One Year Later, June 4, 1989. China

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That photograph was taken in 1988. It couldn’t be taken today. This post is the epilogue in my memoir, A Blue Moon in China. It’s titled: One Year Later

I watched with the world as tanks rolled through the streets of Beijing. The People’s Liberation Army was ordered to use lethal force to disperse millions of China’s own citizens, unarmed and peacefully assembled – the very people the PLA was sworn to protect. (I learned later that the violence erupted in 70 cities across the country.)

I can’t describe how I felt seeing bloodshed in a city and against a people I had so recently visited and come to know. The knowledge that my peers led the protest was poignant; it touched me deeply. Even now, 25 years later, tears fall from my eyes as I write, my heart breaks.

Over the course of the 55 days that culminated in what China’s citizens call the June Fourth Massacre, people from all walks of life became involved in the protests. University students led the demonstration for democracy, freedom of speech, for freedom of the press, to choose their own job, for higher wages, and against corruption among Party officials; the working person was angry about inflation, loss of jobs, and work conditions.

No one knows how many lives were lost in the cold-blooded suppression. The most common estimate is 2500 people died in Beijing alone, some put the number much higher. Tens of thousands were wounded. The hospitals were overwhelmed. The dead were piled up on the streets and in the morgues. Afterward, thousands were arrested, beaten, and imprisoned. Many of those who formed a workers’ union were immediately executed. With the help of unsung heroes who risked their lives, many of the student leaders and intellectuals on the government’s “most wanted” list managed to escape to foreign lands. They are still there in exile today and have been living abroad now longer than they lived in China.

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Small World, Chapter One from A Blue Moon in China

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The train pulled into the station. Dimly lit lamps dotted a long platform that disappeared into obscurity. The light flickered yellow against a dark sky. In and out of shadows people burdened with big plastic bags stuffed full with everything and then some trudged toward the station door while a grating voice crackled on a loudspeaker. I nestled myself into the thick comfortable cushions in the carriage. Their deep-blue hue enveloped me – dark, cocoon-like, safe. I was in no hurry to move; it was slowly sinking in where my tangents had led me: China.

Why in the world China?

I remembered standing as a young girl under the tall pine tree that towered over our colonial brick house and staring down at the dark, rich soil, imagining a hole tunneling right through to the other side of the world, all the way to China. The pictured passage was tangible to me, as the darkness suggested nothing and everything at once. I remembered putting my hand on the rough bark, letting the pine essence engulf me with the scent of adventure. I felt ready to step into the unknown, to fall like Alice into another world.

Little did I know that moment was a harbinger of this journey I had begun.

What did I know about this land of legend?

I knew China was the land that inspired the venerated old master Lao Tzu to write the meditative canons of the Tao Te Ching, exalting the life-force found in nature, the balance of the yin and yang. I knew China was the birthplace of the scholar Confucius who preached virtuous behavior as the means for social harmony. I knew about the Great Wall, and that there was once a Last Emperor. I grew up wandering the halls of a grand museum with Chinese ink paintings on silk hanging on walls. I saw images of wise sages with long white beards walking with canes down dirt paths on mystical mountainsides. I envisioned porcelain vases with blue dragons, intricate shadow puppets, and scrolls of paper covered in black calligraphy. But this was all a distant observer’s impression of China’s ancient past.

The only information I had of China’s present was the little bit I knew about communism. This was told to me by a beady-eyed retired Marine who wore straight-legged Wrangler jeans and chain-smoked filterless cigarettes. He was an artist now working out of a drafty old warehouse in downtown Detroit, but back before I was born he had been among the first to land in Vietnam, before the public even knew the U.S. had sent troops. His depiction of communism was bleak and insidious. It was scary.

The eerie quiet of the empty carriage told me it was time to leave this safe haven, my last vestige of a connection with the Western world, this train out of Hong Kong. I invoked the calming image of water flowing around a rock, smoothing rough edges while the current took it wherever it was going. The serene picture reminded me to surrender to what was before me, to find the path of least resistance around whatever obstacle might be in my way.

And what was in my way right now was that I had no idea where I was going to stay the night.

Confucius says… Good people plan ahead. And here I was in a country whose language I couldn’t read, write, or speak, without any sort of guidebook to show me the way. I was totally clueless what traveling through China would entail. But my travels were always a caprice that landed me… somewhere. I’ve done this before, I reassured myself, and stepped out of the train.

Pollution hung thick in the humid air. I made my way across the now deserted cement platform. My hand gripped the cold metal knob on the glass door leading into the station; I paused and looked at my reflection. The girl staring back at me shook her head: Now what have you gotten yourself into? I shrugged and pulled the heavy door open.

Cigarette smoke enveloped me, stale body odor blasted me, a deafening racket disoriented me.

My mind went blank.

The clamor of the Chinese language bounced off dirty cement surfaces; the discordant notes reverberated inside my skull, rattling my nerves. It was quick and sharp, a high-octave frequency, rising and falling in short syllables, beyond my ability to process. It was a thousand screeching voices vying to be heard. The rush of it all made me dizzy.

An incomprehensible shout over the loudspeaker was followed by a human stampede. Another train was pulling into the station. A surge of people came at me. Hundreds, maybe thousands, swirled around me. I felt I would be swooped up, hurled down a current, out of control, landing at some unknown port. I fought the urge to shut my eyes, wanting to make it all disappear. Nothing in my travels had prepared me for anything like this. A wave of apprehension came over me. I reprimanded myself, What was there to fear? Not knowing the future was the predicament of life. I took a deep breath and let it go, very slowly. I was on the brink of something big, that much I knew.

I stood still and took in my surroundings.

Everyone looked about the same height, neither short, nor tall, with straight black hair that shone blue under the white lights, and dark brown eyes. Their faces appeared stoic, yet set with determination. Gradually I realized something: there was an underlying calm in the midst of the madness. It was palpable.
I was perplexed. Maybe this was the necessary state of mind to maneuver through all these people and their cacophony? A natural juxtaposition to the chaos? Maybe this is why the Taoist philosophy of finding the path of least resistance came into being here?

Another jarring crackle on the loudspeaker snapped my attention back to the moment, to the task at hand, the one I didn’t particularly want to think about, let alone deal with. I had to find some direction, some
information, some sense of what to do; I had to find somewhere to spend the night.

There was no information booth, no reception desk. I looked around at all the signs. Straight lines crossed up and down, side to side, this way and that, their message indecipherable to me. I sent out a prayer for help, wondering if I should just hit the streets.

A man caught my eye. He seemed to be making his way toward me. His stature was distinct from the
multitudes streaming through the station. He stood a head taller than the rest of us and looked bohemian, aristocratic, with poise and ease, not at all like the masses around me. His style of hair was long, below his shoulders, hanging loose and free, swaying with his long strides. When he finally came into full view, he became more singular yet: he was wearing a white linen suit, freshly pressed, and white sneakers. I couldn’t help but see him as an angel, the influence of my mother’s Catholicism rising reflexively in me.

“Do you need help?” he asked, though I had a feeling the answer was obvious. “I am Yang Ling,” he offered his hand in greeting. It was that of an artist: long,tapered. “Please call me Ling.” I wondered if Ling was his first name or his last. I wasn’t sure if I should trust him. I was wary of strangers, being that I was a girl, but Good Samaritans were part of my journey through life, most especially here in the Far East. I first landed in Asia on a bitter-cold March night in Seoul, Korea. I became lost in a maze of alleyways thick with the smoke of charcoal. A young boy was sent out into the frigid air by his two sisters to escort me to the hotel I couldn’t find. In Bangkok, a woman went well out of her way to make sure I found the American Embassy. Neither she, nor the siblings, asked anything of me; they just wanted to be of help. Unsung heroes, my mother would say, and tell me how her parents would feed hobos passing through town in search of work.

I looked into the eyes of the man who stood before me – they exuded kindness. I prayed to my Guardian Angel for protection and took the chance.

I put my hand in his, and smiled, “I need a hotel for the night. I am a student. My name is Elizabeth.” I had learned this was the easiest way to convey I was on a tight budget.

“Please, follow me.” He kept hold of my hand, gentle, yet firm, and turned toward the front entrance. The sea of people parted before us, opening a route straight out of the station and onto the crowded streets of the city of Guangzhou, formerly known as Canton, China.

The night air felt balmy, but smelled slightly noxious. Ling had me almost running to keep up with his long strides. A little wide-eyed, I held his hand tight, still feeling dazed from the psychic assault of the station.

We crossed a wide street, dashing between bicycles, rickshaws, buses, trucks, and pedestrians. Ling kept us moving at a quick pace. A few blocks later he stopped in front of a three-story brick building. It looked shabby – a good indication I might be able to afford it. Ling held the door open for me. Operatic singing was blaring in the background. The mournful cry of the singer sounded like a dreadful shriek to my ears. I did my best to tune it out.

The man at the front desk was wearing a short-sleeved orange polyester shirt, snug to his body. It was unbuttoned at the top revealing a dingy white tank top. His chest gleamed smooth and hairless. He held a
filterless cigarette between nicotine-stained fingers, and was missing a few of his brownish-yellow teeth. While Ling conversed with the proprietor, I checked out the scene.

The lobby made no pretenses, simply furnished with a well-worn couch and a banged up old coffee table, a couple of floor lamps and the radio. The walls were a sickly hue of pale green. The stench from mounds of crushed cigarettes in several ashtrays filled the room. Even as I stood in a dense cloud of tobacco smoke, I decided the hotel looked clean enough.

“There are no rooms,” Ling informed me. I was puzzled; this didn’t seem like the kind of establishment many people would stay at. “We will go to another, there are many nearby,” he assured me. But then the next hotel was full, and the next. After what felt like hours of going place to place, through alleyways, around dark corners, and across poorly lit streets, my building frustration began to fall into resignation. I didn’t understand what was happening. Wanting to scream, I turned to Ling and asked, as calmly as I could, “Why is everything booked?”

“It is May. The annual Guangzhou Fair is now,” he told me as we came upon a well-lit, busy street. “It is very big. People from all over the world come here to shop goods made in China.” Goods made in China?
I was intrigued; everything in America seemed to be stamped: Hecho en Mexico or Imported from Japan.

Ling led me across a broad boulevard to a hotel with a doorman. My heart sank with futility. It was obviously way beyond my means. But I felt too tired to stop him and allowed myself to be escorted inside as the likelihood of returning to the train station to bed down on a cold, hard bench began to weigh heavy over my psyche.

The lobby was serene, beautiful. Classical music played softly in the background. The crystal chandelier lighting the room sparkled. Under it was a round table topped with polished white marble that had red, black, and gray lines running through it. A large bouquet of fresh flowers created an ambiance of lavish welcome. Everywhere I looked there was opulence and elegance accented in marble, dark wood, brocade drapes, and more fresh flowers.

Ling conferred with the clerk, who looked me up and down with disdain. I felt embarrassed. I was wearing my favorite purple sweatshirt, threadbare and full of holes. My long brown hair was in its usual tangle, pulled back into a ponytail. I wore a pair of dirty blue jeans and dirty white sneakers. Hanging off my shoulder was a school-sized purple and pink backpack bursting at the seams, and quite grungy from the months of traveling afar. I had four hundred dollars to my name, and no means of getting any more. It probably cost half that much to stay one night in this dazzling fantasy before my weary eyes.

The good news was the clerk knew where I belonged – a youth hostel for Westerners; the bad news was it was located on the other side of the city.

“Excuse me, please,” a cultured voice came from behind me. I turned around. A middle-aged man wearing a sharp, navy three-piece suit, possibly silk given its sheen, smiled at me. He had a round, sweet face and carried himself like a real gentlemen: refined and graceful. “My name is Vijay. I am here from Fiji for the trade show. I have an extra bed in my room if you are in need for the night.”

Caught off guard, and rather susceptible to poor judgment, I took a step back, gathered the biggest, baddest city girl vibe I could, given that I wasn’t big or bad, and, hand on hip, looked straight into Vijay’s kind eyes, “What do you want in exchange?”

“Nothing,” he promised, with such sincerity I could only trust him. “It is no problem. I am happy to help.”

I went to give Ling a hug of gratitude, but he was gone, my vision in white vanished into the night. He had delivered me to safety; his job was done.

Vijay led the way through the elegant hallway. His quiet demeanor was respectful and polite; I was his honored guest and he, my regal host. He held the door open for me to cross the threshold into his room. Inside, heavy brocade drapes in a rich maroon and deep brown hung to the floor, hushing the sounds from the world outside. A plush beige carpet gave the space a sense of light, while still more fresh flowers continued to extend a welcoming invitation and sweeten the air with fragrance. True to his word there was an extra single bed. And a marble bathroom! Immediately I took a shower, relishing the strong pressure of the hot water, and the rose-scented soap, such a change from what I had become used to. It was blissful. As I lathered off the grime from the gritty city air, I questioned why I was wandering aimlessly through Asia rather than focusing on a life purpose – Why was I pinching pennies rather than amassing wealth so I could live this sort of life?

Too tired to answer myself, I snuggled in under the comfortable blankets, glorying in the fresh scent that enveloped me. My heart was full of gratitude as the cool, crisp linen sheets caressed my clean skin. It was luxurious. I fell into a deep sleep.

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A Blue Moon in China  is the true story of the two months I traveled through China in 1988 when I was 21 years old. I went alone with $400 in my pocket. There are 18 black and white photographs in the book; an index; and recommended reading, movies, and music from the book lists. I hand-drew the map.
Buy my Book links herebluemoonsm300

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Detroit, Chapter Two, A Blue Moon in China

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Detroit 1987

A Blue Moon in China

Chapter Two

Detroit

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

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A Blue Moon in China  There are 18 black and white photographs; an index; and recommended reading, movies, and music from the book lists. I hand-drew the map.
Buy My Book links here

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…

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Four Pictures of China 1988 (taken by me)

These are the first four images of China I have released, other than my pictures of the Great Wall which I figure most people who have been to China have taken. I made mini-posters with them for the promotion of my book, A Blue Moon in China; I also wanted to share them on their own without logos and quotes.

A Bamboo Bridge across the Mekong. Xishuangbanna, China. 1988. photo by Elizabeth Pilar

Bamboo Bridge across the Mekong River. Xishuangbanna, China 1988. photo by Elizabeth Pilar

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Traveling by Train. China, 1988. photo by Elizabeth Pilar

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Woman in Mao suit. China, 1988. photo by Elizabeth Pilar

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Woman selling Nuts. China, 1988. photo by Elizabeth Pilar

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There is nothing like Good Press, especially from the Library Journal.

A Blue Moon in ChinaPilar’s memoir of her trip through China as a 21-year-old is a look back at a very different country and a barely remembered manner of travel. In 1988, travelers could not use the web to check reviews on youth hostels and restaurants, sightseeing spots, or train schedules. Google Earth was not around to provide a close-up look at destinations, and no one was carrying a smartphone to make the journey easier. In 1988, Pilar hopped on a train from Hong Kong into China with no guidebook or language skills and no idea what was ahead of her. On her journey of self-discovery, Pilar learns about herself as she wanders through China, forming connections with trekkers from around the world and with the Chinese people she meets. Based on Pilar’s journal entries, the reconstructed conversations are creative and add life to her tale. One year before Tiananmen Square, China in 1988 is in the midst of change, and Pilar reflects the conflict of some of the people she encounters.
Verdict This title is a nice addition to women’s studies readings as it chronicles the kind of travel undertaken with a tattered map and the recommendations of students met on trains.Library Journal*

* I kept the reviewer’s name private as this is a subscription-only periodical with librarians and academics in mind.

A Blue Moon in China

If you want to read my story, I’d love for you to order it from an local bookstore and ask your library to add it to their collection.

Softcover: $18.99.   ISBN:  978-0-9904251-9-9

there are 18 black and white photographs I took while there, an index, recommended reading, movies, and music from the book. I hand-drew the map.

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Map of my trip through China

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hand-drawn map by elizabeth pilar 2014

Chronology:

A comfortable train out of Hong Kong into the port city of Guangzhou. From there the journey through the mainland began with an overnight boat ride up the Yi River and all day on a local bus across to Yangshuo. Departure was in early morning on a different boat to arrive in Guilin by the early afternoon. The first train adventure begins – and defines hard-seat-style – going west across the south via Guiyang to the city of Kunming in the providence called Yunnan. It took over 48 hours to arrive. Buses became the mode of travel for the next round of movement. Three days local-style to go further south to Jinghong and the Autonomous Region of Xishuangbanna. And back. Another two buses to Lijiang located in the foothills of the Himalayans Mountains. A couple more to another destination and back. The final bus ride was ten hours to a train station… somewhere. The second train adventure began with an overnight north to Chengdu, and 12 hours more to the city of Chongqing on the shores of the Yangtze River. Three days on a boat down to Wuhan. Less than 24 hours on a train north to Beijing. An overnight back down to Guangzhou. And then outward to Hong Kong.

A good way to look at the landmass of China – it’s slightly bigger than the United States of America.

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 In the book, there are 18 black and white photographs I took while there; an index; and recommended reading, movies, and music from the book lists. I hand-drew the map.

Library Journal‘s verdict was that it’s a “nice addition to women’s studies readings as it chronicles the kind of travel undertaken with a tattered map and the recommendations of students met on trains.”

Feel free to contact me: elizabeth@elizabethpilar.com 

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Blame it on the Bucket List, Part 3

violin

My violin – fiddle.

Author’s note March 23: I haven’t been practicing; I’ve been out and about.

I’m teaching myself how to play the violin. I’m channeling Beethoven and Mozart, Mahler and Americana. I really like to play Irish folk tunes again and again as fast as I can.

I first decided I wanted to learn in 1999. It seemed an ominous time and having a skill that brings music to a table might garner a person some food. I blame Prince: “Mommy, why does everyone have a bomb?” I figured we were doomed one way or another. I started late picking up an instrument, but at least I picked one easy to pick-up – carry, that is.

At the time some of my best friends were musicians. As I struggled to sound tolerable, they would say, “Why did you pick the hardest instrument to learn?” I blamed Sherlock Holmes, BBC, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It started with them. And Jeremy Brett. I saw the stage production in London before the television series, which I watched every Sunday night and mourned the day it was done. I read the complete works to satisfy my craving. I decided to add a soundtrack. I went to the local music store and a nice man helped chose my violin. It came with a hard case. He gave the name of someone to take lessons with and so I began. For a few months, anyway.

I picked it up again seven years ago, in conjunction with my bucket list obsession. I decided to learn the fiddle, took a few lessons and drank a few Guinness. The two went well together. But I didn’t have the privacy I needed to sound awful. To my dismay, I felt too embarrassed to practice in earshot of neighbors and set the instrument down, again.

Then I moved in a house with a yard. I had space. No one could hear me and if they did this was a neighborhood of kids, so I could just be one of them. A kid I knew had just picked up the violin. Lucky girl, band was part of her required curriculum in grade school. As far as I was concerned she and I were on par in accomplishment and I wanted to someday play a duet. I heard that she was practicing without having to be told. Knowing that motivated me. (As did the discovery of – wait for it – the new Sherlock Holmes. Oh, how that satisfies many cravings all at once. Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman you rock my world.)

I disciplined myself for 20 minutes a day. It was frustrating. There were times I wanted to smash my precious instrument.

A professional said to me, “Practice your scales.” An opera singer told me it was all about consistency and muscle memory.

I persevered. I practiced my scales. I played songs over and over. I kept my eyes on the digital tuner. I watched videos generously posted by master players. I tried different holding positions, practiced half hour sessions; I began to sound better.

One day, I sounded good. For real good. It was magic. It came and went, but was staying longer. I was so excited I played for an hour and didn’t even notice. I did this again and again for weeks. I began to pay attention. I asked, “What was I doing different when I sounded good to when I sounded bad? Why was it still hit and miss on the intonation? The bowing?”

I realized it was about not thinking, just listening, deep breaths in and out, totally relaxing and allowing my body to move however it wants. It was about communicating freely. Having fun. I played for an hour and a half every night, still practicing my scales, the playing the same songs over and over, and expanding my repertoire. Two hours at a time. And counting.

Maybe the next thing on my bucket list should be, instead of learning Spanish, go to a pub in Ireland and join in the music around a fire. Then onward to Spain.

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http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeremy_Brett      (I loved David Burke, too)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sherlock_Holmes

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Conan_Doyle

In my book, A Blue Moon in China, there are 18 black and white photographs I took while there; an index; and recommended reading, movies, and music from the book lists. I hand-drew the map. Library Journal‘s verdict was that it’s a “nice addition to women’s studies readings as it chronicles the kind of travel undertaken with a tattered map and the recommendations of students met on trains.” Feel free to contact me: elizabeth@elizabethpilar.com  My website has lots of pictures: elizabethpilar.com If you want to read my story, I’d love for you to order it from your local bookstore and ask your library to add it to their collection. $18.99 softcover ISBN: 978-0-9904251-9-9

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Filed under Bucket List, Essay, learning to play the violin - fiddle, Music, Writers