Friday, December 28, 2007

Two Thousand and Eight

This will be an auspicious year--I can feel it. I had to let the blog go for the holidays. Of course, I was busy with the holiday and catching up with friends. But, the last three days have been dreamlike. Cihan has had Coranna since Wednesday and I've been writing. I'm swimming as fast and as hard as I can, the current isn't fighting me and I can see the shore. I am there. It is amazing to be looking at the culmination of such an enormous project. Sure there's the very discouraging part of publishing, but that is not why I did this. I wrote this novel, to write it. I wrote to get this out of my system. I wrote because I can not NOT write. I'm submitting Chapter 10 to my writing group next week, but I'm actually reworking the last three chapters now. I finished three in the last three days, and did a read through of the first few chapters. If all goes well, I will be able to put this work aside after next week. I still will follow the process with the writing group, but I'll begin working on the Uygur novel. Aysa has been pounding on the door to get in. Now I can open that door.

Saturday I'm going dancing for my birthday. Techno-Indian. I can't get enough Indian rhythm. It is 2:00. I have been writing since 8:30 and I'm lightheaded. I'm headed to the club to clear my head. Smile. What a fabulous day.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Happy Holidays

I love this time of year. It is a struggle for me to write now, but I'm carving out the time. I am driven to meet my goals, but this time of year always sweeps me into the dark of Solstice, the solice of the Christmas lights, the mystery of the dark, and the drama of the colored lights.

If only Peace was a common thought, not just during the shortest days of the year.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

The Honorable Dalai Lama

I respect the Dalai Lama, have read several of his books, and saw him speak twice. The first time I saw The Dalai Lama speak was in Washington, DC in 1995, and the second time was just last year in Vancouver, BC. Recently, I listened to a scholar on the Dalai Lama discuss about his appeal to Westerners. He said that the Dalai Lama's appeal comes from the universality and tolerance of his message. When I lived in Nepal, I often encountered this type of acceptance. This openness of thought. I'm too opinionated, not accepting enough when I feel strongly about a topic. The problem is that I feel strongly about many things. It has helped and hindered me, but I'm working on softening my opinions. Just Saturday my mom and I encountered a very kind craftsman selling his jewelery in our neighborhood. I noticed that he was reading a book on Sufis that I own and so I commented on it. He was delighted to tell me that he was, indeed, a Sufi and was actually married by a Sufi Imam. We talked and this led to a discussion on Turkish Mevlana. Some of his facts about Turkish Sufi's were, let's say, at odds with what I know and I went into the whole history, correcting the poor guy. He wouldn't give up, and I realized that I was attacking this man's belief system. I backed off. I mean, what did it matter to me or him if he knew about Ataturk's view of the Sufis. Instead, I validated his view and then started asking him about his work. Teaching me to turn off my mouth is like slowing the mouth of a springtime river. But, I'm working on it.

That said, let me spew some of my opinions.

This acceptance of leaders like the Dalai Lama and the intolerance of the Chinese leaders was one of the first aspects of culture that I researched for my novel. Cultures in conflict fascinate me. I asked my Chinese students, read many books, and went to websites to understand the Chinese justification for occupying Tibet. I read and listened to many arguments, each more heartfelt and stronger than the first. All of them lacked any real effort to listen to or try to understand the Tibetan side. Here the two most common arguments.

1.) From my most astute and articulate student, I heard the manner in which I believe the well-intentioned are brought on board the propaganda train. In this argument, China is seen as a benevolent big brother. There are levels on "enlightened" governments, of which communism is, of course, the most enlightened. Tibet, however, is unfortunately a feudal society and at the bottom of the hierarchy. Because the Tibetans are tightly bound by their "servitude" to their feudal ways, it is beyond their comprehension to change. It is the duty of the Chinese to bring the Tibetans up the hierarchy to communism. Unfortunately, because the Tibetans are so downtrodden, they are resisting the well-intentioned support of their more enlightened benefactors. The Chinese must be patient with the Tibetans because it will take this culture time to appreciate the efforts the Chinese have made to bring them a much better way of life. Before you scoff too hard, I ask you to fit this paradigm to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. There isn’t much of a difference.

2.) A matter of pride. Tibet is the Jewel of the Motherland. Tibet has always been a part of China and will always remain a part of China. It is inconceivable that China would give Tibet sovereignty since Tibet has never been independent from China to begin with. The whole idea of sovereignty is stirred up by the separatist troublemaker the Dalai Lama and the westerners who don't know what they're talking about. Ah the power of the word “tradition.” It has always been this way, so why would you dare change it. So much is argued in the name of traditions. Of the top of my head, I can think of high schools refusing to comply to Native American’s requests to change their mascots from “warriors" with only the argument of tradition. It is amazing how much logic we can toss aside when the tradition elephant tromps through the room.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

music video

Here's a Ershou Meigui song that is new to me. I like the video.

Sunday, December 2, 2007


Music always plays in my mind. If something rattles around in there for long enough, I've learned to listen. It is my subconscious screaming at me because I'm too stubborn to listen to anything but music. Edie Brickell's Circle has been circling (bad pun alert!)in my head for some time. I think it relates to my last post about the movie. I don't quit or give up, but "being alone is the best way to be." I'm rediscovering me, and I like it. There is strength in alone and a sensitivity. I've been thinking a lot, working out, walking, and remembering. I spent so much of my time thinking about an "us" that I forgot about the "me." Ultimately, what is an us without a me?

Cheng hears Ershou Meigui's Love Train. This song reminds him of his destiny, and ultimately keeps him on his journey. Ershou Meigui translates to Second Hand Roses but they are not a Broadway hit. One of the first major Chinese rock bands, they combine traditional instruments and rock instruments, traditional images and edgy, modern images. The lead singer dresses like a female opera singer. They turn tradition on its side while also using these traditional images and patriotic lyrics to crash down barriers. They're amazing. Just click on Love Train to listen.

When I was in Nepal, a song like this stopped me from throwing in the towel my first month. It was January and every day the village was obscured in chilling clouds. The cold and the mist got into my bones. I moved from my host's smokey room to the goat shed because I preferred the cold to the smoke. The students weren't showing up to school yet and it was too silent. I sat in that silence until I felt it crawling over me like spiders pushing me to run down the hill to catch the first bus home. As I walked down beneath the clouds, felt the heat of the valley warming me, I heard a song in my head telling me to stay. I stood still, listening to the rain, the water buffalos munching hay, the children singing in the fields, and the song in my head. I can't remember the song, but I remember its message. I turned around and climbed back up. I never felt like leaving again.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Milarepa: Magician, Murderer, Saint

I went to view Milarepa at the Hollywood last week. I went alone. There is something selfish and sustaining about seeing a film by myself. I haven’t gone alone to a movie theater since I went to see Flashdance, the film about the woman welder who dreams of being a dancer. I was a freshman in high school then, young, idealistic, and easily susceptible to the bad eighties soundtrack. I cried through the film, and, when I went home I ripped the collar off my Conant sweatshirt, bought some leg warmers, and, voila, a powerful woman was born.

Milarepa was also a good film to see alone. If I had been with someone else, I would have been aware of their reactions, worried of their understanding. Alone, I had nothing to distract me. The timing couldn’t have been better because I’m rewriting my journey chapters and I’m having trouble feeling the landscape. I know that my memory is shadowy and I’ve been trying to return to the Himalayas to feel the space again. I kept remembering a return visit to Nepal. Trying not to squash the goat tied-down behind me, I had gripped the luggage rail on the top of the bus and melted in the beauty that was greener, steeper, softer, and larger than my memory. Meanwhile, down below, Marianne had to fight for space with a basket of hens before she finally found a spot by the window where she could puke in peace, but that’s another story. As much as I tried, I could not bring back the feeling of that space. That’s why I’m so glad I went to that film Milarepa. It was shot in the Spiti Valley of the Himalayas. Stunning finger-like conicals tapered to blue sky, shades of muted browns and greens softened to white peaks. I felt my chest opening up to the landscape, to the stunning vistas and sharp contrasts. I journeyed in Tibet.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Environmental Movement in China

Here's the thing about China. It cannot be seen as a solid red paint blotch on some map. For six years Chen Kaifan, has been walking around China fighting for the environment. Just as our dragon wakes, Chen Kaifang has logged in his 23rd province. Click on link in the title for more.

Sunday, November 25, 2007


I grew up in New Hampshire at the base of a modest but inspiring mauve mountain. Mount Monadnock is known as the second-most-climbed-mountain in the world, second only to Mount Fuji. Melville referred to Moby Dick as a Monadnock Mound, Thoreau used to climb it, and, growing up, I looked at the mountain as my sometimes inspiration and sometimes barrier to the world. I was an outsider in New England. Even when I went back to New Hampshire as an adult, folks refused to believe that I grew up there. Yet the granite of my personality was quarried from strong, New England pragmatism and sense. If someone as dreamy as me had grown up anywhere else, I would never have found balance. But, back to the mountain, when we moved to the farmhouse in Old Jaffrey Center, Monadnock filled our windows and her wind rattled their panes. I remember laying on the big rock halfway down our hill and staring up at the stars at night. Mountains are in my blood.

I was Peace Corps Nepal 90-92. Sheila and Andrea's Nepali host family called me a pahardi, a hill person. I don’t know if they meant it as a compliment, there was definitely a tension between the Terrai, flat land bordering India, and the hills, but I found a label that fit. I lived first with Gurungs in a small village, Kapur Gau and worked an hours’ walk away in Baglung Pani (which translates to hidden tiger water). At about 6,000 meters, my village was just off the Annapurna Circuit trek and occasionally a tourist group would come through. I enjoyed my transformation from craving the tourist’s company to months later squatting on the stonewall with the kids commenting on the foreign trekkers’ strange clothing. My second year, I lived down in Pokhara, a charming lake town with incredible views of the Himalayas. My Dhera was just down the road from a Tibetan Refugee camp and I would sometimes talk to the girls there about their troubles as outsiders in Nepal. I also bought things from them. Tibetans are good traders.

One last story about Peace Corps, at least in this entry. When I was getting married, a friend who taught with me in Turkey commented, “Have you ever seen Carrie look so happy?” A friend from my Peace Corps days smiled and said, “oh, I have.” He was right. I don’t want to say that my days in Nepal are my “glory days” and I certainly am not trying to relive those times, but the experience fit. Sometimes when I am walking with Cheng down the paths to a village, I return to that same happiness. I like to go there.

I moved to Portland in 2001, another city with grand, if not distant, mountain views. In 2002, I had my daughter, Coranna, and realized that it was time to stop moving. Perhaps finally settling down after years of living like a nomad or living in the mountains again, brought the Himalayas into my dreams. I remember staring up at a sky with no edges (to borrow a word from my Leora friend, David) when I was high in the Annapurna Himals. That sky overtook my dreams and pressed me to the earth until I couldn’t breathe. It could have been anxiety from a bad marriage, and I’m sure that did play a part in my starting this novel, but it was bigger than that.

In December 2003, I had taken a seminar on China, and was thinking about Tibet again. Ever since studying Northern Ireland while in College, I’ve been fascinated with cultures in conflict. I sat down to write a simple short story with a Chinese main character set in Tibet to bring some of that natural conflict in play. Suddenly all these elements from my own life and interests—alienation, brother/sister conflict, identity, journey, magic--showed up in the story, driving it much further than the required ten pages. I stopped writing and spent a year studying China and Tibet, building my knowledge. I found a way for a nomad to travel while standing still. In 2005, I took up the novel again and have been working on it since. Last year I joined a fabulous writing group, Leora, and my intent to craft something worth publishing began in earnest. Up to that, I was just traveling.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian

Lingshan, Soul Mountain. This is the first Chinese novel I read when I decided to begin researching China. I chose Soul Mountain because Gao Xingjian received the Nobel Prize for Literature the year after this book was published. On my first reading, I understood the existential exploration, but the subtext and cultural implications of the main character's journey went right past me. After a year of research, I returned to this novel and was elated at how much richer the novel's message was after I understood the Communist government better. This is a rich, complex, and enticing novel. It is like a favorite hike, each time I open this book I find something new. It has been so long since I read Soul Mountain, but I know it affected my work, especially in regard to the sense of self and community, and the complexity of this relationship in Chinese culture. In this country we look for ways to celebrate the individual, but that would not work in China. The closest I can come to understanding this complex relationship is when I still feel Catholic guilt even years after leaving the church.

Connection, connection, connection. Individual power comes only through connection to the power elements in society. That's why Soul Mountain is such a profound novel, because Goa Xingjian understood this yet tries to escape the power structure of his society, by a journey to the most distant mountain, by taking on a variety of points of view, and by exploding the self. Even in the most remote areas, he is unable to shake society. He remembers an old proverb: "Existence is returning, non-existence is returning, so don't stay by the river getting blown about by the cold wind." Yet he stands by the river, looking across at the Soul Mountain, afraid to cross.

As he avoids the dark road beyond the river, society knocks on his door in the form of a friend asking for help to get his daughter into a university. The writer tells the man that the girl's strong exam results should be enough, but the man tells him "you're really pedantic. Do you think all those children of high-ranking cadres have passed examinations?" The author responds, "I haven't researched such matters." The friend answers "You're a writer." The author refuses to see the connection, and answers "So what if I am a writer?" The friend answers, "you're the conscience of society, you must speak for the people!" The writer answers. "Stop joking, I say. Are you the people, or am I the people, or is it the so-called we who are the people? I speak only for myself." And with this disclaimer, Gao Xingjian makes a final attempt to disengage. By asserting that he is only an individual. The radicalness of the idea nearly brings him to the end. The next man knocking on the door wants the author to help him publish his manuscript. The author gives him back his novel and decides not to open the door again, not to let society enter. Only by ignoring society, by pretending it is not there, can he finally "reach the extremity of life." He crosses the river, "slowly transforming, gradually solidifying into a dark moon tinged with blue."

हिमालयन Poppy

The summer of 2004 I traveled to Vancouver BC with my family. While in Butchart Gardens, I saw a rare Meconopsis Baileyii or Himalayan Blue Poppy. It grows in the Himalayan Range and is very difficult for the average gardner to grow. I bought a packet thinking myself up for the challenge, but the packet is still unopened and somewhere in my garage. Even if I found the packet, the seeds are probably no good. I've thought about buying another packet on-line and trying to cultivate them. But who am I kidding? Even in a climate that grows everything, I'm a terrible gardner. I live too much in my head. But, the blue poppy did grow into my book. So, in the metaphorical sense, I grew a Himalayan Poppy. That's probably as close as I'll ever get.

From the Anatolian Plains to the Tibetan Plateau

In 1996 I was traveling through the Anatolian Plains with my friends Marianne and Maureen. Each of us chewed on sunflower seeds and stared out at the moody plains while internal conflicts chewed inside us. It was during a particularly long bus trip to Ankara that Marianne had a dream. In this dream she placed all her troubles and fears into her sunflower seed hull and then stuffed the hull into the dirty ashtray in her seatback. She woke all excited about this idea and each of us concentrated our turmoil into the small space before grinding our hulls in the ash of many Turkish butts.

In the spirit of Marianne's sunflower seed dream, I want to take all the energy I've put into this novel and stuff it into this blog. Cheng's world has taken up an enormous space in my life and I'm not sure I'll be able to walk away. This is my first step.

I started work on The Secret of the Plains the last week of December in 2003. I thought it would just be a short story, but it wouldn't let go. Since then I've been researching, pondering, writing, and revising. For one year I spent all my free time in the Asian stacks at Powell's and the library and only read Chinese and Tibetan writers. I went to three different Buddhist Centers in town. I interviewed Tibetans I met at craft fairs, in the Portland Tibetan stores, and at Tibetan Festivals. I watched Chinese and Tibetan films. And I mulled over all these ideas, talked them over with understanding friends, and wrote and rewrote. In February 2007, I joined a group of writers, Leora, and began the last few revisions. It is now November 2007, and I'm sharing my last six chapters with Leora. I've begun researching my second book, and thinking about submission.