hammock by water

Arid is not a word I use much in writing. That word belongs to places like San Diego, Texas and Arizona. My expressions are full of words that drip and hold moisture. Just the mention of Oregon has people looking for umbrellas, rain boots and fleece jackets. But not today.

Today children play in the fountains – air conditioners are turned up. The highway is full of trailered boats and the vacation minded. I love it! The sun hits the hammock every morning between 10 and 10.30, so I stop whatever I am doing, strip down and soak warmth into my bones. My face has turned a chocolate brown making my white hair and blue eyes pronounced. I feel healthy again and whole. I greet and celebrate the sun as fully as my neighbor repels it by pulling her shades and planting hawthorne trees.

I’ve gone rafting on the Sandy River every summer for the past 36 years, but this year, I wonder if I’ll make it. I have no visiting granddaughters to entertain, no husband to float with and friends with occupied schedules. I’ll travel out of state during prime rafting weeks and have promised John – my marketing guy – that I will hold up my end when I return.

This summer feels different, quiet and withdrawn, a time for regeneration and slowing down to regroup. My need for introspection asks for patience.

Late afternoon light streams through the front window in amber shafts, spilling over my writing pad. I’m held in an almost perfect moment. Preludes enhance the mood like black stones in a Zen garden. A single grace note on a piano keyboard dancing near the ceiling is sweet beyond words, sweet beyond imagining.

Writing is my salvation and faith. I feel relief as words spill out of me and land safely on the page, ready to take a life of their own. I dress them up like children who are going off into the world without me. I give them my best efforts so they will journey well. These words are not scholarly, information driven, political or unique. It is my heart that speaks. I write letters to undiscovered friends, sending them off like paper boats on a river, saying hello to people I have yet to meet.

Remembering August

My neighbors own Grossen’s Peach Orchard which goes on for miles in all directions. Standing in the midst of their trees makes me feel timeless and whole. Overripe peaches lie smashed against hot summer earth, green ones hide at the center of the tree, and perfect golden orbs bedazzle each branch ready to release into my eager hands.

Mr. Grossen runs up and down the lanes of his farm on a four wheeled tractor running errands and transporting neighbors who’ve come to pick. We bump over peach strewn paths and bounce beneath rows and rows of ripe fruit, as he smiles his good natured smile and points out the best picking grounds.

dogIt’s not unusual for the orchard to open to the public one day, then place a sign by the road saying,  “Closed for Ripening” the next. I respect that sign, but Gib doesn’t think he means it. The Grossens are an older couple who believe in being neighborly and kind. They should throw Gib on his ear when he walks past the sign, but they open their door and their orchard instead. That’s Gib’s Los Angeles pushy side. I would be mortified to do such a thing, but Gib has this golden retriever way about him that folks can’t seem to resist. Next thing I know, we’re scooting around the orchard looking for bounty.

We often pick with my daughter Kristen and granddaughter, Isabella. Juice runs down my arm and drips from my elbow as I wipe peach fuzz on my apron and plunge into the warm center of the fruit. Isabella’s chin is already sticky. There are juice spots on her neck and stains on her summer blouse, as she offers her nine year old opinion about the readiness of this year’s crop. We overfill our baskets in delight and greed. When we weigh our bounty, the bill resembles the national debt. No wonder they let us in.

Canning equipment waits at home. We set up an extra table in the kitchen and become a production line. Water boils on the stove, one pot for sterilizing, another for plunging to release  delicate skins. Isabella and Kristen lift them steaming from the bath, drop them into ice water and begin to peel and cut.

Gib and I pack slices into sterilized jars. His white chef’s apron is already stained. His belly is flush with the table where juices overflow, drip dropping to the floor. I don’t look much better as I fill each jar with honey lemon glaze and lift them into their canning bath. We place rubber circles on the top, wait the allotted time, and listen for the familiar pop that ensures their seal.

The last two seasons at Grossen’s have been bleak. Winter lasted too long, spring was too wet, and summer was reluctant. Their crop was either green or cracked and fell uneaten to the ground.

How can you survive such loss, I asked standing in their field.

It gets harder every year, Mrs. Grossen confides.

When my thirteen year old granddaughter, Britan, came to visit from Los Angeles, I was determined to have peach time with her, but the orchard was damaged. Our yield barely filled one basket, but I was persistent. In the end, we did all the work of canning with only six jars to show for our effort. After a long afternoon, Britan looked at me with her clear blue eyes and said, Exactly what is supposed to be fun about this grandma?

Czechoslovakia and Rome

captive Mid-July, 1964, I was traveling with Jesuit Priests to Czechoslovakia with other students from Georgetown University. We boarded an old bus and were given specific instructions about passports and behavior. When we reached the border, we were greeted by three armed guards who stood fingering their rifles as we shifted nervously in our seats. Wooden watchtowers housed two more guards, feet firmly planted, guns aimed in our direction. The border was laced with barbed wire, and signs I couldn’t read which were meant to fortify the landscape. They could have retired for tea with the threat we intended, but they were of a different mind. We were intruders who could be smuggling contraband or planting bombs. They walked up and down the aisles of the bus, examining one person and the next.

When we were officially waved through, we found ourselves in a small town with empty storefronts. The feeling of poverty was tangible. While the priests went about their business, we walked time worn masonry roads, and waited by an ancient circular fountain which marked the center of town. The visit itself was uneventful, it was the coming and going through military zones that captured my attention and imagination. It provided my first experience of the wealth we take for granted in the states.

 School ended in late July, but I was scheduled to remain in Europe until September first. Utterly homesick, I called New York and asked my mother if she could change my ticket for an earlier arrival. I would attend music school in Cambridge shortly after I returned and wanted time to adjust.

Sweetheart, this is the chance of a lifetime.

The phone crackled and buzzed as I pushed my hand against my left ear to shut out exterior noise.

What did you say? I gave the phone my complete attention.

I said, stay where you are. Enjoy it. You’ll be back soon enough.

I knew she was right, but the years at boarding school created a feeling of a being a homeless pilgrim and I had, quite frankly, reached my limit. My heart sank, as I replaced the receiver and prepared to continue to Italy.

 nun-in-romeAugust first I arrived in Rome. I’d been booked into a building run by nuns and shown to an ominous room the size of a train station. Its vast expanse and sparsely furnished interior amplified my feelings of being small and on my own. At one end, a single bed, at the other, a weathered wardrobe, a small desk under street level windows completed the room. Opening outward, the wardrobe revealed a waist length mirror. My image, reflected near a bare ceiling light, provided a startling portrayal of the loneliness I felt.

I examined in detail the sadness in the face I saw before me. Unexpressed feelings took on a life of their own. I felt threatened and powerless to stop them. Was I not privileged and fortunate? How ungrateful of me to be so downcast. I pushed my truth deeper inside and went about the business of distracting myself, which wasn’t difficult as my funds had run out weeks ago.  I was never good with budgets. I blew my money shortly after it arrived on gifts to take back home. To compensate, I made the rounds of expensive hotels and gathered the discarded leftovers that lined the halls on room service trays. I brought them home to fill my cupboard.

I discovered Italian ice cream that summer, “ice” which was the absolute best, ate spaghetti until my waist threatened to spill over the sides of my bikini, wrote at sidewalk cafes, visited the Trevi Fountain, the Colosseum and learned how to say ‘Go Away’ in Italian, to protect myself from the aggressive advances of local men. I traveled on trains to visit out laying areas, and pretended not to understand the language when conductors asked for my ticket, since I had none. Once in awhile, I would meet a diplomat, or a refined stranger who would invite me to their home for dinner. It was a time of being financially creative. When the weeks had passed and I was free to return home, I had acquired too much luggage. I’d bought a black hooded cape in Austria for my mother, lederhosen for my brothers and other gifts I no longer remember. The clerk took pity on my lack of funds and passed me through.

The Deer

The deer don’t come around anymore. I used to see them every night. They’d cross our downward stretch of driveway after poaching from my neighbors garden, or nibbling the pears and apples lining the hill. We’ve been adversaries, the deer and I, garden foes, and still I slow my car as I inch down our long winding drive, wanting them to feel safe.

The problem is, they’ve mistaken my raised beds for an all-you-can-eat salad bar. They’ve acquired a taste for spinach, beans, broccoli, strawberries, raspberries and even delicate pink roses. All quite satisifying, then washed down with a cool drink from the pond, like a fine vintage port. 

I move morning mediation to the garden in summer. The deer sense me and leave the space alone, but on days I don’t go down, I’ll glance from the window to see them stomping my vegetables –  as welcome as a workman’s muddy boots on a just mopped floor.  I went screaming from the house last August, as naked as noon, to spook them out of my carrots. Get out! Get Out!  I yelled waving a crimson cloth. The neighbor rushed out to see who had been murdered or was about to be.

 My office window faces birdfeeders, ferns and towering maples. It’s patrolled by Hannah, the neighbor’s lab, and is not the usual path for the deer. But one misty morning, I looked up from my writing to see a large gentle creature standing just beyond. Our eyes met. Everything else fell away. Our vision locked. We studied each other for a long time. In that moment, I had a realization of the abundance in my cupboards and refrigerator, and a glimpse of what it must mean to forage for dinner, searching, finding or doing without. By the time the deer walked on, I had surrendered my strawberry pots, wondering if perhaps they’d like whipping cream served on the side. 

That has all changed now. They’ve moved beyond our ten acre wood. It was evening – I’m sure of that, but the rest I hardly know, because the main road is away from our house, blocking noise, squealing tires and the sounds of shattering glass. A young deer lay dead in the morning, bloody and torn, already buzzing with flies. The highway department promised to come, but it was Sunday, and a holiday followed. The deer lay near the road full of decay and emptiness far too long. The rest of the herd knew. They felt it and distanced themselves. And so they are gone. No more deer in my driveway, leaping over the hill, or rummaging my garden – and you know what? I’ll be darned if I don’t miss them like crazy.


 I couldn’t do math to save my life, still can’t. I didn’t get those brain cells. But my mother did. She was a business woman and book-keeper, who believed that her daughter should be able to navigate the world of numbers by some miracle of genetic biology. When that failed, she hired math tutors – lots of them. They were dead-on serious people, who sat in over-lit rooms arranging columns of tiny numbers so they fit in miniscule boxes. They used rulers and charts and made up non-sense stories about a person traveling to Cleveland going twenty miles an hour – and how long did it take if they stopped for a coffee and donut on the way, and how much longer did it take, if they had to stop at their Aunt Lizzie’s house as well, who lived thirty minutes from the interstate? It seemed a lot easier to stay home or have Aunt Lizzie visit them.

In seventh grade my mother decided I should forgo the usual horseback riding, baseball games, manure fights, fort building and hiding out in the woods, so I could devote my entire summer to…you guessed it…math!

She got up each morning to drive me into the city, like I was going to the hospital to get urgent care. I tried to comply but couldn’t. Two whole days passed before busting out. I knew she wouldn’t take it well, so we continued our morning routine. I’d give her a long-faced troubled look to avoid suspicion, then wave good-bye before catching the number 10 bus to the swimming pool. That summer I perfected my skill on the high boards doing swan dives, the jack knife, half-gainer, half-gainer with a twist, double flip and the ‘look out, here she comes’ cannon ball. Work on my suntan and social skills completed the day.

This went on for an entire glorious month before coming to an abrupt halt. I no longer remember if it was the lack of report card, a school visit or the fact that my teacher had no memory of any student by that name, that finally alerted her to trouble. But one day, I returned from the pool to find her standing on the front steps of the school, smoke coming out of her ears. She was so angry she couldn’t speak, and what little she must have said, I’ve thankfully repressed. I do remember those eyes in the rear view mirror as they glared at me on the way home. I sat wet and humbled in the back seat. Her eyes full of anger and disappointment, but mostly a kind of hopeless exasperation about what to do with her ‘problem child.’

The Clothesline

Most people don’t care much for a clothesline. They are too busy running, scheduling and arriving, but something in me loves a clothesline. I love it the way I love my mother. I love it the way I love the first sunny day after a dark winter and I love it the way I love the feel of rich garden soil falling between my fingers.

A clothesline brings me home to myself more fully than my birth certificate, the key to my front door or the address printed on my letters.

What is it about a clothesline that opens this felt place?

Is it the knowing that women have stood before this same simple line doing the same task for as long as there have been clothes to wash? Is it the timeless connection with generations of women who have stood in the open air with the scent of hard work on their hands?

I don’t know what it is. I only know that it feels real to me, the same way that floating down a river feels real. The majesty of the trees, the massive power of rocks and the steady flow of water endure, while civilizations rise and fall, crumbling beneath their own ambitions.

It is so important to have things that are real to hang on to in ones life. That stability allows us to remember the essence of our soul and the fabric from which we’ve come.

I’ve been told there is an African tribe that gives each child a song to sing. A song that is only theirs, so when they find themselves dissipating in the larger world they can retreat, sing their song and come home to the truth of who they are. It is the medicine that returns them to the spirit within that remains constant.

I guess the clothesline is part of my soul song – And how lovely that a man with kind eyes and gentle hands help me sing it into place. Because of him the clothesline is stronger than it has ever been and farther away from the sloping ground that spills into the dense woods below.

The rope is strung between two cedar trees which are middle aged, but by no means old. They are strong, proud and happy to be of service. Before they stood idle, having nothing better to do than shelter a discarded hose and watch over a pile of rotting branches.

The wind spirits are dancing with the fabric of my rayon dresses as I write. They are doing a little two step with my lace edged slips. It makes me smile to watch them. It makes my heart sing. The sun is there too, witnessing and adding its warmth to this sensual outdoor dance. What a lovely thing to watch!

How amazing and magical it is that some part of my essence is involved in this alchemy, while another part, the physical part is too worn out from the demands of a full life, to venture far from my pillow.


Ode to Lydia

What is that instant connection with another person; that sudden timeless knowing that you know or have known each other; that warm immediate acceptance that feels like a welcome reunion between strangers?

It’s not exactly falling in love, but it is a falling of sorts, perhaps into the eyes of another’s remembering. This mysterious bonding can happen anywhere, with anyone, at any age. It’s a rip in reality as we know it, an opening, both uncommon and familiar.

Her midnight eyes caught my attention, not the color, but a spark, a flash of light; an almost tangible electricity. Our meeting took less than a moment as we walked in opposite directions along a quiet ocean shore.

Her name was Lydia, eight years old and going into fourth grade, but I wouldn’t find that out until the next day. Now all I had was the flash of recognition that we once knew each other and wanted to again.

Lydia’s long brown hair spilled over her shoulders in full waves of curl, accenting her vibrant turquoise jacket and pants. She watched me watching her, as she planted her hands in the sand and rose barefooted into a cartwheel, then another and another still; her young legs never quite extending above her confidence. She looked back as if to say, Did you see what I can do? What do you think of that? Pretty cool, huh?

Her parents walked beside her. Her father, a slender man with early grey hair, her mother average and withdrawn. They walked happily forward, insular in their privacy. Lydia shot me a knowing smile, she was an obvious beacon in their careful lives. That was Thursday night.

 I was at the ocean with my granddaughter, Isabella and my daughter, Kristen, having a mother-granddaughter vacation. I kept Lydia in mind as a playmate for Isabella, deciding to introduce them if I saw her again.

On Friday we rose eager to walk and explore the shoreline. The tide was out and small bodies of water dipped into little pockets of discoveries. Isabella found several starfish in purples, reds, browns and blues. She pocketed countless agates and two hard earned sand dollars. We climbed cliffs and discovered new views, Bella always staying behind to make sure I got up without trouble. I’ve got ya, she’d say, extending her hand over rocky terrain. When did we switch roles? I wondered. When did I become the one falling behind and not her?  The ocean air invigorated our spirits as we made our way back for lunch.

It was late afternoon before I saw Lydia again. Isabella was flying her multi-colored bug kite, the one with the curly tail and face that reminds me of a protective Hindu God. Lydia watched from afar, then pulled out a pocket-sized kite of her own, a dragonfly trailing yards of shimmering gold metallic. Both girls ran as only the young can to keep them airborne. As the kites slowed and fell to earth, I took the opportunity to introduce myself.

I know you, I said running next to Lydia, You’re the girl that did those amazing cartwheels on the beach yesterday, aren’t you?

She did not lower her eyes or pull back in shyness. No, she met me eye to eye drinking in our conversation like the desert wanting rain.

Yes, that was me, she said. I’m eight years old and going into fourth grade. I’m here on vacation and I’ve been here before. We live in Washington. We came here last year too, only it wasn’t so cold then.

Her face lit like the sun itself, radiating light in all directions. I loved watching her generate words from her inner excitement and give them to me, like small wrapped gifts from an unseen self.

I do lots of things, she continued. I study gymnastics and learn piano from Miss Barker. She’s been my teacher for two years and she lives in the brown house just down the street. It doesn’t take long to walk there. She has a really small dog with red hair who waits for me by the corner of the house. His name is scruffy but he is not at all scruffy. You would like him, I bet. Have you ever been to the ocean before?”

I come to the ocean every few months because it’s a short drive and beautiful in all kinds of weather.

The ‘every few months’ part struck her as impossible. She was mulling that over when her mother approached.

People can do that when they live near-by and this woman does not know who Miss Barker is, Lydia, nor does she care. Lydia’s father stood next to her now, joining forces with her mother like a bucket of water waiting to extinguish light.

We have a nice fire going, I offered, and plenty of marshmallows, if you’d like to join us. I’m sure Lydia’s as good at roasting marshmallows as she is at doing cartwheels. She beamed in my direction, unable to contain her excitement. Can we mom, can we?

We’ll make a fire before we end our vacation, her mother promised. An indirect and unchallenged refusal.

Are you enjoying your time here, I asked.

 Now we are, the father offered, but we had to move our lodging when we first arrived because the landlady was getting too friendly.

Oh, I see, I said, and I did. Point taken.

Lydia looked at me for a moment and beyond to distant flames that spit and rose in the air.

Perhaps we’ll see you out here tomorrow, I said, It would be nice for the girls to fly their kites together.

We’ll still be here, the mother answered, collecting Lydia’s pail and shovel. Her father folded their beach chairs in one arm and Lydia in the other.

I’ll be here tomorrow, Lydia said eagerly. I’ll be here at 9 a.m. and if you want to, please come get me. I’ll be in cabin 18 ~ right over there. Her eyes were saying, I want to go home with you, as her body turned in reluctant compliance.

We didn’t see each other the next morning. She was not on the beach, but my daughter saw her later that afternoon while I was resting. Yes, they played together for awhile, Kristen said, but Lydia had to leave. She gave Isabella a butterfly kite as a goodbye gift.

How were the parents?

Distant, separate, aloof. Lydia did not stay.

 And that was that. I never saw Lydia again and don’t expect to.

But here I am two days later writing about her. She is on my mind. She left an impression. I’m pondering her journey through life and what it will be like as she reaches toward the cornucopia of the world, while her parents diminish the flow to crumbs of fear and safety.

Lydia is a child living in radiant color next to shadow people. I wonder what affect that will have. I wonder if their fears will come to own her, or if she can use their example to push past them, into her own growing wisdom and remembered knowing.

But most of all, I wish I’d had a moment with her; a small island of uninterrupted time when I might have spoken into those clear receptive eyes; when I might have spoken with the freedom people have when they recognize each other from another time and place. I think I wanted to tell her that it will all be okay and that there are others like her here. I wanted to say, Don’t worry dear, you are not alone.

written 8-12-08


 So many young women with hopes held high. 4H teens showing horses they loved, brushed, trained and stabled; each child doing their best with the immense animals that held their dreams. I was pre-occupied by heat, a hard wooden bleacher and dust funneling around my feet like little tornadoes. I wanted water and shade, wished we had gone to the river instead of the fairgrounds. But I was doing this for her, my 13 year old granddaughter, Britan, visiting from Los Angeles.

One week ago, she stood tall and handsome in her English riding habit, sun-streaked hair tucked in a neat ball at the back of her neck, like an elegant ballerina. I had dropped her at the stables and drove home to have time alone. Then I got the call, her voice sounding small and frightened. Grandma, I got bucked off. I landed on my head. I want to come home.

We are here on a too hot summer day, watching the horse competition in the hope of keeping her near the sport she loves. Her neck and shoulder trauma healed with the speed of the young, her willingness to ride again present but needing time.

We toured the 4H stables before the show, examining the horses and photos of each young owner. The teenage women living on remote farms and ranches immediately sensed the difference between themselves and this green eyed girl from the heart of the city. They stopped and studied her, stealing glances over their shoulders as she feigned disinterest.

Together we watched the girls parade in the arena, displaying their best horsemanship and finest clothes. The lens of a camera gave my granddaughter the distance to be both present and removed. She stepped in through the lens, documenting the world she loved, picking favorites and tracking competition, while I excused myself to buy ice water. The walk to the shed that sold drinks felt like being swirled in a clothesdryer. A paper cup was lodged under a bush, discarded napkins pushed into the dirt. A baby in a carrier positioned next to a fan smiled at me as I paid and left.

 When the event ended she turned and said. Oh, Grandma, the paint should have won, don’t you think?

The paint, I thought, yes, I guess there was a paint out there, somewhere, one of them.

“That rider was dressed in extreme shades of pink. I could never wear an outfit like that.”

Very, I said, It was very pink. She continued talking about the paint and why it should have won. I reached in my pocket grateful to find the car keys and pull away from the heat of the day. How was that for you, I inquired? Did you enjoy it?

written 7-9-08

tree tops

 When I look into the tops of the trees I feel possibility, freedom and expanse. The space is open and without restriction. 

I am familiar with tree tops, sky and scope. My spirit, more bird than human. I look longingly at flight, angry that my feet are attached so heavily to earth. I try not to gaze too high or too long, because that is not my work. My work is to be acquainted with the tree’s roots and solid trunk. The gypsy in me does not understand roots, and the dancer in me does not understand immobility, but my lessons are there, at the base, in the earth, in being here and not above.

I took my daughter parasailing in Mexico. We rose into the sky, above the trees, mountains and ocean. I never felt so at home. My whole body said, YES! This is me soaring free like an eagle, while my daughter was terrified. We had a serious talk after that. Mom, this is it! All of my life I’ve followed you on your crazy adventures. Now I’m old enough to say, no more!

written 10-16-08


The hammock is the surest sign of summer I know. The purple, green, red, blue and orange of the Mexican hammock carries stories and memories. It waits and invites. The hammock says stop, rest, read, swing, gaze up into the branches of a tree.  See the boughs. Study the light and shadow that breathe between leaves. Watch them sway against spaces of sky. Time in a hammock allows me to know tree and sky the way Georgia O’Keefe painted them.

There is something wonderful about two women in a hammock, bodies touching, looking at each other from opposite ends of an airborne canoe, sharing secrets while resting against ankles and folded legs. It reminds me of being kids at a sleep-over. The sheer closeness removes formality and barriers. The feeling is revealing and immediate.

Last month I held my marketing meeting with Anthony in the hammock. He didn’t want to leave when it was over. He called his wife, You’ll never believe where I am… in a hammock looking into the forest… Yes, we did work. I love this, I’m going to stay awhile.  I brought him beer while he rocked and soaked in the good juju of the woods. Gib and I perched on a near-by bank enjoying his unexpected pleasure.

In our old house I tied Isabella inside the hammock. I took a rope and wove the net securely closed. We rocked slowly at first, then escalated to broad bold strokes of excitement, until finally she spun in screaming circles upside down, round and round, all the while yelling, “Stop. No!  Faster ~  more. Oh no, no, stop. No ma, don’t stop. I want more.”

I have some friends who talk too much to please me. They move fast and keep busy schedules. They enter the hammock with reluctance, but talk about our visit for months to come.

The hammock is essential. It is as important as floating down a churning river or dancing naked under an August moon.  Summer brings me alive. I find delight where depression used to live, and know who and what I am more fully. I don’t crave the harsh desert light. I don’t want to be baked red in the face. I just want the absence of grey. I want the water to live only in the rivers. I want to be invited outside to play and feel freedom and joy running through my veins, reminding me that I am young at any age.

written 7-2-08


Seemed like a good idea. Everyone said it was – go to Mexico, learn Spanish, soak in the sun. I’d indulge and spend an entire month, maybe even live there. 

Things don’t always turn out the way we plan.

 I arrived at the airport without my passport. Last time I crossed the border one wasn’t needed, so I scurried, finding someone to make a notarized copy of entry from my drivers license. While running around, I saw a picture of a man whose name I recognized on the front page of the paper, the same man who provided bags of designer clothes to my granddaughter, clothes his kids had outgrown. A multi-millionaire, now featured on the front page of the Oregonian Newspaper being led away by a law officer for embezzling funds. That was the forerunner of my take off.

The four hour trip to Houston became a trip to Austin because Houston was having a big storm. No one could land. We sat in the plane in Austin for three hours. When we finally got to Houston, all flights were off schedule. I was asking about the flight to Leon, when a retired contractor named, Calvin came up behind me and said, I’m with you! I’m going to Leon too. Calvin stuck to me like glue.

We ran to make the gate, but the flight was delayed – again. We waited four more hours to leave. Calvin sat next to me. We visited. He was on his way to San Miguel to visit a cousin he had not seen for 40 years.
It was two in the morning when our flight landed in Leon. The shuttle that was supposed to greet us, with handy little placards with our names printed on them, was nowhere to be found. We were stranded. We could however, take a taxi for $100 to San Miguel. We split the fare. At 3.30 in the morning we were in San Miguel with a taxi driver who spoke no English. We spoke no Spanish. I showed him my address, as did Calvin. He drove to each door and knocked like a crazy man to wake up the occupants. First my address, then Calvin’s. We found out later he was knocking on empty storefronts, as lost as we were.

At  four in the morning, my now good-buddy Calvin and I decide to share a hotel room. Two beds please. We split the cost again. I’m handed a bill for $816. and flip my lid until I’m told it’s pesos. Still high for Mexico. Calvin, thinking the taxi driver had done us a service by not abandoning us gives him an extra $20. One born every minute. In the hotel room the water doesn’t go down the drain in the sink, Calvin can’t figure out how to turn the light off, and I’m too tired to care about either one. Finally I climb on a desk and unscrew the damned thing. Calvin says, Why didn’t I think of that. I tell him, it’s because I’m smarter than you are. We had lots of laughs, hysteria will do that.

Calvin rises early, anxious to see his cousin. I try to call my contact people, Wayne and Susan, whom I’ve never met, friends of friends, but can’t phone out. Meanwhile, the water is backing up and threatening to overflow the sink.

Calvin, call room service!

No, he says, Won’t do any good.


 I pick up the phone and use my best Spanish, Aqua, blub blub, blub, No go down. Someone knocks at the door, but as SOON as I open it, the water goes gushing down the drain. Of course. No problema, Senora Karina. Calvin rushes off to meet his cousin. We trade in-town phone numbers.

I look out the window and see the swimming pool of my dreams. Life is good after all. I rush down and dive in. It is SO cold I nearly have a heart attack. I’m told it’s been in the high 90’s for months, so I can’t figure it out. It is like swimming in pure ice. Worse maybe. But I am determined to swim. Guests are watching in disbelief. The Gardner puts down his tools to stare at the loco gringo. I’m breathing hard and moving slow. I will swim, damn it! I nearly die in that pool. No sleep, pure ice and high altitude take me to another dimension.

 Point proven, I return to my room, dress and take my phone number to the front desk. Using advanced pointing and pleading gestures, I convince the clerk to dial the number. Wayne, a retired teacher from Washington lives only blocks away and arrives in ten minutes. He takes me to his beautiful home to meet his wife Susan, a retired CPA. Very dear people, and very sleepy people, from staying up waiting for my sorry butt to arrive. Their maid Carmen has made chicken enchiladas, which I dig into like a starving woman. Carmen came with the house. In Mexico it is considered bad form to do your own housework, since there is so little work to go around. Within moments, Karen, of the bland diet, is reaching for water to squelch the fire. No, that wasn’t the hot one. It was the mild one. Okay. Ground rules established.

These generous folks have a palace of a home. I think they paid $150,000. It would be worth half a million in the states. It has courtyards, a roof garden, and came furnished with wall hangings, art work and beautiful wooden furniture! Let me back up.

San Miguel is a 15th century town. Milk is delivered by a man on a donkey, as is fire wood and garden soil. You walk your garbage to the corner when a guy bangs a metal bar against his truck. There are NO traffic rules. Well, maybe there are, but nobody follows them. Not even the cops. The cops ride around on horses and oversee the fiestas that happen every week. They are a presence but no threat. Stop signs (ALTO) are everywhere. I don’t know why. No one ever stops. A few times I pointed out to my driver that he was going the wrong way on a one way street. He shrugged, It’s a slow day. Dogs roam and sleep in the street. They all look healthy and run in packs. It is considered bad form to hit them. Pedestrians are just above dogs in consideration.

 San Miguel is a walled city. All you see are walls with doors. That’s all you see! A door can lead to a home, business, school or library, but once the door is closed, you don’t know where anything is. They have the running of the bulls in September. It’s perfect for that. Also, every street looks exactly alike – to me anyway. The sidewalks are only wide enough for one person to walk at a time, and the streets are made of stones. It’s VERY bumpy on foot or by car. Wayne showed me around but I was just as confused when he finished as I was when he began!

At the top of the hill is a large public square pronounced, Har-dean. A public gathering place for music and the selling of wares. Large churches tower over the square. This, and the street I lived on are my only landmarks. Everyone walks or takes a cab. You can go anywhere in town for $1.50 American.

 Okay, so on Sunday, Wayne delivers me to my Mexican host family. They speak NO English. I speak NO Spanish. Bad idea. Plus they have NO aesthetic what-so-ever. The woman, sweet lady in her 70’s, Senora Theresa makes beautiful cakes for celebrations. All through the house are dark angry pictures of Jesus, the Virgin and some bad looking Greek Orthodox guys. Crucifixes are ever present, even on city buses. I quickly realize that this is not a host family, the way we think of a host family.  This is how they make money, I was one of many who came and went. No need for them to be social or attached.
I was somewhat shocked by the realization and went into survival mode. I walked to the jardin and bought fresh flowers for my room, took down their religious pictures and put as much of my own clothes and art work as I could around the space. Still I felt awful. That was not helped by sitting at dinner with 12 people, feeling like a large white giant and not being able to understand one word when spoken to.

Monday: School! First day of a two week course.

School was great. The class was small, the teacher, Socorro, was animated and friendly. Her advise was: Do not suffer in this class. No crying. Life is short. Have a good time. All this I got from sign language, as not a word of English was spoken. OH…and they lied about it being a beginners class.  Everyone there was talking to each other in Spanish already. I was in way over my head, but I just went with it. NO, Nope, don’t know that one. Can’t say that. Have NO idea what you’re asking me now. Long four hours! I learned the word bathroom but often confused it with the word bank, which did me little good in a pinch. (The Mexicans never give you toilet paper, by the way. You’re supposed to bring your own. Be warned.)
Monday night I got a Spanish – English dictionary and stopped strangers on the street. How do you say this? I was ready to take the bull by the horns.

Tuesday:  I woke up with, I-want-to-die dysentery. That didn’t take long to get, even with the pills from my Naturopath. We were not supposed to use the phone in the house. No calls in, no calls out, but after a long time with a dictionary I convinced Senora Theresa to let me use it to make one call. I really needed to speak English to somebody, anybody. I needed support and medicine.  I was supposed to have dinner with Calvin and Margaret, his cousin, that evening so I rang them up. When I told them what was happening, Margaret said, We’ll be right over!

 San Miguel is the playground of the extremely rich, which describes Miss Margaret, who became my new best friend. Here take my bed, I’ll call the doctor. What do you need? Nothing is too much. No problem.. Her house made Wayne and Susan’s look like the wrong side of town.

The doctor came that afternoon. He was the rich young, handsome doctor to the rich Americanos. He wore designer clothes and gave me two of the worst shots I’ve ever had. I was bruised for days. I suppose if you look that good, you get points that make up for poor medical skills. Anyway…the door to my room often blew open in the wind, so when Calvin left he locked it from the outside. (I forgot to mention that when I arrived in San Miguel, it was the beginning of the rainy season. It poured every day. Just like being home in Oregon.)

Thanks to Calvin, the doctor found himself locked in my room. He paced and panicked, wondering who to call. He was probably swearing, in his elegant way, but I wouldn’t have known. Finally, I got smart and pushed open a window by my bed, which was wide enough for him to climb out of. He smiled as he stepped through. How romantic, he said, Only in San Miguel does the doctor leave by the window.

Meanwhile, I was crummy with stomach pains and throwing up and not caring about anything. Miss Margaret tended me. Calvin stayed in the guest room, and checked in. At one point, I asked for someone who could do energy healing. Drugs are nice, I said, but I’d love to see someone who could tend my spirit and energy. Do you know a Shaman or curendero?

Well…You’d think I’d asked for the devil himself to come into the house. Calvin launched into an adamant statement of his faith, thinking my request had somehow threatened it. I tried to explain that this was about my healing and not about his faith, but that only made it worse. I’d stirred a hornets nest.
If you have ever seen the movie, Driving Miss Daisy, you have the character of Miss Margaret. To her credit, when I asked if she knew a healer, she made a phone call to a friend who might know, but didn’t. It was Calvin who freaked. When asked what I needed at the height of my illness, I said, I need to be held. She did. I trusted her completely at that point.

By Wednesday afternoon I was sitting in the courtyard watching hummingbirds buzz around her feeder, feeling much better. (San Miguel sells the best hand squeezed Orange Juice in the world. I’m sure that was part of my speedy recovery.) I’m still trying to figure out HOW I got dysentery, considering I arrived early Saturday morning. Two days? I never drank the water, ate from street vendors, had no salads or fruits. I did brush my teeth from the tap. I can only think that was it.

By Thursday I was well enough to tour with Raul, Miss Margaret’s driver. He took Calvin and I out of town to visit an ancient church. The paintings were priceless, the walls painted with silver and gold. It was one of the few buildings left standing after the revolution. In one part of the church, if you are approved by the priest, you can stay and do penance. They sell whips so you can spend days beating yourself up in the privacy of your room. (I thought my vacation was extreme.)

After that Raul dropped Calvin off and took me shopping. I came to Mexico with a list of things to buy, which was a huge mistake, as purchasing anything while not understanding money or language was absurd. With Raul as my guide and interrupter it was all possible. (Raul learned to speak English from Chinese people, and still says lice instead of rice.)

That evening Calvin got his first manicure ever, at Miss Margaret’s request, since they were going to a very fancy cocktail party. Calvin took me aside before they left.  Margaret is going to ask you to stay on, so you don’t have to go back to the Mexican family.  Generous idea, I thought. Calvin was excited. She’ll be in soon.  Margaret did come in asking if I would like my shoulders rubbed. Sure! Putting lotion on, she said, I want you to go home, you don’t belong in Mexico. Go home with Calvin! (Not what I expected.)

I told her that I still had two weeks left and that I was happy to return to my host family. I might engage a private tutor in Spanish, take an art class at the Institute or take a bus (12 hours) to Puerto Vallarta to sit by the beach and have a real vacation. I havn’t decided yet.
She frowned. Nobody goes to Puerto Vallarta this time of year. It’s not done.

I told her not to worry, that I would not stay on.
The conversation left me feeling odd and cold. I was not invited out with them that evening, which was fine.

Calvin left at 9 the next morning. We sent him off with hugs, smiles and morning tea. But as soon as the taxi was out of sight Miss Margaret looked at me like so much garbage and demanded I leave immediately. I was stunned. I had planned on it, but her attitude shocked me. My driver is away, he will not take you. I told her I would call a taxi, but she pointed down the street to the corner. You can take the bus, there is one in fifteen minutes.

I hopped on the bus (which was actually a great ride) heading back to my home stay and wondered what the heck just happened. I searched my mind for something to explain her change of attitude, but found nothing.
I spent one night at my host family, which also felt cold and unwelcoming, so I told them I would be leaving, then walked to the school and did the same. I decided to get a hotel. I called Wayne and Susan to confirm a date we had at the local hot springs for Saturday, and told them my plans. They would not hear of me staying in a hotel so I lodged again with them. We soaked in hot springs on Saturday and went to the Fiesta de Loco’s on Sunday. The parade was amazing, I’m glad I saw it. On Monday I visited a travel agent to book my return to the states, because really, I wasn’t having any fun.

 To get home, I took a bus for an hour and a half, a taxi to the airport, two planes, a train and another taxi. On the bus ride across Mexico I saw an old white haired woman doing her laundry on a rock in the river, and farmers plowing fields behind oxen and horses. They guided hand plows and scattered seed as they walked. They are centuries behind.

The rest of the trip was uneventful, except for a woman who threw up next to hundreds of people roped in long lines waiting at immigration. I thought that was fitting. Embezzlement at the beginning of the trip, vomit at the end.

written July 2005