Ebb and Flow

By the time I get out the door for work at 8:30 a.m., it’s already so hot and humid condensation forms on my forehead in the few steps I take to the four wheeler.
I settle the black helmet on my head, shift to reverse, and start the machine with a roar and purr. I back out of the gravel drive, pull down the dirt alley, and onto the paved street. Motoring down the road creates a breeze that feels like the only thing keeping me from spontaneously combusting from a combination of sun-heat, humidity, and pregnancy.
I love the quad. Not only is it a new kind of freedom to have my own wheels here on the island, but I love how it feels to drive. Surprisingly enough, I never drove one while living in the Upper Peninsula, as many of my peers did, but here on Isla it’s my everyday ride.
My eight month, pregnant belly is a curved-moon shape waxing toward full.

Nine months pregnant and still driving the quad :)
Nine months pregnant and still driving the quad 🙂

I take the speed bumps more slowly now.
My rides to work, as they were in Michigan, are time for myself. Time for deep breaths; a moment alone to reflect, or not; time to notice my surroundings; taste the day; take note of interesting things: the bursting forth of my favorite peach-colored hibiscus tree across the street from the nighttime milkshake place, a fluffy black street dog marking its territory, the bright pile of dragon fruit on a vendor’s table.
A pregnant woman on a four wheeler elicits interesting looks from tourists and locals alike. I just smile and wiggle my fingers in a little wave.
I turn down the familiar street maze, always taking the slightly longer way so that I can drive along the Caribbean. The shimmer and movement of water calms me—it always has. Whether it’s Lake Superior, the Laughing Whitefish River, Big Manistique Lake, or the Caribbean Sea, moving water stills and calms unease and anxiety trapped like a caged bird in my chest.
Local dogs trot purposefully down cobbled streets, their pace and upright tails denoting important missions not to be interrupted.
I pass fruit and vegetable stands with little pyramids of zucchini, carrots, and bright red radishes that rode the ferry over from the mainland early this morning.
Pigeons scuttle and take flight as I round a corner, heat making them slow.
A flash of bright plumeria aroma wafts over me and is immediately replaced by the stench of an overflowing garbage can.
I catalogue and collect each detail, holding them up for inspection like pieces of beach glass—comparisons to other commutes to work: snowstorms; deer dodging, changing season’s leaf budding, unfurling, and falling.
Sometimes I can’t help but laugh aloud at the changes, differences, absurdities from one incarnation of my life to another.
In Michigan, when I lived alone in my cabin, I used to love cutting a hard right part way home on my commute—trading blacktop and yellow lines for winding gravel roads and the thrill of dodging puddles and potholes.
When I was safely off the main road I’d crack a roadie, turn the radio up, take a couple puffs off my onie, and press foot to accelerator.
The gravel road, four wheel drive vehicle and me became one entity—curves and bumps no longer obstacles but part of a terrain that four wheels and me were an extension of.

Cruising in the Rav with my Bea-baby.
Cruising in the Rav with my Bea-baby.

Windows down, music up, it was some of the most free I’ve ever felt.
It was a high I craved. The moment the car stopped, the realities of bills, loneliness, and work in the morning caught up and slipped clammy hands over my shoulders.
I needed those highs to balance the lows—driving fast; tiptoeing naked through the yard and down to the river for a breathless swim; showing up alone, head high to the bar.
These glorious moments were often followed all too quickly by moments of sadness and loneliness so acute it was almost a physical blow.
Staring out rain-streaked cabin windows, worry about house needs weighed heavy on my head: firewood, would there be enough to pay the bills, that leak in the roof, and on and on. Loneliness and pain from the recent past pressing against my eyelids.
In the midst of it, there’s almost a deliciousness in the pain. It reminded me I was alive as much as those moments of exhilaration. Intense, exquisite loneliness and independence the balance beam I walked day to day.
Up and down. High and low. Ebb and flow.
Two years later some part of me sometimes, almost, misses those peaks and troughs.
The rest of me is thankful for the steady day to day joys that are my life now.

Wedding Photo—Kate Bee Photography
Wedding Photo—Kate Bee Photography

When I first moved to Isla, every little detail thrilled and interested me. I was fascinated by each nuance and felt like my smile would never unstretch.
Day to day sneaks up before I even realize. Imperceptibly the transition occurs—what was at first so exciting and unfamiliar becomes commonplace and normal.
My walks down the dusty alley to and from what was, at first, my boyfriend’s apartment, then our apartment, and now the apartment I share with my husband, went from a thrilling stroll down a Mexican island alley, to my daily walk to and from home.
The foods that were, at first, exotic, unfamiliar, new, have become day to day fare: tacos pastor shaved succulent and glistening from its grilled meat cone; fresh mango, dragon fruit, and Guyana from the corner fruit stand; street tacos of every carne topped with pico, salsa picante, and crema de ajo.
Riding across the island on a moto, arms around my handsome man’s waist, I poke and pinch myself—reminders of how blessed I am to live on this magical island—inhabit this space with my sexy husband, our hilarious dogs, amazing friends, and all the individuals who also call Isla home.

It’s so easy to become complacent—to take for granted the space we inhabit, people we love, small moments of joy.
I’m learning yet another way of happiness—day to day joys simple, small, and often tucked away in little pockets of gratitude: bedside picnics, watching a lightning storm from the roof, swimming with Ryan in turquoise waters.
The intensity of my days at the cabin—highs so high and lows so low, have calmed to steady swells carrying me forward.
A strong, lonely, independent laughing girl running alone and barefoot through apple orchards and over wild violets adapting in two years to a happy pregnant wife on a Caribbean island and a son soon-to-be born.
It’s happiness ebbing and flowing on a whole new tide.

I listen for the four wheeler’s engine purr and press my thumb harder on the accelerator.
Ryan wouldn’t approve of me driving so fast, but the road in front of me is clear, and to my left, the Caribbean sparkles. The hot wind against my face smells of salt and promise.

Wedding Photo—Kate Bee Photography
Wedding Photo—Kate Bee Photography

Changing Tides

Changing Tides

The sun’s in my eyes as I write. The evening’s first mosquitoes, which will soon chase me indoors from my porch bench, begin to whine.
Guaya leaves rustle, branches weighed heavy with ripening, round green fruits I love to eat by the handful. I call them “road fruit” because I like to take them on the moto with me. Their orange, juicy insides taste like a sweet tart. We called them genips when we were kids eating them on vacation in The Bahamas.
Our son kicks in my belly as I sip tea from a brown ceramic mug.
Momma sent me a photo of trillium blooming in a white-petaled carpet that I know blankets much of Upper Michigan right now.

Trillium in Michigan’s North Woods
Trillium in Michigan’s North Woods

I ache for Michigan, but first have to get this Michigan/California/Mexico boy baby born before I can return.
Then, I will swim in fresh water—cold tears from a glacier long melted.
I will forage for asparagus by the roadside and precious morels hiding beneath last fall’s leaves.
I will bury my fingers in garden dirt, the same that dirtied my childhood knees.

I never thought I’d have a child away from Michigan. For that matter, I really wasn’t sure I was ever going to have a child.
After my marriage ended, I focused on things like how we have a serious over-population problem I didn’t want to contribute to. I told myself that, as a teacher, I had opportunities to help shape and influence many humans, as opposed to focusing my energy on just one. I searched myself and while I like babies and children, I didn’t feel the pull to be a mother that so many feel. I didn’t feel any genetic imperative to create another little human.

When Ryan and I first started dating he said to me, “This might be too much too fast, but I’m 32 years old and I want a family before I get much older. I think if we’re going to date we should have these things out in the open right away…and I think you’d look so beautiful pregnant.”
I laughed, a bit uncomfortable at his honest revelations, but also flattered and intrigued. His candidness was refreshing. But I was glorying in my independence, had just moved to Mexico after 31 years in Michigan, and wasn’t sure yet that I was ready to commit my heart, let alone my life, to anyone but myself.
We carried on like semi-responsible adults living on an island in the Caribbean: working hard, playing hard, drinking tequila and laughing with friends late into the night.
It was a life I couldn’t have imagined for myself on lonely nights in my Michigan cabin with only a fuzzy cat and Bea puppy for company.
There were nights in the cabin where I gloried in my independence, and many others when I stared at the phone, door, window, computer screen, and longed for the company and distractions of a world “out there.” Nights when all the freedom and space of 40 acres and the surrounding wilderness pressed in on me and made me ache for something more.
Life in the cabin was everything I wanted. And everything I wanted to escape from.
Those nights, if you’d whispered in my ear that two years later I’d be living on Isla with my handsome musician, soon-to-be husband, six months pregnant, I wouldn’t have believed a word.

Baby Callan
Baby Callan

Because of many aspects of our life, I’ve had several people ask in hushed voices, “Was this planned, or…” their voices trailing off in insinuation. Smart blond professor leaves her job at the university, seduced into living an alternative lifestyle on an island in Mexico and then carelessly gets pregnant.
Makes me giggle every time, considering I’m 33 years old and have managed to avoid getting pregnant thus far.
Week by week, one conversation after another, this future that I’m living coalesced. Flights to visit family in California and Michigan. Walking hand in hand down a familiar gravel lane and feeding Ryan his first wild blackberry. Slowly, out of whatever ether they’re born, a shared dream coalesced.

A future I’d never fathomed for myself formed from salty turquoise waters, two people’s hard work, shared ideas, and a love I’d once convinced myself didn’t exist for me.
“Yes.” I said with my throat and lips; my head and heart; every inch of my body.
Yes to a life and future with this good man. Yes to leaving behind the known, loved, and familiar for new loves and new adventures. Yes to making life, a human, a little man. All those thoughts not caring about carrying on my genes shifted, and I learned what it is to want to make a person with someone I love.

Baby Callan kicks once, and then again. It makes me smile every time.

The community on Isla is supportive beyond anything I could’ve hoped for, and eagerly awaits his birth almost as much as we do.
My sister and I were raised in a community of “Aunts and Uncles,” “Grandparents,” and dear family friends who loved us fiercely, and valued us as people. In a world where adults and children are too often separated, Laurel and I grew up surrounded in a diverse group of people from all ages, who taught, nurtured, and mentored us. It’s what I want for my own child, and I’ve found it here.

A group of my amazing Isla friends. So thankful.
A group of my amazing Isla friends. So thankful.

Sometimes I feel like a broken record, always going on about how much I miss Michigan. I think we often mythologize a place once we’re not living there anymore. I try to remind myself of the loneliness, bugs, cold, limitations. Those are there too, in the mix of golden evenings on clear lake shores, waiting for the moon to rise so we could dive, naked and free—swimming for hours beneath a night sky broken open with stars, planets, and spinning satellites.
I miss fresh field-grass aromas—green swathes dotted with purple Lupine and Queen Anne’s Lace. It’s like each of these details is inside a kaleidoscope I hold to my eye, and if I’m not careful, could lose myself to. I give it a turn and the images and colors shift: my father’s garden, corn tassels flutter in an August breeze; the flavor of a fresh, ripe wild blueberry, losing myself in a bonfire’s dancing flames.
Dream and reality waver like a mirage on my horizon. Thank

Being pregnant on Isla has many dynamics, many of them more difficult than if I were back in Michigan. It’s a Caribbean Island where people vacation and most people drink like they are. You don’t realize how much a part of life and culture the consumption of alcohol is until you can’t do it anymore.
Overnight not only did I have to quit something I genuinely enjoy, but also became separate from the people around me. Of course I can still participate in social activities with friends, but not being able to have a drink sets me apart and in a different mindset from the people around me. I understand why it’s difficult for former alcoholics to be in public and around people drinking—it’s not just wanting a drink yourself, it’s also feeling like you’re in a bubble, separate from everyone around.
On the other hand, the community here are genuinely delighted by children. I love watching the joy of local men when they see my protruding belly bump—a warm, soft smile spreads across their faces, beneath it memories of tiny siblings, nieces, nephews, sons and daughters. No matter the circumstances for better or worse, children are a blessing here.

Six months pregnant.
Six months pregnant.

Ryan and I walk Bea and OG to a tiny beach near our house. It’s a cove, so Bea can run and frolic without danger of her chasing an iguana into the road. The four of us laugh and run into the surf. OG hits it with his giant Labrador chest, then turns and body surfs the wave into shore. Bea darts into the churning water and out again, up and down the shoreline. The sun’s hot, but the waves breaking across my body and growing belly are cool and salty. I lick my lips once, and then again, loving the briny taste. When I was little and swam in the ocean, I remember air-drying on the beach and taking a tentative tongue lick off my own shoulder, intrigued and delighted by this foreign flavor on my skin. Fresh water didn’t do that.
Ryan comes up behind me and I brace my body against his as the waves churn in. His arms encircle my waist, palms flat against my stomach where our growing son kicks and bumps, as if responding to his father’s touch. I lean into him and turn my face to the sun, tasting salt, and this new way of joy.

Ryan and I, six months pregnant.
Ryan and I, six months pregnant.

 

Thank you Kate Bessette of Kate Bee Photography for the beautiful photos!

Metamorphosis

Metamorphosis

Late-fall sunset
Late-fall sunset
November 4th Laughing Whitefish River play time.
November 4th Laughing Whitefish River play time.
32 years old. December 2016
32 years old. December 2016
Photo credit tanyacanam photography
The future: photo credit Kate Bee Photos

A Journal Excerpt from 2014

I recently came upon this excerpt in a journal I’d had packed away and pulled out to bring back on one of my trips between Mexico and Michigan. At the time of the writing, I was recently divorced and about halfway through what I would discover was a frightening and emotionally abusive relationship.

The photos and writings that follow show a young woman in transition. My steadily growing smile evidence of the hard work in moving forward from hard times. 

A Metamorphosis.

It’s the day after Christmas. I’m sitting on the couch, trying to calm the anxiety I hoped would dissipate after the holidays were over. Instead, my heart still beats too fast, the worry line at the side of my mouth keeps deepening—am I frowning in my sleep?
I feel like I’m caught in a dance I don’t know—always moving out of sync with the rest of my world; my family, my friends.
They say they aren’t mad at me for my divorce and new boyfriend, but I sense it wafting through the room, encircling my neck like a noose. Looking each other in the eyes isn’t easy anymore.
Wedding pictures are gone from shelves and fridge, their absence as palpable as their presence.
I brought this upon them. Brought their pain. Caused their discomfort. Brought a stranger into their midst and took away what was familiar.
I straighten my neck and shoulders, aching with the weight of guilt and pain.

August 12, 2016 Excerpted from the essay “The Mechanics”

I mow approximately an acre. With a push-mower. I understand the lawn isn’t, technically, necessary. However, it helps keep the bugs down, or so I tell myself. In Deerton, bugs are a constant battle. I will also argue the lawn was mowed this way before, and it’s easy to follow the yard line. I also love how it looks. Untamed wilderness at the lawn’s edges makes a startling contrast to thick, impenetrable brush and trees forming a border around the yard line.

I learned how to use both a push and riding lawnmower when I lived with my husband. I liked the rider, as I could have a beer or glass of wine and enjoy my yard one, ever-smaller, concentric circle at a time.

My cabin didn’t come with a mower, so I went down to a dealer in Skandia and looked for something used, aka in my teensy-tiny budget. When I walked into the show-room a gentleman was in the process of buying the only used one available, but changed his mind at the last minute, and for $150 the mower was mine.

I arrived home, unloaded the mower, and surveyed the waving grass blades and bobbing daisy heads. I had just purchased my first lawnmower. Before me were hundreds of laps around the rocky yard, a lot of bug bites, and moments of deep satisfaction, sipping wine and surveying the results of my efforts.

Playing in the mowed yard with Bea pup
Playing in the mowed yard with Bea pup

The work is hard–the yard dips and plunges. It’s full of rocks, and unexpected tree stumps popping out of tall grass to quickly stop a mower blade. The bugs are horrendous: black flies, mosquitoes, horse flies, deer flies. I’ve often eaten as many as five mosquitoes in a couple hours just opening my mouth for a deep breath.

Mowing the lawn in black fly season.
Mowing the lawn in black fly season.

But somehow, I don’t mind that much. Perhaps it’s doing it myself; a sense of accomplishment; stubborn pride; single-woman-goal-achievement; forced exercise.
A chance to touch each inch of the land I own and inhabit.

The lawnmower wasn’t my first triumphant act, and it certainly won’t be the last.

I learned how to use a weed wacker, switch the propane tank for the two-burner stove, change the water filter, build stone walkways, swap my brakes (with assistance), and carpentry work will soon be an addition to the list.

Inappropriate Weed Whipper Attire
Inappropriate Weed Whipper Attire

My education came out of necessity–I don’t have money to hire someone to do these things, and I’m perfectly capable of learning. But the honest truth is: I probably wouldn’t have learned if I didn’t have to.

My mother asks: “How can you stay alone there, night after night?”

Because I have to. Because it’s my home. Necessity.

I lost my fear of the dark. I lost my fear of being alone. Because I had to–either that or leave my home. Give it up to fear.

June 26, 2017–Excerpted from the essay “A Difference of Seasons”

I’ve shaken with anxiety, awoken from nightmares screaming, pounded stone walls with fragile fists, frustration gasps choking me.
The divorce from my kind ex-husband hurt deeply.
Leaving behind the abusive relationship that came after my divorce, however, takes everything I have.
I stretch my fingers. Stare down at the tattoos, ink and meaning embedded in my ring and middle fingers.


Reminders.
Remembrances of how easy it is to lose yourself. How love can become a slowly tightening noose.
He was always sorry, later.
Every day fading, a living ghost, shrouded in layers of self-hatred, sadness, confusion, fear, exhaustion, anxiety. Always trying to get back to that place when things were good. Until days went by looking in a mirror reflecting, nothing.
I’m one of the lucky ones–a woman who remembered. A woman who pulled apart the veils and shrouds and found her voice again.

Found it living alone.
100 year old, one-room cabin.
40 acres in rural Upper Michigan’s wilderness.
¼ mile Laughing Whitefish River tangling itself through the property.
Found myself in warm summer nights standing barefoot in cricket-symphony darkness watching fireflies wink and float like tiny lanterns.
Found myself in lazy afternoons alone on the river watching iridescent damselflies dance above eddying currents.
Found myself in back-breaking wood hauling and stacking. Hauling and stacking. Hauling and stacking.
Found myself in nights so cold the split log walls popped and shifted and if I didn’t feed the stove every four hours I’d awake shivering, breath hanging in smoky puffs.

First three face cords of firewood
First three face cords of firewood

Found myself walking wooded paths, Bea-pup by my side–each mossy rock, knobby tree-trunk, and curled leaf edge familiar. Known.
Found myself in long nights half-slept, a loaded gun at my feet, a knife at my head. Stretched between the two stone pillars of fear and determination.

22 Target Practice also helps lose fear.
22 Target Practice also helps lose fear.

Found myself in a solo July trip to my beloved Isla isle, when the familiar voice of past and future called out together and my answer was laughter and a one-way ticket to Mexico.

March 20th, 2018

I see myself walking across the yard—tall, strong, surefooted, tangled blond hair tumbling down my back.
Apple and wild cherry trees tilt green-leafed branches in a soft summer breeze.
The river chuckles.

The Laughing Whitefish River--Home River
The Laughing Whitefish River–Home River

I walk, head high, eyes forward, through the gateway between two balsams—straight into Isla’s waiting arms.
Changing apple and cherry blossoms for palms and bougainvillea flowers.
Leaving behind lonely independence for the loving heat of a good man, and a baby in my belly.
The river, cabin, bouldered 40 acres, years of growth and perspective a snow globe in my chest, next to my heart, I shake sometimes. And it makes me smile.

Happy Rachel and Ryan, 2017 Photo Credit Tanya Canam Photography
Happy Rachel and Ryan, 2017
Photo Cred. Tanya Canam Photography

A Good Life

We limit ourselves in so many ways by the stories we tell about our own lives. The narratives we imagine for our futures due to pressures from society, family, loved ones, etc.

What if we imagined something different.
Created a new narrative—a new story.
A story where we’re not afraid of change. The pressures of what our family/society  imagines is a good future. The myths of “happily ever after” “prince/princess charming” “The American Dream.” Let ourselves envision what a good life looks like.

Simple Gifts: Fresh fruit from the market
Simple Gifts: Fresh fruit from the market

That doesn’t necessarily mean a life on a Caribbean island, but could mean many little or big things. I recently heard a story of a chef friend who “followed his dream” to run a  fast-paced, well-renowned restaurant. The pressures of chef-life which involved a high stress environment and days and nights away from his wife made him an unhappy alcoholic. What he really wanted, he confessed, was to work a nine to five job for the postal service and come home to his wife every night. Finally, after the stress became too much and alcohol took its toll, he left the restaurant and took a job with the postal service. He now happily works a nine to five, doesn’t drink, and goes home to his wife every night. From the outside, it looked like he was living his ideal life, but the reality was much different, and it took real bravery to make that change.
We too often look into other people’s windows for an idea of what happiness and fulfillment look like, rather than searching our own souls.
Throughout my northern life, when a rare south wind blew through our Michigan fields and forests I felt like I was the violin, and the wind was the bow. It pulled me up from wherever I was to stand with my face to that rare breath conjured from warmer waters, and deep somewhere around the bottom of my heart, I ached. It was like a siren song pulling every fiber of my being, but my head shook itself at the impracticality of such longing.
Why is it so improbable that I have both a northern and southern soul?

First three face cords of firewood
First three face cords of firewood
Photo credit tanyacanam photography

A limitation I set upon myself.
I met my ex husband when I was nineteen years old. We married when I was 24, and divorced when I was 28. I loved him. He’s a good man and will always be a good man. But my life with him was made up of expectations from society and my parents of what makes a good life.
I come from a family of teachers—a path I dutifully followed. I love teaching. It’s truly a fulfilling passion for me, but I never questioned whether it was the only way to be fulfilled and create change in the world.
My ex husband loved to hunt, fish, and wanted to live in a cabin in the woods. These are also things my father loves. I love and value them too. Those were things I never questioned, and I followed that path without a second thought.
I got degree after degree, taught, made a home for me and my husband.
Built gardens.
Held dinner parties.
Worked hard.
All the things I’d been taught made a good life.
I cried almost every day—a bottomless well made all the more deep because I couldn’t figure out why I was so sad. I had everything I should’ve wanted. It truly was a good life.
Yet…
I was still unsatisfied.
When that south wind blew, my heart ached so hard it felt bruised.
It took a lot of fumbling. A lot of mistakes. A lot of struggle, hardship, and boatloads of pain to find my way to the place where south winds originate.
I don’t regret any of the fumbling; mistakes; struggle; hardship; pain. They were lessons that will make up my life-long arsenal.
We’re so afraid.
Afraid of change. Of what other people think. Of mistakes, struggle, hardship, and pain.
My life today still has pain, struggle, and hardship.

Daily I fumble, happily, towards what a good life looks like for me.

Now, if I cry, I know the origins of my tears. And that, is worth it all.

Boat Contemplations
Boat Contemplations

Isla

I first visited Isla Mujeres when I was fifteen years old.My Uncle Don Phelan—-one of the many “Uncles” I’ve been blessed to have in my life—-bought a small casa on the Caribbean side across from the Navy base. This little, one bedroom casita is home to so many memories with friends and loved ones.
My family returned many times over my teenage years, and as an adult I began to venture to the island on my own. 
Something kept drawing me back. 
When I was twenty-one years old, I wrote my Bachelor’s senior thesis project—-an essay about Isla. I’ll never forget my director, Peter Goodrich, looking over his glasses at me and saying, “You really like to write sensually about food, don’t you?” It was this rhetorical question that’s shaped the course of my writing, along with the diverse travel and life experiences I collected over the years.
But something kept pulling me back to Isla.
My Uncle passed away many years ago, and Casa Don Pancho was sold. 
Eighteen years later, I finally succumbed to the “siren song” and find myself making a home and gloriously happy life here on this little island.
I often think what it would mean to Uncle Don, to know the beautiful chain of events he set in motion.
What follows is the essay I wrote so many years ago— a little love letter to this amazing place.

Christmas 2017 on North Beach
Christmas 2017 on North Beach

Isla

The Island herself is a siren, and the ocean carries her song across the mainland and the brackish water, through airport immigration lines where it tangles in my hair and whispers in my ear. Isla. It slides off my tongue like a sigh of longing and holds there, at the edge of my lips. Like a sailor under a spell I return to land, but memories hold fast, like barnacles to a ship’s hull. Isla Mujeres; Island of Women, lying like a jeweled necklace off the coast of Mexico. The gods prayed to on her beaches thousands of years ago still hold sway among the crucifixes and plastic Madonnas. Every visit draws me further under her spell. Memories collected and held—treasured like shells, I draw them out to look at and turn over in my mind. She speaks to her visitors, and those not insensible do not go away unchanged.

North view of the island from the roof of Bahia Hotel
North view of the island from the roof of Bahia Hotel

Taste

My mouth remembers seafood: squid, shrimp, fish, lobster, and conch, so recently immersed in salt water the salty quintessence of the sea lingers within each bite. Snapping fajitas hiss on a well-worn cast iron skillet; onion and pepper fiesta slides spicy against my tongue, watering my eyes. I savor each warm tortilla: delicate flour oval reminds me of hands. Brown hands shape every individual disk, place it crackling into the hot pan lined with oil. History’s labors evolved the tortilla—centuries of oral recipes, and each kernel of corn. Traditions passed down from one generation to the next. Special techniques whispered from grandmother’s wrinkled lips into daughter’s new leaf ear. I walk to the local market through the afternoon’s beaming heat, stumbling through produce aisles like a drunken wasp in an apple orchard. I stroke fresh mangos, melons, guavas, avocados, inhaling fertile, fruity air eyes closed. The pineapple I slice for breakfast arches yellow, sweet, and acidic across the roof of my mouth. I yield to the full flavor, juice running down my fingertips and across my palms. Lunch is La Lomita’s, a block and a half from my uncle’s casa. I ease sun-burned thighs onto the red plastic chair labeled Sol in crafted yellow letters like the sunshiny beer quenching my thirst. The television hums in soft Spanish syllables as the soap opera winds down and around. A stray dog pants in the sun beneath a car across the street, and I consider sharing my left-overs out of pity. The food is cooked in a kitchen though the blue doorway to my left, and I observe family members cooking, trailing laughter. I squeeze a glistening lime across the food on my plate, brushing tangy, stinging juice across sun-chapped lips.

La Lomita’s Ceviche
La Lomita’s Ceviche

 

Sight

Isla by night is a gemmed ribbon strung along Mexico’s eastern shore. Lights appear to float atop water like a rising Atlantis as the ferry’s wake pushes us to shore. In the daylight, the houses perch in rows along narrow, terra-cotta-colored cobbled streets: an engaging mixture of approachable doorways and barred windows testify to the combination of peace and unrest. Thatched roofs whisper palm frond songs down streets into open evening air. Buildings display a liberal sprinkling of quilted cat bodies drooping over banisters and chairs in the heat. Shy doe-eyed Madonnas peak out of doorways into streets flowing with an eclectic mixture of tourists adorning golf carts dressed down to lycra and bare skin. Sharp-eyed business women with tight buns and bright suits defy the heat, their deportment starched and crisp. Grandfathers carry aloft giggling, round-cheeked children, followed closely by scolding mothers. Vivid red taxis with saint’s favors dangling from rearview mirrors creep blaringly along tight, labyrinthine streets. There is such a sense of isolation for me here. I know I do not belong in the pulling high rise hotel that advertises happy hour with the tolling of a bell every half an hour, as the tourists flounder in from the surf like strange, white, sea creatures. The open doorways are closed to me because my tongue cannot sigh words in a sunny language carried across the ocean from Spain. I attempt to span the gap with a smile. And I do manage to speak, once and a while, in the universal language of gladness.

Full view of Isla in all her glory.
Full view of Isla in all her glory.

Aromas

I pass the pier where fishing boats carry locals and tourists alike across the tossing blue, flinging their luck to gods of ocean and line. The fishermen return wind tossed, flashing their silver bounty for posed pictures. After the photo shoot, locals dissemble each fish behind the scenes, tossing the carcasses back into the ocean—a return of sorts. The malodor of decaying saltwater creature hangs in the air and mingles with salt. Drifting down the lane, feet and steps gingerly avoiding refuse soiling the sun- baked roadway, I idly catalogue the emanations wafting around me. Within two steps, I’m brought up short and coughing by a gust of fumes from a tourist-laden golf cart speeding past where I stand. The trailing vapor moves upward, above stuccoed blocks of houses, and seems to hang for a moment as a pall over the sun. The next breath clears the tang of pollution, replacing it with instantaneous thoughts of my stomach. The open doorway I pass hums with soft murmuring voices and clattering cooking utensils. I inhale the afternoon meal preparation’s warm aura amongst the harmony a family creates when they move around one another in a patterned kitchen dance. With reluctant feet I pass by inviting incenses spilling into the street from doorways standing so provocatively open.

Fresh Grouper
Fish Market Fresh Grouper that made the most delicious sushi and ceviche.

Sound

Some days, early in the morning, as the sun breaks its yellow yolk over the edge of the ocean, the soft thump of booted feet on crushed pavement can be heard over the rooster’s morning call. I peer cautiously over the window ledge and observe green khaki- clad boys who would be men, marching two abreast along the path outside my window. The uniformed clunk of feet and a soft clank of ammunition belt against gun recedes as the patrol moves on down the line. They are gone, but the sound remains with me for some time. Before boots comes the rooster. His raucous call breaks through the silence of blue-edged early morning, shrill and disharmonious. The gurgling cackle, so often associated with the country, finds itself at home here. Later in the day I sometimes see him, and his naked-necked-hen strutting territorially among the coral, hunting for lizards. Listening closely, I discern a soft, content clucking as though the warm climate and bounty of lizards are all this feathered couple needs. In the rose and blue tinted evening I sip a salty rimmed margarita, enjoying ebbs and flows of people and voices. The large man with laughing guitar approaches my table. He perches precariously on his chair, picks up his instrument, and begins to play. I’m carried away by the richness of words strung with music that his fingers pluck delicately from the combination of wood and wire. His voice singles out sounds and tosses them to the audience until we’re dancing in the street. Tourists and locals alike lose themselves to the simple sounds of voice and guitar. Music swells like a rising tide, my skirt swirls into a halo around my ankles, and I laugh from a happiness so pure it needs no language.

Twenty-five year old Rachel in Don Pancho’s Casa
Twenty-five year old Rachel in Don Pancho’s Casa
Happy Rachel and Ryan, 2017 Photo Credit Tanya Canam Photography
Happy Rachel and Ryan, 2017
Photo Cred. Tanya Canam Photography

Left Foot, Right Foot

*This essay is dedicated to Ryan Rickman and Daniel Vogel, who remind me to breathe, make me laugh, and love me.

 

A minute ago, the world was too much. Burdens heavy enough to break Sisyphus pile on like pyramid stone. Bankruptcy, weighted relationship past, family-society-personal pressures mount and disappear on currents of Caribbean breezes and the voice of a man I’ve let myself fall in love with after wrapping independence around my shoulders like a mink coat.

Cenote Zaci
Taking the leap—jumping into cenote Zaci.

“How did you do it?” They ask by the dozens, pouring off boats from Cancun. Flown in from stateside and global destinations.
How does anyone move anywhere?
I made a decision. Packed my life into a storage unit and gave the rest away.
Sold the car.
Put the house on the market–the one two years ago I swore I’d never part with.
Organized logistics: putting bills online, Mexico phone plan, get my puppy, Bea, on a plane and across borders.
Sleepless nights cloaked in anxiety.
Find a new home for Mr. Kitty. After eleven years together, losing him tore a hole in my heart. My cabin-dweller, confidant, snuggle-buddy, constant companion, couldn’t move to Mexico at age twelve. My fuzzy friend found a last-minute perfect home and now makes someone else’s life a bit less lonely.
Bea paperwork came through.
House was rented.
Ticket to fly and a red service vest for Bea so she could travel at my feet from Chicago to Cancun–the little dog from Peshtigo, Wisconsin.
I haven’t been that excited since I was a child on Christmas Eve.

Daily wood haul
Daily wood haul

Excited to leave the cold; start new; sleep without fear of my ex; live in a community as strong and strange as I am; make a life with a handsome musician and his big white dog.
Excited for change; to not move snow for months; learn a new language; scare myself; challenge myself; laugh again like I used to. Or perhaps, deeper. Longer.
After being alone so many days, nights, hours; not seeing people, speaking to another human for days if I didn’t want to. Lonely always licking the edges of my consciousness and sometimes waking up to choke me. Other days, taking the alone and wearing it like a crown, running naked into the river, bare toes tipped in crushed strawberries. Laughing, while otters played and rolled in a river current coppered by cedar tannins. Some nights, I’d lie awake listening to owls and coyotes call and loneliness seemed a distant ghost. Some nights. Some nights, I burned phone lines missing friends, company, a lover in my bed.

Well troubles
Well troubles

Nights on Isla are full of people–conversations with individuals from all over the world who want the story of a girl from small town Michigan who moved to a little island off the Yucatán coast of Mexico.
I sleep in a king size bed with my boyfriend, our 125 lb. yellow lab and little Bea. Traffic noise is muffled in our back-alley apartment, but I awake often to unfamiliar sounds of dogs barking; golf carts and motos putter and purr; the air conditioner’s cold whirr.

Isla nights
Isla nights

I walk into water so bathtub warm I can’t tell if I’ve stopped sweating yet.
I’m still working to find my niche–writing, food, editing, volunteer work, waitressing, catering…anything to make some money, but also searching out that thing that fits.
It feels closer now.
Less amorphous.
Solidifying in the silhouette of a family here, and behind that a community, and at the center me and all the paper doll layers coming together in 3D.

Family
Family

Last week, I awoke in the dark wee hours of morning when the big thoughts come to claim you and I missed my cabin so much it was hard to breath.
Missed the inhabited stillness.
Just as the ache turned to tears, I heard sweet-satisfied-sleeping dog sighs, and Ryan mumbled, “I love you” in his sleep, as he does half a dozen times a night, and I loved it all so much I couldn’t imagine anything else.
It’s confusing, how to fit the disparate pieces of self that make up “Rachel”, birthed and forged in rural Upper Michigan, to this Mexican island home.
All the fall season’s of my life have been made up of duck hunting, readying firewood, frosty-evening saunas, last harvest canning, apple picking and cider press churning. The first snowflakes falling.
Where does my ability to can pickles, tomatoes, beets function here?
My skills tracking a wounded deer, foraging fiddleheads, building a fire on a cold winter day?

A girl and her .22
A girl and her .22
Homemade cider
Homemade cider

They say time heals all wounds. The quick march of days on Isla seems to be doing just that. The changes are subtle, and I take note of them one by one with some surprise.
Tense lines on my face begin to fade.
My skin, prone to stress breakouts, has cleared.
Painful aches in jaw, neck, and shoulders from holding my body in tight anxiousness have eased, leaving a comfortable fluidity in my limbs I haven’t felt since I was a kid.
For the first time, I smile with my teeth–full smiles of joy that reaches my toes.
I cry less.
Wake fewer times in the night afraid, heart pumping, fists clenched, a scream held in my throat.

OG
OG

Two poles, north and south, stretch my rubber band heart.
Walking down Hidalgo’s main drag, a day or a week ago, I experienced a moment of awareness so strong it took my breath away.
Hidalgo, Main Street of shops and restaurants I’ve seen shift and change over the last seventeen years.
That night, a day or a week ago, I took my usual stroll down the cobbled street to El Patio, where Ryan works.

Ryan playing el patio
Ryan playing el patio

That night, as I approached the restaurant, I heard Ryan’s voice arcing out through the noise and chatter, clear and true. Familiar and joyful, the song’s words and that sweet voice spoke my heart.
If you told me, a cold Michigan-November-year ago that I’d be walking down this island street listening to my handsome man sing, I would’ve either laughed or cried.
My ideas for the future are a universe away from a year ago.
This man, our dogs, a family.
In the past, when days were long and hard, my brother used to say to me: “Left foot, right foot, breathe.”
Some days, that’s all I could do.
Left foot. Right foot. Breathe.
Step by step.
Here I am.

Michigan/Isla Rachel
Michigan/Isla Rachel

Flavors

Fresh Michigan Blackberries

    The first Michigan Blackberries of the season.

 

Since I was young, I drew culinary inspiration from myriad sources–many of them random. I loved to read menus in hotel phone books when I traveled, marveling over descriptions of foods I could envision from the photos and short explanations. I read cookbooks like some read romance novels, paying less attention to amounts than combinations of ingredients, flavors, tastes. I’m no good at physics or chemistry, but the alchemy of flavor fascinates me.
The internet has given me such an array of resources that I’m somewhat overwhelmed and find myself going back to hard copy cookbooks for inspiration.
Instagram has provided a wealth of photographic ideas, along with descriptions of ingredient lists that are wonderful guides.
So much of cooking is about experimentation and improvisation. Listening to your senses.
When I read ingredient lists, it teaches me what flavors other chefs are putting together, what might work, and ways I might take both traditional and original flavor pairings and make them my own.
Environment can also be a huge inspiration for cooking. When I’m in Michigan in summer, I have lots of fresh fruit and garden vegetables to inspire meals. Michigan winters make me improvise with available produce–carrots, beets, potatoes, cabbage, rutabagas–that my father keeps in his cold storage. In California, I came across tiny veggies in the grocery store that delighted me. I’d never seen anything like them, and they prompted a delicious white bean and sautéed squash soup. On Isla, I have fresh seafood to glory in. Look around and see what’s local, and fresh–let those ingredients be your guide.

This post’s purpose is to inspire. My travels between Michigan, Isla, and California have afforded culinary experiences I wouldn’t have believed possible a year ago.

If you’re inspired to cook and experiment, or have questions, please share in the comment section. I love to talk food. ❤️

Fresh Grouper
Fish Market Fresh Grouper that made the most delicious sushi and ceviche.
Fish Market Fresh Grouper
It doesn’t get any better than watching your fresh caught grouper get filleted, Caribbean-side.
Fresh grouper
Homemade sushi with ahi tuna and fresh grouper from our local fish market!
Poc Chuc Chicken and Ribs
This Poc Chuc Restaurant is just down the road from us. It’s cheap, has delicious sides, and the grilled meat is smokey and full of flavor. Yummm.
Fresh Shrimp and Fish
Lolo Lorena’s elegant fresh shrimp and fish with a creamy sauce made from shrimp broth reduction.
Gravlax
Lolo Lorena’s gravlax with goat cheese and tomato water.
Grilled Chicken Avocado Salad
Salads are a thing in my family–and they’re one of my favorite foods. I crave them.
This salad is made with Bibb lettuce, avocado, grilled chicken, bean sprouts, roasted sunflower seeds/pepitas, and blue cheese.
Sliders
Slow Down Sliders–one of our favorite island meals!
Fresh Michigan Blueberries
Fresh Michigan Blueberries!
Homegrown Veggies
Part of Papa Mills’ beautiful garden.
Homegrown Broccoli
I’m blessed with a daddy who raised us on homegrown vegetables. Thank you Papa Mills.
Homemade Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Cookies
Homemade Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Cookies. Mamma loves to make cookies (and eat them, but only in the morning because chocolate keeps her up at night).
Homemade Lasagna
Mamma Mills’ Homemade Lasagna with garden ingredients. Home ❤️
Homemade Angel Food Cake
Mamma Mills made Grandma Harkness’ Angel Food Cake recipe for my birthday. My favorite.
Garden-Fresh Dinner
My birthday dinner this summer: Mills Salad and two kinds of lasagna. Wow.
BBQ Chicken
This BBQ Chicken place around the corner from our casa sells a whole chicken, black bean soup, pasta soup, noodle salad, and sauces for 150 pesos out the door–roughly 7 dollars. So. Good. Before he packs up your chicken he adds extra BBQ sauce and caramelizes them on the grill a few moments longer. Yes.
Fresh Shrimp Cocktail
Ryan loves to make fresh shrimp cocktail and I love to eat it. We can’t find horseradish down here, so we ask friends to pirate it to us!
Mar Bella Pulpo Diablo
Delicious Mar-Bella Octopus grilled with a red diablo sauce and served on a bed of arugula.
Avocado Toast
Chef Nick’s avocado toast. The flavors here are fresh, versatile, and perfectly balanced.
Chef Nick's Cream of Corn Soup
Chef Nick’s cream of corn soup–it tasted like the essence of late-August Michigan summer sweet corn.
Strawberry, Pecan, Blue Cheese Salad
Ryan loves sweet/savory salads. Fresh strawberries, Bibb lettuce, blue cheese, candied pecans, and a maple-balsamic reduction. Yum.
Fresh Lemons and Plumeria
Fresh lemons and lemon yellow plumeria from Ryan’s mom’s yard in California. Swoon.
BBQ, leftovers, and good wine
Delicious BBQed ribs, grilled pineapple, fresh cornbread with Yucatán honey butter, sweet potatoes and coleslaw. Yep.
Chili peppers and sungold tomatoes
California fresh chili peppers and sungold tomatoes, which are my favorite. I eat them like candy.
Skirt steak and chimichurri
Perfectly medium rare skirt steak with chimichurri sauce.
Snacks and Wine Tasting in Arroyo Grande
Snacks and Wine Tasting in Arroyo Grande–after going for a motorcycle ride of course 😉
In and Out Burger and Animal Fries
My first In and Out Burger with Animal Fries in LA. Oh yeah.
Grandma Walters' Homemade Lemon Meringue Pie
When we visited her in California, Grandma Walters made us homemade Lemon Meringue Pie from her lemon trees.
Seafood platter
This photo is way too dark, but I had to give credit to the amazing seafood and especially the BC oysters we ate on our California trip.
Tiny pineapple
I’ve never seen a pineapple like this…California…☺️
California Roll
This dressed up Tiger Roll was one of the best I’ve ever had.
Seaweed Salad
Seaweed Salad–one of my all time favorite foods. It’s a green/texture thing.
Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles
Roscoe’s Chicken and waffles with a side of candied yams. The yams were like eating the best pie ever.
Tiny Veggies and Fresh Citrus
All the citrus was picked fresh and the tiny veggies I couldn’t resist at the grocery store. I made a delicious bean and sautéed baby squash soup with them.
The North Garden's Tuna Tostada
I’ve learned to love the tuna tostada living in Mexico, and at Isla’s beautiful and delicious North Garden Restaurant, they serve one of the best I’ve had.
The North Garden's Shrimp Tacos and Steak Sandwich
One of the best meals I’ve had on Isla, these shrimp tacos from  The North Garden with grilled cheese, poblano peppers, corn, and a smokey salsa and Ryan’s steak sandwich carried the day.
The North Garden's Lobster Tamal
This beautiful breakfast of blue corn tamale and lobster served with salad, grilled corn and an overeasy egg is delicious and such a lovely contrast of colors and flavors. Another win from The North Garden!
North Garden's Walnut Pecan Eggs Benedict
Can’t say enough about how tasty this Eggs Benedict was–The North Garden again. Isla’s restaurants have taught me how versatile this dish really is. 
Chef Nick's Salt Cured Veggies
Not only is this dish beautiful, but the salt cure makes you want to eat the radish, carrot, and beets like potato chips. Chef Nick of Madera truly knows flavor. #inspiring

Between Here and There

I’ve watched the flamboyant poinciana trees burst from orange-blossomed brilliance laced in green leaves, to brown-limbed skeletons, to green-seed-pod-strung, like giant beans, and delight in the new knowing.
At the same time, I miss picking blueberries on a cricket-themed evening when the reindeer moss crunches and imprints my bended knee. Standing in a woods so quiet, when a pine warbler calls, it’s like the voice of the forest itself.
Here, on Isla, the sun is hot against the back of my neck, sweat drips. Perspective competes with every picked-blueberry-remembrance.
Moped rides weave poems in my head–make me eloquent. Thoughts, lines, and lyrics a winding narrative that disappears when I put pen to paper.
What to say about this life, this island of Islenos, Mexicans, expats, tourists–boozed, coked, sexed, sunned up one side and down the other?
Expats balanced between here and there.
Indoctrinated ideas of “normal” and “Ok” dogging us here amongst the flowing tequila and a life more complicated than those looking in from the outside can know.

Hurricane Irma Waves

 

***

There’s a surreal element to living on Isla–living on a tropical island in the Caribbean, sun-baked by close-to-equator rays.
A hazy, heat-dazed reality disrupted by hurricane waves, tight budgets, and news of the mainland.
Heat creates a tranquility and slowness I craved in Michigan’s cold weather, but now learn to both celebrate and tolerate. I never napped before coming here, but heat and humidity often make me feel like I’m wading through too-thick air, and my natural energy is tempered, slowed. Day sleep comes easier, and I now understand the siesta.
I turn to day to day activities for grounding. Each morning is a list: walk Bea, shake dog hair off sheets, sweep dog hair and sand, make bed, tidy, do dishes, etc. I’ve always found simple satisfaction in daily chores.
Then it’s off to any number of activities related to my writing work and/or island-living: white sand beach time spent melting beneath palm trees and swimming in ocean so warm the temperature doesn’t change between air and water; snorkeling along reefs undulating with silver-bodied barracuda, rainbow-scaled parrot fish, and sergeant majors dress-scaled in official black and yellow stripes; a bike cruise around the south end to drink a cold Dos XX and lose ourselves in impossible blue Caribbean waters.
As struggles with money, the past, and the recent death of a friend creep in, making both waking and sleeping a 24 hour hamster wheel of anxious thoughts, I remind myself to look around and appreciate the every-night-perfect-in-its-unique-way sunsets; my sweet home life with Ryan and dogs; the turquoise waters others spend thousands of dollars and hours of time to visit for just a week.

Winter Prep

At this time last year, I was plucking the last tomatoes before frost; buying, hauling, stacking firewood; making arrangements for snow-removal; fighting a deep and stubborn battle with loneliness in my backwoods, solitary cabin life; and preparing for my December trip to Mexico that was only supposed to last two months.
The contrast between these two lives is many things at different moments.
Part of me cannot imagine selling the cabin, despite the Remax sign in the driveway.

The Cabin

I’ve memorized the topography. Mapped the acre lawn and all its stones, stumps, and wild strawberry patches. I know where the old road and rock wall undulate, disappear, and reappear, in the thick, swampy woods. I know where the lady slippers appear in spring.

Verdant greens and Lady slippers

Where the otters have their den; where the deer cross; and which side of the woods the Barred Owl calls “Whoo coooks for youu?” Night after night.

Cabin Home

In spring, I became accustomed to falling asleep to the woodcock’s lonely cheeping, soon joined by a cacophony of spring peepers. Changing seasons quickly replaced the peeping choir with a cricket orchestra carried along by coyote howls.
I like walking Bea at night here on Isla, because our sidewalk is adjacent to a salty Salina swamp where frogs make night sounds and sleepy herons croak.
Sometimes I’m lucky, and for just a moment the streets are empty of mopeds, taxis, golf carts, and it’s just me, my panting dog, and night noises.
Mosquitoes, like in Michigan, swarm at sundown.
I’m fascinated by comparisons between Northern mosquitoes and those found on the island. Michigan’s seem enormous in comparison, attacking in clouds even in daytime, but slow and easy to swat with a tell-tale whine that gives them away.
Isla’s mosquitos not only potentially carry tropical illnesses, but are tiny, silent, and fast moving.
Bug spray is an important accessory, in both homes.
It seems to be, that in the comparisons, I find a sense of self. Day by day.

***

9-25-17
The death of my dear friend Kay, who’s memoirs I’ve been writing for the past two months, has made me especially contemplative.
She lived on the island for the last twelve years, moving here from her Texas home because:
“I can be myself here. Nobody gives a damn how I act, what I wear, what I say.”
One of the things that made me want to move to Isla is the island’s sense of community, especially a community of gutsy women. I’ve had the honor of knowing many strong, amazing individual women in my 32 years living in Upper Michigan, but Isla Mujeres–Island of Women–has gathered a community of women to her bosom that I’m blessed to be a part of and ponder often with delight and wonder. I’m not unrealistic about the day to day dramas that play out amongst our group, but I’m constantly awed by these women who made their way to Isla’s shores.

My darling friend Zarah here on the island who bravely moved here all the way from Australia as a single mom with two boys.

Women who, like me, washed up from all sorts of pasts and pull it together to live here, which isn’t easy.
Women like Kay.
She died suddenly on September 13th of a heart attack, but her life and story changed me forever.
Today, for the first time since her death, I picked up her writings again. I read through a Christmas letter she wrote in 2002, and wept for the loss of this strong, sassy, wonderful woman who ended her letter with: “My wish for 2003 is peace–on earth, in our nation in our families, and homes.”

Kay’s 78th birthday in August

 

A Difference of Seasons

Walking through the door of my childhood home is a comfort after living in a foreign country for three months straight. Isla isn’t all foreign territory because of a dozen or so past trips, but the fact remains I’m living thousands of miles from home with a rudimentary, but growing knowledge of Spanish.

Sitting on the dock, toes in the warm, shallow waters of Big Manistique Lake, I look at tan lines from my sandals–my body claimed and tattooed by the Mexico sun.

Sun breaks across lake water, a scattering of diamonds. It’s such a different sun than the one I’ve been both enjoying, and dealing with in Mexico. As Ryan says, “The sun in Mexico in the summer makes you feel like a bug beneath a magnifying glass.”

But the Michigan summer sun feels so… Good.

A difference of seasons. In winter the Michigan sun is a lingering wish on a frozen horizon, little to no heat trickling through. In contrast to the Mexico winter sun, which thaws frozen northern bones.

The feel of warm lake water is so familiar.
Three months isn’t that long. But for someone who’s never lived more than two hours from home, it feels long.
The place I chose is so different from this one.

Two bass hover beneath the boat on its lift. Broken clam shells from ducks feeding litter the sandy bottom. One of the biggest leeches I’ve ever seen undulates past like an underwater magic carpet.
I’ve always noticed these small movements in the world around me, but being away makes me notice them in a different light. My senses are heightened. Aromas drift heavy in the air.
All the blooming: lilacs, end-of-spring apple blossoms, spicy-sweet lupin.
The aromas in Mexico are a fast-paced scent-slide-show. Fried chicken overlapped by a tortilleria redolent of popcorn. Moments later overtaken by exhaust, or sewer, or a hot salty breeze overlaid with rotting fish. Aromas in Mexico are heavy, hanging in hot air. Aromas in Upper Michigan are sharper, more pronounced.

It’s so good to be quiet.
But it’s not silent. There’s a cacophony of bird sound, and that’s nice too. A kingfisher, crows, all sorts of warblers.
I was telling my parent’s yesterday, something I thought as we came out of the clouds over Michigan, and I could see an expanse of green and water: ponds and lakes and streams and rivers and swamps, and in the distance the big expanse of Lake Superior. All that fresh water.
I cried. And I laughed. And it came to me that, to be an expat is to always have a little bit of a broken heart, because no matter where you are–here or there–some part of you, and your loves, are someplace else. That’s both such a beautiful thing, and so hard.

***

Perspective and juxtapositions lick my temples–the edges of my ears.

Jungles and mangroves.
Maple woods and spruce swamps.

Salty ocean aquamarine.
Icy cold, deep Superior blue.

 

Spicy ceviche, taco, tostada, tequila burn.
Green vegetable, fresh berry tang and burst.

Mexico, a love in my life for the past twelve years.
A siren song from the south calling me home.
Michigan’s familiar paths, rivers, lakes, fields, and seasons I know as well as the freckle constellations mapped across my body’s universe.
There’s a familiarity to the heat, laughter, living-closer-to-the-edge-attitude here that echoes deep beneath my breast bone.
An anchor with elastic chains that flex as I board the plane going north.

I’ve shaken with anxiety, awoken from nightmares screaming, pounded stone walls with fragile fists, frustration gasps choking me.
Now.
It’s time for strength.
I stretch my fingers. Stare down at the tattoos, ink and meaning imbedded in my ring and middle fingers.
Reminders.
Remembrances of how easy it is to lose yourself. How love can become a slowly tightening noose.
He was always sorry, later.
Every day fading, a living ghost, shrouded in layers of self-hatred, sadness, confusion, fear, exhaustion, anxiety. Always trying to get back to that place when things were good. Until days went by looking in a mirror reflecting, nothing.
I’m one of the lucky ones–a woman who remembered. A woman who pulled apart the veils and shrouds and found her voice again.

Found it living alone.
100 year old, one-room cabin.
40 acres in rural Upper Michigan’s wilderness.
¼ mile Laughing Whitefish River tangling itself through the property.
Found myself in warm summer nights standing barefoot in cricket-symphony darkness watching fireflies wink and float like tiny lanterns.
Found myself in lazy afternoons alone on the river watching iridescent damselflies dance above eddying currents.
Found myself in back-breaking wood hauling and stacking. Hauling and stacking. Hauling and stacking.
Found myself in nights so cold the split log walls popped and shifted and if I didn’t feed the stove every four hours I’d awake shivering, breath hanging in smoky puffs.
Found myself walking wooded paths, Bea-pup by my side–each mossy rock, knobby tree-trunk, and curled leaf edge familiar. Known.
Found myself in long nights half-slept, a loaded gun at my feet, a knife at my head. Stretched between the two stone pillars of fear and determination.
Found myself in a solo July trip to my beloved Isla isle, when the familiar voice of past and future called out together and my answer was laughter and a one-way ticket to Mexico.

 

 

 

 

 

The Business of Settling In

I’m learning to feel like an island girl.
32 years an Upper Michigan woods-walker, stream-jumper, cold-water swimmer.

Now, I ride to drop off laundry at the lavandaria, laundry in my backpack.
The bike’s left brake, typical Isla-style, doesn’t work. I’ve learned to approach speed bumps–topes–with a mixture of caution and daring-do. Pulling up on the handlebars just in time, jerking the bike up and over.

Ryan and Rachel–photo credit tanyacanamphotography

 

 

 

 

 

 

My hair’s tangled, growing more blonde by the day, textured as only salty wind can twist.

My apartment with my boyfriend has become home.

I enter the alley mouth across from the Yamaha store, which is my guide-point when giving directions. The short road is unpaved, bumpy, and dusty. My feet kick up little clouds in the south breeze.
I pass Carnitas, meaty aromas waft my way, along with the sound of pounding cleavers chopping pork to be served in tortas and tacos.
I pass the mechanics, piles of half-taken-apart cars, welding torches’ snap and hiss accenting the steamy afternoon.
I pass the barking poodle and sweet puppy Toby with his crippled back legs and slinky walk. He can’t walk well, but rolls about on his hips like a wobbly-dog doll as he plays with my puppy, Bea.
I walk through the archway and across the loose gravel that catches bike and moped tires, and into the door where my handsome man and two tail-waggers wait–eager for my return.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m creating another family in Mexico–far away from other families, in their various incarnations, I’ve left behind.

There’s a hesitancy in my home-making. A limbo between spaces that’s familiar, freeing, exciting, frightening, and uncomfortable.
Part of me craves the excitement of disconnectedness.
Part of me craves the stability of a home space.

The buoyancy of vacation-life on the island has been supplanted by the realities of moving to a foreign country with a 100 year old rental house in Michigan: frozen pipes, exploded hot water heater, wasp invasion, bill pay, lost debit card, need for employment/work visa, and an overwhelming sense of the unknown in my future that’s both terrifying and exhilarating.

I walk the dogs down the alley, across the street, and into the baseball field for their morning constitution.
OG, the yellow lab, runs ahead, 120 lbs. straining against the leash. Bea’s 45 lbs. pulls on my other arm, making for an interesting balance of yank and pull.
I watch as they frolic across the baseball field’s dirt and grass expanse. Bea runs for a coconut, pouncing on it and running off with it clenched precariously in her front teeth.
A year ago I watched her pull sticks out of a Michigan river and run with them across the enormous lawn I push-mowed myself all summer.
Lessons, in what a year can bring.

On the island, American tourists pour off ferries and packed catamarans in all stages of drunken and sober; dressed and undressed; flip-flopped, sunburned, white and tan; sunglassed; saronged; thonged, jeaned, wet bottomed.
I feel territorial over this place I’ve only recently come to call home.
I welcome their business, happy to take dollars or pesos to keep my life here afloat, while also resenting their often obnoxious and disrespectful presence–similar to how I felt in the tourist town in Michigan I grew up and worked in as a teenager.

I went from a cabin in Deerton, Michigan–population 352, to the congested five mile long island, Isla Mujeres, population 12,700 give or take the couple thousand tourists that come and go on a daily basis.
Taxis, mopeds, motorbikes, and trucks roar and swerve down clamorous streets.
Hours could go by before a car or SUV would go down my Deerton road.

I stand in warm, turquoise surf at Playa Norte and spin a 360. White sand sifts around my feet as I turn– a circle, an orbit, a cycle like the sun that raises sweat along my hairline like morning dew on my Michigan yard’s wild strawberry plants.
Everywhere I look is an ever shifting undulation of humanity. Nowhere without a person or people.
Eyes, faces, mouths, stories, bodies exist and sigh and breathe.
I need somewhere quiet to rest and listen for the soft soft voice that is Rachel.
I tilt my head, a curious seabird, listening, as if to a shell.

 

 

 

 

 

Leeks are just beginning to break through last fall’s packed-down-brown leaves back in Michigan. Green tongues, licking spring air.
On Isla, the guaya tree outside my apartment inexplicably (as far as I was concerned) began dropping its leaves as though it were fall. Nancy, the fastidious landlady who’s apartment is across the courtyard, sweeps leaves off gravel industriously as a kitchen floor.
“Ryan? Is that tree dying?” I asked my boyfriend sleepily from our king size bed.
“No,” he laughed, simultaneously pulling me closer and patting OG’s large sleeping-polar-bear form. “It drops its leaves and then makes fruit.”
Ryan’s lived on the island five years and has a knowledge and understanding of Isla’s workings that I’m just beginning to understand.
“Oh,” I exclaimed with an edge of the same child-wonder as when I learned about the habits of beaver from my father, or the monarch butterfly life cycle from my mother.
This tree behaves much differently than the trees I’m used to–trees I observed through the Upper Peninsula of Michigan’s changing seasons for 32 years.
As days go by and Michigan tiptoes into spring, the guaya tree, which I first thought would quickly become nothing but a towering, leafless monolith stretches, what looked to me like late fall-bare-branches into a cloudless Caribbean blue sky.
Instead, almost as fast as its leaves dropped, little green leaflets began to grow in their place. Just like in Michigan.
“Tiny as a mouse’s ear.” As my mamma always says.
They grow rapidly, the tree never completely losing its green.
It’s like watching a tree go from summer/fall, directly to spring in a time-lapse parody.
Now, it’s growing little bunches that burst into tiny yellow flowers I know will soon become fruit.
After a little research, I learned that this is the same fruit I called a “kinnip,” when I traveled with friends and family to the Bahamas in middle school. My sister and our sister-friends ate the tart fruits until our lips puckered, fingers and faces sticky-sweet.
Now here’s this familiar/unfamiliar fruit in my front yard. Day by day, like the apples in my orchard back home, I watch the little fruits grow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I asked people on Facebook and Instagram how they combat homesickness. The responses were varied–many humorous, some as simple as “cry it out,” but all kind and thought-provoking. The ones that stuck with me the most were those who advised me to immerse myself fully in the place I’m currently calling home.
This advice resonated with me because I’ve felt a bit ghostly of late–as though I’m lingering in limbo between two homes. Two worlds.
I crave the north world’s silence like a deep-seeded hunger, and look through social media pictures like a starving person sniffing restaurant aromas.
See Me. The Caribbean whispers as its north-wind-whipped-waves froth deep blue and aquamarine.
I’ve longed for this place for so long. Ached for it in February as I hauled and stacked wood. Awoke cold and shivering at 4 am to feed the wood stove. Shoveled snow only to watch as, like Sysiphus’ rock, it piled back in only a few hours. Higher. Deeper.

I lose track of the time of year without seasons to guide me. Caribbean blues reach out and pull me into salty water that licks behind my ears, making me hum happy. This kind of joy is hard-won and hard-earned with an icing of privilege that, in this place where so many live on so little, humbles me.
Sitting on the ferry, returning to the island from a day running errands in Cancun, the island shimmers on the horizon.
“Home,” I whisper under my breath. Tasting the word.
“What sweetie?” Ryan says, turning his sunglassed face to me so I see my reflection.
“Home,” I say again, the word like salt on skin, sand grit, tequila burn, beer buzz green bottle tang, saline seafood bites, and mango, orange-sweet as sunset.

Photo credit tanyacanam photography