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.  (

Hasta la proxima, until next time!