Though most of my life I’ve lived in places that were pretty sparse, a couple of them were lush. The most lush (is “lushest” a word?) was Guangzhou which sits on the Tropic of Cancer and gets an ungodly amount of rain every year. Things just grew. “Hello. I’m a seed, oops, my bad, I’m a plant, oops, my bad again! I’m food!”
There were seasons, but none that sent things dormant. The seasons were most apparent to me in the four months of rain, the cold in my unheated concrete house, and the changes of vegetables and fruit available in the market. Two of my favorites — a kind of tangerine called “Gam” in Cantonese — and red chili peppers — had definite seasons. Dark times when I couldn’t get them. Never mind the lychee which appeared in late spring/early summer ONLY.
It was always green in Guangzhou, though, judging from photos online, a lot of that green is now gray concrete.
When I lived there in 1982/83, my university was surrounded by farms and small villages.
Yesterday I was out with Bear (probably comes as an enormous surprise so I hope you were sitting down) and saw that while the chamisa is greening up, the greasewood aka Chico is still gray and dead looking. The sedges I painted in the winter are still golden, their winter color. When will things turn green?
It’s funny how it happens out here. It FEELS like one day only the grass along the road is green, and the shoots of milkweed and alfalfa and then BAM! Suddenly? Not the Tropic of Cancer, but a big change, and, relatively, lush. There’s a good reason early explorers and trappers and army guys called this the “Great American Desert” and tried to bring Dromedary camels in as transportation. I have an old camel saddle from those days in my garage needing me to clean it and put it somewhere. I guess I got it when the Hoarder Gene was in particularly fierce form.
I don’t have a bucket list. When I first heard of the idea of making a list of stuff I absolutely wanted to do before I died, I was a little confused. Who has that much certainty that they can KNOW before they do something what they want to do next? “Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough. Gleams that untraveled world whose margin fades. Forever and forever when I move.” (Alfred Lord Tennisball, “Ulysses”)
I don’t even know what’s going to happen on a simple trip to pick up my groceries or to visit Del Norte. The major journeys I’ve taken in pursuit of a particular outcome never panned out the way they were supposed to, either. That and the actual reward of a journey might not be clear for decades. Lord Tennisball was completely right when he wrote, “…margin fades forever and forever when I move.” I just don’t ever get there, wherever I’m going so how can I have a bucket list?
There’s a town in Wyoming by the name of Chugwater. Back in the 50’s when family road trips took us from Denver to Montana we often stopped there for gas. There was a drugstore there with great ice cream, but that’s a blog post for another day when the prompt is “ice cream.” My dad wanted a shortcut to Hell’s Half Acre (now that’s a line deserving of some meditation!) and the guy pumping gas said, “Nope. You can’t get there from here.”
My dad started to laugh and thanked the guy. “You can never get there from here,” my dad said in the car, and laughed again. I’m not sure what my dad thought was so funny or even meant by “you can never get there from here.” He might have just meant in Wyoming which can be a difficult place to travel in.
But…I think when you stand at a gas station in Chugwater, Wyoming, you’re not the person who left home at an ungodly early hour that morning with two cranky kids. The journey — or part of a journey — has transformed you. The person asking the question won’t be the same person who arrives at Hell’s Half Acre. The journey ITSELF might have physical obstacles like washed out roads or car wrecks. You might see something along the way that captures your attention and you decide to forget Hell’s Half Acre altogether. Who knows?
Life is constantly transforming us, that “arch leading to the untraveled world.”
We got to Hell’s Half Acre an hour or so later, after backtracking substantially (and using more gas). So what is it? Researching it this morning so I could tell you, I learned a lot. In the interval since I was last there (1957 or so) it’s gone through some changes itself.
I thought it was pretty big for a half-acre so I challenged my mom on that. “Oh honey, it’s just a name.”
Adults are/were seriously confusing.
I’ve thought of that trip pretty often, even including the story in a reader I made for my international students. Our destinations and our destinies are not the same thing. We can’t get anywhere from here, so what’s the point of a bucket list? How could I possibly know where the Martha of tomorrow absolutely MUST go before she kicks the bucket?
I guess it might have been in China that I first got a glimmering of the real (to me) meaning of travel which is, in simple terms, “go with the flow.” Even taking off on my bike, self-directed and independent, didn’t mean I’d ever get where I thought I was going. And, with the government pretty much in charge of me? Even then I couldn’t know. It was a university car that took me to the bank by Shamian Island, but it had nothing to do with the grandfather and his son who stopped me on my way and tried to sell me a baby.
Still the idea didn’t really hit home until I was on a train returning to Milan from Venice. At first I shared a compartment with a young couple who were obviously in love. Venice is renowned as a romantic city and it’s full of luv’. The couple got off at Pescheria, and I was alone. I dozed off, my head against the window. The conductor came by to look at my ticket and gently woke me up. He came back later and sat down with me. He wanted to chat which was great.
It had been a hard trip in which my dreams hadn’t come true and I hadn’t been able to get to the metaphorical Hell’s Half Acre. I would be returning to the states in two days. I’d wandered around Milan for 10 days with a broken heart, angry and confused. BUT I was staying with kind, sympathetic people, and I had an incredible Italian city to get to know. Most of that hadn’t sunk in, but as we talked something happened.
“Do you like Milan? Most foreigners don’t like Milan.”
“I like it very much.”
“What do you like about it?” It was the conductor’s home town.
“I…” We were speaking Italian. What I wanted to say might be beyond my ability to say it.
“Say it in English,” he said, seeing I was struggling.
“No, no, I can do this. I can say it in Italian. Wait.” I took another minute and assembled my thoughts. Until that moment, I hadn’t realized I had had a GREAT time in that city. I hadn’t realized that I loved it and I hadn’t perceived all it had shown me about art, history and myself. “OK,” I said. “I love the mix of the classical and the modern energies. They live together in Milan.”
“Wow,” he said. “What do you do? You’re not an ordinary person.”
“I’m an ordinary person.”
“No. Ordinary people do not say ‘mix of the classical and the modern energies.”
I would get out of the train at a station built by Mussolini. I would get on one of the fastest and most modern subways in the world. I would get out at a gate built by the Romans.
I never did get to “Hell’s Half Acre” on that trip. Maybe it would have been wonderful, but it wouldn’t have been that journey. So, no bucket lists for me.
Hell’s Half Acre is a large scarp located about 40 miles (64 km) west of Casper, Wyoming on US 20/26. Encompassing 320 acres (1.3 km2), this geologic oddity is composed of deep ravines, caves, rock formations and hard-packed eroded earth. Hell’s Half Acre was used as the location for the fictional planet of Klendathu in the movie Starship Troopers.
The location was known as “The Devil’s Kitchen”, “The Pits of Hades”, and “The Baby Grand Canyon” until a cowhand appeared and thought he was at Hell’s Half Acre, an area southwest of Casper full of alkali and bogs.
Native American tribes used the ravines to drive bison to their death during their hunts.
As of December 2005, the roadside restaurant and motel/campground sitting atop the ravine were closed. The motel and the abandoned restaurant have since been torn down. The area is fenced off and there is no public access to the cliff edge nor the valley itself, but there is an interpretive sign west of the former restaurant. As of July, 2021, the fencing was still in place, but two gates in the fence were open, allowing vehicular access to a large gravel lot (with potholes) and a closer view of the topography.
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.
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.
What a hellacious year it’s been. The coming year is a Rabbit Year, and I’m a rabbit so hopping (see what I did there?) for better things. The Chinese part of me says, “What did you expect from a Tiger?”
Good point. A tiger is a tiger is a tiger and a rabbit? Dinner? A snack? An hors d’oeuvre? I’m prey until January 22 when, I hop, I can come out of hiding…
The featured photo is an illustration from my China book. The fan was painted by Ma Yue who was an artist in a small studio/shop in the Fragrant Hills near Beijing. I spent my very best day in China (that says a LOT) with him and his associate. Here is the OTHER side of the fan on which Ma Yue had painted the zodiac figures in the ancient style.
I don’t know much about any horoscope but I do know that in the Chinese zodiac, I am a Metal Rabbit. In the western zodiac, I’m a Capricorn with Venus rising and a lot of stuff in Sagittarius. You cannot be part of the “What’s your sign?” generation without a little knowledge about this stuff whether you want it or not. At one point someone drew my chart and let me know there are a lot of “squares” in it. Squares, apparently, mean things aren’t going to work — what’s not going to work according to their reading of my sign? Luv’, career, and other similarly minor things. BUT according to my chart I’m going to be a restless person and a deep thinker.
I realized last night how much I have missed traveling. It’s funny but now the places I want to visit are places I’ve already been. I would really like to return to Verona and pay attention to the Roman elements. When I was there 18 years ago I was all Medieval all the time. Now? Not really. Last night I learned that Catullus was from Verona, not that I know much about Catullus or his poetry, only that a looooonnnnnnggggg time ago I had a friend who was a Classics major at the University of Colorado. For his mom for Christmas he’d translated some of Catullus’ poems, but he didn’t think his translations “sounded” like poetry, so he gave them to me for “poetification.” It was fun and the poems were beautiful. I don’t know how well I did, but he was happy and I really liked the poems.
This morning WP is asking me what one thing I would change about myself (WP, if you’re listening, I really HATE seeing those questions when I open a new page. “Yeah but you’re responding to them!””Shut up, WP.”). That’s kind of an interesting question, and, in its way, jibes with what’s on my mind this morning. I wonder if any of us is exactly who or how we would like to be. I’m not, but when I look at the broken bits or the less than ideal bits and the parts that are OK and the few parts that are WOW! it all seems to make a kind of harmonious whole in the midst of the constant flux that is life.
In China I taught an American lit survey class to fourth year students, students on the cusp of graduating and becoming, themselves, English teachers. One of the poems I taught was Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life” which he wrote when he was 19. In the pronunciation of Guangzhou, Longfellow became Rongferrow. I loved that so much. I heard, “Wrongferrow,” as my students talked about him and read “Rongferrow” sometimes and “Longfellow” most of the time in their essays.
The underlying concept in the poem is that our lives are something we “make.” I explained this by drawing pictures on the board and comparing the idea with a statue that we spend our lives carving, all this based on the lines,
“Lives of great men all remind us We can make our lives sublime And departing leave behind us Footprints in the sands of time.”
The idea I wanted to communicate to them is that — in Wrongferrow’s view — we make our lives into something comparable to a beautiful statue, an inspiring creation. We do that. Life isn’t random; we have something to say about it, if only in our attitude toward it. I did this by drawing a big, solid rectangle on the board with chalk and taking bits out until it was a person. They loved it.
In China at the time no one had much to say about what happened with their lives. It was right after the Cultural Revolution and my students weren’t there because it was their burning dream to become middle school English teachers; the government had put them there. I NOW think that none of us has complete freedom in the determination of our destiny; we DO have something to say about WHO we are approaching our destiny.
But POETRY, the beauty of that poem — they felt it. Add the fact that someone their age had written it! Those students loved it. Teaching poetry to Chinese students was one of the most wonderful things in my teaching life. They had been tuned into poetry all their lives. There was no need to persuade them that it was worth their time to struggle through the language, metaphors, similes, etc.
I have been thinking about the effect we have on each other. Yesterday Elizabeth came over to buy Christmas cards. I don’t have many any more because I can’t afford to have them printed, I haven’t completely solved the printing at home problem, and I haven’t had time to work on it. Later on I realized it wasn’t about Christmas cards. It was about socks. She came over armed with two $20. The price of two pair of socks at the boutique where I bought two pair of the socks she knits (and are the best for walking the dogs and dressing up and and and OK just generally the best). We’re neighbors, but friends, and kind of family. She didn’t want me to buy them, but the Holiday Boutique is a craft fair. We don’t carve these stones alone.
I woke up this morning with the idea that maybe life is going to push us in this stone carving business to, after a long process of carving and overcoming, to the point where we are faced with the THING, the monster in the closet, the bit of stone that has resisted everything, the bit we don’t even want to LOOK at let alone start carving. And I’m there. I can see it and I find myself marshaling all the tools I’ve acquired in the meantime that I didn’t know I had. I might succeed in finishing this thing the way I want to, but it’s a little scary.
And then, there’s Goethe, whose work Rongferrow translated. But this, “Have the courage to be what nature intended you to be.” Thanks for listening to my yammering. 😀
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.
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
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.
I didn’t always drink coffee. I didn’t start until I was in my late 20s and my then boyfriend, Peter, made coffee with Medaglio Oro. Wow. It was — still is — a kind of Italian coffee available in supermarkets. In the late 70s the fancy-schmancy coffee culture hadn’t arisen and most people drank some stuff that came dripping out of their Mr. Coffee. For years my folks used the “percolator” (pre-Mr. Coffee, god I feel antediluvian). Neither of those styles brewed anything like what Peter made that afternoon in his apartment. As we sat down with our coffee he told me how his grandmother — from Calabria — had never accepted American coffee. “Come acqua!” Like water… I saw what — I mean I tasted what she meant.
From then on I liked coffee, but I didn’t drink it every day, though that happened soon after. Coffee houses existed in Denver but had a very different vibe than they developed once Starbucks arrived on the scene in the 90s. Still, in a few places it was possible to buy beans. I bought a coffee grinder.
Another boyfriend — Tom — went to Guatemala to study Spanish and brought back five pounds of unroasted beans for me. I roasted them in my oven the night before my one-woman painting show in 1981 and toasted that event on the actual morning with my first cup of Guatemalan coffee. It was amazing and for days after my house smelled sooooo good. I still love Guatemalan coffee.
By the time I went to China I was drinking coffee every morning. It was a little challenging in China which isn’t known for its coffee. In reality, on the island of Hainan they grow amazing coffee and I was honored by a gift of this wonderful stuff by the head of my department in a moment that felt as secret as a drug deal. One day, as I was leaving the building where my office was, he — a man in his 70s or 80s — stepped out of his office and motioned me to come inside. I was afraid I was in trouble, but no. In his lovely English he told me he had been saving something for me. Let me say right now that everyone I worked with in China — except maybe my Irish colleague and my husband — knew everything about me. So… He opened the cupboard door and reached far, far, far in the back and pulled out a small packet wrapped in newspaper and tied with pink string. OK, a lot of things in China were wrapped in newspaper and tied with pink string.
“It’s coffee,” he said, “very special coffee. It’s grown on Hainan Island.” He handed it to me like a secret — which it was.
He was so right that it was special. I was always trying to get more, but it was difficult. There was coffee in the Friendship store, but not that.
When I went to Hainan Island for Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) I was able to drink it again, and I brought some home with me. Their way of serving it was similar to Vietnamese coffee with sweetened, condensed milk — not my favorite. Part of what I love about coffee is its bitterness. I drink it with cream
In the desert I saw a creature, naked, bestial, Who, squatting upon the ground, Held his heart in his hands, And ate of it. I said, “Is it good, friend?” “It is bitter—bitter,” he answered; “But I like it “Because it is bitter, “And because it is my heart.”
Naw, Mr. Crane, I wouldn’t go that far.
I changed my coffee brewing methods (from drip…) to a Bialetti after one of my students from Italy (I was teaching English as a second language at an international school) rented a car from us to drive while he was in San Diego. When his dad came to visit, he brought with him a Bialetti Moka Express. He said, “My son tells me you love coffee, but you can’t make coffee with that,” and he pointed dismissively at my Mr. Coffee. He made the point very clearly that there is NO OTHER WAY to properly brew coffee. This was 1987. He gave me very clear instructions and the rest is history.
These days I drink a coffee that’s roasted in Pueblo, Colorado, Solar Roast. My favorite is Zeus, described as “🌱 Dark and moody blend, just like those who drink it!” I’m not dark, but moody, maybe… I love it. It’s…
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.
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