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.

A Blessed Squall, a Happy Dog, and China

Crimson is the definitely the word of the day, for me anyway. Crimson is a Chinese color and a lot of it has been loaded into my car already. Even the Home on the Range boombox is red. The BIG READING is today and I still haven’t made it all the way through — aloud — the passages I’ll be reading from As a Baby Duck Listens to Thunder. I found that to make the reading work I had to take some of the chapters and work them so they would fit together as a reading of the appropriate length. Having a time limit and two stories is a lesson in compression. The weird thing about being a writer is you will always find that you could have written every single sentence better. The weird thing about THAT is that until you’ve written — and learned what you will learn about writing from having written — you couldn’t have done that.

As a visual person, I’d like to share photos, but I don’t want to lug a monitor and all that stuff to the museum, so I’m recycling the poster I made two years ago.

Crimson is a Chinese color and a lot of it has been loaded into my car already. Even the Home on the Range boombox is red. But will I be? The question — as always — is what to wear. The Chinese jacket? It’s really fucking cold today. -20c/+5F There’s never any way of knowing WHEN winter will hit here in the Back of Beyond, and I took a chance.

Winter… Yesterday afternoon I got one of those feelings that I should get out to the Refuge RIGHT NOW. I got Bear, we got in Bella, we headed out driving toward a wall of grey cloud. Oh yeah. “Oh Bear!” I said, knowing that we might get lucky out there. The moment we arrived, it started to snow. The Refuge was under a squall. I took Bear on her favorite trail, a little trail we haven’t been able to take since last winter. She was so happy and it was so cold. A person needs to get in shape for cold, I know that. Until you’ve been out in it a few times it’s not that much fun, but OK. I have a good jacket. The wind blew in my face, Bear checked out all the scents, I watched the sky, the squall passed. The Canada geese — blown south by the storm — had found the front pond which is still open water. I was happy to see them. The sky changed rapidly, beautifully. Maybe it’s enough to say, “a good time was had by all.”

I hope I can write that tomorrow of the reading this afternoon and added photos from the events I’ll be reading this afternoon.

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…

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.

My Chinese Thanksgiving

We are now all familiar with the historical horror that is Thanksgiving. I’ve tried to counter that by telling the real story of Thanksgiving which has nothing to do with Pilgrims and Native Americans, but it seems there is another “real story” involving George Washington’s proclamation establishing November 26 as a National Day of Thanksgiving. I found the information about the proclamation on the Mt. Vernon homepage. The irony (to me) is that Sarah Josepha Hale is not mentioned on the website. She, through the magazine of which she was the editor (Godey’s Lady’s Book) was involved in founding the Mt. Vernon Ladies Association, which still cares for Mt. Vernon. Sarah Hale happens to be the same person who worked for years to persuade SOME president — any president! — to formally establish a day for national Thanksgiving. She finally persuaded Lincoln and in 1863, Thanksgiving was officially established.

When it comes to history, humanity forgets more than it remembers, and when it comes to politics, people like to be angry. As for me, I like Indians more than I like those people who landed on Plymouth Rock, but I guess we can’t really choose sides. The color of our skin has done that for us.

I think there is something to Thanksgiving besides history and outrage, and that is the myth. Myths have a kind of magic and meaning beyond themselves. The myth of the happy Pilgrims and the happy Native Americans sitting down together is an expression of an ideal, a lesson I learned during the year I lived in the People’s Republic of China, 1982-83. That year, for the first time, I saw “my” country through the eyes of people from a very different world. For a Chinese man I came to know, a survivor of the Cultural Revolution, the myth of America’s first Thanksgiving was a story of hope and the overcoming of privation and suffering — even more than that.

Here’s how that transpired (from As a Baby Duck Listens to Thunder)…

The Chinese government flew me from San Francisco to Guangzhou, including a flight from Hong Kong, which was only a few hours away by train. I expected a long Hollywood-style interrogation when I landed behind the Iron Curtain, but the only question the People’s Liberation Army customs officer asked when I got off the plane (an Aeroflot) was, “Do you have any religious material?” By then it was an open question for me what constituted religious material. I said no. I didn’t know that there was a large and well-funded mission in Hong Kong that relied on American tourists to smuggle Bibles into China. Anyway, I don’t believe in converting anyone. I’d brought my Bible to help my students understand the Western literature I would be teaching.

I soon met a Chinese woman, a young teacher my own age, with whom I became close friends. She came from Hainan, an island in the South China Sea straight across the Gulf of Tonkin from Vietnam. Looking at its location on the map mesmerized me.

During WWII the Japanese occupied Hainan and established air bases to supply their invasions of French Indochina and the Philippines as well as to coordinate their attack on Pearl Harbor. After years of fighting, Hainanese guerilla fighters from the various mountain tribes succeeded, with the help of the American Army, in pushing out the Japanese. 

Then, during the Cultural Revolution in the ’60s, those so unfortunate as to have learned English during the anti-Japanese War were imprisoned, tortured, and killed. Survivors talked of suicide as if it were a disease. One of these was my friend’s elementary school teacher, Mr. Hu. His first wife, Mr. Hu explained, had “…got the suicide” while he had spent most of five years in a tiger pit.

With the fall of the Gang of Four, Mr. Hu married again and was transferred from Hainan to teach English in a high school in a village near my university outside Guangzhou. English was in; Russian was out. Any Chinese who could speak English was an important government property. He had been my friend’s teacher, and she took me to his house for lunch one day. We talked away the afternoon in American English. To avoid looking as if it might have changed its mind about the United States, China usually hired British teachers as Foreign Experts in English, and I was among the first “wave” of American teachers. I seldom heard a nuance of American speech or an idiom. But Mr. Hu said things like, “Oh boy,” “You bet,” and “Not worth a plug nickel.” Linguistic relics, but American relics.

Finally I asked, “Mr. Hu, where did you learn American English?”

“In the anti-Japanese war. American army. I was a clerk.” Most Chinese would have said, “clark” in the British way. Mr. Hu said “clerk,” just the way I would.

At the end of a wonderful afternoon, I invited him and his wife to the Thanksgiving dinner that I had just at that moment decided to prepare. I thought I could get a chicken.

I invited a few of my own students as well. Mr. Hu arrived with my friend and her husband. From the kitchen, I heard Mr. Hu telling everyone the story of the “Pigrims randing on Prymoth Lock on the Mayfrower.” In his voice I heard exactly what he had done in that tiger pit to keep himself sane and not “get the suicide.” He had told himself the stories he’d learned from the American GIs. It was his way of staying true, of holding onto himself and to a better world. There was more to it, something I didn’t suspect.

Some days later my friend came to my apartment and asked me to take a walk with her. I hadn’t yet realized that many of the walks I took with friends in China were taken so it would be difficult for anyone to listen to our conversation. The irony of Chinese life then was that the more public we were, the more privacy we had. We left the campus, walked across some rice fields, and up a small mountain. 

“Do you have a Bible?” she asked.

“Yes. Why?” I knew she and her husband regarded religion as superstition.

“Mr. Hu,” she answered.

***

I was to take a bus halfway to Mr. Hu’s village to a very busy stop that connected to many other buses. He would meet me at the stop, and after giving him the Bible, I would return home.

The afternoon was cold with pouring rain. I wrapped my Bible in newspapers and tied it with pink string exactly like those Chinese were always carrying. To keep it dry, I slipped it into the plastic envelope that usually held the poncho I was wearing. If anyone noticed — which was doubtful — it would look as if I had given Mr. Hu a poncho. I was conspicuous, but well-known. My package wasn’t.

Twilight turned to night. I waited beside dripping palm trees, holding my umbrella and my bundle. Finally, a bus stopped, and the crowd rushed up the street. Someone pushed me. I looked up. Mr. Hu. I opened my mouth to speak; he shook his head very slightly. I passed him the bundle as if it were a football hand-off.

I never saw him again, but on Christmas morning I awoke to find four Mao buttons had been slid under my apartment door along with two small publications from the Cultural Revolution and a hand-painted Christmas card, unsigned.

Mr. Hu.

Stopping Traffic — Green Eyes in China

Before we went to China, several people, including my Chinese teacher, told us that people would stare at us. I thought it would be 6-foot, blue-eyed Jim (the Good X) who would draw all the attention, but it wasn’t. No one told me I would be the one who would stop traffic.

We were on our way to the Friendship Store near the Baiyun Hotel. Nearing the spot where we’d transfer to a tram, we made our way to the back doors of Bus 22 and waited for it to stop. When the doors opened, people began streaming in before anyone could get off the bus. It was early in our year, and, coming from Colorado, we weren’t yet accustomed to public transportation and especially not to crowds of people pushing and shoving. 

That day an old woman from the countryside happened to look up and saw my eyes. She stopped on the steps of the bus, pointed, and cried out, in Cantonese, “Like a cat!” She froze where she stood, looking frightened, blocking the door, causing a traffic jam of bodies.

Jim had made it out, but I was trapped inside. To prevent an incident, the bus driver closed the doors and took off. I got off at the next stop and walked back. 

Over time, I think “my” city got used to seeing us around. That never happened again in Guangzhou.

I knew I was the opposite in appearance of every Chinese person. Curly, reddish hair, freckles, green eyes? It’s a look that has been regarded with suspicion all over the world, not just in the People’s Republic of China.

As the months went by, and the only foreign faces I saw were those of my brown-eyed, dark-haired Irish colleague Ruth and my husband Jim, I more or less forgot my own face. One afternoon, after I’d been in China ten months or so, and was used to seeing only Chinese faces, Chinese coloring, I was stunned by the bright green eyes of a Uygur man sitting on the steps of the Moslem restaurant. I stopped and stared. He grinned, laughed, and pointed at my eyes. I’m sure I blushed, and we both laughed. 

I got used to the idea that I wasn’t completely human in the minds of many of the people I encountered there in the Middle Kingdom. Most people who approached us on the street either wanted to practice English or change renminbi to Waiwei Qian. There were times when we were pushed, shoved, and called names. One night someone threw rocks at us as we waited for a tram. Events like this said, “Yankee, go home.” I guess these events could be labeled “racist,” but I didn’t see them that way. Nonetheless, it was unpleasant and somewhat scary.

Having worked as a paralegal in a law firm for three years before I escaped the clerical jungle for the PRC (People’s Republic of China), I understood something of law in general. We carried with us paperwork that said we were Chinese and had jobs that were beneficial to China’s modernization. “Ma Sa and Ji Mu” were our legal identities. There was nothing I could do about my appearance or the fact that, for some Chinese, the devil has my coloring. The potential may have existed for an “international incident,” but friendliness, openness, and the willingness to speak even bad Chinese was usually enough to disarm anyone. Walking away worked, too.

We spent our last day in China in Shanghai from where we would fly to San Francisco. Shanghai was comparatively cosmopolitan, and I didn’t expect to create a disturbance that attracted the police. My heart was full of the journey ahead of me, the journey “home.” I wanted to take in every remaining moment of China. After a full day of sightseeing, I just wanted to walk around, savoring Shanghai’s vibrant street life. 

We were walking in the neighborhood near our downtown hotel. On a blistering August evening, no sane Shanghainese was going to stay in a tiny, dark, sweltering apartment. Everyone had pulled out folding chairs and tables, set up charcoal stoves for tea and dinner, and sat fanning themselves, talking, laughing, spitting, cooking. Sidewalk life poured into the street, leaving a lane for pedestrians and bicycles. As we passed, someone noticed my eyes. I heard it again, this time in Shanghai inflected Mandarin, “Like a cat!” EVERYONE stopped what they were doing and came to look at me. I stood calmly while they looked and asked me questions. “Where did you come from?” “What are you doing in China?” Meanwhile traffic couldn’t move through the intersection. 

The cops came and broke up the “riot,” scolded me, and told us to move along. We went back to our hotel, surprised that in Shanghai, which even then had far more foreigners than did Guangzhou, no one seemed to have seen green eyes before. 

***

The featured photo is from 2008, when I was the lead singer for The Cure. 😀
Also, this is a chapter from As a Baby Duck Listens to Thunder, my book about teaching in China in 1982/83

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/07/04/rdp-saturday-eyes/

Cheap Books to Take You Away from It All!

My Everest and As a Baby Duck Listens to Thunder are now available for Kindle for $.99! (Amazon doesn’t let me give them away, so this is second best.)

These books will take you somewhere else for a little while, an escape from the concerns of the present moment. Here’s where to order the books and learn more about them: amazon.com/author/martha_ann_kennedy

About My Everest:

One reader said, “I started reading your book today. Martha—I love it…If ever there was a love story—this is it.

Other readers have said:

  • “A beautiful book filled with vivid imagery and profound joy.”
  • “The book is very insightful and enjoyable at the same time.”
  • “I am a dog person but even if I weren’t I would still rate this book as excellent.”
  • “This is a book to savor.”
  • “I felt like I was along on the trails.”

From the back of the book:

In the 1980s, I moved to California from Colorado. I found work I loved and ended up staying there for more than thirty years. I always missed the Rocky Mountains.

Many of these stories are set in Mission Trails Regional Park, several thousand acres of coastal sage and chaparral. The landscape was one of the few remaining pieces of untouched chaparral so close to San Diego. To anyone who gets to know it it is a fascinating, complex, intricate, very alive wild world. It taught me to see.

About thirty miles east of the city were “real” mountains on which snow fell a few times every winter. I trekked those trails as often as I could.

Now I am back in Colorado. Every day I have the chance to get out somewhere I see and feel again how much I learned on the dusty trails of Southern California’s chaparral hills and the higher mountains beyond.

About As a Baby Duck Listens to Thunder

As a Baby Duck Listens to Thunder is a love story…. My position as a Foreign Expert in English was my first real teaching job in a career that spanned more than thirty years. I could never have imagined China would be a destination in my life, but it was. And at such a moment in history! Chairman Mao had been dead only six years. The evil Gang of Four had been “tried” only the year before. The horrors of the Cultural Revolution were still close in everyone’s memory, and people feared that the post-Mao moment of comparative freedom was a random blip. Deng Xiao Ping was determined that China would modernize and enter the world as a competitor. Every single penny of foreign exchange that came to China was used to buy technology to further China’s modernization. I was one of those “bits of technology,” too.

Propelled by a consuming wanderlust, I took my ignorance and inexperience with me, and ended up receiving some of life’s great gifts. My students’ diligence, curiosity and courage inspired me, and, in turn, I inspired them. The bridge between our cultures was a shared love of poetry and beautiful language. As for China? China was the great love of my life. Part of this Kindle edition is a Youtube video of the slides that awakened the stories.

Reading at the Rio Grande County Museum in Del Norte

Part of my mindset is still in the complicated crowded California world where it takes a long time to get anywhere and a long time to do anything. It’s OK with me if I NEVER fully get that I’m not there because it gives me the chance to be beautifully surprised, as I was yesterday.

Njal

The plan yesterday was to drive to South Fork where I was going to meet up with a woman who was buying three tiny paintings. There was a large art and craft show in the Rio Grande Club — a fancy country club along the Rio Grande in the semi-resort town of South Fork. “Semi” because people live in South Fork, but “resort” because there is an enormous subdivision of large and beautiful houses that are occupied mostly in summer.

I saw people I know, and they said things like, “I heard you on the radio!” I was flustered by that, hit again by the fact that we just don’t know that much about where we are a lot of the time. We live in a little tunnel of our immediate concerns, our habits and what’s right in front of our faces. It’s necessary that we live that way, and surprising when we learn that somehow WE were in someone else’s immediate concerns and right before someone else’s eyes. I knew the interviews would be broadcast, but I was chiefly concerned with showing up and doing a decent job. I didn’t think of people listening ON PURPOSE.

The craft show was lovely, and very large, filling all the banquet rooms upstairs in the country club. Lois shopped successfully for Christmas and I found my customer.

Mr. Haefeli

I had a conversation with a young guy who is the scion of one of the San Luis Valley families that has been in the bee-keeping honey making business for generations. I learned that they had come originally from the German speaking part of Switzerland and in Switzerland they also kept bees. I asked where in Switzerland they had come from, but he didn’t know. I revealed my “Schneebeli” ancestry and told him my name means “Little Snow Ball.”

Over the course of the day I met three people who’s ancestors came from the German speaking part of Switzerland and all of them had stories like that of the Schneebelis.

From there we headed back down the mountain to Del Norte for lunch and then to the museum. I wanted to get there early to help set up.

Well…

I got there and Louise great-grandson had gotten a haircut. He’d also burned his tongue testing the coffee. He told me he’d tested the coffee to be sure it wasn’t poisoned before giving it to Louise. I was charmed.

We set out a few chairs, maybe seven or eight. I didn’t expect people — just my friends and Louise and Rita who work at the museum. BUT…

People kept coming. Pretty soon there were (I think) fifteen people there. The youngest was Louise’ great-grandson who’s maybe 10; the oldest were well into their eighties. Most were retired people like me. We kept putting out chairs. Then I introduced the reading but I did a poor job. I forgot to give the title of the book OH WELL.

The reading went very very well. I could see interest and sympathy spread across the faces of the people in my audience. It was a wonderful, magical, thing to see. The reading had been publicized as being a Pearl Harbor Day remembrance, focused on the Chinese I met who spoke American English and who had worked with the American military at the end of WW II. The stories are really incredible and so unknown that they are interesting.

Afterward, I sold three books, gave out many business cards and talked to the people who’d come to listen, two of which revealed Swiss ancestry. Mennonites back in the day, just like my grandma’s family. This makes me think maybe I should give a reading about the Swiss Protestant Reformation since it’s the reason so many of us are here.

Again I realized how much fun it is to share my words with living, breathing people who are in front of me. I read a small piece from Martin of Gfenn and it so touched one of the women who came listen — a beautiful Hispanic grandma there with her sister — that she came up to tell me in passionate, elegant prose the story of Lazarus and Dives. “Can I get your books at the library?” she asked.

“In Alamosa. Monte Vista won’t stock them. I don’t know about your library here in Del Norte.”

“Why not?”

“They’re self-published.”

“What difference does that make? Your books are good, and I want to read them,” she said.

“Alamosa is serious about local authors,” I said, and shrugged. I would have handed her a copy of Martin of Gfenn right then and there if people hadn’t been around and I wasn’t generally there to give books away, but I actually LIKE giving books away so… She introduced herself to me and her name means “Star of the Mountains.”

BUT…. As wonderful as all of this was, the high point was Louise’ great-grandson looking at me and saying, “I really liked your story.”

~~~

Featured photo: Rabbit brush flats between Del Norte and Monte Vista, CO, 3:30 pm December 7, 2019, winter light. Taken by Lois Maxwell

My News: Another Event…

Among the things going on, I will be doing another reading, this time at the Rio Grande County Museum in Del Norte as part of their holiday celebration. The event runs from now until December 21. All the other participants are artists — most were members of the now defunct artist co-op which some of you might remember as having been, for me, a very mixed experience.

I took my stuff yesterday — all books, except a few notecards left over from the erstwhile co-op. My books are on top of a beautiful cherry-wood Victorian piano. The museum is a historical museum that has saved many things from the “old days” in the San Luis Valley — that says a lot, really, since the “old days” here go back to the Spanish conquistadores, not to mention the Navajo and Ute tribes. It’s a fascinating little museum, and I’ve learned a lot from looking at the exhibits.

Once I had my books on the piano and the poster from the Baby Duck reading set up, the exhibit looked kind of bare, so I went home and made a poster for the historical novels. It’s not as finished as the Baby Duck project, but I didn’t have weeks. I had hours. But, it’s all there now.

I was very low on supplies — even spray glue — and didn’t have time to drive to Alamosa to bigger stores with better choices. I was stuck with our little Safeway which was even almost out of tissue paper. But… I realized from making these two poster how my brain goes first to electronic presentations because that was my “thing” for so many years. I have not had to make posters for anything since my 8th grade science project on the Geological History of the Tetons. That went extremely well, by the way. I got an award from the National Geological Society and some oil and gas company. But seriously; 8th grade? I was 13…

The big open-house opening is tomorrow and I’m going with a couple of friends. “My” day is December 7, and as it is Pearl Harbor day, and there are a LOT of veterans here (one of the oldest retirement homes for veterans is near where I walk the dogs; it was built to house Civil War veterans) I decided to read the sections from Baby Duck that talk about the alliance between the US Army and China to fight the Japanese, notably on Hainan Island, and the numerous Chinese veterans I met. In those stories is a Christmas story and I’ll end the reading with that.

I’m looking forward to it very much — much less prep work for me as the museum is catering the event, not me.

Sweet Bonus

What was especially cool about the book launch party yesterday was seeing the effect of my work on other people. I am not a person who listens to others read. I don’t have strong aural learning aptitude, and I tend to lose track of things, conversations, in which I’m not directly involved. It made school difficult at times.

But most people DO get a lot from hearing something. When my friend Lois hears music, she’s completely involved, and when she sings and plays she KNOWS what she’s hearing. For me, even though I studied piano for more than 10 years, it always felt kind like good luck if I got things right. I love music and listen to it almost all the time, but not with the intensity or immersion that Lois can — and does.

Words on a page are VERY evocative to me, and I was most worried about crying as I read, so I practiced a lot to kind of desensitize myself to the story. I managed it. I used the remedy of looking at the people listening to me as much as I could because what I was doing was for THEM.

A magical result of it was that my reading inspired two people. One, came and sat down beside me and told me the story of her childhood in Germany as an Army kid when the Berlin Wall was built. Fascinating. The other, who’s traveled a lot, said, “I always write down what I do when I travel, in a notebook, just for that trip, hmmm…” she was thinking out loud to me.

I said, “Yeah, we’re at the time of life when we learn how stories turn out.”

She thought I meant death, but I told her, “No, not that, but I mean I couldn’t have written Baby Duck until now. I didn’t know enough.” Then she understood. Who knows? Maybe she’ll write her stories. I think it’s very cool that a couple of chapters of Baby Duck inspired people to think of their own stories.

As a writer, I haven’t done a reading of my work like this before. Until it was in progress, I didn’t have any sense of the what it might mean or how great it is to meet readers, to share the book with readers and to see how the book kind of living on its own. So many books I’ve read have affected me, inspired me, made me think — and my book has done that. I’m so happy.