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Tiny Chinese Umbrellas

At the New China Inn on Flatbush Avenue in the 1970s a dish was available called “Pu Pu Platter” which was served with small paper umbrellas. On the top of each umbrella was a coiled nub of paper, and this nub of paper when removed and unrolled, revealed messages written in Chinese characters. After several trips over the course of many years I collected enough strips of paper from the umbrellas that I was able to read a story. But it wasn’t until many years later that I was able to understand it.

The story dealt with the struggles of the Shang Emperor to achieve immortality by consuming a magic pill, and how he in the course of gaining the ingredients for this magic pill lost many things: his wife, his son, his parents, and ultimately his kingdom. At the end of the story he is alone on the mountain top having assembled the ingredients of the pill, while below in the plains the kingdom of Shang is aflame. He takes the pill, his “moon embraces his sun” a celestial phoenix arrives, he transforms into the phoenix and it into him — better — “their two chis flow into one another” — and together, united they return to their home in the Western paradise.

In my 20s, when I was losing much to gain little I believed that this story was a cautionary tale, warning me not to give away the truly valuable things of life — wife, peace and family — in order to gain what is uncertain — a fantasy goal. Strange that I thought the story was valuable because it chastised me for living the very life I was leading!

In my 60s, when I had gained much and was proud of what I had gained I thought the story was actually offering me a recipe for how to perfect it. I thought the ingredients of my life were the rooster’s comb, the ear gem of the wood serpent. I thought my struggles were the fire, and my unruly heart was the alchemical furnace!

And now? You know I cannot tell you where I am or who I am, or how I came to be here.

If I did, you might try to follow and we can’t have that!

But the story written in the Chinese umbrella seems to me not even a story any more but a list of facts, like the ingredients on a can of pears.

Pears, Water, Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C), Acesulfame Potassium, Sucralose.

Just add your thirsty mouth.

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