Cities

Looking at albums in the nostalgia store in Del Norte the other day made me think of one in particular — Janis Ian’s self-titled album. When I first heard it (on my own turntable in my very living room in my very apartment in Denver in 1981) I fell in love with it. One song spoke especially to me at that moment. I had recently returned from my first ever trip to a big city by myself. I went to talk to a man, a long-time lover, who wanted us to get married. It was problematic because he was gay(ish). Many letters and phone calls persuaded me to take a flight over Labor Day weekend to Chicago where he had moved with his, yes, boyfriend. Suffice it to say, the love aspect of that journey didn’t go well. Among the less surreal adventures, I took the El to downtown Chicago and spent hours in the Chicago Art Institute. It was my first venture out like that, on my own, looking at art, and experiencing a big city.

Completely filled with incredible images, I left and walked down the street looking for lunch. I walked into a restaurant that looked as if it had come out of Sister Carrie, took a table and looked at the menu. A girl at the table next to mine (the booths were separated by low dividers) said, “I’m having pizza. You want to share?” Sure, why not? She walked around to my table, sat down, I said I’d get dessert and we shared a pizza and talked. She was from Poland.

A few months later I was in Washington, DC for the Foreign Service Exam. Again I found myself alone on the streets of a major city with one day to see things. I knew all the things there were to see in the nation’s capitol and I just figured I’d go to the mall area and look. I went into the capitol building which didn’t do much for me, then out again to the row of museums. Remembering Chicago, I entered the National Gallery where my life changed, my eyes were opened, the world exploded and I saw Picasso’s linoleum cuts. I saw much, much more, but now, 40 years later, that’s what I remember. The next day I flew back to Denver a changed woman. I didn’t know how, or even that, I had changed, but I had.

I waited for the results of the exam, pondered life without the long-term (five years!) lover-like-man (who was spectacular and we were eminently compatible except for the obvious), and fretted about leaving the country for a great adventure. When? How? Would I ever? I learned to X-country ski, skied a lot — downhill and X-country, bungled a relationship with a good guy, had a one-woman show of my paintings, met the Good X, had my appendix out, did linoleum cuts (learning from Picasso) and and and and and and listened to Janis Ian. Let it be known I didn’t like any of her popular songs and still don’t. At 17? Pulease….We’re all ugly teenagers.

So…after a little chat here on my blog with a reader about old albums, I looked for the song.

At the time I owned this album, I lived in an urban neighborhood in Denver, Capitol Hill. I am 100% sure I didn’t imagine then that I would live in the back-of-beyond as a 70 year old woman. But I also didn’t imagine the magnificent cities that I would meet — and in some cases get to know well — over the intervening years or all the experiences that would make this song a completely different song in 2022 than it was in 1981.

As I listened to it Sunday night, I saw Milan where I spent ten days wandering around on foot looking at art. Venice which, even after 3 visits, is incomprehensible to me. Verona where I lived for a month doing a close study of 13th century frescoes and studying Italian. Beijing where I felt so strangely at home. Shanghai which is? Good God, I have no words. Most of all, Guangzhou, that ancient wonder that I navigated by bicycle, and Zürich where, for a few years, I had a family, a city once described to me as “the crossroads of Western Civilization.” I scoffed at that because I was ignorant, but now? Zürich gave me the inspiration to realize one of my life’s biggest dreams.

There are other cities I’ve loved, but images of these cities went through my mind as I listened to this song, images I wanted to show that young restless woman in Denver in 1981 to show her that she was completely right to want to go, and that she would go, much sooner than she knew. ❤

The featured photo is a painting I did after I returned from Chicago, an expurgation of that whole adventure. I think it’s one of the best paintings I’ve ever done.

Article this morning (or yesterday?) interview with Janis Ian…

Christmas Presence

We like to say, “It’s not about the gifts,” when we talk about Christmas, but it really is about the gifts. It is just that some of the best gifts are intangible. That said, some of them are tangible. My old man penpal, — who loves China and is originally from Del Norte — and whom I “met” because at some point he visited the Rio Grande County Museum and loved my note cards most of which are scenes of the San Luis Valley, sent me a gift. A wonderful little bracelet made of old, real ivory, Mah Jong tiles. Neither he nor I know how to play.

That got me thinking about all the connections we make in our lives, how random they seem. In a real way, we are gifts to each other.

The other day I took a few presents up the alley to the kids. I’ve been kind of distancing myself from them because — hard to explain, but I’ll give it a shot. Partly it’s just not wanting to be a part of something when I know I can’t be consistent. Then, realizing that I’m 70 years old and, even IF I live the long life many of my family has lived, I know it doesn’t get “better” in terms of physical ability. I want every precious minute of this time to do the things that pertain to me. That was a lesson from 2020 when mortality was suddenly right in front of my face. But I love the kids and their parents, and I don’t want to vanish.

After I inherited all of the acrylics in the beautiful 1970s tackle box last fall, I took out all the paints and integrated them with my own paints. My studio is small, and the box was big, very heavy and kind of smelly from cats. It fascinated the dogs…

Alex’ Acrylics in the Tackle Box as it came to me ❤

Once it was cleaned up, I took it out to the garage. I got the idea of giving it to the little boy for Christmas and that’s what I did. I couldn’t really wrap it, so I just put ribbons on the handles. Before we were halfway to his house, he had it on the ground and was opening all the doors and looking at everything. It was a huge hit. I wrote a little about the story of the tackle box and put it in the top. It has Alex’ (original owner’s) name on the front.This little boy loves old things, so the fact that the tackle box is older than his parents adds another element of cool.

I told the little boy’s mom that the box belonged to a man who was descended from some of the original white settlers of the San Luis Valley, and that I thought it should belong to a San Luis Valley little boy who loves to fish. “I’m going to have to go to Walmart and get everything to put in it!” said the little boy. He’s also a talented artist. I think the box has found its right home.

Port of Last Resort

Last night I watched a documentary about the Jewish refugees to Shanghai during WW II, the whole time thinking about my piano teacher and his wife — Hans and Annaliese Baer. I hoped they would pop up somehow on the films of streets, but no. At one point, though, a young woman mentioned friends who were pianists that she and her fiancé used to visit sometimes and listen to music. Maybe…

The film isn’t narrated by some outside person with a fancy voice, but by survivors who were young adults and teenagers at the time. The narrators had come to the US at the end of the war, so the film is in English.

It wasn’t like China was a big party then. The Japanese had invaded the port cities. Even before that China had been a big mess of warlords, civil wars, deadly struggles for power, famine and disease. One of the narrators explained that they were vaccinated against China while onboard ship — against cholera, typhus (two kinds), small pox some other things. “And not only then,” he said, “but every four months while we were in China.” Still, some of the refugees died of disease — notably dysentery.

This naturally made me think of our current situation, “our” virus, our petty disputes, our resistance to opportunities that those people couldn’t even dream of. So many things and there they all were creating a niche for themselves in a very alien world. “This is what we have to do.” It wasn’t until the war was over that they learned about the Nazi death “factories” (as one of the refugees described it) or the family members they had lost there.

Some of the scenes are beyond harrowing — the Chinese using small brooms to glean stray grains of rice from burlap rice sacks that the Japanese are loading onto a truck, then scrambling the gutters to pick up a rice grain here, a rice grain here. Another scene, a starving Chinese peasant comes toward the camera, breathless, ribs, shoulders and breast bone visible from the open neck of his shirt, but he’s smiling and happy — where had he come from? From which of China’s famine-stricken regions had he come that he was happy to be in Shanghai? One of the Jewish refugees — a teenager at the time — made the determination that school wasn’t the big thing for him right then and there, and he went to work as a day laborer beside the Chinese. He was alone in Shanghai; his family had remained in Germany and his job — as he saw it — was to stay alive.

They talked a bit about Shanghai’s international atmosphere, partly resulting from the foreign territories “won” in the Versaille Conference after WW I. I wish I could have seen Shanghai in those times. My two nights in Shanghai were spent in a run-down but clean Art Deco hotel on Nanking road in which all the furnishings came from the 1930s. Like so many other things in my life, I wish I’d paid attention. As I watched this amazing film, I also wished I’d thought of Mr. Baer when I was in Shanghai.

A Good Time Was Had by All (even me!)

“But you can’t do that if you don’t stay for a while. A tourist never gets to know the people.”

“Wow. The Chinese seem like really nice people. It’s nothing like we hear on the news.”


“You’re a good story-teller, Martha.” (Wow…)

Nine people showed up to listen and I couldn’t have had a nicer more responsive or welcoming audience. The first two who showed up were my special guests, Perla and she brought a surprise, Nancy, a really nice woman I seldom get to see. She works two or three jobs. They came from Alamosa, 32 miles away. It was good they arrived early because I needed help setting up. Then two women I didn’t know arrived and they pitched in, too. For this event, Louise daughter and one of the members of the County Board made cookies. I brought my electric tea kettle and tea. I also had some Chinese “cookies.” They exclaimed over the dragon napkins and no one complained that there were no spoons, no sugar, but no one cared. I was charmed again by the reality of life here.

The lectern was almost as tall as I am, so I sat on a chair and spread my reading on a piano bench. We started on time and, like the teacher I once was, the “reading” was, yes, a reading, but almost equally a conversation. I have never spoken to such engaged listeners. Everything that was supposed to be funny, they found funny. The spots that made me cry made THEM cry. “Home on the Range” in particular. That told me clearly I’d done a good job conveying my love for China, its incredible distance from Colorado, and the inevitable moments of homesickness. I hadn’t obfuscated anything.

I read in two parts — Chinese New Year and then a break for tea and cookies (and questions and to talk to people) then Christmas. No one wanted it to end. That blew me away. One of the most fun parts was the part in my book where the title — As a Baby Duck Listens to Thunder — is made clear. My audience learned the meaning of that phrase and how to say it in Hainanese. Ah-kyak-a-looie. I could use it through the reading and it was beautiful to see them smile in recognition. ❤

One thing I meant to take with me yesterday to the reading was my little statue of the story teller. I guess I didn’t need him, but I’d have liked his company.

Why would I take it? Well, I believe that people who tell stories are a chain of mutual inspiration throughout time. Lao She inspired me, he and his beautiful play, “Teahouse,” which is about (hold on) a tea house in the old days when people came to hear stories and drink tea. Lao She haunted the teahouses of his Beijing neighborhood as a child and dreamed of growing up to be a story-teller himself. Here is the beginning of the play, as Lao She sets the scene:


SCENE: Large teahouses like this are no longer to be seen, but a few decades ago every district in Beijing had at least one, where in addition to tea, simple snacks and meals were served. Every day bird fanciers, after strolling about with their caged orioles and thrushes, would come in to rest awhile, enjoy a pot of tea, and compare the singing abilities of their birds.

Go-betweens (marriage arrangers) and those who had deals to discuss also frequented such teahouses. In those days there were always friends about to calm things down. The two sides would crowd around these mediators who would reason first with one side then the other; then they would all drink tea and down bowls of noodles with minced pork (a specialty of the large teahouses – cheap and quickly prepared), hostility transformed to hospitality. In sum, the teahouse was an important institution of those times, a place where people came to transact business, or simply to while away the time.

In the teahouses one could hear the most absurd stories, such as how in a certain place a huge spider had turned into a demon and was then struck by lightning. One could also come in contact with the strangest views; for example, that foreign troops could be prevented from landing by building a Great Wall along the sea coast. Here one might also hear about the latest tune composed by some Beijing Opera star, or the best way to prepare opium. In the teahouses one might also see rare art objects newly acquired by some patron – a jade fan pendant, recently unearthed, or a three-colour glazed snuff bottle.

Yes, the teahouse was indeed an important place; it could even be reckoned a kind of cultural centre. We are about to see just such a teahouse. Just inside the main entrance is the counter and a cookstove – to make things simpler, the stove can be dispensed with if the clatter of pots and pans is heard off stage. The room should be large and high-ceilinged, with both oblong tables and square ones, and traditional teahouse benches and stools. Through the window an inner courtyard can be seen with more benches and stools under a high awning. In the teahouse and under the awning there are hooks for hanging bird cages. Pasted up everywhere are notices: “Don’t discuss state affairs.”

Lao-She, “Teahouse”

For an hour, as I took those nine people on a time machine to China, there were no “state affairs,” or disputes, or politics, or Covid. It was just The Old Mother and “Home on the Range.” Lao She understood the magic and power of a story told by a human being to other human beings. I didn’t, fully, until yesterday. I’m not an “aural” person, but most people are, more than I am, anyway. It was a lesson for me if I do this again, not to underestimate myself but to continue doing the thing I believe my life and my art deserve and that is my service to them.

It was a beautiful experience and I appreciate all of your encouragement as I’ve contended with, you know, public speaking…

Here’s a beautiful piece of music. Jean Michel Jarre was in China when I was. I’d already enjoyed his music. I don’t remember when I bought this — or how. An LP? A cassette tape? A CD? But it is — for me — very evocative. There are films on Youtube of his concerts and travels at that time.

Preparing for the Reading

I got famous again, on page 7 of the social section — SLV Lifestyles — of the regional paper. Ah the sweet smell of success.

I’m trying to organize my reading for December 11 and I’m a little oppressed (can one be “a little oppressed?” isn’t one oppressed or not?) by it. I’ve been asked to “entertain” for 45 minutes which is a LONG time to subject anyone to my stories about living in China post-Mao but pre-modernization. Not that I don’t find them interesting — I think they’re VERY interesting — but I don’t imagine they are the first level of interest to most other people. That’s the tricky part; making them interesting.

I realized yesterday that I need a reason for doing this beyond giving the holidays at the museum moment something beyond the exhibit. My purpose is to bring more people into the museum and maybe sell a book or two. I ordered 3 ahead of the event. That said, my INTRINSIC reason for doing this is to honor the experience and the woman who, in 1982, took that leap into a world that passed very quickly.

I can’t read directly from the book and end up with something smooth and coherent to fit the event — which is holiday(s) so I’ve drawn from the book taking parts of the chapters on spending Chinese New Year on Hainan Island and Christmas in Guangzhou that year. I’m torn between introducing it with a narration about meeting people from China out at the Refuge before Thanksgiving (another holiday) or just giving background. I’m pondering taking the TV and putting up a slide show. And hiring a Chinese orchestra or at the very least an Erhu soloist. And giving lessons in the limited Chinese I have retained and/or learned.

My tendency is to over prepare. And why? The ubiquitous doubts. The suspicion that no one will show up — which is possible. The suspicion that the whole SLV will show up — which won’t happen. The knowledge that I can’t possibly know, and that all I can do is prepare and be happy with what/who shows up.

The 91 year old man from Del Norte — who now lives in Seattle — the man who has been ordering my notecards and wrote me the beautiful note about his travels in China in 2013? I sent him a copy of the book since he can’t possibly attend the reading. He must have read it in one or two sittings. I got a text from him a couple nights ago.

As I read the text I thought of how short our lives are and how, as we go along, we find new lives we’d like to live and (all too often) forks in the road where we took the “wrong” turn, but there’s no going back. The good thing is when we realize we were brave and beautiful at least ONCE. Public speaking, for me, is/was always completely terrifying. The first time I had to stand up in front of a group of people and say something (in this case it was a 5 line invocation in church) I passed out, that’s right, on the floor the poofy dress my mom had bought for me and made me wear, up over my chest. Quite a show for a 12 year old. I knew after that I had to do SOMETHING about this terror but what could I do?

In high school I did competitive speaking and took (miracle of miracles) second place in the state of Colorado for original oratory. You’d think that would have “cured” me, but it didn’t. It wasn’t until I was invited by a student to give a university-wide lecture on overcoming the fear of public speaking that I got over it. That was probably 2010 — maybe a few years earlier. When it was over, a lovely but terrified young woman came up to talk to me. She wanted to know how she could get over being terrified speaking in front of people and, instead, be like me. Calm, collected, funny, articulate. I looked at her and stood up. I took off my jacket so she could see the giant armpit stains on my shirt. “That’s how calm I was,” I said. “I’m just like you. The trick — if there’s a trick — is to be so convinced in the importance of your message that you don’t think about yourself.”

So, Christmas in Guangzhou…

Dogs and Thanksgiving

Yesterday Bear and I went out to the Refuge. As I headed to the spot where we usually park (a small pull out) I noticed a large bird perched on one of the lonely trees. “Red Tailed Hawk,” I murmured to Bear who couldn’t care less and she’s right. Labels? I noticed a car parked at the pull out just before ours and, thinking the person might be enjoying the bird, I drove very slowly and very quietly past the bird who didn’t ruffle a feather. I parked. Opened my door quietly and took this:

I let Bear out the side door, quietly, and we began our ramble. She trolled the edges of the road for smells. I just looked at everything, the ever changing light and scenery of this Valley I love so much. Snow fell over the two mountain ranges but none in the valley. It’s been a strange little bit of time, these past couple of years, and the refuge has been my refuge as well as a refuge for the animals. Sometimes I’ve gone out there just in time to see a huge ascension of Sandhill cranes or a herd of  Mule deer staring at me through the falling snow. I’ve watched all kinds of raptors hunt, swooping and diving. All of it. I love it. One thing I know about it is that when I go, I will see something. A rainbow in the Virga. Tracks of deer families in the snow, an elk running in the distance, coyotes yipping at sunset, a great horned owl family in a huge old cottonwood. But one thing I NEVER expected to see at the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge on a chilly November afternoon was a couple from Beijing. 

Their car approached us on the road as we were on our return ramble. It pulled to one side to let us pass. When a car approaches, Bear and I always go to one side, too, so there was a little of a stalemate. I looked at the license plate. It was a vanity plate from an east coast state, an Anglicized version of a common cat name in Chinese. Hmmmm…..

We continued to wait and finally, they drove by and the driver — woman — waved and then bowed her head to me in a completely Chinese way. 

“Oh my god, Bear! Who would have thought?” I was stunned. I had a lot of things on my mind, one the reading from my China book at the museum in two weeks. Somehow, seeing the Chinese woman was an affirmation, anyway, it was pretty remarkable. We got in the car and headed out. The red tailed hawk was flying low over a pond looking at the edges for something to eat. Just a couple weeks ago we saw a tiger salamander. I thought, “I hope you’re hiding, little guy.” I don’t take sides out there (kill or be killed) but I don’t want my “personal” salamanders being dinner for my “personal” red-tail hawks, not when I’m watching, anyway. I drove very, very slowly so I could watch the hawk without disturbing him. 

Finally, at the far end of the loop, by the ponds and the way out, I saw the Chinese people’s car parked where they could watch the birds. I stopped and put my window down. The woman walked up to my car. 

“Are you from China?” I asked.

She looked surprised. “Oh, some 30 years ago.”

“I was living there 30 years ago — no, wait — 40 years now.”

“Where?

I answered in Chinese, “Zai Guangzhou.”

“Ah Guangzhou,” she said. “We are from Beijing.”

“I visited Beijing.” She was looking at me clearly wondering why I was living in China 40 years ago. “I was teaching at — wait, maybe I can do this. Hua Nan Shi Fan Da Xue.” I’d pronounced it right, but I knew the tones were wrong. The most difficult thing about speaking Chinese is getting the tones right. You can say very strange things to people by getting the tones wrong. “How are you?” can become “You good horse.”

She looked perplexed for a moment then, “Ah ah,” she repeated it pronouncing it right. 

“South China Teachers University.’

“You remember how to speak Chinese.”

“A little,” I said. “I haven’t had a lot of chances to speak Chinese in the past 40 years.”

Her husband came closer and bowed toward me a polite gesture from another place, another time. 

“When I saw your license plate, I knew you must be from China.” I smiled.

“It is our cat’s name.”

“I know.” 

She laughed. “We’re on a trip!” she said. She explained they were from the east coast and were driving all the way to California then back by a different route. “It’s so good to be traveling again.”

“I haven’t been out of the valley in a long time,” I said. I don’t know why I WOULD leave, but…

“It’s very beautiful here. Are you a long timer?”

“No, not really, seven years. It’s a small world.”

“It’s amazing we meet here,” she said. It was absolutely amazing. There was not another person anywhere around and that’s how it usually is, particularly this time of year. I imagined they had hoped to see cranes, but the cranes left a week or so ago. She asked about my dog, so I introduced her to Bear. We said a few more things. Then, I said, “Zai jian, zia jian.” Good bye. “Have a safe and beautiful trip.”

Xie xie,” she said. Thank you.

Bu ke xie,” I answered. No thanks needed.

“Oh!” she said, putting her hands together, “You remember!”

Oh yes, I definitely remember. ❤️

Bear and I got home and I did the things I needed to do around the house. Since 1988, hiking with a dog has been my Thanksgiving tradition and expression of gratitude, but I’m not sure I can have a better Thanksgiving walk than I had yesterday.

I didn’t even have a dog until 1988 when I got Truffleupagus (Truffle) from my neighbor’s front yard. She was a five-month year old lab/springer mix, and I didn’t know anything about raising a puppy. I’d wanted a dog ALL MY LIFE and, at 36, I finally had a dog of my own. I raised that dog in ways I would never raise a dog today, but live and learn is the rule of human life.

That November the Good X read in the paper that there was fall color in San Diego. We both missed seasons (we’d only lived in San Diego 4 years) so we took the advice of the newspaper, and, on Thanksgiving day, 1988, I made my first trip out to Mission Trails Regional Park, though it wasn’t a park yet. There was the historic dam built by Father Junipero Serra, a parking lot, a bridge over the river and then you were on your own.

We parked at the lot by Old Mission Dam and walked the trail described in the newspaper. It runs along the pond/lake made by the dam then crosses a bridge. Beyond that bridge is a whole world of indigenous San Diego County, but we didn’t go far or look around much. We just found a place to perch beside the trickle that was the San Diego River. Truffle was a still just a pup, but she seemed to like all the smells and, a springer/lab mix, she loved the water. Twelve years later, in the last hour of her life, I took her there to smell and walk as far as she could before we made the sad trip to the vet.

The river was lined with golden cottonwood and willows. Some of the leaves, fallen and bruised, sent forth an aroma I had known all my life, giving me an instant sense of “home.”

I returned the next day with Truffle. On this visit, we crossed the road from the parking lot and tried an uphill hike. I was not in good shape, and the landscape and plant life were unfamiliar. I learned how much LONGER a hike seems when the features of the environment are completely new.

Truffle and Molly in the Solstice Circle that was once on top of S. Fortuna Mountain 1993

Truffle and I went back every day the weather allowed, which, in Southern California, was most days. I had not yet learned the joy of hiking in “inclement” weather, or what the chaparral offered the hiker willing to climb a hill in the rain. 

Each day my dog and I went a little higher up the trail. In time six dogs and I would all go together for hours rambling the winding trails of Southern California’s wild landscape. I learned the four seasons of the chaparral, but even more about myself. The biggest thing I learned about nature (life?) is that no trail is the same trail twice, even if it’s a flat dirt road on an ancient lake bed. The important thing is to go. Otherwise there is no chance at all to see.

Happy Thanksgiving to all of you who celebrate it. I’m very thankful for this community. It’s a wonderful thing, far more so than I imagined when I started eight years ago. ❤️

P.S. There’s no prompt word in this post. I’m sorry. But the occasion for arms akimbo just didn’t happen in any of these events.

范围之家 (Keep Reading…)

A new study has come out asserting (based on 1000 Greek septuagenarians) that eating fruits, vegetables and beans and drinking tea and coffee will stave off dementia. Sounds good to me. OK, where was I going with this… Oh yeah, mental cobwebs. They do happen, for me over the things I do routinely, without thinking, the things that don’t demand attention. I can easily forget if I’ve done them or not. But that wasn’t what I was going to write about this morning. It was this…

For the little reading I’m doing at the local museum next month, a reading from my China book, the chapter on Christmas in Guangzhou in 1982, I wanted to play a song from the recently uncovered cassette tape the Good X made on Christmas morning when Guangdong Radio (local state radio station) played American music for the handful of Americans then living in the province. They couldn’t have had much to play as everything American had been prohibited for such a long time — pretty much since WW II. But there we were, and they were thankful, and aware that we were living in pretty rough conditions compared to what we were used to. Also, for Chinese, family and home are very important — everything in a sense — and we’d all left ours to help with China’s “reconstruction”. And Christmas? To them it was the Western equivalent of Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) and they felt we all must be terribly homesick. That morning the radio played three or four songs that had words — and a lot of elevator music.

I wasn’t homesick, but I was sick. I had the flu. As my mom was wont to say, “You’re always sick on Christmas,” which was more-or-less true. That morning — after a big party for students the night before — I lay in bed and listened to the radio. It was the ONE time the Good X ever cooked me a meal (scrambled eggs).

I wanted to play ONE song from that tape during my reading but I didn’t have a tape player and couldn’t find one among all the people I know who never throw anything out. OK, OK, it’s been a while since cassettes were state of the art, but… I went on Amazon and found one I could afford (available in auspicious colors for China!) and that had blue tooth so that when this event is over, I can just play it in my studio from my phone or my old iPod.

My big fear was that the tape was old and dried out and would break, so once I set up the mini-boombox, I put in my one other tape — Sex Pistols, which was already queued to “My Way,” the best version. I sat and enjoyed that then took a deep breath, opened the scratched up case with the song list written neatly by my computer programmer ex-husband, and slid it into the player. The last time I played it was probably 1984. Big Brother was watching, I’m sure of it.

It worked. After a minute or two, I turned it off and got my phone. If the tape broke, I wanted a back-up. I did a test and it was great. I had a back up for the reading. THEN I saw how ugly and un-Chinese the background on the test was (old skis, desk lamp, some books). I designed a set. It’s not exactly Chinese, but not exactly NOT Chinese. Anyway, it’s not ugly. Ready. I sat down on my drawing stool, and commenced. I could have done better, but the dogs didn’t bark once the whole time. I don’t know if THAT would happen again so I’m calling it good.

I wept yesterday, listening to the song, remembering how it felt back then, sick with the flu, so far from Colorado and the mountains on Christmas morning. I was beyond happy to be in China, but this song? One of the first songs I learned in my life, a song I sang as a very little girl. ❤


Swinging Doors

Last night I read about how a Chinese worker’s house had been uncovered by archeologists in Utah. More than 11,000 Chinese worked on the Transcontinental Railroad and many more in the mines throughout the west. When I got back from China in 1984, and ended up in San Diego, I became very curious about these Chinese when I saw so many Chinese things in the local antique and junk stores — and in the random rural museums. I even had the thought that maybe I was reincarnated from one of these Chinese immigrants and I thought of a story in which a person reassembled all the remaining possessions from a former (Chinese) life. All of these things would be — for that person — a doorway to the past. It’s still a good story, but I think it’s been written. The OTHER problem with it is that the protagonist had no where to go with that except collecting a bunch of old things. None of them would be a key to the answer or reveal anything about his/her past life. He or she would simply have a nice collection of Chinese antiques.

Which kind of happened.

The swap meet I used to go to with the good-X often had Chinese antiques. It’s where I got my “coffee” table which isn’t a coffee table at all. It’s a dining table for a family to sit around on low stools. I ate from such a table dozens of times. One day, wandering around Laguna Beach with a friend, I walked into a junk store to find the front pieces of a Chinese gown from the late 19th/early 20th century on which fabulous cranes had been embroidered. “I don’t know, $70?” said the guy.

The person I was with said, “That’s a little high.” (I didn’t think so, dirty though the pieces were)

“$40?”

And then, recently I got two early 20th century scholar cabinets at the local flea market.

That isn’t all, though. In San Diego there was (now re”juvenated” and turned into a tourist destination) a part of the downtown area that had been San Diego’s small China Town. I discovered it one day soon after I moved there and was wandering around the city, which, in 1984/85, had no Sea Port Village, Gaslamp Quarter, Horton Plaza, etc. etc. by which people know the city today. I’m glad they resurrected this part of the city, though. It deserved it.

My own neighborhood in San Diego — City Heights — was (is?) a low income neighborhood where many recent immigrants were first settled for a few years while they found jobs, their feet, their lives. At the time I moved there, the Main Street — University — was lined with Asian supermarkets, general stores, and pharmacies. For me that was very good. I could walk along and smell the strange musty smells of a Chinese/Vietnamese drug store. Smell is a powerful doorway to the past.

In Northern California, in the old mining town of Weaverville, is a “joss house,” or Chinese temple — in this case a Taoist temple. It’s amazing as is its history. There are temples all over California, but this one, in the middle of a forest?

So, my daily reality is filled with Chinese objects from the past — the distant past in a couple of cases — and my own past in others. I like that. I love their symbolism — personal to me, the memories of my own life they contain and the symbolism that’s intrinsic to the objects, not to mention their beauty. BUT, if I had a Chinese former life I think it was in Guangzhou from 1982 to 1983. If we live long enough we get to collect all kinds of amazing former lives.

Sitting here, typing this, I have photos in front of me: a black and white photo of my dad, my Aunt Martha and me in front of my Aunt Kelly’s little house in Lakewood, CO in 1964; a mostly blue and white photo of swirling clouds over a less famous view of the Eiger from the Jungfraujoch in Switzerland; a photo of me and one of the people from my past who’s still in my present. In the photo (though we don’t know it) we are at the beginning of a life-defining journey, entering a doorway to an amazing experience that is now the past. ❤

Back to the Notebook

Meanwhile, back at the big blue notebook… I made the mistake of dusting my “coffee” table yesterday and opening the notebook. Damn. I found more pages that made sense so I decided when I have nothing of any particular import happening in my small life, I’ll continue to share the continuing saga of Pearl Buck and the Chinese Literary Tradition. Who knows? You might find yourself on Jeopardy sometime and end up winning thousands of dollars from something you happen to remember at random from this VERY blog post!!!

China’s Twentieth Century Literary Revolution

During most of her adult years in China, Pearl Buck lived in Nanjing, the capital of Nationalist China. From time to time it was also home to many of the early great writers of modern China — Chinese writers of Pearl Buck’s generation, some of whom were her friends. These writers were engaged in a revolution as earth-shaking as the concurrent political revolution. Led by Hu Shih (historian and literary critic, one-time ambassador of the Republic of china to the United States) Chinese writers were changing the premises of Chinese literature. Fiction, as short stories, novels and theater, became important tools in the social and political revolution.

Hu Shih happened to love fiction:

When I was nine [years old], one day I was playing in the small east wing of Fourth Uncle’s house… I spotted a tattered book among the trash in a…kerosene crate. By chance I picked up this book, both ends of which had been badly chewed by rates, the cover in tatters. But this damaged book suddenly exposed a new world fo my youthful life! This damaged book had been one. volume of a small-print woodblock edition of ‘The Fifth Master’ [Shui Hu Chuan] and I remember very clearly that it began with the line, ‘Li Kuei beats Yin T’ien-hsi to death.’ I recognized Li Kuei as a character in the popular theater. Standing beside that broken crate I at once devoured that tattered volume of Shui Hu Chuan in its entirety. It would have been all right if I had not read it. Upon finishing that fragment, I felt very frustrated. I just had to read the rest of it… (Hu Shih)

Perhaps the most significant thing about Chinese fiction (in contrast to what was officially considered literature, that is, the ancient Confucian Classics) is that after the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907) it was written in Pai-Hua, the colloquial language of the people. “True literature” was written in Wen-yi, an archaic language used colloquially several centuries earlier during the Warring States Period. A rough parallel would be if all literature in English were written in Old English (the language of Beowulf) while newspapers, novels and street signs were written in modern English.

Beowulf (Old English version)

Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum, 
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon, 
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon. 
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum, 
monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah, 
egsode eorlas. Syððan ærest wearð 
feasceaft funden, he þæs frofre gebad, 
weox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þah, 
oðþæt him æghwylc þara ymbsittendra 
ofer hronrade hyran scolde, 
gomban gyldan. þæt wæs god cyning. 

Hu Shih saw that language is the primary tool of literature and saw that the tool itself must express the times. He contended that Wen-yi, a half-dead language, had “usurped the place of the living literature.”

Words are not new or old, but they may be dead or alive. Where the ancients used “yu” (wish, want) the moderns use “yao.” The ancient men rode in carriages; the modern men ride in sedan chairs; the ancient men wore turbans tied with a sash; the modern men simply wear hats; these simply did not exist in the past, but are later creations. If a hat must be called a turban, or a sedan chair must be called a carriage, won’t everyone become confused and mistake a tiger for a panther? 

(Hu Shih)

It may only seem reasonable to “call a spade a shovel,” but what Hu Shih was advocating would eliminate a whole social and political class in China; the scholar elite. Along with it the civil service exams, Confucian education, language and literature. This was the first step toward universal literacy in China. 

Where We Left Off

Back in the fall of 2019 I was pretty famous here in the back of beyond. The China book! I did a reading at the local independent bookstore, a couple of radio interviews, another reading at the museum. Other things — even involving other books — were lining up and it was really cool after the first one. I enjoyed being a famous writer (on this scale) and loved meeting people in my community in this way. I did a beautiful display for the book, too. In fact, the first time I participated in the holiday show at the Rio Grande County Museum, it wasn’t as a visual artist, but as a writer.

I didn’t even know that I LIKED reading my books to people or that I LIKED being on the radio.

Then, suddenly, the whole world was under the weather, and that was the end of that.The China book, which was such a labor of love, just kind of got pushed aside like everything else as I — along with everyone else — tried to figure out what was going on and how to respond to it.

Yesterday I got the local paper which is 8 pages. There is also — with it — another, thicker, paper “Lifestyles,” which tells about events that affect the entire San Luis Valley population of 40,000 people. I look through these journalistic missives pretty quickly before consigning them to recycling or package wrapping, whichever. On the front page of the thick insert I read a write up of Louise’ (Rio Grande County Museum) press release about the upcoming holiday art show. It said, “Martha Kennedy will be doing a reading and a story of her experience of a Christmas in China.”

I thought, “OK, this is where we left off.” And I understood that is exactly right.

If you can see it, there’s an article about a kid’s park that was built in my town entirely by volunteers. That’s also where we left off.

Still, it seems like eons ago — another lifetime, anyway — since 2019 and the publication of As a Baby Duck Listens to Thunder. It wasn’t, but it feels like it. <3. Here’s the story about the featured photo.