Yes, writing and reading. So many of the superb instructors at the 14th Annual Writers Conference stressed that reading goes hand in hand with writing. You’d think that would be obvious but I who have always been a voracious reader have slacked off and it’s not a good thing. The allure of Netflix is one of the culprits but there’s the ingrained notion, learned as a girl, that I should always be doing something productive with my time. Reading is something I can do at night before falling asleep! Of course, often I simply fall asleep!
Reading the work of talented writers is how I can get better at my own writing. I know that and I need to change my behavior when I return home to read more when I’m awake!
The first workshop I took offered by Signe Hammer was all about reading the work of excellent writers and paying attention to how they use precise observation to enrich their narrative. Using lots of verbs to bring the narrative alive. Writing sparsely with few adjectives inducing tension in the reader.
She set some interesting prompts for us and five minute quick writing exercises which were fun and very useful. Since we all had the same prompt it was interesting to hear how we all had out own take on the exercise. I was sitting next to a woman writing a memoir and one of the prompts elicited an important change in her manuscript. She went on to pitch her memoir to two agents and each of them want her to send her manuscript to them. She was over the moon!
The next workshop was by Brooke Warner who is the publisher of She Writes Press. She was excellent. Her subject was The Take Away and the take away. The capital T take away is the blurb on the book jacket. If you can’t succinctly tell or write your book’s Take Away, you’re in big trouble. I think I’m still in the big trouble camp. Small t take away is what you leave the reader with throughout the narrative. What you were feeling, thinking, what you learned. Allowing your reader to have the experience you’re telling and say “Wow! I know just how that feels.”
I took two workshops from Melissa Cistaro on mapping your memoir and on finding your way through all the maze of memory we have to identify the key memories that advance your narrative. You may love the memory of your first kitten, but does that memory really advance your story about raising sons alone. Maybe you can tie that cute little kitten to those boys but it’s a stretch. Drop the kitten!
The mapping exercise involved actually drawing a map of an important part of your story. Literally the house you were living in, the tree in the backyard, the car you took on vacation on and on. I did discover while drawing the time I lived with my grandparents during the war that I had no memory of my mother during that time. None at all. My father was in the South Pacific and my mother was working in Kansas City but I don’t remember a thing she did, said, wore. Nothing. That’s significant!
So being open to trying on these exercises and entering into each one fully and openly was highly beneficial. I’m very glad I had this opportunity. I know these pictures are not very easy to see, but they’re important to me. The top right picture is of mom’s lonely desk with no one in the chair.
The highlights of the conference were the keynote speakers. A really stellar group: Adam Gopnik, Susan Orleans, Paul Theroux (who I missed because I was sick) and three other writers I have not read. Gopnik is one of my favorite writers: a journalist with The New Yorker magazine he has also written several memoirs. One of my favorites is From Paris to the Moon. If you’re off to Paris read it!
His talk which he delivered on foot pacing the stage for one hour without notes was extraordinary. He walked us through his new book coming soon to a book store near you: Living Liberalism: The Rhinoceros Manifesto. This man is a tyro he walked us through Western thinkers from Hume and Mills to George Lewes and George Eliot and others explaining what Liberalism is and how we need it.
“This talk will be an attempt to renew and remake liberal humanism for a new century.” Gasp and pant! He is a genius, charming, and happily in love with his wife, Martha. Something wonderful to see indeed. Not jaded, not cynical, just brilliant and alive. A joy!
Susan Orleans’, new book The Library Book arose out of five years of research which was prompted by her families’ move to Los Angeles. A tour of the old Los Angeles Public Library led by a knowledgeable board member sparked her interest when she learned that most of the titles went up in smoke in 1986 unfortunately on the same day as the Chernobyl disaster. Hence the fire–started by an arsonist–went to page six in the New York Times and Chernobyl filled all the front pages in the country–probably in Los Angeles as well.
Weekly childhood trips with her mother, now dead, to the Shaker Heights library sparked her interest in and love of the library. These precious memories which populate her mind and thought still recalling selecting and checking out books and then deciding which to read first on the car ride home. I look forward to reading her book. It’s bound and gold embossed like an old book. The pages have deckle edges. She wanted to make the book look just like one you might find today in the stacks of a library. It has heft and presence. Those of us who love to do research have held many such books. I hope the books and the libraries will always be here.
Despite my poor health, I enjoyed myself a lot. The hotel where the conference was held is just a short walk from River and Luis’ home where I’m staying. It made it easy for me to get back and forth. I go home renewed and ready to finish the next nine chapters of my own memoir. I know there is an unimaginable amount of work to be done, but I feel armed with new insight and a better grasp of my craft.
I spent most of last week in bed. No, not that, sadly, in bed with a bug. I did something very foolish. I had the touted quesadillas of one of our neighbors. She sets up a table on Friday afternoons and makes delicious quesadillas which she sells for 15P. Normally, I would never do something so foolish, but my host raved about them and has had them numerous times and is of course inoculated against local bugs. He lives here. So I took my plate home and ate them. They were very good.
As I paid him, I asked, “What’s her name?”
“Luz,” he said.
“Why?” I asked.
“She found another.” he said sadly.
“Es impossibly! Ella es tonta!” I said.
I got out and walked home.
I wasn’t especially hungry at that point, but I made myself a bowl of rice and called it day.
Hours later, I awakened to a ferocious head ache, chills, sweats, and gasping discomfort. I made a mad dash to the bath room, not quite making it. I lost everything I’d eaten for the past hundred years. Right there! Boom!
The next morning I awakened groggy and unable to move. I was being prodded. I did get up and looked into my little purse and, as my subconscious suspected, no wallet. I had the change from the taxi driver when I paid him, but no wallet. I realized it had fallen out in the taxi probably as I was getting out of the car.
Darling Luis, came in to check on me and I told him. Both of us were ashen. Again, stupidity prevails, that wallet contained my credit cards and about 3,000 P. Thank God, my passport was safely at home.
I called my bank. There is very little they can do but cancel the cards and, I was about to authorize them to do so, when Luis came to the door, face beaming, he had called The Rosewood, the taxi driver had turned the wallet in to their Concierge. There was no cash or change in the wallet, but all the cards were there. Later that day Luis and River ran to The Rosewood, picked up my wallet and left a big tip for the driver.
Have I vowed to mend my foolish ways? Will I wear the little pouch Rick Steves sells under my shirts? (Yes, I have one.) Probably.
I said a prayer of thanks, and went to sleep. I pretty much slept for the next three days missing days one and two of the Writers Conference (more on that to come). I dragged myself to the Conference the third day and all the other days feeling better each day but no appetite or energy in sight. I’m sure both will come back!
“Mejorando,” as they say.
I’ve had a couple of low energy days–maybe a little bug–so have slept a lot–that and tea are my principle responses to a bug. Yesterday, feeling a little more energetic, I walked down Cinco de Mayo and headed to the organic farmers market. Didn’t see anything I had to take home so I decided to head back up hill and walk around the neighboring Colonia Guadiana. It and San Antonio where I’m living are trending upscale (says the real estate ads) but I would classify them as solidly middle and working class neighborhoods. There are tours of the homes of the “rich and famous” which I might sign up for later in my stay..
What interests me is the delight in color here. I think color is an inherent quality of Mexican life–perhaps even DNA. I remember the Aztec high class had capes made from the colorful feathers of tropical birds. So delight in color goes back a long way. You just marvel at the streets lined in sherbet colors and more vibrant paint. Most homes extend to the sidewalk–if there is one–sometimes there is an entry courtyard. Of course what we can’t see are the lovely interior patios and roof top gardens that usually exist. River and Luis’ home is a perfect example of that architecture.
Afternoon light in my bedroom
Ignacio Allende was born here of Spanish parents. He’s of interest because he switched his allegiance from the Spanish army where he was a captain, to serve in the revolutionary independence movement. He fought in numerous battles on the Mexican side. Captured by the Spanish, he was sentenced to death by firing squad and beheaded. His head was displayed on a pole as a message to the insurgents. His wife and three children survived. He died in 1811 at the age of 42.
I stopped into the Instituto Allende this morning and saw this mural. Mexico should adopt a slogan “Murals Are Us!”
I found the two women at the base of the mural seated across from one another with maps of Mexico in front of them very intriguing. There was no one about to ask. Then I saw an interesting mural on a house adjacent to the Institute.
There’s a cafe, a jewelry store with Spratling originals, and offices and classrooms. They offer Spanish lessons, life long learning classes, and visual arts instruction to earn a B.A. and M.F.A. under the aegis of the University of Guanajuato.
I was headed back to Cafe Rama where I had breakfast yesterday. A jewel of a place. Owned by artists–jeweler and painter. I had the most delicious breakfast dish I’ve ever eaten. I don’t know what the sauce was, light and pale green, but it was fantastic. Not highly flavored with spices or chillis at all.
I spied a wonderful jacket there which I thought Peter would like. I sent him a picture of it and he did love it. He was born in 1962 the Year of the Tiger! “I’m not rude, I’m honest.” is so Peter! So I went back today to find out the price. It’s hand painted and one of a kind. Sadly the price is 9,000 pesos about $450–way too much for me. Luis says I should offer the owner $200. We’ll see.
I’ve been enjoying just wandering around. When I get too tired, I get a taxi home. Taxi’s cost 50 pesos anywhere in the city. ($2.62) So live it up. I’m going to take a taxi to Aurora tomorrow which is an artists’ district. I hear the really top artists are showing there.
The town is a photographer’s dream. (I first wrote wet dream and then thought that was too vulgar.)
Me and the iPhone do our best. Sometimes I regret having left my digital by the wayside. And as for my good old Nikon–I stupidly sold it a long time ago. Along with all the lenses. Dumb!
As my time in Mexico City ran out, I decided to revisit some places I liked and did not take another tour. I had planned to visit Teotihuacan which is 25 miles northeast of Mexico City. The pyramids there were the most architecturally significant in Mesoamerica in preColumbian times. It was the largest city in the Americas in the first half of the 1st millennium CE and the sixth largest city in the world with a population of 125,000 or more. I regret not pushing myself, but next time.
I had seen it many years past and I remember climbing to the top of the Pyramid of the Moon. But to be honest I’d run out of steam. Touring is exhausting. Sometimes I like to give it a rest and just go to the places I like that require little effort and usually please me.
So my Concierge Ariel urged me to visit a small museum on the Alemeda just a short walk through the park from the Palacio de las Bellas Artes. This little museum hosts the 1947 mural by Diego Rivera called”Sueno de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central.” “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda.”
This wonderful mural was originally displayed in the Prado Hotel. In 1987 an earthquake destroyed the hotel but the mural survived intact. It was transported to a safe place until the museum could be designed to house it. Again Rivera has invited us to meet all the famous and not so famous personages in modern Mexican history including him, of course, and Frida Kahlo. He appears as a boy holding the hand of the Calavera Catrina front and center and again on one side as a chubby adolescent his eyes closed in a dream. Diego paints La Calavera Catrina with a feather stole symbolizing Quetzalcoatl.
The Catrina was created by a skilled engraver, Jose Guadalupe Posada, who played with the design in various publications. She is now most famous for the Day of the Dead celebrations.
There was an interesting show upstairs focusing on the Rivera-Kahlo relationship with Chinese artists post-Revolution. The Chinese were interested in documenting their current social and political life in mural style. Note Frida depicted in a wheelchair.
I walked back across the Alameda Park and crossed Avenida Juarez to the beautiful Art Deco Sears building. They have a tiny cafe on the 8th floor looking right across the street at the Bellas Artes. You can get a coffee, sandwich, a sweet, or a smoothie and gaze across the city and beyond.
Then I walked back on Juarez and passed the beautiful monument to Benito Juarez. I think you could say that the Mexicans hold Juarez in the kind of esteem and awe that we hold Lincoln. Juarez was the first “Indian” to become President of Mexico.
Then I walked to the Hilton where they got me a cab back to my hotel. Take advantage of this when you can–at any hotel. They never ask if you’re staying at the hotel. You will be insured a driver who doesn’t overcharge and a safe and careful ride. I did have a rather harrowing ride one evening after the Folklorico performance in what appeared to be a metered taxi but once in the car no meter. We agreed on a price–by now I knew what it should be–and half way there he asked me to go with him for drinks. When I declined he asked me if I was too tired to go dancing. At this point I was pretty nervous, but when I stopped responding, he dropped me right in front of my hotel and that was that. I have no idea what I said or did to provoke his behavior. Who knows.
One night I wanted something tasty and more upscale that Casa de Tonio. I walked to the Marriot on Reforma. I had a great dinner and the most amazing service. I also had a wonderful chat with Alexis who was my server. He likes 60’s American music and plays guitar in a band. Since I’m a 60’s girl I gave him a playlist of my idea of the best of the 60’s. It was such fun. He spoke good English and was a very nice person.
I had stumbled on Roma Norte one day when I got very lost and said this is the place I’d live if I ever had occasion to move. Some of the most beautiful buildings I’d seen were there circling a wonderful park–Plaza de Rio de Janeiro. Lots of dogs being walked. Lots of interesting people strolling or coming home from work. And a lovely fountain with David in the center sans fig leaf.
I went back to the Marriott Mansion my last day for lunch. By luck they have live music Monday – Friday in the hotel during lunch service. The 4-man group “Son entre 4 y mas” set up near my table and the leader, Javier Matias, came over and asked what I’d like them to play. Not Cielito Lindo! I opened my trusty iPhone to my play list. Went to the Linda Ronstadt album Canciones de Mi Padre which has kept me company in all kinds of places. They were so excited and proceeded to play numerous of these lively Mexican rancheros. We were all happy!
So a wonderful two weeks were over. I could not have been more pleased with my time there. I would rank Mexico City right up near the top of my favorite cities–that includes Roma and Paris.
So I did. Do it again. A tour.
This group was a great one. A German couple; he a Mercedes rep in U.S., and his wife who didn’t speak a word of English–he was her translator. I made a point of engaging her as we all chattered away and she seemed to appreciate being included even if she didn’t understand what we were saying. Our guide Carlos didn’t speak German either.
There was Maria, and her daughter, Laura from Riverside, California. And our amazing driver, Rodrigo. Why amazing? This was a laborious drive ascending a mountain range south of Mexico City with lots of traffic and lots of curves to finesse. First to Cuernavaca about an hour away and then a two hour drive further south and west and up again to Taxco at 6,000 ft. elevation. And then a repeat of it all in the dark back to Mexico City dropping each of us off at our respective hotels.
Cuernavaca has been a retreat from the hustle of Mexico City for centuries. Hernan Cortes had a home in Cuernavaca. It was constructed out of the ruins of the city pyramid. I asked Carlos why we weren’t going to see the home of Cortes several times. He didn’t give me an answer. In fact he said there was no house of Cortes to see. Carlos had very strong feelings (negative) about the Spaniards and never failed to point out the work of the indigenous people who of course built the cathedral and chapel we did see. I get that but the brochure on the trip featured a big picture of the beautiful palace that was the Cortes family home into the 17 C.
Cortes’ former mansion is, ironically, now the Museo Regional Cuauhnahuac (Cuernavaca in Nahautl which means under the trees). Nahuatl is the indigenous language of the Mexican people and is still spoken by about 2 million of them. However, that aside, the day involved a lot of driving–we were gone for about 12 hours!–and it would have been too long a day to add in another site I guess. I was disappointed.
We stayed in the old part of the city and enjoyed the two churches in the town center. The Catedral de la Asuncion originally founded in 1526.
Unfortunately they are engaged in major restoration and we could only gaze at the exterior. Just across the little park we entered a small chapel Templo del Tercer Orden with a very beautiful gilded alter piece. The figures on the facade are chunky and small. “Like us,” said Carlos, “none of those thin and beautiful bodies the Greeks and Romans loved!”
We got back in the van and headed further south and west to Taxco, an old and beautiful silver town. Taxco is famed for its silver jewelry and its lovely Colonial architecture. Plaza Bordo, the main square, is home to the amazing 18th C Santa Prisca church. Stone towers flank the entry. The soft rose-colored facade is churrigueresque an elaborate Spanish Baroque style that the friars brought with them to Mexico.
We went to a silver jewelry production shop and were welcomed and invited to attend a short presentation on the history of Taxco and what to look for when buying silver objects. At the end of the talk we went up to their cafe and had a good and very cheap lunch which was really welcome. Then we wandered downstairs to the showroom and most of us, me included, bought some jewelry. I bought a bracelet and a pair of earrings in the style of William Spratling the American born jeweler who greatly influenced Mexican jewelry design in the 20th C.
By now my two new best friends were Maria and Laura. I had turned my ankle–I was busy gazing around and I missed the sidewalk’s dip to facilitate water run off. It was a momentary slip but there are nothing but cobbled streets–nothing flat or smooth to walk on–and I wasn’t as steady on my feet as I’d like.
Maria, born in Mexico City, has lived in the states for 40 years and raised her family there. Laura her only daughter and she were having a wonderful time. They rattled on in Spanish behind me in the van, laughing and giggling all the way. Maria and I linked arms and she helped steady me. They were both so much fun and very nice. There was something so sweet about walking along with her; her kindness and thoughtfulness were very welcome.
Laura and a native Taxcan.
Taxco is surrounded by mountains. White houses spread across slopes and valleys creating a very picturesque vista. It’s a very beautiful town. We reluctantly boarded the van heading back to Mexico City–about a 200 mile return in the dark.