Treading Water

Rosarito Norte

1-3-22

There are many types of survival mode and the last two years have taught me a great deal about them.

Grief in layers, the heaviest parts drifting and landing on the bottom of my heart where they lie waiting for space to sift through the sediment. Pick them up and hold them to light like river stones. Eventually let them go.

I’m learning to breathe again. Drawing from deep in my belly and spine. 

Pulling back my shoulders, straightening my head. 

Looking forward again.

Learning to walk, after holding my head above water I treaded for many, many months. 

Rise to the surface. 

Suck joy out of every second before plunging down once more.

Even writing feels strange, my thoughts turned inward, streamlined for one step at a time. 

One.

Step. 

At a time.

To go beyond that in these two years has been to risk the sudden drop as the bottom falls out once again. 

***

Selkie Baby

I first read of selkies before I was ten years old in a book that was beyond my years, but so entranced me I read it over and over until reading it felt like watching a familiar movie.

Celtic mythological creatures, selkies are seals in the water and human when they shed their seal skins and come ashore. They’re passionate beings, who love fiddle music and the warmth of a beach bonfire in the dark of a chilly night.

Shapeshifters who move between worlds.

I watch a pelican cruise casually past where cold pacific waves lick against sand. 

The Baja is a land I never imagined I would inhabit. A place I referenced only from a spring break trip to Los Cabos with my family when I was 16.

That’s far south of where I sit in North Rosarito. Rosarito claims its own identity as a city, but it’s really a long, beachside arm of Tijuana. A city my rural-Michigan upbringing never bargained for.

The weather and water here are far colder than I expected, and while I dislike being uncomfortable, something in my Northern-Michigan soul loves how the atmosphere here makes me want to move. 

I dance more than I did at home on Isla, and a lot of that has to do with Callan. We often break into spontaneous dances when the music and mood strike us.

There’s nothing more pure and perfect than the joy on his face as he shimmies, wiggles, and gives his limber three year old body to the music. He has a surprising rhythm for someone on this earth for just over three years. A dancer like his daddy. 

I remember dancing in the kitchen with my family countless times. Memories layer into this moment and braid together, filling me with echoes of joy.

In the last two years, as loved one after loved one passed away, I promised myself that, in their honor, I would endeavor to live better. Be more joyful and present. Dance when the mood strikes me. Not let myself become so bogged down with anxieties and worries over things I’m powerless to change. Take action on the things I can change. Work harder every day at being more selfless and kind wherever possible.

Yasmin, fading away of cancer.

Tom, his peaceful last moments on the porch.

Ian, in all his struggle and sadness.

So many in hospital beds, fighting for breath.

Cancer feels like it’s everywhere. 

Grief’s weight is immense for an overburdened heart. 

So I’ve turned and shaped it like clay, into a determination to find appreciation and joy in each day, and to, quite simply, Live Better.

Shore birds scuttle away from the laced edge of waves frothing toward the shore, pushed by forces far from this beach. 

I feel their invisible power here as the ground reverberates beneath me. 

The sound of the meeting point between sand and salt water is a constant, unceasing companion in our Rosarito home.

I baptize myself in the cold salty water an introduction.

“Thank you,” I whisper to this new mother as I wade into her cold, dark water.

Fresh water—cold, deep, and pure thrums through my veins like the Laughing Whitefish River that flowed outside my cabin door another lifetime ago.

However, the last half decade of my life has been spent on the saline shores of first the Caribbean’s turquoise beauty, and now the cold, wild depths of Baja’s Northern Coast.

At night, when I can’t sleep, I try to synchronize my breaths to the rush of waves. Selkie dreams.

Waves are a reminder of something wild on my doorstep. Their thundering makes me feel more at home than I have in a long time.

Callan and I try to visit the water daily.

I bring garbage bags for the trash, and he brings laughter, curiosity, and  boundless energy. 

His energy cries out to something in me and together we race, hand in hand into the icy water, heedless of wet pant legs and cold toes. It feels good; right somehow, and we do it over and over, laughing until we’re out of breath. Then we stand for a moment in silence, mother and son, contemplating sunset on the western horizon, coloring the sky a perfect palette of oranges, yellows, pinks, purples, and blues.

Callan’s eyes reflect water light, as they have his whole life.

He’s a selkie child, moving between worlds, between oceans and fresh water. Between countries. 

He does so effortlessly. It is his birth-right.

I say a little prayer to the immortal waters that cradle his tiny toes, fingers, body: Protect him on his life’s journey. Help him understand his responsibility on and to this earth; let him live a long, joyful, generous, full life.

What better deity to place this mother’s request than the waters that make all life possible?

Baja Beach

1-11-22

The Santa Ana winds blew in yesterday, and my head aches.

Winds hot and dry sweep the horizon free of dust, tumbleweeds, and all the strange swirls of garbage a third world border town can conjure.

Throat dry, lips parched, head aching, eyes heavy, this wind turns and twists its way into and through me.

Fireplace ashes blow onto hearth and carpet.

Strange dust covers the countertops.

Long-dead termite detritus sifts down from the ceiling.

Wind chimes become a clashing symphony as the air swirls. Mountain winds, sweeping and whooshing across canyons and on down to the coast where they tangle with tidal winds and change the air in a Janus-faced shift from hot to cold and back again before your body has a moment to acclimate.

The Santa Ana’s are known for bringing “valley fever.” A sickness caused by spores picked up by the wind in mountain valleys and carried down to the breath of people closer to the coast.

Joan Didion said of the Santa Ana’s:

“I have neither heard nor read that a Santa Ana is due, but I know it, and almost everyone I have seen today knows it too. We know it because we feel it. The baby frets. The maid sulks. I rekindle a waning argument with the telephone company, then cut my losses and lie down, given over to whatever it is in the air. To live with the Santa Ana is to accept, consciously or unconsciously, a deeply mechanistic view of human behavior.”

I’m exhausted from the seventh day of cautionary covid quarantine; endless hours with my sweet toddler that turn us both stubborn and irascible. 

Germanic and Celtic ancestral ghosts surface within us, and we clash wills like mountain sheep.

It’s a topsy-turvy world—a constantly rotating Ferris wheel of joy and struggle, backed always by the timeless surge of surf on the horizon.

I’m laundry-dishes-erratic-sleep toddler-geriatric 140 lb. Labrador with many needs and tumors; exhausted.

I fight back at the negative feelings and frustration with thankfulness for being able to do laundry in our home. Food to fill the dishes I wash. The intelligent, curious, head-strong stuff that makes up Callan. Every day with OG, who I try to take a moment with each morning to appreciate being here, in this day, for one more day in the amazingly beautiful world we inhabit.

A hummingbird got stuck in our house today.

It couldn’t find its way low enough to fly out the doors we opened to help it to freedom. 

For hours it buzzed, agitated and more exhausted by the minute. 

My own heart beat frantically as I tried to gently shoo it outside—to no avail. 

Afraid of injuring the tiny feathered body, I finally left it alone.

I attempted to go about the evening’s business of getting Callan in the bath, dogs fed, house tidied, and dinner ready, but the occasional hummingbird buzz above me was sad, and distracting. 

Once Callan was clean and settled with a snack, I located the tired, desolate bird perched on a light cord in the hallway. The only chair tall enough to reach it was a swivel bar stool. I got a pair of work gloves from the garage and climbed cautiously onto the chair. The chair, in order to reach the tiny bird, was set precariously on a tile step. 

The bird let out a tiny, desperate squeak as my gloved hands gently closed around it.

A sound both frantic, and somehow resigned to its perceived demise.

I slowly lowered myself onto the stool, bird carefully held between my cupped hands. The chair began to swivel with my movement and I froze, afraid of falling and acutely aware of how ridiculous I must look. I tried not to giggle.

The white Labrador looked up at me curiously from his cataract-glazed eyes.

Stabilized, I reached a tentative foot to floor, tiny bird silent in my hand. 

I walked for the front door, which was thankfully still open.

The metal front gate with the sliding bolt, however, was not.

Unable to use my hands to open the bolt, I lifted my right foot and, simian-like, used my foot and toes to slide the bolt free. Once out in the night, I slowly opened my hands.

My heart skipped a second at the still, tiny silhouette in my palms.

The wings fluttered to life, and with a buzz and squeak, the ruby-throated, tiny bird flew into the Santa Ana night. 

Baja Sunset

1-14-22

Healing is a process we do over and over in life. A snake shedding its skin and moving forward—new parts and old parts—a whole being.

In survival mode, it’s hard to grieve and heal.

Taking time to look over the pages of all we’ve been through. Where we’ve come from. Who we are now. Mourn the ones who didn’t make it out the other side.

Each morning I take our 13 year old, tumor-laden white lab, OG, out to go to the bathroom. He placidly pees on his own foot, while I stretch and watch the waves, hummingbirds zooming and squeaking above me.

The air is misty with salt, and the rhythmic wave crash has become like a second heartbeat.

A year ago, we thought OG wouldn’t be with us one more week, let alone another year and move back to Mexico.

When he’s finished doing his business, we take a moment together to look out at the water.

It’s another day. And we’re both here in it, wrapped in the joy of another morning on this amazing planet. 

Together, lady and her dog, we turn to go inside, the blessings of a new day a gift between us. 

3-9-22

When I miss my family, it often comes in the form of missing the familiar choreography of my lifetime in various kitchens together. 

The way we move around each other.

Stopping to bump shoulders affectionately; chat about anything under the sun; help each other stir, chop, wash dishes.

It happens effortlessly, each person’s DNA so tuned to the other, meals and dishes come together and finish in infinitely precious and timeless ways. 

A dance I want to teach our son.

A legacy of love spelled out in food, soapy water, and many kitchen dance-steps. 

Family Beach Time

4-21-22

On Saint Patrick’s Day I walked the beach beside a dear friend and with Callan happy in school, our home secured long term, and more time to teach and write, I felt a lightness both familiar and distant.

We were finally, finally, finding a rhythm. 

Three hours later, the phone call came.

My father’s cancer diagnosis  leaves me adrift in a current of emotions. I move through eddying whirlpools, bumping against rocks and logs of precious memory, and then without warning I’m thrown over grief’s waterfall, where a dark whirlpool waits below.

For now we tread water.

Bombs rain on Ukraine while we wait anxiously by our cellphones for blood test results and chemo schedules. 

A juxtaposition of how precarious this world is, 

and stark evidence that time, 

and joy, 

should never, 

be taken, 

for granted.

Sunset, Guitar, Man and his dog

Author: Rachel Mills

Rachel Mills is a freelance writer/writing consultant/English Professor/Creative nonfiction writer from Michigan's Upper Peninsula living on the island of Isla Mujeres in Mexico.

10 thoughts on “Treading Water”

  1. This is a precious essay, a poem about your life journey. I am grateful for you and grateful for the beautiful word picture you have shared.

    1. Thank you for your words and support momma. You are the spirit behind much of my work 🌼

  2. I love walking along with you on your journey, Rachel. Thank you for taking us along. Your writing is lyrical and beautiful!

  3. Oh my Lord, Rachel, your beautiful writing and awesome thoughts are so wonderful. I am overwhelmed by all of this. Continue to write Rachel, and I for one will follow. You are simply amazing. Your friend, Lynda. So so happy to have known your mom and dad forever, and Laurel too.

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