Sunday, July 12, 2015

Coming Clean

Today I’m coming clean with you, dear readers, and with myself. I’m not going to complete My Mexico Book by the end of the summer, or even by the end of this year.
This writing process is taking its own damn time. 
It reminds me of a hiking trip I took, years ago, along the Na Pali Coast, on the island of Kauai. It was hours of climbing before I reached the summit where the overlook was presumably one of the most spectacular in the world. But a bank of fog had rolled in and sat heavy. All I could see was an expanse of white nothingness, not the slightest sign of life below, no matter how hard I squinted. It was a huge disappointment.
After some food and a short rest, I turned to hike home and, just then, in my periphery, caught a tiny glimpse of green. I fixed my gaze; and second by second, the curtain of fog gradually drew, revealing a dizzying scene, not just a valley, but a valley of valleys, lush accordion folds of land stretching horizontally beyond my vision and cascading down into an endless indigo sea. With more illumination came the definition of individual palm trees, then the fronds themselves, village huts, farm animals and rows of crops, a fine horizon line separating earth and sky, tiny whitecaps gleaming like diamonds and bursting fluffs of cloud above.
This expansive and intricate world was always there; but it took time to reveal itself. (30 years later, incidentally, that image has never left my mind.)
That’s what it feels like writing this book. There’s this bank of fog. The further I get from the action of my Peace Corps Mexico experience, high above it looking down, and the more time I spend in the chair patiently writing through the haze, the more I begin to see what my book is really about. And then the writing flows.
Anne Dillard, in The Writing Life, puts it this way:
"It takes years to write a book – between two and ten years. Less is so rare as to be statistically insignificant…Falkner wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks. He claimed he wrote it in his spare time from a 12-hour-a-day manual labor job. Some people lift cars too. Others go over Niagara Falls in barrels or fly planes through the Arc de Triumph…Out of a human population on earth of four and a half billion, only about 20 can write a serious book in a year. There is no call to take human extremes as norms.”
Pfew. 
This does not mean I’m letting myself off the hook with my Mexico book, just relieving some pressure, allowing the process to do its thing. Here’s what I am doing to encourage it along:
  • Cut-back my SeeChange consulting work in March, taking-on only a few select coaching and facilitation clients through the end of the year in order to maintain focus on the book.
  • Following a schedule of writing 6 days a week, 3 to 5 hours a day, employing the butt-in-chair approach, regardless of the weather or barometric pressure.
  • Completed a writing class at The Writers Center in Bethesda and came away with some helpful and lots of challenging feedback on the manuscript. (More on this excruciating experience in my next post.)
  • Admitted to myself (with the help of a good writing friend): I’m still in the DRAFT stage. Being more realistic softens the voice of the critic, allowing space for the ideas to flow.
  • Partnering with this aforementioned writing friend to keep ourselves accountable with weekly goal-setting and progress-reporting Skype sessions. (Still don’t need to get out of my PJs for those.)
  • Researching editors to work with me on my first and subsequent drafts. A big chunk of the Kickstarter campaign funding has been set aside for just this purpose.
Still, dear backers, I did commit during my November 2013 campaign to have the book completed and published LAST summer. 6 months, totally unrealistic! (I should have read Dillard first.) Yet it was a promise.
Therefore, I’m going to let you off the hook by offering to refund your pledge. Please let me know, and I will happily send you your money.
Otherwise, if you're in for the long-haul, and I sure hope you are, I can promise you this: I will have the first two chapters (or up to 100 pages) of the book available to you in PDF format by this Christmas, 2015. And I'll welcome your feedback.
For those whose rewards included social gathering/sustainability events, stay tuned for save-the-date announcements for the fall.
I’m learning a lot through this process about integrity and commitment – it’s not just about the creativity. Huh, it's my Peace Corps sustainability lessons all over again.
Many thanks for your continued support.  More to come!
                                                              ~~~
What's your reaction to my 'coming clean' proposal? What do you think about time and the creative process? 
What experiences have you had with your own creative projects?
 Your questions and comments are encouraged.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Kill Your Darlings

It’s been a while since my last Kickstarter update.  (Sound like the beginning of a confession?) Well, I’ve got good news to report. No, I’m not quite done with my book. But I have emerged out of the Survive section and into Thrive.

Pfew. It was a long haul. Like being stuck in the Molasses Swamp, that first year of my service was messy. Turns out it’s been almost as difficult to write my way through it as to have lived it!

Now that I’m getting into the rhythm of Thrive, I’m discovering: this is the story. I’m in the flow of the narrative for the first time since I started my book. And here's the tough truth: It’s possible that all I’ve written so far, over the past two years, does not belong in this book.

It may very well be BACKstory.

What is backstory, you ask? It’s the circumstantial detail that leads up to and supports the primary narrative.

The question is: Where does my Mexico story really begin? Try this:

     Why was it we always went a little further? Past the pobre but slightly cheery pueblito, a few cows and pigs and chickens in the yards, meat a sign of affluence; a road of dirt, but smooth and tree-lined for at least a block or two; a prim escuela with a painted swing set out back and a flat, pink, cutout adobe church with saint’s day fiesta flags flapping in the breeze.



     ‘Is this it?’ I asked the engineers, squirming like an impatient kid in the backseat.

      ‘Todovia no,’ they shook their heads. ‘Pero cerca.’

      Close. But by then we’d already been on the road for three hours, traveling east from Rioverde along the rim of the San Ciro flood plain, through the cutout in the mountain, then north at the Rayon crossroads, deep into the rocky arid lands where nothing grew but spikey things – pitaya, yucca, nopal – the camels of the plant world. The roads were eerily vacant out there except for an occasional pair of muchachos, baking in the sun, filling potholes with dirt and hoping for some pesos in return for their service.

     ‘Never stop for these guys, Anna,’ Bibiano warned me. ‘Es peligroso.’

     But when we got to the Federale roadblock, we had no choice but to pull over. I held my breath as the camouflaged men with machine guns over their shoulders and masks covering their faces questioned the engineers. A separate crew circled the truck, inspecting the undercarriage with mirrors. Supposedly a sign that the government had things under control, these checkpoints only reminded me there was a problem; and it was creeping south into my state. Who really knew how much longer Uncle Sam would allow me to carry-on here? When they waved us on, I exhaled, hoping I’d never have occasion to travel out here alone.

      This was my first trip to Zamachihue, an ejido community in the northeast corner of the Scotty Dog state, on the Tamulipus border, in the municipio of Ciudad de Maiz. ‘Neither a city nor do they grow corn,’ the engineers pointed out, chuckling at their irony.

      Bibiano took a hard right off the main drag and descended into a dry arroyo that could have swallowed us up, or pitched us over, our tires spinning on the loose clay. I gripped my handle tighter and felt the sweat rise on my brow. I’d never been a particularly pacific passenger; but this was beginning to feel like a test. The shade trees had disappeared, the breeze had stopped, and the sun burned the vacant plain littered with rocks. Our radio signal faded and all that was left was static. That’s when we hit a hole that threw me upward, my head banging the roof and my stomach plummeting.

     I felt a metallic taste rise in my mouth. ‘Pare!’ I yelled, opening my door as the truck skidded to a stop and expelling my breakfast onto the ground.

     One of the engineers passed me a handkerchief to wipe my mouth.

     When I looked up, there was the sign, rusted and dangling from a crooked post like something out of a Luis Estrada film. ‘Za-ma-chee-hwee.’ I’d written the name phonetically in my notebook.

     By the time we pulled-up to the vivero and parked in the tiny patch of shade offered by a scraggly mesquite tree, it seemed like we’d just reached the last effing pueblito on earth.

Maybe that’s the beginning.

Not the wintery night at Guapo’s in DC, drinking margaritas with my RPCV pal Beth and deciding, YES, damn-it, I’m going to apply to the Peace Corps. Nor is it my bright-eyed arrival in Mexico City eight months later or my three beginner’s mind months of Peace Corps training. It may not even be my entire first roller-coaster year as a volunteer, adapting to life in my new desert pueblito.

What if ALL that was backstory? It would mean I’d have to seriously ‘kill some darlings’ in order to give you readers the real meat. Sage advice from William Faulkner, it speaks to the many favorite moments and turns of phrase we've crammed in, pruned and polished. But if they don’t serve the story, advance the plot, get your darn character to the finish line, they’ve got to go.

Honestly, it’s too soon to tell. Right now, I have to JUST KEEP GOING. This is my guiding mantra, scribbled on a purple post-it and stuck on the cover of my writing folder so I see it every day.

There will be time to go back and reread and rewrite, edit and chop and prune. But not right now. Not until I write through to the end.

So I’m strapping on my Chocos. It’s time to get back out to the campo with the Engeneiros and get those seeds planted.
                                                                        ~~~
Dear readers, please post a comment. What do you say about darlings? Where does the story begin for you?  What do you need to know about your fearless/ful narrator?

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Now it's Time to Write (or See This)

Such precious quiet this morning at Casa Parque – on the outside. Cool fall air floats through the dining room window, chills my toes.

But on the inside I sense agitation. Can't get comfortable in my chair – hard as a rock under my sitting bones. And inside my skin it feels disorganized.

9:18. I’d planned to be up earlier. Dedicating my weekends to the writing now. I’m behind on the book, I know, trying to find my rhythm again after Mom’s passing. Writing is a practice, like playing the piano. My fingers are out of shape.

I need inspiration. From a New Yorker article? Flipping through an August issue, this draws me in: ‘Finding the Words,’ the story of a contemporary poet’s elegy to his dead son.

9:29. I read the first page. Maybe it’s telling me: You’re not good enough to write this Mexico memoir or this newly brewing essay about your mother’s life and death. Such is the work of Wordsworth or Tennyson or the father, a celebrated writer named Edward Hirsch. Never even heard of him. Though further along in the article, a quote of his speaks to me:

‘Why would I have Skokie in a poem? But you become resigned. Your job is to write about the life you actually have.’

I can do that. I do do that. I’m not formally trained nor particularly sophisticated. But I’m still worthy, because I see inside, feel the texture, cherish the truth and transcribe for others the universality of experience. I try.

In a stanza of the poem to his late son, Gabriel, Hirsch writes:

Look closely and you will see    Almost everyone carrying bags   Of cement on their shoulders
That’s why it takes courage   To get out of bed in the morning   And climb into the day 

So that’s why I read that article. Because I got out of bed this morning.

9:49. Now it’s time to write.

Mom’s sleeping upstairs. I hope it’s deep, rejuvenating sleep. But how could it be. There’s nothing that could revive that broken body. It’s already abandoned her. She tells me that at night, in bed, she has visions of her old, strong self and she, who she is now, reaches out, yearning to re-inhabit that body. But she cannot reach it. She awakens, and the bloated belly that encases a cancerous liver is still there, a nightmare from which she cannot wake-up. 

Was it death that visited me at the foot of my bed that haunted night in Mexico? I dove out of my sleep and onto the cloaked monster screaming ‘Noooo,’ landing on the cold cement floor of my Jimenez hovel. Awakened from the nightmare, I crawled in the dark to my dorm fridge and found a pack of frozen peas to put between my bruised knees. I made it through a frightful night and went on to survive and thrive in Mexico.

But Mom cannot dive. She can hardly sit up. She cannot walk or eat and barely drinks, thus she cannot even eliminate. Was that the problem in the first place, pent-up toxins in the bowel? Simply that? Her brain, heart, lungs are perfect. She can do 20 leg lifts, she showed me yesterday. And she has lovely toes. 

She’s a model of health, proud to have never 'soaked the system,' the only drugs she’s ever taken a light dosage blood pressure pill and one for cholestoral. I went to the CVS today to buy her Aleve and a stool softener. That’s the least ‘Western’ medicine can do for her. 

Me, I’m taking a G&T for the pain. Fresh mowed lawn, brilliant green carpet laid out before me, sound of the CSX freight train tooting its horn in the distance, the blessed wind in the trees, brushing my shoulders. I want to cry for how beautiful this moment is. 

And mom’s asleep upstairs. 

You wish you could go through this experience like this: rub your mom’s neuropathic numb feet with the miracle cream you picked up at the running race, comb her thin hair, scrub her bathtub and wash her bed sheets, prepare a smoothie she forces herself to drink, out of the bendy straw a child drinks from. 'Just two sips, mom, no three, please, for me?'

You wish you could do this for her: reminisce quietly as BookTV blares, about the good ole days, that illustrious trip in the station wagon to Niagara Falls when we kids had just discovered the thrill of spitballs. 'Do you remember the one that landed in your ear!? And you, angry, promised that was our last trip.'

My coming home with trophies, celebrating childhood triumphs in tennis, swimming, running. Or the times I stomped up to my room, an ashamed loser. 'But when it was a win,' Mom reminds me, 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.

I brought one home for her today: a wood plaque in the shape of the state of Illinois, first place, 4-mile, Steamboat Classic, Master Female.

'You’re still winning,' Anne, she chuckles with joy as I perch the plaque on her dresser, upside, the flat border side of the state down.

She gazes down at my new fast Adidas. 'When my feet get better,' she says, 'I want a pair of those.' 

You wish you could get past this together; then you promise yourself you’d REALLY live. But now is what you’ve got. The luminous summer evening, the sound of a lawn mower, the tinkle of the ice cubes. 

Mom’s resting in her bedroom. Should you go wake her up so she can see this

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Dedicated to My Mom, Rosemary Copp, My Motivation & Inspiration

Dear Readers,

I’ve been keeping you regularly updated on my Mexico memoir progress, starting last December, upon successful completion of the Kickstarter campaign. It's been exciting to share book excerpts, get your feedback, and gain encouragement to forge ahead on the creative journey.

Unfortunately this update is not quite as bright. Sadly, I report the passing of my mother, Rosemary Copp, on Thursday morning June 26th. Cancer had been looming for over a year. In fact I’d just returned from Mexico, barely settling in to DC life last April 2013, when I got the call. Mom was being rushed into emergency surgery.

Mom fought a good fight with an arsenal of chemo and a lot of courage. She was rewarded with an almost-normal year, traveling, visiting friends and family, keeping up with politics and the stock market, enjoying life, between treatments. And, as responsible as she was, getting her affairs in order. 

But on Mother’s Day, she took a turn for the worse. The treatments had worn-off and the cancer was spreading with a vengeance. We shifted Mom into hospice care and took-on the care-giving. It was only 12 days, but seemed like we lived another lifetime before she passed peacefully at her home in Peoria, IL with her three children by her side.

My mom 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.
Mom and Me - Pre-Peace Corps Garage Sale

‘Maybe it’s time to come home,’ she told me often, as I regaled her with stories of adventure and woe over Skype from Mexico. She was scared for me; but she knew that I couldn’t abandon the cause. I had something new and important to learn from my Peace Corps experience. And mom would never get 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. She hugged me and would not let go; her relief was palpable. I was in one piece. We celebrated with a bottle of mescal I’d procured in Oaxaca, which had remained in one piece too!

When I announced I was embarking on this Kickstarter campaign to turn all my Mexico stories into a published book, that got her shaking her head once again in joyful disbelief. 

'Kick what?' she questioned, then when right online to research this new technological, entrepreneurial wonder. And 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.

As we sat quietly in her bedroom during those last 12 days together, classical music playing in the background, I shared with Mom my progress, reading aloud one of the latest excerpts.

It’s mother’s day. My mom is far from me; but Chuya has invited me to San Miguel de las Flores for a celebration at the school with Lupita and the other village children. Lupita is tiny but strong. She easily wins the rice sack race and, glowing, brings her mother the prize. After the games we enjoy a special pizza lunch on the playground picnic tables. Each child gives their mother a handmade tissue flower to wear on her shirt. Then we walk Lupita, hand in hand, down the baked mud road to their casa.

I’m mildly surprised. Their home is dirt floor dwelling, bare of furniture and appliances. Chuya cooks on a wood stove under a palm awning; and she gets the fire going as soon as we arrive. Chickens peck around the dirt yard. The garden blooms with fruit trees and chile plants and nubby nopal. They have a milpa, a family farm plot, at the far end of the village, where they grow corn and peanuts, she tells me. She raises a bunch over her head, leafy topped and a muddy cluster of peanuts dangles.

‘Son semillas?’ they are seeds, I marvel, feeling embarrassed as the words come out.

Chuya chuckles at me. She can’t imagine my life either.

I sense she wants more. Or maybe it’s me wanting that for her. She has three sweet children, two boys and a girl; but they eat food out of bags, Bimbo and Frito Lay, and throw their trash on the ground. Her senor is only half there; the other half he’s on the other side doing construction or picking crops. When he returns home they are strangers.

He tries to make himself useful, she says as she rolls her eyes. Today he’s hanging laundry on the line. He greets me with a respectful handshake; a few minutes later he hops on his horse and rides out of site.

Chuya tells me he was a drunk for a while; after his father died it was very bad. Now he’s okay. But he’s barely there: he works the fields, she tends to the ninos and on the side makes her palm jewelry. She developed the skill while he was away; and she's very proud of it. 

She shows me the fans of palm, brightly died, hanging from a line, waiting to be weaved into jewelery creations....

By the time I finished reading, I worried Mom was bored to sleep. Her eyes were closed, the fan whirred, her beautiful long fingers were clasped across her chest which rose and fell with her breath.

Then suddenly her strong voice punctuated the silence: ‘I feel like I’m there with you,’ she said. ‘What a tough life in those villages.’ Her blue-gray eyes popped open and gazed over at me. ‘If you just keep going like that, Anne, you’ll have the book. But not too many pages, dear,’ she cautioned. ‘People don’t read anymore. That twitter thing, you know.’

She certainly wasn’t referring to herself. Her bedside table held a stack of eight books, and her TV stand another 10, and there were book collections in every room in the house – histories, biographies, books of poetry. But she’d watched the devolution over the years – participated in the technology revolution and praised it, but also acknowledged its ills.

I’d hoped to have my Mexico memoir done and dedicated to Mom before she’d passed. If I allow it, I can feel awfully sad that I didn’t. But instead I will allow Mom to be my inspiration to finish what I started and make her proud.

Readers, yes, the due dates have shifted a bit. But I remain committed to you and this book.

Sinceramente, Anne

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Writing Progress & Obstacles on Chincoteague

Sitting here in the protective capsule of my Ruby Subaru ’98 gazing out onto the roiling sea and the vacant, windswept beach, a take-out rockfish platter on my lap, I realize…writing really makes you hungry, especially when you’ve just finished a chapter featuring a Thanksgiving fusion feast at your host-family home in Mexico.

Back at the casa we have the whole tomatoes boiling for the sauce and the ropey Oaxacan cheese sliced and ready for the lasagna. As I  prepare the meatball mix, adding parsley, chopped onion, an egg and some fresh breadcrumbs to the meant, I hear Abuelita calling me from the back patio.'Anna, me ayude, por favor.'

I flip-flop across the slippery tile floor only to find her, a hammer in one hand and machete in the other, poised over the giant beige monster of a squash. I kneel down beside her and steady the pumpkin as she drive-in the wedge, creating an opening just wide enough for our fingers. We get a grip on it and pull in opposite directions,splitting the pumpkin in two and revealing golden orange meat inside. With our hands we scoop out the oozing mass of seeds and connective tissue; then we chop the calabasa into hunks and load the pieces, along with a cone of raw sugar, into a pot to boil. 

It sure seemed this Thanksgiving day cooking was as important as any Goal 1 project I had going. And then, hours later, the dinner table laden with the fruits of our labor and the guests gathered, it was time for comida. 

I’ve whisked myself away to Chincoteague Island on the southern tip of the Delmarva Peninsula for a Spring Break writing retreat. And what a treat it’s been: re-immersing myself in words, returning to my Mexico life on the page. I long for the story to flow all over again. But after a month or more away from it – busy with real-world endeavors like making a living (chamba, the Mexicans call it) – picking-up the thread where you last left it isn’t easy. It feels awkward, like running on stiff limbs and gasping for breath after a long winter’s break.

But this is the way it is.

I pour over pages of manuscript; the easiest thing to do is edit, but I’m not at that stage yet. I’m still creating the puzzle pieces and moving them around the table to find the right fit. I’m smack in the middle of Part II: Survive. Reading through hundreds of pages of my Peace Corps journal, culling-out material, I’m getting exhausted. I can see and feel the obstacles confronting my main character – the language barrier and the extreme heat and Monteczuma’s revenge hitting again and again.
 
I tell you, I’m down on the Mexico today – or at least Rioverde (I guess I can’t blame the entire country.) I tried talking to this carpenter today, recommended to me by the Engineers in my office. I need a desk that will fit into my 10x10 foot studio apartment; and I’m committed to getting all my furniture hecho local. If I’m going to promote sustainable, I have to live sustainable. 

But I could not understand a word this Enrique had to say to me. Mande, por favor, otro vez, repeat it please, I asked politely, at first. But he was speaking shit – using impossible grammar and pronunciation, garbling his words. It was like a different language – and I just didn’t have the patience, in the wake of three days of gastro-intestinal drama, to get him. After a few crude drawings and some high price quotes, the muchacho was clearly not interested in my business. He wanted to talk chisme with me. He asked if I worked with Bibiano, that 'old soltero', he called him. 'El no es cansado (or casado).' Tired, married? I always get the two words mixed up.

It didn’t matter, it was gossip. He knew I worked with Engineer Bibiano; everyone here knows everything about me. He wanted me to engage, but I refused, waving him off, turning on my heels and marching out…and not a moment too soon. I picked up my pace down Madero, Montezcuma chasing me the whole way home.

Then there are the unknowns with her Agenda 21 project assignment – and the drive to have an impact.

The wind whipped and the dust swirled and our flipchart pages few off the cinder block walls. As we setup, the community members gathered. A few muchachos rode up on horseback, one old man straddled a donkey, others arrived on bikes and foot. A large group perched on the bumper of a pickup.The composinos stood, arms folded, waiting.

Agenda 21 was the entertainment of the day. It did strike me: are we just a dog and pony show? Are we doing more harm than good here, creating expectations in these 200-odd ejido communities that we cannot possibly follow-through on? The list of community needs went on an on – and I learned a number of big new words: pavamentacion (paved roads), luz (electricity), drenaje (drainage). But the real biggies: Empleo, Apoyos por el Campo, that’s where they all gathered.

I was assigned to the Farm Support (Apoyos por el Campo) group. We filled-up a sheet clarifying the problem: No seeds, no fertilizer, no market any longer for their corn and tomatoes, competition from the industrial hot houses…

But there were no solutions; only problems and complaints. One muchacho piped up: If we don’t get our government supports, I’m going back to ‘the other side.’ A threat, a Plan B, an exit strategy? 

Beyond the dismal facts on the flipchart, their attitude would cripple them.

The main character is relentless – exijente, Abuelita calls her. If she would just take it easy, relax, be patient, confident and calm. Though, of course, I know what’s to come. It only gets harder; the ups and downs are just beginning. And THAT makes for good material.

I step out of the Subaru, wind whipping, and head down the empty beach wondering: If I had to do it over, would I join-up again?

Frankly, it’s enough just to relive it on paper!

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Dance the Huapango ~ Reading at Studio 4309

As I stood before my audience at Studio 4903 last Saturday night, tea lights flickering, voices quieting, 35 familiar and new faces staring up at me in anticipation, I felt nervous, but also grateful.

I’d set-out last summer to launch my Kickstarter campaign to raise awareness and funding for my Mexico book project. But more important than the money, it was this kind of engagement and accountability from supporters that would carry me through the creative process.

It’s what got me to the desk that morning – and kept me there all day – much to my chagrin. The winter pall had broken and sun poured in through the dining room windows; the jay blue sky and sound of children’s voices taunted me. The inner voice of Resistance taunted as well, telling me all this material was crap, there was really nothing to present, and who'd show-up anyway?

Yet here I was, manuscript in hand; and there they were, hoping to be entertained. The poet had preceded me; seasoned and poised, he’d delivered the goods.

Now it was my turn. I started by announcing my new working title: Dance the Huapango - And Other Lessons from South of the Border on Surviving, Thriving and Serving. I explained that, during the campaign, I’d posted a ridiculous photo of me dancing the huapango, kicking up the dust, they say, at a Fiesta Quinzeaños. And a Facebook friend had shot right back: That’s the cover of your book!

Then I bent down and opened the lens of the projector, and that photo flashed onto the screen. Laughter emitted from the crowd. I was surprised and amused and a bit calmed. Unsure where to begin with the reading, I spontaneously decided: at the beginning, the very first chapter from Part I, called ‘Guapo’s Revelation.’

It was a frigid Winter Solstice night at Guapo’s on Wisconsin Avenue. My friend Beth and I had just been to a candle lighting ceremony with the Insight Meditation Community of Washington to celebrate this turning point in the seasons. Now we were reflecting over margaritas at the bar, amidst the whirring of the tortilla machine and the blare of piped-in mariachi music: What was next for us in our respective lives over this coming year? 

I’d been thinking a lot about it. 2009 was coming to a close; and it had been a year of death. My very first boyfriend, from Wyngate Elementary days, who’d become a professional violinist, died in March suddenly and of inconclusive causes. Coincidentally, I’d bumped into him in the very same Mexican bar a year before (after not having heard a word from him in over 10 years). He told me he’d stopped playing the violin. Four months later he was dead. 

Then in May my cousin Jonny Copp, world-famous mountain climber, was on a virgin ascent of Mount Edgar in the border-country between China and Tibet and was buried alive in an avalanche. He was 38 and died doing what he loved. These two young talented men were gone from my life and the planet long before their time.

In June another blow came; my Italian Grandma Lena passed away quietly in her bed in Staten Island. She, by contrast, had lived to 101, outlived everyone in fact – her eight siblings, her husband (by 50 years) and both her children (by 25). By then she must have been so lonely. 

‘Beth, I’ve been thinking about joining the Peace Corps,’ I said looking down into my birdbath of a drink. She almost fell off her bar stool. ‘Get out. That’s fantastic. You’ll make an awesome PCV!’
I felt myself smiling nervously. I’d been keeping this a secret – once spoken it had more force. … 

I finished that chapter to a nice round of applause, taking note in my mind of parts that dragged. But on the whole I sensed the chapter was useful chapter in setting up the main character’s drivers and, as my friend Chip would later validate, establishing a contrast to the life I was about to enter in Mexico. 

Then I continued...
 
Air light, sun bright, sky piercing blue, sewage canals, rolling arid hills, ribbons of highway, truck stops. Gliding north by bus from Mexico City’s airport, we 39 volunteers had a chance to take in this new land that would be home for the next two years and three months. Seemed more like America than any third-world scene from the Peace Corps brochures. Of course, it WAS America.

Drifting in and out of sleep, I was suddenly awakened by an abrupt halt. Outside my picture window, on the cobblestone street below, a trio of children was jumping and waving wildly, utterly delighted that this monster of a machine wound-up in their tiny pueblito. I was utterly delighted too.

But the country director was not. I could sense his annoyance from the seat next to me as we sat at the dead-end staring into a field of cows. ‘Where IS this Hacienda Castillo?’ he questioned the unruffled bus driver in gringo Spanish.

Ahorita, Señor. I assumed that meant we were near. (I would soon discover the real meaning and ubiquitous use of that word: now – ahora – in a little bit – ita – which usually meant never.)
We volunteers were dying to escape, AHORA, hike across that field, feel Mexico under our feet. We’d have hauled our 80-pound regulation packs if we had to. After all, we were in the Peace Corps now. …
At the conclusion of that chapter I got more applause. I was on a roll, and asked if they wanted to hear a little more? They did; so I read from ‘Hacienda Castillo Acclimatization’ and concluded with ‘Fish Farm in the Desert.’ I showed photos from each of those chapters too, to bring the world of Mexico to life.

When I finished reading, I felt relieved. I opened it up to questions…

When will the book be completed?
     By the summer, I hope, provided you continue to keep me accountable.

How did the experience change you?
     Ah, to find that out, you’ll have to read the book.

Once the guests had left and I'd gotten my equipment packed-up, a group of us headed a couple blocks up Wisconsin to Guapo’s, the place where the journey began four years earlier, to drink margaritas. Life imitating art imitating life. 

Thanks to all who came out for the reading and to Gayle at Studio 4903 for hosting.  (http://www.gaylefriedmandesign.com/Gayle%20Friedman%20Design%20-%20Studio%204903.html)

Hasta la proxima, until next time!

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Will it Play in Peoria?

Re-reading my last update, it struck me that my opening comments about the family holiday in Peoria might have sounded incriminating. I’ve also gotten a few off-handed comments. My mother said of the post: It was long.

Well I can read between the lines.

So let me set the record straight.

First of all, Peoria really is a lovely place. Despite the name, the root of which (peor) in Spanish means the worst, it’s got many positive points.

A bluff city, it overlooks the grand Illinois which still carries barges, pushed by tugs, of corn and soybeans, downriver to the Mississippi and eventually the Gulf of Mexico. Back in the 1800s, Peoria became the first world distillery leader. The revenue generated by the liquor barons spawned development, including the construction of majestic in-town mansions. To this day, along Moss and High, these mansions stand tall and stately, with coach porticoes and ornate copper turrets, scalloped roofs and wrap-around porches, a reminder of the opulence of that era.

Of the people, Peorians are friendly in a genuine way. There’s an oft-quoted expression from Vaudeville days, Will it play in Peoria? I like to think it refers to the fair-mindedness of the people versus the boring predictability of middle-American townsfolk. The bar and restaurant scene is decent and prices are good for an ample plate; cost of living is manageable enough to support a decent art scene. Drive a few miles out of town and you are suddenly in rolling, expansive countryside; and if you go far enough you get to the End of the Road where they serve-up a good plate of eggs and bacon and better Bloody Marys.

Secondly, for the record, my family are a group of interesting and generous people. Musicians, artists, scientists, activists, adventurers and geeks, they are engaged with their world - and definitely worth writing about. On holidays we cook, eat and drink, talk (too much) liberal politics and generally relish in each others' company. I remember one Christmas reunion in back country Colorado: I brought along then-partner Tom who, scrambling for a seat at the dinner table packed with aunts, uncles and cousins, remarked: I don’t mind where I sit; there’s not a dud in the bunch.

Tom’s gone; but his comment lives in the family history.

Still…holidays are always a challenge because family can bring you back to your haunted, pimply youth in an instant. In an inflection or a look, you’ve time-traveled back to Friars Road, face-to-face with your own unfinished business. As the Buddhists put it: Family is the final frontier of enlightenment.

But family are a part of my history; so they are oftentimes present on the page, or just slightly off-stage, influencing what I say.

And then there’s you, dear reader, who creates your own world from the written word. This is the challenge and the beauty of writing: to get your truth on the page – open to as many interpretations as there are readers.

I'm sure I'll be facing much more scrutiny (especially from my Self) as I proceed through the writing of my Mexico story. I hope to be truthful, fair and entertaining – that I don’t incite the ire of my family (or my Mexican host-family) – though I cannot make promises. Most of all, I hope I allow enough space on the page for my readers to fill-in with their own frivolous, biased, and expansive imaginations.

Who knows?  Perhaps my Mexico book, when finished and published, will play in Peoria.