06. June 2013 · Comments Off on Patterns · Categories: L.. 13 to 15 years, Out of the Blue

My brother sends me a model house he built, a trophy for my being First of the Class.   I give it to the nuns.  They display it on a little table in the hallway.   By the time the new term starts, it is gone.

0 R

The nuns see that pushing me up a grade was not enough.   There are unintended consequences.

They push me up another grade.

It is painful to lose all my classmates once more.    There is no time to brood.   I scramble to catch up on classwork.

Our new textbooks come from Catholic University in Washington.  New teachers arrive from the U.S. and Europe.

Mother Theotokos is young and modern.  She teaches us biology in an American accent.   She tells us stories about teenagers like ourselves.   We are jealous that they do more fun things in American high schools.   Compared to them we are drudges with our noses pressed to the grindstone.

Mother Columbine is Irish but she has been in the Far East for a long time.   She is petite, and the huge English literature textbook seems even heavier when she handles it.   How much of that can we cover? Undaunted, Mother Columbine begins with Beowulf.

Mother Columbine teaches that emotions are good.   I think of my father’s anger and how is that good?

This literature textbook has two complete Shakespearean plays, short novels and stories, and the essays of Emerson, Thoreau, James and other American and British writers.   Why do I remember being absorbed in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych?   They must have stuck some translated works in there.

The section of poems is enormous, but not random.   They have been given a form.  Here are the lyricists, there the metaphysical poets, over here the transcendentalists, over there the allegorical poets.

I want to read everything in this treasure trove, but I know that I must focus on what Mother Columbine assigns.  I have to separate the two.   What I need is a map.

coca cola calenda

Out of the blue someone gives me a very large Coca Cola calendar.  The back is blank.  Perfect.  I draw a map using color pencils.  I give a place to every writer and work we cover.   I add identifying clues.   This way, I can remember the details by “seeing” the whole map and focusing on the place where I put the author.

I notice that even though I don’t make maps for my other subjects, there I am also remembering patterns and structures.   I can “see” the information I need as a logical part of the whole.

I think everyone studies like this until Annie enlightens me.

03. June 2013 · Comments Off on New Kind of School · Categories: L.. 13 to 15 years, Out of the Blue

One of the unintended consequences of being pushed up two grades is that at graduation I am still fifteen.  The colleges in the nuns’ network consider me too young to be uprooted and sent thousands of miles away for four years.

They say wait at least another year.   To me, that is too far to see.

Out of the blue, Mother Paulinus sends word that she wants to see me right away.  There is someone she wants me to meet.

She introduces me to Elizabeth Reid.  She is an Australian.  She is the editor of a Catholic newspaper in Hong Kong.  She came to Macau for a retreat.  Elizabeth greets me with a warm smile.

I soon discover that the nuns have been effusive in talking me up to Elizabeth.   She is holding a copy of The Rosette.   Now that the nuns are no longer responsible for keeping my pride from stumbling into a horrible fall, they are bragging about me like tiger mothers.   They use the word gifted without mentioning demons.

Elizabeth offers me a full scholarship to a new kind of school in Ohio, U.S.A.   She promises me that after one year at this school, they will place me in an appropriate American college.

What new kind of school?  Mother Paulinus hands me a brochure.

Elizabeth says that when I come to see her in Hong Kong she will answer all my questions.

The brochure shows small buildings in a rural setting.  They mention international students, including a European baroness.  From this I gather that they are a sort of finishing school like the ones in Switzerland that my cousin Didi is considering.

Although the teachers are not nuns, they emphasize spiritual training, whatever that is.  In any case, I will only be there for one year.

I am going to America!



30. May 2013 · Comments Off on Manna from Heaven · Categories: L.. 13 to 15 years, Out of the Blue

My sister reveals another bombshell that blows apart my neat explanations of what happened with Titi.

After my uncle told me that I was going to America, he calls my sister to his home.  Out of the blue he tells her that my mother has left us money.  It is in the form of a demand loan to a Chinese businessman.   Before she died, my mother signed over this demand note to Titi along with her jewelry.

When did he discover this?

Instantly, I remember seeing my mother at her wardrobe handing a necklace to a young Chinese woman.   The woman was weeping that her father suffered from tuberculosis and they were desperate.    We were in the middle of the war.  Did that incident have anything to do with this loan?

Another thing sprang to mind.   When I came back after my year with my father, Titi went out of her way to let me know that money was tight, at least when it came to me.

Complaining that a book I needed for school was too expensive she borrowed it and typed up a copy.  It was The Pilgrim’s Progress.   Her copy was full of mistakes.  It didn’t matter because I read the original before she finished typing it.   She never copied another book, but she made her point.  I dreaded asking her for money.

As a practical matter, I had everything I needed.   My school uniforms were custom made, as were my shoes.   Titi provided me with enough clothes.   My uncles gave me pocket money.

My sister knew how to bargain with local tailors in Hong Kong.  She had a keen eye for quality.   She sent me custom made clothes copied from the latest fashion magazines.

To me, money was abstract – I didn’t think about it.

In my excitement about going to America, it had not occurred to me that I needed money for the voyage, a deposit with the U. S. government for the voyage back, suitable clothes and all sorts of other expenses.

My mother’s demand note is for much more than I need.

My sister says that it took three telephone calls from my uncle before Titi sent over my mother’s jewelry and the demand note.

With Titi, was it always about money, then, as my sister claims?

It weighed on me.  Why?

MotherMy mother

This time, I know that my husband’s demons have escalated the skirmishes and declared war.  With that cold, insulting lettergram he pulled up one of his own deep roots and is leaving it to dry up and die in the sun.  He would retreat into the shadows.

I will not.  Our family is at stake.

Herb does not want couple counseling.  He insists that there is nothing wrong with me and that he alone will go to therapy.  He will handle it.  He has done it before.

It is time to call Dr. Lowen.

When we were newlyweds and living on cloud nine in New York City, Alicia, a friend of Herb’s, comes to see us.    She is so excited, she says, because she is leaving for a new life in California.

She owns a successful art gallery, but she is packing it up.  She has a Modigliani to sell.   The money will help her get started.

She is going to be part of the world of Reichian therapy.  She is going to Esalen.   This is the 60’s.  Body therapies sprout like psychedelic mushrooms in spiked soil.

Alicia goes shopping with me.  I pick her brains.  She gives me a book, Man in the Trap by Ellsworth Baker.

I go on to read Wilhem Reich.   Then I discover Alexander Lowen.   He uses no jargon.  He is clear as a summer sky.  I read all his books.

I see that all that angst about the absurdity of life and the meaninglessness of existence is a cover-up.

The problem is just the opposite.  Life has too much meaning.  It is coursing through our bodies.   We feel and we know.  Sometimes the feeling is so unbearable that we have to stop it.  Any way we can.  The history of our feelings is in our bodies.

Dr. Lowen is not about touchy feely consolation therapy.  He is above all a clinician.   He works with the body as a part of analysis.   He has learned from thousands of patients.  He is tough.

The work is new, but it is not random.  There is a structure.  I think that someday we will map the meaning of the body the way we map the genome.   We will track energy coursing through the body and understand where it has been and what it leaves in its wake.

This energy has gone by a lot of names.  Dr. Lowen calls it bioenergy.   Whatever it is called, uncovering its mysteries is probably more dangerous than splitting the atom.

Well, I think, maybe someday I will undergo this therapy and see for myself.  But someday later, maybe.




My husband does not believe in talk therapy and balks at taking any kind of drugs.  I know he will go to a therapist only to reassure me.  At heart he believes that he can solve his own problems.

He is healthy and fit.  He is used to working out in the gym.  He was a wrestler in college.   I think that a therapist who combines analysis with body work could help him.

I look up Dr. Alexander Lowen, M.D. for Herb and discover that besides a practice in New York City, he is also in nearby New Canaan.   The woman who answers the phone says that he had a heart attack and refers me to another bioenergetics psychiatrist.

Herb goes to therapy every week.  Things do not get better.  Finally, I discover that he has quit therapy weeks ago.  Why?  Well, he says, the doctor said that if his patients had a relationship like ours two thirds of them would not need him.

Then his doctor asks to meet me.  That’s when Herb quits.

We invite his doctor for lunch, after which I go for a separate session.    Herb goes back to therapy.   I also insist that I go for therapy on my own.

Out of the blue,  I get a hunch to call Dr. Lowen again, just in case.   He answers the phone.  No, he says, he did not have a heart attack.  It was only a cold, something minor.


The reading came on a cassette tape.  The significant messages were these:

You are a very old soul.

There was a conflict over your name, and you did not get the name that you wanted.

Your life is in sixteen year cycles.

You belong to a group of creative types and teachers.

In this lifetime you are to learn wealth and service.  For this reason wealth will come to you, one way or another.

You have brought with you everything you need to accomplish your tasks.

On this journey you have two guardian spirits.

In the psychic’s meditation she saw you as a young woman in an ancient Greek setting.  You were wearing a long, simple garment.  Your left arm was paralyzed at an angle, and a dish of olives and grapes rested on the crook of that arm.   You were “speaking” with your other hand because you were mute.  You were also deaf.

You were a servant girl.  But you were beautiful, a blonde in a place where most women were brunettes.  A prominent man fell in love with you and took you for himself, after which you lived a pampered life of luxury.   The psychic heard the song “Green Sleeves” in the background.  It is the lament of a man who gives a woman everything and is not loved in return.

You did not give back to the universe.  In this lifetime you are to write a book on reincarnation to give back to the universe.  You will not have to relive the deafness.



In 1983, about ten years after the psychic’s reading, my teenage son, who was in an advanced class, gave me a dark novel to read that had been assigned at school.  He had never done that.  As I read the short novel, I saw that the spiritual truth in the characters’ lives had something similar to that of our family.  We had been struggling with the increasing symptoms of my husband’s mental illness.

I knew of the novelist, that she was an early twentieth century writer.  I was familiar with the title of this book.  I even knew someone who had written her PhD dissertation on this author, but I don’t remember reading any of her books.  I looked her up, but it seemed that her other novels were not at all like this one. They were all about life and society.   This dark novel was about deprivation of every kind in a narrow, stark, cold world.

Somehow, this short novel gnawed at me.  It seemed to be giving me a message.  I knew it too well.  I was working on a novel set in old Macau, as a way of remembering my mother.  It was not going well, it had never gone well.  Mostly, I was “researching” and reading piles of unrelated books, in my usual way, several at a time, just as the psychic had described.

Now I had dreams about this dark novel.  I had dreams of being so cold it woke me up even though the weather was warm.   I suddenly remembered myself as a little girl running up the aisle to my mother lying in her coffin.  My mother looked beautiful surrounded by flowers.  I kissed her.   Her cheek was so cold on my lips I knew instantly that this was death, being cold and unresponsive as stone in winter.

Finally, I was so bothered by this book that I decided to turn to the friend who had sent me her psychic friend’s tape.  I gave her the writer’s name and asked if they could get any kind of message for me.

Eventually, the message came back.   The answer was an “urgent yes!”  Not sure how to interpret this, I started reading this writer’s biography.  The first thing that jumped out at me was the date of her death.   Correlating the difference in time zones, it was exactly the day on which I was born.

Still, all it really meant to me at that time was that I should work harder on my novel.  But I didn’t.  My life was getting more and more chaotic.

Ellen's Letter p2


Ellen's Letter p1

Desk figure

08. May 2013 · Comments Off on My Name · Categories: O.Naming, Out of the Blue

In numerology, the name one is given at birth as well as the date of one’s birth, are keys that unlock personal mysteries.  It seems arbitrary.  But then, too many things remain beyond my understanding.

In the psychic’s reading, she said that I (or rather, the shared spirit in a previous life) did not get the name I wanted.  I decided to ask my sister whether she remembered any ruckus over our names.

Oh yes, she said, our dad was furious at the priest who messed with her name.  Our dad had named her Gwendolyn.  At her baptism, the priest said that he had never heard of that name and that it was not Christian.   He asked if anyone objected to the name Fatima.  It happened to be a famous name at that time because of the appearance of Our Lady to the children at Fatima.  No one objected.

Our mom insisted on Gwendolyn at least as a second name.  The priest conceded, but he changed the spelling to Gwendolene so that it would be more similar to Christian names like Elena.

Our dad was outraged.  When it came time to name me, he said Doreen Cotton, and no second name to mess around with.  The priest accepted Doreen as a Christian name, but he insisted on a second name.  Our mother said to use her family name Jorge.

So I asked my sister, would there be a name that I couldn’t have been given?  She thought about it and came up with one name.  It was Edith.  Our uncle’s wife was Edith, who was widely thought of as the most beautiful woman in Macau.  He was head over heels in love with her.  Eight months earlier, Edith had given birth to their first baby girl.  My uncle had named her Edith, after her mother.  There was no other Edith in our family.  There was no way my parents would have named me Edith.

If they had, my name would have been Edith Jorge Cotton. (Jorge is pronounced George.)

Names are important.  In telling my story I try to use people’s real names.  Since this is about my own journey, not other people’s lives, wherever possible, I simply left out a name if it did not interfere with the narrative.  In a few instances, I change a name to protect a person’s privacy.  I realize that although someone may have had a negative role in my life they should not be seen only in that light.  But since this is not fiction, I do not try to go beyond my experience and speculate on anyone’s character.

There are no composite people either.  I write what I remember, as I lived the events.

Lastly, I have always had trouble remembering people’s names.  It is a fault I have to work hard to overcome.  There are people whom I remember vividly.   I can almost “see” their facial expressions and body language even now, but whose names have gone down the memory rabbit hole.

03. May 2013 · Comments Off on Arm in a Sling · Categories: C. 1 to 4 years, Out of the Blue · Tags: , ,

I have many uncles.  Even though he is not one of them, we call him Uncle Adelino.  He is my favorite of all my parents’ friends.  He makes funny faces.  He can move his ears, one at a time and then both at the same time.

Whenever he comes to see us, he scoops me up and asks for a big kiss.  Everybody expects me to give him the biggest smackeroo, and when I do, they laugh and clap.   It’s our little game.

My sister calls me Fussy Cat.

One day, Ah Seem takes me to Uncle Adelino’s house.  He is taking us somewhere for a surprise.   Ah Seem and I wait by the stairs as his servant goes to tell him we are here.

Uncle Adelino appears at the head of the stairs.  He has a big smile.  As he bounds down the stairs, I see that his arm is in a sling.  I scream and cry and bury my face in Ah Seem’s tunic.

No, no, don’t be afraid, Uncle assures me.  It does not hurt.  Very soon it will be good as new and I will play tennis again.

I keep screaming and crying until Ah Seem takes me home.   I am three years old.  No one mentions the incident again.  I don’t forget, even though I would never again react that way to an arm in a sling.

UncleAd copy

Uncle Adelino


Suddenly there is something I like to do.  I know that no one will understand because I don’t understand either.

I take a book that’s not poems.  I hold it in one hand and I start singing the text.  The music just comes to me, and it has nothing to do with the text.  It is strangely satisfying.

I do this on the terrace, in the back near the section that joins the terrace to the steps leading down to the kitchen.   I don’t think anyone pays attention to me there.

One day, while I am singing, I feel someone’s gaze.    I turn and see Titi watching me from my cousin Pat’s bathroom window.   She says nothing and turns away.   She is not in the habit of using Pat’s bathroom.  I know someone has finally noticed my strange ritual.

I stop singing texts.

01. April 2013 · Comments Off on Closed Doors · Categories: H. 9 to 10 years, Out of the Blue

My grandmother’s bedroom door is rarely closed.

I walk into her sitting room and see that not only is her bedroom door closed, but my grandmother has pulled her rattan armchair up to the closed door and is straining to hear every word.

I can hear Titi shouting inside.  My sister is in there with her.  She is crying, but then she is shouting back.

I leave quietly before my grandmother notices me.

Some news travels faster than a B52 bomber.

News bullet points:

A fortune has been discovered.

Stacks and stacks of large bills from the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank.   When the Japanese occupied Hong Kong nobody trusted this paper money.   But now it is just as valuable as before the war.

The money is in the sofa from our old house.  The sofa is not with the rest of our discarded furniture in the garage’s attic.  It is in the servants’ house, where Titi put it for the servants to use.

There is a rumor around town that our mother left us a fortune.  The rumor was traced back to Lieutenant Anjo.

When interrogated my sister admits that she knew where the money was and did not tell anyone for more than two years.

Why?  She said because it isn’t ours.  My sister insists that our mother told her that the money belongs to Uncle Pedro.

Titi hit my sister so hard that her face is swollen on one side.  My cousins don’t believe that it is just about money.  Or even family loyalty.  It must be about the scandal in Titi’s past, that everyone knows and takes for granted but no one speaks about openly.

Maybe it is about betrayal.  My mother entrusted Titi, her unmarried sister, with the care of her children, and yet she did not tell her about the money.  Worst of all, she revealed Titi’s secret to a child, to be thrown back in her face as something sordid and shameful.  Her sister, of all people, should have known that it is not something shameful, but the love of her whole life and what she lives for.

All this explodes like a megabomb.


$100 5-3-2013 12-18-58 PM


The next day, as I enter the orphanage to pass though their garden, one of the tough street boys stops me.  He tells me that he knows a shortcut.  It’s a dirt road on the hillside which does not zigzag like the garden steps but goes straight to the backdoor of my school.

A few days later, the same boy approaches me in the street.  He must be the gang’s messenger boy.  He says that Old Kwok has fresh cow’s milk in his restaurant if I go there tonight, after his customers leave.  Before I can thank the boy for the tip on the shortcut, he dashes off.

It happens to be Saturday when I can stay out late.  I go to the restaurant and watch as Old Kwok’s last customers leave.   I go inside the restaurant.  I ask Mr. Kwok if it’s true that he has fresh cow’s milk.  He says to follow him to a back table.

I hold out a few coins and ask if that’s enough to pay for a glass of milk.  He says someone paid already.   I say no, I must pay.  He takes one of the coins.  Is that enough?  More than enough, he says.

Kwok comes back with a tall glass of warm milk and a teaspoon.

I stare at the milk as though it has come from a place where I have put all the things that I have lost.   Things that appear now only in my dreams and disappear when I wake up.  I put my hands around the thick glass, feeling its warmth.  I skim off the milk skin with my spoon and eat it.

With both hands, I pick up the glass of milk and take one deep, satisfying swallow after another.

As I walk home, I pass the bakery at the corner.  I can see the cakes in the glass case, but the roll cake with the cream filling is not there.  All during the day I had found excuses to pass by the bakery and gaze at that cake as much as I dared to.  I wanted that cake.  I knew just how it would taste.   There were other cakes in that case.  But I wanted that particular cake so much I was plotting for a way to get a slice of it.

The puzzling thing is that I never had a cake like that.  With all the cakes that were served at teas and parties, I had never seen a cake like that.  Years later, I learned that it was a crème roulade, a French cake.   It is even more puzzling to me because it was the same thing with that glass of milk.

The tough boys assumed that a quailo girl would miss her milk.  Actually, I don’t know when I ever had a glass of fresh milk.  The milk available to us was usually powdered milk.  Every afternoon, I had seen my cousin’s amah stir up a glass for her.  I didn’t like that milk.  I put a little milk in my tea, but it was evaporated milk, which was served everywhere.   My favorite drink is plain water.

Another similar thing puzzled me.  My sister had taken me to visit our relatives in Kowloon.  While having dinner at Aunt Sarah’s home, I noticed the wainscoting on the wall.  I felt a strong longing for a place I couldn’t imagine and didn’t know.  None of the houses we lived in ever had wainscoting.

I explained to myself that maybe because I had lost almost everything familiar to me, I was longing for random things just for the sake of longing.  But this was the kind of thought that I couldn’t tell even Amelia.


cream cake

Creme Roulade

15. March 2013 · Comments Off on The Visit · Categories: I. 11 to 12 years, Out of the Blue

Everyone has left the house as usual.   I am lying on my stomach feeling miserable and hoping that this is the last day for the vile poultice on my back.

Someone is coming.  I wonder who.  I sit up on my bed.  Mother Superior comes in the door.   Close behind her is Amelia.  There is another nun, but she stands outside.

Suddenly I see how squalid the house is.  How pitiful I must look.  I can die from shame right there.

Amelia says don’t be ashamed, Doreen, we lived like this when we were in Indochina.

I don’t remember the rest of their short visit.   I only remember that everything changed.  There were no promises and no motivational sermons.   They were just there, just long enough.

Somehow, I feel connected again.

09. March 2013 · Comments Off on Turnaround · Categories: I. 11 to 12 years, Out of the Blue

After my sister leaves for work early in the morning I have nothing to do till she comes home after work.

She buys magazines.   I read detective stories, Photoplay, Vanity Fair, and psychology stories.   I am captivated by stories about schizophrenia, manic depression and Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde.   I think I’m getting an inferiority complex.  I read the magazines from cover to cover.

Then I have nothing to do.

Hanging around down on the main road is even less fun than the last neighborhood.   But I go there anyway.

I watch the tram slowly make the turnaround to go back into town.   It stops, and a woman jumps out and runs towards me.  It is Anita, my mother’s friend.

She wants to know what I am doing here.  She is appalled that my sister and I are living by ourselves and that I am not going to school.

She had missed her stop, and she stayed on the tram to circle back to it.   We kiss goodbye.  She gets back on the tram.

 neighborhood tram

08. March 2013 · Comments Off on Going Home · Categories: I. 11 to 12 years, Out of the Blue

Two days later, my sister tells me that Titi has sent for me.  I am to go back right away.

Anita had taken the next boat to Macau and gone straight to our grandmother’s house.   Anita demanded that Titi take us back.  Titi was not moved.

Anita threatened to tell “all of Macau” that Titi, herself living in a mansion and protected by such an established family, was allowing her sister’s daughters to be thrown to the wolves.

Titi agreed to take me back, but only me.

My sister explains things to me.  She says that Uncle Pedro offered to send her away to school but she couldn’t go because of me.

She says Titi is a monster.  When I go back, I will have to prove myself.  I will have to be First of the Class just as she was.

I guess I look as stunned as I feel.

My sister continues.  Don’t worry about her, she says.  Remember the fortune teller who predicted our futures?   He said that the man she marries will reach the top of his profession.  He also said that I, on the other hand, have open hands.  Wealth will just flow through me.

I believe that my sister will succeed in anything she wants.  As for my having open hands, I have no idea what the fortune teller was talking about.  I hardly remember him.

But my sister has given me a condition: I have to be First of the Class.   I don’t even think of questioning it.

Ferry old copy

Mail Attachment[2]

Penha, our neighborhood in Macau