San Antonino Blues

What a Decade in Mexico Has Taught Me about Weathering a Global Pandemic

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I was walking along Waco’s Brazos River this morning when my throat caught – the woman about to pass me on the walking trail was wearing a red Mexican blouse that was clearly from San Antonino: the elaborate, heavily embroidered style I’d recognize anywhere after living for a decade in Oaxaca City only 50 miles away.

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Too Much, Not Enough

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It’s funny (insert another word here, but what?) how the pandemic has upended so many previously held norms and values. What we thought was “normal” once doesn’t exist any more. “New normal” is a catch-all phrase for everything that we deal with now that was never on the radar. Face masks, social distancing, massive protests, joblessness, political gridlock.  Covid itself sounds like a word that the non-grammatician-in-chief might have accidentally twittered. Continue reading

Showing Up

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My parents and baby me, circa 1956. Ray and Vi Bean always Showed Up.

I learned two brutal lessons at 18, when my mother died six weeks into my freshman year of college. One: life is short, really damn short if you can get cancer at 47 and die within eight months, leaving a teenager just pulling out of surly adolescence, who you’ll never see grow to adulthood. Two: People say they’ll show up, but then they don’t and will tell you later how they meant to. And I thought then as I do now: that blows. Just do it or shut up.

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Skill Sets in Corona Times

Agility and adaptability may save us all

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More than 30 years ago, not just Before Corona Times but Before Mexico, when I was (really!) a suburban housewife in Dallas with a side writing gig, I wrote a piece (for a printed magazine!) for Dallas Community Colleges on crafting different types of resumés to get that first job. A traditional vitae – at least then – was linear in time, listing education and (if you were lucky to have had a summer internship thanks to a dad who had connections) whatever paltry work experience might set you apart from the rest of the herd. But what if you organized your self-promotion as skill sets? What volunteer jobs or life experience, showcasing what of your stellar 21-year-old qualities, might be worth giving you a foot in the door? What if it was your potential and not your actual experience that was under consideration?

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Saving Starfish

Every small gesture matters, especially now

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One day, an old man was walking along a beach that was littered with thousands of starfish that had been washed ashore by the high tide. As he walked, he came upon a young boy who was eagerly throwing the starfish back into the ocean, one by one.

Puzzled, the man looked at the boy and asked what he was doing. Without looking up from his task, the boy simply replied, “I’m saving these starfish, sir”. The old man chuckled aloud, “Son, there are thousands of starfish and only one of you. What difference can you make?”

 The boy picked up a starfish, gently tossed it into the water and turning to the man, said, “I made a difference to that one!”              Starfish: The Parable

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Endurance

What a failed 1914 Antarctic expedition can teach us about survival, sheltering and leadership

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The Endurance, trapped in the frozen Weddell Sea of Antarctica, 1915

 It was the ultimate shelter-in-place: a failed 1914 expedition to Antarctica by explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton that saw the ship Endurance mired and then crushed in pack ice, the 28-man crew stranded in the unforgiving frozen Weddell Sea, living off of ships’ supplies, penguins and finally their sled dogs. After living on a diminishing ice floe for a year, Shackleton and a crew of five crossed 800 miles of open water in a lifeboat, and slid down an icy mountain into a whaling station that would close for the season in just days. When on the fourth try they reached the remaining men stranded back on Elephant Island, not a single crew member had been lost in the nearly three-year ordeal.

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Pack ice crushed Endurance after six months trapped in the frozen Weddell Sea

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Rowing to Dunkirk, One Stitch at a Time

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In the late spring of 1940 in WWII, German forces closed in on Allied troops backed up against the beaches of Dunquerque, France. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill expected that a calculated evacuation could rescue maybe 45,000 of the nearly 400,000 troops. Large Royal Navy vessels positioned themselves in the English Channel, but couldn’t get close enough to the shallow beaches to reach the stranded soldiers.

The Allies put out a call for smaller boats to carry the troops from shore to the ships, summoning a ragtag but unstoppable force of pleasure vessels, ferries, fishing boats and cruisers who made trip after trip from the beach to the ships. In all, some 860 vessels rescued 338,226 soldiers from May 26 to June 4, 1940. It shouldn’t have been able to have been done. But it was.

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Wasn’t I Lucky?

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Landing in Guanajuato, 2008

Sometime last year I read something that made me want to reframe the things that I miss and put them in a context where I can just appreciate them. Reframing – a term I’ve learned from my life coach Nils in Oaxaca – is taking a negative thought (sad to say, often my default button) and turning over the coin to find the positive. Nils and I had a What’s App video session last week; my last one with him in Oaxaca seems mind-blowingly irrevelant  in this brave new world. Was I really worried that someone was upset with me for something I said? That’s so last millennium – no wait, that was just last month.

So the phrase was to reframe a loss by saying: “Wasn’t I lucky to have had ______?” – no matter for how long, or how much I miss it now. I’d actually been practicing this with several situations which I was grieving, most notably a 10-year relationship with José that just could not be salvaged or resurrected.

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José, Puebla

The self-criticism: Was I crazy to have tried to have a serious relationship, in a language I was just learning, with a Mexican man who — before finding AA — spent 30 years as a street drunk?

P1040930.JPG copy   Reframed: Wasn’t I lucky to have had ten years with a Mexican man who was quirky and funny and who loved me until the cows came home – though he had no model for how that looked?

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Wasn’t I lucky to learn street Spanish conversing with him hours a day (I did have to learn to scale back on the adjectives)? Wasn’t I lucky to ride a motorcycle behind a tattooed man in cowboy boots?

So here goes. Maybe these are premature pronouncements, but then again maybe they’re not.

Wasn’t I lucky to have had a whole decade in Mexico, living exactly how I wanted? I didn’t wait until I had more money, or retired, or lost 20 pounds. I just acted on a deep yearning to live abroad again, learn Spanish and have multi-cultural adventures.

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With Doc Severinson in San Miguel, 2008

An early conversation from a rooftop in San Miguel de Allende, where I went my first two trips to study in a small language school, stuck with me. A twenty-something young woman was working on her laptop in her swimsuit with a glass of sangria at her side. I asked her what she was doing. “Working remotely,” she answered, and a little light bulb went off in my head.

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Was I leading the parade, a la Ferris Bueller? San Miguel de Allende, 2008

We want on to talk about risk and she continued, “I see myself climbing the rope ladder in the circus, and I get all the way up to the platform and dive – and on the way down I say, Water, appear!” Oh hell yes, I wanted to get me some of that: in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato and finally Oaxaca.

 

And for 11 years, I have indeed gotten me some of that. Even if I never am able to return – I don’t think that’s going to be the case but I do think it will be longer than any of us imagine – wasn’t I lucky, lucky, lucky to have had that?

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Santo Domingo, Oaxaca

Wasn’t I lucky to find my tribe and the most awesome women friends ever?

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With Jane on Frida’s birthday

I can’t bear the thought of not seeing my Oaxaca home girls again – the ones I called when I was feeling sad, or to talk me down off the anxiety ledge, toss over possible alternatives to opening my big mouth right away, or just hang out and go cool places with. But wasn’t I lucky to have found them, after years of thinking I just didn’t get along that well with most women because well, suburbia.

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With Suzanne in Teotitlán del Valle

I always had sensibilities that didn’t fit in and viewpoints that were too intense for the PTA crowd, and never, ever had the right clothes or hairdo. In Oaxaca, it didn’t frigging matter! On my last return to Oaxaca in January, I hadn’t seen my friend Suzanne for the first week or so before I ran into on the street.

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Jacki, Women’s March, Oaxaca

She stood in the middle of the sidewalk and just held her arms open. I told her later that’s how I want to always feel when returning to my friends: welcomed open-armed. I could cry just thinking about that, but wasn’t I lucky to have found these women with their wise ways and superpowers of cutting through the BS and cutting to the chase of what’s real and true and honest?

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With 40-year Texas work colleagues Kathy, boss Claudia and Peggy

(Not that I didn’t have real Superwomen friends in the U.S.; I just found them in spades in Oaxaca.)

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Three Susans, friends for 50+ years

Wasn’t I lucky to have traveled as much as I have? From my first trip abroad – a three-week “If It’s Tuesday It Must be Belgium” trip through a dozen countries, I was hopelessly hooked on travel.

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Puerto Escondido with son David

At 15 – actually I turned 15 on that trip in Heidleburg, Germany – I felt like I’d been woken up from a sleepwalking existence into one where I felt every nuance of being alive, where every shadow snapped into sharp focus.

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Mexico 2007 with Susans: My first mango on a stick, but not my last by a long shot

I  got to live in France for a year, backpack across the Greek islands, spend New Year’s Eve 1992 in Niger as the guest of the vice president – whom we’d met in 1978 in France.

Even in these later years of reduced money and more limited travel, I’ve still gotten to go all over Mexico. Wasn’t I lucky to find that I loved travel so early and get to do so much of it throughout my life?

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En Via volunteers, 2017, in San Miguel del Valle, after eating tamales for Candelaría

Wasn’t I lucky to have found meaningful volunteer work with En Vía? One of my goals of living abroad again was to find volunteer work that made my heart sing, that made me feel like I was contributing . . . something. My first trip to Oaxaca in 2009, I stayed in a funky little hostel that later became La Betulia and met Emily Berens, who was just forming a new non-profit with Oaxacan co-founder Carlos Topete based on the concept of responsible tourism tours generating microfinance dollars for women.

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With En Vía co-founder Emily Berens and a Teotitán borrower, 2009

I volunteered for three years as an English teacher, then moved into translation-guiding, and it’s been one of the more meaningful experiences of my life. The other guides – like Jacki and Suzanne – and the women themselves have formed a rich, rich fabric of experience that I don’t think could be replicated anywhere. But wasn’t I lucky to have had it?

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Master weaver Juana, Teotitlán del Valle, 2009

 

 

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Charging loan paybacks with En Vía borrowers, Teotitlán del Valle, 2009

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José with five of his eight siblings, when both parents were living, c. 2011

Wasn’t I lucky to have a Mexican family?  Through José, who was the oldest of nine in a fairly typical Mexican family that also had dozens of cousins, uncles, aunts and accompanying in-laws, I got to be the welcomed guera newcomer.

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Tía Raquel, Tehuacan

His Tía Raquel in Tehuacan, in the flat valley between Oaxaca and Puebla, told me early on that she felt sorry for me not having a mom living (mine died when I was 18 and she 47) or brothers and sisters. “Susana, I will be your Mexican mama,” she said. “We will be your family.” Whenever we visited a couple times a year, José would leave me for a while in the downstairs room where Raquel held court, and she would lay down a few wise words before giving me a blessing. “We’re so glad that Pépé has found some measure of happiness in his later years,” she said early on. “Because he was – shall we say – a difficult boy.”

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With Tío Julio and some of his nine kids, Orizaba

There was Uncle Julio and his nine kids in Orizaba, rafts of nephews and nieces who wanted to practice their English with me, weddings, baptisms. Later there were fallings out with various family members, both of his parents died and the family fractured as many do, but wasn’t I lucky to have had all that?

I could go on. As we all do right now, I grieve what and who I’ve lost – or may have lost, because we just don’t know yet. It’s OK to cry about it and give in to the pain – for a while. But then, there is this:

Wasn’t I lucky to have had all that?

Susan Bean Aycock, Embracing the Chaos, March 30, 2020

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Rodeo, Mexican Style

Let me just say that having grown up in Texas, I’m a big fan of rodeos. I grew up on small town rodeos in west Texas – mostly Weatherford – and always loved the gaudy western wear, calf roping and barrel racing (not so much the bull riding) and especially rodeo clowns.

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Rodeo clowns aside (theirs is actually one of the more dangerous jobs, as they’re distracting bucking bulls and broncos away from fallen competitors), the Charros de Ex-Hacienda de la Soledad, just southwest of Oaxaca City, offered all that and more on Sunday, plus chicas in full skirts galloping sidesaddle, traditional dancing (OK, one couple) and a mounted crooner in full charro suit. A charro event isn’t exactly a Texas rodeo, but close enough: it’s a little rough and rowdy and a whole lot of spectacle in fancy western wear with cowboy boots.

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