"Corona," Stephanie Lee Jackson, oil on wood, 2000
When I first moved to Guanajuato, my idea was that I would do nothing but paint and meditate. I hoped to get a long way down the road to purification, enlightenment and artistic realization in six months. My proposed schedule looked something like this:
6:30 AM--wake up, meditate, do yoga
7:30 AM--run several miles
8:15 AM--shower, breakfast
9-10 AM--sit in café, write studiously in journal, shop in quaint corner produce markets for healthy vegetarian meals
10 AM-1:00 PM--paint
1-2 PM--healthy vegetarian home-cooked lunch
7-8:30 PM--h.v.h.-c. dinner
8:30-10 PM meditate
Yeah, right. I mentioned this plan to a friend and she said, Wow, if you were doing all that you d be glowing. m not doing all that. Usually if I m up by 9 I m doing well, notwithstanding that when some people knocked on my door at 10:30 AM last week we were all embarrassed by the fact that I was still in pajamas, which I failed to pass off as yoga attire.
What my ideal schedule failed to take into account, aside from my own lack of extreme ascetic self-discipline, was the fact that Mexico is not the social and cultural vacuum I was counting upon when I first conceived the notion of escape into painterly sojourn. Every time I would get up and running, so to speak, I would run headlong and painfully into a big friggin cultural wall.
Like the one morning I did actually manage to roust myself out of bed before sunrise--did the meditation, yoga, workout as planned, had some difficulty finding breakfast at so early an hour, scribbled ecstatically in my journal, then optimistically decided to drop in at the post office to see if my box had arrived.
After forty-five minutes of argument and remonstration with the post-office manager, Enrique, during which time it was explained to me that the customs office was holding my box hostage in Mexico City and I would have to take a five-hour bus ride to the Mexico City airport and argue with more people in Spanish if I was ever to see my box again, I stormed out of the post office in tears, fled back to my apartment, and stayed in bed with the covers over my head for two days. In Mexico the early bird gets nothing but superfluous abuse.
After that I did nothing at all about my box, and roughly two months later the customs office got bored with it and sent it to me. Thus the first principle of Buddhism comes into play--detachment from the material universe. I m getting a spiritual education after all, much richer than the one I had planned.
Take the Zen concept of attention, or mindfulness. The basic concept is to try to avoid wandering around like a workaholic zombie, but to really keep your mind in the here and now. Monks in Buddhist monasteries are supposed to be doing this whenever they re not sitting still and being utterly empty--focussing on mundane tasks like peeling apples and weeding gardens. Things like music and conversation are largely discouraged as distractions from pure mindfulness.
Now, my life right now is anything but monastic. I got the stereo playing PJ Harvey on a repeat loop most of the time, and people stopping by for tea and conversation at will. But the stereo I bought when I arrived is a special consciousness-raiser--at random intervals, it stops playing for a few seconds, and then resumes at the same spot. Occasionally it pauses in a more permanent manner, and has to be subtly jiggled before it will start up again. The store, of course, said they would exchange it, but the owner was always in Mexico City, they didn have a comparable one in stock, they had to PROVE it was defective, yah duh yah duh, and I got sick of carrying it up and down the hill, so I stuck with it. This is a virtual guarantee that I won t get caught up in a work trance and sing along fluidly with the stereo--every time it stops, I become a bit more mindful.
Lots of things I will never again take for granted. Last week, the moment I had been dreading ever since I moved into my new house arrived--the gas tank ran out. Thus no shower, no tea, no fried eggs until the tank was changed. I sat bolt upright as the first, faint, 7 AM shout GAAHS floated up the hill. (The first couple of weeks I lived here, I thought that some guy was looking ever more frantically for his friend Gus, possibly a dog or an elderly gentleman with Alzheimers. It was really irritating to have Gus getting lost at the crack of dawn several times a week--I wished he would hurry up and come out from wherever he was hiding so I could get back to sleep.)
I dithered around the house, freezing in my pajamas, until the gas guy reached my callejón1 , hollered out the upstairs window VEINTY-SIETE BUENA VISTA, GRACIAS!2 then dithered for another twenty minutes until there was a pounding on the door and a desperately puffing man arrived with the tank on his back. I paid him what he said it cost, thanked him profusely, and two minutes after he departed, crankily, down the callejón, I realized I hadn t tipped him.
Now, if anyone on God s green earth deserves a tip, it the guy who carries big heavy gas tanks up the sides of mountains every day before dawn. Aside from the fact that I had committed both an existential and karmic sin of the greatest magnitude, I was also in danger of never getting another gas tank delivered again. I went pounding down the street, tip in hand, and couldn t find him. Soberly, in shame and agitation, I went back to the house, donned my running shoes, and set out again. About forty-five minutes later, just as I was entering the corner produce market, there was the gas man, rolling another empty down the hill. He did not behold me with a friendly eye.
ve been looking for you, I gasped, in more or less grammatically correct Spanish, for once. I forgot to give you a tip. I handed him 10 pesos, and his face split into a gorgeous gold-toothed grin. Thank God. My credibility with the neighborhood remains intact.
Oh, and the phone! It was installed less than two months after the final installation bill was paid. What with the phone monopoly and generally spiritual attitudes toward time it takes anywhere from eleven months to two years to get a phone installed. Fortunately Gretchen, my landlady, had done all of the negotiating and pulling strings to get a number assigned, because if all the local exchanges are full, you have to wait until eight people in your neighborhood request a number before they add another one. Gretchen had been here five years with no phone.
So when I moved in I had a phone number and a receipt for payment in full. I just had to get a friend s coworker to call the phone company and ask for an appointment, and leave a message for the Lopez household to take the message when the phone company called back, and wait around for a week until Mr. Lopez came staggering up to say that the phone company WAS going to come today but didn t know if I d be in, so to call them on Monday at 8 AM sharp, a neat trick with no phone, and then the phone guys themselves dropped by and said they d come Monday at 9, and they DID. Talk about not taking things for granted.
Then there s the water heater. Every morning, before my shower, I climb up to the roof, through the roof door (which did not close until the carpenter pounded it with a sledgehammer, and which still needs to be slammed with considerable force), and down a narrow metal ladder to the water heater. Then I remember that the gas line is not on, because the gas tank smells unless it s closed, so I go back up the ladder and down two flights of stairs and turn it on, and climb up again. I turn the dial to pilota , hold down the pilot light button, open the little metal door, light a match, and try to find the pilot light. After a few tries it lights. Then I wait a minute, or two, or five, while the pilot light gathers force. If I take my finger off the button too soon, the pilot light goes out and I have to start over. Then I turn the dial to abierto, and if the pilot light survived, I hear a whoosh which means the heater is lit, and I sit on the roof and gaze at the glorious mountains in deep satisfaction, knowing that in half an hour or so I ll be able to take a nice hot shower. I think of all the Americans who just turn the tap without thinking twice, and I pity them.
When I actually knew someone who lived in a Buddhist monastery, he used to make much of the fact that the monks all sat zazen for so many hours that the excess of sheer physical pain forced them to drop ordinary consciousness and take refuge in samadhi, an expanded state of mind which is not limited by the body. I maintained that this was unnecessary and redundant; ordinary life provides most of us with enough opportunities to experience pain and discomfort without forcing it artificially. Then when I moved here and started writing to friends about all the minor irritations of daily life, they were shocked. They thought it sounded horrible and didn t get it.
But I know better. For I am living in fairyland. I am living in a city where the church bells sing for joy at roughly 6 AM, and the mariachis sing and trumpet for free at roughly 8 PM and ever afterward. I am living in a city where happy adorable children throng the callejóns and threaten to kill me with water pistols, and run squealing and laughing when I roar at them, and come back for more. I am living in a city peppered with pink basilicas, entirely surrounded with cliffs and hills of pink lava, sprinkled with cactus gnarled or spreadeagled like grand green chandeliers, trees that bear a single white blossom at the end of each limb, thorn bushes covered with blue-gray bromeliads. Ordinary objects are patterned with the originality and extravagance of a herd of butterflies. I am living in a country that has several national holidays every month, where people take a siesta every afternoon.
In Guanajuato now the nights are cool and nippy, the days are hot and clear, the sky is an incandescent un-be-sooted blue. The sun takes three hours to set, during which time it paints the sky pink and lavender and midnight blue, the buildings and rocks of the Bufa deep gold. The trees in Mexiamora plaza are leaved purple and shiny and grandiose, while the trees on the hillsides are losing everything but their flowers. The ancient, durable and rugged cobblestones are mostly clean most days.
In other plazas, there are temporary booths set up for Dia de los Muertos, where ordinary families are selling beautiful homemade things of sugar, skulls and fruits and animals and birthday cakes, and have spent laborious hours cutting lacy paper decorations with razor blades, making papîer-maché skulls and painting them with flowers. Strange and wonderful fruits are in season. Under the eaves of the curly Spanish buildings are women in bright clothes selling flowers and churros and chiles rellenos and tamales and rice. The pigeons are overweight.
So you see, when I yanked up considerable roots at considerable trouble in the U.S. of A. and moved here, I expected problems. Problems are problematic at the time and hilarious ever after. Problems are interesting. Problems teach you that you don't know it all and that people are different, all of them, and isn't that grand? Isn't it amazing that not so far away there exists an enormous race of people who sleep all afternoon and never take responsibility for anything? Every citizen of this country is an infant Buddha, and I honor them for educating me in their ways. I am fully aware of how lucky I am, both to be here and to be able to leave when I've had enough, and am ready for water heaters that work and water that one can wash in without concern. This country is teaching me tranquility. I hope I can spread some of it around.
1 narrow, winding cobblestone alleyway with stairs which serves as a residential street in central Guanajuato.
Buena Vista, thanks
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