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La Casa Azul: Letters to you from the blue house

Valentine's Day, 2008
I have agonized and plotted, rubbed my hands together with glee, pulled on my hair with fisted fingers, danced around in my semi-third floor loft, felt convinced it was all horrible and should never see the light of day and even written a handful of letters I believe will one day become part of these pages. And yet the perfect place to begin eluded me. But this afternoon, this moment in my roost, a new thought has sent my fingers madly moving across the keys, my laptop perched across my thighs, my feet resting on the bottom railing, the breeze whishing through the palms. Sunset is still hours away. At last I know the most simple of beginnings, an ode to La Casa Azul herself. And so I have my start now to these pages, and I am off and running. Thank you for letting it all fall into place even up through these last moments of creation, this last racing to launch these pages in time, on el dia del amor, to let this dream hatch, grow fluff, take wing.


M O S T    R E  C  E  N  T    L  E  T  T  E  R  S    B  E  L  O  W

illustration of a green manual typewriter

12 April 2010
I wonder if I keep writing this book so I can keep talking to you. When I find an end for it, it will be the end of our discourse. Except, of course, it won't be because we won't stop talking to each other in our heads. I may always examine an object or an idea with an eye toward describing it to you or wondering whether or not you would agree with it. I make up stances for you, give you reasons to convince me of things, to bring me around to your way of thinking. You are one of the few who could ever do that. And you so enjoyed doing it with me.

That was part of the pleasure for us, I think, how much we were each being enjoyed through it all. I so loved listening to your discerning mind. You would splice adjectives and poke holes in theories with glee, a young boy let loose with water balloons and a kitchen fork, happy tossing, stabbing, happy hitting his target and getting drenched, both. You would love being here today, would so enjoy this working with words, this camaraderie with writers.

You'd be a little awkward, ready to make light of your own work, too quick to laugh. But when you read you'd drop down, let the discomfort and the mask fall away, and your voice would be rich, deep, resonant. Your words would have power. I can see you sitting after you finish reading, head down. I can feel your sadness, the weight of it. But you would light up when people began to mirror your words back to you. You would be thrilled, surprised, bowled over, made dumb. You would forget to write it down, these affirmations of the strengths in your work, and I would nudge you with my elbow, make a writing motion with my hand in the air to remind you.

You look at me then, and I feel your incredulity. I get to see the secret place in you who wants to reach for this, to live here always. I squeeze your hand, fight back tears. I would love you being here today.

me with my lucky seven from the walk

23 February 2010
My friend Meri urged me to do some sort of follow-up about the walk for those of you who had so generously gifted the food bank on my behalf. So I set out that day with my camera, intent on documenting it for you, but when I pulled it out to take the first shot in the second mile, the batteries were dead. So were the back-up batteries I carried with me. When I came home I took these photos of myself with the camera in my laptop, recorded myself as soon as I walked in the door, determined to have me as I'd been for those 13 miles, my layers of sweaters and scarves, my magic number seven, my straw hat that replaced my winter cap as the morning warmed. I'd carried the hat in my pack. I wanted to be comfortable, ready for everything. I didn't want to burn my nose. I was so pleased, pulling it out, feeling silly but happy, grinning at myself as I walked and shaded my face from the late morning sun.

I carried snacks, thick whole wheat bread and butter, a sliced orange, sunflower seeds mixed with roasted flax seeds, sesame bars with honey and raisins. They fed me little paper cups of water along the way and there were port a-potties, so my fears of having to squat by the road were eased. I began the walk with a woman named Carmen who works for FIND. My Spanish surprised and pleased me, rattled out of me as we walked, most of the half-marathon folks already far ahead of us. At the one-mile point she stopped to use the bathroom and I kept going, worried a bit about being so far behind already, wanting to push myself more now while I had the energy, while clusters of people were still visible up ahead. I thought we'd meet up again when I stopped to rest, but we didn't. My one regret.

Just before we parted, a woman near us gasped at my Teva-like sandals. "Oh no! Are you going to be okay in those?" She passed us with two of her friends, sounded both shocked and pitying. "Yep," I said. I smiled through gritted teeth and nodded. "These are my walking shoes." Suffice it to say I felt no affinity there, was sorry later I hadn't waited for Carmen, but she hadn't planned to walk it all, at any rate. I walked alone, solid, content. The next five miles or so were heading west, and the mountains were alive with the first heavy snow of my first winter here. It was breathtaking. The route passed walled community after walled community, the desert landscaping between the walls and the sidewalk beautiful, manicured, new. My pace was steady, true to my ordinary three miles an hour. I enjoyed my snacks, sipped my paper cups of water when they came, took a second one each time and spilled it on my fingers as I walked, gaping all the while at the snowy mountains. The day was our first of sun after days of rain, that stellar brilliance, the sky an alarming blue and then the shock of white mountains in every direction. The half-marathon looped back past the start point and I stopped, picked up a remaining bottle of water, puzzled by the fact they were breaking everything down, packing up, the event already over. It was 11:30; we'd started at 8:00. I still had three more miles to go.

So, I went. I walked east now, knowing there would be no one left when I returned. I sipped my water, focused on stepping with as little force as possible. My feet and ankles hurt, but I wanted to meet my goal. I turned a corner and the moon was rising in the quiet midday sky, big, waxing, greeting me like an old friend. It cheered me. Then there were birds in some bushes, and I had companions in them all. I turned north and thought about how the day had begun in awe when I first walked out into the cold January air, the ground wet and saturated, snow on the mountains, the early morning light orangey and soft, the scene magic. I drove with the fogged windows down, and each turn opened up a new vista. The snow was everywhere. It was shocking. I was stunned by the stark beauty of it, the way the valley had been transformed. I remembered as I placed aching foot in front of aching foot in that last stretch of the walk the way that early morning light had touched the mountain near my home, tinting the virgin snow. I knew the memory would stay with me. Then I was back in the present, turning to the left on a wide sidewalk in Indio, and the last loop ended with me all alone heading west again, the best view of the walk, the western ranges spread out before me in all their glory, the quarter moon at my back. I felt good, quiet, grateful. I walked alone, and I was glad for what we had done together. I walked for four hours and 27 minutes, just over 13 miles, and we raised $599.99 for the food bank. Together we helped them provide 4,792 meals. How cool is that? I thank you, thank you, thank you. And I wish you each so much well.

I couldn't have done it without you.

red heart with orange and yellow

14 February 2009
Even before I launched La Casa Azul I knew my first letter to a real person, a true human being, would need to be a letter to you. You are my first human being, after all. And you have always been a real person, authentic, never holding back. I can't claim to ever having been glad to be on the receiving end of your anger, but even when I was young I knew I preferred your explosions to the other extreme, to cold silence. I remember my friend in junior high whose parents didn't emote. The stillness of their home was charged with unspoken horrors, human feelings squashed and ever twisted in the process. My friend grew up stiff, brittle, bruised by ice. My heart still aches for her. But even then, in the eighth grade, it made me grateful for you. I knew I would not have survived in her home, would not have been able to become who I was to become. I think even then I knew without the anger coming into the room with us, neither could the joy, neither could the love, not as truly as it did. And you have always given me so much love; tears burn behind my eyes as I write. You've always given me so much everything. You gave me myself. And not only in the literal sense, but in oh so many other ways. I've always known you gave me my art, only realized much later you gave me in that a link to your own mother, to the grandmother I never knew, the weaver, and a tie to your sister, to my aunt across the sea, the painter who I met as a child and didn't like because she didn't like me, didn't approve of how you were raising me, the aunt I met again as an adult, got a sense of her, felt a connection. She sent me feathers from Stuttgart birds, a kindred spirit, I think.

I come from a family of artists, a line of women, three generations. You gave me that, maybe without knowing it yourself. If I could change one thing I think it would be to give you back your mother, to let you have her for decades, years and years beyond the scarce eleven you were allowed before the stray American bullet found her after the war. We would have gone back often to visit her, I think. I would have known my grandmother, known my aunt, would have run through rural summers as a child, learned German, watched my grandmother weave, my aunt paint. I would have grown up knowing them, being a part of this artist family. I know you'd wish the same thing for us. It's funny, but I've never consciously longed for this before. I've wished I could have spared you the heartache of your huge childhood loss, but I've never thought about how it would have changed our family, what it might have meant in a bigger way. It's funny, how easily I can imagine it, how simple it is to slide into the dream of it.

I can almost see your mother at her loom, or bending over another weaver, the wood clacking together, correcting her pattern, adjusting the vivid red, the amber, the golden threads, sharing her expertise. I can see her glancing up at me with a smile, distracted by her work but still warm, receiving me. I can imagine you and Tante Helga painting in an upstairs room with big windows on the long outer wall, filled with morning light, crows calling from the orchard. She might have been grumpy at first, begrudging about sharing her space with you, the younger sister, the favored one, she thought. But you would have brought paints from California, would have impressed her as you stretched your own canvases, shared them all with her. She would have liked your work, and you hers, I think. She would have moved past her initial reluctance, I know, found secret pleasure in your company. I can hear you laughing together as you work, your backs to each other in the big airy room, sturdy, old wooden easels splattered with dried paint, a jar of orange poppies on the open windowsill.

Maybe it's so easy for me to slip into this picture because of our shared blood. My cells recognize them, know them. Because this imagining, this revery feels more like memory than imagination, as if I did roam the dirt roads there as a child, climb trees barefoot to eat green apples, play with second cousins, clatter in with them for dinner, dirty, noisy, happy. Maybe I know their souls, these women whose blood we both share. Maybe I know them through you, through your own shining spirit who lost her mother when she was a little girl but went on anyway, went on to become a remarkable artist, a loving mother, a good, warm, generous human being. I know you still carry your huge losses, your mother and then the brother who saw you and loved who he saw, your brother who you had to lose way too soon, too. But you never went bitter over these griefs, always stayed fresh and hopeful and ready for miracles. That may be one of your more impressive feats. I'm not sure--there are so many. But I am betting it was this that brought you and Daddy together. He still had the same kind of hope, I think. I'm betting it was in part his boyish innocence that drew you to him, buried though it may have already been beneath his cynicism, his own childhood griefs that did go bitter and despairing inside him.

We had a good talk on the phone yesterday morning. I got to tell you all about my trip to Guanajuato, got to describe the big, random, loping circle I walked, climbing the hills and then descending along the narrow, twisting callejones, the staircased alleyways weaving between the tall, colorful buildings. I got to tell you how I ended up after my meandering loop in the exact same spot, at the top of the stairway where I had begun, by no intention of my own. I stood there gaping, comic, mouth open, when I realized the last callejon had led me back to the first. I still can't believe it. It felt like an omen.

You laughed on the phone. "Like magic," you said, pleasure in your voice. You understood, shared the small miracle of it with me, as you have so often understood through our half century together, you who know me in so many ways better than anyone else on the planet. And so I knew I wanted to post this first letter to you on Valentine's Day, on the day that honors love. I wanted to honor you, my first person, who has loved me every moment of my life, held my hand when I was half your height, stuck my head under a towel over the big yellow bowl of dreaded chamomile steam when I was sick, sung "Que Sera" off key with me and Daddy, believed I could become president of the United States, baked me brownies every birthday, stood in silent awe beside me watching deer graze, put gems in my ears and in my heart, laughed and cried with me late into the summer nights. And I wanted to honor your mother, too, who gifted me with you, you who have loved me always and been loved by me in return. Always the two of us, fifty years, forever. Happy Valentine's Day, Mami. I love you more than I can ever say. Feliz dia de San Valentin.

The Bugambilia Beast

8 January 2009
You saved me when I first began living in my blue fairy tale house. You spread yourself above my head when I sat at my stone table. It was hot still in October. You were shade, shelter, savior in the heat of day. But you scared me, too. There were dead leaves and unknown creatures living among your thorny, twisting vines. One day people worked behind the back wall, cutting and pulling on you, pieces of you dropping into my patio. They worked a long time, trying to tame you. I never saw the trunk of the palm tree you embrace, only his top fronds who seemed shiny and content where they poked out at your peak.

When I first came I was afraid of you, of what might live unseen inside you---not in those few arms you reached across my yard but in all the long far stretches of you I glimpsed from below, the way your branches and twisting pathways wound on and on inside you, dark and secret and untraveled by humankind. I was afraid of your darkness, so different from your outside self, from the way you reached and sprawled and splashed your way across us, spanning seven yards in all, the huge scarlet and green wave of you finally crashing across the back yard that bordered mine, an array of orange and pink and white and purple foam joining your scarlet flow.

the wave of the Bugambilia Beast

At first you shocked me, too, not only by your immense size, your scary, crawling darkness, but in the way you'd taken over the palm tree. I thought you were barbaric. But then I stopped to really study the tree, to study you. I decided the palm seemed content inside you. I realized how you protect him, give him shade and coolness in the searing heat, soften the first-force harshness of the hurricane, while he provides an armature for your magnificence. It seemed as though the two of you had wed. You were no longer only the bougainvillea and only the palm tree. That---always that, the treasured sense of selfhood---but more, too, this joined being, this co-creature.

I've had the pleasure of watching the white-winged doves as they go to bed in you at night and of getting glimpses of them leaving the nest of you in the morning. Delicate, they hop out to sit on that one stretch of bare branch you reach above the patio, a good spot to get one's feathers in place and take a quiet, sleepy look around before one goes off toward what the day may bring. I got to watch the hummingbirds and the orioles feeding on the nectar of your neon blossoms, listen to the hidden chirpings from within you. Once I got to watch a hawk sitting on your topmost strand of flowers. You may have heard me talking to her, may remember the feel of her weight on you as she swayed there in the breeze, the exquisite arc of your reaching branch, green and fuchsia slashing across the deep blue of sky, and her sweet form perched within the perfect curve of you. She was small, brown, beautiful---alert as hawks seem to be, and she sat there longer than I dared to hope. I talked to her a bit in a quiet voice, not wanting to disturb her but unable to help myself, needing to tell her how beautiful she was.

I used to be afraid of you, but now when I think of the life teaming in your dark insides I think of quiet nests and safety and places little birds and mice can find true shelter, one big safe harbor, so hard to come by if you are a small thing on your own in the world. It is even harder to come by a haven as grand as you, my dear, dear bugambilia beast, who offers continuity to these little ones who tend to learn to expect less from life. Instead you give them more than they could ever have hoped for, a constant shelter in your vastness, undisturbed except by the occasional stalking cat or swooping bird of prey. But even these dangers can't reach both high and deep inside you. Those stretches are for the small things alone. And so you give them, these birds I can hear talking together even now, you give them safety they can count on, safe harbor stretching through time. No doubt their great grandmothers still tell stories about you, singing your praises, teaching the young ones gratitude for your gifts. Que milagro. What a miracle. You make me want to cry, seeing you like this, recognizing who you are, all you give.

I'm not afraid of you anymore, am only in awe of you now. And while you gift us all, grant safety, give food and shelter and shade, you are adorned with bright green leaves and soft papery blossoms. You wear your vivid glory, the kinds of colors that feed the soul, and you make me grateful to have met you. Gracias por ti, mi bugambilia beast. Thank you for you.

The Blue House

14 February 2008
I saw you from the street. You looked the way you look in the photograph, already half a year away now. You had bugambilia and a balcony and the sweeping arch, the art of you. You had the little sign, made of something thick and hard like illustration board, wired to your green blue gate like it belonged there. Se renta. For rent. And phone numbers. I'm not sure what I did those first few moments. I know I stood in the middle of the road and read the sign, again and again. I know I could hardly believe my eyes, like when I was four and our dog Grunt came home from the place he'd gone to live far away. I woke up in the morning to his dark furry form leaping around my sunny bedroom, all fierce wags and kisses, and I rubbed my eyes and wondered with gasping hope if he was real, if he was really there.

I called the phone number on your sign. I might have called from right there in the middle of the street on my first cell phone. I don't remember. I would be surprised if I didn't stand there with my mouth open, in awe, trying to take it all in. I would have been breathing a little hard because I'd just climbed the hill from town walking along the highway. I'd just crossed the street one block before I would turn right to head back to Las Flores, the posada where I was staying. I paused at the corner, looked down the street to the right where it crossed the highway. "Go that way." A voice in my head, quiet. "Go that way today."

I hesitated, studied the road. What about dogs? I'd never walked down that block before, didn't know the dangers. "Go anyway." I went. I forgot to be mindful and wandered without thinking up the next road to the left, and then I saw you. You were beautiful. You were for rent. A voice had whispered you to me. Months later when I got to live in you, I felt like I was living in a fairy tale. I relish my roost, my parapet, my sunsets. I revel in your light, your grace, your garden. I love your wall, the welcome of your fortress.

I don't know how long I will be here watering my lettuce and tomato plants, talking to my sunflowers and my nasturtiums, hoping for birds to feed, sipping sweet hot tea at sunrise in my roost or watching hawks fly on a muggy afternoon. But each day I will exalt in the tending and be glad for you, grateful for my fairy tale house. And short or long, I know I'll always remember the sanctuary you promised in a scary time, and winter days inside with the late late light of the afternoon gloaming on your tall walls. Thank you, my dear blue house. Gracias, mi casa azul.

Y feliz dia del amor.

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All pages © 2008 Riba Taylor (unless noted otherwise)    |    Last updated 2.23.2010