Bienvenidos! Welcome!

Thanks for visiting Daughter of Corn. I hope you enjoy the essays and thoughts about the journeys of a writer in San Miguel....who ends up in Iowa City!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Why I Returned to San Miguel De Allende

(Photo by Barbara Ann Weber, Barbara!)

Dear Readers and Friends,

I am sure some of you are anxious to know more about San Miguel de Allende and why I returned in such a drastic move.  Here is a little tidbit of the Eighties in San Miguel, which forms part of my memoir.  Presently San Miguel is a paradise mostly for wealthy retirees who live on the fringe of the Mexican culture.  In the Eighties, the delight of its ambiance was not just the physical charm of a historical village, but the enchanting lure of a true bohemian life.  This is what I yearned to recreate as I drove the twisting highway south of the border to the land of el Bajio in Guanajuato.  And now, San Miguel in the Eighties....

San Miguel in the Eighties           
            San Miguel de Allende; the sound of it rolls off the tongue like honey.  A legend to adventurous souls who sought refuge and enlightenment, San Miguel was a Mexican Shangrila hidden within the Sierra Gorda Mountains.   Most of the people I met during the summer were artists, drawn to San Miguel because of the stories they had heard concerning the unusual light that shimmered throughout the cobblestoned village-- the angle it fell against the pale peach of a stucco wall, the illumination of hidden corners and crevices, the sensation of warmth and honesty it projected as it caressed your open face at midday, all the pinnacle of seduction.  Everyone fell in love with San Miguel de Allende.  In fact, everyone fell in love while living in the lucid dream of her charming embrace. 
            If you were hungry for color, San Miguel was the place to be.  Under the arched portales bordering the central plaza, sellers peddled their effusive magenta and fuchsia flowers.  Stout men with white sombreros shading their tanned faces piled pink watermelon, orange papaya and slithering yellow mango slices into plastic cups in their little stands parked on corners.    The paroquia, a glittering, salmon-stoned architectural marvel, rose majestically in front of the square or jardίn.  More often than not, a wedding party would be standing outside the arched doorways, elegantly- garbed women leaning onto their men dressed in formal black or white suits, clusters of flowers clutched in one hand while they gazed at the carriage which swept the happy couple up toward marital bliss on Salida a Querétaro.
            In the Eighties jewelry puestos or small booths lined one side of the plaza under the portales, where you could easily see the famous brass and leather San Miguel bracelets piled in hap-hazard heaps.  In addition, street venders sold mosaic alpaca earrings and pins, zinging with pinks and cobalt blues, as well as cheap Guatemalan textiles, such as small woven coin purses and velvet shoulder bags faced with embroidered design.  Along side these tourist mementos lay the ubiquitous and coveted American candy bars; Snickers and Butterfingers, black market goodies for the nostalgic expatriate chocolate-lovers.
            In the evenings all around town you could find taco venders, elote or corn-on-the-cob venders, cheap hamburgers and “’otdog” venders.   And, if you crawled home from the downtown bars at four in the morning, you still might see them standing next to their grills, a tin lamp swinging in the wind, and perhaps a norteña band standing a few feet away, plunking out a ranchero tune.
            In the morning, if you were an early riser, you would do well to walk down one of the oldest streets in town, Barranca, for there you would encounter a little group of Mexican San Miguelenses surrounding Doña Carmen, her giant basket of bolillos and pan ducles, or morning sweet breads, tantalizing the senses.  If you timed it right, you might also catch the caravan of burros being herded by Don Samuel, their cumbersome load of leña or cut wood, causing them to sway back and forth languidly on the cobblestone street.  If you were even luckier, you might catch the lone burro with the large silver milk cans tied to each side, and get a taste of fresh, unpasteurized milk.  Heading down through the curvy calle, you’d pass my favorite house in San Miguel, a true piece of Mexican architecture, with the living room sitting smack out in the open air, under a wooden structure topped with petates, or woven mats, the other rooms with their private entrances facing the stretching stone patio surrounding the outdoor living room.
            If you weren’t too tired, you could chance the steep drop and twisting, narrow lane called Chorro, and arrive at los  lavenderos or the ancient outdoor laundry site, with the busy presence of women washing their colorful ropa in cement stalls.  Accustomed to the stares of foreigners, the señoras rarely acknowledge the curious, so you might as well politely continue down the way and spend time in Parque Juarez, otherwise known as the French Park, teeming with raucous blackbirds and ancient oak trees.  Finally, you could imbibe in one of the best and cheapest breakfasts in San Miguel, at the lovely Santa Monica.  Nestling into your round-back leather chair in front of the elegantly laid table, you could lean back, and gaze to the open heavens--for that is, indeed, where you have miraculously landed.
            During the Eighties in San Miguel, one reveled in unexpected sights, sounds and smells.  But truly, it was the sky that sent shivers down your spine.  A spectacular expanse of mesmerizing blue hung over the sloping mountains in soothing rapture, flaunting a sun whose presence never ceased to amaze those norteamericanos such as myself.  And, like all the eager souls who found themselves in this Mexican paradise, I soaked in the mystical rays of a daily light, with the eager hope that deep inside a creative seed was germinating.
Going to the Bellas Artes twice a day for classes became my stabilizing ritual, as well as my entry into the lives of fellow seekers.  I entered the arched passageways as if I were passing into another world, and the luxury of taking classes in a place once resounding with daily prayers seemed heavenly.  The large interior patio was a stunning menagerie of bamboo, bougainvillea and lemon trees, with a fountain dominating the center of the space, water gently gurgling into the soft breeze. 
Working in the dank ceramics studio, I learned inductively by observing more experienced students.  After I coiled clay into intriguing shapes, Bianca, my instructor, showed me how to burnish the pots into a glistening shine.   Later on I went with the class to fire them outdoors, buried under dried burro dung, so as to create a swirling black color.  I also learned to make glazes by formulas, though my preference was clay slip colored with oxides.  Delighted to be part of an international group of artists from Venezuela, Germany, Switzerland and Mexico, I was the grateful recipient of ideas and techniques most generously shared.           
            Before long we organized weekly parties, bringing food, boom boxes and guitars to our funky San Miguel apartments.   Sue, a DC journalist, paired up with Brad, a Canadian engineer, and I paired up with an older man from Germany, Rolf.  Rolf couldn’t have been more my opposite, having traveled to many parts of the world and worked in what appeared to be the black market.  Sandy, a middle aged poet, and her musician boyfriend, Lalo, came often to our get-togethers.  True to the nature of San Miguel, we were all searching for something, confused about the stagnancy of our lives or fed up with the routine and the shallowness of the early Eighties. 

Copyright 2010, Daughter of Corn:  Coming of Age in the Americas   Corinne J. Stanley

Monday, September 20, 2010

Corn Girl: Young Women Coming of Age and Power

The Tepuhanes, an indigenous tribe located in the Mexican state of Durango, tell the mythical story of the generous Corn Girl.   The tale begins with a young man in search of food for his starving family. HIs suspicious, dominating mother chides and humiliates him on his journey but Corn Girl helps the young man make intelligent decisions about securing food for the household.  She is his growing intuition, the confident feminine voice that produces corn, i.e. sustenance, for the hungry family.

            At the age of thirteen I was uniquely initiated into womanhood.  Working in the fields—bean or corn—was a coming of age ritual for virtually all teenagers living in southeastern Iowa.  In my case the research station at the tiny airport on the outskirts of town primarily hired women to carry out their corn experiments.  Occasionally a local male teacher or rare college jock in need of summer employment came on board.  In a somewhat reversal of traditional thought, executives at the top of Northrop King Seed Company had determined that pollinating corn was basically women’s work. 
            During the height of pollinating season, we often stayed in the fields from dawn to dusk, racing to get the corn tassels’ precious pollen onto the corn silk before the wind scattered the powdery substance into foreign fields.  All of the challenges I experienced while working in the cornfields proved to be a
mighty initiation into discovering who I was.  Not only did I exercise ‘male’ analytical powers by interpreting coded instructions typed in a cardboard manual that I kept tucked in a canvas apron, but I also honed my intuitive, feminine powers by determining when to initiate multiple corn pollinations.  For nine summers I committed myself to hard work and student wages.  Working in the cornfields was the enabling factor for attaining a college education for almost all the young people living in Washington, Iowa during the late Sixties.  A high school classmate recently informed me that after her mother’s unexpected death, she had to work doubly hard to provide funds for her education.  Often she left the cornfields at six in the evening and headed toward the bean fields for another five hours of work. Furthermore, she was grateful for the opportunity to earn more money.  My friend Kathy Wells rode her bike five miles from her country home to begin her ten-hour day in the fields.
During those steamy, humid Iowa summers we teenage girls learned to trust and respect ourselves as we took on the powerful role of “fertilization bees”. We learned qualities like perseverance and tenacity in the face of unbearable heat and humidity. The imaginative humor we maintained saved us from sinking into self-pity during those long days of strenuous physical labor.  When boredom set in, we played pranks.  In one instance, a group of kids literally lifted up the supervisor’s Volkswagon Beetle while he snoozed in City Park, and carried it a block away.  When Floyd Woods awoke, the crew was granted a much longer break as they joyfully watched Floyd frantically search for his vehicle that had disappeared with such uncanny aplomb.
Recently I attended a class reunion where Kathy told me an amazing cornfield story of intrigue and sexual harassment.  Because she was the first female chosen to head a crew—something unheard of in the late Sixties-a boy from the male crew was leaving obscene notes on the windshield of her work vehicle.  With the approval of Northrup King field supervisor Mr. Anderson, Marsha Kron spied behind tall corn stalks to witness who was putting the offensive notes on the truck.  I was surprised to learn that the culprit was my brother’s best friend, and that he was confronted and then fired.  On a lighter note, Kathy’s crew also had great fun, as on the day when an uncanny, high and reedy noise resounded throughout the fields.  Pat Reisner, who played the bagpipes for the University of Iowa’s Scottish Highlanders, was running down the aisles, serenading the corn with her wheezing bagpipes.  In short, we had fun while we worked our lithe bodies to the bone.  Our camaraderie extended into the weekends, with picnics at Lake Darling or parties to celebrate birthdays or engagements.  At the end of the season, we held parties at local clubs and awarded prizes (Phantom of the Cornfields, Corn Queen of the Day, Weed Woman, Fastest “Hoer”.)  We had discovered the sustaining nature of Corn Girl  by nurturing ourselves, even as we labored tenaciously in the fields.  A keen sense of accomplishment formed the blueprint for confidence and personal power.
            During my years as a junior high Spanish instructor, I witnessed a disheartening disintegration of young women’s self worth.  Early adolescence is a pivotal time, for teens struggle with intense peer pressure just as their bodies rattle their self images with unnerving hormonal changes.   I observed how the majority of teenage women dislike and frequently hate their physical self, feelings propelled by obsessively comparing themselves to impossible consumer-driven images. Has the dominating media world finally convinced our culture that we are doomed to be forever incomplete, and so must buy, buy, buy?  Or could it be that we have lost our Corn Girl legends, those rites of passage which urge young females to be confident women of action, to listen to their intuition and place cultivating inner qualities as primary to their well-being? Then again, are we too tragically stuck in the Barbie Doll mentality to even consider alternate ways of raising girls to become strong Corn Women? 
            Back in my cornfield days, all the young women wore tank tops and short shorts with pride as well as out of necessity.  As I recall, none of us commented on the shape or size of our bodies with competitive sneers.  In my memory, we were all golden girls, shimmering in the late afternoon light with the rich dust of pollen, tired from our determined efforts to prove our womanhood, which was our legacy, our blessing from the tall, verdant corn.
Lake Darling
I hear Lake Darling
  is so full of runoff

you’d be crazy to step inside
  those murky, man-made waters,

but once in the late Sixties
  ten bronzed girls with

yellow pollen clinging to their chests,
  dark patches of sweat lining

their bright-colored halters,
  piled into the old jalopies

they drove daily to the cornfields.
  Windows down, arms dangling

they headed toward the setting sun
  where the wildness of their sun-burnt hearts

sent them down a stony beach
  to be baptized in the dusk of Lake Darling.

collage title:  The Miracle Is to Walk on the Earth / "El milagro es caminar en la Tierra"

            Copyright 2010
Corinne J. Stanley

Friday, September 17, 2010

Traveling Journals

     Anais Nin wrote so many journals that she stored them in bank vaults.  Lucky for her that her husband was a banker.  I started writing in journals when I was twenty years old.   My friend, Ann, urged me to consider the act of daily writing and so I worked my way backward from a small spiral notebook I found stuffed in a drawer--don't ask me why.  Ann was an English major like me, and she also encouraged her mother to write in a journal.  When I informed her how she had influenced me at a recent class reunion, Ann couldn't remember anything about that fall day at her house in Ames, Iowa. And she was astounded to hear that I never quit writing.  I have over thirty-five years of journals, and when I drove my orange Focus to San Miguel, it was full of boxes filled with them for referencing.
   Does it matter if we realize when we inspire another writer?  Anais Nin was my inspiration, not just because of the journals, but because she bought a press when she wanted to publish her work.  The Bronte sisters paid what amounted to almost a years' worth of income to publish a volume of poetry before getting  their novels accepted by a publishing house.  As women writers, acting as if our work is valuable before we get approval from an outside source is imperative.  If if weren't for Ann, I might not have written such a vivid memoir as Daughter of Corn.  Even more important, I wouldn't have gone through such a profound healing process, as when I reread my journals in order to write my book.
During a long, blustery winter I seized my past and cried my way through unexpected memories which had been buried under my stoic self. 
     Isn't it interesting that by giving the gift of journal writing to ourselves, by allowing private thoughts and riveting emotions to be penned onto the page, that this act is so alive it can produce offspring of many sorts?  We should not be afraid of this kind of doing.  Many women I know let the internal, patriarchal critic rise up before they can pick up a pen.  Tell me, who is your inspiration?  Who are the grandmothers of your literary heart?  Listen to them, for we are all in need of your inspired words.

Photo Collage, Corinne J. Stanley copyright 2010

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A Cara Cara Comes to El Valle del Maiz

       Late November I drove to San Miguel de Allende in my orange Ford Focus, which was packed to the ceiling with books and clothes.  The most dangerous part of my journey was getting lost in Nuevo Laredo, but after three stops in which I asked locals for directions, I was steered to the car registration area.  Upon arriving to San Miguel, I stayed with friends until I located a most fortuitous place to live--a fourth floor apartment overlooking the spectacular landscape of San Miguel.  Not only did I have a wonderful place to write, but I was living in El Valle Del Maiz--the Valley of the Corn, which seemed quite serendipitous.  It seemed the Gods were looking over me---and then I had a most amazing experience!

A Cara Cara Comes to the Valle del  Maiz

            I edge the car slowly down the narrow, cobbled street.  My Indian corn necklace hanging on the rearview mirror sways impertinently with each unexpected bounce.  When I spy a car moving up the hill toward me, I quickly search for a space in the road that expands, then pull over to wait.  In the Valle del Maiz this road courtesy ends with a quick rising of the hand, a signal that we do not own but share the path which leads to our destinations. 
            Last November I made my destination Mexico, and moved to San Miguel de Allende, where I had lived in the early Nineties. I wanted time to find a publisher for my book, Daughter of Corn: Coming of Age in the Americas, while continuing to write a second one.  Discovering a third floor efficiency apartment with glass doors opening onto a spectacular show of azure sky, swooping birds, and the magical rooftops of San Miguel in the Valle del Maiz, or Valley of Corn, was an uncanny act of serendipity.
            Shortly after I moved to the “Red Apartment”, I experienced a phenomenon that still makes me tremble with wonder.  A cara cara  or Mexican eagle held court on the terraza outside my sliding glass door.  The first time this gorgeous black and white speckled bird with a blue beak landed on my patio table, I was speechless. When the cara cara chose to sit and calmly preen his extensive wings on the table, I thought surely this was a sign. By the third day I surmised that there was magic in the air.  Surely this celestial bird had chosen to visit me with some esoteric purpose!  My friends who knew about the daily visits emailed me websites that detailed the spiritual significance of eagles.  Entranced, I carefully considered the numerous interpretations of an eagle totem:  sharp-eyed, able to discern from great heights, clarity in decision-making.  It wasn’t long before the song “Fly Like an Eagle,” began to resound like a mantra inside my tremulous mind.
            On the third day I noticed the ease in which the cara cara hopped around on the terraza.   When the noble bird approached my glass door, however, a nervous energy took hold. Those black, intelligent eyes were peering at me with hidden intent.
            The eagle soon lowered his regal head and lightly pecked at the glass door with his colorful beak.  I sat on my couch frozen, watching what I had assumed to be a wild bird, behave like a domesticated pet anxious to be with his master.  Did this have anything to do with my eagle totem?
            The next day I began to hear rumors about a cara cara attacking dogs and breaking windows.  Could there be another meaning to my three-day visit from the eagle?  For instance, what exactly was I looking for, not the bird?  Disturbing questions rumbled within my mind’s internal chattering, and finally I called El Charcol, the local ecological park uphill, to discuss why this bird was being so friendly.  Two days later I received an email:  “Don’t feed this bird.  You will be okay.” 
            I will be okay?  But what did this mean?  Hadn’t my friend, Dana, who’d once had a mystical encounter with a pack of wild wolves, told me that the number three possessed numerological significance-- say something akin to the Holy Trinity?
            As my questioning reached levels of electric possibilities, the anxiety level of my landlord, who owned two beloved dogs, began to “soar like an eagle.”
            “Corinne, please don’t encourage that bird!” he told me in a tight voice.  “And for God’s sake, keep that door locked.  Did I tell you about the eagle who tried to attack Bonita when I was walking her in El Charco?”
            Well, no he hadn’t.  But I did hear about the lady whose dog was killed when a cara cara smashed the glass door to get into her house.  Suddenly I began to reconsider my mystical anointment.  Perhaps a friendly cara cara wasn’t such a special thing.  Indeed, maybe the eagle wasn’t so much interested in being a messenger as receiving a free handout.  After all, I ‘d spent many an afternoon in the patio of the Bellas Artes observing pigeons landing on tables and cooing as they cocked their heads in anticipation of a fallen crumb. 
            Curiously, the cara cara never returned after the third day. I think he sensed the growing tension between us and decided that the patio was not such a welcome abode after all.  Meanwhile I did a lot of thinking about myself, and human nature in general.  For don’t we all want to be thought of as someone special, someone who deserves a heavenly visitation?  In a way, I was queen for a day—or rather, queen for three days, and I reveled in my mystical anomaly regally.  In the end, however, there were things to consider, such as broken glass doors and dogs being attacked.  Perhaps there are different sides to every mystical condition, and we are free to determine the lens in which we view the experience.
I do have a photo of the cara cara, taken with my Macbook laptop.  And  with all its drama and excitement, the eagle was a messenger of a sort, for aren’t I now telling his story to you, my fine reader? 

Corinne J. Stanley


Sunday, September 12, 2010

A Mayan Corn God Loses His Head

A Mayan Corn God Loses His Head

            The Maize God, habitually depicted in drawings as a decapitated head, was a central deity during the Early Classic Maya period (A.D. 350-500). Due to the 2012 Mayan Prophesies predicting the end of a great era, the Mayans have become a popular topic.  We know for a fact that the they were accomplished astronomers, and these riveting prophecies have propagated numerous articles, books, and websites
            But what about this headless corn god?  Could the Dios de Maiz solely have existed as a sacrificial icon, assuring a superstitious people that the corn would rise once more, glorious and plentiful? I prefer to think that this lofty deity had to give up his brain in order for the heart to take reign.
            For several years I struggled to compose a memoir about my life as a young woman coming to terms with her spirituality and identity. For most of my adult life, I was employed as a public school teacher, primarily working with junior high students.  As I transited from inner city schools, to university town schools, and eventually to my small hometown, I continued my fledgling path as a writer.  Grabbing a few short workshops here and there, I consulted with close friends who also wrote. During the summers I packed my hopeful expectations as well as my clothes, and headed to San Miguel, Mexico, to improve my Spanish, and, supposedly, to finish my book.  Despite all my endeavors, I only made it to page 40.  Each fall I would return to the classroom, certain that I could maintain my momentum.  As I frantically kept pace with adolescent hormonal behavior, posting grades weekly online, as well as attending teacher/parent conferences—this compounded by my two hour commute and the dance of teaching a foreign language--I simply arrived home each afternoon and stuck a movie in my VCR to watch while I ate and graded papers.
            Consequently, at the age of 55, I made a decision to cut off my head. 

Against all logic, I quit my teaching job so that I could write the book.  And
indeed, people did look at me as if I had lost my head.  For two years I held a myriad of odd, non-permanent and non-demanding jobs so that I could complete my book.  I worked briefly as a bilingual Medicare phone specialist, a substitute teacher, a test scoring specialist, and an English instructor for immigrants at a local factory.  My biggest coupe was writing English language learner adaptations for a large educational company.  They liked my lessons so well that they never hired me for the second contract, opting to adapt my middle school work for the high school textbook.
            When I completed my manuscript, everything stopped, for we had entered full-force into the American recession.  So, like the Maiz God of the Mayas, I did a little “blood-letting.” Trying to conserve my resources, I shopped with coupons, sold art collages at the local farmers’ market, and rode my bike to the Walgreen store four blocks away.  I even translated for the county jail.   (This was a little nerve-wracking, as I was frequently left alone with orange-suited, misdemeanor immigrants while conveying to them their legal rights.)
            One definition of sacrifice, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, is  “forfeiture of something highly valued for the sake of one considered to be of greater value.”   Sometimes we don’t even know if we will attain that object of greater value, whether it be enough corn to feed our people for the next year or a book that someone will value enough to publish.  Nevertheless, the belief in the heart, over any logical or sensible path merits great respect.  I have a book.  I am writing my second one.  I still don’t have a publisher, but my heart is pulsating with joy. 
            Most of us don’t entirely comprehend the meaning of the word sacrifice.  This giving up is a letting go, providing an aperatura or opening, as the Mexicans say, where one can enter into the place of heart.  And true sacrifice is never consciously made with the idea that one is deserving of that valuable exchange.  Watching Mexican pilgrims and devotees of the Virgin of Guadalupe walk for miles and even crawl on their knees is a sacrifice I have yet to comprehend.  I do know that what we think we are giving up frequently becomes a gift to the soul, a release of burdens and frustrations.  Before I left for Mexico, I gave up a house and most of my worldly goods.  As I watched the Salvation Army take out the most comfortable couch I had ever owned, I experienced a painful moment of doubt.  It helped to remember the drawers of forgotten blankets and gloves, along with the growing stacks of clothing that my friend, Mary, gave to mentally handicapped women who could no longer work.
            The full story has yet to unfold, but as I reflect upon the Dios de Maiz, I am reminded of one of Lewis Carroll’s characters in Alice in Wonderland.            
            “Off with her head!” shouts the Queen of Hearts to Alice.  Who better than a queen to tell us that we should sacrifice reason and go straight to the heart? We may not know the ending of our sacrificial journey, but we can know an unequivocal joy, which comes from respecting our passionate selves.

Corinne J. Stanley

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Reflections on My New Blog and Women Writers

Friends and Readers of Daughter of Corn,

Thanks for emailing me about my new blog!  I am inspired to continue with my essays, and will be posting the second one very soon.  For now, I want to comment upon the Iowa landscape and how the pale yellow corn stands stiffly in the fields, waiting for the harvest.  When I asked my wonderful friend, Angie, to help me set up the blog, she offered to take a picture of me next to the cornfields.  Neither of us gave thought to the seasonal garments of the corn plant.  You can almost hear the plants crackling as you drive by, so dry and crisp are the leaves.

When I lived in Davenport, Iowa, I drove almost weekly to Iowa City, hungry for the literary readings at my favorite bookstore, Prairie Lights.  After working with inner city middle school students, I was worn out with issues relating to classroom behaviors and sorry family upbringings.  Iowa City was like a bright light to me, a reason to pick up and enter the world of words sung from the tongues of famous poets.
So, as I drove the hour on  backroads parallel to Interstate 80, quite often words began to sing inside my head, particularly about the changing seasons of the prairie. After spending all week in the Quad Cities, a wide area of traffic and businesses humming and honking in noisy disarray, to be traveling down a road with streams and woodlands off to the side of the highway was a healing relief.

I think constantly about landscape and writing.  Presently I am reading a novel that has gripped my heart and made me weep, for it is about the Bronte sisters and their lives on the moors.  Romancing Miss Bronte by Juliet Gael is a well-researched novel that puts into perspective the challenges that women writers faced in previous centuries.  Can we possibly worry and fret about our own minor concerns when we read about the courageous, talented women who wrote Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyer while battling consumption and freezing, primitive conditions?  These greats developed authenticity as authors and their characters leap from the page.  The lives they led is almost foreign to our present age of workshops and fellowships.  Nothing kept them from writing.  Nothing.  Is there not something fierce about such women?  For that matter, can we use the word "fierce" to describe ourselves as women writing to tell our stories?

A poem from Breathe into the Knowing, which I wrote on my weekend trips to Iowa City:

The Fields of Autumn

I travel from the five rivers
   toward a city of  trees.

Here, under my left breast, 
   a tear awakens.


Yesterday the wind flailed her arms,
a gypsy twirling over the land.
Today, nothing.
The dry, crisp fields
hold empty spaces in stillness.
I marvel at the ochre leaves.
I yearn to know
the secret message of form.           


The corn is cut.
The land is flat.
A lonely sound murmurs
across the vast blue.
Inside my chest
a soft clapping;
wings ready to take flight.


Fall tolls a warning,
shaking leaves into lonely sentinels.
I look through smudged windows
for a sign of sun.
Somewhere a child sleeps
in near abandonment.  Somewhere
she traces the moon’s mouth.
Somewhere she calls a name.  It echoes,
a tiny chime in the wind.

 Corinne J. Stanley, copyright 2010

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Traveling the Milpa to Mexico

Daughter of Corn:  Traveling the Milpa to Mexico

The Mexicans have a specific word for the land where corn is grown:  la milpa. The mere presence of corn plants waving in the wind merits this name.  Clearly the English language is not so inventive, for we have wheat fields, bean fields, cotton fields, and….cornfields. 

La milpa.  Try saying it aloud:  “law meel-pa.” Now find some fresh Iowa sweet corn to tantalize your tongue and you will understand why corn is everything to the Mexican people—and to me, the daughter of an Iowa corn breeder.

I was raised in a small town in southeastern Iowa where the fertile earth and its seasonal crops formed the landscape of our daily discourse.  My childhood was festooned in small-town activities that sprang out of rural farm life:   woven May Day baskets filled with candy mints and sprigs of violets, bumpy hayrides through moonlit woodlands and back-yard barbecues where we roasted corn on a grill and whole hogs in sizzling tin barrels. During the lingering breath of winter we built long snow tunnels that led into forts constructed out of slabs of crisply frozen snow.  When the weather was fierce enough to freeze water in depth, we ice-skated on bumpy ponds.  Inside the house my family played endless board games, where words like sorry and twister took on new meaning.
             My father, the corn breeder, glided in and out of our lives, disappearing for weeks at a time.  He traveled to inspect corn plots in exotic places like Florida and Hawaii, as well as the distant states of Pennsylvania and Ohio.  Back home I imagined him bracing the heat in a light green, rounded safari hat while he meticulously scribbled his notes.  Occasionally my mother accompanied him on his journey, and one of my favorite pictures is her standing in a white shell and beige shorts, emerald parrots perched up and down her out-stretched arms. 
            Sometimes my brother and I would travel with my parents, piling into the company station wagon, a pea-green Chevy whose back trunk extended like giant metallic wings.  We knew that after a long day of helping our father thin corn in his experimental plots we would return to the cool quarters of a Holiday Inn room.  Once inside we’d tear off our rumpled clothes, pull on a swimsuit, and head for the refreshing waters of an aqua-bottomed glistening pool, the signature of Holiday Inn motels in the Sixties.
            By the time I was nine, I knew how to thin fledgling corn plants with a metal rod, and hoe nocuous weeds which grew too close to corn.  When I edged into my teens, the smooth wooden feel of the grip of a hoe meant extra dollars in my pocket.  For nine years I trudged through the summer months with clots of dirt clinging to my tennis shoes, and the sound of rustling corn leaves imprinted in my brain. 
            I know the precise timing when the yellow dance of pollen will burst from a ripe corn tassel.  I have observed the strength of a cornstalk as it rises in ornery defiance after being flattened by a heavy rain. Part of my brain seems ancient, full of primitive chants and rhythms that are tuned into rituals I have no way of knowing. Like the Mexicans walking the milpa, I consider corn a sacred plant, and the current practices of multinational giants attempting to mutilate its history frighten me.
            I am a girl who grew green, while walking the loping fields of her Iowa youth.  And this is why I write so passionately about corn, and why I return to Mexico again and again, the place where centuries ago it all began.