The UPS clerk loaded the boxes into his truck yesterday.   They will be unpacked at the Hoover Institution in Stanford University and placed delicately into an archive that bears my name — the Suellen Zima Archive.  They are deserving of this honor because these hundreds of letters written by my Chinese students over a quarter of a century are not only precious, but also historical.  Since my time in China spanned before, during, and after the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, they eloquently and personally speak of the hopes, fears, insecurities, and dreams of the generation that pushed for change, and who then had to keep their balance on the roller coaster ride that put them on.

Along with the letters are my photos of my early years in China, and the letter writers as they looked in and around 1988.  A 12 minute DVD shows what I put into the archive, and why.   The book I published in 2006, “Memoirs of a Middle-aged Hummingbird,” has a place of honor in the archive, as does a digital Chinese translation of the book.  Hopefully with more to come from others among the letter writers, one Chinese friend sent me all my letters to him that he had saved.

I made copies of only a few of the letters among the hundreds to keep as personal mementos.   What struck me again was how much each letter was like a visit with the person — just the two of us together.  Although I couldn’t read all the letters beforehand, I did touch each one individually before it went into the carton.  As the clerk carried the boxes to his waiting truck, I felt a sudden, swift pang of loss.  However, some things are too important to keep to oneself.  I am grateful these letters, and mine to them, nurtured our relationships way before computers and cheap phone calls made keeping in touch easier.

I particularly like the fact that I will not know who will read these letters, or how what I and  my friends wrote will move researchers to a deeper understanding of the China of those years by those who experienced it.  And, the letters preserve for posterity the fast-disappearing art of letter writing.


I enter my lagniappe years on August 13.  Lagniappe, meaning something extra, good, and unexpected,  is a special word I learned when I lived in New Orleans.  Reaching 70 years old is worthy of that designation.  Of course, in the retirement community where I live, I’m still just a kid among the many in their 80s, 90s, and even 100s.  But, to me, I’ve reached that special time in life when I hopefully have some time and health left to enjoy the wisdom I’ve accrued over 7o years of experiences.  I’ve arrived at old age.

The past 70 years have been a heady mixture of good and bad, happy and sad, for me personally, and for the world in general.  Born during World War II in military housing in Florida where my father awaited deployment, I was exposed early on to horrors I didn’t have to personally endure, but learned about and felt vicariously.  Nuclear war and Cold War were words in my vocabulary that gave a certain tenuous quality to my growing up years.  And wars have followed me into old age.

My first experiences as an explorer came during my elementary school years.   We kids wiggled under a fence meant to keep us out of a wild, untended buffer zone between our homes and an air force base.  My love of nature started there, and continued through a rugged Girl Scout camp,  on to incredible trails in magnificent places, and watching campfires under the starlight.

My teen years were happy.  I loved school.  I loved my friends.  I fell in love at the tender age of 13 with the man I married 7 years later.  My personality and my nesting years were irrevocably shaped by the idealism of the 60′s and 70′s.  I didn’t realize how much so until I went to graduate school 15 years after my 1965 bachelor’s graduation.  My class assignment was to explain William Glasser’s Reality Therapy that started in 1965 to my classmates who were in their early 20s.  The gap was wide.

When I could no longer ignore my restlessness for a wider world, I painfully broke the bonds I had so carefully tended.  My hummingbird wings lifted me up and away — to live in Israel,  China,  Taiwan,  Macau,  Korea, and to many nooks and crannies along the way.   No dreams of traveling the world and exploring other cultures came close to the reality of the adventures I had flinging myself into the unknown for well over 16 years.

Two books later — “Memoirs of a Middle-aged Hummingbird” and “Out of Step:  A Diary To My Dead Son,”  I’ve turned 70.  I’ve outlived my wanderlust and restlessness.  I feel less and less engaged in a society that spends its time looking down at technological gadgets instead of observing the world around them.  I miss those naive assumptions I had about  politicians and so-called “public servants.”    I loved teaching, but never earned much money, so I cannot relate to the “money, buy, consume” world of today.

My world is now quite small, simple, and sweet.  Staying healthy is a time-consuming priority.  I never tire of the exquisite beauty of the sea nearby, and the little garden that surrounds me.  I have friends,  7 Chinese grandchildren from my former students, and many activities in the retirement community where I live.  And, I’ve begun a third book.  This one will be quite different from anything I’ve ever written.  It will take me back to things I’ve been thinking about all my life, and onward to fascinating unknown planets of my imagination.


Dear Dad

15 Jun

It’s a jolt to realize I will soon turn 10 years younger than you were when you died.  I wonder what you would think of the past 13 years I’ve lived without you.  What would surprise you, shock you, delight you?  It would be interesting to have your view of what’s been going on without you.

You and mom were the first ones to introduce me to Laguna Beach when you lived in San Diego years ago.  There, with the bright blue sky dotted with pelicans, the creatively landscaped cliffs going down to an incredible expanse of the Pacific Ocean, I had a thought that I had never had before — I could be happy here for the rest of my life.  And, years later, after mom died, you and I moved to a large retirement community then called Leisure World only 6 miles from Laguna Beach.

I was then among the youngest in the retirement community, but even now I’m still “a kid” compared to some of our neighbors whom you would still remember.  At this point in my life, I no longer wander the world.  I eventually adapted to a small, simple,  and sweet world combining friends, a wide variety of activities, chances to ponder the sea as I walk in the smooth sand of the beaches,  warmly wrapped in a year-round gentle and happy climate.

One of the main attractions of this retirement community was a bus system that would enable you to stay active without driving.  Three years ago, I gave up your old car and now use the community bus system, subsidized taxi vouchers, and the county bus system.  With careful pre-planning, I can get where I want to go, plus my legs are stronger from walking more.

I’ve made some changes in the house, but it would still be familiar to you.  Our patio and yard have improved with more flowers and plants than you would remember.   I still take joy puttering in the garden, but gave up trying to grow anything the rabbits want to eat.

The death of my brother in 1996, mom in 1998, you in 1999, and my son in 2003 have made me very aware of my mortality.  Your sister lived to 88 1/2 — the longest of anyone in our family.  I am very aware now that I am the last limb on the family tree.  I am the one my younger cousins turn to for family history and to identify people in the old snapshots.

I’m so sorry you can never read the book I just published called “Out of Step:  A Diary To My Dead Son.”  Nor the one I wrote of my 16 years of wandering the world published in 2006 called “Memoirs of a Middle-aged Hummingbird.”  Nor my blog as the Senior Hummingbird.  But you and mom did get to share a bit of my traveling life by visiting Israel and China when I was there, as well as through my many letters.

You would most likely be pleased that I often say thank you to you for bringing me to what is now called Laguna Woods Village.  Since you lived here with me for 4 months, I still feel your presence in our home.  You were a good man, and a loving dad.  Happy Father’s Day!


Your daughter



This is the story of the birth of my second book, “Out of Step:  A Diary To My Dead Son.”  Since my first book, “Memoirs of a Middle-aged Hummingbird” was published in 2006, the publishing world has changed at an amazing pace.  It helped that I was more naive about publishing back in 2006, and that the computer technology wasn’t as demanding.  In fact, I uploaded one very long file on my computer to my first publisher, iUniverse, through the old-fashioned dial-up method.  A half hour later, it arrived to a welcome whoop from the iUniverse person on the other end of the phone who had, more or less, been holding her breath.  Well, enough about publishing my first book, because, while I still love the book, the publishing world has been moving quickly along the digital path.

In 2011, it was 8 years since my almost-35 year old son had died of AIDS.  A need to make him come more alive to me inspired starting a diary to him.  I had no plan.  I had no plot.  I didn’t know if I would continue it, finish it, or publish it.  Over one year, a book evolved.  I was ready to publish it.  But how?  Where?

Unless one has a name that is known for long-time or short-term fame, the chances of finding a traditional publisher who pays for the book and does nice things to market the book, are very slim to none.  The term “vanity press” was the old name for paying to have your book published.  Because of the expense of printing, it was cheaper to print in bulk and store however many boxes of books you had ordered in your garage.  Marketing was on you and your resources.

In 2006, I chose a newer version of self-publishing called “print on demand.”  That meant that quantities of books did not have to be printed at one time.  Books could be sold one by one, and pretty much forever.   There were a variety of details depending upon the specific publisher, but mine set the price of my book.  I was given a discount on books I bought to sell, and a small royalty for books ordered by anyone world-wide through the publisher, or, or several other on-line sources.  There was an e-book version at that time.  It meant that the publisher would, at a considerably cheaper price, send the book digitally to ONE e-mail address for each one ordered.  It could only be downloaded once into one computer, and no copies could be made.

As the years turned, so did the technology.  There were e-readers — Kindle, Nook, Sony.  My first book was re-formatted (simply said, but not so simply done), and e-books were becoming the “in” thing, the “modern” way to read.  Even libraries started offering e-books.  Having seen the difficulties of peddling expensive paperback books, e-publishing looked like a more appealing way to publish my new book.  And, not having to buy paperback copies would be cheaper in the long run.

What??? No paperback book to hold in your hand?  We are the transitional generation, caught between books that you can touch and smell, and a funny gadget that does it cheaper, easier, much lighter and more efficiently.  The younger generation won’t have this conflict to deal with, but I am publishing my book now.

So, I started looking at my options for my new book.


Comments?? E-mail Suellen at

I found some quotes on travel from well-known writers in last Saturday’s O.C. Register.   They were favorite quotes chosen by Travel Editor, Gary A. Warner.  I have selected some of my favorites from his favorites.

Scottish novelist Robert Louis Stevenson said, “For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go.  I travel for travel’s sake.  The great affair is to move.” Personally, I’ve had severe itchy feet for many years of my life.

Dagobert D. Runes, American writer born in Austria-Hungary said, “People travel to faraway places to watch, in fascination, the kind of people they ignore at home.” That’s true for many of us in the U.S. who live near minority communities, but never go to them.  My friend in New York City is an exception to this.  She spends her weekends going from Indian communities, to Chinatown, to where the Russians live — all just a subway or bus ride from her home.  She once took me on her own cultural tour of New York City that was positively fascinating because she could tell me how those communities had been forming and changing over time.

Anais Nin, French-Cuban-American writer said, “We travel, some of us, to seek other states, other lives, other souls.” For me personally, the many years I spent wandering the world were the best years of my life.  I felt challenged, motivated, moved, fulfilled,  happy, and often elated.

Freya Stark, Paris-born British travel writer, said, “To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world.” I didn’t get to truly know and appreciate myself until I traveled with only myself as a constant companion.

Travel writer Paul Theroux said, “Travel is glamorous only in retrospect.” A reader of my book  “Memoirs of a Middle-aged Hummingbird,” said he couldn’t bear to read about my extremely uncomfortable train rides in China.  While traveling and living on a shoestring in then Third World countries definitely had a large dose of dirt and discomfort,  these melted into the ambiance of the whole and didn’t sully the memory.

American humorist Dave Barry said, “It always rains on tents.  Rainstorms will travel thousands of miles, against prevailing winds, for the opportunity to rain on a tent.” Absolutely true.  If you leave your sense of humor behind, you’ll be a miserable traveler.

Italian poet, Cesare Pavese said, “If you wish to travel far and fast, travel light.  Take off all your envies, jealousies, unforgiveness, selfishness and fears.” This is my favorite travel quote of the ones in Warner’s article because it best defines, to me, what makes travel so worthwhile.  If we are not open and nonjudgmental, we will learn nothing from our travels.

Comments?? E-mail

I vacillate periodically on how to dispose of my journals, writing, letters I’ve saved — or not.  Many years ago, when I divorced and knew I’d most likely be traveling hither and yon, I went camping and ceremonially threw all the letters I’d saved up until that time into the campfire.  During my many years of traveling, I saved my journals and writing.  Those, plus the letters my mother saved that I had written her, made it possible for me to write and publish my book, “Memoirs of a Middle-aged Hummingbird.”  After the book was published, I considered throwing away my handwritten journals, but gave them to my youngest grandchild to keep indefinitely.

E-mail is far easier to delete than getting rid of handwritten letters.  In the days before e-mail, I conscientiously wrote about 50 letters a month to nurture the relationships I had made around the world.  I carefully stored the many letters I received in cartons with the thought that I might like to re-read them before I die.  Every now and then, I think about getting rid of them so no one else will have to do it.

And then along came the movie, “The King’s Speech.”  On the last show of “60 Minutes,” I learned that just 9 weeks prior to the filming, the notebooks of King George’s speech therapist, Lionel Logue, were discovered in some dusty corner of his grandson’s home.  Quotations from them were incorporated into the script just in time.  And, of course, there is historical value in finding handwritten letters from King George to Lionel Logue over the years.  What a pity if they had all been discarded, burned, or thrown away!

I have fantasized about someone coming across my writing in a dump somewhere years after I’m dead and “doing” something with those scraps of paper.  Unlikely?  Yes, but I did read a book once that had been entirely written from forgotten old diaries that had been discovered up in someone’s attic.  They presented a detailed picture of life in earlier years — a slice of history unknown to most people.

The point is that no one really knows what may be useful, appealing, and educational years after the people who wrote them have turned to dust.   I’m grateful that computers have given us more ways to store “stuff” longer without storage boxes, but I’m old enough to value the difference of  holding a handwritten letter from forgotten friends in faraway places.   After I’m dead, would anyone else treasure them?

Comments??  Please e-mail

From Mike:  Of course you should save them!  I have always regretted trashing the letters I sent home on my first trips abroad.  A few key moments live on in your memory, but so many others are forgotten.

From Hilary:  If you find any of mine – you can send them back rather than shred.

From Suellen to Hilary:  I actually thought of going through my letter collection and sending them back to the people I still have contact with.  But then I wondered if they’d be interested.  So, I’m curious to know why you said you would like your letters sent back to you.

From Hilary to Suellen:  Because it would be a laugh to read them and find out what I thought then…what I did then. You change and memory is actually very selective. Unlike you, I never kept a journal – except once in Africa and it was so sketchy it was practically meaningless.

From Catherine:  I’ve still got mine and I’m a minimalist at heart.  For me, these are in a similar category as photos.  I’ve got other writings that I’m thinking of scanning and saving on the computer.

From Mike to Catherine:  Saving photos on a computer is a good idea, but that does not mean you should scrap your actual photos.  Treat the digital photos as a backup, not a replacement.  I’ve noticed that some of my digital photos have started to deteriorate, and was quite surprised (and disappointed).  I was at an arts college a few days ago and asked about this.  I was told that the “noise” on the computer would, in fact, cause photos to turn grainy over time.

From Catherine:   Actually what I have are my journals, and letters that I wrote home over 18 months in Israel and Europe that mum kept and gave back to me. At the time I thought why the heck did you keep them but I am glad now she did. I can read what I did and thought then. I don’t keep letters sent to me except if they are on postcards which I collect. That’s rather contradictory for a self confessed minimalist.

%d bloggers like this: