It Is All Now Part of America

There are places which are old – infused with history and time and tradition until they stand alone, boldly buttressing the story of mankind. Those of us who have lived in the East, who like to talk about Mount Vernon, Monticello and Jamestown forget that these are not the first tales told in our Americas. I’m talking again about the Spanish. I, who was raised in South America, have become accustomed to the omnipresent influence of those rough old conquistadors in daily life: from the patterned layout of the cities and villages to the constipated legal code; from the elegant language to the rigid religion. A new race even, obliterating old peoples – first peoples – to forge something original. What we forget, those of us from here but who grew up there, is that the Spaniards also made themselves known in America. Arizona, New Mexico, California and Texas – huge pieces of an old Spanish empire that died. But her remains do abide.

Yesterday I visited San Xavier Mission south of Tucson. As you drive south towards Nogales, a white pearl begins to glisten in the desert. The surroundings are stark, barren and hostile – now a reservation of the First Peoples who both predated and outlasted the Spaniards. I can’t help but wonder what the ancestors of these Indians thought of those odd men who showed up one day. Mounted on horses, they were probably wearing brown robes – they were Franciscans after all – and they also most likely had beards and were adorned with crosses. They brought books with them, great leather-bound tomes from which they read reverently.

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San Xavier Mission

They erected a building, San Xavier Mission – honoring one of their saints – and began teaching. It must have shone majestically in the sun, whitewashed and elegant; seen from miles around. Unlike anything the Indians had ever seen before; a symbol of heaven kneeling in the sand. The inside must have awed the Indians, bright blue and glistening gold and fiery red – great murals, epic paintings and huge ornate statues. The physical representation of a new religion, a better religion – so they were told.

Which brings me also to ponder, what must the Spaniards have thought? They were from Cadiz, Cordoba, Almeria and Malaga. All places I have been – unchanged by time. The smell of the open ocean – the Mediterranean, glistening blue and old, a great friend of the Spaniards who had lived their lives defined by those waters for generations – forever. The aroma of oil-soaked calamari fried in the open, the sharp cheeses, the bouquet of wine and the tang of the prosciutto had all been replaced by a desert as barren as I imagine they found the souls to which they were tasked to minister. Cactus, mountains, snakes and spiders and vultures. Hostile – as hostile as the constant raids that they somehow survived.

And after it all, here it is. San Xavier Mission, sitting beside a superhighway built by a new, aggressive people – who pushed far and deep from their tiny enclaves on the north-eastern coast. The Spaniards have gone, we have arrived, and the First People’s are still there. They do abide, those whose land it was first – before others, before us. But there is no bitterness – history moves about in waves and leaves no room for resentment.

I am at ease in San Xavier. It is after all Arizona, and I am from here too. My memories are infused by the desert, the heat – the barrenness and the danger of the harsh open spaces. Maybe that is why I get so claustrophobic at the thought of the dirty cities and rude people back east. Maybe that is why I have always looked west. Yet San Xavier is also the ‘South’ – Spanish America, language and religion and culture meeting in that one indomitable Embassy of the Church – the Mission. I know those things too – because they are a part of who I am as well – raised among a people who, separated by a thousand miles are nevertheless the same.

And it is all now a part of America – Indian and Spaniard – Catholic and Evangelical – Spanish and English. The past and the future; all rolled up into our epic saga. I go to the Mission as often as I can – the prayers of spiritual men always infuse a place with echoes of introspection, which nourishes a tired soul.

I hope you go there too, when you are next in Arizona. To commune with old and new, foreign and familiar under our expansive, welcoming skies.

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What’s Right With America

A woman and her husband walk their scraggly dog, whistling a tune and chatting privately to each other – a murmuring without words carried by the warm air. A man – home from work – bounces a basketball; a solitary game as he digests his day. A couple walks their baby in a stroller – bedtime is coming and they must enjoy that brief moment when the sun finally releases its stranglehold upon the land – but before night falls over the neighborhood. The wind is gentle and warm – here in the kindly west, in the evening-time when the land rejoices. Life across America moves in patterns. It has a rhythm, calm and serene. Each season: winter, spring, summer and fall in a tender loop; spiraling upward as our children grow. Punctuated by moments: Christmas, Easter, July 4, Halloween, Thanksgiving and back to Christmas. Birthdays, vacations – each serving as an exclamation point before Father Time escorts us steadily, evenly forward.

This is America. The America I have known; and the America that continues to abide. The America I can always return to when my heart becomes too heavy.

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Credit: My Wife Who Saw A Moment

“There is nothing wrong with America which cannot be fixed by what is right with America.” We’ve all heard this – it’s a popular slogan from politicians who want to point out what is, well, wrong with America I suppose. The irony – lost on all of them – is that it is most often they that are what is wrong with America. Those who seek control, power. Those who divide in order to conquer and rule. Those who conjure our demons, seeking out their own advantage, and in doing so weaken our better angels – ever so slightly perhaps, but perceptibly for sure.

This year, however, it seems more protracted, doesn’t it? So much violence in our policy discussions: talk of torture, of redistribution, of taxation and deportation and penalties and fines and investigations. Name calling; insults; lies. I wonder sometimes if we haven’t forgotten what it is that brought us together as a country. Not the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. Not reading the Preamble of the Constitution in a public square: acts of defiance against those who would be our overlords. Important, of course, but somehow esoteric – set apart from our daily lives. I’m talking more about our Home Owner’s Associations where we come together, black, white, brown, green, and purple to make sure our garbage is collected and the weeds are pulled; our Parent Teachers Associations where we vie for a better education for our children; our churches where we care for the needy and the destitute; the Saturday night soup kitchen that has too many volunteers. That elderly woman at the DMV so helpful in getting my license changed. A border patrol agent, sweating in the heat to make sure that my family is safe.

This is the America that works.

How is it that those vying to rule over us have missed this? Is it possible they never knew it; lost as they have been in their gated communities, golf clubs and private planes – emerging only occasionally and always behind armored glass in their chauffeured limousines?

I wonder.

Because the problem for them – and for me – is that I don’t want to be ruled like that. To be sure, I’m just an insignificant man in a huge country – a country full of people with names written in bold caps across the glossy covers of magazines, whose insults echo through cyberspace like Kipling’s Zamzama. Nevertheless I am also sure that I’m not alone – that beside me there are a chorus of others who want to remember first that in November it is Thanksgiving, and only second that there is also an election. Who want first to figure out their son’s schooling, and leave the torture of our enemies for another time. Who want to pay off their mortgage before they fret about how to pay for free, well free everything really. Who want to marry, to love their wives and make babies and build for the future; hard work of honor and dignity and sacrifice which has made America strong.

Perhaps I feel this more acutely than others – spending so much time as I do in terrible, terrible places, I have seen just how badly things can go. But when I come home, when I sit on the grass with my son eating a popsicle watching the cars go by – I can’t help but wish that those who plan such an assault on Americans would first look at the world around them and give us some credit; recognize that, despite all odds, what’s right with America really is working hard to fix what’s wrong – and very often succeeding. And instead, take some time away from their insults to tell that story. It’s a grand story indeed!

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Arizona: That Too Is Fitting

An Indian sits in a wheelchair on the porch of the abandoned community center, watching the sun set over Yuma. First Peoples, that’s better – has more romance and a greater sense of nostalgia than Indian, doesn’t it? Not because the latter is politically incorrect – but just simply incorrect. A 500 year old mistake by a European – and a civilization vanished. First Peoples, here, in the last place. Yuma certainly feels like the last place in America. At the end of Arizona; before Mexico. Before California starts – something exciting and powerful and popular calls out from beyond the barrenness. It is known for a prison – and now a movie about a prison.

So many have nowhere to go – the First Peoples at the end; gazing out patiently toward the shimmering sun, lost in the memory of when things were grand, wondering if they will be again.

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Credit – Me, From The Heat

The heat is like a blanket, stifling and heavy. On the horizon the white dunes are a haze dividing sky from desert; stories-high and flowing gently, harmoniously. Luxuriantly, like silk. They look soft – dunes do – wherever you are in the world. The great dunes that perch ominously on the edge of Timbuktu, for 700 years threatening to swallow that fabled town. Dubai, squatting in all its plastic-and-glass-glittering-glory upon monumental Arabian sand mountains. The Medanos de Coro of Venezuela where if you linger the wind will drive you mad as you are visited by spirits of the past.

I drive on – very little to see here, the old jail and railroad; a few old hotels boarded up, ghosts of women wronged still peeking out from behind musty curtains.

A young Mexican boy complains as he rushes about in his family business. El Centro is the town’s name – the center of, nowhere. “There is nothing here,” he states without bitterness, handing out bowls of beans and burritos to border patrol agents and HVAC contractors. “I wish I were somewhere, anywhere else.” El Centro is not the west. The ‘west’ ended at a prison in Yuma. Not ironic, just interesting. This is – well the middle – right in the middle in fact, halfway between Yuma, the last place, and San Diego – the next place. The future. Million dollar homes; highways and pretentious Californians at La Jolla beach, dyed hair and tattoos; easily offended. Soft people, but good people. Only 150 miles – they might as well be light years, for that boy; and for the Indian man too, staring out over a dying town.

I’ve been driving to stretch my legs – to see spread out before me unoccupied land where the animals still roam. The world has become claustrophobic, stifling; limited by our paranoia and our enemies’ great evil. I travel without a phone, without internet, without whatever the hell ‘Pokemon Go’ is – zombies wandering aimlessly through the dunes, almost stepping on a roadrunner as they look for – well I have no idea really, and I have no energy to try and find out. I drive without that little voice that has replaced our conscience, ‘turn left at the next crossing, continue on interstate eight for one-hundred-miles’. Fear. Fear at being lost, fear at missing something. More probably fear of finding something. Fear of being alone with our thoughts and our families.

Back in the west, a kindly policeman wanders aimlessly through a Shell Station. Drinking Coca-Cola and killing the time. Not bitter or angry, or even bored really. Good men – reassuring men, men there to ensure that the pervading order which has allowed us to thrive is maintained. Disorder – chaos – unpredictability; these are no lovers of prosperity. My little boy runs up, having grabbed a pamphlet from the display. “A-R-I-Z-O-N-A he reads to me – beaming. Mama, mama,” he runs off looking for her, “I can read!” The policeman smiles gently – we are under his protection, and western sheriffs embrace this trust with pride. It is fitting my son can read, this of all words. Arizona – he will be a child of the sands. And that too is fitting.

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The Monsoons in Arizona: And Immortality

When I was a young man I would wait expectantly for the rain storms. Every year they roll through the valley at the same time; electric and powerful – wind blowing around the charged air. My best friend and I would gas up my broken down little two-door and sneak into Camelback Mountain park, or one of the others to stand on the top of the mountain – arms raised high – defying the lighting gods as the storm churned overhead. Then it would pass and we would race down the mountain, leaping over rattlesnakes and through gullies to the car and careen down road and highway after the storm.

That young man was anxious for life to begin. The storm chasing was only a passing distraction as he waited expectantly for his moment of significance to arrive and whisk him away from a dreary place where everything was always the same. He was anxious, the itch of significance something that needed scratching. Now is never good enough, is it, when you are young? Acid flowed through his veins, a burning desire to see new things and experience things epic and immortal.

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Credit: Me, Last Night

That young man who chased storms is older now – heavier of heart and with greater sense of self. I now sleep early and have no time to chase the lighting. But the lightning doesn’t need me. It has been here all along, steadfast and true while I wandered. It has outlasted my youth – as it did for my parents, and their parents before them. They abide – the storms do – as they have for centuries, as they will for centuries more. Immortality? It is the Arizona monsoons that are epic and unchanging – I know this now, after great sojourns in foreign places brought me back to the land of my youth for a time.

That is a nice thought; and is no longer a threat to a worried young man.

The last time I wrote about the rains it was about a grand storm in West Africa, black plastic bags dancing in front of the brown backdrop of dust before the cleansing deluge washed the dirty city clean; my little boy in my lap squealing at the peals of thunder. Soon my son, who squealed at African thunder will himself chase the monsoons in Arizona. Maybe it will be with a girl – trying to impress upon her his fearlessness. Maybe he too will have a best friend – a lasting friendship that abides despite long lapses of silence. It’s nice to think about that; that despite a world gone mad there is still a place where things don’t seem to change – where they are very much as I left them twenty years ago when I wandered out into the world.

Rebellion burns strong in young minds. Hope and change, the dream that after necessary convulsions a new order will inevitably emerge that is greater. These are immature ideas from untested minds – notions of a young man daring the gods from atop a mountain. Because the truth of the matter is that change should happen slowly, because is not very often a good thing. I know this now – after a time watching the great struggles. And I am happy for a place that moves slowly and where people still think most about their children; so that I have a place to return with mine.

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In Venezuela, History Told You So

I’ve been criticized by my detractors who say that sometimes when I write about Venezuela, there’s a bit of an “I told you so” implicit in my narrative. As if I somehow enjoy what I have to write about that wretched place. As if somehow the deep mess that country is in gives me some sort of twisted satisfaction.

So let me set the record straight; I didn’t pen my novels about the plight of people suffering for some sort of personal vindication. I don’t write my columns (if that is what they can be called) out of vanity. I, of all people, have proven that it is the suffering of those under the terrible mantle of oppression that motivates me to action; to the written word. After 20 years of work, at least you owe me that much.

But I digress.

Because the fact of the matter is – I did tell you so. For a decade, in every way I could invent I tried to deliver the message that, after the planning, and the nationalizations, and the voting, and the regulations and the interventions and the price controls and the ‘worker immobility laws’ and the censorship laws and the education reforms – after all of it – waited an enormous bread line; vacant eyes above the shackled feet of the unfree staring ahead in the hopes of miraculously spotting a bottle of oil or a pound of flour to ease their suffering for a fleeting moment.

Not that I’m clairvoyant – that is not one of my perhaps limited talents. Not that you have to be clairvoyant – not even that you have to be that smart really. Basically, you only have to be able to read. Starvation during Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’; gulags where Stalin’s enemies went and vanished; Cuba’s ‘Periodo Especial’ when the Castros starved their own people, diseases like rickets and nutritional blindness becoming common; Enver Hoxha’s creepy ‘pure socialism’ in Albania; Pol Pot’s killing fields in Cambodia. I can go on, if you want. You can email me, and I would gladly send you a book list. You can even read for free (you who like free things so much – capitalism did that!); all you have to do is visit a library or go online. My three year old can read, I’m confident you can too – all that would have been required was is that limited level of concentration, to be able to divine what was going to happen to Venezuela’s ‘Bolivarian Socialist’ experiment.

This weekend hungry mobs broke into Venezuela’s zoo, butchering a prize Black Stallion – leaving only its ribs and head for the zookeepers who arrived in the morning. At least he died quickly; you can eat horse, the lion has been starving for months. Where are my detractors who taunted me, saying that Bolivarian Socialism was environmental? Who blamed capitalism for their petty angry jealousies? Who sought revenge? Who ranted about how finally the tides would recede? My guess is they’re enjoying a Black Stallion sandwich, without ketchup – there is none – and on day-old bread, if they can find any.

Yes, I suppose it’s coming across – I’m a little angry. I have been to that zoo many times. I recall once, in my teenage years with a youth group spending the day marveling at the lions and watching a sloth crawl across our path – amazed at monkeys and elephants. It was a glorious day, full of friendship and kindness and community. “But you have to pay to get in,” the commies complained endlessly at the height of the madness, “that is elitist and wrong – it should be free for everybody.” And the zoo was nationalized – like everything else in the country.

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Credit: Carlos Jasso

So all I can say at this point is congratulations – those who refused to pick up a book, those who refused to read, those who refused to believe that there were lessons in history that might have some relevance for the ridiculous project you were selling. Congratulations – I won’t say I told you so.

But I will say history told you so.

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We Wizards Who Write Magic

When I was a little boy my daddy told me about a tree where the devil lived. It was behind town, back between the river and the jungle in that clearing where nothing grew. There Satan would hold court; and those who needed a favor or a helping hand could appeal directly to him and were sure to be heard.

In that Argentine town of my childhood the Guarani Indians lived in perpetual fear of a malady they simply called susto: fright. Babies taken too close to the waters would be possessed by the river demons; stricken unto death if they did not seek help – the right help. It’s always the water, isn’t it? Poseidon, Yemanja, the mermaids. The shaman priestesses, aged and saturnine in their wickedness would examine the child and announce the only cure; visit the tree to beseech the devil.

Late one evening in that same lost town of my youth an Indian family, converts to the new faith of the Jewish God knocked on our door. “You have preached,” they told my old man who was then still young, “that your God is more powerful than he who is in the tree. You must prove it.” And they held out their baby. Without further recourse, my daddy bent a knee, taking the child in his arms; and she was cured. The authority of the evil shaman and her tree was forever weakened.

Faith. Magic.

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We live in a world of communion between what we know and what we know not. Whether your devil lives in an Amazonian tree beside a river, tormenting local Indians; or he is Iblis calling the djinn to his side for council from his rock fortress of Kaf Adjnoun in the Fezzan; or even if he’s an old man in Young Goodman Brown’s Salem – there is a great deal that goes on around us that requires only some sensitivity of spirit to observe.

That little boy from the town beside the jungle has grown up. I have witnessed the magic in my own right. I have conferred with witch-doctors reading coca leaves high in the Andes; have visited with victims of the guerrillas in the jungles of Congo as they describe the amulets used so that the bullets flow off those evil men like water; and I have defied the will of a prophetess in Central America.

We are not so different, we children of the west who would scoff at suggestions of magic in our own lives. The baseball player who will not change his underwear; the Appalachian preacher who lifts a serpent high; the long-haired man perched atop a red rock in search of that elusive vortex.

I write magic because I have known this world.

And I write magical realism because I know too that the magic is really about power; power over others. Priests of an adipose church selling indulgences through access to sacred relics. Shrines to powerful political leaders, which cannot protect even them from disease when they transgress. Great men subconsciously channeling powers of men even greater who came before – carnival fare for the pleasure of the enslaved. So I harness the magic as I write – pulling it into the stories of the people I have known and their struggles for power – power over others and, yes, sometimes power to protect them from others. Power – above all. For if magic is power – then we wizards who write magic are the most powerful of all.


This post is part of the Magic Realism Blog Hop. About twenty blogs are taking part in the hop. Over three days (29th – 31st July 2016) these blogs will be posting about magic realism. Please take the time to click on the blue frog below to visit them and remember that links to the new posts will be added over the three days, so do come back to read more.

 

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A Thank You Note To My Companions

“Life is a journey” nighttime soap writers like to have their attractive characters say; always a metaphor for something easy and luxurious. Quiet drives along the Pacific Coast Highway, holding hands, stopping along the way beside the mansions of Laguna Beach to contemplate the exaltation of the Southern Californian shores; the trip from Lisbon to Obidos, up through the wine country and the rolling Portuguese forests until that ancient walled town peeks out in medieval perfection from behind a crest. A travel writer’s journey; the carefree post-college trek through Europe. A honeymoon.

Obidos

“Life is a journey” indeed, but maybe not in the way they mean – and I’ve taken to chronicling some of mine, in my own way. I write here – a somewhat poor substitute for a column. If I had one, a column – rewarded through a paycheck for the heartfelt work of “opening a vein and bleeding onto a page” as Hemingway used to say, I’d call it “One Small Voice”. Those who know the reference might grin, considering my predilections. Not “One Happy Voice” because when I sit to write, what I say is rarely sanguine; nor “One Loud Voice”, for that I certainly do not have. Loud voices in today’s world require hate; and I no longer have the energy. “One True Voice” it certainly is. Somber sometimes but exultant too, because it is a remarkable world full of amazing places and extraordinary people doing improbable things. A rich boy, descendant of a liberator marches resolutely to prison; freed men build a shrine to those who would enslave them; countries are kidnapped and die. Others are reborn.

Love – in all its sadness and frustration; in all its epic simplicity – its purity.

My journey is full of books, so I do lots of reviews – we have to read to understand; because things are confusing and there are so many paths that it’s often helpful to walk alongside others in their journey, if only for a season. And we have to write – well those of us who write do. Books I mean – not blogs, well not only blogs; I’m halfway through writing my fourth novel: parts of a life that hasn’t always been easy – but always interesting.

Sadness – despair – loss. You don’t often find these on the road from Los Angeles to San Diego. But they have been the vistas I have considered on my way to where I am, to who I am. Mali, Congo, Uganda. Venezuela – war, deprivation, suffering, hunger. But also goodness, trust, beauty and even joy beyond the hardships.

All that to say – I’m writing today to celebrate you, my companions (300,000 strong and counting, on my blog alone). It’s been such an honor that so many of you have joined me thus far – to share in a quiet moment of reflection; a thought, a dream or a fear. To participate in the unusual: tragedy and victory alike. It is for you that I write too – not because I pretend to inform or teach, we already have plenty of people who talk down to us, don’t we? We who would be serfs – who should be serfs in the view of those with loud last names – are lectured at quite a bit in today’s grumbling world. But because we need more voices that highlight our own shared humanity – lest we lose the battle to our evil djinn and our souls perish in the process. So I hope you continue to accompany me – it’s a voluntary process, after all. My value, free of charge (unless you want to buy a book :-) – bartered for your time.

It’s a fair and honest trade, I think. And I thank you for it.

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