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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!

 

 

Can Hot Dogs Make You More American? Thoughts on Assimilation

26 Mar

The immigrants in this country are not a very assimilated group. They stick out at first glance, with their differently colored skin, distinctive height, and other such physical features. I guess it’s not polite to talk about the physical things they can’t change, though.

It doesn’t stop there, however. Half of them don’t even seem to try to speak the language. Even the ones that do try to learn often speak it incorrectly, or with an accent that makes it difficult to understand. They tend to cluster together, too, living in the same few areas of town. They frequent businesses owned by other foreigners, speaking their foreign languages, eating their foreign foods, buying their imported items. It’s preventing them from becoming patriotic, assimilated citizens.

Many of these foreigners don’t have their immigration paperwork in order, either. Some of them come in and out of the country every few months on tourists visas, even though they’re living here, sometimes working under the table, and that is breaking the law! Sure, some of these people have married citizens or have children who are citizens, but who’s to say that they’re not just using that as a way to get their papers?

Worse than that, right here in this city, these foreigners are taking the best national resources for themselves. The areas of town where they crowd together are nice areas, where some good, legal citizen could be living instead. Many of them have high-paying jobs, which, once again, could be going to citizens. Many of them aren’t even contributing properly to the economy and paying taxes; instead they are doing work online or running some overseas business, thus bypassing the local economy.

There is no uproar here about this immigration problem, however, because this is Mexico, and these immigrants are white. Because racism is alive and well all over the globe in different forms, and yet it is never discrimination against white people, even when they are the minority, even when they do the exact same things that black and brown people suffer for.

So I walk around unsanctioned, speaking only English to my children, trusting that they will learn Spanish sufficiently in school and in society at large. When people do comment about it, they are curious or encouraging, not aggressive and hateful. I speak Spanish pretty well, but even after more than a decade of practice, I make mistakes. I go to work at a decent-paying job, where my job is held exclusively for foreigners. Nobody questions my right to be there. When I first moved here, I came on a tourist visa, because I hadn’t yet been able to figure out how to get a visa to live here, until months after I’d moved here. And when I did finally go to the right authorities for my immigration paperwork, they were incredibly helpful, and I was entitled to a lot of things just by virtue of having a child with Mexican citizenship. (Plus the immigration officials here are so nice they are saint-like, which is not the typical experience in my country). Being a white immigrant here is a similar story to what white people in rich nations decry: not assimilating. Except nobody is denouncing the white immigrants here, or anywhere else.

(For example, this article points out that there are an estimated 50,000 Irish immigrants in the US who don’t have their paperwork in order, and yet they’re not being targeted for deportation. More evidence that the real goal is to make the country whiter.)

 

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Are you an assimilated immigrant in Mexico when you know how to make good salsa? Are you assimilated in the US when you can grill hot dogs? Who gets to define this stuff, anyway?

So you can imagine my dismay when I was reading about a bill being proposed in the US to limit the number of legal immigrants coming into the US. Of course this might have personal repercussions for my family, potential reducing the chances of my husband getting a visa. Beyond being worried about that, though, I was struck dumb when I read one explanation of the reasoning behind it:

“In the House of Representatives, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, expects to propose a companion bill to reduce immigration. He is concerned about immigrant enclaves growing in metropolitan areas.  ‘When you have so many immigrants being admitted, they tend to cluster together, they tend to maybe be a bit more slow in learning the English language, to becoming acculturated, to becoming patriotic Americans,’ Smith says.” (from this article from National Public Radio)

First I was pissed because he should have said “be slower” and not “more slow” (or said learn more slowly, if that’s how he wanted to say it). If you’re going to talk smack about other people learning your language, then you better have perfect grammar and diction yourself, fool. Secondly, I bet you a million dollars he has not learned any other languages and has no clue what it takes. (Plus many immigrants already speak English, too, but obviously these “representatives” of ours do not give a damn about facts.)

So, okay, maybe I’m being petty about the language thing. What about the whole humanity aspect? Let’s say I’m not overreacting. Let’s say it’s just exactly what he says. Let’s pretend he’s even worried about immigrants’ well-being. He wants them to speak the national language so they have equal access to all that the US has to offer. How is limiting the number of immigrants coming into the country going to help people learn English and culturally adapt? Is the reasoning that if they feel more isolated and set apart, they will become more patriotic? I know; perhaps the theory is that they will be forced to learn English faster if they don’t know anybody who speaks their language. So does that mean that we will also be putting caps on how many immigrants who speak the same language can be in one city, just to make sure they don’t meet up and speak their language too much? Should we limit how many immigrants are in one neighborhood? Bar foreign languages from the street? Is that where he’s heading with this? Because limiting the number of new legal immigrants to the country, especially when you’re preventing people’s husbands, wives, children, and mothers from coming in, is not going to teach people better English.

If the goal were actually to help new immigrants speak English and be a more integral, connected part of US society, there are ways to go about that. (Why, why, why does my country not use any of the research about ANYTHING?!?! Why do we even have research, people?) For example, my favorite librarian holds English practice exchanges, where English speakers (citizens, immigrants who are fluent, etc.) pair up with English language learners for conversation and camaraderie every week. I suspect that helps people learn English and feel like they’re part of our fabulous community much more than potentially denying entry to people’s family members- because, sorry, we’ve reached our limit for this year. Let’s be honest. Legislative actions like these are not about helping immigrants, or about keeping us safe. It’s not about having a more unified-yet-non-homogenous country. It’s about having a more homogenous, whiter country. It’s about keeping out more of the “different” people.

Not only is his opinion full of hypocrisy and racism, but it also reflects an utter lack of empathy. I suspect he is as clueless about being uprooted (willingly or not) as he is about language learning.

He obviously doesn’t fathom what it’s like to long for pieces of home. To need to express something that’s deep in your spirit, and not have the right words in your adopted language. To feel your heart soar with a certain song and not have anyone to share it with. To crave certain fruits or certain dishes so desperately that nothing you eat tastes good for weeks on end.

He doesn’t understand anything about needing someone to recognize you. How there are completely trivial things that become crucial, because the need for recognition, understanding, and acceptance is essential. For me, this translates into things like wishing that someday I could just go out and purchase biscuits and gravy, instead of taking all the time to make it myself. It means that every winter I cry at some point because I might never eat my mama’s chili on a cold night again. It means that even if there’s karaoke in English, no one will understand the irony in my song choice. (Nevermind that I only used to do karaoke like once a year.) It means there’s no place to publicly dance in my style, to my kind of music. It means that I would kill for a group of people to play spades with. (Nevermind that it’s just a card game. This is life! This is me!) I’ll even admit that now I have even watched the Kentucky Derby, out of sheer nostalgia, although I never cared when I was there and I’m even a bit ethically opposed to horse racing. (Don’t worry, though, I don’t want to eat Kentucky Fried Chicken or anything else that absurdly unlike me. I want home comforts and a context for my identity, not cheap grease with my state’s name on it.)

When you live far away from where you became you, there are certain things that you need to be your security blanket. You’re putting down your roots somewhere else, and the sun will still shine to nourish you, but even plants grow better in good company. Anybody who’s ever been outside of their comfort zone knows that your soul needs bits and pieces from home to keep yourself in perspective when you’re in a different context. This is my truth, and this is the reason that all immigrants need some quality time with folks from their country- and preferably folks from their region, and even better if it’s family. Everyone needs recognition, even (especially) immigrants and refugees.

So let’s not use immigrant communities and languages as an excuse to further a white surpremist agenda, please and thank you. Let’s call out racism for what it is, and instead work to build bridges between our cultures and languages. If you’re in Louisville, Kentucky, you can even pop on down to the library to share and get to know your community better. And if you are in Puerto Escondido and you know how to play spades (or want to learn), please come find me!

 

P.S . Please note I am not against folks who travel or live somewhere and don’t know the language or don’t otherwise “assimilate.” Everyone has their own reasons and their own process.I am not against white people in my adopted city, either, obviously, although I am very against hypocrisy and racism. I am not saying the description above fits all foreigners in this area (just like there is no uniform immigrant experience in the US), but it truly is the case here that white folks are doing the exact same things that black and brown immigrants do in other places, but in the US and elsewhere they get not just criticized, but also threatened, beaten, deported, and killed over it. Reverse racism does not exist!

Reversing Course: Appreciation of Things I Used to Loathe

30 Dec

Now that I am almost completely acclimated and comfortable here in Puerto Escondido, I’m ready to start thinking about leaving. Go ahead and shake your head; it might be a little crazy. Apparently I equate comfort with stagnation, or so it would seem based on the course of my life thus far.

Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking lots about why I love it here now, and the multitude of things and people that I’ll miss when I move back to the states. I’ve been reflecting on all the things that I disliked when I first arrived in small-town Oaxaca that now make me feel kinda warm and fuzzy.* Here are a few of the things I’ve adapted to appreciate.

Anti-Safety:

I don’t love the lack of safety, per-se. I do think that it’s nice to not need lids that caution you about hot coffee being hot. I appreciate that kids can be trusted to differentiate the chocolate in a chocolate egg from the plastic toy inside that is too big to choke on anyway. I love that nobody’s actions are based around whether or not they might get sued. It certainly makes a cliff more thrilling when there is no railing to prevent you or the cars from falling off the giant cliff into the abyss. I like the tremor of excitement from the occasional motorcycle ride, the breeze in my hair when I’m riding in the back of a pick-up truck. I’ll miss seeing folks holding on to a bar, riding the back bumper of a truck. Furthermore, I think that the safety measures in place in the US aren’t typically there to protect vulnerable people, and they don’t protect everyone equally. For example, they don’t want kids to have those chocolate eggs with toys in them, but they expect refugee kids to defend themselves in court (but that’s part of a whole ‘nuther rant, I guess).

While sometimes I think the lack of safety measures here is the opposite extreme, I’m no longer shocked by it. I might have gotten nervous watching the one year old I saw the other day, standing up and bouncing up and down on the moving motorcycle with his parents, no helmet for anyone. But I didn’t freak out at anyone. The electrical socket that my kid tried to stick his fingers in among the baby books in the library this year was a bit unreasonable, in my opinion, but I distracted my kid and kept my mouth shut. I still can’t quite appreciate the irony of not having soap in the bathroom of a hospital or clinic. But mostly I am able to laugh about it all. In the van to Juquila this trip, I was marveling at the seat belt situation. Even after years of being here, even though I’m not shocked- it’s still a little baffling. They took such pains to make sure that nobody ever uses the seat belts- folding them up neatly and putting plastic cuffs around them, just to be on the safe side (hahaha).

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Seatbelts? What are those things for?

I certainly appreciate this forcing me to go with the flow more, to just breathe my prayer into the wind and keep going, something I might never have learned to do raising kids in the US.

(Isn’t culture funny, though? This culture is not big on some kinds of safety, but people do vaccinate their kids, almost religiously- partially because it’s free. Women will totally wait in line for 3 hours, a few days postpartum, to diligently vaccinate their baby. It’s pretty impressive what public health campaigns could do if they put the resources into it. Imagine what things would look like if they gave out helmets for kids!)

Anti-Technological-Dependence:
When we first moved to Juquila, in 2012, that first month we ran out of everything. We spent a couple days with no water for washing (or flushing, etc. Yeah. Think about all the implications of no water). The electricity went out for a day and a half. We ran out of drinking water and the truck with the big jugs just wasn’t coming. Sometimes the cell phone wires were so saturated that you could’t make a phone call. The internet went down in the whole town for a week. I couldn’t imagine how all this lack of services and technology was possible. How can people live like this? I didn’t even realize then that that would be my “easy” life, compared to living in Puerto without electricity.

More than anything, living on little-to-no technology for all this time has reframed my ideas about necessity. We’ve now spent a year and a half in our house with electricity- the same amount of time we spent without it. I still feel grateful every morning that I plug in the coffee maker, every night that a fan blows on us, every time Khalil goes to flip the switch all by himself- a baby who can take electricity for granted. We’ve made so much progress, and I don’t really want to live without any of it. But I know that I can. Doing without has trained me to ask a lot of questions about what’s important in life.

Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Google. I love my National Public Radio news. I love the Hurricane preparedness website. I love exchanging morning emails with my mom while I’m at work. I dream of all the music I would have Youtube access to with home internet. Khalil and I just did a video call with my mom while visiting in Juquila, and it was so fun! It made me think that the whole feel of my life might be different with at-home internet. Publishing a blog every week would be less of a monumental challenge, among other things. I could read all of the interesting articles that my friends post on Facebook. I could convert celsius to fahrenheit when my kid has a fever without having to call my mom.

It would be helpful to have internet. But really, I don’t need to read all of the articles on Facebook. Even the fact that this year I got a cell phone with Facebook access was another good news/bad news scenario. It’s nice to be able to “keep in touch” like that, but some days it just makes me feel more alone and isolated. I can’t actually get together with most of the people I’m friends with- even the ones who live here, thanks to stressful schedules and whatnot. Thus, I also have my doubts about the true benefits of at-home internet, as much as I pine for it sometimes.

All in all, I’m still a technological dinosaur, a bit by choice and a bit by force. But I hope I keep myself in check despite having a smartphone. I hope I never read all the articles my friends post on Facebook, even though someday I will have home internet. I hope I keep asking myself what is really necessary and what is most important with the time and resources that I have.

Anti-Fashion:

If you know me, you know that I have loved thrift stores and other discount styles forever. Y’all know that I’m staunchly against the wastefulness, expense, and tedium of following fashion rules invented by anyone but yourself. That said, I’ve always had my own version of fashion rules. Like, if you wear some color, wear plenty of black, too. No flower prints. Those sort of rules I made for myself. I didn’t apply them to anyone else, and yet other sorts of rules had seeped into me from living in the states. So I was a bit taken aback by what, in my former life, would be labeled tackiness. When I saw a group of folks in matching spray-painted Jesus shirts, for example, I raised my eyebrows. Or when people wore a polka dot shirt with striped pants. What?!

Living in the land of fashion anarchy has slowly changed my patterns and liberated me from fashion judgment I wasn’t even particularly conscious of before. Granted, you will never convince this boot-obsessed, Tank-Girl type to run around in flip flops all the time like so many folks around here. I still have my own brand of fashion. But I sure have changed my ideas of appropriate attire. I love that there is complete and utter apathy and lack of consensus about what combinations are okay. Anything goes! Sweat pants and flip flops- cool. Prom-type dresses- whenever the mood strikes. A suit with sandals- absolutely correct. Yoga pants for class- very hip. There are no rules! I love this anti-fashion!

The other day I found myself wearing blue shorts, a purple shirt with different colored polka dots, a red hairband, and pink shoes with orange laces. I glanced in the mirror before I walked out the door and decided that it totally worked, and walked out laughing at myself for ever having thought that I shouldn’t look like a rainbow all the time. I have branched out from mini-skirts to include shorts, especially cut-offs, in my out-on-the-town attire. For work, I have many different pants, including various capri-type things. I often wear jeans, a tank top, and tennis shoes to work, thrilled that this is my professional professor get-up. Only in paradise! (Somehow this is okay, women in cocktail dresses or with raging cleavage is fine, but they draw the line at male professors wearing shorts of any kind. Men showing their legs is offensive and unprofessionally. I will never understand.)

I am not looking forward to having to wear more professional clothing in the future. Also, I have really had to face the fact that using what you wear as a form of self-expression is a privilege that many, many people don’t have. It’s important food for thought.

Anti-Following-the-Guidelines and Comparing-Children:

The first time we tried to take Lucia to a doctor for a check-up, the doctor kept asking, “But what’s wrong with her? Why do you want me to see her?” There are no check-ups here. There are no guidelines about childhood development. It was very disappointing, at first. And I worried about one of Lucia’s cousins, who still wasn’t really talking at age three, when Lucia was already talking in whole paragraphs at age two. Nobody else was worried, though. Instead they proclaim, “Oh, so-and-so still couldn’t pronounce half his words correctly at 6 years old.” Big old shrug. But have they gotten him checked out for problems? Nope. He’ll be fine.

I am sure that sometimes kids do have actual health or developmental problems and it would be beneficial to be checked out by a doctor, and to have routine wellness check-ups. For example, we discovered that Khalil was anemic even though he didn’t seem to have any health problems- thanks to check-ups with our fabulous pediatrician. However, I love that there is zero competition for your kid being “advanced” in their development. There is no judgment if your kid doesn’t fall in the standard guidelines on walking/talking/getting teeth/etc. Moms may compare notes and say, “My kid only has four teeth and yours has 10 already!” But they aren’t implying that your kid is better because they have ten. If your kid already talks at a year, they might even be impressed for a split second, but nobody thinks it’s weird or wrong or bad that some other kid isn’t really talking at three. If your kid’s not walking well at a year and a half, people are like, “oh, she doesn’t want to walk yet.” And that’s it- on to the next topic.

A happy medium would be nicer, where people in small town Mexico have more access to routine check-ups and help if something actually is going wrong in the child’s development. Meanwhile, the US needs to chill out quite a bit on fitting everyone into the same developmental boxes. And parents in the US need to take a good hard look at how not to judge and compete about things that aren’t even reasonable competitions!

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my fearless little busy bee/social butterfly who’s not ready to talk at almost two

Anti-Convenience:

When we moved here, the fact that it could take days to complete a simple errand was heavily disheartening on a daily basis. The slow-lane lifestyle, of every day being completely filled just with carrying out the basic necessities of life was maddening and gut-wrenching. But I’ve adapted and learned how to make this pace more convenient now. Sure, it would still be nice to find decent frozen veggies or canned garbanzo beans that didn’t cost a day’s wage, but now I freeze my own everything for later convenience; I work with the pace of life in many ways. And there is convenience food here. I love that the only kind of “fast food” is the stuff women make at home and sling in the streets- delicious stuff like tamales, healthy stuff like cut-up fruit, and worth-the-calories treats like homemade donuts.

Also, I love the other type of conveniences that are here, especially the way that so much stuff comes right to your door. Our drinking water jugs, propane gas tanks, and sometimes even freshly made tortillas, all get delivered. People pass by selling ice cream in their little push cart, or buying your used aluminum in their beat-up truck. Women carry giant baskets of fresh bread on their heads, or someone drives around a motorcycle with fish fresh from the sea. It takes a lot of adapting, and at the end of the day it’s still not easy- but it isn’t easy anywhere, I don’t think.

This year was extra challenging because we’d gotten accustomed to having a car that worked most of the time. Then it became a car that only worked sometimes. And right after we started sending Lucia to school on the complete other side of town, our car went to transportation heaven.

Not having a car presented so many new challenges. Thanks to the good will of other parents, we were able to work out sending Lucia to school. Even then it wasn’t easy, although now I’ve learned to love my long walks with Khalil to go get the big sister. When it rained, I took my rainboots and my umbrella to work and got through it. When the clocks went back and it got dark before I left work, I faced my fears and biked home in the dark- a rock in hand for the over-aggressive dogs, flashlight in the other hand for that section with no lights- but I did it. I got sort of used to it. (I don’t think I’ll ever get used to people letting mean dogs wander the streets. It just doesn’t make sense to me. But whatever.) I learned how to tell taxi drivers, “That’s not what the price is” when they tried to charge me too much.

It’s another kind of adventure, the inconvenience of not having a car, and another opportunity for lots of thinking. You can think about how much harder other people have it, like the women and girls who walk miles for a bucket of water. You can actually notice flowers and cactus shapes and lizards and birds and the colors in the sky. You can count dump trucks (okay, this is probably only exciting if you’re with small children). You can appreciate the sunlight on your face. You can observe other people in the street- because lots of people are out walking, not just you. (Something so lacking in so many spots in the US) Riding a bus is a great chance to read- to yourself or to your kids. You can play games and really talk in a way that’s much harder when you’re driving. It’s an obligatory slowing-down of life, in some ways, although in other ways it makes you more stressed-out, because something simple like an errand or picking up a kid from school takes double the time. But it has been a good constant reminder for me that so many of life’s circumstances we don’t get to choose, but that we can choose how we react to them. It’s such a cliche on one hand, but it gets said all the time because it’s so valid, too. So I wouldn’t say I totally love all the inconveniences, especially not having a car, but I definitely appreciate it for what it is.

*(Nope, I still don’t love Juquila, though. That town seeps depression into my bone marrow upon arrival and it stays in my core until I’m safely back to the humidity of the coast. You just can’t love everything in life.)

Looking at the Road Ahead/Holding that Thought about Appreciation in the Midst of Adversity

We’re not planning a move back to the states because I dislike Mexico or the life we’ve made here. In fact, I like my life here now more than ever before. I have so many moments of joy and gratitude every day that I wake up in my imperfect “paradise.”

Partly, I know, though, that my joy and gratitude about my life here are because of my weight-lifting exercises in appreciation of life. My biggest “resolution” is to carry all this with me when I go back to the states. It won’t be too hard; I am a very different person than I was when I came here four and a half years ago. My gratitude/joy/appreciation muscles are much, much bigger than my anxiety and stress muscles these days. I still have anxiety. I still get overwhelmed in stress. I still need to complain some of the time. But I’m so much better at letting it go. And I’ll need that for the culture shock and adaptation that lies ahead.

Also planned for the coming year:

Goal #1- Read and write more in Spanish! I know it seems ridiculous, but my Spanish skills diminish every year that I’m here, thanks to being an English teacher and speaking to my children in English. My conversational Spanish is still decent, but my vocabulary is shrinking from not reading and writing in español. I’ve got to remedy that.

Goal #2- Find time for poetry! I managed to give myself an hour of free-writing time the other day, thanks to vacation. I played with words with no intention to publish them or keep the same train of thought. I let my creativity soar out and oh! I hadn’t even realized how sorely that was lacking in my life. I don’t know where or how I’m going to make time for more creative writing, but somehow I have to. Art and expression should not be luxuries; they are life.

What are your plans for the coming year? What are your big lessons you want to take with you from this year? What’s something you used to dislike that you’ve learned to appreciate?

 

No Need for Thanksgiving, but Thanks Anyway

28 Nov

The best thing that happened this past week was seeing Khalil’s feet lift off of the ground. Y’all, this child has been trying for months to imitate his sister in jumping. He would kind of bend his knees and then straighten them back out, raising his arms and grunting in a hilarious imitation of jumping. He even made it up onto his tippy toes after a while. Still wasn’t jumping, though. But now, folks, suddenly and certainly, he jumps! His feet go up in the air! If small children can’t make you see the miracles in everyday life, if you can’t feel the magic in absurdly simple things like rocks and bubbles and successfully pooping in a potty, you are missing out.

Speaking of poop… I know, who wants to talk about poop? Four year olds, apparently, because that is the number one topic of conversation for Lucia at the moment. Poop and princesses, but mostly poop. In both languages. This is a normal conversation for us:

Me: What did you do at school today, Lucia?

Lucia: Poopies!

Me: Did you play with so-and-so?

Lucia: No, just popo.

Sometimes I even know that they’ve done a certain activity- like they go on a walk every day. Every single day. Sometimes I’ve even seen pictures of them doing something, like making a lantern. So I’ll be like, Did you go on a walk today? And she’ll tell me no. Did you make lanterns? No. Did you do anything? No. Finally I asked her one day, So you just sat in the corner by yourself all day? Yeah, she said. That’s what I did. Smiling. We both know damn well  that is not what she did. But now that’s the game. Alas. That and poop. It’s a wonderful life, folks.

Lucia is also really into fashion these days. And I love her four year old fashion. She dresses up “really pretty” in shocking, eye-dazzling combinations of patterns and colors. She tells me, “My teacher’s gonna say I look so pretty today!” (I think she has some really awesome teachers, or else she has my outrageous self-assuredness. Perhaps both.) I try not to piss on her parade, although she does have to wear somewhat sensible shoes to school for their long walks. She’d prefer these crappy rubbery pink shoes or the Mary Janes “princess” shoes that are now too small for her.  Also, I did try to intervene the other day in the name of preventing excessive laundry. (As the sole laundry-doer in the house, this is a big problem.) She wanted to wear a tutu AND a dress. And you couldn’t even see the damn tutu under the dress. I tried to tell her that. We began a power struggle. I decided it was not a worthy battle and threw in the towel… And she ended up ditching the tutu and keeping the dress. Hopefully my tactics remain this effective when it’s time to discuss sex and consent and protection and whatnot instead of tutus and dresses.

In the moments when Lucia doesn’t want to be a goat (so she doesn’t have to clean up) or a grass-cutter (because those riding lawn mowers in Kentucky impressed the hell out of her), she’s now started saying that she’s going to be a teacher. “I’m going to go to work with you, Mommy!” As if it were all that simple. Of course she’d teach at the same place I currently teach. Of course I won’t ever change jobs and of course she’ll get hired there as well as soon as she’s a grown up and gets some magic fairy dust to turn into a teacher. I miss how small and intimate the world felt when I was her age and even older, when being able to go to the corner store a couple blocks away- without parents- was the biggest responsibility and privilege that you could imagine.

I love when she’s decided to play pretend and be a teacher. She walks by me and says, “Hi, student!” So that I say, “Hi, teacher!” Just like she’s seen my students do to me (for the record, I say their real names when I see them, not ‘hi, student.’) It’s like the way Khalil, who still prefers body language to words, will wave bye-bye to me for 3 minutes, in silence, until I notice and say “bye!” when he’s pretending to go bye bye in his plastic car or his broomstick horse or whatever. Sometimes my role seems like a bit part but a word or two is still a starring role to them.

Lucia is so much like me in her character. There was a little girl Lucia’s age at my volleyball game the other night, and she got mad about something and stomped off to sit down by herself. It was like the mildest tantrum I’ve ever seen. And another prof who always plays, who doesn’t have children, was like, “Does your little girl do that too?” I burst out laughing. “No, she’s way more demonstrative!” I told him. “She has your temper?” He asked me playfully, making fun of the fact that I get huffy and bossy when the boys start invading my territory and stealing the ball from me in volleyball. I wanted to tell him that he hadn’t seen nothing from me yet. And that Lucia could hold her own, too. She huffs and puffs and blows your whole damn house down. But instead I showed him my radiant smile and agreed. “Yep, definitely my character.” She gets hangry like me, too.

Khalil is his own force to be reckoned with as well. He hasn’t yet turned two, and he’s already training himself to eat spicy food. The other day I was seasoning my food with some medium-heat curry powder, and he insisted that I put some on his food. I told him and told him that it was spicy- pica, we say- but he kept pointing at the container and at his food. He beat on his chest like he does to say for me. I put a little bit on his food. He ate it. His eyes got very wide. He drank several gulps of water. And he ate some more. And more. He liked it! It was like the time I thought that my strong, bitter black coffee was going to cure Lucia of her desire to drink coffee, when instead she asked for more. Whoops. Remind me not to play chicken with these children.

Yesterday I made pancakes in a pan that I’d reheated salsa in. For some reason, even though I’d washed it well with soap, the first pancake in the batch came out with a spicy aftertaste. I split the first one between the kids because, as ALWAYS, they were starving to death. Khalil had already devoured most of his half when Lucia tried hers and started complaining that it was “pica.” I tried it, and sure enough, it was fairly spicy! Khalil finished off all his water but he sure didn’t complain. He’s gonna take after his mommy on this, apparently. (Don’t kid yourself that Conan loves all things spicy because he is Mexican. He likes some, but I could kick his butt in a chile-eating contest.)

I’ve mentioned before Khalil’s obsession with the garafones– the big jugs of drinking water that we buy. He’s now started speaking his first two words in Spanish, motivated by his need to communicate with his future boss, the garafon vendor. He can now say both “uno” and “dos”- theoretically depending on how many bottles we need, although really he just says either uno or dos when he wants to refer to garafones in general. Like if we see a truck full of them go by, he points and says “uno!” It’s pretty endearing.

This child is the kid who wants to do ALL the grown up things already. He is so uninterested in the majority of his toys; he’s very interested in re-organizing everything in my kitchen, and “helping” me with every single thing I do. We went to a birthday party the other day, and there were a bunch of plastic chairs sitting out for the kids. Khalil spent the first hour of the birthday party stacking them up and then putting them back when I’d unstack them, only to stack them all back up again 30 seconds later. I am always asking myself if there’s some way he can actually help me, and if not, how can I make it appear that he’s being helpful by doing the thing that I want him to do? These monsters certainly force me to stay creative. Khalil was giving me a very hard time about taking his new inhaled asthma medicine, but finally I brought his stuffed cat into the mix. Now Khalil has to give medicine to the cat before he does his own medicine. It’s doing the trick so far! Score one for Mommy!

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These are the chairs Khalil was stacking. And this is how he wanted to sit in the chair. All by himself. No help for him, thanks. 

While Khalil still refuses to use words to communicate most of the time, his big sister is a verbal giant. Her Spanish has exploded thanks to her new school, and her English continues to grow to astounding new heights. I love talking to this child about as much as she loves to talk. I am hoping, however, that she doesn’t suffer the same fate that I did, thinking that because she’s all verbal, she can’t be visually creative as well. I’m feeling extra hopeful about it after she wrote her first book yesterday! I also wrote my first “book” at four, but I dictated it to my mom and then drew pictures to go with the words. Lucia was much more autonomous about it. She got scrap paper from the pile of scrap paper. She drew a bunch of pictures. She asked me for glue. I suspiciously inquired about her intentions for the glue. She explained, and I got all excited and instead of gluing we sewed the pages together with cheap dental floss (thank you, punk rock traveler kids from the 90s for teaching me to sew with free dental floss). Within a couple hours her brother had crinkled one page and then she left it in some water that had leaked out from the washing machine. It survived, but while we were waiting to see if the sunlight streaming in the door could cure it she went ahead and made another one, just in case. I am raising some resilient babies, after all.

When she was reading me her first published work at bedtime tonight, she made up all kinds of fascinating details for her squiggly lines and circles. But the best was her showing me two connected circle-ish parts and saying, “This little one is Khalil’s house. Us three live in the big house, and he lives in the little house.” When I probed into the reason behind Khalil living separately from us, she thought for a second and said, “Because he’s little. He needs a little house. We’re big, so we need a big house.” Uh-huh. No underlying psychology about getting your little brother out of your hair there, kiddo. Sure thing.

Lucia presents her book:

They’re growing so much, and teaching me so much. Although I could do without the constant tornado damage that Khalil leaves in his wake, and I hope he learns to respect books instead of tearing them up so lovingly like he does now, he is more fun than should be legal. And while I’d appreciate a little less screaming and melodrama from Lucia over every single thing (e.g. “Khalil’s wasting the water!! I don’t want you, Khalil!!”), hanging with her is such a wonderful adventure.

I don’t need any Thanksgiving holiday to be grateful for these monsters. (And no, nobody down here celebrates Thanksgiving.) Every day is Thanksgiving in my house, minus the brutally oppressive history and the consumerist free-for-all the next day.

I’m so grateful for these kids that even when I am pulling my hair out and losing my temper, even when it’s my turn for bedtime and they refuse to sleep, I valiantly resist all urges to sell them on ebay… Oh, wait, that’s just called parenting. Whatever. The point is, I love my pumpkin (Khalil) and my sunshine (Lucia) more than even real pumpkins and real sunshine. That is true love.

Thanks, Obama. (Did I utilize the meme right, Conan? No? I never get it right. Bwahahaha.)

 

A Gratitude Interlude

8 Nov

Lately I’ve pretty much been one giant ball of stress, chaos, and anxiety, so…. We interrupt your regularly scheduled programming to bring you this important announcement:

These things only happen to the living. (like my Nonna always said)

I write at least three things to be grateful for every morning as I drink my coffee. It’s a good way to start my day, and over time it’s augmented the fabulousness in my life tenfold. But sometimes the morning gratitudes are just not enough. I need a bit more focus on the gratitude. A bit less wallowing in my problems, pulling my hair out trying to find solutions that don’t exist. So here goes.

First off, our car is permanently dead-to-us (RIP Poderoso), despite all our valiant efforts. So I’m incredibly, madly grateful to the parents with functioning cars who are schlepping Lucia to school and back with their kids. (Thank you, thank you, thank you; it is the difference between our kid going to school or not.) I’m grateful that public transportation exists to get Lucia to the car pool pick-up spot so she can get a ride. I’m grateful that Lucia gets to go to a school that she is thrilled about every day of the week, and that it’s a school that’s also totally in-line with our parenting values (more on that to come). Even though sometimes I feel bad about needing help, I know that we would do the same for someone else, and that makes me feel better about it.

I’m grateful that Conan has a paying job outside of the house! It means more work and more stress for both of us, but the economic stress is already greatly lessoned. “Conan,” I said, “we’re halfway through my pay period and I haven’t had a panic attack about money! This is serious progress!!”

I’m insanely, intensely grateful that we’ve turned in the first step of our paperwork for immigration. That people threw a benefit karaoke potluck for us, and more folks keep donating, keep sending us their wishes and energy and hope and love. Can’t even tell you how awesome it is.

I’m majorly grateful that Arturo is lending us his truck for Conan to get to work and back. I’m grateful that there were no accidents in the week that Conan spent driving it with nearly non-existant brakes until we had enough money for repairs. I’m grateful that the bald tires are holding out so far (keep your fingers crossed for us- it’s next on the list).

I’m grateful for the obligatory quality time I have with Khalil every day that we go to pick up Lucia from the carpool drop-off spot. I used to spend a good portion of my lunch break getting lunch ready, but now Khalil and I go for a walk to catch a bus or a colectivo (shared taxi) and we have a big adventure to pick up the big sister. The whole ride there, he shouts about every big vehicle that he sees, which is approximately every three seconds. “Yes, dump truck,” I agree. “Yes, another big semi.” He barely says words- except more, his first and most important word- but he make a vroom vroom noise, and a buuuuhhhh deep rumbling in his throat noise that means ‘big.’ This child is determined to communicate. We continue our fun if Lucia’s not at the spot yet, playing with sticks or leaves, or throwing rocks or reading a book. It’s truly a pleasant time that I used to not have on a daily basis.

I’m grateful that at least the three of us still get to eat lunch together, and that I have a crock pot! It has rescued me in a big big way. Otherwise we might be eating tuna sandwiches every other day.

I’m grateful that we’re not totally destitute. I’m grateful that we have nutritious food to eat and a safe and sturdy shelter. A man was working on a neighbor’s yard the other day, “cutting the grass” like they do here- by hand, with a machete, slowly wacking away, in the sweltering heat and humidity, for two days, at the tall weeds that had overtaken the landscape. While we talked, he inquired about the casita– the “little house” on our property. “This building?” I asked him, pointing again at our shed. Yep, he meant the shed- the tiny tin shack where Conan slept while the house was being built. He wanted to live there for a while with his family. “Got my perspective back in check,” I told my mom, “when I realized that we are ‘rich’ enough to have a garage that could be someone’s house.”

I’m grateful that we have a home- not just a shelter, but a refuge. It’s an appealing, spacious-enough-for-four, comfortable, comforting place that’s all our own. Even though it’s unfinished and might never be finished, even though we still don’t have doors separating rooms, even though half the time it’s a hurricane-style disaster of toys and clothes strewn about and dishes left undone, it’s ours and I love it.

I’m grateful for this past weekend’s few calm minutes to sit by the back door and look out at the world with my littler firecracker. For smoothies made of strawberries and Oaxacan chocolate, and a surprise afternoon storm.

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Khalil’s favorite spot- looking out the door… Normally he likes to sit in this little chair, but when I sat on the floor with him, he decided to sit on the floor, too.

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Cheers! To chocolate and children.

I’m grateful that thus far my rambunctious, determined, fiercely excited littler one hasn’t injured himself in any dire way yet (I’m pretty sure it’s going to be inevitable with this one). That so far we’ve managed to keep him from ingesting bleachy cleaning water; he only dumped a little bit on top of himself that one time. That the soapy dirty bath water he drinks on the sly sometimes doesn’t seem to do much damage (and let me remind you, tap water here is not drinking water to begin with). That just yesterday he only drank about 1ml of Lucia’s steroid dose that he grabbed off the table in the .2 seconds that I turned my back; glad it was not the whole thing (especially since it was right after he’d had his full dose). That despite several falls (off the bed, against the concrete wall from throwing himself in playful abandon, etc.) he seems to have avoided concussions so far. That he has so many moments of random tenderness and hugging and loving and smiling to make up for wrecking the entire house every 15 minutes of every single day.

I’m grateful that my wild thing older one has such a strong, unstoppable imagination. That she can play by herself and create an entire complex little world for sometimes hours at a time. I love that she’s never seen a whole princess movie and yet she proclaims herself an expert in princesses. I love the rules she makes up about them. “Princesses are always nice, right?” she says. Or she refuses to brush her hair because apparently that’s princess-style. Even though I thought I was anti-princess, I love the conversations we have thanks to this princess obsession. She puts on one of her fancy dresses and says how pretty she is, and we talk about how everyone’s pretty in different ways, for example. She told me the other day, “Mommy, you’re the prettiest, because your hair do like this,” and she fluffed out my hair and made little wispys like it does. “Your hair is the funnest,” she said, and my heart totally melted. Every other day, between bouts of screaming at her brother and throwing tantrums, she says fun and interesting and tender stuff that makes me glad to keep her. More love in my heart than I thought I could stand- thank you, universe, for this.

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Lucia’s make-believe time: always an elaborate affair

 

I’m so grateful that we’ve been able to buy a nebulizer to treat our kids’ asthma. That Khalil doesn’t mind wearing a mask over his face because we read so many books while we do it. That we have such a fabulous pediatrician, who’s very experienced in asthma treatments, and who doesn’t even get pissed at me for calling in the middle of the night in a panic. (Read more about how great she is here.) That both of our kids are now going to be on daily asthma preventative medication (WHAT did people do before all these treatments existed?). We just had a crazy week with the both of them with asthma attacks- even though Lucia already takes preventative medication, and it’s been so stressful and anxiety-inducing. But I’m so grateful that they’re okay, and they’re going to be okay.

I’m grateful that my kids are awesome, healthy eaters. It kind of makes up for them being such crappy sleepers. When Lucia practically begged me to share my broccoli snack the other day, and then Khalil ate a bunch later on, I laughed maniacally to myself, thinking, “Yes, I accept this sure-to-be-temporary victory!”

I’m grateful for about a kajillion other things, but this has been enough to stem the tide of chaos and woe for a bit. I’ll leave it at that and give you time to think about your own “gratitudes.” Thanks, universe, and thanks, friends. I’m happy to be here with you.

A Deluge of Generosity

20 Sep

Last Monday, my hands were shaking as I prepared to publish my weekly blog post. They trembled like the first few times I tried out my college Spanish on actual Spanish speakers. My heartbeat fluttered erratically like it does when I’ve gotten on a bus in a foreign country- sure I’m not doing it quite right and doubting I’ll end up where I was planning to go, but determined to go anyway.

I was scared because I knew this was important, and I wanted to get it right. I sensed that later I would recognize it as one of those moments that would separate major eras in my life. The same way there’s a before and after I got pregnant with Lucia, for example. There will be a “before” and “after” we announced our intentions to move back to the states. I knew this was monumental.

I was also nervous as hell because of fear and anxiety. I worried that our family and friends in Puerto would feel like we don’t care about them. I worried that people would say shame on me for wanting to leave after I’d spent four years building a life here. They’d say I was giving up on Oaxaca, or that I haven’t tried hard enough, that doing my best isn’t good enough. I was also feeling really guilty about asking people for financial help, because I know there are so many great causes and people who need funds as much as or more than we do. Because publicly stating that you need help, in our culture, is often mixed with all kinds of ugly, deep-rooted ideas about human worth and value- things I don’t believe, but they’re there, threatening me anyway.

With a lot of encouragement from some key folks, though, I hit “publish” on my blog. I posted to Facebook. Holly posted the GoFundMe campaign to Facebook. And there was no going back, no matter what people might think about my worth.

The fundraising campaign netted over $400 in the first hour after publishing- enough to retain our lawyer. Within 24 hours, the fund- you guys- raised enough for the whole first step in our immigration process- lawyer fee and immigration fee. Woo hoo! We’re already starting the process! We have a contract in hand and hope to have our first file sent in to US Immigration by early October. Thank you, thank you, thank you to everyone for that, first of all.

More importantly, though, I was astounded by the seemingly limitless support. In addition to all the folks who were able to donate, people sent so much love and encouragement our way. People talked about being happy and excited to have us come back. People said our family deserves support. (Oh how marvelous it is to be called worthy, right? We are all worthy. An important note.) Folks assured us that we will make this happen! Some people shared details of their own migration process, and expressed their solidarity. People reminded us of something good we’d done for someone else at some point, which was a really helpful reminder that receiving help is part of the same beautiful cycle that is giving help. Folks called us out as part of their family- “Conan, my brother!” or “One of my favorite people, Julia”. One of my two favorite sociology profs from college publicly called me “an awesome sociologist.”

People shared my blog post like nobody’s business- and complimented my writing. My mouth was hanging open as I looked at stats from hundreds of readers, including folks in like 10 different countries, reading my blog. People I don’t even know shared my blog, and called me names like “amazing writer.” I didn’t even really believe that people who don’t know me actually read my blog, before this. I got all teary eyed thinking how proud my Nonna, the great storyteller, would be, when a friend publicly invited people to read some of my “incredible storytelling.”

I was Floored. Shocked. Almost speechless. Overwhelmed with gratitude. My cup was all runneth-over-style with love and joy. I almost woke up the kids that first night, running/dancing around the house, trying to “whisper-scream” to Conan, something that sounded like : “So!Many!People!F*#/ing!Love!Us!We!Are!So!F*/#ing!Lucky!”

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Imagine: Me, shouting for joy “really quietly” just like this little girl.

I am not very good at shouting in a soft and quiet voice, for the record. Not shouting was out of the question, however, because I was jubilant, EXPLODING with cheer. Gratitude and glee were radiating out of my pores.

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This was me, all last week.

It turned the tides for me in terms of my feelings about this process, too. If you read Ending our Exile you can probably feel the angst and anxiety broadcasting from my very words. I was already giving myself panic attacks before we’d even begun. I debated with myself about cancelling everything and living in Mexico forever, because it just felt like too much struggle for something that is no guarantee.

After we shared our dreams with all you lovely people, though, after we asked for help, you guys produced such a storm of support that  y’all lifted some of the burden from  our shoulders. Now my attitude and energy are more like: “Of course we can do this! Look at everyone who has our back! This has to happen. That’s all there is to it. Take that, bureaucracy! We got a whole lotta love!”

My community-induced endorphins were so intense that when I woke up to cat poop on the kids’ toys the next morning, I took it in stride. I washed Khalil’s diapers with a smile on my face all week. Lucia threw her typical irrational dictator tantrum about seating arrangements in the kitchen and I didn’t even groan. I was on a love high like I haven’t been on since Conan and I first got together.

I admit, I faltered a bit in my joy-fest when the baby had his first serious asthma attack towards the end of the week. I might have cursed our car as more punishment than transportation when it broke down AGAIN yesterday. And okay, I reverted back to the crying-in-my-office thing when faced with more evidence of state-sanctioned genocide happening in my country- wondering how many more Black lives are going to be lost before it’s enough evidence to change the system, feeling an enormous dread as I worry about my loved ones who are not only living with discrimination (as if that were a small thing) but also knowing that they and their beautiful, precious children are likely to be killed just for existing. In my country. The one I’m dying to go back to.

And yet I am dying to go back. For those very friends I’m worrying about, and loving and missing from afar. For all of you folks who are worrying about me and Conan, and sending so much love from afar. Because I have support. Because I give support. Generosity is a cycle. We have to continue to support and love on each other- not even just to make positive change, but also just because that’s what makes life really worth living.

And now I’m hungry for more; I want to do more! Your all’s gifts have made me more determined than ever to be exactly where I am and trust that it’s right. Even if it seems we’re always short on time and money, I can still find more ways to give. I can give a few pesos to that guy by the market with his drum and his eery voice. I can give more understanding to my students when they can’t get it together to study. I can keep trying to make my classes a rich and welcoming learning environment for all my students. I can bake an extra loaf of corn bread every time I bake, to have some extra for sharing. (Because maybe my dad was right about food being love.) I can be nice, amable, because it doesn’t cost a thing and it makes such a big difference sometimes. I’ll keep my eyes and heart open for more and more opportunities to do right by the world. Every day I can learn more, I can work more towards being the person that I dream of being- a person overflowing with love and generosity.

So the euphoric effects of everyone’s well-wishes, encouragement and assistance haven’t disappeared just because I’m not explosively elated 24/7. I’ve incorporated your energy into my being. Life is hard and unfair, true. There is so much suffering happening all the time. So much hardship in any given day. Days like today, when the negative seems overwhelming, I am somber but more sure than ever about my place in the world. I am more sure than ever of the world’s beauty, too. That I’ll get through this. That we’ll get through this- all of this hard and wonderful and important stuff- together.

Thank you, thank you, thank you. I am eternally grateful.

Love,

Julia

As an extra note, I want to share with you my reminder to myself, that I’ve posted in my office to keep me from crying excessively (or at least too loudly) when I read the news:

“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now. Love mercy now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” – from the Talmud

 

 

A Spike for the Ego

21 Aug

I gave up being a stellar young volleyball player when I was thirteen, because it no longer fit my budding rebel image. I’d been the hot-shot player on my team, because I loved it and therefore I practiced relentlessly. But I traded it in for tentative puffs of smoke, for dancing in the mosh pit, for spoken word poetry. Sports were for jocks and that wasn’t me, I declared, with all of my tentacles extended to speculate and conjecture about my identity. Little did I know that years later, volleyball would save my life, imparting me with a concrete expression of myself as a real human being, when nothing and no one else around me acknowledged me as a distinct and singular individual.

 
Volleyball as refuge for me started in the itty-bitty mountain town of Juquila, Oaxaca, during that year of my life when I was lost in the abyss. I was whisked away in the shock, in the wonder and delight, in the anguish and growing pains of becoming a mother. I was in semi-exile from my home, trying to clench my fist around some solid piece of myself. I was locked away in solitary confinement, with an infant who couldn’t talk, a very depressed partner who wasn’t talking to me, and a small town full of folks who acted like I was an alien species.

 
Then I found a place to play volleyball.

 
It was at the hospital, up one of Juquila’s many steep hills. Everyone else who played regularly was staff from the hospital, but a neighbor who worked at the hospital told me it wasn’t exclusive, and I leapt at the non-invitation as if it were a red carpet leading me to my very own party. They were mostly younger folks hired from other parts of the state, and they were mostly a little more open-minded than many of the locals in Juquila.

 
Usually Conan would come with me to bring baby Lucia- who refused to take a bottle- in case she needed to nurse. Even though I wasn’t 100% free of my mother role, at least I was somewhere in my own right. It was a place to go with a legitimate purpose all about me, as a person who played this sport, as opposed to being Conan’s partner, or Paulina’s daughter-in-law, or just “la gringa,” a strange specimen to inspect and marvel at. It was a respite from both being ignored and being a side-show freak.

 
Not that I found a new bestie or something from going to volleyball once a week. We never had deep or intimate or intellectual conversation, nor many other things that I was longing for. Nobody ever invited me for anything but volleyball- and there wasn’t really anything else to do in Juquila anyway, except perhaps have a drink. But I got to use my body for something besides walking to the market and nursing the baby, and I got to be  part of a team. Being accepted into the volleyball games was enough. I eventually even got invited to be on their team for a big tournament. That was the most recognized and autonomous I ever felt in Juquila.

 

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Proof of my existence: My shirt even had my name on it for the tournament! Thank you, hospital volleyball players of Juquila.

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An action shot

When we moved to Puerto Escondido, I started from scratch again with my search for a social existence. There are a lot more people and options, as well as a different attitude, in Puerto. People are so much more open- it’s palpable. When I talk about Juquila, when I describe things and some people there, my shoulders hunch up, I shrink in on myself, fighting off the cold. But when I think about Puerto, my arms extend like wings, or like the surfer I’m not, out, open, free. What a difference.

I was invited to a volleyball team at the university where I work, too, but my existence in Puerto doesn’t start and end with volleyball. Granted, I still don’t have the incredibly fulfilling social life I pine for. But I am recognized in so many ways and spaces. I have a house that’s all ours, with electricity and everything, where I can be totally me and blast my music at 7AM. I’m not a novice Mommy-in-the-making anymore; I’m full-fledged, parenting with my eyes closed half the time. I’m a teacher with more than 5 years spent in classrooms, including two years under my belt using a curriculum that I helped invent. I get along royally with my students and I’m generally pleased to be at work, enjoying what I do. I have fabulous coworkers who I love to hang out with, at work and beyond. I know some other really cool folks who I almost never get to see because of this busy life- but at least I know really cool people! They know me. We exist in this social universe!

And I play volleyball, every Friday after work. I play to be outside of my Mommy role, outside of my Teacher role, to just be me, me and my body, little autonomous Julia. My muscles work hard and I feel sweaty and strong and glorious. My laughter erupts time and again, like yet another oil spill in the ocean, uncontainable, uncontrollable, its effects diffusing into all the realms of my being. I feel so alive, every single week. I feel like I belong, goofing off with staff and students and thesis candidates, other people shirking their normal roles to have a good time.

My volleyball skills are not what they used to be, although I’ve still got a surprisingly wicked underhand serve on a good day. More importantly, I feel legitimate and whole and right when I’m on the court: secure in my body, sure of my identity and place in the universe.

So I found myself getting pretty irritated with a small group of new students and their hot-shot egos who found their way to our games. See, in August and September, the university has a special introductory semester for new students while everyone else is on vacation. So right now there are just a few of us regulars and several enthusiastic new students. Bless their little hearts.

There is this group of those guys (almost always male, especially down here). We all know them: the guys who are confident that they’re more important than you. In volleyball, they are rampant, unapologetic ball-hogs. They’re flagrant court stealers, trying to play every position at once. They’re not only sexist (if you’re good, you’re good for a girl) because they also steal the ball from other men who aren’t as good/aggressive as they are- they’re equal opportunity in their discounting of all us “inferior” players.

They’re not amazing players in reality, though. At least half of these boys’ skill is brute force. They lose the point at least as much as they get it. Sometimes they blow the point because they hit it way too hard. Often they blow it because they’re so busy making sure some less-skilled player doesn’t mess up that they abandoned their own position and can get the ball when it lands there. And sometimes they just mess up, just because they’re human. But because they can spike, because they’ve got great hustle, because they’re overzealous, they’re really impressed with each other and uninspired by the rest of us. They’d like to think that it’s they’re game and we’re just there for show.

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Conan captured perfectly this ball-hog in Juquila stealing the ball from right in front of me. These guys are international, after all.

I am not there for show, however, thank you very much, chicos. I’m not a star volleyball player, but I’ve got thirty two years of budding and blooming personality under my belt, and no one can diminish that in me now. When I call the ball, I’m going to hit it, even if they get in my way. When they scoot in to my position before the ball’s even been served, I politely tell them to scoot on back out of my space. “I might miss it, but you might, too,” I told one of them this past week. Or when one of them tried to switch into the setter’s spot without asking me about it, I told him nicely, “Sorry, I like this position, too.”

I was feeling all irked about their presence, until I realized that those boys and I both have our egos all tied up in this game. Their stake is all about performing well for their buddies, whereas my stake is all about having a space to “perform” myself. I’m old enough now to not pen myself into a category. I can be an avid volleyball player and not worry about being a jock. I can be a devoted Mommy and still be a wild child rebel in my own ways and time. I can just be all of who I am now and most days I don’t give myself any complexes about it, thank the universe.

These poor boys, though, are not even having fun! They’re so busy trying to prove that they’re bad-asses that they can’t even laugh when they mess up. They either try to put the blame on someone else or they beat themselves up over it. Granted, it doesn’t make their behavior any more acceptable. They still need to learn that we all have a right to play, regardless of sex, regardless of skill level. But it does give me a little more  compassion for them. Here they are, many of them, separated from their old friends, out of their parents’ house, in a new town, for the first time in their lives. They’re trying to hang on to and continue recreating their own social identities. It’s hard. I get it. Maybe, with time, with more of us insisting that we all belong equally on the court, they’ll get that part, too. Maybe they’ll even learn to respect themselves more when they learn to respect others. Maybe they’ll even have fun during volleyball someday. We can only hope.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep holding space and pushing back at their infringement on my territory. For myself, for the other women who play, for the other not-so-aggressive players, and even for team macho themselves. It’s what my more-grown-up ego demands of me- to keep claiming my right to exist, to respect other people’s right to exist, on the volleyball court and elsewhere. Thank you, sports, and fellow players, for helping me rediscover my place.

P.S.   Semi-related bonus story: Recently Conan found out how it felt to live in the shadow of someone else and I don’t think he cared much for it. Some students of mine came up to him and the baby outside of my work and asked, “Is this the teacher Julia’s son?” (in Spanish). He said it was and they smiled at each other, said something between themselves, and walked off. “It was like I didn’t exist,” he complained to me.

My ego is too mature these days (maybe) to gloat about something like that, although it was kind of nice to feel understood. Luckily for him that’s not his whole existence in this town, because it’s no way to live. Love and solidarity, folks. Take care of each other, and hold space for yourself, and for others. xoxoxo, Your Humble Gringuita in Oaxaca