ONE WEEK AFTER

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The featured image, if compared with this photo taken today, gives you an idea of the depth of the wáter the morning of the flooding.

Today is the summer equinox, the longest day of the year: June 21. I remember such a day 16 years ago as the day the end of my second marriage began. My husband at the time, had been without alcohol for at least 13 years, longer than I had, but he was having a hard time adjusting to our new life in Madrid and his solution was to hit the bottle. If I had been more vigilant I might have suspected it because his paranoia about what I was doing or not doing began then. He began slyly suggesting that I might not be doing legitimate things with my free alone time; that I might be unfaithful while he slaved away.

In a way, he was right. I was being unfaithful: I had fallen in love with Madrid! Living in Madrid was something I had not even dared dream about because I considered it all but impossible, and yet my non-dream had come true and, upon arriving, I discovered what it was like to live in the so-called First World. I had never experienced such freedom: physical, emotional and psychological. As a woman living in Mexico City, one’s freedom is restricted both by real and imagined dangers, and certainly by unpleasantries. If one walks alone down a street in the city, the least one can expect are wolf-whistles sometimes accompanied by lewd invitations or threatening movements. Women (and men) wear no real jewelry or anything that looks real, and even the cheapest of watches can sometimes call unwanted attention. Your handbag might be swiped as fast as you find yourself lying in the gutter or flat on the sidewalk. Going to a movie alone is inviting some aspiring one-night lover to sit next to you and put his hand where it plainly isn’t called for and being in a restaurant without company (especially male company) makes everyone else look at you as if you had either been stood up or were discretely soliciting. So street-life in Mexico City is usually in a car with the windows rolled up and the doors safely locked or accompanied by a man who poses as a bodyguard, be it your husband, brother, uncle or eldest son.

Madrid, on the other hand, seems populated mostly by single women. They fill the restaurants and loll at the street cafés; they make up the movie’s most numerous public and they can be seen strolling down the sidewalks even in the less reputable areas of town. They go everywhere alone; they drive down the avenue with their car windows down and their arms, decked in Cartier’s or Rolexes, resting freely on the sill. When I saw that, I could hardly believe it. Suddenly I was free! I could go anywhere at any time and not feel I was going to be robbed, raped or kidnapped, not even molested! I walked down the streets of Madrid with my bones singing and my body feeling totally alive, I would smile at everyone I passed as if I were a bit loony or had had a couple too many glasses of wine at lunch. I bubbled, I floated, I chortled, I sang like a bird suddenly let loose of its cage. I had little time for anything else (including my husband): I had fallen head over heels in love with the city of my choice.

Then I fell in love again, and my second love was Salies de Béarn where I have lived for the last 8 years. A peaceful, tranquil, nothing-important-ever-happens-here town, a place where one comes to nestle, to nest. Sometimes it rains too much (is that true?) and sometimes it is too hot or too cold, but in general it is a middle of the way town where one can age peacefully without bothering the very few youths who occasionally burst through town on their motor bikes making as much noise as possible as if to show all us oldies that they are actually here. In other words, it is peaceful… until it gets the rain of a month in 24 hours and the River Saleys rampages through spreading destruction and mud everywhere.

That was one week and a day ago, and as soon as the water receded the people arose, like a team of coordinated ants carrying, washing, cleaning, throwing out stuff, travelling from house to house with one question: How can I help? Firemen and civic workers poured in from nearby villages that hadn’t been hit so hard. Neighbors who had been spared helped clean the houses of those that had been flooded and housed their tenants until they could go home again. An army of volunteers served lunch and dinner all week long for anywhere up to 250 volunteer workers and affected neighbors. Mayors from nearby towns sent their cleanup teams, their plows and trucks; one sent a carload of flowers to refill the drowned planters all around town. The Mayor of Salies offered the food served to all the workers and flood victims, ordered portable cabins set up in front of stores and shops that had been gutted in order for the owners to be able to do business from them while their establishments were mended. Thousands of bottles of water were distributed. Food was handed out to the needy. Companies donated refrigerators, microwave ovens, freezers and other kitchen equipment both to private houses and to the restaurants and cafés that had lost their livelihood. Clothes poured in and furniture and distribution centers were rapidly set up, and the information providedoznor from house to house so that everyone knew what was available and where they could go to get it. The Red Cross set up their tent in the center and attended anyone who needed it.  Salies was a hive of activity and goodness. Trucks heaved through the muddied streets collecting everything that had to be thrown out and taking it to parking lot I walk through every day which was used as the village dump. A mountain was formed by fridges and stoves and sofas and beds and every imaginable object that could not be restored to previous conditions.

Yesterday, one of the downtown coffee shops –their personnel and helpers having worked around the clock- was able to open and for the first time in a week I got my morning coffee and Salomé her biscuit (Loli too). The center of town finally began to look half-way clean. I went back to the coffee shop after lunch, noticing how glorious it felt to

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On the black sign on the wall, the last row of three dots at the bottom marks the height of the wáter at its worst, at least 20 cms above the head of the man sitting next to it.

be able to have my coffee whenever I wished, and found that there was a gentle man (yes, a gentle man) playing a synthesizer on the sidewalk to entertain the people on the terrace. To my delight, he even played a Mexican melody –Sabor a mí (the taste of me)– which set me to singing the words under my breath. And now, this evening, Salies celebrates the summer equinox with its very own Music Festival.

It is a tradition in France that all the cities and villages celebrate the 21st of June throwing a music festival. Usually, different organizations put up stalls and sell food and drink to the crowds that gather to hear the music. Tonight there is a smaller crowd than usual (perhaps the tourists who usually attend festivals in different villages have been put off by the dramatic photographs in the news), and all the food and drink is free, its cost being absorbed by the Mayor. It is good to see the center full of people again; it is good to hear laughter and singing. And there is no doubt that the unfortunate event has left a positive result overall in a feeling of oznorcommunity as I had never before experienced. I find myself talking to all kinds of people with whom I would have barely exchanged a ‘bonjour’ before because now we have something common to talk about. The conversation may stray to other topics after a bit, but the introductory questions are: “were you affected?” and “are you all right?”

If before the flood I had already tasted the delights of living in a small community, now the profound benefits become palpable. My heart expands with love for each and every one of the people I have come to know here, as I turn to leave and return home, leaving the sound of the Bearnaise choir filling my ears and my soul.

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AND THE SKY DID FALL… ON SALIES DE BEARN

870x489_bearn1Since a picture is worth 1000 words, here is my little French town this morning. This is the street leading to Rose’s Café where I have coffee every morning with my friends. It is obvious we won’t be having coffee this morning or perhaps many a morning to come.

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This is the center of town, La Place du Bayaa; the small semi-circle of plants in the foreground surrounds a fountain which is now under water. Tomorrow this plaza would be full of vendors with our Thursday market; there will be no one tomorrow.a-salies 2

Another view of the Place du Bayaa: the Bakery where I sometimes buy croissants, next to it the real estate agency owned by my friend Loic who rented me the apartment where I live. To the left is the Eyeglass store, completely under water.sdr

This is the road I traverse daily leading to the pharmacy and the small supermarket. It is also where Salomé’s beauty parlor is, something she will not be sad to hear as she has an appointment for a shampoo and coif on Friday which I doubt will come to pass.

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At some point I considered buying this house which is still for sale. Today I am thankful for my second story apartment.

 

 

 

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The parking lot I walk through daily with Salomé and now Loli; Salomé wonders why we are not going to the coffee shop today for a cookie.oznor

The river, having loosed itself from the shackles of its banks, completely ravishes parts of the town rushing through and carrying with it cars and anything else not tied down.la-rue-elysee-coustere-ce-mercredi-matin 2

The Saleys River has left its bed and gone on a rampage through the village.

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Compare the photo above (from internet today) to the one below taken by me on a brighter day. Notice that the buildings are the same although the angle of the photo is different. Observe that the bridge that appears below has completely disappeared in the photo above and there certainly won’t be anybody eating on the veranda of the restaurant with the red shutters.20140815_152631Now compare the following two photos, the first taken by me at a better moment, the other from internet today.20140406_145414le-saleys-mardi-soir

And last, the main street going through Salies

 

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I have now been able to walk through town; the water has receded and left a brownish yellow mud all over everything. There are large water trucks washing the streets as best they can. People drag mud stained objects from their stores and restaurants, their offices or homes and place them in piles beside the doors. Someone is on the phone with the insurance company. Most places have had more than four feet of water and mud in their places and everything is ruined; it will take weeks to clean it all out. I do not want to take pictures; I feel it would be rude.

The owner of the Grignotine where I often eat gives me a kiss on the cheek; I ask if there was much damage. She shakes her head and grimaces, her eyes are sad. The owner of the Café I go to every afternoon, the one that has the most delicious icecream, is hauling stuff covered with mud out into the street; her café offers a book-Exchange service for free, and they are now all books that no one will ever read again. I peer into the darkness in her café. The degree of destruction is unbelieveable: nothing is left untouched except the ceiling.

On my way home, I head to my friend Isabelle’s house. I have crossed my fingers that she managed to stop up the door well enough to avoid the water from coming in because she has just spent the better of two weeks doing a thorough cleaning of her house and she was so proud a couple of days ago when she announced that all was done. No. She has not escaped. Her son and his girlfriend are slushing out the mud and the contents of her kitchen -all brown and filthy- are standing by her door in the street. I don’t stay long: I have the dogs and can’t help.

Slowly I head home, the weight of the disaster weighing on my shoulders. I feel sad and tired, very tired.

THE SKY IS FALLING

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Yes, the sky is falling and it has been falling all day, in sheets of rain and wind to whip them up. There is water everywhere and I can’t even begin to tell you what a walk with the dogs looks like. It is days like this (and I haven’t seen many) that I rue having dogs and wish I had a small covered terrace where they were used to peeing when not able to go out.

oznorThe sky is falling and both my doggies came in sopping wet and had to be dried off with a towel which in turn merited a doggie treat in Salomé’s consideration which meant that Loli had to get one too, although a smaller one naturally. And it has been one of those days, or should I say weeks?

Having two dogs instead of one, albeit twice the size, has taken its toll and after three days my back felt as if someone had taken to beating on it when I was asleep. I did two things which in combination only caused a more serious problem. One was begin to take large doses of Ibuprofen for the muscular contraction on my back (with meals naturally) and the other was worry myself sick that my back would not be all right for my granddaughter’s visit and our trip together across the top of Spain. This deadly combination not only produced an ulcer in my stomach, but also made it bleed, something I discovered yesterday morning and which scared me half to death. I actually found myself in somewhat of a panic yesterday afternoon and acting like a five-year-old: running down to the car determined to drive the hour to San Sebastian and an emergency clinic; racing back up the stairs terrified of what they would do to me in the clinic and where I could keep my dogs in the meantime; calling the local doctor and then refusing the appointment he offered me at 6:45 a.m. today because there was no way he could fit me into his schedule yesterday at 6pm. Up and down, up and down, somewhat like Chicken Little in a panic and believing with all my heart that my sky –at least- was falling.

Finally, I sat down on the chair I had pulled out for my exercise session which I hadn’t done, supposedly to go to the doctor’s, and I stopped, stopped everything but breathing and being present. I recognized the terrified little girl who just wanted to curl up under the table and cry, and I breathed into the place she was hiding inside me. A few breaths and the belief popped up: I don’t know what to do… and I felt the panic. After all, when you are five years old and something terrible is happening –like your parents are fighting or there is a thunder and lightning storm outside- and you don’t know what to do, the projection is that surely you will die.

Fortunately, there is someone who has grown up inside me too and she stepped forward and took hold of the child: “You don’t know what to do, is that true?” I waited, breathing deeply. “You don’t know what to do, can you absolutely know that is true, that you don’t know what to do?” The child inside heard the kind voice and seemed to settle a bit: a “No, not true” came up.

So: “How do you react, what happens when you believe the thought that you don’t know what to do?” It was clear as day: fearful, helpless, wanting someone to come and rescue me; mind confused, muddled thinking, seeing everything –every possible avenue of help- as threatening; unable to act or move. Paralyzed.

And “Who would you be in this same situation without the thought that you don’t know what to do?” I took a breath and went back inside. Without the thought, stillness crept in, the body relaxed, the anguish vanished: just me, sitting in chair, doing my Woznorork.

Turn it around: “I do know what to do.” I sat and waited and the answer washed over me like a balm. I picked up the phone and redialled the doctor to say I would be there this morning. Peace descended and I simply made myself my dinner, walked my dogs and went to bed.

Now –as the sky continues to fall- I hear the sirens of the fire truck rushing to aid some victim of the deluge. I wonder if they are called for a tree that has fallen on a roof or a house that has flooded. A few moments later I hear voices outside, two stories below my window. I look out: the fire truck has come to our building. It seems the downstairs apartments (that are actually half a floor beneath ground level and have a small mdeoutdoors terrace, have flooded. Their occupants are all outside in the rain, wondering what to do, how to save their belongings, where they will spend the night and how soon the insurance will fix their abode. I am safe and warm on the second floor, high above the water, although the storage room I have on the lower level is flooded and all the cardboard boxes I have stored there are soaked including one that holds all my diaries of the last 26 years: natural disasters come to show us what we didn’t need.

Finally, as the rain seems to wane a bit, I take the reluctant dogs out for a last pee or poo. We discover that the road behind the building and the adjoining vineyard are completely flooded. It seems that the sky has fallen tonight. Unfortunately, rain is predicted until 7am tomorrow morning with the worst of the storm expected at midnight. I have offered a neighbour my extra bed if he wants it, but it seems he prefers to sleep in his car. Loli is all curled up in her basket asleep while Salomé seemed to think something special was going on and she could jump into my bed with her wet feet and head. I was sorry to tell her that, even on nights when the sky falls, she has her bed and I have mine.oznor

4 x MOTHER’S DAY

cardTomorrow is Mother’s Day in France. I remember my grandmother saying that she knew the woman who had invented ‘Mother’s Day’ and that that person was extremely sorry she had, seeing as how it had been so commercialized. According to Wikipedia, the modern Mother’s Day began in the United States at the initiative of Anna Marie Jarvis who –recalling her mother’s prayer that someone begin a day to memorialize and honor mothers- commemorated the first anniversary of her own mother’s death by announcing plans for a memorial service to commemorate her mother for the following year. “In May of 1907, a private service was held in honor of Ann Jarvis. The following year, Anna Jarvis organized the first official observance of Mother’s Day… In the years after that, Anna Jarvis’ new holiday gained recognition in many states and spread to a number of foreign countries (… and) in 1914 President Woodrow Wilson signed a congressional resolution officially making the second Sunday in May the national Mother’s Day…” Wikipedia confirms my grandmother’s comment about Anna’s disappointment in her holiday’s commercialization. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ann_Jarvis) “In most countries, Mother’s Day is an observance derived from the holiday as it has evolved in the United States, promoted by companies who saw benefit in making it popular” comments Wiki wryly.

And now, Mother’s Day is celebrated all over the world but not necessarily on the same date. Norway leads the way on the second Sunday of February, while 21 countries –including Afghanistan, Bulgaria, Kosovo, Montenegro and Vietnam- celebrate their Mothers the 8th of March combined with International Women’s Day (heaven forbid ladies should get two whole days for themselves!) The United Kingdom and its neighbors celebrate Mothering Sunday which is linked to the fourth Sunday of Lent (or three weeks before Easter Sunday) on the Christian calendar and usually falls in late March or early April. Nineteen countries –including Egypt, Somalia, Kuwait, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates- celebrate their Moms on the 21st of March or the Spring Equinox linking them inevitably to the fertility of this season. Slovenia chose the 25th of March, Armenia fingered Annunciation day: the 7th of April which they call Motherhood and Beauty Day; Spain, Portugal, Mozambique, Hungary and three other countries have chosen the first Sunday in May; South Korea celebrates the 8th while Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador go for the 10th of May. The 2nd Sunday in May –being the original date- is the most popular with around 95 countries celebrating, the 14th of May it is commemorated in Benin (country I had never heard of and had to look up to discover it lies in the west of Africa), the 15th in Paraguay along with Día de la Patria –the National Day-; on the 19th in Kyrgyzstan where they speak Kyrgyz and the word ‘mother’ is Эне; on the 22 in Israel where it apparently is celebrated mainly in kindergartens with no commercialization, although –as one essay explains- “nothing in Israel is simple… not even Mother’s Day” which has now become “Family Day” in recognition of the social and cultural changes in the nuclear family (https://www.israel21c.org/the-story-of-how-israels-mothers-day-became-family-day/). On the 26th Poland checks in with its Matkas, on the 27th Bolivia and on the last Sunday in May 14 other countries, including France, shower their mothers with gifts, France having the peculiarity of moving the festivity to the first Sunday in June if Pentecost occurs on this day. Mongolia sees fit to celebrate зүгээр’s Day along with Kid’s Day (as if we couldn’t even go one day without them) on June 1. Only Luxembourg celebrates Mamms on the second Sunday of June and South Sudan pushes the date all the way to the first Monday of July (what was wrong with Sunday?)… Russia puts it off until the last Sunday in November a date selected by Boris Yeltsin and Panama chooses the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on the 8th of December for all those ladies with very ‘maculate’ conceptions. Indonesia slips their Ibu’s Day celebration in right before Xmas on the 22nd of December…

So, if you happen to be one of those mixed-nationalities, I-have-lived-around-the-globe and have-friends-in-every-country Moms you are likely to spend the year celebrating. I, for one, was congratulated on the first Sunday of May (my Spanish friends), the 10th of May (my children and my Mexican friends), the second Sunday in May (my son who lives in the USA and a couple of American friends on Facebook) and am looking forward to many a French felicitation tomorrow, the last Sunday in May, when I go to my coffee group where we are all mothers, grandmothers and one of us, a great-grandmother. That’s 4 x Mother’s day … and I wasn’t even a very dedicated one if I compare myself to my daughter and daughter-in-law, so the abundance of felicitations seems a bit ridiculous.

I can’t really say I chose motherhood or even really wanted it: it was just something that happened because that was the way of it. It wasn`t that I didn’t want to be a mother, of course I wanted to be a mother, because not-being-a-mother was connected with not-being-a-complete-woman, which in turn was being less-than-human: motherhood was what all women wanted (according to the belief at that time) and this belief, coupled with the fear that maybe there was something wrong with me that would prevent me from having children, made me want it even more. But, of course, no woman really knows what she is getting into until she is there, because the myths about motherhood (both positive and negative) cloud over the reality every time. I heard them all, though not from my mother who was more interested in my father, golf and bridge (in that order) than in motherhood and, although I admit to having more illusions about becoming a writer than about becoming a mother, I must have believed them to some degree because I went for it hook, line and sinker!

Strangely enough, however, I never looked on motherhood either as a terrible sacrifice or as a way to fulfillment so I am not quite sure what it is we are being honored for. Motherhood was something you did, something you shared with –at least- every other mammal on the planet –dogs, cows, pussycats, skunks and weasels included- whereas fulfillment came from doing something human (what men did) and receiving money or at least recognition for it. Fulfillment came from getting your first poems published in the University magazine not for having knit a sweater for your newly born daughter; seeing your first novel come off the press was human and noteworthy, whereas bearing very painful contractions so that the occupant of your body for the last 9 months could come out and get on with it on his own was simply obeying the inevitable laws of nature; getting an honorable mention in the Latin American Short Story Contest was something to brag about at every dinner party, while getting pregnant was something every woman was expected to do once she got married, in a way it was her obligation: if not, what did she get married for? Writing a novel was something one had to work really hard to do; changing shit-filled diapers was something one did as fast as possible and solely to stop the baby’s screaming.

I’ll never forget when a friend of my mother, upon hearing I had published a story in a magazine, cooed: “It’s sooo nice that you have a hobby like writing!” I looked her right in the eye and replied stiffly: “Writing is my profession; I do mother and housewife for a hobby”. I, like Adrienne Rich who wrote Of Woman Born, had to struggle sometimes to find those 15, 20 or 30 minutes in a day which would allow me to work on my writing even though I was fortunate and living in Mexico allowed me to have hired help to do most of the housework from the very beginning.

Don’t get me wrong: I loved my children and today I can freely adore them because they are on their own. As a mother, I did everything that was needed to insure they’d have a healthy and happy childhood, with which they were probably no more miserable than any other child trying to grow up and learn what it means to be human. I did it because that was what I was supposed to do and there was no one else to do it (when there was someone else to make them dinner, change their diapers, cart them back and forth to school believe me, I was delighted: I had no need to be indispensable to my children); I did it because if I didn’t do it, I felt guilty, a bad mother, a failure as a woman. I made the sacrifices every mother makes: I hugged them and fed them and changed them and put them in the stroller to go to the park; I coaxed them through the toddler stage until they could walk properly; I blew their noses and wiped their behinds; I gave them their daily baths. Later, I took them to school and picked them up; I drove them to kids’ parties, and to the doctor and to the dentist. I bought them ice cream cones and I think that once –never again- I took them to the amusement park. I tutored my son for his dyslexia for an hour every afternoon for more months than I can remember; I drove my daughter back and forth to a child psychologist until she accepted that she did not have dyslexia like her brother no matter how badly she wanted the attention she thought he was getting because of it; I suffered through hours at the dentist’s for my daughter’s braces and I carted my son back and forth to the orthopedist for his leg braces. And these were just a few things: as I look back now I realize how selfless I actually was even within my selfish desire to do my own thing.

There is no use itemizing all the things I did as a mother, for every mother has done the same or more and knows what I am talking about. So I was a mother because that is what I was supposed to be, but what I wanted to be was a writer, and the struggle to find time (very difficult) and not feel guilty (impossible) went on for at least 8 years (when they were both finally in school) and then some. But it doesn’t occur to me that someone should honor me because I did that: I did it for myself; I did it because they would have cried and yelled and screamed until I did and I couldn’t take the noise; I did it because it’s what I do to help any living thing –including spiders and snails- that I think is suffering not because I want to stop their suffering so much as I want to stop mine upon seeing them suffer.

It is this honoring the mother I am doubtful about. I look to my grandmothers, one I knew, the other not. My paternal grandmother (whom I did not know) perhaps should be honored. She came from a wealthy Spanish family and my grandfather was also very well off so there was always plenty of help in the house, including nannies and governesses. She bore 14 children over a period of 20 years (that’s one every 17 months), the last one when she was 43; she died at 57 of colon cancer leaving three of her children still under the age of 18. Should she be honored for this? She and my grandfather were fervent Catholics and, in accordance, refused any form of birth-control. They didn’t do this for the children, they did it in compliance with their God’s wishes to insure their place in heaven, they did it because that is what people in Jerez did in the beginning of the 20th century. Elsewhere it was different: The same year my paternal grandmother had her last child, 62 year old Annie Oakley, in a shooting contest in Pinehurst, North Carolina, hit 100 clay targets in a row from 15 meters. Annie Oakley was married, but she never had any children so she didn’t get to be celebrated on Mother’s Day; rather she was honored for a talent she had and worked on, a talent she shared teaching over 15,000 other women to shoot. She was an international star who performed for kings and queens of her time. Much of the money she earned was donated to charitable organizations for orphans so in a way she mothered many children.  (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Annie_Oakley)

After that digression, enter my maternal grandmother who was brought up in the same  America where Annie Oakley was shooting clay pigeons and supporting orphans; she also came from a poor family. She married up and my grandfather made good money in the carpet business. She credited hardships in her childhood for her fervent atheism so she had no God to answer to as far as her maternal responsibilities. She had always wanted two girls and that is what she had. She had no more, undoubtedly thanks to whatever birth control methods were available, including abortions. She had no religious qualms about this and sincerely believed that people had children for selfish reasons alone. “With all the suffering there is in life, what would you want to bring a child into the world for if it weren’t for your own pleasure.” I tend to believe her. I have yet to hear someone say they want to have a child for the child’s sake. Rather it seems to be a deep-seated belief that a child will make the mother feel fulfilled; we do it for ourselves to feel more complete, to have someone that depends solely on us, to –perhaps, if we are lucky- experience unconditional love for once in our lives… and ‘unconditional’ is also questionable.

When we moved from an apartment to a house with three bedrooms and a study, I immediately appropriated the study for myself: A Room of One’s Own was my dream and Virginia Woolf my inspiration. My children were 7 and 3 at the time. When my daughter –the younger of the two- went into first grade, I started my four year career in Hispanic Language and Literatures in the National University of Mexico. I distributed my classes between one or two days a week so that I wouldn’t be absent from home too often and many times, after they had gone to bed I would work on my essays and reading and papers and investigations for my studies. When term papers were due, I would often be still at it when they got up in the morning to go to school. And yes, there were many afternoons that I would shut the library door telling them that only in the case of the house being on fire should they knock, and knowing full well that if things got unruly downstairs, someone would come and get me.

It has now been over 26 years since both my children got married. I close my eyes and try to remember: given all the time that passes between a child’s birth and their final moving out, there are precious few definite memories: A nurse placing a horrid, red, wrinkled creature with long black stringy hair in my arms and telling me it was my son. My daughter almost dying of pneumonia at two months old; my son at 4 announcing one night in the tub that he could kill God because his teacher had said that God was in his heart so if he put a knife in his heart he would kill God: just plain logic. The guppies and watching when the mommy guppy had babies; pulling my son around the park in a red wagon when he had the braces on for his knock-knees; my daughter running hysterically into the library crying: “Mommy, mommy: what is the boy rabbit doing to the girl rabbit?” and my explaining to her how they were getting married so they could have babies. And then, a few weeks later, her question: “Mommy, did you and Daddy get married when Peter was born?” and me so innocently pulling out the photo albums and showing her the pictures of our wedding and she so patient, waiting till I finished my explanation to continue: “And Mommy did you and Daddy get married again when I was born?” so that I might understand she was inquiring about rabbits and not ceremonies; the day I went to pick up my 7 year old son in school wearing curlers in my hair and he told me in no uncertain terms that he was very embarrassed and never wanted me come for him like that again (I never did). Their summer camps, first in Mexico and then in the States; my son sitting outside our locked bedroom door at naptime and wagging his fingers saying ‘naughty, naughty’ when we came out. My precious 7 year-old daughter dressed in a red flamenco dress with white polka dots for her birthday party; my son bringing home a tabby cat and begging to keep it; my little girl at a friend’s birthday party standing very still with a pigeon on her head that the clown had placed there. And as they grew: their questions about everything and my loving the sound of my own voice as I told them my truths: sharing what I had learned so far was the most fun I remember. Moments of laughter and love flash through my mind. As I spend time to remember, the memories come in little spurts and flickers, with an inner joy, love and a sweet nostalgia… if I had known then what I know now (the privilege of being a mother) I might have paid more attention, but I didn’t, did I? If had actually known that one was not sacrificing oneself for them, that what I was doing was a totally selfish and self-loving occupation, I might have enjoyed it more than I did. As a mother I wanted my children to be happy and successful because it proved I was a good mother and because it set me free to be myself. Today, I make no such demands. I am happy that they are happy when they are; when they aren’t, I can continue to be happy anyway because that is my responsibility: my own happiness, not theirs. My contribution to their happiness is not letting them think that they are in any way responsible for mine.

So I sit writing this piece about Mother’s day, only a few hours away from my 4th Mother’s day celebration, and feel the gratitude of having had it all: the marriage, the maternity, the literary recognition, the spiritual path, the holy solitude. And, yes: I am so grateful for my handsome son and my beautiful daughter today and their lives as they live them that I can watch from afar without feeling in the least bit responsible. They have both, undoubtedly, been better parents than I was but I know today that I did the best I could in that moment. Still, I can’t feel that there is reason for a commemoration or an act of gratitude just because I did what I had to do upon receiving the gift of maternity. For that matter, we might also create a Pet-Owner’s Day because –whatever the case- the reasons for having a pet are just as self-serving or selfless as the ones for having children.

Now, as I reread and plan to publish this post, I realize how poor it is in expressing anything meaningful about the miracle of living in a body that has gestated life at some time during its existence. I also notice I have said “gestate” and not “give”, for we mothers do not give our children life (although we can take it away from them and it is perhaps that –the fact that we didn’t- that they can be grateful for), they happen in us, we harbor them and then we expel them and then we care for them until we don’t have to any more. Then, sometimes, they care for us. A strange and marvelous cycle…

 

 

GRATITUDE IS LOVE MADE GENTLE THROUGH UNDERSTANDING

cofIn my last post I mentioned the letters… (the package of letters and memorabilia that my husband had kept and which, through the kindness of his second wife and my children, reached my hands last Xmas). Well there was much more than letters. I could hardly believe finding the menu of the dinner served at the dance where Fernando was my blind date with my then phone number written on the back along with the name B R I A N D A in capital letters!!! He kept it all those years. I didn’t know, I knew nothing of this secret cache, nothing until my kids put it into my hands. To say the least: it has been one hell of a belated Christmas gift.cof

Before we were married and while I was still studying Social Work at a school near his house, Fernando used to leave small messages for me on the windscreen of my blue jeep (yes, I had a baby blue jeep that I bombed around Mexico City in, a gift from my father who figured that in an accident, the jeep would come out on top, and the day I had one, it did[1]). Little mementos… I can’t believe he kept them. Even today I can watch the movie of me leaving the building where I studied and seeing –across the street- the small cofslip of paper under the windshield wiper, and running over to find the day’s missive. A smile comes to my face and tears to my eyes… so long ago and we were so young!

Another unexpected discovery was that not only did he keep all my letters to him, but also all his letters to me, each one numbered so they can be read in succession. I have no idea when he scooped them up and stashed them away, or where for that matter. Mine are mostly typewritten (I carted my little Baby Hermes around everywhere) and his are in that clear, even script so undoctor-like that was characteristic of him.cof

First there is the series of letters back and forth from Mexico City to Acapulco that first Xmas after meeting each other. They go from the 24th of December 1961 to the first of January 1962 , and what should I discover but that he had made original drafts of these letters which he then corrected and copied onto letter paper. He kept both (which goes to show how difficult it was for him to throw anything out) so that the draft of the first letter –which had gotten lost in the mail and I never received- is there and now I can read them all complete (even twice if I want to find out what he crossed off in the drafts).

untitledCarefully folded and lost amongst the envelopes is a slip of paper with a note that he sent with 3 dozen red roses and one white one the 14th of February 1962. On the 10th of that month we had broken up after a dinner at his sister-in-law’s house where she introduced me as his “girlfriend or novia[2] ; I was 19 years old, very confused and unsure of my feelings for him (or my feelings about anything, for that matter) and he was getting serious. I remember saying that I couldn’t imagine him as the father of my children (as if I could even imagine having children at that point) and that I wanted to just be friends. He said we couldn’t be friends because he was in love with me, so we broke it off. The note with the roses said: With a thousand and one reasons and at the same time with none, I beg you receive this bouquet. Fernando. By thatcof time, I had been crying for three days since our separation so, of course, I called him immediately and suggested we give it another try. A little over 5 months later, the 31st of July, he came with his parents to ask for my hand in marriage; I found amongst his papers a note I wrote him that night to accompany the crucifix I gave him[3] to mark the event. The following day I turned 20 and, although I had managed to finally leave my tormented teens, I was none the wiser.

At the end of the month of October, 1962, I went to New York with my mother to buy my wedding dress and there was another volley of letters back and forth, this time between Mexico and New York. Mushy, icky sweet, full of I love you’s and I miss you’s and I can’t wait to see you’s and I’ll be yours forever’s; mine always trying to be a bit humorous, his never… If anything, they are boring and certainly of no interest to anyone, not even to me anymore. My first one, written on Eastern Airlines note paper, starts: Darling, I have only been in the air 15 minutes and already I miss you…” and anyone can take it from there.

fDO     BRI

The papers and mementos continued: wedding invitation, menu served, newspaper announcements and religious wedding certificate. Amidst all this official stuff, a letter written to me by my grandmother that perhaps he kept because she says how handsome she finds him. Later, two more letters from my grandmother show up, a letter from my half-brother, Manolo, and a poem written to me by my father on my 23rd birthday. After our marriage, missives map our moves, to Hermosillo, Sonora and then back to Mexico City; up to Framingham, Massachusetts where an innumerable pile of letters from his father urging him to come back to Mexico reminds me how desperately I wanted to stay in the USA and how I resented my father-in-law’s pull over my husband. We did go back however, some five months after arriving and with our three month old little boy.

cofIn September of 1966, I went up to Larchmont, New York to bring my grandmother back to Mexico to live with us. She wanted to buy us a house and move in with us. There were letters every single day of the 15 I spent in the US, one of his and one of mine, all duly numbered by him and kept in their envelopes. They tell of a falling out between my parents and my husband; it was not the first and it would not be the last but, in the end, love would always retake its course and things would be fixed. My grandmother’s stay in Mexico lasted little over a year. My daughter was born while we were in the house she had bought, supposedly for us, but shortly after I had given birth there was a fight over something so simple as to be absurd and my grandmother stormed out, went to my mother’s and put the house up for sale. It was a painful end to what I had believed to be a dream come true but, as everything, in the long run it was for the best. My grandmother returned to New York and it was several years before I could forgive her. Today it is easy for me to see how that fight had nothing to do with us, how she was sorry for her decision to come to Mexico and didn’t know how to get out of what she had promised.

Mixed in amongst our correspondence, there were personal letters to me from friends of mine, both in the USA and in Mexico, and from a Spanish cousin now long deceased who at the time was studying to be a Jesuit priest and was doing summersaults of joy over my becoming a Catholic (he never became a priest and I left all religion behind two years later). There are many notes and letters from our son, Peter, to his father, to me and to both of us. There is a letter of ours to him that, I know not how, ended up amongst the others. And there is the letter from my son to me that I most treasure, where he thanks me for the work we did together on his dyslexia for months and months when he was in 3rd grade, because he could read all the wonderful books he was discovering in College at that time.

Image (3)Amongst the notes and envelopes, a handful of photos recall the past visually: There’s me on the terrace of our weekend house in Valle de Bravo (Mexico); me with Peter newly born in Framingham,Image (2) Mass. and a snapshot that I gave Fernando when we first started dating so he could keep it in his wallet.

And then, at the end, after all the letters and notes and mementos that covered the better part of our marriage, there were three very personal documents. The first was a long, hand-written diatribe that I had sent to Fernando, basically claiming that neither I nor my children were getting the attention we needed and deserved; that he didn’t see or understand me and that every time I attempted to tell him what I wanted or needed, I found myself accused of trying to run his life and of being demanding and controlling. There is no date on it; I have no idea if it was before, after or during my psychoanalysis, but it very definitely predated the onset of our drinking together every night which led to our final alcoholism and breakup, as the drinking together every night was what I –at least- mistakenly saw as the way to get the attention and love I craved.

The other two were written by Fernando and both are about Love; in the first (and neither has a date so I can’t really know it is the first, but I intuit it) he waxes melancholic about his incapacity to love and gives himself all sorts of philosophical and poetic advice. It was the second one, however, that touched my heart to the very core. In it he begins by saying he wants me to love him because he loves me, but then he asks: “but do I really love her?” What follows is an analysis of what he considers might be his Imagefailings in our relationship and, then, Oh surprise of surprises: upon reading the next ten lines I felt for the first time that he actually saw me, saw me as I was, my longings and frustrations, my aspirations and needs, my despair in believing I had to be someone other than who I was in order to be worthy of his love. This simple but profound feeling of being seen as I was, brought a wave of love upon me.

At that moment, my heart filled with gratitude to that beautiful man who had married a woman the opposite of his self-denying mother and then demanded she turn into a self-denying wife, but who had been capable –god knows at what moment- to see this even if only briefly and admit it, even if only to himself… and then to truly see me as I was and wanted to be. What a gift!

After we were divorced, one of the things I did during my recovery (physical, emotional and mental) was to write him a letter begging his forgiveness for all the times I must have hurt him and thanking him for everything I had received from him. I remember thinking that I would have liked to receive the same from him and realizing, at that time, that he if he could have he probably would have written something similar. This small handwritten document is that letter even though it was not meant for my eyes… or perhaps it was, for it is to them it has finally arrived so many years later. Gratitude is love made gentle through true understanding.

1983 Sept DUMAC (Catira)19042014 (3)                    Snapshot_20110111_1

Thank you, my Love.

 

 

 

 

[1] It was at a cross-section in Mexico City: a car shot out of the street to my left and I hit its front fender head on. Nothing happened to the jeep, but the fender was ripped open as if by a giant iron can opener.

[2] In Spanish, novia which means ‘girlfriend’ is a term that in Mexico at the time applied to a serious relationship that was headed towards marriage.

[3] On March 26th of that year I had become Catholic and between then and when we married we had juggled pre-marital sex and confession, and that is stuff of another post.

A BAG FULL OF MEMORIES

oznorTomorrow would have been the 82nd birthday of the father of my children. In his memory, I have decided to dedicate the day to reading all the “stuff” he kept over the years, even after we had been divorced and he was remarried: a bag full of letters and mementos collected during our relationship, both before and during our marriage[1]. In this way, we were very different. I have done away with almost everything from the past and moved on, lighter, freer… yet perhaps less anchored also, adrift rather than safely docked in the harbor of approaching old age. He seems to have kept everything he could, I will see tomorrow. Already, I shiver with excitement, the memories, love and tears rising even now before I have begun.

My children showed it to me last Xmas asking what I wanted them to do with it. I glanced over a few items and realized I did not want to throw any of it out at that moment, so I took it, tucked it into my suitcase, brought it back to France and placed it on the bookshelf in the hallway. I have not opened it since but, suddenly I decided it would be tomorrow that I would. Memories…

The year was 1961. I had recently dropped out of Barnard College in New York after my first year there and returned home, begun studies in Social Work in a school run by Catholic nuns and taken up volunteer work in the National Hospital for the Handicapped. After not having received any religious education at home, I had just found out that my best friend at the new school was a nun and had begun taking Catechism with her in order to become a Catholic. Needless to say, it was a very confused period of my life and religion had somehow seemed like the best life-boat around.

After my return to Mexico, I had reconnected with some of my old schoolmates from the past and one of them had invited me to her sister’s 15th birthday party on Friday the 10th of November. At that time, a girl’s 15th birthday was the moment for her presentation in society and her parents usually threw an enormous party something like the then fashionable cotillion in New England. I was 19 and not very keen on going to a party for 15-year-olds, so I said that I didn’t have anyone to go with, but my friend immediately countered with the promise of arranging a blind date: the older brother of one of her sister’s escorts who was studying to be a doctor and was supposedly not bad looking. I accepted.

The day of the dance I participated in a fashion show at the Hospital where I volunteered and was on my feet all day. I arrived home around 6pm exhausted and announced to my mother that I was not going to the dance. She immediately told me that, having accepted, it would be very impolite to stand my blind date up; then she dangled in front of me the offer to wear one of her most beautiful red dresses and I was hooked. Truth be told, once I was dressed and made up I felt so beautiful I just hoped my date wasn’t a dead-beat. My parents drove me to the dance hall called ‘Salon Illusion’, a popular place for events at the time, and dropped me off saying that I should have my date drive me home.

As it turned out, he had not arrived yet so I sat at a table with my friend, her date and some other people I didn’t know. I was nervous. It was actually the first time I had been on a blind date and their reputation was not promising. I had visions of some pimply undesirable dancing through my head when my friend announced: “Here he comes,” gesturing towards the door. I looked up and immediately blushed: never had I had a date with someone so tall and good looking; he was like out of the movies. He came over and introduced himself. His name was Fernando and he was every bit a man at 25. Seeing I was flustered, he smiled; it was a magnificent smile: kind and soft, it lit up his whole face. From then on the night should have been a fairy tale but, as it turned out, it was somewhat of a disaster that we would laugh about for many years afterwards.

Once the birthday girl had come down the flowered staircase in the middle of the dance floor, accompanied by her tuxedoed escorts and billows of dry ice, and danced her first waltz with her father and then with each escort, the dancing was opened for all of us and Fernando held out his hand. I had grown up watching my parents dance in the living room forming a beautiful couple and now I had the chance to dance with a man as tall as my father and even more handsome, so it was with great expectations that I took his hand and was led to the dance floor.

We danced… or perhaps I should say: He danced… all over my feet! My future husband was not a bad dancer; he was –in fact- an excellent dancer; I was the one who had not learned ballroom dancing so, in the beginning, I had some trouble following him. But the problem that night was actually my mother’s dress which was tapered down to an unusual narrowness right about 4 inches below the knee. There was no way I could take the adequate step to get my feet out of the way of his rather large ones. He was embarrassed and I was more so, although it was clear what the problem was. Perhaps we should have given up, but we didn’t. He tried to measure his steps to the constraint of my skirt and I tried to keep my toes out of reach of his feet. My shoes took a beating and we spent most of the time apologizing to each other, but we managed to dance till 3 in the morning.

By that time, I was ready to go home and I hinted at it several times with no success. My date didn’t seem at all interested in doing what to me was obviously called for, which was to deliver me to my parents’ house. Finally, my friend  –probably tired of hearing my fruitless hints– offered me her chauffer and Fernando immediately asked if he could accompany me. As we both climbed into the back of my friend’s chauffered car, I was at a loss to understand why in the world he hadn’t offered to take me himself. No explanation was offered as we drove to my house. When he walked me to the door that night, he asked for my phone number so –in spite of the fact that he didn’t even try to kiss me on the cheek- I presumed he was interested. I certainly was. I had never been out on a date with a real man before: just boys, usually my own age or slightly older and wanting nothing more than to get into my panties as fast as possible. This was different and I wondered how it would turn out.

IMG-20130319-WA0000But it did… turn out, I mean. Months later we both shared our experience of that first night. I confessed that I had not wanted to go to the dance and that my mother had bribed me into it with the fateful dress, and that I had thought very poorly of him for not offering to take me home. As it turned out, he hadn’t wanted to go to a 15-year-old’s dance party either (after all he was finishing medical school and soon would be a practicing doctor), but that morning his horoscope had said he would meet the love of his life and he had gone to the party to prove it was wrong (destiny is a tricky thing!). As for taking me home, he had heard me from the first hint, but didn’t own a car at the time and had not thought to take any money with him, so he had no idea how to solve his dilemma until my friend had offered her chauffer.

So tomorrow I am going to dedicate the day to him and memories: tomorrow –Friday again, only 56 years, 5 months and three days after that first encounter in a Dance Hall called Illusion.

[1] His second wife was kind enough to keep this and pass it on to my children after his death in 2012.

READING, WRITING AND RAIN

Two things: I haven’t been writing and it has been raining almost non-stop for more weeks than I care to count. Yes, we get a sunny day in-between weeks of rain and everyone rushes out and basks in the sunshine with faces of just having won the grand prize. We all walk through town smiling at each other as we pass and I find myself saying to everyone “What a beautiful day!” (in French, of course). To which most people feel obliged to respond: “Yes, but it is going to rain tomorrow again.” I wonder why… it’s like raining on your own parade.

As I said: I haven’t been writing, and I have been reading. At least that is a good thing. Strangely enough, I ended up reading two books about radical Islam back to back: The Looming Tower (by Lawrence Wright) and The Girl Who Beat ISIS (by Farida Khalaf co-authored by Andrea C. Hoffman). It was an interesting encounter because the demise of Al-Qaeda foreseen at the end of the first book (which is about the 50 years of radical Islam leading up to 9/11) seems to have led to the rise of ISIS viewed in the second book. Looming has been made into a television series and I can see why it would make a magnificent one; the book was fascinating and –in spite of all the unpronounceable names, foreign places and shifting loyalties- made for spellbound reading from start to finish. I had often asked –both myself and the people who attended my workshops- what the pilots of the planes that hit the towers must have had to believe in order to commit that act: the book made that very clear. It was a most interesting fact to see how these mostly young men not only believed that everyone who does not adhere to radical Islam as they see it is an infidel (and often that included their own family members), but also that to die while killing said infidels assured one martyrdom. What Wright found and made clear through his book is that these young terrorists go out to kill –yes- but much more than that to be killed. Martyrdom is their ultimate goal for it brings uncountable benefits to the martyr and to over 70 members of his family. Several times in the book, the author reflects the frustration of leaders of diverse groups who have not been allowed (by Allah) to obtain martyrdom. I finally understood the motivation of the pilots and could see that –in the end- it was as selfish and ego-bound as most human motivations. After all, it is Ithe martyr who will live forever in Paradise with all those virgins and be worshipped unconditionally by my family for the spiritual benefits that I have provided.

(The day has gotten so dark that even though it is noon I have the lights on.) In his book, Wright skirts judgment for the most part and just presents the facts as he has researched them. This means that we get to view these young men living out their beliefs without the label of ‘terrorists’, just as we get to see the members of the CIA or the FBI without the label of ‘heroes’: just people, believing what they believe.

Of course, one believes what one believes and this is neither good nor bad. Have you ever tried not believing what you believe? As long as I believe that I want it to stop raining when it doesn’t, I’ll feel frustration every time I look out the window. If I don’t believe that thought or its opposite… if I don’t believe any thought, I will just gaze out the window and notice that it is either raining or not. But the whole matter is very difficult because I believe that what I believe is good, and that what the terrorists believe is bad and that gets a whole set of emotions going. Wright’s book is outstanding in that he allows you to see what every character is believing (and that includes not only the terrorists, but also all the players on the American side who fumbled the ball, so to say, between the different government agencies and thus made 9/11 possible) as they all move inexorably towards the tragic end. This is deep Greek drama: we get to see fate at play through the beliefs held by the different parts. I’ll say no more, but highly suggest reading the book rather than, or at least before, seeing the series.

The second book is the complete opposite: it is the personal tale of a 19-year-old Yazidi girl, Farida (not her real name), taken prisoner along with others by ISIS. The story is told in first person by the young woman who –along with several others- is imprisoned, routinely raped, brutally beaten and sold off several times to different ‘owners’ until she and a few others manage to escape. Here the good beliefs of the Yazidi girls are contrasted with the bad beliefs of the members of ISIS and several times in the course of narration, Farida asks how it is possible that the men who own, rape and beat her can believe that their God condones this. And yet, Farida herself also believes blindly in the dictates of her religion which says that God, after creating the world, placed it under the guardianship of 7 angels, whose chief is known as Melek Taus, the Peacock Angel. Interestingly enough, Melek Taus –who as world ruler causes both good and bad to befall individuals- has once fallen temporarily from God’s favor before his remorse reconciled him with the Deity. In other words, Melek Taus is ‘a fallen angel’ or Satan for the fervent Muslims who follow ISIS and consider the Yazidis ‘Devil worshippers’; they also surely must ask themselves how the Yazidis can believe such things.

Byron Katie calls this believing ‘the I-Know mind’, and invites us to question it and set ourselves free. The ‘I-Know mind’ does not apply only to formal religion, however, but to every thought which we believe. If I believe my daughter should phone me and she doesn’t, I might feel frustration or disappointment. Then, if I call her instead, my emotions will go into ‘attack mode’ and I will accuse her of ‘never calling me’. If she feels attacked, she’ll defend herself by attacking me back (‘you refuse to understand how busy I am’), and we have a war. If I find out that my best friend voted for Trump and I believe that Trump voters are all idiots, I just lost a best friend even if I don’t say anything. What I believe becomes ‘my religion’ in the moment I believe it and –unless I question it- it rules my life as surely as radical Islam rules the lives of the young men who die for it. Both books make this very clear.

The ‘I-Know mind’ is an absolute dictator: nothing can penetrate it; to go against it is like beating your head on a concrete wall and expecting the wall to give way. Believe me: I know! I have one, it decides ‘this is good, this is bad’, ‘this is beautiful, this is ugly’, this should not be, this should be’, ‘he must, she mustn’t’. It never stops, judging, deciding, choosing; making war against, allying with. My ‘I-Know mind’ does this all day long; it’s its job.

Fortunately, in 2003, I learned 4 questions that set me free when I use them to question my beliefs (see: www.thework.com), the first of which I now call my ‘Heart-question’. It has taken many years for the ‘I-Know mind’ to, little by little, fall in love with the ‘Heart-question’ Is that true? Now they live together hand in hand. When the I-Know mind states absolutely ‘She shouldn’t do that!’, the body stiffens; then its loving Heart whispers: “Is that true” and the body softens, looks again and smiles.

So my recent literary journey into the extremes of the I-Know mind has made me appreciate even more than before the power of these four simple questions. And if it is to books we must turn, rather than continuing along with the ego-centered Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” which has placed our frail human reason on a dangerous throne, we might choose to go back to Socrates’ simple “I only know that I know nothing”… except perhaps that the rain continues.

 

 

 

NOTHING / NO ONE

cof

 “The original stressful thought is the thought of an I. Before that thought, there was peace. A thought is born out of nothing and instantly goes back to where it came from. If you look before, between, and after your thoughts, you’ll see that there is only a vast openness. That’s the space of don’t-know. It’s who we really are. It’s the source of everything, it contains everything: life and death, beginning, middle and end.” – Katie

 

There, I said it: “I”. This morning I found myself singing “Thank you, thank you; I’m so grateful” as I walked down the street in the sunshine. I have not been able to write, I have actually not been able to do much of anything. Not sure if it has been because of the miserable weather we seem to be having day after day, or some internal weather clouding over with unquestioned thoughts. Stomach has been off, body tired…

But it is true: before the thought of an “I” there is peace; there is no one and there is nothing: only an infinite space filled with love and that which –in our lack of a better word- we call darkness.oznor

I would want to say “Life is not easy” but then the question Is that true? arises. I would like to say, “Stress has entered my life” and I would be forced to answer the question Can I absolutely know that is true? And I find the “no” surfacing each time. Noticing, noticing…. the emotions, the stories, the fear, the frustration… I question… I… Who would I be without the “I”? The body relaxes, the mind quiets. Often I ask: “who or what is looking through these eyes?” And I wait. There is no answer. Or I go looking for the observer and upon finding it, then ask: Who has found the observer; who observes the observer? And it all goes back and back until once more there is … darkness (for lack of a better word), the inexpressible… that which is not I. oznor

So I walk down the street saying “Thank you, thank you; I’m so grateful,” and instead of writing, I take pictures; I capture the beauty of the world around me (the world is around me… Is that true?). I hang the pictures on my Facebook page because the “I” must keep proving it exists by collecting “likes” and comments. The I that no one has been able to find, not in the body, not in the mind… The I that believes it is grateful… Is it true?

“Thank you, thank you; I’m so grateful”… Even for rain and stress and upset stomachs and emptiness… All that, “Thank you, thank you; I’m so grateful…”

sdr

 

KUFUNGISISA

I have always loved words. When I was little, about eleven or twelve, my grandmother asked me what I wanted for Christmas and I told her that I wanted a dictionary. I received my first Webster’s. It was a school edition, but I loved it. Sometimes I would sit with the dictionary open to a page and read all the words on that page with their definitions.

My grandmother knew I loved words, so she also gave me her very own Roget’s International Thesaurus – the 1941 edition (which makes it a year older than I am). My first dictionary went the way of all good books (which means I have no idea where it is after having given it to my son when he went away to school in the States) but I still have the Thesaurus and use it frequently, although I have acquired a new edition dated 1978 and today I generally prefer to google the word because internet offers all kinds of fascinating connections.

Yesterday, somewhere on Facebook -or maybe it was a TED talk- I heard and saw the word that forms the title of this page; kufungisisa. It is Zimbabwe for ‘depression’ and literally it means ‘thinking too much’ which –of course- hits the nail on the head. If I am constantly thinking gloomy thoughts (nobody loves me, the world is in a terrible state, everything is wrong, I’m all alone, I’ll never have enough money) and believing these thoughts, I create a state of kufungisisa, I get the ‘thinking disease’ which in the west we call ‘depression’.

To depress means to deject, to make despondent, to exhaust, afflict, beat down, bother, dampen, daunt, discourage, dishearten, dismay, dispirit, disturb, dull, lower, reduce, sadden, sap, trouble, upset, weaken, weigh down. Or, in a sense, to abase, cow, darken, debase, debilitate, degrade, desolate, devitalize, distress, drain, enervate, faze, mock, mortify, oppress, perturb, scorn, torment, try, weary, to reduce to tears… which is exactly what depression or kufungisisa does.

Well, today –despite the fact that the lights have gone off and on four times and made me rewrite entire paragraphs of this post- I am not in a state of kufungisisa, although I very well could be if I did not regularly question my thoughts.

For instance: the other day someone said to my face that they considered me despicable. Now that is a word I don’t remember ever using either in my conversation or my writing. Despicable is a word that apparently can and did make me rankle for a moment as I withdrew from the speaker and sat with. For a while, I was definitely nettled, peeved, piqued, ruffled and put out, but as soon as I was able to find how that person might have seen me as despicable, and realize that what I had done to provoke her wrath might have been done in a kinder way, I was free to apologize for my part and move on to simply finding exactly what the adjective meant and how it did for synonyms. It was a rich field of investigation and one that had a personal motive: I wanted to see if I really had been despicable, as the other person had suggested.

Despicable is an adjective meaning very unpleasant or bad, causing strong feelings of dislike. It is said of someone deserving to be despised or regarded with distaste, disgust or disdain; contemptible. This person might be so worthless or obnoxious as to rouse moral indignation (oh dear me, what I had done wasn’t really that bad!!!); a wretched or wicked person (not me at all, no, at least not in this case).

According to internet, if you say a person is despicable, you are emphasizing that they are extremely nasty, cruel or evil. I looked closely at myself and certainly did not find that I had acted in any way that made me abominable, abysmal, apocalyptic, appalling, awful, corrosive, grisly, grotesque, gruesome, maybe just a little bit hateful, but certainly not rotten, shitty, shockingly stinking, wretched, vile, perhaps a bit mean, but in no way detestable nor contemptible, low, base, cheap, worthless, disgraceful, shameful or abject, perhaps just a mite reprehensible, but in no way ignominious, disreputable, beyond contempt and deserving of hatred and contempt. To say the least, I found that the person who called me despicable had exaggerated (as in amplified, distorted, falsified, inflated, misrepresented and overdone it just a wee bit, and with this the rankling, bother, hurt, vexness desisted.

So, seeing that the sun has finally come out and the despicable weather (as in appalling) has passed, I think I will take this just slightly abominable self out for a walk with my lovable (as in adorable, captivating, cute, delightful, darling) dog, Salomé.

NOT MORE GUNS, NOT LESS GUNS… NO GUNS!

Coincidentally I was reading We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver when the Florida school shooting took place killing 17. It was a riveting read about a 17 year old boy who kills 9 people in his school and more so as I longed to understand what goes on in the mind of any young person capable of committing these atrocious acts. In the book, Kevin’s mother (the narrator) also struggles to understand why her son meticulously planned and carried out the murder of 8 school companions and one teacher. I will not spoil the book for anyone who wishes to read it and, in spite of what I considered an unnecessarily gruesome end, it was well worth the read.

As with everyone I know, I was horrified not only by the Florida killings, but with the printed fact that by the 15th of February there had been 18 school shootings in the United States[1]. That’s one shooting every two and a half days, every 36 hours. No, mistake: there are 13 days (weekends and the 1st of January) where there was no school, so it was 18 shootings in 34 days, or a shooting every 1.8 days. As The Guardian states in the note below, there were a couple of accidents, some incidents with no deaths, and two suicides but none the less, there were 18 gun related incidents in schools in the first 34 working days of 2018.

As if this were not bad enough, I then heard President Trump (or The Donald as Obama called him) say that the problem was that schools were gun-free zones (not that kids could buy or get a hold of automatic and semi-automatic weapons) and that the solution was to arm the teachers[2], a proposal that shouldn’t even merit comment, much less consideration, an opinion I voiced to a group of friends during market day in Salies. I was surprised to find that one of the ladies, though claiming that semi and automatic weapons should be banned, considered that having a gun was a necessary defense. This made me think of my father and remember an incident that taught me a lot about guns when I was young.

1920 Sep 25, Laguna de Medina 2First some background. My father was a hunter (the picture on the left depicts him at 18, in Spain, 1920) and, as such, owned a good amount of shotguns which he kept under lock and key in a gun cabinet. Everything I know about guns I learned from him. Even as a child I was taught that you never, EVER, point a gun –even a toy gun, even a water pistol- directly at another person. When I asked my father why he didn’t buy himself a pistol, he said that he had shotguns because they were for hunting; pistols, and most other weapons were for shooting people and he had long ago decided that he never wanted to kill any other human being (he had done his military service during the Rif war in Africa and, from what I have read about it, there were atrocities committed on both sides); that –according to him- was the reason he had not gone back to Spain when the Civil War broke out for he would have been expected –as a member of the Spanish nobility- to lead troops into battle.

When I was around the age of 13, my father began to show me how and how not to handle a shotgun. I was taught that the moment the gun was handed to you, you break it open and check the barrels to see if it is loaded; that you never walk with a loaded gun even if you have it open (his best friend had lost an arm by tripping while walking with an open, loaded gun); that the safety should be on at all times until the moment you plan to shoot your prey. He showed me how to clean a gun after using it, how to aim ahead of a flying prey so that the shot and the bird would cross paths. He took me to shoot skeet at the gun club and let me practice until I was pretty good at it. Then he took me duck 1922 1 (2)hunting, in Acapulco, out at the Lagoon of ‘Tres Palos’ (Three Sticks) where we stood, at the break of dawn, up to the knees in swamp water, hidden by the marsh grasses, waiting for the ducks to fly over. I remember feeling very important to have been included in the hunting expedition (my mother had preferred to stay home in bed and was happy to have me as a stand-in) although I don’t know if I shot any duck on that first time. Neither do I remember how often I went with my father. Actually I only have two clear memories of these experiences: the first, feeling things crawling up my legs from the swampy water (and discovering later that it was nothing more than the air bubbles from my sneakers) and the time I shot and wounded a duck. The poor animal dropped to the water well within my reach and I could see it fluttering helplessly. From watching my father, I knew that it was my obligation to wring the creature’s neck in order to end the suffering I myself had caused it. So I waded out to where the bird lay and took it gently by the head with my right hand. Then, trying not to look into its eyes which were still open and alive and attempting to kill it without causing it harm, I gave it a couple of soft swirls. I can still feel today the warmth of its body, the life still present there. I was heartbroken, I hated myself and I just wanted the damn bird to die so I could stop suffering myself. It did not oblige under the gentleness of my feeble attempts. So after three half-hearted swings and seeing that the duck was still flapping around suffering, I could stand it no longer. I plunged the feathery body into the water and put my heavy cartridge box on top of it so that it finally drowned to death. I realized in that moment that I was not capable of killing an animal and I have never been hunting since.

1951-3 Mexico (4)However, the incident that taught me the truth about guns took place a year of two later. Our house in Mexico City –as most of the houses there- had a flat roof where we hung the laundry and had a storeroom. Late one night, after we had all gone to bed, my father heard footsteps on the roof and realized that someone had managed to climb up there and was walking around. As my mother told the story later, my father grabbed a broomstick and went up to the roof to face the invader. She was laughing and my father was right there eating breakfast so it was obvious the story had a good ending, but I was shocked.

“Why didn’t you take one of your shotguns?” I queried, thinking how ridiculous and helpless a broomstick must have looked to the invader. “Supposing he had had a gun?”

“Well,” my father explained, “if he had had a gun, he obviously would have been more than prepared to use it, something that for me would have been difficult if not impossible; so if I had appeared with a gun he might have shot me right off while I considered the possibility of doing the same. A person who breaks into a house with a gun is prepared to use it; I was not. It was safer to go up without a gun if you know you are probably going to think twice before pulling the trigger.”

I understood perfectly: I couldn’t even wring the neck of a dying duck to stop its suffering! So, I ask myself or anyone else who will listen, how many teachers are prepared to pull out a gun and shoot a student before he sprays everyone in the classroom with automatic fire power? It’s ridiculous! Even if the teacher is trained and manages to extract his/her gun from its concealment, aim at the student and pull the trigger, the possibility of landing a deterring shot before the other responds in kind is minimal. And then we have to think how many teachers would be able to do this and how can we be sure that the classroom to be shot up is one with a gun-toting teacher? My history class was taught by a Miss Hunter who –if I remember correctly- was a small, aged lady with white hair and glasses. I just can’t imagine her pulling out a Smith and Wesson from her girdle and shooting our aspiring high school killer before saying calmly to the class: “Please open your History books to page 347 where we left off last Friday and commence reading, and, Ralph, would you mind removing that trash from the doorway and depositing it in the Principal’s office.”

The basic argument against gun control runs to some version of the following: “With gun control, the good people will be forced to give up their guns while the baddies will continue to have them; we will be defenseless”. Nothing is farther from the truth, as my father well understood and showed me with his brave example. If someone armed enters to rob my house, he/she probably does not mean to kill me, just to take what he/she wants and depart. He/she will only shoot me if I threaten to shoot him/her. If, on the other hand, someone wants to kill me, they will undoubtedly do it while I am walking down the street unarmed, or driving by in a car unarmed and not while I am in my own home where I might have a weapon. Therefore, gun control might actually save my life, not put it in danger.

The mostly ‘kids’ who shoot up schools are not hardened criminals; they are usually ordinary –sometimes mentally or emotionally disturbed (not ‘sicko’ as Trump said)- kids. Gun control would make it more difficult for these unfortunates (yes, they are as unfortunate or perhaps more so than the ones they kill) to obtain weapons, especially automatic weapons. It is much more difficult to kill 17 people shooting them one by one, than it is spraying them with a hail of bullets without even having to aim.

As I am not a hunter, personally I have no use for a gun in the house; I know I would be absolutely incapable of using it. I have proof, for when I was kidnapped, many years ago in Mexico City, I found myself trying to figure out a way to escape. One day, the kidnappers left an empty bottle of wine in my room and I thought to myself that I could use it to hit my guard over the head the next time he came in and make a break for it. Immediately I realized I would try to do it gently so as not to hurt him (just like the poor duck) and that would have me ending up as the object of his wrath. Fortunately, the police did the job for me and I was rescued.[3]

So if you ask me –and nobody has- I’d say “not more guns, not less guns, but NO GUNS is the only solution.”

[1] In all, guns have been fired on school property in the US at least 18 times so far this year, according to incidents tracked by Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control group. In eight of these cases, a gun was fired on school property, but no one was injured. Another two incidents were gun suicides, claiming the lives of one student and one adult on school property. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/feb/14/school-shootings-in-america-2018-how-many-so-far

[2] Some gun rights advocates have pushed to expand gun-carrying in schools further. Andrew McDaniel, a state legislator in Missouri who introduced legislation last year to make it easier to carry guns in schools, told the Guardian that, in rural schools where it might take 20 or 30 minutes for law enforcement to respond to a school shooting in progress, it made sense to have other armed citizens ready to step in. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/feb/14/school-shootings-in-america-2018-how-many-so-far

[3] The book I wrote about this incident is called Once días… y algo más and is available on Amazon; the translation into English, Eleven Days, is out of print and 2nd hand copies are quite expensive I believe.