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…

A Family As Large As the Universe; Living the Metaphor

Although it seems unlikely — if not impossible — that I would ever be busy or need to work out a social calendar it does happen sometimes… The concatenation of events drove me to City Market in Alamosa yesterday to get my groceries several days earlier than my “usual.”

On my way I passed one of the big companies (big in space used; I have no idea about their investments, etc.) with several large silos. They are painted with political signs giving an indication of the long-held political beliefs of the owner of the company. There is “Bush/Cheney,” “McCain/Palin,” “Romney/Ryan,” silence, then yesterday “Let’s Go Brandon!” which is (cowardly) code now used by the supernally cool for “Fuck Joe Biden.” It’s a long not very interesting story about how THAT happened, but now we have it. I see the juvenile uncool snickering behind their hands hoping, hoping, hoping, hoping that FINALLY the cool kids will let them into their group.

For a moment, seeing the sign, I was a little irked. “That really doesn’t make you cool,” I say mentally to the guy who owns the business. “You just think it does. Cool would be understanding that there’s something more to life than that media-driven bullshit.” Grrrrr….

Then, smart driver that I am, I looked out the windshield (advisable to anyone driving 65 mph (100 kmh). And there was the immense wonder of the San Luis Valley spread in front of me, Sangre de Cristos dark gray/blue below a blue sky, winter-fields and horses, bales of hay, in the distance, the sand dunes. “Good God,” I thought. “Who cares??? Fuck Let’s Go Brandon.” Those star-spangled people don’t fully appreciate the transience of flags.

At the store, Destinee — one of my favorite grocery delivery people — came out with my stuff. I haven’t seen her in a while. I jump out of my Jeep, Bella. Over this past year or so, Destinee and I have talked about — and joked around about — pretty much everything and touched on a few NOT funny subjects, like her dog and her mom who has not been doing well. We share how we’re glad to see each other and how have you been and then I say, “How’s your mom?”

“I’m so proud of her,” says Destinee, “She got covid and then after that, she decided to go to a sober living center.”

I got a lump in my throat. “I’m so happy for you. Maybe you’ll get your mom back.”

“I gotta’ be patient, that’s all I can do.”

“I lost my brother to booze, so anyone who tries to get sober is my hero. I’d hug you if it weren’t for viruses…”

Destinee looks me square in the eye and we share THAT knowledge.

“Air hugs!” She exclaims and we wrap our arms around the blessed air of the San Luis Valley. “Thanks for being so good to me,” she says.”

“You’re good to me, Destinee.” Then I think of what I said in a larger sense and it’s totally true. Destiny has been good to me. But I also wondered, who would NOT be good to Destinee? Should I tell you she’s African/American? The Valley doesn’t care about details like that. It doesn’t even SEE details like that. I don’t either. Maybe there are people around here who DON’T get it?

On the return? “Let’s Go (pray for) Brandon” on a sign outside a church. A CHURCH? Oh yeah, what was that about separating church and state? How arcane is that? As I drive I think, “These people exist to maintain their clique and piss people off.”

The sainted San Luis Valley whispers, “None of this matters AT ALL. Humans come, humans go, so do mammoths, giant sloths, an inland sea, even whole mountain ranges — a whole bunch of things.”

I think once more how much I love this place and WHY. I’m living smack-dab in the middle of the BIG PICTURE.

I stop at the the post office to mail the fardles to my cousin’s daughter. I don’t have a mask. “Don’t worry about it,” says the young masked man behind the plexiglas shield behind the counter. “I had covid. It was nothing.”

“OK,” I say, “Anyway, I’m vaccinated up the whazoo.” We laugh. A very weathered Hispanic farmer, missing many teeth, wearing his thin white hair in a ponytail, jeans, boots, faded work shirt, comes in wearing a Trump 2020 hat, beaten and faded. My brain starts clicking off all the reasons a guy like him should wear a different hat but then the Valley whispers, “Martha, I’m going to feed everyone who works for it. I don’t care about hats. Remember that.”

“Hi,” I say to him. He’s waiting behind me, not six feet away by the marked spot on the floor, but two feet, the normal social distance for his culture, something I actually like. His semi-toothless smile is glorious. “Hi,” he says his eyes sparkling.

“Do you understand?” says my valley.

“I get it,” I answer.

Once I got everything done at home, Bear and I went for a beautiful windy walk under the air-brushed sky. This huge place is a neighborhood and, I think, sooner or later we at least SEE most of the people in it. Last Easter Sunday I was out there with Teddy and met some nice people who were sitting at the picnic table (there’s only one). I put Teddy in the car and went to meet them. “Happy Easter!” I said, (I always hear Faust when I say that but whatever) “My dog’s not dog friendly,” I explained, and shrugged.

“Ours either,” they answered. They had a sweet-looking mutt, German shepherd/Pittie/cattledog looking little guy with golden eyes. We had a long conversation about cranes, the festival, and how the guy built the table — the man actually BUILT that table when he saw the one that was there was broken down, splintery, a general mess. We talked about how much we love the Refuge and chatted about all the people who’ve lived in this valley over the eons. I learned where they live, they learned where I live.

Yesterday, as Bear and I drove in, I saw them at the picnic table again. The dog was there. He’s a farm dog and he rides in the back of the pickup — tied down, but still in the back of the truck. I knew that it was likely that sometime during our walk, I was going to have to find a way to get Bear out of sight of the dog, but who knows? Maybe not. Bear and I had a wonderful, meandering walk of smells (for Bear) and clouds (for me). On our way back, when I was about 20 yards from Bella, I saw their truck headed my way, and I started walking fast judging the time I had to get Bear into my car before they passed. I was afraid their dog would dive off the truck when Bear saw him and went apeshit (which she would). But… they saw me, and stopped a good distance away and waited for me to get Bear into the car and the door shut. Then they drove past and waved.

“See where you live?” asked the Valley. “Do you get it YET???

“Yes,” I said, tears in my eyes. “I get it.”

But the Valley wasn’t so sure. I went out to get my mail and found a note from the old man who wrote me months ago wanting to order notecards. He’s the cousin of the man whose acrylics I inherited a couple of months ago. He’s from the San Luis Valley — his great-grandparents were pioneers here — but now he lives in the Pacific Northwest where his kids are. He’s homesick for the Valley, but he’s 91, and it’s not that easy for him to pack up and go somewhere. Last week, Louise, who runs the museum where I’ll be hanging some paintings and reading from my China book, sent out the museum newsletter which advertises my reading. Here’s my mail:

“Do you get it NOW????”

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.

The BIG Event

I knew I would over prepare because that’s just me. I had no idea who would show up — could be a lot of people, could be no one, who could say? So there were four dozen of every cookie, cups for sixty people, napkins and plates and and and and. A slide show and a poster and books to put in inventory, door prizes — everything just in case the ENTIRE CITY OF ALAMOSA showed up. I didn’t want that, didn’t expect it, but I was ready…

A handful of people — all of whom were my friends — showed up. It took longer to set up than we planned — the better part of an hour. Logistics and electricity and no one wanted to abandon any part of this extravaganza for the sake of expedience. So…

I read and my reading was the best part, I think for everyone.

Except maybe for the cookies. No one can compete with cookies and then EVERYONE won a prize and took home a box of sticky rice candy, known in Japanese as Mochi in China, as far as I know, as “sticky rice.”

SO all my anxiety and stress was spent so that I could learn that I am able to go to a bookstore and read stories to my friends who listened with rapt attention to the story I told.

I honestly can’t think of a better outcome. And, if I ever do this again, I will know how, I’ll have the resources and the encouraging memory of a very sweet experience.

And, I sold a book. ❤

P.S. Thank you for all the moral support leading up to this. It reminded me how much this is more than just a blogging platform. In a way, it’s a neighborhood that extends around the world. In a way, we meet here to chat over coffee, or tea, or whatever and learn interesting things about each other, share ideas, advice, help, visions of life, photos and stories of our travels. It’s very special.

Red Paper

One of the days I was in China we rode our bikes to the (then small and pretty) town of Sha Hu  (沙湖 Sand Lake) which was a little north and some other direction of our university. I don’t know for sure what time of year it was, but I suspect it was around New Years because there were many street artists or street calligraphers writing big black characters on sheets of thin paper that had been painted red. After the paper was painted red, bits of gold paint had been splattered on the surface. It was BEAUTIFUL. I watched the artists work for a while, enchanted by all of it.

Example… I don’t know what this says 😦

Then I came back to Denver and tried to adjust to the weirdness of a bad marriage, a brother in trouble, and a place I didn’t want to be. My ex gave me a big, red toolbox for my art supplies. I decided to splatter it with gold paint and asked my brother if I could borrow his gold spray paint (he did air-brush type paintings with spray paint in the trunk of the car my ex had given him). Instead of saying “Yes” or “No” he began arguing artistic theory with me. Polemical people are prone to not listening and he wasn’t listening when I said, “They do it in China. It’s beautiful.”

“China, China, China, I’m sick of hearing about China. Red and gold don’t go together.”

Since I was feeding and housing him, I didn’t think this was really “the thing.” It wasn’t something to argue anyway, but my brother had a way of just getting in your face when he wanted to prove a point, especially if he had been drinking. I didn’t know (because he’d promised NOT to drink while he lived with us) that he was drinking secretly. Finally I just went out the back door, got into my car, and headed down the alley.

Before long, a dark form jumped out of the bushes onto the hood of my car and clung to the windshield. Think about that. Clinging to glass is no small feat. I stopped, hoping he’d be knocked off, but if my brother had a point to prove, he was relentless. He opened the passenger door and got in.

“I’m sorry Martha Ann. It’s your toolbox.”

“Whatever. It doesn’t really matter to you what I do with it, does it?”

“No. I’m sorry. Where are you going?”

“I don’t know. I just wanted to get away from you.”

“I’m sorry.”

I didn’t want to go home, besides, there was no way to turn around in the alley. I thought, “OK, so now I’m trapped in a small space with a firecracker. Let the party begin,” but it turned out well. We drove out of town, up to Lookout Mountain west of Golden. I am sure we did some looking out. We ended up talking and laughing and being sister and brother together.

Yesterday I began working on the Sistine Poster for the Baby Duck book launch. The big thing was the RIGHT background. It had to cover the foam core — 36 x 24 a kind of slick white that sucks light and energy out of any room it’s in. It BEGS to be behind something as it should. That’s its purpose though now it can be bought in various colors. I bought red tissue paper when I went to the store figuring “This’ll work somewhere.” When I got home from a short shopping trip (and the longest walk I’ve taken since I surrendered to the injury) I saw exactly what should happen.

I scored the foam core down the middle so I could fold it, enabling it to stand up.

I spray glued the surface of the foam core and spread the tissue paper on the surface. I didn’t try to make it perfectly smooth. It seemed that a little texture would be a good thing. After all, in China, these sheets of red paper were glued to doors and door jams and were NEVER smooth. Once both sides of the foam core were covered, I thought, “What now?”

It was clear. But HOW???? I hoped I had the little bottle of gold ink I thought I bought sometime, and maybe did, but no longer have. I have sheets of gold leaf, but you can’t splatter sheets of gold leaf. I have a tube of Gamblin’s Rich Gold oil paint but that seemed, seemed, seemed what? All I had to do was thin that down and splatter it from a brush just as I’d seen done by the street artists of Sha Hu.

Oil paint? I was doubtful, but it was my only option. I wasn’t sure if if the paint would dry overnight, or two days, or what, thinned though it was. I wouldn’t even know until morning how it looked since there’s no real light in my studio other than sunlight. But it was my moment and I took it. When I was done, my face, hair, hands, jeans, sweatshirt and glasses were covered with gold flecks. I felt so happy as I worked even though…

The whole time I worked, I thought of my brother.

Speaking of forgetful — I posted this thing without the pingback. 🙂

Baby Duck Update

It looks like the As a Baby Duck Listens to Thunder book launch is going to happen. It’s going to be cookies and tea, a small raffle and talk, and a 10 minute slide show running in a loop at a separate table. The event will probably be only an hour long, maybe a little more if people want to hang around. I’ll be holding it at the local independent bookstore, The Narrow Gauge Bookstore (which is a coop) in Alamosa. It’s a really charming old-school store that I like very much though I don’t shop there because it’s 20 miles away, and I’m no one’s market at this point in my life, I’m afraid.

I have had a LOT of fun putting the slide show together! Yesterday on Facebook I asked for comments regarding what people would like to see at the launch and got a lot of good help from that.

It’s going to be about 10 minutes long and self-narrating as the slides have captions. I don’t want to reveal everything that’s in the book and I don’t want to put anyone through those grueling slide shows I remember as a child. I see the slide show more as a teaser, you know, “Whoa these are cool, so what’s the story???”

By the way, if you’ve read Baby Duck and would care to leave a short review, it would be very helpful to me as part of this event will be a little sheet about the book and what readers have thought. So far three people have said anything — a reader reviewed it on Facebook. My thesis advisor reviewed it in a letter. A reader in India reviewed it on Amazon India. I am very grateful to anyone who takes a few minutes to write something. Reviews help me sell books and ultimately help the little bookstore stay in business. 🙂

To leave a review on Amazon just go there and search “As a Baby Duck Listens to Thunder.” Then scroll down to the end of the page to “Leave a Review”. This link should work.

To leave a review on Facebook, just go to Baby Duck’s page and click, “Leave a Review” This should be the link to that location.

To leave a review on Goodreads, here’s a link.


One difference between adulthood and childhood is a pebble. Here’s what I mean. Sometime in second or third grade a teacher told us that if we were stuck in the desert with no water, we could temporarily quench our thirst by putting a pebble in our mouth to stimulate the flow of saliva.

Man, I wanted to get stuck in the desert so I could find out if it worked.

Now I know too much to be eager for the adventure. I know that dehydration would soon put the kibosh the possibility of EVER gathering saliva in my mouth, and being stuck in the desert would be awful in more ways than thirst. A little knowledge is a drag…

On the other hand, I seldom get pebbles in my shoes, and when I was a kid, it was a constant problem. It’s been at least 57 years since (thank goodness) I had to go to the doc to have embedded pebbles cleaned out of my scraped knees. The worst pebbles were the solitary pebbles of a slightly (but not much) larger size that I stepped on barefoot or landed on in a bike crash.

It seems as we grow up, the pebbles become more metaphorical and less actual.

My “pebble” today is a lot like that pebble that would save the little girl from thirst in the desert. I’m taking ALL the books to the bookstore/coop in Alamosa to see if they will stock them. I’m also going to see what’s involved in setting up a book launch party for As a Baby Duck Listens to Thunder. Nothing big, just an hour, me ready to sign books, do a short reading, a small giveaway, and pass out cookies. I’m writing a press release for Baby Duck, too.

I hate doing this stuff. I feel totally exposed and absurdly vulnerable when I “peddle my papers.”

I sent As a Baby Duck Listens to Thunder to my thesis advisor, Dr. Robert D. Richardson, Jr., because he had so much to do with my going to China. He recently sent me a letter telling me how my book affected him. I’ve received letters that thrilled my soul and warmed my heart, but none more than his.

He had visited China in the winter of 1980 (maybe 1979) and he found it unutterably depressing and named it “Dicken’s China.” He didn’t understand why I wanted to go, but he supported my adventure once he saw I was determined. After I got there, and wrote him, he decided to come himself and the summer of 1983 he and his wife went to Chengdu in Sichuan to teach for 6 months. Anyway, my book awakened sleeping memories and touched him deeply.

I don’t think I can ask for more. He wrote, “Your lovely book opened all the floodgates. You have written the best account of being a foreign teacher in China I know.”

So, as much as this pebble hurts, I owe it to my books to make a little effort on their behalf.

Butterflies or Memories?

In 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a whole town dies from nostalgia. For some reason, I took that as a warning. He (as I remember, and I read it a long time ago) made some beautiful metaphors for nostalgia, too. In one, which remains very vivid in my mind, a very old woman opens a chest which holds her wedding dress and there is nothing inside but butterflies. This kind of writing has been labeled as “magical realism,” — a phrase I don’t completely understand. I understood the chest to be the woman’s mind and the butterflies representative of her youth, young love, hopes and dreams. To me the whole episode was totally realistic.

The definition for magic realism in Wikipedia (where I went for the link above) is, itself, a little problematic for me. ‘Magical realism’…often refers to fiction and literature in particular with magic or the supernatural presented in an otherwise real-world or mundane setting.” It’s not my favorite genre. Too easily manipulated (now it’s been labeled).

And, I wonder, how much do we know about reality — or mundanity — that we can possibly enhance it with (or eliminate the possibility of) “magic” or the supernatural? Whether it’s explainable by science or not, a crocus pushing its head through the snow in February is pretty magical, the stars at night have always been objects of wonder, dread and “supernatural” navigation help, and snow? After plowing (metaphorically) through the after-effects of June’s small flood at my slough — the leavings of my winter’s miraculous snow — I couldn’t help be amazed even as I swatted mosquitoes and perspired. I thought, “This is all my beautiful snow!” Hay farmers are getting 3 cuttings this year, thanks to that miracle of white. Nature, the source of all real magic. And no, it’s not all “good” from a human perspective.

Reality is pretty magical.

Still, alerted to the dangers of nostalgia, I tried to be careful writing the China book not to allow my nostalgia to color the experience too brightly. Nostalgia does cause a spectrum shift. I hope I succeeded in conveying the beauty I perceived and the love I felt without dipping the whole experience in butterflies.