Saturday, September 15, 2012

To Catch a Fish

Although I don’t always blend that well, somehow I’ve enjoyed the benefit of ambiguous national identity; people might know I’m not one of theirs, but they don’t know my tribe.  Italian, Spanish, Israeli, Colombian, French, Greek. . . I’ve been cast as all of these.  I suppose globalization has made it harder than it once was to identify people, even while engaging a keen eye for subtleties of body language, affect and styles of dress; maybe people don’t project their nationalities quite so obviously.  Considering the attitude toward U.S. Americans in many parts of the world, and especially in light of recent events in the Middle East, I value my generic ‘passing’ status as a Citizen of the Universe; I think I’d choose that status even if being American didn’t come with so many complicated associations; I don’t want to be defined by the land that bore me.

All that said -- while to bewilder can be useful, to connect is divine.

multi-generation stone-throwing. . . never gets old
Ryan and Doug
Ryan -- bringer of bread, thrower of stones
Before we left our house by the sea and set out for Sidi Bou Said, -- a cliff-top village about an hour north that beckoned artists and philosophers such as Paul Klee, August Macke and Michel Foucault – a member of the extended family of our hosts offered to tattoo me with a mixture of plant dyes she had made.  Of course I accepted, and sat cross-legged on the living room carpet with Nadia – a woman about my age who had cared for us all week – and her mother, the tattoo artist.  Neither of them had ever left the village of about 2,000 people – and as women, rarely spent time outside of houses.  Nadia asked me lots of questions (in French) -- including when Doug and I planned to get married.  I told her we were just friends and decided against explaining our ‘tribal’ differences.  Nadia took my hand and told me she was going to miss me -- which was sweet, and it made me realize that she probably wondered about us just as much as we wondered what life was like for her and her husband Salah and their son, Ryan.  I guess it’s important to accept that people make up their own stories about who you are -- it can’t be helped.   Never let the truth get in the way, as they say – except, of course, a relationship that is filled with projection is limited by nature.  How to relate in a way that goes beyond someone else’s story about who you are or to somehow get your stories aligned is difficult even when we’re from the same culture and speak the same language.  Still, I think it’s possible -- when we choose it -- to discover each other and reveal ourselves in an honest and non-bullshitty way.

After visiting Bizerte -- the Venice of Africa with its network of canals and crumbling opulence -- Doug spent just one day in Sidi Bou Said and set off for New York, leaving me to experience life in a Muslim culture without a man in attendance.  I entertained myself with stories about the other guests in the hotel -- a beautiful tiled villa whose period of greatest vigor seemed to have been about 30 years ago -- and assumed they might have done the same about me.  There was an English woman and her daughter, both always impeccably dressed, smoking and drinking sunset cocktails and appearing to be having very important conversations; I imagined them returning to their estate in the English countryside, riding horses and living a life of mannered privilege.  I decided to become a regular at the old school French-Tunisian restaurant across the street and enjoyed flirting (subtly, of course) with the more polite of the extremely formal waiters.  I took the a long winding and unfortunately trash-strewn path down to the bottom of the hill, walked around the marina and the beach and wandered around the town, read by the pool and enjoyed the turquoise doors and jasmine-scented evenings. . .but found myself looking forward to returning to an environment where I wouldn’t be quite so conspicuous.
The Hotel Dar Said
the gardener brought me these lemon-scented leaves
I met up with my friend Sibylle in Paris and, thanks partly to her mastery of French, we merged into the up-and-coming arty neighborhood around the Canal St. Martin.  My friend Nupu also joined us from London for one day and one night.  We spent the week talking in cafes and riding the winding rues and wide boulevards on city bikes, with the assistance of some friendly French gentlemen.  We ate delicious crusty bread and escargot and cheese and foie gras, drank wine, heard an amazing multi-generational band from Chile, made wishes at Notre Dame, ogled beauty products in French pharmacies, sampled perfumes, performed yoga poses in front of statues and enjoyed the first days of autumn within Paris’ endless enchantments.


Nupu, Hilary and Sib 

Los Bipolares at New Morning, 10th Arr.

It was interesting to spend time in two such different cultures. . . or rather, two cultures in such different moments of development – one arguably quite entrenched in its ways and while it can be admired, it's hard to truly access. . . sort of a Ryan Gosling of a city; and the other more fascinating for its chaos and squalor, in the midst of one in long and varied history of dramatic transitions.  It made me think about countries, cultures, systems and individuals in evolution -- how we destroy and rebuild ourselves again and again, how to divest ourselves of ways of being that are no longer relevant and prevent us from moving forward; how to reconcile with the past, walk toward the future, and exist in the sparkling glimmering present -- as it slips heartily and assuredly through our hands.
boy with fish

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Divine Pulse

photo by Doug
photo by Doug

From Brian Doyle’s The Wet Engine: Exploring the Mad Wild Miracle of the Heart, which I found on the coffee table:
“[The heart] begins when a fetus is three weeks old and a cluster of cells begins to pulse with the cadence of that particular person, a music and rhythm and pace that will endure a whole lifetime.  No one knows why the cluster of cells begins to pulse at that time or with that beat.”
My mom likes to tell the story of how when I was born -- the doctor thought I was a boy due to my fast heartbeat. With two bros already in the house, naturally my mom was hoping for a girl – she needed someone to help civilize the hombres, someone who could clear the Christmas Spode without breaking it, someone to inherit the trunk of Vogue dolls and their vast wardrobes.

I was born in the ‘70s in Portland, Oregon to parents who wouldn’t have painted my room pink even
if they had known my gender prior to my extraction from the womb. I say extraction because I was two weeks late (some things never change).  There were several student nurses around my mom’s room at St. Vincent’s, ostensibly to learn something about inducement of labor from a woman who had already experienced childbirth a couple times.  When I emerged, the student nurses applauded – at once heralding my arrival and prophesizing what promised to be my luminous future as an entertainer.   

My first (official) performances date back to 1980 or so, when my best friend Nicky Ferran and I staged dance recitals on her front lawn and invited the neighbors.  Our fee was small but, we felt, helped legitimize our status as local talent on the rise.  Sometimes we also handed out free slices of baloney to sweeten the deal.  Nicky’s house was wonderfully unsupervised and almost always well-stocked with junk food never found in our Chex-centric kitchen across the street.  From my beginnings on 58th Drive, I continued on in my aspirations to entertain -- living through some humbling failures while attempting to win lead roles in various musical theater productions. My most notable defeats (don’t worry – I’m totally over them) were to Simone Swink (teacher’s pet) and Nicole Leston (a teen model – damn her! -- with no singing, dancing or acting skills, as far as I could tell), who was idealized by the rotund Ms. Dempsey, mistress of the high school drama department.  I auditioned, I was called back, I studied Seventeen Magazine with gusto, I was offered smaller parts – but ultimately I knew I wouldn’t be happy with anything less than the lead -- one of what would be innumerable manifestations of a rather polarized way of thinking (the old me, of course).

‘What does all this random Hilary trivia have to do with Tunisia?’ you might wonder.  Well, doesn’t everything have to do with everything?  Doesn’t the universe exist in a grain of sand?  I believe we established this truth in some previous installations of my travel blog so I will spare any further elucidation on that theme for now.  But actually there is a connection to Tunisia, and I’ll tell you what it is.  Lean in, now. . . One thing I’ve learned is that there’s nothing you can’t do while also smoking a cigarette – playing soccer, gardening, riding a donkey and directing traffic: all entirely possible, and probable.  But perhaps of more significance, I’ve been thinking about women and womanhood, and about men and manhood.  After five days of observing what it means to be a woman in the Arab world -- in a country where what has come to be known as the Arab Spring began, in a country with a supposedly democratically elected government that happens to be comprised of Islamic fundamentalists, -- Doug and I have been kicking around a few ideas.  We watched Ryan Gosling in “Drive” the other night, which spurred a conversation about modern Neanderthals.  Book and song titles have been catalogued.  But getting back to women. . . we’ve seen women in full coverage bathing in the azure sea (and a few in bikinis), and a distinct absence of women in any sort of public place of business – cafes and shops in the village near our beautiful guest house perched above the Mediterranean appear to be exclusively run by men, they employ men, and men are their patrons.  Granted, for all but one day we have been in this seaside summer hamlet, just over an hour north of Tunis -- the country’s capital and main urban center.  Who’s to say that downtown Tunis isn’t a hotbed of what we might consider ‘progressive’ thought and women’s liberation?  What is women’s liberation, anyway?  Ultimately we all want to belong to someone – we just want it to be someone who is worthy, someone who could honor that role and not be a douche about it.  So it doesn’t necessarily mean not being ‘possessed;’ it just means being possessed like a layer of one’s being rather than like a piece of furniture in the chamber of someone’s ego.  I think one relates to each of these types of possession differently.
While outrageously beautiful – and this is indeed an oasis of peace and comfort and natural beauty, largely owing to our hosts, – being in this environment has made me want to smoke cigarettes (if only I could buy them!).  I think it’s just the fact that the landscape is speckled with eight year-old boys riding donkeys and puffing away like the Marlboro man, while grown women scurry through the narrow alleyways holding shrouds around their downcast faces. I don’t mean to paint an unpleasant portrait; every Tunisian we’ve had contact with – and most of our contacts have been men -- has been remarkably friendly and helpful, despite our foreign appearance and minimal (emphasis on ‘mal’) French, and our complete lack of Arabic (although I did learn/remember how to say ‘friend’ before disembarking, first introduced to me by Mohammed, my Saudi neighbor from childhood).  It’s hard to know what to conclude, or whether to conclude anything.

 Our hosts are a German expatriate who arrived here by way of Paris about 17 years ago, and her Tunisian husband (an interpreter) and a young family from the village of Sounine who works for them (complete with an adorable five year-old boy who appears magically in the mornings with fresh bread and bats his luxuriant eyelashes like a coquette).  They have schooled us on what our outdated ‘latest editions’ of Tunisian travel guides were unable to illuminate about the political situation – these things seem to change faster than Lonely Planet or Eyewitness Travel can publish, and the truth is more nuanced than what The New York Times might detail.  It seems to be a common theme that countries where basic freedom is denied have a long messy transition toward understanding how to handle it, and how to keep it from simply falling into the hands of the greediest and most power hungry.  They are distraught about the state of things -- the general state of disarray, the rise of the fundamentalists, the lack of functional infrastructure, even for things like trash collection and electricity.  Of course history reminds us that this land has changed hands innumerable times throughout history and will probably continue to exist in a state of relative flux for some time, given its location and the various factors at play.

Getting back to Brian Doyle and the wet engine that keeps the story going: each of us is worth about two billion pulses, more or less – Muslims, Christians, Jew-Bus (JEW-boos), Atheists, saints and sinners alike -- smoking Marlboros, entertaining the masses or kneeling down before the almighty.  Like the plumbing of the heart, our lives curve and spool and wrap around a million corners, carrying nourishment to various organs along the way.  We’re not sure why it begins and ends and carries on with its particular rhythm – but it’s worth the trip.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Dos Canziones

Dos Canziones
Dos Mas
In spite of my pagan tendencies, I engaged in my own unwitting observance of Lent and now, of Easter.  I cleansed, sacrificed, abstained, fasted and prayed – and now I am on the road to renewal and resurrection.  My ‘moveable feast’ travels its own circuitous path toward wherever it is I’m going.  I hope it’s somewhere good.

Hugo has been a teacher and friend for many years and continues to inspire me with his work and his way of being in the world.  I remember recognizing his unique art of living even in my teen brain; it probably says more about him than it says about me -- but I will accept a small amount of credit for having good taste, even as a high school student.

We spent some hours in his studio on the weekend – I practiced my new song and also made playlists that we sang to while we contemplated textures and colors and Hugo trained me in his print-making techniques.  These are the fruits of our most recent collaboration – and a simple representation of my weeks and months and years of exploration of the seasons of the heart.

Hugo and I watched from a restaurant window as local volunteers wearing robes of burlap walked barefoot and silent through the streets on Friday night.  They carried large platforms with maquettes of Christ and Mary upon their evenly-matched shoulders to commemorate the day that Christ was supposedly crucified.

I suppose we all wade through our own swill on the long and treacherous road to redemption, renewal, and ultimately release from this world – but to crucify a man for claiming to be the son of god seems a little extreme.  I don’t know much about the Bible, but I do know that we have a lot of conflicting testimony in this world – each of us living in our own version of reality within the parts of our minds we dare to engage.  Not to get too Cat Stevens or anything -- I am not converting nor abandoning my musical life -- but escaping this prison, this illusion of limitation and separateness, is, I think, the ultimate deliverance.

Hugo in his studio at La Casa de Espiritus Alegres

A holy meal by Hugo -- breaded tuna, fideo, salad of pineapple, cucumbers, fresh mint and avocado

Friday, April 6, 2012

Outside the Usual Spheres

I've given the same book away the last two times I've been in Colombia -- A Beginner's Guide to Constructing the Universe.  I brought a fancy German compass this time so I could do some of the assignments (see my awesome circles above, which don't conform to any assignment) and left it with my friend Yos, who has one of the copies of the book.  This trip's copy went to Jaime Franco -- painter, philosopher, cinephile, rock climber -- and the stage mother I never had.  These renunciations don't mean I've given up my quest -- I'm just going about universal construction with a slightly different approach.

Jaime Franco and me in Jaime's studio - Bogotá

I brought another book with me that was a gift from someone I met on my last Colombian escapade in December -- biologist, son of Yos, cosmic traveler, cultivator of cocoa and my personal translator and friend, Simón.  I'd been introduced The Teachings of Don Juan in high school (I'm from Portland, after all) but found the accounted journeys into the nature of consciousness a little easier to relate to with a few more years of experience to boast.  
My week  on the northern Caribbean coast of Colombia was the perfect setting in which to reengage Mr. Castaneda and to ponder things like the difference between looking and seeing.  I'm not really one to skimp on exploring the nature of reality, but I find Latin America to provide a more hospitable setting for this type of inquest.  I've managed to find similarly inclined sorts of people and have found ways to communicate in various languages -- though I've also found that words are not only insufficient, but are ultimately kind of incidental once outside the confines of technology -- outside technology, where energetic, psychic and physical communication surpass anything that words could express.  I've thought a lot lately about how curious it is that two people can be experiencing the 'same' thing at the same time -- and yet with nothing more but words to communicate their experiences, each is left to make all sorts of assumptions about how close his experience is to the other's. Where what we call 'connection' exists is where each person's sphere of understanding, belief and experience overlaps with the other's, and there is a shared common space.  In geometry, this space is called the Vesica Pisces -- recently popularized by my friend David Regelin in his yoga stylings and teachings.

Matias, quite possibly one of the sweetest little biscuits whose company I've shared. . . an exotic Mexi-Colombian hybrid.

Yos and me

Santi and me in-between realities -- on the way to the airport to Bogotá

One of the many conversations I had with Jaime and my friend Lina in Bogotá -- and also in Suezca, where we went rock climbing and mountain biking -- was about how and why Latin Americans are so much more demonstrative and expressive of their feelings than North Americans and Europeans generally are.  I think part of why I go to Latin America so much is to soak up all the love and affection -- however fleeting it may ultimately be.  Jaime -- who is one of those people who remembers the most esoteric facts, dates, chronologies and other things I am terrible at remembering -- conceeded that the explanation for this divergence in behavior lies in our religious roots.  The Protestants broke away from the Catholic church in order to escape the hierarchy that characterized it -- they wanted a more direct, more individualistic connection with god.  Henry VIII also wanted a divorce so he could marry a new woman -- one who he ended up having killed, by the way, when she didn't produce a son for him.  Bastard. . . 

Anyway, the northerners/Protestants evolved in societies much more focused on individualism, much more 'vertical' in their orientation to god.  Meanwhile, the Catholics burned a lot of incense and maintained more of a 'horizontal' relationship both to each other and to god -- thus forming societies built around groups, families, hugging, etc.

Otto and Jamie, my aforementioned stage mother and climbing teacher, coached me through the climb of 'La Abeja,' which I made on the second try.  It was scary.  I also learned how to rapel.  Climbing involves a lot of trust -- much in the same way that getting on a motorcycle does, which I did recently in Bogotá with my friend Santiago.  I find myself consciously letting go when I do these kinds of things, resigned to the idea that my moment will come whenever it does -- and I just hope I don't survive in some sort of vegetal state.

Santi in the offices of Cisne/Rhyuela in Bogotá.  Production offices around the world are basically the same -- bikes, pool tables, espresso machines, tattoos, attitude.

I'm ending my late-winter/early spring 2012 journey with my friend Hugo here in Guanajuato, my home away from home. The inhabitants of Guanajuato and visitors from neighboring towns ooze through the streets like honey, taking their time and savoring the celebratory atmosphere -- buying tacos, small plastic toys, beaded jewels and other beautiful things in observance of Semana Santa, the week leading up to Easter.  I'm imitating them -- since that's what humans are so good at doing -- learning to slow down, look around a little, be less New Yorky and more Latin American, wear bigger earrings and eat more tortillas.  I'm moving outside my usual spheres, but also inhabiting the space created where two spheres overlap -- this space that is both empty and perfectly full, this space that is a portal to something new.

People who have been in my apartment might recognize this ghost print of the print in my living room -- Hugo turned it into an alter.

Taking advantage of the Iphone's reversible function