24 February 2012

San Miguel de Allende: Reflections Year II

John Gardner wrote of fiction as a vivid and continuous dream. Poet/musician Joy Harjo, at the writers conference, called language the response to destruction. One might describe San Miguel de Allende in the same contradictory terms: a dreamlike response to other ways of life that no longer please. 15,000 expats might agree.

Daily life in this overgrown pueblo is languorous, residents and tourists like fish swimming contentedly in a bubbling tank. No one rushes anything. Even I walk slower here.

It was the rhythm of the city I remembered from my first visit and what I suspect keeps people here. Rather than reactive, the pace is a steady easy ebb and flow, and it is this pace, the simple dignity of the good Mexican people, and the hybrid surprisingly sophisticated culture that has evolved, that is truly like nowhere else, surely nowhere I’ve been.

The days do not pass here on their way to the next. They are inhabited, much as I’ve tried to do in SoCal but, as they say, life there too often gets in the way. I think only surfers are able to completely stay in their moments, although they too are expecting the next.

I arrived early one evening at a rooftop bar to await my daughter and a new friend. For roughly 40 minutes, instead of reading [of course I had Kindle with me] I sipped a glass of wine, watched the sun set behind the giant elegant church spire that marks El Centro, and people wandering through the plaza. The sound of children's laughter filled the air. One of those rare moments when I had no book nor computer screen in my face, nor intensive thoughts on my mind. Nearly meditative. My daughter has urged me to do more of this and she is so right. Soothes the soul.

Only church bells mark the time here – and roosters, who contrary to myth, start early and keep on crowing. Sometimes they battle the bells at day's end. No fog horns, no trains or factories, and rarely a siren. One hears the breeze. Even the hummingbirds can be heard. And the "primavera" bird whose contralto starts high and diminishes as if a reverse musical scale. Beautiful sound.

At the writers conference I was taken with young Mexican women, sitting oh so straight and proud in their chairs, notebooks open in their laps, pens in hand, awaiting instruction as if from the Gods.

"Buenos dias" is more than said, it is sung, and at a favorite café they brew my “te helado” fresh and always add more ice because of course I am American; they accept my strange ways.

People passing on the sidewalk never fail to cross themselves as they pass a church – they do not halt in conversation or step, but never fail to fulfill their obligation, for better or worse.

Young men step aside on the narrow sidewalks to let me pass and almost always smile. This is after all a matriarchal society.

The Mexicanos with whom I’ve spoken are pained by the drug culture that is polluting their country and hopeful for better lives. One tells me she does not understand why Americans hate her people. Enough said.

The genius and genial professor-artist whose seminar on Zola I so enjoyed, said, after all, all the amenities we rejoice in come from somewhere. Sadly, we forget; we take for granted our blessings. Not so much here. She also spoke of the spiral as intellectual and spiritual metaphor, related to Proust and Kabbalah [never thought I’d put those two words together] as the spiral is open on both ends: wisdom accumulating over time, without end. Love this image.

A sweet Spanish teacher corrects every mistake I make [many] with a nod and a smile of genuine appreciation for the effort. Within moments, we were more than maestra and estudiante, we were friends. This happens a lot here.

The waiters at restaurants everywhere who delight in Dana’s fluency indulge my efforts to hablar Espanol and do not mock me when one night I order pescador, the fisherman, instead of pescado. Although, maybe I’d like to meet the fisherman!

“Nothing lasts in life, not even death,” Proust said.

“All the body wants to do is heal,” says Dana Kraft, Naturopath.

In the end, that is what might be the secret to San Miguel – a place to more fully inhabit the moment, thus to heal from whatever it is that ails us. Or simply to refresh. 

Se le recommiendo.

21 February 2012

San Miguel Writers Conference 2012

The only bi-lingual bi-cultural writing conference in the world, the seventh year.

Scene: Four jam-packed days in the charming city of San Miguel. Close-up on the sprawling Hotel Real de Minas, set back from a noisy cobblestone street, tucked among bougainvillea and fruit trees. 200+ writers/editors of all types clustered to learn and to celebrate the written word.

Theme: "Creative Crossroads of Americas" and indeed it is. Canadians, North-Americans, Mexicans, a smattering of South Americans and Europeans, find common ground.

Hotel Real de Minas, San Miguel de Allende, MX

Voices: A huge ballroom filled to the brim with folding chairs facing a small stage, flanked by large original Mexican paintings, three times a day features remarkable keynote speakers: Canadian Merilyn Simonds talks about a sense of place and the divine [and hysterically funny] Margaret Atwood speaks of writing and hope. American Naomi Wolf advocates for advocacy in writing and native-American Joy Harjo of music and poetry as the gateway to the soul. Polish-Mexican Elena Poniatowska beguiles us with a cultural and creative history of her adopted homeland. She moves me to tears with her humility and dignity – truly I wanted to kiss the hem of her long red skirt. Sandra Cisneros makes a surprise appearance to read from a work in progress and to introduce La Senora Poniatowska whose stories I am reading and who continues to wow me. How sad that so few of her works have been translated into English and how sad that Americans so rarely enjoy the works of great international writers.

Elena Poniatowska
Workshops: Fiction, memoir, humor, travel writing, blogging, etc., and a literary salon on Emile Zola presented by Bea Aronson, a French ex-pat professor of comparative literature. Later that day, I ducked out of my afternoon workshop to enjoy her seminar on Proust. Aronson hosts a weekly salon her on all things artsy and if I lived here, I would attend them all. One workshop on fiction is good, others not so much, more for beginners, which thankfully I no longer am, although always more to learn, and not all workshops are raves, there is a bit of griping about teachers who have come to promote books, but one cannot expect perfection in any conference or event of this scope, nor so in life. 

Tally: 42 speakers and educators, including four agents who take pitches every fifteen minutes between sessions, a little like speed dating but we take whatever opportunity comes our way. Note: Two agents I pitch want to read my new novel SHE RUNS. Oh happy day!

Lunch: Buffet or distributed in colorful bags by sweet young volunteers, accompanied by spontaneous conversations of not only writing but politics, media, personal journeys. I encounter a local, Lyn Prashant, a grief therapist, who spent the first seven years of her life in the same building in the Bronx where I grew up and we share memories of friends and locale. I meet a smart sassy retired lawyer turned short-story writer who is already winning awards. A middle-aged LA back-packer searching for her "inner Latina" and writing her memoir, an Australian screenwriter turned novelist who is definitely going to be a huge success, a sweet young editor who moves around a lot with her Coast Guard partner and is peddling her own fiction, a retired ex-pat living in Oaxaca, among others.
Bea Aaronson

Fiesta: The second night, held on the grand at Insituto Allende, the place that put this place on the map, on the grand patio facing the glowing spire of the Parroquia in the Jardin [center of the city] features fun food and lively indigenous dancers, and another opportunity to cement new friendships. Ms. Atwood is seated at the table next to mine, and when she is suddenly alone for a moment, I chat briefly with her [okay, at her] and she is most gracious. I feel more accomplished by sheer proximity.

Sidebar: Throughout the day, in the lobby, on the lawn, sitting on stone benches, writers write - computers, notebooks, ipads, on their laps, words flowing on their pages. Perfect punctuation.

Closing: A production of an original play on Dorothy Parker and a final reception that I miss because I am beat and opt instead to have a quiet dinner with my daughter.

Epilogue: I am inspired, exhausted, over-stimulated. Blessed to be here, staying in Dana's gorgeous apartment, enjoying time with her and also the company of new friends and her lovely colleagues at LifePath Retreats. I feel honored to have been in the company of so many whose voices demand to be heard. More than ever, I am proud to say:  I am a writer. Soy escritora.

Footnote: Here another week, working, playing, taking private Spanish lessons, enjoying more time with Dana. Have computer, can live anywhere, and especially happy to be back in SMA – a blend of Santa Fe, Laguna Beach and Berkeley, grounded in Mexican culture and sensibility. Like no place else I've been. Muy Bien.