Rowing to Dunkirk, One Stitch at a Time

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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.

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Embracing the Chaos, Post-Covid 19

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Santo Domingo, Oaxaca

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.

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Finding my tribe in Oaxaca has been the best of the best: socially minded friends who rock

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.

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Velma, on my front porch swing

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.

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Eulalia, dying yarn at her house

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.

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Laying flowers on graves at San Felipe Cemetery on Day of the Dead. Oaxaca in technicolor.

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.

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Sewing homemade face masks in Waco

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.

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My new little house in Waco, refuge in the storm

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.

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Los Cuiles Cafe, Oaxaca, February 2020. Papel picado flying in the wind.