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Still Dancing to My Own Drum, Like It or Not

9 Nov

I got reprimanded in my salsa dance class.

I’ve wanted to learn for years- since I took college classes in Chile and inadvertently received two salsa lessons. I didn’t get very far with my two lessons. I know the basic steps but I can’t work it at all. The seed was planted, but every time I go to water my plants I run out of water before I get to the dance one. I never prioritize getting dance lessons. My mom even gave me a gift certificate for classes once, back in Louisville, and I still never went.

“You’ve lived in Mexico for five years and you haven’t learned to dance?” Someone asked me, incredulously, at the dance studio here. They didn’t even know that I also lived and travelled in South America. I shrugged, I laughed, I smirked. “Yep. I had to come to Savannah, Georgia, to learn salsa.” I love irony.

But there I was, recently arrived. I was all in my new-in-town-so-the-world-is-my-oyster-optimistic / Shonda Rhimes’s-style say-yes-to-everything mode when I went to this free group lesson at this ballroom studio. I told everyone, clearly and happily, that I didn’t know shit as soon as they asked me to dance, but I said yes to everyone. It was a blast! There was a cheap introductory offer presented afterwards- three lessons for just $25!- and I went for it. Finally! This was it; I could feel it. I was going to prioritize learning to dance salsa.

I want to learn to dance because I love music. I’ve already got my rock and punk rock and ska-punk dancing down, so I’m all good there. I can mosh pit with the big boys and girls. I can jump around and sway and bang my head and raise my fist and even shake my ass and my hips with abandon. Certain songs speak to me, and make it nearly impossible to keep my body still. I even sway and groove in the car because the music gets under my skin. (My kids do, too.) But there are songs that I want to move to that are way beyond my dance repertoire. Where it’d be nice to dance with a partner, which often entails knowing formal steps. Hence my deep-down burning desire to learn a little bit of salsa, cumbia, and bachata.

 

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I didn’t go to dance lessons because I aspire to be some kind of professional. I don’t even want to be especially good at it! I just want to be not clueless. I want to be good enough to not feel like a jerk trying to dance with people who know formal steps. But I don’t need to learn the foxtrot or the swing or any of the other dances that aren’t music that I love to listen to. I don’t want to learn just because I should know these things to fulfill someone else’s idea of what a half decent dancer might be able to dance to. When I explained this to the instructor, he said, “But you never know when a waltz or a foxtrot might come on.” Ummm, yes I do. It probably won’t come on anywhere I go, and even if it does, it doesn’t give me the slightest urge to move my body in time to it. “I only get 25 mintutes a pop so quit wasting my lesson time on bullshit!” I wanted to scream at him. Instead I politely obliged during the first lesson. “Sure!” I grinned, blithely, “let’s review that.” Thinking, “Not what I came here for, but okay.” I was glowing in my positivity.

I left only a tad deflated. I felt like I didn’t learn anything. However, I analyzed the situation and resolved to improve it for the next class. Problem one: We never even had salsa music on. Another instructor was teaching at the same time in the same area, so we were just rolling with that. We weren’t trying to dance in time to the music at all. He said he was trying to teach me to follow his lead, something I am terrible at, apparently. (Ok, it wouldn’t be surprising.) Of course, in my defense, I’d like to think I would be better at if I had an idea of the tempo. I didn’t say any of that at the time, but I definitely considered it all in my empirical analysis. 

My other complaint was that he kept trying to have a conversation with me, constantly, the whole lesson. Now, don’t get me wrong; I adore conversation. Some days I am ravenous for conversation. I even love small talk in the grocery store check out line. Any and all conversation, bring it on! But not while learning to dance! I told him, clearly, more than once, “I can’t dance while having a conversation yet.” I converse with my whole body. I am all gesticulations and eyebrow raises and leaning in and out. So maybe after I’m an expert, or at least a slightly functioning dancer, then we can discuss my life circumstances. Not yet! He insisted that I should learn while talking, though, because that’s how it will work later. I’ll want to be talking to the people I’m dancing with. I’ll want it to be second nature, something automatic while I’m thinking of something else. Ummm, yes, but don’t you think you’re jumping the gun just a little bit? This is my first day! I need to concentrate on my body! I can’t talk about my kid’s speech problems and major life crises while learning to dance! SOS!! Somebody!

I went to my second lesson resolved to speak up and ask for what I want. I told him again that I couldn’t concentrate while conversing. He continued to insist. I told him that I really didn’t want to learn those other dances. I insisted three times before he gave up. He held it against me, though. He brought it up when it took me time and practice to do a twist correctly. “Well I was going to show you through those easier dances first, but you didn’t want to.” He wasn’t exactly mocking me, but it didn’t feel quite like playful teasing either. I realized he must have been mad about it. I asked him to let me practice the turn in a certain way. For him to show me just so, at this speed, please. He obliged, although I could tell it was not the way he wanted to be teaching. I started to feel fairly uncomfortable.

It was my school days rebellion all over again. Who chose this curriculum, and what does it have to do with my life?! What does it even have to do with other people’s real lives? Are the other students just coming so they can either get competitive or learn enough to bust out with the fox trot at their cousin’s wedding? Are those the only options?

It’s a private class, so for some reason I thought it could be individualized. The instructor, however- and perhaps the company in general, had a very firm definition of what I needed to learn. They already had a set plan for how I was going to learn it. I’m sure it works out well for them most of the time, but it was certainly not what I bargained for, even at the cheap introductory rate.

So I quit. Partly I knew it would be hard to justify the expense. Partly I gave up because I it’s so hard to schedule that much time without my children, now that I’m employed and playing volleyball and other such shenanigans without my needy monsters. But I didn’t even bother to go to my third dance lesson that was already paid for. I might have made more effort to continue my dance classes if I felt like the instructor understood my motives and if he were more willing to work with my style. But he didn’t and he wasn’t, so I stopped.

I get it. The teacher has x years of experience. They have a plan that they’ve spent time crafting in order to, theoretically, maximize learning. They’ve probably had many successes with that plan, with those lessons, with that style. I’m a teacher, too. I know. In most scenarios you can’t walk into the classroom and ask the students to lead the class (that’s way too radical for most). I don’t believe in a Burger King version of teaching, either, some kind of capitalistic the-customer-is-always-right education where you give all the students their own 100% individualized plan based solely on their desires and moods. “No, I don’t need any verbs,” I can picture some student telling me. So you have to be a teacher; you use your expertise and experience to guide the student down the learning path at least. There has to be a balance, though, and an equal appreciation for the student and what they bring to the table. 

If you can’t adapt your lesson plan at all, or you can’t modify your curriculum at all? It means your brilliant plan is brilliantly ineffective for all those who don’t fit your objectives to a t. Why not ask them what they most want to learn, and why and how they see themselves learning it? Why not inquire as to what brought them there? It doesn’t do any harm to know! Especially if you’re teaching an individual class. Just one person, and you can’t change your style or your curriculum a little? You feel threatened by the student’s specific requests to try things a certain way, to focus on one thing over another? Nope, that was never gonna be my class. Neither as student nor as teacher.

So here I am. Still waiting for the right dance lessons for me. I know they’re out there. I know I’ll find them because I am glowing in my positivity and unceasing in my movement. My salsa dance movements will just continue to be in private for a while longer.

Love and Solidarity from Gringolandia! I’m trying to make time to write more while I’m here, so there’s more to come soon. xoxoxo

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This is not me, but it’s my level of enthusiasm. Thank you, Google, for the picture. ; ) 

 

This Magic Moment Called the Present

1 Oct

I ate the WORST “tacos” of my life today. So, clearly, we are not in Puerto anymore, Toto. There are no fresh tortillas. No dogs and chickens and turkeys running the streets. People expect you to wear shoes everywhere. There are huge roads and huge parking lots and huge buildings. The coffee comes in shiny, tiny bags with labels and supposed flavors. This is not my adopted town- nada que ver– not even close. And this guacala muck they sold me from a taco truck today, with flour tortillas and devoid of any flavor, can stop claiming any relation with my family’s usual hometown flare.

The planned return trip to Puerto Escondido has come and gone, and yet here we are still, in Savannah, Georgia. Not that I’m complaining. This is exactly where we need to be right now. The positive far outweighs the negative. Khalil is making amazing strides in his speech. My kids are ecstatic to have concrete outside to ride their bikes on (yes, some neighborhoods in Puerto have concrete; mine doesn’t). We are exploring museums and parks and activities almost daily, with lots more on the list. And now, indispensable icing on the cake, my kids will be receiving health insurance, and I finally have a job. Yep, we are residents of Gringolandia. For the moment. This magical, unique, special moment, that will not, cannot last, and will never be the same. Sigh.

Yet I have to say, I miss my beloved costa, much more than I imagined I could. Sure, I knew I would miss my people there; that’s a given I don’t even want to discuss right now. But on top of that I miss certain foods, our house, the culture in general. Especially now that I was supposed to be back “home” already. (Where is “home” at this point? Who really knows? What a loaded word.)

I miss my friend Becka and our gaming club. I miss playing volleyball every week. I miss my (ex)job- my coworkers, my students, the bliss that is teaching. I miss our trusted babysitters. I miss my molcajete and the delicious salsas I could make in it. Side note: I even accosted some neighbors with Mexican accents to see if they had a molcajete (mortal and pestal) they could lend me to make decent salsa. (True story.) And yes, molcajetes are sold here but one cannot buy everything that one wants all the time. (Because my mom doesn’t actually want me to treat her space as my personal storage unit when I leave.)

My kids are definitely feeling the frustration. Khalil was all pissed off because we went almost two months without enfrijoladas, his favorite food. (Lucia is thrilled to be eating pasta all the time, though, let me tell you.) And I did eventually break down and buy the crappy things that pass for tortillas here, although none of us want to get too accustomed to them. They are sad, sad, sad. I mean, in our neck of the woods- in Puerto- you get tortillas that are made from corn that was ground that dawn, prepared by hand, toasted on the comal (griddle) and delivered hot to your door. The packaged tortillas here are like eating 25 cent ramen noodles instead of grandma’s chicken noodle soup made from the chicken she killed that morning. They’re like drinking orange kool-aid instead of fresh squeezed orange juice. Like many unfortunate realities in the US, they’re a pathetic, canned imitation of the real thing.

Tortillas aren’t the only thing we’re missing. We dreadfully miss our familia in Mexico, first and foremost, starting with Papi. (But I repeat: we’re not gonna talk about how badly we miss the people right now.) I miss shipping my kids off to their cool school every day, where they can learn through play and go barefoot and take long walks through the woods to the beach. I miss our neighbors- especially our kids playing all the time without any scheduling or effort on the grownups’ part. I miss the general culture of people spending most of their time outside, trying to catch a breeze, instead of shut up in their eternally controlled climate. (And don’t even get me started on how sick I am of ridiculously, artificially cold spaces in the middle of summer.) I think I might even miss the nosiness / lack of privacy of Puerto. Everyone here seems so secluded. They’re shut up in their isolated homes, only coming out to get from point A to point B. It’s not as isolating as Juquila was, by any stretch, but it’s been far more difficult than I ever dreamed of for my kids and me to have social interaction.

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My kids are, tragically, the only ones we see out digging in the dirt around here.

I know that it is a serious privilege to be living the way I am now. Okay, so I don’t have any money to speak of. But I don’t have housing or transportation problems, thanks to my family help. I only have to work part time, in the evening, doing work that I don’t love but also don’t hate. I am homeschooling (well, unschooling) Lucia, and she’s flourishing in it. I am taking Khalil to speech therapy three times a week, and his talking ability is blooming like daffodils in spring. I have more time to spend with my children than I’ve had in years, since before Khalil was born. As the primary earner in our family, I hadn’t even dreamt of all this as a possibility, and it’s certainly a gift. Granted, I’m also grateful to get to go to work and leave them with my mom for a bit. My life is so full of joy and promise I might burst at the seams.

Lots of other things are coming together for us here, too. I almost cried from glee and self-recognition when I finally got my bicycle out of storage (thank you, Mom and Dee) and found time to ride it. I found a volleyball league that is just starting, and my muscles and my spirit are still thanking me for returning after a 3 month hiatus. I know it won’t be like the laid-back see-who-shows-up games after work on Fridays, where half of the fun was giggling. Still, it’s a good start to a life here. I’m taking an ASL (American Sign Language) class, and I feel like a kid stealing candy from the jar just by being in a class again. I finally got time to have a real conversation with someone at work, with someone who feels very much like “my people.” I’m excited at the prospect of hanging out and conversing with her. So many of the things that I want and need out of life are lining up at my doorstep, and I feel eternally grateful.

I signed up to do some online tutoring, because I’ve now been nearly three months without teaching and the lack of that feels like a punishment- stifling, like trying to tame my wavy hair with a clothes iron. That said, everytime I moan about it, I stop and think about refugees who were surgeons or teachers or stay at home moms by choice, who are fleeing and living in camps or working horrendously exploitative jobs, ripped away from their life’s calling, and often, from their dignity. I try to keep in mind that my life is full of opportunity and growth, that I’m so privileged and lucky to be able to change countries at the drop of a hat without any true suffering for me or for my children. How amazing it is that I can jump right into making a space for us here. And yet… I’m not any kind of yogi. I’m like light years away from Ghandi-like wisdom. As I take all these steps to build a life here, I get all psyched and positive for a minute, and just as quickly I fall into disarray and despair, dwelling on how it’s all so fleeting. As soon as I’ve built something just right, we’ll be packing up to go, and I don’t even know what will happen after that.

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There’s no time like the present to eat cupcakes, while celebrating everyone’s pretend birthday.

For perhaps the first time in my life, I don’t have a long term plan. I know we’re all going back to Puerto, at least for a few months. I have no idea what the next, best decision is from there. I don’t know how long we’re staying. I’m not totally sure where we’re going if we’re not staying in Puerto. I don’t know what will happen with our immigration plans. Much depends on Khalil’s speech status come January. I have a weight on my shoulders so persistent it’s a shadow burden in my sleep.

I basically have no choice but to keep living in this moment, because that’s all I have a clue about. I know at some point I will have to pay school fees or apply at different schools. I know I will need to make housing arrangements, in one town or another. I know that I just don’t know what we’re doing or where we’ll be in the future. That’s it. That’s all I’ve got. It’s kind of terrifying, and kind of liberating. Being forced to live in the present, for the present.

And here in the present tense, for the record, I won’t even attempt to eat tacos that weren’t made by me until we’re back in Puerto. Me and you and Toto, too.

 

Who Cares About Oaxaca?

26 Sep

Could it be you? How about you? I do! I do!

Just a quick update on behalf of my beloved adopted state of Oaxaca, in the ongoing horrors of earthquake aftermath. On September 7, there was an earthquake that registered as an 8.2 off the coast of Oaxaca and Chiapas in the Pacific. It was the strongest that had happened in 100 years, and it killed dozens of people, although you may not have heard about it.

I wasn’t there; I was actually busy getting ready to evacuate for Hurricane Irma here in Savannah. Conan and much of our family and friends were there, of course, and they were all lucky enough to be safe and to continue to have intact housing. Unfortunately, that’s not the case for many.

In the Isthmus region of Oaxaca, there was death and destruction. It’s nothing like the quake that happened days later, which still has the center of Mexico reeling. The numbers are not as horrific. The images are not all over the news like the flooding in Houston caused by the hurricane. This has not been a dramatic or much-publicized natural disaster, in the presence of so many “super” disasters in the world this season. I know there’s so much going on. There’s so much to care about and worry about. There are so many worthwhile organizations asking for money, because, let’s face it, good people are struggling and suffering all the time. Everyone deserves a chance to live decently and safely. So why care about Oaxaca?

<On the map, above Salina Cruz, you can see the towns of Tehuantepec and Juchitán, which were very hard hit. In that same area is San Mateo del Mar, where the volunteers in the video below have been spending so much time. >geo-mexico-oaxacastatemap2

 

Y’all probably already know all the reasons why I care about Oaxaca. But on top of that, let me just say, *&$%##! WHY? Why is it so expensive to be poor? Why do the most marginalized folks always get screwed so much harder? (Nevermind, my non-rhetorical answers are an entire other blog post. I’ll get back to that.) Oaxaca and Chiapas are two of the poorest states in Mexico. They are also home to the largest and most diverse populations of indigenous peoples in Mexico, with Oaxaca beating Chiapas in languages spoken and ethnicities in existence. Oaxaca is an amazing place, with wonderful, generous, and interesting people. (Did I mention it’s my adopted land? And that is has so much in common with my birthplace, Kentucky?) The thing is, Oaxaca is always getting screwed.  Oaxaca in general was already trapped in a cycle of poverty, and this disaster has brought total devastation to parts of the state. And there’s no help on the way.

Well, there’s no real government help at least. There are people working hard to come together and take care of business, but they need more help. There’s certainly even less chance of official help now that the other giant earthquake happened in Mexico. But here’s the reality: People (entire towns) who survive on well water now have sewage-contaminated well water. Folks who previously had homes of some sort now have nothing, and there’s no insurance coming through to rebuild. It’s still the rainy season, and some of the “lucky” families are those who have a tarp to sleep under outside in some places. In general, things are on the level of bad that most folks in the US are blissfully unfamiliar with. Here’s a brief and more concise video that explains and shows much better than I can.

One of the people featured in the video, Dr. Anja Widmann, is my children’s pediatrician in Puerto Escondido, who we very much love, respect, and trust. She has been working countless hours of uncompensated overtime to organize goods and funding, and additionally is volunteering her services as a doctor in desperate communities.

I know that many folks in the US are stretched thin economically, and many folks are already trying to band together and donate to other causes. There are so many worthwhile organizations to give to, and so many disasters- natural and otherwise- reeking havoc on our world these days. I get it. I’m stretched pretty thin myself. But just a few dollars can do so much for these hard-hit communities in Oaxaca. Help them get pipes for clean water. Help a family get a blanket or a tarp. Help a kid get treatment for the now-imminent outbreaks of diarrhea. Everyone in the world is worthy of basic health and safety, and there are so many things preventing that for so many people around the globe. I get it that maybe you’re already donating to too many causes. But half my heart is in Oaxaca and it seems like nobody is talking about or doing much about disaster relief there, besides a small local crowd in the state. The poor and indigenous in Oaxaca have been forgotten yet again. Please help change that if you can. If you donate to these kind volunteers, ALL of your donation will go to affected people in this region. Five or ten bucks might not make a big dent in your budget, but it might make a world of difference to someone in San Mateo del Mar.

“Although little by little this will cease to be news, the reality of the people will continue without returning to normal anytime soon” -Denise Lechner, cultural anthropologist in Oaxaca

The paypal account that you can donate to is:
https://www.paypal.me/deniselechner

P.S. Here’s a fun blog post by someone else that has some quick, interesting facts about Oaxaca if you don’t know much about this wondrous state yet.

Eclipse Tips for Parents of Small Children

20 Aug

If you have older children, this solar eclipse happening in the US is an astounding, wondrous, learning experience. (Right?) If you have small children, though, it’s really just cause for alarm and anxiety. Will I be that parent that watches their kids go blind?

How many minutes will my two year old calculate and obey before he tears away from me and stares directly at the sun, ruining his vision forever? Will my over-anxious five year old ever look upward again, after I warn her that it’s dangerous during a solar eclipse, or will she stare only at people’s shoes for the next fifteen years? What will they tell their future therapists about this moment? How long will it take before someone calls Child Protective Services about one of these serious situations?

Who asked for this eclipse mania, anyway? Isn’t there a better way to deal with the situation, as the parent of small children? How can you trust those solar glasses, when so many have been recalled? How could one relax when one wrong glance in the eclipse can have lifelong detriment?!

So I came up with some ideas, in case you find yourself in a similar predicament, being less than thrilled about the legal implications of your children blinding themselves and doubtful about the educational risk-benefits analysis for small children.

Best Practice #1: Pretend like it’s not happening.

Eclipse? What eclipse? What’s an eclipse? That’s when you fart really loud at a party, right? Poopies? Hahaha! It’s not something to talk about at the table, thank you.

Best Practice #2: Use technology to your advantage.

I took the kids to an informative feature at a planetarium, where they showed us what the eclipse will look like in different moments in different places. I thought this was something to prepare them for the real thing, but as it turns out my older kid was so impressed, she thought she had already seen the whole shebang. “It was yesterday,” she told her Papi. Mission accomplished. My kids have already seen eclipse history in action.

Best Practice #3: Use their lack of long-term memory to your advantage.

Really, the two year old WILL NOT remember this no matter what you do or don’t do. The five year old will remember whatever stories you start telling her now about it. Make it good. Go ahead and tell her it all started when the Earth had the hiccups. (What? Are your small children not utterly obsessed with all bodily noises and functions?)

Best Practice #4: When in doubt, show them the video.

I don’t know about your kids, but my kids are always begging for more screen time, and I usually deny them. All I have to say during the eclipse is, “Let’s watch the video instead!” and they’re sure to be fighting over the best seat to watch it from. I don’t know if I should feel proud or ashamed that my kids would probably be more excited to watch a video of something than to see it in real life. Not letting them turn into TV vegetables backfires too, y’all! Careful what you wish for! There’s no winning in parenting! Oh, wait, except, letting them watch videos so you can act like a grown-up sometimes is winning enough.

So if you didn’t make the fancy cereal boxes or do whatever else folks told you that you had to do to be a good parent for this epic event, rest assured, you are not alone!

Stay safe, do what you need to do, and don’t let the rebellious two year old go blind!

The only reason we have this amazing tool is because a grandparent made it. Thank goodness for our whole village raising my kids. But I still don’t trust the two year old.

 

 

Disability, Different-ability, Difference, and Determination, Oh My!

14 Aug

Despite everyone’s reassurances to the contrary, I’d had my suspicions that something was “wrong” with my kid for a few months by the time I was able to get him properly evaluated. Nobody likes to think that their kid is different in a way that’s going to make their child’s life more difficult or hurt them, in the present and/or the future, so your self-denial can work against you. Sometimes other folks even spend lots of energy to convince you that your kid is “normal,” either because they don’t want you to feel bad, or they don’t believe someone could have a problem that they can’t see themselves, or because people just love comparisons as much as they love giving advice. “Well, look at Tomas’s son! He can barely talk and he’s four.” Which is less than ideal, thanks. “My grandmother gave him parrot crumbs, and after that he started talking.” Ummm, I guess I could try that? Not holding my breath for results, though.

My two year old had been able to understand everything for quite a while, and had started talking, but he wasn’t really making progress. He was adding a new word maybe every couple of weeks or every month instead of every day. He wasn’t even putting two words together. All of that is potentially fine. And in Mexico, especially, nobody worries about kids who are slow to talk; it’s practically the norm. “Boys are slower,” people said, or, “Bilingual kids take longer to talk.” Even I sometimes thought, “It’s because he doesn’t need to talk yet; he makes his needs understood just fine with his few words, gesticulations and sounds.” I would try to motivate him to talk, but he absolutely wouldn’t even try to say anything that wasn’t something he could already say. He would suddenly pop up with a new word or new animal noise, and then that would be all his verbal progress for an extended amount of time. The whole, “He’ll talk when he’s ready” theory had started to not make sense to me, because I could see that he wanted to talk. He would try to tell big, complex stories about something that happened, using only sounds and motions. He was starting to get really frustrated with not being able to express himself enough, despite the great lengths he’d go to in order to get his point across. So I worried a bit and then set my worry aside, because there was nothing I could do about in in my small town in Oaxaca.  (I wrote this in January of this year about him, still trying not to worry about his speech: Bilingual Baby Speak, Take Two)

Less than a week after arriving to the US, though, I consulted the blessed (easy to access) internet and found a place for him to get his hearing checked for free. The screening was every Thursday and I found the info on a Wednesday; it couldn’t have been more convenient. The internet also informed me that the same place did speech screenings for free a different Thursday of the month. Truly, the universe has smiled upon us in this whole process. Let me tell you.

His hearing, as I suspected, was fine. That was just something to rule that out as being the cause of any potential speech problem. I asked about the speech screenings and the receptionist informed me that I needed to schedule an appointment for that. And then she actually scheduled me an appointment for twenty minutes later! I was elated. I was going to know something about Khalil’s speech in that very same day.

Needless to say, once I had access to these kinds of services, I was hoping that the speech therapist here in Savannah, Georgia, would tell me to just be patient; that maybe he just prefers animal sounds to words and he’ll grow out of it eventually. Or that I should go ahead and give him parrot crumbs and relax. That is not what the speech therapist told me, however.

“He has Apraxia of Speech,” she told me matter-of-factly, gently but to the point. I took out my pen and notebook and started scribbling, but she quickly handed me her notepad instead, and assured me she’d also give me a bunch of printed information in a moment. She explained that it’s a neurological problem where people can’t connect the word in their brain with the movements in their mouth in order to say the word. The brain has problems planning and coordinating that movement, but it’s not because of a weakness in the muscles. Some people have apraxia due to a severe accident, but in most cases the cause is not known. Most importantly, it is not something that kids just grow out of on their own. It requires frequent, one-on-one speech therapy specifically designed for apraxia.

“But it’s treatable?” I wanted to confirm. “Yes. It’s very treatable. But don’t Google it. I’ve even seen college professors say, ‘There’s nothing we can do for these kids,’ and that’s absolutely not true. I know because I’ve worked with these cases for years, and they do progress. It’s amazing, but they do.This is actually my passion. I am always careful not to over diagnose apraxia, because it is my specialty.”

So of course after the formal evaluation the next day, in which he was diagnosed with severe apraxia of speech, I questioned how sure she was about her diagnosis. “Well,” she started, “I’m very sure, since we can pretty much rule out everything else.” He’s not autistic. There are no other cognitive problems. There’s no muscle weakness, since he’s eating fine. It’s not a lack of wanting to speak. She listed off some other things that most certainly don’t fit the bill for my kid. OK. Convinced. And regardless, I figured, having a special type of speech therapy is surely not going to hurt him. If it doesn’t help then we can reevaluate.

She also recommended that we start signing with him, and she gave me a giant laminated foldout with a bunch of basic American Sign Language (ASL) signs for kids. I’d already learned a few signs before this and thought about learning more before the diagnosis, so her recommendation seemed like another positive.

The best part, though, was that she told me that it could be treated right there, by her, a specialist and passionate teacher. She was taken aback when I told her we’d only be in town a month, but said that at least we could try to do twice a week for that month. Not only was she accommodating and positive, but also the administrative staff was FABULOUS to us. They figured out a way to get around needing an official referral from a US doctor, and then they made sure that we received a major scholarship for his treatment and formal evaluation. Everyone in that building has been so welcoming and helpful to us from the moment that we walked in the door. I feel like the universe put us in exactly the right place at the right time to do what needs to be done for my family.

We headed up to my hometown for a two week visit after that, even though that meant delaying the start of my son’s speech therapy. It was a trip that had been long planned, and something I really needed to recharge my spirit’s batteries. So I got started learning ASL with the kids, and we all started having a good time with that. ASL is a fascinating and very intuitive language. The coolest part was realizing that two of my son’s self-invented signs were actually the official ASL signs for that word. (His sign for little and his sign for eat, in case you’re wondering).

Not only did he like being able to express more things with ASL, he also started trying to produce more words verbally. It was a really cool and unexpected (to me) effect. When he signs “help,” for example, he says something that sounds like “houp”; not very clear to others, but at least he’s trying to produce words beyond his small verbal vocabulary. Signing also helped me worry less and treat him more like I do my other kid; armed with ASL, he, too, has to “say” please and thank you. He has to show me his “yes” rather than say “ha.” He can tell me what color cup he wants without me having to show him every single one in the cupboard. And as much as he feels he can, he tries to say the word, too- like his second favorite color, “boo.”

How do I know it’s his second favorite color if he can barely talk and barely sign, you may wonder? For one, apraxia doesn’t necessarily mean you have any other cognitive problems, although that happens in some cases. It also doesn’t mean you have fewer words than other kids; his receptive language is impressive, and he has the word in his head, he just can’t make his mouth do what it needs to do to pronounce it. On top of that all, my kid just loves to communicate. With the color situation, I knew he recognized all the colors since a while back, even though he couldn’t say them. He knew everyone in the family’s favorite color. When he saw that color, he would say the person’s name. His favorite color is green (“mah” he says when he sees green, palm on chest). But lately he started saying “mah” and pointing to blue, too. So I asked, “Ok, which one is your favorite color?” And he said, “Two! Two!” showing me two fingers in case I was still confused. (Two is one of his newer words- before this he always said “doh” for “dos”.) He can answer any questions as long as I can make I a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question, or he can show his answer or use one of his words or signs to answer. There is lots and lots of communication going on, despite his apraxia.

One of the coolest moments in the short time since this diagnosis was at the library. The librarians had found us several cool books about trucks (one of his current obsessions), and once it was time to go, I told him, “Let’s go ask how many we can check out at a time.” He said “mah, mah” and “mama no” and walked confidently up to the librarian. I held my breath, wondering how in the world he was going to ask. (We have not yet learned a sign for “how many,” and even if we had, what are the chances that the librarian would know ASL?) He walked up and stood there for a minute, I’m sure thinking the words in his head, and finally made a noise that sounded like that way your voice goes up at the end of the question. Luckily, the librarian had heard me tell him what we were going to ask, so she answered him, which made him proud and confident, as you can imagine.

At this point he’s only had 4 short sessions of speech therapy, but already he is stringing together 2 and 3 words at a time. “Moh apple juice,” he says. He wants to use his “new boo bowl,” making the sign for blue at the same time. The most interesting thing about apraxia to me is the way that sounds don’t automatically transfer when put in different combinations. Even though he can make the sound “oo” and the “t” or the “d” sound, he couldn’t put them together until now. So he could say “moo” and he could say “gato,” but he couldn’t say “two” and he can’t seem to say any other word that starts with that “g” sound. When he was a baby, he babbled the “goo” sound, but he can’t/doesn’t say it now. Funny, right? So apraxia requires lots and lots of practice with different sound combinations, in a structured way, often with visual and physical cues. I won’t try to go into any more detail on methods because I am still essentially clueless, although of course I’m investigating and observing as best as I can. If you’re interested, I recommend you check out this site in English or este sitio en español for more information.

He is adding new sound combinations on the daily now. It brings smiles of rapture to him and to me when he comes out with a new word now. Among the most important that he’s learned: dump, although he still can’t say truck. It is sure to be a whole new level of joy once he gets the word truck. And he wants to add other words to it, so now every dump truck we see on the street is a new dump. We’re practicing a specific set of nursery rhymes to focus on certain sounds, and suddenly he can say shoe. He can say home, which is huge. Tonight at bedtime he went through his list of who was at home and who wasn’t. “Papa no. Mama home. La (meaning Lucia, with the L sounding closish to a W) home. Nonna home. Hmm (makes sign for Dee) home.” He is getting closer to pronouncing this and that, although other folks probably wouldn’t understand him yet. He recognizes stop signs now in the street and if I give him the cue for the s sound or model it in an exaggerated way then he can say stop. If I don’t cue him or model it he just says top, but it’s still amazing progress. We both started jumping around in ecstasy and pride when a couple mornings ago he busted out with “shut da door.” Ok, so the r at the end isn’t very pronounced. But he went and said it to other people and they could understand what he was saying. So much learning! So much excitement, every single day!

He saw a riding lawnmower the other day and was so fascinated we had to follow it around the apartment complex for half an hour. He can say mow, so he says hmm-mow to mean lawnmower. He asks about it several times a day, pointing out the window, inquiring when it will arrive. (I just learned the sign for when, so we’re working on that.)

“If anybody was ever trying, he is,” our brilliant and wondrous speech therapist said. We call her his maestra. My son goes to his class that’s just for him, and he’s very proud about it. “Mama no,” he says, shaking his head emphatically, when I tell him we’re off to his class. “Nonna no,” “Hmm (signs for Uncle Greg) no,” “Hmm (signs for Dee) no,” “La no,” etc. “Mah,” he asserts. His class. He’s got this. I’m just following his lead- his and his teacher’s. She assures me that his brain is primed for this right now. That if we can keep this momentum going- his excitement and motivation, his brain’s elasticity- well, who knows where we’ll end up, if we just had some more time.

Hence our radical change in plans. We were supposed to be heading home to Papi and to our sweet little coast of Oaxaca at the end of this month, to our kids’ radical school, and instead we’re going back in January. Because my child will have no access to adequate services down there. I inquired and investigated and the only thing I found was a speech therapist who can only do group therapy, who’s an hour and a half away, who comes to my town every two weeks for group work, dealing with kids with a wide range of speech difficulties. There might be someone in Oaxaca City, which is seven hours away. I didn’t even inquire, because how could we pull that off?

All the research indicates that apraxia needs frequent, one-on-one, apraxia-specific therapy in order to produce the most chance of success. And the earlier these little ones start treatment, the better the long-term outcome. So here we are. Living with my very generous and helpful family, but living without my kids’ father for much longer than we planned. A father who wants to be and has been involved every day, but who can’t come here yet, because of our immigration process. How do you decide between your kids having access to their dad or one of your kids possibly being able to talk well someday? If it turns out he needs years of speech therapy (which seems likely but not definite) then what are we supposed to do after January? Leave him in Puerto for a couple years without speech therapy until our immigration case goes through? There are many more difficult decisions for our family in the coming weeks, but for now my husband and I have just made this one decision: keeping our little one in speech for as long as we can in one pass, despite all the hardship and inconvenience on all other levels. No one can know where his progress will be in January, I just know that this way we’re giving him a bit more time without completely destroying our family and the life we’ve already built in our town. Their wonderful school is holding their spots for January, and the principal (a dear friend to boot) already promised me they’d learn some signs for him, too. We have to go back for so many reasons, most of all for Papi, but we also have to make our son’s needs a priority, because he so desperately wants to talk. Staying here longer, unexpectedly, is hurting all of us in some ways, but this is what life looks like- full of difficult and complex decisions. I try to chose to feel pleased to be alive and making decisions every day. Some days it’s harder than others.

(For more about our family immigration situation, you can read The Compass at our Crossroads and Ending our Exile )

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“Comparisons are odious,” my mom used to say, quoting Shakespeare, I believe. My son’s mind doesn’t work the same as my daughter’s: they are radically different in some ways. My daughter was speaking in full and complex sentences early on. She is shy and introverted and loves to live in her story-world. My son, though, is outgoing through and through. He can Skype for ages with my family, while my daughter barely wants to say hi. He has to work so hard to express himself, but because of that he forces himself, and he has different skills. He is an expert in his semi-verbal version of circumlocution. He makes connections that other people might not. Like when we were talking about somebody’s name, Johnson, and my semi-verbal kiddo said, “Papa, hahaha,” which is a line from a dumb song they listen to on Bob the Train videos. I was like, “What is he talking about?” I started my guessing game. “Something funny with Papi?” No. “Something about Papi?” No. He keeps repeating “Papa, hahaha” until finally it clicks for me: Ah, Johnson and Johnny! “Like Johnny and Johnson? They’re similar?” I ask him. “Ha,” he says in place of yes. He’s probably thinking, “My slow Mommy finally got it! When will these people learn?” Discovering the complexities of his different mind is a major parenting joy that I am grateful to have everyday.

It can be really hard to think that your kid is different in some kind of scary, lifelong, will-never-have-a-good-life kind of way, whatever that may mean for you. To me, the idea of not being able to speak your mind sounded pretty awful to me- enough to keep me up crying a couple times since the diagnosis. Knowledge is power, though, and knowing what is going on with your kid, acknowledging differences and working with that is the name of the game, for me at least. While I’ve felt some panic and some despair, more than anything I’ve felt relief at knowing what the problem is, and hope that my baby will get what he needs. I have every hope that he will indeed be one of the cases who can speak effectively and understandably most of the time, at some point. But I also am coming to terms with the idea that he might be “different” forever, and that doesn’t actually scare me at all. I have friends who are deaf, and they’re awesome. I have friends and family who need wheelchairs, and they’re awesome. Life is not ruined just by having different abilities. It can be more difficult, or difficult in ways that aren’t the same as other people’s difficulties. I am going to do my damnedest to help my kid talk, and to try to do it in circumstances that don’t destroy our family. But I also know that if he never gets completely “cured” then that’s far from the end of the world. My kid could already talk complexly with just six words; I’m pretty sure he’s unstoppable. I know that in many ways this “disability” is just that: a difference, which is its own type of gift.

 

My determined child with a brilliant sense of humor. What else could I ask for?

Thanks, Universe!

P.S. We are still raising money for our immigration process, which is now more necessary than before. If you’re able to and so inclined, you can donate at this site.  Thanks for reading! Hugs!

 

 

A New Round of Culture-Induced Confusion

2 Aug

The cultural “surprises” this year were all fun and games up until the grilled cheese sandwiches.

Before that it was all questions like, “Why does it have these things on the window?” (They’re a different form of curtains called blinds.)

“What are these boxes? Can I see what’s inside all of them?” (They’re mailboxes and don’t touch them unless you want us to get arrested.) Followed by, “What’s mail?”

“Why do you put the bread in there?” (It heats it on both sides much faster than the comal.)

“Are these for climbing?” (They’re fire hydrants and you can climb them as long as you move if the fire truck comes.)

“How come they have videos at the library?” (Because some libraries have lots of different things, and activities, too!) We were very impressed with the small library by Nonna and Dee’s new house, with it’s table of Legos and tables covered in butcher paper to let kids color on the table. I had totally forgotten how much this country caters to children. On our first dinner out, in which I planned to have long talks with my Aunt Julia and Uncle Terry, I brought my usual backpack full of tricks for the kids so they could keep themselves entertained. But lo and behold, the restaurant provided them with paper menus and crayons! Such a thing would never be provided where we live- both because of a lack of resources in our area and because people just don’t center their lives around children in the same way we do here.

Despite all this indulging the children, of course there had been a couple of complaints even before the grilled cheese.

“Why do we have to wear seat belts every time? Why can’t we switch seats?” (Mandatory seat belt laws and fast driving that require effectual kid seating and restraints, my dears.)

“Why do we have to wear shoes everywhere?” (Ummm, because we’re not on the coast of Oaxaca. People here think it’s important to wear shoes.)

“But it’s taking a long time to get there!” (Well, that’s the price you pay to live in the city.)

“Why is it so cold?” (I fluctuate between a simple, ‘air conditioning’ and a disapproving head shake with, ‘who understands these people, baby’- depending on how much I’m suffering from the air conditioning cold.

So we’re on the kids’ first ever car-based road trip inside the 48 contiguous states, and it all starts out lovely. Approximately every 27 seconds, Khalil (age 2) shouts, “Mamaaaa! Mamaaaa! Mamaaaa!” Mommy looks around to see what Khalil is pointing at. “Yes, Khalil, it’s another semi-truck. Yes, it’s yellow, Lucia’s color. Yes, Khalil, a bulldozer. Yes, you’re a bulldozer. Yes, another semi-truck. Papi’s color? Now his favorite color is blue? Okay, yes, I’ll tell him his new favorite color is blue.” Meanwhile, Lucia is playing this incredibly annoying, repetitive circus music that is a button on her doll, but we’ve started using reverse psychology very effectively. “Oh, it’s our favorite song!” My mom and I exclaim. We invent lyrics to go with it which annoys Lucia. So now she only plays it for a couple of seconds before she sees how much we’re enjoying it and turns it off.

Then we found ourselves inside the old people’s home of the highway, also known as Cracker Barrel. My mom, who knows about these road trip things, reluctantly assured me that it did actually have more options than just about any place on the highway. And it’s true; they have a very extensive menu that includes lots of veggies. All of which are either breaded and deep fried or cooked with ham hocks. Welcome to the USA, folks.

Because in Oaxaca we live in a place where kids just eat food, not special kid food, I normally either share my plate with them or we order them a regular dish to share between the two of them. But, “What the hell,” I thought! When in Rome, order the kids some food from the kids’ menu!

“Mommy, I don’t really like the bread,” said Lucia after a couple bites. “And the cheese isn’t very good, either.” She whined. Lest you believe I have not acculturated my children to the wonders of my country’s childhood comfort food, let me assert that my kids have grown up with grilled cheese sandwiches. We almost always have them with our cream of beet soup. But they are always on wheat bread (well, that cheap ass soft wheat bread, because there aren’t many bread options to begin with in Puerto, and even less on our budget). And they are typically made with Gouda cheese, since that is the only decent melting cheese I can find. (Neither queso fresco nor quesillo, the two types of local cheese, work well for melting in a sandwich.) Long story short, though- I got zero thanks for what I thought was going to be an exciting change of routine.

They also didn’t like the cornbread as much as my version (which kind of thrilled me). And my big pasta-obsessed kiddo wouldn’t touch Mac n cheese. (This so-called American cheese- are you guys sure it’s actually cheese? Or is it “cheese food product”?) I was kind of pleased but also kind of appalled that my kids were so not into this type of convenience food.

 

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So they are more used to statues of strange animals than alive strange animals. And they were unimpressed with the petting zoo full of goats, since there’s a whole yard full of goats down the street from our house in Puerto. Despite the cultural obstacles, they had a great time at the zoo.

This trip back to the US, I had more or less refrained from complaining about my home country until we spent two days driving through it. By day two of our journey, after Waffle House, after pizza, after gas station tuna sandwich, after Cracker Barrel, I couldn’t shut my mouth. “Did you see the size of that large coffee they gave me?” I asked my mom. “It was like 4 coffees! I had no idea!” I was incredulous, even as I continued guzzling, so it wouldn’t go to waste. “And when I asked for sweetener, the waiter brought me like 5 packets! Five! I only use a half of one! Although it did take a whole one for this monster-sized coffee! No wonder we have an obesity problem! They are determined to give gobs and gobs and giant-sized everything, and to make it free or crazy low-cost. It’s disgusting!” Even as I give in to it myself, drinking coffee till my stomach hurts, I rant and rave about it.

In Oaxaca, we are accustomed to road food meaning more or less home cooked fare. Okay, not the quantity of veggies that I might cook at home, but definitely from-scratch kind of fare. Where are the beans, and perhaps a quesadilla on the road here? When I got to my first stop back home, that’s exactly what I made- an Americanized version, albeit- beans from a can that I fried up and a quesadilla made with flour tortilla and processed cheese. Both my kids turned up their noses at the quesadilla (although maybe if I called it by another name they’d be into it), but all three of us relished those deliciously-fried beans. See “Authentic” Mexican Recipes- Southern Oaxaca Style

Seafood here in Georgia (perhaps in the whole country?) is also all deep-fried like the veggies, apparently. Dee was taken aback when I tried oysters breaded and fried for the first time. I’d only ever had them raw before, and I had no idea that it wasn’t the norm. Also in the food news, the kids are in hog heaven over ketchup; Khalil dipped everything in it and I caught Lucia eating it by itself with her finger. (“What is this called?” She keeps asking me while dipping her finger in it.) These kids are still certainly Mexican, though; they both prefer mayonnaise rather than butter on their corn on the cob.

 

Despite my years and my number of trips, there are still things that catch me off guard every year. I’ll never forget the time I was newly arrived from several months in South America (pre-children), hanging out with a friend who was just back from Central America, and we were convinced we had to buy the cans and not bottles of beer in the liquor store because we hadn’t brought any bottles to return. Ooops!

This trip I found myself buttering the kids’ bagels with a fork for I don’t know how many days before I remembered that butter knives exist precisely to spread butter on things. I keep forgetting that I could just put those leftovers in the microwave. But more than anything, I am crazy impressed with these talking phones.

My mom talks to her phone all the time, and her phone talks back. It gets us around town. It sends messages. It tells us what things are. It is some serious business that I sure as hell don’t have where I live. When we were on the highway, I delayed making a phone call because I assumed that there wouldn’t be cell phone signals on the highway. It took me the whole day on the road to really process that I could make phone calls and even surf the internet anywhere on the expressway! Y’all don’t have a clue about the magic and privilege of this world, far beyond the airport’s magic moving sidewalk even. Lucia, for her part, always feels the need to talk over and navigate over Nonna’s fancy phone. She says stuff like, “Turn left on Abapoopies street, Savannah, Georgia,” which makes me ridiculously content, for whatever reason. Everyone deals with culture shock in their own special way.

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What surprises and shocks you upon return from travel? Inquiring minds want to know!

 

 

I Was Made For This

18 Jul

After years of resisting, I am finally ready for my first tattoo. Thanks to my current personal revolution, I am prepared to announce the one thing about me that could possibly last forever- to ink it onto my body, actually.

I didn’t avoid tattoos from fear of needles or pain, and I certainly wasn’t too traditional for such a thing. I started getting piercings when I was 14, after all (in secret- sorry, Mom). I can appreciate tattoos on other people- both the folks who take it very seriously and the ones with a couple of dots they gave themselves while drunk or the butterfly they and their bestie got at 16 or whatever. I mean, I had my hair colored almost all the colors of the rainbow in my adolescence; what’s not to love about people’s creative bodily expression?

But a tattoo for me? No, thank you. I’ve resisted tattoos because I detest the idea of permanence. Nothing is supposed to last forever and ever. The world and I are in constant evolution; how could I commit to the same piece of art on my body for all of my eternity? Yikes! It reeks of inflexibility, of unvaried monotony. It suggests to me somehow that my being is a fixed, boring state and not the ever-adapting whirlwind that is really me.

Plus by the time I became a legal adult I was much more interested in throwing all my expendable income at travel rather than on a tattoo. For all these years I’ve been like, “Nah; got more important stuff to pay for,” even more so now that I have children. Really, though, if all your basic needs in life are met, what else is more valuable than art and self-expression?

In the past few months I’ve been in a wildly energizing transition. I’ve been more excited than exhausted at the end of many days, staying up later to read or write or just ponder the universe rather than falling helplessly into my pillow as soon as my incessant to-do list is mostly completed. These days I’m making plans that are partly based on what I want rather than just steadfastly continuing the path of “this is what must be done now.” Suddenly, I feel like I have options in life. Like I have some modicum of control over my major life decisions. For the very first time in the five years since I’ve become a parent and moved to small town Mexico, I feel like ME again. I feel like I’ve reconciled Parent/Living in Mexico Julia with Pre-Parent/Living in the States/Traveling Julia, finally forming a complete, free-flowing human personality. I’m finally a parent but not only a parent. At last I have a sense of continuity in my being, instead of a “before” and “after” me.

It helps that I’m finally neither pregnant nor nursing. Yes, I am responsible for two little people who require inordinate amounts of my time and energy, but my physical body is no longer consumed by them. I wanted to be pregnant and I wanted to nurse them both but it makes a giant difference in my energy to not be absorbed by all that anymore.

Because I’m not quite as physically tied to the kids, I also have slightly more time now for non-parent things. I’m still playing volleyball almost every Friday night, but I’m also going out once a week or so for a beer with one of my girlfriends. I started splurging on a babysitter for some weekend afternoons, so I could do errands on my bicycle (oh the joy of my leg muscles working and the wind in my face), and then adding in a lunch date with a friend or an outing with Conan. Yes, my children need Mommy time and my work schedule doesn’t allow for enough time with them. Despite that, I am still in need of some time for myself. I am an extrovert through and through; I NEED to be around other adults in order to recharge my battery. Going to work is enough interaction to survive, but not to thrive. The happier and more fulfilled and like myself I feel, thanks to these “stolen” moments, the better I am able to parent in all the moments when I am with my children. It is a win-win situation, even when they whine and cry while I’m walking out the door.

My access to music has been crucial in this transition, too. Before, I had very little access to music that I like. We don’t have home internet so that rules out Youtube and the like. Often I didn’t have time to go through my CDs, pick out the one I want, and get it on the computer while getting myself and the kids ready in the morning. But we bought a decent car in January, and it included a CD player! Finally, I could rock out down the road, singing (screaming) along and bopping in my seat. It was something from my before-life that I desperately craved and couldn’t have. Then I paid one of my students to download music onto a USB- hundreds of songs from my Youtube playlists and other songs that I hadn’t had access to in years, all in one place that I can access on the computer, in the car, on my cell phone. It was a music revolution for me, and it’s been a complete replenishment of my spirit.

Many moments of many days now, I feel gloriously wild and free, despite all my responsibilities. I’ve started making all kinds of radical decisions. Not just to stay up late a couple times a week, either. I quit my job. My perfect job. The one that had my name all over it. The one that was the absolute best job I could possibly get in my small town. Yep. Over. Done. Of my own volition. Have I lost my mind? Yes! But I have other plans and ideas for work and money, and I’m confident I’ll make it all work, because I always do. I’m spending almost two months in the US, evaluating my options. Being open. Not feeling stuck. I’m out of the mindset that there’s only one viable possibility for my family. Any decisions from here on out are going to be because that’s the decision I am choosing with the whole family’s interests in mind, including mine. It’ll be a decision that I actively make, and not a decision I feel like was forced upon me from cruel outside forces above and beyond me. I don’t have any illusions that I can control much of what happens in my life, but I have every expectation of being able to handle how I react to what happens. I don’t plan to be a victim of circumstance any more, at least not in my mind and heart.

At 33, after so many transitions, so many external and internal changes, countless paradigm shifts and personal evolutions, I’m more and more sure of who I am.

So I’m ready to commit to my forever body art. I know my body’s not forever anyway. I know what things about me are the rock-solid part of my core. I know that my openness to, love for, and dependence on other humans is a big part of that. I know what I will always be in spirit- perpetually in motion, searching and seeking and shifting and evolving, throwing caution to the wind on a regular basis, and relishing all of life’s sweet nectar. I am always changing, but I can depict that endless flow; I can incorporate that eternal movement into something permanent. So here goes! Because I was made for this.