Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Heart of Memoir

I had the good fortune, last week, to attend a book talk by my memoir hero, Mary Karr. Her first memoir, The Liars’ Club, opened my eyes, back in the 90s, to what’s possible with the form, joy and pain in the unvarnished truth, through the eyes of a child.

I began to devour memoirs back then (Nabokov, McCourt, Welty, Woolf and Wolfe), developing a quiet aspiration to tell my own story someday.

The other night, at Busboy & Poets, amidst a packed house, I devoured the author’s nuggets of wisdom on the craft, a few of them harder than others to swallow, washing them down with sips of mojito.

Mary Karr & Busboys & Poets
Mary Karr & Busboys & Poets
First and foremost, she told us, find your voice as a memoirist, the most interesting version of yourself. And yes, she clarified, it’s made-up.

I haven’t found that voice for Mexico yet, though I have heard it in fragments here and there.
Write (even the people you hate) with as much love as you can, said Karr.

For me that means the corrupt mayor, Don Bruno, the paternalistic Peace Corps bosses, the machismo engineers, the gossipy, dismissive Consejo. The whole cast of characters with love?

She also said: From the second you choose one event over another you’re shaping the past’s meaning. It’s a hell of a lot of responsibility.

She went on to say that sometimes you have to write a ton to get past the pages that don’t belong, like I did the first 100 pages of my Mexico book. But that’s nothing. Karr told us she had to lop-off 1200 pages of her memoir, Lit, before it set right. The DELete key is my most important tool.
 
During the Q&A, I forced myself to raise my hand. I stood-up and posed a question into the microphone. I had a million, but the one that won out was about my challenges writing and completing the story of my Peace Corps Service. ‘I got back in 2013,’ I told her. ‘Do I need more distance from the events?’ Here was my chance for some answers. (I mentioned, incidentally, that I had my Kickstarter backers – like an agent collective – waiting for the finished product.)

‘Oh, that’s tough,’ she acknowledged, and graciously thanked me for my service. Then she answered my question with a question:

‘Is there some way in which you were meant to change through the experience and didn’t OR some way you changed and aren’t ready to claim? Explore that.’

‘Yeah, do I have to?’ I grumbled under my breath, feeling my face turn red hot, and sat back down like a kid who’d gotten the answer (or in this case the question) wrong.

Okay, I admit, there’s stickiness there, like dried soda pop on the kitchen floor, and I keep stepping in it. I’m the President of SeeChange, for godsakes. I should have known better, done better, if not in changing Mexico, at least in changing my self.

What pops to mind is an infamous line of my mother’s, worn in to grooves of my record so it keeps repeating: ‘I have great things in mind for my daughter and I don’t want you fucking them up.’ Back then the you was a man. Now it’s universal, anyone (including me) that might get in my way.

Then I think of my wise and concerned friend, J, who tried coaching me through a rough patch in my service when the local board of sustainability to which I was assigned turned on me and the Peace Corps threatened to throw me out. ‘Has it occurred to you,’ J posed over Skype at about my six-month mark in Mexico, ‘that this experience could be doing you more harm than good?’

No, no, no, he didn’t get it. My friend was in development, yes, but a policy wonk, a diplomat, jet-setting around the world to negotiate treaties and wine and dine with the powers that be. On the ground work was a different ball game. He just didn’t get it.

But in the end, had he been right? I had (hidden) aspirations to change the world, at least a small corner of it. I had stuck it out, two years and three months. But what had I accomplished? Returning home to DC, I was back in the same old place, maybe I’d even gone a few giant steps backwards.

I don’t want to tell that tale, a story of disillusionment. But it’s there. Ways I hoped to change and didn’t. Ways I changed and don’t want to see. Can I face them? Can I handle the truth with tenderness? Can I see beyond the parternalismo and machismo and corruption, and my own getting in the way, to recognize that I did do some good, maybe even some ‘great things’?

F. Scott Fitzgerald says the definition of intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing truths simultaneously. When I’m there, I’ll be ready to write. Or perhaps I write to get there.

Mary Karr's new book is called The Art of Memoir and can be found on Amazon or her website http://www.marykarr.com/books.php.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Writing Through the Doldrums

‘Mom and N, is that you?’ My voice awakens me from a dream, the image of them plain as day.

The elevator door has opened – a man gets on and his back is too me – but I could see Mom with the baby in her arms. She looked so happy. They both glanced over at me smiling, then the door shut and the elevator arrow dinged for down. They were going out to play in the park.

‘But I missed them and miss them,’ I think, coming out of my sleepy stupor, rubbing tears from my eyes.

I saw a close-up of my nephew on Facebook the other day, his first day of kindergarten. ‘Where has the time gone,’ my sister-in-law wrote, and I could hear her dry, Texas lament in the post on the screen. N wore a striped polo buttoned up to the top. He had a big boy haircut, a little punk, no more blond bowl, shaven close on the side and a shelf of mousy brown bangs combed long to the side. A sly cat ate the mouse grin hid a hint of trepidation. His faced had slimmed and his eyes had become decidedly his mother’s since I last saw him, Scandinavian wide-set and slightly slanty. Exotic-looking.

It’s been two years, a third of that kid’s life, since I’d last seen him, at my mother’s funeral, when the weight of the sibling shame and blame and rivalry was too much for the worn connections to bear. My mother was the hub in a hub-spoke relationship and once she was gone we were nothing but a warped and useless wheel.

So on that hot August day in Peoria two summers ago I lost all of them. The elevator door closed and went down without me.

In the Doldrums today, I’m breaking ‘Ordinance 175389-J: It shall be unlawful, illegal and unethical to think, think of thinking, surmise, presume, reason, meditate or speculate while in the Doldrums.’ It would carry a heavy sentence, off to the dungeon for Milo, of Phantom Tollbooth fame, if he didn’t stop at once.

But I bend around the rule and write.

I have a tummy ache that reminds me of being back in Mexico. A water main broke on the block and the last trickle drained out at dawn. Now every time I pull the handle in the kitchen I’m reminded how dependent I am.

I awoke way to early this morning for my own good and fell into writing about Mom’s cancer. ‘Change it up, let the Muse lead you by the hand,’ though sometimes she takes me down some pretty dark paths.
This ain’t no Dictionopolis. (That’s Milo’s first stop on his journey out of the Doldrums where he and his dog Tock learn to play with their words.)

When Martin, my handyman, arrives around noon carrying his massive tool box, ready to install my new ceiling fan, I am just arriving at my aunt’s house in Peoria. There I find my mother a shadow of herself, honestly like part of her had already left the body and was hovering above us.

                                                         ~~~

I dropped my bags at the threshold and dropped to my knees before her, grasping around her legs to keep her on this earth. When I rested my head in her lap, she stroked my hair and said: ‘I’m glad you’re here, Annie.’

Is that the moment I started to call her Mama?

No, not yet.

The doctors had said three to six months which we collectively took to mean six months, still not much, but we wanted all we can get. Though the moment I’d entered the room and saw her sitting, back to me in the easy chair, her once broad shoulders narrowed and frail, a halo of lamplight illuminating silvery strands of hair, I knew it could only be weeks.

My aunt didn’t seem to notice a thing. Then again, she’d been along with Mom on the chemo ride from the beginning and maybe she couldn’t see the decline in the gradual day-to-day.

‘Doesn’t she look good?’ Aunt M called down the spiral staircase that led from the open kitchen and living space down to the guest suite of her converted coach house. ‘She took a shower and got all cleaned up for you.’

‘Yes, she does.’ I got up from the ground, having resisted letting tears fall onto the knees of Mom’s drawstring pants. ‘Hair looks nice, Mom.’

She smiled back weakly, unconvinced. ‘M blew it out for me, what’s left of it.’

I muted the damn TV, another ISIS ambush on a town called Mosul, and took in my surroundings. The slight scent of cigarette smoke in the air, a habit all the sisters but Mare had been able to kick. This aunt, a retired art deal, had an impeccable eye. Every inch of the place was perfectly appointed, a combination of antiques and moderns, books and tiny lamps and Persian throw rugs on the wood floors – tiny succulent plants and pots of herbs perched on the sills, classical music wafting down from the living room stereo – Bloody Mary’s being concocted on the circular marble bar above us with stalks of celery and generous wedges of lime on rim.

I loved coming to Peoria, even though it was a ‘podunk town’ according to Mom. It wasn’t our family home and it wasn’t Washington, but Peoria had become a hub over the years of visits, especially since Mom had invested in a little house around the corner from her sister in the historic Moss Avenue district.

‘Or you could have a Bloody Maria, you know, with tequila,’ my aunt’s voice called out over the Bach.
Aunt M, with her socialite gene, knew how to make even the dying days festive.

‘What about you, Ro? A Clamato on the rocks.’

Mom nodded, her eyelids resting shut, and I called up for her.

‘Annie,’ Mom whispered, gray-blue eyes fixed on me. ‘It’s the only thing my body seems to tolerate these days. Craves the lycopene for some strange reason.’

Mom was talking about her body as though it were already separate from her.

                                                         ~~~

The workers are still working, the break is serious, the hole is deep, I’m out of the Doldrums.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Change it Up

Beneath the thick canopy of late summer foliage I could hear my panting breath, feel my shoes smacking the pavement, my limbs heavy and stiff as tree trunks. ‘Never have been a morning person,’ I thought, wishing I could stop dead in my tracks and walk. The park was virtually empty. I seemed the only crazy soul out in the mid-August heat in Washington.
But the pain didn’t stop my mind from thinking, planning, ruminating, running in circles way faster than my legs could go. ‘Could I really just stop writing Mexico?’

‘Just 21 days,’ said my yoga/journalist friend Marilyn over lunch the day before. She’d planted a seed – or maybe it was a bomb. She knew I’d been toiling over my direction. I drew an image in my notebook, me at the trail head with several paths emanating outward and I was stuck there, frozen in indecision. Which story to focus on, which way to go?

‘Change things up,’ she suggested. ‘Whatever you’re doing now, drop it and do something else.’
The Mexico book had been weighing on me. ‘I’ve made promises to my backers. But I can't find my rhythm.’

‘Twenty-one days won’t kill you, the world won’t end. But it’s long enough to see where your energy is.’

At the ranger station, my half-way point, I doubled over to catch some breath. My energy was low. ‘Usually not this tired at two miles,’ my comparing mind hissed. I compared myself to myself most harshly.

Resting my hands on my slimy knees, I watched the sweat cascade to the ground.

'Change it up.' I had listened and broken my routine, hitting the trail in the morning rather than my more usual and comfortable evening hour. That was the trouble.

Suddenly a cardinal darted across my vision and into the brush. I could feel myself smile at the dazzling flash of red amidst all that green. Suddenly the creek, which had been running alongside me since the start, was audible, rushing raucously across the rocks, the thrilling sound of movement, even if relatively sluggish this late in the season.

Suddenly I was in my body, feeling the rise and fall of my back with my breath. I stood up, wiped the sweat out of my eyes, and got a notion. ‘I’m going in,’ I heard myself say. Fifteen years running this same 4-mile Rock Creek course several days a week, and I’d never, ever stopped to cool my feet. Always going someplace, on my way. An object at rest tends to stay at rest. Can't have that.

I started my legs back up, plodding across the bridge and u-turning onto the left bank toward home. ‘Don’t be silly,’ the saner me puffed, ascending the hill, pebbles crunching beneath my feet. ‘Just keep going, get home, things to do.’ That was Leo the lion, my rising sign, powerful but oftentimes a stick in the mud. My Pisces, the fish, by contrast, was more fluid, spontaneous, even playful.

As I coasted down, hopping horse dung, my steps lighter now across the bridle path, I found myself eyeing the creek for an access point: not too sunny or muddy a spot and watch-out for the poison ivy. The Fish was calling the shots now, drawing me toward the water. As I inched down the sandy back I could hear Leo (or was it my Mom) warning me: don’t you get those shoes wet.
I found a foothold on some protruding roots and, bending over, maintaining my balance, untied and slipped off my sweaty shoes and socks, one then the other, and perched them on a dry fallen limb. Stepping in I could feel the cool of the water around my calves, the soft slime of the river bed on my soles. A tiny gasp of ahhh seeped out of me as I stood inside the creek feeling its currents pushing against my skin. It was a whole new perspective, down low, watching the water flow south toward its destination, over and around boulders, logs, anything in its way.

I ran my fingers along the surface of the water, tiny salamanders darting around my toes, and rinsed my legs of the grit. A lone monarch butterfly fluttered by searching for a place to light.

Then an image of a phrase appeared across my screen of my quieted mind: ‘We had to unhitch our trailer from his.’

I climbed up the bank, repeating the phase. ‘…unhitch our trailer from Dad’s…if I could only convince Mom.’

Ever since my mother died two summers ago, images like this from my past had been popping up, especially when I ran. Moving my body set my mind free, though sometimes there are things you don’t want to see.

’21 days, it’s not gonna kill you.’

Back on the bank I found a log to perch upon. I brushed my feet of the icky dirt and leaves, pulled my socks on, one then the other, then my shoes. Tugging at the laces, I make a perfect loop around my thumb and for a brief moment there I was a kid again, what it was like when you felt a sense of quiet satisfaction over the smallest thing. A soft breeze wafted through the trees. The cicadas’ song crescendoed and diminuendoed beneath the canopy.

Hopping off the log, gazing down and my feet, I could feel the solid ground beneath me. It was time to take-off again, the muse was urging me. She’d been tugging on my skirt, tapping me on the shoulder, begging me to pay attention to her for the longest time. Now with this seed in my pocket, I felt the urgency too.

Descending out of the woods, feet slipping on the loose rock, I was eager to arrive, to sit on the front stoop, sweat dripping onto my legal pad, and let the truth come pouring out.

                                                                       ~~~

After the night in the family room on Friars, for the first time in my life standing up to Dad, it was a strange and unjust domino effect that led the cops back to me, and I was the guilty one. I was the one paying for the sins of the father. And it was just the beginning.

But I'd been surprised at how small my father seemed when I squared shoulders to face him, my fists clenched, ready to fight. ‘Fight me, not her,’ I yelled, standing taller than my shrimpy five feet. ‘I was the one who broke the door, I’m the guilty one,’ I set the record straight. And I watched him lean away from me.

It was just like that bully dog Cesar who constantly chased me down Wilmette, once up a tree, then jumped for my dangling legs and bit into my calf.

‘Son of a bitch.’ Blood was dripping down my leg and my sweaty hold was slipping, and eventually I had no choice but to drop to the ground and face him.

‘Cesar go home,’ I screamed and the voice came from a place deep inside me. It was ferocious. The little mutt backed down, simpering as he crossed Wilmette with his tail between his legs.

Our father had terrorized us for long enough. My mom lie whimpering on the floor of the family room. And for the first time, and for just a fleeting moment, I saw him for who he was: a weak man who could not, would never change. And in that moment I knew I was done with him.

We had to unhook our trailer from his and be free to go down our own road. He was only weighing the family down, holding us back from our lives, whatever they were going to be. I could see that so clearly. Why didn’t my mom?

Mexican Mask

I realized on the cushion this morning (a habit I’ve pledged to re-begin for the entire month of August): I’m not fixing anything on this spiritual path. I’m just uncovering who I really am. I could feel my shoulders relax and my monkey mind calm at the thought.

I’ve been hiding her, as if ashamed, afraid of her power. She tugs on my skirt. It’s the me who, in first grade, could have 'run this entire school,' so said my teacher Miss Casula. It’s the me who stood up to my bully father. And after seeing him back down, a sheep in wolf's clothing, nothing was the same.

‘Remember?’ the little girl says, looking up at me.

That girl’s got things to do, places to go, works to create, truths to proclaim.

Nina Volando

Though the messages of the past ring-out like it was just yesterday: Don’t upset your father, don’t overshadow your sister, take care of your little brother, don’t ask too much of me. 

That’s Mom’s voice:  subtle, demure, just like her, never showy or direct. She probably had no idea she was sending such messages: a scowl of admonishment when I demanded she look at my art collage, a pat of approval when I sat still in front of the nightly news, a song of praise when I cleared the dinner table. I would do anything to please my Mom. She is in me now.
But if, over time and years of therapy and re-parenting, I had rebuilt some of my youthful power, it got knocked back out of me in Mexico, immersed, submerged as I was in a culture of paternalism and machismo.

I had to plead with the mayor: ‘Deja me trabajar,’ let me work! I was becoming one with the people in their struggle against the powers that be. After the news came from the Peace Corps bosses that I would be transferred to the capital or sent back home, I had to scramble. I would not, could not go. I needed the support of the townspeople. Surely they’d prefer I stay and try to do some good in their pueblo. Surely they would make the case for me.

Si, seguro,’ yes, of course, Anna, assured the Mayor's right hand man. I had prepared the sustainability training for the city functionarios, a task to make myself useful, justify my existence. This would be my chance to show my value. I had my PowerPoints translated, my exercises defined and my script ready, and I’d gotten myself mentally psyched-up to face my audience across the language divide. But again and again, the training had been postponed.

I was beginning to learn: Yes is not really a yes, guerrita, little white woman.

I had to be relentless, come back again and again, careful not to show any sign of weakness. Though simply forcing myself to wait in a chair outside the mayor’s office, and being passed over three or four times while continuing to smile and make small-talk with the with Julio the gate-keeper and the sweet senoritas as they stamped papers, endless mayoral sayos, stamps of approval, was not a winning strategy. It took me down notches, undoing all the assertive work I’d done. But sometimes I just didn’t have the energy to beat down the door. That’s just when I lost face, backing down from standing up for solar cookers in Puente Bajo where they couldn’t afford cooking gas, or the health clinic in Magdalenas or the trash pickup in Canada Grande. How did I know what was most important to run this municipio, really?

That was my Mexican Mask, doubtful, docile and sweet, though without the lipstick.


So much energy was required, so much confidence and assertiveness, to pull-off the simpatico mask  and just be myself. I was grappling with my power (or lack thereof) every single day. How much could I display, as a female, without offending someone, violating the customs, overstepping the bounds and being seen as the mala mujer? Containing and second-guessing myself sapped even more energy.

I would arrive at the Presidencia with adrenaline fight coursing through my veins and a commitment to myself to be heard. But as I sat in the waiting area, minutes and hours ticking away, amid the crisis (same word in Spanish) del dia, I could feel my aspirations deflating like a balloon. The door would open and a waft of AC would seep out, as the men with slicked hair and carnitas bellies spilling over shiny silver belt buckles marched in, butting ahead of me unapologetically. The door would shut tight behind them, leaving me with the camposinos and our collective sigh of ni modo. So it goes. I would convince myself that’s where I belonged, with the people, the oppressed versus the oppressors. Though I was getting nothing done out there.

If I were lucky, Julio the gate-keeper would apologize. ‘Lo siento, Anna, un dia loco, como siempre,’ a crazy day like always.

No problema,’ I would respond, like a liar, a sheep in wolf's clothing, standing over his boss’s calendar book spayed open on the table, hoping for a few minutitos of time.

Mejor in la manana, temprano,’ better in the early morning, he would say, encouragingly. But I knew it would be the same drill all over again. I would get out of bed early for nothing. That’s when I’d slink out, beaten like a piñata, wade through the sea of camposinos crowded in the hallway with their worn solicitudes for the roof laminas and food dispensas. Down the stairs I’d go, past the mural of Rioverde in its orange grove heyday, slipping past the guards, out the heavy doors, into the blazing morning sun, and wander the plaza for a while wondering what to do with my time and the adrenaline energy pulsing through my veins with no place to go.

But today was different. I didn’t care. It was best, I was learning, not to care what anybody thought. Not to care about busting the norms, fitting it, becoming a 5 on the god-damned Peace Corps integration scale.

I didn't want to be like a Mexican who, according to Octavio Paz, "shuts himself away to protect himself; his face is a mask and so is his smile. In his harsh solitude, which is both barbed and courteous, everything serves him as a defense: silence and words, politeness and disdain, irony and resignation.”

I would not be resigned. I had to have the mayor’s commitment to the EcoFeria. And I was going to get it. Yes, they had signed the solicitude, in a dog and pony show stunt at Parque Revolution, snapping photos for the press. But now they had to make good on the promise.

Necesito ver Ruben,’ I said to Julio, unsure if the literal translation was correct. But I didn’t care about that either. I need to see Ruben, that simple. I stood over Julio’s desk and I was not going to budge.

He glanced up with a pained look on his face, his unibrow furrowed. And I repeated myself, placing the signed solicitude on top of the agenda book open on his desk. ‘Necesito ver Ruben hoy,’ today.
Suddenly the door to the inner sanctum opened and Ruben was standing there, like the Wizard of Oz coming out from behind the curtain. ‘Venga, Anna,’ he said, inviting me in, nodding at Julio. The senoritas looked up from their stamping, red lipsticked mouths agape.

The door shut behind me. This time I was inside, the AC splitter humming, ready to do business.

Mexican Mask

I realized on the cushion this morning (a habit I’ve pledged to re-begin for the entire month of August): I’m not fixing anything on this spiritual path. I’m just uncovering who I really am. I could feel my shoulders relax and my monkey mind calm at the thought.

I’ve been hiding her, as if ashamed, afraid of her power. She tugs on my skirt. It’s the me who, in first grade, could have 'run this entire school,' so said my teacher Miss Casula. It’s the me who stood up to my bully father. And after seeing him back down, a sheep in wolf's clothing, nothing was the same.

‘Remember?’ the little girl says, looking up at me.

That girl’s got things to do, places to go, works to create, truths to proclaim.

Nina Volando

Though the messages of the past ring-out like it was just yesterday: Don’t upset your father, don’t overshadow your sister, take care of your little brother, don’t ask too much of me. 

That’s Mom’s voice:  subtle, demure, just like her, never showy or direct. She probably had no idea she was sending such messages: a scowl of admonishment when I demanded she look at my art collage, a pat of approval when I sat still in front of the nightly news, a song of praise when I cleared the dinner table. I would do anything to please my Mom. She is in me now.
But if, over time and years of therapy and re-parenting, I had rebuilt some of my youthful power, it got knocked back out of me in Mexico, immersed, submerged as I was in a culture of paternalism and machismo.

I had to plead with the mayor: ‘Deja me trabajar,’ let me work! I was becoming one with the people in their struggle against the powers that be. After the news came from the Peace Corps bosses that I would be transferred to the capital or sent back home, I had to scramble. I would not, could not go. I needed the support of the townspeople. Surely they’d prefer I stay and try to do some good in their pueblo. Surely they would make the case for me.

Si, seguro,’ yes, of course, Anna, assured the Mayor's right hand man. I had prepared the sustainability training for the city functionarios, a task to make myself useful, justify my existence. This would be my chance to show my value. I had my PowerPoints translated, my exercises defined and my script ready, and I’d gotten myself mentally psyched-up to face my audience across the language divide. But again and again, the training had been postponed.

I was beginning to learn: Yes is not really a yes, guerrita, little white woman.

I had to be relentless, come back again and again, careful not to show any sign of weakness. Though simply forcing myself to wait in a chair outside the mayor’s office, and being passed over three or four times while continuing to smile and make small-talk with the with Julio the gate-keeper and the sweet senoritas as they stamped papers, endless mayoral sayos, stamps of approval, was not a winning strategy. It took me down notches, undoing all the assertive work I’d done. But sometimes I just didn’t have the energy to beat down the door. That’s just when I lost face, backing down from standing up for solar cookers in Puente Bajo where they couldn’t afford cooking gas, or the health clinic in Magdalenas or the trash pickup in Canada Grande. How did I know what was most important to run this municipio, really?

That was my Mexican Mask, doubtful, docile and sweet, though without the lipstick.





So much energy was required, so much confidence and assertiveness, to pull-off the simpatico mask off and just be myself. I was grappling with my power (or lack thereof) every single day. How much could I display, as a female, without offending someone, violating the customs, overstepping the bounds and being seen as the mala mujer? Containing and second-guessing myself sapped even more energy.

I would arrive at the Presidencia with adrenaline fight coursing through my veins and a commitment to myself to be heard. But as I sat in the waiting area, minutes and hours ticking away, amid the crisis (same word in Spanish) del dia, I could feel my aspirations deflating like a balloon. The door would open and a waft of AC would seep out, as the men with slicked hair and carnitas bellies spilling over shiny silver belt buckles marched in, butting ahead of me unapologetically. The door would shut tight behind them, leaving me with the camposinos and our collective sigh of ni modo. So it goes. I would convince myself that’s where I belonged, with the people, the oppressed versus the oppressors. Though I was getting nothing done out there.

If I were lucky, Julio the gate-keeper would apologize. ‘Lo siento, Anna, un dia loco, como siempre,’ a crazy day like always.

No problema,’ I would respond, like a liar, a sheep in wolf's clothing, standing over his boss’s calendar book spayed open on the table, hoping for a few minutitos of time.

Mejor in la manana, temprano,’ better in the early morning, he would say, encouragingly. But I knew it would be the same drill all over again. I would get out of bed early for nothing. That’s when I’d slink out, beaten like a piñata, wade through the sea of camposinos crowded in the hallway with their worn solicitudes for the roof laminas and food dispensas. Down the stairs I’d go, past the mural of Rioverde in its orange grove heyday, slipping past the guards, out the heavy doors, into the blazing morning sun, and wander the plaza for a while wondering what to do with my time and the adrenaline energy pulsing through my veins with no place to go.

But today was different. I didn’t care. It was best, I was learning, not to care what anybody thought. Not to care about busting the norms, fitting it, becoming a 5 on the god-damned Peace Corps integration scale.

I didn't want to be like a Mexican who, according to Octavio Paz, "shuts himself away to protect himself; his face is a mask and so is his smile. In his harsh solitude, which is both barbed and courteous, everything serves him as a defense: silence and words, politeness and disdain, irony and resignation.”

I would not be resigned. I had to have the mayor’s commitment to the EcoFeria. And I was going to get it. Yes, they had signed the solicitude, in a dog and pony show stunt at Parque Revolution, snapping photos for the press. But now they had to make good on the promise.

Necesito ver Ruben,’ I said to Julio, unsure if the literal translation was correct. But I didn’t care about that either. I need to see Ruben, that simple. I stood over Julio’s desk and I was not going to budge.

He glanced up with a pained look on his face, his unibrow furrowed. And I repeated myself, placing the signed solicitude on top of the agenda book open on his desk. ‘Necesito ver Ruben hoy,’ today.
Suddenly the door to the inner sanctum opened and Ruben was standing there, like the Wizard of Oz coming out from behind the curtain. ‘Venga, Anna,’ he said, inviting me in, nodding at Julio. The senoritas looked up from their stamping, red lipsticked mouths agape.

The door shut behind me. This time I was inside, the AC splitter humming, ready to do business.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

All There Is, Mom



Elogy. The word in Spanish, I discovered while a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mexico, is a part of everyday speech.  Elogia – or elogias in the plural – are words of praise bestowed onto the beloved. Nombre, are the Latinos good at that!

Well that’s what I’m here to do today for my mother. It’s not so easy for us in this culture to accept praise.  But as uncomfortable as it may be for you mom, here goes…elogias para ti, Mama. 
To begin, just a bit of background…

Rosemary Copp was born in Springfield IL (land of Lincoln) on August 23 1931 and died in Peoria, IL (Land of Vaudeville) June 26th, 2014. In-between, Mom lived in Washington, DC (Land of the Do-Nothing Congress) along with my dad, her late husband, Angelo Pellicciotto and their three children – myself the eldest, my sister Jane, next in line, and brother Nick.  

She and dad met in the Chem department at St Louis U in the mid-fifties, graduated, married and headed to Washington in the tumultuous sixties to join the fledgling bureaucracy - Dad working for the DOD and mom for the VA. 

Jumping ahead a few decades, my Dad, sadly estranged from the family, met his un-timely death in 1987.  At the time I was still young, just out of college, and for various reasons, I was unable to sing my father’s praises at his funeral.

I am older and (I hope) a bit wiser now.  My relationship with my mom was very different; it had a chance to evolve over the years, fortunately, beyond mother-daughter to friends. 

So I hope I am able to provide a window – only one view – into the life of Rosemary:  a Challenging, Engaged, Open-minded, Courageous, Forward-thinking, Inquisitive woman.



1.  Challenging
People say my mom was an easy-going, go along with the crowd type.  But I don’t see her that way. She was a challenging mom – a mom who challenged. She set high standards, though she was generally tight-lipped about them. You knew by a look and a feel whether she was disappointed or proud.

I’ll focus on the proud…

I think we children did our best to make her proud – in different ways of course - bringing home good report cards, stories and ideas, interesting friends. I liked to bring mom trophies, evidence of my triumphs in swimming, tennis, running. When I lost, I stomped up to my room and slammed the door, mom liked to remind me. But when it was a win…I’d walk into the house with a big smile and she knew right away. The prize hidden behind my back: which hand? I’d ask.

She liked that, up to the end.  Just two weeks before she died, I brought mom home a wood plaque in the shape of the State of Illinois – first place, 4-mile Steamboat Classic, master female category. She laughed giddily, as I perched the plaque on her dresser. You’re still winning, Anne, she said. And it STILL felt good to make her proud.

As I said, Mom was usually tight-lipped about her expectations of us.  But there was this one time she put it right on the table, delivering an unforgettable line to my husband-to-be (and now my ex, John Gerschefski): ‘I have great things in mind for my daughter and I don’t want you fucking them up.’

2.  Engaged

Yes, mom did put the pressure on, in her own usually-subtle way. But she didn’t simply set expectations and sit on the sidelines. She was engaged. I remember hours spent on the linoleum floor of our kitchen – from playing store and learning to make change when we were little – to memorizing the periodic table of elements in high school – well this WAS her forte. I had the hardest time understanding the concept of a mole, the amount of a chemical substance that contains as many atoms, molecules, ions and electrons as there are atoms in 12 grams of Carbon.  Huh? I could not accept this without understanding why? And she repeatedly begged me: ‘Please don’t ask Why, Anne?! That’s not the point.’

Mom loves to share this story about Jane who, in high school chem, after hours toiling over Avogadro's Number, attempting to calculate the rate of a reaction, said to Mom:  ‘What do I care about the RATE of the reaction? I don’t even care about the reaction!’

I imagine Mom, at that point, to be both frustrated and wholeheartedly amused. What would become of these progeny? Both of our parents were chemists – practical, rational, employable. And their three kids were heading in divergent directions:  music, art and design, writing and English lit, hmm, business.

3.  Open-minded

But thank god, Mom was open-minded. She was a great supporter of my ‘creative’ life. She managed to let go little by little over the years, encouraging me to travel where life’s road was taking me, reserving judgment, though not ample motherly concern.

‘Maybe it’s time to come home,’ Mom told me often, as I regaled her with stories of adventure and woe over Skype from the Peace Corps.  She was scared for me – the drug cartels, parasites, cross-cultural communication roadblocks. But she knew I couldn’t abandon the cause. I had something new and important to learn from my PC experience.

Mom never got in the way of learning.

 I did complete my service, landing back on US soil after a harrowing bus ride from Rioverde across the border; and mom was there in Austin, TX to meet me. Her relief was palpable. I was in one piece. We celebrated with a bottle of mescal I’d brought from Oaxaca, which had remained in one piece too!
Soon after, when I announced I was embarking on this Kickstarter campaign to turn my Mexico stories into a published book…that got her shaking her head once again in joyful disbelief.

'Kick what?' she questioned, then went right online to research this new crowd-sourcing wonder. Once convinced, she got behind me once again, as my biggest funder and moral supporter, sharing the link with her friends, and boosting me closer to my mark at the most crucial time in the campaign.

4.  Courageous

Of course we all have stories of mom the scardy-cat. Oh my god, she was terrible in the car. I remember one road-trip with my ex John out to Yosemite, and the woman was literally crouched, whimpering, in the foot well in the back seat as we drove through those expansive breathtaking mountains.

There was the raft trip down the Blackwater River in WVA.. We had to almost tie her into that rubber boat; and she was stone silent for the first six rapids, all class 2s, maybe a 3. But finally, on the 7th , the fear broke. Drenched and delighted, she turned to the guide, grinning like a kid.  “How many more?’ she asked eagerly. Sadly, he replied:  ‘That was the last one.’

I know you all have your own stories like that. Janet I know you have many into the car for a trip from DC to NY so we could all take advantage of that Riverside Drive mansion where I was cat-sitting. You did make it; and we did have fun.  

But Mom had this quiet courageous side too.

The way I look at Mom, she was a Y2k woman raised in the repressive 50s. Her options HAD been limited. She wanted more for her daughters. And she managed to have a breakthrough herSELF!

Once she’d divorced and we kids emerged out of the nest, Mom got out of the ‘rat hole’ (she called it) of the NIH lab and into Corporate America! She landed a job with Abbott Labs as a tech rep for their diagnostics division.  Despite here directional challenges, Mom spanned the Midwest region in her Ford Taurus (company paid) – Peoria to Paducah to Kalamazoo – installing blood analysis machines in doctor’s offices and training their staff.  In 1997 she made the prestigious President’s Club for her stellar customer service, and invited me along on the no-expense-spared trip to Ireland where we had a chance to travel the Ring of Killarney, sheer sheep, golf an Arnold Palmer course on Dingle Bay, browse bookshops and gulp Guinness in Dublin, all on the company dime.

In those Abbott years mom caught the buzzing current of the technology – becoming proficient with email, reporting her progress to Headquarters via Lotus notes, uploading test results via the world wide web, researching on the Internet and even making her own e-trades.

Mom would have and did say she got lucky with that Abbott job.  She retired at 71 and her stock options had split many times.  But I say she made her luck; she took the plunge late in life; and it paid-off for her.

But where I saw my mom’s real courage in life was in the final stage. I know death is not an easy topic, but I think an important and relevant one.  As many of you know, my mom was hit unawares by this tumor in her colon and rushed to the emergency room last April 2013.  I was just back from the Peace Corps a couple weeks and still did not have a phone, so she sent me an email to alert me. 

She recovered quick and strong from the surgery; we even had an Easter brunch at her house the day after she left the hospital.  But the cancer had already spread to the liver. 

So Mom bravely took the plunge into the dark waters of chemo, and to the credit of an otherwise strong and healthy body and keen mind, she fared well through 3 different regimens of the therapy.  By all standards she had a very good year – she traveled and visited her children – hosted a Christmas gathering – got her affairs in order.  Then it hit – on Mother’s Day while mom was visiting Nick and Lauren and grandson Noel in Austin – it would be for the last time.

We never really got to know Rosemary as an old lady. As you know from real life and will see from the photos, she was always vibrant. She had a perfect brain, heart, lungs, legs, and lovely feet. She could proudly do 20 leg lifts that final week she was bedridden – it was just that darn bowel.  But it happened the way my mom wanted it to – relatively quickly and in home hospice. She received visitors graciously over those 12 days, carried on animated phone conversations with nieces, nephews, sisters and friends – voice strong and hair looking good up to the end. And she was so touched by everyone and everything.

A week into home hospice she seemed so content – conducting Vivaldi with her long, elegant fingers, watching the light change from morning to dusk, overhearing her the booming voice of Gerry, next door, chatting with neighbors, noticing the simple beauty of her variegated-leaf ivy dangling from the basket in the corner – ‘the ONE plant I’ve managed to keep alive!’, she marveled.

She said to me one of those days, between bouts of pain:  ‘I think I could lie here like this forever.’ 
She couldn’t. But Mom knew what she wanted those final days. While her body was ready to go, her spirit kept her in a semi-conscious state, conserving her energy, as she awaited Jane’s arrival, so that all of us, her children, could be by her side.  Jane arrived at 11 from Portland; and Mom passed at 1 am with a serene smile on her face, just as it was meant to be.
 
In a split second I think:  better get back inside. Then a firefly flashes, startling me, a presence bigger than that tiny light. I start to cry.

Lying back on the cool cement walk, looking up at the stars, faint on a hazy Midwest summer night, tears stream into my ears like when I was a child, inconsolable.
The firefly flickers again, in a different place, higher in the sky. And this time I smile, reach up, try to follow it in the darkness. But it’s gone.

Mom’s light was like that on earth: on, off, drifty, reach up, catch it in my fist, put it in a ball jar, carry it with me.

6.  Forward-Thinking

I want to end on a high note:  my mom’s desire for all of us, this next generation of cousins and their children, to continue to be all we can be in the world.  She is so very proud of all of us – our adventuresome and creative spirit – our kindness and open-mindedness – our accomplishments and our attempts.  We are entrepreneurs and geologists, physical therapists and artists, scientists and social workers, flyers, leaders, planners and doers.

Perhaps one of mom’s favorite stories comes from that Christmas ski reunion in the mountains of Fraiser, Colorado. We’d all assembled the first night for dinner in a restaurant, and they had to push a number of tables together to get us all 20-something of us to fit. It was musical chairs to find a seat, and my then partner, Tom, wasn’t sure where to go when he paused, took a step back, and said aloud, gazing at the group: ‘It really doesn’t matter where I sit; there’s not a dud in the bunch.’

Tom’s gone; but that moment stuck with mom. And it sticks with me too, now. 

It’s so wonderful to see all your faces out there – here for this celebration of mom’s life.  Truly, there’s not a dud in the bunch. 

8.  Inquisitive

And finally, Mom’s Inquisitiveness – or as I like to put it:  The Power of Questions.
I’m sure many of you have been grilled by mom over the years.  Strangers open up to her on airplanes and in bars because she invites them in with her questions. And she listens with presence to the answers.

I remember her drilling into us as kids:  don’t accept anything your teachers or the preachers tell you.  Don’t swallow it whole. Challenge them for different perspectives and share yours. She was raised in Jesuit schools and they taught her well, in this way. This skill has been a blessing and curse over my lifetime. I remember once being thrown out of 11th grade pre-cal for questioning Mrs Goldman about a calculation. I sent her from the room crying, and was forbidden from the class after that. Oops, well, mom made me apologize for that one. 

On the plus side, this inquisitiveness has come in handy in my career as a change consultant and coach, and even while I served in the Peace Corps in Mexico. In fact, I was invited to speak at a conference on innovation in Mexican organizations. My topic was entitled ‘The Power of Questions’; and the first slide was attributed to mom, my teacher and role model; or as the Mexicans would call her, la preguntona, the good questionioner.

In conclusion, here’s to my mother, Rosemary Copp. I will miss her mothership. But more than that, I will miss her friendship.

I leave you all with this musical request by mom – perhaps a bit cynical (we’ve all seen that side of mom), bittersweet, and hauntingly beautiful, and asking the deep questions about life ‘til the end.  

Is that all there is? (Peggy Lee, 1969)  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LCRZZC-DH7M

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Story Slam ~ Momentos of Home

I got slammed, friends.

I was selected as one of eight contestants to stand before the Busboys and Poets audience and a panel of judges and tell my story of home.

It was a packed house, and many supportive friends had come to cheer me on. My hair was looking pretty good despite the humidity. I wore my colorful Mexican camisa. I had the sound guy play a song by my favorite huapangero, Guillermo Velazquez y los Leones de la Sierra de Xichu, as they announced my name and I danced up to the stage.

But it was not easy to compete with homeboy stories about the ‘Mayor for Life’ and rants about endless, senseless murder in the hood. How about the fellow who opined about Metro? The problem is not lack of funding, he told us, but lack of love.

These stories, so close to home, DC, USA, were told extemporaneously, limbs and lips loose, while I, the gringa, stood still, shielding my eyes from the spotlight, and carefully read my well-edited words from the typed page. Mine was a story of a different home, not found here, in a place, but in fleeting moments, on my journey through Mexico.

Momentos of Home

It’s another day fighting Mexico. On the Vencedor bus with the backed-up bathroom, we all hold our breath anytime someone ventures in. Seven hours traveling in the driving rain from my pueblito in the high plains desert has me squirming in my seat. But I welcome the deluge, like a baptism, after endless months of dust and burning sun. I plug-in my headphones and close my eyes to block out the noise: the crying baby behind me, videos overhead blaring violence in Spanish, the restless niños across the aisle. The guru whispers her wisdom in my ear: ' You’re going to die and I’m going to die and we have these moments together.'

I sink into the seat, lazily crack open my eyes, and notice the little boys are playing with their tongues. I blink and pull-out my ear buds, curious what they are doing.

Su len-gua se si-en-ta co-mo un car-a-col,’ the little one says with perfect diction. Your tongue feels like a snail? I grin at their discovery and my comprehension of it.

It’s the older brother’s turn. ‘Ahh-bra,’ he says, ordering his little hermano to open wider, grabbing the tongue and pulling on it. ‘Ewwwe,’ the older boy cries, an exclamatory that requires no translation.
The mother beside them sleeps right through: It’s the only way she gets a break. But my seatmate and I are riveted. Strangers, we bond through our mutual eavesdropping.

For all the alone time I’ve had, the lone gringa in my rural village, divided by language and culture and a subtlety of small-town suspicion, I feel an instant kinship to this señora. The expectation to do or fix, develop or improve that has defined my Peace Corps service is non-existent on this bus. It’s a relief to just be.

The bus pulls-off at a muddy truck stop. There’s a long line at the toilet. I pull papery rectangles from a napkin dispenser and wait my turn. Inside it’s dark. My eyes adjust. I suspend myself over the hole in the ground then flush with a bucket of water I fish from an oil drum.

Outside, the smell of coffee and cinnamon, exhaust and pork fat, hangs on the wet night air. Men in splattered aprons chop barbacoa on a greasy woodblock, piling stringy meat into double layers of tortilla. We stand around the plywood table, spoon guac sauce and chile verde, runny, green and super spicy, onto our tacos. I slosh back into the bus with raindrops on my head and chile on my tongue.
When we land at Terminal Central, my seat mate and I turn to each other and smile. I wonder if we’ll part ways with Mexican cheek kisses, but instead we bid a polite buen vieje and shake, the American way. I watch as the niños, like barrel of monkeys, are pulled through the station by their mama, around the corner, then out of site.

You’re going to die and I’m going to die y tenemos estos momentos conjuntos.

 ~~~
O’Hare Airport is decked out for Independence Day. American flags hang regally from the rafters of the shiny concourses. Embarrassed by the touch of patriotism, I snap a few photos when no one’s looking. It’s Saturday night in Chicago and I’ve got some time to kill, a three-hour delay to DCA. But Mexico’s taught me something about patience.

I find a bar playing the baseball game, and Julio from Jalisco serves me a tall Blue Moon with a bright wedge of lemon. We speak Spanish because now I can, and I feel a little bit proud. He’s proud too: he’s lived in the US for 24 years, he tells me. And I’m living in his country, for the last year, I say, and one more to go. We laugh about this cambio de casas, trading places.

My beer costs 10 US dollars including tip, a lucky Mexican’s daily wage. I take a final precious gulp and head for the baños. I’m awed by the granite countertops and polished marble floor, toilet seats with protectors that rotate to a clean place when you press the button. Whiiir. Endless rolls of toilet-paper and automatic flush. Full-length mirrors for primping, soft peach light that makes you look like a movie star (though I’m playing a raggedy traveler), soap in the dispensers and your choice of hand-blowers or towels for drying.

At the gate the children sit quietly reading books and tapping Ipad screens. Airport TV hums overhead reporting go-local organic markets, heirloom tomatoes and artisan cheeses. The AC purrs, the laptops click, the air hostess smiles, English is spoken.

America makes it all look so easy, smooth, in-control. It’s not fair.

The flight is announced and we line-up by zone. As I file down the jet way I feel both drawn and repelled, straddling two worlds, two homes, the orderly and spontaneous, the haves and have-nots, divided by a thin line that is thickly fortified. And I get to enter.