Letter from
The Southernmost
Part of the
Northern Hemisphere
--- Part II
"Walking on Water"
A local character named Enrique owns prime land in Puerto Perdido. He's old and spry, a former ballet master, claims he once danced for Kruschev and Mao. He has an excellent lot that looks out over the harbor, and I want to rent it from him.

I send José over to roust him out of his place. José comes back and says he will never go over there ever again. "Why not?" I ask. "He came out of his door and hugged me and said, 'Mi amor.'" [My love.]

"For Christ's sakes, José, he's just being affectionate."

"There were some girls on the street, waiting for the bus," he said. "They saw it."

And indeed, José --- who actually is quite fetching, in a Oaxacan Indian way, never will go back to knock on that particular door.

When I finally find Enrique the next day, he is coming out of his house, and I stop him and apologize to him for not getting out of the car, explain the problem of being in a wheelchair. "Don't worry," he says at once: "I'll cure you. I'll make it so you can walk on water."

"I'm vegetarian," he tells me. "I drink a glass of my urine every morning." I certainly don't want to put him off, him and his plot of land, but, I think, dealing with him might bit too much for not only José, but for me as well.

"If you drink a copita de orina every morning," he says, "you'll soon be walking. I am sure that Jesus did it. Drank his own urine every day. That's how he was able to walk on water." Somehow we get onto the subject of poetry, and he hauls out a fat book of Spanish poetry, shows me some passages --- fairly purple stuff --- that he then recites to me from memory.

Later, as he takes his leave of me, he moves so elegantly that he seems to float an inch or two above the ground. "Maybe that's the trick," I think. To assuage the aches in shoulders and hands and hips and knees and feet, instead of drinking the usual tea for breakfast, I'll just down a tart glass of piss.

There it is, in its tight little container, warm and flavorful, waiting for me each morning, to cure me of all my ailments.

§     §     §

"Peasant Humor"
I now have enough Spanish that I can tune on the by-play of my workers. Since I have been around so long (they call me el viejo --- the old geezer) they don't even think, nor care, that I am listening in on their scatological conversations. The other day, at the rancho just outside of town, where I go every day to get out of the sun and supervise their care and feeding of my trees (mango, orange, zapote), they were carrying on the usual luncheon tomfoolery over our usual lunch of tortillas, avocados, and the tart and delicious goat cheese that they favor in this region.

We have one duck here in la huerta --- a female, left over from a considerable flock (the foxes and owls take a heavy toll of our domestic creatures). Not long ago, she started setting on her eggs to hatch, even though they were, obviously, infertile. At lunch, there was much speculation among the workers as to who was responsible for her sudden urge to set. Jorge, the cynic in the crowd, said he was going to send out a "demanda" (a legal warrant) for Leopoldo --- the youngest worker --- for violating the duck (de violar el pato.)

When he said it, for some reason it struck me as so silly that I giggled over it for a half an hour: one of those enlightening moments when the veil lifts, and the twists of another language come in sight for a moment, and one is party to what the words are capable of. I was laughing at the thought of bringing in the feds to determine who was fucking the duck, but was also captured by their wonderful merriment, and by the poetry of the phrase una demanda contra Leopoldo de violar el pato.

§     §     §

"Social Work"
In 1978, at the age of fifty, I had the foolish notion of dropping my career as a writer to become a social worker. I enrolled as a graduate student at San Diego State University. I stuck with it for two semesters, with what I like to think was a great deal of forbearance. In the last semester, we had something called Practicum, a word which, for me, sounds both a little vulgar and classic. We were to go out four days a week to a student placement where, they told us, we would add experience our book learning.

My placement was with Opportunity House, a black neighborhood counseling operation in East San Diego. The first thing I learned was that professional social workers weren't about to give up any of their caseload to some pissy MA candidate who would only be on hand for a few months. So I was left at my desk, to read and eat peanuts and drink grapefruit juice, and type in my practicum notebook. Occasionally they let me answer the telephone.

All our notebooks were to be handed into our supervising professor from time-to-time to show what we were learning from our placement. My supervising instructor told me that he usually got fifty or so pages from his other students, but since I was a writer with too much time on his hands, I ended up typing about a hundred pages a week. I wrote about the room we worked in, and the other social workers, and the cases that came and went, and a new love affair I was getting into, and some of the books I was reading (in desperation, I even undertook Anna Karenina that spring. I fell in love with Anna, too, and I spent many pages analyzing the "dysfunctional" family that she and Baron Vronsky created.)

At one point I took note of a mouse that had been squashed in the parking lot just outside the agency. Because they didn't have monies for general clean-up, as the months passed, the mouse advanced gradually into a state of ripe and terminal decay. I suggested that this might be a symbol of what I was learning about social work in my placement.

My professor, a good and conscientious sort, begged me to stop writing so much. He was required to read everything we put in our notebooks, but with forty students, my fat submissions were driving him bananas. Being a writer, I paid no attention whatsoever to his pleas --- and ended up with a thousand page manuscript which I decided I would publish someday.

It would be a Strawberry Statement of the Social Work world --- one that would point out the nonsense of MSW programs in general, and the foolishness of student placement in an office in which each of the social workers protected his or her turf with such viciousness. Fortunately, a few weeks after the end of the program, I left the manuscript in the front seat of my car, with the windows open, neatly packaged --- and some poor fool, obviously thinking he was getting a collection of stock certificates, stole it, and it hasn't been heard of since.

§     §     §

I have found that the very poor --- at least the very poor in Puerto Perdido --- don't talk much about being poor. With very few exceptions, everyone here is poor. The average wage for workers in the field is $3.50 (U. S.) a day. To talk about being poor would be like saying how hot the sun is in our area, or how beautiful the ocean.

However, at supper the other evening, one of my workers --- Pedro --- told me how much he enjoyed eating the lunches I cooked at the Rancho. He said that when he was six, his mother and father died. He ended up living with his seventeen-year-old campesino brother. He said that for a couple of years there was nothing to eat but tortillas and salt. (He used the word nada which means nothing, but in Oaxaca, when they want to emphasize it --- as in "absolutely completely and positively nothing" --- the word comes out as "NAAA-da.")

The two of them lived in a palapa hut --- a shack made of palm fronds --- and since there was no one except the two of them, he was left by himself while his brother was out working in the field. There was certainly no luxury like electricity or water.

He couldn't afford the uniform or the books to go to school, so he would go down to the nearby beach and play with the sand and the crabs on the beach and dream about the meals his mother used to cook when she was still alive: frijoles, and chicken mole, and rich, delicious soups. I often think about him, an orphan, trying to make sense of the world: this eight-year old Pedro, making do with tortillas and salt, with sand and crabs for playfellows.

He is probably my best worker. Several years ago, he married Maruga, who lived next door to the rancho, and is a loving husband and father to his two sons. He's a good and a caring father, and I tell him so. "I don't want my children to have nothing --- nada --- the way I had nothing," he says.

§     §     §

The gods have decided that now that I am reaching the end of the line, I shan't die painlessly, nor without shame. So they've given me a tic right under the left eye, jiggling and wiggling in the sag there, under what was once a fine icy-green orb. I wake up in the morning, and it starts dancing to its own rhythm, without my permission, driving me crazy. If I consciously relax, it ceases for a few moments; then begins again. If I finger it, it goes away, again for a few moments --- then returns to bother me, to make me conscious (as a good buddhist must be conscious) of each moment. This, along with new aches in the gut, and shoulder, and back, and neck and head and elbow and hand and shin, all to remind me that I am human, that what I believe so mysteriously will never go away will indeed go away, and in the process, leave me miffed that it has to go away with so little delicacy.

§     §     §

We had a big event yesterday. One of the workers from the Puerto Perdido Water Dept. came over and hooked up pipes and now we have water at the Rancho. Not all the time --- it's not that easy. But every second day, from 5 PM until 10 AM --- water will dribble into the storage tank. It's slightly dirty, not fit to drink --- but by god, it's be wet. The 60 trees we planted will benefit the most, although I suspect that the dusty, dry and parched land, blasted every day by 12 hours of sun, will be the prime beneficiary. The sound of that water drizzling in, I tell you --- it's music. Three or four times a week, late in the afternoon, I hear a song: one that is new, and unfamiliar. I hear it, and wonder, "What's that noise?" Ah, yes. The blissful sound of water, bubbling into my storage tank --- singing a wet, sweet, liquid song of life and growth and relief from the dusty, bone-dry soul of this area.

§     §     §

Old age not only leads us to the grave --- it takes away, one by one, our most precious habits and diversions. In the old days, I could spend the afternoon over a half a case of cold beer, with a bottle of wine for dinner, and innumerable shots of sweet liqueur after the meal. No more. In fact, it's gotten so I can't comfortably drink a margarita anymore.

My sister, who's a tee-totaller, says "Thank God you've given up drinking." I say: "I want you to know that I've given it up over my dead body. If I had my druthers, I'd be soused half the day, just like before." The problem is that nowadays if I drink more than a glass of wine, I wake up at 3 am and can't get back to sleep. By 5 am, the heebie-jeebies are in place, and I am fully immersed in panic attack. One gets, then, panicked merely by the thought of getting panicked.

However, I've determined that it's not death that spooks us so, because we've got all our I'm-not-gonna-die defenses in place. It's going to happen to everyone else in the world, but not me. Others will age and wrinkle and pass on; I will remain untouched forever.

No, the real fear is right out of FDR: it's fear itself. Thus my job is simple: over the next rest of my life, I have to acknowledge my denial, then deny my denial --- somehow make the fear (not the reality) stop scaring me so. The Tibetans say that what's in our heads when we die will carry over into the forty-nine days of bardo, so if I die in fear, I will be in fear not only in that intermediate place twixt this life and the next, but in the next reincarnation as well. On the other hand, if I die in confident bliss, that too will carry over into the next stage. Somehow, still, I can't seem to figure out how to stop hanging on to the obvious fiction that this body and mind and heart are Me --- and that some day we are going to disappear.

§     §     §

In Inner Revolution, Robert Thurman says our task is to teach ourselves that this thing we call "I" does not even exist:

    If there is indeed a solid "I," if it is my real self, it must be the final register of all my impressions, the actual agency of knowing them, the Central Processing Unit. I try to focus on that, but I become a little dizzy as I begin to chase after a glimpse of my own awareness. I try to turn back from the inner monitor and inner speaker to the inner observer who looks and listens. But to turn towards my center of awareness, I have to tell my awareness to turn back on itself; it's like whirling my body as a dervish does, spinning to catch sight of the tip of my nose as my eye flies past where my nose just was. I'm looking for the little creature inside who is running the show...This sense axis around which we chase our awareness disappears as we try to close in on it, bringing to us a subtle inner dizziness that can be frightening and even nauseating as it becomes more intense, One has to make a kind of supreme effort to persist through this.

And the author of Agora says that for a year he lived in one of the ghats of India, alongside the Ganges, where they burn the dead. He lived there every day with the smell and taste and feel of it, watched the flames, and the skulls imploding in themselves in the flames, smelled the smell, danced the dance. How did he do it? How did he handle the fact that in forty years (maybe), twenty (possibly), sixty (certainly) --- he would no longer here, with the rest of us?

--- Carlos Amantea