Thursday, April 26, 2007

A Sonora Desert Oasis with Children

April 18, 2007, Mexico

I can hear Nora’s high pitched tuneless song. If I turn to look out the window, I can see the girls burying their bikinied Barbie in the sand. Two century plants are in bloom at the edge of the yard; brilliant yellow orioles, fleet hummingbirds and mobs of bees work busily among the agave blossoms high on fifteen foot stalks.

When Maria sings to Anita, “There’s nothing to be done, not a thing I can do,” I feel her fatalistic love. We are stuck, trapped now, helpless in our love for these tiny vulnerable beings who bounce and careen around the desert yard as fluidly as balls on a pool table.

Yesterday, Tuesday, we took the children on a little walk through town, ending up at the cultural center. I found a children’s library in one corner of the building. A woman pecked away at a manual typewriter on the front desk. She unlocked a cabinet door to hand us a few pieces of computer paper for coloring. Mia drew pictures with magic markers while I badly sounded out picture books in Spanish. The three school-age children at our table watched patiently. The boy tried out the word “castle,” then blushed. They handed us their pictures as they left.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Another run to the beach. The expansive blocks of pale gold sand and dark blue are a minimalist tonic. I take deep breaths of the clean air. I could call these waves playful as I dodge the fast carpet of foam running towards my feet. But I know there is no safe contact with the water here.

I recognize this stretch of beach. The lagoon there, a rocky steep hill towering before me – we climbed that hill years ago, exclaimed at the view. And the waves then, as I remember them, were tumbling eighteen-wheelers, a cascade of cement mixers, every few seconds. The heavy walls of water fell a few yards from our faces. We stood on a cliff of sand, separated from the crush by a steep short slope of hard pack sand.

Last night the children cooed over Emma, a dachshund in the restaurant. After dinner we walked to an ice cream stand – “Mia, can you see the surprise? It is the bright, bright green of a really crazy apple,” Serena riddled. The funny thing is, there were two green buildings on the block. In this tiny village, (recently designated as officially "Magic" by the Mexican government, much to the snorting of the ex-pat gringos,) brilliant sensations greet you on every corner. Strawberry creams, avocado with a strawberry ice chaser, pistachio, cherry ice cream. Phenomenally good. As good as Florentine gelato. What do the girls need for their vacation? A hammock to swing in, gentle dogs and tolerant cats, water to splash and drink. Ice cream.

Brent and Serena have a talent for making people feel good. We have known them for years, but this trip I study how they practice this craft. Much ebullient and generous laughter at the jokes of others. Repeating a phrase you have said, making it sound suddenly clever. Patience for the whims of children, the moodiness of guests out of their element. A casual attitude about clutter. Generosity of spirit, specifically extending even to use of their own bedroom, their own bed for afternoon naps. In conversation, responding to the suggestions of others with an enthusiastic “yes!” even if the point is tangential. And delicious dinners, cups of tea and bottles of beer don’t hurt either. Good friends.

Baja for Beginners from The New York Times.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Run to the Ocean

Monday, April 16

This morning, after a rough night with restless sleepers, I find depression has come down, even with the morning sun and an easy breeze. The girls are tired and dissatisfied with their breakfast cereal; I teach Mia to curse when I tell Eleanor, “okay, if you’re going to bitch, I can bitch right along with you.” “Bitchy baby, bitchy baby!” chants Mia happily so I need to correct her for my own mistake. Randy is hung-over and helpless. My only excuse is five days without a heart rate increase or endorphin rush. “I’m going out for half an hour,” I tell him. “I need to stop going crazy.” To the girls, “Mommy’s going to work out. I’ll be a better mommy when I come back.”

Our casita is at the top of a hill. We can see the ocean from every west window, a blue border between the bumpy carpet of palms, eucalyptus, laurel trees, rooflines at eye level and the sky above.

I skid down the steep dirt road toward the water, leaving behind Nora’s wails as Daddy holds her in his arms. Her desperate cries don’t fade from my ears. I hear their high-pitched echo in the high crowing of roosters, in dog yelps, in hollow dove calls, in the whine of a construction table saw. My breathing is not labored yet; I push, reaching for gasps to drown out the memory of her screams.

Brent has pointed out mango trees with their grape-like clusters of infant fruit, pistachio trees, pomegranate and the splayed fan of bird of paradise. I recognize them as I run.

Americans turn the face of their McMansions to the street; enter any suburban cul de sac and you see the lives of the families who live there before you, separated from the road by no more moat than a grass yard. In Mexico the architecture is about privacy and reserve, borrowed from the Spanish vernacular, Serena says. Thick stone and plastered cement walls, the tops often embedded with broken bottles or decorative spikes, prevent outsider eyes from capturing more than a glimpse of the oasis or austerity within. The expanse of blank, anonymous wall rising next to a narrow sidewalk in town is broken only by a few dark windows encased in iron bars. Crossing these walls, mounds of explosive bougainvillea bloom in papery blossoms of a fuchsia that mixes heart-red with an intense pink.

Perhaps this secrecy is balanced by a cultural openness – palapa roofs without walls, wide smiles and waves and Buenos tardes!

Now I run through the huerta, a low fertile valley nourished by a spring from the blue Sierra de la Laguna mountains to the east. I can hear water running. Behind a barrier formed by a stick fence and a thick bank of bamboo, a stream runs. I run parallel to it. Through the fence I can catch glimpses of the freshet, bolting down a narrow causeway, through someone’s shady paradise of a compound, then escaping under the fence, flowing under a dirt road, out into the fields of low green chile plants bordered with sentinels of high corn stalks.

A dead end. “Donde esta la playa?” Something friendly and unintelligible is replied; I only asked so as to see the pointing gesture. “Gracias!”

The strip of ocean is nearly always in sight. I know I’m getting closer, even in this maze of unmarked streets. Finally, a collection of casitas with a small sign, “Caliente Sol,” I turn a corner and see brush-covered dunes. The quick dirt road softens to sliding sand under my feet.

Soon I can hear the percussion of the waves. As I work to reach them, I remember the summer I carried ten-month-old Mia bound up in a secure carrier on my back up a rocky and glorious trail around Jenny Lake and Leigh Lake in the Wyoming Tetons. Hikers passing us the other way joked with Randy – how did he trick me into carrying the load? We laughed but I felt overjoyed to bear her weight. It was all I wanted: to be carrying my sleeping daughter in this green and piney place of glory. Each step felt like we neared Heaven.

Now I know. Each step was Heaven. And here it is again, before me. The Pacific Ocean. Todos Santos, Baja California Sur, Mexico.

Monday, April 23, 2007

From BCS, Mexico

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Today we took the children to Playa los Cerritos, the Beach of the Little Hills. To reach the beach, you drive south out of Todos Santos on the narrow two-lane Hiway 19 through the desert, past wide and narrow dry washes, these arroyos the only penetrable paths through the densely grown desert. We drove through the tiny oasis town of Pescadaro, shaded by tall palms, passed without knowing over the line of the Tropic of Cancer unmarked somewhere in the desert. Serena recognized the turn-off, an anonymous opening in the brush like so many others. We bump slowly over the rutted dusty road a mile to the beach.

We swam here nine years ago and only met one woman walking her pack of dogs. Serena had greeted her as a friend and told us of her house in the desert. Other than this one woman and a few surfers, black and shiny in wetsuits, silhouetted against the sun, we had the wide expanse to ourselves.

Los Cerritos now had a generator and a bar with a pool table and Internet access, huts for surfboard rental and horses for hire. A live band plays in the late afternoon. Under umbrellas, the bar armchairs have cushions. We spy a sun-bathing couple bearing the familiarity and sheen of celebrity – the blond woman with an enormous Gucci bag wears tiny triangles of fabric over her breasts, the man sports elaborate tattoos. Tommy Lee? No. His successor? I don’t think so. They are accompanied by a child with shoulder length hair, not much taller than Mia, who rides a boogie board smoothly through the surf. “Look Randy,” I called when I saw her, him? “A baby surfer!”

I tell Mia, “That’s the Pacific Ocean! It’s the biggest thing on earth!” I am sure she doubts me; Daddy could easily block her whole sight of the thing with his great big body.

The girls gambol in circles in the shallow surf, shrieking laughter as they splash. They throw rocks, plead to be lifted by their arms, dangled over the incoming waves again and again.

The sand sparkles with flecks of gold. There are also streaks of a finer black sand that sticks on the children’s skin even after we dunk them in the water up to their hips, then fling them high as they scream in delight, lower them again and again.

I wrap shivering Nora in a blanket, feed her some of the sour lime-tinged Mexican Tostitos called Incognito. She opens her mouth like a baby bird. Her fingers are caked with the black sand.

“This is Heaven,” I tell Brent and Serena. I mean it literally. This is all we get. How could a personally rewarding afterworld be any more than this? My dear beautiful children, my lover, and amiable, easy-going friends. Sun, breeze and sand as soft as cloud banks. Heart’s ease.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Oprah Picks The Road? She Should Read The Long Winter

The Road ?!!!!!!!!

Wha? Oprah selects ZOMBIE GORE?

Hmmm… okay, yeah, I guess Cormac McCarthy writes lit-worthy passages, sentences of stone cold poetry where you slow down to walk with each word . . . IN BETWEEN THE PAGES OF ZOMBIE GORE! ! !

Seriously. This is the kind of book you tell your friends about but don't recommend. You tell them “Don’t read it, it will haunt you.” You can't shake it, you can't stop thinking of it AND ITS ZOMBIE GORE!!!

My husband gently corrects me, “they’re not zombies.” This only reminds me that a horror movie at least offers us the comfort of being no more than a fantasy.

Randy and I both read The Road in the fall. A few pages in, I had to skip to the end and read the last pages, just to avert the feeling of general disaster that extended off the page, just to make sure there wasn’t a big jagged black hole left there instead of black print on white paper.

What makes this book’s nihilism almost unbearable for me? The main character is a father. To teach his son to survive, he must teach him to kill feeling, emotion, care. Oh yeah, people will talk about the ZOMBIE, excuse me, the human cannibal gore, but the conversations the father has with his son after they witness the unbearable are what will keep you up at night.

Here's a companion piece I would offer Oprah. Or perhaps it is an antidote: Laura Ingalls Wilder's The Long Winter.

Catherine Newman in her very funny and wise blog turned me on to this book that I first read when I was a young girl. Thinking I might read some of the Little House series to my four year old, I picked up The Long Winter again.

Not since Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River,” have I seen such a subtext of hidden agony. The Ingalls family is trapped from October through May in their tiny wooden house in a speck of a town called De Smet on the Dakota prairie. Blizzards blast their home. The train can’t get through. The food reserves, lamp kerosene and coal run out. They cobble together meals of tea and bread made from seed wheat they must grind by the handful in their coffee grinder. In the dim winter light, they twist hay to burn in the stove all day long.

Yet when I read this as a child, I never saw the situation as dire. All through what I only now recognize is a parent’s nightmare, the Ingalls remain outwardly stalwart and upbeat, singing songs to overpower the shrieks of the blizzards outside. Ma calls the snow drifts that have buried them alive “a blessing” for keeping out the cold and the sound of the wind. When I first read Laura Wilder’s description of the family becoming slow-witted and dull, my teenage self probably chalked it up to boredom, not slow starvation.

The chapter “For Our Daily Bread,” tells the story of two 19-year-olds who ride out of De Smet with nothing but their teams, empty sleighs and the clothes on their backs, out on the prairie in 10 below cold, chasing a rumor of a homesteader who may have a store of wheat. Laura Wilder describes their harrowing and heroic journey in understated language. As night approaches, the returning boys see another blinding blizzard bearing down on them fast:

“Stars shown in the sky overhead and to the south and the east, but low in the north and the west the sky was black. And the blackness rose, blotting out the stars above it one by one.

‘We’re in for it, I guess,’ Cap said.”

I think of Cormac McCarthy’s reticent cowboys in All the Pretty Horses, of soldiers cracking jokes under fire. I think nineteenth century homesteaders had a necessary steeliness that is foreign to us now. I think about survival as a way of daily life rather than a Thursday night scripted reality show. I think I may have constructed my own modern day anxieties (Which preschool for Nora? Oh no! My IRA! Oh my! The neighbors use pesticides! Oh oh!) to keep me on edge.

“Under the quilts, Laura and Mary silently said their prayers, and Mary whispered, ‘Laura.’
‘What?’ Laura whispered.
‘Did you pray for them?’
‘Yes,’ Laura answered. ‘Do you think we ought to?’
‘It isn’t like asking for anything for ourselves,’ Mary replied. ‘I didn’t say anything about the wheat. I only said please to save their lives if it’s God’s will.’”

I think this is a conversation I never want my children to have.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Interview with Author Tucker Malarkey

An Interview with Tucker Malarkey, author of Resurrection. Penguin, 2006.

Tucker Malarkey’s second novel, Resurrection, uses the true story of the 1945 discovery in Egypt of ancient Gnostic texts containing alternate accounts of Jesus’ life and words as a backdrop to the compelling story of one woman’s journey from spiritual fatigue and emotional aridity to renewal, understanding and love.

Gemma Bastian, a nurse during the London Blitz, hears of her archeologist father’s death shortly after he has sent her word of making “an unexpected find, a find her rebellious spirit will appreciate.” As she searches for clues about her father’s mysterious death, she discovers tantalizing fragments of the Gnostic Gospels while becoming involved with two half-brothers: Michael, a veteran fighter pilot, haunted by his war experiences, and Anthony, an illusive scholar familiar with her father’s work. Her stormy relationship with the two men mirrors the dramatic changes she undergoes by reading the newly uncovered gospels.

Beautifully written, with lyrical passages reminiscent of Michael Ondaatje, Malarkey’s thrilling story reaches an extraordinary climax as Gemma and Anthony translate and read passages from the newly found gospels. Readers unfamiliar with the Gnostic Gospels will share a sense of wonder at their discovery with its quietly earthshaking message: humanity has suffered much by losing these words of Jesus.

Q: Please talk about finding the book you’ve called the inspiration for Resurrection, Elaine Pagels’ National Book Award winning The Gnostic Gospels.

Malarkey: Elaine Pagels writes a wonderful account of the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts in this book. Resurrection is loosely based on the events she describes. These ancient gospels, written in Coptic on papyrus pages, were discovered in 1945 by a Bedouin peasant digging for soil in Upper Egypt. The books, found in an earthenware jar near the ruins of the St. Pachomius monastery, proved to be part of a collection of sixty or so gospels that were widely circulated and read in the 4th century—ancient best sellers, if you will.

In that same century, when the new church outlawed all gospels save for the four selected for the New Testament, it seems probable that some of these holy men from the monastery buried these texts, perhaps with a prayer that someday they would be dug up, that their wisdom would not be lost.

When I started doing research on them, I asked friends, peers, elders, people with education and learning if they knew anything about these texts. Had they even heard of Nag Hammadi? There was a resounding silence. The fact is, the gospels did not become available to the public until the 1970’s.

When I started to investigate the content of these (in some cases only recently translated) gospels, my blood began to boil. What began to emerge was a picture of a Christianity that I never knew existed -- one of wisdom and beauty and openness. As I learned more, I started to feel something like betrayal. I didn’t know if it was a rational response, this sense that something precious had been stolen—a belief system more varied, generous, and mystical than the one Christians have today. It was as if the story of Christianity had once been a great and complex work of art, full of characters and color—a masterpiece. What history brought forward was a faded sketch, the merest outline in black and white. I guess it felt like a deprivation. The flip side was the incredible gift of this material resurfacing, of the masterpiece coming back to life.

Q: You have said: “The church is a political and fairly bloody institution . . . When faith and politics are married, anything can happen . . . The Gnostics were very democratic, (they) never got themselves organized to do anything.”

What do you think of the possibility that creating a worldwide church, across cultures, across ages, may be impossible in a democratic fashion? Does religious organization require oversimplification and quelling of disparate and contradictory voices?

Marlarkey: I think most modern organizations religious or otherwise operate on that premise. A hierarchical power structure is straight forward, and a model we’re familiar with – from the days of the early church. Those at the top have the knowledge and the power – they have the voice. I think, however, that harmful assumptions can be made by leaders about the people they are ‘leading.’ They sometimes assume a level of ignorance, when really people are as strong, resourceful and informed as they feel they need to be. In a system where they have no real say, what’s the point in fighting ignorance? If someone else is going to decide for you, why bother getting an education? The war in Iraq has done a lot to wake Americans up to how their country works -- and doesn’t work. It’s been a shock to a lot of us.

Q: What do you see as the place of faith in an open-minded searcher’s life? Must faith always be opposed to reason?

Malarkey: My grandmother was an Episcopal nun. She had two lives; the first as a wife and mother of four, the second as a silent contemplative. I never knew her in her first life; I never saw her out of her long, black habit. She was deeply interested in the events of the secular world. She read everything: Not just The New York Times and USA Today, but Reader’s Digest, The New Yorker, Harper’s and The Atlantic.

In her silent community on the Upper West Side of Manhattan we would sit in the little “talking room” and I would listen to her quietly hold forth on both the life of the mind and the life of the soul. I remember asking her if she really believed in God. She smiled and said, yes, but not in some gray-beard up in the clouds. She told me she came to religion when she understood that God lives not in the clouds, but in the hearts of people.

She added that she wished she was more like some of the novices in her order, and that faith came easily. She had to fight every day for it. The intellect, she said, was a great stumbling block. But it was dangerous to exclude it. You had to bring all parts of yourself to your faith. You had to come to it on your own terms; it was dangerous to divide yourself. It was with my grandmother that I first learned you could cross safely from the land of the learning to the land of faith, that the two were not, as it sometimes seems, at war.

I have this idea that in their highest forms, these polarities meet and become one. They are starting to find evidence of this in science, that, essentially consciousness is God, and the reverse. It’s a very hot debate in this country, and both communities are threatened by the claims of the other. On the faith side, it’s reported that 40% of Americans believe that the dinosaurs died in Noah’s flood – that the earth is only 10,000 years old. And on the scientific end, an equally strong counter-threat – that there is thought to be a ‘God gene,’ that predisposes one to faith -- that God can be explained by science. You can see why there is some contention. At the moment there seems to be no middle ground. I think it’s essential to create a place where the two sides can meet peaceably. I suppose Resurrection was my attempt at offering something towards creating that place, and adding to the dialogue.

Q: Would you mind talking about your own spiritual journey? Did you find yourself working through your own questions as you researched and wrote Resurrection?

Malarkey: Like my grandmother, I believe there is something more out there: a divine plan and order, though personally I cannot assign this belief to one religion. I have kept my mind (and soul) open and found answers – and great similarities – in everything from meditation to the great religions of Judaism, Islam and Buddhism – not to mention Christianity.

The issue of faith is present in most everything I've written. Resurrection shares themes of my first published book, An Obvious Enchantment. I guess you could call it "religious anthropology", though Enchantment centered on Islam and the Koran. Resurrection centers on the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Gospels in Egypt, 1945.

This astonishing archeological find opened a window to a branch of Christianity most don't know existed. These Gnostic Christians were considered a threat to the forming Catholic Church, partly because they believed that the way to God was through gnosis, or self-knowledge, and that there was no need for an intermediary or church. In the fourth century, the Gnostics were labeled "heretics" and their texts were outlawed and ordered destroyed by the Church Fathers. It seems, however, that these "heretical" texts were well known and loved. Someone found a way to preserve them. The story that unfolds in Resurrection involves some of the real life events that took place around the appearance of these texts in Cairo in the 1940's. While wrapped in a larger tale of love, war and murder, Resurrection is primarily a story about faith. It is a story about a Christianity we never knew, and a faith that was buried – a faith that instructs one not to ignore learning, and to seek God within. I am moved beyond words by what I learned researching this book, and sharing this knowledge – this lost faith – with others has become a primary motivation for writing it.

Q: When they meet, Michael, the bitter war veteran and Gemma, the shell-shocked nurse, look at each other in “a silence that would not have existed before the war.” (page 14) Michael later describes his war experiences in this way: “They take away your senses along with your fear. They don’t tell you that while your body may survive, your heart turns to granite.” (page 203)

Your description of characters suffering the fatigue of war and apprehensions of a new Israeli-Arab war feels very contemporary. Were you inspired by the experiences of American soldiers in Iraq?

Certainly they were on my mind. Like half of America, I was vehemently opposed to the war in Iraq. I marched in rallies and found myself becoming politicized by the process. War will do that. I think that anyone who starts a war for no good reason has never been in one, and certainly has no idea of the cost. I read that 70% of the homeless in this country are war veterans. They are so displaced, so traumatized, so damaged by their service to the commander in chief – and they fall through the cracks when they get home. It’s an unimaginable and often unnoticed sacrifice. Michael certainly feels some of this dislocation. He has lost the life he had before the war. It is a hard, if not impossible, loss to recover from.

Q: You paint an amazingly powerful vision of what revolution in the church could accomplish: women with equal power in the church, all religions accepted and respected, ignorance considered sinful. How hopeful are you of this vision coming to fruition?

Malarkey: Within the confines of the current Roman Catholic Church? Not very. But America is an astonishing country, capable of so many things. People want community and commonality; they want to believe in something. There are many alternate Christianities out there and they are growing stronger. There are even some Gnostic churches. Anything could happen, really, when the time becomes right; when people need a change. Look at what happened in the last elections!

Tucker Malarkey will be at Women and Children First in Chicago on April 11 and at Harry Swartz Bookshop Brookfield in Milwaukee on April 12.

Dentist on Tuesday

How did this happen? Mia's dentist said “three cavities” today and I’m reeling.

I say nothing, not wanting to alarm Mia, but memories flood into my head: memories of pinches and the industrial looking metal syringe that stays and stays in your mouth while you squirm like a hooked worm and the smell of the drill and the gagging from the water.

I take off my glasses, I look out the window. We are high above the rail tracks. I can see three church spires in the distance and a vaguely castle-like yellow brick building. “Do you have any questions or concerns?” Dr. Dentist asks.

Mia cried and thrashed this morning while getting dressed. “I don’t want to go to the dentist!” I told her I would be with her the whole time. I told her she would get to choose a little toy for being brave. “I’m not brave!” she wailed. But she relented, let me carry her the last block to his building. She pressed the elevator button and happily hopped into the waiting room, drawn in by the fish tank and the bright colors and toys. She lay patiently in the chair, opened her mouth on cue, even wore the heavy lead X-ray apron without complaint. So my heart is already open, moved and grateful when I get the one-two punch of the X-ray results.

Dr. Dentist says something about nitrous oxide. He doesn’t really recommend it but ... I can barely understand what he’s saying, guilt and worry and fear of her fear are so jumbled together in my head and my gut.

Fear of her fear. I’m more afraid of her fear than of her physical pain. Both the girls fall and cry nearly every day. They have rough and tumble bruises on their shins, scratched knees, random owies that we decorate gaily with fancy Band-Aids. I love the hollow sound of Band-Aid boxes bouncing into our shopping cart when I toss them in by the handful. Nora’s noggin is the unfortunate height to be a ripe target for doorknobs, table corners, protruding countertops. A backrub in Mommy’s lap, a bag of ice wrapped in a dishtowel, a piece of candy, a rush of sympathetic murmurs, all do wonders to spook the pain away. But fear? That leaves a deeper wound, not so easily hushed away.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

A Moment

Mia calls from the other room, “Mommy, can I print?”

“Yes,” I say, asleep on the couch. A few minutes later, she walks into the room. My eyes open at her footsteps. She shows me her picture. A hot air balloon she has colored pink with broad computer strokes that are so un-brushlike, they resemble solid tubes of pink. The balloon’s gondola is colored black in a similar fashion.

“Can I cut this out?”

“Yes, come with me.” I take her to the desk, demonstrate how to hold the pair of scissors, blades closed safely in her fist, while walking. I lay the scissors on the desk. “Now you do it.”

She does fine carrying them to the coffee table. I follow her, return to the couch and watch her work. The few moments of snatched sleep have stilled my head and I can watch her with clarity. Everything else but her, everything in the room, in the house, in the world, falls away.

Mia wields the scissors like a sculpting tool. She slices in wide swaths at the edge of the paper, slowing and refining her cuts as she gets closer to the round balloon shape in the middle of the page. The only sound in the room is the dry scratch of the blade moving through the paper and her intense breathing as she concentrates, holding the paper close to her face.

Peace. Love. Gratitude. The whole deal.