At Play in the Ricefields
of the Lord
You don't have to sit very long
in front of Rosita's restaurant before a vendor throws
his shadow across you. Within an hour a whole pageant
of vendors will have stopped to spread their wares in
front of you, whether you want them to or not.
Silver salesmen and basket hawkers will
pitch to you as little children dodge between them and
try to sell you a few Chicklets for a coin. Deeply polished ironwood carvings will
float on raised arms across your table. Sun masks will dawn and set around the
planet of your head. Hammocks draped like bandoleers from
young boys' shoulders will promise to rescue you from
the tyranny of your feet.
And there are the girls and mothers who
silently try to sell colorful woven name bracelets.
I have seen them all. And I was beginning
to think there was no new thing under the Mexican sun.
Until this morning.
The young man carried a cardboard box
covered with electric green craft paper. "Escribire
su nombre en un grano de arroz", it announced
on one side. And on the other, "I will write
your name on a grain of rice".
This is interesting, I thought.
I watched the vendor pitch his craft
to a few American women sitting under the ramada of the
restaurant. They looked at a couple of samples and said
something I couldn't hear. A deal was struck and the
young man took his box over to a nearby wall. He removed
a few things from his jacket pocket and pushed them into
ready-made holes in the top of the box. He sat on the
low wall and began to work.
I watched with fascination as a small
plastic bag of rice was dumped onto the box and he began
sorting them. Then he hunched over and all I could see
was a thatch of black hair and an occasional shaking motion
of his left arm.
After a few minutes the nose-ring of
my curiosity pulled me off my chair and led me across
"Puedo mirar que tu haces?"
I asked, standing next to him. He didn't even look up
and responded in Spanish saying sure, I could watch if
I wanted. So I pulled over a chair and sat in front of
While he worked I talked to him and learned
he was pretty new to the game of writing names on grains
of rice. He'd only been doing it for a month. But I
could see a month was plenty of time for him to become
an expert at it. His moves were quick and accurate.
The first one was finished before I realized what he was
doing. I watched closely as he began the second one.
He poked the spilled rice with the end
of his finger until he found one that suited him. Then
he scraped one side of it with the blade of a pocket knife.
He took a pen from a hole in the box and gave it a shake.
The thing had a thick barrel with a pin-like nib. He
said he bought it in Algadones.
Hunching over, he began lettering the
rice grain, forcing the ink into the nib between each
letter with a few quick downward shakes of his hand.
He told me he used a black ink from China.
After the name was finished, he blew
down on his fingers to dry the ink then replaced the cap
of the pen and forced it back into its hole. Removing
a small empty glass ampoule from a row, he unscrewed its
metal lid and dropped the grain of rice inside.
"I buy them in Tijuana," he
told me, tilting the ampoule.
A syringe appeared from its place and
the vendor injected a clear oil into the vial. I saw
the little grain of rice float up above two tiny brightly
coloured beads. The lid was replaced and the end of a
tube of Super Glue was dabbed around the seam. Then the
young man produced a roll of thin black braided nylon
cord and cut off a length. He passed one end through
a hole in the lid of the ampoule and quickly tied a knock.
The job was done.
I thanked him for the display and went
back to my table.
After the young man was paid, he picked
up his glaring, green box and continued walking down the
Malecón. I began to wonder why this thing he did was
such a success among the tourists. Although the source
had always been a mystery to me, I had seen these vials
before hanging from the necks of sightseers and even in
the homes of local residents.
After the fourth cup of coffee an answer
We are attracted to the individuality
hidden in things that share a sameness. We love to peer
beneath uniformity to find something unique. That is
why telescopes are turned toward the stars. Why atoms
are probed. Why mountains and rivers are explored. Why
people line up on beaches to watch grunion. And why a
young man can sell a grain of rice by simply printing
a name on it.
We seek through all these metaphors for
some element of truth. The sameness of a field of rice
is no different than the swarming uniformity of humanity.
We try to rest in the momentary certainty of our own personal
identity. But the thing that projects this uniqueness,
this sense of selfhood, may be as meaningless as a jot
of black Chinese ink shaken from a pen onto a grain of
rice. Only a name, a quick flourish of graffiti.
We are afloat in an amniotic trance,
trapped with a few colourful beads, thinking we are the
ink and not the rice. And throughout our lives we forever try to
extend this identity into metaphor. We pen the walls
of sameness with the ink of Mind and call the result an
individual, a separate existence. We never see the foundation
of grain-ness that holds the universe between two
mirrors and sends its echoes cascading into consciousness.
That vendor sold security, hawked reassurance.
In a few minutes he made a grain of rice announce its
uniqueness. In a few minutes a grain of rice lost its
kinship with all the others spilled across the lid of
the box. Just as after a few years, a baby loses its
kinship with all other newborn infants and begins to cry
its uniqueness. The day it first learns to print its
name is the day it loses the heritage of what can be shared
and accepts the pitch of the latest advertising gimmick.
Our individuality floats in a vial on
a string. And no one cares to see what's under the printed
The written name can only be removed
by polishing the grain. If we don't make mirrors of ourselves,
we'll be doomed to remain illusions in the ricefields
of the Lord.