Thursday, March 27, 2014

Every particular in nature, a leaf, a drop, a crystal, a moment of time is related to the whole, and partakes of the perfection of the whole.

The autumnal equinox occurred last week but I hardly took notice. Our days have been exceptionally warm for mid- March. Yet, small signs are here: the return of the hummingbirds, fresh, brisk mornings, shorter days and, of course, the leaves. Below one tree lies a scattering of round lemony leaves, just the start of the tree’s shedding. We will not sweep them up. Not yet. The higher leaves of the liquidambar next door are blushing scarlet. Earlier today, a gaggle of brown, papery leaves scurried noisily down the street on a gust of wind. Where were they off to?
I can think of definite advantages of the ability to shed – to discard, like a snake, the old skin for a new one, but I must reconcile myself to an inner shedding, a letting go. It’s scary and uncomfortable to look within for what I need to wrench out, those tough, persistent weeds: shreds of old angers and resentments, lingering guilt, useless regrets, life’s detritus and vanities.
But how? I look to the leaves. No holding back there. They freely abandon their perches on branch and twig to blend into the soil below. It’s hibernation time for trees, a turning inwards to store energy for a season of new growth. No leaf or tree focuses on itself, but follows Mother Nature’s plan. If I turn my attention away from self towards the great oneness of which I am a part, then perhaps I too can feel an unburdening. Leaf by leaf.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Small Points of Light

My sister-in-law and I both had lamps needing rewiring. “I know just the place,” I told her. We drove to a small shopping center, called a “caracol” (shell), due to its circular, winding inner hallway rising five floors like a chambered nautilus. I forewarned her. “The place is a sucucho, (a small dump), but the man gets the job done and is reasonably priced.”
            She gasped as I led her into the shop at the end of a dark hallway on the bottom floor. Don Oscar, the lamp electrician, shared the miniscule space with a shoe repairman. It was worse than I’d remembered, dusty, oily machinery, pieces of plastic and metal – plugs, coils of wire, light switches, unidentifiable parts – covering every surface including tables, shelves and floor. Where could he do his work? He placed my sister-in-law’s ceramic lamps on the uneven concrete floor.
            “Please be careful with them,” she begged.
            “Don’t worry. They’ll be fine. I have a lot of work so I’ll have these ready next week,” he said after examining our lamps. He placed mine out in the hallway along with several others.
We thanked him and headed out to explore the shops along the winding walkway. “Well, if he breaks one”, said my sister-in-law, “I guess he can glue it together and it won’t even be noticeable.”
The variety of shops surprised us, mostly run by single artisans, making meager livings from their craft. Through one window I saw an elderly, bespectacled gentleman bent over his work table, his sign announcing watch repair. He reminded me of a picture in my childhood book “The Shoemaker and the Elves”. He looked trustworthy, and I resolved, when I returned for the lamps, to bring the gold watch I’d inherited from my aunt. How uncertain the future of those artisans in this era of malls. Who will repair lamps when Don Oscar is no longer around?
Other shops offered hand-made bikinis, lampshades, picture frames, quilts and lottery tickets. One store offering specialized gardening equipment drew me in. A window display was set up with unusual circular containers under spotlights. “For growing plants indoors,” the clerk said. Then I spotted a magazine with the photo of a cannabis leaf. “Oh! That’s what they’re for.”
Two blocks away our neighborhood has its own mini-shopping center, if it can be called that. The shabby shops occupy the ground level of a small 1950s two-story apartment building. There we have access to an almacén (mini-market), dry cleaners (whose clerk also alters clothing), a beauty shop (I’ve never dared to put my hair in their hands), a vegetable stand and a pet care/lottery store. I make most use of the verdulería, whose owners, Ivan and Cristina, bring fresh fruits and vegetables from the La Vega, a central market downtown.
Our neighborhood appreciates the convenience of these places and had them in mind when we fought the construction of a large mall two blocks away. We mobilized a grassroots movement to defend our neighborhood and the concept of neighborhood. We won that battle, but the struggle isn’t over in this city dotted with the giraffe-like necks of construction cranes.
Yesterday I crossed paths on my block with the old broom seller who frequents our neighborhood. The clutch of brooms and feather dusters slung over his shoulder looked heavy. He called out in his gravelly voice: Escooobas, escobillones, plumeros. We exchanged smiles. I wanted to say something, maybe tell him I often hear him pass by and ask: does he sell many brooms? Maybe I will next time – and buy one of his brooms.

Monday, March 17, 2014



Last night I dreamt of mountains. This came as no surprise, being that I crossed the Andes (cordillera to us locals) by land twice in the last three days. Living in Santiago, they have always been a point of reference for my internal compass. The sun rises from behind those looming rocky ridges and then, at the end of the day, illuminates them from the west. I know that, if I’m heading towards the mountains, I am heading east. I can always count on the glacier-capped peak of El Plomo to be there, even when hidden in clouds.

 Heading to Mendoza, Argentina, we followed the rising, winding road carved in rock, along ledges, through tunnels, bordering rivers into the heart of the cordillera. The surrounding peaks, cliffs and canyons closed in, swallowing us in their wild terrain. Gazing at those tilting strata in hues of rust, ochre and grey, I wished I'd remembered more of the contents of the geology course I took at the university. The knowledge has become fuzzy and I wanted to understand how this all - rivers, canyons, sculpted cliffs - came about. 

Midway through the Cristo Redentor tunnel, we passed from Chile to Argentina, and, emerging the tunnel, we descended into a landscape of pale green slopes and alpine valleys. To our left, rose the highest peak in the western and southern hemispheres at 22,837 ft., Mt. Aconcagua, gleaming in snowy splendor against a deep blue sky. I search for words to describe how the sight made me feel: euphoric, in awe, blessed. Later, we passed a reminder of its wild nature, a small hill enclosed by a low rock wall, the burial ground for climbers defeated by the mountain they set out to conquer.

Descending into the flat vast Argentine plains, the vegetation changed to tufts of long grass, long waving fox tails and scrubby bushes, interspersed with neat vineyards. My perspective of the land changed as well. Now the sun would set behind the Andes, and I knew that far into the east lay the Atlantic. Rather than El Plomo, my view encompassed the Aconcagua and the Tupungato volcano, new points of reference for three days.
To develop an inner sense of place on the eastern side of the cordillera would have required more time. As we headed west, back to Chile through the cordillera, and then descending the caracol, that mountainside of twenty-nine perilous switchbacks (which the customs officer gleefully informed us was one of the world’s ten most dangerous roads), I felt comforted to be returning to the sight of the familiar rocky formations and peaks that ground me on this land, where the sun rises from behind the mountains and sets over the Pacific, just as in California.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

A Fine Line

Frequent comments I hear from Chileans who have travelled to the U.S. go something like this: Everyone is so polite there. They say, “Excuse me” if they brush your elbow in the supermarket line. They know how to take turns. This implies that these rules of public conduct are rarely followed here.
            When two or more gringas get together here, we complain about aggressive Chilean drivers and sales clerks in stores chatting in groups or sending text messages while we wait to be waited on. Or how about the passengers shoving into the metro car before I’ve had the chance to get out? I could list many more frustrations – but I won’t. Instead, I want to explore how I handle these situations.
            I now know that I must walk straight up the salesclerk, look her in the eye and ask if she is busy. I also know I can't reform pushy drivers and, though, try as I may to keep my cool when someone cuts in front of me, I often blast on my horn to point out their lack of consideration and release my anger.
            What works best for me, when I remember, is to practice what I preach, modeling the behavior I’d like to see from others. I smile and give a thumbs-up to the driver who slows to allow me to change lanes and sometimes a grateful driver will signal me in thanks. All this sounds gentle and polite, but, living in this crowded city tests the best of my intentions. To survive I've had to become more assertive, but when does assertiveness cross the line into rudeness?
The other day, ticket in hand, I walked up to the metro turnstile for seniors. A woman in front of me was having difficulty with her ticket. A metro employee was trying to help her, but she kept fiddling around. I guess I was in a hurry (fatal) and walked around her, mumbling an “excuse me” and inserting my ticket. She apologized saying, “I’m not from here.” That incident has bothered me for days. Why didn't I stop and offer to help?
As children, most of us slowly acquire the ability to empathize, to put ourselves in the other’s shoes. I consider myself an empathetic person, but, in the day-to-day ordeal of preserving my space and my rights in the big city, I may fail to consider the other. Sometimes I need a good shake-up, an incident like that in the metro or someone pointing it out, to realize I've been overly focused on myself and thus missing opportunities for kindness or just plain civility.
            Living in another culture, it’s a challenge to stick to one’s principles and not slip into a “When in Rome…” attitude.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Tortoise Trickery Followed by
A Wild Goose Chase

Tortoise ownership is usually pretty unexciting. Speedy Gonzalez has been in our family for about thirty years, a birthday present for our youngest son at about 5 years of age. Speedy requires very little care: water, fruit and lettuce and a dry, dark box in fall and winter for hibernation. He nibbles on leaves and grass in our backyard. An independent soul, he doesn't wag his tail when I approach or seek affection, though he sometimes will accept food from my hand. On hot days, though, we must keep an eye on him as he becomes restless (hence his name), circling around the yard and pulling himself up the low step to get in the house. His preference is a corner in our bedroom under the radiator – which is where I found him this morning. Dirty footprints on our rug gave him away. I don’t mind him spending the night with us. He’s quiet as a…well, a tortoise. I gently scolded him and put him out in the morning sun.

That done, I headed to the metro to do two errands: buy airline tickets to NY to see our son’s graduation ceremony at Columbia and buy medicine imported from the U.S. , all of which took me about three hours and miles of walking. My credit card (hardly ever use it) couldn't cover the amount of the tickets, requiring a five block walk to the bank to withdraw the cash to cover the difference, followed by a walk back to the airline office, followed by a trek to the office in a medical building to buy the medicine. They’d run out of it. Then back to the metro and the four block walk under a hot late summer sun to my house, where I arrived tired, sweaty and hungry. Before eating, I took some lettuce leaves out to Speedy, which he snubbed. My son thinks we should take Speedy to a vet for a check-up after all these years. I wonder where I can find a tortoise vet.
Speedy Gonzalez

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Back to School – or Not

March. Another new calendar page. So soon.

 Next week is back-to-school week. Today I saw a painter high on scaffolding sprucing up a local school. The supermarket aisles are brimming with notebooks, folders, boxes of colored pencils, scissors, glue and pencil cases, as teachers, families and children ready themselves for that momentous first day – except for the students at a rural school in Mapuche country. They’ll have to attend classes elsewhere. Violent pro-Mapuche activists burned down their school a few days ago.

This is a city of cars. Last week I said it is a city of walls and fences, but with vacationers pouring back into town, the summer calm of city streets has vanished. March means the return of traffic congestion, people in a hurry to get somewhere, believing a car is the only way to get there. Living in a central area, I am fortunate to get where I want mostly by walking or riding the metro.

Our neighborhood buzzes with the motors of gardeners cutting neglected summer grass. The neighbors over our back wall are back. I hear their two small girls playing and jumping on their trampoline. After months of silence, the bell at my boys’ old school has begun ringing throughout the day, marking the changing of classes, evoking the mornings when my boys headed off wearing their grey trousers, blue blazers and heavy backpacks.

Though the cars monopolize, this is a city of many things: eight green monk parrots bathing in a park sprinkler; computer print-outs posted on trees proclaiming “perro perdidio”, lost dog, found dog, dog walkers, English classes; and always, always stray dogs with sad eyes.

And rats. I heard little scampering feet in the roof of our shed out back and have put poison in the rain gutter. Bare avocado pits beneath our tree were more evidence of their presence. They have a hankering for avocados. Rats and I have that in common.