Thursday, December 12, 2013

Mermaid tails and Santa wings

"Can't you see I've got my hands full with ONE?"
“Mom, why I live on two planets?”  asks four-year-old Isa from the backseat.    

We’re driving to Trader Joe’s for eggs.  I know exactly what he means.

Isaias was born on the feast day of San Jerónimo, the patron saint of our tiny town in Oaxaca, where the donkey cart is still a common form of transportation and you can see most of the stars on a clear night.   He learned to walk on dirt roads and in alfalfa fields; he took his first solo steps while we were helping our neighbors shell corn.  He held hours-old chicks and rabbits in his hands and kissed a baby goat on the lips one time.  When we needed eggs, we walked across the yard to the chicken enclosure, greeted the ladies by name (Mago, Bárbara, Ramona, Macorina, and Darkwing, thank you very much), and rooted around in the straw.

Now when we need eggs, we get in the car and drive to Trader Joe’s along smooth paved streets.  No stars or farm animals in sight.  Two planets.  Yes, I know exactly what he means, but hell if I have an answer for him.


Today I’m sitting in one of the five Starbucks (Starbuckses?)  found within a mile radius of our house.  I took a personal day at work because today, almost seven months after we hugged him goodbye in the Oaxaca airport, my husband is sitting in the American consulate in Ciudad Juarez, waiting for his visa interview.   He could be here, theoretically, as soon as Tuesday, in time for Christmas.  Or he could be put off for another two or three or seven months. 

It’s December 12, the feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe.  I try to see that as a good sign.  I remember sitting on a plane, years ago, having just said goodbye to my future husband for the first, but not the last, time.  Tears pouring down my face.  As we flew out over Mexico City, the elderly woman in the seat next to me patted my arm and said, “Ten fe, ten fe.”  Have faith.  All week I’ve been unconsciously repeating her words to my husband via text and badly-connected phone calls:  Ten fe, mi amor, ten fe.  Faith in what, I don’t know.  In Guadalupe, in our family, in our story, in the journey, something. 

The other day I was looking at a map of Mexico, trying to put my husband’s presence in Ciudad Juarez into context, and suddenly saw the country as a mermaid’s tail, poised for the downstroke that will propel her towards the surface, where two worlds meet.  Ciudad Juarez would be her navel.  Her face, of course, is Guadalupe’s.  My love will pass through the navel of the mermaid and then our family will be complete again, and reborn as a family with two planets. 

Why we live on two planets?  If there’s not a reason, we’ll create one. 


Christmas is coming, and four years old has got to be the age for Christmas magic.  Isaias is excited, and full, of course, of questions.

“Mom, why Santa not wanna be seen?”

“Mom, why Santa have panza grande?”

“Mom, why Santa brings the presents?  Why, Mom?  When he bring them?”

It’s hard to talk about Santa to a kid who lives on two planets.  Isa’s first friends were the three youngest children of our neighbor in Oaxaca, who lived in a house with a dirt floor and shared one rusty tricycle between them.  He knows that not all kids have new toys, not all kids have adequate shoes or enough to eat or glass in their windows.  I almost want to tell him the truth, but my husband emails imploring me to not to.  Ten fe.

When I get to the part about the eight flying reindeer, Isa stops me. 

“No, Mom.  Santa have wings.  Santa can fly.” 

We visit Santa at Christmas in the Park downtown.  Isa asks for a monster truck, and I ask for Papá’s visa, which makes Santa laugh.  He’s been trained, I notice, not to make any promises: “A monster truck!  Why, that’s a fine idea!”

Afterwards, I ask Isa if Santa had wings. 

“Yup.  Red and green wings like a butterfly.”

And that’s that. 


So here I am in Starbucks, waiting for a phone call from another planet, from the belly button of a mermaid with the solemn face of an Aztec goddess.  When will she break the surface, when will we be three again?  Santa’s fluttering up there somewhere on butterfly wings, jolly and enigmatic, saying, “All of you together for Christmas?  That’s a fine idea, very fine, indeed.”   

Why we live on two planets, m’ijito?  So our hearts will grow big enough to fit them.   So we’ll learn to grow butterfly wings for flying and mermaid tails for diving deep.  So we’ll learn to laugh and cry at the same time.  So we’ll learn to have faith in something: in life, in each other.  So we’ll be able to sit in a strip mall Starbucks in Silicon Valley at ten thirty a.m. and remember the stars are up there somewhere.     

UPDATE: Five minutes after I finished writing this, I got a text.  He’ll be here next week.  

Thursday, September 26, 2013


A shocking number of years ago, when I went to Mexico for the first time, my host family asked if they could call me "Tere."  I said I'd prefer Teresa, really. 

It's been so many years I've forgotten my host father's name, but I remember him saying in Spanish--maybe the first significant Spanish sentence I ever understood perfectly--"We want to call you Tere, because in Mexico we think it sounds cold to call someone by their full name."  I thought that was weird, but I decided to go with it.  I never expected to spend more than those few months in Mexico, anyway. 

Fast forward to this past school year, in Oaxaca.  I knew I'd really started to assimilate because I reflexively shortened my students' names after the first couple of classes, if I felt warm towards them--"Fernando" to "Fer," "Mónica" to "Moni," "Karla" to "Karlita," "Adriel" to "Adri."

Now I'm in the U.S., teaching Spanish in an afterschool program as I search for the full-time job I know I will eventually find. I have a student named Victoria, a tiny, brilliant, little thing.  I keep calling her "Vicky," and she corrects me, and I catch myself thinking, "But that sounds so cold!" 
I told Ibis on gmail chat the other day--that's where our marriage mostly happens now--that it's weird being here, because people talk to Teresa, and Tere answers, and they don't even notice.  It's a homecoming, technically, but it's also not.  I'm sleeping in the room that I slept in when I was 11.  I'm volunteering at the same agency I volunteered at in high school.  There are memories everywhere, but I feel oddly detached from them. 
Maybe I'm just old.  But I feel like I'm also a little bit someone else.  Someone who sometimes dreams in a language I didn't even understand back them.  Someone who's done things so differently for so long that everything from Before seems about equally familiar, and alien. 
Ibis said he understood, because people see him and talk to him and think he's the same without us, but he's not; he hasn't even gone anywhere yet, but he's not the same person, either.

I'm volunteer teaching ESL to a group of Mexican women, mothers of young children enrolled in a nonprofit preschool.  Many of them have been in the U.S. for years, but still speak only bits and pieces of English.  They want to learn now because their kids speak to them in English and they don't know what they're saying. 

Yesterday they told me two remarkable things: one, that they wish I could teach them every day, because I'm their favorite.  That means a lot when you've applied to approximately five million jobs in the past four months and only some skeezy insurance company wants to hire you full time.   

They also told me that there's a flower called "Teresita."  It's one we have in our garden in Oaxaca--my mother-in-law calls it "paragüitas," little umbrellas, but according to my students, it also shares the Spanish diminutive of my name.  It's one I've never especially liked, but I guess I have to look at it differently now.   

I guess you never know where you might find yourself. 

It's poisonous!  It's medicinal!  It's...Teresita! (source)


Monday, September 9, 2013

Opting in, opting out.

I thought that maybe what I've been doing wrong is trying to follow my heart too much. 

I thought that maybe my heart was trying to take me to a place that doesn't exist, some sort of misty-mountaintop-multicultural-Renaissance-Faire-magical-realism-fantasy-land where people wear lots of colorful flowing garments and struggle nobly for Truth and Love and Justice (a place something like this, or this, except maybe with fewer orgies).  And that maybe, in order to ever have a chance at financial stability in the world we actually live in, I would have to opt into it and tell my hippie-dippy do-gooder little heart to shut the hell up. 
Here!  I want to live here!  (source)
So I started applying to jobs that didn't really interest me, and I got a job offer, and I couldn't stand the search anymore, so I spent the last couple weeks getting certified to sell insurance in the state of California.

I've also been volunteer teaching ESL to a group of lovely Mexican immigrant women, and working on my little novel, and playing cars and trains and dinosaurs and penguins with Isaias, and drinking a little wine and a lot of coffee with some of my favorite ladies, and running three miles a day, and working on Ibis's visa paperwork, and reading books by Pema Chodron.  I'M STILL ME. 

I thought, if I can do this stupid job and earn fifteen hundred bucks a week, and still be me in my free time, and send a big fat money order to my mother-in-law every week, and put something in the bank every week, that is good. 

I thought, I'll opt in a little, and just be present with the absurdity, and I'll learn something and it will be fine.  It's what I need to do for my family, because what my family doesn't have is money.  (Okay, and maybe I thought a little bit about how I could buy myself a couple pairs of really nice shoes, with fifteen hundred bucks a week.)        

So I passed my state licensing exam (with an 80% thanks very much.  I can tell you all about double indemnity and nonforfeiture options, if you want....What, you don't want?) and started training last Thursday.  I spent a couple hours with Cecilia (not her real name), watching her make calls.  I thought, I'll be good at this, this isn't too bad. 

Then I spent Friday morning calling all Cecilia's "Spanish leads."  She was thrilled to have someone who speaks Spanish and I was feeling pretty smug.  Few people answered the phone.  I set up one appointment, and Cecilia told me, "If we make that sale, I'll take you out to dinner!"  A few more people answered, but weren't interested.  Cecilia couldn't understand my end of the conversations, but she could see that I wasn't following the script. 

"Just stick to the script," she told me.  "Don't answer their questions.  If you answer their questions, you give them the control.  You have to be in control." 

I thought that was interesting.  I filed that away to think about later.

On Saturday morning, Cecilia had me making calls from home.  First two, no answer. 

Third call, a woman--who'd supposedly been referred by her mother--told me angrily in Spanish, "I don't know who you people think you are, but some woman named Cecilia sold my mother something that she thought was from her union but it's not, and my mother doesn't even speak English, and she thought it was a one-time payment but they're taking money out of her account every month, and that Cecilia belongs in jail."

I told her, "Thank you for telling me this, because if that's the way it is, I don't want this job.  I just started, but if that's the way it is, I'm quitting."  That's not in the script. 

She seemed surprised and grateful that I was a human being.  She told me some more stuff and I thanked her again and hung up the phone and sat there.  I looked at the sheet of phone numbers and realized I'd been speaking to Guadalupe.  I cried. 

This is what I think now: maybe this is an isolated incident.  But even if it is, if it had been my mother-in-law, or my grandmother-in-law....No.  Not "if it had been."  It might as well have been.  Even if it means another month without a penny to send to Doña Charo, or put in the bank, or buy cute shoes, even if it was just that one lady who was tricked, I can't do it. 

Sunday night was the Guadalupe moon, the thinnest possible crescent.   Today is Doña Charo's birthday, and I can't send her money, but I can honor her faith and integrity and honesty.  I called Mr. Insurance Man and read from MY script.  Feliz cumpleaños, suegra querida.

I learned a lot from this experience.

I learned that I don't particularly care about being in control, but that I sometimes cede control when it would actually be useful for me to take it. 

I learned that my desire to help people, while genuine, gets all tangled up with my desire to be nice and be liked, and that I have to put that aside sometimes.

I learned that I can master the absurd grown-up world if I just try to do it.  (Seriously, don't you want to know about nonforfeiture options?  Annuities?  Reduced paid-up whole life?  Anyone?)

I learned that if there's no connection, there's nothing.  If time is money and people are leads, clients, or zeros, there's nothing.  And I remembered all the people and places I'm connected to at the heart.

And now that I'm connected again, I keep stumbling into the Eternal. I'm in the Silicon Valley, but it doesn't feel so distinct from that misty-mountaintop place anymore.  

Maybe I will never have cute shoes or a comfortable bank account.   But I have a group of students who need me, a third of a novel that I'm pretty proud of, a son who wants to be a penguin when he grows up, a husband who is helping other people with their visa paperwork even as he waits for his own visa interview, friends who may even understand what I'm trying to say here, and a heart that I can go on listening to. 

Right  now it sounds about like this:

Friday, August 9, 2013


Five years ago, we were here:

Now you know who to blame for the Great Confetti Shortage of 2008.

Now, I’m here, and you’re there.  Or you’re here and I’m there?  That’s what it feels like.  You’re here, where we began, where we had our first date, where we got married, where I gave birth to our son, where we planted our garden and made our life, and I’m there, somewhere else, somewhere you’ve never been.

Five years is the wood anniversary.  We haven’t seen each other in almost two months, and surely you’ve got wood to spare…but in terms of presents, I’m buying you a secondhand wooden desk, for when you get here.  And I’m asking you to buy and plant a little tree for me, for when we get back there.  That has a nice symmetry.

From the U.S. State Department, we got our present a couple days early: your paperwork is moving along, and soon you'll be able to request your visa interview!  Also, our Fischer-Price counterparts had a romantic dinner date:

This would be a lot sexier if we had arms and stuff.

We met on a bus.  You proposed to me on another bus.  Our wedding changed venues with fewer than forty-eight hours to spare.  We put 100,000 kilometers on our car in our first four years of marriage.   We've said goodbye and hello again in airports and bus terminals all over Mexico.  Our relationship has always been defined by movement.   
I know you’ll be here soon.  

More confetti.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Welcome, little son... this strange land where the toilet paper goes IN the toilet. 

Friday, May 17, 2013

In no particular order, 21 things I will miss about Oaxaca.

      1.       Having a rooster for an alarm clock.

2.       The smell of ripe mangos in the market in season, so thick I could almost take a bite out of the air and be satisfied.

3.       The cave of white and magenta bougainvillea in our front yard, filled with cheeping birds.  

4.       In Salina Cruz, seeing the Istmeña women, short and wide and freaking gorgeous in their boxy embroidered blouses and long skirts floating in the wind.   

5.       The tender shapes of the hills and mountains around our house, like loaves of bread and breasts and pregnant women lying down. 

6.       Marigolds on Day of the Dead. 

7.       Tacos and leche arroz at eleven p.m. on the way home from the airport.

8.       My little students’ pride when they form a sentence in English that I have not explicitly taught them: “I don’t like boys!”  “My mom is excellent!”  
On the way to the market.

9.       Walking to the market in Tlacochahuaya, recognizing and greeting just about every person I see.  

10.   Seeing horses and cows and donkeys every day, just going about my business. 


12.   The green-misted-with-purple of fields of blooming alfalfa.

13.    Waking through our bedroom and thinking, “I gave birth to Isaias right…here.”

14.   Looking down on the valley from the Zapotec ruins of Dainzu, and wondering what the people who built these stone walls felt, looking at this same view.  

15.   Being called Tere, and Teresita, and ‘manita, and mi reina, mi vida, mi nena, mi corazón.  

16.   The smell of rain.  

17.   The color of adobe bricks as the sun’s coming up.  

18.   Little old ladies with long braided hair woven with satin ribbons. 

19.   How you can buy anything in the world at the Tlacolula market on Sunday mornings: live turkeys, nail clippers adorned with unicorns and rainbows, rat poison on paper plates with photocopied labels reading ‘The Last Supper’, cookie cutters in the shapes of houses, pigs, and horses made from cut tin cans, embroidered purses, boiled sweet potatoes, seeds, real gold jewelry, fake gold jewelry, pirated DVDs, potty chairs, bowls made of dried gourds, barbequed goat, matches, clothespins, machetes, candelabras, chairs, speckled eggs, fresh-cut flowers…
20.  Sitting in graceful old colonial buildings with courtyards and fountains while on the most mundane of errands. 
21. Knowing all my neighbors' names, and all their business, and having them know mine. 

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Love Stories.

For their fortieth wedding anniversary, el Don y la Doña both dye their graying hair a startling, shiny black.  El Don looks small and fragile in his good white guayabera.   His wife has a good three inches and twenty pounds on him; she’s solid and strong under her pink lace dress.  They both wear the same slightly pained, unreadable faces they wear to wakes, weddings, and the dinner table, even as they walk into the hall to the cheers of their family and friends and the happy welcoming notes from the band: DA-da DA-da da-di-da-di-DA-da!

Their three daughters and one daughter-in-law all wear short fuchsia strapless dresses and silver heels; their son clashes in his light blue guayabera.  Ibis is their extra, honorary son; they took him in when he was a lonely university student in a strange city.    

Their youngest daughter left home at nineteen to marry a man everyone said would be the ruin of her.   Their little girl was born missing a hand.  She’s six years old now, and when her doctor suggested fitting her for a prosthesis so she could have two hands, she said, “But I already have one.”  Tonight she’s wearing an orange and white dress and a cascade of curls, and as her parents dance, she follows her small cousins around, picking them up when they fall. 

The middle daughter, a doctor, dances barefoot, and works her way around the room, making sure she talks to everyone.  Five years ago, she got married in a blue-and-white church.  Eight months later, she got divorced.  Now she says she won’t leave her parents again for any man.  To study maybe, but not to get married---besides, she says, she’s almost thirty, who would want her?  She dances with abandon, laughing, her skirt working its way up her gorgeous legs. 

The oldest daughter only in the past year, in her late thirties, married a man with three teenagers from a previous relationship, and had a baby of her own.  Everyone said, “It’s about time.” Just a few months post-partum, her body is soft and thick in the tight magenta dress.  The next day, looking at photos, she says, “Ay, look at my enormous belly!  It’s that I had just eaten,” and laughs.  She’s never given much of a fuck what people expect.

The daughter-in-law is orbited by her two little boys, who wear magenta guayaberas they picked out themselves.   She and I were married within months of each other, and were pregnant at the same time.  Our husbands are best friends.  Now we sit and chug beers and take turns herding the kids back into the hall when they head for the street.  And she tells me that her husband has a girlfriend on the side.  That he comes home at 2 a.m. or not at all.  Later, an aunt drags them both onto the dance floor and shoves them together.  They each grab one of their sons, and dance without once looking at each other’s eyes. 

In the car on the way home, Ibis asks me, “Why do you think we’ve lasted?”

“Because we’re both such great communicators,” I say.  (We’re not.)  He laughs and punches me lightly on the thigh. 

“No,” I say, “I think it’s because we both believe in our story.  You know?  And we’re both too stubborn to give up on such a great story.”

“Maybe,” he says.  “It’s a good story.” 

We turn onto the dark highway.  The pueblos are webs of light scattered across the black valley.  From here, it’s a straight shot home.