Certain songs pop up completely against my will when certain prompts come along.

When I hear the name of the town Tlacolula (a bit east of Oaxaca), I sing, “Hey Tlacolula, she’s my baby.”

When I see a sign for a “Comida Corrida” (prix fixe meal), I sing, “Comida Corrida, girl you’re on my mind.”

And when my computer game prompts me, “Do you really want to exit?” I am sure it’s singing it to the tune of “Do you really want to hurt me?” and I join in.

The Virgin of Guadalupe, matron saint of Mexico, had her feast day last week. We were eating in a restaurant known for the view from its rooftop, and heard a parade coming. It was already dark, but I got this picture of swirling skirts in the street below.

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At the time, our main course had not yet been served. We received it and ate it; walked over to the ice cream shop up the street; strolled with our nieves (ices, literally “snows”) to El Llano, the main park in the center of town, where there was a traveling amusement park; walked around, went on a couple of rides and watched a couple more (the mechanical bulls with real steam coming out of their nostrils being a high point); and, as we were leaving, saw the same parade pass by the park. The participants had been going for at least two hours. They looked a bit less peppy now, but they were still marching, playing, and dancing.

We leave tomorrow. I’m going to miss this city so much.

A friend circulated this video to remind us what risks the drivers of colectivos, town-to-town taxis in Oaxaca, take whenever they get behind the wheel. When we want to go to San Martín Tilcajete for the munchkin to learn woodcarving, or to Teotitlán del Valle to see the weaving, we usually get there in a Nissan Tsuru. This is what a 35-mph head-on collision does to the people in a Tsuru.

Crash Test Dummies Show The Difference Between Cars In Mexico And U.S.

When we return home later this week, I’ll be glad to be back in the land of airbags and strong steel frames, but like my friend, I worry more about the drivers than us. They’re the ones who spend half their waking hours in one of these cars.

But why is it made with so many safety shortcuts? We could blame Nissan, but it’s no different than most automobile companies in making cars to the standards set by the country, and no higher. Airbags were required by legislators, who passed that regulation over the decades-long protests of the manufacturers’ lobby; anti-lock brakes ditto; you can’t drive in the U.S. without working windshield wipers, the frames can’t crumple like they do in that video, and you can’t disable the seatbelts.

The only reason we have these safety features is that our government requires them. With an incoming administration dedicated to “easing regulations,” I wonder how long it will take for the cars sold in the United States to match those sold in Mexico.

 

A benefit of being in Mexico is that I don’t have my smartphone. My service wasn’t easily transferable to Mexico, and rather than sign up for something that would deliver data here, I just got a pay-as-you-go cheap phone with Telcel, a Mexican company. It lets me text and call, which is all I need, and frees me to look around and be more present. My smartphone is waiting out the six months in a drawer, but I recognize myself in the people all around who are doing this:

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The only reason I’m not doing the same thing is that my phone doesn’t work.

I made the above piece under time pressure. I had to draw something for a lesson in silkscreening, since the project I had in mind didn’t fit the criteria of simple lines and three colors. So I drew what I’d been noticing, wincing a little at the preachiness of it. Silkscreening turned out to be fun and frustrating; of 30 prints, I didn’t get a single one that was in register (colors lined up properly) and lacked smudges and had a clear print of all three colors. Just the same, there is something very satisfying about lifting up the screen to see what the squeegee has accomplished.

Most of all I am glad I made this piece because it lodged a reproof firmly in my mind: the preachiness hit the mark it ought to, myself. When, last month, the munchkin and I spent a week in Maryland and Pennsylvania and I reactivated my phone, I remembered this just-finished print and managed to use the phone mostly for its important purposes–calling and GPS–and stay off it the rest of the time. But oh, the lure of Facebook! So much of what I’m seeking there is simply “We see you,” as Marc Maron says, in a statement illustrated devastatingly by Gavin Aung Than on Zen Pencils. It is a supremely ironic reason to ignore my friends and family. But the data access and other tools are very useful, so I’ll have to find a good site blocker when I’m back, to use them without giving in to addiction. And maybe I’ll post this print where I can see it often.

A random assortment of scenes around the city.


I love the Mexican architectural style that puts an open patio at the center of a building. Our daughter takes violin lessons in this one:
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There’s a lot of political graffiti around the city. My favorite is probably “La religión es el opio del pueblo” (“Religion is the opium of the people”), because the way it’s written one can easily read “opio” as “apio,” which would render Marx’s opinion “Religion is the celery of the people.” Only a powerful taboo against spray-painting a church has kept me from sneaking up to it in the dead of night and turning the “o” definitively into an “a.”

Most graffiti isn’t on churches, but unfortunately some is. I must admit the impact of this particular, powerful and somewhat disturbing graphic is magnified by the fact that it’s painted on a Catholic church building:

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Translation: “I abort obligatory motherhood.” I would love to ask the artist which forces, in their view, are most responsible for forcing women into motherhood: social pressure? coerced sex? lack of other options? lack of contraception? Contraception is widely used, Mexican Catholics having as little regard as U.S. Catholics for the church’s opinions on this point, but it’s used much less in rural areas, where the birth rate is double that of urban women. Abortion is illegal in most of Mexico, even if one’s life is at risk. So it’s not easy to avoid motherhood without embracing celibacy. Clearly, this Lucha Libre fighter is having none of it.

This hopeful message is painted a few meters along–“Capitalism and patriarchy will fall together!”:

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That church’s former convent houses the Casa de la Cultura Oaxaqueña (Oaxacan Cultural Center), and the munchkin took art and dance classes there. I sat in this cafe one day to do my Spanish homework while she was in class. This wall says “Life is a work of art”:

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I love this mural on the adjoining wall also:

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If you wish the Christmas machine wouldn’t get cranking so early, take heart: you could live in Oaxaca, where a local supermarket set up this tent-o’-toys in the first few days of September:

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No, it never snows here, but Christmas means snow anyway. The other day I heard Christmas music in the same supermarket. I could tell it was Christmas music even before a recognizable tune came on, which is interesting. The recording with the recognizable tune was a small child singing “Jingle Bells” in Spanish and off-key. I like shopping in the mercados better anyway: collections of stalls, either open-air or gathered under one roof, selling everything from chocolate to cheese to fresh-squeezed juice to stationery.

I’ve been working on this drawing for a few weeks, as part of a series on change, decay, and erosion. It feels like a collaboration with the unknown sculptor or sculptors who carved these paths through the wood of a tree. I do not know who they are or even their species–some kind of insect, most likely–but I am moved by the patterns they make, which could also be called decay and disease.

Discovered on the leg of an outdoor table in San Augustin Etla, Oaxaca. Pencil on paper, 6.5 x 8.5 inches, November 2016.

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I’m working on a silkscreen print in the same series–it will be of rust–but it went wrong and I decided to start over. I’ll have to begin a new screen on Saturday.

For me to rest and renew during this sabbatical, I need not to be in regular contact with my congregation. I just don’t have the ability to turn my concern on and off; if I knew what was going on with them day to day, I would worry and plan and respond and, in short, work. So we are incommunicado except in the case of an emergency. The election is one such emergency, and I wrote and sent this letter this morning:

Dear wonderful people of UUCPA,

My heart is with you so much today. In times of trouble I want to be at home with you, and the distance between us feels very long right now. Whatever your political views, I know there was plenty that happened over the past 24 hours to discourage you. I am aching for the hugs and conversation we’ll share when I’m back.

Did you ever hear this from Mister Rogers?: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” I’ve observed (maybe Fred Rogers did too) that if we really want to transform our fear into hope, what works wonders is to become the helpers. That’s why our life as a congregation is so important.

We at UUCPA have been forming relationships with Muslim communities in our neighborhood. We will ask these vulnerable communities what we can do for them, and do it. We have been striving to be a sanctuary for people of all genders, sexual orientations, races and ethnicities, immigration statuses, and religious backgrounds. At a time when our country needs those kinds of sanctuaries more than ever, we will offer the welcome that this country is meant to offer to everyone. We won’t do it perfectly, but we will be among the helpers.

We’ll have to be gentle with each other. This has been a harsh election, and when our feelings are raw, we seek someone to blame. Let’s promise each other: there is no one beneath our notice or excluded from the circle of dignity and worth, no matter who they voted for or what they believe, and no matter how afraid, hurt, or angry we are. Just being there for each other is another way to be among the helpers.

Friends have been joking (or maybe not joking) about how California should secede from the rest of the country. But we are one country, one world, bound as closely to those on the other side of the planet as to those across the street. There is no elsewhere to run to. Like many people, I spend too much time in an echo chamber, and for me this election chides us to practice dialogue instead: in other words, truly to listen to people with whom we disagree. Not in order to change each other’s minds–maybe that will happen, and maybe it won’t–but in the faith that if we approach one another with curiosity and openness, it can only be an improvement. As a politician has been telling us recently, we really are stronger together.

I’ll be back in Palo Alto on January 2, and spending as much time as possible hearing how you have been feeling and what you need. I’ll have hugs and tea for you in my office. And then together, bit by bit, we’ll build a promised land that can be.

With love and blessings,

Amy

Yesterday a very brief announcement came out of Stockholm: “The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2016 is awarded to Bob Dylan for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” The Nobel is given for a body of work, which in Dylan’s case spans 54 years and counting. From the response of both detractors and enthusiasts, however, one would think that this particular prize rewards a few songs written over a few turbulent years–or worse, that it is no more than a recognition of a symbol of a particular period in U.S. history. One can debate whether song lyrics are literature, a debate which is not my topic here. But to peg Bob Dylan immovably to a few years known as “the sixties” is an insult to him and a disservice to all who might be transformed by his work.

The detractors say “Will the Baby Boomers just get over themselves already?” and “He wrote one good song.” (I don’t know which song it is, nor whether the Swedish Academy is dominated by Boomers.) The supporters, such as the authors of an approving article in the New York Times, cite the same old few songs: “Blowin’ in the Wind” (1963), “The Times They Are A-Changing” (1964), and “Like a Rolling Stone” (1965), as if nothing he has produced in the past 50 years is worthy of notice. Even the Swedish Academy used the dread word “icon,” though it went on to note, more relevantly, “His influence on contemporary music is profound, and he is the object of a steady stream of secondary literature.”

One can prefer someone’s early work without injustice. Ursula K. LeGuin is one of my favorite writers; I have read almost all of her fiction and a lot of her poetry, and await each new publication with excitement, but it is true that my favorites remain two books she wrote in the 1970s. But she has continued to create marvelous literature, and I would dispute any attempt to label her a 1970s writer. Bob Dylan has written great songs right into the current decade (I listed some of my favorites from 1962 to 1997 here on the occasion of his 70th birthday). As Dylan fan Barack Obama said upon hearing the news, “All these years later, he’s still chasing that sound, still searching for a little bit of truth.”

I’m not denying that he is seen as an icon–who could? He is widely regarded as “the voice of a generation” (another phrase repeated frequently since the announcement), and unfortunately, that means that many people’s opinion of him is shaped by their opinion of that generation. So what if he was the voice of a generation? So was Wilfred Owen, I imagine. And yet I encountered Owen’s poetry 60 years after he died, and it spoke to me and for me. I didn’t have to be a young British man born around the turn of the 20th century, I didn’t have to have been to war, to be transformed by his piercing vision. If we consign Dylan to a basket of sixties memorabilia, we are cheating ourselves of that kind of transformation.

And we are dismissing art when we decide out of hand that it has no value beyond its historical moment. Icon though he might have been, Dylan kicked over the pedestal that that term placed him on, and resisted being pigeonholed from the get-go. Hailed by the folk music scene, with its attachment to acoustic instruments, he deliberately embraced electric music in 1965, knowing full well that it would rile the establishment that had made him famous. (One former fan famously yelled “Judas!” at the Albert Hall, to which Dylan responded by telling the band, “Play f—ing loud!” They did.) Called a political prophet, he stepped away from political themes with the album Another Side of Bob Dylan, and he declared with Bringing it All Back Home that his roots included surrealist poetry, rock, and the blues (which the white folkies of the time often did not consider folk music). For that matter, he has always been a blues singer, and guess what? His high school yearbook predicted he would be, not the next Woody Guthrie, but the next Little Richard. Once he had established that poetry belonged on rock albums, he went on to challenge himself and fans by converting to evangelical Christianity and preaching the gospel from three albums and the stage in the late 70s and early 80s. Then he challenged Christian fans by rediscovering his Jewish roots. All along, he has written great lines and immediately crossed them out because they were too much like something Bob Dylan would write. Anyone who goes to his concerts hoping to hear their old favorites reports bitterly that they are unrecognizable; he keeps finding new ways to perform songs he’s played literally hundreds or thousands of times, fearful, it seems, of falling into a rut. He has defied categorization, whether imposed by others or himself, and made and remade himself. In short, he is a truly independent spirit: an artist.

The Nobel pick is generally judged by whether the honored artist’s work can be said to transcend their place and time. By that measure, the Academy chose a good one.

I have written very little here about the things we’re doing in Oaxaca. In between art, Spanish, and writing projects, there’s lots of time to just be and enjoy this city. I’m going back through our months here to fill in some of the stuff we’ve done.

Only a few weeks after our arrival, we had the terrific experience of getting together with someone we know very well from home. J. is a member of our church, has traveled here with her family before, and if I recall correctly has had a teenager from Oaxaca come stay with her and her family in Palo Alto. In June, she came to Oaxaca on her own and lived with a family here awhile. We asked her for recommendations of places to go that she’d like to see again, and she suggested we meet at the Museum of Philately (MUFI). I’m really glad she did, because I probably would have delayed going there for months, maybe skipped it entirely. I mean, philately? But it’s a lovely museum. The building itself is a treat–like so many buildings in Oaxaca, it’s built around patios and courtyards–and the exhibits were interesting. For example, in connection with the release of a stamp about corn, the museum invited artists to submit pieces about Mexico and corn. Most took the form of a stamp (not actual size, but a good 30 x 60 cm or more, the way the designers of stamps draw their originals) and the themes ranged from transgenic corn, which is an economic and environmental controversy in Mexico, to the corn-husk dolls that are common folk art here.

Then we all went to Café Brújula, also at J’s recommendation, where I drank her hot chocolate and she drank my mocha for quite some time before we realized we’d swapped. I hope the caffeine didn’t keep her up all night. The café is in an indoor shopping center and office building that had an absolutely spectacular arrangement overhead of papel picado, cut paper, for the upcoming Guelaguetza.

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photo by Joy Morgenstern

Spending the day with J. was really special. When I arrived at UUCPA she was three years old; I’ve watched her grow up and into roles like Sunday School teacher and Worship Associate, and to see her negotiating another culture, be shown around by her, and just chat together outside from the context of church and family is like being on a time machine and watching the years whiz by. She’s such an intelligent and independent person–it’s a treat to hang out with her for a while.

And of course, she’s known Mookie since Mookie was a bump in my belly. When I have a long Sunday at church, Mookie often goes over to their house–I call it babysitting and pay J. and her sister, but as far as Mookie’s concerned it’s a playdate at the house with the best climbing tree in the world–and there has never been a time that J. and her family haven’t been in her life. Here the two of them are in the museum courtyard, surrounded by illustrations from children’s books (I never did figure out the stamp connection), and looking uncharacteristically serious.

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photo by Joy Morgenstern

 

Here’s another in a series. I finished it a few weeks ago and then took the ideas in a new direction, seen here. The common thread is the way forms show without outlines. They just emerge, presences that are undeniably there even without clear definitions. It didn’t work quite to my liking with this one, hence the new direction, but it was fun.

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