This is an excerpt from my ‘novel’ FRIDAMANIAC (names have been changed to protect the innocent) –I lived and wrote it in 2006. Now that I am on a firmer spiritual path, I know what happened to me in a new way.
MORNING OF LAST FULL DAY IN MEXICO CITY
I woke up on my third and last day, and knew I needed to see more of the D.F.
I had enjoyed glimpses of it on the way to the Palacio and the Casa Azul. I was getting to know the quaint buildings and sleek skyscrapers of the Centro Historico. But I needed more.
I reflected that my most stressful and least ecstatic moments in the trip thus far were due to stress about the cab situation, so I determined to walk. Everywhere. I got out my map and headed east, because the Avenida de los Insurgentes, the longest avenue in the entire world, was sloping too far north to make it the fastest route to the Chapultepec.
It was early, so vendors were just beginning to set out their wares. CDs, socks, sunglasses, electronics, pillows, furniture. Anything and everything was for sale on the street. It was a very low rise section with a lot of peeling paint. The paint was always a vibrant color though.
Throughout my cab rides I tended to see a lot of ads for alcohólicos anónimos and narcóticos anónimos, and I saw even more on my walk, sometimes official billboards, sometimes scrawled onto sides of buildings.
Some of the vendors did not have carts but sold right on the ground. An elderly woman with no teeth sat in a church door with cloth dolls. The dolls were bright and shiny and new, with embroidered eyes and smiles and long yarn braids. The hands that had crafted them were deeply aged and quivering. The woman and her wares stood in sharp contrast to each other.
Across from that church was a building with a façade of blue mosaic and curling metalwork. The rest of the buildings crumbled around their cobalt neighbor.
A woman and her daughter in what appeared to me to be Andean costume walked one behind the other. They were the first people I saw in traditional costume. Peasant like.
Most people dressed in somber European attire. Everyone had black shoes. Salesmen who sold anything within an actual store with walls all wore shirt sleeves and ties. Most of the women were buttoned up to the neck. Their high cheek bones and glittering black eyes and lustrous hair demanded riotous color to complement their looks, I thought.
I was wearing gold shoes, mind you. I wanted to be invisible but I wasn’t, because of those shoes, and perhaps because I was going for a neo-folkloric look.
I love to be in a foreign land where I don’t understand the language too well. It forces me to communicate in other ways, to understand in other ways.
I decided I would have been rather invisible, as well as virtually deaf and dumb, and could have done it if my shoes were black, being olive skinned and dark haired myself, not quite such a gringa. At home, many people assumed I spoke Spanish as my first language, and no one here began our conversations in halting English.
On the street and in my brief encounters with cab drivers and waiters and clerks, I had to be factual. Con permisso, gracias. Simple phrases.
I couldn’t look up ‘why are you making such complete asses of yourself?’ and say it to the insolent boys who had given my flight attendant trouble days earlier. I gave them a look of withering disdain instead. I saw it register and heard their laughter, nervous yet still insolent.
I kept walking, through litter strewn overgrown parks. Through seemingly vacant rows of buildings. Alongside 16th century convents now being renovated for upwardly mobile young professionals. I was seeking Chapultepec and the famed Museo de Anthropologica.
For an infamously overpopulated city, I walked for seeming miles while seeing very few beings after leaving the Little Guatemala section.
I thought the entire city must have been on line at the Palacio. Single figures would suddenly appear, in isolated moments.
I had seen plenty of wild dogs around the Alameda, dogs who seemed to have a purpose, briskly walking to a familiar waterbowl. Precisely sitting and begging at a food cart.
One spotting of a sentient being besides myself was a man very well dressed in business attire, complete with cuff links and tie tac. In the next moment I noticed a wounded dog, who noticed him, and hopped on three legs toward him. She was a standard grey poodle, with swollen teats as if she had been nursing. She seemed to recognize the man, but when she started hopping towards him, his eyes seem to glaze over as eyes do when they don’t want to admit seeing something, and he hurriedly crossed the street. The dog turned as if I did not exist and began to hop away, in hopes of finding another caretaker. She was not one of the self sufficient dogs on the Alameda.
I kept walking. I regret it now. She haunts me now. The way my friendship with the stray cat Tomas in Chile haunts me. I knew Tomas faced an imminent harsh winter. This dog was in pain, a mother in pain. She was large and needy and I felt helpless to help her. But I did not even give it a try.
I was helpless to help my mother in the end. But I gave it a try.
Towards the end, it was agonizing for my mother to be brushed against in the slightest. So, putting her on a bedpan was.. it was… it was like submitting my own mother to the torture chamber. It began to wear her down.
One of the last times, before the nurse placed her on the bedpan,as we couldn’t bear to do it anymore, I said
“Ma, I’m with you. grab my hands and I’m with you.”
I hoped that digging into my hands and staring in my eyes might help some how. Her eyes bulged with fear and something else I thought. Her eyes questioned what the hell was I witnessing this for? Why didn’t I leave her alone?
She screamed into my face, the sound hurt my ears.
My mother was a singer, and her sound was always bright, sometimes her voice was absolutely divine, sometimes it sounded like a shrill hot blade. My mother screamed with a singer’s voice. Whitman would have called it a song of a bleeding throat.
She asked to have her catheter put back in, so she wouldn’t have to go through the bedpan ordeal anymore. The nurse couldn’t understand this. Mother had only recently had the catheter removed after her useless surgery. But the nurse finally agreed.
We all left the room. When we returned, my mother was shaking and shivering uncontrollably, as if her body had begun to try to sooth itself the way cat bodies purr for healing. She got another dose of painkiller, and the shaking became gasps. Intermittent gasps. That went on for days.
“Doesn’t that mean she’s dying?” I asked the nurse. She just looked at me.
We called in the resident, or perhaps he was an extra from central casting who had a labcoat. He was hopeless. Everyone was already on their way out to the Hamptons for Labor Day.
We called her oncologist, to no avail, so we tried the surgeon’s assistant, who came in and looked at the wound from her surgery and said it was healing nicely, and we shouldn’t have called him. He was rather peevish about it. He was wearing his golf outfit. He seemed unmoved by the human in the bed, dying in front of his eyes. He only saw a few rows of stitches. He admired his own work, and then went to tee off, a bit teed off that he had to start ten minutes later.
The oncology floor had 24 hour visitation. My family members and I were permitted to wander around like zombies for days, sleeping in my mother’s room, or in the TV room. Kevin came one day, and I became hysterical in grateful sight of him in front of the inmates, I mean patients, who were watching the US Open.
I felt badly about doing that. Death was shaking them on the shoulders, too.
Jose was a young man from Ecuador with a blue bandana. He had a little speech he seemed to have memorized, one in which his body was weak, but his hope was strong.
A young beautiful bald college girl showed everyone her college’s website, she was a track star, and her meet with cancer had landed her on the front page. She sported a blond ponytail in her photograph.
Back in Mexico City, I kept walking. Eventually I hit a wall, but there was a stairs and a bridge to cross over the freeway. At its base was a shrine to the Virgin, with her life size figure under glass, and heaps of plastic yellow flowers. The Virgin smiled at me, as if to say,
“Did you really think you were going to avoid me on this particular trip?” I said a little prayer to her, probably too quickly for her satisfaction, and kept on moving.
I walked too far east. Hence, I had to flag down my brooding young cabdriver with no cambio.
He dropped me off at another museo, a small one dedicated to modern art. Its headlining exhibit was HAPPENINGS: NY IN THE 1960S.
Oh no! I wanted Mexican culture. I could go home and see Nueva York. I only had three quarters of a day left.
Downstairs was an exhibit of the Atlas Group archives. I was actually grateful for this piece of Americana that will never see the light of day under the current U.S. regime. The archivist/artists saved evidence of the war in Lebanon in the 1980s. Some of the ‘artists’ were military personnel who had to document things as part of their duties. One photographer was represented by an infinite wall of pictures of items destroyed by bombs. Another exhibit was a videotape of the sunset with stop motion photography. The videographer’s job had been surveillance, but he preferred the sunset. Walls of bullet holes were reproduced as decorative objects, as random as splatter painting.
The room reverberated with the banal destructiveness of war. Can I say that about war? Is that a tired cliché about war? How many tired clichés can one say about war? It doesn’t have any impact. The exhibition does. Is the choir the only group that can ever be preached to?
I was feeling faint by the time I got to the Museo de Anthropologica, rightfully one of Mexico City’s great prides. Stunning architecture evoking the best of modernism while referencing Aztec pyramids. It was spacious and timeless the way the buildings in Lincoln Center make me feel as though we are still under the Kennedy administration. Before my time, so it can be a romanticized, a film version of that time. But I had walked for miles and was reminded of war and hadn’t had breakfast.
James– to say you would deeply appreciate the myriad treasures in this place—well why am I even saying it? Go there, James. I can’t talk about it all.
In my hypoglycemic stupor I stared at a map showing the movement of early humans from Africa across the entire world. What drove everyone? Obviously, food, safety, the basics. They had miles and miles to go on foot, and my precious little toes were hurting after a few city blocks.
I walked into one room and was greeted by a huge stone circle with a leering face in the center.
“Sacrifices were made to that scary God” I thought. I read further, the Anthropologica is the only place in town where one can read English, and realized this was the stone circle of my nightmares, indeed the one where young virgins were sacrificed.
In my third grade class, Mrs. Wigson read aloud the sacrificial practices in this particular Mexican culture and had shown us a picture of this same circle. A young woman was placed at the edge of a deep well in front of this big stone monster, which was once painted in fearsome colors.
The part of the story that really hurt me viscerally was a description of the stone they would hurl at her to break her back and tumble her into the well. My eight year old self felt the stone as they described it, and I began to swoon in my chair, righting myself before my chin slammed on the desk. I managed to get the strength to raise my arm and ask to go to the nurse. I lay down for one half hour, and came back to the classroom.
Unfortunately, Mrs. W. was still on the topic. She was my least favorite teacher in elementary school. Not for covering Mexico’s history, I am glad she did. She obviously brought it alive for me. I disliked her for another reason.
The class was outside playing. I preferred to play by myself. (Don’t say you’re not surprised.) Mrs. W. sat on a bench in the sandbox, and I got in the sand. One or two others were around, with shovels and pails.
I spread my legs and began drawing the sand into me, letting my body buttress the sand mountain I was building. I guess I was being too intimate with the sand. Mrs. Wigson looked at me and said,
“Nora, I have never met a child who loved dirt more than you do!”
It wasn’t dirt. It was sand. In a fucking box. It was meant to be played with. Mrs. W. made me feel like I was filthy.
Before I encountered people like her, I used to color beautiful autoretratos of myself, holding large bunches of flowers with cats on leashes. I gave myself long eye lashes and rosy cheeks. I found a stash of my early art works, and they all repeated this theme. By third grade, I was just a dirty little girl. A fea.
It was definitely time for me to eat. I wandered into an elevator which had no light on, and when the door closed I was in total darkness. I was so hungry, I had not computed that a dark elevator would become black with closed doors. I breathed. I was invisible, even to myself.
“If I stay here long enough, I might have some kind of mind blowing experience as if in a sensory deprivation chamber”, I thought.
In the next instant my body finally caught up with itself and began sending mortal terror signals to central command. I frantically pushed at the wall until I felt buttons and frantically pushed those until the doors peacefully parted.
“I gotta eat something or I will be a goner.” I said aloud this time, to no one. In this expansive hallway, I was again alone in crowded Mexico City. I walked downstairs to the café.
The waitress was in Tehuana costume. I sat outside in a lovely sunken garden. Two college girls, each adorable in their own way, from Germany or Switzerland sat at the next table. Beyond them was a dignified woman impeccably dressed and who also wore a lovely equanimity like a scarf. Her face was wrinkled, but the creases around her eyes and mouth did not make her look angry or droopy, as my own, more newly lined face. I would not fear age if I held myself with a grace like hers.
A tall, boy with a large boned face approached the girls. In haunting English, he offered to show them around the DF. His eyes were drawn to the more off-beat, Bohemian girl, rather than the classically pretty girl. I liked that about him. His awkwardness and lack of English skills obscured his own beauty. He went back to his own table which he shared with his mother. I caught the girls’ eyes and nodded approvingly at them, ‘go for it’ I mouthed. The three of us giggled. It was nice to have an exchange that did not surround money or ordering food or asking directions. It almost, but not quite, made me homesick.
I wandered aimlessly through the green Chapultec, staring at the twin towers in the distance. These towers were photographed a lot six years ago, because Americans were mad that Mexico City had twin towers and we didn’t anymore.
I toyed with the idea of going to the Zoo, but assumed that I would end up burdened by learning about someone whose cage was too small.
There is a two hundred year old turtle who is in such a cage in my neighborhood ‘conservancy.’ His face is stoic, as armored as his torso, but he keeps digging at the corner of the cage. Maybe he will have to do that for another century. Its excrutiating to consider.
Finally, I hailed my gold toothed friendly cab driver and headed to La Guadalupe.
ROMAN CATHOLICISM AND ME
La Guadalupe, or Lupita, as she is lovingly called, got out and took a trip to Mexico City herself many centuries ago. Her shrine is the top tourist attraction in the area.
I had not planned on going to see Guadalupe, planning a Fridacentric trip, but the cabdriver stopped and I got in and asked him to take me there. Perhaps my casual run in with the crude shrine at the base of the bridge pricked La Lupita’s concern that I should not leave Mexico without paying her a call.
Those who grew up in the One True Church know in their hearts it is not something you ever really leave. You are a Catholic the way someone else is a Jew. You are that. I am that. It’s in your DNA.
Because it was in my DNA, I kept at it for longer than I was comfortable with it, and I began to become a borderline hypocrite, otherwise known as a pick and choose Catholic.
When I was growing up,my family’s attendance at mass was fanatical. I fainted in church many times growing up because I was probably too ill to be out of bed. My attendance at a Catholic College led to my friendship with a girl who also policed my church attendance. And I allowed her to. It made me feel at home.
One of my most unhappy memories relating to churchgoing was the day our family cat died. She became very ill very quickly. My mother suggested I take her to the vet after I went to church. I sat not listening to a word and finally bolted before receiving the body and blood of Christ, the whole point of the matter.
My cat had a fearful final ride to the vet where she was executed shortly afterwards. She was practically dead when we got there, and I hated myself for having caused a prolongation of her suffering.
I kept going to church however, often with Kevin, who hadn’t had much religion in his childhood and lapped it up greedily with a spoon. I kept ignoring the birth control ban, and chanted on the street against the abortion stance. Back in church I would just refuse to say “Lord Hear Our Prayer” whenever I deemed appropriate. My gay friends sneered at my adherence to a practice which assisted in ostracizing them and I secretly cheered for Act Up, although I was not comfortable with Host desecration.
Please indulge me, James. No pun intended. Before I finish on the topic of the RC and me, I want to talk about my mother. And her relationship to the church, yes. But my mother. The one who lived before she started so obviously dying.
MOTHER’S GRADUATION PLATE
This one is oil on wood. The head and neck, rendered faithfully from a black and white photograph, rest on a bed of white and yellow flowers which climb up toward her left ear. Amid the flowers is a diploma with the date June 3, 1957. The top arc bears the inscription “Congratulations to Teresa Santino.” Teresa’s hair cut is short, black and curly in a style reminiscent of the young Elizabeth Taylor, or Gina Lolabrigida. Her brows are sculpted and set apart from each other her eyes are warm brown, a bit crinkled from the smile on her carnelian lips, separated by white teeth, with just the slightest trace of an underbite. If not for that little imperfection, she might be mistaken for a movie star of the time. She looks as though she should have been in La Dolce Vita.
THE MOTHER CHURCH
I did not know my mother in this moment in time on that plate, but my early memories confirm the deep red of her lips and the smile in her eyes. I also remember her in Jackie O type clothing, and Chanel # 5 and Skin So Soft. A meticulous beauty who did not know what to say to her middle child who made love to dirt.
As an adult we would have conversations about the Church. She was a Wise Woman, I didn’t discover it until my 30s. Other people’s daughters, as well as my sisters came to her to rap about women’s rights and spirituality. Not me, I didn’t even notice that part of her until it was almost too late. Her faith was simple, and her rationale was plain.
“God made me a Roman Catholic. This is the path I was led to by God. I can’t say its not a difficult one. I don’t disagree with other paths. We are all leading to the same tunnel. But this is my path, and I will not stray from it.”
But. But. But. Eventually, I couldn’t get past the Big Buts. I couldn’t sit at a table where my friends and I were declared sinners and perverts. I knew I was a sinner and a pervert, and I didn’t want to change my ways.
Another but. My mother’s funeral made my broken, dysenteric heart lift. She had planned everything, although she had fought vainly to stay around and keep caring for us. “Eagles Wings” led us down the aisle, we stopped momentarily and the priest’s voice, as ancient as a shaman’s called to my mother’s spirit. Then her female pallbearers wheeled her up, six beautiful Catholic Crones, who held their heads high, and had little smiles on their faces. They knew their dear friend Teresa was in heaven now, and they couldn’t have been more pleased. Kevin was on the altar, nodding his head and keeping his eyes on me the entire time. My little niece dried her tears and delivered her eulogy. She spoke of my mother’s singing, and my mother’s favorite line,
“She who sings prays twice.”
The priest who had known her and loved her well, told us.
“Teresa was a woman of her time. She loved being Teresa.”
It was true. I found myself having surges of energy through the ritual, as if her spirit was coursing through me, enjoying the ceremony with me. She had directed an amazing production, a final spectacle.
But. But. Some months later, just before my trip, I accompanied my father to church. The priest, who somehow reminded me of Gogo in WAITING FOR GODOT began by praising two young girls who served in the parish. Both were graduating with high academic honors. And they were servants of the church. But they weren’t servants in the big house, no, they were field hands. They had to be. They were women. The whole show stopped when someone forgot to bring the readings onstage. For minutes. Poor direction. The show must go on. They should have improvised. The priest gave an historically inaccurate sermon, taking John the Baptist completely out of context. I was so full of my own superior intelligence and scholarship, after all, hadn’t I always sought loopholes? I was so angry as I stared to think about the absurdity on the ban on women priests, never mind the current pedophile scandal, that I had to walk out, upsetting my grieving father greatly, who didn’t deserve that as he struggled through his own Year of Magical Thinking. It was my last time, I vowed.
As soon as the kind cab driver let me off at the base of the mountain at the top of the city, I knew I was glad I had made the trip. Pilgrims were streaming toward the steps. He reminded me once more to not give to beggars.
I climbed. Signs in Spanish told me not to give to beggars.
Two guards held rifles in front of them. They did that at the Zocalo too. And there was an armed guard in front of the DFs Hard Rock Café, obviously there was a celebrity inside that he was guarding. The National Guard had been hanging out at Penn Station and the airports, but their rifles were on their backs. It made a difference in my sense of ease on the matter.
Wow, real Christ-like. Rifles and shunning of those who will inherit the earth. Nice.
I kept climbing. And I began to soften. I came on to the splendid basilicas, one ancient, one modernist and the cross-clock-calendar.
James, how can I describe the cross-clock-calendar? Its September 3 already, James. The sun and moon have been up and down. I didn’t tell you about my dream last night, in which there were two moons in the sky. In the dream I looked in the mirror and I had measles or small pox. Tiny red blisters all over my face. They oozed and itched. I scratched. I want to give the cross-clock-calendar justice, and I don’t know if I can any longer.
The cross-clock calendar. The cross-clock calendar. The cross-clock calendar. The cross-clock calendar. The cross-clock calendar. The cross-clock calendar. The cross-clock calendar. The cross-clock calendar. The cross-clock calendar. The cross-clock calendar. The cross-clock calendar.
The cross-clock-calendar is Mexico.
I have to keep going with a description now, right, James? It wouldn’t be fair to leave with you with that, although you jolly well can book your own trip at www.latindestinations.com. The Virgin managed to get away for a weekend in the fifteenth century, what’s your excuse? I will give a weak description, but go see it for yourself. Trust me.
The cross. Is fat. And phat, as my students would say. It scrapes the sky. It makes one feel small.
The clock has church bells on it.
The calendar is Mayan. Sacrifices were done in front of the original.
The old basilica is huge and graceful. The new basilica is low and wide and welcoming and groovy in a 1960s way. But still awe inspiringly tremendously large.
Mass was being said in the new basilica. The doors were open. I went in. The priest was droning on. A woman with more dignity in her little finger than any priest will ever have, swept the pews with a wide broom during the mass. He was up high on the altar. I couldn’t understand him. She was cleaning. Keeping the basilica beautiful. Serving God’s people
Outside, right next to the basilica cheers of joy punctured the solemnities. It was graduation day for Clown College. There was an orange and purple clown uniform for Clown College graduation day, but one clown wore white and got to wear stilts too. They posed on a series of steps, but the clown on stilts still towered over them all. Maybe he was an alum, or even a Distinguished Professor of Clowndom. Maybe he was the Clown Prince or the Clown Priest.
The most faithful pilgrims walked on their knees across ages of cement to get to the basilica with big smiles on their faces.
Now I have to switch to present tense to tell you the rest:
I start climbing again. At each turn, I meet up with life size plastic Lupitas and bunches of flowers and burros, with an offer to get my picture taken cheek to cheek with the Immaculate Conception.
I keep climbing. I am getting hypoglycemia again. The sun is bright, the air is thin, there is exquisitely landscaped vegetation all around me and pilgrims who have acquired blue halos of joy because they were getting closer to Her.
I reach the top. The shrine is modest, simple stone. Red, brown, grey. It is dark, and cramped, except for its soaring height. It is on the crest of a mountain, but it keeps reaching for more.
Inside is a gold bar in which to kneel. It is crowded but everyone is respectful and patient as they wait to kneel.
I kneel. And lift my eyes to the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Lupita understands my prayer. She forgives my hardness, my pride, my lust, my ugliness, my self-absorption, my arrogance, my fithiness. She actually loves all those parts of me, is rather charmed by them. She reaches down and rocks me gently, and helps me sobs to subside. She lets me know I am loved.
It is time to give up my spot and give someone who has actually been intentional in his devotion to the Virgin to come and kneel. I quickly say a more cogent prayer, for peace and healing in my family. And for peace and healing of the world. Guadalupe smiles a bit more. And I go.
Back to the correct tense I go, James. Back to so-called reality, yes?
I made my way down the mountain. I took a side trip to another tiny church. I was my skeptical self again, though part of me knew that my trip to Mexico City had fulfilled its promise. This church featured two complete corpses, incorrupt, under glass. These corpses left less of an impression than did the statue of Christ at the entrance.
This was the most beat-up Christ I had ever, ever seen. His eyes were very large and the whites surrounded his irises all the way around, although he was looking up beseechingly to his Father. The bloody bones of his kneecaps and elbows were revealed. I had never seen those wounds before. The other, usual wounds were duly rendered. His scarlet robe bore little pins-milagros—legs, arms, eyeballs. From the faithful, who hoped for some milagros on those body parts.
At another entrance, a more debonair saint had a similar green robe, also weighted down with miracle pins. He seemed to take the robe in stride, wore it with authority. It didn’t drag him down the way it did this poor Christ-under-glass.
The faithful knelt and crossed themselves, then kissed their thumbs, knelt and crossed themselves, then kissed their thumbs, knelt and crossed themselves and kissed their thumbs. They seemed to know how to show devotion. American Catholics try to blend in too much with their Protestant neighbors, I think.