Fast Food (51)

When I lived in Todos Santos, I would ride the bus to Cabo San Lucas to pick up the mail sent to me from my box in northern California. I would go to the Burger King there, indulge in a Whopper that tasted remarkably like the ones here in the States. (When I was an adolescent, I remember my disappointment when my girlfriend and I found a McDonald’s in Germany but the hamburger there still tasted like a foreign country.) In Cabo San Lucas, hamburger in hand, I’d walk along the harbor, or sit perched on the steps overlooking it, and savor the familiar taste as I chewed. After, I’d go to the Häagen-Dazs store and eat ice cream. Before Cabo San Lucas, I never even knew they had Häagen-Dazs stores. I haven’t seen once since. But the best fast food I had in Mexico was the morning after the cats and I had crossed over to the mainland on the ferry from La Paz. We were stopped in line before a toll booth, and a man came up to my window. He had a small blue and white cooler with him. I don’t remember what he called his wares, but I bought one. The plastic bag was warm, and that surprised me. He was using the cooler to hold in the heat. I paid him, then caught up with the toll booth line, and headed south along the toll road. I remember there were big black birds in the trees lining the highway, their calls an exotic din. I unwrapped the plastic bag, warm skinny rolled tortillas, like taquitos only not fried. They were filled with potatoes and a glimmer of meat, and I remember how tasty they were, how good the freshness and the warmth felt in my mouth. I remember marveling to think that kind of homemade breakfast would find me on the highway like that. I can still see the diffident way the man walked toward my car, the blue and white cooler in his hand. And I can still feel the soft warmth of the tortillas against my fingers while I ate and drove, the air alive in grackles.

Taking It to the Street (50)

Last Saturday I spent the day selling books and bowls and all sorts of other things at my sidewalk sale. I called it that in the craigslist post because I liked the sound of it. We don’t have a sidewalk along this property, but I spread blankets and sheets over the gravel where the sidewalk would be if we had one, and I lined up my boxes of books, my Tupperware, my clothes. I swept the street the night before, and after my 11-hour stint that Saturday, I swept it again, feeling small chills as I moved the broom across the asphalt, the precursors of heat stroke, I imagined. So yesterday when the neighbor’s gardener blew a bunch of debris into the gutter in front of my home, I was already in that mode. I headed out with my broom again. I swept the blacktop and remembered how in Todos Santos, people would rake the dirt road in front of their property. They carved neat tracks in the sandy dirt, and in the dry seasons they would hose it down, the water poking holes in the tidy grooves the rake had made. Downtown, where the roads are paved, shopkeepers would wash the sidewalks in front of their stores with soapy water. I remember being surprised, at first, and yet it seemed so natural, so right. Of course, I thought. Claro que sí. Of course we should each tend our own little section of the street.

Dreaming Home (46)

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.

for sale sign, white veranda, yellow blossoms

for sale sign, metal gate

for sale sign, bougainvillea and rock wall

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.

Closer to the Earth (44)

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?

yellow house

window and flowers

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.

The Waxing Light (41)

I am lying on my back on my yoga mat. I’ve come late to my practice today, so I’m on the living room floor, chased inside by the cold air. I move my head, and I can see the last light in the sky through the window, still visible in contrast against the darkness of the bougainvillea leaves in the late dusk. The white of the sky is a soft glow, like muted neon or dimmed florescence. I turn my head back, and my eyes sweep the little row of snow globes on the windowsill. There is something peculiar about them this evening, something caught in their curved glass. I check the sky again. Are there clouds up there, still lit by the sun long lost to our edge of the valley here beside the mountains? Sometimes the clouds are lit golden. But there are no clouds, and it’s too late really for them to still catch and hold the sun’s light from their heights. And then I realize what I’m seeing. It’s the Christmas lights I have woven around the bougainvillea trunk and branches. The green and blue and red and amber lights are showing up in my snow globes, five strands glowing there in miniature. I’ve always loved them, I think, in part because they’re little worlds, and they’ve never felt more like that than this moment with these tiny strings of lights alive in them.

Five colored lights against the stepping stones

Glass bird in window with white feathers

I think of the lights I laced along the curtain rod in my Ajijic apartment, looping down into the windows so people would see them from the street below. I remember the white glass bird hanging there, a photograph somewhere, the white tail feathers floating against the window screen. I think of the rounded yellow bird so like that white one, that hung on my shower rod with three glass hummingbirds in Santa Rosa, and the shock of the crash when the rod gave way that afternoon, nothing but glorious shards left in the bathtub. I think of the new glass rooster on my patio table, sunlight through the red glass of his comb, his tail, his wattles. It is my love of color and light that leaves me always reluctant to take down my Christmas lights. I left them up late in Ajijic, too, though I felt self-conscious about it there. Would this be another mark of my crazy estadounidense self? Here I don’t seem to care what my neighbors think of me, the solar lights still sharp and vivid in the hedge beside the gate at night.

two tall palm streets strung with white lights

But I was glad all out of proportion to see two people in my neighborhood who still have their lights turned on, too. I asked Ana about it once, if people in Ajijic ever left their Christmas lights up despues del año nuevo, after the new year. She told me some people wait until after Candlemas to take them down. Candlemas is the Christianized name for one of the main pagan holidays on February 2nd. The Catholics call it the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. But as I understand it, we celebrate the waxing of the light. I told Ana I liked that idea, a kind of sanctioned extension of my pleasure in the lights. What better way to honor the growing light than with these bright colors in the dark? When I finish my yoga, I move on hands and knees to the windowsill, stare deep into the small glass globes. It is a wonder, I think, these tiny strands of light that stretch within them, sharp and clear and luminous. I bow to the light in each and every one of us. Namaste, indeed.

Here’s to No More Sneers (38)

Learning a language is hard. I’ve studied Spanish off and on for most of my life, and still I am far from what I consider true fluency. When I first moved to Mexico, my words were molasses, poured in fits and starts, agonizing for Mexicans used to their light rail speech. But with very few exceptions, busy retail folks who were fluent in English and wanted me to just get on with it, the people I tried to speak to showed genuine welcome for my efforts, helped me when they could, all smiles and nods and encouragement.

You have to be willing to look like an idiot to learn a new language. You have to do what we are so bad at in this country, feel foolish and stumbling, bumble your way through it, reach for humor if you can in your embarrassment. It’s the only way to move forward. In Mexico, the people in my world there let this be the best it could be. It was still awkward. We don’t like to look stupid. But their reception of my halting, error-ridden Spanish made it okay to keep going, keep practicing. Their welcome of my efforts balanced out the excruciating discomfort.

I wish I could say we returned this favor for immigrants in the United States. And I’m sure in some cases it is returned, kind estadounidenses nodding and smiling and making every effort they can to understand, to appreciate the stumbling English, to welcome the effort. But more times than I can count, instead I see native English speakers here grow rigid when they hear a Mexican accent. Their faces stiffen. Mouths sneer. They seem critical and impatient. In many cases, the immigrant may actually be relatively fluent in English, but the heavy accent alone seems enough to trigger this ugly response.

And if we know how hard it is to learn a second language, how much one needs to practice and practice, feeling like a fool the whole time—is it any wonder many immigrants don’t make themselves this vulnerable as often as they might? If they learn to expect an 80/20 chance, perhaps, that their efforts will be treated with contempt? How many times would you put yourself out on that trembling limb for any occasion where life doesn’t require you to speak a foreign tongue?

Not to Mention (37)

I become granite when I hear “English only” bandied about in this country. I don’t even try to be civil. All respect flies away. I am mean and hard, an unreasoning wall. I’ve even heard people complain about Spanish signage in Home Depot. How do they think this can hurt them? “These people should learn to speak the language,” they say. They mean Mexicans. My teeth clench. My skin crawls. I want to spit on them.

“How many languages do you speak?” I want to howl. Do you have any idea how hard it is to learn another language? Not to mention the fact that our corner of the country used to be Mexico. Not to mention the fact that when California became a state it was under the condition that it be bilingual. If we hadn’t broken that pledge, those of us who came up through the public schools here would all speak Spanish fluently. If we hadn’t broken that pledge, maybe I wouldn’t have to listen to the screaming racism underneath their words. Maybe I wouldn’t have to turn to stone.