Mexico: the Spirit of the Place

Onyx wind chimes shaped like birds hang outside my bedroom. Each time a breeze stirs them, their music reminds me of the first trip I took to Mexico.  While there, I was hoping to discover a part of the country that photographs can’t capture—the spirit of the place. Lawrence Durrell claims that landscape communicates this aspect.  He says, “All landscapes ask the same question in the same whisper, ‘I am watching you—are you watching yourself in me’?”

In North America, our tendency is to set the elderly apart in nursing homes and retirement residences, “safe” places to await their death. In the Mexican towns I visited, this was less so.  The elderly seem to be more visible, as is death.  Night and day in the town squares young and old promenade, or sit and talk, watching the colorful peasant costumes on men and women alike, the areas buzzing with vitality, fountains at the center constantly flowing with water.  One man looked centuries old, as if visiting from the grave.  The intricate interweaving of wrinkles on his face and the grey tone to his skin an emblem of Death.

This interweaving on his face reminded me of other interweavings I noticed in the culture:  Indian, Spanish, European.  One evening I spent a splendid evening with Mexican woman named Dolorous who had lived in the States for a couple of years.  A mutual friend had given me her number.  Dolorous was extremely gracious, taking me to the bus station to pick up my ticket to Morelia.  She also was very helpful in getting me on the correct bus, etc.  Making these arrangements can be complicated when one isn’t fluent in the language.

Later, I visited her parents’ home, a new, three-level house in the suburbs, designed by her architect brother.  Her fourteen-year old daughter—vivacious, rosy cheeked, well mannered, and beautiful—had tea with us.  I also met her 88 year-old father, a highly educated, aristocratic gentleman who spoke English and French fluently.  Though he had gone blind in recent years, alert and lucid, he still worked on his languages.

Heavy dark antique chests and cabinets dwarfed the place. Decay permeated everything. Faded objects and bunches of dried flowers preserved under glass.  Baroque opalescence mixed with simple Spanish structures.  Old and new combined.  Most impressive was death’s presence in that house and culture:  death of old values and old ways.  Death as an everyday occurrence.  Death and not enough money a major theme not just in this house but in the country.

This was brought home in a visit I took to the “Mumios” in Guanajuato, Diego Rivera’s birthplace.  The mumios is a museum of the dead, displaying bodies of indigents who were unable to afford graves, preserved by something in the soil in that area. Inside glass cases, men, women, and children are caught by death.  Most have their mouths open as if screaming in terror.  Not a pretty death mask.  Many still had hair, pubic and otherwise.

Though I was nearly fainting from the assault of so many death images, the Mexican tourists seemed perfectly at home, snapping pictures and chattering in Spanish.  Their ease caused me to tough it out through the rest of the tour.

How has this exposure to Mexico continued to resonate in me, all these years later? I’m not sure I’m any easier with death, though I believe I’m more open to differences and to discovering the spirit of a place.



Pen-L Press will be publishing my novel Fling in 2015. A wildly comic romp on mothers, daughters, art, and death, the book should appeal to a broad range of readers. While the main characters are middle-aged and older, their zest for life would draw readers of all ages, male or female, attracting the youthful adventurer in most people. Though women may identify more readily with Feather and Bubbles’ daughter and mother struggles, the heart of the book is how they approach their aging selves and are open to new experiences. Since art and imagination are key to this narrative, artists of all ages would find something to enjoy. And because the book crosses many borders (Scotland, Canada, the U.S., and Mexico), it also can’t be limited to a specific age group, social class, gender, or region.

My first fan letter for Fling came from an 80 year-old woman who lives in the tiny village of Christina Lake, B.C. My son, who also lives there, had given her my manuscript to read. She said, “I just wanted to express to you how very much I enjoyed your writing.  I started it and didn’t stop till I had read it all.  I very much like your style and your subtle humor. Thank you for a most enjoyable read. I can’t understand why it hasn’t been scooped up by some publisher. But I know that it will be. In my estimation I know that it is excellent literary work. I am a voracious reader and have been since grade 4. I remember my first book was Tom Sawyer and I have never stopped since then. I go through 4 to 5 books a week.  We are so fortunate here at the Lake now.  The Library staff in Grand Forks come out here every Wednesday. I have become very fond of the young lady who comes out. She provides me with all the award winning books and orders others for me. Again I want to express to you how very much I enjoyed your manuscript.  Have patience my dear….it will be published to wide acclaim I am so sure.” —Joan Fornelli.

Here is a synopsis:

Feather, an aging hippie, returns to her Calgary home to help her mother, Bubbles, celebrate her 90th birthday. Bubbles has received mail from the dead letter office in Mexico City, asking her to pick up her mother’s ashes, left there seventy years earlier and only now surfacing. Bubbles’ mother, Scottish by birth, had died in Mexico in the late 1920s after taking off with a married man and abandoning her husband and kids.

A woman with a mission, and still vigorous, Bubbles convinces a reluctant Feather to take her to Mexico so she can recover the ashes and give her mother a proper burial. Both women have recently shed husbands and have a secondary agenda: they’d like a little action. And they get it.

Alternating narratives weave together Feather and Bubbles’ odyssey with their colorful Scottish ancestors, creating a family tapestry. The “now” thread presents the two women as they travel south from Canada to San Francisco and then Mexico, covering a span of about six months. “Now” and “then” merge in Mexico when Bubbles’ long-dead mother, grandmother, and grandfather turn up, enlivening the narrative with their antics.

In Mexico, the land where reality and magic co-exist, Feather gets a new sense of her mother. The Indian villagers mistake Bubbles for a well-known rain goddess, praying for her to bring rain so their land will thrive again. Feather, who’s been seeking “The Goddess” for years, eventually realizes what she’s overlooked.

Meanwhile, Bubbles’ quest for her mother’s ashes (and a new man) has increased her zest for life. A shrewd business woman (she’s raised chickens, sold her crafts, taken in bizarre boarders, and has a sure-fire system for winning at bingo and lotteries), she’s certain she’s found the fountain of youth at a mineral springs outside San Miguel de Allende; she’s determined to bottle the water and sell it.

But gambling is her first love, and unlike most women her age, fun-loving Bubbles takes risks, believing she’s immortal. Unlike her daughter, Bubbles doesn’t hold back in any way, eating heartily, lusting after strangers, her youthful spirit and innocence convincing readers that they’ve found the fountain of youth themselves in this character. At ninety, she comes into her own, coming to age, proving it’s never too late to fulfill one’s dreams.

Fling, a meditation on death, mothers and daughters, and art, suggests that the fountain of youth is the imagination, and this is what they all discover in Mexico. It’s what Bubbles wants to bottle, but she doesn’t need to. She embodies it. The whole family does.