The charred stump

We visited my grandparents in Mexico for New Years.

My family has done this every year for as long as I can remember, and my husband supported the tradition even after we got married. New Years in Mexico is a time of eating tamales and sugar cookies, sipping hot chocolate by the bond fire, playing Mario Kart and Super Smash on the Wii, watching well-loved movies with Spanish subtitles, and waking up with a jolt when the firecrackers start sounding at midnight. (For those of you who can stay up until midnight, I envy you. I haven’t been able to stay up past 10:30 pm since I got married. I think it’s made me officially old.)

The first time I brought my husband to Mexico to meet my extended family, I took him on a walk around the village. I spent the whole time pointing at landmarks and telling him stories of my childhood, all of which he patiently listened to and chuckled at. The second time he crossed the border with me, we found ourselves taking another walk. This time there was more silence between us as we each breathed in the moist air and simply enjoyed the scenery. It became our own little tradition of sorts. This New Years was no different. Despite the fact that it had been raining on and off for the past three days and the dirt roads had turned into mud rivers, we headed out of my grandparents’ house to uphold tradition.

We tried to stay on the drier parts of the road, the parts that were made up of more sand than dirt. But after a while the mud began to stick to the bottoms of our shoes and accumulate. We slid several times, reaching out with desperate hands to grab a hold of each other and steady ourselves before we could end up on the ground. Slowly but surely, we made our way around the fields and to my old, old, tree. (See previous post). Instead of the welcoming sight of pine-like needles and wrinkly, old bark, I saw a partially demolished hill and a charred stump. I stood there for a minute, blinking at the sight and trying to understand. The hill literally looked as if a giant had taken a bite out of it. The black stump and withering branches sat off to the side and at an angle, as if they had been carelessly shoved aside.

I can’t explain the grief that suddenly struck me between the eyes. It was just a tree, just a shady spot I used to escape to whenever I needed a quiet moment to myself. But it was also the place where I did all my deep thinking and dreaming as a kid. It was the place I always retreated to when I came to visit as an adult. After greeting the aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents, and spending some time indoors…I came here. Now it was gone. My husband took me in his arms and said he was sorry. All I could think to say was, “Many of these trees were my friends, creatures I had known since nut and acorn. They had voices of their own…” (Lord of the Rings reference, for those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about.) Only a few tears escaped but the sorrow remained. This place, this village that was always supposed to stay the same, was changing. It had been for years but that change had been subtle. There was nothing subtle about this.

Where will this introvert go to think and reminisce the next time she visits Mexico? I guess she’ll just have to find another tree to sit under. But it will never be the same.

A short story for ya

When the world becomes far too large, I jump into the car and retreat to the safest place I know; a village thirty minutes south of the Mexican-Californian border. I know the road well. The two lanes are separated by a faint line of white paint stretched over crumbling gravel and exposed earth. To my left, the mom and pop shops that experienced their grand openings when I was a child advertise their discounted merchandise on faded signs. To my right are the gas station and the textile factory. Then comes the billboard announcing the new neighborhood of duplexes, with all the latest features of the year 2000. Even with the outlandish gate of metal and stone surrounding the property, rows upon rows of perfect, cookie-cutter houses can still be seen painted in various colors.

As a child, I was ignorant of the poverty consuming the land I loved. I saw the barren miles of soil that separated one town from the next, and thought it normal. Different from my home across the border in the US, but normal for the country I was born in. I saw the cluster of buildings constructed around the only highway, inhaled the smog that trailed into the car even with the windows rolled up, waved at the people riding in open beds of pickup trucks, and found nothing wrong with any of it. Why would I? It had been this way for as long as I could remember. That meant things were the way they were supposed to be.

Visiting as an adult, I’m struck with grief.

Once on the highway, the road becomes smooth. The buildings trailing along on either side are more in number and better in quality. But it’s only for a few miles. Then traffic thins. It’s just me and the road again. I get off the highway when I see my exit, cross the bridge when it appears, and enter the village called Tamaulipas. It’s always quiet here, even on New Year’s Eve when everyone is lighting bond fires, sipping hot chocolate, and sharing tamales with their neighbors. The occasional firework will crack through the air or explode with a single boom, but once those fade, the silence remains. Each modest home is separated by a yard or some trees. Only two homes stand beside fields, one of which belongs to my grandparents. I park my car along the iron fence and climb out.

My grandmother loves plants. It’s evident simply by looking around the property. Some flowers grow from the ground, some grow in heavy pots and sturdy planters, and others in cracked, colorful buckets or old commodes. A vine stretches over the roof of her front porch and falls gracefully down the side, like a green waterfall with white flowers.

I fell out of the tree in the front yard once. My father told me not to climb it because it was dangerous, but I didn’t listen. My grandfather saw me disobey and promised not to tell, knowing I’d learned my lesson in the fall.

More trees, wild shrubs, and bushes grow beside the house. I used to race along the walk separating the wall from the greenery on my bicycle, imagining I traveled on horseback through a dense forest. Citrus trees line the west side of the property better than any fence could. There I had many a jungle adventure with my cousins.

My father said there were once cows and horses on this property, but they were sold long before I was born. The chickens remained for a time but were also, eventually, sold. Blackberry vines used to grow up the side of the coop and over the roof. My cousins and I would climb up the vine, scraping palms and bare feet as we raced to collect the sweet berries in the summertime.

Today, only the dogs remain. There always seems to be at least five. They flock to my grandmother from places unknown. She feeds them scraps from her table even if she’s never seen them before.

Some things stay the same no matter how much time passes. My grandmother still hangs clothes on a line. They flap and wave at me with the help of the whimsical breeze that always seems to be blowing. She still has the thirteen-year-old watercolor painting of sunflowers my sister gave her for Mother’s Day hanging up on the fridge. Every awkward, horrible family portrait we ever sent her still sits in a frame or in her hutch, telling the story of our development. The battered radio broadcasts the same station while she makes fresh tortillas at five o’clock every morning. Despite being “retired,” my grandfather still wakes up early to tend to his crop. He drops in for lunch at noon, returns to his work, and then comes trudging in after sunset, covered in dust and sweat. Every few years the furniture is rearranged or the house is painted a new shade of creamy yellow or a new appliance finally replaces the one that should’ve been thrown out long ago.

And yet, as I’ve grown up, I’ve noticed the almost magical appearance of things that don’t seem to belong here. Like the landline and the flat screen TV for example, or the laptop and the internet that I suspect were installed to accommodate the needs of our ever-growing, ever-changing family. They’re too strange for me to acknowledge. Most of the time, I pretend these new toys simply aren’t there. The antiquity and simplicity of this place must be preserved.

I don’t remain indoors for long. I can’t seem to fight the call of this land. I walk the well-worn path through the citrus trees, to the edge of my grandfather’s field. I give the tractor repair hangar a wide birth. Because of the sharp machinery, I was prohibited to play near the hangar as a child. The instinct to skirt by remains. I follow the field around the property of an unknown relative, past chicken coops and barking dogs chained to stakes in the ground, to the natural canal that cuts through the village. The earth is different here, dry and powdery. Little puffs of dirt erupt at my feet each time my shoes make contact with the earth. I hike along the bank to the old, old tree.

I don’t know what kind of tree it is exactly. Its bark is rough, with crevasses and fissures running up and down the trunk. Like the weathered face of an ancient, wise man. Its branches are thick and strong, but the leaves are strange. They’re long and thin, like the needles of a pine tree, and they hang down low. Like wispy locks of hair that get caught in the wind. Its roots are firmly buried in the loose, chalky earth, reaching deep into the core of this land. Its trunk curves out and up; its shadow falls over the field. With today’s technology, I’m sure I could look it up by description and find its true name. But it will always be my old, old tree. I crouch at the tree’s base and take in my surroundings. The quiet is deepest and purest here. The breeze hissing through the strange pine-like-needles is all I can hear. From this vantage point, I can see what was once my whole world.

This was it. All I knew. There were times when I’d come here and squint against the glaring sun, hoping to see what lay beyond the horizon hundreds of miles away. Did the field truly go on forever as it appeared? Or was there, perhaps, something greater that lay beyond? At my most adventurous, I imagined myself packing a bag and simply running until I discovered the answer. But then I would realize just how far from home I’d have to go. Home was here, where I belonged, where I would hopefully stay forever.

Unfortunately, this thing called “life” happened. This wonderful, monstrous thing took me away from everything I knew and farther than I ever imagined I would be brave enough to go. Sometimes I’m proud of how I turned out, of the places I’ve dared to venture, and the decisions I’ve made. But the world is never completely discovered and life is never truly figured out. Sometimes I need to return to what was simple, safe, quiet.

I take a deep breath of earth, sunshine, and memory, and rise from the base of that old, old tree to begin trekking back to my car. Because I can’t stay forever. I can’t go back in time. I can only move forward. As I reach the bank of the canal, I can’t help looking over my shoulder. I can almost see the shadow of a little girl, sitting in the shade of her tree, fearfully watching the horizon, arms wrapped tightly around her knees, bare toes curled against the loose dirt. Waiting for life to start.

So I finally cracked

I’m not a blogger. The cool authors blog and all the articles about becoming a cool author recommend blogging. But still…I wouldn’t know what to blog about, I always thought. My life is simple; I go to work, I do online school, I hang out with my husband, I go to church, I occasionally go out with friends, I watch my shows, I read books, I work on my manuscripts, and repeat. I’m not the kind of person who has strong opinions about too many important things. Who would want to read my thoughts on politics? They are few and far between. Would anyone care to know how I felt about the latest Star Wars movie? (It was sad but I kind of expected everyone to die because none of the new characters came out in A New Hope. If I just spoiled it for someone, I’m sorry but it is January and if you haven’t seen it yet there might be something wrong with you.) Despite all the reasons why I was sure I’d be the worst blogger in history, one thought kept resurfacing.

Nobody knows who you are.

I used to find comfort in this. As an extremely self-conscious introvert, I spent my teenage years trying to go unnoticed. I hid behind my books and my bangs, and thought an awful lot about what I was going to say before I spoke (if I spoke at all). I was terrified of sounding or looking stupid. My big sister tried to tell me that everyone sounded or looked stupid sometimes. “So long as you shake off the embarrassment and go with it, nobody will think less of you, Ted.” (More on the nickname later.) I didn’t start believing her until about four years ago, after I’d graduated from high school, moved away from home, and had dared to speak without thinking on more than one occasion. It turned out she was right. Nobody looked down on me for saying something silly or for being a klutz or for laughing at a really lame joke. I guess people thought I was genuine and sort of liked me for it.

The result of this was a simple but revolutionary discovery: I’m a semi-likable person with skills. A very short list of skills, but skills nonetheless.

This new thought made it suddenly okay to be noticed by other people. It was this thought that gave me the courage to join writer’s forums, enter my short stories into contests, surround myself with beta readers, and hunt for an internship at a publishing company. I’ve been given validation and harsh criticism. I’ve learned lots about the writing industry only to find out that I don’t know anything. But one thing has become very clear to me, especially in the last few weeks. I’ll never become a successful writer without building my readership and the only way to do that is by being known.

So here I am.

Starting a blog.

Attempting to join the cool authors.

Putting myself out there.

Wrestling with the teenager inside of me who still wants to hide.

Should I post this? Was I funny enough? I hope I didn’t offend anyone…EEK! THIS IS STRESSFUL! Forget it. I don’t have to become a published author. I’ll just keep my writings to myself and bury my head in the sand.

Take a chill pill and relax into the back seat, girl. It’s going to be a long ride.