Woman at the Roadside
I find her sitting under a tarp on the corner of Cinco de Mayo and Las Moras, selling nopal salad and avocados, her greying black hair, straight hair very long, covered with a head cloth. She wears a blue sweater for the morning chill, a flowered apron underneath, brown hands moving deliberately, trimming spines off a succulent nopal leaf. Her face is wrinkled and her eyes, when she looks at me, give back nothing.
“Buenos días, Señora,” I say with a subtle, involuntary bow, acknowledging… what? Her age, her hard life and poverty, my self-consciousness about the whole history of exploitation and violence visited upon her people for five hundred years? I desperately want her to like me, which seems unlikely because she gives me an ancient gaze that makes me feel transparent, like a ghost of the modern world; or in Rebecca West’s dismaying phrase, “ a thick-blooded and dreamless creature, able to deal with the cash nexus but no good for anything else.” I continue walking, glad to be out of her range. Some days I cross the street to not walk past her; other days I screw up my courage and look into her eyes. “Buenos días, Señora.”
Traditionally her tea stall is on the road to a Chinese Zen monastery. From her humble seat she dispenses light refreshment and unexpected Dharma. My teacher, however, sits on her corner every day; she is unavoidable. I say good morning and force myself not to tip my hat, which seems hopelessly false and patronizing. My mind races. I think of Mexican colonial history—Spain, then France, then the United States stripping the country of resources, using its people as slave or near-slave labor, always inserting powerful, unsympathetic hands into its politics. And as a matter of course betraying the Indigenous, keeping them invisible, impoverished, uneducated, without a history of advancement. As a Mexican friend says, the two greatest crimes in Mexico are being born Indigenous and being poor.
All this swirls through my mind as I bend slightly at the waist in the hint of a guilty bow. I can’t take my eyes from her and I am scared to death of her. Without words, she is my Dharma teacher.
My moment of clarity comes one day when, without thought, I do what I’d never done before—I buy two avocadoes. So natural, so obvious. She’s selling, I’m buying. Suddenly I see her without preconception or judgment, without fear. It doesn’t last long because, after we talk a moment, I leave without my avocadoes. I have to go back and get them. But I broke through. Without thought. Without fear.
Now we speak regularly. The other day, as she put sliced nopal, onion, and chile into a plastic bag for a customer, who couldn’t decide if she wanted cilantro, my teacher rolled her eyes at me. “What can you do? This woman can’t decide.” I was inside her circle for that moment and it felt grand.
While Mexico sometimes lulls me with its beauty, it also provides revelations of Buddha Nature. Most recently my teacher was a beggar woman who rang my doorbell.
I looked through the security viewer and saw a small person, dressed neatly, but I did not recognize her. One of the things you don’t do in Mexico is open your door to strangers. There are robberies and home invasions here. I called out, “Who is it?” She replied in a plaintive voice, “Soy yo!” It’s me! I was struck dumb. Her tone was unlike anything I’d heard, as if to say, “It’s me! Your true sister in Buddha! How can you not know me?” She made a compelling statement of truth. I opened the door.
She was clearly troubled. Taking in her smile, her eyes, anxiety swarmed my mind. Some years ago in Ventura, California, where we lived before San Miguel, a young father was eating lunch beachside, holding his 5-year old daughter in his lap, when a homeless man walked up and stabbed him in the neck. The victim bled out before paramedics arrived. The murderer was not a sane man. Neither was the woman standing before me, or so it felt. “Me da para una tortilla?” she said, smiling. She wanted money for food. I was unsettled, the spontaneous feeling of human bonding lost to my fears. I mumbled an excuse and closed the door with aversion. I felt like a traitor to my aspirations. But I felt safe.
Some time later Elena and I were standing in the doorway as this woman came walking down our little street with her same smile, so sweet, so lopsided. From that distance we both agreed to step back inside and close the door. I made Elena promise she would never open to her. Then a neighbor told us that the woman had been aggressive with him, trying to push past his door; another neighbor said she peered around her, searching the house beyond.
I couldn’t stop thinking about this woman, my living koan. “Soy yo!” For weeks I rehearsed her return because I feared she would. And she did, the other day. I was ready. The bell rang, I saw her through the viewer and after a moment’s hesitation I opened the door, she smiled, so I did, dropping coins in her hand then closing the door. False, false, false. Every impulse I had about her was premeditated, lacking insight or spontaneity.
I do not know what to do with my koan except try again. Sit with her.
I do know it’s difficult to see her without contemplating my luck, her luck, our common heritage, our divergent paths. “It’s me!” I hear her voice ring out. I remember the feeling of union she generated with her statement of fact and the fear that gripped me. We are all one, united in impermanence and death, sharing Buddha nature. How can you not know me?
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