“We all lead boring lives. But some of us write reports about it.” (paraphrased from the movie Naked Lunch dir David Cronenburg, a line spoken by the character portraying William S. Burroughs)
When I go on Twitter or anywhere else on line where it happens that I follow or am followed by or am capriciously linked to a bunch of writers via the inscrutable machinations of The Algorithm, I see people talking about writing. They say things like, “How many hours do you write a day?” and “What’s your favorite method for overcoming writer’s block?” and “How do you start writing when you don’t have any ideas?” and “I always dreamed of writing a book.”
I don’t really get any of those questions. Any writer writes as many hours as he or she has time to write. Lots of good writers have day jobs. As for overcoming “writer’s block” I don’t think there’s any such thing — but a person can be stuck in a project and not know where to go. And, if you don’t have any ideas, why are you writing? BUT last one I is, to me, the most incomprehensible. Why would anyone dream of writing a book? A book is a vehicle for the transmission of ideas. The book itself is nothing, an empty shell. It makes more sense to me to think, say, dream, “I want to tell this story!!!” Still, I’m not going to trample on anyone’s dreams, even the ones I find incomprehensible.
Godnose my dreams are pretty incomprehensible, like wanting to grow up to be Willy Mays. How was THAT ever going to happen?
One thing William S. Burroughs the real guy said that rings true to me is, “Well, Kerouac, Kerouac was a writer. That is, he wrote.” That is the primary requirement.
I’ve now written a bunch of books. Having done that, and gone through the grueling and surreal experience of trying to sell aforesaid (always wanted to write “aforesaid”) books, I still think I’m right. I loved writing them, even The Price which was really challenging to write and pushed me in directions I never thought of going and actually scared me a little. I experienced writer’s block because I arrived at points in the story where I didn’t know how to say what the story seemed to demand or, in a couple cases, I hated the characters. I didn’t want to recognize who, exactly, was the protagonist because I didn’t like him. But it all happened and I just re-read it and it’s a really good story. Still, I don’t know if there are any more stories that are going to demand that I sit in front of this computer screen and write them. No idea.
I kind of feel like Huck Finn at the end of his saga,
“…there ain’t nothing more to write about, and I am rotten glad of it, because if I’d a knowed what a trouble it was to make a book I wouldn’t a tackled it, and ain’t a-going to no more…” Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn
Answers here and on Facebook to the question asked me by one of my readers, “Why do Americans claim their original or ancestral nationality along with being American?” after reading my St. Patrick’s day post about my being Irish American
Here are the Facebook answers I got:
One friend wrote: Many Americans still practice traditions that came across the oceans with their ancestors. It’s part of what makes us Americans in my opinion. As the supposed “melting pot” we combine a multitude of ethnicity into our American culture. Most big American cities have restaurants with every possible cuisine. My local Orthodox Greek Church has a Greek festival every year. La Veta has a Huajatolla Heritage Festival every year. I don’t have to be of Mexican heritage to celebrate Cinco de Mayo or be Irish to have fun on St. Patrick’s Day.
My German step-daughter-in-law wrote: I’ve always found that curious as well. 🤷♀️ That said… I hope all my descendants here will always say they are German-American.
Another thought it was a good question. Another said that she thought her mother didn’t make a big deal of where she came from because it was WW II and she wanted to put her origins behind her. I’ve seen that happen a lot among recent immigrants that I’ve taught. I know that some people don’t want to be from the places they are from either because they fear discrimination or they hated it there. 🙂
Another very thoughtful response: In theory, we are a melting pot but in actuality, we aren’t. We don’t melt. We carry our previous heritage(s) around like flags and wave them with enthusiasm. I don’t know that they do this in England. We do it here. In Israel, it’s actively encouraged. They want people to keep traditions alive. I think this varies from country to country. Some places make it a big deal to urge groups to hold on to traditions. Others countries prefer everyone to form a unified group. We really DO encourage it here, even though in theory, we don’t. We have parades and special holidays for all kinds of ethnic background. It’s just as well. This is too big a country to make one giant polyglot.
Another friend wrote: Because we’re not Native Americans.
She has a point.
The answer is…
It’s pretty deep.
I hope you’re ready.
Some do claim their ancestral heritage, some don’t, but we all like the parties.
Got in a bit of a dispute with a British reader over why Americans refer to themselves as “Irish-American” (for example) mentioning their ancestral nationality. I weighed in on this but I don’t think she got it, or I was unclear or didn’t get the point of her question.
I’d love to read your responses (and she might, also) in the comments if you are American and you (occasionally) do this.
I’m Irish American. It was a long unnecessary road for me to find this out for certain, but there you have it. Yeah, there are some Swiss guys in the wood pile back there and a few Scandihoovians, but the final word from Ancestry DNA is that I’m Irish, well, Irish, Scots, Welsh and so on. The vast majority of ancestral ingrediments in this little person is Celt.
It came as no surprise. I was raised to be proud of me Irish heritage, tinking der was none better, no foiner ting. I was raised wit’ a love of poetry and god knows there’ve been far too many whiskey drinkers in me family (not me by da grace of God). I’ve been in an Irish bar, a bar in San Diego frequented pretty much exclusively by Irish ex-pats, and asked by a drunken Irishman, “Aye, Martha Kennedy is it. When were you last home?” Home being the “Ould Sod.” My date was an Irishman, former student, an expert in drinking a lot and taking cabs from bar to bar. It was an interesting night, but I could drive home.
So what? Well, in the writing of The Price I learned stuff about being Irish that I hadn’t known before. Poor Irish and prisoners of war were put on ships and sold as slaves in the colonies, most often Barbadoes and Virginia. One of these was one of my ancestors, a Scots/Irishman named Ninian Beall. Who knew? Nobody teaches us this. The more recent ones came during “the starving” and lived in Canada and northern New York. My great-grandad worked on ships on the Great Lakes. It was then he met my great-grandma, an Irish/Finnish French speaking woman from Quebec.
I don’t know what this ancestry stuff means other than it’s a lot of interesting stories and some useful information about our physical beings. Early onset hip degeneration is an Irish thing. Me brother, other Irish/American friends and I had hip replacements at a comparatively young age.
But…maybe there’s more to it. I dunna’ tink dares any poetry to compare to Irish poetry and me special favorite is William Butler Yeats.
Never give all the heart, for love Will hardly seem worth thinking of To passionate women if it seem Certain, and they never dream That it fades out from kiss to kiss; For everything that’s lovely is But a brief, dreamy, kind delight. O never give the heart outright, For they, for all smooth lips can say, Have given their hearts up to the play. And who could play it well enough If deaf and dumb and blind with love? He that made this knows all the cost, For he gave all his heart and lost.
The Song of Wandering Aengus
BY WILLIAM BUTLER YEATSI went out to the hazel wood, Because a fire was in my head, And cut and peeled a hazel wand, And hooked a berry to a thread; And when white moths were on the wing, And moth-like stars were flickering out, I dropped the berry in a stream And caught a little silver trout.
When I had laid it on the floor I went to blow the fire a-flame, But something rustled on the floor, And someone called me by my name: It had become a glimmering girl With apple blossom in her hair Who called me by my name and ran And faded through the brightening air.
Though I am old with wandering Through hollow lands and hilly lands, I will find out where she has gone, And kiss her lips and take her hands; And walk among long dappled grass, And pluck till time and times are done, The silver apples of the moon, The golden apples of the sun.
And my own favorite, and the reason to continue writing books hardly anyone reads:
The Song of the Happy Shepherd
BY WILLIAM BUTLER YEATSThe woods of Arcady are dead, And over is their antique joy; Of old the world on dreaming fed; Grey Truth is now her painted toy; Yet still she turns her restless head: But O, sick children of the world, Of all the many changing things In dreary dancing past us whirled, To the cracked tune that Chronos sings, Words alone are certain good. Where are now the warring kings, Word be-mockers? — By the Rood Where are now the warring kings? An idle word is now their glory, By the stammering schoolboy said, Reading some entangled story: The kings of the old time are dead; The wandering earth herself may be Only a sudden flaming word, In clanging space a moment heard, Troubling the endless reverie.
Then nowise worship dusty deeds, Nor seek, for this is also sooth, To hunger fiercely after truth, Lest all thy toiling only breeds New dreams, new dreams; there is no truth Saving in thine own heart. Seek, then, No learning from the starry men, Who follow with the optic glass The whirling ways of stars that pass — Seek, then, for this is also sooth, No word of theirs — the cold star-bane Has cloven and rent their hearts in twain, And dead is all their human truth. Go gather by the humming sea Some twisted, echo-harbouring shell, And to its lips thy story tell, And they thy comforters will be, Rewarding in melodious guile Thy fretful words a little while, Till they shall singing fade in ruth And die a pearly brotherhood; For words alone are certain good: Sing, then, for this is also sooth.
I must be gone: there is a grave Where daffodil and lily wave, And I would please the hapless faun, Buried under the sleepy ground, With mirthful songs before the dawn. His shouting days with mirth were crowned; And still I dream he treads the lawn, Walking ghostly in the dew, Pierced by my glad singing through, My songs of old earth’s dreamy youth: But ah! she dreams not now; dream thou! For fair are poppies on the brow: Dream, dream, for this is also sooth.
Many Americans don’t know that they are descended from Swiss Immigrants. I didn’t. Even those of us who do genealogical research might get the information that our ancestors came from a place called the “Palatinate,” or the Alsace, or some town in Southern Germany or the Black Forest. We may not think about how those people might have migrated themselves from towns in Switzerland during the hundred or so years between the Reformation and the moment that families began leaving Europe to settle in the “New World.”
The Price tells the story of these immigrants. The story is (very loosely) based on the story of my own family, a story that could be anyone’s, really. These people were Mennonites, originally from the area around Zürich. Some had fled persecution during the 16th century and gone to more Mennonite-friendly areas in the Alsace. Some fled and returned. Some stuck it out even when it meant imprisonment, confiscation of their property, the kidnapping of their children and death.
My experience with American history was that all the people who came to America in pursuit of religious freedom wanted to, but my heart and mind told me that this could not be the case. The reality of their decision hit me as I stood on a boat landing on the Rhine in the town of Stein am Rhein in Switzerland. Over the landing was a date painted in bright colors, carved into stone. The date was 1665.
I had no idea at the time (it was 1997) that any of my ancestors had come from Switzerland or that it was possible that they might have stood on this boat landing to board a river boat that would take them to Basel and from there to the comparatively friendly lands of the Palatinate. I did not know what the Palatinate was.
The boat landing and the customs house, the courtyard, the stairs, all of it contrasted completely with what I knew of life in America in 1665, and I understood at that moment what many European immigrants had left behind as I had not understood it before. For years I was haunted by that boat landing on the Rhine and my realization of what the decision to emigrate would have involved. In The Price I have written about the decision and what it cost those who made it.
The featured photo is of a cabin built by one of my ancestors, Jacob Leber, as it stood in its original location in Pennsylvania in the early 18th century. It is now in a park, having been bought, tagged and reassembled by someone who valued it. It’s a far cry from the boat landing and customs house in Stein am Rhein or any other buildings of its time in Switzerland.
I have recently had some paintings published in a local literary and arts magazine. I haven’t seen the magazine yet since I didn’t go to the party for it which was some 30 miles away. Small community as big as Connecticut. Last year I had a story published in the magazine. The people who put it together are very nice, and I hope someday to meet them, but as I’m about as social as my dogs it may never happen.
Yesterday I got an email from a woman involved on the magazine, to whom I need to send a check. Anyhoo she wrote about The Price:
“Hi! Yesterday at the library I saw your latest book on the shelf and checked it out. I read it last night, and enjoyed immensely. It made me stop and think about what a different world we live in. Our daughter lives in Virginia, and we visit her a couple of times a year. When we say goodbye, it is for a little while, not forever. Thanks for writing that book.”
That email made me very happy because the real reason I write books is for people to read and enjoy. Of course, I didn’t know that when I set out on this journey some 20 years ago, but live and (inshallah) learn.
The Price is a good story with a very strong story line. I think it’s possibly the most relatable of any of my novels. I’m a little surprised more people haven’t wanted to read it, but that’s the life of a famous writer!
When I first got Polar Bear Yeti T. Dog I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to handle such a big dog or an energetic puppy. I thought she was a mix of husky and Pyrenees. Marilyn, of the blog “Serendipity…” let me know she was familiar with Pyrenees and kind of talked me into allowing this giant breed dog into my family. It went well from the beginning.
A few months into the adventure, a friend correctly identified Bear as an Akbash Dog, not a Pyrenees. Big deal. Both breeds are livestock guardian dogs. The main difference between the two is that Akbash dogs are lighter in weight, faster on their feet and come from Turkey not the Pyrenees. Both are ancient breeds (Akbash have been traced to 300 BCE) and both have guarded livestock, working in a partnership with people.
I read everything I could about them and it really seemed like Marilyn was right. I have had a lot of dogs in my life — more than 25 — and I have gone through a lot of training with those dogs. My dogs have all been at least 50 pounds and my favorite breed was the Siberian Husky which is notorious for being difficult to train and independent of temperament. Everything I saw about the Akbash Dog suited me fine. I wanted a partner, not a pet, a friend on a hike, a dog who was able to read a situation and make up her own mind.
The Akbash is large, strong and fast, as befits a dog whose job it is to guard valuable flocks of sheep. When he’s not taking on wolves, he is a calm, quiet and steady dog with an independent frame of mind and the ability to think for himself in different circumstances. He is accustomed to working with people as a partner, not as a subordinate. (vet street, Akbash dog)
With her mentality, she very quickly decided to go along with my preferences. She liked being with me and understood that’s what she’d have to do. She was housebroken in four hours, had made friends with Mindy and was working hard to win Dusty’s approval (but he still mourned his Lily).
I’ve never known a dog like Bear. She amazes me every day.
She began guarding as soon as she moved in, but it was never very serious until last week when the Australian cattle dog came charging at us, teeth bared. Within seconds Bear had slipped my hand (taking her leash with her) and had thrown that dog on his back in the driveway of his house.
She’s a different dog now. She is far more attentive to sounds than she was before the attack. She stays closer to me and stops and leans when she hears anything she thinks might be a threat. She’s come into her own as a livestock guardian dog.
I have mixed feelings about this. She is no longer what I would call “dog friendly.” Off leash, without me, probably she would be friendly, but definitely if she’s leashed and with me, she’s going to do her job.
She is four years old today, March 12. I don’t know if this is her exact birthday, but she was four months old when I first learned of her in mid-July 2015, and Lily T. Wolf died exactly four months before that, on March 12, aged 17. Bear looked up at me from a posting on Facebook from the local dog shelter and it seemed it was Lily looking at me through Bear’s blue eyes saying, “This is the one.”
I believe it really happened that way. And for her birthday, Bear got a BIG snowstorm that Lily would also have loved. ❤ ❤
I have decided to compile the China posts into a book and then decided to be as inclusive as possible, adding other things I’ve written and published about my life in China in the 1980s.
When I came back from the Peoples Republic of China in 1984, I had a lot to say. A magazine — the EastWest Journal, long defunct, published my article about teaching in China.
SO — I found the magazine in the garage in a bin and started typing the article into my lap top. Yeah. It was typed on my Smith-Corona back in the day. ❤
Here’s Part One.
Originally published in East/West Journal April, 1985
One winter a few years ago my thesis advisor spent two weeks in Beijing and Shanghai. During supper one night he told me wonderful stories about the bleakness, poverty, hardship and gloomy, Victorian architecture of what he called “Dicken’s China.” After talking with him I was very curious to see for myself how China was recovering from the wounds of thirty years of revolution. I sent letters to several Chinese universities applying for a job as a “Foreign Expert” in English. A year later, I received a letter stamped with an exotic registration seal from South China Teachers University in Guangzhou (Canton). They wanted me to come that September. Was I still interested in teaching in China? My boyfriend was less than thrilled so I asked him to marry me and we went together to Guangzhou where we both taught English to Chinese university students.
Before we left, we tried to prepare ourselves — we had heard stories about isolation and loneliness. In some Chinese cities foreign teachers are prevented from having out-of-class contact with students and colleagues. We had also heard of how foreign teacherswere watched in their movements around their “home town” and restricted to organized outings.
All of this is a plausible version of life for a foreign teacher in China, but it was not true for us in Guangzhou. We spent nearly every evening of our year with students or Chinese friends and had no restrictions on where we went in the city. At the time we left, faculty colleagues said they thought we had seen parts of the city they hadn’t.
However, problems did arise with my classroom expectations. China and the United States approach educational theory from totally different perspectives. China is trying to solve an immense, fundamental illiteracy problem. In 1949 approximately nine out of every ten adults could not read or write. China is also trying to give its people a uniform spoken language, Mandarin Chinese. Once the language of the intelligentsia, it is now called Putungwah — People’s Speech.
With such basic problems to overcome in educating its vast population, China’s first solution is the training of teachers. Our university prepared teachers in the “key” disciplines — physics, mathematics, politics, physical education and foreign languages, primarily English and Japanese. China believes that English will propel the nation into the twentieth century. What they are doing would probably make perfect sense to anyone; it is how theyare doing it that may be difficult for an American teacher to understand. China’s education needs demand an education assembly line.
After getting out of bed at 5:30 a.m. to the sounds of marching music and a Beijing accent counting, “yi, er, san, si, wu, liu, chi, BA,” over the loudspeaker, providing a beat for morning esercises, students eat a simple breakfast of baozi (steamed bread) and tea. Then they go to their classroom where they share a backless bench with a comrade. Standing outside a classroom while a Chinese teacher conducts an English class, you hear sixty voices repeating in unison —a modern version of the eighteenth century “blab” schools where attentiveness was measured by the level of noise. This process is refined in the language labs which are beginning to appear throughout China as a technological relief for the ears.
Like their American counterparts, for most Chinese today college and university are routes to a decent job. In China jobs are assigned, usually for life. My students knew that most of them would probably become middle school teachers. Their response to this fate was often like that of a trained ballerina told that she would spend the rest of her life trampling grapes.
Students work for grades because their job assignments, good or bad, depend largely on their marks — and their Marx. Teaching is considered the crux of China’s moderniztion process and central to this is the education of the peasants in the interior regions of China. No one wants to live in rural China where living conditions are very hard, food is poor and scarce, fuel is hard to find and the pay is very bad. Good grades help insure a good assignment, as does a good reputation for correctness in behavior and attitude. All of the American literature and analysisof poetry I gave my students had little relevance to their futures. I knew it, too, but once in a while a student would tell me, “We don’t really need literature. The “Heads” make us study it. We won’t use it as middle school teachers.” The best assignments were positions as young teachers at the various colleges in the province, ideally in Guangzhou. Next best, a local middle school, next best, to return to one’s home town to teach; last, a job in the countryside.
When the time for final English assignments (called theses) came at the end of the year, the tension in the senior class was palpable. I let them off early because I expected to have many theses to mark, and I knew what work the students had left to do. Many were finding alternatives to the middle school job. Some were hoping to remain at South China Teacher’s University as “young teachers.” When it was all over and the students prepared to disperse to their various exiles, one girl came to our apartment for a talk. “There is the end of my wonderful literature,” she said. She had been assigned to our university as a young teacher, and she wanted to accept the assignment, but her mother insisted she return to her home town. She had found her daughter a job translating and the government had approved it.
Wow! I forgot how tiring it was to type from copy — but I only have one page of three columns left. More to follow!
“I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements…” Henry David Thoreau, “Walking”
I love to walk. Most of my blog posts are about walking, and I’ve even written a book about my walks with my dogs during the years I lived in California, My Everest.
I never have taken the ability to walk for granted. There have been times when I couldn’t just “get up and walk.” I’ve written here — often — about the challenges to me — emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually — of suffering from hip arthritis and not being able to walk well.
This time last year I was flying, uh walking, on the short-term high afforded me by a cortisone shot in my hip joint. For the first time in YEARS I could walk, pain-free and happy. I could even go up and down stairs! Two things happened as a result of that shot. I realized how long I’d been messed up (years), and my doc saw for sure (for the benefit of Medicare) that I had no real choice but a hip replacement if I were to regain my mobility. The cortisone shot brought me relief for 3 weeks then I was back where I was.
I have fought hard to be able to continue to walk. In a long conversation with my doc, I told him about my dad who suffered from MS, who, over a period of 15 years, lost the ability to walk.
“So you know what it is to lose mobility.”
He confided to me that it was a similar situation with his mom that had inspired him to become an orthopedic surgeon. “We know what it means not to be able to walk.”
Of course, as often happened when I talked to him about these things, my eyes filled with tears.
“…most of my townsmen would fain walk sometimes, as I do, but they cannot. No wealth can buy the requisite leisure, freedom, and independence which are the capital in this profession [walkers]. It comes only by the grace of God. It requires a direct dispensation from Heaven to become a walker. You must be born into the family of the Walkers. Ambulator nascitur, non fit. Some of my townsmen, it is true, can remember and have described to me some walks which they took ten years ago, in which they were so blessed as to lose themselves for half an hour in the woods; but I know very well that they have confined themselves to the highway ever since, whatever pretensions they may make to belong to this select class.”
I hope this summer will bring me some good walks that I haven’t been able to to take because of, well, being unable. Now I have a car with good ground clearance, a dog who’s willing to go to war for me, maps, a hydration pack , trekking poles and a big can of bear spray. I should be good to go as soon as the snow melts and the roads to the mountains are dry enough not to be destroyed by cars. Maybe being exiled from the golf course and chased away from the wild life area by the Icky Man and the closures so the geese can mate is fate’s way of telling me, “You can go anywhere now, Martha. Don’t be afraid.”
I’ve also lately realized that I’m alone. No one is depending on me for anything. If a cougar gets me how’s that different from a heart attack? Just more interesting. I’ve realized that before in my life, but in the agar culture of, uh, culture, I sometimes forget. We all live FOR something. I think I can live FOR walking. Oh, and langlauf. ❤
My vicinity affords many good walks; and though for so many years I have walked almost every day, and sometimes for several days together, I have not yet exhausted them. An absolutely new prospect is a great happiness, and I can still get this any afternoon. Two or three hours’ walking will carry me to as strange a country as I expect ever to see. A single farmhouse which I had not seen before is sometimes as good as the dominions of the king of Dahomey. There is in fact a sort of harmony discoverable between the capabilities of the landscape within a circle of ten miles’ radius, or the limits of an afternoon walk, and the threescore years and ten of human life. It will never become quite familiar to you
I bought it. I love it. I got a great deal. It turns into my driveway easily and goes into my garage. It’s beautiful and whimsical. Going into the various types of 4 wheel drive is a cinch. I can TALK to the radio and tell it to change stations (that will affect my driving style a lot). It’s my car. I’m very happy.
The dealership — Town and Country Auto Mall in Alamosa — is easy to work with and negotiated well for me. I came in with an approved loan from my bank. I just said, “You have to beat this interest rate and buy back my Focus.” I guess that’s bargaining. They bought back the Focus and gave me a 3.3% interest rate on my loan. That’s 1.3 points lower than my bank.