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I’m a California girl.  I grew up in earthquake country —  the San Francisco Bay Area to be exact.  I was raised on my grandparents’ stories of the day the Earth Shook, The Sky Burned in San Francisco on April 18, 1906.  A favorite was of my 8-year old grandmother bringing jugs of water to refugees, whose homes had either collapsed from the violent shaking or burned in the fires that broke out.  They were camped out under tents and tarps in the Masonic Cemetery, where her stepfather was the manager — and the thought of the living, living with the dead was captivating to my 8-year old self.  Perhaps another reason why Oaxaca feels like home.

The first earthquake I remember was in first grade.  I gripped my desk, as it rocked back and forth and watched, wide-eyed, as the massive row of windows that lined one wall of my classroom moved in and out, distorting the trees and pink house across the street.  I’m not sure if we were directed to get under our desks, but I do remember my first grade teacher, Mrs. Chase (one of the best teachers ever!), in her comforting, calm, and very competent way, conveying a sense of safety.  Our 1938 wood-frame house, on the side of Mt. Tamalpais was fine, save for several cracks in the lath and plaster walls.  Years later, I learned that it was built on bedrock — a good thing!

Several more earthquakes ensued as I grew up and raised my family in the Bay Area — and I learned to be prepared.  We kept earthquake supplies in the basement — enough water and food to last three days, flashlights, battery-powered radio, etc.  My car was always stocked with bottles of water and protein bars, a sleeping bag and flashlight, sweatshirt and old gym shoes, and a first aid kit.  Luckily, we didn’t have to use any of them following the 7.1 Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989.   However, our eyes were glued to the television.  Before the earthquake hit, we had been about to gather in the living room to watch the “Bay Bridge” World Series — the San Francisco Giants versus their across the San Francisco Bay rivals, the Oakland Athletics.  Instead, we watched part of the Bay Bridge collapse and houses built on landfill in the Marina of San Francisco collapse and then burn due to ruptured gas lines.  We were fine, but nerves were shattered and for days after, every aftershock had me ready to bolt.

During my first visit to Oaxaca in 2007, I awoke to an earthquake — that dreaded, but familiar, feeling flooded my body but it was small and all was okay.  Thankfully, I was in the USA for the 8.2 earthquake that devastated parts of the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas almost two weeks ago.  However, I have experienced several smaller ones since moving here, including the March 20, 2012, 7.4 earthquake.  Walking up Macedonio Alcalá, I didn’t feel that one, but heard windows rattle and people cry, “terremoto” as they streamed out into the street.  There have been many aftershocks from the Sept. 7th earthquake since I’ve been back, a couple at 5.6 on the Richter scale, but I haven’t felt them either.  Giving thanks to Roberta French and her degree in structural engineering from MIT for building such a sturdy, well designed apartment complex on bedrock!

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It was the same yesterday.  Blogger buddy Chris and I were walking up the Alcalá on our way to Las Quince Letras for the traditional Mes de la Patria (celebrating independence from Spain) dish, chiles en nogada.  We were talking — catching up after my six-week trip.  As we turned onto Abasolo, we noticed cars stopped at all intersections and people milling around on the streets.  A blockade was our first thought.  After all, this is Oaxaca!  We soon discovered, it was a 7.1 earthquake (epicenter near the Puebla/Morelos border) that brought traffic to a halt and people out of buildings.  This latest earthquake has taken lives (currently more than 200 people, in 6 states) and destroyed buildings, especially in Mexico City — but we didn’t feel a thing!  Apparently, the shaking was felt all over Oaxaca city, just not by us walking along the cantera (stone) roadbed of the Alcalá.  I spent the rest of yesterday afternoon and evening glued to the news out of Mexico City — and I continue watching and reading in horror as the destruction unfolds.

I’m fine, my friends in Oaxaca, Mexico City, and Chiapas are fine, my apartment is fine.  So, why am I writing this?  A catharsis, perhaps….  But also to say to those who are new to or have no experience with the earth violently shaking:  You never get used to it — you never take it in stride, as you never know when that stride will be broken as the ground begins shifting beneath your feet.  And, you always anticipate — it’s one of the reasons, I keep my cell phone and keys with an emergency buzzer in my pocket and a bottle of water and a protein bar in my purse.  In addition, like hurricanes, people and their governments must pay close attention to, and strictly regulate, where and how buildings are constructed — greed and corruption should not trump lives — and a priority should be placed on early warning systems in earthquake countries around the world.

To satisfy my inner-librarian, I recommend to you a few articles to begin to understand the whys and hows:

 

 

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Sunday, in the Plazuela de Carmen Alto, celebrations honoring the Christ of Esquipulas (Black Christ) were in full swing. I was awakened at 6 AM to the sound of fuegos artificiales (fireworks) and eventually drifted off to sleep after 11:30 PM, as fireworks’ explosions resumed.

Festivities lasted all day and I couldn’t resist heading up to the church courtyard to see what was happening.

When I arrived, seats in the shade were filled and a small crowd was gathered behind a barricade; a castillo, laying on its side in three parts, was being constructed; a teenage Oaxacan brass band, with the requisite tuba towering over the other instruments and their players, was waiting to play; and young dancers were performing with a combination of earnestness and joy.

Skirts flying

Dance always seems to be an integral part of celebrations both secular and religious, and, in reflecting on my love for this, at times, perplexing and contradictory place, dance is one of the things that resonates the most.

Piña Dancers

A small stage set up under the trees; dancers, their handmade and unique costumes; energetic music; choreographed steps passed down through generations spirited me back to my childhood…

Mom and me

Let’s dance!

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November has come and now is almost gone. Time accelerated.  Where did it go?  Retired life… I thought it would slow down… apparently not when one lives in Oaxaca. There’s too much to see and experience!

Los Días de Muertos

The month began with Los Días de Muertos. I signed-up to accompany my extraordinarily energetic Spanish teacher, Laura Olachea, on two “field trips.” About 30 of us (her students and their guests) boarded a bus the night of Oct. 31, bound for the old and new cemeteries of Xoxocotlán. Tens of thousands of tourists (overwhelmingly Mexican) seemed to have descended on this small village, the bus was forced to park 8-10 blocks away on a dirt side street, the sky was pitch black, and there were no street lights. Somehow, we all managed to keep up with our tiny maestra as she lead us through the crush of people and vendors (food, drink, sugar skulls, candles, you name it!) to the old cemetery.

Panteón de Xoxocotlán 2010

I plunged in. Heeding Laura’s advice to travel in groups of 3-4, I tagged along with a couple, chosen because he was at least 6 feet tall and I figured he would be easy to keep in eye range. The scene was like nothing I’ve ever seen before… a cornucopia of candles, by the thousands, flickering in the darkness; of color from the marigolds, cockscomb, and lilies; and of hundreds of families gathered around lopsided graves, drinking, sitting, laughing, and sharing in a ritual that recognizes that death is part of life. The scene was repeated at the new cemetery, before we stumbled our way back to the bus, which spirited us to the tiny pottery village of Atzompa and its panteón, well after midnight: Stage and dance floor, band playing, couples dancing, flowers, candles glowing in the darkness, families, few tourists, deeply personal, and magical… I felt like an intruder.

Panteón de Atzompa 2010

Though it was close to 1:30 AM when the bus dropped me off a block and a half from Casita Colibrí, I was up and back on the bus at 10 AM, for the ride to Mitla with Laura and our gang. We had the privilege of being guests of the García family, invited to participate in their Zapotec Day of the Dead traditions. We were welcomed to their home, a traditional family compound, with rooms surrounding an enormous dirt courtyard, with clotheslines holding newly dyed skeins of yarn (this is a family of weavers). Cervesas were offered, and then, in accordance with age-old custom, we followed the recently widowed family matriarch through the dusty streets to the Panteón Municipal. Here, holding the three-legged incense burner, the sweet and seductive smell of the burning copal perfuming the air, Doña Garcia performed a ceremony with words spoken in Zapotec.

Doña Garcia with copal burner

Mezcal and cigarettes were passed around. Joining the others, I drank the Mezcal and deposited my cigarette on the grave of the departed, where it joined several others — smoked and, like mine, un-smoked. With fireworks erupting periodically, we retraced our steps, following Doña Garcia and the smoke of the copal, as she brought the spirit of her late husband, Rutilio Garcia, back home to share the day with his family.

We returned to the lovingly assembled altar set-up by Doña Garcia. It was here, in front of this colorful altar, laden with flowers and food, including the intricately decorated pan de muertos that echoes the designs of the archeological ruins in Mitla, words were spoken in Zapotec and Spanish and tears traveled down many cheeks. Following this extremely moving ceremony, chairs were set up around several long tables where we joined the family in drinking Oaxacan hot chocolate, feasting on pan de muertos and mole negro, served, of course, with tortillas.

Satiated, it was probably a good thing that we were then led on a walking tour through this City of the Dead, to visit several other altars. Gracious families ushered our group through courtyards. At one, we paused to marvel at a woman, standing over an open fire (on this 80+ degree day), stirring a massive cauldron of mole,

Woman stirring cauldron of mole.

We gathered in modest homes where families “introduced” their departed and proudly explained the significance of items on their altars. Hot, exhausted and deeply moved, a much quieter crowd returned to the García home. We were offered a final shot of mezcal, said our heartfelt thank-yous, and boarded the bus for the trip back to the city.

I returned home in time to watch my San Francisco Giants win their first World Series crown since 1954, when they were the New York Giants. After my initial hurrahs, my head couldn’t help but turn from the TV to my small Day of the Dead altar; where, along with photos of my parents, mother and father-in-law, and departed friends, my eyes settled in the center of the altar, to a photo of my grandparents.

They had moved next door to my childhood home in Mill Valley about the same time the Giants moved to San Francisco, and it was then that Grandpa introduced me to baseball. We listened to Russ Hodges and Lon Simmons call the games and I put up a team photo (Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda, Juan Marichal, Willie McCovey, Felipe Alou, Stu Miller, Mike McCormick, Jose Pagan, Jimmy Davenport, Hobie Landrith…) on the wall of my bedroom; grandfather and granddaughter cheering, agonizing, and bonding. I took my Giants cap off, walked over, and put it on the altar.

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Remembering my mom

Yesterday would have been my mom’s 92nd birthday.  Yes, April Fools’ Day — it was a source of much good humored teasing in the family!  Despite sharing her birthday with this inauspicious holiday, she was an amazing woman, who also happened to have a great laugh.  A coincidence?  I think perhaps not!

Like many women of her generation, she married at 20, going from her parents’ home to setting up housekeeping as a new bride.  A mere four years later, she sent her husband off to war and she went to work in the shipyards.  The war ended, the shipyards closed, he returned home safely in 1945, and they adopted a new born baby girl in 1950 — me!  However, the unimaginable occurred and he was tragically killed in 1952.

Widowed at 34 years old, she was left with a toddler, a house on a steep hill, and a car she didn’t know how to drive.  However, with the love, support, and common sense from her family, she gradually emerged from mourning; learning to drive, taking bookkeeping classes at the community college, returning to the workforce when I started school, and rekindling her love of dance, becoming a folk dancer — a pursuit she continued until she died.

Travel also became a part of her life.  She rapidly discovered she loved to drive and in 1955 traded our old car for a red and white 1955 Ford Fairlane convertible with a V-8 engine — many road trips ensued.  Camping also became a regular summertime activity — backpacking trips to Mt. Lassen with a neighbor family and annual Labor Day encampments with her folk dance community.

In the summer of 1956, wearing her brand new suit, mom and I set off for England to visit her brother, recently transferred to London.  No passenger jets back then, we took a propeller plane (TWA, I think) from San Francisco to New York City, spent a couple of days sightseeing, and then boarded BOAC to fly from NYC to London.  Our return trip had us sailing from Southampton to NYC, aboard the T.S.S. New York, then flying to SF — a pretty brave journey for a newly single mom.  She eventually returned to Europe when she was in her sixties and twice fulfilled a life-long desire to see Alaska.

This brave, loving, and active woman died way too young — less than two months after her 71st birthday.  She often populates my dreams, not as a central figure, just someone whose warm and comforting presence is gratefully felt.  I’d like to think she would be all for my move to Oaxaca — worried but proud — and that she would jump at the chance to visit.

Thanks, mom, for setting a great example!!!

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Written to my mom — Mothers’ Day, 1985:

My Mom Is the World’s Greatest Mom…

because she and my dad wanted a baby so much, they loved and cherished (and doted-on) a chubby little brown haired baby girl, even though she was adopted;

because she ended-up being widowed 2-1/2 years later and had to raise that little girl all by herself, even though it wasn’t easy — especially when that little girl became a teenager during the turbulent and challenging time of the sixties;

because she taught me responsibility and helped shape my values, even though she probably thought I wasn’t listening;

because she has had to work hard for as long as I can remember and even though she finally retired last month at age 67 — she has now volunteered her time to Guide Dogs;

because she allowed me the freedom to move out on my own when I was 18 and one year later to move to Europe for 6 months, even though that left her worried and at home;

because she has always “been there” for me and supported my decisions, even though she didn’t always agree with them;

because she loves and cares about my husband, stepson and closest friends like they were her own, even though they are not;

because she always has time for my two young sons, even though she may be busy;

but most of all, my mom is the world’s greatest mom…

because she has always made me feel loved and valued, even though I often forget to say “I love you mom.”

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