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.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Into the Creative Void

I did lose my way, loose my way, on this holiday. I have to reorient, re-frame, resolve to remain on the path of creativity.

Much of this journal writing is about psyching myself up. If I don’t cheer for me who will?

Time to leave the laments over holiday indiscretions behind – too much alcohol, gluten and diary, not enough peace, love and family understanding – and re-enter that dreamy space.

Reading Jonny Copp’s journal excerpt (Patagonia, Thanksgiving 2006) on the puddle jumper outa Peoria, I am transported to a different place. From the flat barren farm terrain and rheumy winter skies of the US Midwest to the rugged outback of Argentina – and further beyond that to the life and mind of my cousin.

He reminds me of what I already know: life itself is a journey, if you take it that way. Or you just take what comes; and even that can be its own kind of adventure.

I would like to have known him better. I know little about climbing, tried it once on a wall in a gym in (aptly-named) Rockville. But Jonny’s journey (and journal) go beyond the physical sport to the mental and spiritual, the real limits we reach for inside ourselves, in the boredom of base camp rituals.

Don’t get me wrong: his goal was clear, and that chispa, the spark to get to the top was alive inside him. The peak of San Lorenzo, though physically obscured by the ‘domed-out giant turbulent cloud mass’, was ever present in his mind’s eye.

I have ‘turbulent cloud masses’ that block my way too. One’s been hovering before me for two weeks, in the midst of family holiday joy and trauma. I haven’t been ready to ice-axe my way in the dark slippery mist to get beyond and through it. So I sit at base camp taunted by questions that obscure my path: Where IS this story leading? What AM I trying to say?  And who REALLY cares?

‘Here,’ writes my cousin, ‘there is always the potential for being ill-prepared for the extraordinary. If you don’t believe it can happen, it probably won’t, for you.‘

Domed-out days like these, writing about and around the writing rather than writing, I pray for the sky to open up and the ideas to blow in on a sudden high. But more often than not, I have to gather the courage to head into the unknown, feeling around in the dark for the thread of my story, grasping at whatever nub of rock I can hold onto and propel myself onward.

Whatever nub.

Ahh, today it’s Rioverde Arrival, the beginning of my real Peace Corps experience, bonding with my host-family, trepidation at the thought of being stuck in the middle of nowhere rural Mexico for two whole years – and my drive to be accepted so I wouldn’t feel so lonely.

It’s a slippery nub; I feel the resistance rising up in me to reveal the painful truth, my hopes and the ambitions for a ‘successful service' luring me into some suspicious waters.

'I awoke to my host family’s orange truck starting up each morning and fell asleep to the sound of Mexican CNN playing on the flat screen at night. Saul’s brother got the orange business and Saul got the Rainbow Restaurant and Hotel. Another brother ran the eco-tour company and the sister managed the clothing boutique in the Centro. My host family was high-up on the Conquistadors’ pecking order which revealed 88 shades of a Mexican. Light-skinned, the Flores family came from Spanish blood. They were land-owners and merchants, educated and sophisticated; and I felt comfortable in the relative sameness.

'They even spoke a little English; they had an 'American family' in Kansas whom they visited on occasion. They believed in cross-cultural exchange; thought it educational for their young son. And they talked about bringing the American ways to incite change in their community. They hoped I'd help them regain control of their Agenda 21 initiative.

'Was this the ‘something bigger than me’ to which I aspired when I started the Peace Corps process almost a year ago? Seeds of doubt continued to germinate. Was this too comfortable? Living and working with the entitled, was I likely to lose perspective? Fall into the trap of ‘perverse paternalism’ that Professor Gamboa warned of on one of our pre-service training lectures? Time would tell. And I had all the time in the world, if I could only be patient.'

Doubt inside the slippery writing doubt...is that what I want to say about my Rioverde arrival? Is that the best place to begin? It doesn’t matter; it’s enough to buoy me, re-ignite the spark to get this Mexico adventure story down on the page – like Jonny’s urgency to climb, infused in his journals, watching, waiting, assessing the chances to make it to the top, and sometimes entering the void against the odds.

RIP Jonny Copp, 1974-2009

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r52qft0OX4w  --> In memory of Jonny Copp and Micah Dash, from "The Sharp End"