Tag Archives: essay

Flattening the Curve. Comic Relief. Mexico Next?

Coming to California from Mexico was going to be a family reunion. All that changed in a flash. I arrived at my son’s in Huntington Beach after diligently sanitizing every airplane surface I could touch. My hands are raw from washing and sanitizer. Small sacrifices. Every sniffle and cough is alarming. I’m hoping it’s allergies. One site I read says, if you can hold your breath for 10 seconds without coughing or chest tightness, you don’t have it.

Nature hike today, Bolsa Chica Wetlands, Huntington Beach, CA

Hard to know what to believe.

A recurring theme: TP out of stock. Our back-up is tissue, then paper napkins.

Meanwhile, the party we were all going to was cancelled and we decided to stay put, institute social distancing and flatten the curve: sister and brother-in-law in Santa Cruz, and brother in Thousand Oaks. I’m here chilling and cooking with my boy. I’m sure we all have similar stories.

In Chicago, no fresh produce

Meanwhile, I brought four rolls of toilet paper from Mexico and eight bottles of hand sanitizer. There is no TP to be found in Southern California. I’m getting photos from friends in Denver, Santa Fe and Chicago that shelves are bare. We have resorted to paper napkins as back-up. I’m rationing as I wipe.

Decorator paper, California bathroom — hoarding countrywide

Now for the Comic Relief. I received an email from my friend Ellen Benson. I suggested after reading this that she become a Stand Up Comic. She said her only gig was the Oaxaca Lending Library presentation she gave in February when she mistook the podium lamp for a microphone. She gave me permission to share this with you:

“Hi all! I came home from Oaxaca on Wednesday, March 4, which now seems like many weeks ago! No one on the plane or at the airport had on masks or gloves and i saw very little wiping down of surfaces. So, in the face of a potentially lethal worldwide epidemic, i did what i was born to do,  and a few days later i went to Marshall’s!! Actually i was on my way to Target, and i have to confess that i grabbed a shopping cart without a second thought. I also grabbed a 4 pack bundle of kleenex, paper towels, liquid hand soap, granola bars, peanut butter crackers and purified water. Later, at the food co-op where i toted the shopping basket without wiping it down, i added mango popsicles, tomato sauce, chocolate chip cookies and canned string beans (which i rarely eat, but this time may be different!) and i  went to the ATM and then pumped gas, without wearing gloves! And of course i’ve had no guidance from any authorities on whether plucking a beard hair, fiddling with my hair and putting in earplugs to mask zak’s snoring, count as touching my face!

“I had lunch with Rita, at highpoint Cafe WHERE I TOUCHED THE BATHROOM DOOR HANDLE ON THE WAY IN, but used a paper towel to grab it on the way out, thank goddess. Of course i leaned on the counter and then pulled out my chair—but that was just for a few seconds. The real problem is that Harin joined us and SHE HAD JUST RETURNED FROM SEATTLE THE NIGHT BEFORE! So—this may be the last newsletter i ever write. I just called the Phila Health Dept hotline to find out what it means for me that my husband is still going to work at a senior citizen health care facility, but the voicemail message that told me to stay on the line, also said i was 67th in the order of calls!

“So now i have reverted to what i was born to do in an emergency if i can’t go to Marshall’s: i am stuffing myself with starches, fats and sugars. I had planned to go back to Weight Watchers when i got back from Mexico but hey, it’s NOT MY FAULT THEY MEET IN GROUPS IN SMALL SPACES!! I do wash my hands a lot. however i know it’s supposed to be big lathers and long enough to say the whole alphahebt, but i keep getting stuck at “P” and the lather is pretty weak. I guess i should not have bought the hand soap at DOLLAR GENERAL.  None of this is as bad as the reporter who actually asked if we should stay away from Chinese food! As everyone knows, you should only stay away from Chinese food that uses recipes from Wuhan!

“So now it’s days later and i’m wearing rubber gloves (but only to brush my teeth), have wipes and purell everywhere, have bought the last 3,000 rolls of toilet paper in the city (no logical explanation except other people felt it was important), and am at home because everything’s cancelled and i hate taking walks in nature. I would love to use a 50% off coupon at MICHAEL’S but have to keep telling myself it’s not worth it, even if the Lord and Taylor shoe department is right next door.  My plan is to clean out my studio, make art, try cooking something, talk on the phone a lot, give myself a pedicure, and of course, to write to YOU!!

Are we having fun yet? love, ellen”

I stuffed 4 rolls into my luggage; packed 8 bottles sanitizer

As for Mexico, the minister of public health says the virus will hit in full force between March 20 and March 30.

Shelley brings Jacob a care package

Anyone traveling from Mexico to the USA should bring a suitcase filled with TP and hand-sanitizer and distribute it to family and friends upon arrival, and before Mexico goes crazy about tushie hygiene, too.

Stay healthy, everyone. I’m trying my best.

Love, Norma

A walk did wonders for our mental health

Next big question: Should we eat out at a restaurant tonight? What do you think?

New Yorker cover this week!

Getting Ready to Travel, Corona Virus and All

On early Thursday morning, March 12, I climb on an airplane to travel to visit my son and siblings in California. There are risks. I’m of that certain age of vulnerability, but with no underlying health issues. I’ve struggled with this decision and decided to move ahead despite all the cautionary (and near-panic) media attention. I’ve even watched CDC and Johns Hopkins Medical Center briefings to Congress to better understand the science of this virus. Will it ease my anxiety?

Called corona because of halo-crowns ringing the cell

Alas, all the hand-sanitizer bottles were sold-out from the Ahorro Farmacia in Oaxaca’s historic center. No disinfectant wipes to be found, either. The snowbird season is over. All the Gueros returning to the USA must have cleaned them out. The little convenience store in Teotitlan del Valle had plenty, so I stocked up and left a few on the shelf for the next person.

6 Things to Pack for Airplane Travel re: Corona Virus

This message came to my inbox from Sarah Resnick, owner of Gist Yarn and Fiber. A well-crafted, thoughtful essay about fear, anxiety and lack of control for what presents itself in our lives. She mirrors my feelings, exactly.

Colorful cell photo of corona virus — isn’t it pretty?

I want to share it with you.


Hi there,

Sarah here, the owner of Gist (Yarn and Fiber). I want to take a pause in our regularly scheduled yarn emails to acknowledge this moment we are living in. Fears about a public health crisis and an unsteady economy can bring on strong feelings of anxiety that can be hard to shake, and I’m sure that some people on this email list have already been touched personally by these issues. We are lucky to have a craft and art that is so soothing – many of us can relate to the calming feeling of running a shuttle back and forth across a warp, steadying our minds. 

This morning as I was snuggling in bed with my baby and trying to calm the pit of anxiety in my stomach, I took a deep breath and thought about all of the ways that I am relating to these issues – as a mother, as a daughter, as a granddaughter, and as a small business owner. All of those fears really centered around one thing – acknowledging a lack of control. I can’t control how this plays out, who it will impact, when it will feel less scary, and how our business and the livelihoods of our small team will weather a challenging economy. But of course, the feeling of control is always false, and we have all had experiences in our lives where everything changed in a moment. 

So I’m choosing to lean into gratitude and trust – gratitude for the health care workers who are risking their own well-being to work to keep the most vulnerable people safe and protected, trust that our communities will come together instead of panic driving us apart. And trust also in this beautiful little business and community that we are building here at Gist – that we will weather this storm right along with the rest of our weaving community, that you will be here for us, and that we will be here for you. 

Here are a few things I’m working with: deep breaths, long walks, quiet time with family, and of course, the steadiness of weaving. If you’re looking for some new yarn or weaving projects to dive into, we have you covered.  But this wasn’t an email trying to sell you something. If, like me, you’re struggling with some anxiety, here’s a gentle reminder to take a breath and remember we are all in this together. 



For All the Bad Hombres and Nasty Women: An Essay on Voting

Yesterday was opening day for early voting in North Carolina, where I live when I’m not in Oaxaca. The top priority for being here now was to change my voter registration to my new legal name of Norma Lee Schafer and to vote in this presidential election. I drove to Graham, North Carolina, the Alamance County seat of government, stood in line and cast my ballot. Done.

But not really. The politics of anger, bitterness, biting and back-biting, hurled insults and what it means to live in a democracy where voting is a right, a privilege and a responsibility are taking its toll on me. It was a sleepless night for me on October 20 as I reviewed the October 19 “debate” and its aftermath, what it means to have a clean election that is not rigged.

Vote Protector Volunteer. I see this as reassurance.

Vote Protector Volunteer. I see this as reassurance.

So, this is what is prompting me to write this essay about voting, elections, and the tone of discourse in the USA. To say I am disturbed is to minimize what is happening in our country. I know many of you join me.

To disrespect the electorate and the electoral process by a major party candidate who says he will not accept the election outcome unless he wins brings our democracy to a level I have never seen in my lifetime. Political analysts say it is without precedent.

Tell the African-Americans and Latinos in line with me at the Youth Services Building set up by the Alamance County Board of Elections that this is a rigged election. Tell all the traditional country born and bred southerners with teased blond hair or baseball caps standing with me in the hot afternoon sun that their vote is discounted unless a certain candidate wins.

Standing in line waiting to vote this year meant even more to me than usual. I feel proud to participate in a several hundred year process that is safe, respectful, honest and peaceful. Standing in line, I’m reminded that not many countries in the world offer this to their citizens.  I am reminded that many don’t vote in Mexico because they believe the elections are pre-determined.

I take this voting responsibility seriously. Especially this year when so much is at stake.

As I waited in line that continued to grow as the afternoon lengthened, neighbors and strangers exchanged greetings, smiled, held on to hands of children, tipped their hats for shade. I have no idea whether the kindly man behind me was Democrat or Republican and I didn’t ask as he helped me take off my jacket to use as a sun shield. We stood patiently, waiting our turn. Election officials told me they would not close the doors. Everyone in line at 5 p.m., however long it was, would vote.

In line, I felt this sense of urgency, of significance, of something extremely important happening in a small, rural North Carolina county seat.  I felt what I was about to do was important, very important for the future of this country and the world. I thought about poll taxes and voting rights, and the struggles for equality, legal and social, that each of us deserves. I thought about women’s right to vote and to choose, about borders and walls, about haves and have-nots.

I’m angry as I watch the national drama continue to unfold, unravel, and discharge the next epithet: Bad Hombres and Nasty Women. Political theatre has become the Theatre of the Absurd, and I wish for something better, more redemptive, something that will heal our differences and take us forward together.

And, I’m afraid of a post-election aftermath where we now tolerate personal attacks that turn from verbal to violent, led by a candidate who will not accept a process in which he has failed.

But, mostly, I urge all to vote, to make your voice heard through your ballot as we continue this important tradition of peaceful transfer of power, a tradition that makes democracy work and prevents anarchy.

From One Nasty Woman, Norma




Women’s Creative Writing Workshop: What a Peanut Says–Truth Starts Small

Laura Lamm, our guest contributor today, wrote this essay as an example for her ENG 100 students at Methodist University where she teaches English. It is about her 2013 experience participating in our Oaxaca Women’s Creative Writing and Yoga Retreat: Lifting Your Creative Voice.    Our 2014 workshop is open for registration.

As I cull through and edit almost 800 photos from the Lunes Cerro extravaganza we call Guelaguetza to share with you, I offer you this extraordinary piece of writing to enjoy for today!


My Failed Free-Write by Laura Lamm

Last spring, on the fourth day of the Oaxaca Women’s Writing Retreat, Robin [Greene], our writing coach, had passed around a bag of peanuts. Her only instructions had been “take one and don’t eat it. Well, at least not right away,” and she had laughed in that funny light-hearted way we had immediately loved hearing from her on our first day. Her lesson of this day was “truth starts small” when writing.

Some members of our group were lucky enough to get a whole nut, but some of us only got a half.  Robin told us to examine our peanuts for a few minutes and write about them.  Admittedly, while game for the exercise, I had thought how much can be said about half a peanut. I was surprised by the details the other writers in the group gave.  Truly inspiring words flowed from their lips as they read aloud: crunchiness, smoothness, grooves, dimples, and salt flakes.  Each woman had something astounding to say about the small world of her peanut, but I did not meet the challenge.

In fact, if I had been scored in a classroom on my attempt, I would have failed, totally missing any points given for following directions, falling way below the other women writers on the retreat.  I would have been that girl in the back of the proverbial classroom who would make the teacher shake his or her head and later comment to a peer, “Poor child, she just doesn’t get it.”

Peanuts make me think of humid August dog days.  The ones so bad that my mother would buy us ice-cold Cokes and bags of Lance salted peanuts, and we’d pour the nuts into the top of the bottle, making the Coke fizz until we covered the top with our hot mouths and drank, catching the peanuts with our tongues, stuffing them in our cheeks like squirrels.  Small things, like peanuts, make me remember other things.  Peanuts also make me think of elephants.

Robin could not have known about my fondness for Coke and peanuts or of my admiration for elephants when she had made the writing assignment.  She could not have imagined that I had watched a television documentary, revolving around a herd of African elephants, the night before my flight to Mexico.  The elephant herd, which had been large in number, was steadily decreasing because of a drought.  That day in Oaxaca, where life was a string of perfect small truths to be discovered, I couldn’t focus my mind on my peanut half even for a brief time.  My mind kept wandering to the ancient cow that had many daughters in her herd but had birthed a male that season.

Instead of the nut in front of me, I kept seeing her walking, searching for any water or food to be found.  I sat in the safeness of my writing retreat, thinking about how that mother would have loved to have even this single half of a peanut for her calf.  He had died that summer in the documentary. His mother had continued to grieve for his loss until the herd splintered into smaller groups that had gone on their way, because she would not leave him behind even weeks after his death.  Her daughters and granddaughters stayed beside her until her death; then the eldest herded all of the surviving cows onto their primordial walking path, following the herd’s other females, for what she instinctively knew would be a better life just as her mother had done before her.

No, I don’t think I would have scored very highly on my free-write if I had been judged by an assignment’s standards, and it was lovely that on this retreat I didn’t have to worry about failure. My destiny was not predetermined by a rubric from a filing cabinet.  Instead, I was afforded time to reflect on my truth.

I found that I thought not of peanuts or elephants.  I realized that I am always emotionally torn by events that revolve around mothers and daughters. I thought of my mother who has led me until she can no longer do so.  I thought of my daughter who I am trying to lead, but, like the granddaughters on the African plain, she is willful and head strong—not seeing the path of least resistance that I have already walked.  One day she will make her own path because she finds no solace in mine.

In the end, the peanut did fulfill its purpose just as Robin had said it would.  It gave me pause to think, and its small truth brought me full circle to a universal truth.  As a daughter and mother, I am faced daily with many types of conflicts that all require resolutions; but no matter the pull of each problem, I put one foot in front of the other, on instinct alone at times.  I win. I lose. I make a decision only to make another decision, avert this problem to face another.  I stand in the face of many adversities.  The greatest one being that no matter what I do, I will send my daughter out into an uncertain future just as my mother sent me.


Oaxaca Women’s Creative Writing and Yoga Retreat 2014

            Registration is Now Open

Dilemma: Separating the blog from my personal life — gaps and overlaps

This post is not so much about life and travel to, in, and around Oaxaca and Mexico,  as it is an update about where I’ve been over the last few weeks and where I am now — both in the physical and existential sense. It isn’t easy to write about this since it means going beyond the usual and revealing more about what I’m feeling. An emotional essay is not my standard, and presents a dilemma about how much I should talk about online that personal. While Oaxaca Cultural Navigator is my personal perspective, it focuses on travel, culture, art, and history, etc.  Lately, I haven’t been writing as regularly because my attention is elsewhere and I feel like I want to explain this.

My 96-1/2-year-old mother is nearing the end of her life.  Yet, we don’t know when her life will end.  She has had a long life. Her life has been long enough to realize her dreams, though she has fulfilled only a few of them. Often, the yearnings of women of her generation were suppressed in order to support home and family. She has been my role model for how to live otherwise with more independence and intention.

In the past four weeks I have been to Northern California twice, making round trips from Mexico City each time to have time with her and to give my caretaker sister some time for herself. But, it’s never enough time when you know that time is finite and the person who you love and who gave you life is strugglng to sustain her own. I am sad, and feel that however much time I’ve had with her still won’t fill the gap — for her and for me. In the last few days my mom has told her children and grandchildren how much she loves us and how proud she is of us. The messages are by email with copies to us all.  (This is a perfect  goodbye from my mom who has used the Internet for over 10 years.) I know she is getting ready, and in this way she is preparing us. I think I’m prepared, but ….

Last week, I flew from San Francisco to Boston, arriving in the middle of the night, staying with friends, and then driving to Portland, Maine, to meet up with my husband. We hadn’t seen each other in two months because of all this back and forth. Now, I am with him in a little cabin at the edge of a beautiful Maine lake where there is no WiFi connection. A blessing for us. We are here on vacation for another 10 days.

This morning, at the end of our yoga class, our instructor asked us to continue cool down by going into the fetal position. As I curled up and the tears came, I felt for a moment the sensation of birth and death. Beginning and ending of life. Thinking of my mother and her journey, and exit. This is what preoccupies me now.

This means not as many blog posts. And, because I’m not in Oaxaca right now, I am unable to give you daily updates of life there as I know it. An information gap for me and for you. And, because of my frame of mind, I’m not able to write as often right now.

Hopefully, more will come soon. I wanted you to know, and appreciate your patience and understanding.