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When my mother called me in from the woods, she told me I was going to repeat the eighth grade and this time with Latin, American history and a real English teacher. And so, off I went to a lonely boarding school outside Boston with bee’s waxed floors and gas lanterns on the wall. And then, not long after, Lincoln Steffen’s autobiography came into my hands. I remember exactly where I was sitting all those years ago, and I remember the feeling of being transported to a world that was not centered around myself.

In the sixties I was a graduate student at Berkeley in Germanic Languages and Literature and read Theodora Kroeber’s Ishi, the Last of His Tribe and her biography Ishi in Two Worlds. The books had such a powerful influence on me that I would still like to have my ashes strewn on top of a certain cliff that looks down over Deer Creek Canyon northeast of Chico, California, where I found my better spiritual ancestors. Where Ishi lived and where the rest of his people were wiped out by white people for sport or bounties.

Reading Paula Dunning’s memoir, Shifting Currents, has now provided me with a third epiphany, this one explaining what I was doing for thirty-five years on a small, non-producing farm one and a half hours north of San Francisco, on a ridge that divided the dairy country to the south from the apples, plums, and grapes to the north. Her chronicle gives shape to what remains only a vague understanding of my own “farming” years, where I raised two children by myself and taught full-time at a nearby university. It was more that we kept animals, as well as ourselves: cats, dogs, pigeons, chickens, a few milking goats, a few Black Angus beef cows, two pigs, two sheep, a donkey, a pony—now and then a horse. Most of which got loose, or broke through old fences. Or, in the case of sheep, were attacked by big dogs from miles away.

Dunning and her husband Jack emigrated from the United States to Canada in the 70s and, in a moment of divine insanity like my own, bought a large farm in Ontario and, like me—but on a much larger scale, “went back to the land.”

For me, Dunning’s prose raises a reoccurring question, and that is, what is she doing to evoke this sense in the reader of being in the presence of something larger than ourselves. The closest I can come to an answer is that she anchors even the smallest, every day images and rhythms of farming in an epic sea. Not in the wine-dark sea of Homer, plowed by Greek ships, but rather in the loamy one that the Dunnings’ tractors pass over, following the curve of the earth, plowing Canadian fields into chestnut-browns, that sprout and become Alfalfa and Timothy in emerald greens—that form waves when the wind blows across them. In late summer, those fields morph into rows of drying hay and under them, calms of yellowish gray stubble left standing after the cutting. Followed by the rhythm of baling, hefting the bales onto the hay wagons, stacking them, and then raising them into dark, sweet smelling lofts. All of it, an ocean of activity bounded by the dark hill at the end of the property that serves as one navigation pole, the bend in the river as the other.

Dunning describes what many of us who have lived with animals have sensed, and that is being near to an Otherness that we do not really fathom. An intelligence, a spirituality, that lives behind the rectangular pupil of a Nubian goat, in the sweet breath of a cow, in the exuberant playfulness of pigs. Beings that depend on us and yet whose souls, for want of a better word, remain unreachable and beyond our control.

From cave paintings we know about the spiritual connection that used to exist between humans and animals—as opposed to, say, the tight-wrapped packages in the meat department. It helps to think of Dunning’s writing as similar to ancient cave painting. Her images hint at what we still sense. It may be what Rilke meant about the poet’s task being naming the unnamable. Or what Goethe described as symbol, where, through an image, an idea remains active but also unapproachable, and, though expressed in all languages, including art, cannot be put into words.

There are no saber-tooth tigers in this book, but there are dangers. Machinery that can eat children. Six hundred pound, water-filled tractor tires that can trample us all. Chimney fires that can blow through chinks in the brick and consume the whole house and the family that lives inside it. Damp hay, baled too soon, can smolder and ignite. A river close by to drown in. And the constant possibility of being rendered dead or maimed by hoof, horn or machinery, all of which can cut, hurl or drag.

In the 60s and 70s, there were other costs in “returning to the land.” Most “normal” people didn’t heat with wood, try to grow their own food or raise children “at the North Pole,” as Dunning’s mother believed she was doing. As my own mother believed about my child rearing. “In the 70s,” Dunning writes, “we felt we should be able to do everything, from scratch.” Which diluted our development in certain areas. And so there was always an undercurrent of self-doubt, the nagging question, “Did I make the wrong choice?” And so we suffered gently numbing embarrassment when tennis-playing urbanites visited with their clean shoes and spotless sweaters. With their expectations of unexposed drainage ditches in the yard, or of available hot water for showers and of functioning toilets—both of which seemed to stop working at just the wrong moment—in a comedy of irony and mortification.

Dunning chronicles the social tensions. The farmer neighbor, conservative in her views of school sex education, let alone birth control, was completely practical on how to use three fingers to get a calf to begin sucking and therefore to survive. A young “liberated” leader led Dunning’s women’s group—subdued and cautious people—through the early feminist guidebook “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” with its explicit drawings of women’s bodies and how they function. In a delightful scene, Dunning describes how a session devolved to snorting and laughter—and friendship.

Or the pitfalls possible when Dunning’s “normal” parents visit and a symbolic patricide occurs, a shift in familial power. Dunning yells at her father when, in his innocence, he gets in the way of mischievous, escaped cows and blocks their passage through a critical gate open to where they’re supposed to be going. Then, still full of remorse, she tries to honor her father by asking him to carve the Thanksgiving Turkey—the relationship now changed forever.

Living with animals in the 70s included taking their lives, intentionally or not intentionally. Farming presupposes the role of life-taker. An assumption sometimes only challenged by a child, as when Dunning’s young daughter—a one-person Greek chorus—wails, “Why does everything have to die?”

When a cow is to be slaughtered, Dunning, pregnant, feels she should help, but dreads participating. She is relieved when her neighbor Morley appears to take her place and comments, “Has Jack been reading that damn book again?” Some how-to-slaughter-a-large-animal guidebook that we back-to-the-landers might have bought back then in a counter-culture bookstore. Morley continues, “And you shouldn’t be anywhere near. It could upset you and harm your baby. This is not something to mess with.”

But Dunning has always messed with it. With the Otherness. Always walking a line close to something larger than herself. Something she is aware of and paints with her imagery. Pointing at things that most of us—deep down— know something about.

Dunning confesses to a lingering self-doubt on the Ontario farm. Her husband also taught at a university; while she at times worried, she may have been “just a farm wife.” But when you read her writing, you see she was no such thing. She was becoming a psychagogue in the sense of someone who—in this case, with words—can lead us right up to the edge of other worlds. Someone who offers us a path to understanding the Land and the Creatures on it that we live with—human and non-human. Aside from also being one of the finest and strongest writers I have ever read.

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What is a day like in my little Mexican city? I stretch my spine, put on a jacket and go into the kitchen. I get on my hands and knees to light the fake wood stove in the corner. A modest gas flame surrounds modest fake logs. I switch on a small silent fan that hangs in back of the stove and pushes warm air out into the room. There are two folded cotton blankets, multicolored, in front of the stove. This is where our two cats take their positions. My position is in front of the refrigerator. I take the homemade loaf of bread out. I cut a slice and put it in the toaster. I pour Mexican Alpura corporate yogurt into a glass bowl and, on top of that, ladle out homemade, crude applesauce, spiced with nutmeg and Vietnamese cinnamon. I add seven Costco home-roasted almonds. I find a treasured implement. An inexpensive Czech butter spreader purchased in Prague, serrated on one edge. I pluck the ready slice of homemade bread out of the Chinese toaster. It is the miracle food, depending on what you read and what your culture is. We import the Winter Red Wheat berries from California in sealed three-pound plastic bags. Larger quantities are vulnerable. There are critters here that, given enough time, can bore through thick plastic and reach the rich, organic, whole-wheat egg-laying environment. I am still using the same Seventh Day Adventist or some other survivalist kit electric stone mill that I put together at least forty years ago. With the Czech butter spreader I lift old fashioned peanut butter out of a Laura Scudder’s jar we scored in the larger gringo community an hour and twenty minutes to the east of us. San Miguel de Allende. To the locals there, SMA.

 

Our black alpha cat Lilus Kikus comes up the stairs. We took the name from Elena Poniatowska’s first novel. She is the grande dame of Mexican literature. One of us has released her from her room. She wears a cat cone so she can’t lick the treated abscess on her rear end. She bumps into things. Today, we take her to the vet’s, where she will be in shared solitary, hopefully with similar species. I suppose it is like going to prison, where we have been five times since August, to visit our friend, a Mexican who loves his two horses and who might destroy himself if the false charges stick. In other places, I have written about the Mexican justice system.

 

Alpha cat used to be invisible in the dark. Now she advances like a small bull elephant with white warning ears.

 

My made-in-China iPhone dings. My dear friend and writing partner’s mother has died. It’s a Spanish I’m not familiar with. “El donde hoy falleció mi mamá.” It is sad but not entirely unexpected news. There is always the end of life waiting for us.

 

As I eat my yogurt mix, I utilize my made-in-China, slave-wages mini iPad to read my Kindle version of Phillip Kerr’s Les Ombres de Katyn, The Shadows of Katyn. I read it in French translation to maintain my contact with the language. It is riveting in a sad sort of way. I am a child of the Holocaust in the sense that, when I was eight years old and in the thrall of a couple of Walt Disney movies in Norwich, New York, the News Reel divided the two movies with footage from Dachau, or some other KZ, in black and white of an American or German bulldozer pushing white, flopping skeletal Jews, Russian prisoners of war or gays into a massive pit, with German citizens forced to look on. My fellow witnesses to something inconceivable.

 

The Phillip Kerr novel is about the circumstances and intrigue surrounding the NKVD’s, Stalin’s secret police’s, execution of 4,000 – 5,000 Polish officers, along with 18,000 others, so that no organized resistance would ever arise on the Polish flank again. A single German bullet—to throw off possible future forensics—to the base of the skull, wrists wired in front, a loop of wire around the neck, being forced to the edge of the pits. How is an eight-year old supposed to understand this? Or the man who is now seventy years older? As you can see, there has been little progress. But now I test the gravity-fed water in the bathroom sink, after running it for a while. It is solar-heated. Barely. I decide to risk it and step under the miserly shower head. I am grateful when the clouds have spared me  their presence, when the water is warm enough to comfort the base of my skull.

 

In the cafe where I am writing this, an impoverished indigenous boy drifts my way. He is selling chicle, chewing gum, in tiny packages. He goes past my little table and me for some reason. He is more interested in the young woman giving haircuts in this my favorite writing cafe. The cafe is some sort of a collective of educated, bright young people, gentle and smart. Its customers are mostly students, including French, German, Japanese and Americans studying at the university or at one of the several language schools. The Indian boy with the chicles does not go to school. No one sees to it that he does. He belongs to a marginalized, forgotten group. There are adults that run him 19th century Dickensian style. He is one of many faces of poverty and neglect in a land full of billionaires. He stands close to my small, open backpack. I wonder whether my attention should be on him or on my writing. But he glides away from me and closer to the object of his interest. The twin sister of someone I know in the collective is visiting from Mexico City and is cutting hair nine feet away from me, like a visiting country priest dispensing blessings. She is capable and conducts conversation as she cuts and snips. Neither the boy nor I will need a haircut for some time, but both of us I think were imagining her gentle hands touching our hair, the comb on the back of our head. A series of her friends and their children are taking advantage of her visit. None of them marginalized. They are Mexico’s best, invisible to the largely self-serving national leadership. They are young people who want a better Mexico. I feel lucky to share their lives. This scene, this stage, is the very opposite of Katyn. The forest just east of Smolensk.

 

After a brisk shower, I dress, gather my knapsack and writing things, including a little notebook, and descend the 203 steps from our house to the Old City on the canyon floor. My love has delivered Ms. Alpha Cat to vet prison, where her abscess treatment will continue while we are at the beach on the Pacific side of Mexico. At the bottom of the stairs, I turn left and then enter what we call the Vegetable Alley. I see Pilar’s boy-like frame in front of me. Her face is strained. She is too thin. She takes something like a qigong stance and holds her hand out to me. She’s very dark, very dirty and beyond bi-polar high.

 

“Un peso!” she shouts, her voice hoarse.

 

And I always say, “Solamente tengo diez!” and hand her a ten-peso piece. I try not to touch her hand, because I don’t think she washes. She takes the coin, whirls around and spits out a curse at someone thirty feet down the alley. Someone who has mocked her. I think she’s saying, “Eeh, cabrón? Chinga a tu perro!” Or more like the plural: “Chinga a tus chingados perros!” I’m pretty sure she’s using the masculine ending. I say, “Cuídate, Pilar.” Take care, Pilar! To show her and others that I recognize her as my friend. I touch her on the shoulder to show friendship. People catch my eye, as I proceed. Crazy, dirty lady, say the grinning eyes. I smile back, betraying Pilar. But these mockers are also part of my world. It is a rare day that this exchange does not occur. Sometimes when she is more coherent and her mind is racing less, Pilar asks, “Hey, do you want a sexual?” That’s the expression, a sexual. An adjective with no noun, sort of like what she is. I thank her and say no.

 

I pass the young woman and her sister with the comal who sell warm tacos. The younger one always wears a wool cap, no matter how warm it is. She is smart. I know their names. I always make some joke when I pass. They are generous with their laughter. I think they will live out their lives selling tacos. That idea used to bother me. It no longer does. There is much to be said for work that does not shower Hellfire missiles down from your country’s drones. Their food is not popular. Even I do not eat there.

 

I enter one of the city’s few busy streets. The traffic is one-way, the sidewalk narrows to the width of about fifteen inches. You have to be aware. There is a curve and when the buses that are too big make the turn their rear ends swerve to within twelve inches of the building touching the sidewalk. It is fairly exciting unless you are someone who is both wide and  not paying attention. It helps that the buses are probably not exceeding five miles an hour.

 

I duck into the pedestrian alley where the cafe is located. Mexican and South American New Years tourists stroll toward me. They are in no hurry and don’t worry about approaching me five abreast, as if family takes the right of way. I step up into the cafe. I see the young woman cutting hair. I am surprised, but not very. I say hello to a few of my young friends. They greet me warmly. I sit down and begin to write. It is what I need. Being surrounded by these gentle people. Watching the hair cutting. Smiling inside, then also on the outside. So far from Katyn—if not from the missing and still unaccounted for 43 students of Ayotzinapa.

 

 

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If you write two historical novels—spaced sixteen years apart, then you have to write a third one, so you’ll have a trilogy. Which I suppose is something like a triptych – a painting with three panels, an idea—in writing at least—originating with the Greeks themselves.

Because of the spacing between the first two novels—1900 and 1916 in the history of Mexico, and following the rules of compulsion, mixed with a little obsession, the third novel should be either sixteen years earlier, 1884, or sixteen years later, 1936.

Right away I see trouble with 1936. It is too close to my birth date of 1937. I don’t want to diminish the importance of that historic date, even though I was born in Morristown, New Jersey and not in Erongaricuaro, Michoacán. A better date would be 1884, when Porfirio Díaz was beginning the second part of his thirty-year reign, though he had really never given up power during the interregnum when others seemed to take over, Juan Méndez and Manuel González. In all, the old devil served seven terms as president of Mexico. Surely, that must provide a good deal more material.

But what about elements of Novel One and Novel Two? Why not the grandson of One coming together with the daughter of Two? Of course, some mathematics would be involved to get them together in a plausible time and place. The there would have to be a plot that was somehow related to the two earlier plots—suppression of the Yaquis in the first, and a glimpse of the Mexican Revolution in the second. Perhaps—looking forward again—something to do with Lázaro Cárdenas’s land distribution or his nationalization of foreign oil companies, specifically of American and British-Dutch oil companies.

We know this happened, but we don’t know why those countries didn’t react by invading Mexico in order to set this right, since there is a long precedent for this kind of behavior. This is the first of the questions that come up. And so we begin to speculate, so that we will know what we don’t know. The answer lies in this direction. Porfirio Díaz had seen to it that the Americans and British had built a system of railroads. From then until 1936, Mexico had imported a lot of weapons and studied enough warfare in order to know how to leave one million of their own dead in the Revolution. Perhaps there was a certain parity in weaponry at that time. The losses to the U.S. and Britain would have been considerable. Not to mention again to Mexico.

Plus, the Depression was still making itself felt in the U.S., and Germany and Japan were rearming. The U.S. and Britain had to do the same. Perhaps they made a deal with Cárdenas, that Mexico would keep selling the oil and agree to pay for the expropriations. Until that agreement was reached, there must have been some skullduggery. And since I like skullduggery—at a distance, it seems as if this period could be a fruitful time for the Third Novel.

I have arrived at this point without doing any research. Guided only by the Mexican saying: Te conozco, Mosco, por tu zumbidito – I know you, Fly, by the way you buzz. Which is as much to say, I know enough about Mexican-American history to be able to predict certain patterns. Up to this point, I have been sniffing only.

I have read a little since.

There was a strong Mexican Petroleum Workers Union—the formation of which the outsiders had tried to block, sometimes by illegal tactics (hopefully a source of skullduggery); the foreign petroleum companies were making much higher profits Mexico than in the U.S; a strike ensued with popular support; the Mexican Supreme Court sided with the strikers, as did the president of Mexico; the Court ordered the foreign companies to pay 26,000,000 pesos in back wages; the companies resisted; a boycott of Mexican goods and products ensued; the U.S. press vilified Mexico; in the U.S. State Department, a war was underway between friends of Mexico and potential enemies of Mexico—the latter fearing a Bolshevik-communist adversary, or a Fascist one at their border; in order to survive the boycott and embargo, Mexico had to trade oil for money and machinery with European fascist countries; a political faction inside Mexico, in disagreement with Cárdenas’s nationalizing, threatened internal revolt; Josephus Daniels, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico liked president Cárdenas, and vice versa; Roosevelt listened to Daniels and saw a kindred soul Cárdenas; and so there was no invasion of Mexico; Cárdenas went to the conservative Catholic bishops of Mexico and asked for help in raising the cash to pay compensation for the nationalized oil companies; the bishops ordered the word spread throughout Mexico by dint of his priests’ sermons; thousands of women responded by assembling in front of the Palacio de Belles Artes, Mexico City, on April 12, 1938 with donations—from chickens to jewelry—to pay off the foreign debt; on June 7, 1938 President Cárdenas issued the decree that created Petróleos Mexicanos (PEMEX), “with exclusive rights over exploration, extraction, refining and commercialization of oil in Mexico.”

Is there material enough in this saga of Mexicanization? I think so. But I have more research to do, I think, in order to find a yarn to spin.

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Recently, I ran into an old friend, Tonio Kröger. “Tonio Kröger” is the name of a short novel by Thomas Mann. Tonio’s father is a Lübeck patrician and the essence of North German purpose and propriety. Tonio’s mother is a southern dark-eyed beauty; she is passionate, musical, impulsive, and vague. She takes no positions on anything.

Tonio’s name comes from one of her brothers and is not northern and German enough. Tonio grows up learning how to see what is behind everything. He becomes a writer, a poet – and is therefore forever set apart from the blond, blue-eyed beautiful people who live robust lives of gain and satisfaction.

He wants his boyhood friend Hans Hansen to value him above all others. He is in love with Ingeborg Holm, who is more drawn to Hans Hansen. They – Hans and Ingeborg – are put off by Tonio’s brooding, sensitivity, his literary nature. Tonio becomes a sought-after writer. He scorns those who find themselves changed by his writing. He holds a long soliloquy in front of his Russian painter friend Lisaweta Iwanowna, who serves him coffee while he complains about not being one of those he wishes would love him – the blond and blue-eyed, who are popular and take riding lessons.

Lisaweta says, Tonio, I have listened to you go on and on, and now I am going to tell you what you are. I imagine her putting her hand lovingly on his shoulder. Du bist ein verirrter Bürger, she says. You are a member of the bourgeoisie who has gone astray. That is all she says, but the meaning is clear. He is a bourgeois, a city dweller, who has somehow fallen in among painters, writers, and musicians – at his own peril.

Lisaweta is a kind woman, a hard-working artist, and a friend. Tonio picks up his hat and leaves, unable to accept either intimacy or ironic truth. It is a great moment in modern German literature – Mann telling the truth to one of his own creations. A truth which ricochets in our direction. It goes to the question which secretly concerns most of us: To what extent are we artists? In which direction do we lean more – metaphorically – toward our orderly, somewhat melancholy patrician father, or more toward our passionate and beautiful southern mother? To what extent are we able to integrate both parts and achieve the creative tension between practiced persistence and dreamy passion?

Goethe speaks about true freedom existing only within a limiting structure. Nietzsche designates the two sides as the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Lisaweta describes it as der verirrte Bürger. The bourgeois gone astray, but still bourgeois. Writing fiction may require the unfettered inner voice – the storyteller – and the external sober adherence to clear grammar, economy of expression, cadence, and sound. The storyteller speaks from internal images, of things seen and actions taken. A painter uses years of learned technique to  reproduce a moment of recognition, to such an extent that the viewer of his art believes that he or she has glimpsed something known to be true and striking.

Goethe criticized the German Romantics for their lack of order and limits, for their adherence to mental suffering and excess. Yet, some of the German Romantics knew how to remove their protagonists from bourgeois restraints. The hero wandered away from town, skipping out on hard, boring work, and got lost, traveled through strange landscapes, and went through the stages of individuation, die Mutternachtseefahrt, the mother-night-sea journey, which both Jung and Joseph Campbell talk about.

After Lisaweta’s comment, Tonio leaves Munich and takes a trip north. He visits his childhood home, which is now a municipal library. At the hotel, a policeman demands his papers, suspecting him of being a confidence man from the south. It is an old Thomas Mann theme: the similarity between the writer and the criminal, perhaps because they both steal. Tonio carries no papers. In an effort to establish his identity, he takes out a manuscript he is working on. This act only increases the policeman’s suspicion. Still, Tonio manages to cross over to Denmark. He stays in a well-known seaside resort. He walks along the beach. He rejoices in the booming green and white of the sea. He appreciates the northern bourgeois non-writers he finds himself among. His scorn washes away. He is at peace.

A group of tourists arrives. They are boisterous and happy. By stroke of fate – at least so it seems – among them are his childhood loves. Hans Hansen – nearly twenty years later, still wearing his sailor frock and tasseled Imperial sailor’s cap. He is still blond and blue-eyed, still presuming in his rank as handsome and deserving burgher. And there – at least so it seems – is Ingeborg Holm, a little fuller, her bright blue eyes somewhat more squinty, but as healthy and lovely as ever.

From the safety of the dark terrace, Tonio watches them dance. He moves closer and takes a seat. They pass right in front of him, over and over, but they never see him, never recognize him. And therefore, nothing has changed. He loves them anyway but this time feels no pain, no suffering from being rejected. In bed, on his pillow, the boy in him still prays that she will come to him – but she does not. He whispered two names into the pillow,” Thomas Mann writes, “these few chaste, Nordic syllables which were synonymous with what he knew about love, suffering, happiness, life, deep feeling, and home. At the same time, he saw himself eaten up by irony and intellect, laid barren and paralyzed by knowledge…caught halfway between sainthood and rutting…and he sobbed, out of regret and homesickness.”

The next day he writes to Lisaweta Iwanowna. “I stand between two worlds, am at home in neither, and for that reason it is not easy. You painters call me a bourgeois, and the bourgeois are suspicious and want to arrest me…I admire the proud and cold, who venture out on paths toward demonic Beauty and who despise mere common people. But I don’t envy them. For if there is anything that can make a Poet out of a literati like me, it is this bourgeois love in me for what is human, alive, and common. All warmth, all that is good, all humor comes from this…When I write, I hear the sea churning, and I shut my eyes. I look into an unborn, shadowy world, which seeks order and expression, I see what looks like human forms waving at me, asking that I seize them and release them into Story. Tragic and ridiculous figures, or mixtures of both, I am very fond of them. But my deepest and most secret love is reserved for the blond and blue-eyed, the bright and vital ones, who are happy and kind and common.”

Thomas Mann redeems Tonio Kröger. But the question remains: Who will redeem us? To what extent are we the artist of der verwirrte Bürger, el ciudadano extraviado, the bourgeois gone astray? One part parched ordering patrician; one part feminine, fiery, passionate, and suspect. Does our own artistic grace lie somewhere on this continuum? Is that what we are looking for: redemption? I have not had answers to these questions. And that is why I was so happy to run into my old friend Tonio Kröger again, and Thomas Mann’s clear and passionate prose.

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