Things (8)

I don’t have many physical objects to stand for the time I lived in Mexico. I think if my departure had been less quick, maybe I’d have made a point to come back with more things, mementos of my time there. But I had a “knowing” I needed to return to the States, and I left four days later. So I never bought one of those bright-colored baskets the man I liked would carry around Ajijic. I’d had my eye on the big clothes hamper. And I came back with only the one small skeleton, not the collection of dia de los muertos figures I’d imagined. I wanted to buy blankets and rugs, the texture and color that calls me to that country. But I came back without them.

So instead it was the incidental things that returned with us, Lolita Roja packed to her gills with our ordinary possessions. I used the rest of the cinnamon I’d bought in Ajijic in the first few months of our return to the States, and when it was empty, I kept the narrow plastic spice jar for a long time, reluctant to recycle it, its bright orange lid and its Mexican label a strange keepsake. My fondness for the little canela container went beyond the norm. It had lived with us there. And I stretched my aspirin for years, doling out each aspirina tablet like treasure. I loved the Mexican aspirin. I meant to buy more the day I spent in Algodones, but I forgot. They come in small rectangular sheets. You poke them out of their little plastic resting places through the foil backing. You only had to take one. (I did the milligram math when I first moved to Baja California Sur.) They were so handy for slipping into a small zipper pocket. And you could just buy one sheet if you wanted to: eight aspirin. It’s one of the things I love about Mexico–you aren’t penalized if you only have enough money to buy a small amount. The culture isn’t like ours. It’s not all about the more you can afford to buy the less you have to pay for it.

cactus start in waterglass on windowsill

I brought back dried marigold blossoms from the Aldama planters. They have thrived here in my desert garden, my “Mexican marigolds” I wrote about in last year’s blog. They are one of the dearest things I have to remember Mexico by. And on my bathroom windowsill I have another, this little cactus I found in Ajijic. It’s still in the small calcified water glass I placed it in when I first got back to the Aldama apartment with it. When I crossed the border, it was hiding in the trunk. I didn’t know what the rules were, and I wasn’t willing to risk losing this small living evidence of the world I’d left behind. I’ve thought I should plant it in my garden, that it would be happy here. But I haven’t been able to bring myself to do it, our time here uncertain, and I’m still not willing to risk parting with it.

I remember how excited I was the first time it sent out a tiny new shoot. And I remember when I found it, lying in the dirt below its parent plant on the side of the road just west of Ajijic. I’d headed past the cemetery, walked until the road ran to dirt, kept going, all unplanned. I came to big fields with running horses, half-finished dwellings made of red brick. The sounds of the cars on the carretera were faint as I walked, and now and then I caught a glimpse of the lake two blocks south of me. In time I came upon the giant parent cactus, ten feet tall, sprawled behind a brick wall. I stopped on the road to study it. There was a tree in bloom beside it, big puffy cotton-like blossoms. I wanted to come back with my camera. I stood in the road for a long time taking it all in. I felt something ease in me. I hadn’t known how much I needed to get away, how much I’d craved open space, earth beneath my feet, solitude. I soaked up rural Mexico, released breath I didn’t know I was holding, gave thanks. And when I was ready to walk on, I found this little piece of cactus lying in the dirt beside the wall, and I carried it home with care.

Exorcising Demons (7)

It’s my seventh week, and still I’m afraid each time I won’t have anything “good” to write. I worry I won’t be able to enter in, that “having” to tie my post to Mexico will make it boring or contrived. I worry because I think I have already told you all my good stories about Mexico, my first whale, my magic walking loop in Guanajuato. What else? I have brainstormed lists of things I can write about, and still every week I’m afraid. And I don’t want to spend all year afraid. I want to break through this. Surely I can find things I want to say about a place that goes so deep in me, whose images swim through my days, wade through my sleeping dreams, whose people live inside me–vivid, dark skinned, brown eyes alert and present. I want to find my way in and stay there, watch my blog grow, be happy with what I touch, excited about what’s to come, each new waiting post a pleasure, another chance to write about what I love, what moves me, makes me feel, come alive. I want to banish the damn fear once and for all. (Does it ever work that way?)

Brian laughed at me when I told him. “I’m sorry, ” he said, still laughing his wonderful laugh. “I’m afraid you simply can’t feel that way.” He was teasing but not teasing. I know it defies logic, is ludicrous in light of my scribbled lists of topics. But each week I become tight, braced, hands out in front of me, warding off monsters. Nothing to say? Nothing worth reading? Nothing I can remember well enough? So make it up, I think. You told your readers you might write fiction. So, write fiction, then. Easier said. Maybe I’m really afraid I can’t do Mexico justice. How can I bring Ana to life, laughing in the living room on Aldama? Rodolfo, offering me a taste of his exquisite pipián, eager, watching my reaction? Iris, a wonderful sly smile on her face, bringing me my birthday dinner at Il Giardino? How can I let you know what they meant to me, alone in a strange country, my lifelines there? How can I explain why I almost never call them, how even now my heart breaks a little and my eyes fill? How they weren’t only my anchors, my buoys in a foreign land, but they seemed to love me so completely, took me just as I was, found joy in me?

patio at Las Flores Posada in Todos Santos, my writing notebook on the table

I wipe tears away with the back of my hand from where they pool above my upper lip. One stray one slides down my left cheek. The misters cool the pre-dusk air, and a hummingbird alights on one pointy tip of the big cactus, taking in their moist cloud. For now, my fears abate, chased off by this release, I think, and because I’ve touched these memories for myself, even if I am no more confident of presenting them to you. I breathe, and sigh, sip my water, listen to the evening chatter of the house sparrows in the hedge behind me, the pwitter of the mourning dove’s wings as he flutters to the ground from his perch atop the wooden fence in search of fallen thistle seeds. Maybe, I think, I only need to become present to do this without fear. And maybe that’s where I’m afraid of failing.

[Editor’s note: This photo shows my writing notebook and binoculars on the patio at Las Flores in Todos Santos, Baja California Sur.]

Cinco de Mayo Martín (6)

A young man is standing at the bus stop when I arrive. “Do you speak Spanish?” he asks me. We end up talking on the bus together, trading off between English and Spanish, and we don’t stop until over an hour later when we reach my bus stop. It is such a joy. His name is Martín. He lives in Mexicali and is doing my planned trip in reverse, Greyhound from Mexicali to Indio, then our local buses. He is twenty-seven, and he is tall. It runs in his family, his town. From the Spaniards? We wonder out loud. His accent when he speaks English sounds more European than Mexican to me, and I wonder where his teacher was from. I think he may have more English than my Spanish, but he has no chance to practice. Would I be the only estadounidense there? The only gringa? He loves Mexicali, wants to spend the rest of his life there. I tell him I felt that way for the first time when I moved to Sonoma County. He lived in L.A. for a few months when he was fifteen. He was lonely, I think. He missed fútbol.

mountains visible through the bus window

I tell him about the near miss I have just had outside the casino after my Kentucky Derby day with Auntie Christel, how the runaway car might have hit me, only seconds to separate me from its path, stopping on the corner to take stock. “Fue muy ‘creepy,'” I tell him. He gives me the Spanish word for it. Espeluznante? I tell him how grateful I am to be here, safe, alive. He tells me his own story, at a party the week before, moved to go home early only to find his mother lying on the floor. How grateful. We understand each other, the bigness of the events. He is young, I tell him, to be going through this with his mother’s illness. I was twenty-four when my stepfather died, Martín’s age when my father died. I think he knows I know. But there are differences. I hope his mother will get well, and when I needed to call 911, I bumbled, my adrenaline blocking my brain. But Martín became clear-headed and superhuman, scooping his heavy mother into his arms, getting her to the hospital. And he remembered all the details in the process, to bring the phone, grab her meds, lock the door. It was a huge victory for him, and so validating, I think, knowing he could do so well in an emergency. But later, like the time I pulled the big dog off my cat Trair and threw him across the yard, Martín was sore for days. We laugh. I feel glad for him, and proud, even as my heart breaks a little that he needs to go through this.

I ask him to tell me about Mexicali. He names a plaza, and somewhere else that is a good place to walk. I scribble them down on the envelope my horseracing money was in. I will hunt for them when I go, think of him. We don’t exchange phone numbers, and as soon as I am home I am sorry. I would have liked to visit him in Mexicali, meet his family. So now I fantasize his sister in Desert Hot Springs will find my blog, read about my Cinco de Mayo Martín, put us in touch. I am talking on the phone, telling my friend Janice about our meeting, about the sweetness of it, how glad we both were, how grateful. I realize in the telling how meeting Martín felt like a reunion. Maybe one day I will walk in the Plaza Calafia at dusk and find Martín and his mother sitting on a bench, and we will sit together and listen to the birds roosting in the trees. Maybe I will come upon his whole family, strolling one late fall afternoon in the Campos UABC, and Martín and I will have our second reunion. Ah, mucho gusto, Martín. Qué te vayas bien.

Some Sweet News

First I want to say I have no plans to fall behind this year on my blog posts. I did drop the ball, missed my Sunday night deadline to post my sixth post in the sixth week. But I had a good excuse–my computer had trouble, and I literally couldn’t finish it. (Actually, I finished typing it up from my handwritten copy and then erased it when my mouse stopped working. So I typed it again, and then I wasn’t able to open my browser to post it. So. I am posting it shortly, and I have every intention of posting the seventh one this week as planned. ;-)

But what I wanted to share with you is some good news about my writing. I’ve been entering writing contests feverishly (!) since the beginning of last year. I have about five “polished” pieces I enter most often, three short stories and two short nonfiction pieces. So far, all but one of the nonfiction pieces has made it to the final rounds. A few weeks ago, I’d wondered whether or not I was being silly to keep entering contests, that perhaps my writing was not yet honed enough to win. A day or two later, I found out my short story, “Intended” (the one I thought surely may be too weird for most people in the world), had essentially tied for first place with three other finalists. It didn’t win, but one of the editors from the Writing Site, Tima Smith, told me “Intended” is “engaging, surprising and evocative.” She said my writing is “top-notch.” I was so excited and encouraged, happy the universe was whispering (or shouting?!) for me to continue entering my work.

And on Cinco de Mayo, a long, intense day with the full moon at the end of it–prayers for my commitment to writing to flourish, rattles shaking as I stood on a chair to see the rising full moon over the hedge–I checked my email to discover my short story, “Between My Ribs,” had won first place in the annual short story contest of the local Writers Guild. My first win! I hooted and hollered and was in big awe. I have told my friends and family, of course, but I wanted to let all of you know. You’ve been so encouraging of my writing here. I knew you would like to share my sweet news.

I feel honored and grateful and oh so glad. It feels a bit like a dream now, but a good one–coming true.

Fruta Picada (5)

The first time I saw a street vendor selling fresh-cut fruit in Mexico I was wandering through a residential neighborhood in Cabo San Lucas, where a man wielded a small portable set-up, rolling it along the banquetas there, the sidewalks. His work area held whole fruit, cucumbers and pineapple prepped for making slices, his tools, his cutting board, his kitchen towel. It was framed of wood and bordered on three sides by glass. I watched from a small distance, fascinated, while people stopped to make their requests, listening to the rapid-fire Spanish, the different selections. In Ajijic we had a fruit stand every day at the edge of the plaza, and one just east of town on the carretera, the highway. Wednesdays another family always set up shop at the top end of the open-air market, the tianguis. You could find mango and melons, papaya and cucumbers and jicama, sometimes huge bosenberries or bright red strawberries or pineapple, fresh coconut. When there was time, they’d make up clear plastic cupfuls in advance, all cantaloupe or watermelon, or a mixture of berries, the bright colors and succulent fruit a still life on the street. Or you could ask for your own particular combination from the fruit on hand, and they’d prepare it for you. Some vendors use a dry blended chili powder; others offer a chili sauce. Always there is fresh lime and salt. The first time I tasted limon y sal y chile on fruit, it surprised me, all that hot, tangy, salty sweetness. But it grabbed me, too. I loved it. And when I was counting calories, I’d go for the cucumbers.

cut fruit and cucumbers in plastic cups in Mexico

I remember stopping once at the fruit stand on the highway east of town. I was walking home from shopping at the Super Lake grocery store in San Antonio Tlayacapan. I sat on the curb near La Floresta with my large plastic cup of cucumber spears with lime and salt and chili sauce. I savored each long luscious slice, dipping again and again into the spicy red sauce pooling at the bottom of the clear plastic. And our first day on the mainland, the cats and Lolita Roja and I found fruit as if by magic en route to San Blas. The downhill road to the coastal town wound its way through the trees, and at one slow turn three women materialized in front of my car, apparitions with cups of cut fruit in their hands. I got flustered–by the unexpected suddenness, the blind curve, the rapid Spanish, my own ambivalence and groggy brain after a day of driving. I pulled over on the side of the road and chose one container of mixed melons and one of green mango. When I told them I wanted to save the fruit for later, they put the chili powder and the salt in little plastic bags for me, gave me whole limes. We stayed two nights in San Blas, time for the cats to recover from their ferry crossing nightmare. I made three meals of the fruit. It was the perfect thing. I would sit on the veranda outside our room in the warm April breeze eating green mango con limon y sal y chile. I watched the lighthouse revolve, watched our little patch of water move up the estuary, slow and quiet. I listened to the grackles calling from the trees, from the rooftops. I licked lime juice from my fingers and studied the houses down the street and wondered what it might be like to live there.

patch of estuary with lighthouse on the opposite bank

view up San Blas street from veranda

[The photo of the fruit is copyrighted by antefixus21 and can be found here:]