Landing

On August 6, 2009, I boarded a plane in my hometown, Austin, Texas, and took a flight into the unknown. Destination: Guatemala. I was 29.

Ten years prior, the international travel bug had bitten. At age 19, prompted by my irrational fear that Y2K would cause global chaos and planes would fall out of the sky at the turn of the century, I’d flown to London to spend a semester abroad. I arrived at Gatwick; my two gigantic suitcases didn’t. A lesson in letting go. How I sobbed. I was so alone, on the other side of the pond, empty handed. Later I realized how lucky it was that I didn’t’ have to lug the luggage through the streets as I walked in frustrating circles searching for the big creaky Victorian house in Notting Hill Gate where I would live with a bevy of fellow college kids, mostly from the northeast US. Plus, I got money from the airline to go out and buy clothes.

Since there were two Michelles living in the house, some of the guys took to calling me “Texas.” Yankees, I called them. I took the tube, studied art and architecture, Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes. We went out for Halloween and I was so mortified to be on the tube with these rowdy, drunken Americans, my roommates. I was dressed up as a zebra but nowhere near drunk enough. I spent hours one long November day at a recording studio listening to Nik, my slightly-older British crush, and his band sing “In-Between Days”, over and over and over again, for a Cure tribute album. The one night I stayed out with him until after the tube stopped running, I slept at Nik’s place in north London. Zero romance occurred, and I was so disappointed. I visited Dublin, Barcelona and Paris for long weekends. Life was not as glamorous as it sounded, though. I was only 19 and largely a clueless, privileged American girl.

Living in London in the fall of 1999 was my coming of age. My first stab at “adulting”. Learning to cook actual meals. Managing my life abroad, alone. When I went back to work in Austin post-London, my good friend and boss at the ad agency noted how much self-confidence I had grown through the experience. I held myself differently, she said.

Back to the summer of 2009. I had a perfectly happy life in Austin, Texas, seriously. I was single and mingling. I’d become a school teacher three years prior, having left my first career in advertising. On a whim, I went to an international teaching job fair in Bethesda, Maryland in late June 2009 and landed a job in Guatemala. I chose it over Brazil for its proximity and Spanish language (although Portuguese is beautiful, I’m not inclined to learn languages and my brain can only seem to handle English, Spanish and the handful of Sanskrit and Kaqchikel Maya words and phrases I know). I chose the job in Guatemala, despite the fact that I became violently ill immediately upon accepting. Immediately. My body broke out in hives and my stomach ached and I threw up. I knew then that I had made the right decision.

For the next six weeks, I packed up my life: checked off endless to-do lists, condensed my funky little south Austin cottage into two 50-pound suitcases and stored the rest at my folks’ house. I brought along with me my best fur friend, a four-pound black and white teacup Chihuahua named Lucy. I left behind a loving community, two cats, a cottage, a mortgage, a car, a lot of material possessions, and my comfort zone.

There was turbulence on the flight as we approached our landing. When the plane touched down in Guatemala, all the passengers burst into applause, and I burst into silent tears laden with both trepidation and joy.

In retrospect, it seems as though I was fleeing, escaping from something when I left home. If so, I really wasn’t aware of it at the moment of departure. I didn’t leave home because I was disillusioned. I was rather happy. Perhaps too content, even. Comfortable. I wasn’t running away from anything, I was running toward something different. For the sake of shaking it up. Nothing was keeping me in Austin: I hadn’t had a meaningful relationship last more than a few months, much less come anywhere close to finding a partner with whom I’d want to share my life. My job was good but I had been at the same school for three years and was getting bored. Spending three weeks in Mexico in the summer of 2007 for a Spanish immersion had planted the seed. I could do this; I could live here.

Soon after arriving in Central America, I had a gut feeling that this would become my lifestyle. I didn’t know whether I’d stay in Guatemala after my initial two-year contract at the school was up, or try my luck in another Latin American country, or maybe take a leap and move to Asia or Africa like so many of my teacher friends. But I felt pretty certain that I wouldn’t be returning to reside in the States for a long time, if ever.

I was immediately free—the opposite of busy. I was liberated. Even in an oppressively dangerous, dirty and foreign city, I was free. I’d been busy in Austin. Lots of work, both during and after school hours, family visits, dinner parties, chores, errands, grocery shopping. Suddenly, I had no obligations (other than work, and my job was a lot less demanding than it had been in Texas), no plans and no expectations.

Moving to Lake Atitlan in the middle of 2012 was another total rebirth. If happiness is a place, that place, for me, is right here: Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. It is my chosen home, where I belong. Its powerful magic magnet drew me here to live, as permanently as permanent can be, in the middle of 2012. Life has unfolded and consciousness expanded in wonderful and unexpected ways ever since. Having my daughter Jade has been the greatest blessing. I’m grateful to witness her growing up here in this natural paradise, far from the hustle and bustle and polluted culture of city life. Being in a stable, committed relationship with a loving partner is a revelation.

In front of me, I see a striped hammock. I see the patio roof covered in morning dew. I see coffee trees down below, their green leaves verdant, their lime green berries silently growing plump. In November, they will turn red and be ready to harvest. I see two redheaded woodpeckers in one of the shade trees, trying to find a place to peck and make a hole for their new home, or maybe just looking for breakfast. I see a hummingbird pass by in a blur, buzzing like a bumblebee.

There is the grandmother and grandfather lake, calm and steady. There are the three silent massive volcanoes, shrouded in light foggy cloud coverage, beaming their incredible staying power out upon us. There’s the woodpecker again, directly in front of where I sit on my meditation pillow and bolster. The bolster I brought with me from Austin in my suitcase is now faded by the sun and years but it’s still useful. It’s one of the few things I still have from the initial luggage. Maybe the only thing? I guess the black polka dot dress I had too, and maybe a few other garments. Not much has lasted. Things come and go. Disposable possessions.

I hear the first boat, its motor whirring, creating waves. More hummingbird wings flapping. One small hummingbird about the size of my thumb sits for a brief five-second repose on a thin branch, her Pinocchio nose jutting out in front of her. Actually, buzzingbird or chatteringbird would be a more apt name. They don’t really hum.

This morning meditation is happiness. The inner peace and happiness I feel beneath all the other emotions that visit each day are there thanks to years of devoted practice. I know, deep down, no matter what happens, peace and presence are available. Joy and sadness, pleasure and pain, attachment and aversion are inevitable. What is “evitable” is the grasping, the constant seeking of entertainment in its ubiquitous forms, with its insidious way of pulling us away from this specific moment of life, here and now.

Perhaps I have misconstrued the lake to be sacred. To be somehow more spiritual, pure and blissful than other geographic locations. It’s just because I have known more happiness here than anywhere else I’ve lived. Could I be this pleased residing anywhere else? This lake is sacred to me. So is the cozy bedroom where I first learned yoga as a young teen in a suburb in the hill country of central Texas. So is this moment, regardless of location. This life is a gift; every breath, a miracle.

May all beings be happy and free.

Advice to a Young Writer from J.D. Salinger

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After reading a recent NYT article entitled, “Paradise Lost, in Guatemala,” by Joyce Maynard about her home at Lake Atitlan (a house a bunch of my friends rented last Thanksgiving), I was inspired to read her memoir, At Home in the World. It consumed me for five days, compelling me to start and finish the whole thing rather than offhandedly reading several volumes at once as has been my tendency of late.

Joyce wrote an essay in 1972 for The New York Times Magazine called “An Eighteen Year Old Looks Back on Life,” which compelled J.D. Salinger to correspond — and fall in love — with her. She moved to his house in New Hampshire for the duration of their 10-month relationship. He was 53 at the time, 35 years her senior.

Joyce received harsh criticism from the literary community when the memoir was published in 1998 for “exploiting” Salinger and going against his wishes for total privacy and silence. I applaud her! Salinger is a big part of the story she tells, but it is her story to tell, and she does, with honesty, love and openness.

He comes across as a passionate, intelligent but ultimately hateful, bitter, complicated man. In any case, he gave the 18-year-old Joyce some sage advice that all writers must heed:

“What I want for you, kid, is to write about what you truly love, and nothing, but nothing, less than that. … with nothing less than originality and tenderness and love.”

and, later, with a more negative spin:

“Some day, Joyce, there will be a story you will want to tell for no better reason than because it matters to you more than any other. You’ll give up this business of delivering what everybody tells you to do. You’ll stop looking over your shoulder to make sure you’re keeping everybody happy, and you’ll simply write what’s real and true. Honest writing always makes people nervous, and they’ll think of all kinds of ways to make your life hell. One day a long time from now you’ll cease to care anymore whom you please or what anybody has to say about you. That’s when you’ll finally produce the work you’re capable of.”  – Jerry Salinger

Home again.

“For the time being the highest peak, for the time being the deepest ocean; for the time being a crazy mind, for the time being a Buddha body; for the time being a Zen Master, for the time being an ordinary person; for the time being earth and sky. Since there is nothing but this moment, for the time being is all the time there is.” ~Dogen

Take a deep breath.

Where are you? What are you doing? What are you doing that for?

As I write, I sit at my childhood desk in my childhood bedroom in Round Rock, a suburb just north of Austin. Lots has changed in this town in 25 years. Population more than quadrupled. (Dell moved in.) Strip malls built, housing developments explode. Lots has changed in this room in twenty years. The walls that were three shades of pink are now a subdued ivory. The baby blue carpet has been replaced with wood flooring. The twin-sized bed is long gone, a queen in its place.

I’ve been obsessively organizing. There is so much shit in this house. My mother is a collector. (Okay, I am too.) Or, was. When I chose to leave the country, I stashed a lot of my stuff in my parents’ closets and game room. But I’m staying abroad for the foreseeable future. Or maybe not. I’ve gotten better at letting go of my attachment to a five-year plan. I love that I don’t know. It’s fearsome and exhilarating.

Evidently I’ve gotten better at letting go of material items, as I’m about to purge heaps of kitchen wares, books, clothes, knick knacks galore, empty picture frames. All these things that were mine and could be someone else’s on Saturday for a dollar fifty. I’m on a recycling rampage, sorting through photographs, a filing cabinet of obsolete paperwork, shoeboxes crammed with ticket stubs and birthday cards from the nineties. I shuffle through memories: a snapshot of forgotten friends, a mix tape, a portfolio of high school art projects.

And, oh the journals! I am submerged in my biography. I’ve been a prolific writer since circa 1992. Everywhere I look, more diaries, calendars, planners, notebooks and index cards with scrawled notes to self emerge from the shadows. Am I ever going to read these again?

Wait, I’m not quite ready to dispose of everything just yet. Is there a secret in there? What threads of truth are woven through my personal archives?

It can get overwhelming, this process. This processing. I’ve been meditating each morning here in my cozy old space. This is, after all, the room where I first started to practice yoga almost 20 years ago. I sit and my mind is full… what to do? who to see? what hasn’t this friend called me back? why aren’t things like they used to be?

I’m airing out ancient pages, feeling flurries of nostalgia, disgust, indifference and above all, gratitude. I’m grateful for this safe, familiar place, this unfettered summer of yoga and visits and writing, movement and stillness.

I love that writing is minimalist. Pen. Paper. Brain. Focus. Put words on the page. In any order. Any words. Maybe no one else will ever read them! How liberating. I have a sleek new Mac laptop, which I duly worship, but how simple and lovely it is to write with a ballpoint pen on a lined sheet of paper in a spiral notebook at this very moment.

Indeed, this summer is a blessing. I want to soak up every second. The moments expand when infused with presence and mindfulness.

I slip into almost automatic meditative states at points. I come back always to the breath, my heart, my center. My most frequent intentions: patience, peace, gratitude for the present moments of the past that fit together so seamlessly, the countless experiences that lead me here.

Take a deep breath.

What are you doing?

You are home again in the present moment.