I’d forgotten. I’ve spent the last few weeks cursing my decisions, angry at myself for delaying adulthood, for scampering around planet earth instead of getting a good job, getting married, finding a place to call home, and reproducing. Because I want those things, too. But I didn’t want them as much as the other thing, at least not before. And so many years have passed since my departure, my return, and now, that I’d forgotten. I looked back at my years away or abroad as foolish, frivolous, and wasteful. I look at my coworkers in meetings; married, home-owners, cute baby, stable lifestyle, circles of friends that are gleaming and wide. I look at myself: 31, recovering from near-collapse, single (and or the first time ever not sure about it), without a stable home-life, professional mistake-maker, extremely late-blooming artist/writer (or not), maybe a colossal failure of vision and imagination. Who knows. Oh, wait, but I am a good teacher; at least that one’s been secured now that I no longer work in a hell-spiral.
I can’t believe I’d been asking myself this, but I was: Why the f*ck did I go to Ecuador? Poor, dirty, and dangerous! I had a job that worked me to the bone, and sure I met some wonderful people but I also met the man who has apparently ruined love for me! That f*cker! And me!? How grand of an idiot was I? The grandest! I glorify that country like I learned something but looking back I see only loss, demolition, pain… Why did I do this to myself? Why couldn’t I just do what I was supposed to do and get a job and settle down!?
Tonight, working on a writing project, I went through poems I’d written between 2008 and 2012. Before Ecuador, during, and after. While they’re not all bad, there is a marked difference between what I wrote before I lived there, and what I wrote during and after.
And then I remembered:
That country opened me. I used to write corny things in my diary, as a teen, about how I felt I was born with a “perforated” shell–what separated me and the rest of the world was so thin, so porous. Everything around me gets absorbed, whether I want it to or not. I can try with all my might but there is no thickening of this shell–not effectively anyway; there are still those pesky perforations. Things get in, things leak out, tears happen with ease. But when I lived in Ecuador. When I saw a real slum. When I spent every Friday for months in one. When those kids clung to me like I was their mother. When I witnessed a microcosm of our entire world in one tiny country. When I lived within a heat that had substance, that was tangible, touchable, that could capture noises and pocket them. When I left everything and everyone behind in order to prove to myself that this, too, I could do. When I learned to live in another language, in another culture, when I learned to blend in and everyone thought I was Brazilian or Uruguayan. When I fell in love with a place that was solid, immovable, non-transportable. When I fell in love with people that would always stay there. Whatever pathetic shell I was born with fell away. Cracked open, slid to the floor like a winter coat in the sudden warmth of spring. It became useless. I was open. I was free. Everything was miraculous, all the time. How? How? How?
And none of these experiences, these variegated openings, made me bigger or better than anyone else. Instead, I realized how little I knew, how little I’d ever know. How many sides there were to any story, any problem, and to any question. I unlearned my “this way is the only right way” habit. I’ve been a harder worker since returning. I’ve gotten better at seeing the two or three or thirty sides to any issue since returning. I became very much unchained–no longer restricted to living or thinking or being a certain way. Right and wrong were tiny shards of a lengthy spectrum. I could re-think everything.
Of course, such freedom poorly handled becomes a burden, as any gift does. And it did. For years, it caused me great trouble. But, being open is, I believe, a pre-requisite to many things, including the ability to produce art or writing that truly serves to connect people, places or things. And that has always been my dream, even before I knew what that meant, or what was required to achieve it. And of course, I still may never achieve my dream, but I can accept the possibility of failure if it means I get to live in a world that is so beautiful, so complex, so vast and diverse, so bizarre, so intricately connected, so full of things that surprise, mystify, endear, and enchant. To be all-the-way open is to allow life to do things to us, to allow existence to happen, and not to control it. To let things be as they are, and appreciate them, even if they’re frightening or difficult or painful.
And this can be applied to my current predicament, as well: so many questions, so few solid answers. Will I ever find love that can endure? Will I ever have a home of my own? Will I ever get to have children? Will I ever get to open up my own studio for creative expression and movement? Will I ever be a successful artist or writer? Is everyone in my life happy, are they ok? Are my students OK? What was so-and-so upset today? What’s going on at home? What will become of this world, all this violence, all this narrow-mindedness, all this fear! Is there anything I can do to help? How will I ever survive the death of my loved ones? How will I face my own? And will I ever find him again, somewhere out there, at a better time and a better place?
If I truly want to live foolishly or wastefully, I can continue to exist as if I’ve forgotten the gifts that Ecuador gave me. I can continue to worry, to try to control, to be angry at myself for doing the best that I could when I did. I can continue to try making a new shell piece-meal, or, I can delight in living openly, freely, without obstruction. I may not get everything I want, but there is nothing I can do about it. I have to trust that I’ll find a way to deal with whatever I am dealt. The best I can do is live with intention, live openly, feel it all, and let life unfold as it does. I can feel every note rolling through space-time, every smile uncurling, every heave of sadness, every shift in color, every thread woven through the air, every stitch across the night sky, every shrugging at dawn, watching as the night falls away, behind the blue horizon. I can be a good citizen, teacher, a good friend, sister, and daughter, and I can be a dedicated artist and writer, even if it never does amount to anything.
Last, I’d like to share a shabby old piece of writing I found while organizing this evening that reminded me that this is not the first time I’ve forgotten why I was after that other thing. And what is the other thing? It’s everything. It is to see, feel, and experience things beyond whatever it is I can claim to know or understand. To experience the world inside out, upside down. To fall in love with someone unattainable on the shores of another continent and have to live with it and move on.To know beauty in all of its shades and contortions. To know that what I know is almost nothing. To know that I am small, but also a part of everything, everywhere. It is what I had to do. I’m quite certain if I hadn’t done it in my twenties, I’d have had a nervous break down later in life and done it then. I suppose one could do these things without leaving their home, their country, their language… but I had to; and I can’t be angry about that. This ‘poem’ (if you can call it that) was written on January 1st, 2010.
I waited there for a while with my book, trying to look busy, important, and perhaps a little sad. Sad girls always get attention and the boy behind the counter was rather attractive. I was a little sad though, waiting for you. I kept wanting to cry when I thought of what a terrible daughter I was, accused of thoughtlessness, and, for for-a-fact abandoning her homeland, running off in some jet that would slip below the earth’s bulging waistline—out of view, out of the snow and ice. And then you arrived, your mustache perfectly sculpted and wrinkly, leather cowboy boots on your feet. You were wearing a v-neck. I love a man that can pull off a v-neck. I kept staring at your chest. You kept saying you’d wait for the line to thin out before ordering your coffee. I could see, suddenly, that you were hotter in the dark, but I found I quite liked you in daylight, too. Though I never was certain if you were real, or just a part of some show. I kept fighting the urge to cry. But, for some reason, there was a part of me that wanted you to see me cry. I wanted someone to see how I felt, and I wanted that person to have no weight on my life, on my decisions, on my conscious. But I wanted somebody to know: I was terrified. I kept remembering the smells–diesel and garbage further spoiling in the pressing heat, the floral cologne tied to a man I could never love, and distance, with its reek of guilt, its dirty conscience, its sneaky, meaty hands. And I just needed to cry, I needed someone to know. Someone who would forget, someone who I did not matter to, someone who might understand what I was doing to myself, why I wanted to. Why I needed to. But you never did see me cry. As you unlocked your old Mercedes full of cigarette butts and squashed Starbucks cups, I asked about your Christmas. Alright, you said, but your parents just got divorced so it was pretty much the worst Christmas ever. And then you took me to the bookstore so that I could look for one last poetry anthology in English. I didn’t find it, and you made some remark about reading art-theory books that made me uneasy, it made me like you a little less, but then again, I don’t know anything about you, really. And nobody does know how I felt that day, except this paper. But anyways, thank you for that hour, in some small way it saved a tiny part of me—I remembered.