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Entry No. 13
November 1, 2004
Everness

They hung paper streamers across the plaza the other day. These brightly colored paper cutouts known as “papel picado” are used throughout the year to dress up every Mexican fiesta but this is the time when they really get to shine. This is Dios de los Muertes, the season when every Mexican family pays respect to their dearly departed. While the American tradition of dressing in costume has a great appeal here to a culture that loves street theater, the unique customs of Day of the Dead are still honored with an outpouring of energy typical of this culture’s approach to celebrations. Unlike the other fiestas we’ve experienced since we’ve arrived (and there have been many!) where the papel picado strung across the streets are the more common, machine made cutouts, they now take the time to carefully hand-cut them with elaborately detailed designs. Then they are raised prominently right across the main plaza to fly in the breeze until the ancestral spirits are chased back to heaven at the end of November 2nd.

All this fuss about the spirits of the dead seems odd to me because something tells me its superstitious and irrational. Certainly a night spent at father’s grave with candles, incense and plates of food to beckon him back doesn’t fit neatly into my experience or understanding. The vigil part makes some sense, but the plates of food? I’m sure this is where I part ways. The spirits aren’t actually returning are they? And a bit peckish at that? But then, what exactly are these plates of food? The very things papa enjoyed while living; enchiladas mole, chicken with rice and beans, cerveza fria. These simple details soon expand into a flood of memories and regardless of what logic may not allow, those memories have now created a presence. Dear papa has arrived in the circle of those who share his memory. Now whether or not he likes the same old cooking…

My culture chooses to denigrate the value of the emotional, irrational mind, largely to its own detriment. There are some very fundamental and persistent enigmas that can’t be approached any other way. The rational day cycles with irrational night and they both have their place and time. As much as we try to banish the irrational, it never really disappears. I began thinking about my culture’s rituals to see how the irrational sneaks in the back door.

The rituals we all share are almost transparent, so much so that we would hardly see them as superstitious. What is with lighting and blowing out candles on a birthday? Or what is the “laying of the cornerstone” ceremony, or even the singing of the National Anthem at ballgames? Why do we do these things? Well, because they feel right and because they are the right thing to do. And actually that’s reason enough. Rituals only persist as long as they “feel right”. Those that lose that emotional connection, or those that succumb to logic and are designated “silly” or “old fashioned” tend to fade away. It could happen to the candles on the cake. It’s what happened to the curtsy. And then there are the other behaviors that become “just a superstition”, like those encounters with black cats, ladders and sidewalk cracks. Hard to imagine they were all highly respected ritual behaviors at one time, ignored only at great risk.

So, are all rituals eventually doomed to the ash heap of “silly superstitious behavior”? Maybe, but I don’t think its appropriate to judge their worth based on whether or not they are sensible, or even logical. Even the rituals we buy into completely and follow habitually look a little silly when you step aside and get “objective” in that way. The only reason that really matters is whether they help us to connect to a shared emotional experience, not whether they look silly to some third party. A wonderful thing happens when we can give ourselves over to a commonly shared ritual. To perform a ritual that your community holds dear, and to perform it with conviction and absolute focus can be uncommonly powerful. We’re just awfully self-conscious about the whole ordeal because we’re sure that somebody will call us on it at any time. Just what the heck are you doing anyway?

The Mexicans don’t seem to care. They have a long list of strange goings-on that they seem to get a kick out of doing just because they’re weird. The last thing they seem to care about is what somebody might think. It’s a helpful counter balance to try to participate, if only to help me lose that smartypants knowitall. I feel myself getting anthropological as I become self conscious about participating, telling myself that I need to do this thing because it’s a culturally significant event, not because I am truly connecting emotionally. But if those innocent days of direct participation in experience are long past, I can at least follow the trail that leads from the “cultural experience”. And if that is the only route now left to me, I say take it. Maybe I’ll lose the self-consciousness with practice.

The stalls in the Plaza Civica are filled with sugar-paste figurines. These “alfiniques” are sold to the families building their altars (“ofrendas”) that call out to those loved ones now dead who need a place to come to on the only day of the year they are allowed back to this earthly plane. The sweetness entices. The fragrant marigolds and copal incense lead the way. The plates of food nourish the soul during the time it must spend here. The candles provide the light for the nighttime journey. By the end of November 2nd loud fireworks are required to chase the spirits back to the heavens, that’s how good the hospitality is. All this is superstitious of course. Unless it’s something else not at all simpleminded, connecting these people to death and to life, to a family of elders now dead, as well as to their living family now offering their respect. An incomprehensibly powerful ritual for them. A superstition to us in our lack of understanding.

—Dave

Everness

One thing does not exist, oblivion
God, who saves the metal, saves the dross
And stores in his prophetic memory
moons that have still to come, moons that have shone.
Everything is there. The thousands of reflections
which between the dawn and the twilight
your face has left behind in many mirrors
and those faces it will go on leaving yet.
And everything is part of that diverse
and mirroring memory, the universe;
There is no end to its exigent corridors
And the doors that close behind you as you go;
Only the far side of the sunset’s glow
Will show you at last the archetypes and splendors.

—Jorge Luis Borges

Elements on the "ofrenda"; photos calavera (skulls),marigolds, and papel picado
Hand made papel picado around the Jardin
More papel picado streamers in front of the Parroquia
A candle vendor in his stall in the Plaza Civica
Sugar paste alfeniques
Bright alfeniques
An ofrenda altar in the streets of San Miguel
Poinsettias in the morning light
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November, 2004
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Entry No. 14
November 8, 2004
The Road Ahead

Participating in an election from off-shore is an interesting experience. You send your absentee ballot in via express mail service, like UPS or DHL, and pray that everything is legitimate with it and that your voter registration as a citizen living outside the country hasn’t sunk into some bureaucratic cesspool. It’s the first time I’ve ever paid for the privilege of voting. The night of the election we watched with Charlotte on her TV in the upstairs apartment and waited in silence, like that of an impending death, for the west coast polls to close and votes to come in. By the time we finally gave up to go to bed around 11:30pm the map looked pretty red.

And now we have the Texan for another 4 years. Sigh. For my relatives out there wondering what went wrong with my Indiana up-bringing to turn me into a Democrat, a most distasteful moniker in those parts, suffice it to say it’s been a long and winding road. One that started way back when as a student at IU, sashayed through severe social service cuts under Reagan economics, and hoofed a trail in the trenches of nursing and healthcare through Indiana, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Illinois. Mark me as one of those crazy liberals, I suppose, but I don’t care. I’ve seen too much to disillusion myself that privatization and smaller government is going to make the lives of the people – especially the poor and disenfranchised – better. (Anyone ever hear of Enron, or tales of drug companies pursuing the all-mighty dollar at the expense of our safety?) It’s been a long, cringing four years, and the stretch ahead looks even longer.

The Mexico morning of November the third, the day after the election, broke without so much as a whimper. The sun rose over the hills to our east and glorified the Sierra Madres to the west in their usual daily splendor. The señoras swept the streets and sidewalks in front of their houses as well as their roofs, evident from the water pouring through downspouts from above. The streets came alive with people going to work, delivery and vendor trucks making their rounds, taxis hustling fares to and from their destinations. Church bells rang the hours, and school bells marked the beginning of yet another school day. It was life in Mexico as usual without the hint of a monumental presidential election to the north. No feelings of dashed hopes were evident like I, and many of my friends, were experiencing – not unlike the morning in Boston after the 1986 World Series loss.

So maybe there is hope after all.

Dave and I dove back into our artwork, spending most of our days in our studio. Wanting a break from rendering people, I broke out into an experimental painting of flowers on hand-made local paper and another painting of nochebuenas, or poinsettias as we know them, which grow in profusion in gardens throughout the city. I’m now concentrating on finishing a dancer in native costume from one of the fiestas a few weeks ago. Likewise, Dave has just finished a zen-like triptych of a fount within a chapel courtyard. We’re looking ahead to the December art show at the Instituto as our first entry into the art market here.

To get away for a day and do some exploring, we took a small side trip last weekend to Minerales de Pozos, an old silver and gold mining town originating to the late 1500’s. The mines were closed and flooded in the early 1900’s as a result of the Mexican revolution, and from that point the town sank into decline and lay in ruins with the population dropping to a few thousand. In the last 10 years the town has seen a resurgence of activity through tourism and the arts. Two new hotels have opened on the central square and several artists have relocated to Pozos with the hopes of initiating an artist and art center there. Forty-five minutes northeast of San Miguel, the town is a fascination with crumbling 100+ year-old walls adorning nearly every property and street, reminder of the thriving past. The pace of life is bucolic – no fast food establishments, no major industry – just humble houses and winding streets where it’s not unusual to smell manure as you stroll along nor to see a herder and his dog bring their flock of sheep home through the streets to their evening paddock.

Living by example tells me life goes on. My team has lost this time, but not by much. Who knows what four years will bring? Maybe, as Molly Ivans (11/4/04) says, the country will weary of the particular kinds of politics this current administration represents and be more than ready for a change by then. Riding a subway train filled with glum commuters into Boston in 1986 the morning after losing the World Series, the silence was palpable. As we rolled into Government Center station the conductor broke our reverie with a one-sentence oath: “Just – wait – till – next – year.” Well, my friends, buck up and get some spine and intestinal fortitude like the idiots of Boston Red Sox 2004 fame. Four years ain’t so far away, and the sitting president just became a lame duck. Walks like a duck, sounds like a duck. I’m looking forward to 2008 already, but in the meantime there’s a road ahead to walk in order to get there, with some doors to knock on to make sure that the voices outside the “mandate” get heard in Washington. Democracy never looked so good or felt so precious. Won’t you join me?

—Stef

Symbols of remembrance, Day of the Dead
Getting the “mojo” working on the eve of election
Sweets attract bees as well as spirits
Friends walk to class as another day begins
Exploring Minerales de Pozos
San Pedro overlooks the center of Pozos and new development like Casa Montana in the foreground
The flock finds fodder for the evening
An archway in Pozos, signs of the past, hope for the future
Light for the way home
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November, 2004
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Entry No. 15
November 15, 2004
Reading Quixote

Not taking anything for granted, I’ve begun asking myself why I’m sitting down here in Mexico while life as usual goes on back home.

We are reading Don Quixote to each other and enjoying it thoroughly. Going to the Cervantes festival in Guanajuato last month piqued our interest. We picked up the novel at the Biblioteca and seized on the idea to read it aloud to each other. We did this with “Cold Mountain” several years ago and that worked out pretty well, working our voices into fine shape for our audiobook auditions. Now we’re taking turns reading chapters of Don Quixote, which has nice short chapters so the trade off comes much faster and our throats don’t get so sore. I’m working on my intonation for the knight errant but it’s a still a pretty weak Jose Ferrar.

Now it’s only understandable that our life in Mexico begins to look quixotic. It could be seen as a crazy idealism every bit as absurd as Don Quixote’s life as ‘knight errant”, protecting the weak and bringing honor to his beloved Dulcinea. In this Cervantian light we are all sensible crazies responding with idealism to a society drifting and a bit out of whack.

Is my mind now in full nostalgic arrest? Has the grinding wheel of modern life finally caught and crushed me in its gears? What is this moving out, rather than “chin up, knuckle down and bugger on”? Taking flight, we’ve arrived in an idyllic refuge that resembles the past. And the appeal of this town of old world charm might be that it offers an illusion that life is better if it stays the way it was: simpler, with everyone having a firm grasp on what really matters. Foolish of course, like believing that every roadside inn is a castle and every innkeeper a king. Not reality, but maybe suggesting something potentially real; that the good in us is fostered by assuming that the potential is always there. It’s life as it might be rather than life as it is, even if that means falling out of step for a time with modern life.

I hear the demand that modern people in a modern world should live modern lives. And the old codger in me has only one appropriate response; “Hold on just a dag-burn minute!” Why can’t we mix it up? Let’s pull that old rocker up to the chrome and glass coffee table and read Cervantes while listening to Radiohead. We can grab a few things from the past with lasting value as this flood of novelty washes over us. Maybe in the process we can salvage something of ourselves, something that offers continuity. Maybe that’s what I’m chasing after all; the connection.

Now I know this story line all ends rather tragically, everything reverting to norm in the end, Don Quixote becoming plain old Quixana. But I’ve never heard a story with idealism somewhere in the mix turn out well, so let’s not focus on results here. The alternative of realism doesn’t exactly spout a glowing rainbow’s end either. So leaving destiny aside I’ll follow the path which is more generous to my soul.

I’m really not that big of an idealist either. At my age, that would equate with not having a working relationship with reality. Humanity’s basic goodness remains an open question. I’m never sure if people are just being nice to me because it’s their nature, or whether they’re doing it with something to sell. I’m more of a practical idealist who emphasizes potential. Maybe next time that nice guy won’t actually have a great offer on a time-share.

A comfortable landscape features both refuge and prospect. We get to choose what shape our refuge takes so we can move forward when the time comes. Looking at it this way, what difference does it make if we choose to find refuge in our homes and cocoon in style with home theaters, soft lights and comfy recliners, with big barbecue decks and Jacuzzis. Or instead, make the move to Mexico, land of cheap living, Land of Enchantment and Fiestas, with maid service. This land has just enough of the exotic to nudge our sense of adventure, and is close enough to be just a road trip from home.

—Dave

Old capilla in Pozos
Pink wall in a an old Pozos ruin
Flowers to your door
Streets on the hill with San Francisco in the distance
Cactus detail in the Jardin Botanico
Dave sucking wind, and...
...back on the trail
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November, 2004
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Entry No. 16
November 22, 2004
Green Monsters

They looked like dogs with green, spherical heads that appeared to be made of jagged leaves with their bodies of a similar construction. There were about 5 or so of them all lined up looking menacingly at me. Not one to hang around for what might come next, I exited out of there and woke up.

Wow, kinda like science fiction. Green monsters in my head.

It’s not always easy being creative, and sometimes that brush just doesn’t want to follow the instructions in your head. Sometimes it feels like I’ve regressed to my introduction into watercolors as I watch one thing after the other go awry. Last week was a lot like that as I vainly attempted to complete a new painting of a scene in the Obraje colonia of San Miguel. Dave and I had walked through there several weeks ago on a sunny Sunday, talking to several people along the way. Obraje was a different part of town that felt a little out in the country with fields and cows. The row of slightly crooked houses along the street across from the field was inspiring, the lane shadowed with overhanging Mesquite trees and a line of fresh, white laundry drying on one of the roofs catching the sun. I took a picture.

The painting started off well enough. I drew in my pencil sketch and everything looked fine. It was only when I began to put down washes of color that niggling doubts began to surface. Mud appeared rather quickly and surprisingly. I don’t mean I was intentionally painting mud along the lane. Would that I were. No, the mud was happening on one of the houses. Instead of a nice little greyed lavender I had mud. I set the painting aside and assured myself that things would look better in the morning, and that I would be able to correct it. The next day I dove in again, resolving the mud by removing bits of it to resemble bricks, along with adding the darks for the windows. Things were looking up. With new energy I tackled the rest of the building facades. Not bad; some patches would need work but I was certain that I would overcome whatever problems remained.

Then I added the shadows of the trees to the sides of the buildings. Oh dear. One was incredibly streaked and the other was a jumbled scribble of too much color. Calm down, I told myself, trying to blot off some of the color. It will look better once the trees are in place. Ok, do the trees. So I got busy mixing a series of greens with various shades of blue and yellow. The first step was the background foliage behind the buildings and down the lane in the distance. It came out a little intense. Still certain I could manage, I forged ahead and began to paint in the foliage of the Mesquite trees in the foreground overhanging the lane in front of the houses. No sooner had I begun than I knew it was a useless exercise. Garish blotchy greens appeared, reminiscent of something I created in fourth grade, along with an irreparably dark tree trunk which had me staring at the painting in utter disgust. I began ripping off the tape that held the thing to the board and declared it a do-over.

Our new upstairs neighbor told me that evening that she wished she’d spent the day painting instead of doing intensive Spanish. If you only knew what my day has been like, I thought.

And that night I had my dream of green monsters about to attack me. They actually weren’t that menacing but they looked pretty scary. I began to chuckle to myself once I realized that my brain had turned my struggle with my trees into dog-like foliage monsters. Maybe I’m pretty creative after all.

—Stef

A creature of the barnyard variety
And some kinda wild pigs (without green spherical heads)
A row of crooked houses in Obraje
The view from the campo north of San Miguel
A flight of fancy
Architecture as street sign
Dryland beauty
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Entry No. 17
November 29, 2004
Thanks

In the midst of all the activities of our days here, going to market, looking for land, doing the art, we’re also taking time off. Time away from television and from our home culture, time off from the familiar. The thanksgiving I bring this year is all about that.

It’s also about this. In little episodes, periodic and fleeting, I’m actually able to regain a small taste of the kind of vibrant elation that was part of my youth. I remember watching distant thunderstorms arrive from the small ledge outside my bedroom window, the rain showers filling the air with those unique rain smells. Or lazy summer afternoons spent in dreamlike contemplation of dust patterns as they drifted through shafts of light into the basement. It was then that I would investigate a particular kind of quiet happiness. I still know the shape of that emotion. It’s a very distinct kind of elation and it brings with it a peculiarly satisfying and instantly recognizable state. I call it, “the way I used to feel”. As an adult, it occasionally returns and when it does I think, “I used to feel like this!”. Our sabbatical in Mexico has offered an invitation for it to make regular visits. It may mean nothing. It might only be some side effect from an idle, self-absorbed luxury that I’ve romanticized into importance over the years. It could also be something important: a slim thread to help me find my way back to an understanding that before anything else life has invited me to discover a state of grace. It might require this unstructured time, maybe even silence. But with these small allowances an opening back appears. There is something born in us that calls out through the years to remind us that we have a simple gift, ours to keep, and reminds us where it lies.

We will always have time to enjoy the snippets of wisdom handed to us by the eloquent. As much as I enjoy using words I know that meaning doesn’t live only with them. We can also encounter a meaning beyond words that flies through us on silent wings. Occasions for joy born of basic sensation and awareness. An experience of meaning that is only, yet sufficiently, implicit.

—Dave

Corregadora Calle, San Miguel
A vegetable vendor takes her usual place on the street
Window detail from Corregadora Calle
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