Monday, January 14, 2013

Float On

“Nothing’s free,” she used to say.

You give a kiss to get a kiss. Bring home flowers in exchange for forgiveness. Pay a compliment to get a smile or, if you’re lucky, a little bit more. My girl liked to keep a tally of who owed what to who, and during the two years we were together I drew up quite a tab.

When she broke up with me, suddenly, after her sister introduced her to another man with a more obvious future, I hoped that when she broke my heart I would take something from her. I didn’t want to think my heart was free.

She left one month, three days and seven hours shy of our anniversary. I had a surprise trip to Costa Rica planned to celebrate. We would immerse ourselves in the forest, lie around half-naked and, somewhere between finding new things to do to each other, I would propose.

Instead, I found myself on the plane heading south with my best friend. He convinced me a guys surf trip was just what I needed to get over her. We arrived in Santa Teresa in a cloud of dust. We hit the beach and jumped in the water. At night we dove into one Imperial after another. We didn’t come up for air for days.   

Somewhere around the fourth day I woke up and left my friend snoring in his bed. The sun was strong and the air was sweet. I headed to the water. No board this time. Just me.  It was calm that morning and I floated on the surface of the water, looking at the sky. I listened until all I could hear was my breath riding the sound the waves.

After awhile I stood up, and felt the soft sand under my feet. I felt my pocket. It was there: the ring I was going to give her. I hadn’t let it out of my reach for weeks. I pulled it out and watched the light play in the stone. I thought about the life I thought it would get me. Nothing’s free, I thought. Then I let the ring slip into the water. I let it go, like a big fish I had fought to catch but then decided to set free before it pulled me under. I watched the ring sink and then it was gone.

I walked out of the water and headed back to the hotel. I felt lighter. For the first time I noticed smiling faces. Pretty girls riding bikes, all tanned legs, flowing hair and white smiles. Little kids playing. People starting their days. Their whole lives ahead of them. And I was one of them.

My heart was free.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Playground Bully

The other day the girls and I tag along with PJ to his yoga class. He teaches at this beautiful hotel that has a yoga deck overlooking the ocean. While he teaches his class, I take the girls down the hill to play on a jungle gym. (Which is kind of redundant, I know, seeing that we live in an actual jungle.)

When we get to the jungle gym the girls take off for the slide and I put my stupidly enormous (or is that enormously stupid?) bag, stuffed with magic markers, crayons, notebook, iPad, an empty wallet, keys, and a bunch of other crap, on a nearby bench.

We're playing "Go Diego Go" (I'm Diego.) when I realize that I should check the time. I reach into my bag and see something move. I drop the bag because seeing something move in the dark in Costa Rica is never, ever, a good thing. Then I realize I have to dump out the bag, which means I have to pick it up. My heart is pounding. I can feel my heartbeat in my ears. I dump the bag out on the ground and pray that I haven't just killed the new iPad.

I look down and see the black leather tassel that hangs on my key chain. It's not the first time I've mistaken the thing for a bug or a snake. (Don't ask me why I would keep a keychain that scares the hell out of me every time I see it in my bag.) So I say to myself, "Oh, Emily, you nut."

But as I bend down to pick up my things, there it is. The biggest scorpion I've ever seen, right in the middle of my things.

I tell the girls (in the calmest voice I can muster) that there is something "really cool to see way over there." They don't buy it, but they go anyway. I scramble for a rock to throw at the monster, but all I can find is a poor excuse for a pebble. I don't want to annoy the beast and turn a badass scorpion into an angry badass scorpion, so I find a decent-sized rock and turn to take aim.

It's gone.

Now there is a scorpion the size of my foot somewhere I can't see. I pick up a stick. It's no good. It crumbles in my hand.

It starts to rain.

I find a big stick. Actually, it's more like a sapling, but I can't think about the moral implications of killing a tree right now. For the next twenty minutes or so, while PJ is teaching a group of blissfully ignorant yoga students to breathe and envision peace and blah blah blah, I'm tip-toeing through a playground in the rain, carrying a big rock and poking the ground with a stick. If it were the States I'd already be under arrest.

I jab at the papers on the ground. No scorpion. I shake out my notebook. No scorpion. It's just fucking with me, I know it. It's just waiting to pounce. So one by one, I jab and shake out my things. Jab and shake. Jab and shake.

I'm soaking wet. The girls are slightly afraid … of me.

Then I hear PJ calling out for us. Thank God. I tell him what's happened and he says, "Oh, my God!" (The appropriate response. Smart man.) "How long ago did you see it?" He asks. "Twenty minutes," I say. "Why didn't you call Jose?" He says. Oh, right. José, the hotel's manager and resident creepy scary beast whisperer.

José arrives and, in my very broken Spanish, I explain what's happened. I'm prepared to hear him say, "Don't worry. Scorpions won't hurt you." But he doesn't say that. The man who picks up giant bugs and wrangles snakes on a daily basis says, as best as I can translate, "Yeah, Scorpions. They'll fuck you up."

PJ does a final check of my things and we all pile into the car. I have the heebie jeebies all the way home – because aside from being really scary, scorpions are also really creepy.

I'm not sure what I'm supposed to learn from this, except the fact that it's never too early for rum.

Are there some things that are just meant to scare you? Or maybe things just happen. You know, like, yeah, today there's going to be a badass scorpion in your bag for no other reason than to fuck with you. Maybe.

But then there's this: Vida cried when we left the playground. Guess mommy jabbing at the ground with a stick, hoisting a rock, trembling and mumbling to herself in the rain, isn't enough to ruin a good time at the playground.

Or maybe just because everything works out okay doesn't mean the fear or danger isn't real. It's just that most of the time things don't work out as badly as we think they will. And, more than that, everything passes. Everything. No matter what it is. I was shaking but I was okay. The girls were okay. Nobody got stung. The scorpion went his way and we went ours.

José smiled when he said scorpion stings hurt like hell. The pain hits you and moves through you like fire. He's been bitten. A few times. But he was smiling when he said it. That's one of the amazing things about this place. It's so beautiful and yet there are things that are so scary and hard, and yet the people keep smiling.

Yep, scorpions are mui malo. Mui peligroso. What are you going to do? Pour the rum and move on. Just like the scorpion.

Who's the badass now?

Friday, September 23, 2011

Mortal Coil

Last week, PJ tried to wrestle an iguana away from a boa constrictor. Well, he entertained the thought, with a sledgehammer and fruitpicker in hand. As dumbstruck teachers and a smattering of bug-eyed 6th graders looked on, PJ and another kind-hearted soul watched the boa squeeze the stunned iguana, wondering how the hell one wrests anything from a snake, let alone its lunch.

That's when Giancarlo, whom I can only describe as an existentialist Italian yogi, happened by and cried out, "No! Stop! Let nature take its course! Death is natural!!" To which PJ replied, "Well, Giancarlo, I'm not calling you if I'm ever neck-deep in a snake." Giancarlo laughed as only an existentialist Italian yogi can and drove away. Apparently, death may be natural but even an existentialist doesn't want to look at it.

Then PJ and everyone else realized they couldn't help the iguana even if they tried. It got very quiet and everyone turned and walked away. The sight playing out in the middle of the dusty road was a private one. Maybe even a sacred one.

But I couldn't help pondering the troubling questions -- from way across the road in the cheap seats, of course. Free the iguana and it dies anyway? Free it and the boa goes hungry or goes after something cute and fluffy instead?

Who decides? Not us. We're not up to that challenge, I'm afraid.

Well, isn't this a cheerful way to restart my blog?!

Sorry. It's just that we've been back in Costa Rica for a month and I've been futzing around, waiting for the perfect idea to materialize (actually, to write itself) and the perfect moment to start again. Then I realized the perfect moment has presented itself a bunch of times.

Like when we packed up the girls and boarded the plane to take another swing at Costa Rica. When we were welcomed back by so many familiar faces. When we discovered new tide pools to swim in and secret beaches to have all to ourselves. Or when our neighbor's horses grazed in our yard. Or the time a woman saw how much the girls loved her horse and gave them a ride on the beach then and there without asking for anything in return. (Those smiles lasted for hours.)

The perfect moment could have been the girls' first day of school, or watching them make new friends. Or maybe it was watching them ride off in a school bus for the first time and trying, unsuccessfully, not to bawl my eyes out.

It could have been the time PJ and I were awoken by the sound of monkeys having sex. At least I think that's what they were doing because it sounded, well, er, vigorous.

Turns out there have been more moments than I can count. Truth is life is full of them. They're not all perfect, to be sure. Then again, what makes one moment more perfect or more important than the other? Granted, the day your child is born blows all the others out of the water, and the day they discover a cure for cancer will rank at the top of everyone's list. But chalking up the moment we get that job, while letting all the times we did stuff like eat cereal for dinner or talk to a friend until 2 in the morning slip by the wayside -- well, that feels like we're cheating ourselves. After all, if you sum up your life – that is, add up only the moments you'd call important, they'd probably total a week and a half. If you're lucky.

Life is short. But it's not that short.

That doesn't mean anybody wants to read a tweet about anybody else eating cereal for dinner. Somewhere in between ignoring everyday moments and sharing them with the whole world lies the truth: Most important moments are private. The most important moments in your life are probably only important to you and one or two other people. Some are momentous. Some are sacred. Most are ordinary. Most happen unexpectedly.

When you take all THOSE moments and add them up, you get a real life. At the end of the line -- and if that scene on the dusty road tells us anything it's that the end will come -- I don't think any of us will wish for another promotion, award or big win. We'll want one more simple, everyday, ordinary moment.

So stop waiting. Stop holding your breath for the perfect moment.

It's here.

Monday, January 10, 2011

"Let's not forget this feeling."

PJ said it to me on the plane ride home from Costa Rica. He looked at me from across the aisle and said it simply and plainly – as is his way -- trying to commit it to my memory and his own.

"Let's not forget this feeling."

It was the feeling that we were leaving a place that had changed us for the better. The feeling that we were closer, calmer, quieter -- happier somehow. It was the feeling that we had clued into a secret: that a simpler life isn't an easier one, but every challenge comes with a reward. It was knowing that Santa Teresa had been good for us, as difficult as it was to live there sometimes. Maybe because it was so difficult at times.

Now I’m searching for the feeling again.

I've forgotten it somehow. I can barely make it out in the haze of my memory. But it’s there, somewhere, like an itch you can't quite locate.

It’s been replaced with feelings I wish I could forget. They've hung around me my whole life and I wish they would get the hint and hit the road. Indecision. Guilt. Fear. Enough already.

We've been back in LA for six months and it’s been really wonderful in lots of ways. Being back with friends and family. Watching a friend get better. Celebrating Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Going to the movies. Enjoying the amazing, irritating, beautiful, bloated, ridiculous bounty that is life in the US.

We planned to go back to Costa Rica in January, but we’re still here. Part of the reason is financial. But I have to admit a bigger reason is something much more difficult to resolve. Namely me.

Sometimes I think I can just stay still and my perfect life will happen without me doing anything. Not so much that it will happen in spite of me – but that it will happen in some dream state and that it will be good enough.

So here it is. Again. A choice. Stay or go.

Then I think of other feelings I've lost or can’t quite manage to take hold of again.

That feeling of skating down a hill in Central Park – scared to death but exhilarated at the same time. Linda skating -- and screaming – by my side. The feeling that anything is possible. That life is easy and sweet. The feeling that life is full and open and new.

How did everything get so heavy?

There was darkness in the past, to be sure. But from where I stand now it seemed a lot lighter.

Where do I stand?

PJ wants to go back to Costa Rica and be all Viking about it. Hit the beach and burn the boats.

"Let’s not forget this feeling."

I'm trying to believe the feeling is real. I’m trying to believe that it will be enough.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

unexpected turns

We're going home.

We haven't given up on this crazy adventure, but it's taken an unexpected turn. A few things are calling us back, including a sick friend and the fact that this little Costa Rican town has grown even soggier and slower than seems possible. It feels like time to reconnect with the world. At least for a while.

The thought of leaving Costa Rica is bittersweet. It hasn't always been easy, that's for sure. It's been educational, surprising, beautiful, hideous, amazing, infuriating, exhausting, exhilarating – mostly all at the same time.

I'm actually really surprised at how bittersweet it is. If you had asked me three months ago, I would have given you a long list of rantings why I wanted to go home. Now? Not so much.

Why should I miss this place? Last night I tripped over a mouse on my way to the bathroom. Tonight I found a scorpion under the girls' princess step stool. Not exactly reasons to want to stay someplace.

But then there are the sunsets, the tide pools, the quiet, the rain, the booming thunderstorms, the slow pace, the little Montessori school, the monkeys, birds and butterflies in more colors and sizes than you ever imagined. Most of all, the girls are so happy here and we've been able to spend so much time with them. I could go on and on.

Those are all great reasons to want to stay, but they're not the only ones. They're not even the best.

In short, thanks to the scorpions, mosquitoes, mice, prehistoric bugs – flying and otherwise – snakes, lizards, washed-out bridges, power outages, closed roads, ancient stick shifts, super mold, big waves, mud, dust, unidentifiable foodstuffs, and cultural quirks (mine). You have tested my courage and strength. You have bested me at times, but you've made me a better person.

Don't get me wrong – if I had to choose between having a washer and dryer or just a washing machine and hoping the sun will dry the clothes before they get moldy – I'd pick a washer/dryer every time, thank you very much. Gentle cycle, if you please. Or how about a good beer on tap? A really good beer. And a great burger? All I can say is "Pass the fries. Get your own damn order"

But I'm going to miss it here. It will be good to be home, though. To be with family and friends, and do and see all the things we've missed.

We have a little more than a week left here. So take a big deep breath of fresh clean air, soak in the sun and drink in the rain. Remember the faces and most of all – remember that you never need as much as you think you do. Remember you're always stronger than you think you are – and there's beauty in everything, especially the things that scare you.

And always check under the princess stool.

Monday, May 31, 2010

the storm

It started raining on Monday morning – a rain like I've never seen or heard before – and it didn't stop until Thursday. (El Nino has nothing on this kind of rain.)

During that terrible magnificent storm so much happened.

PJ helped build a bridge by carrying rocks down from the hillside to fill the gaping hole between the little bridge that connects us to the mountain road. The hole was the result of a gentle stream turning into a raging river that covered the bridge and washed out the land connecting it to the "mainland."

The girls learned to bake bread. We saw pineapples growing by the river's edge. We saw a cockroach the size of a small armadillo. ("Don't look at it, it might fly!") I waded across the river to an outstretched hand and a smiling face. We all stopped and listened – filled with wonder and gratitude -- when we heard the first bird sing after the rain. I learned that in an emergency my first instinct is to stock up on chocolate and beer – the good kind. I don't want to die with Budweiser on my breath.

I thought those four days would have been the hardest since we got here. No electricity, no phone, no water, no Internet. No road. No bridge. No washing machine. No sun to dry wet, wet, clothes. We were marooned on our own soggy little island: PJ, me, Zuzu, Vida, our landladies Emma and Anna, their five dogs, and a cat named Louie. And yet it was some of the happiest times we've spent here. Maybe it's because I'm a glutton for punishment, but I think it's because I felt really connected to this place and to people other than my little nucleus of PJ, Zuzu and Vida.

We shared food, water, rain jackets, stories and coffee. Emma made a delicious dinner. The girls swam in Emma and Anna's pool and made friends with their dogs. We bonded -- for lack of a hipper word – and we realized that whatever we have we'd gladly share. And if we needed anything, providence, or in this case two lovely English women, would provide. If none was to be found, we didn't really need it, after all.

This feeling of being connected made me think about why we came here. I left my home, family and friends to find something. Proof maybe? Proof that there's something that will make me feel like, "Yes, THIS is it. THIS is what I should be feeling, doing, saying, being, knowing, loving. Yes, thank you! Now I know. I can relax. I have certainty. I have confirmation. Can I get a confirmation number, please?"

I don't think it happens like that, as much as I wish it would.

That's not to say there aren't momentous events that hit you like a storm. But more often than that proof comes in an outstretched hand when you really need it. And that's all the proof anyone really needs.

Monday, May 24, 2010

bound for santa teresa

This is a story I wrote for the local Santa Teresa magazine . . .

Any day can be the day that changes your life. The day that becomes the marker between what happened before and what happens after.

It's not usually the day you think it's going to be. Like the day you lose your virginity or move to Costa Rica to live in paradise. It's the day you don't expect. The day that starts like any other, with you sitting at your favorite café watching the dust settle in Santa Teresa.

That's when your life changes, with the inkling of a breeze and the rumbling of a bus. You look up from your coffee to ask the waitress for something and suddenly you're swept away by a face gazing from a dust-covered window.

It's the most heart-stoppingly -- give-your-life-some-meaning -- beautiful face you've ever seen, and it's clear what you must do. You leap from the table, throw down some coins, and start running for the bus.

You never do things like this. But maybe that's what paradise is for – to reinvent yourself as the man you always wanted to be. And the man you want to be is hers.

The bus rolls on, picks up speed and disappears around a corner. You run past lazy dogs stealing shade, little kids playing under mango trees, and a fire roasting in the sun. You taste the dust kicked up by quads and run till your legs ache. They say love hurts … so far they're not wrong.

Then you see the bus up ahead, stopped at a Super. You're this close to the rest of your life.

But she's not there. You search the windows and all you see is your own reflection. You laugh. Maybe it's the heat. Or maybe it's the hope that love will rumble into your life like a big, green bus. And you think ..…

Tomorrow is another day.