I was encouraged to read two recent arrests stirred protests over Arizona’s immigration law, glad to know there are civil rights organizations like Corazón de Tucson to rally outside the police department, activists like Alcaraz Ochoa willing to crawl under a Border Patrol vehicle to block them from driving away when the answers they gave him about why they were arresting Rene Meza didn’t satisfy him. It makes me remember I can’t blame all Arizonans for their racist legislation. It reminds me there are people there who didn’t want these laws in place, people who must be as appalled and embarrassed now as I was when our country elected Bush. It makes me remember to have hope.
I’ve longed for ages for a home where I felt like I could spend the rest of my life. When I moved to Sonoma County, it was the first time I had that feeling about a place. I remember driving home from Santa Rosa on Guerneville Road past green farms, the oak-studded hills before me. Look where I live, I thought. When I moved into La Casa Azul in Todos Santos, it was the first time I had that feeling about an actual dwelling. Things went terribly awry with my landlord there, but I remember that giddy feeling, thinking I’d found the home of my dreams. I remember wondering if I’d be able to negotiate the wrought iron spiral staircase when I grew old.
Over the years I’ve built a habit of studying the yards, examining the homes whenever I walk down the street. “Oh, I could live there,” I’d say to myself, caught by the wrap around porch or the climbing wisteria, both pleasure and longing evoked by my ritual, a bittersweet practice. When I lived in Ajijic where buying a home might have been one day more within my reach, I photographed for sale signs. I remember one advertising an empty lot of neatly turned earth, a beautiful brick wall surrounding it, a blue metal gate. I went as far as to look at two homes for sale up in the hills. One was all white and one was green, and they were both two stories tall with miradores that made them seem like three-story homes. I don’t remember any details about the houses themselves, only those marvelous rooftop patios, the views of the village spread out below them, the lake in the distance. I would have lived on those roofs.
Now in my unexpected southern California life, thanks to two dear friends and the workings of a generous universe, I’m on the threshold of having my longing met in the old trailer home I’ve just bought. I don’t get to take possession of it, so to speak, until April, but it has possessed me from day one. It has grabbed me by my viscera, invoking big dreams of a magic home I can grow old in, tending my garden and writing my books, the stark place transformed little by little in the intervening years to lushness and color, where my birds will want to linger chatting together in the bougainvillea or the palos verdes. I can see myself sipping tea on my patio there years from now, watching the sun disappear behind my mountains, the sparrows and the mourning doves scritching among the leftover seeds in the late afternoon quiet. I don’t have words to say how grateful I am, how full this makes me, how much awe it awakens. But I seem determined to try anyway, to fall short but maybe brush the feathers of the thing in my attempt. Thank you, universe. Thank you, dwelling gods. Thank you, especially, my good friends. Thank you.
We were having breakfast together at my favorite place, Palm Greens Cafe, where once when they brought my food I commented about what a glutton I was being, and the kitchen staff serving me smiled an impish smile and said, “Yes, but a gluten-free glutton!” If I hadn’t already been charmed by the place, that alone would have won me over, stolen my word-loving heart. But when Corina told me she was considering Arizona for the next stage of her young wandering life, I think I went into some weird autopilot. I don’t remember half of what I said, only my gluten-free vegan pancakes with blueberries sitting untouched before me during my diatribe and the surprised looks on her parents’ faces across the table. I know I told them I didn’t want to spend one cent in Arizona because of their racist legislation and their lies. (I read one of the reasons they claimed to have crafted the anti-Mexican, anti-immigrant laws was because of increased violence along their southern border. But in truth, violent crime has gone down there in recent years.) I know I told them if I needed to go to New Mexico or Colorado from some reason, I would fill up the gas tank in Blythe and drive straight through their pretty desert state. I know my voice and my words were harsh, maybe shockingly so. I called Corina later to apologize for my vehemence. “I know it’s beautiful,” I said. “I can understand you wanting to go there.” But I’m still praying she’ll pick another spot.
I’d pulled out the travel section of my L.A. Times a few weeks ago and set it aside unread. The cover story was about Mexico, about the northern village made famous for its pottery. Now the next generation are doing marvelous contemporary things with clay, and I’ve saved the photographs of big beautiful pots for my mother to see. There is one in particular I think she’ll enjoy that reminds me of some of her own large slab bowls. Nestled between the images of the pottery is a shot of one side of a village street, and I am transported. It could be any rural village in Mexico–the narrow, uneven sidewalk, the crumbling edges of things, the dirt road, the fading paint on the walls of the buildings. But what makes this so different from a dilapidated block in some U.S. town? Why does it awake a longing in me, a fondness, even, none of the aversion I might feel for the equivalent in this country? Is it the colors, the texture, the light? Is it the lack of despair in that Mexican air that weighs more lightly on the world? And why do I crave it?
When I moved back to the States, I remember my shock at the clean, wide streets, the lavish landscaping. Now I teeter between pleasure in the places where this wealth allows for a clean beauty, the brick and the desert plants and vivid blooms a masterpiece, often echoing our Spanish roots here in the Coachella Valley, and my dismay and disconnection from the places where the clean wealth falls short of this art and only looks garish and sterile, even obscene. But when I see this photograph of the village street in the newspaper, I ache to be there, walking along the banqueta, the sidewalk, my sandals dusty, my skin drinking in that other sunlight, the colors and the textures akin to the earth, to life, to participating in the world in a different way. I can’t quite grasp the words to explain it even to myself. It is a knowledge and a memory of the body, I think, and the spirit, not the mind.
I can feel myself nodding to two women I pass on the street. “Buenas tardes,” I say.
They take me in with their eyes, nod, smile. “Tardes,” they say.
Once I walked from Ajijic to Chapala and back. I don’t remember how many hours I spent doing it, but I remember being present for big chunks of time, taking it all in with new and thirsty eyes. I avoided the highway for all but a two or three block stretch in a couple of spots where it was the only choice. I walked through cobblestone streets in the villages, past horses and cows and goats on the dirt roads on the outskirts. More than once I sensed I was walking where gringos didn’t show up very often, and probably not on foot, a woman alone. I didn’t feel afraid, only conspicuous from time to time.
I hugged the lakeside when I could. I passed old brick buildings, glassless windows, the courtyards swept clean, women doing laundry outside by hand, the cluck of chickens behind low brick walls with bougainvillea spilling over them. Once I stopped for a long time watching a heron standing still in the shallows near the shore, and I felt the richness of the life there, the birds, the water, the place where fertile earth and decay overlap, reminiscent of my visit to the deep south here, maybe Biloxi. I marveled at the idea of owning land beside this lake, how much that would mean to me, but wondering if it could feel like that same opulence to the locals in their poverty. East of San Antonio Tlayacapan there was a stretch where the road became more of a walking path than a road, dotted with shacks, more plywood lean-tos than dwellings. I passed a man and two children. They were sitting at the edge of the road, a piece of plywood for a table, a bag of bread between them, the makings of sandwiches. I remember the surprise on their faces when I appeared. I felt like I’d just walked uninvited through their living room. I can still see the man’s face. He is chewing, and he nods to me in response to my greeting. But his eyes are wary, resentful. I am the invader.
In Ajijic there was a blind man who I came to know a little. I can’t remember his name now. I’ve forgotten it, and the names of other people, names I thought would stay with me always. Was it Luis? The name pops up now, but I can’t be sure. He had a blind person’s cane, red and white, and carried a cup with him. I would see him at the Wednesday tianguis, the outdoor market, or standing in front of one of the supermercados that catered to the expatriates and the tourists. I don’t remember him ever asking for money. There were a few old women there who were pushy and demanding beggars, an odd entitlement I’ve never encountered before. But the blind man was only there with his cup, always cheerful, never pushy. I came to know him a little. We would talk about his family, about the thunder the night before, about what he might be able to do in order to still contribute to his family, about how much he’d like to learn how to play a musical instrument. I remember feeling good when he would recognize me. When I had the money, I would tuck a bill into one of this shirt pockets, tell him in a quiet voice how much I was sticking in there. Because I left so suddenly, I never said goodbye to him. It’s one of my small regrets. But I console myself with pictures of me finding him again one day, of him still remembering me, of being able to explain. “Lo siento mucho que no te dije adios, Luis.” I’m so sorry I didn’t tell you goodbye. “Yo te pensaba muchas veces desde me fui.” I’ve thought of you many times since I went away. I think of him still. I hope one day I find him well.