Crossing (30)

I am fascinated by the boundaries between us. Borders between countries, lines drawn on rock, boundaries between people, between cultures–arbitrary or innate, they separate us, define us. But boundaries aren’t just barriers. They provide the arena for moving back and forth between the two. They offer the possibility of exchange. I can ride the charter bus from the Coachella Valley to Algodónes. I can walk across the border and be in Mexico. One line, drawn no doubt by nations after war, shouldn’t be able to make so much difference. I’ve studied the border from the bus, the way the fence runs through the desert, a jagged monster, the sprawling remains of extraterrestrials. I can find no clues, no evidence that one side of the fence should be so different from the other.

shot of the border looking toward Mexico from the U.S.

But walk a few yards toward el otro lado, the other side, and you can feel the change. It is of the body, I believe, and not the mind, yet I return to it again and again and again, wanting to make sense of it, trying to figure it out. When I walk across, my body knows I’m in a foreign country. Because I lived there once, it feels like coming home, but this is a comfort of the heart, I think, the soul, and not the body. The body knows this is not the land where it was raised. It’s not geography. My scrutiny of the fence line across the desert between us revealed nothing, only made me marvel, knowing just across it lives another world, a stone’s throw only, two crows flying. The land doesn’t change at the border, but we breathe different air. Spanish diphthongs and mariachi and sidewalks all sing Mexico. Grackles call out in their native tongue. Our bodies know.

If Looks Could Kill (29)

When I first moved to Todos Santos I bought my produce from a place on the main drag, the road the two-lane highway became as it zagged through town. The woman there was never kind to me, a rarity in Mexico. I annoyed her with my questions and my faltering Spanish. She answered me in a sharp, curt voice. She looked at her friends, rolled her eyes, said things I couldn’t understand and laughed. I don’t know how long it took me to stop going there. I found a new place in the north of town, a kind of glitzy store for the expatriates, but the staff were sweet and helpful. I bought produce from a local organic farmer, an estadounidense who camped out on the sidewalk downtown two mornings a week. Once I bought a bag of arugula from him–huge dark green leaves like I’ve never seen before or since. I brought it to my friend Iris at Il Giardino, and someone at the restaurant sauteed it with a little oil and garlic. It’s still a favorite meal of mine, especially with the brown rice pasta I’m in love with now.

streets and shops in downtown Todos Santos

One day when I walked past the produce place where I used to shop, the woman made a point of glaring at me. I remember the way she held my passing glance, her head moving, slow and deliberate, to keep me in her gaze as I walked past the open air stall. For a moment, I wondered if she was angry with me because I stopped buying from her. But that was only my logic, only me trying to make sense of what was happening. But logic wouldn’t help me here. Because as I watched her, she bared her lips in a snarl and her cheeks pinched up. It was more fierce than a wild animal might have been, cornered and terrified, lashing out. The look in her eyes was pure hatred, her face made grotesque by it. I scuffed my toe on the pavement, stumbled, her venom like a blow. I turned my back and kept walking. My arms trembled, my cloth shopping bags suddenly too much to keep upright. I let them dangle as I climbed the hill toward home. I wondered how she could hate me that much. She didn’t even know me. But to her I was the ugly American. To her, I was the reason her once-tiny fishing village teetered on an unknown brink, invaded by foreigners building palatial homes north of town, the growing middle class of Mexicans only beginning to get their footing, the huge disparities creating terrible tension just beneath the surface of her world. To her, I was to blame for everything that was wrong with her life. I’ll never forget the look on her face or the shock of that poison spewing out at me.

Dark As Night (28)

Dark as night the heads of children racing back and forth across the plaza shouting, hair shiny in the early dusk. Dark as night the grackles roosting in the jacarandas of the zocoló. Dark the skin of every single body in the crowded square, except her. Old men, young women, clustered, Spanish a loud, steady murmur, the rapid curve of a summer creek, as steady as the grackles calling from the trees, a cacophony of conversation, a mad frenzied orchestra tuning up. Dark as night the glistening black feathers, dark the skin, dark the grackle silhouettes, dark of every being in the zocoló but her, her white skin a bruised thumb, dumb with her estadounidense self. She would lose her Puerto Rican friend over a careless email about walking through the plaza in that Sunday twilight, the dirty cement, the alien dark-skinned world, her senses dulled by too much beer. Not racism, though, only sinking in a sea of otherness, aching and alone. But now she dreams of it like dessert. She’ll go again, sit nodding, smiling on a bench, tears sliding down her face in the half light. Eyes closed, the symphony surrounds her. The grackles make her heart dance in her chest, bump against her ribs. She holds still in the center of that boisterous foreign world where language is music. Her white skin gets lost in the late dusk until her estadounidense self all but disappears. She sits there while the light slips away, until it feels right to be there in the heart of things, dark as night and plain as day.

[Editor’s note: This piece was begun with a writing prompt from my Monday night writing workshop led by Alaina Bixon. We were told to begin a poem with a cliche. Thank you, Alaina.]

Africa? (27)

I dream I am in a foreign country. I drive across a sprawling city where there are no tall buildings, and all the roads cross on the diagonal. Later, I am in a big high-ceilinged room with a hundred children. They are all busy talking in a language I don’t recognize. When I leave, I drive on a narrow dirt road barely as wide as my car. The road peters out into a path, wide enough for people or burros, and in the dark I picture people walking there. The sides of the trail are covered with sand, spotted with scrubby vegetation, though I have the sense of trees in the distance, and open, undeveloped land that goes on and on toward the east. I turn the car around, thinking about my afternoon with the children.

My mind is working on the differences between this world and my own. I feel like I did when I first moved to Baja California Sur. I was glad I had driven there even though the driving itself was nightmarish. But it gave me a clear sense of the vast wilderness that lay between me and the border, long open distances like in the dream. I remember in those first weeks in Todos Santos noticing all the differences between the two worlds, my mind on overdrive, always comparing, contrasting, wondering, discerning.

image of sky and lush wild green with mountains in the distance

There were little things and big ones everywhere I looked. In Mexico, the check is never brought to your table at a restaurant until you ask for it. In Mexico, you never approach someone in a store only to blurt our your question or your demand. You say good afternoon, buenas tardes. ¿Como está? How are you? You make contact first, present, courteous. In Mexico, you might sit on the patio reading or working online. You might forget you are in another world. But then you glance over your shoulder and see an iguana as big as your leg from the knee down, as thick around as your muscled calf. He is eating leaves in a nearby tree, his chewing slow and relaxed. He seems benign, but to have him munching yards away from your table is surreal.

In my dream, as I get the car turned around and head back the way I came on the dirt road, I remember how it felt when I couldn’t quiet my brain, couldn’t stop taking the measure of all things. I am doing it, too, in the dream, comparing the culture of this undeveloped country with my own. I watch the sandy banks beside the road in the headlights. I like this foreign land. But it will be much harder, I think, to come to understand the differences between this world and mine without knowing the language here. I’ll have to get to work on that.

Seasons (26)

I’ve heard the mockingbird singing from the top of the fan palm three mornings in a row. Today when I was lying on my back in the courtyard on my yoga mat, I listened to the verdin’s sweet three-note call. I pictured him sitting in the pine tree, his bright yellow cap and cheerful eyes hidden among the long green needles. Last week, both the hibiscus and the apricot mallow began to bloom again. The crickets have woken up, too. In spite of still mostly three-digit temperatures, they all recognize the secret signals, a heady mixture of the fewer hours of high heat each day, the angle of the sun making its way south, the nights in the seventies. And they aren’t grumbling like I am–tired of the heat, my tolerance used up–though they have more reason to than I who could escape it. They don’t indulge in weariness–they bounce. They celebrate in song, in bloom.

Apricot mallow with the sun shining on fuzzy leaves and one bloom

And their festivities cheer me on. I relish the feel of the cotton sheet over me in the early hours of the morning, the occasional weight of Sofia against leg or hip, missing for months now, a welcome surprise. I look forward to the day when I’ll be seeking the warmth of the sun on the patio when I do my yoga instead of hiding from it. I’ve lived in California most of my life, and still I bristle when someone tells me there are no seasons here. They are subtle but marked. Do not tell me otherwise. Soon the long clusters of green berries on the fan palm will ripen, and the starlings will feast, scattering in shiny black chattering when I walk outside. The days will grow shorter, the blue of the sky deeper. Riding my bike will become sheer bliss. Sometimes I think our desert, where some claim we have only two seasons, may mark the changes in the year more clearly than other parts of the state. Though I realize the changes are less visual than visceral. Here in the fall we begin to reawaken. We return to a state of grace, of ease in the outdoors.

one red hibiscus bloom, cropped

The seasons were subtle in the places I lived in Mexico, too. But they were undeniable unless you just weren’t paying attention. In Todos Santos, the summer rains made for muggy heat, a boon for bugs, biting and otherwise. But it washed the dusty desert clean, changed the color of the world, the lush plant life made new. In winter you could go barefoot in the warm dry days. I remember sitting in my third-floor roost in La Casa Azul, my feet propped up against the rebar railing, marveling at being barefoot in the middle of January. You knew it was winter there by the nights. In Ajijic, jacarandas trumpeted the burgeoning spring, their lilac blossoms littering the cobblestones. The “rainbirds” were the harbingers of the summer rains, not birds at all but insects, a kind of cicada, I think. You could mark the onset of the rains on the calendar from the date you first heard the rainbirds sing. Autumn there meant a world of green, the hills bathed in all their new-growth glory after months of nightly rain. And fresh, sweet corn was everywhere.