this posture for the filmer. Jiang Wei would stand facing Muus and slowly pretend to try kicking him in the groin. He would deflect the kick with his left hand while using his right hand to throw her off balance.
We watched Master Weiran walk his labored way through the moves, surrounded by brightly colored points and flashing lines. I pushed the pause button: ‘Well, Muus, what do you think? Do you think you can do that tomorrow? Can your body – sorry, I mean your “collection of Response Points” – make those moves?’
        He said nothing. He was asleep.

[to be continued]

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Muus and the Tai Chi Masters (story; Part 3 of 8)

(from Strange Tales from a Sinological Studio 漢齋誌異 by Lloyd Haft)

The antique oaken table in the kitchen was half buried under tai chi books and DVDs in various languages. Muus was sitting with a glass of red wine; nearest to him was a DVD with accompanying book in Dutch. The Dutch title and undertitle read: Back to the Body: Tai Chi as the Secret of Life. The subtitle was The modern simplified Yang Style, explained and demonstrated by Master Shen Weiran.
I had never heard of Shen Weiran, but that meant nothing. I had never tried to keep up with the steady stream of ‘masters’ who claimed to have spent years ‘in the mountains’ receiving oral instruction from the last living exponents of the ‘true tradition,’ who now littered the internet with sample clips of the ‘instructional videos’ which their American impresarios had helped them to produce.
But I found the name remarkable, ‘Weiran.’ There were no Chinese characters indicated, so I could not be certain of the Chinese meaning: wei and ran are common syllables and could mean various things. But I guessed maybe it meant ‘For-the-sake-of-how-it-is.’ To me it had a Taoist flavor, like a name that someone might have assumed later in life after adopting a philosophy. On the other hand, it might mean ‘Just-the-way-it-is.’ That, too, sounded Taoist or Zen-like.
Vera was standing next to me. She proffered a mug of tea. ‘Do you want anything in it?’
        ‘No, thanks. Hey, this one, by Shen Weiran – I don’t know this one; did it just come out?’
‘It’s not even officially out yet. It’s our own. We’re planning to start using it in the Foundation’s introductory courses. It’s based on our own version of the movements. We want to try it out now, in the workshop, and see how the newcomers take to it. That is, of course, if you and Muus agree.’
        ‘Well, sure; you guys know best.’
No sooner had the bright red van taken Ed, Vera and Matt back out of sight, than Muus said: ‘Well, isn’t it getting to be time for a serious drink?’ I had noticed the cheery yellow cardboard box next to the refrigerator with six liter bottles in it: Ketel One Jonge Jenever, the mild-tasting but strong Holland gin that is so unfortunately unknown overseas. Muus took out one of the bottles, opened the refrigerator, and exchanged the new full bottle for an opened one out of the freezer compartment that was still half full. ‘If you get two glasses out of that cupboard, we can go sit in “the room,” as the good Dutchman says.’ He picked up a tin of salted cashews from the sideboard and led me into ‘the room.’
Practically up to the ceiling, bookshelves covered and hid the walls. In between two of the steep stacks of books, there was an open space wide enough to reveal the color of the wall: white. Here a small framed black-and-white photo hung on the wall. It was of a young woman, with a pretty smile and boyishly short-cropped hair, standing on the seashore in a one-piece bathing suit.
‘That’s Bea, my wife. That’s how she looked when I met her – we actually met on the beach. We were “washed up together,” we used to say. Come on, let’s sit down.’
We installed ourselves in a corner with a wonderfully wide view of the surrounding farmlands: a southwestern exposure where at this northern latitude the late afternoon sun seemed almost the clearest of the whole day, bringing out visual details and implications that had gone unnoticed in the harsher light of noon.
‘This is my favorite spot,’ he said. ‘This view – I could sit here all day long. Do you know that poem by Jellema, with that line “the meaning that keeps it open”? Well, for me this is the open that keeps it meaning. Absolute reality!’ But the phone was ringing: a cellphone on the little desk in another corner of the room. Muus grimaced for a moment, set down the full glass that he had just been about to toast with, and strode quickly to pick up the device.
‘Hello, Aarts here – oh, hi Vera, what can I do for you? Oh. Right. Well, that’s fine, sure, if there’s any problem, but I don’t think there will be. I’ve got an expert here in the room with me! Okay great, see you tomorrow!’
        He went back to his chair, sat down, and raised his glass. ‘Santé!’ he said warmly. ‘That was Vera, just to say they’ve all decided to spend the night at Puilenbroek’s place instead of in Leeuwarden. They were just sitting down to eat now.
‘Speaking of eating – I hope you don’t mind if we just heat up a couple of frozen pizzas tonight? Good. With some ready-made salad and an ice-cream cone – keep it simple, I always say. Nobody ever lived in this world that hated dishwashing more than I do.’ He emptied his glass in two swigs and poured himself another. ‘Bea never had any problem with that. With the housework. During the day she taught theology in Leiden, but then she’d come home at night and cook a real nice dinner. She actually enjoyed doing stuff in the kitchen – working with things, with material. She liked that. All that stuff is much to concrete for me, I’m always trying to get away, escape into numbers and formulas and the cosmos. Maybe that’s why I still have lessons to learn right here, the earth side of things.’
‘Well, you’ve got the right name for it! “Aarts” means “earthy”!’
‘Right, we always had to laugh about that. And in a way, I am earthy. When I sit here toward sundown, and I look out at all those beautiful trees on the other side, to me they’re all beautiful women, waving at me with their beautiful arms – if you’re into etymologies, you know “arm” can also mean the branch of a tree – here, let me pour you a refill – I was already standing beside him – and then a little later, when the sun’s really setting, you can see how it hesitates, it actually hangs under those branches, it’s being held by all those nice female arms...’
I could tell there was going to be a lot of talking tonight. I hoped that when we got around to the tai chi part, we would still be fairly sober.
‘You know,’ he was saying: ‘I’ve always been an arms freak. When I was young I used to go to the beach at Scheveningen just to look at all those bare female arms! That’s what attracted me to Bea in the first place. I was out on the beach and there she stood, with those fantastic long arms, she actually was a competition swimmer in those days, and when I saw her I thought: get her buddy, that’s the one!’
        ‘So it’s like I always say: a person changes, but in the things that really matter, you don’t change much. As a kid, I stared at girls’ arms. When I grew up, I stared at women’s arms. Now that I’m an old bastard, I look at the arms of the trees and tell myself they’re women. But I’m yacking your head off. Your turn, talk! Tell me what you’re doing these days...’
After the ice cream, Muus made a pot of strong coffee. I took mine without cognac. We moved a couple of chairs and put his DVD projector on the little desk. I now noticed that he had installed a roll-up screen above the window. We closed the venetian blinds and curtains and let the screen down. ‘Muus,’ I said, ‘I wouldn’t have thought you were the type to sit around watching movies and singing karaoke. You have a regular theater in here! I thought you were mainly a books man!’
         ‘Well sure, I am. But I like to watch all those science series that they have nowadays. When I was working on astrology, I bought a whole box of DVDs on the history of astronomy. Fantastic! Now I’ve got one on the history of language and writing. And I enjoy the technical side of it; once in a while I make films of my own.’
Meanwhile I had inserted the new DVD from the Foundation. We decided I would operate the projector so that Muus could concentrate on the exotic physical movements that he would be seeing for the first time.
        After a few introductory pages of names and credits, we came to the Select Posture menu, with a list of The Twenty-One Postures.      At the top of the list, I clicked on the posture called ‘Wild Horse Spreads its Mane.’ The name of the posture came up written across the screen in Chinese characters, against an audio background of traditional Chinese flute music. The next screen showed an instructional poem based on the essence of the posture and the movements that built up to it. The poem appeared in Dutch while the text was read out loud, clearly in Vera’s voice:

The breath that sent my hands before me
stays before me, mirrors me.
Tall in my truest stature,
proudly I step onward,
on to the Wide Encounter.

[to be continued]

Friday, December 23, 2011

Muus and the Tai Chi Masters (story; Part 2 of 8)

(from Strange Tales from a Sinological Studio 漢齋誌異 by Lloyd Haft)

When I got out in Heerenveen, Aarts was waiting for me on the platform. He looked, as he had put it in his email to me, ‘not exactly the youngest,’ thin but sprightly. I wondered if he was deliberately imitating Immanuel Kant by letting his hair grow out in white bunches on either side of his head.
But no one would have taken him for a philosopher of morals: his often-laughing mouth was surrounded by ample flesh that our grandparents would have called ‘jovial’ and our parents ‘sensual.’ I liked him at once.
The first thing he said was: ‘I hope you have health and accident insurance.’
        ‘Because when you get in the car with me, you’re taking your life in your own hands.’ Another big laugh.
        ‘I’m not worried.’
Despite his age, he walked with the speed of an athlete. At 42, I had to work hard to keep up with him on the way to the grey Toyota Prius.
He turned out to be an excellent driver. In the bumpy, cobbled parking area in front of the mini-mall that had once been an old guild house, he managed to find a tiny open space and set the car down precisely in it.
‘I want to go in and buy some bakery to go with tea,’ he said. ‘Hope you’re not on a diet?’
        ‘Even if I were!’
        ‘Okay, I’ll be right back.’
        I was going to stay overnight at his house. This afternoon and evening, De Novo was paying me to give him an intensive introduction to tai chi, that strange form of anti-strenuous exercise in which all the movements are made super-slowly. Supposedly he had already received some relevant books and DVDs from the Body and Becoming Foundation. I was supposed to get him prepared on the subject today so that tomorrow morning the Foundation could send somebody out to film him while he took his ‘first tai chi lesson’ from a real-live teacher just flown over from Beijing, who was scheduled to give a lecture in Leeuwarden tonight.
I thought it was strange that the Foundation wanted to take so much trouble for a man who was planning to write a book damning their whole endeavor of popularizing tai chi. But undoubtedly De Novo was paying them to do it. Maybe the publicity itself would bring more students to their doors.
Aarts was back, with a bulging-full paper sack that he put down on the back seat.
        ‘Looks like you bought a lot!’ I said.
        ‘I hope it’s enough. There’ll be four of us this afternoon.’
        ‘Who besides us?’ Didn’t he live in a ‘one-man monastery’?
        ‘Puilenbroek. And what’s-her-name...that Chinese girlfriend he has, Veronica, I guess her name is. They’re coming over this afternoon with those books and DVDs.’
        ‘Hey, are they in the Foundation?
        ‘They’re not just “in” the Foundation, they are the Foundation. “Body and Becoming”: even the name of it has ‘Puilenbroek’ written all over it. Or, that is, that was the name of it. Now they’re going to change it, nowadays he’s got something against the whole body concept. He thinks our usual idea of our body is too limited, it’s a straitjacket that Big Sister wants us to wear. “Big Sister,” that’s his term for society.’
‘But now say they’re coming over this afternoon to give you the tai chi stuff. I thought you already had it!’
‘Well, I was supposed to, yeah. But...that’s just the way Puilenbroek is. You don’t have to keep your word, you understand, that’s just another straitjacket.’
We were driving through a flat, wide-open Frisian landscape. The weather didn’t look promising. I thought back to Vera’s blue suit, the way she stood in the sun and waved at me from the platform. I hoped there’d be decent weather tomorrow, for the filming.
‘Actually, I don’t really mind them coming over today, maybe it’ll give us a chance to make peace, me and Ed. He was really pissed off when my sex book came out – have you read it?’ I nodded. ‘ – with that chapter about Wilhelm Reich, that I thought it was just nuts, all that stuff about the Function of the Organism. Puilenbroek made his name with that book of his, The Orgasm: Fuel for your Future. Did you ever read it?’
‘Well, you haven’t missed a thing. It’s what I call the Hydraulic Model of Man. There’s pressure, and there’s discharge of that pressure. That’s all. The only thing we’re here for is to bounce back and forth between Pressure and Discharge. Puilenbroek loves that, he likes it because it’s totally non-mental. You don’t have to think about things, the body does it all. The less thinking the better. That’s in his book; I don’t know if it’s a quote from Reich: that the brain is just “a parasitic organism feeding on the energies of the rest of the body”.’
‘That is...that’s what he used to think. I can’t tell you what he’s into now. The last time I saw him was in Steenwijk one day; I ran into him on the street and he wouldn’t even say hello to me. I guess he thinks I’m just what he calls a “mind-eunuch”: an intellectual, a teacher, a mental guy that doesn’t work with his hands, doesn’t repair his own car...basically just doesn’t screw enough!’
‘But he used to be a teacher himself.’
‘Well, sure...used to. But now he rides around on a big red cycle, brrr-ombrrrom-brrromm!’ He laughed. ‘I’ll be curious to see if he’s driving. For a while his license was suspended. He believes the citizen should resist Big Sister’s domination as much as possible, and that starts with the traffic laws. He sometimes drives through a red light just to prove he hasn’t surrendered to Big Sister yet. Well, once they caught him. I saw him on TV, he was interviewed about it. He said we should all try to train ourselves in ‘self-discernment,’ that was the word.’
‘But then...discernment without a “parasitic” brain?’
He laughed and turned off the road onto the grassy, rutted gravel road that led up to his house. It was a renovated farmhouse, white-painted brick with grey roof tiles, surrounded by fields on three sides. I felt completely at home before we reached the end of the driveway.

We had eaten our lunch of bread and cheese and were still drinking coffee when they arrived. Muus went out and waved in the direction of the fire-red delivery van that was now parked beside his car. I saw Vera sitting in the driver’s seat; the non-smiling man beside her was just getting out. He moved quickly and expertly despite his extreme obesity.
In the back seat there was a third head: an afghan. Wouldn’t you know, I thought. Not a nice cuddly family dog that shares the couch with you, but a touchy maverick breed that resists domestication.
‘Come on, Matt!’ said Puilenbroek as he shoved open the side door and let the dog out. ‘Let’s go in and say hello to Daddy.’
Ouch, I thought. That’s great for a start! Meanwhile Vera was shaking Muus’ hand. There she was again, dressed in the blue that the sky had already lost: there was a chilly wind coming up and the air had the smell of rain in it.
         ‘Well, hello Ed, how’s he going?’ Muus called optimistically. His words were drowned in the self-contained world of Ed struggling to tie Matt to a blossoming jasmine.
        Vera looked me in the eyes. She looked tenser than she had this morning, but the hand and the smile had lost none of their warmth. ‘Daaf, isn’t this incredible! I wish I’d known you were coming here, we could have sat together the whole way!’
        ‘Well, next time!’
Muus asked if they wanted a cup of tea but Puilenbroek, after a quick expressionless handshake, said he wasn’t thirsty; he would stay outside to ‘enjoy the fresh air while it lasts.’ Vera took a big cardboard box out of the car and followed Muus into the kitchen.
‘You guys go ahead and start’ I said. ‘I’ll be right in.’
While I watched Vera stepping across the gravel in her high white boots, I heard the sputter of a cigarette lighter behind me. Without looking, I could already smell what Puilenbroek was smoking. By now I could have guessed. Needless to say, he rolled his own, and it was one of the strongest, rankest-smelling brands of shag: Van Nelle.
While Matt relieved himself in both kinds under the jasmine, Ed watched, exhaling smoke in slow stages. ‘I wouldn’t have had to come here today,’ he said. ‘I could have let Vera deliver those books and disks. But I came along because before this we went up to Leeuwarden, to meet that tai chi teacher at the station. We’ve already dropped her off at the Martial Arts Club up there. I was curious to sniff that Chinese bitch from close by.’
‘ was it?’
‘Well, you know what it is...’ He took a deep drag. Held the smoke in his lungs. Looked out across the field at a farm in the distance. Exhaled, shaking his head.
‘You know – we hear so much about the Chinese all being these cheerful smiling little people that have never heard of, quote, the body-mind split’ – here he raised his hands theatrically and wrote quotation marks in the air – ‘but what I actually see is the exact opposite!
‘Take that teacher, Jiang Wei – isn’t that her name? – ’ He pronounced it “Jong We” but I didn’t correct him – ‘She’s the big tai chi teacher, she’s supposed to be a walking encyclopedia on how to relax, but when I see how she is, I’m thinking: Lady, what you need is a year of therapy! That tortured face of hers – really, I’m saying “tortured,” I’ve watched her when she didn’t know it – that face could be a textbook illustration of stress. I get depressed just looking at her.’
Another deep drag. Breath held. Gaze wide. Exhalation snail-slow, starting with the nostrils: ‘And that face...there’s something weird about that face, something’s not right there. It’s like her face has an upper half and a lower half, and they don’t belong to the same person. Her mouth smiles at you with that big sweet sexy smile, but her eyes aren’t part of it, she avoids my eyes like the plague!’
‘Well,’ I said, ‘it could be...I don’t know how she was brought up, but if she’s from a very traditional family, she’s not supposed to look you in the eyes, because you’re a man.’
        ‘Oh, that’s a great one – because I’m a man!’ He broke out in a laugh, and as often happens with heavy smokers, the laugh quickly turned into a wheeze that lasted a while until it was finally rounded off with muted coughs and a quick throat-clearing. All this was followed at once by another, still deeper inhalation, held in extra long while the gaze moved philosophically over the fields where sparse drops were beginning to fall with a light ticking sound. As he blew out the last smoke, he flicked the still-glowing butt onto the gravel. ‘And yet – they’re not all like that, Chinese women. Take Vera.’
‘Hey, wait just a minute now,’ I said. ‘She grew up over here!’
‘Well sure, I know that, but still. She’s an Oriental. And that’s her whole problem: where can I go with my femininity in a society that doesn’t want women to act feminine? And on the other hand – if I’m Chinese, but kind of strong and athletic and too assertive to be the dear little dollie from China – then what kind of a woman should I be? No, Vera’s really worked hard on herself. What you see now is a totally different Vera than just a couple of years ago.’
‘I know. In the train coming up here I didn’t even recognize her at first.’
‘There you go. You know, I led humanistic therapy groups for years and years, and maybe five, six years ago she showed up for one of our growth weekends. We called it Biocentric Therapy. In those days I still believed in that body stuff – but that’s another story.
‘Anyway – so here comes Vera to join this group for the weekend. And she was one big bundle of unfulfilled need, you could see it the minute she walked in. And those big wide-open eyes, pure longing, they were saying Here I am, who’s going to take my hand and help me? Talk about eyes that don’t avoid you! Just her being there was a big problem for the group, all the men were crawling up the wall for her! Too bad for weren’t going to get near Vera’s bed, in those days she was a strict Catholic! Mind you, I’m saying in those days.’
Matt yelped. On the other side of the field he had seen another dog walking with his owner, a farmer in a flat cap. Together with a whiff of manure, a sound of barking reached us from the other side. Ed waved in the direction of the slowly moving forms in the distance.
He kept looking that way for a few seconds and then suddenly spat out: ‘Bastard!’
‘What’s going on?’
‘Jackass didn’t respond. I can’t help this stuff, it’s just the way I am. Wherever I go, wherever I am, I’m always trying to get some fellowship going. It’s what we all need, it’s what people are dying for lack of. But you can’t do it alone. That’s the whole point: you can’t do it alone. I always say: life’s too big to fit inside a single body!
         ‘Muus and I,’ he said, ‘we have our little differences of opinion, I won’t deny it. But I’m all for him if he wants to tear down all that tai chi bullshit. I can’t help it Vera still believes in all that crap.
‘It really gets on my nerves, that whole Oriental Cult of Peace. The Supreme Gentleness, the Great Non-Doing. If we can only switch off all the aggression buttons, then we’ll all be happy.
      ‘But meanwhile? We can’t just switch off the instincts, they are what keeps us alive! Do you want to switch off life itself? All we can do is to admit that whole side, and keep the instincts friendly by throwing them a biscuit now and then...isn’t that right, Matt?!
        ‘Take that great tai chi Master in the old days, Yang Ban Ho – am I pronouncing it okay? Well, I saw a little piece about him, in one of those books. It said in spite of all his tai chi training, as soon as he started sparring with a partner he would get aggressive, even dangerous. Like the movements, the sensation of movement opened him up to that aggressive side of himself that he normally surpressed. And in the end, one day he flew off the hook and killed his own daughter. Is that true?’
‘I don’t know for sure if it’s true, but I have read that, yes.’
        ‘So that’s the great Wu Wei. The great Non-Interference. Nothing but a fantasy. Nothing but self-deceiving bullshit.
‘And I’ll tell you something else!’ Now his tone was muted, conspiratorial; he leaned over close to me and dropped his chin till his eyes glared out at me from under the tops of their sockets. ‘If you ask me, there’s something shady going on in tai chi. Spooky, even. It’s like a séance. They’re messing around with departed spirits.’
        ‘That sounds kind of strange. How’s that?’
        ‘When you start looking at those books, you’ll see one called The True Tai Chi Tradition of Grand Master Zhong Furen. Furen died long ago, but after his death they built a whole temple for him, in his home town. And tai chi students go there to burn incense for the deceased Master. “Sending up fragrance for the Teacher,” they call it. They have no idea how dangerous it is.’
        ‘What do you mean, dangerous?’
        ‘Well, the incense is just hocus-pocus, that’s just a symbol, a focus for your conscious mind. Nothing but self-hypnosis. But what you’re actually “sending up” – is your own vital energy! And the Grand Master may be dead, his physical body may be buried, but his astral body keeps hanging around for years, for decades, and the damned thing feeds itself on you, it drains your energy! The Master that you think you’re worshipping is actually a parasite living off your own vitality! Do you believe that?’
‘No. I don’t believe one bit of that stuff.’
‘Well okay, that’s your business. But...another thing. Is it true that tai chi teachers advise you when you’re practicing alone, to imagine that your body is actually their body, that it’s actually them making the movements?’
‘Some teachers do say that, yes.’
        ‘Well, that’s incredibly dangerous! To set aside that weak little ego that you’ve been trying so hard to build up? You’re laying yourself open to possession, and you don’t know by what!
        ‘I’ve seen them – I mean in my therapy groups – when they got too close, too involved with something out of the past – I mean “past” with a capital P, see what I’m saying? – and for a while they turned into a completely different person! With a different voice, different talk, different movements, different everything. And then it’s not easy to get them back into the here-and-now. Vera was one of them. There was one whole afternoon, she turned into a man, pure and simple. I’m not saying she was a tomboy, I’m not saying she was “like” a man: she was a man! At the time, it scared the hell out of me.
        ‘And I said to her: you sure better hurry up and get yourself a boyfriend! I said: that masculine energy that your body craves – you’re trying to find it in yourself, acting like there’s a man inside yourself. But your body won’t fall for that. You need  another person, a man, to embody that energy for you. That’ll be the answer to a lot of your problems!’
‘And – did she do it?’
        ‘Well – yeah, she did. Not right away, but she did.’ He looked at his watch.
I said: ‘I wonder how they’re doing in the kitchen. Maybe there’s some tea left.’ Ed nodded but did not go with me. He stayed on the driveway, looking out over the fields, still on the lookout for some candidates for fellowship.

[to be continued]