This little essay is dedicated to my father, Douglas Mills, and my husband, Ryan Rickman.
They teach my how to be a good parent and how to be grateful for what’s around me day to day.
I’m so thankful my son has men like this to be his guides in a complicated world.
When I think of things I want to teach my son, the ability to be thankful is one of the most important. It’s so easy to move through our days mindlessly, never noticing what we wear, eat, drive, sleep on, live in, etc. etc. The necessities of daily life can become sunglasses in a dark room to all we have to be grateful for. Throughout my life, my father has initiated what began as a prayer before dinner, but has morphed into a time of connection, and thankfulness. The four of us around the antique claw-footed wooden dining room table: me, my mother, father, and little sister. Our plates are full and ready to eat, but first our hands slide into each other’s; my hand into Laurel’s, Laurel’s into Mom’s, Mom’s into Dad’s, and Dad’s into mine. Where once we would’ve bowed our heads in prayer, now we take deep breaths, look each other in the eyes, smile. We look down at the food on our plates: venison, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, lettuce—all harvested by our family. In this moment it is not just food or dinner on our plates, it’s an abundance. We turn to daddy. “Thank you for this food, and the hands that prepared it.” He intones softly. He squeezes my hand, and the little squeeze goes around the table. Momma’s eyes are full. Such a little thing— a little moment, but it seems to me that moments of thankfulness are one of the homes for real happiness: the ability to be grateful—to truly see the bounty. It doesn’t negate struggles and hardships, but provides a new perspective, and through that perspective, a new path to joy even in the midst of struggle.
Your heart races as the list of chores mounts.
Your phone pings with another message—plans you’ll have to cancel if you’re going to catch up on all those emails and the freelance work.
You haven’t showered, or eaten yet, and there’s only so much time until the baby wakes up and needs to be fed.
Feeding is a moment to pause, and you try so hard to take deep breaths and be in the moment, but you’re so tired, and just from where you sit, you can see a dozen chores that need to be done.
Right now, all you can do, is hold this boy child to your breast and breathe.
It’s all about perspective, you remind yourself:
There are crumbs scattered across the table, because you fed people here. Food you prepared nourished your husband, your son, and others. The living room is messy because your son played here, joy lighting his face as he swept all his toys across the tiles. In this spot in the kitchen, the floor is carpeted in hair where you swept only hours before; this is where your sweet dogs leaned against your leg, seeking and giving love. You wash endless dishes because you have money to buy food, and food in your home to cook for family and friends. You’re tired, but when you lie down to sleep, there is a bed to sleep in, clean sheets, a pillow for comfort, and the arms of your loving partner to rest in.
The end of the day approaches and I cast my thoughts like a net, back across the hours, fishing for accomplishments to make me feel satisfied. I take a deep breath as a breeze stirs the leaves above my head.
My sister said to me recently, “If I’m not doing two things at once, I feel anxious.” A truism for me as well.
We joke about our daddy’s “Puritan work ethic.” Our father doesn’t know what to do with himself without multiple tasks to complete. He plants a massive garden and spends most of Michigan’s few beautiful summer months, back bent, tending to the needs of soil and harvest. He hauls wood, shovels snow, hunts, fishes, and attends to the multi-faceted other tasks rural living requires. And if there’s nothing immediate needing his attention, he creates a project. Anything to feel like he’s done something “useful” with his time.
Lately, I’ve been pondering what “useful” and “accomplishment” mean.
What does it take for me to feel as though the day has been worthwhile, and therefore I can relax?
Are these pressures coming from society? My family legacy? Myself? All of the above?
Some of this sense of anxiety is definitely rooted in the aforementioned Puritan work ethic, whose mythology is so woven into the American psyche, we don’t even realize it. It’s tied to a capitalist push to “have something to show for yourself,” in order to gain approval from society, family, spouse.
It’s these urges that separate us from animals—a mindlessness in action enviable to humans as we often equate being free of such anxieties as living a more full life.
In my English classes, I used to analyze an Annie Dillard essay with my students called “Living Like Weasels.” In it Dillard says:
“I would like to learn, or remember, how to live. I come to Hollins Pond not so much to learn how to live as, frankly, to forget about it. That is, I don’t think I can learn from a wild animal how to live in particular–shall I suck warm blood, hold my tail high, walk with my footprints precisely over the prints of my hands?–but I might learn something of mindlessness, something of the purity of living in the physical sense and the dignity of living without bias or motive. The weasel lives in necessity and we live in choice, hating necessity and dying at the last ignobly in its talons. I would like to live as I should, as the weasel lives as he should. And I suspect that for me the way is like the weasel’s: open to time and death painlessly, noticing everything, remembering nothing, choosing the given with a fierce and pointed will.”
We use everything from drugs and alcohol, to adrenaline, to meditation and yoga in attempts to free ourselves from these ever present anxieties.
We have consciousness, and so this instinctual life Dillard idealizes in her essay is impossible. We cannot “forget about it.”
With consciousness comes a disconnect from our animal selves and the instincts inherent therein.
We’re not sure what it means to be a Good Human, because it’s complicated.
This is separate from the notions of morals/right & wrong.
Being a good human is caught up in other things like pleasing society, becoming famous (and therefore potentially timeless and “immortal”), and in today’s world, keeping up with social media trends.
I think social media adds to the anxiety, as there’s always the pressure to post photos of interest or portray a certain “lifestyle” to a wider audience.
No wonder we’re anxious.
I struggle against these notions, trying to find a balance between the human-constructed world I live in, and follow instincts that are just as, if not more, true. Instincts that urge me towards rest when the day is done, but another part of my mind is often determined in another direction.
I experience these anxieties even more since becoming a mother. With a baby, it feels like the expectations upon me are even greater, as they now extend to the little person I’m nurturing into adulthood.
Sitting in our soft blue arm chair nursing our son, the anxieties often voice themselves.
I look around at the floor that needs sweeping, laundry pile, tidying, dishes, freelance work, and feel my heart rate rise.
I take a deep breath and muse on what else I accomplished in the day that I’ve overlooked.
Did I keep my nest, if not tidy, at least clean?
Did I nourish myself/and or my family?
Did I do something joyful?
When asked, I’m certain most people would say these things make for a fulfilling and productive day as a human, but it takes regular practice to change the day-to-day mindset that says these things are not enough.
Someone said to me recently, I’m certain with the best intentions, “So, are you just doing the stay at home mom thing, or are you doing other things too?”
I know they didn’t mean any harm, but I couldn’t help sputtering at the implication of the “just.” Especially as I considered all the little and big things I’d accomplished over the day: the bed made; floor swept; dishes done; baby clean, happy and fed; soup made for dinner. Hell, I’d even showered.
I felt satisfied with these things at the end of the day, but still that “just” rankled, and if I’m being honest, still does.
Last week, my Grandmother, Betty Harkness, passed away. She was one of the kindest humans I’ve ever met.
Grandma was my babysitter from the time I was born, and went on to nurture my sister as well.
My father’s father died when I was six, and I never knew my mom’s mother, who passed away from a brain tumor when my mom was only 29.
The Harkness’ were adopted family—we all adopted each other.
I can’t recall an earliest memory with Grandma and Grandpa—only a wonderful bundle of remembrances glowing warm like the sunset from their west facing window, tinged with aromas of fresh-baked bread, and echoes of Grandpa’s laughter.
Their lives were simple, and good. They lacked materialism, found fascination and conversation in the every day, and lived by a code of kindness I attempt to emulate in my own life.
Visitors never left their home empty-handed—Grandma believed in a loving version of hospitality not often seen these days; a loaf of fresh bread; jars of pickled beets, canned green beans, pink apple sauce; or lightly frosted pumpkin cookies.
The love between Grandma and Grandpa was kind, funny, steadfast, well-worn, and always present in the room when they were together. They were married over seventy years.
As a child, I remember watching him tease her in the kitchen, driving her to distraction and annoyance with his antics as she tried to cook. Her frustration made him laugh as her tiny hands batted away his big, teasing fingers getting in the way of whatever she was cooking.
“Clyyydeee!” She said in a drawn out, pointedly annoyed voice.
“Oh Betty,” he’d respond with a well-practiced, satisfied smile before making an escape outside, or into his chair in the living room.
Sitting in their living room was a small pocket of warmth and simplicity away from the complicated world. Grandpa liked popcorn without salt and butter. Grandma served us rice pudding in green glass goblets. Grandpa let us brush his nonexistent hair and laughed as we laughed. Grandma, despite being so tiny, always seemed to pull you in for a hug.
It was tradition to wave goodbye as we drove away from their house. As the car started down the driveway, we looked to the picture window, and Grandma and Grandpa’s smiling faces were always there, side by side, their love a blessing for the journey ahead.
Grandma and Grandpa worked incredibly hard, but they also found time to sit and enjoy a card game, a good conversation around the kitchen table, or a quiet moment on the porch on a summer evening.
They seemed to have found a balance between their hard work, and taking time for rest, conversation, and contemplation. They found joy, and worth in the small, good things their days consisted of.
I believe that by the time they passed away this year at 94 and 92 respectively, their lives came to represent what it meant to be a good human.
One can never know what goes on in the minds of others, but from my perspective, it seemed that Clyde and Betty felt useful, content, and joyful; secure and at peace in the goodness of homemade bread and an afternoon nap after shoveling the driveway.
I am deeply saddened by the deaths of Grandma and Grandpa Harkness, but as opposed to others who have passed on, the grief is tempered by the knowledge that they lived well. Their lives, while simple, consisted of working hard, providing food for themselves and others, and finding joy wherever they could.
I take another deep breath, and I work to focus and center. I remind myself how tiny my little life is in the grand scheme of things. I find comfort in the notion that, in the face of volcanoes, tectonic plates, black holes, and other giant phenomena, me not getting my entire “to-do” list for the day finished doesn’t make me less accomplished as a person. And neither does not traveling the world by the time I’m forty; or not knowing six languages; or getting my PhD; or writing a book… I cooked a good dinner for my family. My child is full, clean, healthy, content, and asleep. I have time to make popcorn and continue reading Jane Eyre for the third time. For tonight, this is more than enough. And that, is Good.
One beautiful aspect of cooking is the way we inspire each other, one idea sparking a meal for someone else—an endless cycle of inspiration and nourishment.
When I cook, many of my ideas are a hodgepodge of inspiration gleaned from reading cookbooks, studying menus, ogling food blogs, listening to food podcasts, and hearing stories of wonderful meals cooked by other people. The only real way to discover what works and what doesn’t, is experimentation. There’s nothing I love more than brainstorming ideas for a meal with the odd assortment of things I might have in cupboards, fridge, and freezer. I like the challenge of pairing ingredients on hand, rather than always following a recipe. One beautiful aspect of cooking is the way we inspire each other, one idea sparking a meal for someone else—an endless cycle of inspiration and nourishment.
What follows is a collection of ideas and musings that I hope will inspire you to get creative with your breakfast.
In addition! A recent friend—Nikki Drake— overheard my homesick wishes for pickled beets, and on her next trip down to the island she surprised me with a jar. Not only was it a happy, delicious, and soul-satisfying surprise, it was also a wonderful way to connect with someone. Now we have this shared food moment/experience in common.
So. I’m putting out a little challenge to my readers: If you’re visiting Isla Mujeres, feel free to bring down an ingredient of your choice for me to use, photograph, and feature on my website. I would like to give you recognition as well, but if you’d prefer to remain anonymous, simply let me know.
My hope is that this little food writing project will serve as inspiration for my kitchen to your kitchen, and create a network of people connected across the globe through food.
Delighting in pickled beets from Wisconsin in my Mexico kitchen…what a wonderful thing.
Oatmeal Inspired Breakfast Ideas:
Many believe that eating healthier is more expensive, which is indeed often the case. But not with breakfast. Many also believe that oatmeal is bland, plain, and gross. But it doesn’t have to be.
What follows is a collection of ideas and ingredients for a delicious, healthy, sustainable, inexpensive, versatile and adaptable-for-you oatmeal breakfast.
The purpose is to give you ideas to create your own version based off of what you have available/in season. Mix and match. Play. Then write me and tell me what worked and what didn’t—I would love to hear from you!
Breakfast: The meal to eat lots of healthy things that taste yummy and sustain you for the day.
A warm bowl of sweet, creamy oatmeal in the morning can be like dessert for breakfast, while also being simple to prepare, especially if prepared ahead of time and reheated.
I’m Scottish, and it’s a well established truism in Scottish culture that a bowl of “parritch” (porridge) is a necessary component to your day to: “keep you regular.” I stand by my people on this one.
Processed foods create havoc on our insides, and a bowl of oatmeal every day or so goes a long way to help keep your insides on track and moving along.
Especially as a new mother, the benefits of oatmeal for breakfast are innumerable, particularly as oats are known to help fortify breast milk and the additions mentioned below are also beneficial.
Topping the oatmeal with sugar free, organic/local yogurt is a simple, tasty way to do something beneficial for your health every day. Yogurt has active cultures—probiotics—that are good for your digestive system, and ladies, this GOOD bacteria is also good for your lady parts.
Make sure the yogurt is sugar free, as added sugars can decrease health benefits. That’s an issue I often have living in Mexico: finding yogurt that doesn’t contain sugar.
In terms of texture and flavor, I always go with full fat Greek yogurt. You’ll be glad you did too. It’s creamier and more satisfying.
Many cookbooks have recipes for specific cooking times for the different grains, and the packages will as well, but I’ve found that adding the grains to hot water (making sure there is at least a cup more of water to grain ratio) works just as well.
I like to make up a big pot ahead of time, and keep it in the refrigerator for a couple of days so that it’s easy to reheat.
Oatmeal Grain Combinations: o Rolled Oats o Steel Cut Oats o Scottish Oats o Whatever other kind of Oats… o Quinoa o Barley o Amaranth o Flax Seeds o Chia o Hard Wheat Berries
Use one, two, or a mixed combination of these different grains and seeds for both added health benefits and textures.
o Add a splash of vanilla and/or a dash of ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice.
My husband likes his oatmeal so drowned in brown sugar that the milk turns brown—and I get it. But there are also ways to accomplish making your oatmeal taste like dessert without giving yourself immediate cavities:
o Local honey is always a good option. Eating local honey has many health benefits such as helping your immunity to local allergens, as well as tasting delicious. o Maple Syrup. Despite being from California, my husband has a passion for homemade maple syrup. Luckily for him, my Michigan family makes it, so he has a direct source. o I’ve recently experimented with coconut sugar. It tastes a bit like molasses. If you live in the north, this might not be the most sustainable option, but for those further south it’s a good sweetener.
I’ve tried it all, but unsweetened coconut milk is my favorite. I also really love a high cream content milk, which makes oatmeal taste really decadent.
Be aware that some of these milks have high environmental costs (almond especially). Research and educated choices make a big difference as a consumer.
o Milk/Cream/Evaporated Milk
Fruit Toppings (Fresh and Dried): If you’re using dried fruit, a lot of times they’re already sweetened, so be aware of that as you add them. Dried cranberries in particular. If they’re organic they’re often sweetened with pineapple juice, but if not they’re heavily sweetened with sugar. These fruit toppings can make your breakfast oatmeal taste even more like dessert. o Dried Cranberries o Dates o Figs o Raisins o Blueberries o Raspberries/Blackberries o Cherries o Mango o Strawberry o Peach o Apple o Banana o Papaya o …And more!
This is a good place you can mix and match ingredients for flavor so your routine doesn’t become too bland, and for health purposes. When studying nutrition, I’ve noted repeatedly that those cultures who eat regular, small quantities of nuts are often healthier, and breakfast is a good way to add this healthy component to your every day routine.
o Pepita (Toasted pumpkin seed. One of my favorites)
More health/flavor ingredients:
o Ground flax seed
o Sweet potatoes
o Shaved coconut
o Hemp Seeds
Recipe! I’ve titled this crazy breakfast combo: “South American Influences Oatmeal.” Oatmeal cooked with: o Quinoa o Ground Flax Seed o Vanilla o Nutmeg o Ginger o Cinnamon Topped with: o Yogurt o Coconut Milk o Pepitas o Dates o Dried Cranberry o Diced Roasted Sweet Potato (I also bake up a big batch of Sweet Potatoes and keep them in the fridge to snack on whenever I feel the urge.)
It is my sincere hope that reading “A Little Shared Inspiration: The Great Breakfast Experiment” has given you inspiration in some form, whether it’s to be more experimental with your breakfast, trying sweet potatoes with oatmeal, or packing a food item and bringing it down to Mexico to become famous on my website. It’s what I’ve always loved about food: When recognized, it can be so many things: whole health, satisfaction, and our connecting point.
October 31st, 2018 marks my second Halloween far from my Michigan birth place, and my first Halloween as a mother.
My first Halloween as a mother is also the day we signed papers making Callan a Mexican citizen.
Me, Michigan born and raised, with a son carrying dual citizenship. It surprises me sometimes, these turns in life’s events.
In the states, Halloween is a holiday made up of yard decorations, massive amounts of candy, and elaborate costumes.
On Isla, the holiday focuses more on Dia de Muertos, a traditional Mexican holiday observed across the country. This day celebrates the deceased, and the belief is that they return to be with the living for a few short hours. Families set up altars to their loved ones called ofrendas that feature their favorite foods, bright orange marigolds, candles, and photos. Dia de Muertos, in its modern incarnation, is an ancient Aztec observance melded with the Catholic holidays of All Saints and All Souls Days, which are also observed in Mexico.
The food, drinks, gatherings are about celebrating the dead—a connection to loved ones.
Because so many Americans influence Isla’s culture, Halloween becomes an amalgamation of cultural observances: decorated golf cart parade and trick or treating down Hidalgo, the main shopping street. Adults and children stroll along the cobbles in all manner of costume, and the throng contains many incarnations of sugar skulls and Catrina makeup, both traditions a melding of indigenous and catholic religions.
Halloween is about costumes, spooks and candy. All Saints and All Souls is about remembering.
Carving pumpkins with my momma and sister. The wood stove makes the house cozy-warm, and our cheeks rosy. We’re careful and diligent as we carve, our faces already patterned in permanent marker. The nutty aroma of pumpkin seeds roasting in the oven makes me hungry.
Dad puts the carved jack-o-lanterns by the driveway with lit candles dancing eerie light through eye, nose, and mouth holes. Flickering grins greet us when we return from harvesting candy from our neighbors.
Memories of adolescent Halloweens are a blur of costumes:
My first trick-or-treating at age four in the white bunny costume Grandma Harkness made. I loved the little pink rosebuds on the fabric inside the bunny ears because my nickname was Rosebud.
Wonder Woman at six when I jumped off the MacCauley’s porch to see my cape fly, but tripped, somersaulted, and landed with my head “Smack!” Against the car tire. Kenny Fyvie—a year older neighbor kid riding along with us—laughed, and my child-self never forgave him.
Second grade, the pink princess dress and pointed cone hat momma made—just like in the fairy-tale book illustrations. She let me borrow her real fur leopard print stole and it didn’t seem like I’d ever feel so pretty again.
Freshman year of college, the requisite post-Brittany Spears era naughty school girl outfit: short plaid skirt, white button down shirt. I can’t remember if I felt vaguely embarrassed by the tacky, clique outfit, but hindsight tells me it was so.
Twenty-five and I was the Pick-Axe Blonde girl from the Keweenaw Brewing Company’s beer can logo. I had the perfect green dress, great pig tails, and a cardboard/duct tape DIY pick-axe my crafty mother walked me through making because my ex-husband said that me drunk with a real pick-axe was a terrible idea.
Two years ago: My purple top hat stolen from a friend’s wedding photo booth, glow in the dark fluorescent yellow bobbed wig, black dress, thrift store white rabbit fur coat, and a homecoming queen sash from a past costume that read, “Miss Calaneous”.
This Halloween it’s not about me. It’s about the baby. People want to see babies in cute outfits on Halloween. Hell, I want to see babies, and all people really, in great outfits on Halloween. My makeshift costume for Callan consists of a onesie that states in bold letters “Happy Little Man”, a tie-dyed bucket cap, and a pacifier with a mustache. The mustache is really cute and funny, but I notice right away that the plastic comes up high enough to block most of the baby’s nostrils, so I limit it’s time in his mouth to photos.
We walk with other families down Hidalgo, which has become a teeming mass of people, mostly children in costume.
Shopkeepers call out, “This is the place!” and “Stop and take a look!”.
Adults stop to chat, creating traffic backups while their candy-eyed offspring, masked, makeupped, and costumed, weave through legs, tables, and chairs to hone in in their sweet prize.
The crowd is a mix of tourists, locals, and transplants— a glorious commingling on a windy Caribbean Halloween night. All prejudices and histories are set aside in the tumult of noise, candy, costumes, and happy children.
I love seeing it all, but after weeks and months spent cocooned in our home with husband and baby for company, the tumult is overwhelming. I return home in a cab early evening full of mixed emotions. A year ago, I would never be the person coming home early on Halloween night. A tear slips down my cheek as we pull away from town. I know that tomorrow morning I’ll see countless photos of costumed friends out playing late into the night. There are many moments I miss that Rachel, and her independence.
The red cab pulls up to our dark house. I wrestle stroller and car seat onto the porch and let out the dogs, who are ecstatic in their greetings. They whine, wiggle, and wag their tails effusively, and I can’t help but smile. Their noises wake the baby, and he blinks up at me like a sleepy little owl, then breaks into a toothless happy smile sweet and pure.
I take off my Halloween dress, wash my costume makeup, and settle into the nursing chair: me, baby Callan, and remembrances of Halloweens past.
*Creation Stories make up one of the largest segments in the pantheon of mythology. We tell them to help make sense of the world.
Everything about August 23rd, 2018, the birthday of our son, Callan Douglas Rickman, was fast.
One moment there’s a baby inside you, the next he’s part of this world.
Life changes that quickly.
I went to the doctor at 8 a.m. expecting to have a checkup and return to our hotel to continue waiting. We were staying in a hotel in Cancun. Living on an island makes natural births a bit tricky. If he came during the day while the ferry was running, fine. If he came at night and we had to contact friends with a boat for our emergency ride to the hospital, things were a bit trickier. We opted for less error room, and stayed in Cancun.
Callan was already two days overdue, but that’s not uncommon for first pregnancies and I’d decided I didn’t want to induce yet. I was calm, sure of the appointment’s outcome.
I was going to have a natural birth. I’d read my chosen material about natural childbirths and I was prepared. I’d researched yoga to help natural birth, and it became my weekly routine. I made my birth playlist on Spotify, carefully choosing songs I might want for moments of calm and moments of pain and moments in between. I bought a beautiful bathrobe and I imagined myself walking the hospital halls in, because I’d read how much walking helps the birth process, and I was going to walk.
Our friend Amber was scheduled to participate as my doula. Her youngest son was born at home on Isla, and I knew her “no-nonsense but chill and calm” presence would be helpful to Ryan and I.
I was determined to gently but firmly tell the doctors “No” if they told me I needed a c-section. I’d done the research on the rising prevalence of c-sections in both the U.S. and Mexico and I wasn’t going to be one of those statistics. I’d heard story after story of women on Isla and Cancun who were told tales of the cord being around the baby’s neck, etc. in order to coerce a c-section. Many doctors here and in the states like c-sections better than natural births and the rising rates reflect that (a whopping 80% in parts of Mexico) because they can charge more and, medicinally, c-sections are far less unpredictable. A natural birth has so many unknowns, and they take a long time, utilizing more hospital staff and utilities.
I knew the statistics and wasn’t going to let that happen to me.
After my sonogram, we reconvened with our doctor, who calmly explained that a c-section was necessary because my amniotic fluid levels had dropped to a 5.8, and 8 was the lowest, safest level. In addition, I wasn’t in labor yet, and inducing could further the risk of harming baby Callan.
Our doctor was speaking through an interpreter, at the same time I was struggling to understand her Spanish. It took a moment for what she’d said to reach me.
I couldn’t, wouldn’t have a c-section. That wasn’t what was going to happen. It hadn’t even entered my mind. I’d prepared myself for other potential medical interventions and had planned for how I would accept them, or not. I hadn’t done any research on c-sections because I just wasn’t going to let that happen. I knew nothing about the procedure, recovery, etc. Nothing.
When I heard the word “c-section” I conjured ideas of this birth method being somehow easier than labor. You schedule a c-section like you schedule a haircut, I imagined, while labor was labor, and therefore a sacred, ancient struggle I was absolutely going to experience.
As the news sunk into my whirling brain I stuttered protests, looking back and forth between Ryan, the doctor, and the interpreter.
Everything kicked into overdrive as I processed the idea that my need for a natural labor might harm our child. This fear was mixed with the feeling things were moving out of my control and exactly the kind of manipulation I’d so feared was taking place.
Fear for the safety of our baby boy won out, and before I could take a breath I’d been whisked behind an emergency room curtain and was being processed with countless forms, dressed in scrubs from head to toe, and asked to remove my body jewelry, some of which hadn’t been taken off in over a decade.
I couldn’t stop crying, and was furious at being rushed. Ryan was caught between my emotion and the staff peering around the curtains, trying to accomplish what they’d been tasked to do.
“I haven’t called my mom yet,” I sobbed. “It’s too fast. Please. Tell them I need time to process.” I said to Ryan and anyone else in the room at the moment.
The IV tech looked at me with mixed sympathy and incomprehension at my tear-garbled English.
The pressure to move forward became too much, and after a calming call to my mother, I succumbed to various pre-surgery procedures.
An epidural is a uniquely deep and sickening pain. The needle to my spine made me slump forward in agony as blue scrubbed staff hummed around the room, preparing for surgery.
I didn’t know an epidural was necessary.
I didn’t know what an epidural really was.
My legs went numb, and I was trapped in my body, knowing nothing of what was to come.
The medications were setting in and I became frantic just as Ryan appeared in the doorway, dressed in blue scrubs from head to to. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. I was supposed to go home this morning. Thumped through my head as the anesthesia settled in.
Everyone spoke Spanish, and mine isn’t good enough yet to understand, so whatever was about to occur remained a terrifying mystery. Ryan’s hand on my head was an anchor.
I remember the cutting. I remember crying out that I could feel it, but Ryan says that didn’t happen, so it must’ve been the medication.
I bobbed in and out of consciousness, bits of Spanish and strange sensations in the numbed place that was my womb.
Our baby’s cry pierced the haze and I was alert instantly. They placed him by my head and his cries ceased for a moment.
It took everything I had to whisper, “Baby.”
And then he was gone, and Ryan was gone with him, and I was alone with strangers in the operating room, feeling stitches pulling in and out, in and out deep in my center.
I focused on breathing and finding a place of calm. I conjured my childhood home in Michigan. Out of body, I could see us gathered around the dining room table—place of a million remembered meals with loved ones here and gone. Momma, dad, Laurel, Ryan, and this new baby I’d met for only a moment were there.
I grabbed that place and held onto it. It was real, and it was joy, and I was going to get there.
When the blue sheet lifted, I was wheeled into the recovery room—a purgatory I have difficulty describing. Two hours without my baby. Two hours alone, unable to move from the waist down, in a bed behind a curtain somewhere in a Cancun hospital, bobbing in and out of consciousness.
In moments of clarity I asked the nurse on duty for the time. Over and over.
When finally wheeled into my hospital room, it was empty. Anger, fear, frustration, anxiety, sadness, surged through me.
“Where’s my baby and husband?” I gasped as the nurses lifted my inert, numb body from gurney to hospital bed.
“Una Momenta,” they said, and I tried to steel myself for another wait.
My friend Amber appeared, and her welcome presence was a distraction from the anxiety, waiting, and reality of my physical body and all that had just occurred. She was also a reminder of my failed attempt at a natural birth. We’d talked over the details so many times, for nothing.
My body hurt in a way reminiscent of appendix surgery, but far, far worse. Nausea surged through me. I fought it down, but knew the battle would be short lived. Soon I was vomiting into a plastic bag, tears streaming down my face as I tried without success not to strain layer upon layer of new stitches.
When the door opened I leaned toward them, my boy and my man.
They brought him to me and all the oxytocin in the world seemed to surge through me as I held Callan’s tiny self against my chest. I reeled with the reality that this tiny being had just been inside me and was now here in my arms. He’d grown in me, and now was here.
He cried and I exposed my breast, ready to feed him. I was determined to master breast feeding, especially as labor had been denied me, and due to a combination of luck and determination, he latched right away.
I heard the door click shut and it was just us three. A universe.
In the days and weeks that followed I made a slow, halting recovery. I was still in deep shock at how quickly things happened and the toll the operation had taken on my body. The pain was like nothing I’d ever experienced, and I fought it day and night. At first I needed help showering, dressing, and many other day to day activities, but gradually movement returned.
I’ve spoken with many women who had both c-sections and natural births and the conclusions I’ve drawn are that no birth is easy and every single one is different. I set my expectations too high and didn’t allow myself room for all the myriad factors involved in childbirth. Best to be prepared for everything, although that’s a good thought in theory, but harder in practise.
Some part of me is, and always will mourn the experience I didn’t get to have, but I’m healing and my son is healthy and was from the moment he was born, and for that I am deeply thankful.
I didn’t appreciate them before I had a child, but I now love stories of pregnancy and motherhood and wish I’d paid more attention before my own experience. Each woman, child, and story is its own, but there’s an ancient symbiosis running through them all that reveals the strength and sacrifices of Women; what our minds and bodies can endure; and the incredible-strange-terrifying-wonder of making a human, and bringing them into the world.
I don’t consider what follows to be poems, necessarily, but short lyric essays based on my remembrances.
I also want to note that many women have c-sections and do not have the negative experience I went through. Many women I’ve talked to who had a natural birth experienced similar traumas. Each woman’s experience and story are her own. I think it’s important, necessary, and sacred to share birth stories. Not just with mothers either. By sharing these stories we dispel many of the negative myths surrounding childbirth that have steadfastly held on for hundreds of years.
Split open and the world came out.
Not my thighs.
Not the pushing-sweet-agony I’d prepared for. The stretching, yoga breath, reading, meditating, labor playlist.
Instead, a confusion of tears and IV pokes.
Half explanations in Spanish and broken English.
Panicked calls to momma in Michigan.
My husband’s worried blue eyes.
Hospital cap, gown, and blue booties.
Remove nose ring, earrings, rings, toe ring.
Wheeled gurney rides through confusing corridors and no time to prepare.
Not the spiritual push-shared-pain moments of women across time.
Instead, bone-deep-agony epidural spinal tap.
Blue curtain across neck.
Husband’s hand on my forehead the only calm.
Pain medication blurred fade in and out.
Baby cries and I’m awake, a need so internal pulling my numbed and open-wound body to the sound.
They put him by my head and the world narrows to his face. His cries quiet.
A moment, and he’s gone, husband with him, and I’m alone in a room with strangers speaking a language I don’t understand, sewing my womb back together.
Consciousness is an elusive doorway I pass back and forth through.
I’m frantic for my baby, lying in recovery, numb from waist down.
I pinch my thigh and feel nothing.
The longest two hours of my life slump by.
I exhaust the nurse with requests for the time.
An eternity of seconds, and I’m wheeled to my room.
More waiting, aching, IVed, stitched together.
Anything, for an opening door.
Then he’s in my arms and there is no room, no world, only my family; a tiny universe in this hot Cancun city.
We trace every detail. Again and again.
Put him to my breast and he nurses like we’ve done this forever.
Stitches ache and burn.
The medicine makes me sick, and I throw up again and again—searing pain makes me moan and retch.
My shrinking uterus makes me bleed.
Unknown and painful revelations, beginning recovery, for a c-section that was never supposed to happen.
It blends—the pain and ecstasy.
I gaze at him with the eyes of all mothers before—in wonder and awe at this being my body housed; my Body created.
How many times do you lean over the crib to make sure he’s breathing?
Touch his chest, gently lift a hand, run your fingers over his tiny head?
How many times do you cup your palm behind him to steady a neck not yet strong enough without you?
How many times do you tickle his cheek, hoping for the elusive “new baby” smile?
How many times do you pace the floor, arms leaden, back aching, searching his face for signs of sleep?
How many times do you hum and sing that song?
How many times do you remember these moments are temporary, no matter how many times repeated?
The beautiful bits of life are steeped in sacrifice.
The ancients knew this—sacrifice motifs woven into mythology from the ancient Greeks, to the Bible, to Australian Aboriginal tales.
A friend recently send me photos of my former cabin and the family that lives there now. The lovely work they’ve done. Changes. The pictures are beautiful and make me both sad and joyful. They show what I would’ve done, if I could’ve, would’ve, stayed.
I look down at my son and think about the life I sacrificed to have this life with him. A life in a cabin in rural Upper Michigan—a home I know so well.
It’s sad, and true, and beautiful, and necessary.
All other incarnations of Rachel sacrificed when I became a mother.
Lives unlived for the sake of this wondrous new life for my son, his father, and myself.
There’s a reason Frost’s poem of roads not taken has remained a favorite of people from all walks of life. It resonates deep in our bones as we peer down the tunnel of “what might have been.”
I’m learning that to be at peace, I have to let those other Rachels go. The independence I once wore like a second skin making room for the love and need of a husband and son. My joy in being alone set aside for a while as I nurture this new little life.
My body now a shared entity and food source for our baby boy.
Some nights, half asleep in my nursing chair, Callan at my breast, I close my eyes and wander down other roads, conjuring Rachels of the past. I linger and reminisce there for a while.
Baby’s soft sigh and smile tug my heart home.
Ryan lifts his head from the pillow and smiles at us—his wife and son. And once again there is only this room, this moment, and this road.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Thank you Kate Bessette of Kate Bee Photography for the beautiful photos!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Held dinner parties.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.