Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Contentment: The Splendor of Each Day

As I often do, today I got up when the sky began to brighten, and made fresh coffee. I then slipped into the pool just as the first orange rays of morning sun illuminated the upper branches of the trees.

The water was warm enough to be comfortable, but cool enough to refresh and finish the job of waking me up. I sipped steaming coffee and watched the morning light move down the tree trunks and the stones of the back wall. I felt the air stir and the temperature begin to rise.

A flurry of wing beats gently broke the silence and several doves settled near the pool. Startled to discover they were not alone, they eyed me warily for a moment or two before edging closer to sip deeply from the water. More flutters signaled the arrival of additional birds, who apparently taking comfort in numbers, joined their fellows at the water's edge.

I leaned back and watched the sunlight, now glancing off the water to cast rippling reflections into the shadows. Moments passed. When I looked once again for the birds they were gone. My attention had been so captivated by the light show that I didn't hear them take flight.

I savored the bitter richness of my hot drink as a pink dragonfly began to trace a rectangular pattern overhead. I put down my cup and floated on my back. With each pass the insect came lower, and then suddenly it began to dip into the water, making a small splashing sound with each contact.

"It's drinking," I thought. But the dragonfly continued to splash, time after time. I counted twenty, thirty, thirty-five impacts, often within an arm's length of my bobbing head. Sometimes when it rose it seemed to shake itself; fine droplets of spray flew in all directions. The tiny dragonfly certainly can't have needed that much water. Was it bathing? Does a dragonfly have the capacity to do something for the fun of it?

I am reminded of a passage I read several months ago that has stuck in my mind ever since:

"At such an instant, it seems as though no other day will ever attain the impossible splendor of this one. Already, I feel a nostalgia for today even as I live it."

The passage was written by Dr. Sherwin B. Nuland in his book, How We Die. He was writing about noticing the incredible beauty around him one morning as he drove to visit a patient who was about to die.

The morning earlier this month that my mother died, I took just a moment away from our vigil and went outside. I noticed the blue sky and white clouds, and the way the leaves of the live oaks shimmered silver-green in the breeze. I took some deep breaths and realized that it was a marvelous day. I went back to Mom's side and about half an hour later she was gone. It was a very difficult and sad day, but I always will have that memory of it also being a very beautiful one.

I think one of the most important lessons I've been learning recently is that if we consider death our ally, it teaches us how to live. If we acknowledge that there is a definite number to our days, we make each day count to the greatest extent we can.

Each individual finds his or her own way to do that. We each find our own meaning. It's up to us.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Living Here: Shopping Locally

A walk down to the Santiago market area yesterday reminded me how different shopping can be in Mexico. It's something you get accustomed to and don't notice once you've lived here awhile.

I try to patronize the small, locally-owned businesses. Shopping at big malls and large chain stores is just about the same anywhere in the world these days, but the mom-and-pop stores in Mexico offer things not available any longer elsewhere.

First stop, the auto parts store for new limpiaparabrisas, windshield wiper blades.

I took in one of the worn-out blades from my car so I would have an example. These small stores don't always carry name brands or have a huge book listing the exact part necessary for an individual make and model year of car, so it's a good idea to have an example for comparison to be sure what you're buying will fit. The guy measured the blade, and then asked me, "Do you want just one?" In the States, folks generally replace wiper blades in pairs, under the assumption that when one starts streaking, the other is soon to follow. Not so here, where people often try to eek out the last bit of use from an item before buying a replacement.

When I told the salesman I needed two, the next question was, "Do you want two the same size?" Now I guess it might seem a little odd that someone would buy two blades of different sizes, but actually the rear window wiper on my car is smaller, and I guess someone might come in and buy two replacements of different sizes. The counter guy was being thorough.

So I bought my replacement wiper blades, each complete with metal armature and adapters to make sure it fits on the wiper arm of any car. I got exactly what I needed, no more, no less. I paid seventy-six pesos, or about $5.55 in the United States. Not a bad deal, and quite a bit less than I would have paid in a larger, fancier store, or anywhere north of the border.

The smaller stores mostly cater to neighborhood residents who need to make their pesos go as far as possible. These kinds of no-frills places are exactly the opposite of the Costco and box store model, where shoppers buy items pre-packaged and often in quantity. Need one picture hanger? Well, in the big store, the smallest quantity available in blister-packs is probably a dozen, so you might end up paying for eleven more than you need. But in the small neighborhood stores you can save money by buying only the quantity you can use.

If you need one nail, one screw, or just a couple ounces of plaster or paint thinner, the neighborhood Mexican store is the kind of place for you.

So next I headed to the tlapalería, or hardware store. I had a couple of faucets that were dripping, something common around here with our hard, mineralized water.

The tlapalería is the kind of place with a long counter separating the customers from the merchandise, which is contained in bins and boxes on high shelves along the walls and "out back." You tell the man what you need, and he brings examples to the counter for inspection. Liquids are measured into small containers, and quantities of other items are counted or weighed. Advice is plentiful and free.

I bought six rubber and leather washers to repair dripping faucets. They came out of huge bins, and look as if they were punched by hand from old tires or other repurposed material. But they work fine, and I would much prefer to buy parts made by small businesses in Mexico, without the wasteful packaging seen in larger stores, and in just the quantity I need. Six washers cost me six pesos, or about forty-five cents.

The tlapalería owner even manufactures his own packaging. When I had paid for my purchases, the guy slipped them into a small paper bag, made from a recycled catalog page which he'd folded in half and glued along two edges, leaving one end open to create an envelope into which he slipped my washers. The handmade bag also has a hand-lettered publicity flyer glued onto the front, listing products available along with the store address, phone number and the fact that the tlapalería is open on Sundays.

My windshield wipers are renewed and my faucets are fixed. All with economy, recycling and the money spent in the local community. I also stopped at the bank along the way. Total distance walked was about six blocks and time spent a little more than half an hour. Neighbors greeted me on the walk home. That's something I can buy into.

Here's another post on Economy.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

I'm Here Because of Her

My parents, Lois Marie and B. G. Olson, in Sitka, Alaska about four years ago

It goes without saying that none of us would be here were it not for our mothers.

And I have come to realize that, in addition, I would not be here, doing what I am doing and living where I do now, if it were not for Mom.

I have been thinking about this a lot lately, because this Mother's Day will be a transition for me: it's my first Mother's Day without my mother around. She passed away peacefully and without pain, with all of her children holding her, at noon last Sunday.

It was harder to recall in later years when she was not as energetic or well, but my mother was an adventurous young woman. My aunt Josie, who is my mother's younger sister, tells stories of all the places they went, just the two of them, and the exciting things they did when she and Mom were still small girls. Mom was the leader.

Maybe adventurousness was in the family. My grandfather Dewey Wedderien ran away from home at the age of 13 to join a circus and later flew biplanes (until he had one too many crashes). One of his sisters, my great aunt Hazel, was a well-known rodeo performer all over the Western U.S. and Canada in the early 1900's. My grandparents, my mother and her four brothers and sisters traveled from Maryland to California in an ancient touring car in the late 1930's. Later they sold the car and used the money to return East by bus. Mom caught malaria on that trip and was sick for quite a long time.

A Baltimore girl, she got on a train by herself at the age of 21 and traveled across the United States to marry B. G. Olson, whom she'd met when he was stationed briefly by the U. S. Army in nearby Washington, D. C. The story goes that when she got off the train in Tacoma, Washington he was not there to meet her. She was angry and getting ready to buy a return ticket when he showed up late; back then there were two train stations in Tacoma and he'd gone to the wrong one (but that's another story).

My mother and I in Juneau, Alaska, 1957
Then shortly after marrying, my parents-to-be decided to move north to the Territory of Alaska, and traveled there by steamship. Almost immediately they were involved in the writing of the Alaska state constitution and the political battle for Alaska statehood, which came in 1959. They bought a small boat to fish and explore the wilderness. They flew in tiny bush planes all over the state. They published a small newspaper. Later Mom and Dad owned remote cabins where they spent their summers. Mom retired as the school librarian in an Aleut village on an isolated island in the Bering Sea. My parents traveled and moved quite a bit over the years, and along the way had three children. I was the first.

In short, my mother had an adventurous streak. As a young woman she took risks and enjoyed new things, as did my father. She and my father inspired their children to do the same.

Among other things, it was my parents who insisted that I study a foreign language, and encouraged me to choose Spanish. It was my mother who convinced me at the age of 16 to join a youth group that traveled to South America to do summer volunteer work. This was a critical formative experience that influenced my career plans and ignited a passion for "south of the border" that I feel to this day.

So in terms of my interests, where I live now, successes I've had, and what I am doing with my life, it was my parents, and in large part my mother who not only gave birth to me and raised me, but helped set me on a course that led to an interesting and unconventional life. And all of that brought me to Mexico, and to live in Mérida a few years ago, where life seems to just get better and richer as time goes by.

Thank you, Mom. I love you, and Happy Mother's Day.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Wild Neighbors (Part 5), Tortugas

We are in the midst of the hottest part of the dry season in Yucatán, so regularly I switch on the pump and bring up well water to top off the pool and water the garden. When I do that, sometimes I begin to hear small rustlings under the plants. If I locate the sounds, I may see two heads the size of olives perched atop long necks, poking up out of the green like periscopes in camouflage.

I've written in this blog about many wild animals found in the vicinity of my house in Mérida centro. These tortugas, tortoises, are not "wild neighbors" in exactly the same sense as the many other creatures I've written about. That's because while the others freely come and go about their business, I brought these particular animals here, and due to the fact that the back garden is walled in, the tortoises can't move on if they get the notion. However they are not domesticated and (although I haven't verified this) I have been told they are native to the region.

These wild neighbors are timid. If I catch them in the open, crossing the concrete walk by the pool for instance, they stay completely still for a moment as if determining the danger of the situation and calculating carefully what to do. Although sometimes in this circumstance they freeze in position, more often they make for shelter in a comical herky-jerky run, or at least what amounts to running in the tortoise world.

Other times I stumble across them chewing slowly on herbs, drinking water that has puddled in a curled leaf, or ambling slowly and deliberately amongst the flowers. Caught in an area with cover, they may duck heads inside shells and keep still.

Although they are land animals, once in awhile I put them in the pool for a swim. Heads held high and with the tops of their shells barely breaking the surface, they can swim faster than they run on land. They can't get out of the pool on their own, so I keep an eye on them, and make these excursions brief.

A friend gave me these two tortoises three or four years ago. Someone had given him a pair way back, and they proliferated so successfully in his large back yard that he found it necessary to thin out the population. I've heard of other folks in Mérida who also keep a few of these animals.

Tortoises are absolutely the perfect pets for people who are busy. Although I occasionally throw them fruit and vegetable scraps or hand-feed them a banana, they seem to survive well on what they can forage in the garden. Once in awhile when tomatoes are ripe, I discover a low-hanging fruit has been hollowed out from below, and I suspect these characters are the culprits.

During the dry season the tortoises may not appear for a month or two, but they always show up again sooner or later. I don't believe that they actually hibernate, but have found them burrowed under leafy debris in cool corners and at the edges of large rocks. I assume that this their natural response to lack of moisture and a smaller food supply.

In the summer and fall, when it rains nearly every day, the tortoises are most active. I don't see them on a daily basis, but often find evidence of their activity in the form of chewed plants or trails of muddy footprints left across paved areas of the patio.

I have tried unsuccessfully to determine the species of these tortoises, and whether I have a breeding pair. I've had them close to four years now and have seen no evidence of breeding activity. I have observed that one has grown noticeably larger than the other, and that they are social, sticking together most of the time.

On a couple of occasions I also have noticed what looks like cooperative behavior on their part. When confronted with an obstacle too high to climb easily alone, one climbs onto the other and then pushes itself up on its hind legs atop the shell for a boost. It's probable that this happens just by chance because the two are usually together and not due to intentional cooperation, but it's interesting anyhow.

And they bite. Not aggressively, but if you pick one up or are feeding them by hand, you need to watch your fingers, because when they bite, they hang on. The first and only time I got caught this way, it took me a couple of minutes to get my finger back. The skin wasn't broken, but I was left with a light bruise that was tender for a couple of days.

For pets that always run away and don't express affection, these tortoises have done a pretty thorough job of capturing my heart. I expect to enjoy the company of these wild neighbors for a good long time.

Other posts about Wild Neighbors, animals who share the urban environment of Mérida with us: