Like most everyone else in this country, I had no fireworks on my Fourth of July this year. But the combination of it always having been my favorite holiday and the fact that my dad passed away 20 years ago on July 4 made me determined to celebrate it in the best style I could during a global pandemic, sheltered in Waco, Texas.
What a Decade in Mexico Has Taught Me about Weathering a Global Pandemic
I was walking along Waco’s Brazos River this morning when my throat caught – the woman about to pass me on the walking trail was wearing a red Mexican blouse that was clearly from San Antonino: the elaborate, heavily embroidered style I’d recognize anywhere after living for a decade in Oaxaca City only 50 miles away.
It’s funny (insert another word here, but what?) how the pandemic has upended so many previously held norms and values. What we thought was “normal” once doesn’t exist any more. “New normal” is a catch-all phrase for everything that we deal with now that was never on the radar. Face masks, social distancing, massive protests, joblessness, political gridlock. Covid itself sounds like a word that the non-grammatician-in-chief might have accidentally twittered. Continue reading
I learned two brutal lessons at 18, when my mother died six weeks into my freshman year of college. One: life is short, really damn short if you can get cancer at 47 and die within eight months, leaving a teenager just pulling out of surly adolescence, who you’ll never see grow to adulthood. Two: People say they’ll show up, but then they don’t and will tell you later how they meant to. And I thought then as I do now: that blows. Just do it or shut up.
Agility and adaptability may save us all
More than 30 years ago, not just Before Corona Times but Before Mexico, when I was (really!) a suburban housewife in Dallas with a side writing gig, I wrote a piece (for a printed magazine!) for Dallas Community Colleges on crafting different types of resumés to get that first job. A traditional vitae – at least then – was linear in time, listing education and (if you were lucky to have had a summer internship thanks to a dad who had connections) whatever paltry work experience might set you apart from the rest of the herd. But what if you organized your self-promotion as skill sets? What volunteer jobs or life experience, showcasing what of your stellar 21-year-old qualities, might be worth giving you a foot in the door? What if it was your potential and not your actual experience that was under consideration?
Every small gesture matters, especially now
One day, an old man was walking along a beach that was littered with thousands of starfish that had been washed ashore by the high tide. As he walked, he came upon a young boy who was eagerly throwing the starfish back into the ocean, one by one.
Puzzled, the man looked at the boy and asked what he was doing. Without looking up from his task, the boy simply replied, “I’m saving these starfish, sir”. The old man chuckled aloud, “Son, there are thousands of starfish and only one of you. What difference can you make?”
The boy picked up a starfish, gently tossed it into the water and turning to the man, said, “I made a difference to that one!” Starfish: The Parable
What a failed 1914 Antarctic expedition can teach us about survival, sheltering and leadership
It was the ultimate shelter-in-place: a failed 1914 expedition to Antarctica by explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton that saw the ship Endurance mired and then crushed in pack ice, the 28-man crew stranded in the unforgiving frozen Weddell Sea, living off of ships’ supplies, penguins and finally their sled dogs. After living on a diminishing ice floe for a year, Shackleton and a crew of five crossed 800 miles of open water in a lifeboat, and slid down an icy mountain into a whaling station that would close for the season in just days. When on the fourth try they reached the remaining men stranded back on Elephant Island, not a single crew member had been lost in the nearly three-year ordeal.
In the late spring of 1940 in WWII, German forces closed in on Allied troops backed up against the beaches of Dunquerque, France. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill expected that a calculated evacuation could rescue maybe 45,000 of the nearly 400,000 troops. Large Royal Navy vessels positioned themselves in the English Channel, but couldn’t get close enough to the shallow beaches to reach the stranded soldiers.
The Allies put out a call for smaller boats to carry the troops from shore to the ships, summoning a ragtag but unstoppable force of pleasure vessels, ferries, fishing boats and cruisers who made trip after trip from the beach to the ships. In all, some 860 vessels rescued 338,226 soldiers from May 26 to June 4, 1940. It shouldn’t have been able to have been done. But it was.
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
When I began this blog nearly 10 years ago to chronicle my trip down the rabbit hole that was my life in Mexico, the title was a no-brainer. One of my earliest acquaintances, at a language school in San Miguel de Allende, had said in all earnestness: “Susana, to survive in Mexico, you’ve just got to embrace the chaos.” And for the past decade, I have.
Without being able to name exactly what I was looking for, I found it anyway in Oaxaca: a cultural kaleidoscope, an artistic wellspring, a tribe of socially minded friends, a Spanish language greenhouse and a place where I could apply my most heartfelt desires to make a difference — how ever tiny — in the world. For the first nine years, I still worked full-time as an independent contractor writing web content for Dallas College and steering new information initiatives through uncharted territory. Then I was “retired” from my job and my apartment building in Dallas sold the same week: a sure sign from the universe that I needed to move my butt.
I picked out an apartment online from Oaxaca and moved from Dallas to Waco on a day in August of 2018 that registered 105 degrees in real temperature. Turned out that I loved Waco from the get-go, its suspension bridges and walking trails, friendly people and especially my new neighbor, 90-year-old Velma, who taught line dancing at the senior center and let me use her washing machine in exchange for a little conversation, which I would have given for free.
I still straddled two countries all last year; Velma put a drip on the faucets when it froze and periodically checked on things. I ramped up my work as a volunteer translator guide with En Via, a women’s microfinance and education nonprofit for whom I initially taught English – I had met co-founder Emily Berens my first trip to Oaxaca, when everything changed for me. I became lazy in my blog writing, though I kept writing to spontaneous prompts in my weekly writing group, which totally lit my fire. I also ramped up the export trade business I’d been playing with all year, going out to the villages every week to put in special orders with 20 or so weaving families I’d met through En Vía. I had a ball riding in mototaxis up the dusty hills of Teotitlán del Valle, translating Spanish to English, pesos to dollars, centimeters to inches and sometimes leaving a message on a doorstep under a rock for a weaver who had no phone or Facebook Messanger: Eulalia. I found my tribe.
What I never imagined is that “Embracing the Chaos” would now mean a world post-covid 19, with not the kind of cute cultural chaos that makes for amusing blogs, but a mind-bending, gut wrenching chaos of the whole world turned upside down to fight a madly duplicating virus cell that looks like a Texas sticker burr. As I realized how much I wanted to give hope and cause simultaneous tears and laughter in our world changed virtually overnight, I contemplated a name change. Maybe “Resisting the Chaos.” Or “Overcoming the Chaos.” But no, it’s really still embracing the chaos, because that’s the only way we’re going to survive this.
Suddenly, after a couple of years of writing apathy, not even writer’s block because I wasn’t even trying, I’m on fire to write again. Not because I’m such a great writer, but because if I don’t these thoughts and feelings down on paper, they’ll burn a hole in my gut or catch my head on fire.
My favorite writers are the ones who can bring a tear to your eye while making you bend over in helpless laughter, who mine the miseries and mysteries of their own lives to name — like stand-up comics — those things that everyone thinks and experiences but can’t quite put into words themselves. My uber, uber favorite is Anne Lamott, dreadlocked, introverted, recovering alcoholic, California Christian, hopelessly as concerned about her doughy thighs as she is her spiritual wellbeing. One of her turn of phrases that still cracks me up is describing an expression as one of “Jesus drinking gin from the cat dish.” That slays me.
In trying to describe myself to a new person in my life, I said quite honestly: “Listen, I have a big mouth that’s gotten me in trouble my whole life. Sometimes there’s not even a millisecond between what I feel and think and what comes rushing out of my mouth. I say too much. I talk too loud. But you’re never going to wonder what I’m feeling or thinking because it will be right on my sleeve.” In boldface, all caps.
Ann Lamott calls the negative voice in her head, the one that starts talking really loudly at 2 a.m. in times like these, listening to Radio Station K-FCKD. If you don’t dial it down, you’ll get a perennial feed of it and to the hammer, everything looks like a nail. The news sucks, the virus is spreading, we’re all going to die or if not, we’re going to head into dystopian Mad Max land because the American dream is over.
And yet. There is a crazy spark of hope in the eyes of ordinary, everyday people who won’t give up so easily. There’s a Facebook page for Waco home sewers to make fabric face masks requested by hospitals whose surgical masks are all going to covid 19 wards; there are none for ordinary departments like post-surgery and intensive care units. Local grocery stores have shortened store hours to restock every night and upped their cashiers’ pay to cope with extra work load that carries the importance of first responders. Neighbors have banded together to get food to the elderly and immuno-compromised where social services can’t keep up.
If one believes that nothing is coincidental — which in my Alice in Wonderland Mexican experience I fervently do — I was preparing for a return to Texas almost all year. On the (always) sound advice of my older son, I began looking for a house to buy in Waco as a positive financial move. Then it became an affair of the heart. I wanted a nest; I got one, white siding and front porch swing and all. In late February, a member of my beloved writing group confided that her local doctor was already wearing a mask and saying that the corona virus — with only two confirmed cases in Mexico so far — was going to spread fast. That was enough for me.
I read the writing on the wall, written in invisible ink, and in 48 hours had packed two big bags, prepaid my rent in cash for three months, turned off the gas and hopped a plane back to Texas with free miles. Many of my friends thought I was way overreacting; there was nothing in the news to merit such alarm. Less than two weeks later, DFW Airport was a snarl of panicked travelers with Customs waiting lines up to six hours. Those who didn’t get out of Mexico that week are stuck there for the duration; one friend wrote of a harrowing trip trying to make the last nonstop United flight from Oaxaca to Houston, like the last helicopter out of Saigon.
I got back here to Waco — in another lifetime when H&G tv was all-consuming, the Fixer-Upper home of Chip and Joanna Gaines that has put this little Texas city on the map — to the refuge of my sweet little white frame house. I found toilet paper and hand sanitizer, stocked the pantry, checked books out of the public library and finally bought the washer-dryer set I’d been saving up for. I don’t know when or even if I’ll get back to Mexico, and if or when I do — that life I led is over like all of the lives we led.
It’s full-on resistance, people. Like the French citizens who risked their lives to lead Allied solders out of the war zone of occupied France over the Pyrenees and into Spain, we’re going to be called on to do extraordinary tasks in our same old ordinary skins. In our worn old shoes and holey socks, and before we’ve had the chance to lose 15 pounds on an organic, vegan diet. All bets from that ordinary life we led a month ago are off.
We can still laugh though we’re going to be crying a lot more. If we’re going to survive this as a country, as a world, we’re going to have to band together in motley little groups to practice radical kindness and compassion, regardless of what any government mandates or laws decree. We’re going to have to give each other a frigging break when we snap and snark, because it’s all just a little tip of the massive iceberg of grief that has landed on our collective chests.
Let’s do it. Together.