Monday, February 27, 2012

Not a Drop to Drink

February 27, 2012 – Not a drop to drink
I take my first full out plunge into the ocean. Stumbling over rocks and grasping for balance against the waves, I scramble down across the pebbled beach. A swell strikes me and I gasp at the cold slap of the water. I’ve stuck my feet into the Pacific before. I’ve dipped my hand into the Atlantic. I’ve even swum in one of the Great Lakes, but this is my ordinal oceanic emersion. The water splashes up against my face. I sputter and shake my head to clear my eyes. I’ve made a pact with myself not to drink it--you know it being saline and probably dirty. But the drops touch my lips and when I breathe I take the salt in. I’m surprised at how salty it is. I mean, it’s really really salty. Of course it is; it’s the ocean, silly.

I swim out a ways, turn to wave at Katrina who agreed to take some photos for me. Then I face the open water, the distant horizon and tread. I’d needed a vacation day. My head’s been hurting; something angry pounding at my temples with a gathering impatience. My neck’s been getting tighter and stiffer. And I’ve had a progressively growing grouch. I’ve been working hard on my novel revision. Hours and hours at a time each day switching sentences around, removing text, adding in words and staring into space with an outstretched hand mimicking a character’s motion and emotion in my mind. I’d gotten high off the completion of my second draft only to come crashing down when I realized how much more work I still needed to do. My doubts and delusion of grandeur war each day, each moment, and I always fight the frenzy of my artistic temperament.

Now I put all that out of my mind. I rock with the waves. Up and down. When I miss a rise, a wave falls on me and I’m shoved under. Down. The fury of it passes by. I part the water with my hands and come up. Face in the open air, I smile. The water doesn’t feel as cold as before. I breathe in and out. Blocking out everything but this very moment. This buoying of me, this embracing of the water, this rocking stillness, this rhythmic crashing of time.
For the first time in days, I’m at peace. My mind calms. Future plans can wait. Money stress can be worried over later. I float. Tread. Sidestroke. Scissor kick. Back stroke to reposition myself between the two jetties. Wonder how far I could go. Wonder how far I could go and still make it back.

Swimming lazily, I think of my great-uncle Paul. He was a sergeant in the Air Force. Part of the Jolly Green Giants pararescue teams who parachuted into Vietnam and saved the lives of the downed soldiers, pulled them out and brought them home. My grandmother had told me before of great a swimmer he was. “He’d swim out with these mighty strokes until we couldn’t see him anymore,” she said.
Looking out to sea, here, I see how far that would be. Although I’ve only heard stories of him, I know that Uncle Paul was tall and strong, American and brave. He reenlisted time and again so that, “kids like Johnny and Jeff (my dad and uncle) wouldn’t have to go to Vietnam.” In his last tour, his helicopter was shot down over Laos. He was MIA for over twenty years until 1995 when his remains were found and brought home. In my mind, he’s become this legend of character. The kind of man you wish every man was. And a good swimmer to boot.  (
I let the thoughts go. Let the passed on memories splash up and evaporate into the atmosphere. Let the admiration I have for a man I never met ride away from me toward the horizon as far away from me as he could have swum. I stay where I am. Clear my mind once again. I could stay here, riding the waves forever. But I don’t. I pull some strong strokes and head for the shore.

There’s no graceful way to scratch back up the rock incline to the rock strewn beach. I’m short of breath and suddenly self-conscious. I’m not in the shape I’d like to be. I’m not a swimsuit model. I don’t look like the athlete I’d been for so many years. I'm no pararescuer.
But then, as I sprawl out, belly-down on my towel and let the sun dry me out, I mock myself and let those insecurities dry out too.  
Because after all, what does that matter? I just swam in the ocean. It’s summertime in Lima. And here I am basking on the rocks in the sun. Life doesn’t get much better than this.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Bench Sitting

February 20, 2012 – Bench Sitting

On Thursdays when Pilar comes to clean the apartment I like to head out so as not to be underfoot. This Thursday is no exception. I pack a few things into my bag, slap a little sunscreen on and go.

Not feeling up to a long walk I trek southwest for a block over to the little
park across the way from my building. I’ve got my choice of benches and I take the one with the least amount of pigeon poop. Over the past weeks I’ve been revising my novel, trying to get it to something decent and my mind is overtaxed with plot sorting, doubt, character depth, worry, offensive language, artistic insecurities, and words, always words.

I take out my notebook and start to refine the book’s logline and begin the rough outline for a synopsis. But I have this restless angst. And the noise of Lima is getting to me. So much noise. This place is never still. Never quiet. I need to listen for the peace, see if I can sort it out from this omnipresent cacophony. I close my pen, tuck my book back into my bag and shut my eyes.
I tune out my thoughts and the surrounding noise. I sit there and breathe.

Happy shrieks play through the air. Children playing in the last days of their summer vacation. Passing people inadvertently share their one-sided phone conversations with me. A flock of parrots pass overhead, gossiping with squawking loudness. The breeze plays with the trees and the leaves sing.

Some of my tension evaporates. I sneak my eyes open. A nun walks across the sidewalk and heads down the side path that cuts through the park. I wonder if she’s sweltering under all that cloth. As she determinedly goes by she pulls a phone out from the folds of her frock. Even the nuns have phones, I think. And why shouldn’t they?

A young girl runs across the grass, looking backwards with a grin, and turns sideways behind a tree. A startled cry, a laugh. Her little brother follows her path and they play a circular hide-and-seek around the tree. Both with a joy so contagious I catch it.
An old man--dressed like a pretty dandy in a straw hat, ironed shirt and tie, and spit-shined shoes so new they squeak with each step--steps past.

The young girl and her brother finish their game and plop down next to each other on the bench across from me. “Ven acá (come here),” she tells him. She pulls out a roll of toilet paper and a bottle of water from her flower print purse. He comes and she roughly dabs the dirt and grime from his skinned up knee.

“Cuidado (be careful)!” he chides her at her touch.

Then they share the snacks she’s carrying deep in the recesses of her bag. A Mary Poppins bag filled with magical things. She reminds me of a Little Geraldine. Tough. No nonsense. And just the littlest bit wicked. I love her there, in that park, with all my heart.
A woman and her two daughters walk past.

“What time is it?” the little boy asks the woman.
“I don’t know,” the woman says, with a shrug.

They leave our lives and the girl turns to her brother. “What do you need to know the time for?” she demands.
He’s got no good answer so he runs off to inspect the trees, to see what other children are doing, to run after the dogs, to wonder at this thing called life, called play.

The sister sits on the bench alone, the weight of it all on her, while he goes to dance around the flowers.
The Parks and Gardens employee, decked out in full uniform, waters every last blade of grass, soaks the roots of the trees, quenches the greedy thirst of the flowers, makes puddles of mud all through the park. A policeman stops, pulls his hat off and uses the hose water to rinse the sweat from his face, to cool the heat of his head, to wash the stickiness from his hair. His partner waits on the sidewalk for him.

“Raul!” the sister calls. She’s bored by herself. “Raul! Ven acá!”
He obeys, bringing back with him a red flower he’s plucked just for her. When she smiles the sun shines here through the clouds and the stars burst into brilliance somewhere where it’s dark. She forces him to sit next to her and to behave. He can only handle that so long before he’s off again.

A woman takes the spot on the bench next to the sister. The sister looks at her with suspicious eyes and scoots over.
The woman’s girls giggle over with a leashed dog in tow.

Raul scoots up next to his sister and leans down to pet the dog. To coo at it.
While I’m busy watching all this activity a man passes, pauses and then with a “May I?” takes the place on the end of my bench.

I move over a little to give my permission.
He’s older, dressed in a suit and carrying a folder of official looking paperwork. I stick my nose down in my notebook and he reads his business.

The woman, girls and dogs leave after the girls have all gone over to soak their feet in the water from the Parks and Gardens employee’s water hose.
“My shoes have water in them,” one girl complains as she sloshes back by.

Raul makes friends with a little boy. The new boy is wild. He throws his toys across the sidewalk, makes wild yells and then runs after them to pick them up and throw them again. Raul watches this with a modicum of alarm. He leaves the wild boy to his own devices and gets some more flowers.

“Raul! Raul! Ven acá!” Raul’s sister calls. And he does. She buys them a frozen treat from a passing vendor. The siblings share it bite by bite. She puts one of the flowers behind her ear, tucks it between her ear and her dark hair. Then she teases Raul, makes him put a flower under his cap and behind his ear. They both laugh.

“Niño! Niño (little boy)! Come over here and play with me,” the new wild boy yells.
They play until the wild boy taps Raul on the head with one of his toys.

“No me pegas (don’t hit me)!” Raul cries with indignation. He jumps up off the bench and runs after the wild boy.

But Raul doesn’t hit the boy, he sticks his face up close, reaches out as if he’ll push. “Don’t ever hit me again!” Raul yells at him. He turns his back and goes to the comfort of his sister.
The wild boy makes amends with a truck. Moments of friendliness expire. Then the wild boy kicks Raul. Raul doesn’t know what to think of this wild boy and slides back over, puts his hand on his sister’s leg.

The wild boy’s dad sweeps in, phone still at his ear, and takes the wild boy away. “Why did you do that? What did you kick him for? You shouldn’t do that.”
A sort of peace descends over us all.
“Señorita,” the sister asks me, “what time is it?”

I tell her and pretend I haven’t been spying on them so hard this whole time.

Raul darts away to pick more flowers and the sister gives me a smile. After all, we’re practically bench friends. Best bench friends.
When she gets tired of being abandoned, being benched alone, she yells to Raul that she’s leaving. He doesn’t respond right away and she starts to go, looking over her shoulder to see that he notices. He does.

“Amiga!” he yells. “Don’t leave without me!” and he runs to catch up with her. Hand in hand they go off together. I already miss them.
“It’s very peaceful here,” the man next to me says.

“Yes, it’s nice,” I reply.
“I’m supposed to be at a meeting at two o’clock,” he says. “And I got here early and saw this park. It’s very nice. I’m going to a meeting at a place right next to here.” He shows me the business card for the business and then his real estate credentials.

He asks me where I’m from and then tells me about the housing market and current purchase rates for apartments in Miraflores and San Isidro.
“Are you from Lima?” I ask him.

“Yes,” he says. “But I lived for seven years in Bolivia.”
“Did you like it there?”
“Oh, yes,” he says. “Bolivia es hermosa (Bolivia is beautiful). But it’s the worst place for us Peruvians to put up with.”

“Because it’s dangerous?” I ask.

“No, no,” he says. “It’s just so machista (male chauvinist).”
Good lord, I think, that’s how I feel about things here. How in the heck much worse is Bolivia if a Peruvian man tells me this? But to be fair, this man doesn’t seem like the whistlers or the “que rica” commentators, or the honkers I’ve encountered. He’s just another human in the park sharing a bench with a stranger under the cloudy sky.

“Statistically,” he starts. “Statistically. Statistically speaking seventy-five percent of marriages don’t last longer than five years in Bolivia.”
“Seventy-five percent?” At first I’m shocked. But don’t U.S. marriage statistics say that something like fifty percent of marriages end after three years there? I don’t bring that into the conversation. It’s nice just to have him talk.

“Yes. It’s because it’s so machista. Those men see woman as instruments. They don’t treat them well at all. There’s a lack of respect.”
I’m starting to really like this man.

“But the women there are accustomed to it. That’s why they put up with it.”
“Because they don’t know any different,” I interject. “That’s just how their lives are.”

“That’s just how their lives are,” he agrees. “The girls become sexually--” he stops. “Let me ask, how old are you?”
“I’m thirty-three.”

Relieved he goes on, “The girls there become sexually active at thirteen or fourteen. They just have no respect and then get in to all kinds of trouble. My daughter was there with me and she used to come tell me where she was going and who she was going out with and when she’d be home. She told me later that her friends said, ‘Why do you tell him that? It’s not his business what you do.’”
“Wow,” I say.

“Carlita, that’s my daughter’s name, Carla. Carlita always had respect for us and consideration.”
We iron out all the details and then he gets a phone call.

“I’m over at the park,” he says. “Waiting for you. Where are you?”
He stands, gets his file together.

“It was really nice talking to you,” I say. “Have a great day and a good meeting.”
“It was a pleasure talking to you,” he says. He shakes my hand and goes off.

I sit alone for a while longer. Watching. Observing. Being. Here I am sitting on this bench, spying on life. Participating uninvited in these clips of adventure, in these moments that might or might not turn into memories. Occasionally joining in to turn from observer to interacter.
Then I get up and go on home.

Monday, February 13, 2012

A Stranger

February 13, 2012 – A Stranger
I decide to play along with the February Photo A Day Challenge created by FatMumSlim. It’s easy. Each day has a key word or phrase like: blue, something you ate, button, dinner, sun. The rules are simple. All I’ve got to do is take a picture of said thing and post it on a variety of social networking sites as I see fit. This appeals to the artistic nature of my personality and I jump in to the imagery. I mark the words on my calendar and get my thinking cap down off my closet shelf.

Pueblo Libre Plaza
On the fourth day the prompt is a stranger. This is daunting. There’s something so sneaky about taking pictures of people, especially if they’re unaware. How would I feel if someone did this to me? I debate taking a photo of the kids who run about in the playground outside my bedroom window. I think about capturing a passing stranger through the window of my study. I contemplate taking a bus ride and catching some weird angle shots from under the folds of my bag. I scrap all those ideas. Better than all that, I’ll go down to the plaza in Pueblo Libre. It’s a more touristy place since there’s a museum right off the square. Lots of the locals come to let their kids play near the fountain, talk with an old crony on a bench in the shade, watch the pigeons, watch the tourists. People flash their cameras around like Ansel Adams. I figure I can just join in the throng.  

There I can be safe, surreptitious, and sneaky all at the same time.
With this plan in mind, I pack my camera, an apple, and a powerbar in my bag, pour some coffee into Katrina’s to-go cup, slap some sunscreen on my nose and on my tattoo and head out the door and down the sidewalk.

I’m scouting faces as I go. I pass a serious looking policeman, several embassy guards, a street cleaner with the breathing mask up over her nose and mouth, a ponytailed girl clutching her mom’s hand, a cyclist, an old man with a cane.
I want to take pictures of them all. I want them to pose for me while I capture them in motion. I want to get the timelines around their eyes, the serious press of their lips, the various shades of their skin, the concerns of the day that plane their cheeks. I want contrast and similarity. I want beauty and pain, joy and ugliness to be digitally imprinted in my memory card. I want to hear their stories and yet stay a stranger to them too.

But I keep my camera in my bag and walk on.
The cars zip by. The bus Cobradors shout out the streets from the open doors of their combis, try to convince me to take a ride. Taxis honk. Taxi. Taxi? Taxi. They slow in the hope that I’ll leave off walking and choose their mode of transportation. I get a few whistles from motorcyclists, workers, drivers.

I wipe sweat from my brow and upper lip. It’s still early, but the day is already a hot one. I should have brought the sunscreen with me.
Pausing on a curb, I wait for my path to clear so I can cross the street. The one way traffic zooms by. A long nosed white car turns in front of me, taking a left. Cutting the meters between us to centimeters. The driver is so close, I could reach out and touch his arm, I can almost catch the odor of his breath.

He slows to a crawl, leans out closer. “Que rica,” he drawls, making the rrrrrr roll and trill. Yummy. Tasty. How delicious. Any of those translations carry the insult I take from his two words.
Que horrible,” I reply from across the street, making the distance longer and longer. He’s a stranger who can stay a stranger, and unphotographed as well.  

When I reach the plaza it’s already busy. There’s a stage platform at the end of the square. Booths line the walkways and men and women are setting up shop. I don’t know what’s going on, I don’t know what party is being planned, I don’t know when it’s going to start, but I do know that I’m surrounded by strangers.  And that is glorious.

I stare without being blatant, looking at faces from under the brim of my eyelids. I snap a couple shots as I go. Strangers are marvelous. They’re full of all the stories I’ve never heard. They’ve experienced these lives I’ve never imagined. They have heartbreaks I can’t fathom. Joys I’ve never been bubbled up in.

The old man on the bench has a story. The policeman standing nearby has his own. The passing man with greasy hair and a sketchbook in his hand has another. I want to eavesdrop on their lives.
Instead I walk to the opposite end of the square and sit on a bench. I take out my coffee and angle my face up toward the sun.

There’s a taxi parked cattycorner from me. The driver leans against the red panels of his car and smokes cigarette after cigarette. I think about taking his picture. He’s waiting for the perfect fare. When the suited owner of the black car parked behind him returns to get his suit coat, the taxista asks him to move his car back a ways so that he can get out easier when it’s time to go. The suited owner does, puts his coat on, and goes away again.
Right in front of me is a wood carved Jesus face. More than anything, I suddenly want to have my stranger stand beside the whittled Lord and stare where he stares into the summer air.

I search for the perfect face. I look for the best stranger.
An attractive couple walk by. The guy would look nice next to the Christ, but the girlfriend looks the jealous type so I don’t ask. A young woman walks past with her brother, her friend, her charge? I don’t know. He puts his fingers to his face and gestures repetitively, mumbles under his breath, shuffles by. She encourages him on. A mother and her little boy come from the opposite direction. Good faces, but not the rights ones. An older gentleman strolls by. He catches me looking. His step catches like he’s going to speak to me, but he thinks better of it and keeps on.

Two dark headed youths walk too far off to my left for me to capture. The ponytailed, singer-type would have made a nice portrait. I’m eager to get my stranger, but not willing to risk being too exuberant.  
And then she comes into view. The most beautiful stranger I’ve ever seen. Hatted and matching.

Our eyes meet. “Buenos dias,” she tells me with a friendly smile. I’m in love. I want to tell her buenos dias and smile in return. To have that stranger to stranger connection. But I don’t let it lie. I become that hated one who asks for something when eye contact is made.
Permiso (excuse me),” I say. “I’m doing a photo project and was wondering if I could take your picture next to this image.”

“What do I have to do?” she asks, reaching for the camera.
“I mean,” I say, “Would you mind if I take your photo?”

She’s generous with her strangeness. She lets me take her picture. I show her the result. She nods. I thank her. Thank her again. She walks away, out of my life. Strangers still.
I finish my coffee. Over the taxi driver’s head is a banner that announces The Day of the Pisco Sour. And that’s today. The party is getting ready to start. I walk through the plaza watching the venders set up for the day’s activities. Boxes of limes, bottles of Pisco get carted in. I’m sure the eggs and sugar will follow.

I walk past the ladies selling trinkets. The umbrella man holds out an umbrella, encourages me to buy one. I decide to go home instead.
As the blocks shorten between me and my apartment, I clutch my bag up close to my side. My hand balances over where my camera is, holding safe the pictures I’ve taken. All these strangers. All these strangers of mine.

At home and with the photos downloaded to my computer I post my stranger for the world to see.  
Already I’m thinking ahead to the next day. What will I do for 10 AM? What will I focus on? What will I see? What will I choose to represent it? How will I see the world differently through the lens of that word?

How will I see the world differently through the lens of my own eyes, of my own words?

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A Non-Creepy Date and Into the Swing of Things

February 7 – In the Swing of Things and a Non Creepy Date

After being away from my apartment in Jesús María for a biblically sounding forty-six days, it’s a relief to return, unpack my bags and mill about listlessly until I catch up on sleep.  I don’t immediately jump back into a “normal” life schedule. I’m exhausted. I’m stretched thin. I’m temporarily adventured out. I move the little rocks and crystals on my window sill around and catch myself saying, “It’s good to be back. It’s good to be home.”
When Sunday morning comes I gather myself up and go flag down a bus for Miraflores. I’d emailed Rodney my schedule and suggested a coffee sometime after my return and he’d replied, “Of course, coffee - lunch - wine and dessert. Sunday the 22nd, it's a date as far as I am concerned. I've missed you and not in that creepy Peruvian male way. LOL I'll be glad to have you back for our wandering discussions about everything in general and writing specifically.”

So it’s a non-creepy date and I’m on my way.
Rodney waits at Café Zeta. He’s just had breakfast with his friends Tim and Lourdes. I’ve already eaten my post workout breakfast, but my stomach is growling again and second breakfast seems like a great idea. Rodney gets another cup of coffee, I order my food and then in between bites I tell him in elaborate (but truthful) detail about the last month and a half.

I feel like a little kid with that constant cry of, “And then, and then, and then, and then!”
At one point Rodney interrupts, “Stop! I want to hear the end of this. But first you finish your food. While you do that I’ll tell you what I’ve been up to.”

I shut my mouth to talking and open it up for eating. Rodney tells me of the new book he’s working on and the bad guys and the good guys and the gruesome nature of the murders his hero has to solve. When my plate is scraped clean and the bill is paid, Rodney says he’s planned us a nice walk in Barranco if I’m up for it. And of course I am. Due to his height, Rodney seldom takes the buses, so he gets us a taxi and our driver drives.
Barranco is the bohemian district of Lima, known for its artsy musical nightlife. I’d walked down a street or two and seen the tall trees when I came with Sarah and her friend Will Crookshank back in September. But each street here holds a secret and I want to hear them all.

Rodney lived in Barranco when he first moved to Peru and he used to walk a long path each morning. He takes me to the spots he loved the most and tells me the secrets that he knows. We pause at the red house, fancy gated door where Victor Delfín, the sculptor who created the strange kissing sculpture El Beso (The Kiss) displayed in the Park of Love, is rumored to live.  I press my face up to the bars of the gate which locks us out of the museum and take a picture of the intricate branching of the tree above me.
At the Bridge of Sighs Rodney tells me that those who make a wish and then hold their breath the entire length of the bridge have their wishes come true. I take a moment to settle on a wish, hold my breath and walk across.

I join Rodney at the railing and we gaze down at the hordes of people heading to and from the beach. It’s summertime, finally, in Lima.
“Do you know the story of the Bridge of Sighs?” Rodney asks. I shake my head and he goes on, “There was a rich young girl who used to live near here. And every day she’d look out her window and see a young sweeper boy working to clean the streets. She fell in love with him. And he fell in love with her. But when her father found out he had the boy sent away. Every day after that, the girl would look out her window and sigh because her lover was gone.” Rodney pauses, “Supposedly, if you stop to listen, when the air is just right you can hear her sighs on the wind.”

I strain to hear the heartbroken sighs of forbidden love, and only catch the joyful noise of the people all around us enjoying a summer weekend in Peru.
We stop for a moment to watch a few couples take their pictures near the statue of Chabuca Granda, Peru’s own composer and singer of Música Criolla. Two guys ask Rodney and me if we want a song. We shake our heads but they sing anyways. When we turn to leave, Rodney gives them a sol for their music.

Next to the old church is an overlook with a whitewashed cross. Rodney points to it. “There’s a story about the founding of Barranco. You don’t mind the stories, do you?”
“I love them,” I say, and I take a picture of him.

“A group of fishermen were out on the sea when a menacing mist settled over everything. They feared for their lives and prayed to God and to the Virgin Mary. The story goes that they saw a light in the shape of a cross and rowed for it. When they arrived safely to land, there was no cross, but they knew that God had saved them. So they brought their families to that place, set up a cross as a memorial and that’s how Barranco was founded.”

We walk past the church, past the vultures roosting there, and go around the corner. Like a tourist, I lean up against the scenic viewpoint’s rail and gaze out to sea. I think about throwing a coin in the wishing well, but figure I should work on one wish at a time.

“You ready for a glass of wine?” Rodney asks.
“You bet.” Rodney gestures me inside the nearby restaurant with an inviting wave, and I lead the way up the spiral staircase up to the balcony. We find a good seat just out of the sun and order a bottle of red wine and some afternoon snacks.

Built up the hill behind us are houses and apartments. The terraced gardens look like half-hearted attempts at recreating the Incans’ structures. A group of vultures circles one of the buildings. “There’s a superstition about circling vultures,” Rodney says. “It means that a witch lives there.”
“A witch?!”

“I was walking with two of my Peruvian friends one time and we saw some buzzards circling the house we were just about to pass. They both crossed the street and crossed themselves.”
I think about witches. I’d just finished a story about an earth witch. And that makes me think of Glinda the Good and her question to Dorothy: “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?” I wonder what kind of witch lives in that house just behind us where the vultures fly.

The shadows get longer, the bottle emptier, and our conversation never flags. Though we do settle into a comfortable silence every now and then.
“It’s the sign of a good friendship,” I say. “When you can have a comfortable silence.”

We both smile and fall into a new quietness. After the moment passes and the last drops of wine are drunk, Rodney asks, “You ready to see a little more?”
“Yes,” I reply.

We tour more of Barranco all the while talking of things like the cost of living, ocean view homes, museums, churches, art, graffiti, haunted houses and simplicity. Then we head back towards the place where we started from. Out on the malecón (the ocean view walkway) we take our time to admire the flowers, listen to the sound of the waves, to look up for witch-warnings and to hear the secrets in the air. We walk from Barranco all the way back to Miraflores.

At Larco Mar neither of us is ready yet to call the day finished. 

“You want to pretend we’re rich and go get a drink at the Marriot?” Rodney asks.
I feel all kinds of rich, so I agree.  

We settle into the plush seats.  I order a glass of wine and a vegetarian stir fry. Rodney gets a Pisco Sour and a meal of his own. There’s an American Football game playing on the TV at the corner of the bar. There’s a woman and her young son playing cards at a table near us. There’s a group of suited business men and women working some deal. There’s a loud American couple recounting their day. We’re just another pair in the room; telling secrets, living to the fullest, being rich in happiness.
Out the window the sky is changing. Rodney and I turn our faces and:  

We watch the clouds wait at the skirmish line
and draw in close over
the ocean
as the sun goes down

We part ways at my bus stop. Rodney continues up to the edge of the curb to catch a taxi back to San Borja where he lives. I flag down the 19 and sit back in the rickety seat with a smile. One last vacation day and how well spent it was. Tomorrow I get back into the swing of things. I can’t wait.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Death in Art

  February 1, 2012 – Death in Art
“I’d get my Ph.D. in Death in Art,” my sister-in-law Marie says while we’re browsing books at ½ Price Books in Dallas and watching Shea crawl across the carpet to go eat some used spines. Marie’s love of death and darkness thrills me. Her art borders the creepy, just shirking shy of it by being beautiful and stark and fantastic. However, since (as my mom once told me after reading a short story I’d written), “[I] hide [my] dark and creepy side really well,” Marie and I get along just fine with the macabre sides of our minds to keep each other company. I grab the baby up before we have to buy the whole lower shelf, and think of what I’d want to get mine in. My interests would probably lie more along something like the Scarecrow’s doctorate in Thinkology, or behavioral science—where I could just watch people and make observations of my own--or Great Book Reading. At this point in my life I don’t have just one all-encompassing focus for study. And I’m okay with that.
I’m also resigned to the fact that I probably won’t (legitimately) earn the coffee cup my mom found at the thrift store that says Dr. White. She’s been holding on to it for years now to give to the first of us to become a doctor, and I’ve lusted after that mug greatly on various lonely nights. My dad is the highest in the running for the cup having just signed up for a Ph.D. program in a subject that is most likely way over my head; material science, quantum mechanics, the atomic lives of mushrooms, or the intricate study of bacteria growth in Kombucha mothers.
While Dad delves into the scientific universe and Marie scrapes back the dirt on death, I, on the other hand, dabble in art and apply myself to words.
When I go with Nan, on her last day in Peru, to the Museo Arqueológico Rafael Larco Herrera I’m captivated by our gripping human fascination with death. It’s not just Marie and me after all. I stare at the ceramics, textiles, and jewelry and read the captions outside the protective glass which say things like, “The majority of Moche Ceramics were placed in tombs as part of the culture’s cult of the dead. Their messages and symbolism were carried to ‘the next world’ in the same way as the ‘Book of the Dead’ of the ancient Egyptians,” and “Potters reproduced ritual scenes which accompanied the dead into the afterlife.”  
None of us, I think, want death to be the end. In their hope that there was something more than this life, many of the early Peruvian cultures believed that items buried with a body would protect that person in the afterlife. Despite the message in Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take it With You these spirits took along tokens, food, clothing, money, weapons, jewelry and funerary masks that would transform them into the depicted image on their arrival into the spirit realm. They went prepared to do battle with demons, enemies, gods, and monsters. They took with them the symbols of their status so that once they passed into Death they could become Ancestors or Gods themselves.  

Are we that different now; wanting our glory in both life and death? How would these ancient cultures view our ceremonies of death? Are we any less strange? What would I want buried with me if I were heading into that type of underworld?
With these questions in mind, I stare at the funerary offerings laying in display outside of one silver box and wonder if by removing them from the grave and bringing them into this museum if that woman now stands in the underworld defenseless and poor. A story takes ghostly form in my brain. I pull my notebook out from under my arm and write, “We excavated her tomb and took away her protection. Now she is on her own in the underworld.”
“Art evokes art,” I think. I say it out loud. Then I write that down in my notebook too.
Marie and I often speak about the subjective and evocative nature of art. The topic came up once when she’d shown me a painting of hers which I instantly fell in love with and, later on, bought from her.  
“You know how sometimes you see a piece of art and it just speaks to you? And you don't know exactly why, but it just does,” I said. “That's how I felt about yours.”

Madonna and Friends by Marie
“Ahh sweet!” she replied, “I hope to do that, I mean that’s what I aspire to--to do to people. I wonder if your own art never does that for you? Just other people?”

“But you like your own art, right?” I asked. “It just doesn't necessarily strike you like some other pieces?”

“Yeah, sometimes more than others,” she said. “But I am always very critical of it. I see all the flaws and it rarely moves me in such a way. I think it’s good to put it away too, and then I see it later and think, ‘Oh that’s a nice little painting.’ I have one little painting from college. I don’t think I will ever rid myself of it. I love it. It works for me in every way, but other people don’t seem to like it as much.”

“Yeah. It's the same with writing,” I told her. “I love when I create something that I love.” There was a pause as we thought our artistic thoughts. Then I said, “So you should always keep that piece. For you. Because art should be loved.”

Marie took the idea to another level when she brought the conversation back to our need to create, “I think that’s one thing that makes us continually work and make work. It is that striving for perfection, that finding something moving and beautiful…”

Here in the Larco Museum, as I work my way through the centuries, loving this art, seeing the perfection of line and color, watching the transformation of ideas in visual form, being moved, and striving to bring perfection to my own work, I learn phrases like Extirpation of Idolatries, sacrum facere, and horror vacui. Some of these I remember from my art history classes in college. Some of these are brand new. The labels allude to the Spanish’s religious influence on the South American death cults and art, or show the shifting artistic styles over the passage of time. Art, death, art, religion, art, life. The words and phrases play in my head like a song and I hum along.

“What if God is just a force like nature?” Marie asked me another time. “Nature can be so creative and glorious and beautiful, but also so destructive and scary. No one says, ‘I pray to the rain to save me from the flood.’ It’s a force all its own. A natural course of things, of life.”

And yet, we have in the past prayed to the gods behind the rain, to the gods behind the sun, to the gods behind death and life, seeking to placate their anger at us for our failings.
I make my way around the room depicting the sacrifices made to the gods. An explanatory placard tells me: “The practice of human sacrifice was common to many ancient cultures. Death, the shedding of blood and the physical mutilation ritually transformed the victim. The life being offered to the gods gave the transformed individual sacred status.”
Gods or no gods, I’m constantly astounded at what we as people do to other people. Sacrifice is no exception to that astonishment. In some of the cultures, as shown by Sacrifice of Victims Hurled From the Sacred Mountains, a whole collection of victims were sacrificed to appease a watching deity. In others, enemies were sacrificed to the gods. Often times, warriors would face off in mortal combat. The winner would live to fight another day and the loser would be led off to appease the ever-thirsty gods. In yet others, like the Moche, the most productive members of society were chosen as sacrifices, the winning warriors were led to the slaughter. What an honor to be considered the saving grace of your people.
Right, sure, for me, if I’d been a Mochen I’d have been happy enough being a bum.
I pass the Deformed and Trepanated Skulls which make me think of Marie once again and her recent sketch and paint studies of vultures. I can even tie that into what I’m seeing here, making a connection from Marie back to the Incan belief that the crown of bird feathers was the symbol of their power. After all, a story is just the connection I make from one experience to the other, from one piece of art to the next, from my sister-in-law’s vulture love to the power of the Inca. Another song plays in my mind, “Everything is everything, what is meant to be will be,” Lauryn Hill sings, “after winter, must come spring change it comes eventually. Everything is everything, what is meant to be will be…”
Everything is everything. Art and death. Death in Art. And, in it all, the promise of life and of living. I think of my now eight month old niece Shea and how she is loved more than so many pieces of art. How she is a piece of art herself.  
“Yeah,” Marie tells me one time when I ask if Shea is having a good day, “Shea is playing on the floor eating her toys.”
Life is that easy, that simple. Some say Death is the End. Some say Death is the Beginning. Whatever it is, at least we have life right now to hold in our hands, to laugh along with and to love. We may not all go out and get a Ph.D., but, at least, sometimes we can eat our toys.