In my kitchen a collection of bottles sits on the floor beside the stove for a year. One clear glass gallon, three liters of thick glass, the palest green, one mangled plastic pint the perfect size for watering my Christmas cactus and the little squared cactus piece I found beside the road that day in Ajijic when I wandered out of town and found horses and a peace I didn’t know I needed. And four Wild Tonic bottles from when I was addicted to kombucha, their deep blue irresistible. In the courtyard this summer’s glorious batch of bird seed sunflowers lie flat across the edge of the cement for two weeks. I’m not sure why they fell down this year, but I suspect the skunks and their vigorous rooting for bugs in the night. I cut off all the dead or dying blooms when I clean out the bed, cluster all 18 face up beneath the bougainvillea, the different sizes and shades of green and brown, the black seeds peering out, waiting for the mourning doves, unexpected art. I find one small fresh blossom, bring it inside. I wash the dust off one of the Wild Tonic bottles, fill it with water, place the small sunflower inside, the leaves fluttering out. I set it beside me in the living room, the vibrant yellow of its little self, the vivid shine of the indigo glass. They feed me for days.
I dream I leap from a rooftop on a clear day. I fly across the water, dazzling bright. I think it’s a small sea, but I don’t know where. In the dream I think about how the East Bay is close to the water, too. But this is closer, like the lake that comes right to Ajijic, and there is the flavor of another country. Morocco? I fly above a market street that climbs a hill. It is lined with storefronts open to the street, bright fabrics, colorful produce. There are no cars, only lots of very tall people walking up and down the hill, filling the roadway. One young man levitates before me, intercepting my flight path. I feel no sense of alarm. I am surprised but glad. It makes me happy knowing other people can fly here, too.
I light five candles for the pagan holiday today, pick flowers from our courtyard garden. They are still out on the patio table. I peeked at them a bit ago, watching them through the kitchen window, something reassuring and ancient about the look of those five flames lighting the dark. It’s been like early summer in the middle of our Palm Springs winter, that delicious evening air that feels like velvet against your skin. Or maybe you are the velvet—it is hard to know. It reminds me of one evening years ago sitting in the warm pool at Tassajara, the water and the air and my skin all one temperature so you couldn’t tell where one began or ended, the closest I have ever felt to being literally one with air and sky and water. The days have grown warmer than I’d choose, wanting as I am to push summer off as long as I can, but how can I complain about this evening air? It is like January in Ajijic, bare feet braced against the railing of my third floor roost, my northern Californian self almost gloating. I was barefoot in January. Now seven winters later I am spoiled in this. But still, I want to linger, wallow in the sweet, soft ease of it. Happy Candlemas, everyone.
When I lived in Ajijic, the lake flooded. It wasn’t the worst the village had lived through. People told me years before Lake Chapala came two blocks into town. The year I was there, she only swallowed the shoreline. But I remember the eery feeling I had seeing everything submerged. I used to be able to walk straight down Aldama from my hillside home, then walk along a dirt path that hugged the southern edge of the village beside the lake. All of that was submerged, even the cobblestones of my street disappearing into the water. I stood there for a long time listening to the lapping of the small waves, felt my mind twisting with the reality before it. I walked across town, approached the lake from the west.
I marveled at the way the basketball courts had vanished, the hoops sitting out in the water. The lake edged the tennis courts at the fence line as if by design. I watched the egrets sitting on the chain link, their unexpected furniture. The little sign asking people not to bother the birds was still visible, the tree it was posted beside surrounded by lake. Two people passed me on horseback, the horses legs churning up the mud. I cringed at what their hooves might find, hoped they wouldn’t be injured. It all made me glad I lived on the hillside, as often as I might have looked at homes nearer the lake with a certain longing. On the hillside, the thunder gods sat on our red tile roofs and laughed. But when the rains came, the rivers of our streets ran away from us. I stood watching the horses heading east where I couldn’t follow. I choose thunder, I thought.
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.
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.