My East Meets West, Illustration by Nancy Calef.

Words, Words, Words—Such a Fortune Wasted

Dian Duchin Reed

Or so the Chinese sage Laozi observed in the Dao De Jing, written 2,500 years ago. Needless to say, this has never kept a writer from writing. Including Laozi himself.

He went on to say, "This is what words act like: the universe." Sure, trying to capture the universe in words is an endlessly frustrating vocation, although some might say that the enterprise also offers poets everlasting job security. My latest poem in the NAR, “Psalm,” is only one of many attempts to point to what remains hidden behind the words.

Laozi, in fact, inspires me daily in my writing. No one else juggles words so brilliantly, flashing them past our eyes until they become a blur, allowing us a peek at the reality that words normally mask."South China Sea" an illustration by Nancy Calef. Oil on canvas.

Having studied the Chinese language, traveled through China, and loved the Dao De Jing for many years, I recently translated this amazing text myself, to get as close to the original words as possible. (Dao De Jing: Laozi’s Timeless Wisdom) And, yes, this is the same as the Tao Te Ching, only with a more modern transliteration of the Chinese.

Now, I’m not really a morning person, but every day for a year I jumped out of bed, eager to begin translating a new chapter. (There are 81 of them.) It was the most exciting writing project I’ve ever undertaken. I learned that there’s a lot of gender bias in many existing translations. This is partly due to the fact that the third-person singular pronoun in Chinese can mean he, she, or it. Early translations into English used he by default, and later writers often based their versions on these first translations.

It was also astonishing to see how Laozi’s observations still apply today—to human nature, to war, to language, to the environment.

Those who are aware
are not talking about it.
Putting things into words
is not awareness.

True, true, true. But even Laozi had to use words.

Photo of Dian Duchin Reed

Dian Duchin Reed is the author of Dao De Jing: Laozi’s Timeless Wisdom and Medusa Discovers Styling Gel. Her poems, haiku, and essays have appeared in numerous publications. She is the recipient of a Sundberg Family grant for literary criticism, the Mel Tuohey Award for writing excellence, and the Mary Lonnberg Smith Award in Poetry. Learn more at

Photo of Nancy Calef.

Illustrations, My East Meets West and South China Sea, by Nancy Calef. For twenty-six years, Nancy Calef has been creating “Peoplescapes,” oil paintings, often in 3D, with sculpture and applied objects on canvas, addressing cultural, political and spiritual issues facing society. Calef weaves together stories about contemporary life, rich with details, symbolism and humor.  She is the author of Peoplescapes — My Story From Purging To Painting an illustrated memoir containing 149 of her color paintings and drawings (Babu Books, 2014). Calef is also a singer-songwriter.

Born in Bronx, NY, Calef (age 15) majored in art at the College of New Rochelle; she has since lived in Europe and Thailand, traveled throughout the U.S., Mexico, Central America, Southeast Asia, India and Nepal, all serving to develop her unique style. She currently resides in San Francisco with her husband, author and attorney, Jody Weiner.