Saturday, May 27, 2017

Mexico laughs at expectations and cries over its lost children


San Cristóbal de las Casas
I hit the wall in early evening when I landed at Tuxtla Gutiérrez airport in Chiapas. It was 2014 and at age 69 I had embarked on a grand adventure. The plan was two weeks of language immersion in San Miguel de Allende, three weeks of snorkeling and swimming in cenotes in Maya Riviera, and then a final week of language immersion in Mérida where I would also follow the trail of a story that had intrigued me for years. Six weeks. I expected that would be enough time to ground me in Spanish well enough to travel with the Spanish-fluent guy with whom I was making happily-ever-after plans.
 
I expected to take a bus to San Cristóbal de las Casas, a place I knew absolutely nothing about other than it was at 7200’ and should be cooler than Playa del Carmen which was where I was supposed to stay for three weeks but lasted only two days. What I didn’t expect was that no one at the Tuxtla airport spoke English any better than I spoke Spanish. My abysmal Spanish skills had gotten me by so far but now it seemed that I wasn’t going to be able to just walk over to the bus stop and get whisked to San Cristóbal.

This adventure was my first extended trip not prompted by work and the first by myself. Already my carefully constructed plan looked a bit tattered and I could feel tendrils of panic rising as the non-conversation with an airport woman about how to get to San Cristóbal failed. I had been told to take the bus because taxis were expensive. However, I wasn’t even sure how to find a taxi.

As I stood there, somewhat frozen, a young woman joined our conversation. Her English was limited but a smidge better than my Spanish. After a long back and forth, most of which I couldn’t understand, I finally understood that she was inviting me to share her taxi to town. I wasn’t sure, but I thought she might also be able to drop me at the bus station. While I didn’t realize it at the time, she was my introduction to the kindness of strangers in Mexico, a pattern that would repeat itself regularly as I blundered into interesting situations.

The Tuxtla Gutiérrez airport is relatively new and built on the far outskirts of town. As I was riding in the cab with this young woman on the long trip to Tuxtla, I realized that I had no idea where we were actually going. She seemed friendly enough, but I didn’t know if she really understood what I had been trying to tell her about the bus station and San Cristóbal. And, it was getting dark. Finally, we wound up in front of a small, concrete building where, apparently, I was supposed to get out. So, I did even though I saw no buses and felt a sudden wave of desperation as my new protector drove away in her taxi. I was on my own, in the dark, in a strange city. No one knew where I was  and I couldn’t speak the language. I had heard enough stories to be nervous.

Finally, I entered the little concrete building where a man at a battered desk understood my words enough to take my money and point me toward a small van already filled with people. I squeezed myself into a seat and gave myself up to the belief that this might actually take me to my destination. I was almost relaxed when I realized I’d left my backpack with laptop and other necessities in the office. Fortunately, it was still there and I relaxed into the long drive through the night until we wound up at the San Cristóbal bus station where a bunch of taxis waited. I had arrived.

I breathed a sign of relief as I handed the taxi driver the address and expected the rest to be simple. Clearly, the taxi driver did not speak English but, since he had my carefully printed address, I wasn’t worried. We wound through town and then into a darker neighborhood and soon the driver was glancing around in a way that concerned me. Finally, we pulled up at what seemed like the right address and a couple came out. However, the place didn’t seem right from the pictures I had seen. More language fumbling and it was clear that they didn’t know anything about a guest arriving in the middle of the night.

The driver seemed confused and asked me questions that I didn’t understand. By now, it was about 10:30 and I was getting nervous again. The driver didn’t have a phone or a map or apparently any connection to a home office and I was trying to figure out what I was going to do. I had no resources, knew no hotels and didn’t know how to ask the frustrated driver for help. 

Together our frustration was rising rapidly as we stood in the street speaking but not communicating. Suddenly, out of the shadows, a woman in white appeared. Completely in white. Long, white robe-like dress and white turban. She walked over to us and said in perfect English, “Can I help you?” I now believe in angels.

Angel Blanca and friend.
After talking for awhile with the woman named Blanca, we decided that if I could show her a picture of the house, she could help us find it. We needed a computer. At Blanca’s direction, we piled into the taxi and went back about three blocks to an undistinguished row of concrete buildings. Blanca knocked on one of the many doors and an eight-year-old kid let us into a room full of twenty-year-old computers. With a high level of skepticism about the functioning of these systems, I waited as he warmed up the antique PC, logged onto the internet and I pulled up my airbnb site. Blanca recognized the house and within minutes and a few pesos, we were at my destination.

During this time, I learned that Blanca lived in the neighborhood. I was so grateful for her help that I invited her to lunch and she accepted. Gradually, I learned about her life as a Mexican hippy living with her partner, the father of her three children, making clay flutes and trying to live by principles that set them apart from the “normal" culture. She introduced me to new foods and new places and new ways of thinking about life and amazed me with the breadth and depth of her English, which she had "picked up” on a job.

I expected to go to San Cristóbal as a comfortable place to continue studying Spanish. What I didn’t expect was to meet such fascinating people such as Blanca. However, throughout my time in San Cristóbal I continued to meet amazing people. The house I stayed in belonged to a woman photographer who had just left for a six-month stay in Israel. We never met but talked a lot by email and became friends. Her book on the various textile styles of the Mayan villages made me fall in love with weavings and I quickly developed a favorite … Zinacantan, which had a distinctive style and incredible blending of colors.

On my first day walking around town, I stopped into a coffee shop and met an US woman married to a Mexican man. We quickly became friends and she introduced me to so many interesting people: Women from Mayan villages, a nun who started a photography project for the local villagers, a Muslim man who left the US after being continually harassed after 9/11 and now rescues street dogs and cats as well as lame horses, cooking seven pounds of rice every day for his ever-expanding flock.

From the top of Tonina ruins
As my planned six-week trip expanded into four months, I met a British woman living in Spain, when she stayed for two weeks in the same compound where I was staying. We traveled together to Guatemala where we explored the villages around Lake Atitlán, met a US woman helping Mayan women sell their weavings, and fell in love with chicken buses. On a trip to the ruins at Tonina, we met a young Mexican entrepreneur with the most beautiful dreadlocks I’ve ever seen and an older world traveler from New Zealand. We formed an unlikely foursome as we explored the ruins as well as an incredibly beautiful swimming hole and local restaurants. They also introduced me to Posh (the local intoxicant) and I became a fan.

Gringos in foreign places tend to recognize each other and often fall into conversation as they explore the standard where-are-you-from, how-long-have-you-been-here questions. One of these conversations resulted in an ongoing conversation with an older woman artist traveling the world on $600 a month with no safety net. Her confidence and cheeriness about her financial situation reminded me of how fortunate I am. 

As it became clear that my language skills were not racing ahead, I asked a charming, young guy to be my language coach. Our Posh-fueled sessions definitely improved my confidence as we explored life in San Cristóbal and our challenging love lives in mostly broken Spanish.

I had expected to make rapid progress learning Spanish. I felt like I had a head start having lived in California for decades and having started several adult-ed Spanish classes (perhaps it would have been good if I had finished a few of them). Since I had been listening to Pimsleur CDs for months, I did not expect the wall of meaningless sounds that I found when I arrived at the Mexico City airport. Even concentrating, language was a sound blur with only an occasional word like “pero” (but) rising to the level of recognition. Not extremely useful.

When I had arrived in San Miguel at the beginning of this adventure, I expected to be put into an “intermediate beginner” class at my language school. I expected to work hard and learn fast. I expected it to come easily. It was immersion, supposedly the magical panacea of learning a language. How quickly so many expectations can be dashed. My “immersion” seemed to be limited to waiters and taxi drivers. There were plenty of people around all too happy to speak English. I expected myself to be a good student, to do the worksheets and sit in the cramped student seats in a stuff classroom. I didn’t expect myself to chuck it all for the “escuela de las calles” as I called the fascinating, colorful, exciting sights and sounds I found in the streets.

The first mural I fell in love with.
I didn’t expect myself to fall in love with the murals and wall art I found just wandering about. There are many things I didn’t expect, but probably the biggest happened one day while I was wandering through the plaza in front of the Cathedral. There was almost always something going on there so at first I thought it was a concert or something. There was a man's voice booming over huge speakers and there must have been a thousand people wandering around the plaza.

As I walked through the crowd, my chest began to hurt and I felt like crying. The words were just sounds so I didn’t know why and started trying to figure out the words on posters. I saw a row of pictures of young men and on the ground children were putting flowers on pictures of the same young men laid out in a grid on the ground. I started to realize that what I was feeling was grief. That something had happened to these young men.

Finally, I ran into someone I knew who explained that 43 students from Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers' College went missing in Iguala, Guerrero. They had just disappeared twelve days earlier. Over the next several weeks in San Cristóbal, Tuxtla Gutiérrez, and Merida, I saw heartbreaking marches demanding action and information about the students. At first the students were called “Los Vivos,” the living.

The story that gradually came out was horrifying. It remains unclear who all was involved but the story that I heard most was that the ambitious, cartel-related wife of the mayor of Iguala was going to give a speech in Mexico City before announcing her candidacy for office. She heard that the students planned to protest her speech and she had them kidnapped, apparently with the assistance of local police and government officials. This incident set off massive protests in Mexico as well as worldwide and led to the arrest of more than 130 suspects, 44 of whom were police officers. It also significantly stained the administration of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.

By later in October, the most common signs included the words:

nos enterraron (they buried us)
pero no sabían (but they did not know)
que estamos semillas. (that we are seeds)
 
The inquiry remains open.

I didn’t expect to see the underbelly of this beautiful country. I didn’t expect to feel the pain of a system where human rights often disappear under the weight of power and money. 
 
I didn’t expect to return almost three years later when life turned once again toward Mexico. I hadn't expected to experience the underbelly of my own country as human rights began to be attacked in a way we thought we had left behind decades ago.

When I left San Cristóbal, I was innocently planning my future ... reconnecting with my guy, traveling and creating a nest together in New Mexico, settling down in a new dream. With all of these expectations clanging around in my head, I didn’t hear Mexico chuckling while it also cried for its lost children.

Morning in Ajijic, Mexico
Now, three years later, as I return to Mexico, I have fewer expectations, fewer illusions about the shadow side of the human experience. But, I still have the expectation of learning the beautiful language of this country and soaking in more of its natural beauty and culture.

Monday, May 22, 2017

An incomplete thank you for the miracles of the world


Morning in Mexico
On this day as I begin my second year of gratitude practice, I give thanks for where I am and where Ive been and hope this poem makes up for some of the moments of gratitude Ive missed along the way.

for all the people I never thanked:


the authors, teachers, artists, carpenters,


the fighters of fires, the doctors of disease,

those who built the roads through the mountains and deserts,

those who grew the vegetables and fruits for my table,

all the meals and makers-of-meals who went unblessed,

all the garments and sewers and sellers of them 
that kept me dressed,

and the thousands, millions, of other unthanked souls

who have made my life possible, made it a joy.


for all the beauty I forgot to acknowledge:


the mountains, meadows, moonglows and manatees,

the soft summer days, the snow-covered pines,

the cactus blossoms of spring, the yellow aspens of fall,

all the trees I never thanked for my breath,

all the clouds I never thanked for their beckonings,

all the rocks I never thanked for their stories,

all the rivers and lakes, puddles and ponds,

the oceans of water that refreshed my days,

never once asking for my thanks.



for all the people who made me laugh or cry:

the jokesters, writers, actors, makers of movies,
the merry whistlers and designers of Tilt-a-Whirls,

all you bubbling fountains of mirth and magic
who brought forth giggles and guffaws, chuckles and chortles,
tears and torment, glimpses into alien worlds and other hearts,
graciously accepting my laughter and tears as thanks enough.



to all of you ... friends and family,


those recognized and total strangers,

finally and utterly incompletely,
thanks. ... Thanks! ... Thank YOU!

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

What do you do when the Universe rejects what you thought you were supposed to do?


Fleeting Shadows
A few days ago I received the news that my application to the Squaw Valley Community of Writers had been rejected - again. This is the fourth rejection I’ve received from that prestigious writers’ conference, two for poetry and now two for fiction. Because I know, slightly, one of the organizers of the conference, I also received a personal, apologetic note saying only 38% of the applicants were accepted. Somehow, that made it worse. 4 out of 10 got in and I wasn’t one of the four. I’m not even in the top 40% of the applicants. That stings.

The creative life overflows with rejection. It’s part of the course. We’re supposed to suck it up and keep making our art and putting it out into the world. That’s what everyone says. That’s what I’ve always thought and said. But now I wonder. Now, I’m in this new world, in a new beginning, facing a clean slate. Which way to go?

I never expected this path of writer and artist. Nothing in my childhood labeled me creative. There were no early accolades or unexpected successes. Creativity has been like a quiet shadow that just showed up one day and followed me as I wandered through life. I’ve never known quite what to make of it or if it was even real. For some reason, one of my first poem friends, “Eldorado" by Edgar Allan Poe (printed in full below) comes to mind: 
 ‘Shadow,’ said he,   
   ‘Where can it be—
This land of Eldorado?’

But, no answer comes. I feel like I have journeyed long, in sunshine and in shadow, and still don’t know
if I’m on the right path. The desire to be be a writer came in the fourth grade … also accompanied by
rejection as my first recess play was rejected because no one could read my writing. And, art sprang out
of the dark days after Richard died. No one was more surprised than I when my art showed up on the
walls of a gallery, where it largely remained unsold.

Part of the angst of the creative life … for me … is the belief that art is, or should be, a conversation
between artist and observer. What the artist makes needs to be received, accepted, understood,
acknowledged.

But, what if that’s not true?

What if making art is just something we do, like making the bed, cooking a meal, kissing a child's boo
boo, or planting a flower? We do it because it’s who we are. What if the world’s reception is basically
meaningless. Would it change who I am if the great Squaw Valley deemed me worthy of their conference
or something I wrote suddenly went viral or a piece of my art caught the eye of a critic?

I know the answer is “no.” I know what changes me is the act of writing, struggling to tell a story in the
best possible way. What enhances my life is the daily search for beauty and understanding with my
camera and words. What feeds my spirit is that deep intake of breath that happens when I see light
playing with the world or find words tumbling out of my head as if from some other place, bringing me
insights beyond my own puny thoughts. That is the critical acknowledgment, the acceptance and
valuing of a piece of myself that has somehow connected with the Universe through what I do,
regardless of what form that takes.

Poe ends “Eldorado” with the exhortation:

Ride, boldly ride,’ 
   The shade replied,—
‘If you seek for Eldorado!’

My take on this is that whatever I do, to do it boldly. Maybe the creative conversation I seek isn’t with
the world, but simply with myself. I write and make art to know who I am. If others come along for the 
ride, that just makes it more fun. 

Más tarde, por ahora audazmente ir.
 
Eldorado

Gaily bedight,
   A gallant knight,
In sunshine and in shadow,  
   Had journeyed long,  
   Singing a song,
In search of Eldorado.

   But he grew old—
   This knight so bold—  
And o’er his heart a shadow—  
   Fell as he found
   No spot of ground
That looked like Eldorado.

   And, as his strength  
   Failed him at length,
He met a pilgrim shadow—  
   ‘Shadow,’ said he,  
   ‘Where can it be—
This land of Eldorado?’

   ‘Over the Mountains
   Of the Moon,
Down the Valley of the Shadow,  
   Ride, boldly ride,’
   The shade replied,—
‘If you seek for Eldorado!’
 

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Rainbirds of Lake Chapala, harbingers of rain


Click here to hear the rainbirds
One of the first things I heard when I came to the Lake Chapala area was about the rainbirds. Theoretically, when they begin to “sing,” rain is 42 days away. Some of the less fanciful folks say the rain will begin mid-June regardless of the rainbirds. And, some rather harsh locals insist that they are neither birds, nor do they sing.

Admittedly, now that I’ve heard them, I would have to agree that few would call this singing and apparently the “birds” are Lake Chapala’s form of cicadas coming out of their long hibernation. Apparently the males flex their tymbals (drum-like organs on their abdomens) to make a sound somewhat like someone learning to play a one-stringed violin. (Click under the picture above to see if you would call this a song.)

In looking for more information about rainbirds and the weather here in this paradise billed as the second-best climate in the world, I found:

     - May is the hottest month, mainly in the upper 80s with a few 90s thrown into this largely unairconditioned land. However, the humidity is in the 30s so it’s dry heat and cools off at night to 60-70.
     - Rain starts in mid-June and mainly falls at night. (How civilized.) The mountains turn green, flowers flourish and the temperatures stay in the mid-70s to 80 through September. Sunsets are spectacular.
     - Sometimes tropical storms hover over the area, hiding the sun for three or four days, during which time everyone goes into a state of sun-deprived depression.
     - During the tropical storms, the winds play musical furniture with everything that isn’t tied down. 
     - From October through April, the weather is spring like with almost no rain but lots of snow ... birds.

More lake trivia:

Lake Chapala, from the Nahuatal word chapalal meaning the sound of water splashing on a sandy shore, is 50 - 70 miles long and 15-20 miles wide. It was formed 12 million years ago and was 7 times larger than it is now, covering the current city of Guadalajara. Mammoth fossils have been found in the lake bed.



Monday, May 15, 2017

Playing house in Ajijic


Today as I do the wash, make breakfast, and prepare for the delivery of some patio furniture, I have a sudden sense of playing house. However, it’s not playing house in the idea of doing something imaginary or not real. 
This is very real, and pretty normal … Missy’s on the back of the couch, looking out the window, protecting us from intruders, email pings occasionally and Facebook streams the latest incomprehensible actions of the world. These things happen wherever I go.

This feeling of playing house is more about playing than the latest move. I’ve moved a lot even though this is the first out of country move. This is an almost giddy … free ... feeling. Perhaps it comes from what I’ve let go of … the responsibility of owning a home, driving a car, the mountain of stuff that called me to appreciate it, dust it, learn to play it or use it more effectively, honor it. Perhaps it’s the rolling away of expectations to be something … a loving friend or family member, a responsible home owner/neighbor, an informed citizen, a writer, an artist, … an adult. A tangled ball of “shoulds” seems to have been lifted from my life, leaving me with an almost equally confusing tangle of choices.

This feeling of playing house is somewhat like a surprise package wrapped in a bright, red bow. Untying the bow with anticipation, I find a note that says:
Here’s everything you need to create a new life … time, energy, health, financial security, all fueled by curiosity and caring about the world. Make it what you want it to be. Explore new worlds … or not. Write a crazy book that no one will read … or not. Develop a new art style … or not. Gather stories and friends … or not. Recreate your old life in a new place … or try on a new life and look in a mirror to see what appears.
If I’m playing house, I can try any or all … or none of these things. I can wander aimlessly … or find a purpose that makes my heart sing. I can do … or I can be … or I can harmonize them into a tune.

I can even sit here navel gazing with words while the birds sing. Perhaps they are doing the same thing in a different language.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Walking into the little mornings of Mexico


How lovely is the morning ... the day of the mothers
A long night, tossing and turning, struggling to find sleep. Suddenly there is a marching band in the street.

Seriously. The vibration of drummers and the clarion brass section competed with suddenly alert neighborhood dogs, including Missy who added to the chaos. Desperate for sleep, I thought I had dropped into a mad woman’s dream, until I remembered that May 10th is Mother’s Day in Mexico and they have a custom different from our cards and flowers.

Mexicans take family seriously and mama is the glue that holds family life together. This day is so important that it begins shortly after midnight. Local musicians make their rounds from house to house serenading the mothers as well as the Mother of Mexico, Guadalupe, with the familiar strains of “Las Mañanitas” Mexico’s all-purpose song for serenades, birthdays, saints day and other celebrations. 
 
Click here to hear the serenade.
Click above to hear the song that came in the middle of the night from an unseen band of serenaders. Interestingly, as soon as they moved on, sleep settled in and I awake this morning, tired but with the sweet sense of being held in a different place.

One of the primary reasons I chose to come here to this community on the largest lake in Mexico is I wanted a walking lifestyle. The Universe works in interesting ways, however. During the process of "de-stuffing" my life getting ready for the move, I sprained my foot ... not a serious injury but one that is altering my approach to being here. I can't dart about yet. Everything is moving more slowly than I had intended. I'm being forced to slow down, measure my energy, take more naps. This morning I feel the effects of too little sleep. Rather than struggling against fatigue, though, I find myself drifting, savoring the unexpected gift of last night's song, refusing the pull of "shoulds," sinking into a new and different pace.

A quote from Andy Warhol found me this morning and seems like something to hold onto today, reminding me that there is a beauty in lost sleep and unexpected songs, a value in seeing the beauty in everything.

Thank you unseen musicians, thank you Mexico, thank you creaky body forcing me to slow down, thank you to everything in my life that has brought me to this place, this moment, thank you Andy for reminding me to look for the beauty.

"Everything has its beauty, but not everyone sees it."
-- Andy Warhol

 
 

Saturday, March 25, 2017

It's a Four Agreements morning


 
Facebook brought me news of a death yesterday, a friend from high school. It hit me hard, harder than I would have thought considering I had not seen or heard from her in over 50 years. She was a bright light from my high school years, someone I considered one of my best friends.

I don’t often dream of people, but, over the years, I occasionally dreamed of her and those dreams had a special quality. They were like reunions. I would always awaken with a joy of reconnection as well as a mourning of the lost friendship. We were separated the summer before our senior year when both of our families moved. We wrote for awhile, but those were the days before Facebook, and eventually life separated us and the tie was broken.

I tried to reconnect a few times over the years but met with unspoken rejection. For a multitude of reasons, I took it personally. This morning I poured my feelings of being unloved, unwanted, rejected into an Evernote file until the Four Agreements shouted: Stop the pity party!
The conversation continued: Yes, you were rejected by someone you once loved. Yes, that person didn’t approve of the way you lived your life. Yes, she’s now dead and you will never be reconnected in this life. Yes, she was hard-hearted toward you. And, yes, you’ve probably been equally hard-hearted toward someone who loved you. She was human. You’re human. People aren’t perfect. You’re still alive … try to do better. Keep your own heart soft. Be kind to yourself and others.

Remember: Don’t take anything personally!
All right already.