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Category Archives: Real Live Virgins
I believe the remarks that President Obama delivered in Tucson, a fraction of which I’ve copied below, may prove as memorable as Lincoln’s remarks at Gettysburg. They come at a pivotal time, when the mental health of one individual has called into focus the national mental miasma. Has the United States become unbalanced? Or rather, has polarized rhetoric left a gaping hole in the center of who we are as a people? The fulcrum we seek — no, need — may well be epitomized by the sharply felt absence of Christina Taylor Green. But in her physical absence, what nine-year-old Christina symbolizes is a powerful spiritual presence. She represents those virgin qualities that each of us longs for at the core of our being, the state of being unbroken, un-fragmented, un-invaded, un-captured, focused, whole and intact.
We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us. I believe that for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.
That’s what I believe, in part because that’s what a child like Christina Taylor Green believed. Imagine: here was a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy; just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship; just starting to glimpse the fact that someday she too might play a part in shaping her nation’s future. She had been elected to her student council; she saw public service as something exciting, something hopeful. She was off to meet her congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important and might be a role model. She saw all this through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted.
I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it. All of us – we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.
The President might well have added one more Bible quotation to the ones he so aptly chose to include in his entire speech. Isaiah prophesied an end to polarization when he saw the wolf dwelling with the lamb, and the leopard lying down with the kid. Whether one takes the verse literally or metaphorically, the determining factor is clear: “a little child shall lead them.” Children, simply by the force of being what they are, lead us out of and away from what would destroy us. Perhaps our collective memory of this particular child will sharpen our resolve to simply be better.
Yesterday at the Writers Who Love Mexico meeting, we heard from three different authors who have committed themselves to preserving history. Joan Singler gave a brief description of Seattle in Black and White: The Congress of Racial Equality and the Fight for Equal Opportunity, a book she collaborated on with three others, which will come out next month. Mexican history was served with a healthy dash of British insight by Gordon Preston, author of The Chacala Story and descendant of the pirate Thomas Cavendish who plied these local waters. And Carla Stellweg departed from her accustomed field of expertise, Latin American Contemporary Art, to share the first chapter in a personal memoir which wove strands drawn from her childhood in Indonesia during the second World War, her education in Holland, and the beginnings of her art career in Mexico and Japan. The whole program was a feast of cosmopolitan flavors that I’ve been savoring ever since. What a variety of voices and perspectives, speaking of races and places all over the globe!
Before we adjourned, Carolyn Kingson, a writer from San Pancho, posed a question she categorized as “ethical.” Someone had posted an anonymous comment on her recent blogpost, addressing her as “an idiot” for using the word “terrorism” in relation to living in Mexico. The terrorism she was referring to was that of a opossum that was holding her family hostage with its night-time antics. It was supposed to be funny, and anyone with any sense of humor and who has dealt with invading wildlife would sympathize and laugh. Her question went to what extent should we watch our words and cater to what search engines might pick up or what readers might take out of context. I’ll take the liberty of saying the consensus of the group was, “write honestly with a good heart, and then step back and let people make of it what they will. There will always be someone who will take issue with what you have to say — or how you’ve chosen to say it. Don’t try to cater to dodos.”
In this spirit, I’d like to share a link about someone who has always been a hero of mine. Hers was a presence I followed since girlhood when I wanted to grow up and work for a newspaper. I think I was in junior high school when my journalism teacher explained how press conferences at The White House worked — how the key figure was Helen Thomas, sitting there on the front row. She was the one who set the tone and the timing. And she was the one who asked the really hard questions. As I watched her through the years, I admired how she didn’t back down, how she seemed to grow stronger and more trenchant with age. But her presence is no longer there. She disappeared last June, because she spoke honestly, if perhaps unwisely, from her heart. Here’s an account of what happened. While many have characterized her departure as ignominious and tried to paint her as racist and bigoted, she was none of these. I think her experience is another example of the Guadalupe Presence that gets covered in pelican poop from time to time. Like the concrete statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe out on the jetty I see from my office window, flocks of mindless squawking feather-brains cannot knock her off the rock of her conviction. Helen Thomas is an inspiration for me — as are all writers who speak their truth and preserve the many-voiced chorus of our common history.
I’m writing this piece under the solemn gaze of a four-year-old girl who is waiting to show me the killer dance moves she has learned from watching Shakira. “Espérate,” I tell Valeria. Wait a while. Like about eleven more years, please.
Quincianeras are celebrated in Mexico when a young girl reaches fifteen years old. They mark an official passage into womanhood. For one day of her life she changes costumes more times than Cher, gets the kind of attention Miley Cyrus takes for granted, and her parents hire a band to play sentimental songs like “Turnaround” from the Kodak commercial. Larry and I were invited to a big quincianera this past weekend.
I think we scored tickets because the proud papa at first considered staging it in our RV park. There have been parties there before because it’s pretty, paved, and has plenty of bathrooms and electrical outlets. It’s also private and easily secured, a major consideration these days when Mexicans throw a big party. It was available because with travel advisories against driving in Mexico, we’re not getting a whole lot of business.
But Papa’s guest list grew and grew, and our little RV park was not big enough for a sit-down dinner for five hundred, a VIP lounge area, a dance floor and a twelve-piece band from Guadalajara. Papa eventually rented Hacienda La Peñita, a square city block studded with towering palms, and enclosed by high stonewalls. It’s dreamy beautiful, but in the whole place there is only one outside electric outlet and not one easily accessible bathroom. No problema. There’s not a lot you can’t accomplish in Mexico if you’ve got pesos. Papa hired a semi-truck with fancy built-in restrooms, and a substantial “gratuity” insured a direct hook-up to a nearby power pole. Within hours the Hacienda was transformed.
The invitation said a partir de las ocho. “If it begins at eight o’clock,” I thought,” leaving at nine will make us fashionably on time — according to Latin standards.” I am married to a man whose lights go dim before the evening news, so leaving for a party around nine in the evening was a major challenge for him, let alone putting on a tie. But just after nine, we approached the Hacienda slowly, very slowly, cruising for a parking place, subjecting our open, honest faces to the scrutiny of armed guards who were posted on all four sides of the party place. Papa greeted us, seemed overjoyed that we’d come, and led us to a table with the four other gringos in attendance. We were obviously early.
We also thought we’d scrubbed up pretty well, but we didn’t hold a candle to the glamour that surrounded us. My Mexican neighbor had counseled me about quincianera protocol. She told me to expect elegance — una noche de largas mantelas – literally, a night of long tablecloths. Party after party of the most beautiful and stylish people gradually populated the tables around us. Languidly, guests staked claim to white-shrouded tables — and stayed there. Maybe it’s just hard to mingle on a soft lawn when you’re wearing four-inch heels. It was honored-daughter, with her attendant court of young men and women, who promenaded from table to table, greeting guests, allowing plenty of time to take in the details of each others’ dress. The young men were seamless in their manners, their partners accepting their attentions with a grace engrained since kindergarten.
There were also lots of waiters, bearing lots of wine, lots of tequila, and eventually – wait for it, because we did — dinner rolls. I’d fed us a little something before going, but the combination of soft dinner music and growing hunger pangs were putting a glaze in Larry’s eyes. Soup was finally served about ten thirty, cream of corn with a hint of curry, but Larry gave up around eleven and took a cab home. The entrees arrived about twenty minutes later, a variety of coconut shrimp, filet mignon, and garlic-laced dorado with side salads of baby lettuces and blackberries. Just before midnight, an MC took the stage and announced that honored daughter had una sorpresita for us – a little surprise. Serve Larry right for leaving early. Not only did he miss the meal. He missed her belly dance, complete with appropriate drapery.
It was after midnight before the live band struck up with Latin rhythms that finally pried guests away from the long tablecloths and out onto the dance floor. There were trumpets, drums, choreography and vocals that rocked the neighborhood. The teen-age queen had yet another costume change, and when I left just before one, the lively part of the evening was just getting started.
Are the rhythms of Mexican life really that much different than those of their northern neighbors? Concerning party times, manners, and table service, yep, they are. But some things move at the same pace north or south of the border – like waiting forever for a grown up to finish what she’s doing, or watching a young girl grow up in the blink of an eye. I’m almost finished, Valeria. I’ll watch you dance. It will only be a moment, and then it will be — gone.
It’s the day after my father’s funeral in Lubbock, Texas. I’ve been awake for hours, even went out for a walk before daybreak, drawn by a full moon and the thought that exercise might dissipate pent up emotions. I crept out the door, not wanting to disturb sleeping relatives scattered through the house. I almost fell into the flowerbed. Weird stairs. This is not the house I grew up in. Everything seems strange right now. The moonlight turned out to be mostly from streetlights, the full moon itself unspectacular above the orangey artificial glow. A wind, dry and dusty, sapped moisture from my nose and lips, and left my skin feeling scratchy. Cranky, I crossed the street, turned around and came back in.
I miss my home in Mexico. The full moon there is shining on Centennial festivities. Yesterday was Revolution Day in La Peñita. My dad would have loved the fireworks, music, and little kids dressed up in costumes. I miss Daddy. I had breakfast in Santa Monica last week with a Facebook friend who had read Virgin Territory and identified with my memories of being raised on the High Plains of Texas. Blocks from the Pacific, we unconsciously lapsed into our native drawl, laughing when we both noticed. Neither of us talk that way now, but there are a few tell tale signs that give us away as Texans. One of them is the phrase, “my daddy.” Another is funeral food: pots of beans, home made potato salad, Jell-o concoctions, casseroles, glazed ham, pounds of smoked brisket, and acres of dessert. Do they mourn this way in Santa Monica? I don’t think so. Arugula is not a comfort food. They do mourn this way in Mexico, only with tamales.
Dad would have delighted in my Mexican experience. There are Sam Jackson Humidaire units and drying systems at work in cotton gins all over the world, many in Mexico. I talked last night with a company engineer who had just returned from servicing some of them installed forty-five miles south of the border towns of Presidio/Ojinaga, a peaceful area where Mennonites grow cotton, not drug crops. It is Dad’s machinery that helps make growing cotton profitable in places as diverse and widespread as Tajikistan, Benin, Burkina Faso, Greece, Turkey, Australia, Egypt, Central and South America, South Africa, Israel, and yes, Afghanistan. If you wear cotton, the fiber in your garment has probably passed through a system designed or inspired by the man I called Daddy. He was brilliant.
But that daddy disappeared sometime during these last eight years. I can’t say exactly when his pensiveness and dry humor turned unresponsive, or his thoughtful reflection ceased to take concrete form in vibrant conversation and repartee. Even this past year he’d come out with plays on words that would make our jaws drop they were so funny. Did his departure begin under the guise of apathy and indifference, a sense of resignation generally identified with growing older? Did I mistake his waning passion for mellowing, instead of recognizing the black hole where there was no there there? I have no question about one thing: Alzheimer’s sucks.
We opened a time capsule last night, after well-fed guests left and the house had cleared of all but family. It was a caramel corn container that Boy Scouts sell, filled with letters written by family members and then sealed shut with duct tape. The label on the lid read “Christmas Day, 1999. Do not open until Christmas, 2009.” OK, we’re a little late. But this is the first time the family has been together since 1999. So almost a year later than planned, we took turns reading our individual thoughts about the new millennium. Ashton, now a self-possessed college freshman, was surprised at the tight little wad of paper she’d scribbled as an angry eight-year old in a post-Christmas snit. “Mean Kindahl. Rude Savannah,” she’d described her sisters. “I’m sorry,” she said to them last night, all of the sisters sitting together, laughing uproariously at the image of that ranting little girl who had stapled her letter to the future shut.
That was the beautiful thing. We were laughing, all of us. Sweet Ashton was before us, her true image intact, untouched by the past. And, now that the sun is up, I realize that with yesterday’s memorial, the true image of my dad was restored as well. The silent and distant resident of Grace House was no more Daddy than that angry eight-year old is Ashton. Sam Jackson’s friends and family were there to share their stories and memories, to bring him to life – his identity intact, sweet, solid, unbroken, and whole. Hah! My dad with virgin qualities! Perhaps there’s an Inner Guadalupe in us all.
I met Karen Figueres this morning at breakfast. She was upset. She’d flown in from Costa Rica to Boston yesterday, and in Miami had received word that her country had been invaded. She was hoping she could find something about the situation on U.S. television news yesterday evening. OK, you can stop laughing now. Not about the invasion, but about the chances she would find any news about it anywhere on American television. And you can start laughing again, because evidently it was a big misunderstanding caused by a Nicaraguan military commander using Google maps. Google maps about this area are wrong.
But Karen’s distress was real. You see, she’s a former First Lady of Costa Rica — twice. It was her husband Jose Figueres Ferrer who abolished Costa Rica’s army back in the 1950’s. That was one of the accomplishments of his first term in office. Among others, he also granted blacks and women the right to vote. Because of meeting her this morning (we were introduced via Facebook by a mutual friend), and thinking all day that her country was being invaded, I’ve been reading about him on wikipedia. I’d say more about him here, but it’s been a very long day. I’ll let you follow the wikipedia link and see if you agree with me — Jose sounds like someone who didn’t do things in the usual way — definitely a guy who was in touch with his Inner Guadalupe.
Posting an addition to this entry after a friend shared a link of official media photos.
“Honorary virgins.” The phrase has stuck in my head ever since I read it last Friday in The New York Times. It had to do with Republicans who will probably be swept into office today. “The fact that they aren’t incumbents is a technicality,” Russell Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers explains. “They still have a lot of political experience.”
The quote caught my attention because I’m always on the lookout for good virgin references. My own book is Virgin Territory: How I Found My Inner Guadalupe. But I set this quote aside at the time, because frankly, I just didn’t want to get into the whole political scene. That’s one of the reasons we moved four years ago to Mexico, where the Virgin of Guadalupe is everywhere. We were just tired of the fight – tired of the polarization, the rhetoric, and the battles being waged on so many levels and on so many fronts. Yes, we voted for Obama, and No, we didn’t expect the world to be transformed by his presence. We did expect to see a few new faces in the administration on the financial front. That didn’t happen. But I’m still grateful he was elected. It was transformational for the country in the mere fact that it was done. It was proof that a majority of Americans are looking for a new way of doing things. Obama, if he is not re-elected in 2012, will be able to play with more freedom on the world stage than he could as President of the United States. Like Jimmy Carter, the presidency may serve for him as a springboard to greater accomplishments. It may be one of many accomplishments for which Obama will be known.
“Being known” is what draws me to that phrase “honorary virgin.” There is, as I’m sure we’re all aware, a Biblical sense of that word, as in “And Adam knew Eve, and she conceived.” Carnal knowledge is what we associate with losing virginity. But that’s the kind of virginity that deals in technicalities. The concept of virginity that I’ve been touting is that of the original meaning of the Greek word translated virgin. That would be someone who was “one-in-herself,” a complete entity, undefined by any relationship other than the original one she had with her Creator. It was this kind of virginity that Mary expressed when she said, “Behold, the handmaid of the Lord!” She didn’t say, “What are Mom and Dad going to think?” or “How is this going to play down at the temple?”
I’d like to reclaim my own virginity. I don’t want to be known as somebody’s daughter, somebody’s wife, or somebody’s mother. I don’t want to be solely identified by any carnal relationship, real or metaphorical. And that includes, in particular, the body politic. Don’t shove me in a corner and stick me with the name of Republican, Democrat, or anything else. Looking at the options offered, I feel my mental knees slamming shut. You don’t know me! You can’t know me!
I grew up attending church, so I’m hardwired with Bible language. The Sunday service I went to always ended with the same verse from First John, which included these words: “Therefore the world knoweth us not.” It came on the heels of words by Mary Baker Eddy that said that right here and now, we were not material beings, but spiritual. I had a real Aha! moment a few years back when I read about the practice of using acronyms for legal charges in Victorian England. So when someone was arrested for engaging the services of a prostitute we do not find the entire entry, “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge,” but just the first letter of each word. “Aha!” I saw. “It’s only when I lose sight of who I really am, and identify myself as some body, or with some “body” of thought, that I get, ahem, known.”
The people of the United States, the citizens who pay taxes and have seen Wall Street and the banks bailed out, have been well and truly known. Many would indeed use that f-word. And still we get promises that So-and-so running for such-and-such knows how we feel. In all due respect you don’t know how I feel. But that’s not to say I don’t want to be known. I just want it to be more. I’ve voted, but I honestly don’t think that the seeds of what I as a person, or we as a nation will become lie in what goes on in Washington. We’ve been there, done that, and done it over and over again. Right now we’ve been used, violated, and left on the side of the road. No mortal hero, congressional, senatorial or presidential is going to fix that.
One manner of dealing with trauma, the most common, is dissociation. People seal themselves off, isolate the hurt, find ways, consciously or not, to avoid thinking about it. That’s another reason I left the country. But being broken can also mean being broken open. I refer with tongue in cheek to “My Inner Guadalupe.” It’s a euphemism, inspired by my new surroundings, for that open place inside of each of us that’s ready for new things. I’m wondering if we’re ready as Americans for that “new thing.” Are we ready, rather than being the all-knowledgeable, all knowing, to open up and be, well, virginal?
Open up to whom? Or should I ask, to what? I find myself tip-toeing around God-talk these days — even another reason for my geographical distance. There are some subjects that are too intimate, too tender for those who are traumatized to articulate, or hash over on talk radio or television in soundbites. That’s why the Psalms have served humanity over millennia. They give us words to express our longings, a means to voice our pain. Confronted with public noise, recorded phone messages, a barrage of advertising and rhetoric, I whisper ancient words. “Behold, you want truth in the inward parts; and in the hidden part you will make me to know wisdom.” Modern words from The Message put it this way: “What you’re after is truth from the inside out. Enter me, then; conceive a new, true life.”
Maybe what we need is not a new Congress or even a new President. Maybe what we need is a midwife.