Since I was the youngest by 3 or 4 decades, my traveling companions were relieved it was me who, drained from travel and the stifling heat (and a sip of the local margarita), interrupted pleasantries to declare that I might pass out. Our host for the week escorted me to the warm cement sidewalk of a dirt street outside the humble restaurant and waited until the cool breeze of the desert night revived me. She asked me polite questions, mostly trying to ease my embarrassment, but also to indirectly resolve how it is that at not even 30 years old, I had become close friends and travel companions with a cadre of women in their 60’s.
The babel of barking dogs woke me the next morning, which was after the night of dreaming she came to hold me. Somehow, the dark sensuality of this woman a half-century older did not alarm me.
In the morning painting session, I start with images and colors I have known before, but they don’t cooperate. As I paint canvases full of utterly conventional crap, I find myself at the edge of tears. There in the shade of her turquoise and pink adobe courtyard, tendrils of bougainvillea cling to the walls closing in on me, mocking my vulnerability and failure — like the stuffing has fallen out of my bra and the world sees me trying to put it back.
She sees the paintings and since I cannot dare the gracelessness needed to throw them over the fence, I wish for once they could tell a lie. She moves like a dancer around them and critiques them with the fists of a boxer. I am politely mute, in turn, hating my own politeness. I want to hate her but she is just the conduit.
Plus, San Miguel de Allende overwhelms my sensitivity. I know why the dogs bark. All of them trying to simplify and drown out the brightly jarring colors, the incessant music from blocks away, the dead heat, the spirit voices, the craving for something other. The unreachable ocean.
The next night I dream that my neighbor’s contractor tears out my yard. All my cherished plants are missing, upturned soil exposes eviscerated roots. I experience an abyss where there once had been logic and rationality. Before hitting bottom, I wake to the pre-dawn storm of bird songs.
My dream is clear to her. She tells me in deep tones and direct terms that this unknown is the place where I want to be. Because of this and the buzz in her words, I start crying as she speaks, releasing all the tears that started bubbling in the courtyard. Tears that were neatly packaged screams against my mediocrity, my mundane banality, my safety. Tears that were cages holding a fearful but overgrown child wanting out into the wilderness. My painter friends look on tenderly, thinking it is because I’m sad. But I am beyond sad or happy, I am approaching otherness.
They think she is only speaking to me.
She says, this crying business, as if to be disdainful and compassionate at the same time, is something that only artists can understand.
I would return years later for an extended time considering the small city, my being in the midst of fertility treatment, and the lack of communication to my home from this gritty, foreign country. I was prisoner again to my own painting in her light-drenched studio, but she was a gentle and stern warden. We had many conversations here and there, aside a parade of indigenous costume-wearing tribes, over breakfasts in teeming gardens, after a dip in the local mineral springs, and hopping along the cobblestones incongruently filling the roads.
Sensing her increased frailty and watching her meticulous devotion to a series of sparsely charcoaled paintings of local ruins — to me obvious elegies to past magnanimous accomplishment — I asked if she was questioning her mortality. She, sitting in the improbably verdant backdrop of a sumptuous, water-filled courtyard garden gleaming in desert light and singing heat, answered with a smile, and maybe a slight disingenuousness: not anymore than I always have.
Some mornings new art books would appear at my breakfast table, always with unspoken pertinence. I loaned her my copy of Mary Oliver’s recent Evidence — a book of searching poems comprised of terse words around what cannot be buried, even spoken, after a loss, or death.
So I can imagine exactly how it was when she died a few weeks ago. Her bed is overlooking her wildly tended garden. She is arms-distance to her favorite art pieces ranging from profoundly poetic to those with playful certainty, and those, maybe her favorite, continually in serious questioning. I can see the washed out colors of early Mexican spring, feel the light-headed air of the high altitude aggressively dancing with the dust lifted and levitating in her richly alive, medieval Latin city. And I hear a liturgy from the birds of her neighborhood, of course, taking over the tinny brass horns droning from distant radios. The birds alone can accept that someone who loved life so much should have to leave it. As a consolation, when dawn breaks leaving an emptiness for the rest of us, they send jewels of ephemeral birdsong down to earth to adorn her.
“Toute chose sacrée et qui veut demeurer sacrée s’enveloppe de mystère.” Stephane Mallarmé
(Painting by Leigh Hyams)