Monday, November 20, 2017

First rule of photography: Be there … with camera!

Light and shadow
November 20th is Revolution day here in Mexico, an official holiday marking the beginning of the revolution which overthrew the 35-year presidency of Porfirio Díaz. 

It is also a day that reminded me of the first rule of photography. The parade was going to start early and there are a lot of parades here. My coffee was hot, several projects called me. Why bother? 
But this holiday is big … there’s a Ferris wheel blocking one of the main streets of the Plaza, there are several pop-up restaurants/bars already set up, and bands have been playing … or practicing … long into the nights recently. 
Young dancers
Mexican Revolution:
Young soldier
After what was deemed a fraudulent election, wealthy landowner Francisco I. Madero opposed Díaz. Díaz jailed Madero, who then escaped, issuing the Plan of San Luis Potosí on October 6, 1910. In that plan, Madero declared the results of the 1910 election fraudulent, nullified them, asserted that he was provisional president, and called for Mexicans to rise up against Díaz on November 20, 1910.[1] He wrote "Throw the usurpers from power, recover your rights as free men, and remember that our ancestors left us a heritage of glory which we are not able to stain. Be as they were: invincible in war, magnanimous in victory.” (Wikipedia)

Thinking little about Diaz, Madero or this historic event, I finally grabbed my camera and headed out. After all, you can’t get a great shot if you don’t go into the world, camera in hand. As I write this, I haven’t seen the results of this morning’s shoot. The light and shadows were challenging and everything was in motion. I don’t know if there’s a great, or even any good shots, in the 224 that I just took.

Don Porfirio, as he was called, had been in power for more than 30 years (1876-1911).  Under his rule, Mexico had political stability and grew in many areas, creating new industries, railroads, kilometers of railroad tracks as well as the increase of foreign capital. Non-the less, this progress was not translated into the peoples’ well being. (Inside Mexico)
Alone in the crowd
Most of the parade consisted of school children with the younger ones being dressed in Revolution-era costumes. Watching costumed children in a parade is a delight, regardless of where in the world you are. I was soon caught up in the beautiful faces. I would have missed that if my camera hadn’t pulled me out of my comfy chair. 

When one of the groups of children stopped, two boys chased each other through the costumed rows, shouting the names of Díaz, Madero, Zapata and Villa. As I watched all the dancing and singing, I thought of all the moms who had made the costumes, braided the hair and drawn on the mustaches. They must be so proud and, at the time, frightened at the state of our world, watching the children re-enact such a traumatic time in their history, hoping these children never have to experience such terror in their own lives.

Pancho Villa was born Doroteo Arango in 1877 in San Juan del Río, Durango, in north-central Mexico. He lived there until the age of 16, when he murdered a man who had raped his younger sister and was forced to flee for his life. Over the next decade he became a legendary hero-a Robin Hood to the poor in his country, robbing the rich and sharing with the hungry masses-all the while skillfully evading the government's troops.

On November 20, 1910, the war to overthrow General Porfirio Díaz officially began when Francisco Madero escaped from prison in San Luis Potosí and declared the electoral process in Mexico invalid. Thus, soon after Francisco I. Madero's declaration of war, Pancho Villa led his men down from the hills to join the revolutionary forces-making the historical transition from bandito to revolucionario. The charismatic Pancho was able to recruit an army of thousands, including a substantial number of Americans, some of whom were made captains in the División del Norte. (MexGrocer)
After gorging myself on the faces and sounds of the children, the music, and the dancing horses, I proceeded to feast on the sights of the plaza … and on a carne asada taco with some muy picante onion salsa. Interestingly, it’s a challenge to find spicy food here in the regular restaurants. The street stands are where the Mexicans eat and some of it can definitely be challenging. 
Fighting continued in Mexico until 1920, even though in 1917 a new constitution was adopted. When the U.S. government came out openly in support of the new Carranza presidency, Villa was incensed. He retaliated by raiding U.S border towns-most significantly, Columbus, New Mexico. North of the border, Villa's image plummeted. However, many in Mexico saw him as the avenger of decades of yanqui (Yankee) oppression(MexGrocer)

Princess of Ajijic
One of my favorite things: tuba reflections.
The photographs? Good or not so good, I am so glad I got out of my chair and went out to see the world. Turns out the first rule isn't just about photography. If you want to see and feel great moments you have to be there! The camera is just an excuse, a motivation, to get up and get out there.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Did a dream change Mexico’s art forever?

Purple-dotted three-headed dragons, orange-striped unicorns, multicolored armadillos, a turquoise-winged owl with a human face. Where do all these brightly painted mystical, fantasy creatures come from? Called alebrijes (Spanish pronunciation: [aleˈβɾixes]), this popular form of Mexican folk art stems from one man’s dream … well, maybe.

Bújo Najual by Zeny Fuentes Santiagoand Reina Piña Ramirez
The popular story is that the term and this form of art came forth when Pedro Linares fell ill.  Wikipedia tells us this story:

While he was in bed, unconscious, Linares dreamt of a strange place resembling a forest. There, he saw trees, animals, rocks, clouds that suddenly turned into something strange, some kind of animals, but, unknown animals. He saw a donkey with butterfly wings, a rooster with bull horns, a lion with an eagle head, and all of them were shouting one word, "Alebrijes". Upon recovery, he began recreating the creatures he saw in cardboard and papier-mâché and called them Alebrijes.

The more pedestrian story is told by Mexican Folk Art Guide:

Pedro Linares was a cartonero (papier mache crafter) from La Merced a neighborhood in Mexico City. He made a living by making pinatas and judas like his father before him. Linares was appointed by painter José Gómez Rosas aka El Hotentote to make some "alebrijes" to decorate the annual masquerade party at the San Carlos Arts Academy

When Linares asked how to make such things, Gomez Rosas replied "just grab a judas (giant, exploding figures of Judas) and give him a tail and bat wings". In Gomez Rosas paintings there were often zoomorphic and fantastic figures that combine reptile, bird, insect and mammal parts as well as different eras and painting styles.

Judith Bronowski in 1998, with some creations by 
papier-mâché artist Pedro Linares
(photo by Jacklyn Stroud)
Whether from a dream or from an art request, Linares developed the first alebrijes which now show up in all art markets in Mexico. However these brightly painted fantasy creatures might not have become the beloved Mexican folk art favorite if it hadn’t been for artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo and a filmmaker. In the 1980s, British filmmaker, Judith Bronowski arranged an itinerant Mexican art craft demonstration workshop in the US and helped bring many Mexican folk artist to public attention through her films.

While Linares crafted his chimera-like alejibres in papier mache, wood artisans quickly began to craft the fantasy creatures in wood, primarily using green copalillo because its wood is ideal, soft and easy to carve. He would probably be amazed to see Mexico City’s Alebrije Parade which begins on midday on a Saturday in late October in the historic center. The giant creatures are accompanied by musicians, clowns, people in costume and more, giving the event a Carnival-like atmosphere. After the parade the creations are judged with prizes awarded. (Note to self: put this on the calendar for next year.)

Mexican folk art has come along way since the days when Linares crafted his first alebrije. Until the 1970s, Mexican folk artists seldom signed their work, remaining anonymous and poor. Now it is illegal to sell crafts made in Mexico without acknowledging the community and region they are from, or to alter the crafts in a way that could be interpreted as damaging to the culture’s reputation or image. The Feria Maestros del Arte in Chapala, Mexico, has become one of the premier supporters of Mexican folk artists with a three-day fair where traditional artists can show their art to buyers drawn from all over the world. The carefully selected artists at this fair pay no space fee or commission and the fair organizers pay transportation costs and organize housing for the artists while they are at the fair. 
Time to Laugh

Creativity is a contagious thing and I seem to catch it looking at art that inspires me. The same artists who created Bújo Nahual shown above, created a wonderful creature that captured me all during the recent Feria Maestros del Arte, although my budget wasn't big enough to bring him home with me. 

"Time to Laugh" was stimulated by this alebrije and a "Laugh" sign I saw in a home on the recent "Behind the Walls" tour here in Ajijic.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Mexico triggers horn honking and new ways of looking at the world

Art Wall in Chapala
My wifi is down.

If I were still in California, I would be having a fit, immediately calling for service.

I am deeply connected to the electronic world, and frequently need to scratch my itch for information and understanding. Many times a day I wonder about things: how Bob Marley died, what the color of amaranth looks like, does wifi still have a dash in it, who Marcos Castellano was (street name here in Mexico), is the ketogenic diet healthy, the history of the purple dye used in the huipil I just bought, how to convert inches to centimeters, and so on and so on.

Wikipedia and Google are pillars of my day. I can’t imagine not having access to that ocean of information. So, when my wifi is down, my brain starts sounding the call for oxygen, gasping for the breath of information. It makes me want to honk a horn, demand attention, make my world right again.

That’s where I am right now. My router is across the room in my direct line of sight. The light that should be blinking is infuriatingly constant. If it were later in the morning, I could go to the coffee shop and relieve my angst, but, like many things here in Mexico, the general need for a caffeine boost seems to move at a slower pace. While the 24-hour OXXO (like 7-11) two blocks away offers coffee at all hours, it has no ambiance … or wifi.

My favorite coffee shop doesn’t open until 8:30 so I’m in withdrawal (wifi, not caffeine) until then, trying to distract the absence by writing about all of this.

One of the first things I noticed here was the absence of honking horns. In a noisy world of barking dogs, rockets, crowing-at-all-hours roosters and ringing church bells, this one noise is missing. The streets here are narrow and often jammed. Drivers do crazy, unexpected things, darting across lanes of traffic, parking every which way, ignoring signs, stopping in the middle of the street to chat with a driver going the other way … but, they seldom honk at each other.

We gringos, though, are a bit different. We don’t actually honk the horns in our cars that much, but we honk about other things … including the wifi being out, as it is with some regularity. That’s what I’m doing right now: honking.

A lot of other things make us honk. Facebook forums, where we talk to each other, are a fountain of honking. A lot of honking is about finding stuff. It is said that Mexico has everything you want or need. That’s probably true, but finding it is another thing. It takes awhile to realize that the needle and thread you need is actually at a booth in the Wednesday market where an assortment of everything from pizza to fish, batteries to mole tacos, corn husk dolls to displays of nuts, seeds, and candies joins a wide range of fresh fruits and veggies, household necessities, skin creams and health potions. An amazing supermarket that comes and goes one day every week.

One very long thread on a recent forum focused on Walmart. Many people honked their irritation at its shortcomings: all the things it lacked, how it was organized, the disappearance of favorite brands of paper towels. Mexico challenges our comfort zones and triggers our honking as we long for a particular, hard-to-find vegetable, a specific tool we left behind when we moved down here and now can’t find, a hairdresser who knew just how to cut our hair,   … or the constancy of wifi.

Comfort zones by definition are comfortable. We voluntarily left that zone when we moved here, but that doesn’t stop the yearning for it. I think of a dog circling and pawing his bed into some, unknown-to-us, configuration of comfort. We’re like that, circling, pawing, honking, trying to recreate that familiar place where we were confident in our ability to cope with every day life.

Perhaps, however, that’s Mexico’s biggest gift to us: that uprooting that forces us to experience unfamiliar things, develop new perspectives, learn how to communicate and cope with a new language and, sometimes, radically different ways of doing things. All of us who are relatively new here are on a steep learning curve, which is, at once, exciting and also frustrating. 

Which, of course, means I should stop honking, get off my butt and go out into this cool, sunshiny morning and give thanks for the inconsistency of everything about this new world I’ve chosen to live in, a beautiful, charming, friendly world which is helping me learn new ways to live.

And, that question that is right now circling my brain? The one that can only be answered by plugging into the electronic world? If I stop honking, I can see that it will actually wait while I stop to savor a few moments of the world that was here long before the internet. 
(Sitting in the incredible Lake Chapala Society garden ... a delightful compromise of electronic and real world that allows me to post this.)

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Chasing the bright bauble of passion and purpose

Búho Nahual Speaks
Almost five months ago I signed up to be a volunteer at a local arts and crafts fair. I had few expectations. 
While I didn’t know much about Feria Maestros del Arte, it seemed like a good place to meet interesting people, find stories, and take pictures of beautiful things.

For four and a half months, that seed lay dormant, then suddenly it burst forth into a colossal blossom that encircled me with shimmering petals, filling the air with a new scent, daring me to catch one of the sweet, swirling, snowflakes of possibility. 
I definitely did not expect Búho Nahual, a wood carving that came home with me from that amazing folk art fair to send my mind spinning into a turquoise mist, contemplating passion and new projects. 

Passion, Purpose and Meaning

Sometimes passion sweeps you off your feet.
Sometimes it quietly curls up beside you like a purring kitten.
Sometimes you have to book a cruise and sail off into the unknown ... somehow sure it’s out there, or at least hoping it is while you take the risk to explore a new corner.

While searching for passion, I've been known to make a long list of what I want, thinking it will help the Universe point me in the right direction. Other folks just say, “Bring it on!”

Does it make a difference either way? Or, does the Universe already have a path neatly painted in day-glow yellow lines to guide our way? However, what if you can’t see the lines? What if the abundance of choices paralyzes you as it often does me?

Or, what if there are a million yellow lines stretching before us, morphing into our paths with each step we take. Step slightly left and you wind up married with 2.3 children in Indianapolis. Lean right and you’re in Mexico, sipping mescal with a curandero.

Could it be that each step is its own marker? Maybe the bright yellow paint is actually on the soles of our shoes, 7 billion shades of yellow tracking the planet as we proceed this way or that, creating paths that can only be seen by looking backwards.

So, does it matter? … that illusive, bright bauble in the distance? that siren song of purpose and meaning and passion? Does it have to have a name, a label? Can you follow the wrong star or miss your calling?

Should I take my long list of druthers, spooling behind me like a Christmas list written on adding machine tape, and stamp my footprints onto the cobblestones disappearing into the fog of the future? Or, would it be better to patiently wait for the kitten to awaken and meow its secrets? I could also spin the cruise dial and see where the tick of luck sends me, knowing that wherever I go, that’s where I’ll be and something will be waiting for me. 
Or, perhaps, I should just check out the soles of my shoes, make sure the paint is bright and look backwards more often to see if the footsteps from where I was to where I am mark a path that makes me smile? If so, maybe the only thing I need to do is give the Universe a fist bump and keep stepping out and checking the trail I’m leaving behind me. 

I do smile as I look back. I respect where I’ve been. I like where I am. The one thing I notice is that the trail behind me is a little thin. I’d like to make a fatter, more generous trail, scattering those sparkling petals far and wide. The Universe has gifted me with an abundance of energy, skill with words and images, and a heart that wants to help. Maybe all it asks of me is to share what I've been given.

As I head toward the end of my time here in this earthly form, I think what I most want is to be used up when I reach the end. A friend of mine always joked that he wanted to die “five dollars over drawn.” Like him, I don’t want to leave my resources unused. Unlike him, I don’t think it’s about money. 
As Búho parts the mist, I am left with wanting to have my own form of potlatch, giving away everything I’ve been given to people who need my particular gifts.

Morning after addendum from The Potential Within:

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Ancient traditions: purple magic in a dyeing world

Caracol Púrpura, milked for purple dye
Yesterday, I held a bit of magic in my hand. Magic that connected me back through thousands of years of history and a sacred and fragile bit of today’s world. All of this was handed to me at the premier Mexican folk art festival: Feria Maestros del Arte, held every mid-November on beautiful Lake Chapala, Mexico.

Purple has long been coveted as a color of beauty and a sign of royalty and wealth. The wearing of purple was often forbidden by sumptuary laws intended to regulate and reinforce social hierarchies. Interestingly, for as highly as it has been valued throughout history, the discovery of purple dye seems to have come from the whims of accident.

The primary source of purple dye has been snails which make a defensive ink, somewhat like an octopus. In Phoenician mythology, its discovery was credited to the pet dog of Tyros, the mistress of Tyre’s patron god Melqart. One day, while walking along the beach the couple noticed that after biting on a washed up mollusc the dog’s mouth was stained purple.(1)

Early dye makers crushed the snails to extract the dye and it is reported that it took 10,000 shellfish to dye the hem of a garment. Today’s natural dye makers, tintoreros in Mexico, have a much more difficult and dangerous job of humanely gathering purple dye from the caracol púrpura, a snail that lives amidst crags of the rocky coast from Baja, Mexico to Peru.

Back strap loom showing the sacred purple
Among the Mixtecs, in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, there is a thousand-year-old tradition of obtaining the precious purple tint of a marine snail called purple pansa. That snail was the magic that I held in my hand yesterday as I listened to Don Habacuc Avendaño, one of the 15 remaining tintoreros in the world who knows how to gather the precious dye. 
He described how he “milks” the snails, 300 of them, in order to dye one skein of yarn. From his village, Pinotepa de Don Luis, he travels to the rocky shores, gently removing one snail at a time with a special wooden stick designed to not injure the snail. 

With a white cotton skein in one hand, he blows on the snail to make in first release its urine and then the milky ink which will turn purple as it dries in the sun. Then he returns the snail to its rock and loosens the next one. One after another, he milks 300 snails to dye one skein. As Patrice Perillie, Director of Mexican Dreamweavers, continued the story of the many hours it takes to hand weave (on a back strap loom) a huipil (traditional tunic-like blouse) or rebozo using this sacred dye, I felt a little overwhelmed wearing the precious garment I had purchased the day before. 
Note: also at the Feria, there was a woman spinning rare brown cotton as well as a few garments made from it.

Rare brown cotton being spun into thread.

Margarita Avendaño spinning
Patrice Perillie wearing brown cotton huipil
It is humbling to even try to compare the hours it took me to earn the money to pay for the huipil to the hours, days and months it took to spin and dye the yarn and then weave and embroider the cloth, to say nothing of the knowledge and skill of generations of craftsmanship involved.

Unfortunately, all of this is now endangered. 


Years of poaching and extreme demand for the dye has driven the magical snail to the brink of extinction. The indigenous art of weaving fabric on back strap looms is also endangered by modern commerce and the availability of cheap fabrics.

Facebook: Mexican Dreamweavers
A fascinating video featuring Don Habacuc Avendaño and his sister, weaver Margarita Avendaño is offered on Facebook: Mexican Dreamweavers, videos. Subtitled in English, the video shows how the dye is gathered and woven into cloth. 

Don Avendaño explains the hazards of gathering the dye and the challenges of making a living in the tradition that has been handed down for generations. 

If you would like to know more about how to support this project, please contact Patrice Perillie at

  • The dye gathering follows a lunar, tide cycle and snails can only be milked every 28 days and during the months of November through May. (After that, the rainy season makes gathering too hazardous.)
  • The snail’s dye does not require a chemical fixative.
  • When Don Avendaño first began working as a tintorero, they could gather food where they worked on the beaches: fish, iguanas, turtle eggs, clams. Now, he says, the wildlife is gone.
  • In the mid-1950s, when he started gathering dye, there were four times more snails than today. Now there is a national park protecting the snails and tintoreros have to be authorized.
    Authorization for Habacuc Avendaño
Wikipedia gives us a glimpse into early society and the history of purple, telling us:

          The first written Greek law code (Locrian code), by Zaleucus in the 7th century BC, stipulated that:

A free-born woman may not be accompanied by more than one female slave, unless she is drunk; she may not leave the city during the night, unless she is planning to commit adultery; she may not wear gold jewelry or a garment with a purple border, unless she is a courtesan; and a husband may not wear a gold-studded ring or a cloak of Milesian fashion unless he is bent upon prostitution or adultery.

Resource: (1) Ancient History Encyclopedia: Tyrian Purple

More about the purple dye and the weavers from poet Susa Silvermarie:

Friday, November 10, 2017

Generosity in Action - Prison Dolls spread love and creativity across borders

Esmeralda Hernandez and Original Friends Dolls
In an overcrowded women’s prison outside Guadalajara, Mexico, a child named Lupita was born. No one knew how much that young child and a small act of generosity would change the lives of the women around her.

Lupita was 15-months old and had no toys so Rebecca Roth decided to make her a cloth doll. Rebecca is an American who had moved to Puerto Vallarta in 1998. Eight years later she was arrested for money laundering in connection with a ponzi scheme. Although she was innocent, the Mexican justice system moves slowly and she was jailed for four years before being vindicated and released.

Rebecca Roth and Esmeralda Hernandez with Mariana and Magda
That might have been the end of the story except that Rebecca started teaching English to a young, Mexican cellmate, who also claimed to be innocent. It would take eleven years for Esmeralda Hernandez to prove her innocence and be released. During that time, the two became friends and started looking for a way to make money. (Prisoners in Mexico need to pay for their basic supplies.)

They decided to make ten dolls for the upcoming prison art show. When the prison director bought one of the first dolls and guards and visitors began to buy them also, they knew they had a project. They continued making dolls and called them Original Friends Dolls. By the time Rebecca was released in 2010, they had sold over 100 of the one-of-a-kind dolls.

Today Rebecca and Esmeralda continue the prison project providing women the opportunity to make fair pay and use their creativity making the trademarked dolls. Over 1200 hand-painted mermaids, fairies, dancers, witches, crones and more have been sold, each with a unique outfit, name, number and signed by the artist who made it. 

I fell in love with the dolls and the project at Feria Maestros del Arte, a premier folk art festival held each November in Chapala, Mexico. Of course, two mermaids demanded to come home with me. Meet Magda and Mariana.
Magda, artist: Esme
Most of the doll materials are donated scraps, and other found items including, ribbons, lace, buttons, paint, broken jewelry, seed pearls, shells, mirrors, yarn and other bright bits. More information available on Facebook.
All in all the seed of generosity that started this project, has grown like kudzu across borders and communities, spreading creativity and love as it grows.

Mariana, artist Ericka
P.S. And Lupita, the child who sparked this project? She and her mom now live in a small town outside Puerto Vallarta. 

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Generosity: Gratitude in Action … Feria Maestros del Arte

Artist from Chiapas
 After practicing gratitude for a year and a half, I began to be pulled to something else. At first, I thought it was my old nemesis, inconsistency, raising its ugly head again. After awhile though, it felt like something else was emerging, and it seemed to be coming from my new home here in Mexico.

One of the first things I noticed here was the overwhelming generosity of the immigrants to this beautiful but poverty challenged country. I’ve met people from the US and Canada who have started orphanages, medical programs, tuition support programs, food programs, art mentoring programs, language programs and dozens of other helping projects. Most of the people I talk with are so grateful to be living in this amazing country that they want to give back and they are finding thousands of ways to do that.

Artist from Puebla
One example is Marianne Carlson, founder of the Feria Maestros del Arte, an annual event which, over the past 16 years, has become known as the premier folk art festival in Mexico. Most of us are familiar with arts and crafts fairs, but this one sprang from a different source. 
Marianne was traveling around Mexico, finding amazing crafts that she had never seen in stores or galleries. She began to fall in love with the crafts and the artisans and to understand the difficulties they faced in selling their art in order to support their families and continue making their crafts which had been handed down for generations. 
Woodcarving from Oaxaca
Chiapas textile artist
 Marianne founded the Feria to support the artists and to introduce their crafts to a wider audience. The financial arrangement for the Feria is designed to support the artists. Artists pay no booth fee or commission. The Feria raises money to help pay for transportation costs, often renting buses to bring artists from remote villages as far away as the state of Chiapas in the south of Mexico. Artists are housed by local residents, another piece of the generous nature of this event and a cultural interaction that might never happen otherwise. A modest fee is charged visitors and artists donate one piece of their art to help support the event. 
So many colors!
Ribbon hat

Huichol Pompoms
They may look like bright bits of fluff but the making of pompoms are an important Huichol craft for celebrations. Pompoms,  resembling roses in full bloom, signify “the way.” 
Bujo Nahual
While I was taking photos of some wood carvings, the artist handed me the one above. I was struck by it for many reasons but the price was way out of my range so I walked away ... only to come back again, and again. Finally, rationalizing to the nth degree, he'll come home with me tomorrow.
The Feria was born in the cauldron of generosity and I was thrilled to sample just a bit of it today.

This the first in an ongoing series around generosity.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Late into the night we queue ...

Perhaps it was coincidence.

Maybe several people called in sick leaving two hundred weary travelers, men, women, babies and the elderly, inching their way toward three customs agents in the wee hours of the night.

Maybe the two-hour passport-checking process was just a fluke, bad timing, a one-off. Surely, all the empty agent booths were an unplanned happenstance.

Everything else was on time. The plane arrived even a bit early. The luggage could be seen circling the carousel, waiting for owners. It seemed like a normal night and a normal flight with only the last step somehow gone awry.

Two hundred people quietly, tamely moved through the winding maze. No one complained, at least out loud. No one demanded better service. We simply funneled like sheep through the gates of power. 
Nothing dramatic occurred. The customs agents were polite and, presumably, efficient, just doing their jobs.

Surely, it had nothing to do with being a late night flight from Mexico. 

Surely, it was just one of those things: an on-time, scheduled flight being met with inadequate resources.


Friday, November 3, 2017

Three geographical gifts: the United States, California, and Mexico

Papel picado in San Antonio
My word machine is on overdrive. Some sort of dam has burst, flooding me with ideas and words that demand to be freed. I’m supposed to be packing for my trip to California, but my brain refuses to focus on suitcases and such.

Morning after in San Antonio Tlayacapan
As I was walking home from breakfast watching men taking down the colorful papel picado streamers that had decorated the streets for the Day of the Dead celebration here, it suddenly hit me how incredibly gifted I have been geographically. I also realized I’ve never expressed my appreciation for these gifts. It’s time to fill this gap.

United States: I am so fortunate to have been born in the United States. (Of course, being born white to kind, hard working parents who valued integrity also gave me gifts that have taken a long time to fully recognize.) 

The US is a deeply beautiful and resource-rich country that has given me opportunities unknown in other places on our planet. I’ve had access to affordable education, a variety of interesting work situations, and endless places of natural beauty.

While this country has a deep shadow side that pains me to examine, it has also tried to live up to the democratic values expressed by its founders. It’s that yearning for equality, justice, and freedom that makes me love it, even when it falls short of its intentions. (I refuse to make any comments about our current state of affairs.)

Mesilla, New Mexico

Grand Tetons, Wyoming
California: My first husband’s tour in the Marine Corps took us to California in the mid-1960s. It was love at first sight as we settled into a tiny, flood-plain house about a mile from the endless, blue Pacific. It didn’t matter that we were almost immediately flooded in one of the occasional, extremely wet years. I knew California was home and for almost all of my adult life, it cupped my heart in its hands as I explored its mountains, deserts, lakes, rivers and ocean. California gave me a beauty that seeped into every cell.

Owens River outside Bishop, CA

San Francisco Magic
Mexico: California also gave me Mexico as we lived so close to its border. My first crossing was a psyche-jolting experience as the land remained the same beautiful coast, but a human-drawn line in the sand made all the difference. Even after years of crossings, I still barely comprehend the differences, but, somewhere along the way, I realized I was in love with two countries.

Water Dancer: the face of Mexico
 I had forty years to learn the nuances of California. I’m sure I won’t have that long to get to know Mexico, but I’m going to try. It has things to teach me that I will only learn here in a different culture, in a different language.
Wall art, Ajijic, Mexico
 We’ve just finished the Day of the Dead celebration here in Mexico. One of my insights during that time of sorrow and joy was that I have moved from head to heart. Only time will reveal what that really means.

Off to pack.


Gratitude Roses for those thorny problems, issues, challenges, set backs

No, it's not a rose
Funny how things come together. This morning I read an article about gratitude that made me stop and think. For about a year and a half, I have been consistently keeping a gratitude journal. (Not bad for someone who has been consistency-challenged her entire life.) 

I believe passionately in gratitude and my journal has served me well. Recently, however, it has become something of a chore rather than the delight it was in the beginning. (Of course, the fact that I decided to smush two things together and write it in Spanish, probably didn’t help.)

As I was syncing the article to my Evernote folder, I came across something I wrote several months ago when my life was, somewhat unexpectedly, turning upside down. I was feeling stressed and uncertain about my decision to move to Mexico, so here’s what I wrote and what I did in hopes that it might help some of you who have made a life-altering decision and are now wondering about the wisdom of it. 
This morning's article and finding this writing is bringing me back to gratitude and how to make it fresh, delightful, and powerful again.

March 11, 2017

This came to me in a dream, waking me up at four am. (Which, of course, reminds me of John G. Rives great TED talk on the subject …

I have been practicing gratitude now for 40 weeks.
That sentence needs to stand alone because I have never, ever practiced anything consistently in my life (other than teeth brushing, etc.). But, yesterday, I wrote my 280th consecutive entry in my gratitude journal. You may not be amazed, but I am.

A few weeks ago, I was reading Pam Grout’s books recommending that we notice the absolutely awesome things that happen to us every day. I decided I needed to add that to my gratitude practice and, because some experts recommend writing three gratitudes per day, I started a 30-day Facebook process of writing three gratitudes and recognizing one absolutely awesome thing every day. I finished the first 30-day process and am now half-way through the second.

So, what has this practice done for me? Who really knows? This is not a double-blind study. There’s no way to know if my life is one whit different than it might have been without the gratitude practice. All I know is I’m as happy, healthy, and contented as I’ve ever been. My life is an adventure and I’m meeting interesting people, following the passion of writing that called to me as a child, making art that I never dreamed of making and about to change my life in a way that excites me and brings me joy. Not bad for a 71 year-old woman, I’d say. With all the gifts I’ve been given, not to be grateful would be ridiculous.

So, which came first, the chicken or the egg, the gratitude or the gifts? All I know is that being grateful calms me and reminds me of just how fortunate I am. And, what is this four am thing? The idea that woke me up was about creating Gratitude Roses around a particularly complex, stressful, challenging or thorny (sorry!) idea … a deep dive into the gratitude of something that looks more like a pain, trouble or discomfort.

I’m excited about my upcoming move to Ajijic, Mexico … the color and beauty, the weather, the culture and language, the walking lifestyle are all things I’ve wanted for a long time. However, it means doing one more really deep downsize. I’ve done three major downsizings in the last ten years. I like to think I’ve trimmed most of the fat. Now, I have to go even deeper and get rid of almost everything. I have to look at everything around me and ask if I need this thing, this bright bauble, this memory artifact, to bring me joy.
I’ve been stressing out about this a bit. Sometimes more than a bit. I’ve even waffled about the idea of moving. It would be so much easier to stay where I am. I have a comfortable home in a lovely part of the country with good friends and interesting volunteer opportunities. Nothing is making me move … except whatever it is in my core that calls to me to live in Mexico.

The image that was in my mind as I awoke was like a flower with all the gratitudes for why I’m making the move on one side and all the gratitudes for the challenges and discomforts on the other side. The number 12 came with the image. I opened Scrapple, my favorite, simple mind mapping tool, and created the map below. It may not be a pretty rose, but I now feel much calmer and ready for the challenge ahead of me.

I'm going to print this out and stick it on my refrigerator to remind me why I’m doing all of this and how grateful I am to have the time, energy and resources necessary to free myself from stuff and make an international move in this new stage of life.

Gratitude Rose about moving to Mexico
Plug for Scrapple … any form of mind mapping stimulates ideas and helps bring order to your thinking. At only $15, it’s a deal. Great for writers and project organizers as well as all the rest of us just trying to make it through the thorns.


Thursday, November 2, 2017

Day of the Dead #12: Beauty, grace, and an unexpected hollowness

"If nothing saves us from death, at least love saves us from life."
I am beginning to think I might possibly know why I’m here in Mexico. 

Looking through U.S. eyes, there are many things that fall short here. It is not a place designed by a rational person, perhaps not even a place that cottons to the term design but rather more nearly resembles evolution with it’s relentless drive toward diversity.

Street altar in Ajijic
Trying to find a metaphor, I waffled between rabbit warren and ant colony, but finally settled on the mound-building termites which build complex structures several times taller than an adult human and are now being studied for their ability to maintain a constant temperature in the mound in spite of the harsh African conditions. (If you have never read about these mounds, this article will bend your thinking.)

While the mounds lack blueprints and building codes, the individual termites follow their own paths and, somehow, build a complex, effective and, in its own way, beautiful structure that supports the colony and plays an important role in the surrounding habitat.

Another Ajijic version of an altar
This is somewhat how Mexico appears to me. People each doing their own things, living their own lives, raising their families, painting their houses whatever color strikes their fancies or budgets, and, in the process, creating a village, a town, a culture, a country.

Here in Mexico, fireworks are illegal, yet they are also deeply ingrained in the culture. Yes, some people get hurt, some are even killed, but each person makes his or her own choice and everyone else makes space for those choices. Which means we put up with a lot of rockets, barking dogs, middle-of-the-night crowing roosters, and lots of music ... loud, throbbing music. Apparently, this is the price of freedom: tolerance of individual differences and eccentricities.

Here in the lakeside villages, cars seldom honk at each other. So what if you’re driving the wrong way down a one-way street or stopping to talk to a friend or unload a pickup truck full of stuff? And, only the gringos seem to carp about the piles of trash that come and go on a schedule none of us comprehend.

Here in Ajijic, we live in a boundary land: two cultures swirling together like a river running into the ocean. US/Canadian expats accustomed to rules and regulations, law and order, as well as smooth sidewalks, yearn for peaceful perfection while the locals grab onto the gritty imperfections of life, revere Church and family, help stranded strangers, and mock death with endless color, noise and skeletal costumes.

Mexico is a feeling place. With a long history of death, destruction, and devastation, it trusts only family and has few expectations of government. It would rather dance and sing and make each moment of life as colorful as possible than worry about potholes, killer speed bumps or keeping up with the neighbors.

Having lived a thinking life striving for perfection, expecting the world to be a rational place, and willingly ceding personal freedom to the lure of safety and predictability, I am now looking through completely different eyes and what I see baffles, charms, startles and delights me. Living in this feeling world is changing me.

Halloween morning was announced with endless rockets and church bells. By evening the plaza was full of families, excited children running high on sugar and adrenalin. A parade of devotional neighborhood floats, musicians and Aztec dancers proceeded The Virgen as she was carried through the streets to an open mass and back to the old church, followed by music (loud, of course) and then the lighting of the giant castillo (castle of fireworks).
A quiet morning in Ajijic
Today dawned quiet and peaceful. It’s a day for altars, reflection and honoring of the lost loved ones. Later today tour groups will pass through the cemetery, but I wanted to see it before it was crowded with visitors having no connection to the people buried there. I went early thinking it would be empty, but it was already bustling with families adding decorations to the graves, arranging additional flowers, visiting quietly with each other. 
Early morning at the Ajijic cemetery
Walking through the narrow paths between the graves, my heart felt the sorrow, but also yearned for the sense of family and connection that pulsed through the bright flowers, decorated crosses, and murmured prayers. I was clearly an outsider, accepted but not part of the family. Beyond the wonder and grace of the beauty, there was a hollow feeling of having missed something somewhere along the way. 
One of the grave decorations.
All of this made me wonder: who would I be if I had been raised in this very different culture?

Caveat: As someone who has been here a mere six months, I do not expect these musings to represent the truth of an entire country or culture. This is only my current take on what I’m experiencing. I’ll try to do another post this time next year and see how much my understanding has changed.