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!