Sunday, May 14, 2017

Deep, Visceral Existence

Hello, Invisible Audience,

It's been nearly a month since I arrived in Panama -- time has gone much faster than I anticipated. I have lost two chickens on the farm, and -- happily -- my apathy.

I am also finding that I am starting to unwind. Without realizing it, I had become coiled as tight as a spring. Coming abroad has once again reminded me how much more space there is to live in the world than the corner I have chosen. This is one of the most joyful parts of travel that I always forget when I've been in one place for too long.

For me, there is something immensely freeing about being abroad because I don't feel like the rules apply to me. I am not Panamanian. Even when Panamanians ask me things that make it clear I don't fit into their culture -- Why aren't you married? Why don't you have kids? Aren't you scared to be here on your own? -- I can answer honestly with detachment. The rules just don't feel like they apply.

When I'm abroad, the same "rules" of the U.S. don't seem to apply to me anymore, either. Even if few people in the States ask me what my career goals are or when I plan on settling down or buying a house, I find it harder to ignore the cultural norms there, because I grew up with them. When I'm abroad, however, those norms seem a world a way, because they are. Suddenly I don't feel like I'm supposed to color within the lines, because I'm not even on the same page.
A Panamanian lightning storm as viewed from my temporary home

I have discovered something in the past couple weeks, Invisible Audience. It is a deep desire to live from a place of passion instead of mere existence. It is a desire to take hold of the creative pulse within me and wrap it around my hand so that it directs my fingers as I write. It is a deep need to pull my everyday work from the deepest part of my belly; to give birth to my larger, more powerful and empowered nature.

I have been so caught up in just trying to survive lately that I forgot there was another way. I forgot that there are people whose lives revolve around the burning fire of creation that wells up within them instead of around merely making it through each and every day. I forgot that there is a place within me that SCREAMS for the kind of emotion that I have been trying to avoid, to stifle, and to smother -- that today's fearful world at large is trying to keep at bay. I grew so tired of weeping that I forgot the release of deep, wracking, soul-wrenching sobs. I buried my desire for inspiration so far below a drive for a paycheck that I forgot how art is, in itself, a sustenance. I have hungered for fulfillment, without realizing that it is within my hands; it is locked within the strokes that make the letters that form the words and that group into sentences that can either form my prison or my palace.

When I live from this place, Invisible Audience, the world is not big enough to hold all the energy I have access to. The language does not have enough thousands of words to slake my thirst for the perfect was to eviscerate the pain, or celebrate the sun when it emerges after the rain. Instead of me not being enough in this washed-out world, the world is too small for the magnitude of my existence - of my very being.

Some Eastern traditions call it the dan tien, a small burning coal in the abdomen below the belly button. Even in Western cultures, we talk about "core" beliefs and listening to -- operating from -- your gut. I have been practicing Tai Chi lately, and when I make sure that every last movement I make starts from and is supported by the muscles deep in my abdomen where the dan tien lives, I feel like I could slay a thousand dragons and still have energy left over. It makes sense to me that the womb lives in the same place in the body. Much of my creativity feels like it is linked irrevocably to my very femaleness: messy, emotional, and able to bring forth wriggling, breathing beings whose lives will surpass my own.

Can I live here, Invisible Audience? Many certainly warn against it: there are infinite stories of madness and addiction about people who have felt too much and too deeply. But can it be harnessed? Can acceptance lie not in passive forgiveness, not in slaying the demons, but in roping them as they flee at a full gallop across the plains? Can I leap onto the biggest demon's back, twist my fingers into its mane and lose myself in the feeling of the blood pumping through its veins into my own?

I don't know. All I know is that I'd rather live here -- in the blood and guts of this messier world -- than in the washed out dishwater where I've been treading water for the past several years, trying not to make waves.

Love and visceral kisses,

Monday, April 24, 2017

Divine Timing, or Apathy?

Hello Invisible Audience,

I am writing to you from atop a mountain, in the cloud forest of Panama. I am here until the end of June, watching over the finca – specifically, the coffee plantation – of some good friends while they’re away on their own adventure, walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain. I am in Boquete, the town where I lived for nearly two years – a town I left almost three years ago.

My favorite viewpoint of Boquete, from the bridge in town looking up valley.

Although much has changed since I left, enough has stayed the same for it to feel surreal to be here. It’s like slipping my feet into some comfortable, well-worn shoes that I’d forgotten I owned. At the same time, there is a foreignness to the place as well. Although I am no longer surprised by the way of life in Panama after having lived here, I experience small bits of shock when I realize that I knew something about living in a foreign place and forgot it. I suppose it’s similar to getting on a bike after not having ridden in years and realizing I still know exactly how to balance and shift gears.

The trip down was brutal. It was multiple days of flights and buses, and I shouldn’t be surprised that I ended up with a pretty nasty cold and cough. It’s likely a lot of the reason I’m finding it hard to connect with what was once my sacred place, but that can’t be the whole reason.
Ghost Kitty (left) and Biggie (right)
I came here once because I was lost and seeking a place to find myself. To say I did is an understatement. Although many of the people I’ve seen since I returned to Boquete tell me I look exactly the same as when I left – a compliment I will gladly accept – I do not at all feel the same on the inside.

Charlie the Dog
It’s more than just being tired, or suffering a cold. I am wrung out. Much has improved for me since I left Boquete, but most of it was not easy. If I am a different person, it is because I have fought battles and collected scars that I didn’t have before.

Before I left the States, Washington State was still somewhat in the grips of one of the longest, deepest and heaviest winters we’ve had in a long time. I welcomed it: I was living really remotely, and hunkered in for the winter. Perhaps I haven’t come out of that yet, but there is something missing from this time in Panama, Invisible Audience. I am missing that spark of excitement I usually feel when I’m abroad. I fear that I will not be able to find it again – that the passion and creativity I have enjoyed in the past will not come back. I realize that sounds dramatic, but underneath the drama is a very real awareness: I have not felt empowered to be myself lately. I have not felt a desire to create, to write, or to pursue things that feel close to my heart. Instead, I have found I have leaned into the mundane and everyday; I have distracted myself through books, TV shows and work that doesn’t really fulfill me in the hopes of keeping the pain at bay. It is not sustainable, Invisible Audience. And I don’t want it to be.
My view for the next several months, looking out toward the Pacific Ocean.

Oftentimes in the past, I have felt what I call divine timing. I know when it’s time to wait for something, and when it’s time to push forward. My sense of divine timing has not been clear lately. Instead, I wonder if I am floating in a sea of apathy because it is a safer place to be than striking out across the ocean with clear, clean strokes – not knowing where I’m going necessarily, but at least moving forward.

I have wondered if my chance to be back in Boquete will change anything. I have wondered if, once again, it is a place where I can heal, even if the method and people are different than last time. I don’t know, but there are small signs that that could be the case, if I want it to be. After all, I’m writing to you, aren’t I? That in itself is no small feat.

Love and divine kisses


Thursday, February 9, 2017

Seeking Hope

I am sitting inside a warm house, watching the snow fall outside. I have reliable internet, running water I can drink from the tap, a hot shower, and a sewage setup that is advanced enough I can put toilet paper in the toilet instead of the waste basket.
Lo de Marcos Sunset

All of these things are different than what I had in Mexico, and yet I find myself missing what I had there. Being abroad fits like a glove. Certainly there were things I missed while I was abroad, but some of the basic infrastructure pieces didn't seem as important as I watched the sunset on the beach, or sat with the woman at the juice stand I frequented, chatting for an hour.

 I found myself wanting to get to know the people in the towns I visited, something that I haven't felt all that compelled to do lately in my regular life. I wanted to know what made them tick, and I found it. It was a great reminder of the reason I began to love travel in the first place: to remember that peoples' lives are different in other countries, and that the priorities that sometimes feel like they're trying to suffocate me in the U.S. are not priorities elsewhere.

In Mexico, there is more emphasis on enjoying every day. It is not that the people don't work hard, but they seem to be more interested in living now instead of later, when retirement kicks in. They have smile lines around their eyes, and value a good conversation over wiping down the counter again. Granted, it's possible to find all of this in the U.S. as well...but at least for me, invisible audience, the pressure to perform can be massive. I don't feel it here.

That's not to say that it doesn't exist here. I spent a day on La Isla del Coral, a very small island in the bay off of Rincón de Guayabitos, north of Lo de Marcos, which is where I spent most of my trip.
Snorkeling on La Isla del Coral
Lupita Chávez was my tour guide. She picked me up from my hotel, rode with me on a boat piloted by her son, fixed me up with snorkeling gear and led me out into the water to see the fish, the coral and the other sea life. When I got cold and tired of being in the water, she got me a huge lemonade and some ceviche then dove back in to hunt for oysters.

But Lupita wasn't just a tour guide. She's from this area, and was one of the founding members of a community group that have worked for years to obtain protection status for this island. They have cleaned up trash around the island, managed to get government support to prevent fishing in its immediate vicinity, and they now charge an entrance fee for people wanting to visit; all the money goes back to preservation.

Lupita seemed calm, assured and passionate about the work she and her husband have done here, until I asked her what the best case scenario would be for 10 years from now. She froze.

That's a good question, she said. And then she told me that she has worked so hard on protecting this island that it made her physically ill. Lupita and her husband now own the island's restaurant, and have closed their other restaurant on the mainland because the two together -- plus all the other work they do for the island -- is too much to keep up with. She told me that many times she would leave the house before her children woke up to go to work and not return until after they'd gone to bed. That the amount of time and effort she has put into making sure her grandchildren have an island to enjoy is taking a toll, and that it is not sustainable for her.

I get it, invisible audience. I understand the struggle to serve a cause, and follow a passion, and the toll it can take. I understand the need to balance priorities, and that sometimes the body's only way to deal with the stress is to break down. And I understand what it's like to fight an uphill battle in search of creating a more sustainable future.

We can only do what we can do. I looked at this capable, strong and passionate woman and I saw everything she has taken on and accomplished. It gave me hope. It gave me hope for the island, because there are more fish than there were before, and the coral "sings" more than it did before Lupita, her husband and the cooperative got organized. It gave me hope for myself, because it's so easy for me to see how far I have to go instead of how far I have come. It gives me hope for the U.S., despite the hopelessness I have felt recently.

I hear it, invisible audience. The passion behind trying to create a better world, and the exhaustion that comes with it. What she has done is monumental, and yet from the front lines it always seems like it is not enough. It's just not true: it is enough. It is all we can do.

Love and passionate kisses,

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Feeling At Home Away From Home

Hello, Invisible Audience.

I have left my cold home and am now in Mexico, enjoying what the locals seem to think is a cold snap of 74 degrees. They’re in sweatshirts; I’m in shorts and a tank top.

I am in Lo de Marcos, a small town on the Pacific Coast about an hour north of Puerto Vallarta and 20 minutes north of Sayulita. I am here because I was asked to come to check out the place and write about it. I wasn’t sure I would like it, but I do – a lot.
Lo de Marcos Beach and Lagoon

The last time I was in Mexico was my ill-fated road trip down the Baja to Ensenada. Many people have told me how much they love that city; that they thought it was beautiful, with a rich culture. I couldn’t see it. Part of it was clearly where I was emotionally, but I am fortunate in that I have traveled to many places in Mexico, and frankly I found Ensenada to be lacking the charm I have found in other Mexican towns like this one.

Lo de Marcos is still a village of sorts. It sits on a small bay on the Pacific Ocean. It has cobble-stoned streets, a well-kept town square, and colorful concrete buildings. There are certainly a fair amount of tourists here – enough that no one blinks an eye when I walk by – but it’s also still a small Mexican town. Most of the signs are in Spanish. For the most part, prices are lower than they would be in a larger tourist town.
Lo de Marcos Main Square

My last trip to Mexico was traumatic to say the least. In fact, I haven’t been abroad since that trip to Ensenada, which is probably some sort of record for me. Although I won’t say the trauma of that trip is the entire reason, I did find myself somewhat nervous as I packed to come here.

When I arrived, however, it felt like I had slipped back into a comfortable pair of shoes. I had a lot of Mexican friends growing up in Manson, and I still find the Mexican dialect the easiest Spanish to understand. The people are warm and welcoming, and the food – the food, invisible audience! – the food is fresh and delicious. Even when my phone wouldn’t work and it took awhile to find my driver, I wasn’t worried. Things always seem to work out for me in Mexico, and this trip is no different.

I love it here, invisible audience. I love the adventure of trying to get even the simplest things accomplished. I love the fact that a waiter will let you sit at a table for as long as you like, because it’s not proper etiquette to bring you the bill before you ask for it. I love that old men and women sit outside their doors on the streets and chat with their neighbors. I love how many people know their neighbors. And, admittedly, I love how I can reinvent myself in a town like this – where I get to present only the parts of myself I want others to know, not all that I am. It is freeing.

I am much different than the last time I was abroad. I am calmer, and more curious. I hide less behind my sunglasses. I speak to people more, and I feel welcome here.
It makes me sad that many of these people would not feel the same if they came to the U.S.  I am sitting in a bar listening to the news; they are talking about Trump’s plans to build a wall. I cannot get behind it, invisible audience. My own personal walls have crumbled over the last several years. While my defenses are stronger, they no longer require a far-reaching barrier to keep everyone out. Instead, I seek only to protect myself from those who have not proven to be trustworthy. Since I have destroyed the walls of my fortress, I have enjoyed life a lot more than I did when I kept absolutely everyone on the outside as a matter of principle. I cannot help but think of this new wall in the same terms.
For now, I will enjoy the time I have in this beautiful country that feels so much like a second home. I am not sure what will happen in the next four years; whether it will be as easy to visit after Trump has implemented more of his policies.

For now, though, I am here, and that wall seems like it’s far, far away.

Love and Lo de Marcos Kisses,


Sunday, January 15, 2017

Listening to My Inner Voice

Hello, Invisible Audience.

It’s sunny today, and a whopping 10 degrees. I am safe and warm, my cat is asleep on the couch, and I’m making sweet potato enchiladas for a potluck tomorrow. Life is good. In fact, life is feeling better this last week than it has in a long, long time.

Right after Christmas, I got sick. On top of pretty awful low back pain that made snow removal – a constant chore this year – incredibly painful, I got the mother of all colds. The outside temperature during my illness was about 7 degrees.

I wallowed. I felt bad for myself; like a petulant child. I wanted the snowplow that cleared my road to stop filling my driveway. I tried to will my car over the berm that snow created after the snow blower died, and got it high-centered instead. It took me almost two hours to dig it out, and that was with the help of a nice man who kindly stopped to assist me…because I wasn’t willing to just fucking call someone and ask for help. Of course I was too discombobulated to ask him for his number so I could take him out for a beer when I had some more time. Add yet another shame spiral to the mix.

I was pissed and resentful and knew that day that every decision I made was making things worse. I had other choices (cancel my reasons for leaving the house, for example, or digging out the driveway with a shovel before trying to back out to the road) but I didn’t take them. I didn’t want to. I was too dead set on proving the idea that I was suffering. So I made myself suffer to make it true.

To say the last couple years have been hard for me is a significant understatement. To say I am better off because of them is an essential truth. I am more myself than I have ever been. I now make choices based on what I want instead of what I think others want from me. I spend money on the priorities I have created. I am learning to appreciate and love my friends for what they give me instead of resenting them for what they cannot give. There is no doubt that my life is in an upward trajectory.

But that doesn’t make it easy all the time. And it does not mean that I’m not allowed to have a shitty, shitty day.

When I was sick, I dealt with a lot of inner guilt and shame because I spent days on end watching Criminal Minds and doing little more than lying around. Yet despite all that guilt, I did it anyway. There was a tiny voice in my head that kept saying, quietly but insistently, “I need rest.” Perhaps that’s the most important thing that has led to all the other more important things I’ve learned these last couple years. When I listen to that voice, despite all the other ones I hear, my life gets better.

I now look back on the last couple years and I see I was listening to that voice. I have ended relationships with people who do not feel supportive. I have fostered friendships with people who want to talk about the things that are on my mind and can hold the space for me as I try to figure things out on my own. I have spent months holed up in various sanctuaries; I have started to emerge only for events that really sound like fun instead of ones I think I “should” attend. I have put down a lot, and picked up other things, but at a much slower place. And frankly, I say no more than I say yes.
That small voice helped me make these changes, even when they felt awful, like a betrayal. The voice has helped me find myself in the midst of a cacophony of expectations -- both real and imagined -- from others. When I listen to that voice, I get better. And more than anything, that voice has told me that it’s ok to take my time to get better.

Today I went for a walk. I bundled up in multiple layers and wandered out into the sparkling snow. For the first time in a long time, it felt magical to be alive. It’s a small feat, but I know it wouldn’t have felt that way if I hadn’t spent multiple days holed up in bed with gallons of hot tea and a lot of naps. If I keep listening to that voice, I know I’ll be able to find my way back here, again and again, even if it requires a lot of rest in the process.