December 31, 2011

New Year's Resolutions (Or, Henhouse Rules)

It rarely happens like this, all in the same week: New Year, new job, new schedule, new rooster on the block. Huh? This story has actually been brewing (or should I say stewing) for the last two months. I was washing dishes and staring out the window, musing over what would be my New Year's resolutions. Aside from wanting to make more time to overhaul my garden (whose multitude of weeds I also gaze at while at the kitchen sink), I was mulling over a lofty goal like not settling for just being happy about getting ahead in life, but actively working to improve other people's quality of life, and in doing so, growing within myself and making the world a better place. But then I noticed a commotion in the background, and my eyes lit on a pair of roosters, the feathers on the backs of their necks all ruffled up, jumping and pecking and trying to kick each other in the chest. So much for loving kindness. When it comes to keeping farm animals, that kind of approach is something that in theory I'd like to strive for, but in practice can only get so far with.

Our roosters are both fairly attractive birds, but they represent something that I wasn't quite looking for when I bought 4 large chicks from my elderly next door neighbor who has a much larger flock of chickens, turkeys, goats, and sheep. When we first started raising chickens, we fancied ourselves raising organic meat birds, but the fact that we didn't have them on an excessive feed and hormone schedule meant that they were quite scrawny when it came time to butcher them. I also refused to take part in the butchering after several traumatic experiences. So we gave up and decided to just keep them for eggs. Problem is, chickens have a natural life cycle that involves a slowing down of egg laying once they get older. By the time my older chickens, were pushing 4 years old, they were practically geriatric and had pretty much stopped laying eggs. Since we still had to buy feed for them, but they were not pets, but nor were they producing anymore, this produced a conundrum for me. We ended up giving several of the oldest ones to  friends who liked these kind of birds for stew meat, which avoided me getting into another animal cruelty quandary.

This left me with very few birds—three to be exact, all of whom weren't laying their share of eggs either. I wanted to give them a chance to make it past winter, maybe when the days got longer they'd be back to normal. But in the meantime, it was the first time in a few years that I had to buy eggs from the store. Which doesn't sound like a big deal to people who haven't raised their own, but is a big deal for me. This just goes to show how snobby I am about organic food (even though I can't always afford to buy it, I vastly prefer the flavor of it, or to grow my own). I'd gotten very spoiled on our own free range eggs, with the deep orange yolks from the wide variety of things our chickens eat—corn, bugs and weeds from the yard, buckets full of kitchen scraps. Even the so-called organic eggs I was purchasing were just yellowish and watery. Blech. I had to do something.

So I noticed, with envy, that my next door neighbor's hens had little flocks of chicks running around behind them, and I decided to go and buy some from her. By the time we made it over there, the chicks were practically adolescents, and my neighbor charged a pretty penny for each of the four I picked out—three sort of criollo mutt chickens, black with streaks of rusty red and green on the wings and head, and one a barred rock-looking one of grey and white tweed, who was instantly my favorite. She assured me they were all females (you don't need a rooster for eggs & I didn't want one because they don't lay), and I trotted home to close them into the henhouse for a few days so they'd imprint on their new home.

Course, I felt sorry for them fast and let them out into the larger pen to stretch their legs. Mistake. The next day I saw they were gone, back over to the neighbor's yard. All of them except one black one. That night I went back to her house, called from the gate out front, and helped her round up the three escape artists, and upon returning home we clipped their wings so they couldn't get out over the fence. Back into the henhouse for another few days. I then confidently let them back out into the pen, thinking I'd stymied them. But this time, two managed to get out, back to their home field. How were they getting out? After retrieving them, I finally noticed that they were jumping up on a roosting bar and then jumping over the fence. Tricky. I closed the gate to the back part with the high bar, and took down the bar in the main pen. Now they should be good. Another week in the pen.

Finally, I decided it was time to let them out into our yard, so they could go foraging. This was OK for the first few days. But then I noticed my barred rock chicken was missing. A few days went by and I finally went over to my neighbor's house to see if she was there, and my neighbor said she'd tried to bring him back the night before but I hadn't heard her calling from my closed window. At this time, she informed me that the chicken was actually a rooster, and that I shouldn't let him out for a while, but that I should keep him so he can mate with my hens and they can have their own chicks. I grudgingly agreed (at this point I wanted to return him & get my money back), and informed Margo of this, who told me one of the black ones was also a rooster, but I didn't believe him. But at least we knew we couldn't let them out for quite a while longer.

Around this time, I had emergency surgery to remove my appendix, and my attentions to the garden & with our birds (which was already practically nil with a baby in the house) severely decreased. There was a period of a couple weeks where only Margo would go out and make sure they had water and food but I barely peeked outside. When I was finally recuperating, one night, I heard a strange noise coming from the henhouse. The next morning, I ventured outside only to find that I only had two black chickens. When I searched for both who were missing, I made a grim discovery of only a wing remaining of one of the black ones, lodged in the corner of their pen & half out. I assumed some animal reached in from outside and grabbed one, and feared the grey one had also been attacked.

When I told this to Margo, he said the chickens themselves had probably eaten one alive. I couldn't bring myself to believe this. Neither could my neighbor, who blamed my cats for it & the death of another of hers. I swore to her it wasn't my cat, but then I watched them suspiciously, but never figured out who was responsible. It turned out the grey and white rooster was back at her place. This time we put a bracelet on his leg so we could pick him out of the flock easier. But when I brought him back and he started facing off with one of the remaining two black chickens in our pen, I realized Margo was right. The other one was also a rooster. Damn. So I had two roosters, one dead hen, and one meek black hen trying to fit in with the other three older, cantankerous hens who aren't exactly a tolerant bunch.

When I happened to mention this to Margo and my mother, they said I should just get a bunch of new chicks and start over. Surely my grandma would say the same thing. I really wanted things to work out with my barred rock rooster, but to keep two cocks in the same pen is to invite disaster for the hens and each of the roosters, with all their aggression. He ended up getting out once more, and I meant to go get him, but then my parents came to visit, and I just ended up letting him stay next door, where he wasn't causing problems, and technically, he wasn't eating my feed.

A few days after Christmas, I was reading with the baby around dusk when Margo hollered that "la señora," was at the rock wall separating our yards, with her grandson and my rooster. I ran out, not before stopping to grab her a wrapped piece of homemade fudge as a token of my appreciation for putting up with my lack of small animal husbandry abilities. I felt kind of sheepish as I looked at this little old woman, whose patience and attention to her flock must be vastly superior to mine, considering how large and beautiful it's grown. When I'd taken him and we stood there chatting, she mentioned that he was quite fat, and I mentioned that the other black one was definitely a rooster. She said, oh really? and I nodded. I'm starting to think to myself, I wondered out loud, what am I going to do with this rooster? She drew her hand across her neck with a slicing motion, and replied, "Ya con el. Al caldo." Enough with him. Into the stew.

Moral of the story? Maybe our society does have a long way to go in terms of becoming truly civilized, care for our planet, and practice brotherly love, and we ought not simply rest on our laurels that we are making it in life. But at the end of the day I am still content to be (and to motivated to keep improving the state of being) human. Oh yeah, and don't count your hens until you're sure they're not roosters.

November 6, 2011

Irony, Missed Celebrations, and Appendix Surgery

Just when I thought I was going to be happiest, celebrating, and relishing a rare opportunity for pure enjoyment, I got shot down. Not literally, but figuratively, by appendicitis.

It crept up on me unexpectedly, as I suppose it does for anyone who gets it. On Halloween night, Margo was working late, and I was still getting over what I thought was a 24-hr bug over the weekend. So we'd opted to replace going out trick-or-treating with the baby on Halloween for going out two nights later (Weds) to see the Dia de los Muertos altars downtown. I was also excited to celebrate receiving my Mexican naturalization that same day. So Margo came home early, and got himself and the baby ready, but I was still languishing on the couch.

What's wrong, he asked. I complained that my belly was so swollen, and I couldn't figure out what was going on with me. I looked up a few things online, and started to wonder if maybe I was presenting symptoms from an old Giardia infection I'd found out I had when I was 9 months pregnant. At the time, I couldn't take the medicine because of its potential danger to the baby, but since I wasn't showing symptoms, it seemed like a non-issue. Maybe it was still in my system. After the pain got worse, I finally accepted the fact that we weren't going out that night, except to get some medicine. The bumps of the road were intolerable, enough to make me wonder if it wasn't a mistake to not go to the ER. Back home, it got bad enough that I called my mother and mentioned it to a friend who knows a pediatrician, and both of them worried that it might be appendicitis.

Now worried myself, I called my gastroenterologist's clinic, the one who's seen me before for other issues (Mexico, unfortunately, has a rather unpleasant characteristic of causing plentiful GI problems). When I described it over the phone, relayed through the secretary, I was told to take a painkiller and wait until the morning. When I checked the compatability with breastfeeding, I discovered that the meds had been discontinued in the U.S and were not OK for lactation, so I toughed it out that night. There were a few intensely painful moments, but not worse than any pain I'd felt before in my life, so I was still optimistic that I'd be better by morning.

When I went in Thursday morning and the doctor checked me, he said he was pretty sure it was appendicitis, but he wanted to run tests to be sure, and put me in observation. I stayed at the clinic in a private room watching TV most of the day, and when he came in to check me again that afternoon, the clinical signs convinced him that it was appendicits. Even though appendicitis is technically a medical emergency because of the risk of rupture and infectious complications, and although my abdomen was quite swollen, the weird thing was, it didn't hurt as terribly as it had the night before but that was probably because I hadn't eaten anything in almost 24 hours. But he explained that some cases develop more gradually than others. The sign for him that clinched the diagnosis was localized pain upon pressure in my lower right abdomen, and more, severe pain upon letting go of the pressure, or Blumberg's sign, which indicated onset of peritonitis. I was in the OR less than half an hour later.

There was some initial confusion about whether I'd stay and be operated on at that clinic, or whether I'd seek surgery at the public hospital where I have free state insurance (Seguro Popular). But since I'd already waited so long and the doctor indicated it was urgent (if I went to the public hospital I'd likely have to wait again), and since it was my first surgery, which scared me, and I really wanted to be able to room in with my family (at the public clinics they separate you from your family), I decided to have it done at the clinic.

On the operating table, I got upset that it'd somehow been my fault. Hindsight is 20/20, but this view was still obscure. Even so, I wished there'd have been some way to prevent this, and felt something akin to failure. The nerves of being put under also crept in and I started to cry, blubbering that I ate well and I'd gotten this far in life without ever having been operated on, so why did this have to happen? But the assisting physician was a woman who spoke English, and she whispered, "It's going to be OK, it wasn't your fault. It could have been some seeds you ate!" At least partly, she was right—I did end up OK. As for what caused this, I may never know, and I may just have to leave that answer to the gods.

The practical moral of the story for me is that I may have to get more regular checkups (even for the rest of my family) to make sure sure we don't have any lingering or unknown infections. I also might have to trust more in the public medical facilities, for a variety of reasons, although I have an equal number of reasons why I'm still hesitant to do that.

As for getting over missing out on my celebrations and starting swim lessons, something I (with great difficulty) had recently carved out for myself (ironically, to improve my overall health) but won't be able to do until I heal, I can only chalk it up as an initiation rite of becoming a Mexican citizen. Oh yeah, and just to be safe, I better get my Day of the Dead altar up on time next year...don't want to take any more chances that I've pissed off any espiritus!

November 1, 2011

Mi Mexicana (Major Mexican Holidays, Mexican Citizenship, & Me)

Big things always seem to happen to me around major holidays here in Mexico. This past Dia de la Independencia in September, I got word that my Mexican naturalization certificate was issued, and I would not have to go back to Immigration (Instituto Nacional de Inmigracion) ever again (whew!). The only problem was that although the document was printed in Mexico City, it'd still take a month or more to be delivered, a situation which left me a bit vulnerable in terms of traveling—it'd been a last minute scramble to issue the document before my Mexican visa expired, and while I was waiting for the naturalization document to get a passport, I'd be without traveling papers for on my way back into Mexico. It was unlikely I'd have to travel, since I had no plans to do so, but the prospect of being grounded in the case of an emergency was a concern in the back of my mind.

Today, on Dia de los Muertos, another major Mexican holiday that gives Halloween a serious run for its money, it was just another typical day at home with the baby while my husband went to work. I was getting ready to put the baby down for a nap when I got a phone call on my cell. It was my contact at the Secretaria de Relaciones Exteriores, calling to tell me that he just received my carta de naturalizacion. "Yay!" I exclaimed immediately. "Can you come pick it up before 3," he asked. Can I ever, I thought.

Soon, I was rushing about to get the baby's diaper bag ready, change my clothes, and pack a little gift bag for my liason at the agency. Noe Lujan has been truly one of the most professional, responsive, compassionate, efficient government representatives I've ever been attended by at a Mexican government agency. And that's saying a lot, because it hasn't always been a pleasurable experience (not just to be a complainer, but most "routine" visits are difficult to a level that Americans who haven't spent time abroad would be hard-pressed to imagine, although some agencies are definitely improving). I loaded the baby into the truck and got on the road as fast as possible, to avoid the late lunch traffic.

What I didn't expect was the range of emotions I would feel on my way there. First, I felt an overwhelming wave of joy. I was all smiles. I felt warm all over and super excited. "Damn, I don't feel this awesome very often anymore," I noted to myself, but I let it last. The end of all my visits to immigration aside, what this really means to me started to sink in. Honestly, I think that'll be something that'll take years to happen.

Then the tears started to flow. Looking back over the years of frustrating visits to immigration, the difficult year of applying for citizenship, and then wondering if it'd ever really happen, and now it finally was. And how I had this opportunity, here in Mexico, one that I wonder whether my husband will have ever have in my country of origin. I felt basically filled with emotion and excited up through parking, walking down the street to the SRE building, and up the steps to the door. Then I finally came down off my cloud of elation.

The guard inside, an older fellow, waved his hand vigorously, motioning me away. He wanted me to go downstairs to the passport office entry, since the office I was going to doesn't let people in after 12 pm, and it was 1:30 pm. But I knew since Noe had called me, I needed to be let in. I stood there waving my own hand, as if asking him to open the door. We did this a few times and I started to get annoyed. Finally he reluctantly came over, opened the door, and I explained my situation, he went and confirmed it, and let me in, not without taking my ID# and signature, of course. At that point the principal emotion was feeling rather smug.

I continued down the hall, where they knew I was coming and waved me in. My heightened sense of anticipation endured. I sat at Noe's desk with the baby on my lap, we exchanged our pleasantries and then we got down to business. I stared at the pile of papers emanating from his mountains of file folders, and felt a mixture of deep appreciation, pity for kind-hearted bureacrats, and relief. After signing several documents, I remarked that I felt like I was buying a car. He laughed and said that this was much better. He explained the documents one by one, and the new stipulations I'll have now that I'm officially Mexican. It's an interesting list, one I'll probably write more about in the future. I gave him his gift, he said I shouldn't have, and we chatted for a while longer. The baby was extra squirmy, so I said my goodbyes and was on my way out.

He'd recommended I stop in to the passport office to ask about the documentation required. Referring to my naturalization certificate gave me that feeling of accomplishment. Then I started to think about voter registration cards. And my mind started racing off in many directions. Is there something in particular I should do to celebrate my new Mexicanness? How do I identify myself now? Does this change anything? If anything, my sense of responsibility as a participating member of Mexican society. It was an exciting, if not worrisome feeling.

Then, of course, life kicked back in. Errands, a whiny baby, and a drive home. A creeping feeling of exhaustion as I finally got her off for her nap. But before I could attempt my own, I had to corral some stray chickens in the garden, give the rabbit some grass, swat a couple flies in the living room. I contemplated logging on immediately to share my pile of new feelings about my new status with the world, one that way exceeds a single tweet or Facebook post...but the desire to try and nap won over. So I kicked off my sandals and contentedly curled up on the couch.

I was just...drifting... off... to sleep... when Margo got home. I couldn't pretend I was sleeping, and I had to share the news—I'd wanted to keep the surprise for an in-person delivery. "Really?!" he exclaimed delightedly when I told him. "Aw...Mi Mexicana," he said, leaning over to give me a kiss. And I smiled and thought to myself, damn! He's right, and yet I still just can't believe it.

October 29, 2011

One More Step: Healing What Ails Me

This post has absolutely no relation to what I set out to write about this chilly morning, but that's the nature of the artist's pledge to follow their inspiration. It produces things you least expect. In my case, for more than the last month, I was inspired to find out what was causing my back pain.

And now, just like that, it's gone. After plaguing me non-stop for a month, with constant hip pain for almost 7 months before that, my back pain simply disappeared. I don't mean all little aches from overdoing it or sitting in a chair too long, but the inability to carry my baby or bend over and brush my teeth without more. Such is the nature of that type of pain. I wrote a few posts about it and what I believe its root to be (unrelieved tension), but I didn't really note what the specific day was that it stopped. Oh well, it's not important—the good thing is it's gone for now.

The funny thing is, I remembered that when I got up early this morning and carried the laundry basket downstairs. While my back was hurting, my husband would have had to do it for me. All I did this time was peek over my shoulder to see if he or the baby had stirred from slumber while I hauled it up and off the floor, reveling in the fact that less than 2 weeks ago that would have been impossible. And how great that felt. It's funny how little you appreciate certain things until you don't have them anymore, like simple physical abilities. Of course I would be amiss if I didn't reflect at least a LITTLE on what I think might have been the key to getting it to hit the road.

A full acknowledgment that it was stress-related tension was the first step—realizing that not just the back, but the hip was involved was also key. That way, when it started to switch back and forth, I didn't get too worried that something was wrong with me, which I think perpetuated it over the last several months.

A sincere effort to get into a regular exercise routine was also important—one that I haven't even started yet, mind you, but plans are laid—I signed up for swim lessons at the local pool that will start next week. And I also got my bike fixed up and out on the road after collecting dust for almost two years. I'd been walking a lot until my hip started hurting, and that really put me out mood-wise. Just knowing that I'm getting back on track with physical activity makes me feel better about myself, which spreads like ripples.

Regular journaling, and reflective time, whether it be in meditation, affirmation, or prayer, seems important also. Writing gives me an opportunity to process and externalize things that well up inside. The reflective time allows me to either "let go" of things out of my control, or recognize things that I can influence.

There were also a couple miscellaneous things I had to deal with internally, like my mindset about some things. The closest I can come to summing this up is along the lines of the "God give me the serenity" adage. Or, something I believe the Dalai Lama said, which to paraphrase, goes like "If something is in your control, why worry about it; and if something is out of your control, why worry about it?" In other words, don't pretend you can't do something about a situation—have the courage to change it if you can. And if you really can't do anything about something, try to let it go. This is really hard because we get into habits of truly believing something is out of our control when in truth it's in our hands. Indeed, we have quite a bit more power than we think we do, and even that acknowledgment can be frightening because it means we have no choice but to act. The converse is also often true—we attempt to change things that are really outside our influence. Perceiving the difference between these two things is truly a life skill honed with time and intention.

For non-believers, this last piece might be the hardest part to embrace, but I also think that a little daily prayer (to whatever spirit you decide on) is wise in order to align your perspective to the greater context of the universe. Tapping into that source of universal power can be of great comfort... it's not just you who's holding the reins of your life in this world, and you can't always know what's waiting for you on the other side of a struggle.

October 20, 2011

Fall and Change: The End of a Cycle

If I had to pick a favorite, it would probably be fall. I just remember so many delightful things about it growing up, like going into the orchard to pick apples, raking and jumping in piles of all the multi-colored leaves, the holidays that come with it—Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas right around the corner. As an adult, I look forward to harvest season, the nice weather, and more social and family get-togethers.

Today it dawned on me that there's something even more noble about fall: an undeniable beauty and peace at the end of a cycle. The seasons are a rhythm of increasing and decreasing sunlight and life on Earth. In the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice marks the moment renewal begins—the return of the light. Spring is a time of flourishing.  Summer is rich decadence, and Fall is of harvest and decay. It's a natural pattern, one that we can't resist, and why would we want to? We know this is the way things are meant to be.

Yet during day to day life we have a more ambivalent relationship with change (at least I do). Sometimes we say, "It's time for a change," or, "I needed a change." But sometimes we're not so psyched about the idea: "You mean you want me to change?" or, "I can't change the way I am..."  As for our attitude about change, it's almost as if it depends on our perspective: we resist change we take to be negative, but embrace change we deem to be positive. It's a very subjective perspective, that depends on many things—our culture, profession, gender, our experience, our age, even our moods.

Perhaps the changes that we feel more passionately about have to do with our own selves. However, since we often don't notice changes going on around us (or do, but choose to ignore them), it can be difficult to even notice a shift in ourselves. It's funny to me that our culture clings so insistently to an identity that defines us as individuals, when in fact we grow so much throughout the course of our lives. In fact, physically, comparatively few of the original cells we were born with are still with us as adults! In essence, we replace ourselves over and over as we age.

For me, it's frustrating that, despite knowing that change is a necessary and healthy part of life, that I overlook its role so often. It's satisfying when I can slow down, appreciate the moment, and not get too caught up in the past—i.e. what we could have done differently, or the future—the what ifs of a situation.

Observing my daughter is a prime example of how important it is for me to stay focused on the present. So much is happening with her today—her development is so rapid that if I look away even for a few hours, I might not catch the first time she says "duckie" or even her first steps by herself. That's not to beat myself up over the hours I have to spend working, but a reminder to fully appreciate the moments I have with her.

The growth of a human and the cycles of the seasons are expected changes, that we're fairly prepared for. But then there are unexpected changes that take a bit more attention to notice when they are first happening. Mood swings, for example. A good friend moving away. An ant infestation on a plant in your garden. An ill pet. It pays to stay aware so you can catch these changes as they occur, and that way you won't be so surprised when their results affect your life.

Completely unexpected events catch us completely by surprise—they can either delight us to no end, like a friend dropping by or calling out of the blue, or winning a contest. They can throw us off balance, or even do harm, like serious illnesses or acts of violence. But we also have the opportunity to see some seemingly random events as not so happenstance. For example, in the American culture of my birth, death is a very difficult subject, but in my host culture, Mexico, the end of the life cycle is embraced at this time of the year, in the Day of the Dead celebrations. Or on another topic, no one really predicted when the Occupy Wall Street movement would occur, but many people were starting to get fed up with the course of our country's evolution, and so it should come as no surprise that the day would come when people would demand a change.

By seeing occurrences as part as the natural cycle of cause and effect, maybe we can relax into the feeling that; either we did everything possible to positively affect the outcome of events, or that we did everything possible and it's out of our hands. That must be where the phrase, "God give me the courage to change the things I am able, and the serenity to accept that which I cannot" came from.

It would be an omission on my part were I not to acknowledge the role of reading Buddhist books, such as those authored by the Dalai Lama, in influencing my thoughts on the subject of impermanence. Reflecting on the momentary (and cyclic) nature of things helps me to appreciate the little things that I might otherwise overlook in my daily life. If that gives me just one more iota of peace, that's a change I can embrace.

October 5, 2011

Coming Into My Own

The past two weeks have been a challenge because an old problem I thought I'd gotten rid of reared its ugly head. Since the night before my daughter's 1st birthday, I started having terrible lower back pain. Since the pain inevitably affects my life, I posted on my Facebook page that my back was out & what I thought was behind it—a psychogenic pain syndrome. Judging by the response (0 comments so far), either my friends and family think I'm loca, or this is too heavy of a topic for social networking.

But if I were crazy, so would be Jeannette Barber, John Stossel, Howard Stern, and Dr. John Sarno, M.D., as well thousands (if not millions) of people that this venerable but controversial NYU medical professor who developed the TMS theory believes the disorder affects every year. John Stossel, 20/20 correspondent, talks more about the pain syndrome here.

I've been having bouts of incapacitating back pain off and on since the spring of 2002. Back then, I thought my back pain was due to an on-the-job injury. I visited the doctor, who prescribed NSAIDs and bed rest. The pain became practically paralyzing. The MRI said I had bulging discs. The physical therapist prescribed exercises. The bodyworker helped me breathe deeper and visualize a protective shield. This went on for months. Then I saw an acupuncturist, who balanced my energy meridians. Ironically, the stress relief treatments worked better than the pain relief treatments. The massage therapist said I was tense. The chiropractor adjusted me and told me I had an instable SI joint. Still no long-term relief after four years. Finally in 2006, I read the book Healing Back Pain by Dr. John Sarno, which told me my back pain was psychogenic in origin: Tension Myoneural Syndrome.

Reading that book was the only thing that really reduced the length and frequency of my bouts of pain—once I really accepted its role in my life, I went an entire year without a major pain event, and when I did again it only lasted for days, when for the past four years, I'd have at least 3 bouts of pain that lasted from 1-2 weeks every year. To me, the book was the most powerful medicine I'd encountered so far.

On the TMS wikipedia site, TMS is summarized as "a condition in which unconscious emotional issues (primarily rage) initiate a process that causes physical pain and other symptoms. [The] theory suggests that the unconscious mind uses the autonomic nervous system to decreases blood flow to muscles, nerves or tendons, resulting in oxygen deprivation, experienced as pain in the affected tissues." According to Sarno, TMS manifests most commonly as back, leg, or neck pain, but can also lead to disorders such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS or colitis) and others. Sarno also considers fibromyalgia to be synonymous with TMS.  The personality characteristics of people who are most susceptible to TMS are, from the introduction to TMS wiki: perfectionists, people pleasers, very self critical, and very ambitious individuals.

This whole topic is both fascinating and embarrassing to me at the same time. Fascinating because although it's not the first instance where I've come in direct contact with the power of our mind, it's definitely the most in-my-face example of how my subconscious can control me, and how I can often take control of my own pain. Because of this, I've made great strides with this and other difficult aspects of my life.

However, telling people that I believe I "have this" condition can sometimes still be embarrassing for a couple reasons: One, there's still that stigma against mental disorders in both the United States where I'm from and in Mexico, where I live—in both countries a psychological condition is often seen as an imagined apparition (it's all in your head) or a personal debility. And there's a part of me, probably that very perfectionist, people-pleaser side, that doesn't want to appear weaker, or anything less than "on top of" my own issues, no matter how hard things get. I can remember a time in high school when we used to mock the concept of psychosomatic disorders, i.e. people who "do it to themselves" or "bring on their own problems." Kids are cruel, adults pretend not to be, but many of us hide our true feelings, which sometimes makes it harder for us to be genuine with each other (or even ourselves). But let's face it—all of us have struggled with unpleasant emotions—anger, jealousy, sadness, frustration, or worse— for our entire lives. To deny it would be ingenuous at best.

Second, I was trained as a biologist and a skeptic in the scientific tradition, and Dr. Sarno's TMS theory is more controversial—it smacks of pseudoscience. Although many prominent alternative physicians support his theory and believe it could relieve a large burden on the payout system for Workers Compensation (of which I was a part of, and back pain sufferers are a majority recipient), Sarno acknowledges that the vast majority of the medical community rejects his hypothesis. This is mainly because a major clinical trial has not been performed. Some researchers claim that his education program, which teaches people that their subconscious repression of unpleasant emotions leads to pain and that learning about the process can alleviate pain, is merely placebo effect.

On the other hand, I have a very open mind. It doesn't surprise me that it's not only hard to test for this effect, but that there's a lot of money to be lost on the chronic pain industry were this theory to be proven (for example I avoid long term use of painkillers).  Just because something hasn't yet been definitively proven through clinical trials doesn't mean it can't exist. Great strides are being taken to demonstrate through Western medicine what Eastern medical traditions have long since known—the intricate mind-body connection and the importance of approach to life in health issues. For example, Dr. Dean Ornish who showed that coronary artery disease could be reversed not only through a vegetarian diet, but also through meditation.

For many years I've self-diagnosed and treated with diet, herbs, and vitamins, and normally I've had a great track record—I'm usually in very good health. But when you're having a recurring problem and it comes down to the nitty-gritty of getting proper professional support with it, it can be a lot harder to heal when you're doing it on your own.

Which might be why, even though I haven't had a bout of back pain in almost two years, I'm coming to terms with the fact that I'm still struggling with this problem. August 2007, February 2008, and December 2009 were the last times I had TMS-type symptoms. In Dec. '09, I had a short-lived bout of back pain that both disappeared as soon as I figured out what was stressing me out. Since that was the last time I had actual back pain, I figured I was "cured."

But now I'm realizing that there were two other things that happened since then that very well could have been TMS in disguise: a brief bout of IBS in October '09, severe morning sickness in early '10, and hip pain that started five months after I gave birth and worsened daily until two weeks ago when it suddenly disappeared and the back pain started.

I'm going to save the story of how my hip pain progressed, how I thought it might be a degenerative joint problem, how it "coincidentally" morphed into back pain (and then back again a few times), why I became convinced that it was TMS after all, and what I think I need to do to get "back on track" for another time. But suffice it to say that I have my work cut out for me, in terms of coming into my own, yet again, and finding a way to heal myself.

Because I know I have something to learn from this struggle, and I don't want to needlessly miss out on another moment of enjoying my life.

September 20, 2011


Some things turn out to be harder than you expected. And some things turn out when you least expect them to. Sometimes those things are one and the same. My husband just says, "September is a tough month for us."

We're referring to my recent obtaining of Mexican citizenship, and my daughter's first birthday. Both things seemed to be happening according to plan, with no kinks. But then for each event, in the eleventh hour, all hell broke loose. Miraculously, everything DID turn out "okay." But for both, it was touch and go until the very last moment.

In the case of my Mexican naturalization, I could have done like most of my expat friends here and just kept renewing my visa (the FM2, for legal stay in this country) until I got permanent residency. But for me, there was an irresistible draw to "no more trips to immigration (INM)" (only 2 years of renewing the FM2 vs. 5), and the ability to vote. As I saw it, I could be here indefinitely, so why not be a full-fledged member of society?

So the papers were dutifully gathered, submitted, and accepted over the course of months, from late 2010 to March of this year. It was a difficult, expensive, and sometimes stressful process that led me all over Queretaro and Mexico City jumping through bureacratic hoops to properly document my existence and qualifications for becoming Mexican by marriage. Then began the waiting game. In late July, we heard back that my application was approved. I figured it was just a matter of time before my naturalization certificate was delivered, and I was good to go—and put it out of my mind.

As August came to an end, my radar touched back onto the question of my naturalization certificate. Where the heck was it anyways? August is the time when, for the last five years, I start getting my papers together for the visa renewal—up to thirty days before its expiration date. But since my citizenship was on the table, I assumed I wouldn't have to renew this year. I was finishing up a chapter in Amor and Exile, and making plans for the baby's first birthday party, in other words, busy. So I merely shot an email off to my contact at the Secretary of Exterior Relations (SRE) to "check in" and continued to hope for the best.

When he got back to me, still no printing of the certificate. By this time it was early Sept. My visa expire(s/d) on the 18th of Sept., so I started to get a little worried. He told me to wait until the last minute if possible—which is not my style, but who wants to pay $300 more for a document they won't need if the one they're waiting on is almost ready? I decided to try and relax, and play a little roulette.

Meanwhile, plans were going well for the baby's birthday bash. When initially weighing how much to take on, we'd voted down dipping into savings for various home improvement projects prior to the party in favor of a low-budget bash. At first, I meant to keep it on the small side. But I love parties, hadn't had a really big one since the baby shower, and that invite list sort of took on a life of its own, so the budget got pushed to the limit. Luckily, a bunch of friends had committed to chip in with time and effort. But the amount of stress over preparation and expenses approached a level I wasn't quite expecting.

Normally, I am fairly conservative in my estimates when planning for parties and life in general. However, I indulged in a few fantasies that, in retrospect, I probably shouldn't have: First, that my baby would know (or care) that I was throwing a party for her, and would demand any less of my attention in the weeks leading up to it. Second, I assumed we'd have income around the time of the party, but then in a random stroke of bad luck, my husband was out of work for the two weeks prior. I also didn't have the cushion of the long-hoped for contract for the book (I know, I am crazy! But that's why I called it a fantasy). I also assumed that I wouldn't be reapplying for a visa in the days prior to the party—those of you who've done it before know that it's almost like a full-time job for the week before the renewal date.

The week before the party, and my visa's expiration date; which ironically are one and the same, I decided I couldn't just "wait until the last minute." I went into INM and SRE to beg them to give me clarity about what was going to happen: would I in fact get my naturalization papers in time, or would be I be dipping into my savings for a useless document that I'd have to reapply for on a technicality (in order for it to have validity, the naturalization certificate's print date must coincide with a date prior to the expiration of your visa)?

The possibility of running out of money hasn't occurred to me for at least 10 years, back when I was struggling to get on my feet as a recent college graduate. But when they turned me away at the SRE doors and I sat down on the bench outside with the baby, after 5 years of underemployment, and contemplating the possibility that my application for citizenship had been for naught, I wondered if heartless bureaucrats would continue to empty my pockets until I failed to even qualify for either a visa OR citizenship—and then how would my husband and I be together? I broke down in tears. So as to not get stuck in the paperless limbo land that my husband lived in the U.S., I decided to go ahead and reapply for the visa at the eleventh hour, on September 15th, the day before Mexican Independence Day. It was the last day I could submit my papers.

We were down in the commercial district making our way to the bank to transfer money to the INM coffers for the right to be here another year with my family when I got a phone call from my contact at SRE. Only that I couldn't answer because I'd just dropped my cell phone on the ground and I could hear nothing on the other end. I ran outside to get my husband's cell phone, ran into the grocery store to put credit on the phone, and ran back out to call my contact. "Is Syracuse spelled with a 'Y'?" he asked. I stammered yes, wondering if this really meant my wait was over. Half an hour later, at the bank, before I had to get in line behind 40 others before business hours ended for the next 4 days, I got word that the certificate had been printed, and I wouldn't have to renew my visa.

I couldn't believe things had turned out this way. The only problem was that I'd still have to wait to get my certificate in the mail, as it had been printed but not signed. So until then, I'd be unable to get a Mexican passport, and essentially unable to travel (back into Mexico is the catch—there's no problem going up into the States because of my U.S. passport). I wavered but after conferring with family, decided it was worth the risk. I hope I don't eat my words.

It was Independence Day, and I was officially a Mexican citizen. I should have been elated—and I was—I went out and partied like I hadn't for a long time that night with friends downtown. When I got home during the wee hours of the next morning, the baby had been up wailing for an hour with my husband, who'd stayed home to watch her. But I had no regrets. However, I had only two days to go before the party—I had to get my act together, raging hangover or not. I set about taking care of the last minute details and gathered a small army for the food preparation the day prior.

But then family hit the fan—Margo's side had a small crisis of their own and infighting had broken out, making me fear no one would show up at our party for not wanting to see each other. That made it sink in how upset I was that my own family couldn't be there with us to celebrate. Our situation doesn't make it easy for them either—the distance is considerable, tickets are expensive, mail is tough, internet is erratic. We'd had to make a choice—have them visit either this date, or Christmas, and pinned our hopes on the latter. But as the big day approached I felt more and more sad that we'd be apart for this one.

It's weird, because I don't usually feel this bad for my own birthday. Nostalgic, yes. Sometimes wishing my husband would do it up for me like only my family and friends can, also. But never with the dark cloud of dreariness that I felt creeping up on me like I did as my daughter's 1st birthday without my side of the family present. That caught me off guard.

So much so, that I woke up the morning of her birthday with paralyzing back pain. I'd been worn out the day before, and I'd been having hip pain for months, but having my back go out was completely unexpected, especially since I'd managed to make it all the way through pregnancy without that happening. What was going on? I tried to get my frustrations out with my therapist, who graciously spoke with me that morning. After skype didn't work ten times while trying to set up a happy birthday phone call with my parents for the baby, I had an embarrassingly upsetting incident with them and my husband. It became apparent how raw I'd gotten, or how the stress I'd been desperately trying to avoid had finally caught up with me. All of my attempts to hold it together—meditation, affirmation, visualization, gratitude—seemed to be simultaneously imploding.

On our way down to town to pick up the cake, I felt ashamed for the way I'd spoken earlier that morning, and could only look at my daughter next to me, who laughed as tears and snot streamed down my face. And I realized how silly I must have looked to her, and began to laugh myself. What felt like emergencies minutes prior seemed wholly insignificant, if only for a moment.

In the end, I was able to carry on and we were able to pull off a very fun, memorable party with plenty of friends and family present. My parents were even able to watch the piñata being broken and the cake being cut via Skype—the gods were willing this time. As a friend had predicted a week earlier, it was a celebration not just for our daughter's first birthday, but for us all having been able to make it through one more year—together. The pain may have yet to be resolved, but the commemoration is complete.

August 30, 2011

Milestones Along the Road to Normal

Several milestones are happening at this time for my family. Almost a year has passed since our daughter was born. My Mexican naturalization is impending. It's been almost five years since we arrived in Mexico. We need to wait out a ten-year period before we're able to apply for any waivers or pardons on the way to applying for a visa for Margo to legally re-enter the U.S. So in other words, we're "halfway there."

To me, it feels both ironic and "just right" that a lot of these milestones run together. One of the things I used to say before we moved to Mexico, when people listened in horror that we had to wait at least 10 years before we could even apply for his visa, was "if I can last ten years in a foreign country, I may not even need or want to move back."

If you had asked me about that statement the first year, or even my third year here, I'd be hard pressed to imagine being able to stick out even the first half. Even though I was blessed with all sorts of opportunities like building my home, I couldn't see the forest for the trees because of the stress of adjusting culturally. Life was inevitably never going to be the same, and that took time to accept. Reinventing myself professionally was and is an ongoing process, something I'm still working toward feeling comfortable about (no pun intended). Even into my fourth year here, when I fantasized about having a child but couldn't visualize what it would be like, finding out I was pregnant was a crisis for me until I got a caregiver support network in place.

Motherhood brought on a second round of social opportunity, different than the first one I experienced in 2008 when I first started meeting expats here. Several new friends were made through mom's groups—it still amazes me that my daughter led me to be more social before she was even born, and that continues now that she's here. Befriending a couple in town who're here for the same voluntary deportation and "life on hold" problem as Margo and I, made me realize how much I have to offer in terms of just plain "been there" kind of advice.

Now, having made it to "halfway," not just us, but us with a baby in tow, feels like a major accomplishment. Even though we still have our ups and downs, with downs that can still often feel fairly low, the ups are getting more frequent and the spaces in between feel more "normal." My therapist and other friends have always wondered out loud to me: what is normal, anyways, Nicole? A book I read about the emotional adjustments that occur before, during and after pregnancy even has a chapter entitled "The New Normal." The word is often used to refer to an average state of being—an elusive social construct that is often mentioned but rarely achieved.

In my case, "normal" invokes a happier, calmer existence—a state that I've often experienced but couldn't always count on. You could say that distance from family, friends, and the comforts of my homeland, things I miss in NY & CA; contribute to a feeling of disorientation when faced with things that throw me for a loop here, such as a lack of law enforcement, cultural differences, or widespread appreciation for nature that I cherish so much.

And yet, as anyone who's had children or has lived a long-term traumatic situation knows (just for the record, although they're in the same sentence, I don't consider the former to equal the latter!), patience can go a long way in softening your response to life. Even though I hated to admit it before I finally decided to have kids, just the simple act of aging and maturing can increase your capacity to tolerate certain things. Or even to let things happen themselves, maybe with your assistance, but without your direct control. Sort of how the revered and controversial Sikh guru Yogi Bhajan says: "patience pays."

So I find myself incredibly grateful for all the things that have occurred in my life that have gotten me to this point: having the courage to move far from home despite how painful it can often be, having been able to see through the most frustrating moments of adjusting to a new country in order to stay with my husband, even opting to obtain naturalization in that country...having had our daughter, and the good fortune to have a wonderful partner who wants to raise our daughter with a much different relationship than he had with his own father.

I'm grateful for the transformation I was able to make as a very scared, tentative, worrisome expecting woman into a confident, loving mother who makes mistakes but knows that my love for my daughter is the most important thing. I am grateful for the little things. I am grateful that I know that I'll continue to be more and more so as the years go by.

It dawned on me that anyone who's been transplanted around the world or even from one side of town to the other could be grappling with these same feelings. I realized that I knew more than just a few folks with binational family living situations and similar interests, and started an online group with the hope it might connect some of us, or even grow. It might spark something, it might fizzle, but at least the seed was planted.

Which leads me to believe I could be experiencing the beginnings of yet another milestone that, since leaving the States, has felt difficult to regain—what my therapist refers to as "finding my tribe." It's rapidly moving target that's also constantly shapeshifting. But while simply throwing a frisbee around with friends at a beautiful state park this weekend, I declared that doing things like this made me feel "normal." They all laughed at me, but I have a feeling they know what I meant.

August 2, 2011

Eat Your Weedies

I just ate weeds for breakfast. I know what you're thinking.
With a ten-month old and a home office, weeds are abundant in my garden. They share prominent real estate with a handful of cultivated and volunteer vegetables and herbs. In fact they are taking over the neighborhood. However, we are lucky that two of the weeds are actually edible. They are quelite (kay-lee-tay, a catchall term for a handful of species including lamb-quarters and some from the Amaranth family) & verdolaga (vare-dough-lah-gah, otherwise known as purslane), two naturalized plants that are common weeds in gardens and open spaces worldwide.
Once, my mother-in-law, upon seeing how we had verdolaga & quelite in our garden, told me that she really liked to eat them. So a few nights ago while we were in the garden to harvest some kale before putting the baby to bed, I got the urge to pull up some weeds but this time decided to set them aside for my mother-in-law. I washed off the dirt from the roots, popped the bag into the refrigerator overnight and the next day put them in the truck while running errands, planning to drop them off at her house.
Of course, one thing after another came up and the trip to stop by my mother-in-law's house to drop off the verdolaga never materialized. So I was left with a bag of weeds still in my refrigerator and an old school tendency to not waste anything weighing on my conscience. 
"Just give them to the chickens," Margo said, "it's better to eat them when they're fresh." I guess he has done this before. Although he says he's not fond of them, I suspect it has to do with the fact that locally they're seen as a poor folks' vegetable, and he probably got served one two many plates of them as a kid growing up. I think he was getting nervous I might cook them myself and try to obligate him to try them. I agreed and decided to chuck the bag to the birds.
What I didn't tell him was that I had reserved a smaller bag for myself to try them at some point during the week. My curiosity had been piqued. I couldn't get over the fact that on a recent trip to San Miguel de Allende, a chi-chi organic restaurant (which I'd put the link to except I can't find it online! I think it's Cafe Roma, behind Natura organic store off Zacateros) had served me a platter of curry chicken with sauteed verdolaga on the side and charged me an arm and a leg for it to boot. Here I was with free oodles of it and nothing to lose by giving it a try.
So this morning I went for it, sauteeing it with diced onions, turkey sausage, a tomato/garlic based-sauce, and folding in scrambled eggs. It was delicious. Now I really have to get some over to my mother-in-law. Before typing this up, I did a quick search on the term. It appears as if purslane is not only edible, but medicinal, cosmopolitan, and making a comeback as a celebrated ingredient in sophisticated meals, as included in some recipes on this blog.
Weeds, your moment has arrived. Now on to our quelites.

July 15, 2011

Summer Fruits

My first trip to the States with my daughter is coming to an end soon. Although there's lots I could tell about it, such as how it feels to see her respond to family, how it feels to travel without my husband, what it feels like to go through reverse culture shock every year when I come back in contact with the U.S., I was most compelled to write about an experience I had yesterday morning. I think it's because it embodies a lot of what has meaning for me, being from Upstate New York, and what I've taken away from it even when I'm far—

I went to visit my grandmother's house next door. There is a small forest between hers and my parents' houses, where songbirds call every morning. I pushed the umbrella stroller up the driveway, across the front yard, and into her backyard, under the huge maple tree and bumping over its roots, to the raspberry patch in the backyard. When I was a kid I used to help pick quarts which we'd either eat as a family or they'd sell in a roadside stand or trade with the uncle across the street for tomatoes. Now, as I approached with the baby cooing, they were overgrown with grass and sprawling every which way. My grandfather, who was probably responsible for pruning the canes, has long since passed, and my grandma is frail at 89. In any case, I was delighted to see a few red ones peeking out, so I picked several and then went into the house. My cousin, who lives with my grandma, came out to hold the baby while I filled a quart basket quickly, stepping through the thorny branches and lifting them up and to the side to expose ripe fruits without a scratch as only one who's done it for years can do.

Soon, my grandma was dressed and had come out with her cane and another quart basket. Although she wanted to pick some herself, I  worriedly observed her as she wobbled by the bushes. "Oh my God," she exclaimed when she saw how overgrown the patch had become. "There's still a lot of good ones in here," I said, and I worked quickly to fill another half quart after she passed me a few handfuls. But when I saw she'd crushed a red berry on her Keds and was having trouble backing up, I recommended we head back in for the heat and that my skin was getting itchy from the grass—I didn't want her to take a tumble in the brambles. So we headed back in, and I plotted my raspberry mousse pie while explaining to my grandma why I'd be holding off on letting the baby try berries until she was a year old. She couldn't quite understand the gist and I found myself wondering what the wisdom of following the recommendations to a T were anyways.

Before my grandmother had come out, I'd asked my cousin if he wasn't too agriculturally inclined. "Why do you ask," he said. "Oh, I don't know," I replied, "I guess it just strikes me as a little sad that his raspberry patch is going to pot." I was thinking of the days when the garden was well-tended, even to the times I've been told about when my grandmother's own mother had a flourshing production farm that brought the family close to self-sufficiency during Depression and war times. It seems as if with the passing of every generation, a little more of the old ways are lost. And so, in an effort to reverse this trend, like others who are interested in local agriculture and restoration, I'm trying to establish our own sustainable garden down in the semidesert where we live. It's a combination of organic gardening and native plant conservation. It means growing fruit and pine trees on recycled greywater lines alongside kale, carrots, and squash in raised beds, near the mesquites, nopales, and agaves that shore up the hillside and the chilitos and garambullos, cacti who give us our own wild southern summer fruits.

Even so, there's something unnerving about being the first in four or five generations of the maternal line to break ground in an unfamiliar land. I've been trying to put my finger on what's the essence of what I'll miss when I go, and the closest I can come to is the familiarity of the verdant tree cover around my parents' house, the black-capped chickadee and cardinal songs issuing from the leaves, the easy laughter of us hanging out on the family room floor watching the baby play with her new American toys. But I must "bloom where I'm planted," as my mom names the dictum that I'm trying to follow. As nurserymen know, it's not so easy for roots to overcome transplant shock, especially when the seedling is put in a climate entirely different than the one it's adapted to. But part of evolution is playing with the hand life deals you, leading to survival of the species over time.

And so I was comforted to hear my grandmother say something that surprised me when she observed the raspberry patch in 'ruins'. "Forever wild," she declared. My cousin said it was in reference to an Audubon campaign he'd told her about, one that promotes the reclaiming of native habitat in backyards. I had to admit, the thought of the raspberries going feral under the sumac and providing sustenance to the local wildlife, the whole of which would eventually give way to more maple forest—after all, the ferns and wild strawberries are already moving in—was just as sweet as the thought of human hands picking and enjoying the ruby red fruits. It helps me not think of the alternative, what's already happened in most of the neighborhood and what's happening again down where I live—the wholesale development of open space. It pains me that I don't have much control over the destiny of my old backyard haunts, that I care for so much, but must be so far from. But if my grandma, who's spent her entire life tending cultivated patches, could be OK with releasing the raspberry patch into the hands of nature and the unknown future, so can I.

June 29, 2011

9 in, 9 out, and Northward Bound

A little over a week ago, my baby girl was nine months old. The date held a lot of significance for me, whether it was because she'd spent an equal amount of time in the womb and out of the womb, because all the pregnancy fitness magazines say you should expect it to take at least that long for you to get your pre-pregnancy body back (I don't quite), or that she's got one more season to go til she's a year old.

Enthused by the auspicious-feeling date, I told Margo it was high time we pulled that placenta we'd saved from the birth, which had been hiding out in the freezer ever since. You may not have known that some cultures consider the placenta a deceased twin. Or that there's a Chinese medicine custom of consuming it in capsules for post-partum or menopausal complaints. Many people give no thought to the fact that many placentas simply fall down trash chutes after birth. Whereas we didn't feel quite the same as the traditional cultures do about our placenta, we also didn't have such little regard for it as to let it get hauled off to the garbage.

So we settled for something in the middle. We said a few words and planted it under a tree in our yard. When I told my midwife friend in San Miguel, whose website was where I learned about the above customs, she said "Cool!" When I told my mom, she said, "Ohhh." (Or was it "eww"?) But no matter—it was our idea that it'd nourish a beautiful mesquite that the baby will someday climb in when she is older. So literally, it will help her put down roots in what's a new land for her maternal lineage (I was fourth-generation Northern Forest girl, she is a first-generation Semidesierto Queretana).

Now that that's out of the way, we're ready to show that we're both big girls. The baby and I will be flying up by ourselves to go visit her grandparents in those verdant landscapes of Upstate New York. I must put aside my misgivings about having to travel without her father, of having this ongoing, frustrating status as a binational family without certain rights and privileges. Although it's impossible for the bitterness to disappear entirely, I will have to find a way to enjoy my time there, for my daughter's sake. She must meet her northern great-grandmother, her uncle, great-aunts and uncles. I want to introduce her to the land where I grew up, where I was inspired to become an ecologist and a teacher. I want to do it with enough gusto to convince her too that it is worth continuing to dream about returning to someday, as an entire family. I pray that the universe will conspire to help me pull it off, because God knows it's not just about me.

June 10, 2011

Un hombre verdadero

A couple weeks ago I saw a post claiming that a study in Michoacan, Mexico revealed that 40% of the middle school girls in that state wished they had a narco for a boyfriend. Wow, I thought, how messed up is that? I can't comment much on this reference to the article, which criticizes education and media policy's role in this type of problem. First of all, I'm not yet a citizen, so it's not my moral or legal place to do so. I also don't feel like I've been here long enough to make in-depth analyses about what's uniquely dysfunctional about Mexico, especially considering how my own country is embarassingly involved with their illicit affairs. 

But that doesn't mean it doesn't get me thinking and talking it over with folks here. When I brought it up at the dinner table with my husband and another native of Queretaro, we agreed that while it's a difficult problem with complex causes; ignorance, misguided priorities, and lack of self-respect are to blame. I'm not here to question certain Mexican girls' aspirations—if what they want is money for fake nails and gold hoops at whatever cost, that's their prerogative. I certainly will be doing my best to inculcate values in my daughter to allow her to see broader horizons, and I feel for the families that are helpless to steer their kids in a different direction, that is if they aren't also caught up in the same game.

Articles like this get to me because they just add credence to the notion that Mexico is the pits, as if there's nothing else going on but narcos and tequila. Perhaps more importantly, it overlooks the fact that there are a lot of people here who have more important things to be worried about, such as working in legitimate professions, raising their children to be productive members of society. That's the Mexico I know and love, especially the one that's proud of itself and its roots.

No one inspires me more in that regard than my husband. Although he was subject to the same type of poverty (if not worse) as the young women so inclined to love narcos, he managed to escape that lifestyle. As the ninth son of fourteen in a farming family, he had to shove off from school to help his dad with his herd of cows. In the barrio where he grew up, there were plenty of opportunities to become an alcoholic or glue addict, but although he hung with many young men who got sucked in, he always refused to partake. While he wasn't an angel in his youth, one thing he did not do was fall victim to the illusion that intoxicants (or selling them) were the way to success in life. Ten years ago, when we first began dating, after hearing the stories he'd tell me about his youth, I was amazed he turned out as he did. To the present day, I am still impressed (sometimes exasperated) with how straight and narrow he is, simply concerned about making a clean living, caring for his family, and enjoying the best that life has to offer. I feel fortunate to have such a great partner.

When I ask myself (or him) what was that allowed him to resist the degrading forces that so many other youth succumb to, the only thing that really stands out is his fierce individualism, and level of self-respect. Having grown up on the land, working it with his bare hands, he is humble in an earthy sort of way, but he has this unashamed attitude about his roots—mestizo, campesino, moreno, whatever—he is proud of who he is, and doesn't want to be someone else.

These mamis don't need narcos for a good time
Last week we were at a festival of local indigenous dance troupes. It was the Celebration of the National Day of the Chichimec Dancers, and it was our daughter's first attendance at an event like this. It's rare to see fairly authentic events such as these (at least in Queretaro state), but they are glorious to behold when they happen. The incredible talent, gorgeous costumes, obvious adoration of ancient customs (Aztec, in the case of the local troupe we saw) left me feeling inspired for what is still held sacred here. It seems as if more "native pride" kind of events could go a long way toward rebuilding Mexico's reputation which has been taking a beating in the media lately.

But that might be a bold statement coming from a foreigner, since things aren't quite the same here as they are where I'm from. My husband and I first talked about this when we met in the U.S., and I asked him what tribe his ancestors were from—he was sporting long, black hair at the time, and with that and his dark cinnamon skin, it was obvious that he was of indigenous heritage. "I'm not really sure," he had responded. But he saw all the ethnic and cultural pride that many people have in the U.S.—be it Asian, gay, black, Native American, or Irish—the results of the Civil Rights movement are evident to a person from a country where that same movement hasn't yet occurred. I was shocked when I found out many Mexicans don't embrace their ancestry.  He explained that "many people in Mexico consider indio an insult, because they think it means ignorant. But I'm not ashamed to be indio, that's who I am," he said. Thank god, I thought, because I want to raise my daughter to be proud of her roots.

There are plenty of things that frustrate him about his home country. But that doesn't mean he will trade in his integrity for bling, or his morality for a shiny new truck. With one foot planted firmly in the past, the other in the future, and his head squarely on his shoulders in the present, he'll keep putting his nose to the grindstone to "sacarnos adelante" however modest this chapter of our life might be. I asked him "what's left of the Aztecs now?" on our way home from the dances. "The food, the plants...the land," he answered wistfully. I'd add, real men like you, baby—"hombres verdaderos." Happy Birthday mi amor.

June 6, 2011

Nachos: what came first, the dish or the chile slice?

I'm trying to have one of those ah-hah moments but it still isn't quite clear. 

What comes to mind when you think of the word nacho? If you're like me, you think of that appetizer dish served at Mexican restaurants; of tortilla chips with melted cheese and slices of jalapeño chile peppers on top. Well, we're not alone, most English dictionaries have that definition for nachos as well. Even the Spanish language dictionaries include that meaning of nachos, although many online references are translations of English search engines. Only the Real Academia Española dictionary has a different definition of nacho, as in a "flat nose" like that referred to with the word chato: nacho, cha. (Del lat. nasus, nariz). 1. adj. rur. Ast. chato (de nariz poco prominente). U. t. c. s. Which brings me to the reason why I ask this question anyways.

On Saturday I decided to make a pizza but we were out and we were missing some essential toppings at home, and so on our way home I asked Margo to stop off at the convenience store to pick up a couple things. It was late and I'd be making it while putting the baby to bed so I broke down and got a few canned things—sliced jalapeños and mushrooms. In the canned food aisle, chiles come in many presentations. Whole, pureed in salsa, diced in salsa, rajas, and, NACHOS. Here's where I got confused. I always thought of nachos as the above appetizer. Here the can was saying "nachos de chiles," in other words, referring to the nachos as a type of crosswise-sliced chile. As opposed to rajas, which are sliced longish and lengthwise.

Now I'm pretty sure that nachos without sliced chiles probably isn't an authentic dish (forget the movie theatre version). So next time you order that dish, just know that if it doesn't include the chiles, it ain't the real thing. But I got to wondering if maybe this cut of chile, the one that's most often used for the appetizer, is how the dish got its name, or if it's the other way around. I wasn't able to find much clarification online. I think a Spanish language scholar, or ethnoculinarist of Mexican food is my only hope at this point. 

In any case, the nacho-sliced  jalapeños tasted just the same as the whole or the rajas, which is to say "bien picante."  The pizza was a hit.

June 3, 2011

Change of Scenery

Why did the roadrunner cross the road? To get to the birdbath, of course. Like Wily Coyote, my nose was shocked out of a book (a journal from 2003) by a roadrunner recently. No, it didn't come up and rub noses with me, but rather, Margo said, the roadrunner was in our yard. I was shocked because it's been a loooong time since there's been one in our yard. When we first built the house, he/she quickly found the "birdbath" I'd stashed at the base of a mesquite tree; the bottom cutoff third of a 5 gallon bucket filled with some rocks and water. The roadrunner, to my delight, wasn't the only regular fixture at the watering hole, although most of the birds didn't really settle in and ramp up their presence until construction was over a year later.

Unfortunately, one of the local customs here is to wall off entire properties with brick walls. Although I expressed that I wasn't too keen on that idea for our house (I don't like fences and borders in general—ask me why later) since we live on a shared ranch with several other in-laws, I was kind of outnumbered. Now, four years later, ground-bound animals like the roadrunner and snakes aren't as likely visitors anymore. So I was pleasantly surprised when Margo reported he'd found his way to our yard, and again when I saw him tooling around in the vacant lot behind our house from our bathroom window the other day. Miracle or not that he's still hanging around, I can't help but wonder just how long he/she'll be able to hang around the neighborhood. It's not that I'm particularly cynical, but I've got firsthand testimony about just how much things have changed here, in a fairly short period of time.

The other day we were running our weekly errands down in the commercial district with the baby. It was one of those particularly hot May days (May's the hottest month here til' the cold, high elevation rains arrive in the summer), the temperature needle pushing 100. Weekly shopping is always like an endurance event, mainly because we're so cheap and choosy that we need to go to like 4 different stores to get everything we need at the lowest possible price. El "Tepe" (the local marketplace), Comercial Mexicana (the Mexican version of P&C), Organica or La Bodeguita (the only 2 organic produce shops I've found so far on the north side of town—though I've heard more are popping up downtown, it's a pain to get in and out), and Costco (oh yeah). We were almost done, and the baby had fallen asleep in her carseat, but I'd forgotten a drink and a snack, and as those of you who've breastfed know, if a nursing mother gets hungry, watch out.

I hate being in this kind of position—I'm more a slow food than a fast food person, as my last friend who visited (Cristin) pointed out—I'd rather get low blood sugar and wait to get home and make a meal at home than go stand in a line to satisfy my craving and waste my precious greenbacks. But by this time, I was already pushing cranky with one more shopping stop to go, and the line was way too long for a salad at Costco, so I did something I am ashamed to admit on the Internet (especially if my family reads this—ha, you guys can lambaste me later), I WENT TO THE MCDONALDS DRIVE-THROUGH.

Margo was driving, I was between him and the baby in the Toyota. Pulling up to the order mike, he was like, so, what do I do? I told him what to say: Two sundaes. Chocolate. With peanuts. He repeated after me. We pulled up to the window to pay. He turned to me and said, I can't believe people do this. What do you mean, I said. This is so lazy, he sputtered. Is this your first time, I asked, stunned. Well, yeah, why would I ever come here, he answered. I sat chewing this over. Although it was only my 4th time in 4 and a half years at a McDonalds (2 other times were for sundaes, by myself, and once was for an ice tea with my parents in North Carolina), I couldn't help but feel sad that I'd somehow tainted Margo by bringing him to a McDonald's drive through. Sitting there eating our sundaes, though, I felt a bit better. He was liking his too. See, it's not that bad, if you go just once in a while, I said, trying to assuage my guilt. He sat pensive, we were sitting in the parking lot under a mesquite. The rushing traffic of the Bernardo Quintana boulevard was directly to our right, and the gigantic Costco parking lot stretched out like a couple football fields before us.

He started talking about how this parking lot used to be a huge field filled with pirul and mesquite trees and how he used to bring the cows here to pasture. When he tells me other things about those days, I  marvel at how much things have changed in the last 30 years. It's not unlike how many tracts of land up in the U.S. get turned into suburban sprawl in 5 years flat, but it seems even more accelerated on the outskirts of town here these days. Some consider it encroachment from Mexico City, but it probably has a lot to do with a lot of families like Margo's generation, who had 10+ kid families.  Looking at the baby to my right, I couldn't help but wonder, how much will things change in the next thirty?

Back at our house, they recently finished the first building in the zone directly behind our home. It's a construction supplies warehouse, and it's somewhere in the realm of 70' long and 50' high, uphill of us at an elevation approximately that of our second floor. The entire enormous rear wall is painted white and emblazoned with the message "Cemento Tolteca Extra, Reduce Grietas Hasta un 50%" in red, blue, and green. When you pull into the ranch property, now before you see anything else, you see the sign "Grupo Santa Andrea" first thing  framed against the bright blue sky. My father-in-law laughed when I told him I wasn't too hot on the new billboard in our backyard. He said he used to see the mountains and the planes landing at the nearby airport from the bed inside the house when he woke up in the morning, but now he sees his other son's house. Change can often be a good thing, but sometimes it just depends on your perspective. For those of us who haven't been around as long as Don Lupe, or haven't paid much attention to our surroundings, we might not notice all the changes in scenery but they are happening with every breath.

May 8, 2011

Motherhood is Cultivating a Life

Every year Mothers' Day comes around, and like every other holiday, the stores rush to capitalize on our our well-placed intents to celebrate our mothers—all the female-friendly merchandise gets put on sale: jewelry, clothes, the like. I half-laugh, half-scowl when I see the stores here that put their entire line of appliances on deep discount. As if what Mama really desires is a mixer—I'm guessing a year's worth of her husband's help in the kitchen might be even more welcome—or maybe not, some ladies here are fierce about protecting their domestic territory—but I digress—some Dads deserve that dishwasher themselves!

Commercial ploys aside, although our attempts to fully express our appreciation for our mothers in a single day out of the year are bound to fall short, Mothers' Day does serve as a focal point for us to reflect on what motherhood really means to us—our regard for our moms, our feelings as mothers ourselves, or how "mothering" extends to more than just the biological maternal.

As a young adult, I spent ten solid years cultivating garden spaces, at some times growing more than 70,000 plants a year in a nursery, at other times raising fewer plants per year but guiding dozens of students, young and old, through their own process of discovery of birth, growth, and death. I observed the beauty of nurturing a being from seed to fruit, and how inspiring that nurturing role can be for everyone.

I owe my love for gardening to my own Mom—who in turn got it from her mom, my grandma. My mom nurtured me in nature's direction, although less didactic than I, regularly through her example—taking us to natural areas for walks. She could tell you I was a precocious child. A somewhat rebellious teenager. Something of an incorrigible daughter. My own husband's mother has a heart attack when a child of hers strays more than a few hours away in distance, and look what I've done to my own—I went and moved 3,000 miles away at the age of 20, then south to Mexico at 28.  These flights from the nest were driven by love, something by which we siblings were abundantly influenced, given my own parents' devoted partnership, as well as some underlying longing for warmer lands that they two would be hard pressed to deny they had a part in inspiring. Even so, the long distances have never ceased to challenge us in our adult relationship. But as she knows and I will remind her today, her influence has never left my side, no matter how far I have traveled!

In fact, it's come home to roost stronger than ever this year, as the family's biggest blessing in a long time was bestowed upon us this past year—the arrival of our baby daughter, and my parents' first grandchild. Although at some points during our relationship we doubted we'd ever have kids, when we did finally decide to, I knew the next happiest people of all would be my parents. Far from being a fulfillment of a "just wait 'til you have kids of your own" type prophecy uttered out of exasperation, motherhood has been everything I hoped for, and nothing of what I dreaded (well, maybe small bladders, labor, and lack of sleep is the pits). Not only has it given me a renewed appreciation for the sacrifices my own mom made for me—not just to birth me but to raise me—but it's taught me more about myself and life than I thought I still had yet to learn. Our daughter has brought out the best in us as parents—this account would be lacking if I didn't thank the Dads in my life (both my own and my husband) for their support in helping me to be the kind of woman and mother I want to be—and I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to be her life's guide.

Finally, motherhood is simply one greater step in a network of care for each other—a deeply personal, perpetual, unconditional commitment to the life of another. The very ground we walk on, the Earth we depend on, comes to mind—our global mother. In this light, I feel called to thank all the people who've supported us in our journey to new parenthood for their generosity, kindness, and good model. Even those who don't have children can play a role in our making a better world for our kids. I recently found out that a good friend, former supervisor/mentor, has made the intentional decision with her partner to not have biological children, but to dedicate themselves entirely as creative professionals in sustainability projects. I was humbled and moved by their awareness of the sacrifice it means that they will not experience that joy—but also that they are aware of the importance of their commitment to their lives' work. I felt a twinge of envy for the extent to which they can immerse themselves in projects that have such meaning for them, wondering myself when my energies would extend back out beyond the walls of my own home.

I even went so far as to lament the dilapidated state of my garden to someone, missing the sight of the fruits of my labors. At which point, they remarked that gardening is simply cultivation, and that's exactly what I've been doing for the last 17 months. Honestly, I don't know how that fact could get lost on me—that reminder filled me with optimism and affirmed what's true, that motherhood is cultivating a life. And what a beautiful flower she is, this daughter of mine. Must be how every mom feels about their child. It's a feeling that can't be confined to a single day—as everyone who cultivates lives on a regular basis knows—it's an honor and a privilege of devotion that never ceases.

May 6, 2011


Precisely ten years ago yesterday was when I first fell for my husband, and yes, it was connected to a Cinco de Mayo party—which yours truly happened to throw.  At the time, we both lived in a small coastal town in Northern California, between San Francisco and Santa Cruz. It was a "friends of friends" kind of encounter, the way our lives overlapped. One of those friends had a portrait hanging on her kitchen wall with a quote: "wherever you go, there you are." Something a young woman far from home was well advised to contemplate: I was 23 years old—I never would have imagined where I'd be ten years later. 

Needless to say much has transpired since then—a very long engagement, a cross-country trip for both of us to meet the parents, a wedding, lots of jobs and bouncing around residences looking for cheap rent in a pricey zone, a Masters' degree, disillusionment with the prospects for adjusting Margo's immigration status in the U.S., a move down south, a period living with the in-laws, a home built, "starting over" lifestyle-wise and financially, pining for the U.S., several false starts at numerous odd jobs, plenty of dabbling in creative projects, perhaps most notably a lovely baby, and now, coauthoring a book about why and how I got here.

Writing the book is a monumental process for me that represents a lot of aspirations on many levels. One of the interesting things that comes out of it is for me to be able to stand back and reflect how many lives have touched mine and whose I have touched along the way in these last ten years. Numerous family members and friends have helped me keep me from drowning, limp along, and sometimes even soar above the challenges that I've faced with having to leave my native country and make it in another land. For them I am grateful. The one who's been there all along, is that same guy I fell for 10 years ago—the very reason I am here.  Sometimes I'm amazed we're still together considering what we've been through but when I think of what first captivated me, none of that has changed. I shouted it out on Facebook yesterday although I knew he wouldn't read it- he doesn't use a computer. I wanted to celebrate in some way, but he was exhausted and asleep before I could catch up with him last night.

Tonight, I want to keep that promise to celebrate, but a wave of inspiration at what feels like an auspicious time cannot be ignored. Earlier this afternoon. I wrote to a friend, "Love is a blessing no matter where it is found." It wasn't about me, though—it was in support of her own decision to follow her heart's desire to a southern land, a pull that took her all the way to Central America.  I just heard from her today.  She was a former student of mine back in the Bay Area. I logged on to her Facebook page and saw an array of photos portraying a beautiful couple, on wave-swept beaches, a smiling face in a wedding dress, just exuding with love. The pictures reminded me of our early days as a couple, then when I first went to Mexico, those who were optimistic told me it'd be amazing. And how those who were from there told me I'd probably have a hard time. How she probably has friends who think, ah, life in Costa Rica—what could be wrong with that? But she too had to deal with painful issues that come with such distance, both culturally and geographically.

I was just stunned, after hearing her story. The thought, "careful what you wish for, you just might get it" entered my mind. How just a few days ago, I had hoped for more individuals in my life who could demonstrate a true empathy, a real understanding of what I was going through in living in another land that I can't always voluntarily break away from. And here she was, certainly not the person I'd imagined, but a kindred spirit in all senses of the word. I happened to notice on her FB page that it was her birthday. I sent her a well wish asking how old she was. She replied, "23- crazy, huh?" Girl, you have no idea.

May 2, 2011

Power Out, Water In

Wrote this when the power was out this weekend (no electricity=no laptop battery recharge, phone, or Internet!)