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Colors and Courtyards: San Miguel de Allende

San Miguel craft shopNow that I’ve been to Mexico, I’m pretty sure it’s where colors were invented. Or if not, then the Mexicans have perfected the invention. It seemed during our trip as though colors were everywhere, so that it becomes almost impossible to describe the ubiquity and chromatic richness that wraps around you in Mexico. Visual aesthetics were so different from what I’m accustomed to, and so much better than the dreary white and pastel emptiness that taints life in American residences. During our bus ride north out of Mexico City, we saw houses painted in bright colors of turquoise, yellow, pink, and purple.

We arrived Saturday afternoon in San Miguel de Allende, a small to medium-sized town in a valley. Buildings in San Miguel seemed to be mostly painted in a kind of rusty red or deep yellow. We arrived without realizing it on a holiday weekend, for Independence Day, which is November 16, so the little town was packed with people eating ice cream and listening to mariachi bands. Even with the small square in front of the church full of people, San Miguel was a relief after the intensity of Mexico City.

School children in costumes

Independence Day parade

It seems appropriate to me that San Miguel de Allende is a city of art, with art schools and filled with art galleries. I cannot speak for other Mexican towns, but San Miguel could surely inspire art, a colored town set in a valley and flowing up the adjacent hillside, with great views of the town below, with saffron and flame-colored houses everywhere, and with a tradition that includes bright-colored clothing (we saw dancers from a children’s parade for Independence Day), with contemporary practices such as the colorful decoration of skulls for the Day of the Dead, and with a long history that includes art (such as Atotonilco church nearby, declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO, and referred to as the Sistine Chapel of Mexico because of the painted ceiling).

San Miguel de Allende is about four and a half hours northwest of Mexico City by bus, set in a semi-arid landscape. Outside of town is El Charco del Ingenio Botanical Garden, centered around a small dammed lake. On the hillsides rising above the lake is a landscape of enormous cacti, a place that seemed as rich and alive as walking through a northern forest, but mostly made of fat succulents. The AirBnB apartment where we stayed had a balcony looking down on a tiny beautiful yard, and covering the patio were pots of succulents of such diversity and beauty that I thought This is simply a world I don’t know about.

Flower pot with a succulent

On the balcony, where we sat with coffee every morning

Our main goal in San Miguel was to relax, to do nothing we didn’t feel moved to do. With six days in a small town, in spite of sometimes walking for several miles each day (which we don’t mind at all), we did relax, beginning our first evening with a concert from a jazz festival. Later we went to an art school where we were free to wander around, even watch the artists at work. We browsed through a gallery there, went into a weaving studio full of looms, and sat in the huge courtyard where an orange tree full of oranges had dropped fruit on the ground.

Of course we did things you might predict from where you’re sitting: we went to restaurants (and had Thanksgiving dinner there, which I started with another glass of mezcal), we browsed for hours past the stunning abundance of folk art and crafts hidden in small shops and down alleys full of colored cloth and flashing silver, and we sat in the pleasant square near the church eating cups of papaya or mango, watching people and an occasional street dog walk by. One of those people was the hat man, selling hats stacked on his head, with so many that the stack of hats above him was as tall as he was.

To some extent, the first view of San Miguel de Allende could be misleading, as it looks a bit like an old-fashioned little Mexican town, radiating its colors out to the universe, and with every narrow street in the center of town made of cobblestones. If you get a glimpse through the gates in those colored walls, however, you see that life is taking place in open courtyards that may be beautifully decorated, more than you could imagine in the little cobbled street. I came away with the feeling that so much of the wonder of San Miguel probably remained hidden.

Red house in San Miguel

A fairly typical street scene in San Miguel

Thanksgiving morning, we were woken at 6:00 a.m. by incredibly loud fireworks to celebrate St. Cecilia’s day. Afterward, I sat out on the patio outside our bedroom, drinking coffee and making some notes. Here is what I wrote: “A rooster is crowing somewhere here in the neighborhood, competing with the noise of cars and trucks on the highway up the hillside. A few minutes ago, a truck drove up our narrow cobbled street with loud music, playing so loud that it seemed to be intended as a public service. And now I’m hearing notes from a trumpet down the street. Beside me here on the balcony in a large clay pot is a huge jade plant, the largest I’ve ever seen, blooming with tiny white flowers. Beyond the balcony railing and rising above the high walls around the yard is a bergamot tree, heavy with round green fruit.”

I’m waiting for the time when I go back to Mexico.

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Food and Spirit: Mexico City

[Last weekend I returned from a week in Mexico, and for this week and next, I am going to alter the literary/writing topic of this blog, to write about being there.]

Mexico City street food

An extremely popular street food in Mexico City, cut off in small slices for tacos

The capital of Mexico has a population of a billion people—or if you’re into technical math and actual facts, a population of 20 million, and people in Mexico City drive like polite maniacs. They pull suddenly in front of one another, closely follow the car in front, and push into a line of cars that is already tightly packed. Nevertheless, I never saw Mexico City drivers grow angry or behave aggressively. They drive the way they do because they feel they have to (unlike where I live in Atlanta, where psychotic aggressive driving is normal).

In Mexico City, we found multiple streets devoted to particular types of commerce, such as home goods, plumbing, clothing, or music. Our apartment was close to a music street, and when we walked down that street in the morning to get breakfast (like the tamales I had one morning), the street was very quiet, somewhat deserted, all the shops closed with pulldown metal doors. In the evening, however, that same street was a cacophony of sound and lights and activity. At 9:00 at night, every business was open, selling electric pianos, huge speakers, sound systems, and other instruments, with small bright lights arranged to rotate and flash out the door, as thought the street itself were a stage. In front of a few stores, young women in tight short were paid to stand on the street and dance to the loud music, presumably to draw in customers. Customers who then might—who knows?—buy a guitar or something.

Compared to anything I’ve ever experienced, there was a tremendous amount of activity on the streets in Mexico City, and if you want food, it’s everywhere. This was the first country I’ve ever been to with such ubiquitous availability of food on the street. The city has many restaurants, but in addition, every place we went there were sidewalk stalls selling food, some stalls even with seats for customers to sit and eat tacos and fruit and cactus bulbs and beans. In addition to the stalls, the city must have thousands of tiny establishments the size of large closets, operating from inside a building but with a small counter opening onto the street. You walk up, you buy a taco or cup of fruit, you walk on.

Many different kinds of food are available, and in particular the people in Mexico City seem to like meat and meat and a little more meat. One morning we were walking around looking for a store where we could buy bus tickets and we passed food stands getting ready for later in the day. One place in particular had an enormous vat of boiling water, from which a man was pulling out pieces of meat that I believe were not yet entirely cooked. He was placing what came out of the water on a huge platter—snout, heart, piece after piece, as though a whole pig had been cut up and put in that vat. The scene was like something from Dante’s inferno of street cuisine.

We were three nights in Mexico City, and every night we ate in a restaurant that we loved. The first place, a small cafe recommended by our AirBnB host, had a motto painted on the front: “Aquí es un lugar de respeto y paz” Here is a place of respect and peace. While we were waiting for food, our waitress came by with a stack of books and drawings, which the cafe was selling to customers. If you bought a book, you got a free drink. I bought a book of poetry in Spanish and had my first delightful glass of mezcal, a specialty of the region of Oaxaca (tequila is a type of mezcal, but mezcal is also a different drink).

Another night we ate at an elegant place called La Opera, founded more than a hundred years ago by some Frenchmen. There I had grilled octopus in a spicy sauce, and I continued my exploration of tortilla soup, a delicious dish that most restaurants seem to carry. Our final night in Mexico, we went out with a friend to a gastropub-ish place for some damn good food, including something I went to Mexico hoping to try, chapulines, a type of tiny toasted grasshopper (also a specialty of Oaxaca). Take a small corn tortilla, add cubes of white cheese, guacamole, a pile of chapulines, and salsa—ah, baby, now that’s a Mexican taco. I also had another glass of mezcal, so it was Oaxaca night in my neighborhood.

Diego Rivera mural

Part of a Diego Rivera mural, of Indians dyeing cloth

We stayed in the center of the city, the Centro Histórico, and the very center is a huge open square called the Zócalo, lined on one side by the long high wall of the National Palace. Despite the enormous size of the palace, it is built like other residences under Spanish influence, with an inner courtyard, though in this case with a Really Big Courtyard. Facing the courtyard, some of the walls contain murals by the painter Diego Rivera, showing Indians living before the Spanish came, then crushed by the Spanish, then rising again in revolution.

Near the Zócalo stand the remains of a former high pyramid, the Templo Mayor, that was the center of the city when it was the Aztec capital, a city built on an island in a lake (a lake that is long gone). Thus the Aztecs, then the Spanish, and now the Mexicans have considered this spot to be the center of their society, as though the center of Mexico City is one of those places on the planet where an invisible power flows through the earth.

Another display of power was the enormous cathedral on the Zócalo. Construction on the church began in 1573, deliberately placing it in the old Aztec sacred space, the same way Catholic churches in Europe were built on top of Greek temples, to replace the old ways. Sometimes, however, the old ways do not disappear just because the conqueror builds a church. Although the Mexican people are very Catholic (the Spanish did win that one), we saw ceremonies right beside the cathedral where people were lining up for a traditional healer to perform a limpia (a spiritual cleansing).

Spiritual cleansing ceremony

Limpia ceremony near the Zócalo

The limpia involved the petitioner holding a large bunch of basil while the person performing the limpia held a smoking container, blowing smoke around the person receiving the cleansing. Thus an ancient spiritual ritual was performed next to the largest church in the country.

After a day and a half in Mexico City, we took the bus north to San Miguel de Allende, and next week I will write about that fascinating little town of art and history.

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No Such Thing As Too Dumm

A good argument can be made that the invention of writing has allowed human beings not only to accumulate more knowledge (when the oldest person in the village dies, we don’t lose everything they knew), but writing has also allowed us to think more logical and complicated thoughts.

Most of the reason for that expansion in our mental capacity is probably the fact that unlike speech, writing does not disappear the moment you encounter it. If you don’t understand it, you can look at it again, as many times as necessary. You can also concentrate on just one part of the writing until you understand it, and then move on, taking as long as you need. In addition, writing allows us to slowly and carefully organize and add to our thoughts, until we can say more complex things that would not be possible when simply speaking.

This week I had an experience—not a particularly rare one—that made me consider an opposing concept. I was looking online for a baseball cap, going through page after page of images. Many of the caps had writing on them, and much of it was so stupid it began to seem like evidence that not only writing, but even speech itself, was a bad idea.

Does writing make it possible for us to be even more stupid that normal?

For instance, consider a baseball cap that says “I Only Do Butt Stuff at the Gym”. I can pause, if you want, and give you a few minutes to come up with something dumber, or you can read on for more. A relevant point here is not just the inherent dumbness, as if stupidity were some sort of quantum force moving through space (which it is).

What makes this worse is the context. A baseball cap is not a sign on a wall, or a bumper sticker. The cap displays a phrase on top of the head that will be seen by every person the wearer talks to. So maybe “In dog years I’m dead” is faintly clever, sort of, after a beer or two, but when that phrase is on top of your head, your first greeting to everyone you meet, maybe you need more dog years.

For straight-up stupidity, how about “Barbells for Boobies.” What in God’s name does that even mean? Or—and let me emphasize that I’m NOT making these up, they’re all real—“Cowboy’s butts drive me nuts”, “Wine ‘em, dine ‘em, sixty-nine ‘em”, “If it has tits or tires, you’re gonna have problems”.

Well, boys and girls, I guess you’re thinking we’ve hit bottom, but we’re talking about human behavior here. There is no bottom. So here are a few more baseball cap phrases, which you can go and buy right now, that overtly say “Look at my baseball cap. I’m a moron.” And again, I swear to God, I did not make these up. Picture someone wearing these on their head:

  • I’m either having a midlife crisis or I need a laxative
  • Drunk slut
  • World’s largest source of natural gas
  • Asshole

If not for these baseball caps, you would have to actually talk to the people wearing them to know that they’re idiots. If they were to merely walk by, you might not even know. But now, thanks to the wondrous invention of writing, you can see them coming across the room and think, “Oh my God, where’s the door?”

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Comma Up to My Place

peanuts cartoon on commasIf you happen to be the kind of person, hopeless, that is, desperately deranged, who would go looking for the history of a punctuation mark, you can find that on Wikipedia. But rest your fingers, rest your heart. You don’t need to waste time thinking about actual facts when I can give you the secret history of the comma. What makes this secret is that I never wrote it down before. Or thought of it. That’s how secret it is.

As everyone knows, most commas these days come from South Korea, and with modern Korean production processes, commas have become very cheap. I buy large boxes of commas at Target, and the kind I buy come with free semicolons. As a writer, I have a use for semicolons, but if you happen to run across them, you can just throw semicolons in the trash. You don’t need those. If you need a few commas in a hurry, I’ve also seen them in packages of a dozen, for sale in service stations, usually near the beef jerky.

The comma was invented by a medieval monk in Portugal, who was copying manuscripts that he found dull (legend says they were love poems from one of the first popes), and the monk grew sleepy as he was writing. He continued to work in a drowsy state, but when he tried to make periods, his pen slipped a bit on the page. At first the other monks thought these marks were strangely written periods. They liked the way they looked, however, so that every time they came to one, they would pause to look at it. This is how the comma came to represent a pause in the sentence.

Commas became especially popular in Europe in the court of the French king Louis XIV, where commas were worn on the clothing of the courtiers, often decorated with jewels, so that a combination of a comma with an added pearl inadvertently invented the semicolon. The comma was so popular at this time that many illiterate people wanted to learn how to write, just to have words they could put on either side of the beloved comma.

One of the interesting offshoots of the comma in the 19th century was that it gave rise to a visual metaphor that meant “Shut up. Just shut up right now.” That message was conveyed by holding one finger out in front, then curving it downwards as if drawing a comma. The symbolic intent was “I’m inserting a pause here, and I’ll tell you when to continue, which will be never.” A number of duels were fought over that downward-curving finger, and quite a few writers lost their lives this way, as they were quick to insert an air comma, but less quick with pistols afterward.

In more recent history, back in 1986 a cargo ship full of commas sank in the Indian Ocean, and for the next year sentences all over the world were faster to read, though at the same time many of them were less clear for lack of punctuation. Toward the end of the 20th century, commas began to lose their popularity in the west just as they were gaining in popularity in Asia, particularly in Japan and Thailand. In some Buddhist sects, the curve of the comma came to be seen as implying part of a circle, so that every comma was thought to remind us that at any given moment, we are only part of the way through the circle of life.

And of course we all know about the recent upsurge in the popularity of commas because of pop bands who have named themselves after the comma: Commas and Whiskey, Red Comma Revolution, The Night Commas, and others.

And while I’m thinking of it,

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Poetry Month Stops to Look at Rain on a Window and Realizes the Month Is Over

rain on a windowNational Poetry Month will be over in a few days. How much did you write? Did you write a poem about the person who you love with a passion oh so true, but they just don’t love you? Or maybe you wrote some small lyrical piece about three birds on a wire at sunset. Poetry can just be about anything, can’t it? About Napoleon’s exile, or your daughter learning the flute, or the faithfulness of an old dog on an autumn afternoon.

I wrote a poem about the end of time.

Here at the End of Time

Here at the end of time,
there have been some changes.
The days that are left have swelled up, for instance,
like balloons.
Now each one lasts a week,
and it takes seven hours to eat breakfast.
This means drinking a lot more coffee.

Here at the end of time,
gravity has also become irregular,
and things keep floating away.
My hairbrush is gone,
so I look like I just woke up,
and the sky is full of lawn furniture.

Here at the end of time,
strangely enough,
there’s more time to think about things,
as most things don’t need doing.
There’s not much point in canning the summer tomatoes.
No need to study for the history test.
Now we can sit here and dwell on our past iniquities,
or think about the fact that we had better hurry up and commit new sins,
if we still have a few in mind.

Here at the end of time,
several days ago
every religion came true,
and then they ended.
So all that fighting was for nothing.
Now there’s no religion,
but we don’t have time to worry about whether that’s going to make a difference.

Here at the end of time,
I’m surprised it even came.
I always read that time went on forever.
So much for that idea.
Maybe I was reading the wrong books.
It wouldn’t be the first time.

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Write Into Other Worlds

wall mural of woman in colorNow that it’s April, I’ll say I’m
looking for silver bells to chime
to celebrate these thirty days
and all the splendid, curving ways
we take our words and make them rhyme.

As well as the stuff that doesn’t rhyme. April is National Poetry Month, though I wonder who decided. Who makes something a “national month”? Surely not Congress. I cannot imagine that wretched pit of semiliterates commemorating poetry. But here it is anyway. I want to commemorate poetry myself by noting that in addition to the pleasure and meaning poetry can bring to our individual lives, it also makes human beings more civilized.

After some thought, I decided that the evocation of civilization even includes the old epic poetry. I’m most familiar with the Greek epics Iliad and Odyssey, and at first I did not think of them as promoting civilization, considering how violent they are. Honestly, it’s weird and disturbing how brutally savage those poems are, and yet, they helped to create a sense among the ancient Greeks of having a common culture, of being part of the Greek world. When you think about the idea of being a member of a large group as opposed to only belonging to small hostile tribes, that way of thinking is definitely a step toward civilization.

Poetry also works with language, which is quintessentially human, perhaps the single most human quality we possess. Language is accessible to everyone, and the very material of poetry is this essential human skill combined with human experience. Poetry thus arises, in a sense, out of everyone. Because poetry can also be very short, it feels more available to people who might not try something that requires more investment of time and effort. For these reasons, poetry is probably the one art form that the majority of humans have tried. Most people do not compose music, or paint paintings, or write novels, but most people have probably written (or started to write) at least one poem in their life, even if only one.

Another way poetry makes us civilized is that by its very nature it takes our human skill of language and shapes it in ways that require thought, knowledge, and feeling. These are qualities of the mind, ways of thinking that involve contemplation and examination. The more that human beings learn to exercise these qualities–to consider things carefully, to think about things–the closer we come to being civilized.

I would also argue that poetry makes us more civilized by giving us a very accessible form of expression that feels more intense and rich than normal speech. It is our nature that we need to express our thoughts and feelings, and if we don’t, we become ill and broken. As to why we need to do this, I have no idea, but clearly we need to express ourselves, to “get things out” and poetry is right there available. It does not have to be good poetry in some artistic sense to have a civilizing effect. What matters is that the anguished teenager can write it and find emotional relief.

Poetry furthermore allows us, when we read it, to go inside other people’s experiences, including some that are radically different from what we know. With poetry we can go into the mind of other people in other places with other cultural values, and when we feel the emotion in the poetry, then we can begin to understand our common humanity with another person. If we connect with people from other cultures and places, that is also a step on the road to civilization.

I’ll end with three lines from the beginning of a poem by a poet who was writing early in the 20th century, but who still feels on the edge of experimentation, e. e. cummings (which is how he spelled his name):

my father moved through dooms of love
through sames of am through have of give
singing each morning out of night

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The Wild Fruits of Summer

basket of tomatoesThis weekend is my birthday weekend, and in anticipation of the joyous acclamations that will probably ring out for hours, I am temporarily laying down the arduous task of making sense on this blog (a lofty goal I seldom attain anyway).

Instead of trying to say something sensible and literary, I can relax and be my real self. That opens up a full Pandora’s storage shed (way too much to fit into a box) of potential nonsense that I can use to litter the internet. I feel a little bad about the littering, knowing how rigorous the internet normally is for maintaining rational, logical information. But here I am anyway.

Given that birthdays allude to the passage of time, I’ll float back in time and tell a true story from when I was around thirteen, though I don’t remember exactly how old I was. There’s probably not a lot that I remember exactly. At that time we lived in a house next to my grandparents, more or less on their farm not far outside the town of Gainesville, Georgia, in a house my grandfather built for us in what had been a field of peas. Our first year in that house, in fact, in the front, facing the road that was still tar and gravel at that time, we had to wait for the peas to be harvested before we could create a real lawn.

Next door, in my grandparents’ yard, they had two pecan trees which had been there quite a while. Pecan trees grow to be surprisingly large (surprising to me, anyway), and under one of those trees, on one side of the yard, was a picnic table. I’m also remembering that at some point there was a pile of sand under the tree, and we played in the sand.

The pecan tree was not far from the road that ran past our houses, and near the tree was a small parking lot, as my grandfather also ran a little country store next to his house. As kids we’d go to the store to beg for enormous candy bars, and my grandfather, not being a dentist, would sometimes give them to us. The store had a concrete tank outside with minnows that people would buy to use for fishing, so of course we’d sometimes lean into the tank and play with the little fish. Inside the store was a small gas stove, surrounded by a half circle of chairs with woven cane bottoms, where we’d sit in the winter to wait for the school bus.

My story, however, takes place in the summer, when large wooden baskets would be sitting in the yard full of vegetables, including tomatoes so full of juice that each one was like a handful of summer by itself. One day my brother, the wild one just under me in age, climbed up in the enormous pecan tree, having somehow gotten up there with several tomatoes. Maybe he was with friends. Maybe he was with me. As I said, many things I don’t remember now.

Unlike winter tomatoes, available now in the supermarket all year long, which will bounce off whatever they’re thrown at, the summer tomatoes on my grandparents’ farm would burst like a bomb of tomato juice when encouraged to do so. So up the tree my brother went, and even though it was summer, and the tree was full of leaves, and the view was no doubt impeded, he could see enough to know when a car was coming down the road past our houses.

Perhaps he threw at one or two and missed. I’m sure it would take both planning and luck to have a tomato appear just in front of the windshield as a car was passing by, but my brother managed it. Now I’m thinking I must have been in the tree as well, or maybe I’ve just imagined the sight of that same car after it turned around down the road and came back to the parking lot of my grandfather’s store, the sight of a very angry man getting out, and just before that, the sight of my brother leaping down from the tree and running like a deer toward the woods down the hill behind the houses.

I can understand now why that man was angry. I’m sure I would be, too. At the time, though, he just seemed like one of those adults whose purpose was to make life harder for children. “These kids got to wash my car!” he yelled. I suppose someone got some water from the spicket that stuck up in the yard, next to the sand pile, and rinsed off his windshield.

And maybe he saw my brother running away, which made it easier for us to explain that the actual criminal had left. Some guy we barely even knew.

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