Xin Nian Hao!

Not sure about this temptation thing — I guess it’s the feeling I get when I see a puppy of the same stamp as Bear, a puppy who needs a home. “Oh man…” I dunno… I was tempted to ask the Chatbot to write a post for me on this subject, but decided against it. It might be be better than my own writing and then where would I be? Besides, the dogs need their routine and I like writing my blog post every morning.

It made me think about the importance of our small daily rituals. Maybe they are the glue that hold us together in the random small and large tempests of our existence. Writing this blog is a ritual in my daily life. Like my cup of coffee, it’s insurance that, for at least 30 minutes or an hour, I will do something that is meaningful to me. I began it back when I was teaching a lot and had almost no time to myself.

Today is the first day of Chinese New Year, and it’s a year of the Rabbit. I happen to be a Rabbit, though I was born in 1952. I was born before the Lunar New Year changed. At midnight last night (Ontario Canada time) I got a message from my Chinese brother wishing me a Happy New Year. I thought about all the years between now and my Chinese New Year in 1983. I thought about the world in which my Chinese Brother and I were a part for a very short time and the bond that formed. He’d lived his whole life — through the Cultural Revolution — before he met me. And I had lived my whole life with its vicissitudes before I met him.

Our first meeting happened when a big taxi-van brought me and the Good X, two foot lockers and two backpacks — and skis! — to the door of our apartment building. Xiao Huang — a wiry, skinny young guy in a pair of khaki shorts, white shirt and plastic sandals — came out and hoisted our footlockers (one at a time, he wasn’t Superman) and carried them up three flights of stairs to our apartment. Neither the Good X nor I could have done that, and we looked at each other amazed. That was one of the first surprises China had for us.

It was just one year in both our lives, but that year and our contact changed both our lives. How he got to be my brother? I feel pretty safe saying that a lot of Chinese at the time — that I knew, anyway — hoped their American contacts would lead to an opportunity to leave China.

My brother, because he was learning English, was sent to Luoyang in northern China, far from Guangzhou, to work in a factory for the ten or so years of the Cultural Revolution. It was exile, a kind of punishment. He would have been very young. I was 30 when we met and he is a few years younger than I. I don’t know the whole story, but I know that Luoyang is MUCH colder than Guangzhou; the factory was cold, the hours were long, and godnose what his dormitory was like. I know he probably endured hours of “political study,” and had to write at least one “confession.” And why? Because his mom came from a bourgeois family even though his dad was a Party member and part of the provincial government. His younger brother was left completely alone by the government, as far as I know.

But my brother was learning English and who knows? Maybe that was the problem? Ultimately that was why he got his job at my university translating and looking out for the foreign teachers.

When we got to know each other, we discovered that we liked each other. He brought us home to meet his mother and twice she made the complicated journey all the way out to our apartment. Over time she said that I was a good older sister to her son and so I was adopted and became part of the family. It makes my eyes sweat remembering this, but I will persevere…

He made some mistakes in English, and many of them were funny. He laughed at himself; he wasn’t worried about losing face. One of them was calling tears “eye sweat.”

In 1983 no one knew if the Cultural Revolution was really over or what would happen next. My brother accompanied us to Shanghai, our port of departure for our return to America. He was a little intimidated by Shanghai, the fancy hotel in which our university had put us up, everything. After two nights and one day of sightseeing, it was time for us to leave. My brother came with us to the airport where there was the inevitable negotiation over baggage. We’d been told we could have two pieces each and there was a weight limit. We followed the rule. At the airport we learned that together we could have only ONE piece of luggage, but there was no weight restriction. My brother somehow uncovered a gigantic string bag into which we placed two backpacks, two footlockers, a carpet and skis. Everyone laughed but it was fine; it was one piece. China was like that. Even IT knew some of its rules were absurd and whimsical.

The moment came. The plane was called. We stood in line. I looked up at my brother.

“Ma Sa, your eyes are sweating,” he said.

“So are yours,” I answered.

Featured photo: My brother with two men at Waqqas Tomb in Guangzhou. Waqqas was a missionary who brought Islam to China. You can learn more here: Waqqas Tomb.

Fantastic Insurance against a Day Being Totally Bad

I got coffee for Christmas. It’s several shades lighter and brighter than my usual brew. It’s tasty, but different.

I was in my mid-twenties before I knew I liked coffee. Be still my heart, well, almost literally, yeah, I know. I made this discovery thanks to my boyfriend Peter who gave me a cup of Medaglio d’Oro. Another schoolmate had introduced me to espresso a few months earlier, but it didn’t “catch.” Too many rules. “Rub the lemon on the side of the cup, put in sugar, stir.” C’mon, seriously? NOT my coffee style. It is SOME peoples’ coffee style, and I’m not dissing them, but not mine.

And, then, coffee houses of the 1970s were a different thing from today. Muddy Waters of the Platte and Cafe Nepenthes furthered my interest in this magical liquid.

One of my cousins in Oregon introduced me to the principle of grinding my own coffee and THAT was another door to amazement opened to me.

Another boyfriend went to Guatemala to climb and study Spanish and brought back five pounds of raw Guatemalan beans for me to roast myself. I did, too. THAT was fantastic.

My family was made up of coffee drinkers — the all-day kind of coffee drinkers. As my sophistication level deepened, I realized they were drinking brown water.

The dean of my department in China gave me a very special gift of Hainan Coffee in one of the surreptitious, sweet and secret moments in China. He had stored it in the back of his cabinet until I got there and then, one morning, gestured to me to come into his office, “I have something for you.” It was wrapped –as many other things were in China at the time — in newspaper tied with pink string. “It’s coffee, real coffee, from Hainan island. There is no coffee like it. It is not like American coffee. You will see.”

All of that was absolutely true and it became a constant quest for more while I was in China. I had no proper coffee maker in China, so I adapted a tea pot into a drip coffee maker by lining the tea strainer with weishengzhi (toilet paper) as a filter to hold the boiling water in long enough to make a decent brew. It wasn’t bad at all.

In San Diego, we rented one of our cars (we had 3, don’t ask me why…) to an Italian student to use for the term. When the term was over, his father came to travel around with him. They brought the car back with a gift — a Bialetti. I got careful instructions on how to use it and the rest is history.

My international students all knew I loved coffee and I was privileged to drink Arabic green coffee several times, poured from a dallah. I liked it so much that when one of my students left America, he gave me a gift: a small gold dallah on a gold chain.

Time passed as time does and there I was in Milan at a coffee kiosk near the Duomo. In front of me was a young Korean woman. The young woman’s spoken English was about like my Italian — it will work but nothing really interesting is going to emerge. The young man working there didn’t speak English OR Korean. He was trying to tell her what to pay. He looked at me, pleading. I’d bought coffee from him many times, so he knew I would be able, at least, to translate to English. I nodded. It was in the pre-Euro days so it was a couple thousand lire. For that small effort I walked away with a free espresso and a bottle of mineral water.

The coffee I was given for Christmas is Italian coffee — Lavazza. It’s delicious and, to prove it, my cup is now empty, and Teddy has cleaned the sides. Time to return to gainful employment.

Oh the coffee I usually drink?

“Dark and moody blend, just like those who drink it!”

Write the Book

My post yesterday about the books I read for the contest had some undesired repercussions, so I took it down. Here’s the deal.

Why might someone write a book? They might have something to say. They might have had an experience they want to share with others. They might have a great story to tell. They might have a collection of poems or short stories they want to put in one place. Some people set out to write a bestseller. Some people need outside validation. There are myriad reasons, as many as spiderlings in a nest, but ultimately it’s because the writer wants to. I think, if you want to, do it.

Writing a book is a great experience.

As for what I’m doing now? I’m judging a contest. I’m not judging the writers of the books I’m reading, but the books against each other. It’s a foot race. Someone is going to be the fastest. It’s true that some writers (or their publishers) spend a lot of money on the finished product, but I’m not judging that. It’s one small line in my rubric, and that regards whether or not the book design interferes with the readability. A pretty egalitarian bar right there. The rest of the criteria have nothing at all to do with the book’s appearance, and none of them have anything to do with what someone else has said about the book.

I have entered contests such as this. Martin of Gfenn was short-listed for one, and My Everest “lost” in the other one. Contests are expensive and completely optional. I was encouraged to enter The Price in another contest, but I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to go to the trouble or expense. By the time I wrote The Price I understood fully why I write and why I care about writing well and neither has anything to do with winning a prize (though some of the prizes are GREAT!). I wrote The Price because my Aunt Dickie had written me that she hoped I would keep writing that story “about my mother’s family.” It’s only tangentially about my grandmother’s family (in the 1700s) but my Aunt Dickie loved the other two books (13th and 16th century) that are very tangentially about our family. I started the book, lost the thread, got the letter, started again, my Aunt Dickie died, and I finished the book — for her. Is it good? Yes, very good. Would it win a contest? That would depend completely on what else was entered in the category. Yeah. That’s it. “The fastest runner in the class” is not necessarily the “the fastest runner in the world.”

The real and lasting prize is the pleasure of writing the book, the poems, the stories, of working on them until they are as good as they can be. The second best prize is someone who reads it and loves it — and tells you.

I don’t know if any of you remember the 90+ year old man in Seattle who started buying my notecards a year or so ago, with whom I have become friends. He wrote his life story for his grandkids so they could know that it was like growing up in Del Norte in the 1930s. Seriously, who cares? They don’t. I do. I really wanted to read it, so he sent it to me with a few rueful words about his family not caring. Well, I had parents from his generation and ONE of them couldn’t shut up about her childhood and the struggles of her family. I got so I stopped listening, and maybe that’s the story here, but I don’t know. Anyway, he sent it to me. I was disappointed that it’s only 6 double-sided pages long.

In the “olden days,” there were no publishing companies as we know them. Publishing basically meant printing and the company that undertook the printing of a book took on some of the financial risk, but often the author or sponsors of the author paid for the publishing. Often the author took his/her books around to bookstores “Here, sell my book for me and keep X%? Do we have a deal?” Books were also sold at book fairs. Over time publishing became the business of booksellers — the market driven book trade. There’s a lot more to the history of publishing, and I don’t know it, but the advent of indie publishing has, in a way, returned the publishing business to the author and smaller publishers — academic publishers, regional and local publishers, etc. Indie publishing is NOT vanity publishing which — thank goodness — is less present and pernicious than it was in the past.

I, personally, think the person who “knows they have a book in them” should write that book, and, if they want, they should see it as a book.

Anyway, I never mean to discourage anyone from writing their book. It’s an amazing experience — a learning experience, an experience with inspiration, a transformative experience, a writing lesson, it’s just a great thing to do.

The book I was referring to in my post yesterday was The Story of the Stone or Red Chamber Dream by Cao Xueqin written in 1779. Cao wrote that he had no motive in writing the book (which is very long) beyond entertaining himself in hard times and possibly entertaining his friends who gathered to hear him read. It was illegal to write novels in Manchu China, but who would know it had been written if the novel were never published? I have loved Cao’s reasons since I first read them in the early 80s. He had no ambitions of building a name for himself with his novel; in fact, it was better for him if the novel remained secret. Imagine, writing something as beautiful and true as that novel is JUST FOR ITSELF. Wow.

Or, as Emerson wrote in The Poet: “Doubt not, O poet, but persist. Say ‘It is in me, and shall out.’ Stand there, balked and dumb, stuttering and stammering, hissed and hooted, stand and strive, until at last rage draw out of thee that dream-power which every night shows thee is thine own; a power transcending all limit and privacy, and by virtue of which a man is the conductor of the whole river of electricity. Nothing walks, or creeps, or grows, or exists, which must not in turn arise and walk before him as exponent of his meaning. Comes he to that power, his genius is no longer exhaustible. All the creatures by pairs and by tribes pour into his mind as into a Noah’s ark, to come forth again to people a new world. This is like the stock of air for our respiration or for the combustion of our fireplace; not a measure of gallons, but the entire atmosphere if wanted. And therefore the rich poets, as Homer, Chaucer, Shakspeare, and Raphael, have obviously no limits to their works except the limits of their lifetime, and resemble a mirror carried through the street, ready to render an image of every created thing.”

Or Wilco sings… ❤️

Quotidian Update 12.25.XX.9

Got up this morning to quiet. People aren’t driving their trucks up and down in front of my house this morning, leaving the small-town quiet that I don’t get often living on a fragment of a highway that crosses part of America. No barking dogs (mine) just quiet. It’s very lovely. All enhanced by the sweet good-mornings of my two dogs. “Merry Christmas, Teddy. Merry Christmas, Bear.”

I learned last night that a friend in Wyoming has puppies like Bear. The parents who gave birth to those puppies are working dogs on her ranch, Ladder Ranch. I looked around my little house and thought, “It would probably work, with Bear here to train it. It would learn fast.” Then I thought, “Martha, are you out of your mind?”

The jury is out on that.

The book reading continues. The big box arrived two days ago — so heavy that no one could lift it. As I rolled it through my front door, I saw that others had rolled it, too. It was broken in many places and taped. But the books are all in good shape and, when I finish with the e-books, I’ll move on to the physical books. I’m reading a couple of new categories this time and they present new challenges and frustrations. Sometimes I want to talk to the author and say things like, “Dude, this is NOT that,” but I’m not teaching any more.

Obviously I don’t have much to say, so I will leave you with a fragment of a beautiful poem I ran across yesterday a winter poem from a great Chinese poet, Chu Yuan:

…Lame Dragon’s frozen peaks;
Where trees and grasses dare not grow;
Where a river runs too wide to cross
And too deep to plumb,
And the sky is white with snow

It made me think of my Chinese brother and my Christmas in China. I’m very happy to have heard from him last night.

The Intricate Polemics of Our Times…

Seems like we — anyway, I — get to learn the same lessons over and over. My post yesterday (here it is) — which was really about keeping religion out of politics — garnered all kinds of reactions, some here, more on Facebook. Probably I could have written better, and religion is a hot topic (never mind I was not telling anyone what to believe and would not presume to) but I think we’re also living in a time of knee-jerk reactions and high emotions, voter intimidation and evil people using (not for the first time in the history of humanity) a religion for (IMO) evil purposes. Maybe people are not in a place right now (elections, ad nauseam) for what I wrote. I don’t know.

BUT — people (this is a news flash) are not all the same and an individual’s experiences are not universal and even two people experiencing the same thing are not going to take away the same understanding of it. We don’t all have the same background, education, drives, nothing about us is the same as anyone else. At best we have things in common or the willingness to adjust. Some people have a strong drive to conform and belong; others don’t (I don’t). We all want friends.

I believe we all want something to believe in — and I think that’s as varied as humanity. Some people like religious fellowship; others don’t. Some people feel secure with labels, others don’t get that. It’s crazy how we are. Two kids raised in the same house by the same parents don’t come away with the same understanding of their childhoods. We are — I believe — all but inscrutable to each other. One of the few tools we have to penetrate this is language and THAT can be a force for good or evil. Book groups exist because two people who read the same book don’t read the same book. I learned a LOT about that pursuing literature degrees. Outright arguments broke out in seminars over the meaning of a line in a Yeats poem. Seriously. Sides were taken. Alliances formed. And who cared??? In the grand scheme? Whatever that is…

We are a disputative, polemical, downright nasty species terrified of being wrong, frightened of saying, “No one knows.” So frightened of that that when someone does say it, as with Covid, we don’t hear it. I sure didn’t hear it. It’s amazing to me that we do as well as we do.

One positive aspect of most religions is they offer an ethical system — surprisingly universal across the world. In our country right NOW that’s the battle. The abortion question is an ethical question. I, personally, am pissed off that it’s in my life again. It was crappy enough arguing it in the 70s, but here we are. We’re outraged at Russia because what Putin did was wrong. We’re outraged at Christian Nationalists because what Hitler did was wrong and they are (apparently) taking a similar road and brandishing a book that is easily misquoted and manipulated — I think all religious texts are. Any major Taliban dude will tell you.

Does that mean the Bible and the Koran are “bad” or that religious education is “bad”? the Bible and the Koran are two related books sitting on my book shelf. They’re inert. Not doing much, just sitting there. On some other shelves are some other books. There’s the Tao Te Ching. Beside it, a profound, clever and pretty book of Zhuangzi’s teachings, there are several books of Hindu scripture. Ganesh sits on my table here beside a Zuni carving of an alabaster Heart Bear with turquoise eyes and a turquoise arrow head on her back for protection. Oddly, no Buddhist texts in this house, I have no idea why, but a Thangka of Palden Lamo hangs in my studio near a photo of the Dalai Lama I was given in Milan by a woman who had worked for the Dalai Lama in Brazil. Long story. None of these things are “bad.” In my opinion they’re all good, very very very good. The people who are TEACHING might be bad, might be stupid, brainwashed, have a dark agenda. That was the case in my church.

Besides that? I was a student and a teacher. I know about the questionable power of the lectern.

I was thrown out of my church youth group. I was the president and did something the deacons didn’t approve. They had an emergency meeting, and came down to the room where we were meeting and told me I had to leave. It was harsh and unfair and unenlightened and the pastor of my church wasn’t behind that 100%, but there I was. Did I leave God? Did I toss the Bible? No. Why? They had had nothing to do what those narrow-minded old men (in their 40s! Gasp!) had done. That was on the men.

Do I think the Bible is 100% factual history of the world? No. Who could? Those stories are so incredibly old. Some people will argue with me, but I see them — the Old Testament in particular — as myths to define a culture (a tribal culture) and hold it together. We humans are responsive to stories. This is one lovely thing about us — but also a little dangerous. I wouldn’t change it, but it carries some risks. It is why there are varied religious holidays and people fight for the right to celebrate them when they are surrounded by a culture with overall different beliefs. Religious holidays are tribal. That said, during my year in China, when Christianity — religion in general — was still strongly frowned upon, I came home from school on the 23rd of December to find a potted pine tree in my living room. A month or so earlier I shared supper in the “Religious Student’s Dining Room” with the two Muslim students and three Buddhist students to celebrate a Muslim holiday. Five students out of all the students at my university claimed to have religious beliefs, and because of this, they had their own place to eat where their dietary restrictions could be catered to, and cooks who shared their faiths. I would never call China enlightened in this area, but that was enlightened.

One of my Muslim students said, as we ate our lamb and the Buddhist girls ate their vegetables in a dark, smoke-stained, old little building (most cooking at that time was over charcoal) said, “Teacher, what do you think, don’t you think people who believe in religion are kind?”

I sure as hell couldn’t speak for all the people in the world who believe in religion, and I thought for a minute of all the people throughout history who’d died in religious wars, but all of the people in that room were definitely kind. They weren’t engaged in dialectics about their beliefs and gods. They were celebrating a harvest festival together.

My personal religious belief is that everyone’s personal religious belief — or non-belief — is just that, personal. As Goethe said of himself, “I’m not Christian. I’m not un-Christian, or anti-Christian, just not Christian.” I say the same of me.

Anyway, most of the reaction to what I wrote yesterday seemed to come from people who didn’t get the point, and I feel that, as a writer, that’s on me. I wasn’t writing about the Bible. I was writing about politicians using a snippet from a longer (and very different) religious story to influence people’s thoughts and create enmity. There’s no ethics there.

Mid-Autumn Festival (Almost)

Bleary-eyed and confused, woke up this morning and realized that — OH NO — what? Well, the bleary-eyed and confused part is right. Company coming today sometime and a trip to the store in the meantime and I don’t even know if I ordered anything edible! This post-Covid brain is easily taxed.

I’m going to remember 2019 as the Golden Age of Lost Innocence and Retained Brain.

Last evening, to our surprise, the wind came up and the clouds came over. By now you know what that presages. Four hot days in a row, one small escape, hardly right, is it? I looked at Bear, Bear looked at me. I went to the kitchen and closed to door, preventing her escape, and leashed her. Teddy had it all figured out, of course, as always. Assembled the appropriate fardels and we were out the door. Dusk fell a little early. Clouds and smoke from distant wildfires obscured the mountains, but the sky above was a kind of veiled blue. As we approached the Refuge, I saw the moon was rising golden behind the thin clouds.

“Wow,” I thought as any sane person would (breathe a sigh of relief) and pulled in, parked, and got the dogs out as fast as I could. I didn’t want to miss this. It was too great. And…

Mid-Autumn Festival. OK, it’s not until tomorrow, formally, but clouds and rain are forecast for Saturday evening. Carpe Noctem!

Our crepuscular walk wasn’t very long — 1/2 mile, but WOW. A black-crowned night heron in flight, more birdsong than I’ve heard in my life, an owl in the distance and this beautiful Moon as golden as the chamisa. My first Mid-Autumn Festival was in China, and I try to keep it somehow every year. It’s a celebration/remembrance of distant friends. 💛

Moonlight shining through the window
Makes me wonder if there is frost on the ground
I look up and see the moon
Looking down I miss my hometown

Li Bai

The moon remained bright and visible, unclouded, until we turned around. It was as if the sky and valley said, “Here, Martha, something for you to think about.”

On the way home, Mohammed’s Radio played the song the valley gave me as I drove home from seeing an ortho in Salida a few years ago. It was before my most recent hip surgery. The doc was abysmal and meaningless, “One of your legs is shorter than the other! I can’t fix that!” was about all he had to say along with, “I can’t read your X-rays,” as if it were my fault that his computer system couldn’t open the DVD my doc sent up with me. Driving home, I felt so disheartened, a little frightened of hip surgery, and unsure about everything. It is a song I never liked, but as I dropped down from the top of Poncha Pass into the Valley, it was as if I’d never heard it before.

When I heard that song that day, I understood something about this place where I came to live 8 years ago (September 20, 2014). It wasn’t only that I felt I belonged here; the valley thought so, too. The valley is like a person to me, maybe it’s my family, too, along with Bear and Teddy.

Last night the salient lines were:

“When evening falls so hard
I will comfort you
I’ll take your part
When darkness comes…”

It’s been a tough summer, but what a wonder I got from that short and beautiful evening walk. Thank you, Heaven.


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.