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I’ve loved the story of John Henry since I first heard it, and I was really jazzed to learn that an excellent writer, Colson Whitehead, had written a novel about it. I am now reading it (John Henry Days) and it is not disappointing me. There are so many elements packed into that succinct legend: the struggles of African-Americans (and by extension any people coping daily with oppression); pride and strength and their limits; the shifting meanings of work and our dignity as machines do the work once done by human hands; the relationships among labor and capital, white and black; what it means to triumph over death. I don’t know yet where Whitehead is going with this, but so far he seems to have given deep thought to them all.

I’ve finished the building phase of two ceramics pieces, both coil built. Eventually they’ll be fired and ready for the next phase.

Vase with roots (approx 10″ high, 4″ at widest point):

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Walls of Oaxaca (approx. 6″ high, 10″ wide):

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In my last weeks in San Miguel de Allende in 2010, I set out to write 20 posts about things I would miss about it. I wrote 18, then followed up with #19 some months later, and as is my way, never wrote the twentieth. I felt a strange pressure to make sure it was about something really important, maybe about the thing I’d miss the most of all, and what was that? Now that I’m back in Mexico, it’s abundantly obvious.

The best thing about Mexico is Mexicans. Of the ten or so countries I’ve visited or lived in, Mexico’s people are the most generous. Most notably, they are generous with their time. Our experience today was a case in point. We went to Teotitlán del Valle, a town half an hour east of Oaxaca that is known for its weaving. At the final shop we visited, we asked if we could look at the looms. The man who’d woven the rug we were buying, Jerónimo, not only eagerly showed us his loom but invited the munchkin to have a go. She loved it, and he was a natural-born teacher. He didn’t just show her how to run the shuttle back and forth a couple of times; he worked with her on several inches of weaving, patiently showing her every step and letting her do them all.

While they worked, Julián, another member of the family (like all of them, it’s a family business; I think they are brothers) chatted with us about the process, with as much patience with our (especially my) limited Spanish as his brother had with Munchkin’s novice weaving. We had a dozen questions about the dyes, the wool, the designs, etc., and he was eloquent and thorough. He showed us a couple of his wife’s designs, abstract at first glance but actually a reference to the Pleiades, and explained why the Pleiades were significant. (I missed this part–my Spanish wasn’t up to it–but Joy says it was about his grandmother, who never wore a watch but always knew the correct time within 10-15 minutes by looking at the sun or the stars: specifically, often, this cluster.) Then he told us about his grandfather (grandmother? the two of us heard it differently and Joy’s Spanish is far better), still alive and still weaving, and the teachings he/she had passed on about the significance of a spiral motif that appears often in Zapotec art. Altogether they spent over an hour with us, sharing their knowledge as if there were nothing they would rather be doing.

Not every encounter with people here is like this, of course. They can be rude and impatient and I’m sure they aren’t always generous. But an experience like today’s, which would almost never occur anywhere I’ve lived in the U.S., is not at all unusual here. People are very quick to give of themselves: their expertise, their time, their attention.

And I don’t really have to say it’s something I’ll miss when we go home in December, because there are plenty of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans and a strong presence of Mexican culture right in the Bay Area.

 

 

It’s always fun to discover brand names and other marketing artifacts that don’t translate well. One of the most notorious cases was Chevrolet’s attempt to bring its Nova, so successful in the United States, to Mexico. Apparently no one on the marketing team knew a lick of Spanish, so it wasn’t until the car utterly flopped in Mexico that the company learned that “No va” means “It doesn’t go.”

If a certain shampoo sold in Mexico wants to make it in the U.S. market, I hope they do better than Chevy and change the name. Here in Mexico it is “Grisi.”

This is a common sight in Oaxaca. A wall with several layers exposed: paint, stucco, brick, stone, adobe. It’s like a telescope that looks into the past. It sees the history of that building, and also the earth of which it was built.

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The adobe in particular is fascinating, being made in part of straw that grew during the season when it was built, and pebbles that were made by the earth of that place millions of years before.

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Today we were back in the ceramics studio–we get there about once a week–and I finished the basic shaping of a coil-built bowl that is going to pay homage to these walls. When I’d done that, I had about half an hour to begin carving the outside of the bowl. It will have the textures of brick, mortar, stone, adobe–all these inhabitants of Oaxaca that are never out of sight for more than a block or two.

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I was so tired during the afternoon that I told Joy and Munchkin to go to the studio without me. I would stay and sleep, I said. But I got a breath of second wind and decided to go along. I was very glad I did. Working on the clay woke me up.

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