A red-letter kind of day

good news
Kris has completed the first (and most difficult) leg of his trip home. After 71 days at sea, he has crossed the Atlantic and is in Cabo Verde, Africa.

From here, it’s back across the Atlantic to South America, again, but angling down South, toward Cabedelo or lower. Tacking on a grand scale.

Just so relieved to finally hear from him and know that he is all right. The e-mail appeared two days after my birthday, and I couldn’t have asked for a better birthday present than that.

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A feeling of impending doom…

I’ve got a really bad feeling about the US Presidential elections. I’m convinced that Trump doesn’t want to win…everything he does seems calculated to ruin his chances of winning. That any serious presidential candidate would be so offensive is not so much infuriating as it is absurd. Trump’s faux pas are not elements of a presidential platform but a theatrical production that seem calculated to attract all the public attention to himself, so that nobody scrutinises The Other Candidate too much.

Frankly, I think everyone’s being tricked—all the while believing they’re being intelligent and principled voters by rejecting this exaggeratedly bad candidate—into giving their vote to “the Lesser Evil” that Hillary appears to be. I think both candidates (and the rest of the cast) are working together to lock in a desired result.

And that’s even more terrifying than the idea of an ignorant, unlikable man like Trump being president…because if this whole election campaign has been a performance to manipulate people’s feelings and ensure that Hillary wins, no matter what, there must be a very good reason why people should not want her for president.

It’s possible that while everyone’s eyes have been on a scary clown, a much more atrocious candidate has been sneaking toward the prize.

Like I said before, there’s a turd in the punch bowl and everyone’s still choosing cups. Selection in this election is a deception; the winner was picked ages ago, and folks are being diddled into thinking they’re making intelligent choices.

A backward glance

 At the last turn in the path
“goodbye—”
—bending, bowing,
(moss and a bit of
wild
bird-)
down.
Daitoku-ji Monastery
—Saying Farewell at the Monastery after Hearing the Old Master Lecture on “Return to the Source” by Gary Snyder

 

Forcing myself to shake off Cartagena’s hold on me, today. The spell this city cast was so strong that even though we have been in Guatemala for three weeks, I felt duty-bound to pound out a few more posts about Colombia before I could start on Rio Dulce.

When I try to write, though, I find that, loathe as I am to abandon the topic of Cartagena de Indias, the urgency rests mostly in vague things that are difficult to impart to readers on the internet: like a sense of homesickness for a city I only spent three months in. Nostalgia for a past that was never mine. And an intense feeling of love that I have nowhere to put. There is nothing concrete left to say.

I thought perhaps I could write a post dedicated to Garcia Marquéz and Love In The Time Of Cholera. About the park where poor Florentino Ariza used to sit, waiting for the wealthy young Fermina Daza to walk past. Or the bench opposite The Arcade of Scribes where Florentino put his love-letter-writing skills at the disposal of strangers, simply to unburden himself of all the love he wanted, but couldn’t, share with Fermina (and where I always sat to enjoy a café granizado.) But I’ve briefly mentioned these things in other posts, and today’s Arcade of Scribes is so dilapidated that a photo would only disenchant fans of the novel, anyway.

Sometimes the impulse to go on is nothing more than a desire to keep something precious from fading into a memory. A sincere love and friendship bloomed, for a time, and by casually moving on to write about the next country, I feel as though I were ruthlessly mining my life for mere blog content, and betraying the experience. Becoming unworthy of it.

Not everything can, nor has to, be shared. Some things exist only in their moment, for those who were present. But I will try to describe one afternoon that I hold close to my heart, because something in me wants closure, wants to write at least one purely personal blog post about Cartagena. MY Cartagena…the impossible-to-photograph moment that no other traveler to the city will have on his map, or among his “Things To Do in Cartagena” list.


Liz

On my last day in Cartagena de Indias I went to the house on Calle de Las Maravillas (The Street of Wonders) to say goodbye to Liz. I found her sitting in bed with her 16-year-old son, Nahuel. The power was down—an almost daily occurrence in Getsemaní—and neither fan nor lights were running. I took my shoes off and joined them among the pillows (the house is shared with Liz’s siblings and their children…the only place Liz has to call her own is her tiny bedroom, which is also her craft workshop, her storage room, her clothes closet, her office, and her reception room when friends drop in. Everyone gets into bed…well, there are no chairs. Pillow fights with Nahuel are a condition of entry.)

Liz was in the process of sorting her collection of tiny treasures—souvenirs gathered from travels around South America, jewellery inherited from her mother or purchased from antique shops, others that she had made—into two piles: objects she would keep, and the ones she would sell. Despite her day job at a tourist gift shop and the nights she spends selling her own work on the streets, she needs more money to singlehandedly support the growing needs of a teenaged son.

Hundreds of little things were spread in the centre of the bed. A solid silver rosary. A chunk of raw emeralds still clinging to their rock. Pre-Colombian buttons and a large bronze nose ring. Fabulous and incredibly valuable gold earrings, a thousand years old, from a Zenú burial site. Horn figurines small as coffee beans. Clay pendants shaped like ears of corn from Peru. Jade beads. Agate vials for cocaine. Liz’s own first pieces of jewellery, from when she first learned to work with silver and stones. A lady’s turtle shell comb inlaid with silver from the 1800s. A flat stone with seven fossilised fish the size of rice grains. There was an old iron house key that I ooh-ed and aah-ed over (I’d just had a dream that I’d bought such a key, from a palenquera with gold teeth, on the bridge into the medieval city, a weeks or two before) and she told me it had been unearthed, during renovation work, in the courtyard of the very house we were in.

Each time Nahuel or I picked something up, Liz would supply the story: who made it, how old it was, where she got it, and at which time of her life. As I became aware of the connection she had with each item, its value grew. It represented a lifetime of travelling and living. I lamented, more than once, that she could part with such special things.

A few times she chose something, held it in the space between us for me to see, and then gave it to me. “Para ti.” At first I protested, but Liz’s zodiac sign is the maternal Cancer, and she would not take no for an answer.

“I’m telling you to TAKE it, niña.”

And, very much like an eight-year-old niña, I dropped my head in apology, said thank you, and tucked the little treasure away.

There was a fish carved from bone, two frogs—one of horn, the other a Pre-Colombian replica in terracotta…
ranita
A chunk of raw amethyst (my birthstone) and another, polished and set into a pendant. A large ring of silver and amethyst, a braided leather bracelet and matching choker with a round bone bead, a hand-stitched leather coin purse, a bone hair pick, and a gourd dish decorated with pyrography and colored inks…all made by Liz. She also sent a piece of raw emerald, and two real Pre-Colombian buttons for Kris.
Totumo
The hours passed too quickly…the dying light from the window told me the sun was setting. Kris wanted to depart that very night, and the only thing that kept him from finally raising the dinghy onto the deck was Me. I had to get back.

Nahuel wandered off to kick a ball around with his cousins in the street. I put on my shoes and made sure I had everything packed away into my backpack. Finally, we stood facing each other in the shadowy room.

“Tu sabes que te quiero…” she said in a tight voice.

“Si, yo sé, mi amor. Y yo te quiero igualmente,” I choked back.

We hugged each other for what felt like an eternity. She put the iron key in the palm of my hand, and closed my fingers over it.

“Lleva la clave para la casa de las maravillas, con cariño.” (“Take the key to the house of wonders, with love.”) My eyes blurred with saltwater.

More hugging, more thankyous, and I don’t know what else…goodbyes are always so hard to deal with that my mind shuts down and I tend to rush through the final moments, in a hurry to get away from my own feelings. The cousins come noisily in from the street and Nahuel is browbeaten by his mother into saying goodbye. He gives me an awkward hug and a pretty boy’s smile, cluttered with braces. The mood changes. I am smiling, now, chattering last promises; Liz is smiling, nodding, waving…

And before I know it, I am on the street, charging past the new graffiti mural taking shape on Calle de Las Tortugas. Past the young whores getting ready for work on the corner of Calle Media Luna. Past the shell pink, sky blue, and orange houses of Getsemaní. I cross the bridge for the last time…and the sun setting is like a logo for telecommunications among the skyscrapers of Boca Grande.
sunset behind Bocagrande
I outpace the dogwalkers, the lovers, the strident palenqueras wailing the names of their fruit as though calling for long-lost children, the yuppies power-walking through the twilit park. I hurry home, to my one true love, to my own life—this strange thing, compact and contained within a boat—and this liquid, shifting existence.

Returning to the source.

a secret garden & a weedy patch

Mom's weeds

Something gets lost so well, no one can find it.
So it’s like a stone

Silence goes to sleep under every tree
I was your shadow
I burned your letters but I keep

the ash*

mom's weeds

I’ve had Margaret Atwood’s 1972 novel, Surfacing, in my mind all day. Amazingly, one of the things that I liked most about the book—last read over 8 years ago, so my memory is hazy—is never mentioned in any of the current online reviews of the work. After the protagonist has “gone mad”, and purges herself of humanity’s psychosis by reverting to an animal state, she searches her childhood home—a log cabin on a remote island in Quebec—for “clues” (really guidelines on how to live, how to return from a modern life that has gone awry, how to regain one’s self) that she believes her dead parents have left for her. Whether the clues she “finds” were actually left for her, or she is merely projecting the messages she needs to hear onto random objects in her parents’ home, is beside the point. The discovered oracles function in much the same way that tarot cards do: they are keys that provide her with a means of gaining access or understanding things about her past, her psychological wounds, and what she must do to heal herself. I concede that it really isn’t the focus of the story, though I found it the most wonderfully surreal part.

Mom's weeds

Today I went looking for my mother in this deteriorating house. Not because my own life has gone terribly wrong, but in the hopes of establishing a connection with the individual that she was (and maybe understanding why she had seemed so disappointed, toward the end, by her life?) She was a secretive and somewhat distant person. She spilled a little of herself, here and there, with different people, but no single child, friend, or relative really knew who she was, deep down, nor understood her completely. I remember her as someone who had locks installed on her desk drawers and never let the keys out of her sight; sometimes she used cryptograms to write in her diaries, and locked herself, for hours on end, inside a little room (formerly the housemaid’s) that had been converted into a library and study. I still remember the advice she gave me on relationships when I started living with Kris: She was adamant that “a woman should not tell her husband everything”, that it was “not good for him to know too much”, that “there are some things you should keep just for yourself”, and that it was good to “maintain the ‘feminine mystique’,” —a statement that had me sputtering in disbelief, given that Friedan’s 1963 book of the same name described the feminine mystique as “the widespread unhappiness of women…despite living in material comfort and being married with children.”

Mom's weeds

These days my mother’s drawers are unlocked, her private room lies open, and her many notebooks and journals (mostly made by me) line two shelves in my father’s room. But I wasn’t looking for anything so blatant as her diary entries…I do not trust the written word. I know only too well how journal entries can be inaccurate, fanciful, censored, or composed for an audience (and therefore a performance). The author/narrator/protagonist is far too unreliable. It would be just like my mom to write things with a posthumous readership in mind.

Mom's weeds

Instead, I looked for her actions among the debris of her little room, and found her in 7 or 8 rectangular biscuit tins, each one packed with pressed leaves, flowers, and common weeds, organised by kind, each layer carefully spread upon card and wrapped in a plastic sleeve, or interleaved with sheets of parchment. I recognise my own love of humble weeds in  her patient gathering, pressing and sorting. I remember how she would stop the car along a busy expressway to harvest the weeds growing on the verge, and explore a hill or empty lot in the hopes of finding something different.

On her bookshelf, the pressed weeds were echoed by the silhouette of a fern on the cover of a leather journal. I made this book for her, maybe 10 years ago.

weeds on a journal cover

On the title page she had written: “Things my family should know. January 2012” I turned the page with some trepidation…what sort of secrets did she have, that she felt the need, two years before her death, to set it down in a journal like this?

The next page was blank. And so were all the other pages in the journal. Even at the end, she could not unclench that secret fist. Mysterious till the last. And that is just so typical of her. I laugh. That old devil, the Feminine Mystique.

And so I have found her, in her unwillingness to be found.

It will have to do…it doesn’t actually bother me all that much. She was an individual, I am an individual; blood is the common thing we shared, there is no need to load that simple connection—a fluke product of two humans meeting, mating—with melodramatic emotional baggage. I do not feel the need to know more than this: that her family was not meant to know more.

I tore the page out of what is now a perfectly good, unused journal. To quote Eckhart Tolle: “I do not have much use for the past.”

My family should know

I, on the other hand, have always been a gabby talker, a blurter of intimate things, a spiller of beans, a revealer of my innermost secrets. I found a box in mom’s drawer, filled to the brim with letters and postcards that I wrote to her, from the different places I’ve visited or lived. I’ve always told her about everything…from dope and crystal meth experiments, to who I was going out with that evening and whether I intended to sleep with him or not. Sometimes she would respond with outrage, but would simmer down again when I asked her whether she’d rather I concealed things from her. Poor mom, what a daughter!

I like the sunny spot in which my rampant, weedy life grows—open to wind and rain, knowing nothing of closets,  skeletons, nor locks on doors (within or without). Anyway, I hate the deadweight of a bunch of keys.

letters to my mother


*excerpted from the very long poem Intimate Letters, by Rosanna Warren

Blumen im Winter…

UntitledEin alter Mann, der lächelt, ist wie Blumen im Winter

(An old man who smiles is like flowers in the winter. -German proverb)

The Charleston Shuffle

Tried to catch dad doing the Charleston Shuffle, but his arms were too fast for my exposure, and vanished!

breakfast mit meinem alten Mann

A display of energy like this is rare from him, these days, but he had perked up considerably after a big breakfast together on the verandah.

breakfast mit meinem alten Mann

Also done by this father-daughter pair on Saturday: swapped files, showed each other our Flickr photos (with background story narration), watched one of the BBC’s Planet Earth DVDs., shared a visit from friend and artist Ace Polintan, had halo-halo ice cream with leche flan on top (decadence), took selfies with the camera’s remote control, and watched the sky for rain.
Frühstück mit meinem alten Mann

Of course, after all this (plus his stunt on the dance floor) he had to take a nana nap. 🙂

Frühstück mit meinem alten Mann

The Sierra Madre with dad

windswept
My dad, our family friend Mae, and I went driving for the day to the Tanay foothills of the Sierra Madre—the longest mountain range in the Philippines. I tried shooting from the moving car, so as not to disrupt the trip or annoy my father’s driver too much, but didn’t meet with very much success. The shot of these windswept, grass-covered hills was the only one worth keeping. The bare hills are a testament to the locals’ charcoal-making activities for many decades, and the painter John Altomonte responded to my photograph with some lines of poetry, which I will include here because they help make the photograph seem better than it actually is…

Weeping winds, a broken hearted land…
gone the children- the trees, her winged troubadours?