Is there anything more delightful than first snow?
Ours arrived, an unassigned holiday inserted into the calendar, in the early morning of Friday January 7. I slept late and woke to a pixelated sky descending over the earth with lazy ease. No traffic noise. No children shuffling to school. My muscles loosened at the generous gift that little—actually nothing—would be expected of anyone today.
I watched accumulation on the deck railing: six inches; eight; as I devoured a pot of steel oats gussied up with leftover holiday cream plus cranberries, walnuts, cinnamon, and brown sugar. Basically: liquid cookies. The hearty oats stuck to my ribs all day.
By noon the snow had dwindled to flurries, so I tugged on my LL Bean boots and took to the shovel. I like to shovel, especially snow fluffy as this. The rhythm of scrape, hoist, and toss. The quietude of the city draped in a shroud.
City dwellers are disinclined to visit in each other’s homes. The measured distance between our interiors and whatever’s passing by is too small to afford causal drop-ins. In my thirty years here I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been inside any of my neighbor’s houses. But we often encounter one another after a snow. We all have reason to be out. We are all working hard. Though we are not in a rush, so chat breaks are welcome.
I like to make it easy for pedestrians to traverse my domain, so I take care to shovel the full width of my sidewalk and clear away hard clods the street plows deposit on my busy corner. With responsible citizen duty done, I head out for a walk myself.
I relish meandering the city after a snowstorm. Property owners have a dozen hours to clear their walks; during the period of patchy clearing pedestrians claim side streets right down the middle. Though cars are surprisingly few; we are surprisingly many. Couples stroller their babies. Parents with school-age children tote discs to the hill at Fresh Pond. (Flexible Flyers seem to be curiosities of history.) Car owners brush off their hoods and fenders, and then dig under their wheels. “That looks like fun,” I observe as a woman with a long broom sweeps the top of her Subaru with balletic grace. “The first snow is always fun!” She smiles.
Her words are so true. The first snow is always the most fun, especially when it arrives with the morning, bestows a free day upon us all, and dissipates in time for a veil of sun to kick off the melt.
Each successive snow will be a bit less fun; a lot more hassle. Winter grinds long and cold. Which is why it’s so important to savor first snow and hold it dear in memory.
We have no definitive proof that the opening line of Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, “The American Crisis,” published in the deepest dark of the American Revolution, directly inspired George Washington and his troops to cross the Delaware, surprise the British at Trenton, and change the momentum of the war.
“The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country…”
As a man who has always viewed citizenship as a responsibility of heart and hand and mind, rather than of arms, I like to think that Thomas Paine’s words made as much difference as any musket.
“…but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”
This week marks the one-year anniversary of the most serious threat our democracy has ever faced. I do not pen those words lightly. We have endured a Civil War when states seceded from our Union; a Gilded Age of backroom political bosses; a Jim Crow era of vigilante action; and a purge on so-called Unamerican activities. I came of age during the era of Civil Rights, and can attest that the physical violence we laid upon each other during those years was far greater than that we witness now. So, why do I think the threat our or democracy on January 6 is so much worse?
During the 1960’s, citizens who had been left out of the promise of America clamored for the opportunity to fully participate—they wanted to get in. On January 6, 2020, already enfranchised citizens climbed the walls of our Capital to obstruct the democratic process—they wanted to keep others out.
“Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered…”
We live in a moment of unparalleled confusion; so much data, so much misinformation, so few shared truths. We have little faith in institutions, and less faith in each other.
“…yet we have this consolation…that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”
Let us rise in this anniversary moment of a treasonous event and take action to ensure equality and justice for all. Let us acknowledge that despite falling short of our aspirations for nearly 250 years, we will strive, peacefully, to realize our truly remarkable American vision: that each of us will have equal voice in governing our nation.
“What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value.”
“Life is short,” we mutter as the calendar flips through these dark December days heading to another year. We believe our time on earth is brief, but that assumption doesn’t correlate with twenty-first century reality. Aside from Old Testament characters, which reportedly lived for centuries, people have never lived longer than we do today.
One signature statistic describes how the twentieth century transformed human existence: our lifespans increased by more than 25 years. The average American born in 1901 could expect to live to age 47. That same person born in 2000 could expect to celebrate 73 New Year’s Eves. After eons of incremental advances, lifespans leapt at a rate of three months per year throughout the developed world.
The United States was not alone in this accomplishment. Though we enjoyed the longest lives on earth through the 1970’s, other countries have since eclipsed American’s longevity. In this century, the rate of longevity extension has slowed, in some places, for some demographics, life expectancy has slipped. Yet, around the globe, more people are living longer than ever before.
Some plants and a few animals live longer than us. The bowhead whale, the longest living mammal, can blow his snout through two hundred winters; a number of tortoises born in 1850 are still alive today. An American born in that year had less than half the life expectancy we now enjoy. Actuarily, if I’d been born in 1850, I’d already be twenty years dead. Fortunately, since I’m 66 in 2021, Social Security estimates I’ve seventeen more years to carry on. I’m angling for even a few more.
Maybe life seems short because everyone gripes we’re so busy. Again the facts defy our protestations. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the average person works a total of 3.54 hours a day, almost as much as the 2.83 hours we spend watching TV. We even manage to sleep more than eight hours a night, despite the bleary eyes around the office coffee pot on Monday mornings. Since our society focuses ‘work’ into an in intense period of active adulthood (when we’re also raising children and scrambling for economic security), averages don’t reflect the full spectrum of workaholics, or TV bingers. However, they do expose our human propensity to boast about busyness while downplaying our less productive pursuits.
The dual mantras of “busy” and “life is short,” offer psychological solace. Espousing busy, busy, busy, gives us purpose, while bemoaning that life is short excuses whatever we leave undone. Most of us alive today will thrive into our 70’s, many will pass 100, yet we still cling to the refrain that “life is short” because it’s a comforting soundtrack through our long journey.
If we think life is too short, then how long would we like to live? Science journalist David Ewing Duncan has asked more than 30,000 people to choose their optimal lifespan: 80 years, 120 years, 150 years, or forever. A solid 60% majority wished to live eighty years while less than one percent sought immortality. Despite what we say, we don’t really want to live much longer.
Most of the increase in our life expectancy is due to reductions in infant mortality. A person who survived to age 5 in 1901 had a good chance of reaching 60 or 70, as did folks in colonial America or Ancient Greece. Surviving those first five years was the tough part. These days, many more children survive infancy, but we’ve also increased every other phase of life. Childhood is longer, adolescence longer; extended middle age lasts into our sixties; triple digit elderly are becoming common.
Hippocrates started this myth in 400 B.C. when he wrote, “Life is short, the art long, opportunity fleeting, experiment treacherous, judgment difficult.” Apt words for a physician confronting an ill patient whose individual life may be soon over. But they are misconstrued when extrapolated to everyone. Imagine how different our outlook would be if we exclaimed, “Life is long, art eternal, opportunity abundant, experiment exciting, judgment clear.” What if, instead of fretting about life’s temporary nature, we acknowledge that we inhabit this earth for a long time; time that affords us leisure to explore, analyze, and evaluate before we act.
This New Year I’m abandoning the phrase, “Life is short.” Evidence demonstrates the contrary. Instead, I embrace our longevity as a gift as well as a challenge. I resolve to live with the long view in mind.
Its December 2021, an inauspicious year if ever there was, save one personal milestone. I have gotten further along in achieving last year’s new year’s resolution than ever before. What was my resolution? “I am not in charge.”’
At first glance I may not appear to be the kind of person who seeks to be in charge. In my professional life I eschewed most any title or formal role. I was never principal in a firm; hardly ever stamped a project as architect-of-record. Yet I carved out a mediating role that often made me center of attention.
“You are the best facilitator I ever met,” An administrator at Boston Medical Center told me when I announced my retirement, only a few months into a five-year major facility renewal. “But I can see why you’re moving on. That’s not the kind of thing one carves on a gravestone.” At age 58 I realized that I simply didn’t have the enthusiasm I needed—and Boston Medical Center deserved—to thread the nimble negotiations of who got fresh space and which services expanded. I’d steered clinicians, administrators, and patients toward consensus before on several large projects. I knew the success of any project hinges as much on perception as on construction, and I had a knack for making everyone feel heard; feel they came out ahead. The more I got folks vested in our design, the more they were more inclined to proclaim the result a success. Their success.
It was great fun, and I was good at it. Never titularly in charge. Always the go-to person to move forward. Having a general knowledge of all aspects of health care suited my curiosity, which is broad rather than deep, while juggling the politics, egos, and financial incentives of the American healthcare system catered to my puzzle-solving nature. I loved corralling all the players and horse trading them into agreement.
In the eight years since I retired, the satisfaction of being in charge, however conferred, is a difficult thing to yield. It comes naturally to me. No doubt, in part, a role that many educated white males simply assume.
Perhaps it was the 2020 pandemic, which shook everyone’s sense of control. Perhaps it was George Floyd’s murder, which stripped whatever sheen remained of American lip service to equality. Perhaps it was just the fatigue of our pointlessly divisive era. Whatever the reason, last December I decided to try and let go. Forfeit my kneejerk impulse to take charge.
It would be a lie to say that I succeeded every day in every way. But in total, I held my tongue more in 2021 than any other year of my life. I listened more, and I believe, listened better. I took more deep breaths as a matter of soothing. I apologized frequently, and meant it sincerely.
The world is not a better place for me stepping back, but it’s no worse either. Even my own little corner appears pretty unaffected by me acing a new year’s resolution. But the direction feels right to me. Retirement means stepping back rather than stepping in. Letting others seek you out rather than putting yourself out there. Exploring the broadest possible perspectives, and leaving the details to the next generation.
I’m pretty disappointed with the world that we, the Greatest Generation Once Removed, are bequeathing our children and grandchildren. Our hubris and greed have done to more to hasten the demise of humanity than any previous cohort. We salve our conscience by protesting that we did nothing more than build directly upon the foundations we inherited. Just like every generation before us. But such comfort is false. We knew the warnings: what we’re doing to our society; to our planet; and we scarcely changed course.
There is still a lot a person can do, when he’s no longer in charge. I can still learn and question and make connections. I can laugh and sing and cry, ride my bike and enjoy the train, eat healthy and exercise daily. Offer my voice, opinions, and knowledge to the next in line. Knowing full well they may be rejected: I am not in charge.
Notching down a few ladder rungs is not a reason to abandon or hide. Rather, it’s an opportunity to work differently, to live differently. To support what’s right moving forward without leading the charge.
_ _ _ _ _
Images from the cover of I AM NOT IN CHARGE by Ness Cannon
Spirits of anguish past and present are my companions as I tromp the carpet of dead leaves. At its peak, Metropolitan State Hospital, Massachusetts’ last and largest institution for mentally ill (built 1930), held 2,000 patients behind its Georgian Revival facades. Within: barred windows; hard tile; wards lined with metal frame beds. Easy to secure restraints.
The inhabitants of Metropolitan State Hospital, like its sister asylums, received inadequate care at best, cruel at worst. It closed in 1992, as the Commonwealth decentralized care of the mentally ill. It’s out of fashion to find any virtue in the way we locked up our crazies. Especially if you’re lucky enough to land in a cozy group home, where care is quite good. Less so, perhaps, if you’re among the throng of confused homeless loitering Mass and Cass, pressing against a cardboard lean-to to fend the winter wind.
Today, Metropolitan State’s extensive grounds are a nature preserve with meandering trails from Beaver Brook to the top of Mackerel Hill. The finest of the original structures have been transformed. A snazzy two-bedroom apartment, whose living/dining room used to house eight inpatient beds, rents for $2800 per month.
I wonder what ghosts inhabit those renovated wards; the spirits are keenly prescient along these open-air trails. In one ravine, the trail opens unto MetFern Cemetery, final resting places marked only by patient numbers plus a ‘C’ for Catholic or ‘P’ for Protestant. As the name implies, residents of both Metropolitan State and the neighboring Fernald School are buried here. Whatever improprieties were inflicted at Metropolitan were superseded at Fernald, a school for developmentally disabled boys used as a Eugenics testing ground. Conjure that gruesomeness.
Atop Mackerel Hill is an aging water tower. Dull grey and rust, except for the first six or eight feet from the base. Graffiti artists spray-paint angst on this psychotic ground. I ponder the images and words that can only be seen by those who trod the path; thick brush hides the color and doubt from cars passing by Trapelo Road. The sentiments might well reflect the mindset of previous residents; they don’t square with our mantras of healthy living. And yet each image draws a direct response from me. They resonate.
The gap between the formerly insane and the presently functioning may be small. Perhaps there is no gap at all.
As part of my remembrance of my friend, Phil Saviano, who died on November 28, I retrieved this stream of memory I wrote after our trip to Mexico in 2000. I decided not edit it; even as some of the language and observations are blunt in light of 2021. It reflects a vivid experience, recounted through the lens of that time.
I arrived in Mexico without a phrasebook. I had no potable water, no map, no pesos. My flight was three hours late; my bags were lost in Houston. It was 11:30 at night in the largest city in the world. I had no place to stay. I was so unprepared, I was ready for anything.
I had a few assets worth consideration. A virgin passport, a bundle of traveler’s checks, a carry-on bag with four novels, a toothbrush, a roll of toilet paper, and my travelling companion, Phil. Phil is an afficionado of Mexican handicrafts. Carved wooden figures, pressed tin, embroidered blouses. Two or three times a year he flies to Mexico City and buses south to Oaxaca to buy his treasures. He sells many of them, but lots collect in his Jamaica Plain flat; an interior awash in the shiny, brilliant colors of indigenous art. Phil is also a friend. We get together every couple of months to eat in an ethnic restaurant or squander an afternoon at the beach. We belong to that census bulge of people who live alone, yet we planned to spend nine days together. In the sallow fluorescents of Mexico City Airport, I was keenly aware how little I knew him.
Mexico is foreign from the moment you exit the airplane. Neither the Burger King straight ahead nor the luggage carousel spinning the same revolutions as in hundreds of airports mask the foreignness of the place. It’s in the air. The air has texture, it has mass. It tastes incredible, of bitter chocolate and charcoal. You breathe in your first gulp and its interesting, so you want more. A few hits and you’re intoxicated. You take it deep until you are full, and by then you have no choice but to keep breathing. Within minutes you’re sick of the taste. It collects on your tongue, grittier than the residue of your plane ride, more irritating than the headsetted teen who warbled off-key through the entire flight. But air is precious in high altitudes, even if it is laced with pollutants, so you suck the noxious molecules into your lungs and abandon yourself to this foreign place.
The arrivals area is a vast space with an interminable grid of lights, yet no fire sprinklers or diffusers to supply fresh air. I felt a headache emerge. A bead of sweat trickled down my neck as I weighed the likelihood of inhaling carbon dioxide or suffocating in an inferno. I held anxiety at bay by conjuring an alternative scenario. Perhaps a flower peddler might enter the arrival gate and fill the dense space with a fragrance so exotic as to intoxicate the crowd to bliss, as in some fantastic Latin fiction.
Phil was frantic about our situation. He dislikes Mexico City. He planned for us to take a bus straight to Puebla, bunk there overnight, then continue to Oaxaca. But it was fast approaching midnight and it seemed unwise to trust our lost bags to whatever faceless claims agent might stumble upon them. He decided we would stay the night and retrieve our luggage, in person, in the morning. I couldn’t complain. After all, I didn’t make any reservations. I didn’t purchase The Lonely Planet. I didn’t so much as look up Oaxaca on an atlas. A person with no plans is saved the aggravation of having them thwarted. We sailed through customs with only our carry-ons, exchanged a hundred dollars each for oodles of pesos, and bought a chit for an ‘authorized’ cab.
The night was dark and might have been black except for the particulate brown blanketing the sky. Mexico City possesses a sky gone amuck, the exhaust cloud from a pickup careening down a dirt road, expanded to infinity. I love to ride in cabs. To sit in the back and peer out the window, watching the world go by at a speed determined by another. The six-lane boulevard with the high-rise Marriott gave way to a four-lane street bordered by continuous walls of concrete, then to a maze of one-ways channeled between aging stucco. The cabby loved to turn. One street of men strutting in shiny black pants and nylon shirts open to display wisps of chest hair; the next silent as a bunker after a battle; another marked by pools of light where short women in shorter skirts unbuttoned their blouses even lower than the guys a few blocks back, in the hopes of slowing traffic. The cab stopped sooner than I expected. The Puritan in me might have wished more distance between the hookers and our hotel. Still, I was glad to have arrived.
We were left in front of a pair of great wooden doors, at least eight feet wide and ten feet high. Thick planks with hefty cross frames, bolted tight against the night. We pulled the iron bell and a smaller door, carved within the larger leaf, opened to let us in. Hotel Monte Carlo is a typical urban building of Mexico, though I had no way of knowing that at the time. I simply knew that I loved the place. The procession of arches before us, the courtyard open to the sky, the grand stair that split symmetrically and then reunited overhead, the turned ironwork, the lantern flickering in the distance, all pulling us inward. In the morning I would understand the double courtyard arrangement; a formal front court with potted plants, reception desk, and dazzling tile work; and a rear service court with an old well and two aging pick-ups that drive through the lobby to reach the street. It is a common arrangement in Mexico. But on this first night, with the brackish sky blurring what is indoors and what is out, the dimply lit spaces were not notable as architectural precedents. They were fascinating as mystery.
Our room ($17 for the night) was elegantly simple. A pair of French doors with frosted glass and an operable transom opened into a square of white space with tall ceilings and carved wooden beds. Nestled in the quiet depth of the building. I fell into a sleep so rich in dream there was scant difference between the imagined landscapes of my mind and the strange, soothing place where my body lay.
I was up at first light, hitting the pavement with a few pesos in my pocket. I instinctively turned left, away from the direction of the ladies we passed last night. In a few minutes I came upon the Zocalo, the central square that is a fixture of virtually every city in Mexico. The Zocalo in Mexico City is a large paved square, bordered by authoritarian buildings; an ideal setting for crowds clamoring for revolution. I walked past the National Palace, sinking under the weight of so much stone on so much mud, through a glazed arcade filled with elegantly coiffed women, and around street corners littered with uniformed men shouldering rifles. I absorbed these sidewalk scenes in lieu of a complete tourist itinerary.
Directly across from the Hotel Monte Carlo is the Ideal Pasteleria, a heavenly bakery. On one side is the cake room, tribute to the confectioner’s art. Full glass to the street and mirrors on the other walls reflecting a space brimming with frosting. Sheet cakes depicting legendary heroes, layer cakes four and five tiers high flowing with garlands. A fantasy land for brides and grooms, proud parents of babies to be christened, or simply people craving these marvelous concoctions. Phil and I were not looking for buttercream calla lilies to fortify us on our bus trip, so we turned to the adjacent room, piled with tables of pastries: dough balls filled with meat or cheese; sugar pastry pressed into shapes; and cream-filled cakes with fruit topping. The place was swarming with workers, Men molding pastry by hand, girls arranging the tables, women tabulating our purchases, others collecting our pesos. Though I tried to be prudent, temptation compelled me to select more than I could eat in a day. Still, when my total was tabulated I could not believe how much could be purchased for so little. It was my first experience with an economy quite different from our own. One rooted in abundance of labor and dearth of technology.
We walked along Isabel de Catholica to the subway. I had become so used to the air it tasted like a friend. The subway was efficient and clean, the trains arrived every four minutes, as if in Germany, and the cars were full of people who looked alike. Not identical, of course, but similar. I have occasionally been a singular white person on a train in Brooklyn or Roxbury, but subways in the US are typically a mix of black and white and tan, young and old, laborer and collegiate. In Mexico City everyone is brown, everyone is full faced, everyone has coarse dark hair, and everyone is shorter than me. I’m an ordinary looking guy, unaccustomed to being a curiosity. Yet enclosed in an underground box, stripped of the architecture and activity of the street, I was keenly aware how homogenous Mexicans appear, how much they can derive who they are as a nation by how they look. A definition that could never be ascribed to us from the United States.
We got to the airport, claimed our bags, hustled to the bus station. Phil was antsy to be somewhere else, but I found every encounter with the ways of Mexico equally interesting. We motored through the cluttered streets very much the tourists, looking down on the people from the air-conditioned splendor of our first-class bus.
There are two separate bus systems in Mexico. First class buses are superior to their American counterparts, with comfortable seats, an on-board hostess, and continuously playing straight-to-video American movies dubbed in Spanish. Second class buses are poor relations to our school buses. They depart from stations in squalid neighborhoods and are likely to carry as much produce and livestock as passengers. The first-class trip to Oaxaca takes six hours via the interstate-type toll road while the second-class bus runs on back roads without a schedule. Phil is a thrifty traveler, but he gladly pays the premium for first class.
Within minutes, we left the defined precinct of Mexico City; the city configured by the original Aztec settlement of Tenochtitlan over 600 years ago; the city of boulevards, stone buildings, and picture postcards. Then we drove for over an hour through contemporary Mexico City; the city of the last thirty years. The city straining without pattern in every direction; the city of two-story concrete pouring itself over the brow of every hill; the city of immigrants and squatters who leapfrog ahead of the infrastructure of sanitation and transit; the city of twenty million people staking their claim under the ambiguous sky. Many builds are occupied while still under construction. The steel reinforcing to support future floors projects from masonry, anticipating expansion, while men squat idly in the scraps of shade created by the walls. The further from the center of the city, the less complete the buildings become until in some places, there is so much reinforcing sprouting out from the ground it seems as if the land which once grew maize has yielded to a new crop of iron.
Mexico is a country bursting with intention. The landscape is littered with fields that have been turned over but not cultivated, crops overtaken by weeds, segments of foundation that resemble a sort of reverse ruin slowly being brought to function. The countryside is astonishingly incomplete. At first, all of these wallowing resources bothered me, but as I grew accustomed to the landscape, I understood how this country, this climate, and this people have very different motivators than those which drive us. A building left open through a New England winter is damaged beyond repair. A field delayed in planting by a month misses an entire season. Such natural deadlines fall away in a land of perpetually moderate temperatures and modest rainfall. There is no great danger in a roof that is not tight, no compelling need to plant crops on any particular day. I fancied each partially competed building and half-fallow field as a soap opera; the ongoing saga of a nagging wife harping on her spouse for improvements while the recalcitrant husband shrugs his shoulders, dodging her pleas for one more day. Some days she prevails and he pours a bit of concrete or plants a row of corn. Other days she yields her pressure and sits in her own shade with a cool drink. The result of this tension is less a geography accented by discrete human interventions than one of ongoing negotiation.
There are people everywhere. I expected people in Mexico City, where over a quarter of the population lives, but they’re all over the countryside too. People walking along the roads, lounging under trees, whacking at crops, perching on the piers of future houses. Houses that offer little in the way of shelter and even less privacy. The activities of daily life are performed without concern for our usual division of public façade and private space. From the height of my first-class seat, I watched people air their laundry, trade banters, steal kisses. I marveled at the fluidity of their existence.
We changed buses in Puebla. Continuing south, the fields give way to rocky slopes. The volcano Popocatepetl rises abruptly, smoking in the distance. The road takes on curves and altitude, into beautiful barren mountains. Miles passed without sight of another human being, then suddenly we came upon a toll booth in the middle of nowhere. A toll booth with a group of rifle-toting soldiers sitting around a picnic table and a line of hawkers thrusting cigarettes and candy bars at the windows of the bus. The driver boarded one peddler, a man who delivered his pitch for skin oil with equal enthusiasm to each passenger, row after row. He didn’t sell any, but when the driver deposited him ten miles down the road, Phil and I figured he’d enjoyed his few minutes of air-conditioning, and we found him more diverting than the movie.
It was after six when we climbed the hill to the first-class station in Oaxaca City. Oaxaca City is quaint compared to Mexico City or Puebla. There’s little active construction; the partially completed buildings appear to have been that way for years. High above the city stands the statue of Benito Juarez, the Oaxacan Indian who led the 1861 resistance against Maximilian. Below rests the colonial center, punctuated by the towers of the three main cathedrals. Along the river flats is the second-class bus station and the Central Market. Barrios claw up the crevices of the mountains beyond. In the distance, Monte Alban, the Zapotec ruin, rests on a plateau. More than two thousand years of human history have settled upon this gentle valley, a place of order and chaos, rising empire and cultural decline, great wealth and extreme poverty.
Hotel Principal is a smaller, more genteel version of our hotel in Mexico City. Ochre and airy, with a deep balcony along three sides of the courtyard and a leisurely stair leading to a cool room blessed with perpetual shade. It is filled with repeat visitors who prefer a hotel removed from the bustle of the Zocalo. We deposited our bags and went out to stretch our bus weary legs.
Oaxaca City is simple to understand. The Cathedral and the Zocalo claim the center, surrounded by a grid of square blocks lined with sixteenth to eighteenth century buildings tight to the street. It takes an hour or so to walk the width of the central city, but it’s more enticing to meander through blocks for hours on end. The air is better here than in Mexico City, yet still dense enough to taste. One quickly learns to avoid strolling streets where the buses run. A ring boulevard, perhaps a mile out from the center of town, separates the older city from more recent, less ordered development. The large-scale features of a contemporary city—the huge amphitheater on the hill to the northwest, the cemetery to the east, the Central Market and the second-class bus station to the southwest—all lie beyond the ring road.
We walked in the direction of food and drink and people. Alameda de Leon and the Zocalo form a pair of open spaces that flank the front and side of the Cathedral. The church itself is a massive affair with squat towers, which dates from 1702; replacing the cathedral of 1535 that was destroyed by an earthquake. The catty-corner plazas, the shady tress, and the filigreed gazebo make the center of Oaxaca more conducive to festivals than revolutions. On our first night, like any other night, the Zocalo was full of artisans selling their wares, trumpeters performing in the bandstand, and Anglos drinking coffee in the cafes.
Phil was not inclined to sit among the tourists, so we continued to the old market, a brick building barely visible for all the street vendors clinging to the bead of sidewalk along its edge. We wound through aisle upon aisle of small stands selling fruits, vegetables, drinks and trinkets. A few stands afford stools where a customer can sit and enjoy an ice cream or grilled taco, but most are no more than a grouping of baskets piled high with peppers or cheese, surrounding women trapped to the foot of the floor space behind their wares. They clamor for attention, chattering in Spanish, smiling, gesturing with flourish, anything to make their pitch. Some women do not even have a stall. They perch at intersections with a basket in their lap, pushing tortillas or chapulenes. I’d never heard of chapulenes, little brown crunchies, thousands to a basket. A woman stuck out a few in her hand. They smelled of charcoal. I asked Phil what they were. Roasted grasshoppers. A Oaxacan specialty, though not one he had ever tried. I know Phil to be cautious about food, and I decided not to be. I accepted the grasshoppers and popped them in my mouth. They tasted of smoky pepper. There was no meat to speak of, but plenty of crunch. I liked the texture in my mouth, though not so much to buy a whole bag. I smiled in refusing to make a purchase; the vendor was not upset. She thought me gutsy for a tourist.
It was too early for dinner—restaurants don’t open until nine—so we bought a guava shake. Walked back through the Zocalo and up Macedonio Alcala, a street of elegant stone buildings that has been turned into a pedestrian way leading to the church and convent of Santo Domingo. Santo Domingo is a complex of massive stone walls, intricately carved entrances, and domed bell towers built over the period of 1551 to 1666. It is more impressive than the Cathedral, especially in the evening dusk as the lights set into the stone plaza throw luminescent shafts one the sheet towers. They literally disappear into the heavens. A marimba band, decked in red and gold, hammered out jazzy tunes that reverberated off the hard surfaces.
As we listened I felt an itch on the back of my neck. The band played the traditional Mexican hat dance, which got a big hand from the crowd. I scratched my scalp. The band moved on to an interpretation of Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland,’ as exotic as it was familiar, then ‘Guantanamera.’ My shoulders started to itch; it was difficult not to scratch too. Hard. Phil turned and stared in shocked amazement. “What happened to you?” I had no idea. “You’re all blotchy.” I took my nails away from my face and let my fingertips ride the surface of my skin. I was a field of moguls and craters. We hustled out of our seats, my hands fidgeting wildly as I scratched my face, my arms, my chest.
I had hives. Surely from eating the chapulenes. Phil was worried, but the gravity of the situation escaped me. We went to a drug store and needed nary a word of Spanish; my face cried out for Benadryl. I took the first dose right in the store and Phil offered comfort by describing how hives in my throat could swell up and choke me. I convinced Phil that my outbreak didn’t justify turning in early, so we went to his favorite restaurant for dinner, Flor de Oaxaca. The waiter laughed at the sight of me and mimicked being a grasshopper after I pantomimed my plight. Phil order a special; I had only beans with tortillas. I’d had enough culinary adventure for one day.
The next morning I woke with a smooth face and an empty belly. After a breakfast of eggs and sausage, tortillas and sweet rolls, papaya juice and a kicker dose of Benadryl to ensure a lasting peace with the chapulenes, we headed towards the second-class bus station, our first foray to the villages. Each village around Oaxaca specializes in one type of craft. Teotitlan is famous for their rugs, San Bartolo Coyotpec produces pottery, San Antonio Arrazola and San Martin Tilcajete are renowned for wooden sculptures. Phil spends much of his time in these ‘wood carving’ villages, but frequents lesser-known hamlets as well.
The second-class bus station is dominated by a tin roof in the shape of a horseshoe, hundreds of feet in diameter, which defines a dirt corral where the buses congregate. A thin layer of dust sticks to every seat, every window, and every purchase villagers carry from the Central Market next door. We climbed aboard, two pale spots in a sea of brown. The driver named a fare and we placed pesos in a tray. Everyone seemed to pay a different amount but no one argued with what the driver charged. Despite the tray full of coins, he refused to make change.
The road is a two-lane bumpy affair. Traffic moves erratically. There are pick-up trucks, ancient Chevy’s and new Jimmy’s. Hitch-hikers are everywhere; people brake in the middle of the road to add a new passenger. There are no solo drivers. We disembarked at a rise in the road under a billboard of a barbequed chicken, and Phil pointed to a patch of dirt across the highway.
The place was eerie in silence, only the sound of road dust settling back to sleep after being roused by our shoes. The first building we approached was a tin shack with a Pepsi sign. It looked to be more a store than a house, with no windows and a recess for a door. Before we came abreast the opening, a group of children popped out of the building and shrieked, “Gringos! Gringos!” They laughed and grabbed each other and ran away down the road, in awe and surprise and a touch of fear. But I was the more amazed. They actually called us ‘gringos.’ From that moment, I felt eyes upon me at every step. No one travels far along the road to this nameless compound without every soul knowing, and by the time we reached the house of Feliciano Santiago, we were already expected.
Immediately inside Feliciano’s gate, a group of men sat cross-legged around a pile of sticks. Each had a small knife in his hand and was whittling wood scraps into usable shapes. Oaxacan wood carvings are make from the twisted branches of the copal trees that grow abundantly throughout the valley. The wood is easy to carve when it is green, usually with a machete or pocket knife. It has few knots or visible grain. After a figure is carved, it is dried in the sun for three days, then sanded into smooth contours, ready to paint.
Feliciano emerged from a tin lean-to. The heavyset man greeted Phil with a handshake and a smile and gesticulated a rudimentary greeting. He led us inside to show us his cactus sculptures. Feliciano’s workspace is full of buckets. Buckets of rough shapes that he whittles into squat trunks, flat leaves, flower petals, squiggly bugs, and beaked birds. Buckets of more refined shapes, painted bright colors by the women who sit at the table in the rear shed, far from the men by the gate. He decorates these with vibrant dots and accent lines. The trunks are bored to accept a few leaves and some flowers, the birds are fastened to the stems, the insects are pinned along the trunk. The result is a fanciful concoction of desert life springing from a man who understands the rudiments of assembly line production.
Wood carving has been a tradition in Oaxaca for generations. It is only in the past decade that wooden figures have become collectibles with an international market. Feliciano Santiago is like many in the area who have taken up carving to meet the increasing demand for these figures. He is not a prominent carver, he is not associated with one of the villages renowned for the craft, nor does he produce unique works of art. Rather, he creates variations on pieces that he knows will sell. His prices are lower than the better-known carvers, and Phil has found consistent demand for Feliciano’s cactus sculptures in the States.
Feliciano showed us small models with a handful of attachments and large, multi-arm cacti that sit two feet high. Phil selected three large pieces and I chose a smaller one. Phil negotiated twenty dollars each, I agreed on six for mine. Feliciano spend nearly half an hour dismantling each sculpture, wrapping every component in brown paper and bundling each set of parts. There were over a hundred pieces in all. Sixty-six dollars buys countless hours of hand carving and painting. Yet, when we shook Feliciano’s hand goodbye, it was clear that everyone was pleased with the deal.
We caught another bus underneath the chicken sign and rode further, to San Martin Tilcajete. The bus dropped us off on a concrete road. When Phil first came to Oaxaca, the road to San Martin was dirt, but profits from wood carvings have allowed the villagers to pave the half mile between their community and the highway. We walked up a hill and around a curve to Miguel Salazar’s place. Another tin building, but unlike Feliciano’s, built on a foundation with real wood floors. Miguel has several chickens and a pig penned in his yard. He had a small array of angels to offer. Oaxacan figures often have religious significance and wood of the copal, which is also used for incense, has long been associated with the spiritual among the indigenous peoples of the region. But Phil has learned that religious carvings do not sell well, so there is no sale.
Martin Melchor is a longtime carver who specializes in humanoid figures riding bicycles, fishing, and sitting in Adirondack-style chairs made of twigs, He lives in a stucco house with a tile roof, has a truck in his driveway, and a storefront room for showing off his wares. The figures are whimsical and much more finely crafted than those of Feliciano Santiago, with fine spokes and expressive faces. They are not assembled, but carved all of one piece. Phil bought several. Some carvers from San Martin whom Phil likes were not home—there is no way to make advance appointments in these villages—so Phil decided to come back later in the week.
Oaxaca City has two markets, which are open every day: the brick building near the Zocalo where I had my run-in with dead grasshoppers; and the Central Market next to the second-class bus station. Many of the villages have their own market day, and the most famous in the region occurs on Sunday in Tlacolula. When we arrived at the dusty station an hour from Oaxaca City, Phil suggested I avail myself of the facilities there; they were the best in town. I plucked down two pesos for a few squares of toilet paper and when I was finished I prayed my bowels would remain inert for the rest of the day.
Market stands begin immediately outside the bus station and move uphill toward the center of town. Some sell plastic ware and trinkets, the stuff of dollar stores in the United States. Some sell food: avocados and bananas; wild turkeys; biftec sizzling from an open flame; chicken wrapped in tortillas; dried pork rind; dried fish; dried peppers; liquado of papaya; chocolate; hard candy; and of course, chapulenes. Some stands are loaded with household items: felt hats; walking canes; rough cotton shirts; polyester slacks; blue jeans; baseball caps; T-shirts emblazoned with Britney Spears and Creed. Near the crest of the road, close to the Cathedral and the Zocalo, are handicrafts: booths of embroidered blouses; stitched vests; sparkling tin; chiseled hides; blackened pottery; and intricate beading. There is a general procession from the tacky through the everyday to the exotic, yet a woman selling baskets braided from ancient patterns might also hawk plastic tote bags in fluorescent colors, galvanized wash buckets, and refrigerator containers with snap-tight lids. Tarps are strung across the street, offering partial cover that create dramatic shafts of light while trapping the pungent scent of roasted goat and ripe mango.
More indigenous people live in the State of Oaxaca than anywhere in the Western Hemisphere. And more indigenous people live in Tlacolula than anywhere in Oaxaca. People in Mexico City are shorter and browner than me. Here, people are smaller yet, and brown as tree bark. There are fifty-two dialects derived from eight different languages among the people descended from the Mixtec and Zapotec Indians, and every vender chatters in his own variation. The cacophony of words, the gestures to bridge gaps in understanding, the dazzling array of wares, the sun piercing the feeble tarps, the overwhelming smell of food teetering on spoil, bombard the senses. After an hour a faint nausea crept over me and I had to escape the market even as I was fascinated by it.
I left Phil on a hunt for blouses, and sought refuge in the Cathedral. Great churches transcend the particular plots of ground upon which they are built. Through mastery of material and form they create a realm set apart, for spiritual relief. As architecture, the Cathedral at Tlacolula is not Reims or Ronchamp, yet I have never been in a place that offered such serene contrast to its surroundings. The building was cool, dark, and nearly empty. It is a simple structure with along nave, cylindrical vault, and a central dome. No side naves. A few faded frescoes are intact, others are spalling from water damage to the plaster. The statues are all actual scale, plaster casts of real bodies wearing real clothes. Lace upon lace for the virgins, simple loins for the Christs, leaving enough exposed flesh for wounds and scars so grotesque I averted my eyes. At the front of the church, the statues are stacked Hollywood Squares style from alter to ceiling. At the top, outlined in a bay window, is a Virgin wrapped in curlicued gold leaf, cloaked in scarlet, drifting on a cloud of tulle. A celestial motif whose overall effect is not so much religious as swanky punk. She could easily pass for an offbeat window display on Madison Avenue.
There were a few other tourists, too pale to handle the relentless midafternoon heat beyond, stealing a few shots of the chintzy statues despite the signs in English prohibiting photography. There were also a few Indians. A thin man in army boots knelt piously in the first row; a chic girl in designer jeans and blunt cut lit a candle and bowed her head; a family in modern dress posed before the alter for a photo without the clandestine self-consciousness of the Anglos wielding cameras. And there was an ancient woman, thin, barefoot, wrapped in a shawl so shear it was mere illusion. She bent to a side altar and kissed the hem of a saint’s cloak with such passion there was no doubt that her God lived in this house.
Visiting the Cathedral at Tlacolula helped me grasp the depth of influence Spain held in this region. The Spanish did not simply build showy cathedrals in the major centers of Oaxaca, Puebla, and Mexico City. The built them in Yanhuitlan and Teposcolula, in Coixtlahuaca and Tlacolula and in dozens of other settlements. They came to the valley, wiped out half the population with European-borne diseases, converted those remaining to Catholicism, then conscripted as many as 25,0000 laborers in each community to build monuments to an alien god. The Spanish purportedly came to the New World in search of gold, but what they actually found was a people ripe for domination, a people who to this day are among the most devout Catholics on earth.
I returned to the market, where spiritual devotion dissipated before the chaos of commerce. If Thomas Jefferson viewed the United States as a nation of small famers (a disingenuous vision for a plantation owner) he likely would have described Mexico as a nation of small vendors. Trade seems to be the lifeblood of the country, and the art of the sale curses through their blood. I purchased a few souvenirs at the asking price and made satisfactory transactions. But when I bartered, held my own, walked away and then returned for a compromise price, the sellers relished my efforts even if I was the one who came out a few pesos ahead from the process. The market was full of loud, raucous exchanges over a pineapple or a scarf. Everywhere, the language of trade trumped the phrases of any particular dialect. The language of trade was most intriguing in the chocolate shop, where it mingled with the language of love.
Chocolate is an important ingredient in Mexican cooking, used for mole sauces, drinks, and baked goods. Families guard their chocolate recipes, swearing by a particular combination of sugar, cocoa, and cinnamon. The ingredients are mixed in a galvanized bucket, then one of the children—almost always a young girl—totes the bucket to the store to be ground into chocolate. Inside, there is a row of grinding machines, each manned by a young boy. The girls line up in front of a machine. Boys with cute grins have distinctly longer lines. A girl hands over her mother’s proportions of raw ingredients, which the boy hoists on his shoulder, pours into a tray, and guides into a funnel shaped barrel. He pummels the ingredients into the grinding port with a large stick, exaggerating his virility. A gooey paste emerges, which the boy pours back into the girl’s bucket. They might exchange a few words while he does this, and if the girl is pretty, the boy might take quite a while scraping the last bit of her chocolate. Surely Tlacolula is full of marriages that can be traced to the tender moment when the grinder boy returns the black delight to a young girl and their fingers brush along the galvanized handle.
The ride back to Oaxaca City was crowded but subdued. Passenger’s heads bobbed in sleep; their laps filled with goodies of the fair. Back in town we went to see Manuel Martinez, the proprietor of Artesanias Mi Mexico, a crafts boutique just off Macedonio Alcala. Manuel sells items similar to many we’d seen in San Martin and Tlacolula, at prices aimed at affluent tourists disinclined to venture on second-class buses. Manuel is an affable guy who speaks excellent English. Phil met him several years ago, and they enjoy trading stories of the craft business. Phil brought Manuel a designer knit shirt. Manuel likes to sport American clothes, and a Polo crest is a high fashion statement in Oaxaca. We agreed to go to Xoxocatlain together the following evening, for the opening celebration of the Day of the Dead.
Monday we were tourists. We took a bus along the mountain edges to Monte Alban, the Zapotec city built between 500 B.C. and 800 A.D. on a plateau above Oaxaca. Acres of mountain top graded level, surrounded by a campus of stone structures organized in strict geometry. The order and majesty of the landscape reminded me of the Mall in Washington, D.C., laid to rubble. The austere beauty of Monte Alban, the grand scale and commanding vistas, the stone skeletons rising from the central plaza, speak of a people of vision and discipline that deserve our admiration. But it reveals little of their everyday lives. I tried to imagine the imposing tan structures covered with brightly painted plaster; to envision the spaces created by the massive stone littered with the household items of the 30,000 inhabitants who once called this place home. I wanted to know more of their flesh than their bone. And later that night, in a village at the base of the mountain, I experienced the zest born into the natives of this valley.
Oaxaca is prone to celebration. There are festivals honoring almost everything, from venerable figures like the Virgin of the Soledad to the earthly delights of radishes. La Guelatguetza is the largest festival: a two-week celebration of native music, dress, and dance that occurs in July. But Phil’s favorite festival is Day of the Dead, celebrated in All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day. The origin of Day of the Dead predates colonial times, and likely has roots in early Indian societies, perhaps even some of those who once inhabited Monte Alban.
Near midnight, in the ancient cemetery of Xoxocatlain, hundreds of people sat around the graves of their ancestors. They brought food and flowers, cards and photos, camp stools, shawls, and candles. They drank and talked and sang as casually as if there were in a kitchen. Foods and artifacts for the deceased were arranged around the tombs, to welcome the spirits back.
The festivities kick off at Xoxocatlain on the night of October 30, though no one seemed to know why the spirits of Xoxo, the city’s nickname, arrive early. The ancient cemetery is dense with graves, statuary, and the stone remains of a chapel. The roof is long gone, as are some supporting walls, so it is possible to float seamlessly in and out of the building. In one corner of the nave, a group of men—ten or twelve—sang a song cycle specific to this festival. Phil explained that it is a village honor to be a Day of the Dead chorister, During the two to three hours we were there, the deep, rich voices reflected off the rock walls without stopping. The cemetery was crowded. We tread our way single file around the family groups. I worried that our presence might bother them, but Manuel explained that the spirits of the dead are happy to see many people when they returned; that strangers were welcome.
Phil wandered off with his camera; Manual and I stood along a cemetery wall sipping wine and talking. Mostly, we talked about the United States. Manuel was fascinated by our country, by how much we work, how much we travel, and how much things cost. He wants to visit someday. I wondered how he would enjoy the major festivals of Boston: First Night revelry at New Year; Lexington Green on Patriot’s Day; the 1812 Overture on the Fourth of July; the Head of the Charles Regatta in the fall. Grand scale performances all, that draw huge audiences; yet so unlike loitering in a village cemetery, inhaling an air of incense, and conversing between the shadow of an old woman swaying to her private chant and a group of Nike wearing teens laughing and drinking. Midnight in Xoxo is an intimate experience where the boundaries between the young and the old, the performer and participant, the quick and the dead, evaporate.
On Halloween day Oaxaca was awash in flowers. Mostly the reddish maroon and yellow mums that grow all over the valley, but also dozens of other colors. The citizens scurried with a new energy, arranging altars all over the city: altars with flowers and food and candles; with photos of the dead; with streams of colored sand that spilled off of the tables, onto the floor, and into the street. Phil and I walked the city that day, observing the constructions. In the Zocalo, sand sculptures the size of volleyball courts were being shaped; skeletal figures in fancy headdress and couples dancing on their graves. The living were having a wonderful time partying with the dead. We went to the city’s main cemetery, an immense court surrounded by a thick-walled promenade lined with hundreds of crypts, five rows high. Each crypt is defined by an arched recess where the coffin slides into the masonry. A series of altars opposite the crypts were being arranged for annual judging. These were among the finest in the city, six to seven feet high and equally deep, color coordinated with food and flowers and mementoes. The care invested in the altars is remarkable, especially when compared with the haphazard fields of corn and miles of unfinished construction we witnessed on our journey south. I mentioned to Phil that if the Mexicans put as much energy into their business endeavors as they did in their festivals, they might be the economic giants of the world. Phal laughed and said, “Yes, but they wouldn’t have as much fun.”
Halloween night in the cemetery of Oaxaca. A carnival played outside the walls, cotton candy and amusement rides, strings of bare bulbs, and teens in baggy clothes dancing to a ratty band. Cross the threshold of the cemetery and the promenade was dark, save for the light of thousands of candles, one set at the recess of each crypt, casting a fantastic relief between the hundreds of small arches and the immense wall supporting the bodies of so many dead. Crowds lingered in front of the altars; our favorite won first prize. In the graveyard, wandering bands serenaded the dead, trailed by groupies in pursuit of the music. The place was so crowded. Walking in the air, buried in the walls, resting underground, the cemetery swelled with a density of human spirit. There were scraps of Spanish in the air, fragments of dialect I didn’t understand, and the voices of people I’d never met hearkening times I’ve never known. I felt as if I could talk to them, that the spirits would be able to understand me despite my American accent. But I was the visitor in their house, and I chose to remain quiet. To simply listen to all of the languages being spoken.
Arrazola has paved roads. It has a clinic, a school, a landscaped plaza. The plaza does not sit in front of a colonial cathedral. Rather, in front of a community building. In the center is not a statue of a Virgin, but one of a rabbit. Arrazola is a village nestled on the back side of Monte Alban, markedly different from other villages. Next to a house with two bulls and a bunch of chickens sits a tile and stucco compound with a Chevy Suburban in the drive. The variety store sells frozen popsicles and Snickers bars as well as sacks of rice. The children running out of school in their All Saint’s Day costumes are tracked by slim mothers toting video cameras. Arrazola may not be small town USA, but it’s a world apart from San Martin or Tlacolula.
What sets Arrazola apart from other villlages around Oaxaca is nothing more or less than money. Money from wooden figures. Lots of it. Manuel Jimenez, the eighty-year-old man credited with transforming the native wooden figures from local craft into world-wide collectible, made Arrazola famous among afficionados of Mujeres de Figures.
As we approached Arsenio Morales’ house along the main street, a taxi was parked in front. Inside the court, two Americans and their Mexican driver were negotiating over a unicorn and a snake. They paid nearly a hundred dollars for each. Phil and Arsenio chatted amicably; they’ve known each other for some time, but Phil bought nothing. Arsenio has been discovered; his prices command too high a price for Phil to realize much profit on resale.
Still, other carvers in Arrazola have items that interest Phil. My favorite was Alberto Ojeda. He is an old man who lives on the edge of the village with Monte Alban in his backyard. His house is modest but new. He keeps chickens around, but I gathered they are more for company than for food. He has a room of comic frogs and dancing soldiers. Phil selected a few frogs. Alberto told us he climbed Monte Alban for Day of the Dead to talk with his ancestors. He likes being in the same neighborhood as his primal relations. After he made the sale, Alberto encouraged us to visit his son, Hector. A tiny door leads from the father’s yard to the son’s. The difference between the two domains could hardly be more pronounced.
Hector has a large house with jalousie windows, a carport with a van, a grass yard with a fountain. His wife came out to greet us, all smiles and graciousness. She led us to a display room, where I saw the difference between an artisan and an artist. Hector creates large works, sculptures that might be displayed in a hotel or civic lobby. They are painted in vibrant hues, and the enticing shapes of his dragons, fish, and serpentine creatures trigger illusions beyond their literal form. The smallest piece was a blowfish, comic and iridescent. It would look terrific in my living room. I inquired. Six hundred dollars was beyond my budget. Other pieces ranged into the thousands. Hector’s wife wasn’t pushy or negotiative. She wasn’t selling; she was marketing. Carrying on in sing-song English to any Americans who happened by because she knows that’s how to build her husband’s reputation. Hector arrived home with his son. He showed us a new hippopotamus he was carving, a rascally fellow full of character. The piece would take several weeks to complete, but was already remarkable. As removed from the assembly line cactus pieces in Feliciano Santiago’s tin shack as Hector’s wife is from the women hawking chapulenes in the market.
That afternoon we went to the Central Market, the immense grid of stalls next to the second-class bus station. In the United States, super markets, department stores, and big box stores have fostered a tradition of autonomously wandering fields of merchandize: handling; inspecting; basketing what we want, only to have another person scan it through a computer to cement the transaction. For us, shopping is about the stuff. There are more items in the Central Market than in the largest Wal-Mart, yet every item is associated with a specific person. You can hardly glance at a blanket, a bootlegged CD, or a piece of hammered tin without having the vendor accost you. Rows of stalls offer merchandise so similar that what differentiates is not the product itself, but the salesmanship. One doesn’t simply buy a pan, one buys a pan from Louisa. I was confounded by the dark maze, but I loved the intimacy of the commerce.
Along one aisle was a woman selling flowers. Giant red blooms. A little boy sat quietly in the chair behind her. Next to her another woman sold the same blooms. Only she had a little girl sitting behind her. There was a third woman, a fourth., I counted ten in all. Each selling the identical product. Many with children sitting behind them. I was possessed by the need to organize. To send two of them out to play with the children, two to get back to the fields, and a few to have a day of rest. At most, only two needed to actually sell the flowers. Of course, I said nothing. I had no way of communicating against a system so fixed that each woman rises every morning and tends her small fields, rides into town with only as many blooms as she can carry, tugging her children along to sit in silence all day next to other children burdened by the same fate. Such complicity is anathema to an American.
We returned to San Martin. I liked the village more the second visit; the stream lined with cottonwood on the edge of town, the donkey pulling the hay cart on the new paved road, the huge shade trees in front of the church. We found Obdulia Ramirez at home. Obdulia is in her thirties. She’s slim and perky, even by American standards. She moves with an agility at odds with the languid climate. She showed off her latest carvings, twisted lizards, while she chatted with us in excellent English. Her husband hovered close, following the instructions she threw off in Spanish. A young girl with a paint brush sat in a shed in the yard, dotting the spines of a box full of lizards. Obdulia’s yard is large and flat, enclosed by a wall, with a new house in one corner, still under construction, yet entirely occupied. It’s an impressive structure, two story concrete with a richly carved front door, a gracious stair, and a relief of the Virgin in a niche along one wall. True, there are no windows, no lights fixtures, and no furnishings, but I chose to compliment Obdulia on the elements present and ignored what was missing. The arch that leads to the kitchen revealed an electric stove and a refrigerator, but also a wash bucket with water tap instead of a sink, and food heaped in piles instead of cabinets. There are no chickens in the yard, but no landscaping either. Obdulia has grown beyond a life of tin shacks and farm animals, but hasn’t quite figured out how to assemble her newfangled conveniences into a complete package.
We bought figures from Obdulia. Phil did because he knows they sell well; I did because I was charmed. As she handed me a lizard, Obdulia’s eyes flickered, and she said, “I was born less than a mile from here. I was one of ten children, and were poor, dirt poor, I was so hungry I lived on the dream that if I ever grew to be an adult, I would never be hungry again. You know what I did? I learned English, And now I have my own land, my own house, and two children of my own. Two is all I will have. And they are at school right now. And they will graduate. And the reason I have all this, besides having a wonderful husband,” who blushed when she looked his way, intuiting her intent without understanding a single word, “the reason I have all this is because I learned English.” She let go of my hand, her eyes danced back to Phil, and her voice returned to its casual tone. “Phil buys from me—everybody buys from me—because I speak English.”
Phil’s last day in Oaxaca was spent wrapping, packing, and shipping. I spent my last day touring the city. I spent time in each of the cathedrals, ducked into courtyards, window shopped. The Colonial quadrant of Oaxaca City, so foreign just a week ago, was tame to me now. I spent the afternoon in the monastery of Santo Domingo, recently converted to the State Regional Museum. It is a massive building, arcades of stone aligned to razor precision and cool tile verandas where the religious processed in silence, no doubt contemplating a universe as ordered and elegant as their sanctuary of stone, so removed from streets of passion, barter, and disease.
That night I wondered to the Zocalo, drawn by the lights of the Cathedral, the vitality of the marimba band, and the energy of the couples dancing around the gazebo. I met a fellow traveler. We drank a spritzer in a café. We strolled the streets of the ancient quarter, graced by a dollop of romance from the shimmering rays of the moon. We talked as we walked; we stood silent at the beauty of the night. In the quiet I heard the voices of hundreds of years echoing off the stone walls of these eternal buildings, welcoming me among the legions captivated by the spirit of Oaxaca.
In the morning we headed north. Away from the valley graced with the lyrical strains of Spanish, the rhythms of dozens of indigenous dialects, and the insistent chorus of the dead. First back to Puebla, a larger city, more modern, where the Spanish is hardened by the terms of business and multinational words like Volkswagen and Xerox are ubiquitous. Then to Mexico City, where I noticed occasional areas of organized development amidst piecemeal bits of construction. Groupings of buildings and paved roads progressing in a logical order, large enough in scale that they must involve financing, and therefore accountable milestones toward completion. Precincts in which concrete trucks were moving and carpenters were hammering. No groups of men squatting in the shade. In a measurable number of months, these developments would house people and businesses in structures complete with windows and roofs and running water. Buildings whose gestation bore more resemblance to construction in the United States than precedents in Mexico.
I inhaled a souvenir gulp of charcoaled air before boarding the flight that would bear me home, As I flew towards the border, I wondered about the millions who head in my direction, not in planes, but in second-class buses or the back of trucks, hoping to elude the border guards. People who deny their identities to work minimum wage jobs in the US, wages that translate into fortunes back in Mexico.
In the northern states of Mexico, emigration is the established pattern to success, Whole towns forfeit their working age citizens to the US in exchange for the money sent home to the youth and the aged. One million dollars a day is sent to the State of Zacatecas alone. Payments from expatriates constitute the third largest source of income for the nation of Mexico. But the price of exporting Mexico’s human resources is high. Half of all native Zacatecans now live in the United States. Along with the houses and the roads that they build with the $1million they send home, comes the reality that more and more natives will never return. They will choose to remain in the United States; praying to become legal.
US/Mexico relations have always been weighted by the transfer of workers from the poorer country to the richer one. We have made attempts to ameliorate the imbalance: amnesties for illegal workers; NAFTA; the bond between our cattle ranching Presidents. But in the end, legitimate equilibrium with our neighbor depends on Mexico having economic opportunities of its own; to be a place where the young and capable do not have to leave in order to prosper.
Traditionally, Oaxaca has endured less emigration than the rest of Mexico. It is poorer, further away, more culturally distinct. Now that global systems for communication and transportation allow for greater economic decentralization, opportunity need not come at the price of uprooted communities. Instead, we can develop US/Mexican relations based less upon immigration of cheap labor than upon the exchange of what each country has to offer.
The lesson of the wood carving villages is that the talented and the motivated—the Hector’s and the Obdulia’s—have not emigrated north; they still live next to their parents, within a mile of their birthplace. They don’t merely send money home; they live among their own and thereby inspire others by their success. The health center in Arrazola and the paved road in San Martin did not come floating out of the sky on a parachute of Yankee dollars. There were built from the profits of wooden figures. Everyone in the village knows that, and therefore everyone in the village is invested in the production of that lifeblood. A man like Feliciano did not take up carving wood into thousands of pieces of ornamental cactus except for the fact that he saw others carve wood and make money and he wanted some for himself. As the entrepreneurs get smarter, as the rudiments of mail delivery and telephones get put in place, as craftsmen discover how the internet can be used to bypass my middleman friend Phil, as they learn that better quality and creativity results in larger sales, the villages will benefit even more. This is a tiny reversal of the usual order, but it is worth notice and encouragement. Instead of Oaxacans sending their best up North to seek fortune, we Americans are coming South. Not just visiting Oaxaca for its beauty and its history, but actually taking cabs right to Arsenio Morales’ door. Turning over our currency because he has made something we want. A simple matching of a buyer and a seller without the thorns of displaced families or illegal crossings.
Oaxaca is not likely to become an economic powerhouse soon. For every Obdulia, there are still ten women selling the exact same flowers right next to each other. However, as the influence of the wooden figure economy ripples through the valley, people will uncover more ways to take what is intrinsic to the native culture and capitalize on if to create better lives. To become multilingual in the best possible sense, sharing with us what has been theirs for hundreds of years; taking on new opportunities without relinquishing the old.
In the United States, there is no official language. Yet the reality is, those who don’t speak English are left behind. The official language of Mexico is Spanish, but in reality those who speak English are the ones who get ahead. Mexico has other languages as well. The pre-Colonial dialects that existed in the valley before the written word; the voices of the dead that divulge their spirits. During my time in Oaxaca I tried to understand all of the languages, gamely tripping over Spanish words and receiving warm smiles for my effort, while also contemplating upon those that do not rely on specific grammar or vocabulary for comprehension.
On our last trip to San Martin, as we left town along the paved road, a young man approached heading home from school. He wore a black T-shirt, blue jeans, and sneakers, He could have been Obdulia’s son, or a teenager from just about anywhere. “Buenos tardes.” I said in my best accent, “Hello.” He replied, in the assured voice of the future.
Front page, above the fold, in The Boston Globe. Feature length obit in The New York Times. Segments on major outlets—nationwide. I have only one friend whose death warrants such a blanket of coverage. Then again, media savvy Phil Saviano is also my only friend who would fully appreciate the deserved attention. By all means, click on the links and read the obituaries of this remarkable man. Or simply continue on for my personal tribute to a remarkable friend.
Summer 1995. My chronological calendar has flipped over to the big 4-0, but as a gay man, I am still a toddler. Two years since I came out. Therapy, support group, Boston Gay Men’s Chorus, boogie-down at the Napoleon Club’s Josephine Room until the 2 a.m. lights-up blinds us stragglers. I’d kissed a man, which represented progress. But when an acquaintance scolds, “Virginity is no virtue in the gay world,” it’s time to speed things up.
Personal ads fill the well-worn back pages of Bay Windows. I dislike phone chat, and so scrutinize columns for the tiny envelope symbol of those few seekers who welcome written response. Here’s one: Smoky Bar Man. Hardly sounds promising, but then again, opposites attract. I read and reread the carefully composed 25 words. Begin a letter of introduction. Reference the ad. Eventually notice it’s listed under the heading ‘Positive Attitudes.’ This guy has AIDS?
Among the differences between a 40-year-old newly-gay father with a pair of kinder-age children and the bulk of Boston’s gay community circa 1995 is zero direct experience with AIDS. Every gay man of my generation bore fresh wounds. They either had the virus or knew some who did. Everyone knew someone who’d died. They’d discarded the shame of sex=death to rally the activism of silence=death.
By the time I arrive on scene, means of transmission are well established, modes of protection understood. Avoiding the virus requires precaution, but the methods are clear. I don’t know anyone with AIDS, and never considered the logistics of dating someone with the virus. But what the heck, Smoky Bar Man has captured my attention.
“I got your letter. I’m impressed. No misspellings. Correct Punctuation. Call me back.”
Not the most promising answering machine message. But I return his call. The same night.
“Oh, heh. This isn’t a good time. My favorite show is about to start.”
Really? You prefer some TV show over talking to a man of correct punctuation? My inaugural experience in the personals confirms common consensus: guys who post ads are duds.
The next night, Phil calls back. When he relays enthusiasm for Leonard Cohen, I think this guy might be okay. When he divulges his love for Judy Collins, I want to meet him. When I learn that Phil actually knows Judy Collins, I am smitten. We talk for two hours. Perhaps my longest phone conversation ever.
Phil and I go on a date. A walk along Newbury Street, suitably public and chaste. Phil invites me for dinner. The simple casserole in plastic bowls is a welcome relief from the elaborate presentations I’ve encountered at other gay tables. Phil comes to my house; my children take an immediate shine.
By the time we met, the defining parameters of Phil Saviano’s life were history. His boyhood abuse by Father Holley. Contracting AIDS in 1984. Receiving a six-month life expectancy. His decision to stand up to the Catholic Church’s gag order. Founding SNAP (Survivor’s Network of those Abused by Priests). Signing up for every experimental AIDS treatment available. Being on magazine covers. Being in and out of the hospital. Plunging to a single-digit T-cell count. Living just above poverty, in awesome dignity.
The Phil I meet is healthy, handsome, wicked funny. His past recounted as a trove of adventure more than a burden of suffering. I’ve never known anyone of such fortitude. One night, finally, we make out on his couch. After few minutes we fell apart, laughing. “Sorry, Paul. You just don’t have the right teeth.” Phil’s the only gay man I ever meet whose singular fetish is teeth. Small, even, straight-lined kernels top and bottom melt the man. I have, well, pointy canines. Tooth contour aside, Phil and I are never destined to be lovers. So we became fine friends.
Over our twenty-five years Phil is mostly healthy, fiercely independent. His streength improves; his Mexican handicraft import business thrives. He weans off disability. Each December I go to his art-filled apartment to help wrap and ship the holiday rush. In 2000, Phil takes me on a buying trip to Pueblo, Oaxaca, and surrounding villages during his favorite celebration: Day of the Dead.
Phil possesses a rare ability: insight without judgement. “You live in your head.” He tells me one summer day as we share lunch on my deck. “You should start considering it an attribute.” I grew up in a family where solitude was viewed suspect. “Don’t be afraid; enjoy it.” That simple germ reveals a truth that decades of therapy never tapped. I mark the moment as a turning point in self-understanding.
Phil and I are typical guy friends. Years pass with no contact. Until some mutual interest prompts reconnection and we pick up where we left. Never an expectation, no recrimination. I’m at the hospital the day after Phil gets his new kidney. I can’t recall how I knew; certainly Phil would not make a special request.
“The problem with my life,” Phil jokes a couple years back, “is that I never planned for retirement.” Phil’s outlived his original death notice by more than thirty years. He’s confronted his boyhood trauma through action. He’s survived pneumonias and kidney failure and narcolepsy. The guy’s side-stepped the reaper more times than any cat. Never once do I hear Phil complain of his life’s lot. Nor see him cry. I scarcely recall a frown.
The last time I see Phil, he says, “When things get tough, I’ll call Lynn, and I have Jim.” I swallow the full meaning: I have dodged death so often, it will someday catch up with me; when I go, it will be on my terms; I’ve selected my best friend and devoted brother as the few people directly involved. Such a uniquely Phil way of expressing that I am not part of the inner circle, without making me feel outside.
I’ve spent the last few days remembering my friend, reliving our Mexican adventure. I will miss Phil, of course. But it’s hard to muster the same anguish I’d harbor for someone snapped away by accident. Phil lived and lived and lived. He lived well; he lived on his own terms. Far beyond anyone’s expectation or medicine’s explanation. His death feels less a tragedy than an opportunity to remember—and celebrate—the remarkable way this man thrived.
Thank you, Phil, for the gift you gave us all: the example of life so meaningful; so fully lived.
Crisp leaves underfoot. Stinging fresh air. Roasted turkey. Glutinous stuffing. Fruity, creamy pies. Frantic airports. Family around the table. Football. Horns of plenty. Pilgrim pageants. The national folktale of our collective well-being. A day of gratitude.
Last year, two days in advance of celebrating a pandemic Thanksgiving stripped of communal trappings, I sat alone in my office and zoomed into SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice) base-group training. Our ever-gentle facilitator, offered a prompt. “I’d like to open our space for anyone who wants to share their struggle with what is coming up on Thursday.” Matoaka is so thoughtful, ran through my head, giving people an opportunity to express the disappointment of a non-traditional Thanksgiving.
Wrong, conventional white man. So wrong.
An outpouring followed, of rage and disgust that this so-called ‘holiday’ exists. That we actually celebrate our decimation of Native peoples with this fantasy of peaceful community. Further masking the fundamental reality of our nation: violence.
I listened to the anger, I heard the pain of women (I was the only male in our training group) who suffered Thanksgiving as yet another form of erasure and oppression. I learned about The National Day of Mourning, a fasting ritual held every Thanksgiving at Plymouth Rock to acknowledge the genocide of indigenous people.
I could not deny their truth or their anguish. But it didn’t resonate either. Yes: humans are cruel; power corrupts; and the winners write the history. But I cannot understand the value of agonizing our faults so deeply that they debilitate us. Rather, let us to enlarge our history to embrace voices silenced by simplistic myth.
I love Thanksgiving; I always have. Hands down, my favorite holiday. The least commercial, most collective celebration of our year. Acknowledging the blood seeped into the holiday’s origin story does not negate the grace embedded in giving thanks.
I give thanks for the abundance that blossoms when humans rise above base instinct; I revel in the bounty of coming together; I celebrate our potential: that one day the conqueror and the vanquished will embrace and move forward: in equity toward each other; in balance with our planet.
I’m confident there’s something greater than us out there. Not a deity that directs our daily lives: that abdicates our individual responsibility. Nor something fashioned in our own image and likeness: that’s simply a narcissistic failure of imagination. I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of god. But so am I. And so are you. And so, from a religious perspective, I’m no Christian.
Yet I am culturally Christian. Steeped in its fundamental moral and ethical traditions. The Bible. The parables. The ten commandments. I don’t adhere to every fable: the celebration of the prodigal son at the expense of the steadfast one is simply appalling. Yet my moral compass points New Testament north. Less Hammurabi’s eye for an eye. More Gospel Matthew, bent toward forgiveness.
One cornerstone of cultural Christianity is, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” I suppose in Palestine circa AD Zero, your neighbor was pretty easy to identify. The extents to which anyone walked was limited; everyone you met was your neighbor and it behooved you to treat them well. You had zilch influence on anyone beyond your immediate geography. They were out of scope.
The first part of the definition for ‘neighbor’ still holds. The people who live in my immediate proximity, who walk the same sidewalks and attend the same schools are certainly my neighbors. Beyond that, the definition gets muddy.
A typical blog post, authored by The Awkward Poser or pretty much anyone else, follows a predictable trajectory. A personal vignette illustrates a social condition, problem, or opportunity. Sprinkle in a bit of irony, a dose of humor, and resolve with refreshing insight. Keep it light, but not trite, in under 1000 words
This post does not follow that trajectory because, in truth, I have no idea where to draw the boundaries that define who is my neighbor. I am simply going to listicle the gradations as I understand them.
My neighbor is:
A person who occupies my immediate geographical and social sphere. Which, in my domain means they may not be white, but they are well-educated and affluent.
A person who occupies my immediate geography but not my social sphere. There is a housing project four blocks from my house. I hardly interact with anyone who lives there.
A person who lives in the city of Cambridge. Cambridge is only six square miles, but it includes over a hundred thousand people. How could I possibly love them all as myself?
Every person who shares my political and social views. Is being a neighbor allowed to be easy?
Everyone, regardless of their political and social views. That makes being a neighbor incredibly hard. How can we possibly love someone as ourself who is diametrically opposite ourselves? Even if we could love them, we’d have to love them in some other way.
Every citizen of the United States. Aren’t we supposed to hold much in common?
Every other person in the United States. The undocumented occupy the same space, right?
Every person who wants to get into the United States. Is it our duty to share what is good and bad about the US of A with anyone, simply because they want to come in? If they are our neighbors and we are Biblically inclined, then we must.
Every virtual person we encounter on the internet. Many are real; their entreaties and GoFundMe’s are sincere. But many are trolls or bots. Do neighbors have to be human?
Every creature we influence on this earth. The birds, the bees, the pandas, the spotted owls. They are our neighbors in a geographic sense. But if I exert myself to their preservation, it is often at the expense of some other creature.
Thus, twenty centuries on, the Biblical imperative to love they neighbor as thyself is, at a minimum: exhausting; in reality: futile. There are too many of us making too competing demands. Call me callous, but I simply cannot care as much about an ill person who lives in Southeast Asia as I can about the man who lives down the street. At least I can bring my immediate neighbor a casserole or accompany him to the doctor. I can’t offer anything so tangible, so direct, to the person on the far side of the globe.
And yet, I cannot draw a line through my list and announce those above as my neighbors, those below outside my consideration. My moral compass wants to include everyone I encounter under the umbrella as my neighbor. The sheer number of encounters that bombard us in the twenty-first century tramples on that Biblical ideal.
As a first order approximation, the amount of money a person spends is a good reflection of how sustainably they live. It’s not an exact correlation—environmentally negligent junk food costs a lot less than locally-grown produce—but the ratio tracks well for most human carvings and their planetary impacts.
I’ve never been much of a shopper, so spending little money isn’t difficult; and ever since my time in Haiti, I’ve made a personal parlor game of celebrating days of spending zero dollars. The Awkward Poser’s folly against the bombarding temptations of our consumer economy. Still, even I am not immune from the adrenaline jolt of savvy shopping.
It’d been a tough week. Three days of drizzly rain. A dear friend in Worcester in and out of the hospital, then back in. Finding a new tenant, off-season, after one suddenly moved. Jumping through hoops with the city arborists to remove a tree that’s shearing my neighbor’s retaining wall. A family member in Utah lost in a coma. The usual stuff of life: sliced grim.
I needed a walk. Fresh air. Heavy-breathing at the gym. I also needed spackle to repair damage in the empty apartment. $6.99 at Whites Ace Hardware in Porter Square.
I’d squirreled a $5 coupon issued from a different Ace Hardware in my wallet. “Will you accept this coupon from another Ace?
“Sure thing. It’s a corporate coupon. That will be $1.37.
“How’s that? The spackle’s $6.99; the coupon’s five bucks.”
“First, I applied the 10% senior discount. Then subtracted five dollars. The sales tax only apples to the remainder. That makes $1.37.”
“Wow.” Amazed how the clerk applied benefits I didn’t even know existed, and then tallied them to my best advantage. I walked out of store whistling a happy song. The emerging sun seemed a little brighter, my step a little lighter. The jaunty satisfaction of such sweet purchase. Was there ever a day when a tub of spackle delivered so much joy?
Of course, White’s Ace Hardware won as well. I may not shop often, but I won’t soon forget this great deal. I’ll be back.