Vignettes

Vignettes

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.

Balcony Sunset
Balcony Sunset

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.
Self -analysis.
Cultural analysis.
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.
Household essentials.

*****

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.

A beginning.

*****
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
No job.
100 year old house
Hungry woodstove
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.

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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.

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.

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