"Good Things Are Going to Happen"
The plaque on the wall said it all. Every time I exited my bedroom, I saw this message and I believed it was true.
Little did I know…
I went online to apply, but the deadline to apply as a volunteer had passed. I applied anyway. As always, the Universe was cooperating. Not only did I receive an immediate welcoming reply from the Volunteer Coordinator, Tina, but when I explained that I was short of funds, she offered to host me and let me stay with her for free! She said, "Why don't you come a week early so I can show you around and introduce you to people?"
That was all I needed to hear. I was off...
I spent two weeks in the most idyllic setting... San Miguel de Allende is a UNESCO World Heritage Site located about four hours north of Mexico City at over 6,000 ft. elevation in the foothills of Mexico’s central highlands. It is known for its baroque 17th and 18th century Spanish architecture, popular arts scene and cultural festivals. It has become a Mecca for artists of all kinds. In the city’s historic, cobblestoned center lies the gorgeous church, Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel, whose beautiful pink towers rise above the main plaza, El Jardín. It looks more like a cathedral than a church. It dominates the central square and can be seen from everywhere.
I was enamored of the village immediately. Tina was the most gracious host, and I was flabbergasted to see what a palatial abode I was offered in which to spend the next two weeks. She knew what a grueling week was ahead for me, so she whipped me into shape that first week. We walked up and down the hills through the village every day where I was bombarded with astounding visions, each more colorful than the last. For example, here is the view as I walked toward town...
I never got tired of scoping out all the markets in town. Some went on for blocks and acres and seemed to contain every item known to man. The colors were spectacular.
I especially loved the breathtaking artwork everywhere and the lovely flowers in the park through which I walked every day.
The first week of my stay, I was contacted by Harry Burrus, a transplanted American and Beat scholar who told me he had toured my brother around San Miguel in 2008 showing him where Dad spent time, and he offered to show me those same sites. Of course, I took him up on his generous offer.
The tour was moving for me on many levels. We retraced Dad’s steps and after spending some time in San Miguel, I understood why my father loved it there. Harry showed me places he said Dad had lived and was going to show me the train station from which Dad had taken his last trip, but I had to return to the conference. I did see apartment #6, though, which Harry said was the place from which Dad left to retrieve his luggage that fateful night.
I was treated with such kindness during the weeks I was in San Miguel. Before I’d left home, I received an email from Susan Page, the director of the conference, who’d asked if I would mind if she held a dinner in my honor for the writing conference staff. I didn’t, and she did. The staff asked all sorts of questions about Dad and my experiences growing up surrounded by the characters who became known as The Beats. It was a unique experience and I’m grateful to Susan for the opportunity to tell some stories and set the record straight.
At the conference, I was delighted to learn that I would be assigned to work in the conference bookstore. There I met the authors and some of the keynote speakers who were invited to speak at the conference. Judy Collins was one of them, and I was entranced by her stories. I saw Gail Sheehy who was attending the conference. I felt lucky to also hear Mary Karr, Billy Collins and David Ebershoff speak. (David’s book, The Danish Girl, had just been released as a movie.)
The bookstore at the San Miguel Writers Conference.
There were many wonderful experiences during the two eventful weeks, but three incidents stand out in my mind.
One day I was sitting at the table in the bookstore, when a man approached and excitedly asked, “Are you really Neal Cassady’s daughter?” I replied in the affirmative. He could barely contain himself as he explained that every year he produced a play about Dad and Jack and their friends and presented it during the conference week. He was happy to meet me but was distressed because the play was not going to be shown that year, and I WAS THERE! He insisted I had to return and see it. I assured him I would try.
Another time, a man came up to me and was also excited to meet me. He confided to me that Allen Ginsberg was buried in the local cemetery just around the corner. I pretended to be impressed, but knew differently. I thanked him for the information and on my break high-tailed it to the cemetery. Sure enough, there was Alan Ginsburg’s family plot.
I also was happy to meet the artist who had created a wonderful sculpture of Dad. Daniel Rueffert is a plein air artist who has a beautiful gallery in San Miguel. Some time before I’d left for San Miguel, I had a phone call from a lady who lived in San Miguel and who asked if the Cassadys minded if the town placed a sculpture of Dad in the main courtyard of the local library. I assured her we would not mind!
It was not finished, but they sent us a photo of the work in progress.
Unfortunately, the funding didn’t come through, so it didn’t happen. When I met with Daniel at his gallery, I wanted to see the sculpture and attempt to get the project back on track. Daniel pulled out a plastic bag from underneath a stairway. The only thing in it was Dad’s clay head! Daniel had destroyed the sculpture when the project fell through. I was not happy about that.
I will always be grateful for the opportunity to visit the place where my father died. The experience meant so much to me. And the writing conference is grand. I tell all my writer and reader friends they must attend that conference and visit San Miguel de Allende. I learned a lot and made some enduring friendships the two weeks I was privileged to be there.
I yearn to return.
Around the time of my birthday in September 2016 I got a flash of inspiration: Why don't I try to volunteer at the writers' conference in San Miguel de Allende (SMA)? Since Dad died there in 1968, I'd always wanted to make a pilgrimage to see where he spent his last days, and since I'm a struggling writer (aren't we all?) and love books, it would be a perfect trip.