Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Why, Mama?

“What is it, Mamá?”

“It’s sheep poop, my love.”

“Why, Mamá?  Why do we want sheep poop?”

“Because we’re going to make compost with it.”

“Why, Mamá?”

“Because the plants like it, my bird.”

“Why, Mamá?”

“Because it has good things that they need to grow.”

“Why, Mamá?”

“Well…because everything is a circle.  The sheep eat the plants, and then their poop helps new plants grow, and then they eat the new plants, and poop again.  And some of the plants go into the compost pile, and they turn into compost too, and help new plants grow.   Like that.” 

“Why, Mamá?”

“Because the worms and other little bugs eat the sheep poop and the dead plants, and turn it into compost, and the compost is like food for the plants. See?  Here’s a worm, look!”

Qué bonito!  Pink!”

“You’re right, es bonito.  Do you want me to put it on your hand?”



“Do you like it?”


Late afternoon, walking through the cemetery with Isa’s hand in mine.

 It’s been a long day of sitting still and being quiet for a three-year-old, and we’re not immediate family anyway; though I'm truly sorry, I honestly can’t even remember having met the guy.   Ibis can represent the Alonso Ponikvars for a while. 

November second is only a few days away, and many of the graves are decorated, already, with marigolds and the magenta flowers called “cock’s comb”. 
I want to stop and look, read the old-fashioned names—Delfina, Tomasina, Natalio, Heriberto—see who’s been remembered and how.   But Isaias pulls me along, back towards the entrance, towards the promise of chicharrines and gelatinas and all kinds of junk food for sale.  On one grave, someone has placed an opened bottle of Coca-Cola.  You have to open it, see, so the spirits can smell it, when they come. 

I buy my son a bag of chicharrines.  As usual, he requests salsa, and then requires me to eat everything that it touches.  We sit on a bench next to a large, seemingly random wood carving of an owl grasping an amorphous rodent in its talons. 

“Why, Mamá?  Why does she want to eat her?” 

“Because owls are carnivores, like T-Rexes and tigers, and they need meat when they’re hungry, and meat comes from other animals.”  

“And from other dinosaurs, right, Mamá?” 

“Right, my love.  Dinosaurs, too.” 

“Why, Mamá?  Why do carnivores need meat?” 

“Because that’s how their bodies are made.  They need meat to be strong and grow.  You’re an omnivore, so you can eat meat or fruit or milk or chicharrines , but carnivores need to eat meat, or they won’t be strong.”

“But why, Mamá?  Why does she want to eat her?”  (Why do we have to die?) 

“Because she’s hungry, my bird, and she needs to eat meat.” (Because it’s all a circle, because that’s the deal, that’s all.)

Quiet.  Crunching on chicharrines.   The hole is being filled.   The father and the son of the man I don’t remember meeting cling to each other, crying.  Mounded marigolds seem to glow with their own light, guiding the spirits back to this world for a day.

“I love you much, Isaias.” 

“I love you much, Mamá.”       

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Three Good Guys

At the end of this Seemingly Endless Day of Nonstop Bullshit, I would like to acknowledge three random strangers whose miniscule acts of kindness somewhat mitigated my desire to bash my head against a wall until I lost consciousness:

The young man at the Oxxo minimart who observed my crestfallen expression when I realized that the coffee machine was being serviced, said, “Just for you, ma’am” and hooked it back up, so I could get a hit of liquid caffeine and sugar. 

The man who took my picture for my immigration document, who laughed heartily at my joke, and didn’t even raise his eyebrows when he saw my terrible, terrible photo. *

The gas station attendant who filled up my flat tire and called me “my little queen,” even though I didn't have any change with which to tip him. 

Señores: gracias. 
*Terrible, but fortunately not in accordance with the trend of increasing terribleness. The first year in Mexico, I looked ugly, but dignified, in my FM2 photo.  The second year I looked like a man.  Last year I looked like a sad zombie.  This year, I figured I would end up looking like...what would be worse than zombie?  Lindsay Lohan after a binge, maybe.  Instead, I'm going to look tired and pissed, which is at least accurate. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Two things I have in common with Miley Cyrus, or, I want to be a hunter-gatherer when I grow up

Ibis and Isaias left me to my own introverted devices last weekend while they went to visit Abuelita, and I divided my time neatly between the two halves of my split personality. 

On Saturday I put on skinny jeans and went into town.  I had a fancy coffee and graded homework assignments.  I thought about getting a manicure but didn’t.  I wandered around the shops and tried on some clothes, bought a pair of slacks for work, and then had pozole and beer and gossip with some relatives, went home.  I was perfectly happy with my day.   

On Sunday I woke up early and didn’t even change out of my funky cut-off sweatpants and stained tank top.   I spread compost around the garden, cleaned out the chicken yard, built a new compost pile, transplanted chile seedlings and a little tree, cut some grass, dead-headed the dahlias and the zinnias.  I collected the eggs and cooked “eggs in purgatory” with fresh oregano and thyme and parsley from the garden, and made mint-lime-lemongrass water with fresh everything from the garden.  I was perfectly happy with my day. 

I was perfectly happy with my day, and by the end of it, my nails were dirty and broken and my knuckles were scratched and something had bitten or stung my left index finger, leaving an impressive welt, and I thought, what if I had gotten a manicure yesterday?  That would have been stupid.  And I wondered a little what the hell is wrong with me, that I can contemplate having my nails done one day, and pick up chicken crap with my bare hands the next.      

So, okay, I contain multitudes.  We all do.  If I had had any delusions that I’m alone in this,   they would have been dispelled when I turned on the TV Sunday evening and your friend and mine Hannah Montana popped up, lip-syncing her heart out in adorable lady-executive garb, only to run backstage and return in pigtails, a gingham blouse, denim skirt, and cowgirl boots.  “You can change your hair, you can change your clothes,” she mouthed, “You can change your mind, that’s just the way it goes.”  Tell it, Miley. 

It's true, you can change your hair and your clothes, but you can only change your mind about the important stuff so many times before it becomes tiresome and impractical.  There are some decisions to be made in the coming months, big ones, and I don’t know which part of me should make them: the sipper of lattes or the builder of compost piles.  They want such different things. They have such different concepts of security.  One of them feels safe and satisfied when she sees that her paycheck will cover the month’s expenses; the other, when she can make her entire meal from the garden. 

I’ve been tempted to break it down into a question of head-vs.-heart, or to condemn the latte-sipper as superficial, but I realized this evening that that’s not quite it. 

After supper we were out in the yard. I was admiring a pale green spider sitting inside a magenta hollyhock flower.  Ibis was burning the weeds and grass that can’t go into the compost.  Isaias was picking sunflower seeds out of the flowers to nibble.   I felt a satisfaction so deep it startled me, and I understood it was because that’s what we’re made for.  Paying close attention to the natural world, burning stuff, and foraging for things to eat.  Never mind that we would starve to death trying to hunt and gather for a living on our tiny scrap of land.  It’s not head-vs.-heart: it’s the hunter-gatherer I’m genetically programmed to be arguing with the resident of the twenty-first century I am.   

I don’t know how much that realization will help me decide who gets to call the shots, but it always feels better to have things figured out.   

(Oh, the other thing I have in common with Miley Cyrus?  I've had to delete the photographic evidence because this is a family blog, but let's just say it involves cakes in the form of a portion of the male anatomy.  Mine, I would hasten to add, was bestowed upon me by my mother-in-law's prayer group; I'm pretty sure Miley's was her own idea.)

Thursday, May 31, 2012

For Monica.

I don’t really believe in souls. 

At least, not in the sense of a sort of me-shaped mist that can step away from my body and continue thinking and functioning, continue being smart or not-so-smart, continue liking such-and-such color, continue being nice or catty or outgoing or shy.  The Facebook-profile self, the music-I-like and jobs-I’ve-had and my-favorite-passtime self: that’s wonderful, that’s fine, but I don’t think it’s eternal.

My adopted aunt, my friend Monica, died last weekend.  She wasn’t even fifty.

I could list adjectives, I could tell you that she was creative, and courageous, and joyful, and generous.  That—you know how when you know someone really well, you tend to associate them with a color?  Or is that just me?—that when I think of her, I can’t narrow it down to any one color, she was a rainbow. 

But what was truly amazing about her was that she was able to see something eternal, and valuable, in everybody.  Super-smart or severely retarded, nice or mean—she saw beyond all that.  That’s not say that she loved everything that everybody ever did all the time.  Certainly she had to tell me to snap out of it on a couple of occasions; certainly she complained about bad behavior.  But she could look at the scrawniest, ugliest, puke-colored, flea-ridden alley cat and see life, and light, and value. 

This week, thinking about her, about how terribly stupid and unfair it is that she should be gone already, I’ve found myself looking around and thinking, “YOU, look at YOU, asshole.  What’s so great about you that you should still be here, when she’s gone?  And you, too, you’ll never amount to anything, why couldn’t YOU have gone instead?” 

But Monica wasn’t about that.   I make myself stop. 

She saw something of value in every life.  Something.  Not a soul, not in the sense of a personality.  But some spark, some seed, that each of us—however lost, however sad, however much of a damn failure—brings to the table. 

 Maybe it’s not eternal-eternal.  Maybe nothing is.  But it matters.   

She saw it, so I know it’s there.   

Friday, April 27, 2012

Inside out

We’re in the Zocalo, having a beer and botanas with some friends at one of the outdoor restaurants.  I’m dressed (at the insistence of my school’s principal, and to Ibis’s great amusement) as a China Oaxaqueña, in a flouncy red skirt, soft white blouse, green shawl, braided hair with ribbons—we’ve just come from the Calenda, the parade-cum-dress-rehearsal, for the traditional dance festival some of my students will participate in the next day.  Isaias is dancing up a storm alongside the table, admiring the balloons, and eating spicy peanuts.   

I see the girls—I always see them—the ones in shorts and sport sandals, carrying woven bags stuffed with water bottle, journal, camera.  I was one of them.  And there’s one—there’s always one—in the company of a local boy.  I know they’ve just met, because of the way she watches his lips when he talks, and nods even when I can see in her eyebrows that she hasn’t understood.  Because she’s so obviously exhilarated.  Because I can see her pride when she orders an esquite in Spanish.  I was her.   

There were two local boys.  One became my husband.  One was a bad guy.  I look at this girl, and wonder what’s beginning for her.  I wonder what she would give to be on the inside, to be wearing a flouncy skirt and beribboned braids, to be Nena  to her husband, and Mamita to her child, and Doña Somebody to her neighbors.  I wonder what I would’ve given.  I wonder if I gave it.

As we’re heading back to the car, we run into Rosy, on her way to the late shift at the pharmacy.  She double-takes at my outfit and cries “Qué guapa!  Qué guapa!” as we hug and kiss quickly.  An older woman I don’t know stops me to ask what time the dance festival will be held the next day, and I tell her.  Being on the inside feels good, but not as transcendent as I imagined it would when I was that girl.  Less transcendent, in a way, than being on the outside, and longing. 

And the things I never imagined: running up a perfectly, boringly, familiar street, long skirts swishing, holding my husband’s hand, chasing after our son, and suddenly catching a whiff of the Mexico Smell, whatever it is, or was when I first defined it: Fabuloso cleanser and tacos and exhaust and old buildings and boiled corn.  And instead of exhilarating, it’s comforting: it reminds me that I was onto something, when I was that girl. 

Friday, January 13, 2012

Eight Moments with Guadalupe

1. I first see Oaxaca under a full moon. Ibis, who I’ve known for six hours, is asleep next to me as the bus labors up and over El Cerro del Fortín with an orange moon floating up from behind it.

2. I pull the orange roll of Marías cookies out of my backpack and bite them into halves and crescents, and imagine I’m eating that moon, making it a part of me.

3. I sit in a hot and empty church and pray without thought to the Virgin of Guadalupe, breathing in and out, “You are good, eres buena, you are good.” I know that I will leave. I don’t think I will return. Guadalupe stands on her crescent moon and says nothing.

4. I stand in my empty bedroom in Montana. I’ve just packed my car; in the morning I will drive south. I’m going back to Mexico to marry Ibis; going back to stay. And in the middle of that empty room, something gleams: The Virgin of Guadalupe pendant I wore through all the months of staying away. I haven’t worn it since I traded it for an engagement ring. How can it be there? There it is.

5. One morning on the radio they say that “Mexico” means “in the bellybutton of the moon.” I don’t know if it’s true, but it makes me smile all day. Makes me remember how grateful I am to live in this ridiculous and beautiful and troubled and blessed place.

6. It’s been a hard year. Sometimes I’ve wanted to give up, I’m not going to lie. But when my son and I return to Oaxaca from Christmas in the U.S., it feels like the first time: that sweet. And it doesn’t surprise me at all, as we walk across the tarmac towards the airport and Ibis, to see a perfect Guadalupe moon in the sky: the slenderest of crescents, resting on its curved back.

7. I believe and I don’t believe. Not first one and then the other; I fully believe and fully disbelieve both at the same time. I believe and I don’t believe that coming home on that crescent moon meant that this will be a year of coming into fullness, that this will be the year that Guadalupe’s intentions for our family, in this place, begin to be revealed. And if that’s true because it’s destiny, or true because I’m determined to make it so, I don’t even care.

8. Driving through our pueblo one night after buying a Three Kings cake, my son points to a silver half-moon and says with certainty, “Cayó moon! Cayó moon!” The moon fell, the moon fell. I can’t understand what he means, but maybe? It looks touchable, it looks attainable, that moon. It’s closer to us than it used to be.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Verbs are hard.

“Mamá, wheel broken. Pongo?”

“Quieres que lo* ponga?”

“Ponga. Sí.”

(I put the wheel back on).

“Okay, Birdy, ya lo puse.”

“Puse. Gra-sas.”

(Ten minutes pass.)

“Mamá, wheel broken. Pongo?”

“Ahora ponlo tú.”


“Sí, tú ponlo, Isaias.”

(He puts the wheel back on.)

“Mira, Mamá! Wheel!”

“Ya lo pusiste?”


“Sí, lo pusiste. You put the wheel on!”

. . . . “Poot?”

*Sticklers for Spanish grammer: yes, "wheel" in Spanish is "rueda" or possibly "llanta," both feminine, and thus "la."  All English nouns in Spanglish, however--at least in Alonso-Ponikvarian Spanglish--are masculine: "el wheel," thus "lo".  You're welcome.