Ballerinas / Soledad square

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Change’s Dark Truth

In March, I make a 6-month sojourn to my beloved Oaxaca. This poem reflects some complicated feelings about change and leaving. It is a pantoum, a 15th-century Malaysian poetic form with repeating lines in specific stanzas -- however formulaic, to me it works like magic. 

Change’s Dark Truth  

It’s strange, I haven’t left yet,
and the memories are already here,
shadowy and beautiful,
telling change’s dark truth.

The memories are already here --
the Magnolia, magenta petals blazing,
telling change’s dark truth,
and your soft gray muzzle nuzzling my chin.

The Magnolia, magenta petals blazing,
and the bullfrog wintering in December’s pond,
your soft gray muzzle nuzzling my chin,
and the women in the shower room.

And the bullfrog wintering in December’s pond,
moist scent of Sassafras in the childhood yard,
the women in the shower room ─
Will I know them forever?

Moist scent of Sassafras in the childhood yard,
shadowy and beautiful:
I will know it forever.
It’s strange, I haven’t left yet.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

In flux like a river

I confess.
Much as I try to make it so, Oaxaca is no longer the city of my memories or my dreams. I must admit: I’m not imagining the changes since 1994. They are real and reflective of the global economic crisis, changes within the whole of Mexico, and the United States.

I’ve hinted at this in previous posts: There are many more people in this city ─ come from surrounding villages to make a living. And precious little to be had for so many. More cars, trash, pollution; few regulations. Corrupt government ─ perhaps it was ever thus, but most people I talk with agree that in the last 15 years the Oaxaca state government has made a mess of things and the city is still experiencing aftershocks from the 2006 protests and crackdown. Today I see strain on many of the faces I pass. My friend Donna tells me less tourists are visiting the villages. Many pueblos are self sustaining, but it’s sad that there’s less sharing of their customs and crafts.

Those who came to Oaxaca with me in 2003 remember Gustavo Esteva, the consummate intellectual and activist. Gustavo has grave concerns about Oaxaca and continues to work for its good at his nonprofit, “Uniterra.” Drugs and violence exist in Oaxaca he says, but they’re not operating like the Cuidad Juarez cartels. Reports of violence in Mexico need to be put in context.

Alas, the only constant is change. Or in Heraclitus’ more poetic version: “Upon those who step into the same rivers flow other and yet other waters. All things . . . are in flux like a river.”

I’m definitely in the river. Todavia me encanta la luz en las montañas, los parajos, flores, mariposas, colores, la gente, los mercados, l’arte, la musica, la cultura, el espíritu. … I still love the light on the mountains, the birds, flowers, butterflies, colors, people, markets, art, music, culture, spirit. And Gustavo tells me he has hope! And that despite these trying times, Oaxaca is still one of the best places to live in the world. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Oaxaca Today

Noise: Cars, trucks, buses, motos, gas man (“Gas de Oaxaca!”), water man (“Agua!”), church bells signaling misas at all hours, firecrackers ─ for weddings, funerals, fiestas, kids’ pranks, anything; people talking loudly.

You can’t buy things online and have them delivered here. Amazon, for example. But there’s a great library started by expats and I’m now on my 3rd John Burdett mystery/thriller starring the Bangkok Buddhist cop, thanks to the Oaxaca Lending Library. You just can’t get lots of things here ─ like good beauty products and sheets.

On Saturdays the Lending Library has Intercambios which match you up with a native speaker who wants to learn English. For one hour we speak English and the next hour Spanish. My match was Gabriela, a charming 21-year-old from one of the pueblas, studying English, German, and Mandarin here. Her father and one of her brothers (there are 5 kids) ─ who were farmers and whom she hasn’t seen in 6 years ─ are working in Philadelphia as a chef and a waiter. Her first question to me in English was “What are your dreams?”

Do you mean what do I dream when I am sleeping, or what are my dreams for the future?” I asked.

“For the future,” she smiled broadly. This is one sweet and soulful young woman. When she grows up, she wants to live in Chiapas, travel, study languages, and be a translator.

Last Friday was Dia de Taxis ─ Taxi Day. The drivers decorated their taxis with flowers, ribbons, pinwheels. First they went to mass together to bless the taxis. Then breakfast, then they drove around all day in full regalia. Taxi Day is one of the things I love about Oaxaca.

Art, too. I’ve been coveting prints by Fernando Oliveira for years, and just bought a black and white lithograph ─ half price direct from the artist! What a thrill to see the maestro at work in his studio! This one is called “Dolor y Resistencia” ─ Pain and Resistance. It pictures the women of Juchitan, a region on the isthmus of Oaxaca, who are protesting that their men are desaparecidos (disappeared). The rooster, carried by one woman, is a symbol of new life.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


I’m ditching poetry today in favor of spilling my guts about challenging decisions, aging, and being alone. Apologies for not being uplifting, dear friends. I’m thinking of that adage, “Wherever you go, there you are” ─ I think Jon Kabat Zinn coined it. That is, you bring yourself, with all its beauty and blemishes, all its lifetimes and karmic debt ─ some paid off if you’ve worked for it ─ to Oaxaca or Tuscany or Berkeley or wherever you are. And so I found myself up at 3:30 a.m. drinking hot soy milk (leche sin lactosa) with honey and wondering how it would be to move, retire, age here ...

Walking ─ a favorite pastime ─ is an art here and not for sissies. Cobblestone streets ─ some old, some newer ─ are always uneven. And because there is no money to fix infrastructure or it’s directed elsewhere, most sidewalks have a hole you could step into, trees with roots that can trip you, or garage entryways slanted at 45-degree angles. Pedestrian right-of way is unheard of ─ a very occasional kind soul will let you walk. And by the time you figure out if a stoplight is red or yellow or green, it is red. I don’t feel invincible now that I’m past 60 …

With my job gone, I see now that I’m thinking not only of moving, but “retiring.” I thought not working would be a no-brainer, but ─ some of you know this ─ it’s not. So the prospect of creating a new kind of life is one challenge; doing it in Oaxaca is quite another. Surely there could be more to life than strolling around town and having late-afternoon comida with friends ...

Being alone ─ well … it gets lonely sometimes. When I’m not with friends, little Gardenia (right) and I walk these streets together, doing our best.

To be continued ... maybe poetry next time.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

¡Que Sorpresa! what a surprise

Yesterday a surprise -- not the usual Friday at Pochote, the organic market in Xochimilco, but a mini-Guelaguetza! ─ with dancers from the different regions in Oaxaca dressed in their regional best, showcasing la danza de la pluma, la danza de la piña, etc. What a treat while shopping for organic produce, drinking jamaica and eating tortillas from a hot grill with chicken, mole, and salsa. The streets are swept clean of the big Guelaguetza, which entertained thousands and ended Monday, the day before I arrived. The city is beautiful, sparkling in the mornings after evening thunderstorms. A quietness, a tranquility here, a sweetness I’ve never known elsewhere that always delights. And that truth that abides everywhere in the world, but that is merely, blatantly, and laughably obvious in Mexico  ─ that nothing is as it seems, nothing can be certain.

Por ejemplo, Donna, la dueña of my apartment, invited me to go to the opening in Colonia Reforma (a neighborhood northeast of the Centro), of a Mixup store (music/records) , where Lila Downs ─ world-renowned musician, daughter of Oaxaca ─ was singing. After all, it was publicized. What was there? An i-Shop (an Apple store!) with a small Mixup logo on the exterior, some Apple products, no records, and Lila Downs’ lilting voice piped into large speakers. Most interesting were the crowds of Oaxaqueños trying out the i-Pads, i-Pods, etc. with great gusto. Apple has won over Oaxaca.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Shape Shifter

Shape Shifter is an homage to my sweet boy, Dexter, who died on June 17. He was, in all regards, a miraculous and wonderful dog, the sweetest and most tender soul I have known, a constant companion through good times and stormy ones for 12 years. In his last year, he had the great good fortune to live with me in the sweet little house on Boyd Avenue, where he cavorted with the backyard bullfrog and pond turtles, and from where he took so many lovely walks, savoring the scents of our many neighborhood dogs. No doubt his scent, and definitely his spirit, still lingers on many a Rockridge bush and flower.

Shape Shifter

I rode the high waves of grief 
atop your sleek strong black back
in a dream, holding tight to your collar
of dancing bears
your heart-shaped tags
making jangly night music
in the high-altitude wind.
Your long velvety ears touched
my face as we flew past galaxies
exposing the alabaster tunnels
through which you heard me plead
I will love you forever
And onward your legs with fine gold-fringed feathers
paddled as they did in your sweet dog dreams,
and gently set me down in a land
where the light was clear as crystal.
I must go, your deep brown eyes explained
though my legs stood wobbly on this new ground
and my heart broke open spilling
its love on cactus flowers

Now when on occasion I slip,
heavy with sorrow, below the waves,
you come, shape shifter,
as the little white dog prancing lakeside,
the backyard bullfrog,
the grocery boy who ran to me with a flower bouquet
when he heard you’d gone,
the tree that will grow from your bones.

Saturday, April 16, 2011


Each April
as the sun warms and dries the damp
Easter taps my shoulder.
I am not ready
for the Alleluias

I know Good Friday well --
the black veil,
the cross,

April’s new light
and I am
which way to travel  

in the photo held with a magnet
to my refrigerator door
I’m smiling,
wearing the bonnet
with pink and lavender blossoms
above black netting

Each April it’s something
of a miracle --
somehow the eyes adjust,
the pulse quickens,
the feet step
first one, then the other, and,
when all is sung and done,
something primeval in me
says yes.

Sunday, March 20, 2011


I say I
absolutely will not hate myself
memories in muscles, tendons, ligaments
heart, belly
They cannot speak
in words
there is in every bloody cell tonight
the unfathomable
that nothing ─
warm milk, the bath, the late-night call to one who loves me ─
I want to be somewhere
not here ─
far from this day’s
co-worker’s harsh words
loneliness ─
to inhabit
some other body
that remembers
the cradle of capable arms,
the lullaby’s lilt.
Still I
sit with
and wait
for tomorrow.

Homage to Maverick

I only met him three or four times,
Plenty Abell Bright Star (Maverick)
when I heard the old setter died
my heart ached
for a being

so beautiful ─

in silken, long, curly, black coat
and gold fringed feathers

spitting image of my sweet boy ─

Maverick’s issue,
whose dark eyes can see your soul
and almost no one passes on the street
without a look

of amazement
and joy

Saturday, February 19, 2011


I’ve been thinking
how life is short and
how to live it well
I’m not thinking
of sins and virtues or
the seven deadly habits of
highly effective people
I mean happiness --

like seeing –
how big is the sky,
the bullfrog
come from the bottom
of the backyard pond
to feel
the soft spring rain
on her horny head,
the man who works so diligently – on what?
in the cubicle down the hall,
how my whole body softened
at that baby’s smile
beneath the framed glass
in my allergist’s office, and
my friend’s smile even after
the bike accident
broke bones in his face. 

Some days I see myself
wanting to stay in bed
coveting someone else’s life
full of me
with appetites too big to quench
and then

I remember

this one beautiful day