Archive | December, 2014

Perhaps Relaxing is Christmas Magic Enough

28 Dec

Ah, the sound of reindeer on the roof… Oh, no, wait, that’s just the weird global warming-induced rain-during-the-dry-season happening this Christmas in Juquila. And that pretty much sums up how my Christmas is going: not exactly how I planned or envisioned- but welcome to my life in small-town Oaxaca, Mexico.

I’m having some Mommy guilt that I’m gonna use you dear readers to talk through. See, this is now my first kid’s third Christmas on this planet, and I’m still not getting it together the way I’d like. I want her to have a Christmas similar to mine as a kid- full of magic and family and hope and excitement and gratitude.

While I loved Christmas as a child, I had a lot of years in between being a child and having a child to hate Christmas. It’s been a bit of a process trying to remember what was so awesome when I was little, and being able to recreate it down here. Like hanging stockings, for instance- there sure as hell aren’t any chimneys around here, and there aren’t even any Christmas stockings- the best I could do the first year were Santa hats. Last year I brought home stockings after a visit in the states, but I didn’t find their secret hiding/storage space until after Christmas. In all the moving and upheaval many things are temporarily lost in outer space, and many things haven’t happened because we’ve been too busy getting through day to day survival to celebrate in the time-consuming preparation-heavy ways that I would like.

Last December we had just moved to Puerto Escondido, and on Christmas Eve we moved our tent from Conan’s aunt’s porch to inside our newly built (not finished) house, which didn’t even have a door yet. We drank beers and ate some fire-pit-roasted meat with friends and promised to celebrate Christmas the next week when we went for a visit to Juquila. It didn’t bother me much because I figured Lucia still wasn’t too aware and definitely wouldn’t remember the whole thing. This year she is a very, very aware little girl, but I’m hoping that not-so-great memory thing will continue working to my advantage and buy me another year to get my Christmas traditions together.

So I didn’t get the stockings or even Santa hats hanging from anywhere. We didn’t decorate the Christmas tree. I suppose it’s something that we had a tree at all, although it’s nothing like the giant trees we’d go pick out when I was a kid. Paulina has a cute little fake tree (it’s difficult to get a real tree around here- because you’re not supposed to cut down the pine trees) with some lights on it, but our ornaments are stored away somewhere and I haven’t had time to find them. 

our plain-Jane little tree, but with some gifts at least...

our plain-Jane little tree, but with some gifts at least…

We didn’t bake any cookies, or leave out any treats for Santa. There’s no oven at my mother-in-law’s house, because she donated her good stove to me. We probably could have invented some other treat to leave out for Santa (surely milk and sweet bread would do the trick for that carb-lover), but it didn’t even occur to me until I saw all these posts on facebook of that nature.

I didn’t do a Christmas Eve big family dinner like the first year, because Christmas Eve we had another obligation with our dear, dear family friend Argelia (I think that story is for an entire blog post of its own). I invited Tia Meya and Argelia and other Juquila family for a big early evening meal, but I’m pretty limited on traditional food that I can make due to the lack of oven. I can’t even make deviled eggs because I didn’t bring the good mustard and the paprika, and you can’t get either of those things in this little mountain town.

I didn’t dress up, due to the lack of formal wear in my collection of maternity clothes. And I didn’t even dress up Lucia, because I didn’t root through all her stored clothes here until the day after Christmas (when I discovered, damn! Those cute dresses from last year still fit her! Now they reach her knees instead of ankles, but it could have worked). So we don’t look fancy in front of the tree, but at least we took one family shot in front of our undecorated tree! It’s some kind of proof for my child that there was some Christmas cheer happening the Christmas before she became a big sister.

Here's the proof- we celebrated Christmas this year.

Here’s the proof- we celebrated Christmas this year.

This is one of the cute dresses that still fit her- worn two days later. At least we got a nice family shot of us all looking good. We can pretend it was Christmas.

This is one of the cute dresses that still fit her- worn two days later. At least we got a nice family shot of us all looking good. We can pretend it was Christmas.

But there were some definite positives and successes in the mix. Here’s what, in my eyes, we got “right” this year:

First of all, my kid is definitely polite and perhaps learning to be grateful, thus far. Even if she does walk around her grandmother’s store pointing to each and every toy and telling me that she wants it (normal child behavior), she is pretty damn understanding about all the no responses (for a 2 year old). Santa Claus did come and leave a small gift for her and her two cousins who are also visiting here in Juquila, as well as for the neighbor/surrogate big brother Emma (reusable water bottles for the cousins and Lucia, Chinese checkers for Emma). Plus Santa left a kid-sized kitchen for her at home in Puerto that she’ll see when we get back, when the other kids don’t have to wonder why Santa left them less-exciting gifts. And we followed in my parents’ footsteps in giving her lots of stuff that she needed anyway (like socks! new sandals! her very own bath sponge!) but that’s exciting if you get to open it as a present. I feel good about the gift-giving situation and not over-spoiling my child, but still making it a little bit magical.

It was the first year Lucia could open by herself! She was very responsible about it, throwing every tidbit in the trash as she went along.

It was the first year Lucia could open by herself! She was very responsible about it, throwing every tidbit in the trash as she went along.

I was also really pleased with the family meal situation. On Christmas Eve, after we returned from our other engagement, we had an intimate family dinner of time-consuming pork in adobo sauce that my father-in-law Arturo had made. One of Conan’s friends came by and we included him, and he and Arturo and Conan stayed up sipping tequila and chatting till the wee hours of the morning (something I could have been doing with my dad and my sister if I were up there, and not pregnant, of course- and it would have been bourbon, not tequila). On Christmas Day, after all the present-opening, we had another meal, with the visiting cousins and Conan’s grown-up niece that lives next door, ten of us in all. It was simple- chorizo, green beans, eggs, black beans and tortillas, with my favorite salsa (chile costeño!)- but it was delicious and it was great to sit down at a big table together.

Despite the baby in my belly giving me a little bit of a hard time still, I got it together to go to the market with Conan after brunch to get the ingredients for my family meal. Everyone kept telling me I didn’t need to cook, but I love cooking for people, and it was important for me to make a family dinner somewhat Kentucky-style before people dispersed for the holiday. And best of all, I sat around listening to my youtube playlists, singing along to all kinds of favorite songs that I hadn’t heard in forever. I didn’t hurry and I didn’t worry about everything being ready at once. With a two burner stove that would’ve been impossible regardless, so I took it easy and enjoyed my own company. I listened to Johnny Cash and thought of my mama. I listened to Paul Simon (Me and Julio) and invoked my dad. And I made a simple but flavorful dinner of macaroni and cheese with broccoli, mashed potatoes, and creamy carrot soup. Our friend Arge came and we enjoyed another big-table meal, which is really what I wanted. That night Conan put Lucia to bed and I stayed up late chatting with Arge and Paulina. 

Just me and my broccoli microphone....

Just me and my broccoli microphone….Happily cooking with my youtube music (someday, someday I will have home internet and rock out daily!)

In general, I am pleased that I wasn’t particularly rushed or stressed and thus just enjoyed the time off work with family and friends. And yes, there are things I hope to do with and for Lucia in future years, but it’ll probably remain more pleasant and magical if I can stay laid-back about it all. Maybe that’s my newest and most important Christmas tradition.  (Thanks, you lovely readers, for letting me talk it out with you. I feel much better!)

I Keep Waking Up from the Damn American Dream….

21 Dec

Some weeks I can only stand to read an article or two of news, because I don’t want students walking into my office to find me balling my eyes out, which is mostly what happens when I read the news these days. (You try being an inherently sensitive soul and then add pregnancy hormones to the mix.) I cried for two days after I read an article detailing the things mothers and grandmothers say to their African-American boys in the hopes of making sure they don’t get killed by police (thank goodness I read that one at home and not in the office). I took a long (silent crying) restroom break when I read about some foreign parents in the U.S. who might be reunited with their children after years of separation, thanks to a new policy by Obama (and then thought about all the people I know that it won’t help reunite with their children still). Some weeks I think that the United States of America is a place that is much too cruel, unjust, and lacking in positive values for me to even attempt to live and raise children there.

(You should definitely read this article. Tell me you can read it without crying:

Other weeks I want to cry thinking about the injustice of our family being banned from there, of the possibility that we might never go back as a whole family. Some weeks I am bitter and furious that this crap that we’re going through didn’t have to be like this if the U.S. were less racist (It’s almost beyond even my best dreams to imagine it NOT at all racist- how sad is that?).

If we were still in Louisville, we would not be living in the dark. We wouldn’t have had to get rid of nearly all our belongings and start to accumulate them from scratch again. We’d have at least one closet. We’d have my reliable old Honda still and not be fighting with this car and all its problems. Most of all, we could have transitioned into parenthood with all of our friendships and support systems, instead of the both of us being alone and isolated and surrounded by families who mostly had very, very different types of relationships and values than what we were hoping for. So I get angry thinking how this wouldn’t be the case if the U.S. were not so incredibly racist. Or if Obama had put some of these new immigration policies into place sooner. Or if Conan had better luck. Or if we won the lottery (okay, this wouldn’t solve everything, but it sure would help!).

Then I remember that if we lived in Louisville we’d surely have different problems anyway. It would be winter time now and we’d be worrying about being able to pay our heating bill, for instance. We wouldn’t have our own house. Conan would probably be mostly out of work for the winter. Lucia might not even know her paternal grandparents. I’d be worrying about Lucia having too large a sense of entitlement, and getting shot in school (all those crazy white people and their guns!) and all kinds of other stuff that I never worry about with her here.

The reality is that having a “mixed” family means there are going to be things we’re missing out on and pining for no matter where we live. We were talking to some friends on Conan’s birthday about how in the U.S. you can get a six pack of imported beer and it doesn’t cost a third of your paycheck. Or how you can try all kinds of different food at restaurants for a reasonable price. And how you can acquire your entire living room set for free on the weeks when people put their “junk” out for trash pickup. How you can even get perfectly good food from the trash- a bruised apple, someone’s incorrect pizza. I was getting nostalgic and sad when Conan pointed out that when he was in the U.S. there were tons of things that he missed from here.

Conan spent ten years in the U.S., without being able to come back for a visit. Ten years without seeing his mom, ten years without tasting a decent tlayuda. This week I almost cried witnessing other people’s reunions and hopes for a future with more flexible borders for their families. My Chicago-native ex-co-worker finally got an interview with US immigration for her Mexican husband after six years of waiting and fighting. They’ve been moving all over Mexico for those years, trying to make just enough of a life, have just enough happiness to go on until they can go back to the U.S. Which now all depends on this interview next month. (Cross your fingers for them, please.) Let’s hope they can accomplish their version of the American Dream.

Then some friends from the U.S. came by, another “mixed” family who’s been waiting in the U.S. for their paperwork to go through for several years now. The husband had his interview and was approved (yay!). They were here with their seven year old son and the husband’s whole family (well, those that aren’t in the U.S.)- a traveling band of ten people altogether that came to have breakfast with us. The husband hadn’t seen his family down here in twelve years. They’d been here the better part of a month, and the wife reminded me of myself when we first moved down here- still in culture shock, trying to understand and appreciate this family bonding time, but totally unaccustomed to the overwhelming influence of family like this, the complete lack of appreciation of individual needs and wants. Bless. I am so pleased for them that they can now come and go, money pending, and see the family down here semi-regularly. I am so pleased for them that they don’t have to worry about being separated. I’m so pleased for them that they know where they want to be, and now they can be there together.

We, on the other hand, don’t have quite the same American Dream. These days, I dream of a time when we could have a theoretical choice about where we live. I dream of the day when Conan can go with us for a visit. Sometimes I wish we could live there now, or that we’d never left. But that’s not the case, so I shake myself awake and start the dream over again. Now we have a house and a growing family here, and that’ll have to do for now. We’re separated from my family and so many friends in the U.S. who are like family, but we have other people to be grateful for here. I try not to cry too excessively, especially not for myself. I rejoice in other people’s reunions and joys. I mourn other people’s losses and struggles. I remind myself that it’s not easy, no matter what. And I dream of a day when borders are just fences we can climb, imaginary setbacks we can overcome. I dream of a day when a racism-free world at least seems plausible even if it doesn’t exist yet. I dream of a day when families don’t have to be separated. I dream of a day when mothers don’t have to beg their sons to just be humble even in the face of blatant injustice, so they can come home alive because they were born the “wrong” color. I dream of a moment when we can talk openly about these things, when we all take the time to educate ourselves about the injustices affecting others, and work to change things, even though knowing makes us cry. Maybe tomorrow I can wake up here in my little corner of America and cry, but from solidarity and not sadness, knowing that empathy will do more to improve the world and give me my version of the American Dream, someday. For now I’ll use my tears to wash away some of the bitterness of injustice, the difficulties of life, for me, for so many people in so many ways. I’ll wake up and shed tears of joy for the reunited families, for the mothers whose children come home alive another day, for all of the hope that we can breed, starting with changing our dreams. 

Redefining “School Readiness” (A Cautionary Tale of Manipulating your Child)

14 Dec

My two and a half year old appears to finally be potty trained, just in time to give me a couple months more or less diaper-free before we start all over again. Really, though, “trained” is quite a stretch; it would be more appropriate to say she’s decided that she does not need diapers anymore, thank you very much. There was really no training involved, because my stubborn, determined child refuses to be trained on anything.

First, of course, we got her a potty, and started talking to her about it. We talked about all the other kids she likes that use a potty, how Mommy and Papi use the potty, etc. etc. She started repeating back to us all kinds of useful information about the potty, but she definitely was not going to use it. Not for a sticker. Not even for sweet bread. So we waited. And waited.

Around here it seems like everyone has their kids out of diapers well before they turn two, but I’m not really sure how they manage that. Conan was potty-trained by his grandmother by the time he was 8 months old, but since it was his (now deceased) grandmother who pulled that off, his mom had no major insights for me. I knew that lots of people just sort of took away the diapers and let things run their course. I had witnessed moms walking around wiping up their kids pee all over the floor, all day long. It did not look like the way I wanted to do things.

But eventually I tried that whole “just take her diaper off” tactic, too. And by then she was at a good stage for it. She did great with not peeing on herself, except she also wouldn’t pee in the potty. She just insisted on having a diaper when she needed to go. I tried “rewarding” her with stickers and all kinds of other treats, but she was having none of it. Until she suddenly decided that it was time, and that was that. At least for pee pee. 

It’s been a similar situation for #2, with her recognizing when she needs to go, but insisting that she needs a diaper, no matter how much I try to cajole her out of it. To try to talk her into it, among other things I’ve used, I remind her that she can’t go to school until she learns to poop on the potty. Kids here start school at age 3- there’s mandatory Pre-kindergarten, and Lucia is already dying to go. She wants to go play with all the kids, and she wants her backpack, please and thank you. “Kids that go to school don’t use diapers,” I tell her from time to time before I reluctantly put her diaper on her. She was interested in this fact, but not at all concerned, and it definitely did not motivate her to retire her diapers. Welcome to life with a strong-willed child.

Her Nonna just brought her the book “Everyone Poops,” which I was hoping would make a difference in the situation. She loves the book, but when we get to the part with kids pooping she’s like, “He goes poopy in the potty, and he goes poopy in a diaper, like Lucia” and that’s that. Alas. But perhaps just talking more about poop without talking about how or why she should poop on the potty was helpful. Or maybe it was just time, finally. But suddenly, last Sunday, she decided to go on the potty. (Maybe it helped that I gave her a book to read while she was sitting there, too?)

She was ecstatic. She wanted to call her Papi, who was out on an errand. “Papi, Lucia went poop in the potty!” she shouted into the phone. “I ready go to school!” Then we called her Abuela. She told her Nonna when she called later. She talked about it all day long. But the next day, home with Papi, she insisted on her diaper again. “Oh, well,” I thought, “sooner or later.”

But the day after that she used the potty again. “Lucia go to school now,” she told her Papi triumphantly. And she used the potty again the next day, and the next. But now every time she goes to the potty she reminds us that she is now ready to go to school, and can she go to school today? No? How about tomorrow?

What have a gotten myself into? I mean, it’s not like I told her that she could go to school as soon as she used the potty. I mostly told her she couldn’t go to school if she didn’t use the potty. I told her that kids who go to school don’t use diapers. I didn’t mean that she could go to school the second she started using the potty. Unfortunately, two year olds are not famous for their comprehension of subtle grammatical differences and the implications of such. She can’t actually start school until next August or September, unless we send her to some private school or day care center which hopefully would convince her that it’s school-like enough. All of this was definitely not in the budget, for the record. Ooops. Every day I learn more things not to do with baby #2. 

“Plans? What Plans?”

7 Dec

This is what my mom said to show me how “go with the flow” she was going to be on this trip. It’s all fun and games until groups are blocking the airport when you’re supposed to leave, though. Then we can talk about the importance of not making plans as a resident of Oaxaca (unless you’re prepared to constantly have them derailed).

A year ago, our house was “almost finished,” which was an extremely loose definition. Here people who aren’t rich build something to put a roof over their head and then slowly improve it over the course of their lives. In the U.S. you just make mortgage payments; here you make sacrifices and you wait patiently and keep working, and you still might or might not have a nice house before you die (but there’s no mortgage payment, at least). I was only vaguely aware of this, in that way where you’ve noticed a phenomenon but not yet applied it, when we made a plan for Lucia and me coming down to Puerto to “finish the house” last December.

Plans, like owning a house, are also a horse of a different color down here. Many people don’t bother to try to make life plans, because what’s the point? Life is so blatantly not in your control. Not that I believe it’s in your control in the U.S., either, but many things there are indeed much more predictable and reliable than things here.

Our plans to finish the house in a couple of weeks quickly got reduced to “just get the bathroom up and running and then we’ll move our tent from your aunt’s house to our house.” That was after we had changed our plan of me just cooking food in Juquila and taking it down to Puerto and spending a couple of days a week there. As soon as we got here it was obvious that much more help than that was needed; my presence and domestic help just a couple days a week was not going to cut it. Another nice-sounding, well-intentioned plan down the drain- welcome back to Oaxaca, Julia.
My to-do list here is a cross between a cruel joke and my saving grace. It’s helpful and harmful all at once. Without it I’d go crazy, but I know it will never, ever all get done (and daily, probably not even half of it happens). For instance, flu shots have been on my list of things to do for a solid month now, and it still hasn’t happened. Not that I haven’t tried. But all the students at the university were renewing their insurance in November, causing day-long lines in the Preventative Medicine office, so I waited for that to calm down. Then, of course, they were out of the vaccine. So I wait and cross my fingers. I keep multiple lists on paper (the long-term to-do, this week’s necessities, to-do before work today, etc.), so that these dozens of pending to-dos are not all being juggled in my head, stressing me out constantly.

When my mom and Dee were visiting, for the first couple of days, I had that illusion (delusion?) again that you can control your life. We made plans to eat lunch in x restaurant, for example, and then we carried out those plans. We made plans like, “we’ll go swimming in the hotel pool, then take showers, then go for a walk,” and sure enough, we were able to fulfill these plans. Granted, much of this illusion of control was due to money (my mom and Dee’s money, not ours, that allowed us to make those kinds of easy plans). If I had enough money a much larger portion of my plans could happen in a timely manner, too. Like I could probably find a private doctor to give us all the flu shot and go ahead and cross it off my list (although I’d still have to find out who- vaccines are mostly reserved for public institutions, who never have enough, probably because some of it goes to the private sector). But some of the lack of control is also just a cultural difference.

I witnessed this culture clash in action the day my mother-in-law came into town. She had told me she was going to cook some food and bring it down and arrive during my lunch break so we could eat together (my lunch break is about 2 and 1/2 hours long). It sounded like a really great plan. But last time she planned to arrive during my lunch break there was some protest happening with people blocking the road from Rio Grande to here, so she was delayed by having to get out of the van and walk a ways before finding another van for the rest of the route. People around here (my beloved mother in law included) are not famous for their punctuality to begin with, and when you add in all these other common possibilities for delays and cancellations, it’s almost more reliable to count on someone showing up late or not at all than on plans happening as scheduled.

Sure enough, when Conan came to get me on my lunch break his mom was just leaving Rio Grande, a 40-60 minute trip, depending on the circumstances. And even once she arrived, she had other plans and things to do before arriving at the hotel to eat with us- dropping off a chicken at her sister’s house, talk of going to buy some disposable plates, etc. Meanwhile, the gringo faction had made new plans, deciding that we would go to a restaurant instead, and have Paulina’s food for dinner. The logic was that then I could potentially start eating even if Paulina arrived very late, so I had time to eat before returning to work. This logical plan, however, was not destined to be, as is so often the case once there are plans involving more than one person (every single day of the week). There were a couple irritated phone calls between Conan and I, being the go-betweens between my mother, who didn’t know why we were still waiting for Paulina when we’d already changed the plans to accommodate the time changes happening, and Paulina, who absolutely wouldn’t hear of us going to a restaurant when she was bringing delicious home-cooked food. So the minutes of my lunch break ticked away, and once Paulina arrived it was not the leisurely, pleasant lunch it was planned to be- partially because I was running out of time, and partially because I think everyone except Lucia was then irritated and out of sorts. Welcome to Oaxaca, where plans are subject to change 15 times before anything happens.

So I can see why people don’t bother making plans. It’s excessively frustrating. Here you can only count on not being able to count on things. There are the unexpected things that come up, like the airport being blockaded by protesters the day my mom was supposed to fly out (they let passengers in anyway, but we weren’t sure it would happen until we got there). Then there are expected “unexpected” things, like teachers being on strike (which is practically constant here in Oaxaca). Then there’s the institutional lack of commitment. Like when there’s some big construction or remodeling happening, for example, they don’t give an estimated completion date until it’s finished. Most businesses don’t post their hours of operation anywhere, because who wants to be held accountable for that strict of a schedule? The doctor at my insurance company still won’t even give me an official due date on my pregnancy, despite being in my third trimester. (Try planning your students’ exam dates when you’re not sure when your maternity leave actually starts!) It’s a constant adventure.

A year into our move to Puerto, our house is 100 million times more livable than it was (finished, though, it is not). And I’ve accepted that it’ll probably never actually be finished, but hopefully will continue improving through the years. I haven’t lost all hope of being able to make and carry out plans, but I’ve learned to take my own plans and ambitions with a big old grain of salt, a raised eyebrow, and a shrug-it-off-and-have-a-beer attitude, at least on a good day, if not every day. Maybe you’ll come visit and experience it for yourself- just leave your plans at the airport, please.