Walking through the door of my childhood home is a comfort after living in a foreign country for three months straight. Isla isn’t all foreign territory because of a dozen or so past trips, but the fact remains I’m living thousands of miles from home with a rudimentary, but growing knowledge of Spanish.
Sitting on the dock, toes in the warm, shallow waters of Big Manistique Lake, I look at tan lines from my sandals–my body claimed and tattooed by the Mexico sun.
Sun breaks across lake water, a scattering of diamonds. It’s such a different sun than the one I’ve been both enjoying, and dealing with in Mexico. As Ryan says, “The sun in Mexico in the summer makes you feel like a bug beneath a magnifying glass.”
But the Michigan summer sun feels so… Good.
A difference of seasons. In winter the Michigan sun is a lingering wish on a frozen horizon, little to no heat trickling through. In contrast to the Mexico winter sun, which thaws frozen northern bones.
The feel of warm lake water is so familiar.
Three months isn’t that long. But for someone who’s never lived more than two hours from home, it feels long.
The place I chose is so different from this one.
Two bass hover beneath the boat on its lift. Broken clam shells from ducks feeding litter the sandy bottom. One of the biggest leeches I’ve ever seen undulates past like an underwater magic carpet.
I’ve always noticed these small movements in the world around me, but being away makes me notice them in a different light. My senses are heightened. Aromas drift heavy in the air.
All the blooming: lilacs, end-of-spring apple blossoms, spicy-sweet lupin.
The aromas in Mexico are a fast-paced scent-slide-show. Fried chicken overlapped by a tortilleria redolent of popcorn. Moments later overtaken by exhaust, or sewer, or a hot salty breeze overlaid with rotting fish. Aromas in Mexico are heavy, hanging in hot air. Aromas in Upper Michigan are sharper, more pronounced.
It’s so good to be quiet.
But it’s not silent. There’s a cacophony of bird sound, and that’s nice too. A kingfisher, crows, all sorts of warblers.
I was telling my parent’s yesterday, something I thought as we came out of the clouds over Michigan, and I could see an expanse of green and water: ponds and lakes and streams and rivers and swamps, and in the distance the big expanse of Lake Superior. All that fresh water.
I cried. And I laughed. And it came to me that, to be an expat is to always have a little bit of a broken heart, because no matter where you are–here or there–some part of you, and your loves, are someplace else. That’s both such a beautiful thing, and so hard.
Perspective and juxtapositions lick my temples–the edges of my ears.
Jungles and mangroves.
Maple woods and spruce swamps.
Salty ocean aquamarine.
Icy cold, deep Superior blue.
Spicy ceviche, taco, tostada, tequila burn.
Green vegetable, fresh berry tang and burst.
Mexico, a love in my life for the past twelve years.
A siren song from the south calling me home.
Michigan’s familiar paths, rivers, lakes, fields, and seasons I know as well as the freckle constellations mapped across my body’s universe.
There’s a familiarity to the heat, laughter, living-closer-to-the-edge-attitude here that echoes deep beneath my breast bone.
An anchor with elastic chains that flex as I board the plane going north.
I’ve shaken with anxiety, awoken from nightmares screaming, pounded stone walls with fragile fists, frustration gasps choking me.
It’s time for strength.
I stretch my fingers. Stare down at the tattoos, ink and meaning imbedded 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.
I’m learning to feel like an island girl.
32 years an Upper Michigan woods-walker, stream-jumper, cold-water swimmer.
Now, I ride to drop off laundry at the lavandaria, laundry in my backpack.
The bike’s left brake, typical Isla-style, doesn’t work. I’ve learned to approach speed bumps–topes–with a mixture of caution and daring-do. Pulling up on the handlebars just in time, jerking the bike up and over.
My hair’s tangled, growing more blonde by the day, textured as only salty wind can twist.
My apartment with my boyfriend has become home.
I enter the alley mouth across from the Yamaha store, which is my guide-point when giving directions. The short road is unpaved, bumpy, and dusty. My feet kick up little clouds in the south breeze.
I pass Carnitas, meaty aromas waft my way, along with the sound of pounding cleavers chopping pork to be served in tortas and tacos.
I pass the mechanics, piles of half-taken-apart cars, welding torches’ snap and hiss accenting the steamy afternoon.
I pass the barking poodle and sweet puppy Toby with his crippled back legs and slinky walk. He can’t walk well, but rolls about on his hips like a wobbly-dog doll as he plays with my puppy, Bea.
I walk through the archway and across the loose gravel that catches bike and moped tires, and into the door where my handsome man and two tail-waggers wait–eager for my return.
I’m creating another family in Mexico–far away from other families, in their various incarnations, I’ve left behind.
There’s a hesitancy in my home-making. A limbo between spaces that’s familiar, freeing, exciting, frightening, and uncomfortable.
Part of me craves the excitement of disconnectedness.
Part of me craves the stability of a home space.
The buoyancy of vacation-life on the island has been supplanted by the realities of moving to a foreign country with a 100 year old rental house in Michigan: frozen pipes, exploded hot water heater, wasp invasion, bill pay, lost debit card, need for employment/work visa, and an overwhelming sense of the unknown in my future that’s both terrifying and exhilarating.
I walk the dogs down the alley, across the street, and into the baseball field for their morning constitution.
OG, the yellow lab, runs ahead, 120 lbs. straining against the leash. Bea’s 45 lbs. pulls on my other arm, making for an interesting balance of yank and pull.
I watch as they frolic across the baseball field’s dirt and grass expanse. Bea runs for a coconut, pouncing on it and running off with it clenched precariously in her front teeth.
A year ago I watched her pull sticks out of a Michigan river and run with them across the enormous lawn I push-mowed myself all summer.
Lessons, in what a year can bring.
On the island, American tourists pour off ferries and packed catamarans in all stages of drunken and sober; dressed and undressed; flip-flopped, sunburned, white and tan; sunglassed; saronged; thonged, jeaned, wet bottomed.
I feel territorial over this place I’ve only recently come to call home.
I welcome their business, happy to take dollars or pesos to keep my life here afloat, while also resenting their often obnoxious and disrespectful presence–similar to how I felt in the tourist town in Michigan I grew up and worked in as a teenager.
I went from a cabin in Deerton, Michigan–population 352, to the congested five mile long island, Isla Mujeres, population 12,700 give or take the couple thousand tourists that come and go on a daily basis.
Taxis, mopeds, motorbikes, and trucks roar and swerve down clamorous streets.
Hours could go by before a car or SUV would go down my Deerton road.
I stand in warm, turquoise surf at Playa Norte and spin a 360. White sand sifts around my feet as I turn– a circle, an orbit, a cycle like the sun that raises sweat along my hairline like morning dew on my Michigan yard’s wild strawberry plants.
Everywhere I look is an ever shifting undulation of humanity. Nowhere without a person or people.
Eyes, faces, mouths, stories, bodies exist and sigh and breathe.
I need somewhere quiet to rest and listen for the soft soft voice that is Rachel.
I tilt my head, a curious seabird, listening, as if to a shell.
Leeks are just beginning to break through last fall’s packed-down-brown leaves back in Michigan. Green tongues, licking spring air.
On Isla, the guaya tree outside my apartment inexplicably (as far as I was concerned) began dropping its leaves as though it were fall. Nancy, the fastidious landlady who’s apartment is across the courtyard, sweeps leaves off gravel industriously as a kitchen floor.
“Ryan? Is that tree dying?” I asked my boyfriend sleepily from our king size bed.
“No,” he laughed, simultaneously pulling me closer and patting OG’s large sleeping-polar-bear form. “It drops its leaves and then makes fruit.”
Ryan’s lived on the island five years and has a knowledge and understanding of Isla’s workings that I’m just beginning to understand.
“Oh,” I exclaimed with an edge of the same child-wonder as when I learned about the habits of beaver from my father, or the monarch butterfly life cycle from my mother.
This tree behaves much differently than the trees I’m used to–trees I observed through the Upper Peninsula of Michigan’s changing seasons for 32 years.
As days go by and Michigan tiptoes into spring, the guaya tree, which I first thought would quickly become nothing but a towering, leafless monolith stretches, what looked to me like late fall-bare-branches into a cloudless Caribbean blue sky.
Instead, almost as fast as its leaves dropped, little green leaflets began to grow in their place. Just like in Michigan.
“Tiny as a mouse’s ear.” As my mamma always says.
They grow rapidly, the tree never completely losing its green.
It’s like watching a tree go from summer/fall, directly to spring in a time-lapse parody.
Now, it’s growing little bunches that burst into tiny yellow flowers I know will soon become fruit.
After a little research, I learned that this is the same fruit I called a “kinnip,” when I traveled with friends and family to the Bahamas in middle school. My sister and our sister-friends ate the tart fruits until our lips puckered, fingers and faces sticky-sweet.
Now here’s this familiar/unfamiliar fruit in my front yard. Day by day, like the apples in my orchard back home, I watch the little fruits grow.
I asked people on Facebook and Instagram how they combat homesickness. The responses were varied–many humorous, some as simple as “cry it out,” but all kind and thought-provoking. The ones that stuck with me the most were those who advised me to immerse myself fully in the place I’m currently calling home.
This advice resonated with me because I’ve felt a bit ghostly of late–as though I’m lingering in limbo between two homes. Two worlds.
I crave the north world’s silence like a deep-seeded hunger, and look through social media pictures like a starving person sniffing restaurant aromas.
See Me. The Caribbean whispers as its north-wind-whipped-waves froth deep blue and aquamarine.
I’ve longed for this place for so long. Ached for it in February as I hauled and stacked wood. Awoke cold and shivering at 4 am to feed the wood stove. Shoveled snow only to watch as, like Sysiphus’ rock, it piled back in only a few hours. Higher. Deeper.
I lose track of the time of year without seasons to guide me. Caribbean blues reach out and pull me into salty water that licks behind my ears, making me hum happy. This kind of joy is hard-won and hard-earned with an icing of privilege that, in this place where so many live on so little, humbles me.
Sitting on the ferry, returning to the island from a day running errands in Cancun, the island shimmers on the horizon.
“Home,” I whisper under my breath. Tasting the word.
“What sweetie?” Ryan says, turning his sunglassed face to me so I see my reflection.
“Home,” I say again, the word like salt on skin, sand grit, tequila burn, beer buzz green bottle tang, saline seafood bites, and mango, orange-sweet as sunset.
I’m reading Tom Robbins again. The last time I was in Mexico, in July, I was reading Skinny Legs and All. This trip, it’s Jitterbug Perfume. Tom Robbins’ writing makes me laugh and uncovers societal layers like turning book pages. It awakens me to connections I wouldn’t have entertained.
As does living in Mexico.
I stood on my balcony this morning, hungover, watching the world go by. The La Gloria, Isla Mujeres’ “local” neighborhood, world.
As a writer, white woman, United States citizen, post-colonial theorist, English professor, mentor, attempted expat, and whatever other random amalgamations I lay claim to, I’m hyper-aware of my writing perspective.
Who am I to write about Isla Mujeres, Mexico? Write about a place I’ve known since I was fifteen as a visitor and now experienced for two months as a “local.” It’s a balance of awareness–knowing my place. This issue is compounded by our current political situation and the tenuous relationship between a Trump-governed U.S. and Mexico.
I am of this place, and not of this place—a fact I’m daily reminded of.
It’s a noisy world: each delivery vehicle—bicycle, moped, massive diesel truck—has it’s own honk, catchy song, or call. My cabin in Michigan is so far in the woods that other human sounds are few and far between: snowmobile whine, gunshot, car exhaust.
I lean against the round silver railing, mindlessly spooning Yucatan honey and yogurt into my mouth.
The honey is dark, heady. Almost, but not quite, too sweet.
Children are highly valued here, raised in a community environment that’s dying out in the U.S.
Here, they’re held, scolded, played with by parents, extended family and everyone along the way. In contrast, from my balcony, I observe the family across the street and down the block. They live in a second story apartment with a door that opens onto a blue tarp, which serves as awning for the first story. The only walkway is a thin ledge running along the wall with the awning and a full story drop to the pavement mere inches away. The family has at least three toddlers. I watch them press tiny, fragile bodies against the screen door opening onto borderline nothingness, and hold my breath.
Many moments to test the limits of my “societal norms.”
Sometimes, lists become poems.
Fixing up my new, Mexico, apartment—hands and knees scrubbing
floor tiles, because I couldn’t find the mop.
Sweeping and washing Santiago’s hair and cigarette ashes from the room while the cat,
Maga, frolics, on sheetless bed.
A cat, and a room. In Mexico.
Chedraui for supplies—two- for- one toothbrushes, bleach, garbage bags.
Sunday. Poker night at Paco’s.
Faces around a table. Soon-to-be-but-not-yet, familiar.
I made pickled vegetables: radishes, jalapenos, carrots, purple cabbage.
Oscar’s pizza take-out and round-robin laughter.
Poker lessons and accents: American, Mexican, British, Canadian.
If the locals call it a midget rodeo, is it politically incorrect to call it that as well?
(I’m deeply uncomfortable even writing this.)
The crowd laughed in bursts, echoed in rain sheets halfway through the show.
We took refuge in tilt-a-whirl cups.
When the rain stopped, workers turned on the ride for us.
I laughed and screamed—release, joy, delight, in a shadowed, fluorescent-lit, whirling world.
Acid-trip caricature, orchestra-master carnival man surfed the moving track between cups. He danced and balanced on their undulating whirl—a magician surfer risking life and limb to hop back and forth onto track and back again, spinning our cups faster and faster.
The story goes: a few days later, the carnival’s last night, the audience, filled with drunk locals, heckled the cowboy until, out of frustration, he picked up a rock and hurled it into the unruly crowd. At this assault, they became unhinged, rushing the barrier to attack the lone cowboy. When the motley crew of “midgets,” cowboys, clowns, and assorted other entertainers saw their fellow attacked, they rushed into the ring. The brawl that ensued, I conjured in my imagination more than once.
It would’ve been something to see.
Days disappear on Isla.
I almost never cook anymore.
I went from the closest grocery store being twenty minutes down the road, to tantalizing flavors of all kinds available at a moment’s notice almost any hour of day or night.
A moped ride around the island is an aroma multi-course meal. I learn to seek out places by their scents, memorizing them like patterns—a language I’m slowly understanding like the Spanish I practice daily.
Sometimes I’m shy, hesitant, unsure of my pronunciation and, for that second, afraid to make a mistake in front of the local whose place here, juxtaposed against my own, is layered in nuanced history.
History played out in our languages, skin, my ability to live affordably in their home country because my home country’s political policies created unstable financial conditions our government is currently turning around and blaming the Mexican people for.
I eavesdrop on conversations: Locals to learn the language and tourists as windows into different societies and cultures.
Especially American culture. My culture. As I write from my perch on the Soggy Peso dock an insurance-company-vacation-party rages behind me.
I miss many aspects of home, but I’m confronted with situations and conversations via American tourists that give me a lot of pause.
“Shane” sidles up to my boyfriend, Ryan, and me where we sit, feet dangling above turquoise water like carefree tourists ourselves. His peers-in-age, purt, pretty, full of questions and booze, join us—squealing over the dog, the water, the dock—voices at tequila-pitch.
These alcohol and money driven young people are the future of the U.S.
Some part of me feels I’m abandoning a sinking ship as the Trump ascendency becomes reality. I’m becoming more aware of my role as an American in a country heavily influenced by American policy as Mexicans riot over gas in Cancun grocery stores and the music festival I almost attended ended with five dead in a club shooting between local cartels and police.
Salt’s drying on my skin. The sun feels delicious. The insurance company party has moved on.
Palms sigh and shiver. Cancun’s tourist chaos, Mexico’s politics, American politics— feel another world away. Caribbean illusions against, a conch-pink sunset.
The woods and cabin will be quiet—so quiet—after Isla Mujeres’ beehive hum. Winds sweeping in from the north tease a northern girl grown accustomed to Mexico heat. I wear a sweatshirt on many nights that would have been balmy bathing-suit-bottomed on a Michigan summer evening.
There’s no preparing for reentry. It just has to happen.
Long hot days in Mexico to a dose of reality and logistical juggling in Michigan I’m not ready for.
Anxiety that slowly slipped out like an evening tide during two months learning new ways in a new place has come roaring back like a rogue wave.
I read stories in The Sun Magazine about people on their last few dollars pulling themselves from the edge; stories of women rising from the ashes of bonfires their men tried to make of them; stories of struggle so much deeper than my own I take guilty consolation in knowing not only am I not alone but that, today, at least I’m not dealing with that.
Living in limbo between countries. Things, in
Closets, boxes, bags. Opening
Empty cupboards and drawers.
A stack of bills
100 year old house
Propane tank needs filling.
There’s a party in Mexico where friends and tourists sing along to a band and a song I know by heart but I’m tending a woodstove and cold-chapped lips.
Pondering money, and life, and decisions, and struggle, and how the hell to pull myself out of this.
Existing in contrasts. Perspective. Hindsight.
Like a driver in thick fog I forge ahead, swirling clouds of unknown parting before my searching eyes.
We peer into the lives of others, offering judgments and advice. Believing we know better—best. Yet our own lives are nothing but reactions to fear, change, and perspective—just like those we judge.
Awareness of our own stories of struggle in comparison to others’ leads to empathy desperately needed in a global, but disconnected world. For many, that level of awareness is too painful—too difficult and unstable, causing them to wall themselves in with fears, phobias, excuses, dogmas, and self-built walls to “protect” against unknowns. Unknowns are scary to humans, and always have been.
Fear of the unknown created our mythologies and religions, explaining how the world worked so it was no longer an unknown entity, and therefore something to be feared: Zeus is making lightning again, Pele is erupting, Poseidon created the tidal wave.
Fear of the unknown keeps us with partners who make us unhappy, in miserable jobs, uncomfortable living situations, etc. because at least these are known entities. Even if they make us miserable, it seems safer here than leaving it behind and stepping forward, into the unknown.
We laud those that do, in television, books, and media. Robert Frost’s “ The Road not Taken,” timelessly popular and borderline overused, rings true on the page but rarely in real life.
Too often, those who do step off the beaten path and into the unknown become pariahs to friends, family, and community because they come to represent both the existence and potential excitement of that unknown—but also the elements missing in their own lives. Memories of roads not taken. Regrets. Choices left to swirl away in the eddies and currents of life’s relentless river.
Staring into the Laughing Whitefish’s chuckling flow, I’m reminded of these things.
Thoughts of Mexico taste like milk chocolate, salt, hibiscus melting across my tongue.
My current life is one of limbo, contrasts, and many, many unknowns.
I write facing the south window. Snow’s piled deep. The lilac bushes, so luxurious with scent-saturated purple blooms in June, dance skeletal branches in a 20 degree breeze.
Two weeks ago I was in Mexico.
In two weeks I’ll be back.
In the meantime, I’m home in my 100 year old log cabin on 40 acres, trying to find a job, find my cat a home, get my dog to Mexico, sort out my bills, bank, phone, car, etc. and deal with a past that continues to ache and scratch and scare.
The power’s out. A flair of fear and anxiety I quiet with common-sense reassurances, then sigh over, wondering if those feelings will ever go away.
Alone. Echoes across the empty-but-for-trees-and-animals-miles surrounding my cabin. Equal parts joy and burden.
I’m not going to cry.
Because if I begin, I’ll turn into the storm that howled in from the south last night. For hours it lashed the house with bursts of out-of-season rain and gusts of wind.
Lying in bed, I felt each gust as it broke on the square log house like a storm-driven wave against stone.
I felt the impact in my back, propped against the wall. No sheet rock or insulation. Just me and wood and wind.
Sweet Simon cat has no idea he goes to a new home tomorrow. It breaks me apart. We’ve been together for 10 years and through more than most cat-and -their-humans go through. It makes me want to curl around his little soft sleepy body and fall asleep for a day or two.
Instead, I look to another list item—keep moving forward.
No time to break down.
Upheaval, change, confusion, perspective, flux, excitement, hope, strength.
Lack of sleep, too many vices-to-cope, aching muscles, compromised immune system, stress-induced breakouts, weight-gain/weight-loss…
Driven on by ecstatic swims in cenotes, need for change, and a heart-song too loud to ignore.
Isla Mujeres tests the limits of my writing and communication. Days pile up behind me. It hardly seems possible I’ve been here over a month.
Attempts to write about events coloring my days is like shading left-handed in an intricate coloring book with blunt-tipped neon markers.
It’s a taste of life I’ve always wanted. The woman I’ve always wanted to be.
Sometimes, I feel my younger self beside me, watching with fierce joy and
approval. She comes in many ages—representations of my former selves.
Insecurity, fear, anxiousness, hope, written on her face for a day in the
future she knows is coming: when she’ll fit fully into body, skin, and
heart. Know who she is. Know her purpose, worth, and hold her head—High.
A year ago, at almost this time, I wanted to disappear I was so anxious,
hopeless, and afraid.
I arrived on Isla Mujeres–a place I’ve visited since I was fifteen–just over two weeks ago. Every day I feel my confidence, strength, and experience grow. Sometimes it’s through positive experiences like learning how to navigate the taxi system with my meager Spanish.
Sometimes, it’s trial and error as I turn down the wrong street, run out of local money in the grocery store, or confront the blood splatter on our white front steps from the street brawl a couple weeks ago.
Whatever the lesson, I’m moving forward little by little. An evolution process—building myself in layers, like a Russian nesting doll.
Mariachi rock chased with beer buckets of perspective and hindsight for Christmas Eve.
Random thoughts trickle, like sand against my restless toes.
Scape of palm fronds contrasts soughing wind through northern
Wash of waves, tourist laughter, base beat thump juxtaposed in my
Memory to the quiet winter peace next to Michigan’s Laughing Whitefish River.
The new tattoos on my left hand wink black on white freckled skin.
Reminders of pain—fingernails in skin. Bleeding half moons etched into the new year. When everything changed.
Christmas Eve. A year ago. Thirteen hours to Mississippi. Headlights, dark blur. Hands clenched on door handle. Gas stations like mirages, flashing
by. Sanctuary, lost.
His knuckles stood out like bones on the steering wheel. Clenched.
His words a noose, drawing breath from lungs, leaving me limp. A
deflated, quivering flesh balloon. The spine I climbed into the car with
dissolved in self-hatred, and tears.
A year. One revolution of the earth around the sun. Choices. Change. Worn
as thin as an old white t-shirt. A ghost.
Here. I’m flesh, blood, skin and liquid pleasure. Otter rolls in ocean water and laughter curled tight in my tummy. A smile I’ve never seen on my lips. All those other Rachel’s, peering into the afternoon sun. Inhaling, deep breath. Planting my feet.
My kitchen in Michigan is comparably limited in amenities to my kitchen in Mexico. My pantry is better stocked in Michigan, and I have gas to cook on, as opposed to a rusty electric hot plate.
When invited to a potluck, I was given a moment of pause. It was really–Mexico-hot, my counter is the size of the cutting board, and I was craving vegetables.
Living in the middle of nowhere has taught me inventiveness and creativity. Living in Mexico is teaching me these things, in different ways. Teaching me my own lessons on the importance of multiple perspectives.
The grocery store, less than a block from my apartment as opposed to the half hour drive from my Michigan home, has interesting offers. I avoid the meat department and find that it has about half of what I usually need, but I also revel in sampling different cheeses I’ve never heard of and dodging laughing children zooming unattended down aisles as I shop.
The grocery shopping experience is both familiar and new in Mexico. It’s an interesting balance—attempting to appear as though I know what I’m doing without speaking much Spanish while also ogling the unfamiliar items on offer.
For the potluck I decide to combine flavors and fresh local produce with a familiar recipe I crafted in my Michigan home.
Quick pickles are one of my favorite recipes because they pair well with almost any meal, they’re healthy, beautiful, seasonal, and simple.
I walked the short block down to the SuperExpress and found purple cabbage, jalapeños, radishes, and carrots in the produce department. There was a time, when I first began visited Mexico, I was afraid of raw vegetables because I was scared of getting ill. After living here this long, I’ve realized what will and will not make me ill and vegetables are fine. Even washed in tap water.
Walking to the grocery store, picking out produce, coming back to my own kitchen and chopping, mixing, tasting, make me feel like a local. Make me feel like I’m home.
Home here. Home there.
Isla Quick Pickle
• 5 large carrots julliened/cut into thin slices
• ¼ slices purple cabbage
• 7 thinly sliced radishes
• 1 or two sliced jalapenos
• Two cups white vinegar
• One teaspoon black peppercorns
• 6+ tablespoons salt
• 5 sliced garlic cloves
Mix all ingredients with ¾ cup water (or enough to cover) and let sit for
at least two hours before serving. Taste as you create the brine and add
more water/vinegar/salt accordingly.
The driveway, tree-tunneled, winds it’s 450 feet toward the house. I always slow down, to take it in: my log house, gnarled old apple trees, and glimpse of laughing river. Anxiety, sadness, worry, disappear for a brief moment as the reality of this place, my sanctuary, slips over me like warm, strong arms around my shoulders.
Upon unlocking the door and entering the house, I’m greeted by a frantically joyful Bea. It’s hard to tear myself away from her sweet moans of joy and wriggling happiness. She has a hilarious and meltingly-endearing habit of putting her head onto the ground or couch, as though she were about do a handstand (pawstand?) or somersault, and wagging her tail wildly, she emits vocals that express her delight clear as words. It’s a wonderful welcome home, especially living alone.
When we’ve completed our greetings, I move on to the next undertaking: getting the fire going. If it’s gone out completely, I have to rebuild it from scratch. The “Wonderwood” is unattractive, as it looks like a furnace, but it’s fairly efficient. Some days, the ashes need emptying, which is a precarious and potentially dustily disastrous task entailing tiptoeing through the house, out the door and across the yard, to pour the ashes into the fire pit. The over-loaded tray is always just a sneeze away from an ash cloud descending on all the furniture, but I’ve found just the right ratio of cautious tiptoeing to forward movement—so far so good.
Once the fire’s going, I change out of my “town shoes” and into rubber boots. I slide out of my nice jacket and into my grub coat—taking one aspect off and replacing with another.
Before I can relax, wood needs to be brought in. It’s dark outside, raining on a slushy inch of this morning’s snow, and the temperature’s dropping.
“There’s no warmth like a wood stove, dear, heart-friend Dorothy always says.
I linger around the stove like a cat, loading in wood until the house is like a sauna. Taking off clothes. Opening windows. Reading, grading, writing, basking naked on cool sheets, the fire’s warmth evaporating layers of heartache and chilling cold until my skin glows.
After I load the cart with chunks of wet, heavy wood, I trundle back to the house. Load arms, open door, through the house, stack wood by wood stove, repeat. The wood is heavy, but something in me relishes the work. It satisfies a primal urge—I am doing what humans have always done: wood to fire. Working to generate warmth.
Once the wood’s been brought in, I return coat to hook and take off black rubber boots. I’ve tracked in dirt and wood detritus, so I sweep the entryway, bathroom, and living space. It never ceases to surprise me how long it takes to sweep such a small space.
It takes a little while to be fully present. I putter, doing small chores and checking the fire.
A drawback of this life, is that it’s often difficult to relax. There’s always so much to do that moments spent in activities that aren’t “productive” can cause anxiety. Even writing and reading feel like luxuries these days, and I mostly take them up at night, when household chores can be put off until tomorrow.
It’s the life I’ve chosen; a life I love: a life I’ve always known.
This is it. The first.
my jump- leap -journey
Here, is where I start. Layered in all the firsts and beginnings that came before. What will come after.
The flight. All the other flights that came before.
Remove belts, jackets, shoes.
To release, lift buckle.
Stress, lack of sleep, worry
clouded takeoff. Now, breaking through atmosphere, into sun.
Can it be?
Am I doing this?
Did I make this happen?
My window shade is open. Wheels coming down. Landing.
Life here’s come on so quickly it’s hard to sit down and document it all. I lounge on my second story balcony, watching the local world of Isla Mujeres pass below. It’s a plane ride and a world away from my cabin and woodpile.
It’s a strange feeling—my white, American self, watching from above as local Mexicans go about their day to day. I try to immerse myself, but the language barrier remains frustrating. However, I’ve learned that making an effort and a smile go a long way.
As it gets closer to Christmas, music and parties ramp up. There’s always music bumping somewhere, and it creates a layered, thumping cacophony of sound that fades into the background as you get used to it.
My week has been a blur of meeting new friends, poker night, delicious tacos, walking, hot sun, beach, ocean, writing, cleaning my room, staying out until four, and laughing until my stomach hurts.
I look at the photos of me a week ago: exhausted, worried, anxious, and running low on the kind of buoyancy that generally sustains me.
Travel. That old cure for the apathy and lack of perspective that accumulate like dust and dull your awareness of the greater world around you.
“Travel makes you modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” Gustave Flaubert
This trip has also reminded me of strength pockets within myself I’d forgotten about. Reminded me I know how to be a confident woman of the world, not just a confident woman of the woods. It’s reminded me what it’s like to be the only American at a table in a room full of new friends. I’m humbled daily by some lack of cultural knowledge. I appreciate the humbling, because it reminds me how gloriously different other cultures experience the world.
Being here fuels a distinctive kind of life within me than I experience at home. It reminds me to be aware, thankful, and brave.
“The use of traveling is to regulate imagination with reality, and instead of thinking of how things may be, see them as they are,”
There are many days living in this old cabin where I question what the hell I’m doing with my life. Am I really capable of living in/sustaining a structure this high maintenance? Do I have what it takes—financially and otherwise?
Days like today, when, in the middle of my second load of laundry, the water stopped working. My finances are stretched to the max, dishes aren’t done, and after a late-long-night all I wanted was a hot shower.
I’ve lived without water before: when my ex-husband was renovating the bathroom himself I alternated between showering in the utility sink if it was available, standing in a rubber made and pouring hot water over myself when it was not, and if it was a nice day, utilizing the forest-facing back porch for my ablutions. My tent-dwelling days acclimated me to catching a wash where I could: lakes, streams, waterfalls, etc.
My current situation feels different. It’s up to me to figure out how to fix this and I feel woefully inadequate. Days spent scratching my head in good moments and near tears in bad leave me wondering why we don’t teach more practical, day-to-day things in schools. The U.S. educational system is woefully inadequate anyway (don’t get me started on modern education and the “teach-to-the-test” system that’s pumping out millions of uneducated students unable to think critically), but why don’t we teach skills people use regularly?:
Finances, basic auto mechanics, cooking, basic electricity, plumbing, carpentry, etc.
These are skills that most everyone needs a rudimentary understanding of at some point in their lives.
I need one now. I flipped the switches on the fuse box, tried to get the water pump going manually, called neighbors, solicited advice but I’ve run out of fixes to try on my own. I have to wait for help, which is grating.
The experience has led me to reflect and empathize with former inhabitants of my home who lived without running water. Children were raised here, families utilizing both river and old-fashioned stone well to obtain this necessary day-to-day resource. Hauling water up from the river makes me appreciate the simplicity of a small silver handle turning and almost-instantaneous clean, hot water at my fingertips.
It’s been the warmest early-November that I can remember. I debate washing-up in the bathtub and opt for a chillier but more adventurous frolic in the river.
Just as the sun’s rays dip below the tree-line I make my way down to the river, naked but for towel and rubber boots.
With a shiver, I drop the towel and wade into the pushing current. Leaves still clinging to reaching tree limbs flicker yellow, filtering evening light into golden shadows.
I’m tired, frustrated, and anxious about how much the water-fix will cost.
Dipping my hands into the cold water is unpleasant at first, but after a few curses, exclamations, and inarticulate noises of exasperation, I begin to enjoy my splashings, pondering how lucky I am: the water pump died on a warm evening; my neighbors can provide me with clean drinking water; I have a community offering advice, support, and fixes; I live on a stunning river that provides for all but my drinking water needs; I have electricity, propane, firewood, and food to eat—not to mention Wi-Fi. By so many people’s standards, this is living in luxury.
I’m also discovering new strength reserves. Several times I wanted to sit my vexed ass down on the wood floor and give myself up to the hot tears threatening to slide down my cheeks. However, I’ve done that before and it only delayed fixing the problem, so I sniff once or twice and square my shoulders.
You chose this life whispers through my mind in my father’s voice. Sell the house and move closer to town. Make things easier on yourself. Blinking away the tears, I reach for the five-gallon bucket and head for the river so I can at least flush the toilet.
Hell, at least I have an indoor toilet that flushes.
The water is ice-cream-headache cold as I dunk my hair into the current, turning fine strands from blond to red, swirling like seaweed.
My whimpers turn to yips of exhilaration. Unable to help myself, I laugh out loud.
If the water hadn’t gone out, I wouldn’t have had this moment in the river. And there it is—the shift in mood—the choice to spin my situation and find joy beneath the hardship.
It won’t always be this easy. The sun slips lower. I step from the river, grateful. So exhilarated from icy water’s tumble I no longer feel cold, just a matching rush of blood in my veins a broken water pump enabled.
Too often when planning a meal, we limit ourselves to specific “ethnicities” (Mexican, Thai, Italian), and specific meals (breakfast food vs. dinner), etc.
Flavors, are what’s important. Use your senses, and recipes to guide your cooking. If you have an idea something might be good–try it. If it doesn’t turn out, you’ve also learned something: what doesn’t work–and that’s just as valuable as learning what does. (Also true in life sometimes, I’ve found…)
Rather than reading a recipe and going out to buy ingredients, research recipes containing ingredients you have on hand. What you don’t have on hand, find similar flavors.
When mistakes happen, remember: Salty (soy sauce, black bean paste, Braggs Liquid Aminos), Spicy (hot peppers, sriracha,), Sweet (honey, maple syrup), Sour (lemon/lime, vinegars–a little goes a long way–balance flavors of vinegar according to other ingredients; balsamic and apple cider are two essentials in my kitchen), help balance each other. Sometimes, all a recipe needs is balance.
Make connections between flavors based on other tasty dishes you’ve had that combined successful ingredients and tastes.
Example: Creamy Potato Soup with a Fried Egg–For Breakfast! (or any meal)
Think breakfast flavors: Eggs and Potatoes are delicious together—why not in this form?
Lazy Apple Crisp Recipe
Slice 9+apples into a saucepan. Add:
*Honey (or maple syrup), Cinnamon, Nutmeg, Ginger (fresh or ground), vanilla, a squeeze of lemon or a teaspoon of apple cider vinegar. Cook until apples are soft, stirring occasionally. Top with granola and vanilla ice cream (or Greek Yogurt mixed with honey/maple syrup).
I walk the property in deep dusk, with Bea a tiggered, bouncing shadow at my side. Mist hangs, ethereal—a gauzy veil—over apple orchard and south lawn. We enter the tree line—mostly cedar, scrubby pine, and the occasional towering old growth. The world goes from dim to black. The familiar trail becomes a new entity—roots and dips to discover. Trees are twisted silhouettes. Bea disappears, but I can hear the faint “ching” of her collar rise and fall against the river’s chuckling backdrop. Other than that, it’s silent.
I stand still, contemplating the old me that wouldn’t have stepped away from yard-light-safety-halo, let alone out of the yard entirely and into the dark woods. I’m aware, my senses heightened, but I’m not afraid. The absence of fear so recent I search it like tongue to pulled tooth. There’s a freedom here—freedom tickling against my breastbone like moth wings.
“Aren’t you afraid to be all the way out there, on that big property, in that old house, all by yourself?” Friends, family, students, ask me.
The lack of fear was hard earned. Born bloody, out of pain, anxiety, and fear of a different kind. These experiences teach us the real things to fear, rather than the imaginary that so captivate us and keep us out of the woods at night.
I’ve never seen so many mushrooms.
Humans continually speculate as to the reasons reactions occur in nature. For better or worse, we’re a meddling species, always poking and prodding; always postulating. I’ve heard many speculations about everything from the winter ahead: “It’s going to be an average winter.” To the prevalence of mice indoors this fall: “They’re cyclical.” To the sudden and varied explosion of mushrooms across the region. “Perfect ratio of heat to rainfall.” I like these hypothesis, empirically science and observation based—as much as I like the mythological explanations for such events: Poseidon’s wrath at fault for stormy seas. Coyote’s trickery for things going awry. Pele for erupting volcanoes.
Humans are meaning-makers. We seek answers. This aspect of our nature has led to both positives and negatives for both our species, other species, and the planet as a whole. Watching the Trump ascendency and listening to the rhetoric of his supporters, I cannot help but wish for more of this questioning nature across our population, and while I’m at it, the world. Perhaps we’ve become so inundated by our advertising/media/capitalist centered society, we’ve forgotten the importance of questioning, observation, careful analysis before reaching conclusions. On the other hand—and I’m debating with myself at this point—studying mythology shows that, despite scientific advances across thousands of years, humans haven’t changed at all. We still love, lust, grieve. We’re jealous, angry, and start wars. We’re fascinated with one another’s drama. We don’t know what exists before we’re born, and we don’t know where we go when we die. We still don’t know our purpose any more than did the ancient Greeks, Aborigines, Mayans staring up at the stars and making meaning out of constellations.
I don’t know why the mushrooms have appeared in such vast quantities this year, but I’m captivated by their shapes, sizes, colors, and prolific-stemmed-capped-cragged-horned-tilting presence. I’ve seen purple mushrooms, six-inch-tall table-topped Aminitas, brown and white puffballs like blown-bubbles on the lawn, and various eye-popping orange and red fungi that screams “poisonous” in all their fluorescent vibrancy.
They’re delightful, turning the woods and lawn into a there-and-gone fairy world overnight.
The Ancient Britons believed that stumbling into a fairy ring of mushrooms, one risked being taken to the land of faery, where you might never emerge, or, worse yet, emerge after only “one night” to find you’d been gone 200 years in real time. Many cultures have and continue to use certain mushrooms for their hallucinogenic qualities and ability to alter consciousness. Proponents across the centuries believe these characteristics reveal deeper meanings and truths than humans are able to see on a day to day basis.
I suggest a healthy dose for most modern politicians.
Cold Weather’s Coming
The change in season happens so gradually, I hardly notice. Subtle shifts in day-to-day routine are always the first clues.
Less skirts, dresses, shorts and more leggings and jeans.
The windows, always open at night, get lowered bit by bit until cracked just enough to hear the river as I fall asleep.
I’m hungrier than I was, as though, bear-like, my body’s preparing for cold.
Birds fly in chittering flocks, foraging together in preparation for a flight south I’m eager to imitate in December.
Fields turn green to gold, catching late-day sunlight in haloed reflections.
Days get shorter.
I hauled and stacked three face cords of wood yesterday. It felt like a lot, but I’ll need much more. “Wood warms you twice.” I hear my father’s voice as I bend, lift, stack, repeat. Sweat trickles between my breasts. Thunder rumbles and wind whips errant blond hairs into my eyes and across my lips.
Leaves swirl in colored tornadoes.
The cherry tree, first to acquiesce to coming cold, stands, a leafless profile against a gathering-storm-sky.
Tastes Like Fall
As the seasons change, my culinary fantasies shift from blueberry bursts, sweet corn and BLT bliss, and sugar snap pea sweetness to daydreams of bacon-wrapped-duck breast, apples melted with honey and cinnamon, and buttery-orange mounds of butternut squash.
Ideas and Recent Recipe Concept-Photos to Follow:
*Email email@example.com for Recipes and Ideas
Something elemental in me knows fall is coming on, without looking at a calendar. A flock of robins hurried, heavy-breasted above me this evening. The ditch-side weeds are fluffy and dry—going to seed and taking to the winds, switching directions like winging dragonflies. I crave corn—sweet and salty.
Sweet corn season catches me up every year. I wait all eleven or so months for a handful of tantalizingly-temporary meals containing fresh sweet corn.
I eat popcorn multiple nights a week at all times of year, but there’s nothing like the summer’s first shut-eyed, yellow-crunch, sweet-buttery bite of corn on the cob.
Corn in many incarnations comes our way on a daily basis, but in forms far removed from the yellow maize harvested by early Americans hundreds of years ago. We don’t recognize it any more, it comes in so many shapes and varietals—yet our idea of “corn” is still deeply entrenched in an image of a yellow, husked and tasseled ear.
Corn has developed a negative reputation in our culture—and rightfully so. Its large-scale farming destroys ecosystems; its processing is harmful to both environment and individual consumer; its production exists in a precariously balanced government subsidy program in which, ultimately, the farmers who risk their livelihoods to cultivate the ancient grain, lose—often sacrificing a lifetime’s health and finances.
It’s strange, how human intervention so drastically changed the corn plant—how, as Michael Pollan illustrates in his book The Botany of Desire our desire for certain traits from the corn plant irrevocably transformed corn’s evolutionary trajectory.
Corn was and is a staple diet of many segments of ancient and modern America. U.S. culture visualizes corn as the yellow and white symmetrical rows with green husk and frilled tassel. In reality, there are dozens of strains, in various shapes and sizes. Corn was sacred to many early American societies, particularly in the South Americas. Each variety and function corn represented was respected and even worshiped.
Its significance as a staple crop was recognized and celebrated.
We’ve deviated far from understanding our mutualistic relationship, and that lack of consideration has compromised our health, ecosystems, and connection to a symbiotic plant-human relationship that is crucial to human well being and survival.
I find it odd to ponder that the corn syrup found in soft drinks and candy is produced from the same plant that formed the well-salted, butter-dripping ear of corn clasped between my thumbs and forefingers. It truly is a wonder how humans invented ways to manipulate the natural world. Whether many of these manipulations are bad or good remains to be seen—we’re human experiments.
What concerns me is how often we stop to ask, “Why.” It seems an important question, that’s too often overlooked.
Corn on the cob is delightfully messy to eat. It’s a sensual experience, sweet and salty, butter dripping between fingers and across lips and chin. It’s a meal that requires full physical involvement—chewing, picking teeth, licking fingers, wiping chin, sucking sweet juice and butter soaked cob, and then having just one more.
My favorite summer meal is a BLT and corn on the cob. I’m blessed to have had this meal every summer I can remember because my parents raised my sister and I in a dreamy, hard-work-harvest, food landscape. Food and food production plays in most good memories I have.
The corn crop is a passion-project for my father. He puts up electric fences and works tirelessly to keep birds, chipmunks, squirrels, deer, and raccoons from destroying the tempting plants.
The summer I was fourteen, we worked as a family propping up corn stalks after a flattening wind and rain storm almost destroyed the harvest. We crawled on our hands and knees in the black, rain-wet dirt—my mother, father, sister, and me. The sun was hot, and it was humid beneath the tasseled corn-tree-trunks that towered above my bent back. Dirt crawled up my fingernails, and slugs slumped away from my patting hands, as I propped and packed, propped and packed. It was boiling and hard work, but a camaraderie developed between siblings and parents. When the rows stood straight again, we swam, the four of us, washing away dirt, laughing, brushing corn pollen from our hair.
I’ve had a lot of delicious BLTs, but those made in the Mills household will always be the best: my mother’s homemade bread, bacon, fresh-picked tomato, crisp garden-lettuce, and tangy organic mayo. My sister and I were usually given the task of shucking the corn, which we did with gusto, enjoying the squeak and pull as husks loosened and tore. We brought the glowing ears to mama, who lowered them, careful not to splash, into waiting boiling water.
She always knew exactly when to remove them (3-5 minutes).
As soon as the corn was ready, it was time to eat. We rolled steaming, golden-rowed, summer-incarnate ears in butter; salted, peppered, and ate.
It all comes together in flavors that, for me, hold the essence of summer and family. It’s a connection to the ancient grain that binds peoples and generations across this giant American continent, and now, in our global world, across the planet.
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 walk-ways, 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.
Many times, I’ve thought of my dear friend Dorothy who lived alone in a cabin in the Canadian woods after her husband passed away. Children grown, she stuck it out there for several years before moving closer to town. She lived rustic, created a garden, hauled water, and enjoyed her space–her solitude.
It becomes something you wrap around yourself. Something you own. Out of what is, sometimes, the agony of necessity, comes strength to walk across the pitch-dark yard without a flashlight, and never consider needing one.