|Available at MiroLand here|
We discovered common friends made when she lived here in Ajijic. She has written a book about her life on a sail boat (an unrequited dream of mine ... next life). And, she experienced the aftermath of 1968, a year I've become fixated on. Throw in the circumstance that I live next door to the summer house of President Diaz Ordaz, the anti-hero of those turbulent late 60s, and it seems like an unlikely flow of coincidences.
Anyway, Rita has offered to share the first chapter of her book, Seeker: A Sea Odyssey, and I'm delighted to be able to make that happen. I asked her to give us an introduction and she offered us a short view of her life and the trauma that changed it. Her story has me riveted and anxious for the book to come out.
Amazon will release it on May 1 but it is available now at the link under the picture.
|Rita at sea|
The year I was diagnosed with cancer my marriage ended. I lost my health and partner at the same time, and felt paralyzed with fear. Knowing that I could die triggered a shift in how I viewed life. I realized that to put my life on hold was a loss of the journey I was here to experience. I saw life as a gift, and that to not use it fully was to not honor the awesomeness of being here. Having broken and mended many times, I came to see each break as letting in more light. One day, I found a short saying in the upper right corner of the front page of my local newspaper. It read “Success is fear but doing it anyway.” I clipped the quote and pinned it above my desk.
While still undergoing chemotherapy, I pressed the button for the elevator from the 19th floor of my apartment building. The door opened and shut, but not before I saw my tiny neighbor from the floor above being brought down on a gurney in a body bag. I felt that should I die, I didn’t feel like being taken down nineteen floors on a gurney in a body bag. I thought about how I craved earth beneath my feet, and how much I wanted to tear up the sidewalk every time I went out. I remembered how I had once felt earth’s magnetic energy flood my body. I felt the pull of Mexico.
I lived in Mexico City in the sixties. I had gone on vacation and stayed seven years, forfeiting my New York apartment to two young men who had sublet it. Though I had to leave Mexico, a part of me never let the country go. Now I wanted to go back. This time, I chose Ajijic with its gentle climate and flowering jacaranda trees. I built a house at the foot of its mountain overlooking Lake Chapala. I loved my home flooded with light, my garden with the light passing through the flowers, the orange tree I planted and from which I plucked fruit every morning. I planted a banana tree, that I discovered wasn’t a tree, and never stopped growing and reproducing to the delight of my neighbors who benefited from its bounty. The soil was rich, the mountain was alive with medicinal plants that my neighbor brought me for their healing properties, and the mountain range across the lake changed colours with the changing light, leaving me transfixed as I watched the changing hues. I wrote for Mexconnect, had a “Dear Rita” column in the Chapala Review, and learned to do lino-cuts from my friend Pat Apt. I didn’t die, but lived fully my years in Ajijic.
And then one day I had to return to Montreal. And it’s here in Montreal that I wrote Seeker: A Sea Odyssey. But the story began in Mexico. In this excerpt from Seeker, I write about the day I made the decision to leave Mexico to begin my journey. I feel privileged to be able to share it with the friends I had made in Ajijic during the years I lived there and with those that have come after me.
|Bernard Rita and Lola|
CHAPTER 1 – SUCH STUFF AS DREAMS ARE MADE OF…
I have no reason to go, except that I have never been, and knowledge is better than ignorance. What better reason could there be for travelling. – Freya Stark
OCTOBER 1969: MEXICO CITY
A great sense of adventure and curiosity about other cultures brought Bernard and me to Mexico in the mid-sixties from different parts of the world. He was a French geologist hired to find water for the Mexican government. I was a ceramicist in a potter’s studio, a freelance reporter for a magazine called Mexico/This Month, and part-time English as a Foreign Language teacher. On weekends, I read palms - a skill I had learned through reading books. Having walked away from an abusive marriage, I was trying to support my two young sons in a foreign country. Both of us were dreamers and open to new experiences. It was inevitable that our meeting would spark unexpected possibilities.
We met at the home of Leonora Carrington, a well-known surrealist painter who was as famous for helping to smuggle her then lover, Max Ernst, out of Nazi Germany as she was for her artwork. Leonora had a weakness for handsome young men, and Bernard filled the criteria with his rugged features, alert green eyes, and irreverently coifed head of thick, dark auburn hair. He was tall and lithe – the perfect escort for the parties Leonora used to attend at Diego Rivera’s home. They weren’t lovers, but it pleased her that others thought they were, since he was a good thirty years younger. Bernard, a young underpaid Cooperant (the French equivalent of a Peace Corp worker), took full advantage of the arty parties, replete with free food and flowing booze. I viewed him as a lightweight rake, and made a point of ignoring his overtures of friendship during Leonora’s ‘by invitation only’ Sunday salons.
But all that changed one afternoon when we bumped into each other at the La Merced Market in downtown Mexico City on a miserably hot day.
“Feel like a beer?” he asked, after the obligatory cliché of “fancy meeting you here.”
“Why not?” I answered.
Over a generous plate of sopes, thick rounds of corn masa slathered with beans, cream, and salsa, and cold bottles of San Miguel beer, we talked about Mexico. We discovered that we shared a love for this vibrant country with its diverse indigenous cultures still intact, its extraordinary shifts of landscape, and its warm and gracious people. But suddenly I started to speak about how the heart had been ripped out of it the year before.
I came to Mexico in 1966. It was a time of tremendous creative output in all the arts. Many Latin American writers and painters, in exile from their own countries or by choice, had settled in Mexico. It brought other intellectuals from all over the world who were caught by the creative energy that defined the country. I planned on being there for a summer vacation, but I sublet my apartment in New York, and decided never to return. Bernard came at the end of 1968. He arrived in Mexico City a month after the horrific massacre of hundreds of students in the Plaza of the Three Cultures just weeks before the Mexican Olympics.
It was now 1969 but the repressive measures of the Diaz Ordaz government had not abated. Many of the foreign intelligentsia were accused of instigating the students and were deported. The unlucky ones were jailed and tortured. Others left the country of their own accord. I witnessed students taken from their homes without just cause never to be heard from again, while the secret police roamed the streets with walkie-talkies to report any sightings of “suspicious” young people. Several teenagers hid in my home until they were able to procure forged passports to leave the country. Fear replaced open dialogue and the dynamic euphoria that had marked the city evaporated overnight.
Paralyzed by depression brought on by the horror of what had happened in a country I loved, I couldn’t leave. I didn’t realise how traumatized I was until I related the story to Bernard. I was looking for something I could hold on to that made me feel alive again. I remembered my childhood when my life was alive with the belief that I could make whatever I wanted come true. We spoke about our childhood dreams.
Bernard related a half-buried dream of his. It began with his boyhood on the Loire in France, where he had built his own raft to sail the famous river. His makeshift sail was not rigged to be turned, and he found himself going downriver with no control until he crashed into the river bank. “I told myself I’d have a real sailboat one day,” he said.
I had no technical aptitude, but an early desire to explore. I was raised in upstate New York, and my family spent summers in a small cottage colony beside the Hudson River. Left to myself, during the summer months, I wandered freely with no restraints. I found hidden streams where I collected frogs that I housed in abandoned ice boxes. I watched fishermen bring up buckets of fish, and I stared with fascination when one of the fish, dumped from a bucket, looked strangely prehistoric with fins and tiny front legs. I tasted oily eel grilled over an open pit that the fishermen offered me when I sat with them at lunchtime. I followed a handyman around – a tall, angular man who made me think of the tin man in the Wizard of Oz, but he was the colour of coal. He told me he was from far away. It all hinted at more than I knew, and I always wanted to know more.
I started digging my way to China with a toy shovel at the age of six, when I learned it lay at the other side of the world. I had to abandon the project two feet down and two summers later, when my port of departure was flooded by an underground spring. The memory lay dormant until our conversation. Now, it resurfaced with a new-born energy that manifested itself in the form of a yacht and a desire to sail. What better way to see the world than from our own boat without the narrow perspective of travelling as a tourist. No hotels. No limited stays. No heavy backpacks…
We fell in love with the idea and with each other. Bernard moved in with me, and we talked about it endlessly. We shared our vision with my sons Jonah and Stefan, who were then four and six years old, and eager for adventure. I had a young housekeeper, Laura, and she had a boyfriend named Benjamin. Laura had become a close friend, so we included her and Benjamin in our plans.
“We’ll find an island for you and Benjamin,” I promised her. “Benjamin can build us a house, and you’ll tend the garden.” It was Laura’s dream to have her own garden, and I envisioned us eating homegrown produce around a large, rough-hewn table that Benjamin would build. They’d settle there permanently. For us, it would be a refuge after long journeys.
The two of them were as excited as we were to start this new life. Laura, who had been raised on a farm, didn’t feel at home in the city. Work brought her north from a small village in Oaxaca, but every vacation she went back and took my boys with her. “They need the fresh air,” she said. “And some good armadillo tamales that only mi abuela can prepare.” Benjamin was a construction worker, but work was hard to find. When he did find employment, there was never any security or protection when he got laid off. I wanted to share what I thought was a better life with them – perhaps as a way of coping with all the injustices I had seen.
We remained in Mexico three more years trying to save the money for our adventure, while the government continued its propaganda against foreigners. When someone wrote “Gringo go home” in the dust of Bernard’s car, we knew it was time to leave. We also knew by then that the pesos we were earning weren’t sufficient to support our goal towards building the boat.
Bernard and I opened an atlas on the kitchen table and looked for a suitable country where we could prepare to start our project. With Bernard’s background as a geologist and my years of teaching, we had the good fortune of being able to pick our country. It was the early seventies. Life was full of opportunity. Borders were easier to cross, and work was abundant everywhere. The pencil came down on Canada – sane, democratic, stable, a high standard of living. Bernard had spent time there in 1966 and 1968 mapping the unexplored North for the Quebec government and was excited to return. He liked the fact that he could speak French in the province. I was happy that I could speak English. We’d work hard and earn good money. We promised Laura and Benjamin we’d return for them when we were ready.