Sometime last year I read something that made me want to reframe the things that I miss and put them in a context where I can just appreciate them. Reframing – a term I’ve learned from my life coach Nils in Oaxaca – is taking a negative thought (sad to say, often my default button) and turning over the coin to find the positive. Nils and I had a What’s App video session last week; my last one with him in Oaxaca seems mind-blowingly irrevelant in this brave new world. Was I really worried that someone was upset with me for something I said? That’s so last millennium – no wait, that was just last month.
So the phrase was to reframe a loss by saying: “Wasn’t I lucky to have had ______?” – no matter for how long, or how much I miss it now. I’d actually been practicing this with several situations which I was grieving, most notably a 10-year relationship with José that just could not be salvaged or resurrected.
The self-criticism: Was I crazy to have tried to have a serious relationship, in a language I was just learning, with a Mexican man who — before finding AA — spent 30 years as a street drunk?
Reframed: Wasn’t I lucky to have had ten years with a Mexican man who was quirky and funny and who loved me until the cows came home – though he had no model for how that looked?
Wasn’t I lucky to learn street Spanish conversing with him hours a day (I did have to learn to scale back on the adjectives)? Wasn’t I lucky to ride a motorcycle behind a tattooed man in cowboy boots?
So here goes. Maybe these are premature pronouncements, but then again maybe they’re not.
Wasn’t I lucky to have had a whole decade in Mexico, living exactly how I wanted? I didn’t wait until I had more money, or retired, or lost 20 pounds. I just acted on a deep yearning to live abroad again, learn Spanish and have multi-cultural adventures.
An early conversation from a rooftop in San Miguel de Allende, where I went my first two trips to study in a small language school, stuck with me. A twenty-something young woman was working on her laptop in her swimsuit with a glass of sangria at her side. I asked her what she was doing. “Working remotely,” she answered, and a little light bulb went off in my head.
We want on to talk about risk and she continued, “I see myself climbing the rope ladder in the circus, and I get all the way up to the platform and dive – and on the way down I say, Water, appear!” Oh hell yes, I wanted to get me some of that: in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato and finally Oaxaca.
And for 11 years, I have indeed gotten me some of that. Even if I never am able to return – I don’t think that’s going to be the case but I do think it will be longer than any of us imagine – wasn’t I lucky, lucky, lucky to have had that?
Wasn’t I lucky to find my tribe and the most awesome women friends ever?
I can’t bear the thought of not seeing my Oaxaca home girls again – the ones I called when I was feeling sad, or to talk me down off the anxiety ledge, toss over possible alternatives to opening my big mouth right away, or just hang out and go cool places with. But wasn’t I lucky to have found them, after years of thinking I just didn’t get along that well with most women because well, suburbia.
I always had sensibilities that didn’t fit in and viewpoints that were too intense for the PTA crowd, and never, ever had the right clothes or hairdo. In Oaxaca, it didn’t frigging matter! On my last return to Oaxaca in January, I hadn’t seen my friend Suzanne for the first week or so before I ran into on the street.
She stood in the middle of the sidewalk and just held her arms open. I told her later that’s how I want to always feel when returning to my friends: welcomed open-armed. I could cry just thinking about that, but wasn’t I lucky to have found these women with their wise ways and superpowers of cutting through the BS and cutting to the chase of what’s real and true and honest?
(Not that I didn’t have real Superwomen friends in the U.S.; I just found them in spades in Oaxaca.)
Wasn’t I lucky to have traveled as much as I have? From my first trip abroad – a three-week “If It’s Tuesday It Must be Belgium” trip through a dozen countries, I was hopelessly hooked on travel.
At 15 – actually I turned 15 on that trip in Heidleburg, Germany – I felt like I’d been woken up from a sleepwalking existence into one where I felt every nuance of being alive, where every shadow snapped into sharp focus.
I got to live in France for a year, backpack across the Greek islands, spend New Year’s Eve 1992 in Niger as the guest of the vice president – whom we’d met in 1978 in France.
Even in these later years of reduced money and more limited travel, I’ve still gotten to go all over Mexico. Wasn’t I lucky to find that I loved travel so early and get to do so much of it throughout my life?
Wasn’t I lucky to have found meaningful volunteer work with En Vía? One of my goals of living abroad again was to find volunteer work that made my heart sing, that made me feel like I was contributing . . . something. My first trip to Oaxaca in 2009, I stayed in a funky little hostel that later became La Betulia and met Emily Berens, who was just forming a new non-profit with Oaxacan co-founder Carlos Topete based on the concept of responsible tourism tours generating microfinance dollars for women.
I volunteered for three years as an English teacher, then moved into translation-guiding, and it’s been one of the more meaningful experiences of my life. The other guides – like Jacki and Suzanne – and the women themselves have formed a rich, rich fabric of experience that I don’t think could be replicated anywhere. But wasn’t I lucky to have had it?
Wasn’t I lucky to have a Mexican family? Through José, who was the oldest of nine in a fairly typical Mexican family that also had dozens of cousins, uncles, aunts and accompanying in-laws, I got to be the welcomed guera newcomer.
His Tía Raquel in Tehuacan, in the flat valley between Oaxaca and Puebla, told me early on that she felt sorry for me not having a mom living (mine died when I was 18 and she 47) or brothers and sisters. “Susana, I will be your Mexican mama,” she said. “We will be your family.” Whenever we visited a couple times a year, José would leave me for a while in the downstairs room where Raquel held court, and she would lay down a few wise words before giving me a blessing. “We’re so glad that Pépé has found some measure of happiness in his later years,” she said early on. “Because he was – shall we say – a difficult boy.”
There was Uncle Julio and his nine kids in Orizaba, rafts of nephews and nieces who wanted to practice their English with me, weddings, baptisms. Later there were fallings out with various family members, both of his parents died and the family fractured as many do, but wasn’t I lucky to have had all that?
I could go on. As we all do right now, I grieve what and who I’ve lost – or may have lost, because we just don’t know yet. It’s OK to cry about it and give in to the pain – for a while. But then, there is this:
Wasn’t I lucky to have had all that?
Susan Bean Aycock, Embracing the Chaos, March 30, 2020