Far From the White Tablecloth



My blog buddy Dannie Hill recently published a touching post, Heart Words, about writing that make us feel a real connection between characters, and in turn ourselves. His post made me think about what I admire in writers and what kinds of words are difficult for me to write.

I have a high regard for authoritative writing: Gore Vidal’s unwavering confidence, Camille Pagilla’s erudite swagger, Chris Hedge’s revelatory bravery. But in my own writing I lean toward another of my favorite writers, Joan Didion’s, methods “ it seems…perhaps… I think…” Because, as she quotes Lionel Trilling, I too believe, “Some paradox of our nature leads us, when once we have made our fellow man the objects of our enlightened interest, to go on to make them the objects of our pity, then our wisdom, ultimately of our coercion.”

This week’s recitation, Rice, by Mary Oliver is an ideal example of authoritative writing. She affirms my belief that poetry is the most effective arena in which to make our demands on society, and, the best language for effecting change. Hear it here, then walk out into the fields



A Burning Corpse

Please consider the title of this post a warning, Gentle Reader.

Chicago Street Shrine

Chicago Street Shrine

Recently, on our way home from Tehuixtla we drove by a burnt corpse. There was a police vehicle on the curb and two officers circling, what I now envision as, a still smoking body. “I think that was a burnt body,” I told Felipe.
“Yea… I thought that when we went by the first time…I was going to mention it but thought I’d wait.”
“Wait for what?”
“Until I was sure.”

We drove on since the police were there. Several minutes later I said, “Well, that was disturbing; I could definably have done without seeing a burning corpse today. Or any day for that matter.”

When we arrived in La Tigra Felipe told the group of people always assembled at his sister’s store, including several small children, what we’d seen. “Don’t talk about that in front of the babies!” I admonished him in English. His sister asked him if I’d yelled at him for talking about it in front of the kids. He nodded.

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” she said, “Mom was already here and told us all about it. They(Mom had been traveling with a truck full of people including several children) got out to look it. She said he was still wearing his tennis shoes.” I’d noticed that too, one white tennis shoe.

I’ve seen violence. I lived in a Chicago, Latin King ruled neighborhood for a decade. My daily walk to work during those years included passing by scores of street shrines where teenagers had died on the sidewalks.

A burnt body is different.

You may imagine it has an unreal quality. It does not. Not even in passing, through a moving car window. Though I can’t say the actuality of it provoked a reasonable response: perhaps a scream, or some tears. Fear. Fear seems appropriate. But I experienced none of these.

My reaction was almost clinical. I wondered, why trouble to burn a body left so close so close to the road? Obviously, it was meant to be found. I thought of the position: supine, limbs extended at his sides– no struggle, he must have been dead when they burned him. The large charred circle around the body indicated the fire had taken place there. Desecration, I speculated, the body was burned as an insult, and a warning I imagined. I was disturbed by the perpetrator’s impudence: standing ten feet from the road, setting a body alight. Since moving to Mexico I’ve become adept at reading tracks , seeing symbols , and interpreting the inexplicable . Usually they’re not as gruesome as these. Still, my inclination to analyze rather than agonize concerned me.

I considered the truck full of onlookers. Would we have gone to look if the police hadn’t been there? Possibly, to report it. But that wasn’t the observer’s purpose; they wanted to see it. Felipe claimed it was normal behavior. “They’d probably never seen a burnt body.”

“One would hope not, Felipe.” I retorted.

This is when the situation started to feel unreal, and I thought of Joan Didion’s observation , We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line on disparate images. I struggled with my account of people hopping out of the back of a truck, kids in tow, walking up to a burnt body…

My brother- in- found two bodies on the road about a year ago, one alive, one dead. Small business owners in our area are closing their shops to avoid paying the cartel tributes. A few weeks ago a friend of mine was beaten, in our tiny town, because his marijuana hadn’t been purchased from the local cartel approved provider.

I wish I had a wise or moving statement about these occurrences, or could justify writing about it with a plea to legalize drugs…or promote peace, but I can no longer reconcile my naiveté and my cynicism.
To bear witness is the best I can do.

I recite, my poem, Home, Away from Home. My response to violence.

Happy Anniversary VSVEVG

My sincerest thanks to all of you who read VSVEVG. I look forward to another year of sharing stories with you.

Dinner and a Swat Team

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

Joan Didion, The White Album

On the other side of our small town in the foot hills of the Sierra Hualta, a four-year-old girl is having nightmares, she dreams of armed and masked men. She has begun to wet the bed. Even daylight she is afraid of shadows. She is afraid to be alone.

The child’s father stands on the path behind my house. Seeking healing for his daughter, he beckons to our houseguest, a practitioner of Santeria. Our guest visits the girl in the mornings before he and Felipe go off to work; he leaves before daylight, before coffee. Three days into the girl’s treatment I am told her tale…

One week before a trip to the US to renew my Visa, Felipe and I were enjoying a special meal; we had wine, and were using the fancy glasses. Suddenly, so suddenly the dogs didn’t have a chance to erupt into their usual cacophony, our patio filled with armed men, soldiers, some of them wearing facemasks. Snipers. They wear masks because they executioners. Our reaction was –this the shocking part, casual .  We looked at each other, shook our heads and laughed at little. Continue reading

Dinner and a Swat Team

“We tell ourselves stories to live.”

Joan Didion wrote that it’s the first line in The White Album. I admire Didion’s writing, her spare prose permeated with insight in the guise of simple introspection. I hope someday to write something as clean and acute as she. But, neither is my way, so I will weave my way through this story.

 Dinner and a Swat Team

On the other side of our small town that lies in the foothills of the Sierra Madre, a four-year-old girl is having nightmares. She dreams of armed and masked men. She has begun to wet the bed. She is afraid in the daylight, scared of shadows, she is afraid to be alone. Her father comes to my house and beckons to our houseguest, a practitioner of Santeria*, to come heal her. He visits the girl in the morning before he and Felipe go off to work; he leaves before daylight, before coffee. Three days into the girl’s treatment I am told her tale.

EnramadaWe try to have a few nice meals together before I travel. One week before a trip to the US to renew my Visa, Felipe and I were enjoying dinner. It was a special meal, we had wine, and we got out the fancy glasses. Suddenly, so suddenly the dogs didn’t even have a chance to erupt into the usual cacophony, our patio filled with soldiers bearing arms, some of them wearing facemasks, snipers. They wear masks because executioners don’t want their identity known. Our reaction was, and here is the shocking part, casual. Felipe and I looked at each other, shook our heads, and laughed.

The captain emerged and asked for Felipe’s papers, and he went into the house to retrieve them. I was now sitting in my enramada, a nine-by-five-meter area enclosed by six-foot-high chain-link fencing with approximately 15 armed men and exactly two snipers. I smiled at them. It was a genuine smile. It seemed like a good idea to be friendly with a sniper. One of them was wearing glasses; I thought how odd, a sharpshooter with corrective lenses. Felipe emerged with his papers as the soldiers searched our garden. I pondered whether the garden search occurred because the last time the military had visited our land, there were two marijuana plants in our garden. Felipe’s Mother asked us to grow it for her. She uses it in her arthritis remedy* and was concerned about growing it in town. Continue reading