A month after that night in Zanzibar I would be sitting in a mountain side guest house above Rishikesh reading about Sufism. Osho says:
Only in dance do you start falling with the heartbeat of the whole. Only in dance does the moment of grace arrive when you are not and God is. Only in dance does the separation between the mind and body disappear – and you are one whole, all together, no more fragmentary. …If you dance deeply, so deeply that the dancer disappears in the dance, this is prayer.
Another evening lost walking home from Africana BBQ, but this time I got more lost than usual. The rains flooded the village. Navigating around the high water forced me off my usual route. I wove the dirt paths around stone buildings and tires, dirt soccer fields and schools, until I got so completely turned around I wasn’t even sure which direction home was in. The starless night sky offering no aid to my path. A local pointed me toward the “roadi.” I did not live on the main road, but I counted on being able to at least navigate more successfully from there, so I walked in the direction he pointed. I had little other choice. Once on the main road I realized just how far from home I was. Getting this lost after four days of living in the tiny village of Padje seemed unforgivable.
I looked around the unlit village laying quietly in beneath the dark night sky trying to get my bearings. Standing on the main road I heard the distant beat of African music. When I left California, I noted to myself the three things that had always given me the greatest joy, the exact things I had all but completely lost in my life as I barrelled toward burnout – swimming, eating well, and dancing. Standing on the main road, I found music to move my hips, and soothe my soul. The sounds were faint to be sure, but no less powerful because of that. I considered the large roll of newspaper wrapped take away chapati I was holding leftover from my evening meal, my dorky large frame eye glasses and my linen coveralls – I wasn’t exactly ready for the club. I briefly consider turning around and going home to change, put away my chapati and put in my contact lens, but the beat tugged at heart, and I decided to follow it. I turned toward the music, the opposite direction from home.
Sounds, like waves on the sea, can be farther away than they first appear. I walked along the shoulder of the main road for what felt like a long time, following the music growing louder, but not catching quite it. I found myself at the edge of the village, but still could not see the origin of the music. I paused for a minute to consider how far from home I had gone, to consider again the newspaper bundle of buttery chapatti that was now greasing my palm and my large dorky glasses and my Birkenstock sandals that would surely make it difficult to dance. But by this point I had lost all ability to do anything other than find the source of the sound; I kept walking.
I’m not someone who grew up thinking of themselves as having a lot of privilege. Quite the opposite. In fact, I can remember being only a small girl when my mother explained to me that my life was going to be harder than others’ because “I’m a minority,” as she put it at the time. I’m a woman (even as a small child she referred to my future adult self as one that would necessarily involve discrimination by virtue of being born female, and because I’m Hispanic (the term she used). This was the 70’s, before the language of liberation in the community shifted toward the term “Latino,” to be more inclusive of it’s multiracial roots, to encompass native people, Africans, and white colonizers from the Iberian peninsula; and shifted again to include all gender identities with the more recent term “Latinx.”
I can remember stories about my father, Puerto Rican, being ridiculed and bullied for his Spanish accent, even at relatively diverse Hunter College in NYC. As a result, my learning Spanish was never a priority in our home; speaking perfect, unaccented English was the priority. I’ve always found it ironic, and more than a little painful, that some of the most fluent Spanish speakers I know are white Americans. They have had the privilege of learning a language in college, often studying for a year or more abroad, without the baggage, or fear, of being called a spic for using a language that isn’t English.
Saturday begins as another day of sand, and swim, and relishing my recent return to childhood. I feel pure these days in Zanzibar, like something essential about myself has emerged: a self before pain, before betrayal, before abandonment. My skin has turned the color of honey under the sun’s rays, and this external glow feels to me to be an expression of the sweetness at the center of my pure delight in the world and all its creatures. This childhood I am finding in my middle 40’s has allowed me to shed the depression and anxiety that has all but crippled me in recent years. I greet the day with enthusiasm and set out for a swim with Pawel, my new friend from our guest house.
Pawel, a handsome man also in his 40s, himself has a childlike quality that I find completely endearing. He’s playful and enthusiastic in a way that’s infectious, in a way that adults so often lose, even when on vacation. Our relationship quickly becomes akin to one of childhood playmates: simple, centered around fun and innocent mischief. Pawel is from Poland but he speaks nearly perfect English. Only occasionally is his ethnicity betrayed by an American idiom he gets mistaken. “I have zero luggage,” he tells me once when we are talking about our relationship history. He means “baggage,” but I don’t correct him because I find the error endearing. Luggage: meaning something carried laboriously; I imagine carrying my emotional pain laboriously in a set of antique hard shell overweight bags — the phrasing works. I smile at the image in my head.
Pawel lives now in Switzerland. It’s the one thing about him that for me is a cloud over our friendship. For me Switzerland is among the worst of triggers. But I don’t tell him this. It’s not a thing that adults say to one another upon first meeting. “Yes I have been to Switzerland as a matter of fact. I would have been about ten. The Swiss man who molested me for six years took me there for several weeks one winter; it was the site of some of the worst abuses I suffered with him. But most of my memories of that time have been mercifully wiped out by a brain in a state of shock trying to protect itself. I remember only the Alps, the St. Bernard in our hotel lobby, and the sting of his hand across my cheek when I told him I loved my mother more than I loved him. But do tell me, how are you finding Switzerland?” Instead I say nothing, and listen quietly to his stories. I have a lot of luggage. Continue reading “Untitled”
Every time I land in a new country there is a period of transition; I’ve come to understand this now. A period where I miss the place I just left, struggle to figure out how to get to where I want to be, how to eat what I am hungry for, assess the prices of things in relative terms, scratch and shift uncomfortably in my new room. Such was the case in Zanzibar.
I arrived early in the morning off a red-eye. I was exhausted and dull. The air was thick with moisture. The sun was only just starting to inch above the horizon, but it was already hot. Africa hot. We used to say that as kids growing up in New York City on those unforgiving August days to describe our suffering in the weather – “it’s Africa hot.” We thought we were clever. Here in Zanzibar, I actually was in Africa, and it was actually Africa hot. I humped my luggage into my room and fell asleep.
When I come to shortly after noon, I shake off the sleep and step outside the hotel to survey the area. White sand stretches out to the horizon dotted with black reeds. Sea water pools along the coast line creating streaks of turquoise blue and moss green. Fishing boats sit abandoned in the sand. The tide is out. Far out.. At the horizon a strip of deep blue melts into the endless sky. The endless sky dwarfs the people beneath it. Dwarfs me. The world feels expansive. The air is still. Only the screeching of birds overheard reassures me that I haven’t stepped into a painting. There are no objects, only shapes. There are no inhabitants, only colors: turquoise, cream, black and green.
I walk slowly down the beach. Slowly because I am still tired and jet lagged, slowly because I am melting under the mid day sun, slowly because I am dumbstruck by the beauty stretched out in front of me and I need to take it all in.
Personal turning points aren’t necessarily the larger than life scenes of dramatic cinema. Sometimes they’re small, quiet moments when your mind is finally ready to see what your body already knew. Sometimes the moments are so mundane in appearance that it’s not till later that you realize how remarkable that seemingly ordinary moment was. Such was the case for me.
Before I set off across the world, I spent most of my time in my corner office in a smoggy industrial gray part of Los Angeles – most of my days, most of my nights, and far too many weekends. I toiled for years to get that office. First the title, then the waiting for someone more senior to vacate, then the petty argument with the Operations manager about putting up a white board so had enough writing space to chart my campaigns, then the bureaucracy to get a standing desk before I actually contracted carpal tunnel like so many of my coworkers and a doctors note required it, directing the handyman to place the photographs where I wanted them, move in the extra filing cabinet and wall mounted book shelf (yes I still own such things). It was a labor. But when it was finished I was proud of my office. It conveyed my stature, it displayed my accomplishments, it had good natural light.
Alone in my large office one late afternoon in March, the door shut, I hung up the phone with the Chief of Staff, and I knew I was done. I looked around the office that I had worked so hard to put together, my history in the organization sitting on every shelf, and hanging from every wall. I wanted to keep that office. I wanted to keep working with my staff. But I didn’t want to keep my job. I don’t remember what that particular discussion with the COS was about. He and I talked regularly. It wasn’t the time I hung up the phone with him after a particularly frustrating argument and immediately burst into tears. It wasn’t the time I walked out of the senior staff meeting thoroughly disgusted with the way the organization was demeaning and belittling accusations of sexual harassment that had surfaced on the heels of the #MeToo movement. And it wasn’t the time that I confronted our union president after one of his notorious tirades, this one directed at me for no particular reason, and told him, that he was abusive, that he had a drinking problem and that he needed professional help. Years of therapy crystallized in that moment as I realized I was still, in my 40’s, living with an abusive parental figure having merely transitioned from my step-father to my boss.
Here is a partial list of countries / civilizations that have conquered or tried to conquer the islands we now call Malta: Arabs, Phoenicians, Carthagenians, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Byzantiens, Normans, Swabians, Hohenstaufens, Angevins, Aragonians, Turks, Knights of St John, French, British. Some of these I had to look up. Have I ever been taught about the Swabians or the Hahenstaufens? The crown of Aragon I thought was a fictitious kingdom invented for the Lord of the Rings/ Renaissance Faire crowd.
Growing up an American European history of the Middle Ages was never particularly interesting to me. Even the popular show Game of Thrones, while visually beautiful, always seemed to me impossible to follow and entirely inconsequential. Now here in Malta, staring up at the limestone bastion separating Fort St Angelo from the Mediterranean Sea, built first by the Arabs in 1091, I find myself entirely overcome with wonder. 1091. I can’t even imagine what life was like for people in 1091. There was no 1091 in America; was there? Indians in teepees perhaps. Do we even know? I don’t. First constructed in 1091 this jagged knob of land was fortified by each subsequent culture who successfully penetrated the wall, or found another way to conquer these diminutive islands at the center of conflict in the Mediterranean for hundreds of years. Staring up at the this fort with a Spanish name, edged with fleur de lys, British built barracks, tears slip down my face. Just a few. Just for a minute this mash up of cultures takes my breath away.
“Cry? Why?” My Maltese friend Alex mocks me in his crisp charming Maltese accent when I would later recount my day. “I don’t know exactly,” I told him.
I still don’t know precisely why staring at the face of the grandeur of a world I could barely imagine brought me to tears. I just know that it was beautiful.
I picked Malta to start my six-month journey around the world because one of the characters in the Wind-Up Bird Chronicle runs away to Malta to get herself together. At least that’s how I think it went. It’s been a long time since I read the book. I am a big fan of Haruki Murakami and at the time I read the book I had never heard of Malta. It sounded fascinating in the book and when I looked it up. Murakami was as good a reason as any. I thought about living somewhere for an extended period – but where exactly? I thought about tracing my roots and going to Norway and Puerto Rico (I’ve been), Armenia and Ireland — it seemed equally random as I’ve never felt a particularly strong biological or cultural connection to any side of my family. So here I am. In Malta. What is this place?
I am besieged by culture shock. The city has a European feel, but does not use the European outlet. Valletta, the capitol city, is dotted with iconic red British phone booths, gold encrusted churches and frescoes from the great Italian painter Caravaggio. The cuisine – rabbit livers and snails – suggests a poorer region – southern Europe or North African. The ultra-rich have made Malta a playground. Maltese is the only Semitic language written with a Latin script, and the only Semitic language that can claim to be an official language of the EU. The Maltese people I have met are proud that neither Sicilians nor Arabs can understand them – as if the entire country is engaged in it’s own inside joke. Indeed the stone buildings, and windy streets of the Mdina feel alive with secrets. The secrets of a long and complicated history dating back thousands of years before my young country was compelled into the Western world.
I can see why Murakami would choose a place like this. This place, like his stories, twists the mind. The history and conquests of the Moors, Spanish, Normans, Italians, British, French, Portuguese, and Knights of St. John each leaving their mark. But none quite blending with the other, as if each conquest could still hold a tiny piece of this small island country to be its own.
Some days I want to explore the island. Other days I simply want to sleep and be woken up when the confusion is over. I am starting on a six month journey around the world. I am lucky and grateful, and I’ve been gloating to all my friends that I am doing this. What’s wrong with me? Am I depressed? No, I can’t be. I am taking the same dose of anti-depressant I was taking in the U.S. Am I scared? It’s confusing, but there’s really nothing scary about Malta. Am I homesick? I don’t have a home anymore. I sold my home in Los Angeles. When I do return to the US, who knows where I will return to, and whether or not it will feel anything like home. For the next six months at least, I am homeless.
I think I thought traveling around the world would automatically be magical. The trip itself would be like all of my favorite books rolled up in the time span of one of my favorite movies. Instead, it is pouring down rain outside, and I am cold because the townhouse where I’m staying is not well insulated, stuck in this confusing place where I don’t know a soul.
I grew up with musical theatre. Maybe because I was born in NY it was always there. Musical theatre floated through the city on the wind. It was on Broadway and Off Broadway and Off-Off Broadway. It was in junior high and high school. Often when something significant, or even not so significant, happens in my life the soundtrack for the moment flips on in my head, as if some unseen director has cued the orchestra. Well, something significant sure has been happening. Click on the links and enjoy the show!
ACT I: I started working toward quitting in January. Yes, in January I cleaned out my office and disposed of or distributed years of campaign binders. In February I wrote a list of advice I wanted to impart on the team I would leave behind. In April I went on medical leave to focus on restoring my health. Finally, after literally years of emotional manipulation on the part of my managers cajoling me to stay, after all the deep breathing and internal fortification I had to do to make the call, after months of practicing what exactly I would say, writing it down, running it by close confidants, after all of that, quitting was so…easy.
I’m proud of myself for keeping it simple, for not begging to leave but simply letting them know I was leaving. I am proud of myself for how gracious and kind my final calls to the bosses were, thanking them for the opportunity to open a vein and give my life blood to the organization, and even meaning it. I’m proud of myself for the way I have handled these final moments, something that would not have been possible four months ago. Still, in my head I was singing “boy, bye.”
ACT II: I talked to the Chief of Staff, the Vice President and finally the President. As soon as I hung up the phone with the President I felt free. I felt a hundred pounds lighter. I felt that I could fly. In fact, had I been doing cocaine I would have jumped off the roof of something and tried to literally fly and ended up dead. (It’s a good thing I don’t do cocaine). But I didn’t jump off anything. I just floated home. Free.
ACT III: On Sunday I went to the office to pick up the few things I wanted to keep – an award I won from AAPC and a few personal effects. I chose Sunday because I didn’t want to see anyone and subject myself to a string of phony maudlin goodbyes. I wanted to sail off into the night like Coco in the 80s tv show Fame: “goodbyes aren’t for people like you and me” she says to Bruno as she closes her locker door for the last time.
I was surprised by how much stuff there was in my office: files, campaign binders, certificates of accomplishment, photos and gifts accumulated through the years. I took what I wanted, threw some things out, left notes for my assistant on what to do with other things. I hadn’t seen it all for four months, and looking at again felt like looking at a life. A very full life full of very meaningful work. I stood in the doorway of my office and just took it all in.
I wrote cards and left gifts for a few people on my team who have meant the most to me, who have given me as much as I have endeavored to give them, people who I will care for for the rest of my life. I wrote a letter to my entire staff. They are the people in the organization who I love, who I’ve poured myself into, people who are inspired to make social change, who are not yet jaded and cynical, burnt out or corrupt. They are the future and they give me hope. I took what I wanted and closed my office door for the last time. To everyone else I said nothing.
By Monday morning everyone knew. The assistant director read my letter to my entire team. The chief of staff told the senior staff. It was public and it was over. And I have sailed off into the sunset just like Coco. Goodbye. And then I was signing again.
ACT IV: DURING the call when the news of my resignation was being delivered to my staff I got a job offer. Someone texted someone who texted someone and before the announcement of my resignation was finished, someone called to offer me a job. I said I would consider it. Later that afternoon, after my email to friends and allies went out, I got three more invitations to discuss my future.
When I finished my panchakarma my doctor said my life would change. She said they had cleaned the toxins out of my body and they have cleaned my karma. She said doors would open for me, I would be more open to a partner and what I’ve lost will come back. I took the leap. And doors are already opening.Now I get to decide which door I walk through.