750words March 23 2015 ~ Sol y Mar = Sun and Sea

A few days ago I talked a neighbor into going over to the place where I’ll be living in about five weeks. The address is Sol y Mar #3001.

Sol y Mar = Sun and Sea. It’s all that.

The current tenant, floppy curls windblown every once in a while to dance over his eyes, was friendly enough as he answered questions and pushed gray-streaked ringlets away from his line of vision.

I asked about the path to the playa below the house. “You think a woman my age can handle it?”

A middle-aged surfer, he said, “Do this,” and lowered himself to squat, arms extended.

I was down in a heartbeat, arms extended.

“Yeah. You can handle it,” he said, turning toward the arched door separating his place and the neighbors on the south. Lucky for me—his quick turn away from my squatted response to his directive—because some serious wobbles took place as I stood to follow him through the gate. Rather than offering a hand, my neighbor smirked as I wobbled, then seemed a little surprised I made it up without using my hands to push off the flagstone.

“How’s surfing here?” I asked. I’d already mentioned kids and grandkids who surfed.

“For long boarders, it’s a little piece of heaven. K38 is probably better for short boards, guys who really know their stuff.”

Then we were through the gate, passing between the neighbor’s back patio area and the edge of the bluff above the ocean, stopping at a low fence built from wrought iron window-guard scraps and broken plywood. Maybe a bit over two feet tall, and lower on the bluff edge end—the fence was haphazard at best.

“There are two ways to cross. Some of us step over here—were the fence is low,” he said, standing at the edge of the bluff. He demonstrated. On that end the fence was only fourteen or fifteen inches high; between where he stood and a free-fall of a hundred feet or more (probably more) to the playa below—there wasn’t much room for error. A wobble, coupled with a toe tripped up by the fencing, would not be a good thing.

Maybe he noticed the tilt of my head, the doubtful squint of an examining eye, or the smile I wore—one of those smiles that said, “Not a bluebird’s chance in hell.” Whatever the cause, he moved away from the edge toward the opposite end of the fence and said, “Or, you can pull this open here, and wedge through.”

“Here” was nine or twelve feet away from the fence’s low end (and the precipice). “Here” pieces of ironwork and plywood leaned against a post and could be heaved away, allowing sideways (if not frontal) passage. We sidestepped through, walked on barren ground, and approached an outdoor “living” area replete with two easy chairs scavenged from the side of the road or left near a dumpster for anyone who might find them of continued value. Random surfers frequent this spot; one said “Hi, folks” from the open side doors of his van as we passed. He looked as if he’d been napping, sleeping bag hanging loose from the van’s cargo area to kiss the ground. I pictured him kicked back in one of the easy chairs, feet planted on an overturned bucket used as an ottoman, wood blazing in the makeshift fire pit, gazing toward the horizon, watching the sets come in from this high bluff at the edge of the sea.

From there, we stepped sideways down a slopping trail to steeper terrain with shallow steps cut into the earth, curved right and came to a drop where three steps had been chiseled from the shale, dropped to our fannies to reach footing on the highest cut-in step, and continued to the sandy bottom with the next two steps.

The tenant, already several yards ahead, said something along the lines of, “Little piece of heaven,” and I said something like, “Big piece of heaven if you ask me.” Looking north or south, I found nothing but beauty. Beautiful boulders, shimmering water, stretches of clean sand without a single footprint other than those left by the birds.

Cinnamon colored long-legged birds with long needle-like beaks high-stepped through low-tide shallows, seagulls soared air currents overhead, anemones lined the faces of tide pools, and sand-stone formations offered nature-sculpted places to sit and take it all in.

“From here,” the tenant said, “at low tide you can walk as far north as Las Gaviotas or south as far as Puerto Nuevo.”

I looked at my neighbor. “Las Gaviotas? That means I can walk to Rancho Santini by cutting up from the beach there. If low tide’s early enough, I can still walk to Jo’s for morning coffee!” He gave me the smile, the one that says, “Yeah, right. Like that’s gonna happen.”

I’m thinkin’ it will. I’m thinkin’ “Fooled you when I stood up without using my hands. That walk’s gonna happen.” All I have to do is get past those easy chairs up on the bluff before I sit myself down and put my feet up to take it all in …


750words March 14 2015 ~ Tequila and Transplanting Shock

Yesterday I wrote of whales and bricks. Today, while this two-story townhouse casts cooling shade over the backyard, I should be pruning pelagoniums, removing the once broad but now thrashed and wind-shriveled leaves on the banana tree Marcelo planted, soaking the ground to dig up dozens of cana shoots, reducing the spread of red apple—lush succulent that it is—with its fiery pink blooms so loved by the bees. Instead, I’m writing.

Thus far, with the exception of one day, I’ve maneuvered 750 words plus to the page. I blame tequila for the missed day. The thing with tequila is this: It makes a person mis-remember. Or not remember at all. The thing with the missed day is that I know I began my 750 and believed I’d completed them only to find, on the following day, I hadn’t. This lapse may have been age-related, but I choose to blame it on the tequila. Why? Because tequila intake is by choice; aging and memory loss due to aging—is not. By opting for tequila as cause, I avoid the unavoidable proof of a failing brain. Did I, in fact, have tequila on the third of March, the missing day in question? I haven’t a clue …

By May, I will be gone from here, moved to a different place. I will miss my garden: its sandy paths through the red apple groundcover; the palm trees Fernando planted when they were mere pups—barely a foot tall—not even close to the tall dogs they’re meant to become; yucca starts that took hold in this ground after Jennifer brought them to me; creamy white blooms of the calla lilies happily shaded beneath a wall of magenta bougainvillea; mounds and leafy galloping stems of white, purple and pink African daisies; vining tendrils of orange and yellow nasturtium … yes, I will miss all of this. This greening and growing. The chaos of it all. I’ll even miss the weeds.

There are things I can take, dig up and replant at the new place. The double-orange hibiscus must leave Rancho Santini with me just as it left Hacienda Villa de Floresta and the tiny casita where I lived when Jo Ann delivered it into my hands as a house-warming-bienvenidos-welcoming gift. For a time, that hibiscus and I lived at Terraznos in a big party house on the hill across from Calafia; for another spell, the hibiscus in its pot adorned the front porch of the pink house in Rosarito centro before moving with me to Plaza del Mar’s Los Arcos section into Doug and Anna’s charming cabana (which no longer exists). Another move—up the hill from the cabana—the hibiscus occupied an upstairs patio with a view of sea and dolphins at play while I occupied a studio apartment and enjoyed the comforts and friendship of my landlady, Ruth.

So many moves (five) in so few years (three) … it’s a wonder she’s survived. (I think of this particular hibiscus with its double-orange blossoms as female, representational of Judith Hollahan, a precious friend who lost a nasty battle with cancer before a sufficiency of tick-marks decorated her bucket list, a friend who loved “orange” in every possible way—from nail polish to crockery, lipstick to flowers—and is, very likely, the reason I signed the first lease on the tiny casita south of the border. Judith’s death, a few weeks before I traveled south to “visit” a friend, caused me to consider my own “bucket list.” Living in Mexico may not have been on the list when I arrived—but it was once I got here. End of story.)

For three and a half years, I’ve put down roots at Rancho Santini. The double-orange went into the ground here; she’s blossomed as never before, happy beside a deep-pink blooming sister I purchased in early 2014. I’ll take them when I go, dig a hole in new ground, nurture them with food and water, watch them grow, become lovely again after the shock of transplanting. I’ll do the same with the flax, with the blue agave (a gift from Fernando), with the calla lily and new starts of African daisies.

Hmm … all this “missing” business filling the screen … Am I suffering an early onset of the “shock of transplanting”? If so, let it be. Let it come. Bring me a shot of tequila as the sun sets. Let me grieve for what I’m leaving behind. And forget. There’s new ground waiting, a new place to settle into, take root, blossom as, perhaps, I haven’t yet done. I can become lovely again. I will. In time.

Why Do We “venture out in the snow?”

Why do we “venture out in the snow, move from comfort to comfort, leave a known place behind to gain the next port,” a friend recently asked in her blog posting on Water Street Press*. Such a question! I’m scatter-shot with possible reasons—some to do with the me of we; others to do with fictional characters I’ve created.

The me of we is a widow who came to terms with the death of her husband, the maturity of her children, the beauty of her grandchildren and “ventured out” of the comfort of Home Sweet Home (a crewel embroidery of this replete with daisies and roses hung on the wall of one comforting home for a dozen of the 22 years of marriage shared with a comforting man) to live alone in a little casita south of the border during a spate of drug lord wars and beheadings of policemen in 2008. Why?

The short answer is: I didn’t want to be needy. I didn’t want my happiness to depend upon the attentions of my children. I didn’t want them to feel obligated. Out of sight, out of mind, was my thinking. Crazy? Yes. Scary? A little. Not a white-knuckled drive through white slushing snow where the lanes of a highway are blended to become one great slip-and-slide hazard zone, yet not without its tensions.

Another short answer is: Bucket List. I didn’t have one. My dear friend Judith had had one. A lot of her boxes were left unchecked. I’d dreamed about spending a year in Italy. Sienna was the place I wanted to go, study Italian—such a gorgeous language. Mexico was closer; Latino Spanish was similar in construct, a steppingstone to learning Italian—perhaps.  Plus, I had acquaintances living in Baja. Why not?

As to the characters I’ve fictionalized and their sometimes surprising moves—I hesitate with my response. With Irene, the headstrong and athletic daughter of Olive and Joseph Johns, life was a great river to swim with a sureness of skill, a daredevil’s intensity of spirit (some might call it foolhardiness), and a will to do what was right even when right was wrong. Many, many things were wrong things for women to do at the start of the twentieth century. For Irene Johns, this heroine dear to my heart (b. 1899), who lived inside each moment, comfort became a cage. The same can’t be said of Olive, Irene’s mother, who dared to abandon home, hearth and husband—all but the oldest of her nine children in tow—by moving from Pennsylvania farm life to Brooklyn’s busy brownstone-studded streets. Comfort wasn’t a cage; comfort was something she wanted more of—especially for her children.

The blog entry mentioned earlier ended with a reference to “how each new unknown, collected and cared for, becomes another piece of beauty or knowledge we use to tell our story.” How much of Olive is me? How much of Irene? I ask myself this as I write, knowing both mother and daughter were born out of my collected and (sometimes) cared for experiences. We, my fictional progeny and I, don’t always buckle up for safety as we venture forth in the midst of bad weather or good; we don’t always apply the brakes when we know there’s a curve just ahead. There’s something to be said for the thrill of taking a curve at speed and holding the road all the same. Of course, one must survive—else how will we gain that next port?

[*visit http://www.waterstreetpressbooks.com/#!Wilmington-in-the-Snow/c1hch/A1840E8D-7F71-48EB-9DE5-A5BAE94A139B to read my friend Lynn Vannucci’s recent post]

Rooms of Light

We walked after dark.  Above, against the night sky of central Rosarito, streetlamps shone with bright spheres of illumination, cast circular rooms of light over the asphalt, rooms our shadows moved through, pooling for a step, then stretching behind us.  It comes to me these are like phases of living—what we approach, what we leave behind.  Those cowboys and Indians of childhood, the parenting games where we learned the ropes as our children grew into adults, are still learning, fed by new generations, next first steps, new rooms of yellow-cast light, the cycles of growth and dimming.

Two blocks.  Three.  Yaqui Taco is closed.  Four blocks, five.  El Gerente is also dark.  No perrones con todo tonight.  We turned west toward the main boulevard.  Now the light of storefronts sent our shadows to walk side-by-side with us; my German friend sometimes forgot he was not in Europe, the Americas underfoot.  Not in Germany with friends, father, brother, or sister.  A vendor with a cardboard box full of beaded bracelets balanced on her head smiled.  A tooth rimmed with gold picked up the glow of streetlights.  Gracias, no.  No, gracias.

A block south, Pueblo Plaza.  Cactus in rooftop planters.  Claws clicking against terra cotta, the thin cats of day prowling night’s roof tiles.  Courtyard wooden tables held candles under wine bottles with the bottoms cut out.  Calm flames phosphorescent through the green-tinted glass.  Bark of Mio, Yasumin’s ginger-colored lhasa apso with his little red-banded topknot of hair.  A ripple of hugs, kissed cheeks.  Yes, Yasumin’s sushi restaurant still served.  We ordered California rolls, ceviche rolls, bamboo saki, asked Yasumin the Japanese for Salud, toasted with Kampai!

That was last night.  When the rooms of light we moved through became one room.  Where asking for mas wasabi was as natural as my friend sharing stories in German I could not comprehend.  When all languages seemed equal and laughter brought understanding without comprehension of separate words.  Light was suffused, tinged like the air is at harvest time.  Motes of meaning floating in tiny, unseen arcs and spirals, places and phases, familiar as family, and yet not quite the same.  Shadows forming new shapes to pool, pause, diminish as we move.

The Joints I’ve Come to Love

On and off the main drag through Rosarito Beach, you can wander into joints.  They’re open air places to eat with plastic tables and tile counters, limones and radishes tumbled in bowls, fresh salsas you dip with small plastic spoons, usually a Melmac plate, a Fanta naranja to drink from the bottle like the old days, the fifties, back home.  Back home, California, is all cans and plastic these days.  Give me the glass bottle and a twelve or sixteen peso taco any day of the week.  The crew who throws together tacos de camarones o tacos de pescados at Mariscos los Cabos could do it blindfolded, but don’t.  The tacos are out-of-this-world good, on a side street the second block down from Waldo’s—the store with the big green and yellow sign with most things under the sun for a buck or so.

All my favorite joints are like that.  It’s the smiles, the enthusiasm of the tacqueros, those guys slamming tender and succulent beef or chicken or fish or shrimp into those warmed shells, the trimmings when requested con todo that seal the deal for me.  Tacos de Poblano, amazing, if small, stellar tacos.  At Splash, down the road a stretch, just before Medio Camimo and Chef Johnny’s Half-Way House, there’s the same “joint” atmosphere despite efforts to chi-chi it up with a fine big bar addition and reupholstered chairs inside.  Thankfully, the food’s just as over-the-top good, the Negra Modelo on tap comes just as cold, the beer mugs just as frosty, the waves splash the lava rocks beyond the exterior sea-wall window at high tide just as in earlier days, blissfully ignorant of renovations.

And on the way there (Splash, or Johnny’s Half-Way House—my recommendation is hit one for lunch, the other for dinner, going south or coming north along the free road—both have the ocean breaking practically across your dinner plate), you’ll pass the best birrea joint I’ve found to date.  Beef soup like, well, like better than Alice’s grandmother used to make.  I never tasted Alice’s grandmother’s soup, but I know Alice and her ways of savoring the best, and if she’s putting this joint’s birrea above what she loved made by the hands of a woman she adored – well, it’s got to be pretty good.  Personally, I’d never had anything even approaching its rich beefy flavor.  Cuñados is the name of the joint; it’s on the west side of the Avenido de Artesans (Benito Juarez when in centro Rosarito Beach), and there’s either an El or a Los before the Spanish for brothers-in-law.  Red plastic chairs, limones, radishes, diced onions, cilantro—heaped and tumbling from bowls.  And the Fanta naranja in bottles.  It’s bliss.  I’m telling you—pure and extreme delight.


Mexico.  Baja Norte.  The Popotla Cove.
Mid-morning. This ocean and sky are one soft gray
expanse. If there be surfers inside these mists
waiting out lesser rollers for larger rides,
they wait or rise, bodies slick with sea and balance,
in silence.  As if gauzed.  As if their whoops of
success are wounds carefully bound in bandages
wheeling out from absorbent marine layers, thick
with possibilities:  all night the beach fires glowed
before tents, boards stood as totems facing west,
hopes went up like incense for feasts of fine rides
with sun’s break.  And break it did
behind quiet fog.  Here, the foam’s ebb and flow
is a lick heard, invisible, salted, receding
as surely as clock hands proceed about faces
through measured time, allowing small creatures who
abide in the sand their meal of air, of continuation
between tides.  Now the totems may be weighted
with the builders of fires.  Striations of sea
blend with air.  The larger ride will come.
They are hungry; they are ravenous with faith.


[after reading Ted Kooser’s ALP post of Wisconsin poet Ronald Wallace’s ‘Sustenance’]

Being Here

Mid October, thirty miles south of Tijuana,
from a white casita I’d inexplicably contracted
to rent for a year, the view after sun fall
is dark date palms lufting good-byes and.
goodnights.  Lucky sky behind tall trees
is papaya warm.  And some hand has backlit
the sea, the ocean, with aquamarine.  It’s
as if the far side of this horizon is not water
but glass, and el sol, settled in over there,
focused for all he is worth on glowing
Pacific’s salt azure.  Uncanny, the colors
a dying sun looses on the world,
like a well gone riddled with holes
floods a square until asphalt and grass
are the same broad mirror showing trees
how they look when they bend, cars
how they move when they glide into gear,
columns on courtly mansions how grandly
they stand, and life, as it passes, how fast
it speeds by toward death.  Now the dark
palms lift their roots and move further
into night, disappear into an ocean some hand,
perhaps the same hand, has emptied and
refilled with a total absence of light.
Only sounds between casitas –
dogs barking stories from block to block,
a car alarm the next street over, voice
of a woman too distant to know what
was said – tango with hours.

You know how
a voice comes and without seeing the maker
of the words, gender is clear as a bell.
Without knowing her language or what
her words mean, you know she is a mother,
she will be obeyed, and loved for her
absoluteness.  Such voices are not
questioned.  Such voices simply are. 
Such was the voice that came in
and then faded through my window tonight.  
Now, all the dog stories told, old mongrels
snore with the stars.  The car alarm is gone,
giving back night’s skin; when it went silent,
as startling as when it began, claiming nothing
for its warnings.  I am certain the tides
are too far away to hear, or the breakers,
on hiatus from crashing to shore, are unfolding
one at a time, rolling out like translucent tongues,
long and wide, ready to speak of how water fares
on the south side, unwilling to wake the tired sand. 

                                    To be sighted
in the middle of night, be hearing in
the center of quiet, leaves a stranger curled
next to the heart, another eased under the tongue,
a third with a net on a long handle, who sits
where the ribs almost meet, catches pulses
and beats, keeps them from straying out
on the dark where the mongrels sleep. 
Phantoms drift in and out, stop by to lift
the tongue, say hello to the dreamer there,
but the red child of words cannot speak,
rolls noises up from the lungs, grunts and turns
with lessening squeaks, and so the drifter
moves on.  He would sneak through
the chambers of the heart, but is barred
by the stranger there; he would steal
the net of the pulse catcher, but is caught
by the net, instead, and thrown to a toe
where he pinches you awake.  And each
morning do you thank them?  The mothers
who call you inside and the inside strangers
who hide under tongues and swing from
your ribs  catching thieves who would
wrestle your heart from your chest?  No –
for these miracles of breath, sight, sound
you pay no price, offer no crowns, see
another blue sky, green frond, red roof
without knowing you see them at all; hear
another dog bark stories of high mountains
and gulches where coyotes grow horns,
cacti are covered with teats that never empty,
and the men are all kind. 



[after Philip Levine, Getting There, The Simple Truth]