Tuesday, January 13, 2015

"Artists should be the oxygen of society"

A window in the restaurant of Casa Maria
San Agustin Etla, Oaxaca--

This morning someone posted a marvelous article about 33 Artists in 3 Acts, a book by Sarah Thornton. The article included some terrific quotes by artists who are also activists. Like these two.

"Artists should be the oxygen of society. The function of the artist in a disturbed society is to give awareness of the universe, to ask the right questions, to open consciousness and elevate the mind."
          --Marina Abramovic

"Loneliness is a valuable feeling. Artists need to know how to walk alone."
                  --Ai Weiwei

I was musing all morning about creativity and the role of the artist. I naturally thought about Francisco Toledo.  As soon I arrived in Oaxaca 6 weeks ago, I became quite aware of Francisco Toledo, a Zapotec artist around my age whose contributions to art and social change here are impressive and very inspiring.

Some days things just naturally come together and today was like that. I went up the hill to have comida at Casa Maria, a restaurant that is part of an old hotel. It's a beautiful place, and on the walls there are 6 small drawings by Francisco Toledo.
Francisco Toledo
The restaurant was much busier than it usually is when I eat there. I sat down where I usually sit. At the next table, there sat the artist Francisco Toledo with a group of his friends. They were enjoying themselves and I really enjoyed being that close to them.  Yes, I wanted to talk with him, but it didn't feel right. What could I say? In Spanish, not much, certainly not what I wanted to say. I didn't have the Spanish words to say "Senor Toledo, I admire what you have done and what you no doubt will continue to do and I am grateful that your creativity is so generous, beautiful, practical and inspired."
At the Centro de las Artes de San Agustin
So I contented myself with feeling happy about having the chance to see him. What I noticed was his simplicity, humility and naturalness. Refreshing, especially for someone like me who has seen a lot of more ego-driven artist behavior, especially in New York City.

Francisco Toledo has done some amazing things here in Oaxaca. Through his leadership, a big trash-filled field was transformed into the marvelous Ethnobotanical Garden. He spearheaded development of Centro de las Artes de San Agustin, a spacious museum whose corn exhibit I wrote about here in an earlier essay. He was instrumental in the establishment of an art library at the Instituto de Artes Graficas de Oaxaca (IAGO), and was involved in the founding of the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Oaxaca (MACO), among other projects.
Sunset in San Agustin Etla
 I imagine that Toledo had a great deal to do with convening an upcoming cultural event that will be held at the San Agustin Center for the Arts. It will be a gathering of poetry, narrative, song and childrens' literature-- all in the Zapotec language.

Artists can have significant effects on society, catalyzing profound changes in awareness, presenting the gift of beauty, opening up individuals, cities and cultures to their deeper music. Toledo is such an artist. Bravo.

I will be leaving this beautiful little village in two days. It is not always easy to leave beautiful places. Perhaps I will return here. Perhaps I will live here someday. It is not clear yet.  But it feels good to think that I can return. I am happy that I have had 2 weeks to relax in the midst of its beauty, to walk the dirt roads, seeing many beautiful birds and enjoying the river that runs nearby. I needed to take some time to refresh after two months in the ancient, busy cities of Guanajuato and Oaxaca. And I did. Now I am headed for La Paz, the capital of Baja. Que to vaya bien. May it go well with you.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

A High Spirited New Year to You!

"Life isn't about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself."
                      -- George Bernard Shaw

In High Spirits

I started Sage's Play because I feel passionate about the richness and bounty of age. The Sage's Play perspective is about growing old with the emphasis on growing. Which means continuing to explore, stretch, learn and deepen as an elder, someone with worthwhile qualities and much life experience to share with others.

In the US, we are afflicted with a variety of toxic attitudes about aging and toward old people. One of the reasons why I decided to spend the winter in Mexico this year was this: I wanted to experience another culture's way of being with older people.  What a relief it is to be in Mexico, where there is none of the dismissive, condescending behavior toward older people that is found in the US. Nobody is rolling their eyes at you, looking away from you because you are older, ignoring you or being sarcastic or dismissive. It is a restorative experience for me, and one of the reasons why I am considering spend much more time in Mexico.

If you are in the US or another country that marginalizes the old, then high-spirited aging means not buying into those stereotypes, not becoming a caricature of yourself, but continuing to engage in a real, vivacious, lively, energetic, happy way with life. No matter what country you live in, having a high-spirited attitude is naturally invigorating and healthy. That's why I am sending wishes that your 2015 be high-spirited. May your life this year be happy, fulfilling and creative.

In the Village of San Agustin Etla

It's January 3rd already. I have moved into a pleasant room at Rincon San Agustin, a country posada in San Agustin Etla, a village 16 miles out of Oaxaca city that has a justified reputation for being very beautiful.

I came upon these morning glories though, not in San Agustin but just around the corner from where I stayed with Conchita on a very busy street in Oaxaca. I love blue flowers. They are so ethereal. I stayed with Conchita for a couple of weeks. She is a wonderful, cheerful woman. I probably told you that she has lived in her house all her life. I liked her a lot, and her family and helpers were all great, too.

But she was renting four other rooms out. (Which I did not know when I booked the place. Read airbnb descriptions carefully, and certainly ask more questions, I tell myself.) Because sometimes the guests were not as pleasant as Conchita and her family. An understatement. Especially regarding the young German tourists whose amazingly loud, drunken behavior assaulted us all one long night.

I was really ready to have a respite from being in cities after two months spent in Guanajuato and Oaxaca. I wanted to see open fields and trees. I wanted to be in a more quiet environment for awhile. The posada here provides this. It is right next to a river, and I can hear the sound of the water from my abode, as well as the sounds of birds and when the breeze comes up in the afternoons, the sound of the wind in the trees. Though what passes as a river here is more like what we call a creek in Oregon. In fact, Lithia Creek in Ashland is often wider than the river here.

Bad hair day, or just letting down one's hair?
Traveling in new places, one naturally has a great interest in experiencing the local culture. One goes to museums, concerts, fiestas, mercados. One  sits in the zocalo and in plazuelitas, surveying the passing scene. One tries out the local cuisine, and in my case, one seeks places where vegetables are favored. Though not a vegetarian, I do want many more vegetables than are provided in the customary Mexican diet. It is possible. There are some wonderful restaurants in Oaxaca, including some that serve plenty of veggies.

I am smitten with the rose colored walls at this restaurant Tio Guero. The ambiance and food there are good. But my favorite places are La Jicara, La Olla and La Biznaga.

Today is the first day I have a very open, free schedule with only two appointments. My first appointment is at  3pm when I will go to my host Amalia's house for comida, the main meal of the day, which she is cooking and I am looking forward to eating, especially so since I have been eating only one meal a day for the past few weeks. And my second appointment is at 5:30pm, when I will go on a walk with Amalia along the river.
Another painting on that gorgeous rose colored wall

It feels very good to let go of all the activity I have been engaging in while in the city and to take a break. Not exactly to do nothing at all, which if you have ever tried it is not easy unless you are in a meditation retreat, and even then it is not easy. In fact meditation is a lot of work, which some of you readers no doubt know.

I will be here in San Agustin until January 15th, and I am hoping to get some work done on a book about Tibetan master Gyatrul Rinpoche and the development of his center, Tashi Choling.

In my travels thus far, I have not done much on this project, but hopefully, the good conditions at this place will allow me to focus on it. It is a big project, and one close to my heart, since I have been involved with Tashi Choling from its beginnings and am a longtime student of Gyatrul Rinpoche.

I have done about 20 interviews, and while I need to conduct more interviews and collect much more reseach, I think I can find a way to write some passages and excerpts given what I have assembled up until now.

"Human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them . . . Life obliges them over and over to give birth to themselves."                
 --- Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The church at the Mitla ruins
But to return for a moment to the business of seeing things while traveling, I generally dislike going on tours. However, I bit the bullet and went on one earlier this week.

When you're traveling alone and do not want to rent a car or cannot convince some unsuspecting person to join you, sometimes a tour is the best option.

There were three vehicles on this particular tour, two of which were filled with gringos. It turned out that I was the only gringo on the bus full of Mexicans, which I enjoyed. I got a chance to hang out and listen to their conversations and experience their reactions after we visited various places.

Mitla ruins

One thing I dislike about tours is the short time one spends in each place. An hour? Just not enough time most of the time. Anyway, we went to Mitla, a beautiful and famous pre-Hispanic site, said to be the place where people moved after they abandoned their city at Monte Alban.

We made a brief visit to the village of Teotitlan, where we were given an interesting talk on natural dyes and weaving and we took a beautiful road up to Hierve de Agua, which is one of the most spectacular places I have ever seen. I did not take any pictures that did it justice.

Turquoise pools of water in white limestone, cascades of limestone "waterfalls' flowing down the hill, the whole scene set high up in the mountains. Amazing. Magical. That is a place I would like to return to and stay for an overnight or two. Hierve de Agua. Here's a link if you want to read more.

The tour took all day. We ate a delicious lunch at a buffet-style restaurant, visited a mescal brewery where most of us tasted this and that.  Finally at dusk we arrived at the ancient Tule tree, said to be the tree with the widest girth in the world.  It is a beautiful tree indeed and seeing it made me both happy and sad. I wish there were many more ancient, immense trees in our world. Gigantic old trees are so nourishing, and so comforting. I dream of vast ancient forests.

I had a delightful Christmas day at a wonderful fiesta in a beautiful garden. The party, the guests, the food, the drink--it was all marvelous. I met some great people there. I have no idea if I will encounter them anywhere again. That's one of the things about traveling. You have to leave places and people. It's good practice for dying, at least I hope so.

But of course since I am still very much alive, I would like to continue to become friends with some of those folks, most of whom were interesting gringos in my age range.

It is wonderful to experience the skill of the craftspeople and artists here in this part of Mexico. This loom is in a workshop in Teotitlan.

Here generations pass on their knowledge and design/skill lineage to their children and kin. We have lost that to a large extent in the US, but it is strong here and very beautiful.

This is the dirt road near the posada where I am staying in San Agustin Etla. If I turn right from the posada, I can walk to another small village, whose name I do not recall. I think I will learn more about this road when Amalia and I walk together later today.

This is the building that houses the center of the arts in San Agustin Etla. It once was a textile factory.  I wrote about the exhibit which is currently being shown there in an earlier blog.

The current exhibit focuses on a very important issue --- protecting native corn from genetic modification. I've included a link here with more photos and description. It is a lovely place.

Now out of nowhere, a band is playing on a road nearby. Such is life in Mexico. Oh, and now a big explosion of course, now two. Always celebrating something, usually quite noisily, too.

It was a short burst of music, as it turns out. Now it is quiet. The sun is shining. The clouds are floating across the sky. This is how it is right now, in this moment. A sweet moment. The present moment. Just breathing in and out as life flows through. A woman in high spirits. Wishing you well.