Isn't It Pretty To Think So?

Dispatches on life, love and the human condition by a wanderer and hopeful romantic


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Why Holidays Bring Out the Worst in Me–and Lots of Other People, Too

thanksgivingnothanksThursday is the annual Thanksgiving holiday in the United States. By now, any thinking person knows it’s a totally bullshit festivity based on a made-up story of how the white European interlopers who settled the Americas–and thereafter nearly completely annihilated the native people living on the land they wanted for themselves–initially fooled those native people into thinking they were mates and shared in a bountiful harvest.

Yet still, people of all sexes, races, sexual preferences and creeds across the United States on Thursday will celebrate Thanksgiving, which really just gives them an excuse to have a long weekend off from their day jobs and practice totally acceptable gluttony.

Though I don’t buy ideologically into the holidays I celebrated growing up as an American-Italian Catholic girl growing up in U.S. suburbia anymore, I’m steeped in a long tradition of family Thanksgivings with turkey and stuffing (on the table and of our faces), relatives and tryptophan comas, and pumpkin pie and good ol’ American football. As a result, I usually feel predictably sad and dislocated on the approach to Thanksgiving since I’ve been an expat living in southwest Portugal.

This year I’m feeling especially nervous about the upcoming holiday, although generally I’m feeling better about my life than I have in years. I have a beautiful house, great group of friends, mostly lovely boyfriend and live a peaceful life in which I don’t have to work too hard in one of the most beautiful places on earth.

I don’t know why, but lately these days I feel so fucking old. I’m only just-turned 46, and I feel ancient, like all my best years are behind me and nothing exciting or particularly interesting is going to happen anytime soon.

Some days in the morning before getting out of bed when I know I’m supposed to be chanting a mantra about what a great day I’m going to have, instead I lie there and think, “When did I get this old? How did I get this old? How did any of this happen that I’m middle-aged and living in a foreign country far away from my family? And why don’t I have kids and a family of my own?”

I thought I had my mid-life crisis eight years ago when I moved here, but now I’m thinking maybe this is it. Maybe this is exactly what people have been talking about all these years, minus the bitchin’ Camaro and the much-younger lover.

Or maybe I should go easy on myself and realize the fact that I’m spending another Thanksgiving away from the United States and my family may have something to do with why I’m starting to feel like a big heaping pile of emotional doo doo.

Let’s face it, everyone knows that no matter what you logically think in your head about holidays (ie, “holidays are for suckers,” “no one celebrates that trite crap,” “I’m an anti-establishment moron” etc.), it’s inevitable that they are usually pretty fucking emotional for anyone with a pulse and a sensitive heart. I daresay that few of us are at our best around holiday season, least of all me.

When I was young I noticed a pattern in my highly sensitive mother, who suffered from what I recognize now as severe and undiagnosed anxiety and depression. Whenever there was a holiday–family or otherwise–she would get extremely stressed and upset and somehow start a fight with the entire family over nothing. She would get angry and refuse to talk to each of us–my sister, father and I–in turn, and end up eventually reconciling with my sister and I but not speaking to my father for some time.

Holidays of course were stressful for all of us due to this, and now that I’m older and find that I generally end up crying on my birthday and other significant holidays, my mother’s volatility is probably at the root of my own holiday angst.

But I–and I’m sure many others–probably totally get why my mother became so upset and agitated around holidays. It is a hell of a lot of pressure for anyone, let alone the matriarch of the house expected to prepare the meals, get the kids dressed and ready, buy all the gifts and pack all the stuff–or whatever a specific holiday required.

Pair that with the general expectation most people have that holidays are supposed to be SO MUCH FUCKING FUN and if you’re not happy during holiday season, then there must be something seriously wrong with you–it seems fairly normal to want to crawl under a rock and hiss at anyone who comes near you come Christmas time.

So I’m going to be kind to myself this year. My boyfriend decided to pick this week to go to Lisbon to help his mom with some stuff (I opted not to go, not that I was really invited, but mostly because he has some commitments to her and it didn’t sound like a lot of fun), so I don’t need to factor him into any plans I have for sulking and emotionally blackmailing those close to me into feeling as shitty as I do.

This, I realize, is a very good thing. It means I can be as miserable as I want to be without worrying about how it affects anyone else, and, if I get my head out of my ass long enough, I can get some good self-care time and try to sort out why I’ve been so tired and anxious and worried about everything lately and, better yet, what I can do about it.

I also already have some tentative dinner plans on Thanksgiving itself (that involve pumpkin pie, natch!), so I count myself as winning the annual holiday battle already. Bring on the blues! I’m armed with enough downloads and distractions to smash the shit out of them and survive the first holiday emotional hurdle of the year.

 


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“You can judge the whole world for the sparkle that you think it lacks…”

IMG_9408I have to admit, boys and girls, that I’ve been struggling lately. The clocks have changed, and while the sun is still shining brightly here in southwest Portugal, it’s colder and the long, dark nights are setting in.

I’m less busy than I was during the summer months and have more time to spend with my boyfriend, which–after our brief estrangement–has been great. On the flip side, I also have more time to spend with my own thoughts, insecurities and anxieties, which, to be honest, hasn’t so been so awesome.

After spending a week nearly constantly with my boyfriend–distracted by fun things like kayaking, dinners out, hiking, surfing, sex, cuddling, watching films etc.–I had a few days on my own.

And during those days my brain became crammed full of more racing thoughts than passengers in a Moroccan taxi, stuffed to capacity with 46 years of doubts and fears and “I’m not good enough” and “what should I do with my life” and “is he the right guy for me” and “how can I make more money” and “where should I go travel to next”…you get the idea.

It was all too much and put me in that kind of paralytic state that comes when you know you have to change *something* in your life but you have no fucking clue exactly what.

In the past, whenever I’ve had the good fortune to find a guy who will put up with my schizo bullshit long enough to actually call it a relationship, I usually try to blame him whenever I’m feeling shitty about my life or generally depressed or unhappy.

I’m trying very hard in my current relationship not to do this, because–though we’ve certainly had our ups and downs and there are times when he could have reacted in a more mature way to situations–things are actually really good between us at the moment.

More importantly, I’m finally learning that no one makes you happy or unhappy–unless, of course, he or she is extremely abusive, which my boyfriend is not–some who know me and my mercurial ways might think he’s actually a fucking saint.

No, happiness–or at least a general feeling of contentment and acceptance of our lives, relationships and general existential situations–is that elusive thing we must find within ourselves. And that’s what I have really been struggling with lately when I spend more than five minutes on my own.

I’ve been thinking too long and too hard about why I feel this general unease, and I am pretty sure it has to do with my “job,” or lack thereof. OK, to be fair, I do have a job (in addition to managing a small guest apartment in the summer months), if not a full-time one–I write on a monthly basis (which means nearly daily) for an online website called Design News.

My area of coverage for my articles is cutting-edge technology that’s coming out of academic labs and think tanks, tackling stuff like alternative energies, 3D printing and materials science. While I find the topics I write about interesting, lately I’ve been feeling a distinct sense of ennui about the work, and am not feeling very fulfilled or satisfied by it.

For as long as I can remember I’ve been a writer, making up stories in notebooks about how I wanted my life to be when I was 6 and just learned how to write in complete sentences. When I was 11, my teacher would make me read the stories I submitted for my sixth-grade creative-writing exercises aloud to the class, much to my chagrin. Later in high school (and again to my chagrin), a teacher read a poem I wrote and praised my talents in front of my peers at the height of my adolescent awkward phase.

I survived–and one BA degree in English/communications and an MFA degree in creative writing later, it seems natural that I would become some type of writer as a professional career. But still the kind of work I do isn’t what I’ve imagined for myself.

I think it’s because not only am I so much as a writer as a communicator, not just on the written page (or computer screen, as the case may be now). I’ve also done stand-up comedy, performed in bands as a musician, worked with kids and young adults as a therapeutic writing facilitator, and given talks about various topics at conferences throughout my career.

But aside from professional and entertainment purposes, one of the reasons I’ve found myself communicating so much and so well is because of the human condition and existential situations that I and my friends find ourselves in. This is become I’m often the one friends come to when they want to know the straight-up, from-the-heart truth or to sort out a tricky personal situation in which they’ve become involved.

I’m also the one people tend to pour their souls out to not just in conversations, but sometimes also in writing some years after traumatic situation has happened. I’ve had this happen on more than one occasion in the form of e-mails from old friends who for some reason wanted to write me a long missive about their divorce, or the death of a loved one, or something to that effect–only to not respond to my return email of sympathy or advice. It’s almost as if they just wanted to tell *someone*–and that someone happened to be me.

I’m not sure why this happens, but if I had to venture to guess I would say I have this vibe about me that people feel like they can trust me enough to tell me things that they find difficult to talk about–and they value my opinion and ability to articulate it enough to confide in me and hear what I have to say about it.

Lately I’ve been thinking about how I can use these skills in a more meaningful way to earn a living beyond being a freelance writer. I’ve had several false starts in my attempts to branch out and use these skills before–studying and volunteering as a therapeutic writing therapist in both New York and San Francisco, and achieving my second-level Reiki training and giving some free treatments here in Portugal.

So far, however, I have never managed to translate these and other interpersonal communication, counseling and–for lack of a better term–life-coaching skills into a paying profession.

So I guess all of my recent internal struggle ties into the idea of doing some kind of *meaningful* work for me. I don’t find writing about science meaningful, even if people enjoy my work and it somehow affects them.

What I do find meaningful is realizing that I have actually made a difference in someone’s life by sharing my knowledge or talent with them, or giving them a piece of advice that actually changes how they view a difficult situation in their life or provides them with a way to change it for the better.

For example, one of the coolest things I feel like I’ve done in my life is when I spent two weeks on San Cristobal in the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador volunteering with school-aged children, helping to teach music and do other creative projects. It felt so good to see the immediate effect working with these kids had on them, and it felt satisfying to give them an experience that was different from those to which they’re generally exposed in their every-day lives.

Of course, I do also wonder sometimes how much of this need to have meaningful work (and get paid for it) is tied up in my ego–do I want to affect people because it’s good for them, or because it somehow validates in me that I’m a special and worthwhile person?

If I was really so pure of heart, would I need to be recognized for the gifts I have to offer to the world, or is it enough to just live a good, honest life, give good advice to my friends and loved ones, and never be praised or financially rewarded?

The other day all of this was ricocheting around my head and a friend suggested I stop thinking so much and take a walk (very good advice, that was). So I did–a long one–and on that walk I listened to a random Spotify playlist which includes a song by a band called Dawes entitled, “When My Time Comes.” In that song is a line that really stood out for me–“You can judge the whole world by the sparkle that you think it lacks.”

In that moment, that line was for me so reflective of the way I’ve been feeling–flat and listless and bored with my awesome life, like I have nothing to offer to the world and the world has nothing to offer me. I felt like everything had lost its sparkle, and I was looking at life through a dimmer and frantically trying to find someone or something to blame for why everything was going dark.

The truth is, I can’t blame my boyfriend or my friends or even my lack of meaningful work for this feeling–this is on me. Yes, it would be a good idea to have more money and to make that money from doing something that uses what I (and others) perceive as my communication skills and other genuine talents.

But what my walk helped me figure out by clearing my mind and shifting the energy in my body was this: That if I’m ever going to do anything of that nature, the first thing I have to do is accept that what I am now and the work I’m doing, and the money I’m making, and the girlfriend and friend and daughter and sister I’m being, and the person I’m showing to myself and the world every day of my awesome life are *enough.* Right now. As they are. As I am.

It sounds like the biggest cliche in the world, but the older I get, the more I find this to be true. I’ll put it another way: Nothing in my life nor I needs to be anything more than what we are right now in this moment.

And until I am comfortable with that idea–and stop blaming my boyfriend or my work or my laziness or my constant need to sleep since the fucking clocks were turned back one hour–for my sense of unease, and start realizing that everything is exactly as it should be and someone or something out there is looking after me, even winning a goddamned Nobel Peace Prize wouldn’t be enough for me to feel the kind of meaning I am seeking in my life.

So I’m just gonna sit back and sleep if I want to sleep. And cry if I want to cry. And walk until my legs ache and my head stops spinning. And spend lazy nights watching YouTube videos if I want to do that instead of crawl the Internet for jobs or blow out my brain trying to rethink how to brand myself as something different so I can create a new career for myself.

Because the world is fucking sparkling like crazy already. All I have to do is keep my eyes and my heart open to see the shine on everything.

 


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My Love-Hate Relationship with Surfing as a Wildly Popular Commercial Entity

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Gabriel Medina, preparing to do battle with the gnarly Supertubos Portuguese beach break at the Meo Rip Curl Pro 2017 in Peniche

People who know me know that I am a huge fan of competitive surfing, also known as the World Surf League Championship Tour. I guess that’s a bit strange for a cruise-y, middle-aged longboarder who didn’t start surfing until she was 38, since competitive surfing is full of young, hot-shit short-boarders who are generally are considered the old guard of the sport by the time they’re 35.

However, I’m not ashamed of the near-obsessiveness with which I watch the WSL webcasts of every event on the tour, which travels the globe to the most exotic locations to put the surfers in the best discovered waves on the planet. I’m sure there are plenty of non-surfers who are also WSL-viewing addicts like me.

I learn a lot from the competitions as well. Even though I ride a longboard–a completely different practice than shortboarding–it still takes place in the ocean, on waves and in consistently changing conditions. I glean much about how to read waves and where to place turns on them by watching the unbelievably limber and fearless young guns on the tour go crazy.

Last year on a whim, I drove up on my own in my VW van to the WSL surf contest that’s held in Peniche, Portugal–about four hours north of where I live–for the first time. My friend Sally–an Aussie-Dutch dual citizen with a well-stamped passport–already was there, and though I didn’t really have a plan other than to watch some surfing live and see what the weekend might hold.

It turned out to be one of the most fortuitous decisions of my life not just for me, but for my friend as well. She met her current boyfriend, Chris–with whom she has been traveling the world in a long-distance relationship as he works at the contest sites (he is on the WSL video production crew)–and I got to see some of the best waves I’ve ever seen in Portugal as well as witness backstage and from mere meters away my favorite surfer, John Florence, clinch his first and much-deserved world title.

Fast forward one year and I’m back in Peniche, watching the action from behind the scenes and hanging out with Sally and Chris and the WSL crew, occasionally taking advantage of the free dinners and drinks that are on offer when the WSL is picking up the tab.

I feel super-grateful and lucky, as a surfer and a surf fan, that I have such a great opportunity to not only live in such a beautiful place where I can engage in my favorite activity nearly every day, but also to come to another equally beautiful place in my adopted country and see the pros do it from such an up-close-and-personal perspective.

Being behind the scenes also affords a glimpse at how hard these people work–and I’m not just talking about the athletes.

Yes, the pros certainly train hard and eat well so they can withstand beatings like the one pounded on them by the quadruple-overhead conditions on Saturday’s first day of this year’s contest. And they have to make their sponsors happy and show up for the interviews and press conferences and schmooze events so someone will pay the astronomical price of sending them around the world and back every year with shit tons of surfboard luggage.

But the real heroes of those WSL pro-tour contest webcasts that are presented free online are the behind-the-scenes crew, who work tirelessly on the days of the contest from dawn until dusk (and sometimes before and after) to make sure the athletes show up on time, the cameras are ready for the shot, the commentators have their microphones on, the video is rolling, and that generally the show goes on smoothly so viewers at home (or on the go, as the WSL has a mobile app) miss not a single second of the action.

There is one aspect to the whole pro (and otherwise) surfing scene, however, that I find slightly less savory; that is, how fashionable it’s become. From California to Portugal to Indonesia you will find hordes of surfers with shiny new surfboards and GoPros but very little ocean knowledge or experience trying to catch waves in ever-more crowded and dangerous line-ups.

Of course the ocean is everyone’s to use and enjoy, and I came to surfing late in life myself so I can relate to finding my passion for it through its increased popularity.

However, the boom and through-the-roof interest in just the last several years in both surf as a practice and surf culture itself has made it a hell of a lot less fun for those of us who still see it not so much as a sport to be mastered, but a spiritual practice and lifestyle to be treasured and taken as seriously as some people take religion.

I’ve been surfing for about nine years now (which isn’t very long), but when I first discovered it in Portugal, the line-ups were far less crowded than they are today, and most of the people in them (including me) had either made big sacrifices to live their lives on the coast and make surfing a part of their every-day life, or had grown up doing it and with the sea in their blood.

Now with surf schools so prevalent and surf gear so accessible, even people who live nowhere near the coast nor plan to make it an every-day thing can go on holidays and learn how to “surf,” which is really just how to stand up on a foam board in the shore break. This is particularly true in Portugal, where surf entrepreneurship takes over the beaches in the holiday high season, making it almost impossible for anyone else to catch a decent wave.

This has resulted in so many more people who don’t have (nor have the desire for) the kind of time and ocean knowledge it takes to really have the proper respect, affinity and skill for the art of surfing to jam line-ups across the globe.

While it’s true people in poorer countries with good waves now have a business opportunity to earn money they never imagined possible through surfing–bolstering local economies and supporting families–it also has an uglier, dangerous side: more petty crime, more accidents in the water, and more pollution and litter, to name a few.

Of course, it also means people who have been referred to as “soul surfers”–people who do it not because it’s the latest cool thing to do, but because it heals their body and mind in a deep, profound way that no other activity has managed to achieve–also find it more difficult to find the peace and solace they are seeking in the water because of the chaos that line-ups have become.

I am not going to be so bold as to say I deserve to surf any more than the next person, but I do know in my heart I am doing it for the right reasons. When I first started surfing, I liked the sheer physical activity because it helped me–a chronic insomniac–sleep better.

I also loved the ocean–the smell, the break of the water over my head; the raw power and energy on a sizeable-swell day; the inconsistency and constant change in conditions; water texture, sound and light. Even before I discovered surfing, I loved ocean swimming, was a certified PADI diver, and took any opportunity I could to go on a boat just to be close to the sea.

I do believe–as many soul surfers do–that I am a better person coming out of the water than I was going in; in fact, I have a rule that if I go in the water in a bad mood, I can’t return to land until I feel better.

In fact, it’s on land that I feel I have the most problems (not that I have many, luckily enough); in the ocean they all seem to dissolve and instinct and a feeling of calm takes over, so long as I can enjoy my session in relative peace. Even that big set (for me that means overhead waves–I’m a middle-aged longboarder, remember!) on the head is less problematic than exhilarating. I’m sure any surfer-for-life will tell you something similar.

But when I am surrounded by a lot of other people–especially those who don’t know much about ocean behavior nor how to actually use their equipment–I can get grumpy fast. I don’t mind a busy line-up if everyone knows what they’re doing, but one in which there are a lot of newbies (the unfriendly word is “kooks”) who think they can surf just because they had a week of lessons on an expensive trip to Bali once is the quickest way for me to see red.

This is when accidents happen, when other people collide with you and your equipment, causing a dangerous situation not just for the parties involved, but for others around them in the line-up.

And yes, we’ve all been there. I joke that the only way to learn to surf–unless you are gifted with godly natural talent–is to look like an asshole for at least a year. (In my case, it was like three, maybe four!) God knows I was at one time the dangerous one in any given line-up, and certainly people told me so–I’ve left the water ashamed and in tears on more than one occasion, much angrier with myself for not obeying the rules than at the surfer who told me off in the water.

I still also slip up and drop in on people and unwittingly create dangerous situations in the water; I’m not proud of it nor happy about it, but it’s getting harder not to do this sometimes especially in shifty and crowded line-ups where everyone is fighting for waves.

So I’m conflicted. I’m happy for the pro surfers and the WSL and the surf companies that surfing has really taken off and gotten the recognition on a worldwide scale that it deserves. I’m happy that the athletes and the people who work so hard behind the scenes are living such rich and interesting lives traveling the world and enjoying the spoils of success.

I am genuinely so grateful I get to also bask in a little piece of this action when I come to Peniche to watch the pros do battle, and can live such an amazing life by the coast where I can surf nearly every day if I want to.

But I also detest the trendy, fashionable machine that surfing and surf culture has become, because I think as soon as something becomes too popular, people lose sight of the essence of what it’s about.

What can I say? I’m punk rock at heart. I want to enjoy the things I enjoy intensely, but get pissed off when everyone else starts to enjoy them, too, especially when there is so much ego involved.

And this, for me, is the problem with surfing having become so popular. Yes, on one hand it has led so many people to discover it who truly do it for sincere reasons and might have never had that experience if not for the popularity. (I count myself as one of those people.)

But there are still so many more who just jump on the bandwagon out of pure ego because they think it’s the cool thing to do and they want to be a part of the latest wave of fashion. That is what I truly despise about the popularity of surfing.

No matter what I think (and really, who cares about that?), the secret of surfing is out, WAY out–for better or worse. I’m happy that the circumstances in my life were such that I easily could make fundamental changes to live by a stunning coastline with consistent swell so I can surf nearly every day of my life if I want to.

I’m also grateful to the country of Portugal for letting me live here and my local community for embracing me–a foreigner who is one of the many that have crowded their pristine coastline merely for the sake of waves in the last 10-15 years–and making me feel at home. (Learning to speak passing Portuguese and now having a Portuguese boyfriend has also probably helped assimilate me.)

And even if it means more crowded line-ups and less waves for me, I wish the same joy in life for those who discover surfing and really feel like they need to integrate it into the fabric of their lives, not only because it’s necessary to become the people they truly are, but also because it makes them even better for themselves, for their community and for the greater world around them.

 

 


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Another Birthday–No Fanfare, No Regret

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Mom and Dad on their wedding day, June 24, 1967

Tomorrow is my birthday. It’s 9:40 pm and I’m sitting alone in my house, my favorite Philadelphia radio station streaming in the background, a citronella candle burning nearby to stave off the omnipresent mosquitoes, quietly and peacefully writing a blog post.

Did I mention that tomorrow is my birthday?

Now saying that may not seem like a big deal, but it kind of is for me. You see, birthdays in most of my adult life (ie, since I was old enough to legally drink) have been greeted with much anticipation and fanfare, with me not-so-subtly reminding my friends in the weeks before to save the date while also pretending that I couldn’t care less about doing anything on the day of.

In reality, what would actually happen is that I’d usually have weekend or week-long festivities with different friend groups–dinner with some, drinks with others, still Sunday brunch with another group. There also would usually be much ado about having some kind of celebration or at least an adult beverage with friends the midnight I turn whatever the next year of my life it happened to be. One ex-boyfriend and I passed two of my birthdays traveling in exotic locations–one in Italy, one in Hawaii. It was kind of a big deal.

So it’s pretty significant that I’m spending the night before this one alone. (Especially since I’m back with my recently estranged boyfriend, who you may remember from a previous post.)

But tonight although I don’t have to be, I am choosing to pass the evening in my own company. I mean, let’s be honest–birthdays in your 40s aren’t what they used to be, and it seems a bit uncouth to be celebrating bang on at midnight a birthday in which I will become closer to 50 than I am to 40. (You do the math.) I have some modest plans tomorrow for a mellow dinner out with friends after a day of going about my normal business (dance class, possibly a surf, a bit of work), and another year of life on earth will be done and dusted.

Birthdays also took on slightly less (or more, depending on how you look at it) significance 13 years ago today, the day on which my mother passed away at the age of 71 after a two-month battle with esophageal cancer.

I missed saying goodbye to my mother in person because I was celebrating my birthday at a karaoke bar in San Francisco while she lay dying in a hospital bed in Pennsylvania. There, I said it. I’m still ashamed of myself that this was the case, and over the years I tried not to blame myself for any number of reasons, but this is the truth, plain and simple.

My mother was diagnosed with cancer in August 2004–by October 16 of that year, she was gone, despite undergoing several rounds of chemotherapy that only served to make her last months on earth fairly miserable.

At the time I was living in San Francisco and working a full-time job as a technology journalist, and telecommuting was still a new thing, so I didn’t go across the country to see her straightaway. After the diagnosis, I think I knew very quickly that it was a death sentence. Esophageal cancer is one of the “bad ones,” and usually only surgery gives a patient a chance at any significant remission or recovery.

My mother–her body weakened and partially paralyzed from a stroke two and a half years before–was not a candidate for surgery. Although I knew in my heart she would die–I think my sister and father also knew, but we’ve never spoken about it–I didn’t realize how quickly it would happen, nor what impact it would have on me.

My mother and I were never particularly close–we were both too sensitive and tended to rub each other the wrong way. She also was very conservative in her mindset–a devout Catholic–and I was a liberal who’d moved 3,000 miles from home and was co-habitating with my boyfriend in a life far from where I grew up. This, among other things in my lifestyle, was basically unheard of in my Italian-American family in which everyone married, had children, and stayed more or less close to home.

Still, though we had our differences, she was the only mother I would ever have, and her relationship to me was a significant one. Though I felt closer to my father, my mother was the only one out of my parents who ever said “I love you,” and that meant more to me than I ever had a chance to tell her.

I only saw my mother for a week in the two months I knew she was dying, and it was three weeks before she passed away. I arranged with my company to work remotely from my parents’ house in Pennsylvania so I could spend some time with her–at the time she was undergoing chemotherapy–and help out around the house. We still we’re aware that she would pass as quickly as she did.

I wish I could remember more of that week, but only a few things stick out in my mind, mainly sad memories. The one thing that pains me the most to this day is I can’t remember the last time I actually saw my mother, or how I said goodbye to her in person.

The Monday before my birthday, which was on a Saturday that year, my father put me on the phone with my mother. I was at work back in San Francisco, and she was in the hospital because she wasn’t able to eat properly–and thus receive nourishment–because of the tumor in her throat, and so was being fed intravenously. (This is often how people with esophageal cancer die–basically by starving to death.)

“Happy birthday, Liz,” my mother said to me, sounding like the woman I’d come to know over the last two years, who had changed after her stroke but was still someone resembling the woman who raised me. She never forgot birthdays.

“My birthday isn’t until Saturday, Mom,” I said to her. “But thank you!”

“I know,” she said. “I just wanted to say happy birthday now.”

I guess I should have realized then she knew she wouldn’t live out the week, but it didn’t occur to me. When someone as close to you as a parent is dying, you’re pretty much in shock the whole time. Not recognizing significant things you should have known in the moment but don’t realize until much later is normal.

The weekend of my birthday that year I was meant to fly to southern California to appear on a panel at a business conference, but my sister called me Thursday evening and said she thought I should come home; that my mother–who’d slipped into a coma by then–wouldn’t last the weekend.

I found it difficult to believe (still in shock, obviously), but hastily arranged a last-minute replacement for my business trip and booked a one-way flight to Philadelphia for first-thing Saturday morning, not wanting to change my plans to celebrate my birthday with friends on Friday evening.

I feel a hot flash of shame even writing those lines right now. Let’s get this straight: My mother was dying, and I didn’t book a flight right then and there to rush home and see her–even in her incapacitated, unconscious state–because I wanted to celebrate my fucking birthday. In a bar. With my friends. Getting drunk. Singing fucking karaoke.

Again, I can make excuses for myself, and I have, and others have made them for me. “You didn’t know exactly when she was going to die.” “She wasn’t herself by then anymore so she wouldn’t have even known you were there.” “You were in shock; people do crazy things and don’t think straight when they are in shock.”

While these things are all true, it has taken me a long time to get over the fact that I was in a bar drinking vodka and singing “Me and Bobby McGee” in San Francisco only hours before my mother died around 11 a.m. Saturday morning in Norristown, Pennsylvania.

I cried at the bar that night–or rather, outside it, on the shoulder of a friend, standing on a dirty sidewalk while the busy city did its usual song and dance around me. Then I went home, crawled into bed with my most recent ex-boyfriend–who came over to hold me while I slept in the several hours I had before I was to leave for the airport.

The next morning, I boarded a flight from Oakland to Philadelphia, not knowing that as the plane lifted its nose and left the Bay Area behind, my mother was taking her last breath in a hospital bed, my father in a chair beside her, holding her hand and telling her how much he loved her.

13 years is a long time to get over something, I guess. Then again, it’s really no time at all when time is so fluid–when memories of things that happened so many years ago can appear in the same room with you and trick you into opening your mouth and speaking to people who aren’t here anymore, as clear and vivid as if no time has passed at all.

I wasn’t close to my mother the way I wanted to be, but I loved her, and she loved me, and she was my mother after all. I still miss her every day, especially every year the day before my birthday when pangs of regret I swear to myself I won’t feel surface anyway, despite my best efforts to tell myself after all these years that I didn’t do anything wrong.

So this year, instead of distracting myself with friends or drinks or some kind of ridiculous hedonistic birthday ritual celebrating the precise minute I turn another year older, I am going to let myself feel that regret. I may even wallow a bit. And finally forgive myself for my behavior 13 years ago once and for all.

I miss you, Mom. My birthday this year, for once, is not about me, but about you. Because no matter what I’ve tried to tell myself all these years–no matter how important I tried to make myself to drown my sorrow and convince myself I was someone worth celebrating–I know this now: It always has been.

 


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The Importance of Challenging Yourself Through Fear

I’m no stranger to being single—having lived that way for many years–but there still has been a period of adjustment after this last break-up, perhaps because I had tucked in nicely to the idea of having a boyfriend and wasn’t expecting to be thrust back into my solo lifestyle so soon.IMG_8277

To help myself get my ex out of my head and distract myself from any negative thoughts, I’ve been trying to stay busy. So when my friend Emma spontaneously said she was going to the local wakeboarding park in nearby Lagos last Saturday, I decided to go along as well—although I was slightly groggy and hungover from a party the night before.

Although I am a surfer and relatively physically fit for my age through jogging, yoga and other activities, I don’t have a super-sporty figure, and I’m not particularly coordinated. I tried wakeboarding once about 15 years ago behind someone’s boat on a lake in Maine, with pretty much zero success, and didn’t really fancy trying it again.

However, surfing and yoga have given me a lot of core strength since then, and I have a far more adventurous spirit now. In fact, a surfing friend has been trying to get me to the wakeboarding park—which consists of a reservoir and a cable that pulls you along instead of a boat—for several years, insisting I would enjoy it and may even want to replace my passion for surfing with wakeboarding.

Wakeboarding, in my opinion, is far more similar to snowboarding than surfing. When I lived in San Francisco many years ago, I tried snowboarding for two days over a weekend with friends in Lake Tahoe, California. This was not long after the failed wakeboarding attempt and, like that experience, it also did not go well. (Try snowboarding, they said. It will be fun, they said.)

What I remember mostly from that trip is falling hard and repeatedly on the cold, icy snow, at one point literally crying in pain and exhaustion as I tried to make my way down a beginner run on my last day in a complete whiteout. (My friends, all better than me, abandoned my novice ass very quickly on day one–who could blame them?) Perhaps feeling guilty and imagining me lying in a broken heap somewhere off piste, one of them was waiting anxiously for me at the end of that final run, looking quite worried–as well he should have been–until he spotted me limping toward him.

After a brief instruction on land of what to do in the water, it was time to do this thing for real. I was understandably super nervous–shaking, my heart pounding, bile in my throat, that whole shebang–as I awkwardly edged my way off the dock on my ass into the reservoir where I would give wakeboarding a real try in front of a small group of onlookers.

I tried to console myself with the knowledge that water is an element I understand far better and in which I am far more comfortable than snow. It also typically a more forgiving place to land (though, not always, as I would find later.)

My first few attempts to get to my feet on the board were a bit more successful than my previous experience–ie, I got to my feet. The problem is, I didn’t stay there long, promptly face-planting into the water as I went boobs over board. So much for a soft landing–that shit stung! The water also, as I was warned, is unusually salty, leaving me sputtering the bad taste out of my mouth.

After a few embarrassing and somewhat painful falls, however, I started to get it. By taking my time as the cable began pulling me forward, I learned how to slowly rise to my feet and began to feel the groove of the glide over the water. It felt both similar and very different to surfing, but with that same rush of energy and adrenaline that surfing so satisfyingly provides.

By the end of my two 15-minute sessions, I was successfully getting to my feet and boarding from one end of the cable to the other, even sometimes with only one hand on the bar. My first attempts to turn were unsuccessful and ended with more ungraceful splats in the water, but I didn’t care. Expecting too much of myself is not my thing these days.

As I finished my second session and mustered my last reserves of muscular energy to pull myself onto the dock like a beached sea lion, I felt a mix of elation and pride. The thing is, even if I hadn’t gotten to my feet that day (but thank fuck I did), I would have something to be proud of–I, at nearly 46 years old and newly demoralized by yet another failed relationship, had the courage to try something new that I was quite sure would make me look like a giant asshole.

I also conquered some fears that might have prevented me from even trying in the first place. One was my concern that I would twist my already weak knees in the wakeboarding boots or otherwise injure myself, and the other was the much more common fear that we all have when we try something new–that I wouldn’t be able to do it, and people might laugh at or otherwise ridicule me.

Well, I did do it, and there was a lot of laughing that day, but mostly it was coming from me. My friend Emma even commented after that I was extremely good-natured after each fall I took, rising to the surface giggling at myself and making jokes and promises to my instructor that I would do better next time.

There are always things to be afraid of in life. But what I’ve found over the years is that most of them are illusions that we invent in our own heads.

I mean, sure, if you are in the African bush and you encounter a lion, it’s normal to be fearful that you might be eaten alive. And if you or someone you love have been diagnosed with a terrible disease, of course it’s normal to fear your own death or the loss of that person.

But most of our daily fears are much less dramatic than that. Some people are afraid to leave their job when offered a new one. Others are afraid to move to a new city or country even if the opportunity arises. Still others won’t leave a relationship in which they’ve been terribly unhappy for many years for fear of being alone or that they won’t find someone else to love.

These fears are not quite the stuff of life or death, but they are valid. However, most of the fear of these changes is not connected to the action or situation itself. It’s really the fear of the unknown that stops people from changing their lives by taking on new careers or adventures, making new friends or new lovers, or even doing something as simple as trying a new dish at a favorite restaurant or walking up to a stranger and saying hello.

I didn’t know what to expect that day at the wakeboard park, and so I was afraid at what might happen. Yes, I could have been injured. Yes, someone could have (and, let’s be honest, most likely did) laugh at me. Yes, I might have swallowed some salty water and made myself sick.

But none of those things happened (really). What did happen was that I walked out of there feeling good, a mix of adrenaline and pride coursing through my veins. (The full-body pain that the exertion of wakeboarding causes would come later, oh yes it would.)

I even felt, for the first time in the two weeks since my gut-wrenching break-up, one of the first glimmers of that carefree feeling–you know the one–that  everything is going to be OK.

But best of all, I didn’t feel so afraid anymore of the uncertainty that lie ahead of me. I mean, walking out of there, none of the circumstances in my life had changed–I still hadn’t heard from my ex, I still was back to ground zero in terms of my love life, and I still faced the prospect of another lonely night crying into my pillow.

But somehow, I felt changed, just by facing some small fears that arose at the prospect of strapping my feet to a board and being pulled by a tow cable to cruise over some water. I could still try new things that challenged me both physically and mentally, and succeed. I still could face uncertainty, breathe through it and come out the other side no matter what the outcome.

I was still strong, still capable, still smiling and still very much me, even if someone I loved didn’t love me back in the way I wanted him to. In that moment I felt so good, so capable, so thoroughly strong in body and mind that no one–not him nor anyone else who’s every rejected me, laughed at me, or told me I couldn’t do something that I thought maybe I could–could take that away from me. Nor, I vowed, would I ever let them again.

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Why My Mechanic Is One of My Favorite People In the Universe

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Photo Disclaimer: This is not me, nor my bus, but thanks for thinking so…

Since being an expatriate in Portugal I’ve forged the most unlikely of friendships. In fact, if life has taught me one thing up until this point, it’s that connections between people are often found in the strangest of scenarios, and shouldn’t be so much questioned as treasured.

For me, one of the brightest and most consistently positive relationships I have here in Aljezur is, unexpectedly, with my mechanic, who I’ll call Luis (not his real name). In Portugal unless you have a lot of money (I don’t), your car—or in my case, a 1999 Volkswagen Transporter bus—is usually either really old, in a constant state of disrepair, or both.

A good mechanic here is worth more than gold–“good” meaning one you can trust won’t rip you off or overcharge you, while still doing a decent job to ensure your automobile of choice stays on the road and passes the yearly Portuguese vehicle inspection that fills most residents with dread (and usually requires a monetary bribe).

I completely lucked out with Luis, a tiny Portuguese man who comes up to my boobs (I’m nearly 5’9”) and—while only about 10 years my senior—seems more like a wise and kind uncle than a contemporary.

Luis speaks—in addition to Portuguese—perfect English, German and Afrikaans, the last from a long stint living in South Africa; has been married twice; and used to be an avid motorcyclist who at one point suffered a severe accident that not only nearly killed him, but changed his outlook on life and his behavior forever.

From the first moment I met him, Luis gave me a calm, “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it for you” feeling, something that—let’s be honest—is incredibly desirable in the guy who’s going to make sure your shitty van isn’t going to suddenly fall apart or veer off a cliff. I’m a generally nervous person (in case you haven’t figured that out yet), so this type of demeanor is not just something I value in a mechanic, but also in my friends.

Luis, in the five or so years that I’ve known him, has become just that. Lately, he’s also become a relationship counselor of sorts, listening to me sound off about my now ex-boyfriend (who he’s met a couple of times) and our troubles, and sharing with me his views on marriage (ie, if he had his life to live over, maybe he’d leave out that part) and how ridiculously sometimes people act in intimate relationships.

Today I had to meet Luis to get a couple of new tires put on my van. Rather, I had to pick him up at his shop and then have him drop me off in Aljezur to run errands while he went to another mechanic shop to fit the tires—which he’d gotten nearly new at a bargain especially for me. He was then going to pick me back up in town and I would drop him off at his office, which is just on the outskirts.

These types of arrangements are typical with Luis. In fact, the last time I had tires put on the van, he drove his motorcycle to my house to pick it up, drove it to have the tires installed, and then drove it back and picked up his motorcycle to return to his home in the nearby countryside. He didn’t even make me pay in advance, just asked me for the money after he’d finished the job.

Now I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had this type of relationship with a mechanic before. In fact, Luis sometimes even refuses to fix things because they will cost me TOO much money rather than fixes things needlessly (or breaks things so they will need fixing), like many mechanics. (This, in fact, was a running joke between my ex-boyfriend and me after Luis explained to him the seemingly infinite number of things that were wrong with my van but said he didn’t want to fix them because they would run up a huge bill.)

Luis greeted me with his typical, “Hello, beautiful.” He never misses an opportunity to tell me what a lovely woman I am (I suspect he says this to all the ladies, but no matter) and always greets me kindly and with a warm embrace in addition to the customary two kisses that is the Portuguese way.

We proceeded to drive into town, where I planned to run some errands while waiting for my tires. We joked about if I would be safe alone on the streets of Aljezur—a tiny village with little petty crime and a murder rate of about zero. As he dropped me off, Luis asked, teasingly, “What would your (insert ex’s name here) think about you walking around alone in dangerous Aljezur?”

I told him that he would think nothing of it, as he abruptly dumped me by WhatsApp message and hasn’t spoken to me in a week and a half. I tried to make light of it and we didn’t speak more about it, and I headed on my way.

Later, though, when he picked me up and we drove back to his office, the discussion got a bit more personal and intense. Luis, as I mentioned before, has been married twice, and it seems the first time was a rather painful experience.

We talked about the toxic cat-and-mouse game that exists in many relationships—including the one from which I just emerged–with one person doing the chasing and the other running away. “That’s what all the songs are about,” Luis said, alluding to the myriad pop songs about not knowing what you have until it’s gone (including the one very obviously titled “Don’t Know What You Got ‘Til It’s Gone” by the legendary hair-metal band Cinderella) .

“In my experience, when something becomes broken, it gets cracked and is impossible to put together again,” he said. Luis told me he tried very hard with his ex-wife but still couldn’t hold on to her. However, she came back to him later when all was said and done and told him that once he was gone, she idealized him and their relationship.

“I have a feeling that if you give him the cold shoulder, he’ll come back to you,” Luis said of my ex, thinking of his own experience. I mulled this over as he prepared to leave the car and said, “Well, if that’s the case, I absolutely won’t take him back unless we acknowledge this unhealthy dynamic and work on it. I’d even go to therapy.”

“Speaking of that,” I continued, “what do I owe you for this session?” Luis laughed, and said, “Nothing of course, my dear. It’s always a pleasure to talk to you.”

Then, he stepped back and took a long look at my van, which he’d also fixed to the tune of 1,000 euros several months back. “I think your van is in good shape for awhile now,” he said, knowing that this also meant we probably wouldn’t see each other for some time.

“Muito obrigada, Luis,” I said to him. “And thanks again for listening to me. I’ll let you know what happens.”

I started to drive away, and he watched me for a moment before, his mind already on other things, turning back to his shop and the business of the rest of the day. I watched him in my rearview mirror for a second before stepping harder on the gas—a small, late middle-aged man in a blue mechanic’s uniform, shuffling peacefully back to his life’s work of repairing the problems that other people can’t fix.

 


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My Heart Is on the Mend…Again

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When I’m heartbroken, I take solace in doing the smallest things. Drinking a cup of tea. Putting diesel in the tank. Hanging the laundry on the line. I find that by focusing on the little things that take up a lot of our practical time in life, I am soothed, somehow, in knowing that I am taking care of business. Step by step, day by day, if I don’t let these things fall to neglect—these simple acts of self and household care—it means that I am on my way to healing.

I’m heartbroken again, for nine straight days now. I didn’t choose to be this way, not on any surface level. But I know deep down–and all the psychology website and YouTube videos tell me so–that it’s essentially my fault.

I find myself heartbroken all too often, so much so that it must be my comfortable state–incurable love addict, hopeful romantic and general emotional basket case that I am. Although I wouldn’t call the catatonic way I can stare into space these days for what seems like hours on end; the unexpected and sudden crying when someone asks “How are you?”; and the nights spent in my bed staring numbly at TV-series episodes exactly the most “comfortable” mode of daily existence.

My nearly year-long relationship with a man I thought might finally be a good candidate to be a life partner—the longest relationship I’d had in, I’m not kidding, something like 14 years—ended with two simple WhatsApp messages. Then…silence so loud it’s been deafening.

Without getting too personal about what happened, my last ex is the latest in a long line of failed relationships, mainly because I usually find myself barking up the wrong tree when it comes to getting what I want—a stable partner with whom I can spend my life.

I also am not the type of woman who is very good at playing the “game” all the self-help books tell you that you need to play to keep a man—I tend to show my hand of cards far to quickly, speak my mind too easily, and imagine my ever-after far too soon–things that tend to kill most relationships before they even start.

However, I thought I did everything right this time and took it slowly. I didn’t even really like this man that much at first, but wanted to give him a chance because he was attractive enough and we had nice conversations. I also live as an expat in a rural Portuguese coastal town, so the availability of single men my age (mid 40s) is limited. Any man with decent looks, similar interests, a job and a pulse is potential life-partner material around here. Even some of those without a job or decent looks can be negotiable–teeth, however, are a must.

I ignored early red flags that he might be the noncommittal type, something we women like to do when we want very badly for something to work. Now nearly a year of a roller-coaster ride of push-pull with this guy—me being clear that I wanted a relationship and more time with him, him alternating between resisting (even once, for nearly two weeks, basically ignoring me) and meeting my needs in what seemed like sincere and even rather extreme ways that led me to believe he was in this thing for real.

Now, quite abruptly, I find myself alone again, dumped after a ridiculous argument only a day after he finally hung out with some of my friends and was asking me what I wanted for my upcoming birthday.

I’m stunned and incredibly hurt, of course. But when I look under the hood it’s fairly obvious that I should have seen it coming—that I was on thin ice the whole time, if not already kicking and thrashing in neck-high freezing water. This guy was never going to commit to me because we were playing out our respective roles in a toxic pattern of an avoidant-anxious attachment relationship. (Again, this is what the Internet tells me, so it must be true.)

He repeatedly told me he would never change when I would point out his clear resistance to a real relationship and to evolve as a person, and said that I also should not. I tried as best I could to accept him for who he was and adapt accordingly as best I could, telling myself this is what you do in a relationship.

I also carried on being exactly who I am and being perfectly honest, not playing games or holding back the less attractive parts of my personality—which inevitably led to his WhatsApp break-off of the relationship and respective refusal to speak to me. (Great idea that was!)

I guess this is the part where I’m supposed to move ahead, know I am better off without him and get on with my amazing life—which includes but is not limited to surfing, freelance writing, continuing to work on home improvements to my Mediterranean-style bungalow, yoga, drumming lessons, potentially interesting projects on the horizon, and lovely group of friends. I should be planning my next solo surf vacation. I should be working to learn from my mistakes and heal myself from my anxious attachment patterns and get ready to meet someone secure who is far better-suited to me and can meet me halfway in a relationship.

A bit more than a week after the shock to my already well-scarred heart, I’ve started slowly and gingerly resume doing all of these things. I planned a redesign of my garden BBQ area earlier today, and have plans to meet a friend for surfing later. I continue to diligently do the requirements of my freelance job every day. Tomorrow I’ll go to my mechanic to fit my van with new tires.

Slowly, after a week of being fairly useless, I am returning to the business of living and managing my life alone again, trying to push out of my mind the fact that I won’t have my boyfriend around anymore to support me and to do all the practical things I’m so inept at doing.

I’m also trying to wrap my head around the fact (without bursting into tears) that i have lost his companionship and my partner-in-crime for hiking, dining, swimming, boating, laughing, dancing in my kitchen, late-night grocery shopping, sex, wine-drinking, cuddling, movie-watching and the myriad other fun activities we used to share together. Because, aside from our opposite relationship styles, I can’t say that we didn’t have a shitload of good times together, and that I was hoping for a hell of a lot more.

I am slowly putting one foot in front of the other, it’s true, but all through a huge veil of sadness and heavy feeling that threatens to topple me when I stand up, so much so that I find myself feeling physically dizzy, the earth unsteady beneath me. I’ve certainly been through worse than the thoughtless dumping by a narcissist (the death of my mother the day before my 33rd birthday comes to mind), so it can’t be this singular blow that itself is such a knock-out punch.

What I think, though, is that for some reason, each new heartbreak, instead of getting dimmer with age and familiarity, seems to get more difficult. It as if all the heartbreaks of our whole life gather into a massive ball of emotional twine that gains momentum and rolls down a great hill over you, leaving you flat out on the ground. And when you do get up, it’s slowly, with much staggering and confusion, to a world that has been–without your knowledge or consent–irreversibly altered.

Time tells me wounds heal, sadness passes, people come and go. The spiritual teachings I read and witness tell me that the universe has a plan for me; that some relationships are not meant to be forever; and some people are put in our lives merely to teach us something or point out things we need to change.

I find the same solace in these existential things as I find in feeding the cats and taking out the garbage, knowing that with every day my head will get lighter, the sun will shine a bit brighter and I am one step closer to being back to not just my old self, but an even wiser version of me.