Chinese New Year

 

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Happiness

I always celebrate the Chinese New Year. I like being aware of what energies the new totem carries, asking people which year they were born, and what the astrology says about me. And there is a certain excitement with the Lunar New Year, because it means spring is on its way.

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I was just out of high school when I learned there was a whole way of keeping track of time by the moon. That always felt like a more accurate way to base a calendar. Plus, I like looking up at the night sky, I like remembering that the power that moves the moon moves through me.

The study of astrology came naturally to me. For decades I did charts for people, and had causal conversations with others. It was always fun, the Chinese Zodiac, in particular.  I liked the perspective that instead of one sign a month, there was one for a whole year. Not the year like we in the West knew it to be, one that started in February, and that made a difference. For instance, my father and mother are born the same year, but he is a Dragon, and she is a Snake. (And they so are.)

The characteristics are there, for sure, with a particular bent for men, and another for women. Men who are Tigers, or Rabbits, or Dogs seem to stand out in my life. A dear female friend is a Fire Monkey, born in the hour of the Monkey. She totally fits the profile. (And is totally looking forward to this year!) I admire the energy of the creative Dragon women, and the active Roosters. My year – those of the Sheep/Goat, well, we are quite the bunch. My graduating class has yet to have a reunion, and we just passed the big 30.

bluemoonsm300Here’s an except from my memoir, A Blue Moon in China, about the time when I was 21 years old and in China having a conversation with an American woman who was 45 years old that I had met the day before. The words come basically straight from the journal I kept while I travelled through China in 1988.

Chapter Seven: The Way to Yangshuo, A Blue Moon in China

“What year were you born?” she asked, popping the pineapple into her mouth.

“I was born in the spring before the Summer of Love,” I said. I liked thinking of it that way.

“Ah, 1967. I knew we had a kinship,” she smiled. “In the Chinese horoscope you were born in the Year of the Goat, like me.” She took a sip of her drink. “Supposedly we are born to love.” She rolled her eyes.

“I know, that’s why I call it the Year of the Sheep. I like the image of a sheep grazing on a green hillside, happy as can be.”

Our year was the only one of the twelve Chinese horoscopes to have two different totems.

“Sheep are vulnerable to predators,” Sherry countered. “Year of the Goat. That suits me better. The surefooted ability to scamper a mountainside, self-reliant. Fits with me always being off on adventure.”

 

As a special New Year’s Gift, if you order* the softcover of my memoir, A Blue Moon in China, you will receive a little black bag that reads: If you want a vacation, go to Hawaii. If you want an adventure, go to China.

*orders from website: abluemooninchina.com, while supplies last, in continental USA only

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The two photos were taken at the Lan Su Chinese Gardens in Portland, OR. I did a reading there while on my book tour. The Chinese character was made for me. You can see a video of it on my youtube channel, only it’s sideways (I don’t know why it came out that way).

 

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Santa Fe, a short story

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Kathy looked out the window, out across the vacant lot full of weeds, and out to the snow-capped mountains. Seeing them there always startled her, not only that they were there, but that she had an unobstructed view. It was a fluke; the neighborhood was working class poor who barely scraped together enough money to pay the bills each month. Yet here was this unobstructed million-dollar view.

Her eyes focused back in on the patch of land directly across the street. That was in keeping with the economical status of this housing development. It was supposed to be an inviting park for the neighborhood to enjoy, but it wasn’t. It was hardened desert with tough, prickly weeds. The compact dirt was covered in seeds with claws that gripped into one’s skin. The locals called these prya “goat heads;” Kathy cursed them as “satan’s bite” whenever she pried them out of her shoes and blue jeans. There was a swing set placed to one side of the park, but it only added an apocalyptic look to the foreboding landscape. It was a picture of wasted youth left to rust, untouched by the children who stayed away, playing in the street instead. But Kathy didn’t let those painful stickers stop her from enjoying the park. She loved to swing; she loved the feel of her long hair hanging loose and free as she kicked her legs to go higher and higher, then, gripping the cold metal chain, she would lean back, and feel as though she could jump straight into the heavens.

The sky here was all encompassing; ever-present, a dome of blue that felt close enough to touch so high was the elevation of the land. It was almost always without a cloud. Unless the rare storm came through. These monsoons brought her neighbors outside to watch crackle of lighting leading the long gray streams of water across the desert, sweeping in from the distant horizon. The promise of water quenching the dry desert brought with it a celebration. After the torrent passed, the remaining clouds reflected fluorescent pinks and oranges as the sun set. It was a glorious spectacle in which painters tried to capture over and over again. But a colorful canvas could never capture the smell of rain or the sound of thunder. One had to be present and experience it in the moment.

Kathy closed the drapes. The aroma of brewed coffee lured her into the kitchen. She poured herself a mug and sat down at the kitchen table. Today was a special day. It was the day the puppy was to arrive. Marcus, her husband of two years, had come home a few weeks ago full of news that Peter the potter’s hound Bonnie had given birth to a litter of puppies, and they were to have one.

“I’ve always wanted a dog,” Marcus had told her excitedly, dancing around like a little boy, his eyes sparkling at the thought of it. “My father wouldn’t allow us to have one. Now we are going to have a puppy!”

Marcus had headed out that morning in their old pick-up truck to fetch the new addition to their family. Peter and Bonnie lived in a blink of a village high up in the mountains. Bonnie was free to roam and often found herself giving birth. But she was a sweet dog, and her puppies were known to inherit her disposition.

The clock slowly ticked time away. Kathy looked around her home. They had moved in just a few months before. It was the first actual house Kathy lived as an adult. It was a new construction, part of a small subdivision four blocks long. The front windows faced south and sunshine streamed in all day in the winter, and giving the excuse to sprawl catlike on the rug soaking up the rays. To the east were the mountains. At the foot of these was the town center. They lived on the outskirts, outside the inner circle of the Plaza, where the artists converged. The old-timers who lived out their way still kept horses, grew vegetables in their gardens. Their yards were stocked with piles of scrap lumber for wood stoves and old cars for spare parts. They had chickens, too, and every morning Kathy could hear roosters crow. Life in a rural desert still felt strange.

Marcus had suggested Santa Fe as the place to settle down and begin their life together. Neither of them had ever been here before. On their honeymoon road trip across country, they drove into town one day and found a place to live. They were transplants from a cosmopolitan city. Romantic notions enticed them there, believing this fringe art community would be the place to do something unique, special, impactful on society. What that might be Kathy still didn’t know.

Kathy and Marcus had grown up in Chicago and their new friends came from all over the country. It was a gathering of neo-hippies into the desert, fellow seekers of some intangible purpose for life, of some sort of an answer for their reason for being alive on the planet. She knew it was the bright sun by day and the sky full of twinkling star by night than attracted them here. She wondered if the landscape full of sweet sage and pungent pinon was what held them captive. The wind blew in the expansive sense of freedom, of anarchy, of personal responsibility, and of self-expression. The elevation intensified the sensation. But the bewitching elements seemed to affect everyone different. Some people soared like the eagles, finding their passion and following their bliss. Others went crazy, as if ghosts thrived in the thin atmosphere, haunting them, taunting them until they were driven to jump off a bridge.

What happened to a person when they live where the sun loomed so close a T-shirt can be worn cross-country skiing? When a person moved from crowded cities to a state where the entire population is less than that of a typical suburb?

Space. Space to breathe … to dance to one’s own tune with arms open wide, twirling around without fear of collision. But with that space, Kathy was discovering, came a disorientation, a restlessness, and a recklessness. She felt it within herself. And Marcus certainly seemed to be experiencing something of that nature. He seemed unhinged, lost without the towering sides of skyscrapers defining and restricting his existence, without the crisscross of boulevards and highways. There was no road map in this open land, no paths laid out to follow. Everyone had to decide where they wanted to go and how they wanted it get there. Most often making it up as they went along, like setting out on skis after the snow covered the fence line. You could go anywhere you wanted, but it was up to you to decide where that was to be, and breaking a fresh trail required considerable effort.

Kathy sighed. She knew she had taken the easy way out by going to college. At least there she had a focus, her goals were laid out for her: finish this homework, complete that class. But Marcus had decided to be an entrepreneur, to live the American Dream. He had spent the last couple of years trying one idea after another, but only succeeded in creating one bad scenario after another. Kathy couldn’t understand what was driving him. Why wasn’t he pursuing his art? He was consumed with being in business for himself. It didn’t even seem to matter what that business was. Maybe that was the problem, she concluded. Nothing he was working on was truly a passion for him.

It would be hours before Marcus returned, maybe all day. Peter was a man of few words, and Marcus liked to talk. Kathy relished the time alone. Her mind began to drift into thoughts about her marriage and, then, about her life in general. The sudden biological urge she was experiencing recently brought her animated visions of children. It was only natural: she was 24 years old and married now. Her body was ready, and on the outside it looked like her life was in place to start a family. Kathy shook her head sadly, she heard her best friend’s voice still echoing in the room from a recent visit: “You are going on and on about having a baby, while at the same time you are going on and on about how unhappy you are in your marriage.” Mary had popped the bubble on her rose-colored dream of a happy little family complete with a baby bouncing on her knee.

Mary was right, of course. She always was. As the eldest of six, Mary had a way of saying it like it was. There was never time to sugarcoat a situation in her mind: see it, say it, and move on. There was something very calming about her direct approach; one didn’t have to second guess or assume what Mary thought; she just said, but somehow she did so in a very mothering way.

Kathy poured herself another cup of coffee, trying not to spill the hot liquid as she walked across the new pale beige carpets to the couch. Set against the cream colored walls, the monotone effect of the room was a soothing, neutral backdrop to the colorful drama of her everyday life. Most of which she could do without, she decided, but couldn’t do anything about. Marcus had a way of needing constant approval and constant attention, and yet, try as she might, nothing she did was enough or was the right thing at the right time. The difficulty came with that she was expected to fix everything and make it all better. She blamed his parents really; his mother in particular. She babied all three of her children, catering to their every whim, even serving them breakfast in bed. It was too much to follow and Kathy fell short on a daily basis. Typical, she laughed to herself. Don’t all psychologists end up blaming the mother? And to think she wanted to be one herself!

The afternoon sun began to fill the room. Kathy set her coffee down and stretched out to enjoy its warmth against her skin. It was pure luxury.

Mary’s visit earlier that week had rattled Kathy. They had been sitting at Kathy’s beloved kitchen table, a classic 1950’s chrome piece with a turquoise enamel top embedded with gold stars sparkling. She had found at a garage sale, and now cherished. The table somehow represented the promise of a settled life and a happy home, conventional and simple, pearls and pumps. In that fantasy the road maps were inherited by the previous generation; roles, defined; goals, set. Kathy laughed at her naivety, as if filling her home with certain objects would make a fantasy come true. But that picture was an out-dated, impossible dream today. The world was different, at least for two people with an artistic nature on a spiritual quest.

Mary’s voice came through once again. “When did you first notice that something was wrong?” Mary had asked.

“It started at our wedding.” Kathy admitted sitting across from Mary. She could feel herself cringe at the memory of it all.

“Your wedding?” Mary repeated, “What happened?”

“Well,” Kathy began slowly, fingering the top of her mug, avoiding Mary’s probing eyes, “You know how the bride and groom are supposed to dance the first dance?”

Kathy caught Mary’s nod out of the corner of her eye, “Go on,” Mary urged gently.

“The band had started to play. But Marcus was nowhere in sight. I walked around everywhere looking for him. Finally I found him hiding on a porch. I told him it was time for our first dance. He recoiled from my touch and snarled: ‘I’m not embarrassing myself in front of everyone.’ I felt a shock to my soul, to the very core of my being. One of the things we loved to do was dance together.”

“Oh, honey,” Mary reached out and touched Kathy’s hand.

Kathy looked up, trying not to cry, “I had to go back alone. Everyone was looking at me. Luckily a dear old friend rose to the occasion. We danced the first dance, then the second. Finally everyone got up and we danced the night away.”

“Did Marcus ever join in?” Mary asked.

“Yes, eventually,” Kathy replied, “but by then I was already feeling timid and questioning what I had done.”

She was still questioning her decision to marry Marcus. That her judgment may have been so totally erroneous gnawed at her confidence. There had been early indications that her choice may not have been a good one, that underneath Marcus’ charm demonic forces were ready to attack her. Demonic? Kathy sat up. Suddenly, she felt vulnerable and cold, startled by that choice of word. Where did it come from? It was extreme, yet accurate, she admitted. Marcus’ attacks always took her by surprise, knocking her sense of self so off balance she couldn’t respond in the moment. Instead she found herself rendered speechless. This from the man with whom she had promised to spend her life with. He didn’t seem to like her. Frankly at times it seemed as though he hated her.

“It’s bipolar behavior,” Mary had told her that same sunny afternoon.

“What does that mean?” Kathy asked.

“It’s the jumping between two extremes, like love and hate. Bouncing between feeling elated and depressed. Highs and lows.” Mary said.

“It feels like one part of him loves me and another part hates me. I never know which part I’m going to get. The problem is that I love him; I want to be with him.”

“You mean, the fun him, right?” Mary countered. “You don’t want the side of him that is so mean to you, do you? Or lays around sulking in a deep depression, always demanding?”

“I don’t know.” Kathy shamefully admitted as she got up from the table. She went to fill the kettle for more hot tea. The sound of the water from the faucet silenced their conversation for the moment. Mary waited, quietly watching Kathy’s movements. Her steady gaze felt unnerving.

Kathy turned to question Mary, “What does it mean when you say: for better or for worse?”

“Not abuse,” Mary said.

“He doesn’t mean it.”

“Mean what?!?” Mary asked. “To hurt you? Emotional and psychic abuse counts.”

“He can’t help it,” Kathy could hear herself almost pleading for Mary to understand.

“Okay,” Mary’s voice softened, “I’ll give you that when a person is manic depressive, it is thought to be a chemical imbalance in the brain. But my point is that the way he attacks you, the words he chooses are intended to belittle you and you end up always questioning yourself.” Mary’s voice sounded angry. “You have lost trust in who you are because he is always cutting you down. It is not ok to let yourself take the abuse!” Mary slammed her hand down on the table. Kathy was startled by the intensity of emotions Mary was showing. “Look, if he doesn’t think he’s doing anything wrong, he’ll just keep doing what he’s doing and taking no responsibility for his actions. And you let him! You just roll over and take it, as if you deserve it. You don’t! No one does!”

Yet, Kathy felt this deep-seated sense that not only did she deserve it, but somehow it was her responsibility to stay and help, to make it better, to do everything she could. She was his wife. Though it did occur to her that that might be the problem. Before the wedding they dwelled in the bubble of being “in love,” of just being happy to be together without a care in the world. It was all light and simple. And it still was – half of the time.

Outside the afternoon sun was beckoning her. She made her way out to the fresh air. The strong odor of horse manure mingled with sweet sage. It was cool, yet warm, another one of those oddities living in the high desert. She made her way to the swing set and sat down. Soon she was spinning in little circles, finding joy in the winding and unwinding. Round and round she went, until the motion ceased, and she was still again.

She felt as though everything wrong or bad that happened was her fault. Deep inside herself she felt a dark void, a blackness, an empty pit. She had felt that way her whole life, as far back as she could remember.

Kathy looked out to the horizon. The mountains had lost their dimension. There were no shadows. They looked flat, a dark tone of purple, cut out against the blue sky; they didn’t look real.

Was her marriage real? Kathy wondered. They had had an informal ceremony by a Justice of the Peace. She shook her head at the irony. Marcus had proposed over the phone, in an off-handed way. He had gone on a “life-altering trip” overseas. While he was away, he decided it was time for them to be together in a formal way. His call came through as a total surprise for Kathy. Her fear of irrevocable decisions was abated by a voice that said: You can always get divorced. Now she was faced with the prospect of divorce, and that was an irrevocable decision.

The wind rustled through the dry, sharp grass; the desert was beckoning. She suddenly felt the need to go for a walk and got up from the swing. She stepped carefully through the barbed-wire fence and found herself in the open land. She felt a rush of exhilaration. The ground was rocky, but she didn’t care; she felt protected in hiking boots and blue jeans. Here and there, cacti grew with their long, spiky arms stretching up and out toward the blue sky. In the spring these very hostile beings sprouted flowers, as if to say: yes, even that which hurts can still bare beauty. Some of the plants were dead, left with only their skeletal spines exposed to harden in the harsh elements.

“I want to buy all this land and put in roads and build a hotel,” Marcus had said to her one day.

Kathy didn’t want to see it. She liked the romance of the old ways.

“Everything changes,” he stated. “And I want to be rich.”

“I guess so,” Kathy said. I guess so echoed through her mind. Marcus had changed. He had gone from an artist, expressing himself through paint on canvas, to a man focused on the almighty dollar. Gone was the man who wanted to see the world, and now replaced by a man in search of validation in as close to the conventional world as he could possibly tolerate, his own boss in a business venture. Kathy had asked him once why the change had happened. “I became a husband,” he told her, like it was totally obvious and expected. It was as though he believed being a husband carried with it a paradigm that didn’t allow him to be an artist. She didn’t know what to say in response. He always spoke with such assurance and authority. Perhaps his idea of how a husband should act and be in the world over-ruled who he actually was.

Kathy scanned the desert before her, shielding her eyes from the bright sun. A stray dog hunted up ahead; his nose followed the scent of a rabbit, in the vain hope of catching his dinner for the night. Kathy crouched down and watched the dog. His large, thin shape and gray-white coloring reminded her of Lucy, the first family dog.

Kathy remembered the night Lucy had become part of the family like it was yesterday. It was in the dead of winter, with the kind of cold that cuts through the layers of coats and sweaters, right through the skin to the bone. Her younger brother had given the stray some of his sandwich. That was all it took. Lucy followed him home from school and stood at their side door. Her father was away at a meeting, leaving her mother alone to deal with three distraught children, tearfully begging for mercy for the very dirty, determined dog shivering in the cold, night air.

Kathy could well remember her father’s tone of disapproval coming through the phone, and her mother’s face turning red at the injustice of it all. Looking back, Kathy could see how trapped her mother must have felt, pinned in on all sides by a situation she had done nothing to bring about. She herded the three of them to bed, simply saying: “We’ll see what happens.” Kathy was sure now that she was silently cursing her father’s unreasonable ways.

According to what was now family tales, when he pulled into the driveway late that night, the next door neighbor caught his attention with a sharp rap on her kitchen window: “You’re not going to leave that dog to freeze to death, are you?” There was nothing he could do, but give way to the force aligned against him. Kathy was sure the image of the dog lying there dead in the morning was more than he was willing to face. After her mother gave him a piece of her mind, she bathed the dog who was soon named Lucy. The pathetic creature sat still while being scrubbed clean, knowing she had won the war. Kathy came to love that dog and her gentle manner. Many times she cried the tears of a sad, lonely child, finding solace by holding Lucy close. She had become her best friend. She told her secrets and felt protected in her unconditional love. She had held her as she was dying.

Kathy sighed as she stood back up. What was she hoping for with the arrival of the puppy? That suddenly everything was going to be okay or somehow make sense? Was Mary right? She just wasn’t sure.

It difficult to make a clear decision and know what was the right thing to do. Her heart was conflicted. She didn’t like how Marcus treated her when he was in one of his many moods, but then he would come to her with love and wrap his arms around her. She would melt. She loved to be nestled up against him; she loved the smell of his skin, the touch of his body, the glimmer in his eyes when he looked at her. They laughed together and had fun. They could talk about art, politics, and shared an interest in other cultures. But then he would become cruel, verbally lash out at her. These thoughts chased around, rambling, contradicting, melding, repelling. It was exhausting. She felt like screaming.

The stray dog finally caught the scent of a rabbit and was off running. A hawk flew overhead. Kathy paused to listen to the sound of its wings as he soared through the air, circling around again. She stepped back through the fence.

“Now what?” she asked herself. She knew nothing, but to know nothing must be the beginning of something, she reasoned.

Yet loving a man who could not be pleased or satisfied was a burden beyond words. The heaviness wore her spirit down. Kathy felt in her bones that it was her duty to make it all better, to do everything she could to make him happy. Deep down inside she felt she could, and therefore should, do just that. She would worry about herself later; she wasn’t that important. Kathy stopped dead in her tracks. A chill went down her spine. Where had this thought come from? She wasn’t important? Kathy felt the tears roll down her cheeks as she ran back to the house. Her whole being wanted to crawl into bed, hide under the blankets and disappear.

She pushed open the door. The house was quiet. Only the ticking clock disturbed the peace. Kathy gave into her sorrow, her distraught, and ran into the bedroom, pulling the quilt over her head, sobbing. Until she couldn’t cry anymore. She lay curled up in a ball praying for guidance. In time, Kathy heard a gentle voice say to her: “Forgive yourself for everything you think you have done wrong. Everything was going to be alright. One way or another it would all work out.” Kathy was determined to believe it would. “There is nothing to fear,” the voice went on. The wisdom told her she was loved; she just had to love herself. Kathy lay still, allowing the words to penetrate her being. After awhile, she rolled out of bed, went into the bathroom, and splashed water on her face. She looked at herself in the mirror. The woman staring back, with puffy red eyes, smiled. She did matter. She had to take care of herself. She wasn’t sure how, but the answer would come. One thing she knew was that the puppy wasn’t going to fix what was at the heart of the problem. In a flash, her next move became clear. She had to leave the house, her marriage, and Marcus returned. She knew she would fall in love with the puppy and hide behind its affection. She would hold onto to the dog for dear life, while hers slipped away.

As if guided by an unseen force, Kathy grabbed a bag and threw in clothes, books, and her jewelry. Tears streamed down her face, blurring her vision as she looked around at the home she loved and was leaving. She had to get out before she was trapped. She knew it in her bones: it was now or never. She pulled the front door open. A coyote howled off in the distance, welcoming her in the unknown.

 

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Excerts from A Blue Moon in China – Musings on the One Child Policy in 1988

People on a bus in Guangzhou, China 1988

People on a bus in Guangzhou, China 1988

From Chapter Three, Black Bicycles set in Guangzhou, China

A billboard caught my eye. It was a picture in pastels of a smiling mother, father, and a very round little girl with rosy cheeks. Curiously, the message was bilingual, both in Chinese and in English: One couple, One child. I had only recently heard of the One Child policy. It was a collective effort; sacrifice really, for the good of the country, a necessary measure for population control, handed down from the government. It looked like Big Brother in action. I wondered how it was enforced.

From Chapter Seven, The Way to Yangshuo

Sherry and I stopped for a moment to sit on a park bench. Across the street was a billboard for the One Child campaign.

“Do you know why it’s in English?” I asked her.

“Propaganda of some nature, I’m sure,” she said. “I did hear that birth control is widely available and that women are ‘encouraged’ to have abortions.” Sherry made it clear there wasn’t much choice. “What grieves me is the killing of baby girls. The rumor is they drown them. At least out in the countryside. The Communist Party doesn’t condone the infanticide, but certainly seems to have turned a blind eye to it.”

I was stunned. I didn’t want to believe it. At first I couldn’t speak, then I stammered feebly, “That must be heart-wrenching for the parents.”

“A male farmhand is more valuable than a female,” Sherry stated matter-of-factly. “Maybe it’s easier to do it because males have always been highly prized in traditional Chinese society. The old concept that females are expendable, less valuable than men – being that they are merely there to serve, lingers tenaciously on. We have Confucius to thank for that.”

“Confucius? How?” I was surprised. “Didn’t he preach virtuous conduct and being a good person? Noble pursuits? How does that translate to favoring men over women? Wasn’t he about the betterment of society?” I felt so upset I was babbling. Confucius says… I took a breath, shut up, and looked out at the city. Who was I kidding? I knew the words of well-meaning influence have often been perverted throughout history. Just about every wise man’s benevolence had been manipulated by the corrupt in search of power. I knew that ordinary men dominated most societies, many with an aim to keep women submissive and in the background. Barefoot and pregnant was the phrase that came to mind.

“It’s all a matter of interpretation, isn’t it?” Sherry’s voice was cold. “Anyway, it is a rare culture than honors women. You know that.”

I stared up at the billboard and wondered what other choices this country might have to keep its population down other than to regulate the number of children born. I had a feeling, religious belief or not, that having an abortion was a big deal emotionally, regardless of the reason. I totally agreed with the legal right for a woman to choose; it is her body and raising a child is a big deal. I was lucky I lived in the U.S. and had the right to decide for myself what I felt was best.

Young girl on a boat to Yangshou

Young girl on boat to Yangshuo

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A Blue Moon in China is my memoir about the 2 months I traveled through China in 1988 when I was 21 years old. I went alone with only $400 in my pocket.

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A paragraph from A Blue Moon in China, musings on the One Child Policy

“I stared up at the billboard and wondered what other choices this country might have to keep its population down other than to regulate the number of children born. I had a feeling, religious belief or not, that having an abortion was a big deal emotionally, regardless of the reason. I totally agreed with the legal right for a woman to choose; it is her body and raising a child is a big deal. I was lucky I lived in the U.S. and had the right to decide for myself what I felt was best.”

A Blue Moon in China

one paragraph of me contemplating the Chinese One Couple One Child policy in my travel memoir set in 1988.

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Me, a friend & Detroit’s Dally in the Alley

Early Morning Sunlight

The alley where the Dally began 38 years ago.

It was 6:30 in the morning. The streetlights were still on. I parked my car up against a garage door in a timeworn alley paved with red brick. It was more like a small courtyard, with wooden balconies jutting out from the assortment of apartments built nearly a century ago. In the center of the space was a large, graffiti-covered dumpster. I poured myself some coffee from a thermos and awaited further instructions from a friend. I was there to vend in the annual Detroit event known as the Dally in the Alley. There was already a bustle of activity. People in pink shirts were directing vendors driving in. Tents were going up, and cars were being unloaded. Vendors are amazing people to me. They trudge to some outdoor festival with a truckload of stuff, arrange everything, and spend all day in the elements talking to all kinds of people, then teardown, re-load, and go home after a 17 hour shift. I find their commitment admirable.

I noticed a large hand-painted sign informing fairgoers that everyone in the neighborhood parks elsewhere for the day allowing the festival to completely take over. I smiled knowing the spirit of sharing still remained strong.

I knew this neighborhood well. I lived around the corner in the ‘80s. At that time it was known as the Cass Corridor. My friends were hippies and musicians. There was a co-op and a few art galleries. Not too much else. A decade ago the Corridor was renamed Midtown, and new enterprises keep popping up.

Except for an awkward, and brief, first-meet date a few years ago, I hadn’t been to the Dally since 1986. I remember the one and only stage not having speakers back then. The Jug Band was one of the featured acts, and they were acoustic. A girl named Sally played the accordion and a man named Ralph played a washboard. I remembered there were a couple of tables with goods for sale, and artists displayed their paintings. It was an event by and for the people of the neighborhood. Back then the population was rather sparse; it was an intimate affair.

All I knew about the Dally in the Alley 2015 was I had to be there at 6:30 in the morning to meet my long-time friend, Zana Smith – owner of the urban boutique Spectacles. I wondered how the day would unfold. I was curious to check it out from behind the scenes, but I knew I wouldn’t do what I was about to do for just anyone.

Zana at her store. That's my book.

Zana at her store. That’s my book.

I met Zana in 1986. I was working in an old fur-processing factory that had been converted to an indoor shopping mall connected to a newly built monorail loop. I walked to work to spend my day in what would become a failed experiment of retail stores downtown. Hudson’s was already closed and there weren’t very many businesses open. En route one day, I happened upon Zana’s store. We have remained friends ever since.

Spectacles is still located at 230 East Grand River, across from the new YMCA. Zana has kept her business going for 31 years. To me that is a feat among feats. Only a few stores, like Henry the Hatter, and Wolverine, have managed to maintain longevity in Detroit.

This year somebody bought the building in which Spectacles is housed. Eviction notices were sent out. Newspaper articles were published about the goings-on and the local community was in an uproar about the loss of a landmark business. A month later the owner requested Zana stay. After much ado, it turned out her store was just the kind they wanted in their building. But now the question was how to get the word out that Spectacles would remain.

I received a text from Zana a week before. It simply said: I’ve paid for a booth at the Dally. I knew she meant: Will you be there with me all day? I gulped. But I saw the brilliance of the PR, so I told myself if she could do it, I could do it, and volunteered. Zana scored a great spot just down from the Electronica Stage – perfect for us as we all like that music. The “us” included DJ/dancer Steve who works at Spectacles, and a new person I now call a friend- Corky. Having a booth at the Dally was his idea. He promised to help out and proved himself to be a man of his word. Three young entrepreneurs – Wink, Tracy, and Chinonye – shared Zana’s booth. Wink had photographs she had taken silkscreened onto shirts, Tracy sold purses, and Chinonye offered handmade apothecary. They exuded excitement and enticed all to share in their glee. It was a celebration of making things happen for one’s self.

The day was mellow for me. Most of the time I sat in a chair on the sidewalk behind our booth, drinking coffee, and eating my snacks. A constant stream of people walked down the street. Some came in to shop, say hello, or give a hug – old friends and new ones. At one point it looked like rain, but it passed.

SuperDre in the basement of the Detroit Historical Museum.

Sometime in the afternoon a DJ took the stage and I couldn’t help but stand up, grooving to the beats. I shouted to Corky: Who is this spinning? It’s great! He shouted back: Come on, let’s go! We ran to the stage. As we came up on it I saw a familiar ‘fro. It was SuperDre! I was so excited! I had met her the previous winter. She was spinning at a fundraiser in the basement of the Historical Museum, but her volume was turned way down. She and I connected both having lived on the West Coast and sharing the astrological sign of Taurus. Her live mix was kicking – seriously fabulous layers of rhythms.

When twilight came I moved to the front of the booth to sit on a stool and watch the ever-growing crowd walk by. A good friend of Zana’s stopped and offered to buy us dinner. I went with him to help bring it back. I was happy to be moving as it was a little chilly. At this point I had only ventured as far as the original location of the Dally in the Alley. The food stalls and the third stage beyond that were new to me. Then it was decided we would walk to Cass Café to get food instead. On the way over I was completely blown away by how big the Dally actually is. There were two more stages and what looked to be thousands of people who had come down for it. There was performance art, sculptures being created, and lots of goodies for sale. For blocks and blocks. I had no idea all this had been going on all day.

The Dally in the Alley is special, from its humble beginning literally in an alley to what I witnessed this past weekend. It is an event that has been put on for 38 years by an all-volunteer staff, from the planning to the garbage clean-up. Everyone does it because they want to. It is well-organized and has a great vibe. And whenever so many people from all walks of life, maneuver around each other, elbow-to-elbow, and everyone gets along and has fun, well, that is a beautiful thing to me.

Elizabeth Pilar is an awarding-winning short story writer from Detroit. Her debut book, A Blue Moon in China, was just published. It is the memoir of the two months she traveled through China in 1988 when she was 21 years old. Her editor is Christopher Ross.

You can buy my book here.

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A Spontaneous Travel Decision – A city so nice I went thrice, then I went again.

NYC graffitti covered van

A few weeks ago I was on the Amtrak with a Rail Pass for an eight-city book tour promoting my travel memoir, A Blue Moon in China, about the two months I traveled through China in 1988 when I was 21 years old.

My last scheduled author talk was in St. Paul on July 13, and my next event wasn’t until July 26 in Ann Arbor. That left 12 days for a wild card adventure. I could go anywhere in the USA for free. My mind opened up to the plethora of possibilities.

I considered going back to Santa Fe where I started my book tour at the Summer Solstice. I have good friends there and could visit more of my old stomping grounds from the decade I called New Mexico home.

Los Angeles was inviting, too. I love the city, and had even been contemplating relocating there from Detroit once my tour was completed. The cool thing about that idea was the full circle synchronicity of it, for I had moved from LA back to the Motor City eight years before to write the memoir that I was now promoting. But even though I have friends and family in Los Angeles, it would be a three-day train trip from St. Paul, and I would have to rent a car again, further taxing my limited funds.

The idea of New York City popped into my mind. I hadn’t been there is over a decade.

I contacted a friend to stay with, and the decision was made: I was going to go, I really was. I was so excited.

IMG_2309The first time I went to NYC was in 1986 when I was 19 years old. It was the 100-year anniversary of the Statue of Liberty and a big celebration was planned. I was supposed to meet a friend who flew in from Detroit ahead of me, but we didn’t connect. There I was, alone at the airport, without a place to stay. Luckily my mom had given me my cousin’s phone number, “just in case.” I put a coin in the payphone and crossed my fingers he was home. He was. I got on a graffiti covered subway car, then transferred to another one just as gritty, and climbed a set of stairs out into the lower eastside of Manhattan.

It was late, but people were everywhere, many sitting on blankets on the sidewalks selling all manner of things. I’d never seen anything like it. It was a night bazaar. I quickly realized most were probably homeless and earning money so they could at least eat.

My cousin lived in a small cellar studio apartment. It was crammed full of everything, including a girlfriend. She took my surprise visit well, and we three walked to the firework mega-display together. What a blast that was.

pproseThe next time I came to NYC was 1997. I came in on the Amtrak from Lamy, New Mexico, arriving on my 30th birthday with the intention of living in the big city. A friend met me at the station and gave me the welcome gift of a taxi ride to my new digs on the upper west side. I was to stay with a friend’s grandmother, a 90-year old Hungarian Jew named Rose who would prove to be quite the hardcore character. She enjoyed her vodka and beer, and moving furniture around by herself. The pre-war apartment was spacious, and there was a doorman. The upper west side felt like a world away from where my cousin lived on the lower east side. His part of town was where the actors and artists struggling to make ends meet lived; this neighborhood was much more affluent.

New York in the mid-90s was a transformed world from the mid-80s. I remember the moment I realized this was fact. It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon. I was walking from a friend’s house in Greenwich Village and wandered under an archway into a big public park. People were picnicking, playing Hacky Sack, and hanging out listening to the live music of a lone saxophone player. The water splashing from a large fountain reflected the bright sunlight. The sky was blue. It was an idyllic environment.

ppmanwithbananasThen it hit me: I was in Washington Square Park! Ten years prior this place had been full of drug dealers offering me every kind of substance at a good price. I couldn’t believe it! The change was astounding. I knew it was due to the new policies under the new mayor, a man called Giuliani. But where did all the homeless people go? And the drug dealers? It was like they had vanished without a trace.

The last time I had been in New York City was in 2001. I had moved there once again from New Mexico. I left on Buddha’s birthday – May 5th. From the moment I arrived I noticed the city felt different. The usual vibrancy of New York and its people seemed off, subdued somehow; a negative energy was palpable. I kept saying to a friend: It feels like the apocalypse has happened, but no one knows it yet. I wanted to leave immediately. I stayed only two months before I drove with a friend to Burning Man out in the desert of Nevada, then onward to San Francisco. It was there that I awoke to the news that the World Trade Center towers had collapsed. The horror and sadness I felt was only intensified by the fact that I had walked those streets so recently. I wondered if the unsettled feeling I had experienced in New York was some eerie premonition of 9/11.

NYC graffitiBut now it was 2015. And I wanted to go, just because I could. So I did.

To my eye, Manhattan was the same as it ever was – lots of people of every demographic and ethnicity, some in penthouses, others on the street. Though this time the homeless looked young, as I noticed they did in Chicago, San Francisco and Portland, Oregon. Like always, people played chess in the parks and sold used books on the sidewalks. Drivers honked horns impatiently when traffic stopped too long, and ambulances still had to squeeze their way through the congestion. And I caught whiffs of garbage as I walked down streets. But the subways were cleaner, and there was less graffiti. When I searched out remnants of old New York I found them – old bakeries, 24-hour delis, produce stands, street musicians, repertory theatres, and museums.

Chinatown NYC

I didn’t see too many signs of what I had been reading in magazines and hearing from friends – that NYC was now more for the wealthy than for the everyday person. Maybe the change is subtle, like in the cost of living rather than an increase of blatant bling. But in Chinatown I did see the encroachment of boutique stores, and in the Bowery I found the legendary music venue CBGB’s was now a high-end men’s clothing store.

church with rainbow flagThe biggest difference I noticed between my short stint in 2001 and this one in 2015 was that people seemed more relaxed and nicer to each other. I was able to make eye contact and engage in a little conversation with strangers on the subway, merchants in stores, and lovers of music hanging out in parks. I had the sense that a lingering residue of 9/11 hung in the air, reminding people that life is precious. I felt more a part of the big family of humanity living together in the Big Apple than I ever had before.

My spur of the moment decision to go to NYC was definitely the cherry on top of my five-week book tour.

einstein at the highline NYC

this article was edited by Christopher Ross and was first published in the women’s travel magazine Pink Pangea

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Derrick May, Strings of Life, and Me

Dzijan Emin conducts the Detroit Symphony Orchestra with Derrick May & Franceso Tristano at Chene Park, Detroit

The people of Detroit love their fellow hometowners who have gone out into the world and done well. The list of successful artists and entrepreneurs is long, and it seems like every time I turn around I learn some famous person is also from the city, or at least nearby.

Derrick May is one of the famous people from Detroit. He, along with a trio of friends know as the Belleville Three, created a musical sensation known the world-over as Techno. That was almost thirty years ago. Derrick’s first releases are now considered classics, the most revered is a track called Strings of Life.

I knew before Derrick before was famous. He was just a guy living down the hall in the apartment building I had moved to in the Cass Corridor. I was just a shy girl fresh out of high school. A mutual friend introduced us and Derrick, being the gregarious personality that he is, invited me over to listen to the music he was making.

One night I went to visit. The apartments in the old building were small. Spread out on the floor of his living room were several little machines and keyboards. A very cool sound unlike anything I had heard filled the room. I really liked it. From an open window I looked out over the night skyline; the city lights were sparse. The music filling the space became haunting as if telling the story of abandonment and decay. The beats began to pulse and urged me to dance. I felt my spirit soaring over the empty lots and empty buildings, and the people who lived out there. I felt a sense of hope.

Derrick said, “Listen to this one I’ve been working on. A friend of mine is playing the piano, I made a loop from a snippet, and I can’t stop listening to it.”

He put on Strings of Life. I loved it.

I left Detroit soon after that, and was unaware of the whirlwind Techno music was throughout Europe. I remember when I first learned Derrick had become famous. It was the mid-90s. I was at a party out in the deserts of New Mexico. A young man was there. Somehow he learned I was from Detroit. He became animated telling me of how much he loved Techno and asked me about a Detroit club called the Music Institute – which was founded before I left the city. Back then Derrick, along with Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, and others, spun in that barebones club.  The young man talking with me just about passed out from excitement when he heard I had danced there, telling me that place was legendary – it was the first Techno club in the world. I felt my ego inflate a bit just because of who I knew and where I had been. Funny how that is. But it is.

On August 14, 2015, Derrick brought his latest project to Detroit – he would play his music with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra at Chene Park. The amphitheater filled with people who shared that same intimate pride I felt back in New Mexico talking with the young man. Only this time the energy of sharing in the glory of success was exponential. And we were not let down. Derrick’s show with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra was epic. History was being made again.

The concert was a magical moment. Strings of Life came from an acoustic piano and created a genre of electronic music, and then an acoustic symphony orchestra played the music that came from Strings of Life, creating a new genre of music – symphonic fusion.

The story of this collaboration has its roots across the Atlantic Ocean. A bold conductor from Macedonia named Dzijan Emin composed several scores of Derrick’s music for classical musicians. The event debuted last year in Macedonia and has played around Europe. I’m so glad it finally made it to Detroit. The sensation of hearing trumpets, clarinets, violins, and drums play what was once synthesizer music was amazing, genius really. And the finale of Strings of Life crescendo-ed the whole concert right out of the park. Everyone was on their feet. It was a celebration of everything we here in Detroit are proud of – innovation, our musical tradition, and someone from our city who goes out into the world and does great things.

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here’s a video of one of these concerts: http://concert.arte.tv/fr/derrick-may-ft-francesco-tristano-et-lorchestre-lamoureux-au-weather-festival

Post edited by Christopher Ross. And Michael James is Derrick’s friend who wrote the piano piece.

You can buy my travel memoir, A Blue Moon in China, here

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