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.
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.
*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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.