Sunday, April 30, 2017

Bed Time for "The Bed Book"

I fell hard for Sylvia Plath. I was hooked from the first line. Poppies in July, Fever 103, The Moon and the Yew Tree. Her words are pure energy, power. For people-pleasing 15-year-old me, I borrowed her fierce light every time I read her work. With every line I memorized, I took in a fragment of her strength and made it my own.

My love for her work was expressed in the usual way: collecting. I bought and read her collect poems, her letters home, her "novel," her journals. I collected every biography. I acquired the 1993 Plath Edition of the New Yorker. I found recordings of her readings. I eventually even obtained the book she was reading when she died: The Ha Ha by Jennifer Dawson. And when that was all satisfied, I began collecting her individual chapbooks, as they had originally been published. This was long ago. Back in the day. Back when we had to hoof it through the northwest's notorious drizzle to each book store. We had to read the spine of every musty old book to make sure our treasure was not there. Alphabetized? Occasionally. But often, we collectors had to spend hours with our heads cocked to this side, then that side, reading the vertical titles. And if they didn't have what you were looking for, you had to ask an actual person, perhaps a narrow angular woman who looked not entirely unlike the spine of a book herself, with a dower downturn at the corners of her mouth. Or you'd search the store to find the owner, round, dusted with dandruff and sitting among a pile of books. And there was usually a cat or two. And you'd ask them if they had it. And then they would accompany you back to the poetry or biography section and read the spines of every book and confirm that they did not have it. And then they would promise to keep an eye out for it, taking a little note on a little piece of paper and pinning it to cork board. And then you would check back every few weeks, trekking through rain, to see if they had gotten a copy in and had held it, or forgotten about you entirely in their ocean of notes, and shelved it, so you'd go to the way back and read every title on every shelf in the poetry section again.

Boston, 1997
Today, one could just google the author and within minutes, budget allowing, transform oneself from having never heard of an artist to owning their complete works in every possible format in less than an hour. All the fun has gone out of collecting.

Back in my day, it took years, decades, and many unsociable shopkeepers, to fulfill a collection. It was a challenge. It was devotion. It meant something more than the sum of it's parts. And that's how it was with Plath and I. Every used book store from Bellingham to Seattle knew what I was looking for. There was just one book I could never find: The Bed Book, a bedtime story book for children written while she worked in medical records at a hospital.

My fandom even extended itself to possibly the worst, most misguided coz-play in the universe. Just before Halloween, back in 1999, I'd become enamored with the phrase "Sacred cows make the best hamburger," and I decided to translate that in to my costume. I took my hero, Plath, a woman who's portraits I had bedazzled and glitter glued and pasted on to my rented room's walls, and turned her in to a costume. It was easy to do: just a cardboard box painted white, gas burners festooned with fluttery tissue paper flames. The turn-able knobs all went up to 103 degrees. I dressed as a 1960's housewife in burnt orange and avocado, a turtle neck, a wooden spoon in one hand and a journal in the other and the cardboard oven over my head. There was a photo, but I've stashed it too deeply to retrieve. I offended so many people, so many. Some never spoke to me again. My people-pleasing tendencies and making hamburger out of sacred cows don't really go together very well and I was profoundly uncomfortable with myself as I tried to socialize with a satyr and a bumble bee. I put myself in a most awkward situation and dragged the entire party along with me. It was a costume in dire need of a trigger warning, but it did actually come from a good place, I like to think.

As every other "good" (after that costume, I'm not sure "good" applies to my fandom) Plath fan, I also hated Ted Hughes, the husband who cheated on her and left her, precipitating her suicide. I hadn't read his work, I just didn't like the idea of him. When I finally read his work, accidentally of course, and accidentally loved it and then turned the book over again to see who it was who wrote this lovely thing and of course I was horrified and felt like I'd accidentally, ala Greek drama, cheated on my true love. And yet I loved his work in spite of myself. And I found solace in the idea that at least I could now see what Plath had once seen in him.

I wondered, along with every biographer and their multitude of theories, why she killed herself. Why oh why oh why? Why, we all demand to know, why! We, the bereaved fans, need an answer. Was it her daddy dying so young? Was it her demanding mother? Was it that her husband had cheated on her? Was she bipolar? What were her 13 reasons? Why, with her children in the home? Why, with her friend in the flat below hers, just steps away with a sturdy shoulder to cry on? How could someone with so much talent, not see how badly the world needed her to go on?

And yet, her suicide seemed a daring, rash statement. Everything we want from an artist. It intrigued me. And I suppose I had my own questions about suicide that had no other outlet, no other answer than to be foisted on to Plath, the sacrificial goat bearing all of our questions and unresolved issues. A friend in high school killed himself. We shared 4 of 6 classes together and since the teachers sat us alphabetically and his last name started with W, we were together for most of the day. For 1 1/2 years, we'd graded each others papers in math and Spanish. Learned tennis together in PE. We'd been CPR partners in health. We didn't go out for coffee, we didn't call each other at home or sit together in the cafeteria, but we'd been companions for 3 semesters when, on the 2nd day back from Christmas break, just weeks after we'd learned to revive the rubber infant with teeny tiny pinky-finger CPR, his chair beside mine in our first class of the day was empty.And the announcement was made.

The day before, he'd found me in the hall. He'd asked if we could talk. But I was already skipping class to talk to another friend who was having an issue, so I told him I was busy. I'd been trained as a "Natural Helper," someone people came to confide in, someone who was able to help them get the help they needed. I felt honored that people would confide in me and yet I sometimes felt I carried the weight of too many. And I'd told him a soft no; I was sorry, I was busy. I'd had no idea he was in such distress. There were no clues. I'd told him I was sorry and I'd told him I was busy, too busy for him. And I carried that shameful secret in my heart for decades. I did not feel safe grieving or talking about it then and so I ran away from home. I had my own close calls with suicide. I dumped my perfectly fine boyfriend. I drank on the bus to school, I got stoned at lunch. And I fell in love with Plath. And I did not talk about it for a very, very long time.

When I finally pried myself open, the shame burned like a vampire in the sunlight of my therapists office. And then it turned to dust as all vampires do.  I had only been 15 and he was just 15 too, maybe 16. I hadn't been cruel or mean, just busy. He needed before he came to me. I didn't cause him to do anything. Eventually, hopefully, he may have learned how to care for his own mental health. But back then, how could either of us have known just what to do, how to handle anything, how to handle these giant things, how to help ourselves, how to help each other? Even as adults, there's a befuddling muddy line between what you can do and what you can't, how to help, when, and if you can at all. A good therapist is a good place to start, no matter what role you are stuck with in these situations.

And now there is the show "Thirteen Reasons Why," widely criticized by mental health workers and anyone with any level of mental health. The premise is that a teen commits suicide and leaves 13 videos telling people what they did to contribute. The justification is anti-bullying (which I don't even think is a thing because most bullies don't self-identify and don't self-shame into changing their behavior and the bully/bullied identity can flip so quickly and easily, from home to school, from grade to grade. Compassion-training, now that's a thing that's proven to work on all parties involved). But I cannot imagine my sophomore year and all that it contained being layered with a show like this, with my own suicidal ideation and coping with the suicide of a friend who I brushed off as gently as possible but brushed off all the same at the wrongest of times. I'd like to offer a big "FUCK YOU"  to everyone involved in the this show, you money-grubbing sick-o fuckers.


I hate when people say that teens are just babies and just wait until they're out in the "real world."  Most teens are experiencing things that they won't even have the tools to make sense of for several more decades. Most teens are going to emerge from the trauma of high school with a bit of PTSD and eventually need a therapist to unwrap all that went on during such impressionable ages.


All of my soul-reckoning and true healing would wait for 20 years, for now there was Plath, with her poetic self-sabotage. And she became a piece of my heart. I filled in the missing and broken pieces with this fierce woman.

Plath's Boston apartment, 1996
At the time of her death, Plath was a New England girl, living in Old England, the land of her cheating husband. She had two young kids. She was alone, isolated. She'd had a sinus infection and it was the worst, coldest, longest winter England had seen in a century that February 11, 1963.


There came a day, when I had two young kids and we lived in Pullman and we were looking for something to do in the cold and we went, as we often did, to Br-used Books. As we meandered towards the children's section at the far back of the store, I would slowly zig-zag from section to section, lusting after all I could not fit for that brief moment (which felt like eons on some days) in to my life. Finally we would arrive in the little children's literature room in the back, lit by florescent tubes. Coyote ate board books and Blue "read" bigger books and I looked for something to fill the evenings with as we still didn't have a TV and had yet to instituted the "3 books before bed maximum" rule. There was always the library, but by the time all my library fees were tallied, I might as well have just bought the damn books. One board book had one word on each page. I paid $.50 a word in library fines.

There we sat on the floor together, feasting on a picnic of words and pictures. And suddenly, a paperback, so flimsy even the cover was thin as old newspaper, floated into my hands. The Bed Book. The last piece in my collection. I'd stopped looking long ago, of course. Young kids being what they are, plus working. I'd lost touch with my hobbies, with large parts of myself as mothers sometimes do, for a time. I'd not expected this final piece to ever slide in to place. And here it was, like magic, falling open effortlessly upon my lap.

I called Blue over and began reading it to her. It was not engaging and she soon toddled back to whatever she'd been engrossed in before. When Plath had written it, the world was still coping with "Dick and Jane" books, so it was probably interesting by comparison. But today, with authors like Audrey Wood, it can't hold up. The price was penciled in at $6, which was a song for the collectible but which felt like a lot to us then, a student family on food stamps and child care assistance, and me working more than I wanted to. Plus, Blue was amassing a pile of books in her arms and I couldn't buy every thing.

Shocked at the find, I sat in stunned contemplation. Life had come for me too over the years. I too was cheated on and left by a husband. I too had sinus infections, with young children, and a husband out of town all in the same week. I too had endured bad winters with tiny kids. I too had lived abroad, lonely, at times. I too had worked in medical records, had written in stolen moments from office jobs. I, too, often feel that February will be the end of me. As my experiences expanded, I questioned less and less the why of her suicide. Life is hard, internally, externally. Although there is no allure for me, it's not really a mystery why people want out at times. And certainly between aunts, uncles, a cousin, an ex, and a step-father-in-law, our family has dealt with the wake of this "decision" plenty enough. It's not artsy, it's just painful.

I've said it before here, but it bears repeating:  "Again, we had that talk with our kids about depression, bipolar, and how if you are thinking about suicide you needed to have seen a therapist a while ago, but it’s better late than never. If you are sad or anxious or feel crazy for over 4 weeks, you need to see a therapist. There is a giant army of well-trained professionals who have dedicated their lives to helping people in these situations. They are standing by, eager to assist. Therapy does not mean something is wrong with you, necessarily. What it means is that life has given you a challenge greater than your current skill set [and sometimes that challenge comes from within]and a therapist will help you develop the skills you now need to approach this new challenge in new ways we can’t always figure out on our own."

I imagined Plath that night, or early morning, opening the window to her sleeping children's room, rolling up the towel to put beneath their door, turning on the gas oven, kneeling before it. I was about her age that day in the book store and it was no longer an exotic image of the artist in her final work. There was nothing daring or powerful about it. I did not feel reverence for her, but neither was there anger, even as she abandoned her children. She must have been so ill. She wasn't thinking clearly. I felt neither enthralled nor repulsed. She's a fine poet, I thought, but a terrible children's writer. And severely ill. Severely. Poor woman. Leaving an inheritance of pain for her innocent children; she couldn't have been thinking. She couldn't have known what she was doing. There was no single reason, there was no reason at all. She was not capable of reason by that point, though she likely thought she was.

I imagined the thin papers of The Bed Book tearing at the first touch of any child, much less the book-eater. No wonder there weren't many around all these years later. And if the kids weren't allowed to touch it, where would I keep it? High on the bookshelf and I could only look at it when they weren't around, which was when? It didn't seem to have any place, physically, in my current life and I was appalled that such mundane considerations had seeped in to my holy obsession. Ten years ago there wouldn't have been a practical consideration in the world that would have prevented me obtaining that final piece of my collection. Had my Plath obsession drifted off to sleep over the years? Had I finally had enough? Was it time to let her rest in peace? But what of finishing my collection? Was this just another way for a mother to lose herself? Or was I finding my own own power, my own confidence and no longer need to borrow Plath's? I'd finally found the final piece. It was in my hands; literally literarily (and now alliteratively) at last within my grasp. How could I let it go? 

We brought our books down the long tempting corridor to the counter by the front window. The owner had a eye out for some Mary Oliver for me and we discussed the dearth of used Oliver books (this was still before Amazon, amazingly) while he tallied up our total: Blue's little stack, and Coyote with one to chew on. And me with The Bed Book. But when I slid the frail booklet on to the counter I said, "I found this in the children's books. It's actually a collectible and pretty delicate."

"Oh, wow, yes it is," he said, "Thanks." And he placed it to the side to be re-priced and re-shelved.

And we left, me and my two kids and their bed time books and book-snack.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Missing the Zapatistas


There are huge parts of my life that are hidden, not intentionally, but because there are no obvious markers they exist. There is no way to work them in to casual conversation without some sort of unwieldy and forced segue. Even here, on my own blog, I have a story I want to tell, a story I've been asked to tell, and yet can find no sly, smooth introduction, no discernible connection to my current life, no way to ease you in to it. So I am going to plop it artlessly here:


I had been working illegally in Mexico. Both bosses promised to help me get papers, but neither did, the first one held it over my head, a perpetual carrot, "You want me to get you those papers, right? Then go clean this thing that keeps electrocuting people!"

After two jobs and 5 months, I was finally ready to return to the US but wanted to visit my friend's family in Belize first. From my emails: 

“8/13/99 ...And, just when I was thinking it was time to go, some official
guy came in to my work and took some photos of me, and then later that
night a man approached me in the plaza and said he knew that i was
working illegally and that i was about to be deported.  So, that just
seemed like the cue to leave."

(You can read an abridged account of Belize here, if this extensive post some how leaves you begging for more.)

I left for Guatemala from there, got a hotel in Flores and spent my days exploring the adorable Island of Flores in a huge lake, a place I wouldn't mind returning to. The steep stone streets were picture perfect and the bar on the beach with the rainbow of boats made my heart thrill.
Boats on Lago Peten Itza

From there, I booked passage back to Mexico (Palenque, Chiapas to be exact) via a tourist shop in town. There were several modes of transportation required for this complex journey: vans, buses, canoes, etc. It was a bit expensive, but I was assured that my package included arrangements for every single leg of the journey. 

In a small van, with a motley crew of tourists from across the globe, we cruised through a variety of farms: banana, coffee, cocoa, as well as pre-farm clear cuts. In order to repay predatory IMF loans, subsistence communities were forced to transition from growing a variety of food that they use to growing mono-crops for export and sale because the IMF takes their repayments in cash, not local foods.

Eventually the farms turned to jungle and then suddenly we were in Bethel, a tiny Lancondan village with grass-roofed mud houses and a few canoes on the shore of the Usumacinta River. From there, I boarded a sharp, knife-like canoe outfitted with a little grass roof and an outboard motor. There were maybe five of us ferried several hours up the soil run-off, silt-opaque river. I was super high on adventure. I had a passenger snap a photo of me glowing in my new Mayan tattoo (given to me by a Mayan friend using a tape recorder motor, a guitar string and homemade ink. 17 years on, it's not wearing well, but I'm still awfully fond of it.) 

Glowing with joy on the Usumacinta River (that's someone else's pack. I traveled much lighter)
That evening, we arrived in a tiny village and much to our surprise the people in that village were angry to see us. There were more than a few tourists piled up in an extremely chaotic scene. No one had been able to leave the town. It was not immediately clear if we were being held hostage or if something had happened to the van that was supposed to pick us up. People were panicked and crying. I remember a plump woman in white running shoes and billowy shorts, her face red and shaking.  The residents were appalled that more of us kept coming, five at a time, a steady trickle in to a town with no way out. They could not simply take us back because the boats were only powerful enough to go up stream with the weight of one person, the helmsman.

At first I felt a shock of fear, my nerves on fire with panic. Then, as it became clear that I could not understand any thing that was happening, I settled into a state of surrender. Whatever is going to happen here, is going to happen here, I reasoned. I was traveling alone, among tourists whose languages I did not speak. I knew some Mayan, but mostly just cuss words my Mayan room mates had taught me. Although certainly used in this situation, they were not particularly useful for getting out of it. Plus, I was pretty sure there would be different dialects. I had no idea what language my fate was being decided in. And in that situation, my mind shrugged "Oh well." I cannot remember how long I was there. Hours? A night and a day? I had no internet access so my e-mail/journal is silent on this.

The next adrenaline rush came when I realized that the other tourists had left without me. In my "Oh well," state, I'd stopped trying to follow every conversation and apparently missed the one about the bus coming. Someone in the village spoke a little Spanish and I was told this: things with the Zapatistas were heating up. (Goody Goody!) Bus drivers weren't able to make it through the myriad of federal check points in the jungle. They were setting up a system to bus the tourists out, as none of the villages along the way had the resources to feed us for long. Runners were sent, phones were accessed, the villagers wanted us out and a patchwork transit system had been set up. However, there wasn't room for all of us on the taxi that had come. But no worries, I'd be the first one on the next taxi, if there was a next taxi. I guess my lack of panic was translated as, "She doesn't care how long she stays here." And I didn't. I could have stayed there the rest of my life. I probably wouldn't have even minded if I'd been a hostage. I'd included Chiapas in my itinerary hoping to find, and perhaps join, the Zapatistas. Yes, I was happy at the edge of rebellion.  

They were still working on sending word back to Bethel to stop canoes, so there was one more load, a group of Dutch college boys. We shared the next taxi. They were obnoxious and one would have guessed them to be American frat boys. After maybe an hour in the taxi we were dropped off in the middle of the road in the middle of the jungle. It was indicated that we were to walk from here. So we walked, without a clue where we were. And soon we came to a couple of Federalis (a domestic soldier) in the middle of the road. They asked us questions about our affiliations and we were easily allowed through the check point.  We kept walking. I remember an issue of not enough drinking water.  Out of sight of the Federalis, we came upon another taxi. This taxi brought us to a beautiful lodge in the middle of the jungle. It was a restaurant/hotel made of large logs and stones, with an unusual, tall ceiling. It looked like a Norweigan long house mixed with a medieval castle, but with bright Mexican tapestries on the walls.

We ate here. The Dutch boys decided to stay the night, but I pressed on, eager to ditch those rowdy rude boys. There were a few more check points which involved me walking alone through the jungle. At one point, I heard "psssts" coming from the woods. When I looked, there were two little girls in giant men's undershirts. I followed them in to the woods where they showed me bead necklaces they wanted to sell. The beads were large gray seeds with a chunk of sandalwood incorporated like a charm. I happily bought the wonky jewels and we giggled and talked, or rather gestured, for a while and then I returned to the road and on to the next check point.

I was finally dropped off at the ex-pat hotel in the city of Palenque.  It was a small hotel full of chronic world travelers and that might sound hypocritical, but the thing is that some people travel like consumers. They avoid locals and when they must interact with them, they treat them like crap. They hunt out American food. They hang out only with other foreigners. I could not understand why one would travel to a foreign country and ignore or disrespect the residents, except to be able to brag about it later? They name drop places, saying things like "This is SOOO like when I was in Nepa-a-al." I too was a tourist, and there is nothing wrong with being a tourist, with admitting you are here to tour, to see, to marvel, to gawk, to photograph. I was also there to learn, to open my mind, to experience a different way of viewing the world, to try on how other humans, obviously my equals, live. Really, they just seemed scared of life, like they wanted the reputation of traveling, but actually hated and feared it, which is simply another variation on the human experience, just not mine. I suppose we're all entitled to travel as we like, but there was an essence-ial gap between me and those in that hotel.

I feared being sucked in to the tiny ex-pat world. And in an attempt to not become one of them, I rarely talk of my adventures, lest I come off as bragging, or a consumer of other cultures. In a classic case of judging-others-and-then-fearing-similar-judgment, I don't want to be judged as "one of them." But I DID have those adventures and I DO get to speak of them from time to time. And I'm not doing it to tell how cool I am, how rich (I wasn't), but rather they are a core part of who I am, who I've been. Sometimes people don't believe me or think I've exaggerated. But my stories are plenty wild without any additions and if I were to exaggerate, people really wouldn't believe me. And I hate not being believed, hearing "Then what did you imagine happened next?" (literally was someone's response). I got sick of dealing with other people's fuckery, so I stopped talking about it. But, not today dear mother-fuckers. This story is by request. Apparently I now have friends who respond with, "Why the hell are you keeping these stories to yourself!?"

Anyway, this hotel was crawling with consumer/travelers, collectors of countries in the service of ego, little notches carved into their passports. (God, I was a judgy about this. Apparently only MY travels are real!) And I left as soon as I could. I took a bus out to a camp site by the ruins of Palenque. The Mirabel campground was a collection of grass roofs under which one strung one's hammock. The grounds were so large, one hardly noticed the giant Jurassic Park fence around the property that kept out the howler monkeys and panthers.  Before the fence, there'd been a few lost campers, I was told. It was an international crowd here too, full of travelers more oriented to fully experiencing a place and its people (see, I'm not super judgy about EVERYONE!) My palapa-mates were a Mexican priest-turned-jewelry-maker and his Canadian girlfriend. This guy gave me the creeps so I worked to keep on his good side. One day he joined me at Mirabel's cafe and brought out his shitty jewelry. He complained that other jewelers made fun of his jewelry, said it was fake.  He said some people, NOT him, take glass beads and paint them up like they're Chiapas amber, but he would never do that. Looking at his beads, he clearly was doing that. And so I bought a bunch of shit-jewelry from him. I hoped I was buying security so I could sleep at night. But I also used to have a knack for knowing people were lying yet happily enabling it.

The palapa I shared with Edwardo and Julia
There had been thefts from the ruins recently, so the entrance, just a few yards from the camp, was heavily guarded at night by well-armed local volunteers.  One night a drunk group of us wandered out to the road, there was a brief, terrifying confrontation with the guards, but the old man among us soothed it all over. Then we laid down in the middle of the road and sang local folk songs up at the stars.

One morning, early, on a hot tip, I walked down the empty road. From the bushes I heard it: "Hongos. Hongos," they whispered. I whispered "Hongos" back and followed the echo into the jungle.  A few preteen boys were there with a bag of fresh mushrooms. I gave them $10 and ate the bag for breakfast.

Many of the petroglyphs I'd studied were carved in to the large temple stones and I loved using them as flash-cards to help me memorize their meanings. That day at the ruins, I could no longer tell which stones were carved with petroglyphs and which were not. After a while, each stone seemed to be inscribed and they all seemed to be talking to me, telling me all manner of amazing truths.

At the "peak" of Temple of the Cross that day.
Previously, in Cozumel, I'd ridden my bike to the San Gervasio ruins, the only known temple devoted to the Goddess Ix Chel. I loved those ruins, the spiral altar, the white stone paths. During a full moon, pilgrims would boat over from the mainland and the moon would make the white path "glow", lighting the way to the entrance altar. Couoh, a grounds keeper, noted my enthusiasm for every nook and cranny of the place and approached me. I immediately had a good feeling about him and agreed to join him when he offered to show me more. We climbed to the top of a temple and he moved stones to reveal hidden paintings, hieroglyphs. In the jungle, he moved some branches to reveal a scene straight out of an Indiana Jones movie. Behind the branches was a path and he took me down that path to a tall hill. That tall hill was actually a temple that was slated for excavation soon. We became good friends after that and eventually he introduced me to the Mayan underground...a system of cultural self preservation and I'll never say more.

The entrance altar at San Gervasio ruins on Cozumel
At Palenque that day, I met a man who had the same story. He knew of un-excavated temples and he would show them to me. I happily agreed. but when I arrived at the huge ceiba tree that was our meeting place, it was suspiciously too far in to the jungle. Luckily, the mushrooms were still active and the ceiba tree was able to tell me, very clearly, that although everything had been fine with Couoh, this was an entirely different situation and I needed to leave immediately. I didn't believe her until the ants climbing up her trunk started to agree, chanting at me to leave. And then the river said, "What the fuck are you still doing here? This is really pissing me off. Dammit, Sarajoy, listen to us!" Well, okay then. I can see where I'm not wanted. I left with a little bit of a broken heart which is probably better than a broken back.

Later, there were waterfalls to swim in. I felt lonely then, at the local swimming hole, alone. I loved traveling solo, each decision, left or right, was mine alone and I was free to follow my instincts. But here, the kids splashed with their friends, the women murmured among themselves. It was sometimes lonely, traveling like that, so I made friends as often as possible. The local Mayan women did not talk to foreigners, so that meant I was talking with men, and not knowing the language, I found it actually easier to read them for safety... paying more attention to body language than to pretty words. Other than one violent boyfriend and that incident in Belize, I was safe with every man I met.

The one native woman I spoke with in Chiapas was very old. Some days I took a bus to other ruins and we picked her up in the morning with a cooler full of tortas which she sold to workers (and me) during the day. I helped her load her stuff on the bus that evening. When she disembarked, she stood in the door way. She took my hand and said, "Ix chel va contigo." Which meant, "Ix Chel (the goddess whose hieroglyphs are tattooed across my arm) goes with you." It was the mostest benediction ever. I almost exploded with the thrill of it.

I eventually tired of playing tourist at all of the ruins, some quite remote like Bonampak with more canoe trips, partially excavated ones, climbing up the tallest pre-Columbian building in the Western Hemisphere, and life threatening interactions with Yaxchilan's howler monkeys that I swear were trying to steal my soul. I think my 23 year old self was hoping for a sort of Jane Goodall moment, where I'd meet an archeologist and they'd take me on right there. But it kept not happening. So I decided to take a break from the ruins and go for a hike at Aguas Azul. On the bus there, I collected a few others to hike with me. The "village" at the trail head was a simple, random-seeming collection of plywood stands selling trinkets, tortas, and water, nothing interesting.

Painting at Bonampak that I wasn't supposed to photo due to the flash. I didn't know at the time. So sorry!
We stopped at a hanging bridge (about two feet high over a tiny creek, not too Hollywood) to chat with an American girl and her aunts who I'd kept unfortunately running in to. The girl was the only one to speak Spanish in her entourage and she drove me nuts. She'd studied Spanish in school for 4 years and was obsessed with perfect execution. She spoke slowly, using the formal conjugations that no one outside of court uses. She was constantly referring to her translation book. Judgy-me felt that she was abusing the language, dissecting a living creature, forcefully applying a spread sheet to a song. I could have appreciated her willingness to leave her hotel and talk to the local residents, or her attempts to communicate, but instead I was hung up on her stiff approach to speech. Maybe I wanted to be the only American girl out there, maybe I was jealous. I'm a pretty good girl, but there are dark corners in here too.

Beginning at the bridge
This is how I learned Spanish (aka: The Proper Way):
1) flail in high school for a few semesters,
2) move to Mexico,
3) flee your violent alcoholic boss so your life depends on learning the language fast,
4) move in with girls who don't know English,
5) go out clubbing with them,
6) get drunk and start trying to speak Spanish with abandon,
7) make a shit ton of mistakes,
8) get laughingly corrected,
9) say "sorry!" a lot,
10) repeat every night for a week and then
11) wake up speaking Spanish with such a thick Yucatacan accent that anyone who didn't watch this messy process thinks you were born there.
12) Start translating books for your new employer and arguing with coworkers in Spanish
(Secret step #13, move back to the US, never use Spanish again and forget nearly everything)

Really, I just wanted to get that girl drunk and see what she could do, Spanish-wise, but she was so heavily guarded by chaperones (I could have maybe used one of those) that it was never going to happen. We parted ways and my small group proceeded through the first bit of corn fields until a tall, thin European couple came screaming from the field just in front of us. They were running so fast I almost didn't catch the content of their screams; they'd just been dragged in to the fields and robbed at gun point. My new friends were all: "Run! Zapatistas!" And I was all: Why couldn't it have been ME! Dammit! Just a few minutes too late! And also, "I didn't think the Zapatistas were like that." I'm still not sure it was them.


I'd never found much success or joy in capitalist-extremism. I'm bewilderingly unable to make it work for me (even just in the past few months the "Sarajoy vs. the Machine" score is Sarajoy: 1?, machine: 2-3). Without enjoying its benefits, I'd grown to hate it. And I was horrified to see how fast and forcefully it was being exported and imposed on the world, the whole variety of human cultures being funneled into one behemoth of a single culture, a single, destructive "culture" that places profit over every form of life, with shareholder dividends valued over drinking water and life-saving medicines. I hated that I was born in to such destruction and I could find no way to not be a participant in it. I longed to escape this trap and the Zapatistas seemed like a step in the right direction. And here I was, missing my chance by a minute. Realistically, I'm pretty sure they wouldn't have let me tag along. I would have been an unwelcome international incident with no real skills to contribute.

(To contribute to the Zapatistas while fueling up for your long days in the Machine, you can maybe get yourself some Zapatista "Fuck Trump" coffee starting here.)

My new friends dragged me along, running, while I gazed back longingly like Lot's wife. Back at the village, shit was going down. Clearly this had happened before and there was routine to it. Every stand had been tipped over to create a shield. Every shop keeper now had several automatic rifles slung over their shoulders and was hunkered down behind the upturned stands. This random little village was actually a battlefield-in-waiting. As we ran towards them, every gun was aimed at us. There was yelling and screaming and my compadres all put their hands up in the air and I followed suit, although I had little idea why. The robbed couple (the man, not the hysterical still-screaming woman) confirmed to the authorities and crowd that we were not the robbers. We were then grabbed and bruised and thrown on to buses. I yelled, "This isn't the bus I came in on!!" But the door slammed in my face and we peeled out down the steep dirt mountain road, almost flying off of it as trucks full of armed and alert Federalis barreled towards the scene which was all over the news by the time we got back to the city.

Things were pretty boring after that. I wandered around Campeche, a gorgeous, peaceful town. I stayed in a mansion at Merida that my boss/boyfriend had insisted I stop at, although he did not join me there. And then I returned to Cozumel to pick up my stuff, party one last time, and return to Washington. I worked at a Mexican Cantina on Orcas Island for a few weeks, making margaritas ALL day, which took a bit of the sting out of my Mexico-missing... in several ways. And then I moved to Seattle and immediately joined the WTO-protest planning were I met Huck. If you can't find the rebels in a foreign jungle, become a rebel in your own concrete one.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Citizen Blackhole

Our enormous, gorgeous orange cat died. King Louis le Cat was 17ish and was literally the very best cat to walk this earth. I have no idea what particular sort of moronic monster abandoned him at the pound at 5 years old, but lucky for us someone did. A Norwegian Forest Cat or perhaps a Maine Coon, his size astounded all lookers and he loved, loved, loved the cold and the snow. I can almost see him now, the wind twirling the ends of his long orange hair, his huge white paws keeping him on top of the snow. He would lift his chin to the wind with a contented sigh and a smile. He also loved kids and would give a room full of five year olds his belly to rub, every time.

We'd been on "Louis Death Watch" for a few years. He had renal failure, but managed to last long after diagnosis. The night before he died, he seemed fine. He'd run across the field to the house. He'd jumped up on our bed that night. But in the late morning, I saw him laying awkwardly in Coyote's room and when I checked on him later, he'd hauled his suddenly paralyzed body down the stairs. His bodily functions released in the car, on Blue's lap and she was loaned a pair of scrubs at the vets. It was mercifully quick and by the time we got to the vet, he was barely breathing and cold. It was good that the thing to do was so obvious. I was not expecting to cry so hard that I could not drive us home. This happened only a few days after the election and it felt like the whole world was ending.


King Louis loved the garden, sunsets, kids, and cold weather

King Louis made us very happy very often
The election. Oh god. Radical change was in the air and some took advantage of it and others didn't think it was possible. For some of us, a shake up of some kind seemed inevitable, which is why I pulled so hard for Sanders in the primary. For those of us on the front end of recent economic tribulations, radical change seemed obvious and I was gunning for it to go the cohesive compassionate way instead of the crashing, bashing, smashing coup-like situation we're in now. Last spring I'd said to Huck, "I'm scared if Bernie doesn't get the nomination. (Hillary's gender was revolutionary but her style of governance appeared anachronistic to me). Revolution is coming and it's either going to be kind and democratic, or chaos and possibly violent and my kids will be the ages to get caught up in it." It looks like our new shadow president, Bannon, and I agree on something, we just disagree on what we want it to look like: Article about Bannon's WWIII fantasies.

The winter/sick days' 2000 piece time suck that is both a source of pride and shame
Since the election of Immortan Don, the Grifter in Chief, I don't know what to say to anyone about anything. Words seem pointless. It all feels meaningless. I have little faith in humans. And I don't see the point in spreading my personal blackhole around to the bright stars in the darkness that are my friends. So I've engaged very little with any humans other than my kids and husband. However, there was some thorough healthcare self-care in there as I'd met my out of pocket maximum (thanks to a huge breast lump that is graciously benign!) in October and over-filled my calendar with massages, acupuncture and chiropractics. I then came down with the entire respiratory suite of symptoms so severe that I ended up on four prescriptions, which is not something I typically engage in.  That prevented human interactions for at least three weeks. Once I dropped a gift off at someone's house and said "hi" for a few minutes. Other than that, I went about 50 days without seeing anyone, which isn't untypical in my winters. But that may have been a personal "best". Since my head injury, I am an uber-interovert, but even that was a bit much. So I'm trying to reach out more. An unhealthy isolation helps no one and does not make the world a better place.

And also, it is conversations with my friends that inspire this here blog. I often feel I don't have anything to say. Some things I'm not ready to blog about and somethings I don't want to blog about. And those are the things my therapists deal with. But with friends, we chat and joke and I don't think I have much to say, but then there's a look in their eye of keen interest. Or I tell the something I thought was mildly amusing but nothing worth writing about, but suddenly someone is laughing out loud and I think, "Oh! I have something to say!"

Someone conjectured that I was trying blog material out on them. But it's the opposite, really. It's their responses to an idea or story that help me see that I have an idea other people might enjoy. I think, "I might write about that." And then that idea shows up again and again in multiple situations and I sit down to write and it all coalesces into something that seems to me to be sort of coherent. And that, my friends, is how a blog is born.

But I wasn't hanging out with friends. And so the blog dried up.

But I'm feeling a bit better, not about the world though. I'm pretty sure nuclear annihilation is coming soon. And that the sub-oligarchy we've been living in for the past few decades will fully blossom into all-out economic abuse. And I can't fix it. I don't think HitlerII is at the helm, but I do think it's a fascist capitalist.


Between the election and the inauguration, there wasn't anything to be done, except make tear-water tea at home, alone, and try not to make the world a worse place. I tried to avoid the inauguration, staying off social media and making my morning busy, but then I was put on hold and on hold I heard, "I do solemnly swear..." It was like the cosmos needed me to bear witness, as if the USA had yelled at me, "Witness Me!"  I cried. I cried 8 years ago during the inauguration too, but for different reasons and feelings. But now with the appointment of a "fox for every hen house" (as Gloria Steinem said at the Women's March), there is something to do. And having something to do does perk me up a bit.

I can make phone calls. When Bush was president, I kept the phone numbers of each congress-person, state and federal, by the phone. And every night that I awoke in a sweat from nightmares of apocalypse, I would call them all first thing in the morning. I would promise myself that I would call in the morning and then I could fall back asleep. If, in the morning, I reneged on my promise, then the next time it wouldn't work and there'd be no sleep.

But I'd relaxed a bit in the intervening 8 years. I needed a break. Perhaps I shouldn't have, but it seemed healthy. Activist burn out is real and worth avoiding. A girl in college turned a sweatshop protest in to her own personal sweatshop, working 36 hours straight. She ended up screaming at everyone. She would not go home and she would not sleep. The foundation of a healthy society is healthy individuals. So we work on our shit, we take care of ourselves, we sleep and sometimes that has to be enough of a contribution.

But now I've resurrected the practice of phone calling. Once again I have my "representatives" numbers posted in the dining room and in my phone. And I have committed to making a phone call every day. Just one. That is my promise. That is literally the least I can do. I hate making phone calls.
my kids casting long winter shadows

It was hard to make that first call, despite it being easier than ever to find the numbers. But I couldn't figure out what to say. I asked the internet. I asked the organizations whose work I support. And got some great responses, scripts and instructions. And also, I was made fun of, "If you don't know what to say, maybe you shouldn't be calling, dumb-ass." But I catch myself imagining that I needed to write a 20 page paper on why the Exxon executive should not be Secretary of State (he is now) before I can call. This is obviously not true. It would also be a terrible idea because if I did write a 20 page paper on such a topic and then made a phone call, I would have difficulty figuring out what to say and what not to say and would nullify my whole point by lecturing their assistant for a very boring hour during which their minds would wander, and rightfully so, and they would not check the box on their form for which side of the issue this particular peon stands.

I was once a senate page, and that's what I did. Nuanced arguments could not fit on the yes/no spreadsheet before me as I, a fifteen year old, listened to irate constituents blather. Sometimes I could not even figure out what side of the issue they were on! In those cases, I couldn't even check a box.

And although I may be informed about an issue and know why I think the way I do, just picking up a phone can be difficult.  Now I write my own little scripts, trying not to spend too much time making them perfect. I'm down to just bullet points teetering on yes/no statements. But once I get it down, once I make the first phone call, it's easy. And I realize that I could just call ALL of them RIGHT NOW! And so I do. So that's at least three phone calls a day.


They say it's most effective to address 1 to 2 issues during a phone call. But everything is happening so fast and it took so much courage to make that call, that I end up talking about all of the issues on my list. It's not like I'm going to run out. By tomorrow, there will be at least 10 more issues to call about; there is this abundance of bullshit being fire-hosed in to the world and there's no end in sight. "My" senator's assistant thinks we're done and says, "Okay, I'll let the senator know! Thanks for calling." And I say, "But wait! There's more!" This possibly renders my already ineffectual little mosquito-annoying phone call even more useless. But I can't seem to help myself.

Afterwards, I can compartmentalize. I can tell myself that I did the politics thing for the day. I can move on, or try to. I can ignore the rest of the terrifying news of the day. And it seems to help. And there will certainly be more to call about tomorrow. It's the Lernaean Hydra of politics, replacing each head we cut off with infinite heads.

I'm also trying to remain calm during the calls. It's hard because this feels scary and the adrenaline flows freely. Everything seems unprecedented. It feels like we're careening into Banana Republic and one side believes in functioning government and the other side just wants its way and is willing to blow up the whole damn baby to get it. If I was Solomon, I'd know who the mother is. It's an anxious time and the typical tricks to keeping anxiety in check don't work. Usually, there's the method my friend put so succinctly: possible vs. likely. But everything here is so farfetched, so unfathomable just the day before that it's hard to parse out what's anxiety run amok and what is the sky actually falling. But I try to be calm because I don't need to spread my anxieties to every poor bloke on the phones. "My" representatives are going to do what they're going to do with my opinions and the exchange might as well be as pleasant as possible, for my sake at least.

And then there are the marches and rallies, full of energy and hope, almost more for the marchers than for our ignoring leaders. In fact, they were once such a powerful force for me that I wrote my college thesis on personal artistic expression in marches. My advisor was an art history professor specializing in Mexican art, so she got it. I got blowback from the rest of the Art Department at UW. They were under the bizarre impression that art is only true art if it communicates nothing, otherwise it's "propaganda". But art communicates, whether you want it to or not, and you better think long and hard about communicating the meaninglessness of art. In demonstrations against authority, it is most certainly not propaganda, but rather its opposite, a show of personal expression, a subversion of the conformity necessary to rule absolutely. Propaganda comes from the top down and that's not the art we see in political protest. Play and creativity are utterly necessary to every human endeavor, especially a social movement... making the road by walking it. But those are my old, academic battles. We've got a shit-ton of fresh, relevant battles to fight today.

I wanted to go to the women's march. At first. I thought, "Wtf, women's march? That seems hopelessly broad (harhar) and particularly pointless." But I began to remember my old college thesis, and part of that paper was devoted to the history of the parade, the march, a show of force. The conquering army would march through the town displaying their size and power, group chest-thumping, so to speak. It was meant to crush the rebellious soul.  And I began to realize that, yes, it would be appropriate to remind our "leaders" of how many of us there are. "Dear Administration: This is what you are up against! May your ambitions be crushed upon viewing." And then the glorious Gloria Steinem spoke. And I felt I had to go to Spokane's march (our largest ever at 8-10k people). But the day before, I'd gotten an oil change and little did I know they'd spectacularly over-filled my reservoir and the day was instead spent getting screwed over, again, at the mechanics.

But I marched for refugees and immigrants. Post TBI, it is difficult to be in a crowd. And so when Channel 2 interviewed me, I didn't make much sense, babbling, syntax errors, backing in to ideas. Plus I was wearing my light-sensitive glasses, which are never attractive. Then, when they published the written account of the video, they omitted all punctuation from my statement, no doubt having no clue where to put it, and my gibberish quotient grew exponentially. All-in-all, I was a highly ineffective spokeswoman for the movement. I will try to have a succinct and clear statement prepared before I head out into a crowd next time.

Does it work? Does marching work? Do protests work? Does calling work? A recent book claims that the WTO protests in Seattle had a huge impact in changing the conversation. The protests gave delegates from poor countries the courage they needed to stand up and be heard. It worked. A little. It seems all of our little mosquito phone calls are working now too. A little. All of our marching is helping, some. I'm fairly cynical about it all, though, thanks to this Princeton and Northwestern study: Citizens have No influence on laws passed. Thus, some of my phone calls have included off-the-cuff, unhelpful barbs like "This may be an oligarchy, but we demand that you be a bit more subtle about it." And more recently, "Is this a coup? This feels like a corporate coup."

Some reports are that all of us together have actually pushed back some of these sudden and shocking changes. Just today, phone calls ended the bill to give public lands to the states. But, as is the Hydra's nature, there's another to allow drilling in National Parks. And we lost the fight for clean water. But then, only a few of us still had had that privilege anyway.

It is heartening to see some unlikely coalitions forming under this strain. McCain, normally a nut job with terrible taste in vp's, seems to be holding the country together single-handedly.

It's also encouraging to see my fellow Americans voicing their opinions, being involved. We may not be able to stop this train-wreck, but at least I'm not alone in my horror. There are other humans, compassionate humans, here too.

Effective or not, there is still the matter of me. Can I sit idly by and let this destruction of democracy occur? I can't save the world. I can't save the country. And I can't make all of my fellow Americans get on board. But I also can't do nothing, can I? I don't think that's a position I can live with. So however illogical and ultimately pointless it may be, I am committed to making one phone call a day, at least. It is literally the least I can do without doing absolutely nothing.

Maybe nothing we do will change the inevitable, terrible outcome of humanity. But for me, I have to do something anyway. Perhaps I'm too cynical; I don't imagine I'll be changing the world. And yet, I'm still a citizen of it, and am committed to acting as such. I will raise my voice for love and peace, for the earth and all its inhabitants for as long as I have a voice. This is my solemn vow. I may not love the world right now, but I am deeply committed to its well-being. And I am not alone.

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