Discovering all those letters I sent my mom from China was a huge surprise. I thought I’d thrown out everything in the Great Purge of 2015. Writing the blog posts about my experiences was fun. Transforming them into something like a coherent book was difficult. Integrating the letters was emotionally intense and when I was finished, I was drained, exhausted.

It’s very strange meeting yourself after 35 years or more and that’s essentially what happened.

Some of what I found was inspiring, some was simply informative, some of it showed me how consistent I have been through time. We are more than the sum of our experiences. We’re also something intrinsically, fundamentally.

Most of all I saw how deeply I loved China.

I also saw the virtue of ignorance — if I’d known more about China and its history leading up to 1982, I might not have gone. But I didn’t know, so I was open to being told by the people around me. In my mind was a vague memory about the Cultural Revolution and, of course, the Beatle’s song, “Revolution,” but as none of that had any meaning to me as a teenager in Colorado Springs, I didn’t pay attention.

When I returned from China I literally read everything I could find, had friends in China send me books, went to LA’s Chinatown to buy books, had a friend in Macao send me books and used the library at San Diego State. I desperately wanted to know where I’d been. It was important, ultimately, to do all that learning away from China and away from the influence and commentary of my Chinese friends who’d all grow up “under the Red Flag.”

For a while I felt that I’d really failed my life since the only great thing I’ve done was go to China for a year, the only adventure but then I thought more about that. What’s an adventure? Yeah, I have regrets over many of the choices I made. I think that’s just part of living long enough to be able to look at your own life as if it were a book. We make some choices because we really don’t know better, or don’t have a clear view of our essential selves, or think we’ll live forever and have time to make it up.

This is the third book I’ve written about my life. All of them are show a character who’s utterly consistent. It’s interesting because several years ago I never imagined writing about my own life experiences. I thought writing memoir was self-indulgent and self- important. Again, a completely consistent aspect of my personality. The very thing I mock or say I would never do is probably the next thing on my agenda.

The most wonderful thing I found in all those letters was this. You need to know my mom didn’t want my brother or I to be artists. She said over and over “Art is a four letter word in this house.” But, the poor woman gave birth to two artists. She thought all artists were Van Gogh, insane geniuses who couldn’t be happy and who sliced off their ears. Still, I wrote her this:

“Dear Mom, I think art (you can cover your ears if you don’t want to hear about A-R-T) if it’s any good has to be about something. If you just stay in the same place and do the same things always you’ll write one story and make once picture over and over and over…so maybe I’m in the process of preparing to make something.” October 13, 1982

23 thoughts on “Self-Archeology

  1. As the owner of 2 huge file boxes of letters to and from me dating back to age 10…I am very intrigued by this post and your observations. It is really fascinating to read the writings of one’s 20 year old self…30 year old self…and so on. And consistencies that persevere. I’ve always thought of putting it into some kind of book form, but don’t know where to start. Love that letter to your mom in 1982. I wonder if you have her response. 🙂

  2. Letters were then the only communication to far away places. I got regular letters from my mum when I went to Switzerland, but kept none of them.

    • I saw from those letters I wrote my mom how wonderful letters are. Some of my more precious treasures are letters from my dad to my grandma when I was born, my Aunt Dickie telling me she loved my books. I am afraid there won’t be treasures like these for people in the future.

  3. Bit ironic really, because your mom didn’t seem to be a very happy woman from what you’ve said. Maybe you’ve been making yourself, Martha. 🙂

    The only letters I’ve ever written were to my future husband, when he left me for a while to travel. Equivalent to today’s sexting. I still have his letters and he still has mine. They were so immature and R-rated. I’ve contemplated burning them, but I just can’t bring myself to do it. One day my children will have a huge laugh when they clear out those drawers. Maybe that was blue art, because we did make two little beings. 🙂

    • I did make myself. I got some good things from my mom, love of nature for one thing. She would have been much happier if she’d indulged that love more but she had the idea (common to her generation?) that she couldn’t go out into the world without a man.

      Her life was sad and hard. I suppose there are people who feel put-upon by those facts and others who just shrug and go, “Well, that’s how it goes.” She believed she’d had a worse deal than others, but that was not true. Every one of us gets fucked somehow by life, and that might not even be getting fucked by life. It might be the anvil of our hearts.

      I love your “blue art.” (We don’t use that phrase here). I have some of those, too, between me and a story that you’d love, but I won’t ever tell on my blog. You’ll have to come and see your river. ❤

  4. I think you are too easily dismissing other parts of your life which were also adventures. You travels across the country with the dogs to find your home in Colorado was an amazing adventure, as was you recovers from hip surgery and so much else.

    • I know. That was kind of my point. We go out in search of ONE kind of adventure not knowing how many others there are of kinds we never imagined. As you know, too! 🙂

  5. I don’t do much self archeological work. I’m fixated on the present.

    • I guess it depends where the present takes one. I was reading a blog here on WordPress by an Indian man who was in Guangzhou, my Chinese hometown, and he wondered what it was like in the 1980s. I never expected to revisit those times, but it’s been a fascinating journey.

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