A Blue Moon in China
It had been easy to pack my bag and leave my hometown behind. I had already lived in nine different homes, in two different countries, and in three different states. I had gone to nine different schools. I had two fathers; one who was deceased. And, I felt born with the apparent inability to commit to the status quo.
My mother was from a small French settlement in Michigan. Her ethics were soundly Mid-Western. Her father had been born and raised in a log cabin. He left home at 18 to work in a factory building cars: 14 hour days standing, six days a week, no vacation, no benefits. My grandmother gave birth fifteen times. Of the twelve who survived, my mother was the second youngest.
As a young woman, my mother made her great escape to California and met my Mexican father on a blind date. When I was four he moved us all – my pregnant mother, my two-year old sister, and me – from Los Angeles to Mexico City.
The fates warned me early on not to become complacent and feel too settled: less than a year after we moved to Mexico, my father caught a cold and never got out of bed again. Etched into my memory is the white sundress patterned with bright red strawberries and green leaves that I wore the last time I saw him alive.
My mother moved us back to Michigan, and fared well on another blind date, marrying a disciplined man of Polish descent. His example was a devout sense of right and wrong, coupled with an unwavering commitment to helping the less fortunate.
Thus twists and turns brought me a new father, and to a new city: Detroit. I came of age there neither black nor white, rich nor poor, growing up on the Detroit side of Mack Avenue – “across the tracks” from the affluent who had ensconced themselves along the water’s edge in Grosse Pointe, and next door to those who struggled to make ends meet.
Detroit had experienced many incarnations since the French built a settlement along the strait in 1701. Fur trading came first for the settlers, then lumber gave the few their fortune.
With the rise of riches came world-renowned architects who designed beautiful buildings with complex stone lineaments and ornamental sculptures gracing exteriors. Grand lobbies boasted ceilings of carved wood, stamped copper, and murals of pictures or geometric patterns. Byzantine deco gave splendor to the landscape with colorful mosaics accented in gold and leaded glass windows in harlequin design, glistening in sunlight. The proliferation of theatres, museums, libraries, and universities gave evidence of the city’s burgeoning wealth. Doorman in white gloves once held open glass doors with polished brass handles for women in furs who walked red carpets to shop. The city was known as the Paris of the Midwest.
Diego Rivera was given the four walls of a cavernous room to do with what he pleased. Many were insulted by the political and religious overtones of his work. A favorite urban legend my mother would tell was how Henry Ford’s only son stood guard, rifle in hand, protecting the priceless murals from anti-communist madmen and religious fanatics threatened by the pictures painted into plaster. The legend wasn’t true, though Edsel Ford did issue a proclamation to leave the murals alone. It worked. They were saved.
Profound impacts upon the world at large emanated from the city. The assembly line spewed out automobiles, and Detroit became the Motor City. Unions for workers finally formed after years of struggle, riots, and strikes. Detroit stood proud as the Arsenal of Democracy during World War II as an army of Rosie the Riveters built big bomber planes. Blacks emigrated from the South, and with them came their music, and from the music came Motown.
Soon though, whole neighborhoods were wiped out for freeways. Racial tensions erupted into riots in ‘43 and ‘67, exacerbating the “White Flight” to the suburbs. In the ‘60s, Rosa Parks relocated to Detroit; Martin Luther King, Jr. first gave his “I have a Dream…” speech there, and Malcolm X was known as Detroit Red. The crash of the economy in the early ‘70s drastically downsized factories. Jobs were lost and the population dwindled further.
In the last decades of the 20th century Detroit had become a desolate wasteland: tumbleweeds blew across the wide boulevards as nature reclaimed vacant lots. Drug addicts and the homeless found shelter from the bitter winter wind within the crumbling walls of long-abandoned Victorian mansions. The city became a free zone – as long as you weren’t shooting someone the cops left you alone. Expansive freedom was found in the anarchy, and creativity flourished. Die-hard hippies planted community gardens, weeding out used heroin needles and painting bright murals to ward off despair. Musicians played on discarded engine parts that filled venues with the odor of gasoline. A new dance music, soon to be known as Techno, was being created on keyboards spread out in rooms overlooking the city’s ruins. My own creative expression was to walk the deserted streets and to discover beauty in the decay. I collected stained glass from a burned out church and trudged across fields of tall grass searching for treasure, artifacts of a prosperity long gone.
I loved the city. It was fascinating how affluent culture and ghetto poverty stood side by side, yet a world apart. But I found myself questioning the incongruity of the haves and have-nots. I was disappointed by the imbalance between those concerned with the welfare of people and the much larger group preoccupied with Wrestlemania. I wanted to seek out a world beyond these paradoxes. And far away from heartbreak.
Thus, a year before I stepped off the train in Guangzhou, China, I boarded a train in Windsor, Canada, on the south side of the river from Detroit.
Across Canada I went, figuring out along the way what to do next. It was simple – the train would drop me off in some small town, and friendly people would direct me to shelter. Not much happens in Canada to be afraid of: it’s a land of prairies and plains where people with guns go hunting for food rather than for revenge as so many did in the United States. I hitched a ride through the magnificent Canadian Rockies, singing the songs of Vera Lynn with a family from Scotland. I touched the cold Pacific waters off the Vancouver shoreline, and bid my new friends farewell.
A bus took me back across the border, and to my mother’s sister in Seattle. I “relative-hopped” down the West Coast, from the Michigan side of my family to the Mexican. I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge and played chess with hippies. I learned about political prisoners and drank my first cappuccino. I made my way down the coast to the Los Angeles basin, the land where I was born.
Los Angeles constantly showed itself to be too varied and spread out to pin down in a singular description. The air was fresh by the sparkling ocean, and smelled of urine downtown. The city boasted every demographic, but the mansions of Beverly Hills were another world from the soul food of Compton. It was a city of palm trees with blue skies offering the world in success and Skid Row in failure.
From there it was onward to Arizona and the deserts of the Southwest. My grandmother was up from Mexico, living with my aunt and uncle who welcomed me into their home; it was a moment to be seized.
I fell in love with the desert, the monsoons, the zigzag lightning strikes shooting down one after another, and the boom of thunder. I loved how the rain would approach from the horizon, how the long dark silver brushstrokes descended at an angle from a line of gray clouds. The storms struck in torrents, flooding the parched land. After they passed, the air was pungent with the sweet scent of sage.
I rode a blue 1950s bicycle across that desert full of cacti hundreds of years old to a community college out on the Pima Indian Reservation. I studied. I painted. I contemplated the atom, and looked up at the stars. I was exposed to New Age philosophy, full of glamour and promise, and its credo of creative visualization. I learned about medicine women, the Age of Aquarius, and that the Mayan’s calendar was coming full circle to an apparent end. I read Native American lore about the Great Purification soon to wipe the slate of the world’s sins clean. I began to feel scared and apathetic. I felt the end was near. I wondered what the point was… of anything. I pondered fate, destiny, and how free will fit into the puzzle of life.
Then one day my art professor told the class of the annual trip he had been taking to Bali for the last 20 years. I was intrigued by the prospect of worlds unknown to me. I decided if he could do it, I could do it.
The adventure that had brought me to Arizona had begun with an urge to head west. It was a desire to find my roots, and to seek the answer to the meaning of life. But thus far my transcontinental introspection had yielded few answers. I wrestled with purpose. I felt lazy. I didn’t want to be pinned down by society’s – or anybody’s – expectations of me. But I didn’t have any tangible expectations for myself. I wanted to expand my paradigms. I wanted to be justified in my romantic notions. I wanted to feel magic, breathe in Spirit, see God in everything.
I knew I was one of the few very privileged people in the world; I was well fed, I was educated, I was an American. I enjoyed freedoms most people can hardly dream of, freedoms I often took for granted. I felt blessed to be in a position of choice. I believed there was more to life than getting a job, getting married, and having kids. I just didn’t know what.
So, on that epic sunshine day, staring out the classroom window at the desert horizon and listening to tales of faraway lands, it may well have been an existential crisis I was experiencing – a crisis of my place in the world, that led my to where I now stood: China
Author’s Note: I grew up with the urban legend that Edsel Ford stood guard with a rifle protecting Diego Rivera’s murals, thus saving them. Neither my editor nor I could find substantial evidence for it’s truth. I insisted it remain in the story as it was part of my psyche. I have learned since that it was workers from the factories, the very men depicted by Diego Rivera in his masterpiece, who stood guard protecting “… the priceless murals from anti-communist madmen and religious fanatics threatened by the pictures painted into plaster.” I give love and gratitude to them as well. A Blue Moon in China is my just released memoir about the two months I traveled through China in 1988. I went alone with $400 in my pocket…