CUERNAVACA: Past Lives, New Lives, Other Lives, Better Lives

I never did see Lowry’s volcano. Well, I suppose I did, I must have. I probably saw it all the time, but Popocatépetl remains an enigma. I haven’t the foggiest idea where to look. I’ve seen pictures on the Internet and I’ve seen it in videos, but as I surveyed the absurdly blue skies that morning, I couldn’t point it out. I’m always repulsed by news reports from Mexico City when they show a picture of the volcano after it erupts with some gas or rocks or shoots off some magma rather gloriously one night. They act as if it’s the most obvious thing in the entire world and everybody knows where that stupid volcano is. Maybe all of that is true and I’m an idiot, but I really don’t think so. I’ve never been quite that dumb. I need somebody to show me in person. As I write this reflection two years later, I can’t tell you why I didn’t do just that. Oh well, now I have more reason to return to lovely Mexico. 

That ugly volcano is a bit of a character in town. And, I’m just going to get this off my chest, maybe you’ve been able to pick up on it; I’m really mad at the volcano. It’s on little postcards. It’s on maps of the city. The name appears for absolutely no good reason in the names of shops. We don’t need Pan de Popocatépetl if there’s not going to be a convenient way for me to orient myself to the monstrous mountain that was making me insane. It’s on shot glasses; I drank two natural pulques out of a clay pitcher that had the godforsaken volcano painted on it. I had to leave. Both because of the glare of the volcano and because pulque is horrible. Have you ever had it? In no way do I think you should seek it out unless you’re very curious. It’s like drinking snot. Like snot diluted with warm water. It’s got this vaguely gelatinous texture that will haunt your memories. The flavor is nothing to write home about either. Imagine soured milk while drinking something that looks and smells like soured milk. It’s just the worst stuff in the whole world! There are flavored pulques, though, thank god, and I suggest you learn from my mistake and stick to them. Their texture is equally repugnant, but the flavors mask some of the worst of the assault. Better yet, avoid pulque.

Anyway…since it looms so large over the landscape…I GUESS…there are references to the volcano and the novel everywhere. There are tours you can take of Lowry’s haunts, but they weren’t running when I was there. I would have enjoyed that, I think. I’d probably at least have seen the volcano and then I would have nodded at it and said something like, “Of course I already knew that was Popocatépetl. Such an easy name to say and such a simple thing to see! Everybody knows where Popocatépetl is. Popocatépetl is an icon, bro.” That’s exactly what I would have said, but alas the chance never presented itself.

There were hotels that advertised views of the volcano and restaurants did the same thing. I saw illustrations, but I still couldn’t find the volcano, no matter what I did, and no matter what I tried, and I looked and I looked. Was I standing atop it? Am I blind? What is reality? Was the volcano some kind of mystical totem for the city? I felt like I was starting to not fully be in control of my senses, which absolutely enraged me. I pushed Popocatépetl from my mind and I refused to think about it anymore. (But I think about it every single day. I feel a tinge of horror every time it’s mentioned in the New York Times. It’s agony.)

For breakfast I went to Starbucks and I refuse to be judged for it. This Starbucks was truly one of my favorite places in town. I rarely buy Starbucks at home because it tastes burnt or it’s a million degrees and I’d really rather not wait four hours to sip it without burning my lip off. And I’m always being taunted by the baristas when I order a Flat White and it’s started to trigger me so we won’t talk about flat whites or volcanoes anymore. Especially because I went specifically to this Starbucks for their rooftop sitting room for the glorious vistas it would surely afford of the volcano. I’d have my coffee and I’d see the volcano and every single thing in the world would go right.

The Starbucks is on the main square beside the looming Palacio de Cortés. This is one of the major tourist sites in the city and I know very little about it because it was closed for refurbishments. One of the earthquakes that struck the area lately caused structural damage in the centuries-old building. That old bitch, Hernan, you know the one, he built it for himself to lord over the fallen Aztec empire, and I was rather charmed that nature was trying to reclaim it. The historian in me, though, was absolutely livid that I couldn’t get in there and study the exhibits. You don’t know how much a good museum thrills me to my core!

Starbucks was the next best thing for this wish, too, because it is literally next to the palace. You go up a flight of stairs to the counter and then take your coffee up another flight of stairs to emerge on a sensational terrace that overlooks the square where you can watch the repair team across the alley at work shoring up the volcanic stones that make up the palace. I, for one, found it riveting. 

With my coffee, lemon cake, and a perfectly blue sky artistically filled with wisps of clouds, I was overjoyed to be at peace for a moment. I had the strangest sensation that life couldn’t get any better. I’d see my enemy, the volcano in a moment, and then I’d be vibing all day! I was thriving. I finished my delicious lemon cake, which is honestly too good to possibly be any good for you, and took my coffee to the edge of the veranda. Here, up above it all, with the clear skies simply sparking with a cerulean twinkle–the city is STUNNING reader, but I am getting rather carried away–and I knew that I was about to squash my geologic foe. I sipped and I looked. And I sipped, and I smiled, and then I sipped, and I kept looking. With look of increasing panic and rage, I sipped and looked from every possible angle like a deranged criminal poorly casing the place for a heist. AND I NEVER COULD FIND THE GODDAMN VOLCANO. I’VE NEVER SEEN IT. I had to get my shit together.

Reader, I know that the volcano didn’t have a personal vendetta against me. That would be absolutely silly. Who would believe something so ridiculous? I was probably letting the stupid thing stress me out more than the other thoughts I had flying through my mind. It was a weird time. The news about babies in cages on the border had just broken and it made me feel disgusting in a way I never have as an American before. And we’ve been doing nasty shit since the start that I’m ashamed of, but this was just a different feeling totally. I was honestly embarrassed to be seen in Mexico for awhile. It was a story that got worse and never better and every new report only revealed sickening new stories that were difficult to accept as reality. How could my country do that? America is far from perfect and it is almost endearingly dumb, but this? How could they do that? WHY WERE THEY DOING THAT? WHY WAS IT OKAY THAT THEY WERE DOING IT? Even today this hasn’t been fully addressed and I am appalled.

I don’t care that most of us Americans aren’t saints, and I know too well that many of us aren’t as ignorant as the rest of the world imagines. But lately, we have become cruel and inhumane and barbaric in a way that I am deeply uncomfortable with. This rapid transition to autocratic flirtations and a culture fueled by aggression had kind of overwhelmed my psyche. I was watching my country light itself on fire from afar and I was just disgusted. And like anybody, there were other things going on. Classes coming, more coming after that and then a couple more, friends going through serious surgeries, unavoidable and unpleasant obligations, and more and more and more. And that volcano, to top things off, was just about all that I could handle.

And so I did this thing I sometimes do, and I just turned off my mind, which of course isn’t what I really did. But I can kind of force silence on myself when I’m thinking too much. I put my thoughts on mute, I filed an assault complaint on the volcano, and I decided that I was going to have an extraordinary day. Thoughts are going to linger, of course, but I remembered that I was away from it all. I was absolutely nobody in a brand new city looking for something fun and new. And that day when I was in Cuernavaca, my worries all floated weirdly away with ease. I felt like I was a different person, and at the time this was very much needed. Back then, my brain was kind of short-circuiting without me really realizing it. I was overwhelmed, overstimulated, and exhausted for quite a while and my cognition suffered for it. I had no idea then, but I can see it clear as day now. Did that volcano really matter all that much if it wasn’t dumping lava on me? Of course not.

This is an aspect of my personality that I don’t fully understand, which bothers me some. I’m fully convinced it’s the reason I have this recurring wild fantasy of escaping to Romania and becoming a hay farmer. I just love the idea of starting over completely from nothing and becoming somebody completely new. I don’t think I have any real psychological issue. And yet…I can see myself. Picture it, a cool summer morning in the pastures of Transylvania. Birds are singing. The wooden spire of a monastery is on the horizon maybe. I’m wearing a sensational set of overalls and a crisp white linen shirt made locally in the village. I hear a scythe rushing through the grass, studded with wildflowers. I smell the sweet hay in the older stacks, already dried by the sun. I can even see my cottage. There’s a bee. It’s very vibrant in my mind. WHICH IS NORMAL.

Ever since being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, my life has been better. I’ll get you back to Cuernavaca in a second, reader. Ridiculous as it sounds, this disease threw me into a different consciousness. Life is very long, but it goes by very fast, so you really have to make as much out of it as soon as you possibly can. Grappling with the possibilities of what’s going to happen to my body, I soon realized I had to do whatever I could whenever I had the chance to do it. Regrets are pointless. Go places and do things just because you want to. Just because you have a vague whim. Why not? You have to have FUN! You have to be ALIVE! You have to LEARN! You have to stay in motion and enjoy yourself. We are all just floating around in space, after all, dear reader, and nothing matters. We’re just a couple of humans out of billions of humans on a tiny planet out of billions of planets in an unremarkable galaxy amongst billions of galaxies. We’re just dust! We’re less than dust! And I know I sound ridiculous to some of you, but that’s a you problem. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

One of these days, I know I’ll just disappear. I think it will happen very unexpectedly. I won’t even know it’s about to happen. One day, I’ll just snap and I’ll be gone in the night and the next thing you know I’m a priest in a Brazilian village that doesn’t have electricity. It could be for absolutely any reason. Maybe for no reason at all. Maybe for secret reasons.

The derecho of August 2020 was the closest I’ve come to giving over to the feeling. I truly think if there had been no global pandemic, at this moment my name might be Daoud and I might be a watercolorist in Marrakech. Or I’d live in a tiny studio in Barcelona taking Polaroid pictures and then making mosaics from them. Or I’d be a terrible waiter in London. Or I’d go into a monastic order where silence is the rule. Or I’d build treehouses suspended above a river and rent it out on AirBNB. Maybe I would just go to LA and pretend to be a former child star that was destroyed by the system before I got my big break. The point is, why not have a few lives instead of just one? Live a little. 

And I’ll get back to Mexico in a few sentences, but for some reason, I feel compelled to explain myself. I want you to understand the sensation because it really is remarkable. You feel like you can do anything. Because if I’ve learned anything in my existence it’s this: almost anything is possible if you give even the slightest, vaguest wisp of effort. The bare minimum can take you FAR. This is part of the hypnotizing and intoxicating mood I get in. I can go anywhere and I can do anything because at the end of it all, why not? What legitimate reason do I have to not? Suddenly I want to shed my skin and get an accent and work at a Walmart jewelry counter in Florida. Just for the hell of it. Rather like a less dramatic Jekyll and Hyde, I suppose. And it’s not just wanting to escape, I want to truly experience every opportunity the world has. There’s no reason that I’ll ever naturally wind up stocking shelves at a Monoprix in the south of France, but there’s no reason not to do that if it would bring me some kind of joy. Maybe this is absolutely a me thing?

I scrolled through my phone, planning the day. There was too much to do and too much to see, but none of it was mandatory, definitely not the volcano, which was a fun change. Whenever I go anywhere, I have some kind of reason to be there. There will be a sensational bakery or a small museum or some obscure site of historic significance. I had none of these to find in Cuernavaca, so I was allowed to just follow my whims and fancies. This freedom fed my revery. I started to plot a vague mental map, looking in the general direction of some of the more popular places to get a sense of where I was. (The volcano must have been behind me?) Then, finishing my coffee, I let my feet take me wherever they wanted to go. 

Immediately, I was drawn through the main square, full of vendors, buses, shoe shiners, everything you could dream of. I hopped up into a seat and had my leather boots polished. This is the closest thing to a manicure for me. I love having my shoes shined. It relaxes me. These men are fantastic artists. The way they brush the shoes and whip them with clothes is hypnotic. I could see my eyes reflected in the black leather when he finished. 

In Iowa, it’s absurd to see colorful houses, unless they’re absolute dumps, which is a shame. Happily, in Mexico, there’s no conception of rules for exterior paint. For example in Mexico City, there’s an entire block that was painted in every shade of purple. It’s my least favorite color, I think it’s just revolting, makes my stomach hurt to see it normally, but it was always a sensation to walk along that street on the way to and from Walmart. 

One of the painted houses was a gorgeous coral-orange stucco and I was glad to see it was one of the stops on my tentative to do list: the Museo Robert Brady. Going in, the place meant absolutely nothing to me. I’d never heard of this man, I didn’t know why he had a museum, I didn’t even wonder about it. Just a place on a list. With that attitude, I bought my ticket and entered the courtyard of the building.

I looked around, shrugged, checked the map and muttered, “Well I’ll be here a half hour…tops,” and then began to wander.

I was vaguely amused by the first few rooms. They were painted brilliantly bright white and the walls were absolutely covered with art. All kinds of art, it’s an astonishing variety of things put together.

Instead of chaos, though, each seemingly random piece meshed together. I still didn’t really find it interesting enough for the place to exist after whoever Robert Brady was passed on.

There were African masks and a Frida Kahlo.

There was a kitchen laden with Talavera tile.

It was all a tad dull, I took a flight of stairs up to the next level. What happened there was absolutely unexpected. I think it changed the very course of my life. 

I’ve learned more since that moment, then, the only information I could get was from from the map I had unfolded and skimmed earlier. The museum had been the home of a man named Robert Brady. Before him, it was a crumbling Franciscan Convent from the sixteenth century. Fascinating place to turn into a residence. In a hallway that linked two wings of the house, I was intrigued by a little curio cabinet. I love saying curio. You can see it above. There was no real theme for the collections in the house, so I didn’t know what to expect. I absolutely did not expect or dream to see ushebti figurines. 

That may not have given you butterflies, but you’re likely not an absolute fanatic about ancient Egypt as I am, so let me explain. Ushebti are funerary statuettes from the tombs of the ancient dead. Some are finally carved by the best artisans, more came out of a crude mold, and quite a lot stretched the definition of ushebti and may have been an early experiment in abstract art. The more powerful or wealthy you were, the more of these figurines you had in your tomb. It was believed that they would live and work for you in the next life as personal attendants and servants. Some pharaohs had several hundred readied for them by the time they finally died. Because of their usefulness in the afterlife, they are rather abundant in collections around the world. Ushebti are certainly one of the most common types of Egyptian antiquities for private citizens to possess. And as this was the home of an eccentric art collector, they shouldn’t be particularly exceptional, just aesthetically pleasing, but they gave me a funny feeling. Uneasy almost, but in a pleasant way. Is there a word for that?

I don’t know what it was. I could go on and on at length about having some divine connection to a past life or some kind of kindred spiritual situation, but I won’t. I’ll just tell you that for some reason I was far more curious about Robert Brady than I had any reason to be — ushebti figurine or not. I should be wondering about the provenance of the figurines and not the man who I later learned was buried in the courtyard. I returned to the map to see if there was any information about the figurines, but as I scanned through the descriptions, I stopped, and I gasped out loud. And it was truly a dramatic moment that could ave been in a telenovela. And I’ve really never gotten over it.

The guide said that Robert Brady had been born in Iowa in 1928. That absolutely floored me. It doesn’t really mean anything I know, but reader, I’m from Iowa. His greatest passions in life were traveling and learning about new cultures. Absolutely sent me reeling! I know it doesn’t mean anything, but reader, travel defines me. He traveled all around Europe and made connections with fabulous people in the art world. And it’s probably nothing at all, but never forget that I did spend an evening in London with the German voice actress of Piglet and Nathan Lane once vaguely wondered if I was an actor and yes I did help Angela Lansbury into a vehicle. Robert Brady was a close friend of Josephine Baker. I felt like I was being shocked by the uncanny parallels between this dead man I still don’t know much about and myself. But…I mean…reader, look at the facts. Both of us from Iowa. Both of us captivating and obviously fabulous. Both of us dashing off to Europe for love of the arts. Later, we both somehow stumbled our way to Cuernavaca, to this exact spot actually with no predestined reason. It’s really weird how life does this sometimes.

And there’s something else, but nothing in my research has given me a conclusive answer, but reader, that former Franciscan convent was gay. The whole place was just absolutely fabulously gay. Robert Brady had the mustache when the time was right. He had all the colors. He had the art. He had the background. I know better than anybody just how fabulous an Iowan gay can become It was in his tunics, the choice of religious art in every available space, the madcap yellow room’s existence, the paintings of Josephine Baker in his bathroom, the books on his shelves, the bedroom that could easily have been mistaken for an altar, the very way he lived his life, the essence he left behind. I’m not saying he was gay, that’s not my point, but I’m saying the vibe was very gay. And I’m also saying that I learned later that he and Josephine Baker had wild times together and had the most outrageous experiences. The two of them allegedly had a non-binding marriage in a Mexican church one night at midnight, and if that isn’t something that a gay and his best friend would accidentally do after a wild night of too much tequila, then I’m not a homosexual. 

In the weeks and months since that day and in the years going forward, I think about that place every single day. I think about it more than the volcano that you can probably see from one of the towers of Robert’s house. I don’t know if I’ll ever go back, though, because like I rambled on at the beginning of my chatter about Cuernavaca, I want it to always be mysterious and alluring. I don’t ever want to know too much about it. To my relief there’s scant information about the man on the Internet. There is a website about the museum, of course, but that’s just about the art for the most part. There are little twenty-year old websites with a grainy photo of him in Europe. I can’t find a thing about him here in Iowa where he was born and where part of his family must still be. His art is hardly noticed. I discovered a watercolor of his in storage at the Des Moines Art Center. They were kind enough to provide me a digital copy:

His life isn’t even a blip on the radar. The only time I ever learn something new about him is when somebody writes on Josephine Baker. And then, these are still the briefest mention. I have no idea what he sounded like, what he thought, or what he believed. I only know him through what he left behind. A very archaeological thing, actually, which I fully appreciate.

One writeup I found later that best captured the spirit of the place was this, “Unswayed by trends and fashions, Brady acquired only what he liked, and for this reason the many pieces in his eclectic collection have marvelous consistency. His love of color, design, pattern and form served to unite the seemingly unrelated objects.” The vast amount of art was immensely inspiring to me. I knew that it was my aesthetic at once. I recognized it in rooms I’ve decorated myself. I love the idea of minimalism, but I’ve never been able to resist filling walls up with paintings and mirrors and tiles and shadowboxes and old movie posters and just whatever speaks to me. Robert Brady did much the same thing. There was no theme, there was no overarching concept, it was just an assemblage of wonderful things that seemed meant to be beside each other in perpetuity. 

And here’s the library I’m designing that was largely inspired by my visit to Robert Brady’s home:

I knew that I was going to purposely start collecting art for the rest of my life from that day. I’ve always acquired gorgeous little things by accident but now I intended to seek beautiful objets d’art intentionally. 

It isn’t important to continue talking about the museum now. I was enchanted beyond measure. I’ve never gotten over it, but I can’t share that sensation with you, try though I might. Needless to say, I leapt out onto the streets of Cuernavaca, newly revitalized, my brain absolutely throbbing with ecstasy. 

The museum is only footsteps away from a crumbling old church, which is, of course, one of the most beautifully picturesque sights in the world. The place was absolutely alive. There was a religious market selling embroidery and books and knickknacks. There was a live outdoor sermon. There was a monstrous dilapidated fountain. The church was exquisitely plain. I loved every inch of it; as I stepped out of the entrance my eyes landed on a man I would soon know as Señor Enrique, who is, in my opinion, the finest watercolorist in the city. 

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