Sunday, October 13, 2013

Umbilical Cords, Harvest Moon, Contemplation Sobre la Cosecha

Do you know where your umbilical cord ended up after you were born?  I often imagine mine in some red plastic-lined hazardous waste bin.  Later, a hospital worker either incinerated it or the shriveled cord ended up in a landfill somewhere in the Hollywood area of Los Angeles—near Kaiser Hospital on Sunset, where I was born.  Isn’t that what hospitals do with umbilical cords—at least maybe what they did with mine after I was born?  I just finished reading Reyna Grande’s The Distance Between Us and Luis Alberto Urrea’s Into the Beautiful North. I will be teaching both of these books later this semester and in my re-reading, I was jotting down notes.  As usual, I notice things I didn’t catch during the first or second reading.  This time it was the umbilical cord in both these books.

Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea
In The Distance Between Us,  Reyna Grande describes how the women in her familia buried her umbilical cord right after her birth, and how that cord bound her to Mexico, and the place of her birth. 
The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande
In Luis Alberto Urrea’s Into the Beautiful North, when Nayeli and her cohorts get ready to leave to “Los Unaites” to bring back men (a la the film, “The Magnificent Seven”), their families remind them that their umbilical cords are buried right there, in their homeland of Tres Camarones. They must remember their cords.  It is what connects them to their home.  Therefore, it is imperative that they return. 
a kale plant
I have often told myself that the day my mother dies, my umbilical cord to Mexico will be severed.  She has always been my connection to Mexico, teaching me the family history starting with the Lerma and Sanchez familias en Guanajuato to the Rodriguez and Velazquez en Coahuila and others in Michoacan (including the Montes familia).  Slowly, however, we lose these connections. The umbilical cord still attached to the newly born is thick, purple red, pulsing with life.  Lately, medical doctors have been publishing articles on the importance of waiting to cut the cord—allowing the pulsing to wane on its own before it is cut.  There is still much nutrition to transfer. Was mine cut too soon?  Was yours? 

Kale drying
 Right now is the harvest season (the cutting!) and the latest news was the coming of the frost.  One must either cover the vegetables (with a sheet) or harvest.  I decided to harvest. 
Filled up six bags with kale
I went out with all my gardening implements.  This year I had an amazing, very healthy crop of kale plants.  I had bought little tiny spindly kale plants last spring, not expecting much.  Each was barely a slip of a shoot.  But I planted them all, and ended up with almost ten huge kale plants.  They brought me much joy this summer just watching them grow and seeing how hardy they are.  Their trunks thicken and each ridge on the trunk shoots out a strong branch of tightly curled kale. At the end of the harvest, I had filled up multiple bags of kale.  Then I washed and set them out to dry. Between correcting papers and writing, I coated kale leaves with garlic infused olive oil, sprinkled seasoning on top, and placed them in the oven.  In 20 minutes time, they transformed into what is called “kale chips:” crunchy, delicate, green curly leaves.  So much more nutritious than potato chips.

harvesting the kale

I also harvested what was left of the basil, the cherry tomatoes, the poblano chiles, and those three pumpkin calabazas that had grown all on their own (what’s called a volunteer plant). As I neared the end of the harvesting, I could feel the temperature drop, the chill of the breeze, the crisp cool that marks autumn.  It’s a beautiful time—but I was also sad.  Soon, the garden won’t even look like one.  It will be frozen, at times covered in snow.  All the branches, the withering stalks placed in the compost bin will transform to rich soil. 

Between harvesting and thinking about umbilical cords, I stopped to watch my semi-domesticated cat, Chulo.  He darted around the backyard, batted at some of the branches I’d throw nearby, and meow at my activities. 
Almost ready for the oven

kale chips ready to eat--

Chulo was born in the backyard almost a year and a half ago—he’s from a feral cat colony that has since disappeared.  The mother has occasionally been spotted across the street in my neighbors yard, but has never officially returned.  She will not have kittens anymore. In fact, the entire colony will not (including Chulo).  While they were all still here, I trapped them and took them to the vet to get fixed.  It’s a program called “catch and release.”  A cat rescue co-op named “The Cat House” provides one with humane cat traps (the traps are ingenious), then they make arrangements with a local vet to spay or neuter the cats and give them shots.  I was lucky and was able to get the entire colony “fixed.”  Chulo’s two brothers are since gone and I continually hope that they’ve been taken in by loving individuals.  Chulo’s birth remnants are definitely part of the soil on the southwest corner of the backyard, near the bird feeders.  And not too far from where he was born, I buried my two cats that I brought with me from Los Angeles.  The most recent one buried there is Ceniza, who died last June. She was 17, which is a good long life for a cat. Many years of memories are buried with her in my backyard. 

Chulo on the deck
Before coming to Nebraska, I was not much of a gardener or had any contact with feral cats. Since moving here, I have come to know the seasons, have grown a number of vegetables and herbs:  tomatoes, asparagus, broccoli, corn, calabasas, chiles (jalapeño, poblano, anaheim), basil, stevia, chard, arugula, etc. So much of what I’ve recognized here regarding the land and seasons, reminds me of Mexico. I often think about how a good section of Mexico is on the central time zone, like Nebraska. Only a small portion of the country of Mexico is not on central time:  Baja California Sur, Sonora, Chihuahua, Sinaloa, and Nayarit, are on Mountain time.  Baja California (north) is on Pacific time. Where my family is from in Mexico—they came from Central Time.  Thousands of years ago, the tribes from Mexico would travel north to trade with the peoples who lived in what we now call the Cahokia Mounds, “the largest and most complex archeological site north of the great Pre-Columbian cities in Mexico” (click here for more information).  Archeologists believe that at its peak, Cahokia had a population over 1200.   Did they practice umbilical cord burials? Sometimes I imagine a thousand umbilical cords tucked into the mantle of the earth, looking like gold veins. 

I have read that in some sections of Jamaica, burying the umbilical cord is practiced (click here).  Perhaps it is not uncommon for most peoples or maybe, as with many things Mexican (music, food, customs) we continually trace origins to Africa.  Reyna Grande’s memoir and Luis Alberto Urrea’s novel, however, make it clear that burying the umbilical cord ties you to that specific land literally and metaphorically. The Mexico earth swallows you and you are forever tied. 

I love the metaphor and sometimes viscerally feel such connections.  And yet, I want to always believe that "land" is not mine.  Also, not everyone can be tied to one specific place.  We are too fluid, too nomadic, our livelihoods are such that we are forced to leave or we cannot live, especially in this time of various global and transnational oppressions. To claim a place of one’s own can be so audacious—as if land or anything can be owned.  Sure—you can temporarily be there, as I have been temporarily living in Nebraska.  But I was also temporary in Los Angeles, in Mexico (summers with mi familia), in Spain (where I lived for almost a year), in Oregon (where I taught English to migrant farmworkers and witnessed the many different ways they negotiated their distance away from all they knew).  I suppose one could claim a space of where one would wish to belong. I know I continually do that.  

And then I think of Gloria Anzaldúa who wrote:  “With her scythe I cut the umbilical cord shackling me to the past and to friends and attitudes that drag me down.  Strip away—all the way to the bone.  Make myself utterly vulnerable.” 

Anzaldúa’s words are a powerful statement of new consciousness, or “border thinking,” “. . . a change in the way we perceive reality, the way we see ourselves, and the ways we behave” (102).  Her words remind me of Barbara Carrasco’s art—specifically “untitled” from 1976 where an umbilical cord is slim yarn but it is connected to a knitted ball and the “mother” is there, tied oppressively to a knitted ball.  The knitting needle is suspended between both.  The knitting needle can separate and also enfold one closer.  It’s a delicate balance and Carrasco, like Anzaldúa encourages detachment and a reconfiguration.  “Make myself utterly vulnerable.” 

"Untitled" by Barbara Carrasco

The writer, Barry Lopez, says that when he readies himself to write, he must be completely vulnerable or he must not attempt it.  Vulnerability, he says, is what honestly connects the writer to the reader.  Vulnerability is an emptying of self. 

In her essay, “Now Let Us Shift,” Anzaldúa takes the image of Coyolxauhqui to speak of transitions. On the literal level, she is remembering her hysterectomy.  She uses that memory to write the following:

Knowing that something in you, or of you, must die before something else can be born, you throw your old self into the ritual pyre, a passage by fire . . . After examining the old self’s stance on life/death, misma/otra, individual/collective consciousness, you shift the axis/structure of reference by reversing the polarities, erasing the slash between them, then adding new aspects of yourself . . . You shed your former bodymind and its outworn story like a snake its skin . . . After dismantling the body/self you re-compose it—the fifth stage of the journey, though reconstruction takes place in all stages . . . Your identity has roots you share with all people and other beings—spirit, feeling, and body make up a greater identity category.  The body is rooted in the earth, la tierra itself.  You meet ensoulment in trees, in woods, in streams.  The roots del árbol de la vida of all planetary beings are nature, soul, body.  (561)

 After filling up the bags with the harvest, I raked the soil and cleared it from kale and poblano chile roots,  The garden began to look like the barren spot from last spring right before planting. The asparagus and cherry tomato plants stayed, their seeds eventually buried in the garden.  They’ll come up again in April/May.  Each year, though, they appear differently.  Nothing is ever the same. 

las calabazas (from the volunteer plant)
So I began this blog post asking you if you knew the whereabouts of your umbilical cord.  Perhaps you may want to use your imagination.  “Reframing the old story,” writes Gloria Anzaldua, “points to another option besides assimilation and separation . . . An image of your tío’s dying orange tree comes to mind, one still possessed of a strong root system and trunk.  Tu tío grafted a sturdier variety of orange to it, creating a more vigorous tree.”

In Reyna Grande'a memoir, and Luis Alberto Urrea's novel, the individuals in those books struggle to make meaning of continual, sometimes brutal change and separation/reunions.  They leave us to witness and consider our own "ombligos."  May this "autumn into winter" be a significant and meaningful transition for you, dear La Bloga reader!



Unknown said...

beautiful and powerful writing. Stirring the deepest parts of me. Thank you.

Unknown said...

Absolutely gorgeous and heartfelt essay about identity, culture, belonging and life transitions. Thank you for this, Amelia.

Linda Rodriguez said...

As usual, Amelia, you have given us a writing full of power and grace to illuminate another hidden part of culture and tradition to help us reclaim it, each in our own way. Thank you for your perception and skill with language, hermana!

msedano said...

i was looking at my butternut squash and your volunteers sprang to mind. what are they like? are you planting that seed?

Amelia ML Montes said...

Thank you all for your kind comments. And Em--check the blog again: i just posted a picture of the calabazas on today's blog. So re-check!

Amelia ML Montes said...

Thank you all for your kind comments. And Em--check the blog again: i just posted a picture of the calabazas on today's blog. So re-check!

Unknown said...

Thank you Amelia, for this deeply moving and insightful post!

msedano said...

those are beauties, las calabazas.