December 2010

In the 1990’s most Americans in SMA wore happy faces. We do now too, but we take SMA more for granted. Back then we were overjoyed because brilliant, bright sunshine warmed our hearts and bodies; scintillating art openings, musical events and theatrical productions surrounded us; ripe fruits and vegetables amazed us; colorful plants and fabrics dazzled our eyes and affordable employees took care of our homes. Their help freed us up to attend and/or participate in a myriad of activities. Now people come to SMA expecting the above.

Then we threw our appreciative hearts into several not-for-profit organizations geared to help poor people. For me it was ideal. I did well in organizations when I had a purpose because it didn’t allow me time to worry about myself and how poorly I interacted with others. For example with the Unitarian Fellowship I joined the choir, gave readings, presided and even did the service sometimes; with Desarollo Rural my husband Roland and I organized a national art exhibition to raise money and for Festival Internacional de Peliculas I wrote reviews of all the films for the English newspaper. In the U.S. we have “professionals” to do these tasks and I wouldn’t have had the opportunities to develop the attending skills in a fun hands-on fashion.

Mexicans and their culture enchanted us too. They were welcoming and eager to understand our language barriers. (I spoke pretty fluently having spoken Spanish with my first husband for six years.) Some of their ways never failed to astonish us, such as the “manana” concept, never presenting a bill in a restaurant until you asked for it, the central plaza with continuous adults crisscrossing, young people circling, stray dogs begging, toy vendors, food vendors; ubiquitous church bells ringing; large and very noisy black colored birds flocking to tree tops at dusk and everyone greeting each other with warm, warm smiles and a como estas?

I believed Mexicans come out well ahead of Americans in their amicability, in family values and in their attachment to daily life. On the other hand, we Americans, we’re capable people; we know what time it is and how to get things done in the most expedient fashion. Why, once in Patzquaro (a picturesque town near SMA famous for its butterfly fishing nets) my husband Roland became a hero, at least in my eyes. One Sunday morning we waited on the train station platform for at least an hour and many dozens of others arrived as time went on. When the little train arrived it was chalk full. The people on the platform rushed to the doors to get on, blocking the exit for the people inside. After several minutes, Roland intervened. He inched his way up the train stairs and opened the door and, though not speaking a word of Spanish, he was tall and with his long arms able to wave people through, creating a path for passengers to leave so the rest of us could get on. We were last to board the packed train and a smiling family stood up, motioning to us their seats.

I was in a world of ongoing, exciting and engaging activities. Sometimes Roland pushed me into events that I would never have dared to even think about. For example, in 1990 or 91 the Mexican National Arts Council was meeting at the Bellas Artes in SM. Roland had a one person exhibition there then and he received permission from the Director to present information to the Council about a special medium he’d discovered. Of course, not speaking Spanish he couldn’t do it. Wanting to please my husband, I agreed to do it. I found myself seated on the stage at a long table with a dozen other presenters in front of several hundred people, reading Roland’s paper I’d translated into Spanish and answering questions. Afterwards, the President of the big University in Mexico City came up and told me to look him up when I went to Mexico City (which I did and he gave me a large bag of beautiful, color brochures of their former exhibitions). Later I was totally astonished at what I had done and later talking with the President sure made me float on air.

More pointedly, freed of gallery responsibilities in Portland and house cleaning, I had time to ponder what to do about my shyness. I made lists and lists of things, but it always included, “learn how to relax.” I had absolutely no idea how to do it or where to begin until in 1991, I joined a six session workshop on personality growth presented by a visiting Unitarian psychologist.

The following is quoted from my memoir Brave. “At that time SMA was a Mecca for people seeking self-discovery, and it was not unusual for visiting professionals to provide classes. Many, including these, were free. Eight participants showed up and after we had spent an hour together, she asked us to voice our first impressions of one another. The time came to describe me. They all agreed I exuded a leave-me-alone, cold demeanor. And this when I wanted to make friends! it was like a disaster; I wanted to become invisible.…..the therapy worked, though.” I studied what she said over and over and started learning how to relax. In January I’ll continue on from here, about what I learned.

Another part of my life in Mexico helped me. From Brave:“When I met with Mexicans, I conversed in Spanish, using their polite indigenous manners: not rushing, always saying “hello” and “goodbye” and, in addition to dealing with the matter at hand, allowing for conversation to develop about whatever either of us thought important.

Not understanding a word of Spanish, after such a discussion Roland often said, “What on earth were you talking about?” when it took me five minutes to buy something as simple as nails for concrete walls. However I treasured these mini-dialogues of diplomacy and kept right on having them.”

Finally, an example of how friendly the Mexicans were. For a weekend trip to Mexico City, Roland and I neglected to get money from our bank until late on Friday afternoon and the teller said they had no cash. We implored him for just a little but he was all out. Then a man dressed in overalls laden with white cement dust standing in line behind us said over our shoulders to the teller, “Here, give them this money,” and handed over a wad of bills. How could I not love these people and want to talk with them?

Happy New Year!


  1. Good entry Mom. I wish you would try your hand at fiction too. Joy and I are both really exicted to be seeing you two and SMA soon.

  2. A fine read Helen! You are reminding me of our many happy days in SMA during the early years when I began my Mexixan paintings and how our shared social events enabled you to beat back the shyness that dominated your youth and thwarted your innate creativity. I look forward to more entries like this on your Blog. Nice Website!!

  3. After attending Helen’s book reading of Brave I began to think about shyness in a way that I never had before. I never considered myself a shy person. I am unhesitatingly outspoken and gregarious. I practiced law in New York City for 35 years and spent a substantial amount of my professional life as a litigation lawyer. In order for me to succeed it was necessary for me to assert my clients interests as fully as possible––being shy would have prevented this possibility.
    Nevertheless, after attending the reading I reflected on the fact, the reality, that I am not nearly as assertive when my own interests and desires are involved and that although not completely so the contrary is the case. I find it difficult, even with my beloved wife, to ask for what I want. She has taught me otherwise; however the inhibition remains. So this form of “shyness” is indeed a part of my personality and has always been so.
    I just never thought of myself that way.
    This pattern of behavior relates to asking favors of friends, making clear requests to people who I pay to provide me with services; and even includes seeking the love and commitment I deserve from my closest relatives. It also embraces my ability to express my desires in the most intimate ways.
    Although I have been aware of this bring with Helen at her book reading made me think more clearly about how I am and will enable me to seek what I believe I am reasonably entitled to in the ways that I have not in the past.
    Thank you, Helen

    1. Hi David,

      The same happened to me. When I was the director for twelve years of Danforth Gallery, a non-profit, tax-exempt alternative art gallery, I managed everything from fund raising to overseeing dozens of exciting artist volunteers. I could speak up and say what was needed. I felt comfortable at our Gallery openings where I was in charge. But when I visited other gallery openings, I felt insignificant and couldn’t socialize. Those days are behind.

      Please read my blog “Do You Know Who You Are” posted yesterday and tell me if anything in it might be helpful for you to do. If not, maybe I can suggest something else.

      1. Hi Helen: I read “do you know who you are” and believe it would be a helpful exercise for me. Something I certainly never thought about doing. In fact I think it could be useful in my current struggle to define myself as a writer or whatever in my life is a retired person no longer practicing law and out in the world the way I was. Will keep you informed of my progress. Thanks, David

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