A Witch! A Witch!

Sometimes, I sit around worrying that I might be a witch.

Not like a “real” witch the way we conceive of them in stories, and not like an on-purpose new-age pagan witch, either. My suspicion is much more anxious; it’s not something I would think to proclaim proudly about myself, and when other people do, I have to really focus on not rolling my eyes.

What I’m worried about is that maybe I’m making things move around without realizing it…and that when I do so, it might not be in my own self-interest.

A great part of this suspicion is the fault of the “manifest your dreams” and “law of attraction” zeitgeist of the day. If things are going badly for you, the rule goes, it’s because you’re dwelling on them too much instead of focusing on things going well for you; that is, you’re not giving yourself the feeling in your bones that you already have what you want.

Oh no.

At least by my own logic, this means that worrying about things brings more of the things I’m worrying about into my life. OH NO. STOP! STOP WORRYING ABOUT THINGS SARAH, BEFORE YOU BECOME A MAGNET FOR THEM!

It sounds easy enough to fix, but have you ever tried to actively not think and worry about something…forever? If it were as easy as that, half the people I know wouldn’t currently be dependent on anti-anxiety meds just to get through the day. Talk about blaming the victim.

Here’s me forgetting my worries and focusing on my dreams

So while I outwardly roll my eyes and chuckle uncomfortably about the silliness of magically creating “the life I want” (a catch phrase these days in inspirational texts of all kinds), there’s always the nagging suspicion at the back of my mind that there’s something to it. After all, what do I know?

I can practically hear the universe calling me “Miss Smarty Pants.”

Well, one thing I know is that magical thinking is just the nature of humanity: we see patterns and messages whether they’re there or not; our creative, seeking brains are primed for reading way more deeply into things than we probably should, and for finding deeper meanings that we ourselves have created. I mean, just think about how many Santas and dragons you see in the clouds, and all the weird, angry faces in wood markings.

Sometimes we totally fall for these deeper meanings…how many conspiracies are out there regarding world domination? Even if you think evil people are running the world, it must be very comforting to believe that there is actually some master plan, and that the bad things that happen aren’t just the result of some random cruelty falling on the just and unjust alike.

So the “law of attraction” is basically a different kind of witchcraft. The logical half of me rolls my eyes when I read my horoscope, when I read the tarot on every new and full moon, and when I worry that maybe I’m casting spells here and there that aren’t actually in my best interest.

For my short story this week, my “research” was to look up some witchy characteristics (it’s about a witch who can never quite get her spells right and makes a lot of funny mistakes). This led me down a rabbit hole to all kinds of listicles with titles like “Five Signs You May Really Be a Witch.”

Here are a few of the things that stood out to me, taken from various places:

1) You see patterns everywhere, all the time.

Well, duh. Everyone does, it’s the human condition. Next! BUT…I do always seem to look at the clock right at 4:20; it would be a lot cooler if I were actually a pothead. Still, seeing numbers that appear every day: not impressed.

2) You can feel people’s energy and intentions.

Also, duh. Haven’t we evolved for specifically that? Still, there are certain people who I just do not like for no particular reason, which is strange because I genuinely really love people and love spending time with them.

Of course, maybe it really does have something to do with “chemistry”…like, maybe I just don’t like their smell or something, or am invisibly repelled by them in another way. My much more far-fetched hypothesis is that we were enemies in a past life, and we just keep bumping up against each other in subsequent ones to sneer at one other.

3) You secretly believe in past lives.

Well, you’ve got me there. The logical part of me says “no way.” But the magical thinking part of me says, “well, that would explain why I am so terrified of being inside of cars even though I’ve never been in an accident,” or “maybe my kid has drowned in like 8 past lives and that’s why she’s so inexplicably terrified of large bodies of water.”

4) You don’t think in words, but in images, feelings, and impressions.

This…is 100% true for me (ironically, since I literally earn my living through creating words). But I discovered recently that most people do actually have an ongoing narrative going on in their heads, and that they essentially spend all day talking to themselves.

What?? I thought that was just for dramatic effect in The Wonder Years. Apparently not.

My thoughts, on the other hand, are, like it says, images, feelings, and impressions. It’s rare to hear any kind of voice, even my own, unless I make a conscious decision to tell myself something. Though I’m an extrovert, I’m naturally quiet, and my language is always very intentional. But the quietness isn’t timidity. It’s because the words just don’t appear for me immediately; I need to take the time to conjure and then arrange them.

5) You don’t like crowds; the energy of so many people at once is scary.

Also totally true. I love music, but I hate big concerts. I love parades, but they make me cry every time. I mean, all those people doing and feeling the same thing at the same time? That’s just too scary to be a part of, man.

One thing I am doing in my own witchy self-interest is to meditate, as it’s the one thing that all of my self-help books and half-finished courses advise. It can’t hurt, right? I think of it as kind of like a new-age version of “go ahead and get saved – what have you got to lose?” practice.

A particular method, which I found from a woman who calls herself the “Crappy Childhood Fairy” (I did not, myself, have a crappy childhood, but I do like her material), involves writing down one’s fears and resentments, whichever of them happen to be crowding your mind at the time, and then “releasing” them (also in written form).

I like this because it doesn’t feel like that torturous and possibly damaging “focusing on my fears which will just create more of them,” but rather, as she explains, writing them down to get them out of yourself, to detach from them, like peeling wet leaves off of the windshield in order to see the path before you more clearly. It’s to be followed by a 20-minute meditation, of which I usually do just 10-15 minutes, because apparently, I like to rebel against helpful suggestions.

Perhaps the best state of mind is to simply pretend that I really do have more than my obvious human powers. At the very least, it could make life more fun and sparkly, right?

For now, abracadabra, Sarah: enough navel-gazing.

Lordy Lordy, Look Who’s 40!

I once saw an adorable meme – or maybe comic? The difference between the two mediums is now blurring – of a picture of a hospital nursery filled with identical-looking swaddled newborns with one of them circled in marker. The caption read, “This is my baby. There are many similar babies. But this one is mine.”

That sentiment has stuck with me: “I am a person. There are many similar people, but this is me.”

Tomorrow is my 40th birthday. Tomorrow is also the 40th birthday of approximately 348,030 other people throughout the world, minus those who have already died. Half of them are women. I bet a good number of them are named Sarah.

We live in an individualistic society, but all I can think about is how alike we all are to each other, drops in the same ocean. I wonder how ridiculous we look to aliens or gods who might be watching us fight from afar.

We are very much alike, and also very much isolated, natural naval-gazers wrapped up in our own heads and our own phones. The moments of my life that drive me to the closest points of ecstasy are the ones that remind me that – hey! – almost all of this stuff I spend so much time worrying about and obsessing over are actually much smaller deals than they seem, and getting all worked up about them is a waste of time. Remembering that it’s a waste of time while I’m getting all worked up about them is the tricky part, of course. Oh, how I wish to live with the feeling of having just read a Mary Oliver poem!

Anyway, tomorrow’s the day: it’s when I officially step into my fourth decade, a place that, as a younger person, I was never quite able to imagine. And now I’m here. A nice day is planned: breakfast with my boyfriend, lunch with a tiny group at an outdoor place because we’re still in the midst of an unhinged pandemic, ice cream cake. My daughter.

I face my 40s with excitement…and a drop of dread. The exciting part: how many people have told me that the 40s are the best years of one’s life? A lot. “You’ve still mostly got your youth and hormones, and you’ve also got some wisdom and a generally more relaxed attitude to let yourself enjoy it.” Many authors and other famous personalities I look up to really hit their stride in their 40s. And that happens to be the source of some of that dread: what if I somehow fail to make the most of it?

I remember when my mom turned 40. I remember the t-shirt we got her, which 10-year-old me thought was hilarious: “Lordy, lordy, look who’s 40!” It was purple, the lettering embroidered in playful hot pink cursive.

For my mom, I’m pretty sure her 40s were her best decade. Her daughters were older and liked spending time with her. She got better jobs. She got married again. It was the 90s, a decade in which we had great music, just enough technology to be convenient but not so much that it took over our lives, and where we didn’t spend too much time worrying about all the weird chemicals in our processed food that we enjoyed guilt-free.

I hope my 40s are good, too. If I can get out of my head often enough, I think they will be. Maybe I’ll actually remember to start meditating, praying, and doing other things that are good for me. Maybe I’ll learn to focus on the good things and not take the bad ones too seriously while also not letting myself go to the other extreme and becoming a psychopath who doesn’t worry about anything or anyone at all, ever.

Maybe I’ll let go of my fear toward the whole idea behind the “Secret,” terrified that I’m casting unintentional horrible spells on myself by not being “intentional in my demands of the universe” (if that’s not pressure to control one’s anxiety, then I don’t know what is).

Maybe I’ll stop living month to month wondering if I’ll be able to string together enough gigs from several different non-committed employers to meet the financial obligations that are as steady, consistent, and ever-growing as I wish a job just for me were.

Maybe I’ll stop feeling like the secrets of how the world works are just on the other side of a thin membrane that I’m so close to breaking, but never actually do, either because I realize that it’s unbreakable or because I magically get through.

Maybe I’ll finally get to become that combination of Dolly Parton, Fred Rogers, Marie Forleo, David Sedaris, Lily Tomlin, and Jen Sincero that I’ve always wanted to be.

Maybe I’ll stop disappointing myself.

Maybe I’ll finally relax enough to truly love and accept myself the way others do, and the way I should.

Happy birthday to me, and happy birthday to my 340k+ birthday twins.

Where’d the Fish Go?

Y’all know that phrase about the fish and the fishing? (In case you don’t, it’s not fish-centric or considering the fish…the fish are commodities, not living beings.)

“Give a man a fish, and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he eats for a lifetime.”

I’ve been reading a lot about money lately. Mainly, how to attract and make it (preferably in a non-sleezy way), both on a spiritual/energetic level and on a very practical level. By going through the exercises in Jen Sincero’s book — I just love her writing style and want to write just like that — I’ve dug up some weird hang-ups that I have surrounding the topic. Whether this is actually a factor in less-than-impressive bank account is, to me, dubious, but hey: let’s give it a shot just in case.

I work up thinking about that today, and particularly about the “no excuses!” sub-set of self-help. In part, I get it; if people think it’s all hopeless, they’re not going to try. But all this stuff like “I did it and it was easy!” fails to recognize that it was easy in that very particular time and place with those very specific (and often quite privileged) circumstances.

Because what if someone got a giant net and scooped up almost all the fish before-hand? What if someone drained the lake? What if you don’t have a lake or river around to fish in? What if people are only teaching you outdated ways to fish that don’t work anymore?

I’ve always been resistant to the phrase “anyone can make it”.

Because while that’s technically true, it’s misleading. It makes it sound like every single person can be rich, or at least comfortable. But that’s not what it says. That one would be, “everyone can make it,” which in our economy is verifiably untrue and also very sad.

“Anyone” is singular, not plural. If everyone is living their best life, taking vacations in Tahiti…who’s going to clean the bathrooms? Who’s going to collect garbage? Who’s going to be taking care of people in nursing homes or mental hospitals? Who’s going to be in the back, cooking up delicious and reasonably-priced fare for restaurants? If we’re not willing to create extensive social safety nets like they’ve done in those Northern European countries where everything seems to be perfect, a lot of people are going to be left out of the good stuff.

I often ask myself if there’s a way around this. After all, we should be able to pay decent wages for all of those jobs. Would it cause inflation? I mean, I don’t know, man. Macro-economics eludes me. But surely we could at least have a basic standard of living. Not everyone wants to be an entrepreneur, and even if they did, it’s not something that would be possible on a societal scale…at least not if they did it full-time, which I think most entrepreneurs would say is necessary.

We need people to do what are now considered to be thankless jobs at least some of the time in order to keep things running around here.

So what if we really valued all the stuff that people do? How could we pull it off? Can we all take turns doing them once in a while, so we won’t forget?

I want to (continue to be) a writer, a translator, and a decorator – I want to make the world’s various physical environments that are made for humans safe, functional, and beautiful for everyone.

But if I’m off doing that, what does my kid get for lunch? Who does the laundry at my house? Who takes my dog for a walk? The need for those things to get done is not going to magically disappear, so how do we take care of people in the meantime?

So, while I’m over here feeling not successful, I’m trying to remind myself that I’m actually accomplishing a great deal…it’s just that many of those things that I’m accomplishing do not earn a wage.

And in the meantime, I’m exploring the ways that the economy is starting to work now for people who need to earn a living now that the social contract of “go to school, get a job, do a job, get paid and compensated for job with enough money to live on plus benefits and retirement” seems to be fading fast.

Entrepreneurship it is! The good thing is that I have a lot of good ideas. The bad thing is that I need to keep paying my bills as I try to be a good mom, keep the house in order, me and my kid healthy, fed, schooled, and entertained while I explore and try out those ideas.

I’ve just started a Patreon site (like a subscription site) to try my hand at crowd-funding…my salary, I suppose? I’m writing special, more exclusive, and more frequent content there, with a new post each Saturday evening. It seems like a fun enough method, though I won’t lie: I sure would love a “base” job with a predictable monthly income.

***************************************************

One of the things that studying Sociology helps you to do is to see yourself in the context of the greater society rather than as an individual simply acting in a vacuum.

We humans move together, much more affected by our times and places in history than we’d like to imagine, a school of fish in the ocean. This is a strange time and place in history, as all times and places are. I don’t know about you all, but I’m trying my best to ride the wave and not get too separated from everyone else.

Opus, John Cusack, and Me

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with the idea of flying.

Not like being a pilot — directing a metal tube through the air has never been of interest to me — rather, of actually floating around like a bird, but with less effort; or like swimming maybe, but with breathing and no need to pause the fun for annoying oxygen fill-ups. Sometimes I dreamed about flying and would feel positively euphoric. The feeling would last for a few minutes upon waking, then dissipate when I realized that I hadn’t actually figured it out.

During this time I was also obsessed with proving my physical strength, and would go around constantly lifting heavy things for the sole purpose of showing off to myself and others how impressively strong my muscles were (I might have been shy and serious, but I was not a kid with low self-esteem).

At one point, after having proved myself with the gigantic sofa and perhaps a push of the piano, I became absolutely certain that I could lift my own body weight. And if I could lift my own body weight, then — logically — I’d be able to lift myself. I grabbed my jump rope, stood on top of it, and pulled as hard as I could, totally sure that I’d be able to make myself levitate.

The laws of physics, of course, were indifferent to both my logic and my desires. Physics didn’t care that I was 100% sure I was right.

I’m a little embarrassed to say that it took me a while before I gave up. Further experiments included sitting down and just lifting my legs with the jump rope (check, and it was easy so I should for sure be able to lift the rest of my weight, right?) and jumping off of the couch, hoping to catch myself with said jump rope before I landed (no check).

Attempts at slowing down my fall, at the very least, were next. Watching Mary Poppins inspired me to jump out of my favorite climbing tree at my grandmother’s house holding an umbrella, which might have slowed the fall by a couple of milliseconds but did not have the impressive effect I was hoping for. It very likely did have the effect of making my grandmother’s heart jump into her throat, though, and when I think of all the tiny heart attacks I must have given that woman, one of my favorite women of all time, as she watched me experiment and fail at things she knew that I would fail at, I am filled with love and appreciation for her patience and willingness to humor my 100% erroneous certainty. Physics, shmysics. I. was. going. to. fly.

Of course, I did not fly. But I did become a great swimmer (through swimming lessons paid for by said grandmother, in fact), and besides the afore-mentioned annoyance of having to go up for air, I’d say it’s a pretty close second when it comes to activities that are both super fun and have the potential for getting you to a euphoric and at times even trance-like state.

Sometimes, we really want things to work. We think we’ve got something all figured out, and that because it’s all figured out (according to our logic), then it simply must work, period. If it doesn’t, we make adjustments before we give up. Sometimes those adjustments work, and sometimes they let us land definitively on our faces. And sometimes that face plant is exactly what we need to change course the way we’re supposed to.

*************************************************

A few years after I’d finally conceded that I wouldn’t be able to fly or even make myself levitate (which in my opinion is very little to ask, but whatever), a book appeared in our house. It was from the author of that Bloom County comic strip that was popular in the 80s and 90s, a book for kids called A Wish for Wings that Work.

It’s a Christmas book. I still have it actually, and read it to my daughter on Christmas Day. Opus, like kid-me, is obsessed with the idea of flying. (For the uninitiated, Opus is a penguin.) He stares longingly at the ducks, who very meanly make fun of him, by the way, as they fly by while he tries out all manner of silly contraption to help his biggest desire become reality. He finally lands on a solution: he’ll ask Santa Claus for — you guessed it — wings that work. He goes to bed that night euphoric, his note for Santa sitting by the chimney.

But wouldn’t you know it: Santa’s sleigh breaks down and falls right into the ice-cold lake near his house. The mean ducks frantically knock on Opus’ door to alert him to the tragedy and beg for help. He springs out of bed, and, being a penguin, races through the water like a rocket to pull Santa and his sleigh out. Christmas is saved.

The next morning, Opus opens his front door to find an army of those mean ducks, who are now appreciative and admiring ducks. They grab onto him and pull him into the air so that he can fly with them. The end.

I think about both that story and my futile attempts to defy what I now understand to be the laws of physics, and I wonder:

Am I doing the equivalent of trying to force things to happen a certain way even now, as an adult? If I am, at what point, and how painfully, will that be revealed to me? And if the things I want aren’t going to work out because my method of trying to make them do so just isn’t possible, will the universe generously give me a second-best option, like swimming or catching a flight with some repentant ducks?

When it comes to knowledge, of course, there are the things you know, the things you don’t know, and the things you don’t know you don’t know. That last category drives me nuts, and I have to actively work to not be anxious about it.

Will at least a few of those secrets ever be revealed to me? (Please?)

It’s frustrating because I so often have the feeling that I’m on the verge of a major breakthrough; it’s a feeling that’s been with me for years. I can see through, vaguely, to the other side of a bubble gum-like membrane that I’ve yet to find a way to slice open. I know good stuff is over there, and I want it.

Once in a while I think I’ve broken through, that I’ve cracked the code, only to find myself newly stuck on the wrong side of it like that scene in the equally terrific and terrifying Stephen King movie, 1408: you think John Cusack’s been out of the haunted hotel room happily living his life for months, and then the walls of his local post office crumble and he’s right back inside, creepy Carpenter’s song on the radio and all.

Thankfully my own life is not anywhere near a horror movie, but I’ve always identified with the terror of that particular part, the way we cycle back to our old patterns over and over again, surprised to find ourselves right back in a different part of a maze we were sure we’d found our way out of years ago.

What pivot, what adjustment do I need to make? It’s like the metaphysical version of always having something right on the tip of your tongue. I’ve almost got it, you guys. It’s right there.

*************************************************

My subconscious no longer gives me the gift of those euphoric flying dreams, perhaps because every part of me has realized by now that it’s not a possibility. I’ve permanently given up on flying.

My main recurring dream as an adult is of a house. It’s always a different house and sometimes a version of a house I’ve seen or lived in, but it’s always mine, and I’ve always somehow forgotten until arriving in the dream that it belongs to me and that I can do whatever I want with it. The rooms are endless; I never discover the totality of the property. And though the houses in my dreams are places that my awake self would probably find creepy, I’m always not at all creeped out, instead very excited about decorating all of them. In these dreams, I often have the thought, “Of course! How could I have forgotten that this room was here? We can do so much with it!”

It’s not the euphoria of flying, but it’s still pretty exciting.

My Little Cage

I’ve spent the day today reading The New York Times’ series on mothers during the pandemic.

The outlook is bleak. I thought reading them would make me feel less alone, but I think I feel worse: sadder, more defeated, more hopeless. I’ve been feeling like this for several days already. Is it hormones? Several people now have told me that they notice in me a tendency to want to “blame” hormones instead of just admitting that I’m a complex human being going through difficult circumstances. Still, though. The hopeless feelings do seem to reach an extra high pitch at predictable intervals.

I also felt, when reading, like a princess crying over a lost golden ball. I make enough money to live (now I make money, anyway…I survived most of the previous year by taking advantage of my previously fantastic, now average credit), my daughter is with her father about half the time, which leaves me with precious free time that I know others would love to have even a taste of, and I live in a place where I can afford for someone to come to my house twice a week to cook and do housework. I’m relatively well-known for what I do. I have a nice boyfriend. I even finally bought health insurance and life insurance, something I’ve been meaning to do for years. Compared to so many, I’m really not doing badly at all.

You’d think I’d be more relaxed about things. Instead, I’m like an anxious lion in a zoo, pacing back and forth endlessly, exhausted, but unable to stop. I spent most of my life believing I was an introvert. It turns out I was just shy, which, I’ve now learned, is not the same thing. I’m an extrovert, and I have just had it with all this isolation. I can’t spend one more day stuck in this pandemic, and yet, I have to. And so does everyone else.

This week especially, I’ve felt so tired that it feels as if I’ve been drugged. I drop things, I run into other things. In order to write, I wake up several hours before my daughter has to get up for her virtual classes. Like every mom all over the world right now, it’s a guilt-ridden juggling act: get my paid work done before the sun comes up, breakfast, dishes, help with class while I edit what I’ve written, too much TV time, a long walk, lunch, more dishes, even more TV time, dinner, dishes, tooth-brushing, story, song, and then fall asleep much too late every night, no matter how hard I try to plan it.

The background noise of this for me, as for everyone, is the pandemic. I separated and moved to a new place just weeks before it began. By the time I’d gotten completely moved into the new place and would have been able to receive guests, schools closed and we were discouraged from going out at all. The pandemic hitting just as I acted on it sure has complicated things.

Sometimes, my brain simply protests. My daughter goes with her father, and the take-charge version of me says, “Okay, time to get to work!” This is typically the point in which my brain simply turns off and refuses to budge. (If anyone figures out how to override this, please do tell).

All this said, things have to get better. Right? My relationship with my kid’s dad will improve at some point (I hope). She’s going to go back to real school at some point. We’re going to get vaccinated at some point. I’m going to have a car again instead of relying on taxi drivers who drive much less safe than I’d like.

But it’s all in the future. For now, I pace back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. Consider this a sad wave from my cage to yours. I miss you: you, collectively. Here’s to loneliness and overwhelm not lasting forever.

Taking Risks

There’s a game I used to play with myself as a kid. I’d look at a bag of candy, usually with small pieces…say, M&Ms, or Skittles. I’d think to myself, “if I knew that one of these pieces were poisoned, would I take the risk and eat one, knowing that I probably wouldn’t get the poisoned one?”

Honestly, I don’t remember if I ever answered that question for myself. Obviously there was never a poisoned piece of candy in the bag. Still, I’d carefully draw one out and put it in my mouth, and let a pretend feeling of relief wash over me.

We’re playing a game like that for real, now. Only instead of drawing out a piece of candy, it’s thinking “will this person be the one to do me in?”

Most people have had at least some contact with friends and family at this point. Humans are social creatures, and keeping us in isolated pods — especially single people that don’t live with families — is just not something that’s sustainable long-term. And it’s been long-term at this point, without, so far, a clear end in sight.

This isn’t to say I support simply giving up, but it seems that so many take (or at least profess to take) the all-or-nothing approach: you either stay in your house hiding under your bed 24/7, or you go to secret thousand-people music festivals, with not much in between.

The reality I think most people don’t want to admit is that they fall somewhere in the middle of this continuum. I certainly do. Parties are out, large gatherings are out, unnecessary outings to areas where a lot of people tend to be hanging around are out. Visiting most friends are out.

But there are holes in my safety protocol, as there are for everyone I think. There are a couple of friends that I see individually. Their children are the playmates of my child, and we let them get together maybe once a week. Every once in a while I eat at an open-air restaurant. I’ve been to the mall once this year. The lady that helps me with the house a couple times a week also works at other houses. I thrush my hand into the bag of Skittles, hoping to pull out a normal one. Everyone decides the top limits of their tolerable risk level.

This past week, I discovered that I narrowly escaped one. A very close friend, one we see somewhat often, and her family have COVID after coming back from being with their extended family over the holidays. Thankfully, we hadn’t seen them since at least a week before the holidays. We were actually going to celebrate Christmas together (in the end it was just me and my daughter), but I backed out because she told me it would include aunts and uncles instead of just the smaller nuclear family. I’m glad I did…my finger lingered on a poison Skittle, then dropped it and picked another.

I’m so tired of seeing other people as risks to my health and life, of wondering if each person I come into contact with will be the one. I’m young(ish) and healthy, I’d probably be okay. Heck, maybe I’ve had it already and been asymptomatic without realizing it, or maybe it was that weird awful fever I had at the end of February and not strep throat like I thought.

For now, I’m sticking close to home. No more coffee or play dates until things calm down, something I didn’t think I’d be able to bare, but will bare. Close calls will do that to you, and I’ve suddenly lost my appetite for Skittles.

It’s Christmas Anyway

This year, my daughter asked Santa for gifts for her stuffed rabbit, Fufu (I know this because Mexicans have been more clever than us about finding out what kids ask for: they write him a letter and stick it on the Christmas tree). The request? A “playground” for the rabbit, and a basket of toy carrots, also for him.

This isn’t meant to be a “look how generous and selfless my daughter is” humblebrag destined for the “That Child Didn’t Say That” Facebook group — she’s surely confident that she’ll get her own presents as well — but it does kind of break my heart that Christmas in a pandemic year means asking for things that let her fantasize about being able to enjoy what she used to enjoy, the memories of what it was like to easily strike up games with whatever kids happened to be at the park at the time fading like dreams.

I’ve always been sensitive about gifts, especially for children: the first time my heart truly broke was when I realized, at the age of 5, that there were kids that didn’t get presents for Christmas or birthdays because their parents didn’t have the money to buy them. “They don’t even have crayons and coloring books?” I remember asking my mother as we sat in the car in the Target parking lot. “They might not even know what crayons are,” she replied. I was floored.

In retrospect, I can’t imagine kids, at least on this side of the world, not knowing what crayons are, but still. Nothing struck me as sadder, and I had to actively push the idea of these other children out of my head in order to enjoy my own abundant Christmases that my parents worked so hard to provide. It seemed that every year, my mom would sit my sister and me down to explain that we wouldn’t be getting “that many” gifts that year, but it never seemed to me that there were any less than the previous year. As a mother myself now, I can appreciate how and why she worried about it so much.

This is going to be my first Christmas as the only grown-up in my home. This means that it will also be my first Christmas without any gifts under the tree for me on Christmas morning. It would be a lie to say that I’m not sad about this at all, but, having given myself the gift of a life more in line with the one I want to live more than makes up for it, as do so many other gifts I’ve received this year: of deep friendship, of love and connection, of continuing health and employment when so many have lost both, of unexpected generosity and good fortune at every turn.

It’s been a rough year for us all. Let’s not forget to be gentle and generous with one another. This year has taken us all for a ride through a creepy and depressing “funhouse,” and many of us haven’t survived it. But it’s Christmas anyway, and being able to let our higher selves shine through even at the roughest times, even if it’s in fits and starts, is what makes me love humans the most.

Pessimistic Optimism

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

I’ve been thinking about this since the first time I read it a few months ago in a Nicholas Kristof opinion piece, and how it connects so well to my natural tendency (and everyone’s, I suppose), to see history — broad history, as well as our own individual ones — strung up like garland around a Christmas tree, moving in a similar fashion and in a similar not-far-off place that looks like the last but isn’t exactly the same.

What do we have to do to get out of our silly little patterns? Will we ever reach Nirvana? Suddenly the religions that view life cyclically, the ones where we all come back over and over again — as individuals, as groups, as societies — make a lot of sense to me. Why wouldn’t we be like everything else in the world, after all?

Most people think Mark Twain said that quote about history, which is entirely possible because he was brilliant and witty. I sure wish he’d actually written it down if he did so we could know for sure. I’m not too concerned about its source, in any case: wise words are wise words, and I’m an irreverent and unapologetic life-long scavenger of good verse.

We humans are pattern-finding creatures, after all…it’s simply the way our brains are built. The clouds are just clouds with no meaning behind them, but we see a dragon, we see Santa Claus, we see a suspiciously-accurate Last Supper. The French philosopher Voltaire famously said, “If God didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” We’re naturally superstitious in spite of ourselves, wired for belief. I’ve called myself an atheist in the past, but that’s not really true. I never stopped reading my horoscope, or praying. And I’ve mostly lived my life with frequent bouts of cosmically peeping over my shoulder with narrowed eyes, sometimes with a slight smile and nod (bro-style), sometimes with a hurt scowl.

There are so many ways right now that we’re being asked to hold on, to wait and be patient in our suffering (my smile-to-scowl ratio right now is at a rare 50/50). There’s promising vaccine news, but not yet: we need to wait a little more. My dad wants to travel to Mexico over the Christmas holiday, and I want to say “oh yes please come” but I can’t, because there’s actually an end in sight and waiting sucks but we should wait. Biden won the presidential election, but we can’t have him yet: Trump, like the virus, is stubborn in his effort to stick around as long as humanly possible and prevent any fun at all until he’s absolutely forced out.

Pandemics faithfully and predictably throb their way through history, as do leaders of the current Trump-Bolsonaro-Duterte strain.

And not everything will be perfect once we get these lowered levels of intensity. We’ll still need to be careful and cautious with our health, despite the vaccine; those who lost others, those who lost livelihoods, and those who lost both will have to pick up the pieces, which is just completely unfair (I’m scowling at you, pandemic gods). President Biden will still need to deal with $%&/·#@% Mitch McConnell and the ravages wrought by obstruction-as-strategy from a resentful and angry political party that will still hold quite a bit of power. Whether those resentments are justifiable or not isn’t the point; they’ll need to be dealt with and somehow neutralized all the same.

But we can find light where we’d never expect it. Good and beautiful things can happen mid-apocalypse. Your daughter’s eyes can shine with pride. Mind-blowing love can pop up out of the blue. You can bite into the perfect, sweetest strawberry you’ve ever tasted. So hang on, people. Be ready for it. We’re on a rocky part of the spiral, but it won’t always be this way. Even if you don’t survive this part, who’s to say you won’t be washed, transformed, back for another round on the flip-side?

Day of the Dead, Solitary Gringa-style

Day of the Dead is upon us, at last.

It’s my favorite Mexican holiday by far. Things are a bit more tampered down this year as the coronavirus has us scrambling to not add ourselves to the ranks of the dearly departed, but if the dead are your business, well…there’s always business.

A quick trip to the market where I usually get my altar supplies made for a beautiful and familiar scene (scents included) of bright cempasúchil (marigold) flowers, sugar and chocolate skulls, and jamoncillos, which are these little sweet doughy candies that can be dyed and formed into the shapes of different animals, traditional foods…even “novelty” shapes like pizza or aliens. They’re delicious, and I don’t think there’s been a single year in which I haven’t polished a few off before they made it home to the altar.

Also present was the papel picado, that thin colored tissue paper with scenes for the holiday cut out in them. I already had my baskets and a few “offerings” from last year to set out, though I’ll need to go back for the clay incense holder…who knows where it went? Mixed in with the Christmas decoration, no doubt.

As my personal number of dead increase with my own impending mortality, I’ve had to be more selective about who gets a place on the altar. This year, it’s my mother and my grandmother, and that’s it. As this is my first Day of the Dead after separating from my husband, I’m assuming he’ll take care of the offerings for his side of the family on his own altar. Loss is loss, but loss makes room.

My mother would appreciate this effort if she were around, especially given the sweet treats set out for her (I 100% inherited my sweet tooth from her). Is she around? In a literal sense, she is: I have her ashes in an urn on my dresser. She’d always told us she’d wanted to be cremated. While she never specified what she wanted done with her ashes afterwards, I know that she really never enjoyed hanging out by herself, so I brought her home to Mexico with me in an urn she would have surely picked out on her own if she’d been up for such a macabre shopping trip.

My grandmother is another story. She was quite a bit older when she died at 92, but as she climbed up in years, her tolerance for religious practices not sanctioned by her Presbyterian congregation decidedly decreased. She would worriedly proclaim to my sister and I, “But Girls, the Catholics worship the Virgin Mary as if she were Jesus! I just don’t think that’s right!” Suffice it to say, the 92-year-old Mimi would not appreciate being on my altar. But I think the cosmic Mimi would, as would the 60-year-old and younger Mimi, back before she started worrying so much about getting the specifics of religious tradition exactly right, as aging people do. The Mimi who was a vegetarian because she couldn’t bare for animals to die for her sake, the Mimi who woke up every morning to do yoga before it was cool, the Mimi who went off to live in Iraq for four years in her twenties — I think she’d be charmed.

And anyway, the altars are for the living much more than for the dead.

The traditional belief is that on November 1st and 2nd, the dead make their way back home to hang out a bit with their living relatives. They follow the trail of cempasúchil petals from the cemetery to the altars in their homes, lit with candles and filled with the treats they loved in life. Their pictures are there. But mostly, we’re there, waiting for them.

If there are spirits that have returned, I haven’t seen them. Oh, but how I long to spend an evening or two with my mother and my grandmother! Will Mom come have a concha and some hot chocolate with me, and tell me how in love with my daughter she is? Will Mimi sit and chat with me about how she was able to start over from the ashes of her own marriage that couldn’t be saved? They probably won’t, but I’ll wait for them anyway.

Maybe the magic is to simply remember: endless trips to the swimming pool, my mother healthy and happy as she sped-walked through the mall with her best friend or drove us around town listening to country music on the radio; her squeal of excited joy when I told her over the phone I was pregnant, her face filled with love the first time she laid eyes on my daughter. The year we took so long to take the Christmas tree down that we decided to make it a Valentine’s Day tree instead. How she’d hold and rock my sister and I when I cried, emptying out her entire heart into ours so they wouldn’t ever feel empty. And Mimi: the Girl Scout meetings in her living room, watering the plants in her garden early in the morning before breakfast on the patio, baking chocolate chip cookies, the smell of her laundry detergent on the bathroom towels, the stories about clowns we’d beg her to make up for us; how we’d roll our eyes when she’d tell us to “give warm fuzzies, not cold pricklies” and then later realized what good advice that was.

Whatever or whoever comes this year, I’ll be waiting.

Ex-pat or Immigrant

Hi there, everyone! Sarah here, spontaneously having decided to include a blog on this site that was originally just intended to be a catch-all pocket on the internet for my writing and translating links, samples, and contact information. But in the end, I’m a writer. I couldn’t help myself.

Today, I want to talk about word choice.

You might have noticed that on both my main page and in the “about me” section, I’ve used the word “immigrant” rather than “ex-pat.” I am not lying when I say that I thought about which of those words to use for days.

What’s the issue? The definition of an ex-pat is simple enough. It’s short for “ex-patriate” and is used to describe someone who lives in a country that is not their country of origin. By that definition, any immigrant to another country should be called an ex-pat.

In practice, we typically just use the word “ex-pat” to describe people from wealthier countries like the US, Canada, or Western Europe who arrive to a poorer country (and usually live better than most locals). What am I? I’m an ex-pat. What is the Central American selling handicrafts in the market? Well, she’s an immigrant.

For me personally, it’s about making sure that, through my use of language, I’m not describing myself as exceptional or extra special by comparison.

Calling myself an immigrant too doesn’t close the vast breach of privilege between us. But the connotations of the two words are completely different. An ex-pat sounds like a brave adventurer, someone who sets out in a new country with a clean slate and plenty of money in her pocket while she takes her time getting settled in without the immediate pressures of making money and caring for others; perhaps she’s on an extended vacation or a “gap year”. An immigrant sounds considerably more humble: someone who had to leave her home country because of hardships, and who must struggle mightily to make a space for herself in a new place. Really, we should be able to mix and match these words and definitions: an immigrant could be either, as could an ex-pat. Calling myself an immigrant rather than an ex-pat is my small way of inching the two terms closer together.

My feelings about the words aren’t so strong that I’m willing to confront people about them, a relaxed attitude fed by my privilege of being able to choose without being challenged on it: I can call myself an immigrant, but a poor person from Venezuela would likely get strange looks if she referred to herself as an ex-pat. Language matters, but so does choosing your battles. So I’m not going to act all offended if someone uses the word “ex-pat” in my presence or refers to me as one. I’m not going to stop writing for Expats in Mexico because it uses the term in the name. But I am, from here on, going to refer to myself as an immigrant, because that is what I am.

If you know for certain that you can choose one word or phrase that is likely to not offend people instead of a word or phrase that might offend others, well, I think the obvious choice is to use the less-offensive of the two, or the least-offensive of a handful of choices.

As Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”