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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In defense of emotional sensitivity and the beautiful lesson of ‘Call Me By Your Name’

callmebyyourname.jpgFor weeks I’ve had this blog post percolating in my mind. I had several false starts trying to find the right words and tone to the post, but I just couldn’t find a way to frame it or articulate.

Now I’ve found a way, and it comes in the form of one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen in a long time.

The film is called “Call Me By My Name,” and it’s about 17-year-old Elio, on the cusp of adulthood and discovering his own sexuality and identity, who falls in love with his father’s graduate student, Oliver, who’s come to spend the summer at his parents’ house in Northern Italy.

Neither of the two men identify as gay, and the story doesn’t even really address it—that’s totally not the point. The story is about two gorgeous young people falling in love so purely and authentically in one of those fated moments that comes along in a lifetime only if the two people are very, very lucky. It’s a moment that is meant to be brief and exist only in a certain time and place, but will have a heartbreaking and permanent effect on those involved.

At the end of the film (*spoiler alert*), Elio’s father delivers this great monologue about love and emotional loss. He’s sitting with an absolutely crushed Elio, who’s just said goodbye to Oliver, knowing he’ll probably never see him again.

While his father tells him that normally in this circumstance as a parent he’d want his son to just get over it, instead he encourages him to take as much time as he needs and just be grateful to have felt something.

“We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should that we go bankrupt by the age of 30 and have less to offer each time we start with someone new,” he says. “But to feel nothing so as not to feel anything—what a waste!”

Heart over head

I watched this scene–sobbing, of course, not just for the beauty and truth in it but due to something that happened recently in my own life—and realized what an important message it is especially in the time in which we’re living.

There’s a huge movement these days to live in the present and to let go of anything—particularly people and relationships—that cause us stress or pain or aren’t “serving” us right now. (Those “woke” people love to talk about how something isn’t “serving” them. Like life is one big long endless dinner out at a fucking restaurant and they are a VIP customer.)

This movement, in my view, presents life as a series of lessons to be learned and of moments that are meant to be fully enjoyed in the present but then let go of as soon as they are over. This “letting go” includes a rapid release of any feelings you might have had about the person or situation during that time.

These days the common spiritual guidance is that it’s all about the mind controlling the feelings that we have. It’s about having the right “reactions” to the things that happen to us and not getting carried away emotionally by any of it.

I understand how this is actually a really valuable and useful way to look at life, especially if you believe we have only one go-around on this planet and shouldn’t waste time over-analyzing or over-complicating the difficult situations that arise in our lives. And it’s actually super necessary to people who have truly horrible shit occur in their lives if they are ever to move on and continue living at their best potential.

I understand why we have reached this phase of the human condition—I suspect social media may have something to do with it–and while I do recognize some value in it, I also see it as a bit dangerous and sad in terms of human evolution.

I personally am a lover, a feeler, an empath, a “highly sensitive person” and probably, in the eyes of some people (ie, ex-boyfriends and my dear old dad, the latter of whom loves me anyway especially because my mom was similar), a complete emotional basket case.

To say it more politely, I’m not afraid to feel extreme emotions, both happy and sad. I can be the person who laughs the loudest and most authentically at the drop of a hat. On the flip side, I can also turn on the waterworks and cry like (in the words of an ex who witnessed it) “someone’s died” even if a situation in another person’s mind doesn’t warrant such full-blown melodrama.

The plight of the sensitive person

These days, there are a number of opinions about people like me. Some people are becoming more aware of sensitive people and trying to be more understanding of them. Part of this is to understand that sometimes what may come across as a “bad mood” or bitchiness is actually just a reaction to the energy or situation at hand, which can cause unnecessary stress to more sensitive people than it does to people with stronger minds than empathetic tendencies.

Others–and I find this more than case in a lot of the spiritual and psychological guidance out there–are trying to promote the age-old method of “mind over matter.” They encourage people to use their minds to control their emotions so as not to let them get out of control.

It might be an over-exaggeration to say that people in this camp see feelings as something to be squashed or buried, but to sensitive folks like me, this is exactly what it feels like.

So I mulled over for awhile how to write this post, and then I saw “Call Me By Your Name.” And here I am, with my flying my emotional freak flag, to put forth a grand defense of sensitivity.

Actually, I think this film–and the world’s embrace of it–comes as no accidental backlash to these current modes of thinking vs. feeling. That it involves love between two men in a world that also remains widely homophobic is also quite a triumph.

The use of men in the film (and the book from which it was adapted) also is interesting to me, as is the fact that it’s Elio’s father who encourages him to feel and not bury his emotions at the end of the film.

This is because in my experience as a deeply sensitive woman, usually the men I am in relationships with have a hard time understanding the depth to which I can feel. (Opposites attract, of course, and perhaps these relationships are meant to help me learn and grow.) I’m not saying this situation isn’t the opposite as well in many cases–with the man being more sensitive than the woman. I’m just speaking from my own experience.

Relationship and emotional patterns

It’s becoming increasingly clear to me in my relationships that I’m the kind of woman who makes all the mistakes the relationship coaches tell women (and some men) NOT to make–don’t give away too much about how you feel, don’t smother with attention or affection, don’t let your emotions get out of control, don’t show more emotional toward him than he has shown toward you.

I’m guilty of all of these things in my relationships, generally, and, since I also have that wonderful tendency to attract men who aren’t emotionally available or who tend to bury their feelings–which is a fair chunk of men in my age group due to the way people in their 40s were socialized as children, I reckon–I tend to eventually drive anyone who dares to get close to me away.

Here’s my typical pattern: Man is keenly interested because I appear to be a cool, independent woman (which I am, to an extent). Man shows interest and I act coy and “play the game.” Man shows more interest and I begin to get emotionally attached.

We seem to have a healthy and reciprocal level of attachment for awhile. He starts to lose a bit of interest when I return interest at the level he was showing me in the first place, thus losing my mysterious, cool-woman status. I panic, get super-emotional and proceed to act like a fucking barnacle and cling onto man for dear life, even if he starts acting like a shithead.

He begins to pull away more and tells me he “needs space” or wants to leave. I start to beg him not to leave and cry uncontrollably when I should just say, “That’s fine, honey, take all the time you need, I’m fine on my own.” He runs for the hills (in the last case, literally) as fast as he can.

The scenario ends with me left to lick my wounds for as long as it takes, watching films like “Call Me By Your Name,” listening to songs by Lorde (thanks to my friend Helen for this recommendation) and writing blog posts like this one.

Some things must change but some will stay the same

Yes, I know I need to get my shit together a bit in terms of this type of relationship and attachment style, and I’m working on it. (Maybe it will take 46 more years, but what better time than the present to start trying to make improvements to myself?)

Then again, as I look at the mistakes I’ve made in my relationships and own up to them, there is one thing I refuse to beat myself up for. I refuse to apologize for having deep feelings for someone and for being willing to love them fully and express them.

Yes, I do agree that I need to take better care of myself and love myself more so I don’t give all my love away so fully to someone else. I understand that no one is responsible for how I feel but me (even though that’s also no excuse for someone to treat me badly or act like an asshole–that’s on them), and I get how intense feelings can drive some people in my life–both men and women, both lovers and friends–to not want to be around me because of whatever shit is going on for them.

I understand all of this, I really do. At the same time, I don’t think I’m ever going to stop feeling things and stop loving so deeply and authentically. And damn it, I don’t think I should have to.

OK, so I’m not everyone’s cup of tea. I scare people with my intensity and ability to feel and to turn deep emotions on and off like a faucet when some people can’t even begin to process that level of emotion in a lifetime what I can do in an hour.

I also know that this ability to feel deeply also is responsible for a number of my most winning qualities. I’m funny, creative, intelligent, understanding, compassionate, empathetic, generous and willing to listen to or do favors for friends at the drop of a hat when they need me.

And while it always, of course, takes me some time to heal, I’m also someone who knows how to forgive–because no matter how much it seems that someone has “hurt” me, I can always eventually understand my own responsibility for feeling in that particular situation as well as his or her perspective.

I will always welcome someone who can meet me halfway or on the same level back into my life even after what seem to be irreparable blow-ups in our relationship. In fact, some of these reunions have in the past been the most beautiful to me.

Right now I’m going through a personal healing process, and I’m grateful to remarkable pieces of art like “Call Me By Your Name” for showing me that it’s OK for me to be exactly as I am.

And though it’s taking me some time to wrap my head around it in my current emotional state, I’m slowly becoming damn sure of this: There will eventually be someone in an intimate relationship who doesn’t run away from my deep ability to feel. Instead, he will understand it, embrace it, love it as part of the deep, authentic person I am–and maybe even decide to stay.











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Why It’s So Important to Be Your Own Pizza

pizzaI’ve been away from Portugal for a week now, currently sitting in my 84-year-old father’s new home in suburban Philadelphia after a week of helping move him (no easy task) from the last home he and my mother lived in before she died almost 14 years ago.

Dad’s doing well for his age but it was time to down-size, and my sister—who lives close by with her family of four kids, three of them teenagers—found him a nice, big townhouse in an over-55 housing development to live out the rest of years peacefully. It’s also a lot closer to her house so she can more easily pop by whenever he needs help.

Being with family—especially a dysfunctional one away from whom I had to move as far as I possibly could to be my authentic self—always makes me feel a bit reflective and, to be honest, a strange mixture of both secure and depressed.

I know these are the people who love me and to whom I can return no matter what, even at my worst–and they kind of have to take me back because, well, you know, that’s what family is for.

But in a strange way, these are the people who at once know me the best but also don’t know me at all. They don’t really know what I do day to day or for a living, or know my friends or my daily life. Hell, they have never even visited me where I live in Portugal even though I’ve been there for more than eight years.

They do, however, know the personality I formed when I was young and can relate easily to that person, and we can chat and bicker in a familiar way. Still, it’s a weird existential space to be in, even for a short time–the whole moving-house dynamic and going through old memorabilia of my parents’ life together adding an even more surreal vibe.

When I come to my father’s, I often take yoga classes at a studio in a nearby town—the one in which my mom was born and raised, in fact–to help keep my sanity and keep my yoga practice active.

The other day in the class, the teacher said something about how one of our greatest wishes as human beings is to be “known.”

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, especially away from the life I’ve built myself in Portugal—what I consider my home now—and immersed in the life that made me who I am today but which resembles very little the person I’ve become.

Who really knows us? How well do we really know ourselves? And really, is it true what they say–that the most important relationship we have is the one we have with ourselves?

The relationship mirror

Before I left Portugal for this two-week trip, I had another shake-up in my relationship–one that affected not only the relationship I have with my boyfriend, but also the one I have with myself.

During a frank, honest discussion we were having about the relationship and the state of things between us, my boyfriend said this to me: “You’re not happy. You’re one of those people who is looking for someone else, for a relationship, to make you happy.”

Of course I immediately and vehemently defended myself and told him I had been happily single for many years before he came along. But later, privately (and not-so privately), I had a bit of an existential breakdown that led to some intense crying and releasing a lot of apparently pent-up emotions for about a week.

I had to take a hard look at myself in that total mind-fuck of a mirror that an intimate relationship can be and realize, damn it, he was kind of right.

In the week that I turned this over and dealt with my own codependency and tendency to be more happy only when validated by a significant other, I also pondered whether this relationship and all the work that’s gone along with it was worth it.

A friend tried to make an analogy to food–something I can always understand–to help me decide, asking me what my favorite food was. Without hesitation, I said, “Pizza.” (Isn’t that everyone’s??)

So she asked me if I thought whether my boyfriend was a pizza or maybe just a really good sandwich. The idea here is that even if he was a really good sandwich—the best ever—it still wouldn’t make him a pizza, which is what I am really seeking in a long-term partner.

What this discussion led to and made me ultimately realize is this: no matter if you’re single, married or in a relationship, no matter if you’re with the right person or the wrong person, no matter who you are or what your relationship status is—ultimately, you have to be your own pizza.

In other words, you have to be the best version of yourself you can be–the ideal person with whom you yourself would actually like to be in a relationship. And that, I think, is what is going to make any and all relationships that you have in your life all the more satisfying.

Codependent no more?

My boyfriend—whether he’s my pizza or not—isn’t relevant to this particular discussion. But what my conversation about the state of our relationship did make me realize is that my whole life I’ve been one of those people thinking I was just going to find someone to be in a relationship with and then suddenly I wouldn’t be lonely anymore.

Suddenly I wouldn’t feel insecure or anxious or uncomfortable in my own skin anymore. Suddenly I would just be feel complete validation and confidence in the person I am and not have a worry in the world anymore.

Well, that’s complete bullshit. And it’s this erroneous belief that’s probably been sinking every intimate relationship I’ve had for the past 30 years or so.

But in relationship after relationship, I bought into this idea. I thought the other person and their love would make me happy.

You can guess what happened. After that first glow and rush and new relationship wore off, I started to get resentful when my anxiety and insecurity returned. Nothing they could say or do would ever convince me they loved me enough.

I started to blame them for not making me happy anymore and started to criticize them for the things I found annoying (like, everything) or that I felt they lacked instead of appreciating the lovely things they did for me or brought to the table in the relationship.

Of course none of these relationships worked out—who wants to be made to feel like nothing they do will ever satisfy the woman they are in a relationship with? I don’t blame any of those guys for no longer being in my life.

I see now that what my current boyfriend was reacting to in our conversation is that I’m starting to fall into this pattern again, constantly being unhappy and asking for more from him instead of just appreciating what he has to give.

To be fair, it does take two people in a relationship, and I know I have good reasons to want more from him sometimes. But the fact remains that there is a very definite pattern to my relationships and, whether I decide to stay with him or not, changing that to make all of my relationships more positive is on me.

The thing is, although I realized it in an intellectual way, I never really integrated it into my personality that a relationship is only a distraction from my own stuff for a little while. And then it brings all that stuff raging to the forefront again in a way that screams for it to be dealt with like only an inner child can throw a tantrum.

So what I’ve been working on and thinking about a lot on this trip is how to be my own pizza. How not to let whatever happens with my family or in my relationship—or whether or not I have one at all–affect my own sense of self-worth, peace of mind and happiness.

And this stuff is not easy. Not easy at all.

Human beings are wired for distraction—anyone with even a lazy eye for observation of the human condition can see that. It’s hard to focus on yourself and your stuff and not want to be diverted away from it by an activity, person, place, thing or alternative feeling.

It’s a marathon, not a sprint

I don’t expect I’m going to learn this lesson in the two weeks I’m away from Portugal and in the middle of my usual black-sheep family dynamic. To be honest, I’ve struggled with anxiety, worry and a general sense of unease since I’ve been in Pennsylvania. These feelings always revisit me when I spend any amount of time around my family, even as it somehow also is really nice to be with them.

But instead of trying to distract myself from this feeling, I’ve been kind of embracing it. Instead of taking it out on my boyfriend for not writing me messages enough or being there every time I need to vent to him, I’ve been going for runs, or doing yoga, or accepting the feeling and continuing with routine activities until it passes.

I’ve also been trying to be more present and less distracted when I am with my family and engaging in the usual activities it takes to move a rather large house. I’m trying to focus on how I can be of service to my family, and to the positive aspects of having my father still alive and in good health. I’m also marveling at the wonderful people that my nephews and niece have become as they’re growing into teenagers and young adults.

What I’ve learned so far from this practice is this: the best thing about being your own pizza–no matter if you’re in a relationship or not–is that you are in control of your own destiny.

If you aren’t worrying about whether your current partner is a pizza or desperately trying to find a prospective new one, you aren’t dependent on anyone else for your own happiness. And if pizza you have in front of you doesn’t have all the toppings you usually like, you can just put those toppings on your own pizza and make it all the more tasty.

Even better, being your own pizza is the only way you can actually evaluate in any discerning way if the pizza in front of you is the right pizza, or if you should just go back to eating and enjoying your own for awhile before trying to find a new one to spend time with.

OK, maybe I’ve gone too far with the pizza analogy, but you get the idea. Being your own pizza—or essentially your own best friend—before investing too heavily in another person is probably the ideal situation for having healthy relationships in all areas of your life.

Unfortunately for me, it’s kind of too late for that, and I find myself navigating an intimate relationship as I’m also wrangling with long-time codependency and immersed in the family dynamic that created that codependency in the first place.

Still, it’s never too late to start loving yourself more and practicing self-care, and I’m hoping that this practice will be the key to solving any future relationship problems—or deciding with more clarity which type of relationship is the best one for me.

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Alive and kicking (it) in Lagos

I can’t believe it’s been more than five months since I’ve posted — more or less the same amount of time I’ve lived in Lagos, Portugal. The town, it seems, has consumed me, for many reasons too numerous to name.

I will eventually get around to describing the turn of events that have kept me insanely busy since I moved here, although some of them are not fit for publication (at least, not in this venue, stay tuned for the tell-all memoir!). But until I can get my head around it all — and believe me, it may take a lifetime to absorb it all — I wanted to provide at least a quick update on my expatriate life as it is today.

I’m still living in a beautiful little house on the edge of Old Town in a primarily Portuguese neighborhood. I have finally become not just acquainted with but friends with my landlord and sorted out a year lease for the house, and its interior has been freshly painted and cleaned and is looking pretty snazzy.

How this all happened is a long story in and of itself, and at one point seemed like it might never happen. But it did, and I’m happy to have finally — after months of uncertainty about my living situation — settled into a home.

Since I last posted I’ve also opened a boutique/art gallery just around the corner from my house. It’s called Pogo Gallery, and it sells mainly handmade items — clothes, jewelry, bags, textiles, photographs, paintings, organic food and soap — sourced from the local area.

As you might imagine, it was a load of work to put it all together, and it’s been slow going in terms of business (let’s not even talk about profitability), but I have learned immensely from my experience, and I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished.

The photo is of the interior of Pogo as it is during my first summer holiday season here in Lagos. I designed much of it myself, though I had friends help me with painting and building the displays and furniture for the shop, nearly all of which was custom-made for it.

Being a local business owner has also helped me become a real part of this community of people that call Lagos home year-round. Last week I went to an annual music festival near Zambujeira do Mar and camped with a bunch of them, another one of memorable experiences I’ve stacked up in the short time I’ve lived here.

Lagos is primarily a holiday town, with a lot of transient 20-somethings working bar and restaurant jobs for the summer to earn money on their way to their next destination — many go to ski resorts in the Alps to do the fall/winter holiday season there.

August is the busiest month in Lagos, when tourists from around Portugal and Europe invade the town, crowding restaurants, bars and beaches. It’s a bit insufferable (not to mention wicked HOT), but having survived nearly two years living in NoLIta, in the heart of downtown NYC — where it’s rammed with tourists for months on end, not just a few weeks of summer — Lagos doesn’t seem all that bad.

There are, however, a group of people in Lagos and its immediate surroundings that have made a conscious decision to call this quirky little town home. For better or worse (and believe me, I could argue both sides), I have become one of those people. I’m not sure how long I will live here, but I am committing myself to the place for at least the next couple of years, even if I take some time off in the winter — like many do — to go traveling for awhile.

Because this picturesque little town isn’t such a bad place to use as home base, and now that I’ve finally made the move to Europe, I honestly don’t have any desire to return to the U.S. — at least not on any permanent basis — anytime soon. And while I may not stay in Lagos forever, it’s certainly been — with its staple of English-speaking expatriates, all of us bound by a desire to escape whatever life we left behind — a soft place for me to land on a new continent.

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Because sometimes it rains in paradise

I haven’t really felt like writing lately, and I’m not sure why. I think it’s because I’ve been busy living and processing and trying to feel at home here in my new town, and I really haven’t had much to say.

I’ve spent the last few days surfing as much as I can when I’m not working. I’m really addicted to it again, and as I’ve seen noticeable improvement in my skills in the last week or so, there’s little else I feel like doing right now.

I’m beginning to understand that surfing is a disease, an addiction. Except for caffeine, I’ve never really had an addictive personality for the things people usually become addicted to, like cigarettes, alcohol or drugs. I’ve considered myself pretty immune to being an addict.

But surfing is different for me, and I understand now how it inspires people to pack up their lives in a minivan and go off traveling for months just to catch waves. Surfing not just a sport; it’s a mindset, a way of life, a personal philosophy. It sounds pretty stereotypical and stoner-y to say such a thing, but as someone who has been surfing on and off for almost a year now, and quite regularly for the past four months, I can tell you it’s totally, 100-percent true.

It’s a chemical thing, too — I think you become addicted to the adrenalin rush of being in the ocean and standing up on a wave. I find myself needing to get wet, needing to be in the ocean, feeling depressed if there are no waves to ride or if I don’t have the time to go surfing because of work or other responsibilities.

I suppose there are worse things to be addicted to. And at least surfing is somewhat good for me.

To be perfectly honest, I feel like it’s pretty much the best thing I have right now, living alone as I am in a foreign country where I still feel somewhat out of place and am still fumbling my way through new friendships, a new language and a whole new life. Getting in the ocean and standing up on a surfboard is mostly what I have to look forward to these days, so it’s no wonder I need it like a junkie needs heroin.

Other than surfing, I’ve spent my first couple of weeks in my new town of Lagos getting acclimated to my new surroundings.

I’ve realized that in the different places I’ve lived I fall into familiar patterns when I have just arrived. I explore by taking long walks or jogs or hikes in the area immediately surrounding my new domicile, taking photos in my mind of places of interest so I will know to return to them.

I note the closest restaurants, bars, stores and services of interest. I find new paths and routes that are relatively traffic-free and jogger- and walker-friendly. I quietly observe my neighbors to see what they’re like and if there’s anyone I think I should try to get to know.

Because it’s southern Portugal and it’s all about the stunning natural scenery, I’ve already explored the four closest beaches to me — Meia Praia, a long beach to the northeast that stretches toward Portimao; Praia Dona Ana, slightly to the southwest and probably the closest beach to me; Praia do Carilo, a little further to the west of Dona Ana; and Praia Porto de Mos, which is somewhere in the middle and is the only one I’d ever been to before.

One night last week also took me to cliffs hugging the coast and eventually to Ponta de Piedade, a point with a lighthouse perched on one of those cliffs above the Atlantic Ocean. It was a beautiful night — for once it wasn’t raining, and the air held that heavy early-spring wetness that held promise and mystery instead of dread and misery.

With all the rain Portugal (much of Europe, actually) has had this winter, I’ve been quite sick of everything being moist since I’ve returned, and my short time in Lagos has been no different. This week the sun has finally broken through two days in a row, but mostly it’s been wet and generally horrible, and everyone here in the Algarve has been trudging along in a collective foul mood.

As I take predictable routes to try to make myself comfortable here, still I struggle with the same emotional and existential questions I’ve had my entire life. Luckily for me, there have been some unexpected surprises since my move that have once again reminded me that I am here for a reason.

Those surprises came in the form of people. One is C, the Dutch girlfriend of the first friend I made in this area, D. (You may remember him from previous blog posts.)

The other are R and my temporary flatmate K, who two days ago moved to Lisboa but became, to my surprise, a friend and confidante in the week that we lived together.

R is a 50-something Venezuelan man who was K’s boss at a tapas restaurant just down the street from our house, and K is a 29-year-old Hungarian woman who reminds me of a younger version of myself in style, temperament and life philosophy.

All three of them have helped give me perspective on my life — in particular on the fact that I came here to live on my own, something that continues to both terrify and thrill me — in just the short time I’ve known them.

I am learning to take what life gives me and listen to my intuition, but it’s still a struggle to trust that there is a bigger plan at work, and to trust that my own instincts and intuition are leading me in the right direction.

There already are things here I long for, situations that haven’t worked out as I expected, desires that my Buddhist-trained mind is trying to detach from. I see the truth about people I’ve met — or what I believe is “the truth” — and don’t necessarily like what I see.

I get angry with myself for wanting something I don’t have and not being happy for the happiness of other people, because judging other people and misdirected desire are wastes of energy and time and do no one any good.

And still I question my own lifestyle and the choices I’ve made. I question my intensity. I wonder why it is I can never take the path that is easy for me, and why I still feel like it’s such an uphill battle sometime to make authentic connections with people.

I know I am not alone in any of my thoughts, feelings and ponderings. I am not unique in my feelings of discontentment, even when I know in my heart I have a beautiful life.

I will get through this transitional time and find a place of more comfort, and I will someday read these words again and see how far I’ve come from feeling this way.

For now as I sit uneasily and uncomfortably with some emotional challenges, I take comfort in small things. Sitting on my surfboard in an ocean that I have all to myself just after sunset, waiting for another wave to roll in.

The sound of seagulls crying outside my window in the morning, a wake-up reminder of how close I live to the sea.

Buying a gas bottle that will provide me with hot water and stove power for the next month from an elderly Portuguese man at the tiny bar down the street, an activity that very distinctly reminds me I indeed am now living in Portugal.

The strange apparition of a man playing a kazoo and pushing an old rusty bicycle down that same street this morning, a man my new friend C told me is probably the local knife sharpener who comes through town periodically. (If what she says is true it could quite possibly be the coolest thing I’ve ever heard.)

These may be uneasy days but they are also beautiful and pure and full of life. It is my life and for each breath I am grateful, and while there are things I want but don’t have, there is nothing I really need. In fact, you could argue I have far more than anyone can ever need, that I am luckier than most people deserve to be in a lifetime.

Maybe I haven’t been able to write because I’m afraid of what I might say. I’m afraid I might sound ungrateful for not being 100 percent happy all the time in the middle of such an abundant life.

But the truth is, paradise has teeth. It bites. Hard.

Sometimes it rains even in paradise. And not just showers, but Biblical shit that makes you forget not only what it feels like to have the sun on your face, but that there was ever a sun at all.

Today I went north to Odeceixe — the town in which I first fell in love with this place — and had tea with C and we discussed how compelled we felt to move here and how, once we did, we mostly wondered what the hell we were thinking. There are a lot of people like us here who are pulled as if by a magnet or that tractor beam from the Death Star in Star Wars and, once here, think at least once nearly every day that they’ve made some horrible mistake.

Because while it is beautiful here, it can also be lonely. And in Portugal if you are foreign, you are *really* foreign. Portuguese to non-native speakers is an especially incomprehensible language that takes years to learn, and the Portuguese, bless them, are not the friendliest nor the most open-minded population in the world.

I really loved Red Hook, Brooklyn, the neighborhood I lived in for a year before I came here. I really felt like I could have settled there and happily become a part of the community, and I fiercely miss some of the people I met there and the feeling of camaraderie that neighborhood more than any other I lived in in NYC has.

The problem is, I moved there when the Algarve tractor beam already had a lock on me and, as much as I could just as easily have built a cozy life in Red Hook and found my own little niche among its infinitely creative and beautiful band of weirdos, I really didn’t have a choice in the matter.

I am luckier than many, and I know that. I have friends here, some of whom could very well be true keepers. I have a place to live, a car to drive, a surfboard to ride. I have a seemingly endless ocean that in the past few days has graciously served up small and manageable waves for me to ride. I have a roof terrace with a view of that ocean. Every day my eyes see something new and uniquely beautiful that I have never seen before.

So while I am not unhappy to be here, nor am I completely satisfied. And that’s OK. That’s pretty damned human, in fact.

And paradise, while quite a nice concept, doesn’t really exist — at least, not in the way one might think it’s supposed to be. It is a hell of a lot more complicated than that.

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Flight risk?

Tonight I saw “Up in the Air,” a film that has left me a bit emotionally rattled.

The film is about a man who travels for a living, and about the toll it takes on his personal life.

In the film, the main character travels around firing people for a living. A bleak job, to be sure — but he enjoys it because it allows him to not have any personal “baggage,” so to speak.

He doesn’t have to be connected to anyone or any place permanently, and he’s happy to be that way and has even become a motivational speaker of sorts advocating this lone-wolf philosophy.

But then he meets someone that he begins to fall for, which leads him to question the way he’s been living his life.

I won’t say any more about it, but I will say what could have been a typical Hollywood-ending type of film really surprised me in the realistic way it handled its material.

The film, among other things, has really gotten me thinking about what it means to be single — and not just unmarried, but really and truly single, as in living alone without a partner.

The traveling element of the film is also relevant to me right now as I consider my next move — whether to keep traveling or try to settle down in one place, whether that be New York or Portugal, for awhile.

Seeing the film was also a bit weird because someone I know co-wrote and co-performed a couple of songs in the film — and this someone and I were nearly-but-not-quite involved personally for a very short time last spring.

The whole situation at the time was a disappointment to me because I actually really liked him, but to him, in the end, I was a fling.

I still see him around sometimes when I’m in Brooklyn, and we’re on civil terms now. But the rejection I felt is still there sometimes in the background. (For the record, the songs in the film are really beautiful and fit perfectly, and I’m actually happy for his success despite our history.)

So within the context of a film about someone who lives a solitary life in which he travels all the time, I — a single woman of 38 who has spent a good part of 2009 traveling myself — was reminded of one of my very own romantic disappointments.

And as I watched this character grapple with his own decision to live his life alone without personal attachments, I began to wonder about my own relationship status, or lack thereof.

The other day when I had to choose security questions to sign in to an online banking site, several of them had to do with a spouse.

“What is your spouse’s name?” and “Where was your spouse born?” were a couple of options I could have chosen as my security questions to back up my password on the site.

It struck me as a tad presumptuous to assume that everyone wanting to set up an ID and password on the site would have a spouse, and I had a fleeting moment when I felt a little sad about it.

Having lived as a single person for some time, I know I’m certainly not the only person in the world living alone in my late 30s or beyond. And some of the people doing so actually do it as a conscious choice, and say they prefer life that way.

However, I’m not one of those people. I would rather be with someone than single — but not just any someone, the “right” someone, whatever that means. For whatever reason, I haven’t figured out that part of my life yet.

And sometimes I wonder what is wrong with me that I am this age and not just unmarried and unpartnered, but have never been married.

I wonder how — when so many people can make a long-term relationship work, even if it’s not one that ends in matrimony — my last significant relationship officially ended three and a half years ago.

It’s not going to do a whole lot of good to dwell on my single status, and I have a lot of love in my life thanks to my family and good friends. I am not lacking for love or company, and I feel blessed and lucky to have all that I have.

But both the film and the incident of the spousal security questions suggested that I might be missing something unless I have that one person in my life who is committed to me, who is there to watch my back as I watch his, who chooses to go through life by my side.

These days I am mostly happy with my life. And why shouldn’t I be? By anyone’s standards, it’s a charmed one.

But I would be lying if I said that I didn’t often feel that there is something missing.

And tonight, after seeing that film, I am wondering if the decisions I’ve made and continue to make about how I live my life — to keep moving forward, always moving without looking back — has kept me from filling in that blank.

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Another sunrise, another continent

Yesterday I woke up after an uneasy sleep in the early hours to wind and rain on the southwest coast of Portugal and watched the sun rise as I drove through the sleepy green hills of Alentejo. Today I woke early (jetlag) to the snowy suburbs of Philadelphia and watched the sun rise from the window in the bathroom of my dad’s master bedroom.

I am strangely still high, my energy vibrating from some crazy positive frequency, from my beautiful last day in Portugal, and don’t feel nearly as uneasy as I thought I would about being back.

It was great to see my dad, who still pretty much rules above all dads (don’t even try to fight me on this one). I changed the game plan on him and instead of arriving in Philadelphia on an Amtrak train at 7:42, I arrived in Trenton, New Jersey, on a NJ Transit train at 5:00. (Yes, NJ Transit was my first stop after landing at the airport. One day you wake up in one of the prettiest places in the world, the next day — after traveling for 15 hours — you are riding the commuter train from hell.) No matter — he still showed up to pick me up, battling last-day-before-the-Christmas-holidays traffic and a brewing sinus malady.

He barely flinched when I told him I planned to stay in the U.S. for only about a month before heading back to Europe, when I told him I planned to just pick up work here and there and travel for about another year. For a man who spent his whole life in his hometown and still, at 76, goes to work every day, it’s somewhat of an alien concept not to work a full-time job and live in one place your whole life. But my dad has the heart of a traveler (we have traveled together in Rome and Sicily), so I am not entirely surprised he was cool about it, and the fact that he will be my home base/freelance check casher while I’m away.

My first greeting on U.S. soil wasn’t nearly as warm, but more or less solidified my plan to get out of the country again as fast as possible.

When I had my passport stamped at immigration, the officer asked me how long I had been away. I told him two months; he then asked if I lived in the U.S. or in Europe, and if I was on vacation or working while I was away.

Wanting to just get out of there — immigration always makes me nervous, just like seeing cops make me nervous, as if I’ve done something wrong (a throwback from smoking a lot of marijuana when I was a teenager, I think) — I said I was mostly on holiday. (As an aside, I’m glad I got rid of the weed I picked up in Portugal, where having a small amount is legal, before I left the country. There were drug-sniffing beagles in baggage claim.)

Then Mr. Important Immigration Guy asked, “Don’t you work?” which I thought was pretty rude, because what if I was one of the thousands of people who lost jobs in the U.S. — people who, unlike me, have major responsibilities and kids and bills and are in seriously dire straits. I responded, “Sometimes” and then “I’m freelance; where I am, the work is.” He smirked, handed me back my passport and sent me on my way.

His whole attitude reminded me exactly what I don’t like about the “American” way of life, which generally puts more value on making money and working even a dead-end job than life experience, traveling, creativity and a solid spiritual path. We all know which side I root for, and yes, I know I’m lucky that the circumstances of my life and the hard work of my father have, to a certain degree, allowed me this lifestyle.

But honestly, I think that more people could live a different way here if they didn’t buy into the whole American value system in the first place, so I didn’t appreciate having someone question my lifestyle, and certainly not some power-tripping government cog.

It didn’t ruin my day or dampen my spirits, though, nor will it ruin my Christmas. I’m here at my dad’s now, and looking foward to seeing my sister and her kids today. I talked briefly to my 2-year-old niece last night on the phone and that little girl was jabbering away (god knows what she was saying, but it sounded super-cute; she wasn’t talking that much last time I saw here).

Hope you all have a beautiful holiday and take a moment in between sips of wine and food-gobbling to count your blessings this year. I suspect you will find you have many more than you think.

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Portuguese driving directions will get you there eventually

Today I got my bi-annual directions from here to the Lisbon airport from my Portuguese friend, David. On paper, they look like this:

S. Teotonio
C. Branca
Milfontes–Brumheiras (direita) Porto Covo (esquerda)

Spoken, they go something like, “You go Odeceixe, and then you see sign for Sao Teotonio and you go Sao Teotonio, then you see sign for Casa Branca and you go there, and then you see sign for Milfontes and…”

Well…you get the idea.

They’re nearly identical to the directions he gave me the night before I left in May, except his friend Ricardo, who witnessed the directions-scrawling today, corrected him about what happens when I follow signs for Milfontes.

It’s a good thing, too — last time I nearly ended up in the Atlantic Ocean in Milfontes in the wee hours of the morning because I didn’t know I had to take a right at the roundabout in the direction of Brumheiras before actually driving into the town itself. I ended up on some road that, if I hadn’t been paying close attention, would have landed me in the drink.

So now I am nearly ready to go to sleep and wake up once again in the early hours for my three-hour drive to Lisbon, where I will board a jet airliner and fly to Newark, New Jersey, where I will board a train and ride to Philadelphia, where I will get in a car driven by my father and eventually end up in Oaks, Pennsylvania, for Christmas.

I am happy to be going home to see my family and the people that I love in the U.S., carrying with me all the joy and beauty and love that has been shined on me by my lovely friends here, and by this unbelievably beautiful place that has truly changed my life.

The last few days I’ve been thinking about the plans and expectations I had for this trip, even though I tried not to make too many plans or expectations. But I’m human, and a tad neurotic (some people may argue more than a tad), so I did have ideas about what might happen by this time.

Well, I haven’t fallen in love. I haven’t gotten some spectacular new job. I didn’t write a novel. I’m not some fantastic surfer and I still haven’t paddled out via the channel to the Arrifana right beach break. I can’t speak fluent Portuguese, and I still have trouble holding even the most basic conversation in it.

So if you were to ask me if I accomplished everything I wanted while I was here, or if my trip was everything I hoped for, I would probably say no.

Of course, my expectations were probably set a little high. Someone who’s reached her late 30s without writing a novel probably doesn’t write one in two months. I wasn’t really trying that hard to find a really spectacular job, and it takes people years of dedication to become a really good surfer (and I’m not exactly the most athletically inclined person in the first place).

As for Portuguese — it’s a notoriously hard language to learn, and it’s a miracle I can read and write convincing text messages in it in two months, much less speak conversationally. And when I asked a native speaker today (the aforementioned Ricardo) how my language skills are coming along, he said, in truly honest and deadpan Portuguese fashion: “It is good. I can understand you when you speak Portuguese.”

Trust me — when it comes to the language, that’s the highest form of praise you can around here.

But I’m an idealist. I’m a romantic. And I’ll admit it, I kind of live in a fantasy world.

The older I’ve gotten, the more grounded in reality and the here and now I’ve become. But it doesn’t stop me from having flights of fancy every once in awhile and thinking that just because I wish it so, that everything in my life will work out the way I imagine it in my head.

So in two months I haven’t suddenly created this magical new life for myself. I’m still more or less the same person I was when I arrived, with a little less money and a little more free time.

But somewhere in between not exactly meeting all of the expectations I tried not to have, some other really amazing things have happened.

I met some truly wonderful like-minded people who I felt I could be myself with, people who loved and accepted me as I am and saw the beauty in me, as I saw it in them. I saw astonishingly gorgeous places I’ve never seen before. I cooked meals for strangers and they cooked them for me, accepting me into their homes as if I was family after only knowing me for a few days or weeks.

I may not be a pathetically novice surfer, but occasionally I did really and truly ride some waves, and always felt the same thrill I had when I rode my first. And I did this on some of the most stunning beaches in Portugal, if not in the world.

Even outside of Portugal, amazing things happened for me. The most unbelievable of them all is that I will return to the states as an artistic co-collaborator on a sculpture that will be featured in a show alongside works by some notable contemporary American artists, namely Matthew Barney (Bjork’s boyfriend), Kiki Smith and Donald Lipski.

It’s a long story, but my ex-boyfriend contacted me right before I was leaving for Morocco and asked me if I had any love poems to use as inspiration for a romance-themed he was asked to sculpt something for. (He’s a metal sculpture living in Lexington, Kentucky.)

Without thinking about it, I sent him a poem I wrote about us, post-breakup, something that sort of looked back on it all and mapped out our relationship to the places we lived, spent time together and traveled to.

He ended up using it, casting it in bronze (the whole poem! in bronze!). The finished work is beautiful and undoubtedly took a lot of time on his part, and will likely travel with the show not only in the states but also in Europe. It has both of our names on it and I even had to submit an artist bio for the show. (A bonafide artist bio! With my name as the artist!)

I have devoted much of my life — in some way no matter what else was going on or what I did to pay the bills — to creating something beautiful through art. So I am super-excited at the notion of this heartfelt poem that I wrote — and man, was it really a deluge of emotion when I wrote it — being featured in this way. (Stay tuned for photos and more details later.)

Now I know that all of these great things could have happened to me anywhere, and that I of course was instrumental in making it all happen, not the Algarve, not Portugal.

But I really do believe it is the energy I get from this place and the comfort I feel here to act intuitively and trust myself more than I ever have that has led to these modest achievements as a human being. And that is enough for me to want to spend more time here in the future to explore the possibilities.

So even as I look forward to being reunited with the people I love back “home” — and to losing myself in the frenetic energy of New York City for a little while — I will certainly miss this part of the world that has always been so lucky for me, and everything about it that I hold dear.

But hopefully, if all goes according to plan — one I am trying not to regard so rigidly or with too much expectation — I won’t have to miss it for too long.