Monday, November 17, 2014

Fresh Slate

Since my husband and I are both fairly prolific Facebook users (my new favorite is Instagram), the two of us have been virtually banging a few pots together announcing to the world that we will move, are moving, have moved from Xalapa, Veracruz to Tampa, Florida.

So here I am in our hotel room in Miami, still buzzing from the flight (and possibly also from the two Stella Artois that I downed along with a massive hamburger). And I want to stop and take a moment to separate the signal from the noise.

The signal is what this moment means -- and the noise is the sum of all the immediate, practical concerns that make up the obstacle course of each day. For us, a big part of the noise was selling all our furniture and as many belongings as possible; then packing, donating, and organizing the leftovers we couldn't sell or bring; then shepherding the girls through various airports; then getting through the dreaded immigration and customs line...

And now we are here. Well, almost "here," since we have yet to make our home. I am standing in front of a blank canvas, brush in hand, relishing the moment with all its possibilities. Hello, Pinterest dreams. All I need is a high-ceilinged house with French doors and endless cascades of sunlight on shiny wood floors... preferably overlooking the Amalfi coast. The Eiffel tower would also be an acceptable substitute.

I won't deny it: this is a sweet, sweet moment. I'm happy. I feel liberated after having gotten rid of almost all of our past possessions except for a few items of sentimental value. I'm full of expectation, and also pleased that I didn't have to break any bones or drag any unwilling prisoners along behind me to get here. Each thing comes at the proper time. People change. Circumstances change and doors open.

And this is the signal: the message that each gift comes at its proper time, often accompanied by a lot of noise and distraction, sometimes also by a prelude of pain or disappointment. But the gift comes.

This song has been playing in my head a lot ever since I first heard it. This line, in particular: "Millions of balloons tethered to the ground. Weight of the world tries to hold us down. Cut the strings and let me go. I'm weightless... I'm weightless."

"Weightless" by Natasha Bedingfield

It's ridiculous, but I cry a little every time I hear it. Also the "Let It Go" song from Frozen. Pathetic much? Yes. But it speaks to me. And the cold never bothered me anyway.

So now what? Does a change of place really mark a fresh beginning? Does it change us, or just the accidentals surrounding us? Is there more to life than decorating a new apartment? I'm not sure.

I think a new circumstance like moving can change us if we let it, but most of that change already took place in a quiet, gradual way. Perhaps moving just reveals the changes that were already made. Drop by drop, day by day, living in Xalapa changed me. No one can get married, become a mother, and live in another culture for five years without changing and broadening in some way.

There is not enough space here to detail all those changes, plus I don't really have the perspective to see it all yet, but there is one thought that comes to mind: a kind of letting go of the "tyranny of what if," which is the lingering sense of "what would my life have been if I had taken this other fork in the road?" and the comparing of one's actual self to an imagined alternative self that would have resulted from other decisions.

Nothing torments the "is" like the "shoulda, woulda, coulda." In the end, those are all imaginary -- they don't exist and they aren't real. But who doesn't have at least a few of those specters flying around, especially during the seasons of sacrifice when the going gets tough and it seems like everyone else is having such a great time, or at least an easier time?

There are seasons of sacrifice, and there are also short moments of sacrifice. For example, my littlest baby, Victoria, is a terrible sleeper. I can't get her to nap for more than 20 minutes at a time during the day, and she seems to need me to be attached to her in order to sleep. If I'm not there, she wakes up repeatedly. I have to work at night, so her constant waking up (and needing to be nursed back to sleep, which is a process that takes about 10 to 30 minutes) is agony for me. JC knows that I run upstairs about six or seven times during my nighttime work shifts, and he also knows that I am often in a silent rage of frustration because my baby won't sleep, which means I am up until four in the morning finishing the work that I can only do piecemeal. What I could have done in two hours now takes six hours.

So, while nursing her back to sleep, I am interiorly having a fit because "my life is impossible" and "I can't do this!" and "I'm gonna die." Another refrain, which JC heard frequently from me when I was sick and working late into the night was: "The universe hates me." I didn't want to name any Names, but Someone with the power to make my life easier was withholding the love. Or so it seemed.

The other day I had a small epiphany about these situations, and I think it was a moment of grace because it gave me the key to know how to calm myself down and change channels in the future. We were in a taxi on our way to the Veracruz airport, which was about an hour and a half ride. I was exhausted and it was V's nap time, but she was writhing this way and that on my lap, totally unwilling to calm down and sit still, much less sleep. She was not in pain, just restless about being stuck in a taxi (and I know this because as soon as we got out of the car, she was screeching with joy and happiness). Since I was already tired and frustrated that she wouldn't rest (when she doesn't rest, I can't rest either, not even if JC carries her), I was starting to get that desperate feeling again and my interior temperature was starting to rise. "Why won't she sit still? Am I not allowed to rest EVER? WHY, God, WHYYYY?" Cue interior whining.

But then I had a slight interior shift -- like when the chiropractor moves some bones around and things fall into place -- and I thought, "Instead of fussing that V is not acting like I think she should act, why don't I just accept that this is how it is? This is how she is right now. Stop thinking that you're going to rest in this taxi ride, because it ain't gonna happen. It will be over soon. Just roll with it." I somehow relaxed in the saddle, and the rest of the ride wasn't quite so frustrating. And in the end, she also calmed down a little -- at least enough for me to be able to stare vacantly out the window, which was all I really wanted out of that taxi ride.

So that was my lesson. In a microcosm, it was my biggest takeaway from five years in Xalapa. Instead of interiorly fussing and whining that things are not the way they ought to be (according to me), why not just accept the way that they are and try to work with that? Relax in the saddle and enjoy the ride. A few acts of acceptance never hurt nobody.

I'm really good at learning lessons when the time for applying them is pretty much over.

But I will remember this: the seasons of sacrifice are not forever. Ride what comes your way and keep hope in the future. The universe does not hate you; God loves you. But Obi wan Kenobi says that you must learn that the world does not revolve around you and your expectations. So lighten up, let go, and breeeeeaaaaaathe like a Zen master.

Toward the end of our time in Xalapa, JC and I visited a few places that were significant for us starting out, and we both commented that it felt like we had come "full circle." There was a sense of closure, of saying goodbye and closing a chapter for good. I'm sure for him there was a sense of sadness and some nostalgia. For me, there was a sense of furtive joy and elation. It's over! It's finally over! But there was also a sense of life's unpredictability. There was a time when I thought that I was going to be in Xalapa for another ten years or more. But life changed.

Now I have this five-year plan, which I will not disclose for fear of jinxing myself. But I have a feeling that life is going to bring us some surprises, and that the next five years will look nothing like any plan we have agreed on. I hope it brings good things, but I'm also aware that it could bring some tough times... and that once again, we'll just have to hang on and try to enjoy the ride.

So much for the signal. Now back to the noise: DECORATING. I am obsessed and must have an apartment that looks like this. Preferably on a shoestring budget.

Thoughts? Questions? Suggestions? Recommendations for good furniture stores? Please speak: the Zen master is listening.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Motherhood in Dots and Strokes

I've been thinking, for no particular reason at all, about the appeal of minimalism: saying much with few words, or evoking a complete image with just a few strokes. It seems like we have a cognitive tendency to connect the dots when just a few slender ideas are suggested: two arcs on paper become koi fish circling in a pond, or perhaps a woman's demure downward glance.

When little is given, perhaps just the essentials, there is a kind of austere mystery that invites a sense of wondering, and even of imaginative co-creation.

In life as well: we connect the dots. Sometimes the resulting constellation is a flash of insight… but in my case, it's usually just a harebrained interpretation that earns me a single raised eyebrow from my husband -- itself a minimalistic gesture that speaks volumes.

Anyway, thinking of minimalism in writing brings me to the genre of Japanese haiku, which is supposed to bring together two contrasting images in a tightly constrained syllabic structure -- like Twitter on a diet.

So here are a few of my own amateur sketches of the reality that fills my mind and heart every day: being a mother to my two girls. I think any mother would agree that it's impossible to sum it up properly in words, even if we could write volumes, precisely because motherhood is made of such an endless number of experiences -- most completely ordinary, but all somehow significant because of the constant undercurrent of love that goes from our hearts to theirs. And sometimes it's those ordinary moments that capture the essence of the experience...

Connect the dots as you will!


butterfly effect:
a baby's opened eyes cause
the heart's seismic shift


       sparkly silver shoes,
       dirty puddles in the rain:
       opposites attract!


peach fuzz, corkscrew curls--
conspiratorial heads:
and so it begins...


       curls afloat, laughing,
       she runs baptized in sunlight,
       chasing the pigeons


wiping a bottom,
I suddenly feel observed:
bright eyes smile, aware.


       sweet ballerina
       swan in a pale pink tutu
       burps like a swamp frog

sleep's seductive spell
drapes her mind; her fist opens...
I tiptoe away.

Time for the mice to play.

***   ***

walking side by side
you took my hand, smiled at me;
a flame rekindled.


Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Follow the Whimsy

It is 3:00 a.m. and I am rapidly approaching the point of diminishing returns, defined as the point at which you spend more time reading random stuff than you do working.

We've all been there. Don't deny it!

And so, it is at a time like this that Victor Nunes' whimsical artwork speaks to me. This is pretty much where I'm at tonight, and quite possibly most days, just under the surface [see exhibit A in top right corner].

Now, tell me that this isn't genius and that it doesn't rock your world at any hour of the day. This is doodling raised to a high art form.

Victor, you my man.

Here's another gem:

A popcorn masterpiece!

But that's not all. There's also this one with pencil shavings:

This is like seeing a small, contained explosion of creativity right in front of my eyes. I love the mind that comes up with this stuff, evidently in a spirit of fun and whimsy.

And here's another to enjoy with your morning coffee:

There's something to be said for whimsy… for art as play. I suppose art also has a serious vocation, but I suspect at bottom its main purpose is to teach us to see with new eyes. Maybe sometimes we go through life like sleepwalkers. I know I do. We see but don't perceive. Our eyes are turned inward, or set on some distant goal. And meanwhile, life in all its strange, kaleidoscopic beauty flickers by unseen.

Or maybe we see some of what is there, but don't perceive the possibilities of what could be with just a small stretch or tweak or addition or subtraction. 

And along comes an inspired person with a little extra time on his hands, and he tinkers away with a wad of bread and suddenly it becomes a diminutive little being struggling to climb into his coffee cup for a morning bath of caffeine.

As in art, so in life! I'm pretty sure I will be sleepwalking through my day tomorrow, but even so, I'd like to remember that one creative addition -- maybe a kind word, or a touch of humor -- can bring an unexpected light to daily life. 

Which drawing did you like the best?