I went to Oaxaca, Mexico in January in search of something that eluded me at year’s end. Forgiveness for the mistakes I made over the year? Perhaps. A sense of renewal? Permission to try again? Relief from the dark skies, short days, and the urban crush of my home latitude and longitude. Most of all, I believe it was relief.
Christmas was thankfully over. I always hate it. The whole, ratty, tattered red-and-green phantom of festive goodwill. It’s a sham. An over-hyped, commercialized froth of fake cheer. An inebriated, rosy-cheeked, mockery of mindfulness. Don’t get me wrong, I like the idea, but hate the holiday, the overused crushed red velvet, drunken Santa Con participants, albino cookies that taste of nothing but sugar, candy canes that turn up in your pocket, stuck to your fingers, and absurdly thin rolls of wrapping paper sold three-packs (what a bargain). I hate tinsel, glass tree balls, and popcorn strings, dry pine needles in every crevice, cheap holiday lights that blink, strobe or glow with cheesy electronic music that resembles dying crickets. Those hideous Santa mannikins in shop windows with scary, ventriloquist dummy faces? They terrify me. I hate fake shiny packages in shop displays that aren’t really gifts. I don’t trust elves, people who wear reindeer antlers, carolers who show up at your door uninvited, and freaks who wear Santa caps for a solid month.
Charles Dickens wrote about the season quite simply in “A Christmas Carol,” evoking a tender spirit of redemption and goodwill. We’ve really botched it up since then. It’s the holiday month from hell. A day or two would be fine, but thirty miserable, unrelenting days of yuletide songs is a dreadful ordeal. And the ten best lists, oh, I hate them the most! The best songs of the year, the best movies, the best books? C’mon, there are never that many. Critics dole out awards with charitable intent, but sometimes it’s just a crap year and best to get it over with. And spare me the best dead people of the year—that’s the most awful list—when some magazine pulls together an obituary of deceased celebrities.
You think I’m a Christmas-hater? Guilty as charged. I’m a yuletide grouch. A negative, nay-saying nabob of the Nativity. Christmas is the overbearing, obnoxious, disappointing family relative of holidays. He comes sooner than expected, overstays his welcome, and leaves me disgusted and hating myself for not enjoying the visit. He’s the holiday who you must like, the big generous, snoring, guzzling, excessive bore who ho-ho-hoes whenever there’s a pause in the conversation. That’s Christmas for me.
“Get behind me, Christmas,” I say. I’d rather celebrate my year’s end like a pagan, watching the sunrise over stonehenge in blessed silence.
Thankfully, by the time I landed at Oaxaca, there was no sign of Christmas. A brown haze hung over town, the smell of diesel was everywhere, and the ubiquitous presence of poured concrete for every dwelling confirmed my escape to a southern lattitude, but left me a tad doubtful about my choice of a getaway.
On the streets I heard people wishing each other “Feliz año nuevo,” and going on their way without silly 2020 glasses or trash on the streets. The sun’s hot eye blazed the cobblestone streets with dazzling intensity. The colors of the houses were as vivid as a pantone-enhanced fruit bowl. But look, the year could be new without cheesy sentiment and trash in the streets.
As a children’s book writer, I try to avoid using the word magic because it’s overused—like Christmas. I’m a culprit, I’ll admit, having written several books that invoke magic. And so I say this, knowing that you’ll roll your eyes, but you cannot walk around Oaxaca without feeling a sense of magic. I’m not talking about tricks, or inexplicable powers, or a sense of childish wonder. I’m really talking about magic as a crossroads between nature, human faith, and a sense of the wondrous. It’s there in Oaxaca, but not in the tourist stalls or the knick-knack shops. I felt it tasting the different chile sauces; I felt it as I stepped from bright streets onto the cool tiles of shadowed interiors; I tasted it in the metzcal; sensed it on the amazing hilltop ruins of Monté Alban; and hiking down a rocky and inhospitable trail, I felt it in the clear air, the wild espadín and tobala agave plants, and squinting in that bright, blazing, unrelenting sun.
The three pictures above evoke magic of Oaxaca for me. The first picture is from a place about and hour and a half southeast of Oaxaca, named Hierve el Agua, where a subterranean water vent bursts from under the earth’s crust and creates a watery plateau which petrifies everything it touches, then trickles down the cliff, leaving a streak of colors running down the precipice.
The second picture is a nagual, a mesoamerican spirit, human in form, but capable of transforming itself into an animal. Depending on the culture, it can be a magician, a trickster, a protective entity or a pest. This nagual is a wood-carved alebrije, from the town of Arrazola. I was struck by the particularly human stare on its face. It’s unsettling. Unforgiving. It defies cuteness. The more conventional alebrije figures available to tourists on the street are painted with the same delicate detail, but pretty. This one, I believe, is magic.
The third picture is an agave plant, common everywhere, but at this particular time it happens to be a farmed plant, essential to the production of metzcal, a growing artisanal industry in Oaxaca. Both of the guided tours we took included a metzcal tasting. It’s a distilled liquor; though some would dismiss it as neighborhood hooch or moonshine; but now it’s beyond a fad. Swirl it in your mouth for a few seconds then swallow. It packs a bracing punch. One sage warned me to stay away from it. Others promised me it cured anything from liver disease to a bad stomach infection. With so many opinions, how can it not be magic?
After my third or fourth day in Oaxaca, I felt changed. My anti-Christmas mood evaporated. I felt a sense of possibility, a fresh fascination with the world that I feared I had lost for good. Perhaps it was simply the exposure to bright sunlight after all those dark days in New York, or the chiles, or the change in venue, or standing on a plateau of still water over a desert landscape. In any case, it was transformative and invigorating.
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