Sensory Poetry

Cinnamon Peeler OndaatjeMichael Ondaatje is one of my favorite authors. While attending Ondaatje’s alma mater, Queen’s University, I read his first novel Coming Through Slaughter (published 1976) that depicts the life of a jazz musician in early 1900s Louisiana. It was love at first read. I was still a teenager and the sensuousness of Ondaatje’s prose delighted and tickled my senses, felt a tiny bit wicked. It was unlike anything I’d read before – beautiful, literary and arousing.

Later, thanks to my boyfriend at the time, a brilliant Fine Arts major, I would be exposed to his poetry. It likewise often aroused me, but it was the playfulness displayed with metaphor and the exotic qualities of so many of his subjects that took hold of me.

Here is one of my favorites.

The Cinnamon Peeler

by Michael Ondaatje

If I were a cinnamon peeler
I would ride your bed
And leave the yellow bark dust
On your pillow.

Your breasts and shoulders would reek
You could never walk through markets
without the profession of my fingers
floating over you. The blind would
stumble certain of whom they approached
though you might bathe
under rain gutters, monsoon.

Here on the upper thigh
at this smooth pasture
neighbour to your hair
or the crease
that cuts your back. This ankle.
You will be known among strangers
as the cinnamon peeler’s wife.

I could hardly glance at you
before marriage
never touch you
–your keen nosed mother, your rough brothers.
I buried my hands
in saffron, disguised them
over smoking tar,
helped the honey gatherers…

When we swam once
I touched you in the water
and our bodies remained free,
you could hold me and be blind of smell.
you climbed the bank and said

this is how you touch other women
the grass cutter’s wife, the lime burner’s daughter.
And you searched your arms
for the missing perfume

and knew

what good is it
to be the lime burner’s daughter
left with no trace
as if not spoken to in the act of love
as if wounded without the pleasure of a scar.

You touched
your belly to my hands
in the dry air and said
I am the cinnamon
peeler’s wife. Smell me.

Is the Kid Really Dead?

Icy surfing in IcelandIt’s the day before Summer Solstice and it’s only 79 degrees Fahrenheit outside. I’m considering whether I need to put a sweater on because there’s a brisk breeze blowing in off the sea that is chilling me as it hits my bare shoulders. A week ago, I had to put a lightweight hooded sweater on over my t-shirt in the middle of the day and resorted to donning full length yoga pants because I was so cold. The mercury didn’t get much higher than 77 degrees that day. Normally at this time of year I’d be sweating in shorts and a tank top. Conclusion? This is possibly the coldest June in the history of Baja’s East Cape. However, before you accuse me of being melodramatic, and in the absence of any definitive long term historical proof, let me say instead that it is definitely the coldest June I’ve personally experienced in this region.

Admittedly, this is only my eleventh June in Baja. Eleven is neither a big number, nor is it small in the context of time passage. But it is more than a handful and a decade plus one. Never before in the month of June have I needed to put a sweater on in the middle of the day. Remove my t-shirt? Definitely. Change my sports bra because it’s soaking with sweat? You bet. Take a shower and lie down under a fan on high in the middle of the day because it’s 105 degrees outside? Several times. But put on more clothes at what is the hottest time of day? Never!

Air temperatures have been uncharacteristically low because they reflect sea water temperatures, which have been near frigid. Since the middle of May, they’ve fluctuated wildly between extremes. From 84 degrees Fahrenheit one day to 62 degrees the very next – that’s a whopping 22 degree drop.

The colder the water, the thicker the wetsuit a surfer needs to wear. Wetsuit thicknesses are measured in millimeters (mm) and water temperatures of 62 degrees mean wearing a full-length wetsuit of at least 2mm thickness or going out for super short sessions in which your muscles tend to seize up. I don’t own a 2mm full suit.  My shorty suit wasn’t up to the job and on more than one occasion I got out of the water with blue lips and legs that were numb from the knees down. By the end of several sessions, I had to blow into my cupped hands between sets in an attempt to warm my frigid digit. It took all my willpower to put my hands back in the biting cold water and keep my arms paddling for the next wave. Back on land again it took almost an hour of sitting in the direct sun to warm up again. While I know that there are many a surfer who experiences this regularly and to an even greater extent, bear in mind that we’re talking about surfing in the normally tepid, turquoise waters of the Sea of Cortez.

I have furthermore never seen the sea turn green. Two weeks ago, I thought I’d been teleported and was surfing in South Central California when overnight the water changed from its characteristic turquoise and azure blues to a brilliant emerald green.  Apparently the colder water resulted from an upwelling event that brought nutrients from deep down in the sea to the surface causing a serious algal bloom. Then there were the jelly fish, or, as I like to call them, the Helly fish, feeding on all that phytoplankton. At the risk of being repetitive, I’ve never seen so many large gelatinous jelly fish in the water here. The water was amuck with them and more than once I managed to squeeze their fire-wielding tentacles between my leg and my surfboard to produce the kind of stinging you only wish upon your worst enemies. The resulting welts were impressive and the itching lasted for days.

It’s not just June weather that’s been strange. May was uncharacteristically cool and foggy too. From the middle of May onwards we’ve had the equivalent of what Californians call June Gloom in the East Cape – fog, wind, and shockingly cold water.

So what gives?

At first I thought it was because it’s a La Niña year. La Niña is a period during which sea surface temperatures across the equatorial Eastern Central Pacific Ocean are lower than normal by 3-5 degrees Celsius (6-9 deg F). In the United States, an episode of La Niña is defined as a period of at least five months of these types of conditions. The name La Niña is Spanish for “the girl,” analogous to El Niño meaning “the boy,” the term used for periods when sea surface temperatures are abnormally high. The only trouble is that according to meteorologists the period of La Niña weather conditions that began last year ended in March. In other words, La Niña is dead.

So I’m still scratching my head. If this weather can’t be ascribed to La Niña (abnormally low sea surface temperatures) then what is causing these cool sea breezes the temperature of which seem so abnormally low?

In Mexico Taking Care of Business Bites

la mordida todavia existe en MexicoBribery and political corruption are hardly unique to Mexico. According to Wikipedia, both are perceived to be greater issues in countries like Somalia, Angola, Sudan, Chad, and much of the Middle East than in Mexico. Yesterday’s blog, however, touched on the problem of corruption in Mexico and how it almost invariably supports big business interests. In the course of my morning online surfing (the wind is up, I’ll kite later), I happened across the following op-ed piece by Mexican poet, environmental activist and United Nations diplomat Homero Aridjis, illustrating the challenge faced by a nation to rein in what has become an accepted part of their culture.

La mordida,” the term in Spanish used for bribe literally means “the bite.” If, like me, you wonder where all this backroom dealing and monetary massaging started, Les Shulman, Mexico editor for Bellaonline, explains in his excellent article on the subject:

Although this institutionalized form of bribery dates back to the Spanish Colonial era (and wherever the Spanish colonized in the Americas), this insidious practice became entrenched in Mexico from 1929-2000 during the Partido Revolucionario Institucional’s (PRI) near monopolistic political control of the country. The PRI’s long, virtually unopposed reign created a national culture which allowed for and perpetuated a lack of oversight in public life which permitted the widespread corruption to become, at all levels of government, the traditional and customary way of getting things done.

When the PRI’s reign ended in 2000, there was nation-wide hope that it would mean an end to what amounts to a 240 billion-dollar-a-year tax-free industry. The case of the Cabo Cortez developers receiving environmental permits through bribery is not all that unusual and reflects that described by Aridjis below. These and many other less notorious examples receiving little or no coverage by the media prove that 12 years have not been enough to change a culture entrenched from 71 years’ practice. It is, I believe, the challenge and the responsibility of the current generation of young Mexicans entering the workforce and political arena to change the face of their nation to one less blemished by corruption.

The Sun, the Moon and Walmart

Walmart bribes it's way into nationally significant Mexican lands

by HOMERO ARIDJIS

Translated from the Spanish by Betty Ferber.

From New York Times op-ed, Monday, April 30, 2012

A child in Mexico soon learns that corruption is a way of life, and that to get ahead in school, work and politics, “El que no transa, no avanza” — loosely, “You’re not going anywhere if you don’t cheat.”

When I was in junior high school, my history teacher sold us lottery tickets, promising that the more we bought, the higher our grades would be. The winning number, he said, would coincide with the National Lottery winner. I happened to buy that number and received the highest grade, but because he kept the tickets, I never got the money.

Years later, as president of an environmental activist organization called the Group of 100, I was offered visits to Las Vegas (chips provided), cars (drivers included), cash and even prostitutes in exchange for staying silent. But my most uncomfortable experience was in 1988, when I met with the secretary of Fisheries to protest the killing of dolphins by tuna fishers. He asked me, “What’s your problem?” “I don’t have any problems,” I replied. “How can I help you?” “Make the tuna fleet stop killing dolphins.” He reached for his checkbook. “Let’s talk money, how much do you want?”

So the news that Walmart may have paid $24 million in bribes for permits to open stores in Mexico was no surprise to me. When President Felipe Calderón declared he was “very indignant,” I thought of Claude Rains in Casablanca: “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!”

Walmart already had a history of controversial behavior in Mexico. Most notably, in November 2004, despite widespread opposition, the company opened a 72,000-square-foot store within the boundaries of the 2,000-year-old city of Teotihuacán, which features the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon (“the place where men became gods” — or consumers?). Walmart has also built a supermarket on forested land in the resort town of Playa del Carmen, in Quintana Roo — though the permit for the building later turned out to have been granted for another site, on the island of Cozumel. The question now is who allows this, and in exchange for what?

Will the federal investigation discover how many Walmarts were built on the quicksands of corruption? Marcelo Ebrard, the mayor of Mexico City, is carrying out his own investigation, but considering that his brothers have been Walmart executives, I don’t have much hope that the truth will emerge. The other day I visited a Walmart, and one of the teenage packers, who are unsalaried and work for tips, confided in me that they had been forbidden to say anything to the press about their employer. They were told to consider themselves lucky to have a job at all.

In this country, corruption exists at all levels, from magnates to street vendors. It seems easier to get something done with a bribe than to fill out myriad forms and wait in lines to confront evasive civil servants. According to a recent study, companies shell out approximately 10 percent of their earnings to corrupt officials. In the last 30 years, the Mexican economy has lost more than $870 billion to corruption, crime and tax evasion.

The consequences of this corruption are clear. When devastating earthquakes hit Mexico City in 1985, an alarming number of shoddily constructed public buildings — schools, hospitals and government offices — were destroyed. Our school system has been hijacked by the politically powerful teachers’ union, and around 90 percent of the budget is eaten up by teachers’ salaries, though many on the payroll work for the union or hold political office instead of teaching.

Extortion and protection rackets flourish alongside drug trafficking. President Álvaro Obregón, who was assassinated in 1928, once said that “no general can resist a 50,000-peso cannon blast,” a precursor to today’s “plata o plomo” — silver or lead, the drug cartel’s offer to officials of a bribe or a bullet.

Clearly, putting an end to corruption — to kickbacks and nepotism, to crooked judges and policemen, to delinquent bureaucrats and drug lords — is Mexico’s greatest challenge. In 2000, when the left-of-center Institutional Revolutionary Party lost the presidency and its 71-year grip on power, there were hopes for reform, but it remains to be seen whether increased democratization will lead to lessened corruption.

This January, when a 341-foot-tall quartz-clad tower known as the Estela de Luz was inaugurated to commemorate 200 years of independence from Spain, Mr. Calderón called it “an emblem of a new era for Mexico.” And yet, the tower was finished 16 months late, at three times its planned cost. An investigation has begun; public servants have been charged with criminal offenses; protesters call it a monument to corruption.

The truth is, we have created a corrupt system that preys on both Mexicans and foreigners — how can we be outraged when an American company exploits it? At the same time, how can we hope for Mexicans to put an end to corruption when one of the most powerful and allegedly law abiding companies in the United States gives in to the same temptations? As a former governor of Chihuahua once said, after being accused of corruption, “If we put everyone who’s corrupt in jail, who will close the door?”

This essay was encountered on author Dick Russell’s website

Mexican President Calderon Sides with Cabo Pulmo

Cabo Pulmo Vivo protects Cabo Pulmo National ParkThe President of Mexico, Felipe Calderon, just announced the cancellation of all permits for the mega-development Cabo Cortez. This was a massive development, on a scale the likes of Cancun which was planned to begin construction next to the northern boundary of Cabo Pulmo National Park. I got goose bumps when I received the instant message telling me that it was cancelled. And again when I read the notification from Greenpeace Mexico that arrived seconds later in my email inbox.

This is a huge success in the history of conservation in Mexico, perhaps worldwide. The forces promoting this development are big fish, sharks one might say, in the international world of development. They had the backing of many Mexican government officials, not the least of which included the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Juan Rafael Elvira Quesada, responsible for issuing the permits that originally gave the project the go-ahead.

Earlier this year, in an historically unprecedented move, the Mexican Senate called Elvira Quesada onto the carpet to answer to charges that he issued the permits fraudulently. That is when many of us involved in the movement to save Cabo Pulmo from this threat, began to see a light at the end of a very long, dark tunnel. While many local conservation organizations, including the one I co-founded, Amigos para la Conservación de Cabo Pulmo, A.C.(ACCP), fought to get the project cancelled, it is without a doubt the tireless and diligent efforts of Greenpeace Mexico that brought the message of “Cabo Pulmo Vivo” and “No a Cabo Cortes!” to the hordes in Mexico City and beyond, collecting 220,000 signatures in support of the cause. Similarly, WildCoast, an international coastal conservation organization based in San Diego and Ensenada, worked in the trenches of grassroots activism and launched a media campaign that brought international attention to the plight of Cabo Pulmo.

Today is a banner day in the world of conservation and grassroots activism, but while celebration is in order for this historically unprecedented move by the Mexican government to protect its natural heritage, we must remain vigilant. In his speech, he makes it clear that it was the nature of the development and the inability of its proponents to demonstrate that it would not impact the park that led to its cancellation. He was clear that in the government’s opinion, development and the protection of natural resources are not incompatible. There is always the possibility that another developer will swoop in with another idea for the land. Hopefully the necessary support for a conservation easement or the creation of a land-based reserve will be garnered by those working so hard to keep Cabo Pulmo Alive.

The relatively tiny community organization of ACCP also deserves a great deal of credit for working so hard on a shoestring budget from their isolated location in a teensy off-the-grid desert village to protect a World Heritage Site for the rest of us. They plan to meet this evening to vote for a new executive board, but I suspect that meeting will metamorphose into a celebration of this David versus Goliath victory. I for one plan to be there to help them celebrate.

President Calderon’s announcement to the Press this morning (Spanish language only).

Morning Miracle

Olive Ridley sea turtle hatchlings await their release to the Sea of CortezYesterday as I walked back from my morning ritual on the beach, I was treated to a bit of a miracle. There, in a small depression on the sand, sat two pint-sized, grey-skinned turtle hatchlings.

I’d been expecting this miraculous event because late in April, I’d witnessed a large Olive Ridley sea turtle laying her eggs in a nest she’d dug right in front of the property. I watched as she finished laying and began the arduous task of covering up the clutch of eggs, leathery flippers flapping, throwing sand to and fro. I marked the calendar and wondered if the nest would hatch out successfully.

Sea turtle nests face so many challenges to realize the goal of 100 or so odd hatchlings emerging and scrambling to the ocean. The first night is critical, during which the scent of the liquid surrounding the eggs is still present and detectable by keen-nosed predators – coyotes, foxes and dogs to name a few. From my observations, once the nest is exposed to high daytime temperatures, the threat of discovery appears to drop significantly. However, often the nest is laid too close to the ocean and is inundated by a high tide, which drowns the developing turtle fetuses in their eggs. All it takes is for one of the eggs to begin rotting and the nest becomes detectable. Sand crabs dig into the nest and have a feast and by morning are joined by seagulls, vultures and feral dogs. If the nest makes it the 45 to 60 days it takes for the eggs to develop, once the eggs begin to hatch, a strong odor is released making the nest detectable once again, even before its diminutive inhabitants emerge.

I knew that there was a good chance that if I didn’t intervene, the nest would be discovered by local dogs, sand crabs and sea birds, so I set to work gently digging down into the sand to see if there were any more hatchlings making their way to the surface. As I dug down I first encountered the empty shells of eggs that had been vacated earlier. I looked up and saw hundreds of tiny flipper prints in the sand leading towards the water’s edge. Most of the hatchlings appeared to have left the nest overnight. Several inches below surface though I felt something hard with a tiny point on the end. As I scooped the sand out of the hole a wee black head was revealed. I carefully removed the sand from around his (or her) miniscule body. His mini flippers flapped about as I lifted and placed him next to his two clutch mates. Gradually I uncovered more and more of the little guys.

Near the bottom of the nest I uncovered what always makes my stomach lurch – dead, but fully developed, hatchlings being eaten by maggots. Now a smell emanated from the nest that made my nose try to squeeze shut and I did my best not to breath it in. Felipe, my caretaker, dug a hole where I could dispose of the writhing miniature corpses. Even though most of the eggs I encountered at that depth contained dead turtles, I continued to find the odd hatchling that was alive and thriving. One little guy’s shell was deformed on the bottom, folded as though it hadn’t had room enough to grow, leaving me to wonder if he’d survive out there in the expansive ocean.

We counted 19 in all, as they scooted around knocking with their sharp little beaks the sides of the plastic bucket I placed them in – beaks perfectly designed to let them scrape open their eggshells when the time was right. We walked them closer to the water’s edge and I began to place them, one at a time, on the damp sand. As though prompted by a starting gun, they began to scramble towards the water immediately, their flippers flapping in a mad frenzy, their bodies rocking to and fro. We stood vigil over them as they made their way to the sea, keeping an eye on a lone seagull standing just down the beach, watching for sand crabs that might in a flash pull one down their hole. We lifted and righted them as they were caught in deep foot prints or flipped over by uneven terrain. And we felt their bodies pulsing with the energy of new life.

One by one they were swept out to sea by the shorebreak, one by one the cool life-giving water embraced them.  Watching their tiny black heads poke up to gasp for air between the crashing of waves, I prayed the fish and pelicans would not find them, that they would make it out into the deep sea to drift, surviving on algae and zooplankton, until one day,  their long journey may bring them back here to my home on this isolated beach.

Cold Feet in June

Well, I finally bit the bullet and made the drive down to Nine Palms today despite the conditions appearing to suck from the house. There was a bump on the water and the breeze that had been blowing onshore all night didn’t appear to be about to let up. A large fog bank that sat several miles offshore was making the air fairly brisk. I wondered how cold the water was and, assuming the worst, packed my spring suit. On the drive there, from a distance, I saw what looked like a decent wave breaking at Nine Palms. There weren’t too many people in the water either. Then I saw a good set breaking at Tiburones, the break just before the turn off to Nine Palms. “Hmmmm,” I thought, “looks like perhaps there are some waves.” Apparently that was a teaser set because I didn’t see anything resembling that for the rest of the morning.

Standing on the beach surveying the waves to determine which board to take out (I had my 6’6″ Eclipse egg and my 9′ Stewart noserider), I noticed a commotion a little ways down the beach. A group of adults and children from a large camp nearby were gathered and looking at something lying on the sand. A closer look determined that it was a squid,purplish red in color and about two feet long. It was injured but alive, missing a tentacle and a chunk off his tail. Three little girls were taking turns touching it’s tentacles and then squealing because the suction cups on the tentacles were sucking onto their fingers when they touched it. I’d never touched a squid’s tentacle, so followed suit. What a strange sensation! And powerful grip. I remembered that giant squid are found further up the Sea of Cortez and shivered at the strength they must wield. I returned to my rig to get ready to go out and noticed that a short while later one of the campers put the squid in a cooler. I wondered if they intended to eat it or if they’d use it as fish bait.

I took my longboard out after determining that the waves were weak and it was high tide. Figured I should give myself as much advantage as possible to avoid the frustration of being under-gunned. More frustration I did not need. I dawned the wet suit based on the air temperature, then got out there and discovered the water was pleasingly warm. Even with the foggy mist hanging overhead I was overdressed. I caught a few slow waves and then went in and took the suit off. Paddled back out with my hair still dry after four waves…that’s how small and lackadaisical the waves were. At one point, as the tide switched and the conditions cleaned up, I thought perhaps I was in for a pleasant surprise…it didn’t last though. The wind switched suddenly at 11 o’clock and came hard out of the SSE as this morning’s buoyweather.com report had indicated it would. I caught one more wave to the beach and got out. That SSE wind is cold, pushing air and water up from the deep waters of the Pacific Ocean. It’s cold enough now that my feet feel icy and I am considering putting a sweater on. It’s the 2nd of June in the tropics.  Go figure.

A Little Bit of Bliss

Image © Issare Rungjang courtesy of Dreamstime.com

Sometimes when I do yoga I am filled with this sense of calm contentment…happiness is what some might call it. Today was one of those days.

It’s flat and the surf has been non-existent or marginal since I returned from Canada on the 13th of May. I’ve been frustrated and irritable, in part, because of the poor conditions, in part because life hasn’t been cooperating, hasn’t been giving me what I want in other ways either. But today, today I meditated for the second time in a week after months of neglecting that practice and then I did my yoga.  By “my yoga,” I mean I did a series of asanas (postures) that were prescribed for me by my teacher and some that I do because I like to do them. They speak to my body in a way that is pleasing and brings a pleasant, healthful feeling to my being. Today the result is that, despite the way I’ve been feeling of late, I’m smiling as I type this (a gentle, non-tooth-revealing smile…one might even say a Mona Lisa-esque smile).

It wasn’t just the meditation or postures that led me to bliss today, it was a whole combination of things. The music that played as I moved into the next series of postures (Rejuvenation by Ron Allen), the uncharacteristically cool breeze wafting through the windows and across my body, the slight scent of pineapple in the air from the fruit left, like an offering, by my dear friend upon departure. It’s the book I’m reading too, that has given me a sense of inner peace and acceptance of things I have little control over. Things like who I fall in love with and how they react to my love. This little book is so full of wisdom and Truth that it blows my mind every time I pick it up. I’m underlining, in pencil, the passages that strike me and that I know to be the kind of wisdom that will set me free. Free from anxiety, free from loneliness, free from the depression that comes from anxiety, loneliness and a sense of having no control over one’s destiny that plagues me from time to time (particularly when the surf is off).

The book to which I am referring is “Love, Freedom, Aloneness: The Koan of Relationships.” It’s a compilation of teachings given by Osho, an eastern mystic to whom westerners flocked in the 1970s. I was introduced to the teachings of Osho by my Dutch artist friend. He too flew to India to hear him speak after a colleague of his underwent a dramatic, positive transformation by the experience. Like so many mystics, Osho is not without his detractors, nor flaws, but more than twenty years after his death he maintains a loyal following and his teachings continue to be published as theme-based collections by a major New York publishing house, St. Martin’s Press.

Of love, Osho said:

Love yourself…This can become the foundation of a radical transformation. Don’t be afraid of loving yourself. Love totally, and you will be surprised: The day you can get rid of all self-condemnation, self-disrespect – the day you can get rid of the idea of original sin, the day you can think of yourself as worthy and loved by existence – will be a day of great blessing. From that day onward you will start seeing people in their true light, and you will have compassion.

Create loving energy around yourself. Love your body, love your mind. Love your whole mechanism, your whole organism. By “love” is meant, accept it as it is.

Love is possible only when mediation has happened. If you don’t know how to be centered in your being, if you don’t know how to rest and relax in your being, if you don’t know how to be utterly alone and blissful, you will never know what love is…[because] Love is a sharing of overflowing joy. [During] meditation one is bathed in one’s own glory, bathed in one’s own light. One is simply joyous because one is alive, because one is… The greatest miracle in the world is that you are, that I am. To be is the greatest miracle – and meditation opens the doors of this great miracle.

When my meditation practice of many years waned a while back, as it often does, my yoga teacher said matter-of-factly, “You must make time to meditate. It is the most important thing. Everything else comes after.” I looked at her in disbelief and she responded, “Yes, more important even than asana practice.” Then, sensing my resistance, she looked at me sideways and said in her don’t-mess-with-me voice, “Just do it! Just sit. How hard is that?”

I’d love to hear from readers about your experiences with meditation. Or perhaps you’ve wanted to begin a practice of your own, but don’t know where to start. Here’s a link to a great little book that helped me get started.