SUNDAY, February 22
Today confirmed my suspicions that: 1) old ladies are awesome, and 2) this conference was a great decision. After a thought-provoking keynote lecture by Nina Burleigh, a journalist and creative non-fiction writer, I attended three more breakout sessions: memoir writing, creative non-fiction, and “how to jump-start your publishing career.”
The first session, taught by Jeannie Ralston, the author of The Unlikely Lavender Queen: A Memoir of Unexpected Blossoming, was perhaps the most instructive. She encouraged each of the participants (about 15) to come up with a title and a one-sentence summary of our memoirs. Everyone else in the room had to be at least 50. One woman’s memoir focused on her experiences as a child of the Depression. Another wanted to write about her experience on the “Hippy Trail,”(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hippie_trail) the overland route between Western Europe and Kathmandu.
Jeannie asked us to focus on a particular portion or theme of our lives, which would seem to be easier for a young person to accomplish than for someone with decades under her belt. But I feel like most of my stories don’t have a full story arc yet -- at least not one long enough for a book. I considered writing about living, learning and loving in Mexico, but I don’t know how the story ends, yet, and I don’t want to rush to conclusions. The idea I eventually shared with the class concerned the travels I took with my twin sister just before I started writing this blog. We visited a dozen cities in three weeks, living on as little money as we could. Sketchy hostels, days of living on PB&J, being too cheap to enter world-class museums: we played it rough. But we also bonded in a way we never had before. I couldn’t get my thoughts together enough to distill them into a one-sentence summary, but I’ll come to it. I’ll probably turn this into an essay for my Creative Writing Nonfiction class at Hendrix.
At lunch I was invited to sit with a group of smart, funky older ladies. The people at this conference really have been too sweet to me. Aside from the stories of their trials and tribulations with the written word, the women discussed their travels, their loves, and their divorces, trying to distill it into advice for me. First, most essential tip: don’t get married until you’re thirty. So far so good on that one.
After a moving closing talk by Terry Hill, a co-author of Two Guys Read Moby Dick (http://www.amazon.com/Guys-Read-Moby-Dick-Steve-Chandler/dp/1931741638), the conference came to an end. But I stuck around for an extra half-hour chatting (networking?) with several authors, and watching them network with each other. A fun but harried youngish author offered me a collaborative role in marketing her book, the Amazon #1 best-seller The Daughter-in-Law Rules: 101 Surefire Ways to Manage (and Make Friends with) Your Mother-in-Law! We’ll see what that amounts to.
I wish I had thought to print out business cards with my contact information, but I’ve been hand-writing my e-mail address and blog site, which seems to suffice. One woman even invited me to visit her in Montreal.
After a very informative conversation with a retired documentary filmmaker, I had the afternoon to myself. Today was some kind of Carnival festival, which the children of the town celebrated by thronging to the central plaza, the Jardin, and pelting each other with dyed, confetti-filled eggs. The younger ones ran wildly and shrieked, whereas the 10-14-year-olds hung in packs and stalked their targets. (I have photos -- I'll post them when I'm back to the States.)
I sat down on a bench to watch the spectacle, quickly becoming a target myself. I received the first confetti egg as a flattering gift, an affirmation of my quasi-Mexicanness. A young girl broke the second egg, filled with glitter, gently on my head. I was flattered she’d waste her pesos on egging a gringo. The third and final egg, though, was crushed on my head by a boy about twelve years old, as I begged him not too. The flour-filled egg covered my hair and bonded with my pristine black sweater, which I brought to wear with almost every outfit. Annoyed as I was as I walked the fifteen minutes back to my hostel to change, I still felt that I had been anointed, not disgraced.
And then, in homage to my remaining Americanness, I went back to my hostel and did homework.
SATURDAY, February 21
I arrived back in Mexico around midnight, and the lights of Mexico City twinkled like stars. Maybe all lights look this way from above, but I was surprised that they blinked on and off like a car’s turn signal when the light’s nearly burned out. Mountains rose up, a deep, matte black. I thought they were lakes until I noticed the houses nestled on their lower slopes. The plane touched down softly and bounced. Al fin llegué a la santa tierra de México.
My dear, tremendously gay Mexican friend Mikee picked me up at the airport about half an hour after I cleared customs. He was just late enough for me to wander the arrivals hall worriedly, wonder if he’d grown out his hair or put on weight, withdraw pesos from the Banorte ATM, buy some credit for my pay-as-you-go Mexican cell phone, search my two bags to find his number, and call him worriedly.
We headed straight from the airport to El Ansia, a famous but cozy Mexican gay club, where we danced until four a.m. We stumbled into Mikee’s house around 4:45, and I fell asleep so fast I may as well have fainted. It’s been a long week, this one: three nights in a row of bedtimes past 4 a.m. I’ve had more than my fair share of essays, tests, Odyssey grant proposals, and tons of readings, plus packing, planning and trying to get ahead on the homework I’ll miss this weekend. It’s a Saturday night, now, and I’m sitting sola in my hostel, grateful for the silence and solitude.
(I should mention, I’m actually here accompanied by my new HP Mini laptop, which I bought as a Valentine’s present to myself for use at this conference and in future travels. After lugging a bulky, heavy laptop around Europe and Mexico for the past two years, and having developed a love of travel, I decided I wanted/needed/deserved/could afford to splurge on a smaller one. I love it.)
After a tragic combination of slept-through alarms, misread bus schedules and snarly Mexico City traffic, and an unexpected stop in Querétaro, I arrived in San Miguel de Allende at 9 p.m., Friday, missing the first keynote speaker. Fortunately, it turns out that the speaker, author Erica Jong, was missing too. She called in sick at the last minute and rescheduled for March 5, well after I will have returned to Arkansas.
So today was my first day of the conference. I woke up at seven, dressed, and headed out on my way before anyone else awoke. The owner of the hostel drew me a remarkably detailed map of San Miguel last night, and the half-hour walk to the conference center at the Hotel Real de las Minas was straightforward and enjoyable, despite the slick slate sidewalks and bumpy cobblestone roads. The sun had risen, but not enough to dispel the morning chill from the air. The orange, red, and magenta buildings fluoresced in the sunlight.
At the conference I attended a keynote session on redefining literary success, workshops about writing book proposals and becoming a travel writer, a panel discussion on the future of publishing and the role of new media like Facebook in that future, a two-hour Open Mic session, a lecture from professor/author/activist Todd Gitlin, and another panel discussion on the meaning of the Obama election. (Apparently the ex-pats of San Miguel raised thousands and thousands of dollars for Mr. Obama, topped only by the donations of Americans in London and Paris.) We're talking eleven hours of non-stop literary learning.
My biggest worry about the conference was that I wouldn’t fit in. I could tell from the pictures on the conference website it was mostly attended by older women. In fact, at lunch I dined with two 70-year-olds and an 80-year old. Fortunately, I think my youth gives me an edge. It’s an immediate conversation point. People will ask, “So what are you writing?” and I say, “Well, I’m a student, actually,” and the conversation blooms from there. I’ve given my e-mail address and blog link to several folks with nieces or grandchildren in the market for a great liberal arts school. Everyone seems very impressed that Hendrix funded my trip to San Miguel. I’ve also been asked a lot about Facebook and blogging, since I’m an aficionado of both.
In exchange for my technology “expertise,” I get to here fascinating stories from these older women. The 80-year-old from lunch was born in Fort Smith, Arkansas, moved to Tennessee, and then to Prince Edward Island, and now lives most of the year in Egypt with her Egyptian surgeon husband. I got the impression (although it was honestly hard to hear her) that she herself was a doctor or researcher of some sort, and had been a professor for a long time. Quite an illustrious career for a child of the 1920s! Another woman I met, an Australian, had lived for a long time in India, but then had moved to Costa Rica to live near her daughter. She’s now considering a move to San Miguel. Yet another, the one who led the travel writing breakout session, described how she spent her 20s and 30s traveling the world. It was an inspiration.
After meeting all those lovely women, I ended up spending the evening alone, wandering around the centro popping into artesania shops and jewelry stores. I dined at the Café Monet, a gringo-run, Italian-style restaurant I passed on my walk to the conference this morning. As I sipped my limeade and savored my eggplant parmesan, I tried to record all the day’s details in my journal. I must have been there for an hour and a half, following my meal with a latte. The owner of the restaurant, I guess presuming me to be Mexican, told my waitress loudly in English, “Give that lady a piece of this cake. She’s just sitting there so nicely.” She seemed startled when I responded with a warm “Thank you” in my Midwestern accent. The cake, a soggy sponge cake with warm raspberry topping, was delicious.
These first two have reminded me how much I missed and continue to love travel. (Thus conveniently justifying, yet again, the purchase of this cute laptop.) In my other international travels -- my stays in Madrid, London, and Monterrey, as well as other travels throughout Europe -- I’ve found myself to be a bit of a basket case. I always cry. The combination of exhaustion, confusion, embarrassment, and homesickness brings out my weepy side. But this time I have not cried! I’m growing thicker skin in my old age!
I feel relieved to be speaking Spanish again, to find that the words and the accent are still locked in my brain somewhere. I had missed the tiny abarrotes grocery stores on every block, the buildings’ beautiful, painted walls, and the Virgen de Guadalupe. I missed the mariachis and the reggaeton. I missed people commenting on my green eyes. I missed tacos and aguacate and agua de jamaica and frijoles and … and … .
The owner of the hostel asked me last night how I had picked up such a Mexican accent. I told him about my time in Monterrey, and how I had now returned to the U.S. “Back again so soon?” he asked. “No pude vivir sin Mexico,” I told him. I just couldn’t live without Mexico.
It occured to me after I posted my last piece that I forgot to mention the Hendrix Winter Formal! It took place Jan. 31 at ... some hotel and conference center downtown. (After almost three years here, I still don't know Little Rock very well at all.) Below are some of my bestest friends and me in our apartment, prepping for the dance.
Inexplicably, I had an awesome, awesome time at formal. I wasn't drunk (honestly), I didn't have a date, and yet I'm going to declare that this was the best Formal ever! I went with a big group of friends, danced like crazy, and enjoyed the heck out of my evening. I think that my trip to Mexico was very helpful in this regard. While abroad I finally:
became less awkward in party-like social situations
gained a sense of rhythm, and
learned how to walk in high heels.
Those tricks came in handy again last Saturday at the Spanish Club's Salsa Night. An awesome eight-piece Latin band from Chicago had made their way down here to play, so I knew I was morally obligated to attend and enjoy myself. And yet I couldn't help imagining the potential awkwardness of standing around in the enormous Hulen Ballroom with a bunch of people (the men vastly outnumbered by women) who didn't know how to dance salsa. I was so wrong! I ended up dancing with six guys, most of whom indeed did not know how to dance. But Hendrix folks are quick learners. After some pointers about basic steps, they were on their way!
The joy of that night dissipated quickly Sunday morning, as I embarked on an interminable 137-page journey of UN resolutions with size 9 font -- my homework for The Iraq War class on Tuesday. My other classes kept up their standard, medium-hard homework loads this week, and with the additional tasks of rewriting my résumé and writing an Odyssey funding request, I was quickly overwhelmed. Monday through Wednesday, I lived in the library. We're talking 8 a.m. to 3 a.m., with periodic breaks for class, food, and work-study. Like, people will text message me and say, "hey hey heey! how's the library?" Seriously. This just happened, just now.
Today, though, I walked out of Dr. Berryman's classroom with a jubilant feeling of triumph. As hard as his class can be -- long readings, lots of mandatory class participation, plus weekly two-page reaction papers -- that effort makes it all the more satisfying when I do finally complete the work. Even though I still have a ton of reading for two other classes tomorrow, when I finished my Iraq War work for the week, I knew the battle was won. I went home and took a nap. I called my little brother. I made some dinner. I stared at a wall, just to not stare at a computer screen or a stack of papers.
I also went to a panel discussion called "Developing Sexually/Developing Professionally: Lessons Learned from Living a Sometimes Confusing Overlap." Five female professors discussed their experiences from college onward, trying to earn respect as professionals and intellectuals without negating their identities as sexual beings. It's quite a balancing act, but as someone who can live in a library, walk in high heels, and write a blog that's cool enough for you to be reading it right now, I'm sure I can eventually master that trick, too.
It's been nearly two months since I left Mexico, and in a mere two weeks I will be back! As I mentioned earlier:
I will be participating in the annual San Miguel de Allende Writer's Conference, learning about fiction writing in one of the Western hemisphere's most prominent writers' colonies (in a gorgeous colonial town that just happens to be a UNESCO World Heritage site). I'll come back to Hendrix with a bunch of tips and writing exercises, which I will use to develop several short stories that I will present on campus in late spring. That last part really kind of terrifies me, but giving a public presentation is a prerequisite for an Artistic Creativity Odyssey project.
Upon further reflection, though, that last part really really terrifies me.
I've bought my plane and conference tickets, and I'm starting to mentally pack my suitcases. I daydream of the warmth, the tortillas, the Spanish! What I should be doing instead is preparing for all the homework I'm going to miss. After the four-day conference I'll head north to Monterrey for a few days to visit my friends. I think that short visit should be a kind of reality-check for my culture shock, giving me a fresh look at the people and places I got so used to, whom I've missed so much. I plan to write at least one essay about Mexico for my Creative Writing: Non-Fiction class, and this trip should be invaluable as background research.
I've already notified my friends that I'll be back. I've gotten a lot of excited responses, including one from my friend Cehcy: "corazon, te urge regresar... ya tienes fallas en el español :S ocupas practicarlo." "Hun, you need to come back soon ... your Spanish is getting bad :S you could use some practice."
The sad thing is, I have been practicing. Once or twice a week I'll start up a long Spanish conversation with a friend who just got back from studying in Argentina. We have plans for a big Mexican-food-cooking, Spanish-speaking extravaganza on Sunday. I would audit a Spanish class just to get some extra exposure ... except my academic life is insane! The first few weeks back at Hendrix I established a nice schedule -- up at 7:30, in bed by 12:30, with lots of hard work in between. The hard work and the early mornings have remained, but recently my bed time keeps sliding backward. Tuesday, for example, I stumbled back into my apartment around four a.m., after hours in the Bailey Library computer lab. Sunday, Monday, and Wednesday nights were almost as bad. I've written four essays in the past three days! Sometimes I consider just sleeping in the library, so I don't have to walk the two blocks back to my apartment when it's late and cold.
Of course, I could just do work in my own stinkin' apartment and stop complaining. Except ... the walls there are laughably thin, and my neighbors love to play Rockband. Also: the Huntington apartments' wireless Internet connection is a joke. The connection is always strong -- except when the network has "no connectivity." Which is about every two minutes. I am typing this blog post in Gmail, in the computer lab. If I were in my room I'd have had to "repair network" at least ten times by now.
(Sidenote: the Huntington apartments rock, except for all that stuff I just said. They are clean and new, and they're arranged in a U shape. It's nice walking to and from my apartment, passing my neighbors and saying hello. It's not the same kind of community you feel in the residence halls, but it's still something.)
On the bright side, I like working in the computer lab. I feel like the other kids will judge me if I Facebook for too long, which keeps me on task. The room is brightly lit, which keeps me alert. And I have fewer procrastination opportunities here. At my house I stop reading to clean, or to make a snack, or to call a friend. At the library, you can either be inside and quiet and warm, or you can be outside and talking and cold. The upshot of this is that I barely call home and my room is a disaster, but at least I get my work done.
In general, I am enjoying my return to Hendrix much more than I had expected. I wasn't sure how well my old friendships would patch back together, but I've been more than satisfied. I've met some delightful freshmen, which makes the lunchtime cafeteria rush more comfortable. My friends and I have reclaimed our table on the north side of the caf, so I always have folks to sit with. And there is this new sandwich bar in the cafeteria -- wow! The Classic Turkey is a gift to humanity! I've decided, now that I'm back in the U.S., to continue eating fish and poultry in limited amounts, which has kept me from getting bored with the menu. Everyone else already knew how good the Cajun blackened chicken and the battered shrimp were. I, on the other hand, am just beginning to appreciate the full glory.
So it's official: I am glad to be back. I feel fully assimilated back into campus life, even though I live off-campus. If it weren't for all the new food, my new apartment, my new roommate Sarah, and all the Mexican photos and knick-knacks scattered around my room, I'd never realize I'd left!