Saturday, October 10, 2015

Que Le Vaya Bien

I had lunch today at ten-ten-pie near Centro.  Sometimes I end up here, as opposed to my favorite restaurant closer to home, when I'm done doing Centro chores.  They make “milanesa de pollo sin papas con ensalada” for me even though it's not on the menu.  It’s another place in Mexico where I feel well treated.  Although I’ve eaten there with friends, I'm usually there alone because often it's an afterthought.  I'm hungry, and it's reliable.  The waitress is very competent and always gives me a big smile even though I take one of six seats beneath the umbrella, so I was surprised the other day when a stranger approached me and asked if she could join my table. My waitress reportedly wouldn’t seat her outside alone.  “Are you sure?” She nodded "yes," so, of course, I asked her to sit down.

This lovely lady is visiting San Miguel for maybe the fifth time while she decides whether to sell her house, an unusually deliberative approach to living in San Miguel.  Many tourists show up here and find it unbearable to leave.  My new friend needs a bridge partner. She plays with the topnotch crowd over at Hotel Real de Menas, not far from my house.   I was not too enthusiastic because, after years of playing off and on online, I’m still a novice, and my last bridge partner got a little crabby.  I explained to her I used to be a lawyer, but I’m just not that competitive now.  I was assured that would be fine.  We agreed to try – one day a week, no more.

Today, I checked in (for maybe the fourth time) at the post office for a package sent about a month ago from the U.S.  Hooray! It arrived.  I carried it to the optometrist’s.  It wasn’t heavy, but it was large.  By the time I trudged back up Calle Relox, I was tired and hungry.  Hence, I returned to ten-ten-pie for the second time in less than a week.  While there, a young Mexican friend stopped by my table.  She had her daughter with her.  They were on the way to meet a friend at Parque Juarez.  This young woman had talked with me a couple months earlier about the possibility of traveling to Germany.  She just felt the call to go to Europe and explore.  She’s a devoted mother, but someone she loves had suggested to her that good mothers stay home.  I don’t think so anymore.

I now believe good mothers model for their children how to live out their destinies, to set aside their fears and take a leap, not irresponsibly but understanding that our lives are always in flux anyway.  Since we can’t hold them back, we need to stay attentive to our hearts.  So, mi amiga thanked me for my support.  She knows things could go awry, but she needs to leave.  I believe she and her child will be fine.  She has relatives who will put her up, and she’s Mexican.  I suspect young Mexican adults have a better sense, perhaps, than similarly situated Americans, of how to make themselves at home in the world at large.  We could acquire those traits.  It helps to be bilingual and to be exposed to people who have already traveled a lot.  All that is available in San Miguel.

Having said all this, I began to write to make this point:  San Miguel teaches me regularly how to say “goodbye” because so often people who are bid “farewell” come back.  Additionally, a casual talk often leads to beginnings of friendships and other wondrous events.  San Miguel de Allende is magical in that sense --along with the fireworks, the roosters and roof-dogs that sing us awake maybe at 5 a.m.   Today, I was able to say “goodbye” to my friend with a phrase I’ve been practicing, “Que le vaya bien.”  “Egualmente,” she replied, pleased and a little surprised. I learned this wish when someone wished it for me, the best way.  We need to be commended by others to our own good luck and to turn around, to pause and give those good wishes back.  In such reciprocity, we cross each other’s paths, maybe we stop and chat, and we see each other off with hope in our hearts.  Que le vaya bien.

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

I don’t know when I first met this book.  I might have picked it up because it looked like an easy read when I first visited Key West after I got over my fear of flying.  I know I developed a ritual of reading it on Smathers Beach every time I went to Key West and stayed at the Sheraton Suites.  I’d unpack, cross the road, and rent a chair from the young man who always had plenty in stock. Reading The Old Man and the Sea was a kind of homage to Old Man Hemingway, himself, maybe to my “old man,” too.  A member of the “Big Buck Club” in Maine, he fit the Hemingway mold.

A few years after the first time I sat on that beach, I was invited to teach a course in art and literature at the university, a “gen ed” course for those who might not have any interest in either literature or art.  I figured Hemingway would help me get my students sorted out.  I wasn’t prepared for the response.  Some students were convinced the Old Man was “psychotic,” especially at the part where he thinks the fish is his “brother.” Others had no idea why the Old Man liked DiMaggio so much. I introduced the students to Joseph Campbell’s tales about heroes and asked them to tell me if the Old Man was one.  Some said, “Yes.” Some (because he failed) disagreed.

I began to view the book as a kind of treatise on the culture of America, a culture perhaps passing away.  I used to ask my students questions like, “Why does the Old Man have to fish alone?” “Why does he have to go after the big fish?” I thought I was asking questions about America, but I was a lawyer, a sole practitioner.  Maybe I was asking about myself.

I found the Old Man annoyed and frustrated me, much like my “old man” did although like Santiago, I loved him, too.  We need children to believe in us, don’t we? Better yet, we need, perhaps, a childlike faith, that when we go to sea and come back empty-handed, we need not give up.  Someone, like Santiago, might gently place a blanket over our prostrate form when we are too exhausted to help ourselves.  Someone, like Santiago, might offer to help us pursue our most ambitious goals, like writing, as Hemingway said, “one true thing.” This is why I keep reading the Old Man.  I know he’s sincere.  Maybe that’s all we can hope for our lives – that others believe in the authenticity of our efforts.

Much has been written about The Old Man and the Sea being a Christian allegory.  The Old Man’s hands, rubbed raw by the rope he used to lash the marlin to the boat, are often analogized to Christ’s stigmata. Hemingway would likely be happier if we all let the Old Man be, but all good literature transcends itself.  We can join teams, but ultimately, we know we arrive and depart, alone, like Joe DiMaggio in the batter’s box.  I would respectfully submit that if the Old Man is Christ-like, he is more like the Christ of Gethsemane.

Sometimes I read The Old Man and the Sea just for the beauty of the words. I find myself comforted, lulled like a child in a rocking boat, when I read,

In the dark the old man could feel the morning coming and as he rowed he heard the
trembling sound as flying fish left the water and the hissing that their stiff set wings made
as they soared away in the darkness. He was very fond of flying fish as they were his
principal friends on the ocean. He was sorry for the birds, especially the small delicate
dark terns that were always flying and looking and almost never finding, and he thought,
the birds have a harder life than we do except for the robber birds and the heavy strong
ones. Why did they make birds so delicate and fine as those sea swallows when the ocean
can be so cruel? She is kind and very beautiful. But she can be so cruel and it comes so
suddenly and such birds that fly, dipping and hunting, with their small sad voices are
made too delicately for the sea.

I eventually left the law and made my way to Mexico, not unlike the setting of Hemingway’s book.  Here, I learn Spanish and learn, too, the art of patience, of reliance on the group.

Hemingway has a reputation for a focus on virility, so maybe I shouldn’t spend so much time wondering about the lions in The Old Man and the Sea, but, of all the elements in the book, they most interest me.  The Old Man dreams of lion cubs, in their naïve self-assurance, playing on the beach.  Their claws are yet thorns before first blood is drawn for the pride.

I see their tawny coloring enhanced to gold in the afternoon light. We see this iconic coloring in many places -- in halos, in the “wheat” of the hair of the Little Prince, even in abstract art. Those lions, especially as a recollected dream, form the kind of evocative image Eliot called “the objective correlative.”

The Old Man and the Sea, though novella in form, is the big fish, one that wasn’t consumed by the sharks. Once, my son and I went to dinner at a Mexican restaurant in Key West.  Our waiter, a middle-aged man in a crisp white shirt, open at the throat, sported a little gold chain.  My son, concerned about making a healthy choice for lunch, was debating whether to have the free French fries. He shook his head and said, “I don’t know.” The waiter promptly replied, “Sometimes life takes, so when is free, you take.”  Who doesn’t know “life takes”? But, like the Old Man, we get up each day and sally or stumble forth, maybe expecting a little less, but with hope.  Sometimes, as in Hemingway’s case, even that much is lost, but look (oh look!) at what he wrought.

Lillian Baker Kennedy
February 2013

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Van Gogh on Life After Life

"As, however, there is nothing to gainsay the supposition that there are similar lines, colours and forms on innumerable other planets and suns, we may be allowed to retain a certain amount of good spirits in view of the possibility that we shall be able to paint among higher conditions and in another and different life, and that we shall reach that life by a process which perhaps is not more incomprehensible or surprising than the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly, or of a grub into a cockchafer. The scene of this existence for the painter-butterfly could be one of the innumerable stars which, when we are dead, might perhaps be as accessible to us as are the black spots that in this terrestrial life represent the cities and towns on our maps...

in the old days, for instance, the world was supposed to be flat. This was perfectly right too. It is still flat between Paris and Asnières. This, however, does not alter the fact that science proves the earth to be round— a fact no one any longer disputes. Now, in the same way, it is assumed that human life is flat and that it leads from birth to death. Probably, however, life also is round, and much vaster in its extent and its capacities than we have suspected heretofore."

Friday, January 4, 2013

The Grand Folly

A column by David Brooks today quoted G.K. Chesterton   

“An obvious instance is that of ordinary and happy marriage. A man and a woman cannot live together without having against each other a kind of everlasting joke. Each has discovered that the other is a fool, but a great fool. This largeness, this grossness and gorgeousness of folly is the thing which we all find about those with whom we are in intimate contact; and it is the one enduring basis of affection, and even of respect.”  This is a wonderful quote about marriage and friendship.  It reminds me why I love Catrinas. Posada's Catrinas (like the one below) are probably most famous, but I see Catrina figurines every day in shops in San Miguel.  At each store window, I am reminded of the energy expended by mortals in the daily tasks, heartaches and celebrations of life.

We do it all, knowing deep inside, as Oscar Wilde said, "One can survive everything, nowadays, except death."  Living is a kind of folly, but we might, in lieu of angst, see the joke Catrinas represent, and, like Chesterton's comments on solid marriages and friendships, become intimate, even bemused friends with the One Who Starts the Clock and Lets Our Time Run Out.