Monday, December 19, 2016

Writing in Chacala

It was cold when I left San Miguel, not really cold compared with Manhattan where I’d lived for 30 years, but too cold for unheated, concrete building. My spirit had contracted. I was elated when an opportunity to write at the beach fell in my lap.

A friend had been invited to participate in Chacalit, Chacala’s first Literary Festival that included a writing residency. She couldn’t go and recommended me. All I had to do was get there and they would take care of me for two weeks while I wrote. Heaven. My chi expanded when Maia Williams, a poet and co-director of the San Miguel Writers’ Conference, and I deplaned in Puerto Vallarta. The air was moist—no need to slather my skin with oil to counteract San Miguel’s dryness.

Children’s book author and illustrator Duncan Tonatiuh, the third residency writer arrived late with his wife Patty (a dancer who’d studied with my favorite dance company, Alvin Ailey), and their 18-month old daughter Vida. We each had separate living spaces in the family compound of organizer Emilia Robinson, a Brit whose husband was Mexican.

I was expecting our hosts to be older, stodgier, like the too-too proper Bermudians who invited me to perform my one-woman show on their island. But Emilia and her husband Arturo were an easy-going young couple. The night Maia and I arrived, their girls, Chloe and Ela, played under the palapa that sheltered the outdoor dining area while their dad grilled chicken for dinner. We got acquainted and shared a meal.

The next morning, I woke up just before dawn, watched the squirrel play in the tree as the sun rose, and worked for several hours revising my memoir. I was more focused than I’d been for weeks at home in San Miguel. I worked until we left for lunch at Emilia and Arturo’s restaurant in town. That afternoon I prepared for the memoir workshop I was scheduled to lead the following week. I’d taught playwriting and dramatic writing for more than 20 years but this would be my first memoir class. I wanted to be prepared. That was my pattern the first week. The second week, I taught two afternoons and spent the others developing a new project, a book I want to translate into a musical.

What was it about Chacala that incited creativity? First, it was a new environment and new always stimulates me whether I love it or hate it. Second it was surrounded by jungle. I’d never lived that close to nature—at night raccoons devoured any food we left on the counters of the outdoor kitchen. But there was a familiarity to Chacala—it made me think of my past. When I grew up in the 50s, children were allowed to run free. In Chacala parents could still let their children to do that. The palapa at Chac Mool was like hundreds of other palapas I’d sat under, having a meal or a drink, during my 30-year love affair with the Caribbean. It took me back to West Africa—the area around the restaurant could have been the business strip in the neighborhood where I stayed in Accra. But mostly it was the people—people who chose a lifestyle that a city girl like me could never fathom, to live in a place where nothing happens. There was an intimacy in this village of only 300 full-timers that made me feel as if I had become part of a community after two short weeks.

It was a productive time—I revised the first section of my memoir, finished a blog I’d been trying to write since Trump won the election, and sketched out a couple of scenes for the play.

Now I’m back to real life where shopping has to be done and food has to be cooked and houses have to be cleaned. I’m back to the distraction of friends and family in the height of the holiday season but carving out two or three houses most days when I reconnect with my Chacalit focus.

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