A Night Out in Barra

One afternoon in Barra, ripe for novelty and a respite from dish washing, we went out for dinner to a beach-side restaurant. It was perfect – just before sunset, we looked out upon the sea, a November aquarelle washed with wondrous breadth. The face of the hotel was wreathed in luminescence, and the pool in front of us reflected a tranquil sky, and the jagged edges of bright pumpkin orange filled the firmament. I wondered, as I sat there, if I could render the translucent orange of the sunset with justice were I to paint the sky and the great rocks lying out to sea; the ocean was right in front of the diners where you could sense its expanse, sparkling and flat, but with something of a pearly sheen when it began to get dark. The pool for the hotel guests looked like an oddly shaped mirror now, lying on the ground, and the diffuse light and its muted range of colours reflected mostly silver and grey from the sky as the light deepened into the murky sapphire that marks the early winter dusk.

But real life is more interesting than art. A waitress approached, a menu in her hand and a twinkle in her eye. Her look was amiable, and a waiter appeared in matching outfit just behind her, close to the bar. They both looked professional. There was another couple there too, both Mexican, maybe man and wife. She was pretty; her princess-like gown was long and very low on her lean shoulders as she’d placed herself in her chair, settled into a tall attitude, and looked distinguished. Her bosom and neckline crossed with jewels in elegant partnership. I had a hard time not looking at her jewels as they were of  vegetable proportions. Her well-fed husband, if that’s who he was, sat down too, and a sense of strangeness seemed to descend upon the place. The view, and the appearance of people, formed the setting but like a curtain which could be drawn up at the request of a capital performance. I resolved that, being this close to the ocean and surrounded by such beauty, it was as near as art could come. I would not have been more pleased if I’d stood before an original Diego Rivera mural so intriguing was the scene before us.

We ordered pizza. Two pizzas, one for each of us. I ordered in both languages, but the waitress showed her preference for English. She asked us twice if we were sure.

” Two pizzas?” she questioned with a hint of alarm on her face. I expressed the fact that we ate a lot and that my husband was slim; she, the waitress, looked him up and down and nodded in agreement. The twinkle in her eye came back, and off she went to the other couple. The waiter, wiping wine goblets, looked cheerfully at sea.

The other table ordered pizza too.

“Just wait”, said my husband, laughing. “We’ll both end up with two pizzas each.”

“Maybe”, I replied, thinking we’d buy them and have fewer dishes at home.

The gentleman next to us rose from his chair, and the attitude in which he stood reminded me of the way court painters represented kings in centuries past, lofty, imperious, stiff. He was getting restless. The woman he was with, tall and straight, kept her position at the table but he began to wander around. The pizza was taking a long time. The waitress returned to our table to confirm that we wished two pizzas, and the waiter polished glasses. It was as if he were playing a minor role on the stage. There arose for the first time many indistinguishable voices from the kitchen as the issue of how many pizzas to make resounded through the concrete building. The waiter, evidently feeling badly about the time it was taking to produce the pizzas, and embarrassed about the noise from the kitchen, rested his pleasant eyes on me with the question: “Would you like some chips and salsa while you wait?”

Just then the waitress emerged from the kitchen with two Hawaiian pizzas, one piece falling away from the rest of the pieces, its thick cheese hanging heavily, but she deftly picked it up and put it in its place within the wheel-like arrangement on her breadboard. We hadn’t ordered Hawaiian pizza but the nearby table took one.

“Plenty of time”, I told myself. “This is Mexico.”

The pizza finally came and by this time we didn’t care what type it was. We polished it all off quickly.

More important to me than food is the people. We often relate to each other around here as characters in a play – “teachers teach”, “musicians play”, “painters paint.” But the average Mexican is delightfully complex with layers and layers of meaning. He appears warm and friendly, funny and creative, but I think impossible to organize.

And maybe there’s nothing strange about that.

Kids These Days ( Allure – Part 11 )

The other day when I found myself positioned against the familiar “kids-these-days” sentiment, I decided to check my own behaviour. How many times a day, for example, do I check the status of my computer’s in-box?  Or use Netflix? Am I, too, turning into a stimulation junkie?

Last night when I announced that I’d successfully managed to post my first real image on Facebook, my 14 year old grandson was not impressed. “It’s for old people”, he said. As luck would have it, I’m still miles behind my grandchildren with technology, and it makes me wonder about the nature of my blind spot for advancement as well as my grandchildren’s expectation that I close the gap between their ability to work with various technologies and my own. I must admit to not trying very hard, mostly because Facebook and several other on-line technologies appear to be me-centred, encouraging the broadcasting of self. But that’s not why my grandson doesn’t like it……it’s simply too ‘old.’ This is the same kid whose instinct to check “Snapchat”, his new favorite, is more insistent than the urge to shower; the same kid who ( cringe ) hasn’t  yet been introduced to “Flanders Field” in English class, whereas previous generations have had to memorize it, thereby ‘digesting’ it, and boosting a commitment to brain storage. But then is a person’s ability to think dictated by his capacity to hold information at a personal level? Should wisdom be measured by memory? Perhaps the educational tools of yesterday are not designed to meet the educational needs of today and tomorrow, and just because I can recite poetry, I’m more of a dinosaur than a wizard. Perhaps.

All my life I’ve wanted a life that is perfectly serene because of its lack of concern with self. I haven’t achieved it yet. I want to live to be inspired, to be moved in all things. Instead, what I’m discovering is that almost every type of technology alienates me from some part of my life. Sometimes the ping-ping-ping of constant texting can be an interruption and sometimes it enables me to avoid difficult feelings and awkward moments. Over time, am I training my mind to crave the sounds my phone makes? I hope not because conversation teaches how to talk through difficult feelings and how to respect the feelings of others: social media teaches other lessons, it encourages performance rather than authenticity. And yet considering the continued march of technology over the centuries, reigning in our imaginations seems the worst possible plan for survival – putting the brakes on technology just won’t work. Ever since we learned how to make fire, technology has been how humans dream into the future. Innovation is woven into the fabric of who we are.

I was one of those overly sensitive kids in the 50s who worried about global starvation, animals at the pound, the Cold War, and smog. I looked into things too deeply, asking questions, daydreaming, brooding. I suspect my personality is the reason for the health issues I’ve experienced these last few years. I read in “Abundance” ( Diamandis and Kotler ) that, although our world has never been safer, we still worry more than ever before. According to the two authors, our brains are constantly sifting and sorting information, trying to tease apart the critical from the casual. The amígdala, responsible for primal emotions like rage, hate and fear, is our early warning system, an organ always on high alert, whose job is to find anything in our environment that could threaten survival. Once stimulated, our flight/fight response turns on, and once turned on it’s almost impossible to turn off. Bad news sells in the newspapers, these writers profess, because the amígdala is always looking for something to fear. Our early warning system evolved in an era of immediacy, when threats were of the tiger-in-the-bush variety. Things have changed since then. Furthermore probabilistic dangers such as a terrorist attack or an economic nose-dive, never shut off completely, convincing your brain that it’s living in a state of siege, when nothing could be further from the truth. The industrialized world has never been safer. “A desire to better the world is predicated partially on empathy and compassion. The good news is that we now know that these prosocial behaviours are hard-wired into the brain. The bad news is that these behaviours are wired into the slower-moving, recently evolved prefrontal cortex. But the amígdala evolved long ago when reaction time was critical. When there’s a tiger in the bush, there isn’t much time to think, so the brain takes a short-cut: it doesn’t.”

The disconnect comes between the local wiring of our brain and the global reality of our world……technologies are exploding like never before. But, the writers conclude, we can no more stomp out innovation than we can our instinct for survival.

We haven’t come across any alien species yet……..is that because they’re all addicted to their screens and have neither time nor energy for intergalactic exploration? Maybe. But let’s concern ourselves with our own habits. On this small planet our challenges are great: alleviate world hunger, slow population growth, lower global disease and infant mortality, preserve the biosphere and increase education. Teaching kids how to nourish their creativity and curiosity while providing a foundation in critical thinking, literacy and math, is the best way to prepare them for a future of increasingly rapid technological change.

So, how many times do I check emails? Twice, or three times a day, depending on my need for distraction. What, you say? Too often?

And  how often is ‘too often’?

 

 

 

Allure

The word “allure” comes from Old French ‘aleurrer’, meaning “to bait” which in falconry was a hunter’s device to both bait and to call back the hawks or falcons once the prey had been captured. The birds were enticed to do what their royal owners wanted because the gadget was the one used to feed them during their training period.  The prey, rabbits and other birds, were hunted by their masters, the elite who could afford such a pleasurable and self-indulgent sport. The average individual today enjoys a different pastime, but one in which he may be even more dependent on his gadget(s). His online mind waits hungrily for its food. However vulnerable to the emotional gratifications that his electronics offer, he is nevertheless neurochemically rewarded when he attends to its constant stimulation. He holds a psychologically potent device in his hands, and it comes with its own high. Tutored by technology, his brain craves the fast and predictable, the quick lightning strike of the new.

Our technology – phones, tablets, iPads, computers – are gifts, but do we consider what they ask from us in return? The gaps in our schedules have disappeared because we’re too busy delighting in the amusements that fill them. We forget the games and activities that childhood boredom forged because boredom has been outlawed. “I’m bored!” A child wails, and mother rushes in with an entertaining activity to bridge the gap, or whispers loudly, “Never mind dear, we”ll be home soon.” ( Where you can play on your tablet ).

There’s been a seismic shift in our lives, especially for those of us who have lived in a pre-Internet landscape. Our technological gadgets are an invitation to enhance some part of our lives, but they’re also an invitation to be drawn away from something else. As my grandson gazes with glassy eyes at his cartoons, his cute face bathed in the electric glow of LED light, he inhabits two worlds: one digital, one corporeal. Sometimes I wonder if he understands what is real and what is not when he randomly quotes a line from a Disney movie that doesn’t coincide with whatever’s happening. Unlike him I speak two languages, pre-Internet and digital….I’m a fluent translator of Before and After. Like a distant ancestor who transitioned from an oral to a written culture, I feel a mysterious sense of loss. Sometimes I wish to keep a foothold in the homeland of my youth and write on a pad or on a digital device without it reminding me that I need an update. Our love affair with technology seems magical, but like magic it works by commanding our attention and not showing us anything but what the magician wants us to see.

A conversation recently at a family meal was occasion for another grandson to take up his phone for a quick search, even though there’s a rule about not having phones at the dinner table. The search acted as an interruption to call up evidence to prove some fact, convenient to him because it helped to make his point. He truly believed it made the conversation richer. We all come to online life with the expectation that we can ask a question and get an almost immediate answer, but to meet our expectations we begin to ask simpler questions. We end up dumbing down our communication and this makes it harder to approach complex problems. Rich conversation has a hard time competing. In the previous example of my grandson there was a rule about having no electronics at the table. Yet he finds his phone irresistible. Maybe the whole family’s addicted! We are exhibiting predictable responses to a perfectly executed design. My grandson’s phone lures him towards increasingly superficial connections, and at the same time it makes avoiding the mess of human interaction easier. My own kids see life as something they can pause and document, and like their children they value their technology as comforting and omnipresent as God in the heavens. They never seem free of the obliterating demands of hundreds of contacts. I read somewhere that young kids today have as many exchanges with avatars as with people.

We need to engineer moments of activity for them – hikes, swimming sessions, outings. The digital population is less well rounded than we know it should be. We are responsible for the media diets of our kids and grandkids. Just as we decide to limit our intake of sugars and fats, we must keep at bay the connectivity we are hard-wired to adore.

Are we fighting mortality? Without our gadgets do we feel like our lives are slipping away?

Me? I want a brain that can think on its own. Our minds may be messy places full of mistakes – mine anyway – but it’s the honing, the selection of what’s worth remembering, that makes a mind unique.

The Temascal

The Temascal in Yerbabuena is a dome-shaped structure built for ritualistic purification, typical of the Indian Temascal, but this one owns the distinction of being in complete harmony with the wooded surroundings of the volcanic hill where it is located. It is believed by the shaman who lives there that the volcano of Colima gives the land its mystical power and the Temascal its wonder, mystery and magic. And standing there while the four of us waited for the rocks to become hot as fiery embers, with the raucous chichalacas screeching in the nearby trees, we dug our toes into the volcanic ash and waited for the process to begin. I could well understand the potency of the place upon the Mexican mind, and those of us as well, for there were forces at work beyond our conscious grasp or understanding. I imagined such a place could exist in my own country, but with another history and mind-set. It was beautiful in its starkness, dusty yet fiercely alive. It had kind of a dark yet entriguing energy.

Comfortless I stood. Then I addressed the shaman in Spanish, Don Antonio, the curador ( the healer ), because I wasn’t sure I could withstand the heat – I imagined myself wilting in a blazing furnace of live coals. He turned his dark eyes on me, sparking like flint, and he told me I needed to believe I could, and to open my heart to its cleansing influence and ready myself for a transformation. That’s what I wanted: to receive a cleansing that would make me fit for the struggles of this world accompanied by a physical strength that I’ve been missing for a while.

Fire has always commanded reverence. It has long been known that diseases and spiritual evils can be driven off in the ritual of the Temascal; bacterial and viral agents do not survive in temperatures higher than normal body temperatures and damaged cells repair themselves faster due to the increased metabolic rate the body experiences. Recovery from illness, therefore, becomes quicker and easier. Sweat draws out lactic acid which causes stiff muscles and fatigue, and it flushes out toxins like copper, lead, zinc and mercury which the body absorbs in polluted areas. I was ready for the fiery trial.

While Don Antonio shovelled rocks into the Temascal, we crawled in and sat down on the black dirt floor. The rocks are called “abuelas”, or grandmothers, symbolic for earthly endurance. With reference to the spirits that represent the nature of fire, water, air and earth ( fuego, agua, aire y tierra ), he poured a brew of sage leaves on the rocks and up roared the steam. Resin from the coral tree had also been rubbed on the stones. The pleasant sounds of hissing and spattering filled the darkness and chanting began. More and more water was poured, sending off another rush of sage scent and engulfing us in steam. I opened my heart, wishing to rise above my petty fears and desires, preparing myself for creative contemplation. Don Antonio began eliciting positive responses from the 4 of us until we gave thanks for what we were grateful for. When the mind is cleansed the spoken words of thanksgiving can come easily. A spiritual power lifted me up a ladder with its first rung planted into the soft black earth; the warm, dark moist ambiance inside the Temascal felt like the womb. Here was something more than just an emotional trip, and suddenly I realized I didn’t want to leave. With affirmations like “Soy sanado” ( I’m healed ), “Soy amado” ( I’m loved ), and “Soy perdonado” ( I’m forgiven ), all was being made new. Don Antonio prayed and sang, ministering spirit and light. I felt free and clean inside and for a while at least I knew it would no longer be possible to investigate the world of creation without wonder, observe without joy, understand without humility and reflect without wisdom. Our leader spoke strongly in favor of breaking strongholds ( “romper ataduras” ), areas of demonic activity causing woundedness which can become a spiritual atmosphere blanketing an entire community or even country. It can also be a core problem we have held for years, unconsciously. It’s grown like an old friend inside the soul and we ask ourselves: how would we live without it? Although it’s a rock that weighs us down, we’ve polished it like a precious stone – we have ‘possessed’ the ‘rightness’ of it for so long that it’s difficult to give up.

For a while afterwards I sparked with a lively hope. I felt clean and as humble as a slab of earth, a vessel fit for the Master’s use. ‘Real life’ returned quickly enough though, like a breath of brimstone.

So I seek another Temascal, smoking hot this time. Don Antonio’s Temascal may not be number one in the guidebooks, but I nevertheless recommend this experience, not for the tourist who wishes to cover Mexico in three weeks and knows no Spanish, but for the thoughtful traveler, accustomed to giving attention and being receptive to the world around us. There’s an urge for the traveler to say, ‘I was there, I saw that and it mattered to me’. But beauty and mystery are fugitive, being found in places to which we may never return or else find it hard to return with the same conjunctions of season, light and weather. How to possess then then?

 

Vivir la Vida

‘No man is an island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less. As well as if a promontory were. As well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’

England’s 17th century writer and preacher, John Donne ( in his meditation XVII ) says the bell tolls not just for the sick man on his deathbed – it calls us all. He says that once you know the bell will one day ring for you, then every bell becomes a reminder of one’s linked mortality. During Donne’s time, church bells rang on numerous occasions: they were rung to call people to church to pray, and they were rung for baptisms and funerals. They were rung also to notify the community of an impending death, and during plague times they ran all day and night. ‘ Bring out the dead!’ was the dreaded cry.

Though the bell that rings calls us all, how much more me who was recently brought so near the door of death as a sufferer of stage 3 breast cancer. Many days during chemotherapy I questioned my survival. I heard the bell, but was afraid to examine the meaning of that sound. God seemed conspicuous by His absence and most of my friends stayed away. Loneliness stalked me like an unwanted suitor. Donne says that when one man dies his chapter is not torn out of the book but is translated into a better language. I wish I could believe that.

When my husband and I were in Manzanillo the other day he bought a rustic bell – una campana – to hang on a bar above the gate to his property where he works on projects as a carpenter in Barra de Navidad. This was done mostly to help us remember Adelfo, now dead for less than a year, whose one ambition among many was to hang a cement-covered styrofoam ball at the front of this property that faces the ocean, simulating a large bell rung at sea. Adelfo was an immensely popular and gifted fellow and we miss him. He died of cancer and his sudden death threw my husband into an ordeal which caused him to face fears, challenges and heartbreak, so shocked by his death was he.

Most people are aware of Mexico’s Day of the Dead festival, a celebration of death, a macabre recognition of the country’s pre-Columbian and colonial history during which most people died early from violence or disease. Ceremonial recognition of the dead no doubt had its origin in the dim past when rituals were designed to please and placate the spirits of departed family members and ancestors. Rather than ignore it or attempt to hide from it, Mexicans joke about death as if it were a comic ritual. Death can’t be avoided so Mexicans make the most of it in an effort to demonstrate that they don’t fear it and are determined not to let it destroy the joys of living. This expresses how Adelfo’s family felt. They made an altar of him in their community during the Day of the Dead and decorated it with marigold flowers ( flores de los muertos ) – it held offerings of food and drink and photos and was especially for him. In the Indian cosmos, the spirits of the dead remained among the living, to be acknowledged and communed with through rituals of song, dance and food; and although Adelfo’s family is Catholic, the presence of this custom remains with the Mexican people.

No doubt one’s attitude towards life should be joyous, as in the simple words of a popular Latin singer who sings a contemporary song – ‘Vivir la Vida’ – accompanied by beautiful female dancers:

Voy a reír, voy a bailar, vivir mi vida la la la la ( I’m going to laugh, I’m going to dance………………………………….) Voy a reír, voy a gozar, vivir mi vida la la la la la ( I’m going to laugh, I’m going to enjoy, to live my life……..)

Voy a vivir el momento, voy a entender el destino ( I’m going to live in the moment, I’m going to understand my destiny……………………………………………………) Voy a escuchar el silencio, para encontrar el camino ( I’m going to listen to the silence to understand my path……:……………………………………………………….) Empieza a soñar, a reír, voy a reír, voy a bailar ( begin to dream, to laugh, I’m going to dance………………………) Vive, sigue, siempre pa’lante, no mires pa’tras ( live, keep going, always ahead, don’t look behind…………..)

Life is a fiesta where you dance and laugh….I guess that’s a good thing though I seldom get into the fiesta mood. I mean, I live here. And it’s hard work! I have to work out my salvation with Immigration Mexico and help put things back together again after a hurricane, just as an example. And I may die here. May I be on my way when the bell tolls for me, slung across a paddle board or distributed as ashes from one of my husband’s coffee cans ‘en el mar’, moving quickly towards ‘el Más Allá’ – the Great Beyond.

‘La la la la!’

To To Create or not to Create…?

Devin was my greatest encourager during my chemotherapy treatments, which was – good or bad – when my fling with painting began. I’d always been able to draw, but painting was a different palette of colours – I’d never had time to paint and didn’t imagine I could. I’m not sure why I turned to painting unless it was to artificially fill my world with the color it was lacking and free my soul, along with my poor chemial-infested body, for survival. I didn’t need encouragement from anyone as long as I had Devin.

‘Oh, I like the colours!’ He’d say as he checked to see what I was doing. Or..

‘Can I have that one to show my friends at school?’

And always, his good-natured expression was matched by the satisfaction and amusement on my face. Sometimes he sat with me and coloured with his twistables, often immune to suggestion about what to draw first but always cheerful and giving his best concentration to the task. Have I mentioned he’s only six? Apart from arguing over whose gel pens were whose, I cherished the opportunity to be with him because he was precious to me and I witnessed by being with him a young artist in the unfolding. He loved learning new things as long as enough time passed for him to master other concepts he needed to become familiar with first, and in short time I became his ‘grandmother-hero.’

‘Did you know my nana can paint with one hand?’ He announced this with pride to an airport employee on our way home. He usually chose a stranger to proclaim this news to like a waiter in a restaurant or a department store employee, and he always responded to the laughter that followed good-humoredly and regarded it as an incentive to win over potential friends.

if I forgot to mention I’m one-handed I should have – it’s important to the story.

In Spanish the verb ‘dar ánimos’ or ‘animar’ means to encourage. ‘Animate’ means to cheer up, buck up. ‘Ella no tiene ánimos para nada’ – she doesn’t feel like doing anything. Many times students in Spanish lose their ‘animo’ when they encounter the formidable number of verbs the language contains – if that includes you, you’re not alone. Students get discouraged with tenses. ‘Los estudiantes no tienen ánimos para aprender los verbos!’ The gargantuan book 5001 Verbs isn’t for everybody – only a few self-punishing people like me lie awake at night thinking about the secret life of verbs. You have my sympathy if that includes you!

Why do we need encouragement? Because a discouraged soul is helpless and we’ve all had hurt in our lives. We’d do well to open our eyes and see in all events, great or small, chariots for our souls – we can either lie down under their wheels and let them run all over us, and weep with discouragement as they trample us half to death, or we can climb up into them and fly away as they take us onward to better places.

The choice is ours to make.

Mr. Williams

“That’s why I make good ‘Ws’,” he tells me with sudden intensity, his little face brightening. We are practicing the alphabet, my 6 year old grandson and I. He has left his teacher back in Canada – Mr. Williams – and is now living with me in Mexico. I resist the temptation to feel jealous of Mr. Williams. None of my students have ever pined away for me! Today is ‘Día de los Maestros’, Teacher Day, in Mexico, and instead of honoring his Mexican teachers at the nearby school he continues to laud with little-boy reverence the virtues of Mr. Williams. Whenever we do ‘art’ together, and it’s then that his attention usually settles, he swerves off his usual themes and on to Mr. Williams. “Can we make a ‘cart’ for him and send it in the mail?” he wants to know.

I can imagine Mr. Williams as a man who radiates inner freedom: he is open to every day and each moment. He is a teacher-musician with neither commanding presence or manipulative authority. And my grandson loves him almost as much as he loves his current Marvel heroes like Ironman and the Hulk and ‘Thorn’ (Thor). What do they have in common? They are all gifted individuals with interesting careers, Mr. Williams with his guitar and Thor with his hammer, saving the world from destructive influences. Right now after decades of teaching I am undergoing chemotherapy. Was it my folly, I wonder, that brought this dilapidation so suddenly upon me? I competed with other teachers in my middle school, often without realizing it, and became so concerned with my identity that I was constantly striving to be the best I could be. Like others I ran education’s gauntlet of many killers and it set me on the road to rivalry and competition. I considered suffering annoying at best and expended much energy in denial, preferring instead to doing that which would affirm my identity. My busyness fed that denial as it did to all the other gauntlet runners; my quick ability to deal with problems, often accompanied by a score of mental and emotional “stunts”, sprung forth like dragon’s teeth to meet each challenge along the way. I felt invincible. Years later when I left Canada I stepped off that shore of anxiety and unhappiness, and now I stand in another country, whose bright sun shows every flaw and whose air inspires freedom and happiness. I like to think of the little school next door as an abode of light, and that the easy-going Mr. Williams would feel comfortable within. I hope he visits and brings his guitar.

“W” for … “Wonderful”…