On Passivity

Hello, World! it’s been awhile. I last wrote from Honduras while sitting and sweating in a gray plastic chair, aged laptop burning in my lap, and semi-effectual fan quaking above. Now, after brief stops in Guatemala, Belize, Mexico, and Cuba, I report from my new-old home of Portland, Oregon, USA, chilled from the AC, with a large striped orange cat snoozing in my lap and construction wailing, pounding, chopping, grinding, drilling, and clanging outside.

It’s a different world [sound cue] physically, socially, economically, emotionally. The roads are paved and I’m anonymous. The papayas are barely larger than my hand and cost twice as much. I bus or bike anywhere without consideration to the area’s safety and wince at the frivolity of my $5 almond milk decaf latte (vegan again). People’s eyes don’t meet mine as we pass, and I sometimes pass them while holding hands with my partner. New Seasons, our overpriced local grocery chain, carries several varieties of kale chips and half a wall of energy/protein bars. Hot water and drinkable water are available with only a turn of the faucet. Passivity, born in comfort and strengthened by the option of relying on another to make tedious and sometimes important decisions, because choices carry risks, big and small, slowly creeps in.

And I fear that disconnection from life more than the zombie apocalypse. Perhaps more than the thought of another Bush presidency.

Last year’s steps away from a secure job and comfortable home were not passive. As a teacher, a job that consumed my waking hours for the first several months, reliance on someone else was not an option. I made decisions all the time, sometimes bad ones. I can’t deny that there were passive aspects in my life, which lead to my not learning Spanish as well as I’d hoped, but/and/or several others have suggested that I be gentler with myself on the language matter, given how much energy I expended in trying to be an awesome teacher. Ultimately, I’ll have to decide how to frame that memory.

The few weeks of solo travel after school ended were the highlight of my year, because they weren’t passive. I knew and (usually) did exactly what I wanted, like earning my Open Water diving certificate, visiting random art galleries in Antigua, Guatemala and swimming and scrambling through the beautiful Actun Tunichil Muknal cave in San Ignacio, Belize. Not only was there no one else to make decisions for me, I didn’t want there to be. I didn’t want to compromise my limited time, and there were so many delectable options, life adventures awaiting. I had moments and days of unqualified happiness (and a few of distress). Now, I’m back to before, and while I’m not the same person, I’m similar enough that if I’m not careful, I could slip back into my previous life, especially as I face challenges, like job searching [any leads welcome] in a town that builds apartments before infrastructure.

My passivity springs from fear of the unknown, of discomfort, of displeasing others, and from assuming that everyone knows the answer better than me. It comes from unhappiness and feeling trapped. It comes from rejection and failure. Also, comfort. Too much choice (First World Problem). Obligation. Inadequacy.

I’m searching for a manifesto, akin my beginning entry on the eve of my departure. A manifesto of self-action that makes bold, confident declarations. I don’t have one, yet. I do, however, have an ongoing list I started several months ago as I looked ahead to the pitfalls of my return. A list of things I’ve wanted to do for some time but haven’t:

  • join Last Regiment of Syncopated Drummers
  • archery
  • learn swing dance, among others
  • kayak
  • go beautiful places in nature
  • incorporate more music into my life
  • take writing classes (check! I start a personal essay class on August 4)

There, that’s the list. Pursue action that brings joy and fulfillment. Easy enough, right? While the sun is out, anyway.

The returned,

theresa

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The Machine (4)

Prior parts.

[indignation] What the hell kind of advice is that? Return to the water? 

Advising someone to use swimming or bathing or hot tubbing as a physical therapy against forthcoming grief when the nearest body of water requires a swimming permit that costs more than most make in a year month, the public pools are too expensive for the public, and water rationing prohibits use of bathtubs, is like throwing a firefighter an empty fire extinguisher to use on a raging flame. Sure, I considered not bathing for a week and collecting my daily water ration in some type of barrel, but how much comfort can be derived from sitting in a tepid, dusty barrel-bath. Better to recall that we are mortal, with unspoken expiration dates. Better to place the photo in a difficult to reach place beneath the kitchen sink that can be reached only by removing the dishes and soap and the wood cover hot glued over the picture, so that it cannot be held and stared into the long mornings and evenings, until the person isn’t remembered, only the person in the photo, who is someone else entirely, an idealization, a shadow, a moment.
***
The water is climbing higher and higher up my leg
The water is above my ankle and slipping to mid-calf.

The water has slipped above my ankle and is climbing to mid-calf. Crane-like against the dock presses my other (right) and wedged into a smallest gap between planks are my fingers. Any moment (past the knee) gravity will overcome my grip and pull me in, where I desperately want to be, in the satin ice of the water, wrapped in its cocoon.

A barely perceptible whine, shudder of ripples against the dock. I wrench myself up and out, teeth clenched, panting. The patrol boats are white, and this one, it’s too far off to tell, but it could be. But it could also be illegal fishers or someone who bribed the right officials for a permit. I slap my palm against the dock, then the edge of the dock. Hard, then harder. The boat is gone; the water smooth. It’s ridiculous that this water was cleansed if…no, of course it should have been cleansed for the life that belongs there…and for the rich, of course the rich…the beach is barren because no one can afford…I can’t afford…

(Fuck.)

My clothes are off/lumped on the dock and I’m in the air, I’m in, dear God, oh am I in, pouring between the sweetest sheets, skin vibrating/throbbing with a gazillion pricks/an army  as each hair erects, each pore welcomes this cleansing/purification. Surface. Breath(e). Face upward and float. Green earthy tendrils slowly creep from my hair, back, heels, heading/curling/creeping deep into the water to make anchor. I am an island, a mangrove; let fish nestle among my roots and birds and monkeys caper in my branches above. I can/will bring/invite life back into this world. But not human life—we have enough of that. No one has said it aloud—yet—but one day it will be said publicly that The Loss was necessary. We were too many, barely any part of the earth remained without our footsteps and clutter. Now there are open spaces again. Some politicians are calling on followers to replace those that were lost, so, mindlessly, their sheep engage in production sex, but when they hold that tiny human they’ll realize that their grief remains and the child will grow up beneath that shadow.

We get too attached and expect permanence. Attachment limits our ability to accept that the world is changing every second and there’s practically nothing to hold onto. No one is permanent and we shouldn’t convince ourselves otherwise. All that time and energy wasted on grief could be spent on…making really delicious tacos. [seriously?] Okay, that’s flippant, but rather than pointlessly wallowing, I wish I had spent that time…

…those hours…

…weeks…

…making really delicious tacos.

I don’t know. I spend a lot of time massaging the twitch from my clicker finger. Maximizing the space in my miniature refrigerator. Holding my hand over the door handle to the outer hallway, searching for an urge to exit into the public sphere, to move away from the stench of my skin, without a destination. Listening to my lower neighbor speak EXTREMELY LOUDLY to her pet fish, Marbles. WE’RE ALL GLAD THAT MARBLES IS VERY HAPPY ABOUT HIS FLAKES. NO, WE ARE NOT JEALOUS. I don’t understand people who talk with fish.

Some fish still live in the deepest parts of the ocean. Gorgeous exotic fish with neon colors, nightmare fish with inch long fangs, practical fish that make their own light. Every few months I check out a vintage National Geographic photo book about deep sea fish. It must be so quiet down there, and deadly; darkness often brings violence. Many of them haven’t changed since their beginning. Their world is so constant that they haven’t had to make adapt or die plans, unlike the rest of us.

Even with my eyes closed I can tell I need to leave to catch the last train. [too quick?] Skin sodden with water I attempt to propel my upper body upright, but my bones are too soft and my muscles refuse to contract. Evidently I will be sleeping here tonight, perhaps forever, and my neighbor can bring Marbles to nibble my flesh as it gradually peels away. What is the reason for returning to that apartment? Without books I spend too much time watching nonsense on my tablet or dust build up in the corners or peeking into the refrigerator.

But, no, I will be found and fined for exposure and swimming and the fees will be much too high to pay and I’ll have to carry their weight forever. The urge for life is already waning without that additional burden/impediment.

Eyes open to the dusky haze the world has become, its corners softened. I spin around to find I’ve drifted a surprising distance from the dock. I roll over, breast stroke, heave myself up, shake off, dress, lift my leaden feet to the train station. I don’t know if its the dusk or the hours spent with closed eyes, but everything is slightly blurred, as if I suddenly needed glasses, and sounds are muffled. While buying my entry code, a couple passes by to the exit, laughing as if through a bag of cotton. Heavy as my limbs are, they continue to tingle softly. The daily pain in my shoulders and wrists is absent. I shuffle around the room several times before I find the well-marked direction to the platform. I’m just a little bit drunk, I think.

As I wait, I nibble on the ridges of my wrinkled fingers, pass them over my cheeks. Because of the hour the northbound platform is empty. Several southbound trains stop and expel/birth commuters across the way. Chattering, fatigued, bright, dark, only their blank backs glance toward me. I’ve played the ghost today, maybe so much so that the northbound train—there’s the light down the tunnel—will hurtle past and I’ll be left on the platform, staring at the diminishing red tail lights.

Yet it slows to a stop and the doors clop open. Then I board, back to the city.

——————————-

Photo by Tim Laman from National Geographic

static

Inútil

I’d wondered if it would happen, if Glisa would come to class with marks clearly human in origin, like a swollen face or belt stripes that couldn’t be hidden by her sleeveless top on Color Day. But I’d doubted it. While the younger kids confide, follow their teachers like ducklings, openly crush with star-pooled eyes, the older ones stay aloof, confiding in each other or no one.

I wasn’t prepared. Can you be prepared for confession? When sitting alone on a bench, lost in space, while your students listen to music or play on tablets during an earned play afternoon? Can you prepare yourself for a tall, lovely girl who is quick to laugh, rather careless, and rarely concerned to suddenly be in tears? And what were we talking about, nothing, I don’t remember, I was in the middle of some joking comment.

“My [step]dad says if I’m not good, he’ll hurt my mom.”

Probably not. I couldn’t prepare for this secret warrior to remove her armor.

The night before, the stepfather came into her room and hit her. She doesn’t know why. He was looking for something in her room; she doesn’t know what. When her stepsister cries or whines or cries—she’s always crying—Glisa gets hit. The stepfather has threatened her with a knife. Glisa is afraid to go home. She stays at her grandmother’s as long as she can during the day. Probably everyone on that street knows what happens in that house, but her mom talks to only her sister. Her mother wants to leave, but doesn’t know to where. Glisa’s aunt is trying to get her and her brother to the States, to Houston. Her mom can’t afford to care for all three kids.

Glisa sat above me on the table, I rubbed her leg, squeezed her foot, maybe took her hand as she talked. I wondered what to say, knowing that listening was the right step, but wanting to hand her a solution, feeling helpless in this pain, trying to not let my own tears show. It’s not my place to cry here. I asked if there was someone who could help. Only the aunt. Thank goodness for the headphones, most students were too absorbed to notice our island at the crowded table, Gilsa’s tears.

“You know you don’t deserve this, right?” Glisa nodded. I murmured words about that asshole, her intelligence and wonderful personness. My hopes of her escape.

Then, she was done and went to play with her iPod. Football was played that last hour. At home, I fell on the bed, drained, teary, and am still somewhat lost.

The days after September 11 were emotional and paranoid below 14th Street, including where I worked in the West Village. Cars weren’t allowed. A stranger sold cleaning fluid in unlabeled bottles and we suspected anthrax. Spontaneous memorials grew on fences and street corners. Pictures of the missing, Have You Seen Me?s, were hung; of course they were never seen again. I knew, and they did too, the hangers of those pictures, they had to have, but they hoped, I guess, that their friend, lover, father, mother, child was out for coffee during the fall and just got…confused. Or lay unidentified in some hospital. I passed them and looked, the candles always burning. The faces gradually familiar, and I looked for them each morning.

My story of that day and the weeks that followed is inconsequential amidst so much loss and real pain. I lost no one and was not even close to being lost. I worked in the Village, a lower part of the island, but still streets and streets away. I was close enough to see the flaming maw in the first building before it collapsed. I was close enough to see the ash-filled sky as I looked south, those days that followed. The ash rained on the cars outside my arts school.

I attempted to join a blood donation queue outside St. Vincent’s Hospital. I arrived just as the crowd was disbursed: there were no bodies. Someone recently pointed out that obviously there wouldn’t be any bodies, but he wasn’t there that day, walking north up 6th Avenue, away from the cloud that obscured the lower island, huddling around someone’s open car door to listen to the report that the Pentagon had also been attacked, and feeling desperate and alone, so alone, and shuffling slowly to some where, to find someone to shake and ask what the hell is happening? I worked in a shop on Greenwich Avenue. The store was dark but I punched the access code, lifted the gate, and waited. The phones weren’t really working. They wouldn’t start working well for awhile. I found out the next day that I missed my coworker Laura by just a few minutes.

I had more luck finding warmth at a nearby church where a friend worked. He and his partner hugged me. The video footage repeated, the buildings kept collapsing. And then I wanted to be alone again, because I felt so alone and it’s better to feel alone away from people. But when I got home—190th Avenue, the trains must have restarted quickly, or did I walk? I know some did—I was alone, and that was the worst place I could be. The phones didn’t work. That night I screamed into my pillow. Why had I come here?

My luxury is that I get to forget most of that day and those that followed. I hold flashes and emotions, one of the strongest being helplessness, uselessness. I wanted to help, but there was nothing I could do. I couldn’t donate blood. I had no skills. All I could do was stand behind the counter and wait for customers. My coworker Laura had a task, something to do with the search and rescue dogs sniffing the rubble. I answered a call from someone connected with our store (a trainer? supplier?) and I found my task. The rubble was hot, the pads on the dogs’ feet were burning, we sold special booties for the winter, our store could donate. But in the end this fell through. People around me rushed around, and I stood static behind a counter, completely useless, without ideas or skills. What a waste.

The Volunteer Coordinator suggested that Glisa’s mother could be killed if she told the police about the abuse. That night she emailed me a list of shelters to give to Glisa, and I did the next morning. That I could do. But not much else. I can’t take Glisa away from here. I can’t stop the abuse. I can’t stop her fear. There were days as a child I didn’t want to go home, because of my own (first) stepfather, of whom I was also afraid, but not physically. I didn’t fear that I might not leave the house alive. I can only guess what she’s feeling. I can only hug her when she asks, listen to her chatter, and laugh, these last few weeks. I can’t rescue her.

So I feel pretty useless.

I suppose that feeling has never gone away.

theresa

Owl a student made

New becoming

The older I get, the more meaningless my numbers become. There are fewer markers than in youth, when 5 = school, 13 = hormones, 16 = driving, and 18 = adulthood and voting for the civic-minded, and 21 = drinking. To somehow get a handle on how quickly time is passing and how slowly I am changing I calculate the distance since key events or non-events. I graduated from high school almost half my lifetime ago. I’ve known my best friend for 23 years. I met my partner in crime when I was 30. My mother gave birth to me when she was 30. Despite my age, I’ve never owned a house or car and don’t see either happening soon. I’ve never been pregnant. I’m older than many, if not most, my students’ parents. I don’t feel 35, whatever those numbers should feel like. The 3 has two little cubbies I could crawl into; the 5 has one. Neither is as pointy as the 4.

Still, if I think about my age, I piddle a little, that is to say my heart thumps, my throat squeezes tight, and then I shut down the emotional circuits, disconnect, and find a book to escape into. Despite the message of youth-obsessed culture, I know 35 is not old, and older age doesn’t have to be the sad, hopeless, decrepit, inflexible, ugly, and undesirable portrait culture paints. I haven’t reached the half-way mark of my 82 year expectancy, according to WHO. My wise mind understands that age is worthless and bears only the value I ascribe. But let me indulge and say I’m not where I’d hoped I’d be. Or, letting go of expectations, impossible predictions when I’m a small part among billions, foresight, shoulds, I’ll adjust that to I’m not where I want to be, because I don’t know where that is, and I feel the door to there shrinking. [Not to get all Dr. Seuss, but Where is There? It’s not Here. Is it Near? Should I fear the Here and There not Here?). I feel too old to be this lost and insecure, more lost than I was at 18 and without the hope I had then, that hope of Youth, and Potential, and Bright Future, to be fighting some of the same demons as at 13, like acne, and disordered eating, and depression, and self-contempt and -doubt, and loneliness, and conflict avoidance. I don’t want to be on the proverbial deathbed ruing the time I wasted disliking myself. It’s nonsense, really, more not important stuff, that time spent in dark places. I’m old enough to have the important stuff sorted by now…aren’t I?

Growing up I wasn’t told that dreams change. In school, by family, I was asked what I wanted to be, as if there were only one thing I would ever become, similar to the myth that there’s only one soulmate. There might be many, or none. Stories usually end when the protagonist has reached The Dream or found The One. Maybe it’s our desire for certainty. I want certainty. There is none. People hop from job to job, live with parents indefinitely, see retirement as a fantasy, cling to worthless college degrees for a guarantee, cling to anything for a guarantee. In The Dream, I wanted to be a Writer, but the vastness of the field—the people, their skills, their voices—and my inability to foresee my place…. Bah, that’s just a fancy way of disguising that I got scared. I wrote a problem I couldn’t solve—how to bring the garden of a story to life (figuratively)—and then lost my confidence to write my way into and out of other problems. And then the stacks of half sheets—the white space of full sheets being too intimidating—filled with snippets of plays that went nowhere got too tall and I stopped waking at 4am to write and just…stopped chasing that dream. I doubted too many of my lines. I tried replacing it with others in theatre, but that drama eventually broke my heart. It took me into its gapping maw, chewed up the juicy bits and spat out the rest. I want(ed) to be married and just a little bit famous. Now I’m in search of another dream, another becoming. Or becomings.

This new becoming is so much more difficult than the first. The first time around I had teachers encouraging me, the relative comfort of school and peers, the cradle of parental support, the promise of potential. That meaningless potential, a bottomless cup to be filled. I’ve let, my fear has let, all those people down, not that they remember. I always felt like a phony. This second time ’round I’m dream-shy, leery of the chinks in the armor, the blade of confidence duller. I’m conscious of the need for money and medical care, that I somehow must prepare for the day I won’t be able to work. I shamefully consider the income-earning potential of my dreams. I plunge my soul for new dreams and find vagueness. I explore ideas and run aground. I skim my resume for skills and come up empty. I pick up a book and hide.

I’ve never wanted to go back to my younger self. The current demons are generally kinder than the old. But I do envy my students. I envy our teenage volunteers. Unless I can carry my current knowledge, I don’t want to be that young again, but I do want what that youth represents. The clean future slate. Untarnished hopes and dreams. So much time to mess up and succeed. Ignorance of failure’s weight and how much nonsense can hide the The Path.

If age isn’t important, why am I worrying? Because one day I’ll look too old to start over at the beginning of a field. Because I’ve lived this long and tomorrow could die with nothing of note in my obituary but regrets. I censor my self-ageism. I publicly cry that you’re never too old to change. I tell myself that I will make something work one day, if I keep trying (how American of me). My public face is hopeful. It is this hope that keeps me going, despite knowing that I might not ever make anything work. It took me here. The hope and the reality play tug-of-war with miles of intestine.

My heroes are Stargirl, Ramona QuimbyYotsuba, and Black Widow of The Avengers movie. In my dreams, theresa is lithe and flits from person to person, place to place, the world a hopscotch board, making smiles. She wears sparkles. Roadblocks make her laugh. She never needs sleep. She’s probably a fairy.

ta ta,

theresa

P.S. The owl was sewn by one of my (male) students in Actividades Practicas, a.k.a. Home Ec. I liked it so much he gave it to me.

A variety of fine sign.

Ugly Girls

Because of the teaching time crunch, I usually create posts within in a short time span. I draft Saturday and refine and publish Sunday at 101pm CST. Now on holiday, I’ve been working on a post, but not this post, for a few days, looking for the in, to identify exactly what I want to share. All the bits of the theme are scattered about in different notes on Evernote. A hook is found and explored, then it meanders and I get lost…another hook is found and explored and….. It might be the lack of pressure—I don’t have to have it done today—and thus I question my words and intent more and nothing passes the sniff test. Or maybe I just have so much room to expand and think and play that my brain is giddy with freedom.

I often worry that my blog is too negative and that worry inspired a bathroom thought about audience. Way back in writing school and teachings thereafter I was advised to consider my audience. Who is my audience for this blog? Initially it was people who knew me IRL and the ephemeral cloudpeople out there who just might chance across my musings. After a few friends commented that they appreciated the blog’s honesty, a feature essential to good writing, I hoped it might be a light for readers who were, like me, tired of life-adventure blogs with an extroverted and self-assured tone, that gloss over the challenges and want to explain how things should be done and sell their point-of-view in some way. All I want to sell to the world that stumbles here is my honesty. That is my audience.

I used to believe that I could be a Writer (big “W”). I went to playwriting school and everything. When asked why I wrote, why I thought I should be known, I said it was because I had a point of view that I rarely saw outside of teen theatre. The point of view of an Ugly Girl. Now I believe this concept is popularized (no, this is not some claim to cool before it was cool), merchandized, and on its way to fetishization. But my version, the only known version in my world at that time, was created in front of the student mail boxes in the then-called Dramatic Writing Program of NYU with a girl named Miriam, shortly after my Introduction to Screenwriting class. I was one of two women in the class, the other being a very attractive and confident student who has since written her way to the Pulitzer Prize (confidence well placed!). I was speaking about something and my co-female leapt in with her own idea (rather rude of her to interrupt perhaps) and suddenly the class came alive, all the males crawled into her light, and I was blocked out. Ah, okay, this is how it works.

Ugly Girls aren’t ugly, per se, but they are on the get-to-know-them-to-see-their-beauty spectrum, or they just have a nonstandard form of beauty. They aren’t wearing the coolest clothes or make-up, their bodies aren’t up to the advertised standard, and they’re gawky or awkward or just a little off. Alienation might also be key. With few words Miriam instantly understood my troubles in class and in that conversation Ugly Girls were born. That in two words was why I was going to be a writer.

In retrospect, through the post-therapy, post-additional self-awareness, post-getting-out-of-my-head-more lens, I know my interpretation of the class dynamics may be inaccurate, but the phenomenon and what that moment fertilized, the Ugly Girls, is real.

Janeane Garofalo

Abby. The cat, however, is pure Hollywood starlet.

Miranda

Miranda. Cheeky.

Brienne kicking ass.

Brienne kicking ass.

Janeane Garofalo as Abby in The Truth About Cats and Dogs is a U.G. Miranda Hart as Miranda in Miranda (such fun), in all her 6+ foot glory, is a U.G. I’d put Gwendoline Christie as Brienne of Tarth in Game of Thrones there too. Being an Ugly Girl doesn’t bar you from personal success, but it comes with greater social challenges. (For the record, I find those three characters beautiful. I’d jump ’em in a heartbeat.)

I’ve never written about this before. I’m discovering questions. There are a lot of ugly women out there, but are they Ugly Girls? Sarah Palin is ugly inside and out, and it’s the inside that immediately disqualifies her, but were she beautiful on the inside? Maybe. Or, no, because she is attempting to be mainstream. Oh, this is a bad example. I think a key part of Ugly Girl-ness is an inability to conform to the mainstream, even if you want to, which is why Ally Sheedy’s Allison in The Breakfast Club doesn’t qualify. I’ve expressed on this blog my desire for pretty things, to be pretty and disheveled in just the right way. But I can’t. I’ve tried and can’t make it work out. I probably don’t want it enough. An Ugly Girl doesn’t have to reject the mainstream and wear that as a badge of honor; for her, it was never an option. Please believe I’m not trying to be elitist or hold up wounds as a perverse claim of superior personhood. I’m attempting to explain a way of interacting in this world.

Like I said, I used to believe in myself as a Writer, in part because of my desire to promote the Ugly Girl experience as one with equal validity. Today I’ll allow myself to say I am a writer (little “w”). My lack of confidence and skills as a writer that eventually quashed The Dream could and might one day be its own post(s). I also stopped believing in the necessity of my voice. The U.G. type is seen more in the media, though she’s impure—her status is only temporary, a, if not the, problem that needs a solution. The plots play the U.G. as a rebel against conformation for the sake of rebelling (I’m drawing a blank on examples. Anyone?) or she’s a Hollywood-beautiful actress we are supposed to believe is anything but (Minnie Driver, Circle of Friends) or all she needed was the right friends and make-up (Ally Sheedy, The Breakfast Club). In any event, the resolution often involves the character’s admittance into the mainstream. I no longer think the U.G. stories aren’t being written. I’m sure they are, but Hollywood and such doesn’t buy them, at least not in pure form, with a potential positive resolution being self-acceptance or something that doesn’t incorporate U. G.-ness as a problem, because those ideas aren’t what we supposedly want to buy. Or do we?

Neil LaBute is not my favorite playwright—he takes a hammer and hits you over the head with his points—but he has a play called reasons to be pretty. For about five minutes of my life I acted and there was a role in that play written for me. One woman is beautiful, the other is “ordinary.” The “ordinary” woman is an Ugly Girl. Her appearance is nothing fancy, she feels it from society, and she has a peace with it. Her story is one I longed for for years. (I’m sad to say that the Portland production was lacking.) The play was very popular and was nominated for several and won a few major awards. So there is an audience for this unsexy story, even in the US. There is an audience for the Ugly Girl.

I do regularly see U.G. stories and actresses in media outside the States. That’s nice.

In a writing class with Martin Epstein I wrote a piece about how much I hated my manipulative college roommate. A response to the piece was that it revealed more about the writer than the character. Of course, this blog is intended to reveal me, but I do attempt to control the message. I don’t want the message here to be one of self-loathing, because it isn’t, or self-pity. Of course it’s one of self-doubt, confusion, alienation, more square peg round hole stuff. But I want it simply to be neutral, without judgment.

This is one way of experiencing the world.

theresa

Junior the cat

Almost Christmas in La Ceiba, or I’m a terrible planner

22 December 2014: Maps

The deceptive map.

The map of deception.

Maps deceive me, at least the kind found in my travel books. The cities consist of small, four-sided outlines. The parks and rivers are shaded gray. Deemed notable restaurants and places to stay are marked with black squares and triangles. The streets and avenues are clearly labeled. It’s all so contained, neat, clean, conflict and stress free. Look! The ocean is only seven blocks away! That cafeteria that sounds so tasty is on the same street as where I’m staying!  So despite my guidebook and other sources saying that La Ceiba is the largest city on the North Coast, I’m, because of all those neat, clean lines, dismayed when the bus enters…what is obviously a big city, with its powerline bundles, streets crammed with vendors, and crowded roads without stop signs or lights. The lines in my guidebook have been colored in. Crap! What was I thinking? I’m in Central America: this is what a big city looks like. Baby pout, complete with thrashing fists: But I don’t wanna be in a big city on my vacation.

Now it’s time for damage control—I don’t have to stay here, we all make mistakes, the owner of the hostel is supposed to be helpful with things like setting up tours, just taking the buses here by myself was an accomplishment-–mentally talking myself out of purchasing a ticket for the Shame Spiral Express. I keep talking and talking, through the awkward exchange with the woman at the hostel who lets me in but doesn’t understand when I try to explain that I’ve already partially paid for a room (she straightens it out with the owner); through the wandering up and down of streets in search of a non-US fast food place to eat; through observation that there are very few street signs, rendering my guidebook and the internet nearly useless unless I want to count blocks;

[Shame break: After a bit of pacing back and forth on the street in search of the ingress point, I found my way to the pier, a rather new structure and wonderfully designed so I can either lean against the railings or walk a few steps down to a walkway surrounding the pier to sit or dive off into the water. I choose sitting and am joined by a local with decent English who when I passed a few minutes earlier was insistent on learning where I was from and my name. I told him he’d have to wonder, which prompted a response of “You are a wonder woman!” He’s older, dressed in paint splattered clothes, earnest and not creepy. He speaks mostly, about his country and how he wants it to get better. He has a strong belief in the current president, who doesn’t look the other way with the drug violence. He believes that the US can and is helping Honduras and also hates the Bush family. We chat; I watch the clouds pass over Pico Bonito, the boys diving into the water. The beach here is not nearly as ugly as I was lead to believe.]

through finding myself back at the hostel rather early, wondering if I’ll be able to set up any tours tomorrow, because dammit, I really shouldn’t have started planning my vacation only two weeks ago, and I should have called some tour companies because fuck doing it all DIY but I have this thing about using the phone, especially in Spanish, and I have a well-developed ability to avoid activities that cause me extreme anxiety, like planning adventures to unknown places; through watching a movie and feeling generally like a loser;

23 December 2014: Monkeys and mangroves

through waking up and wondering if the owner will prove helpful in setting up tours today; through laying in bed and feeling like such a wimp for all of this being so emotionally difficult.

11am. The owner, Peter, has arranged a kayak tour at the Refugio de Vida Silverstre Cuero y Salado, a mangrove covered wetland home to lovely animals like jaguars and howler monkeys and manatees and birds.  I am the first to request a kayak tour at the refuge…go me! [The tour actually takes place in Laguna de Cacao, which is pretty but not what I requested and paid for.]

I ate a delicious plato típico for breakfast (eggs, frijoles licuados, two kinds of cheese, tajadas, and ham slice), discovered corn flan on the menu and promised to return tomorrow, and then wandered to the beach alongside the rather stinky El Estero, observing how nice it is to walk freely because I’m ignorant of the dangerous parts of town, though I’m still in the central part of town with all the hotels. My lip was and still is twitching…from anxiety? As I was leaving the hostel, I passed a large group of travelers eating breakfast and looking generally as if they do this all the time, and I suspect that no matter how much I travel, I will never look that cool and casual because I’m just not that kind of person, though I want to be. They were also tall—is that the key to cool person travel? Should I invest in a stretching machine or heels? Anyway, anxiety because I don’t want to have traveled six hours just to read in my room and occasionally leave to eat decent food. Granted, it is quieter here than where I currently live. There are firecrackers but not right outside my window, and I do have a fan and private bath and it is overall rather pleasant except for having to be let in and out of the hostel, which is kept locked for security. I suppose what is really bothering me is possibly being judged, by the anonymous Them always lurking in the soft, insecure corners, or in the physical form of the Other Volunteers or People in My Life, as having failed at My Vacation; and I don’t want to waste these precious days in being unhappy.

Then I suppose I just shouldn’t. I am content right now writing in this. I’m a little tired so may take a nap, get lunch, and then get ready for my kayaking adventure.

3pm+. I am picked up in a white battered truck by a young man named Daniel, who also has some English (with all these English speakers I have few opportunities to practice Spanish). I am his third tour of the day. He’s been working nonstop since about 5am and has barely eaten. None of this is said in complaint—he loves his job and spends most of the hour-long ride pointing out edible plants and telling me about the 400 snakes in Honduras, only three of which are poisonous, and how he prefers living in the jungle to his apartment in La Ceiba. As we drive, swerving around the potholes that plague the roads in Honduras, I reflect that it feels rather odd to be alone on this tour, with an unknown man in a truck, when the reputation of Honduran men isn’t that positive. (Or is it odd that I am prompted to think this way?) I am self-conscious of my skin and gender when he idles at a stop light to purchase coconut water and when we pass slowly through a village, where the residents stare at the truck (as I’ve noticed people do to all cars passing through any neighborhood). I’m not concerned, but I can hear the voices of those who worry about these things questioning, Is This Wise? Still, I push those voices aside and reflect that right here, in this truck, on my adventure, I am happy.

Later: I see a howler monkey and her baby waaaayyy up there in the tree. Daniel hoots deeply. The monkeys respond. Another monkey sits in the crook of some branches. Another is hanging by her (I’m told) tail and poking through the leaves and eating. Yep. I am seeing monkeys. They’re too far away for my camera, so believe me. They have fat bellies and their tails are so strong as they do that dangling monkey thing!

The lagoon is surrounded by mangroves, their massive roots jutting out of the water. Daniel tells me the Garifuna use the water to make wine. I haven’t kayaked before. When he paddles too, we move rapidly; otherwise, the kayak barely moves and I splash a lot of water on my shorts. The only wildlife we see is a crab that bites Daniel’s hand. I’m mildly disappointed but not much. The lagoon is so quiet and calm and the mangroves impressive with their bunches of legs. In 8th grade I read an essay about floating mangrove islands, but I’m told these don’t move. Maybe their roots are too entangled. My camera runs out of memory after five pictures (and I later discover didn’t come with a cord to transfer pictures).

Cacao pod.

This could make chocolate.

On the drive to the lagoon, we also passed many cacao trees, but none with ripe pods. Daniel’s co-guide hands me a ripe pod, creamy yellow the length of a banana but thick like a mango. The seeds are surrounded by a sweet edible flesh. Nature!

On the ride back to La Ceiba, Daniel asks if I’d like to try mango wine, or garifuni, a type of alcohol made by the Garifuna. I’m not much of a drinker but when New Experience calls, always answer. He pulls into Sambo Creek, a Garifuna village, and inquires of passersby for garifuni. We pull in front of a house and he returns with manzanitas, a Honduran apple—red skin, soft, tart—and a small bottle, two shots worth. The alcohol is raw but reminiscent of mangoes. It warms my stomach and leaves Daniel invigorated. I really want to find more of those apples.

Back in La Ceiba, hungry, I end up at Pizza Hut. Meh. I read Animals in Translation by Temple Grandin.

Should I stay here for Christmas Day? There are no buses that day and everything will be closed down. I could probably use the kitchen to cook food, but how awkward, maybe too awkward. I decide to go to Pico Bonito tomorrow and then leave that afternoon. While Christmas in my new home will be dull, at least I will be able to eat.

bridge to waterfalls

Bridge over Rio Cangrejal, to the forest.

24 December 2014: Waterfalls     

Breakfast is another plato típico. Afterwards, as I repack my backpack, I question my choice to leave after only two days. It’s not as if my small town has anything better to offer and here there are more places to walk around, and while the shower isn’t hot it is lukewarm, and that’s something. Plus it’s peaceful. But damn having to ring the bell to be let out of the building is awkward and then how am I going to eat if everything is closed? No, might as well go. Why pay to sit in a room in another city for a day if I’m planning to leave the next?

Daniel and I re-meet at 830am. Today he’s tired—he got too much sleep. The road to Pico Bonito is horrible. Really, nearly all of the roads here are horrible, even the paved ones. Most of our journey is over a road that is unpaved but covered with large, smooth rocks. I suppose it must help with drainage during heavy rains but it is bumpy as hell to drive over. Two women hop a ride early on and are carried most of the way into the park. A friend/co-worker of Daniel climbs onto the back of the truck and is carried to the visitor’s center. The truck rattles, groans, and shakes, but holds together, and I admire the river, rapids, and trees. Daniel picks a purple morning glory for me.

Waterfall

The first waterfall.

I’m not an experienced hiker. I enjoy it, but the paths I’ve been on would probably be categorized as easy. This is not easy. It is up and up and up, lifting myself over tree roots that ring hollow when tapped, ducking under branches, looking for solid footing amid the rocks, and even slipping and falling on a wet patch near a waterfall. I jog occasionally but this is the most strenuous exercise I’ve had in months. The breaks are worth it though, at a small waterfall, eating melon indio, soaking my feet in the pool. Then at the biggest waterfall, approached by descending extremely steep steps where I tell myself that as long as I am careful I will not slip and die. (I didn’t.) Initially I had planned to swim in the pool of this waterfall, one that hikers have apparently scaled, but upon sight of the rocks I would have to scramble over to reach the pool, after the scare of the descent, I content myself with sitting in the mist, drinking juice, eating pineapple, and watching Daniel scramble and hearing him hoot at the numbing temperature.

That brings me to another topic, which I should research at some point. In Honduras, people throw trash on the ground while walking, biking, driving; it all goes to the ground.  Other volunteers do this, albeit with only fruit. I’ve asked them about this and their response has been, “It’s natural.” Well, yes, but doesn’t it take a while to decompose? So I am surprised when Daniel says I should toss my melon rinds aside. I do, but I’m uncomfortable, but I know he and others hike here and I don’t see fruit rinds or food all over, so…the animals must be eating it? And while I see food wrappers all over the roads, I don’t see banana or orange or lychee peels all over the place. So…the animals? I am content to not throw my stuff out the window, but I wonder who is right in this case.

The big waterfall.

The last and biggest waterfall.

The return hike is a rush because I’m close to missing the bus. Now it’s down and down and down, its own challenge. At the visitors center I spend a few delightful moments with their black and white cat, Junior. Junior is the first affectionate cat I’ve met in Honduras. Most cats are feral and kept by families as mousers. While my own three cats may drive me crazy, I love having cat affairs.

My 230pm bus is cancelled and the next isn’t until 415pm. This means: time for flan! Alas, the cafe is closed early for the holiday. I have yet another plato típico, boring, but the licuado saves the day.

The bus to San Pedro is mostly empty and I have the two seats to myself. Am I making the right decision to return early? I should have gone somewhere else, probably, like a good, spontaneous little traveler, but I don’t have any regrets until I hear the first firework. Shit. Near San Pedro we pass about 20 or 30 firework stands…in a row. My little neighborhood loves fireworks. For the past few weeks I’ve been wearing earplugs constantly. How did I forget about this? I did hear them from my hostel room, but being on the second story, I was a little removed.

The taxi driver gives me a bit of a deal on the fare because “Tengo cuidar con los maestros” which I appreciate on the pitch black road, with its blind curves and potholes. I teach him how to say “Hi,” “Hello,” and “My name is Juan Angel.”

And then I’m back. The fireworks and music are going like mad, Maxi Despensa is closed so I grab what food I can from the secret pulperia. I talk to a housemate and eat rice. I watch a movie, mope over an annoying email, and try not to be upset with myself. There were no good solutions to the Where to Stay for Christmas problem and I just didn’t plan properly for this vacation. Next time I will. It’s all about learning, isn’t it? At least the roommate isn’t home.

25 December 2014: Sigh 

Feliz Navidad and be sure to hug a unicorn!

Without fail,

theresa

Pretty river.

Rio Cangrejal.

A card

I did it

I made it until Christmas break. I survived four months of being Miss Theresa, Miss T, and just plain Miss. Sharing a room with someone who daily complains about how fat and ugly she is (including to students, which really irks me), how stupid our students are, and observes that one of her best friends is gay but “you can’t tell” (whatever that means). Kids throwing paper across the room, abusing books, blatantly disrespecting and lying to me, and complaining how boring class is. Not having adequate supplies to do my job. Increasingly cold showers and going without running water for four days in a row. Music blasting at top volume and kids throwing firecrackers right outside my window. Levels of alienation and loneliness I hadn’t experienced for some time. Theft of my ATM card number.

I’ve also survived the above pictured Christmas card, enchiladas and plantains and impromptu punta lessons at the houses of my students, smiles tugged out of frustrated faces, and unexpected hugs. Students asking impossible questions, surprising questions. I’ve survived the kindness of our school administrator, Miss G, paying for the partition I requested be built in my room and was fully prepared to pay for, finding my path blocked by slow moving cows, and the sight of a horse sleeping outside a pulperia. The willing ear and confidence of our volunteer coordinator to my oft expressed classroom management difficulties. The rainbow cobbled streets of Copan and the overcast beach of Placencia. Days upon days upon days of sunshine and warmth (bye-bye Rayaud’s!). Daily waves with the secret pulperia owner’s daughter. Attempted conversations in Spanish with patient listeners. Generous care packages. Moments of friendship (and Bananagrams) with two other volunteers. Sightings of bright blue birds and birds with bright yellow breasts.

Now I have two weeks (at least half of which sans roommate) in which to rebuild my mental and emotional strength with reading, writing, Spanish studying, traveling, and teaching-strategy development. I foresee that my panic levels will increase as the break comes to its inevitable end, but let’s not think about that.

Shortly after we return to school on January 5, I will turn 35. While I’m not the type of person to complain that’s old, the size of the number does contribute yet another layer of urgent personal introspection to this experience. I am a person adrift, on a quest for meaning, purpose, and a way to support myself that I don’t detest. Am I any closer to finding this? Once I round the bend of the new year and catch sight of June, the end of the school year, first from afar but ever closer, I will inevitably dig for this answer daily.

What have I learned (or confirmed) since I arrived here on August 11th?
* I survive intense stress, but poorly. I also create stress when I don’t acknowledge that I’m up against unreasonable expectations, sometimes mine, sometimes others’.
* I cannot live with a roommate again, unless that person is a man with an absurdly large t-shirt collection.
* I do not want to teach a class of kids under age 14.
* It’s easy to get by with minimal Spanish but real conversation takes more words.
* My moods are much more manageable with near-daily infusions of sunlight.
* I can live minimally.
* People can be so kind and nice to me.
* I don’t want a job where people think it’s okay to run over me, a.k.a. I need to demand respect.
* I don’t want a job that takes up my entire life, because I need time to read.
* I love making people happy.
* Life without a clothes dryer is okay, as long as it isn’t rainy.
* Life in Portland, Oregon has influenced me more than I’d like to admit.

So I’m gonna let the post fizzle to a close with this list. I need to nap and then pack for my trip to La Ceiba, where I plan to spend some time at Pico Bonito National Park.

Ta ta,

theresa