Thursday, March 11, 2010

Dabney Adrift, A Poem

When my friend Dabney died, I told my kids that "her heart just stopped."  I couldn't think of any other explanation.  Mason, who is the same age (6) as John, Dabney's youngest boy, was the one most concerned.  He wanted to know how old she was, how old I was, how old I would be when I died (I told him I would live to 100, and he was satisfied: "Oh, well that's a long time."). But mostly he wanted to understand the mechanics, "How exactly does the heart stop?"  I've been thinking about this for a while, and one sleepless night this week, I penned a poem for my sweet friend, Dabney.


How exactly does the heart stop?

It was January and bleak.
Even though snow fell deep enough 
to hide the earth's flaws
it couldn't change the sky.

The pot-bellied clouds, brain-shaped and colored,
shifted back and forth suspiciously,
waiting for a sign.

Inside the family was locked up against the end of the day.
Still, cold air shimmied under the door.
If bodies shiver it is from these unseen things 
that snake along the body's dark passages, 

In the evening she sat down,
her little heater of a boy flattened against her side.
As they read, her back was to the sky,
her body unaware of the storm gathering its 
cheerless troops, 
marching down obscure paths.

Did the wind signal a shift
in temperature outside? 
Did she, did John
hear anything:
the sound of running water,

a rise of birds lifting off the frozen ground,
a low moan from the sky,
before she stopped in mid-flight?

Or did her world just slow down, 
unannounced, and take a few sad laps
before lurching, a banged-up heart, to a close.

Monday, March 8, 2010

An Ordinary Morning in San Miguel

My sweet Bo functions best with a routine.  So he has devised his own little schedule, which now the whole family follows each morning and it works wonderfully.  Instead of hopping in the car we now can walk leisurely through the neighborhood, down Calle 20 de enero, to the bus stop on Sterling Dickinson.   The tortilleria is cranking up the machine so the smell of corn is in the air.  The juice lady has her big cups of freshly squeezed orange and carrot juice out on her card table.  And the white roof dog on the left side going downhill lunges and growls as he does every day.  It's a really nice, mellow start to the day (in spite of Satan).  Herewith, Bo's little list, and photos from a Friday morning.

6:40am: Wake up.  Take 10 min. shower.  (Which, actually he hasn't done yet.   Like their mother, none of my kids like to shower.  Works out well with the water bills.)
6:50am: Get dressed in 5 min.
6:55am: Come downstairs.
7:00am: Make and eat breakfast.
7:15am: Collect items/homework/lunch. (The groovy school they attend has a no-homework policy so that actually saves some time on the 7:15am slot.)
7:20am: Brush teeth and apply sunscreen.
7:25am: If time, read.
7:30am: Leave for bus stop.
Heading down the road to the bus stop.  Mason is our scout.  He runs ahead to see if the bus is waiting,  If so, he gives us the signal--waving his hands over his head-- and everyone flies pell mell downhill.  Redd has wiped out a few times.
So many parents at Los Charcos have these fantastic tattoos.  Here's Morgan, with the great leg work.  Sam and I are getting wedding bands.

After we leave the kids we follow the sounds of drumbeats, which we've been hearing since early this morning. It leads us to the jardin (the main square). It's the Feast of the Conquistadors, the first Friday every March. This from the San Miguel Tourist publication: Look for Indian danzantes to be dancing in front of the Parroquia from dawn until dusk Friday, March 5. The traditional dancers are honoring El SeƱor de la Conquista, a statue of Christ housed in the Parroquia that was carried into battle by friars who came to San Miguel to convert the rebellious Chichimeca. People who enter the Parroquia this day say 33 prayers, one for each of the years of Jesus’ life. Scores of dancers don elaborate pre-Hispanic costumes, replete with plumed headdresses and other indigenous garb and perform for most of the day in front of the Parroquia.
For some wonderful shots of the Aztec dancers in full dress, click here:

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Finding Ry Cooder on a Sunday Afternoon

A while back Sam made the astute observation that in Baltimore he was interesting; here he is average.  On another Sunday in the country, overlooking the plains of San Miguel that look just like the Serengeti, it was apparent again.  We had lunch at the home of Paul Voudouris, a Greek musician who was nominated for a Grammy years ago, and now is a single father to Amelia, who is in Bo's class; a Feldencrist instructor (whatever that is); a certified Bones for Life [trademark] practitioner (whatever that is); an organic salad maker; and a griller of meats who needs  direction from Sam on when to take the arrachera off the coals, and how to cut against the grain.  There were also our friends, Mark and Rachelle Schaff, who came to San Miguel seven years ago with their two girls and have no plans to go home; Ricky Galera, a Brazilian who is now running our kids' school; and Gil Gutierrez, an amazing musician, formerly of Gil & Cartas, who now plays with trumpter Doc Severinsen, of Johnny Carson fame. 

And there was  Rebecca, about whom Sam said, "I could talk to her all night."  She is the American wife of Gil, who lives in San Miguel, but was born in Oaxaca, Mexico, where we honeymooned exactly eleven years ago.  Rebecca began dating Gil, when she was 32 and he was 21.  Though she was told that she could never have children because of endomitriosis,  Gil's mother took a look at her after they returned from a walk and told her she was pregnant.  She said Rebecca had "sad eyes."  Gil asked for one day to decide if he wanted, at 21, to become a father. They now have two kids, a 25-year-old boy, who works for an ad agency in Manhattan (the cause of the "sad eyes") and a 21-year-old girl who is at Goucher College in our hometown of Towson.

Rebecca is an old friend of Ry Cooder, Sam's idol.  She even built a tree house for his son, Joaquin.  During the course of a long afternoon, where she drank straight vodka because there was no vermouth for her favored martini, and we drank bottle after bottle of red wine, including the three, that were four, before Paul dropped one in the driveway on his way back from a run for more, Sam and Rebecca talked music.  He was in heaven.  Her camp counselors were Big Brother and Janis Joplin, who swam naked in the camp pond at night.  A few years later Rebecca  ended up as the caretaker for a rich drug addict on house arrest in Greece who told Rebecca to look up her friend "Buddy" when she went back to the States.  Rebecca found him in Los Angeles, along with a mountain of cocaine, Mick Jagger, and Sly Stone.  She decided to become his boyfriend for a while.

Friday, March 5, 2010

A Broken Man Overheard at the Jardin

Who knows what goes on in other people's lives?  Who knows what sadness they carry around?  Sam and I were having breakfast yesterday at a cafe on the jardin, and couldn't help but listen to a man behind us talking loudly, emotionally, on his cell phone.  First the f-word over and over, so I turned around to glare at him, as it was unpleasant to listen to.   He surprised me.  He was older, an aged rock star, mustache and earrings, small mirrored sunglasses, curly, greying hair past his shoulders, tight black jeans, boots.  He looked like a man who could be in charge of his world.  But as the conversation went on, it became fraught with more intimacy, more anger, more depression and despair.  "I've written 27 songs, all about the same woman."  "I've done everything you wanted me to do.  I exercised."  "I know there were the bar fights, and the drugs.  I know it wasn't easy."  He was sobbing, wiping his eyes, and I was watching him with a morbid fascination.  I tried harder to hear; it was the proverbial train wreck, except that I was listening to it.  "I'm in so much pain sometimes I cut myself.  You have no idea what this is like."   Like always, the mourning doves were banging out their songs in the clipped trees ringing the jardin, the sun pinged off the spires of the Parroquoia, the sweet smell of Clorox and soap on the cobblestones when the ladies toss out their wash buckets drifted around us, and there was a man crying into his phone, "All I ever wanted to do was crawl inside your heart and hide myself from the world." 

Thursday, March 4, 2010

I Want to Write about My Travels Because....

Took a travel writing seminar during the Barbara Kingsolver/San Miguel Writing Workshop in mid-February.  My workshop was two days' long.  Unfortunately I was shopping for mangoes, carnitas, cashews, and oranges at the Tuesday Market on the second day of the conference when I ran into Ann Taylor.  She asked me if I had skipped out early on the lecture.  Sadly I had my times wrong and missed the whole second day.  But the first day was quite inspiring. It was taught by Laurie Gough, author of two travel memoirs: Kiss the Sunset Pig and Kite Strings on the Southern Cross.  She's also the mother of Quinn, in first grade at Los Charcos where my boys go to school.  So we often saw her and husband, Rob, at the bus stop in the mornings.  She asked us to write in class a short piece beginning with" I Want to Write About My Travels Because..."

I want to write about my travels because my children need to know the person I was before I became their mother.  This woman they know is new.  She is not the girl I was when I moved back and forth across the earth, shifting through time zones as easily as I now slide into bed, worn out by my new role.  Before I was their mother I saw my first hooker in a bar in Kuala Lumpur, wrapping her desperate legs around the waist of an American marine, begging him to take her to his home, far away from hers.  Before I was their mother I sat in a folding chair on the crest of Naabi Hill in the Serengeti, watching the moon blast out of a cloud cover over a field of wildebeest, whose bark sounded just like a dog.  Back then I fell asleep in Sydney when the lights on the Opera House finally winked off around midnight. I sang the same song six times in a cantina in Cuzco, with the bartender, his Asian girlfriend whose belly was flat as a beach, and an Austrian tour guide named Roman.  

My children do not know the stories of this woman.  When I was fearless, plummeting in a  swan dive off a bridge over the Shotover River in New Zealand.   When I ate hot noodle soup from a tin can, squatting on a low wooden stool in Hanoi.   When I showed up on a ferry in Santorini without a room or a companion.  That I once slept in a cave with four cots and a cold water spigot, but at dusk the sun spread out sideways across the sky, a tangle of lavender ropes.

They don’t know that I learned to scuba dive in a warm but nearly empty cove below my room on that island. That I could have gotten on a plane to leave, feeling the weight of my aloneness then.  But instead I ate sea urchins straight from their armored black shells on a fishing boat with Greek men and after that I was fortified for years of travel.

One day they will know this mother, the woman who always said yes.

A Fallen Officer in San Miguel

On February 15 Jesus Araiza Martinez, a commodante in the San Miguel police force, was killed in the line of duty, outside of town.  He got a call from a small tienda owner that someone tried to pass a counterfeit bill (false money, in Spanish).  He was shot and killed during a car chase and gun battle with the countefeiters.   He was 28 years old and had a wife and five children.  A hero's funeral was held in town at one of the historic churches; the service was broadcast on the local radio station.  Below is a translation of the prose read at the civil ceremony for Commodante Martinez.  It seems all the world thinks of all cops in Mexico as the bad guys.   Like everywhere, it's only some of them.  The majority are just humans, with a heart, and a family, like the  rest of us.

"My son, I am the police.

I am the bad guy of society who is badly needed and badly paid. But believe me, I am here to serve the rest and I feel the importance when a life is saved, when I protect the innocent, when I detain a criminal. These are satisfactions which no other job has. My profession is truly thankless. They all throw rocks and insult me when I do my duty, because they wish the law would be applied for the rest and not themselves. People humiliate me when they offer me funds to fail to comply with my duty, and if I accept, they call me dishonest.

You should know that when I leave the house I may never return, because my job is constantly dangerous, where I see through life itself. That's the way it is!  Maybe I must die defending the life and property of a stranger.  Meanwhile I am waited for at home, to give me the kiss they daily welcome me with. And the truth of the matter is, I suffer the pangs that we won't see each other again because I have given my life to this society where my existence is needed, yet nothing is given in return. It isn't capable of asking for a raise in my salary so my children and the children of other officers can feel proud of me.

If at times I don't see my family, it is because of this ungrateful but emotional job which gives me no schedule. Yes, it's true, I work twelve hours but only when I can. But at other times because of the necessities of service I have to double my time. I never complain when others need me to be there for their security. It is indisputable that once the society rests and sleeps I stand, protecting when wishing I could be with my family, guarding your sleep.  I wish I could watch my kids grow healthy, happy, but I am constrained to seeing them from time to time.  In any manner I am always thinking of them and I will never forget them. Every day I prepare myself to be a better police officer so they can feel proud of their father. I fight side by side with my partners for my city, my people, my family so everything can be secure and all can walk the streets, arrive at school, free of assaults and fear. And for that reason I am here a police officer."