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.”