Estamos en México! We arrived Monday night and are enjoying the hospitality of the Unitarian Universalist community here via a generous couple who lends their home to visiting UUs and others. In exchange for my preaching on February 14, we are staying here for nine nights, which should be long enough for us to find the place we’ll rent for the next several months. They also met us at the house at 11 p.m., got us settled in, and lent us several hundred pesos since the casa de cambio at the airport had closed by the time we got into Leon.
I was up at 6 a.m. on Tuesday, or was it seven? Joy’s cellphone had adjusted on arrival, yet didn’t agree with the airport clock, so I wasn’t sure. I wanted to walk those streets we’d come through in the rainy dark the previous night. “Did you look out the front window?” Joy asked. Across the narrow street, one building in orange, another one yellow with a bright blue door, another with a row of flowers blooming in cans along the rooftop terrace. Ah, llegamos! We’ve arrived!
Joy reminded me to take it easy. We’d jumped 6000 feet in one day and it can take a couple of days to adjust to this altitude–I already felt it in the unusual effort it took to lug our suitcases upstairs. I stopped at two—the other one could wait—and slipped into the rainy street, where everything reminded me, go slowly, go slowly.
The steps approaching the ancient Temple Mount in Jerusalem are uneven: one wide, one narrow, one wide, one narrow. It’s said the reason was to make sure you approached with care. The streets of San Miguel have the same effect. You have to walk slowly on the sidewalk, which is sometimes as rough as the round-stone-cobbled street, and where each utility pole makes you squeeze between it and the wall or else step into the street. The day hadn’t begun yet for most people at 6:15, or was it 7:15, and the streets were mostly empty of cars. Now and then a bright-green taxi came by. A woman swept the street outside her shop. A couple of places had opened: a mechanic’s with guys gathered around chatting, for some reason a papeleria (Si Hay Copias). No panaderia yet where I could buy us breakfast. I stopped to look at a door carved with four smiling suns, and another with a hand-painted caduceus. Every alcove of electric meters was covered with iron grillwork. Labor is cheap here and there’s no rush, so why mass-produce ugly steel covers and lose both the beauty of curled iron and the skill of the ironworkers? High above nothing on one third story, another alcove had been made into a shrine. I wondered how the worshipper had put the statue and reverential tinsel in place.
Two streets in this Colonia (neighborhood) are named for dates: 20 enero, 28 de abril. I don’t know their significance and at first I thought I was looking at an address–20 Calle Enero—but on the return walk realized the number was part of the street’s name. The Revolucion began near here, and San Miguel is known for having a raft of holidays. We arrived on one, 1 Febrero, but I don’t know what that one celebrates either.
I continued my stroll, listening to the birds in walled gardens whose bougainvillea made an umbrella over my head, and to my surprise, came to a building I knew about: the Instituto Allende. Its courtyard was open and people were already in the office and one of the classrooms.
I read the notices about classes (no news, we’d read them all online) and felt urgency roil in my belly. I need to find a drawing class! I haven’t done any art for two weeks! My congregation will be disappointed! Am I just avoiding the hard stuff? And which Spanish class should I take? If I take an intensive, I won’t have much time for art! But if I don’t, I won’t get a jump on speaking to people from the start! I only have six months! And we’d better find a school for the little one or we won’t have any time for classes or art at all . . .
Wow, where did all this come from? Not from the cool courtyard dripping rain, or the people who laboriously curved the iron for those grilles. I brought it with me, I know, but I hadn’t realized how much of it I carried.
I gave myself assurances. Our daughter doesn’t need to get right into school—this is family time. I haven’t been doing art because I’ve been packing up the house for our subletters to move in and for us to spend six months away. Preparation is as valid a use of time as any. When I was making ceramic sculptures, didn’t I spend hours wedging clay, rolling it out, waiting for it to dry to firmness, before I could “begin” to work?
In the car from the airport, we’d had fun trying to understand all the idiomatic Spanish on the highway signs. “No tenga prisa!” Joy translated for the other norteamericanos riding with us. “Tengo prisa” means “I’m in a hurry.” “It’s not something you’ll hear people say in San Miguel,” she added, and then reflected, “It would be considered rude to say it.” I thought of how often people at home say exactly that, and wondered with a pang how often I convey that I’m in a hurry to move onto something more important than the person I’m with. With a sense of relief, I realized that a big part of my job is not to be in a hurry. Don’t people rely on a minister simply to be someone whose time is for them? Who won’t look at her watch, metaphorically or literally, but will be there, listening, savoring the time with them, making time for them, helping them make time for themselves, as few people in their lives do? Yet I feel pulled both ways: to be fully present for whomever I’m with, and to get more done.
At home it’s more often considered rude, not to be in a hurry, but to get in someone else’s way when they’re in a hurry. “That waitress is being so slow. I’ve put on my jacket, I’ve waved for the check—can’t she see I need to go?” Here, no waiter will bring you the cuenta unless you ask for it; it would be considered unspeakably rude, a suggestion that your table is too valuable for you and your friends to sit chatting at it and you should let someone new and profitable sit down—a suggestion which many US restaurants aren’t at all embarrassed to make. I’m happy to have lunch places near work where the turnover is fast and waiters bring you the check along with your meal—it’s useful for those on an hour lunch break—but I prefer the Mexican manners.
I left the Instituto and meandered down the street to a farmacia, where, unexpectedly, they sell fresh pastries. Here amidst the Dannon fruit-on-the-bottom yogurt, disposable diapers, shrink-wrapped pill bottles, plastic bags, and packaged cereal (Frosted Flakes cut through the euphemisms here: they’re Zucaritos, “little sugars”) was the glass case with tongs and platters familiar from the panaderia at home: serve yourself pan dulce baked this morning. Someone rolled and folded and refolded the dough into flaky layers, something that can’t be done by machine, or in a hurry, or in advance. Walking back, slowly, with this simple, luxurious breakfast for my family in my bag, I had one of those little epiphanies I wish I could print the inside of my eyelids so that I won’t forget. The purpose of my time on sabbatical is to teach me (or re-teach me, since surely I knew it once just as my two-year-old daughter does) that not every moment has a purpose. Time is just for being in. If I bring nothing else back to Silicon Valley other than a remembrance of how to put down my to-do list and be wherever I am, with whomever I am, it will be enough. I’m in the right place to learn it.