Sunday Morning in San Miguel

Sunday morning is a good time to wander El Centro (The Center) of San Miguel. The streets are empty, there are few people about, it’s easier to shoot interesting architectural details, and there are always curiosities that catch my eye.

Here are photos of what I saw early this morning. (Click on a thumbnail to open an image collection gallery. Navigate through the images in the gallery by clicking on left or right arrows. To close a gallery, click on the “x” in the upper left corner of the gallery screen ).



Architectural Detail

Eye-Catching Curiosities

2014 San Miguel Writers Conference & Literary Festival

If San Miguel de Allende is magical, then it is no surprise that the San Miguel Writers’ Conference spins the magic of place into an enchanted garden of the writer’s craft.

Known as the literary crossroads of the Americas, the San Miguel Writers conference attracts attendees from around the world for five days of intense celebration of writers from Canada, the U.S., Mexico, Central and South America. From a modest attendance of 26 in 2006, the conference has grown annually to an attendance of 325 in 2014.

This year’s evening keynote speakers included Calvin Trillin, Yann Martel, Laura Esquivel, and Benjamin Alire Sáenz. Afternoon keynote speakers were David Whyte, Kathi Diamant, and Ellen Bass.

Evening keynote speakers and the conference artist and author, Duncan Tonatiuh, signed books and greeted conference attendees in a Book Signing Gala Saturday afternoon. Afternoon keynote speakers signed books immediately following their afternoon keynote addresses. A part of the magic of the San Miguel Writers Conference is the openness and accessibility of the keynote speakers.

The daily 90-minute workshops led by a faculty of published authors are engaging, provocative, and relevant. The last day of the conference, half-day workshops offer a deeper and more intense exploration of various elements of the writer’s craft. The workshop experience is a master class in writing. It is the place to be for emerging authors.

The conference gives me a keener focus on writing. More important, the conference leaves me with significant personal insights. Poet David Whyte mesmerized the conference audience with his poetry and the poetry of others that he recited from memory. Fortunate to participate in a round table with Whyte and six other conference attendees, I was grateful for the opportunity to describe to him the impact of being introduced to Walt Whitman’s poetry at the age of twenty–fifty years ago–and the thrill of recognizing his (Whyte’s) poetry moves me in the same way.

Equally significant was hearing Benjamin Alire Sáenz speak passionately about the experience of growing up on both sides of the U.S. and Mexico border and the tension he feels as a citizen of both cultures. “The United States sells its culture to the world,” Sáenz said, “and when citizens of other countries knock at America’s door the tragedy is they are turned away as if we hate them because they love our culture.”

Equipped with new skills and insights, a refreshed view of my own writing, and renewed energy and motivation to write, I remain in San Miguel for two months following the conference to savor the magic of place.

San Miguel, todavía me encanta

Annis & Dennis

Our United Airlines flight touches down at Del Bajío International Airport, (Léon) at 5:55 a.m., twenty-one minutes ahead of schedule. An auspicious beginning to my two and a half month stay in San Miguel. Annis, my writing and travel partner, and I share the hour and a half drive from Léon to San Miguel with Barb, Janet, and Millie, from San Diego. “What brings you to San Miguel?” Annis asks. “We’re going to the San Miguel Writers Conference,” Millie says. “We are, too.” says Annis.

I can’t check into my apartment until 3:00 p.m., so I camp out with Annis at Hotel Real de Minas. We drop our bags in Annis’ room and hit the cobblestone streets of San Miguel. In El Jardin Publico, we run into friends Rose and Cathy from Toronto and plan a lunch date for the following day. Annis and I exchange dollars for pesos then head to Cafe Bagel for a breakfast of chilaquiles. Annis orders chilaquiles verdes and I order rojos. Within minutes of sitting down, we meet the five other diners in the cafe’s atrium and share enthusiastic conversation about San Miguel experiences. People are friendly in San Miguel.

In the Plaza Civica, Rosario shines my old black shoes. “Que bueno,” I say. “Como zapatos nuevos.”  Shined shoes lift my spirits; but, a San Miguel shine is incomparable. I love that about San Miguel.

At El Mercado Central, Rufina, our fruit and vegetable lady, is delighted to see us. She shows us a medallion she received  acknowledging 30 years of walking in an annual pilgimmage to the Sanctuary at Atotonilco. She gives us each a banana.

The aroma of fresh tortillas from Tortilleria Contreras, the neighborhood tortilleria, beckons as we turn down Animas, the street where we lived last February and where I will take up residence again in March. Stopping at Fertrin Pasteleria y Reposteria (Pastry and Confectionary), we say “hello” to Avelina, queen of tres leches cakes. At the corner quick market we greet Marguerita.

Back at the hotel, Annis and I go over the conference schedule. The conference is five days packed with keynote events, panels, workshops, agent pitch sessions, open mike sessions, and a grand fiesta. We will meet writers from all parts of the world. We will make new friends. At the end of the conference we will be exhausted, but energized for new writing challenges.

At three o’clock, I take a taxi to La Calle San Francisco. Azucena greets me and shows me the apartment that will be my home for the the first four weeks of my stay. I leave my bags and dash to Bonanza Grocery to pick up essentials for the next couple of days. I return to my apartment, eat a bowl of cereal with half of Rufina’s banana and yogurt cremoso, then fall into bed. I am tired, but happy to be in San Miguel.

“San Miguel is magical,” Ginny said when I met her last February. “You’ll be back.” She was right.

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A Letter to My Father at 100

Dear Mr. Crook, Clyde, Dad,

I don’t know what to call you. It feels strange to write “Dad.” I don’t know you. I don’t know who you are. I don’t know how you might have influenced my life had you lived beyond my eighth birthday. You don’t know me. We are strangers. Strangers or not, today, February 7, 2014, is your 100th birthday. I want to mark the occasion.

I don’t know anything about you as a person. Mom didn’t offer much insight; she didn’t talk about you. Once, in a fit of anger, she screamed at me, “You think your father was a saint! Well, he was no saint.” I wonder what prompted that explosion.

Uncle Clayton died about three years after you. He dropped dead from a heart attack. He was only 55. I think you would have been proud of Uncle Clayton. He retired, quit drinking and smoking. He bought a brand new Desoto. He loved that car. He’d been seeing a woman for a couple of years. Her name was Jesse. They had plans to marry. I remember when we went to Uncle Clayton’s funeral. I was ten. Mike was about five. Mike leaned over to Mom. “Maybe Daddy Clyde was there to meet Uncle Clayton at the garden gate,” he said. Teddy was really sad about losing Uncle Clayton. He was sad about losing you, too. I have a photo of you with Teddy. You have your arm around his shoulders, pulling him close to you. “Wow,” said Matt, Teddy’s son, when I showed him the photo. “Look at the love.”

Uncle Ralph died young, too. He was 60. Teddy, Jack, and Ralph Junior all died at young ages from alcohol related problems. Mike and I were able to overcome the Crook family curse and break the cycle of alcohol abuse. He’s coming up on 20 years of sobriety and I will have 25 years in July. Sobriety makes a huge difference in the quality of our lives.

By the time I was 24, Uncle Babe was my only living adult male relative who knew you. “Daniel,” he would say—he always called me Daniel. “I knew Clyde,” he’d say. “I knew your dad.” Then he would tell me the same story again. “‘Babe and I are going to the dump,’ Clyde would say. And then we’d go drink our beers.” Speaking of drinking beer, I remember going with you to the Irish Tavern in Oak Park. You’d put me up on a bar stool and buy me a bag of Top Hat potato chips. I’d eat potato chips and watch guys play shuffleboard while you talked with Chet, the bartender.

I was in the Navy for four and a half years. Then I went to college and graduate school from 1967-1972. Bill VanderWerff, my step dad, couldn’t understand being a librarian. “Do you know that the Library of Congress pays entry level librarians $12,000 a year?” I said, in an effort to convince him I was making a sound career choice. “All that money to stack books,” he said, shaking his head. What would you have said?

I was married and have two daughters, Susan and Sharon. They’re grown and each has two children. Susan has two girls and Sharon has two boys. I divorced and came out after 18 years of marriage. The world is a different place than it was when you left it. I’ll explain “coming out” another time.

Mike has been married three times. He has two boys by his first marriage and a daughter and a son by his second marriage. Vanessa, Mike’s daughter, has three daughters. His youngest son, Eric, lives in Santa Barbara. Eric and his partner, Nick, are being married June 28. I’m officiating. As I said, it’s a different world.

About a year after Mom’s 80th birthday, Mike suggested a family meeting with Mom to talk with her about her wishes for the last years of her life and her expectations of us. She was pleased we wanted the meeting. Mom was well organized. “I want to take care of everything myself,” she said. “I don’t want to be a burden to you kids.” She told us what she wanted done and how she wanted it done, including burial instructions. We promised her we would do exactly as she asked and committed to each other to do it.

Gaynl Ann was devoted to Mom. As Mom got older, it became more difficult for Gaynl to be aware of and to stay on top of Mom’s deteriorating condition. The last two years of Mom’s life were not pleasant. Senile dementia forced us to make the painful decision to put her into a memory care facility. We shared the responsibilities for Mom’s care. I managed her day to day needs. Gaynl Ann handled finances and insurance. Mike was the sunshine committee. We made it through that grim period without a problem, a disagreement, or a harsh word. After Mom’s death in 2006, I told Gaynl Ann and Mike that Mom would be pleased at the way we handled everything. I think she would be proud of who we are.

I wonder how different our lives might be had we grown up with you. We were each affected in our own way by your loss. Mike doesn’t remember you at all—he was only two at the time. He relies on me for a connection to you. That used to annoy me; but, I understand how important that connection is to him. I tell him what I remember of you. I recently found a photo of you holding him as a baby. I gave the photo to Mike. Gaynl Ann is the one who is most affected by your loss. She knows she was “Daddy’s little girl.” I don’t think she has ever reconciled herself to the loss.

It saddens me that we were denied the opportunity to know each other. I look at photos of you. You’re young, smiling, happy. I wonder what our relationship would have been. I like to think you would have been the father we needed. Another man got that job after you were gone.

We’ve missed you, Dad. We’ve missed the joy of having you in our lives, sharing our growing up years with you, our triumphs, and our disappointments. We’ve missed watching you enjoy your eight beautiful grandchildren and seven great grandchildren. Most of all, we’ve missed the presence of your smile and the sound of your voice. Why you were suddenly taken from us at such a young age—in your life as well as in ours—remains a mystery. Despite the loss of your physical presence in our lives, I believe Gaynl, Mike, and I are a credit to you. What is just and true and good in you lives on in us.

Happy 100th birthday, Dad. We love you.


In Front of Me

Table. Dining table. Four chairs. Tangerines. Bright orange. Full of seeds. Hand-picked. Ripe. Oatmeal raisin cookies (My favorite cookie in the world). Karen, Annis, Kathleen. The four of us—writers training for an imaginary writing Olympics. Team Bakersfield takes the field. Watch us flex our imagination, stretch our minds, expand our souls, spill our guts in torrents of description bringing memories from the darkness of past joys or even abuses. Everyone earns gold medals for putting pen to paper, filling a page with words. The scratch of the pen across the paper is music to our ears. The national anthem of the united states of writing—together. The energy is palpable. What comes up—siphoned from the wells of experience. The thoughts of four writers circle the table, bounce off of the walls and ceiling, ricochet against our heads, slide down our arms, through our hands and fingers into the pen and out on to the paper. An act. Wondrous. Awe-full. Profound. Creative. Fantastic. A tea cup. Hot. Roiboos.

The Third Thing

When you’re a writer there’s you and there’s writing. There has to be a third thing. I’ve already said “writing,” so it has to be something other than that. What’s my third thing? Me, writing, and photography. Photography is a form of writing—writing with light. I have loved photography since I got my first camera—a Kodak box camera that used 620 black and white film I never knew if I got a photograph. I would take the roll of “exposed” film to Keith’s Photo, wait a week for the processing, then hold my breath as I opened the envelop and looked at the photos. Some times I was surprised. Many times the photo was over exposed, blurred, something other than what I thought I was shooting. In those days, it was common for an amateur photographer to hear someone say, “If that turns out, I’d like to get a copy.”

From the box camera I graduated to a Kodak “Brownie” that I got as a twelfth birthday present. The Brownie used 127 film—black and white. I think I got 12 exposures from a roll of film.

In high school, I got my first 35mm camera. Kodak, again. The camera belonged to a friend, Pauline, who worked for Kodak in Palo Alto. I thought because she worked for Kodak she much know everything about photography. Later I learned she was one of the people on the processing line who wore white gloves and shoved processed photos into envelopes. She sold me the camera because she needed the money.

In the Navy, I traveled to Japan and Hong Kong. I bought two cameras during those years. The first was a Yashica twin lens reflex that I sold to a shipmate who wanted a camera because he had just become a father. The second camera was a Petri 7S, 35mm. I loved that camera and shot thousands of photographs.

College and career interrupted my my interest in photography. A few years ago, approaching retirement, I bought a Canon Rebel and began the serious study of photography. I used the Rebel for about three years then upgraded to the Canon 5D Mark II. What a camera! Probably way more camera than I need, but I love it.

I enjoy being the “official” photographer at family events and at meetings of various organizations of which I am a member. I love travel and take great pleasure in capturing photos of my travels and producing slide shows and picture books.

In less than a week’s time, I am off to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Light, color, action. A photographer’s paradise.

Going Deeper

Journal entry, January 1, 1997

Journal entry, January 1, 1997

How the Light Gets In, Pat Schneider’s latest book, convinces me to take my writing to a deeper level. My intention to confine this activity to a journal devoted to that purpose raised the issue of which journal to choose. Rather than purchase another journal, I took an inventory of my stock on hand. As a writer, I am often given bound journals as gifts. Scanning my journal bookshelf, I came upon a bound journal I purchased in Paris in 1996. Its cover says “Notes.” Used off and on, “Notes” is a mixture of observations and reflections taking up less than a quarter of the notebook. This will be a perfect place, I thought, to begin recording my depth exploration.

Removing the journal from the bookshelf, I paged through it, stopping to read entries at random. One entry, dated January 1, 1997, caught my attention. I wrote the entry while on a flight from Milan to Chicago. What I read took my breath away. The words could have come from Pat Schneider who I only learned of two weeks ago. In 1997, knowing that I wanted and needed to “go deeper,” the entry is like a plea for confirmation of what I already knew. It would take more than sixteen years for the answer to my plea to materialize. That the answer connects me with Pat Schneider’s book takes my breath away once more.

I continued to write by fits and starts making what I thought was progress. There was progress; but, not the progress I expected. Early in my writing career, I understood that writing allows me to touch, to feel, and ultimately, to understand my life. But, I didn’t know what it would take to gain that awareness or what the awareness would look like if I found it. The onion analogy is appropriate to writing just as it is for many endeavors. The peeling away of a layer reveals more and clearer insights.

I thought I knew my purpose in writing. What I learned is that avoiding the path into the dark woods of the mind produces shallow results. I learned that unless I take that journey, I cannot know the whole story. I thought I knew; but, it is not that easy. More and deeper work is required.

For this awareness there is cause for celebration. A new light has come.

Letting in the Light

Solstices and EquinoxesThe Summer Solstice occurs in the Northern Hemisphere this year on Thursday, June 20, at 10:04 p.m. (PDT) when the sun reaches the Tropic of Cancer, its farthest point north of the Equator. Great controversy surrounds the Summer Solstice. How can it mark the first day of summer? It is technically mid-summer, midway through the growing season. Every school kid knows that summer begins the day school is out. In any case, the solstice, both summer and winter, are astronomical events and not calendar events.

Worldwide, the Summer Solstice is a celebration of the importance of light physically (planting and harvesting) and spiritually (enlightenment).

A friend recently introduced me to Pat Schneider’s latest book, How the Light Gets In: Writing as a Spiritual Practice. Two days after beginning to read the book, I had the pleasure of participating in a telechat / interview of Schneider with IAJW founder, Ruth Follit. The interview was a good introduction to Pat and to Amherst Writers & Artists.

Reading How the Light Gets In challenges me to reconsider what I am doing and where I am going with writing. I am aware that I might not have gone as far or as deep as I need to go to get to the story I need to write.

A handful of themes and metaphors inform my writing. I have explored each at length; but, apparently not to the depth required for enlightenment. A challenge lies ahead. Schneider talks of following the path into the dark woods of the mind, echoing Auden’s brooding words, “Follow poet, follow right / To the bottom of the night.”

A spiritual practice from the beginning, writing is a form of meditation that suits me. Like Pat Schneider, I sit, I wait, and I open myself. The meaning of Schneider and her book showing up at the time of the Summer Solstice—the celebration of the light—is not lost on me. The convergence of these objects are signs written to me. I must get what the writing means.

Cousin Jim

Pat and Jim McDaniel

Pat & Jim McDaniel, June 2009

I received news this morning of the death of Jim McDaniel, “Cousin Jim.” He was ninety-one. We weren’t cousins, but that is how Jim characterized our relationship. Jim and his wife, Pat, were married forty-eight years at the time of his death, May 29, 2013. Between them, they have eleven children: Jim’s five children, Pat’s three, and three of their own.

I am related to Pat by her marriage to my first cousin, Jack. According to Jim, that made us cousins. “Our cousin, Dennis,” he said whenever he introduced or spoke of me.

Friends from the day we met, Jim’s outgoing personality, bright smile, and hail-fellow-well-met handshake made friendship easy. Jim never met a stranger.

Jim was a marvelous storyteller. He loved to write. He wrote a novel and was at work on a memoir before his death.

Jim’s zest for life was infectious. As a young man, he worked for the Forest Service. He had a passion for the outdoors and loved camping, fishing, hunting, and hiking. The magnificent gardens he planted and lovingly tended year after year are a testimony of his appreciation of nature.

A counselor in the California Department of Rehabilitation for nearly forty years, Jim was named California State Counselor of the Year in 1987. Jim was a key supporter of alcoholism rehabilitation programs. For many years outstanding workers in that field were awarded the Jim McDaniel Award. He worked to ensure handicapped access to buildings and activities long before there were laws mandating ADA accommodation.

In his 70s at the time of his retirement, Jim formed a yard maintenance service offering tree maintenance, brush clearing, and snow shoveling. The business not only provided yard maintenance services, but also gave employment to anyone Jim knew who needed a job.

A lifelong member of the Grange, Jim believed the Grange makes a significant contribution in support of the ideals of American democracy. He worked tirelessly to ensure the Grange remains a viable voice. He resurrected inactive granges, started three new granges, and served as master of five. Serving ten years as State Deputy, Jim was awarded the California State Grange’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010.

Jim was a devoted family man and loyal friend above all else. One need only stop by the McDaniel home at any time of the day or night to observe the stream of family and friends who come offering a simple “hello” or who stay for whatever period of time is needed for whatever reason. Jim and Pat generously offer their home and time whenever there is need. In a loving and supportive family, there are no questions asked. All are welcomed.

Jim’s passing brought to mind Auden’s words in memory of Yeats. I find the words equally appropriate for Jim McDaniel:

Earth, receive and honoured guest:
Jim McDaniel’s laid to rest.

The Three Rs

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle logoI recently stumbled upon a web page about the Three Rs of the Environment: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. After reading the article, I did an inventory to determine how I measure up environmentally. The reduce, reuse, recycle concept is significant in my life. I began recycling when I was in college in the 70s.Going through the list of suggestions, I was pleased to note that I do most of them. I even added a  two or three.

Downloading books and magazines to my kindle saves money as well as trees. I read newspapers online. I eliminated bank and other statements by opting out of paper statements in favor of electronic statements. I rarely write checks. I make payments electronically through my bank or through PayPal. I use white vinegar to clean rather than buying commercial cleaning products.

Instead of running water in the shower until it is hot, I use a bucket to collect water that would otherwise run down the drain. I use the water to fill the toilet tank after a flush, to fill the fountain on my front porch, or to water plants on my patio. I save printer paper and run it through my printer a second time so that both sides get used before I put it into the recycling bin. I don’t by water in plastic bottles. I have three stainless steel bottles that I refill. I have a bin in the trunk of my car where I keep fabric shopping bags to avoid using plastic bags.

I’ve been going through closets and drawers and boxes in my garage attempting to re-purpose things I no longer use. I generally take them to Good Will or to the Salvation Army. In this way, I pass them on for someone else to use. I often shop at thrift stores where I find excellent items of clothing that are, in many cases, like new. I am grateful to whoever passed them on for my use.

I recycle everything I can. When I go through the mail, I separate what can be recycled and what needs to be shredded. Rather than buying a shredder I keep a bin in the garage where I put materials to be shredded. Once or twice a year I take the bin to the local retarded citizens facility where they run a document destruction program. At the center, I watch the workers dump the bin contents into a machine that pulverizes it in seconds. This process is considerate of the environment and supports the work of an important community service program.

It felt good to recognize my environmental awareness. I’ve done these things for so long they feel natural. The Three Rs are not just about Readin’, ‘Ritin’, and ‘Rithmetic.