My Christmas In Exile

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Harrods During Christmas. Photo courtesy of anee.baba via Flickr.

The undoing occurred at the gourmet cheese counter at Harrods.

It was Christmas Eve afternoon, not quite dark enough yet to see the elaborate lights display all around the exterior of the store, though that didn’t stop the throngs of tourists outside from taking picture after picture of the barely visible illuminations. Inside, in the cavernous Food Hall where the sound echoed at a deafening volume, I shuffled through the nearly solid mass of people, past the bakery, the charcuterie, the Middle Eastern prepared foods. I had also come to see the holiday decorations, and was wasting time until sundown, when I came upon the cheese counter.

A piece of Gouda with black truffle caught my eye, and then its scent filled my nose, so I took a number and made my way to the front to order a piece for the next evening’s dinner. Just enough for a single sandwich, I told the girl. “Is this for you, for Christmas?” she asked me.

It’s the simple question that stops you in your tracks, that causes your breath to hitch and your heart to clench. That undoes you.

Because if you have to admit to the British girl working at the cheese counter that this single piece of truffled Gouda is for the grilled cheese sandwich you will eat alone, for Christmas dinner, you have to admit it to yourself.

You completely screwed up.

******

I used to love Christmas.

The rituals, mostly.

Digging into the heap of presents beneath a huge, fragrant tree we had decorated as a family, my mom directing the placement of the lights (only white ones!) and the ornaments, the ones we had made over the years in school, and the glass ones my dad received annually from work. My grandparents, always sipping their coffee, smiling indulgently as I exclaimed, “Just what I always wanted” into the video camera in my dad’s hand. My mom, making waffles from scratch that we could smell from the living room, and heating the plates in the oven so the waffles stayed warm.

Later, in a new house, where I insisted earnestly that New Kids on the Block had the best Christmas album, and our new kitten ran crazily from the dining room to the living room any time the doorbell rang, sliding through the foyer and climbing up the decorated tree. My grandfather there to hear my big solo in O Holy Night in the winter choral concert, and my grandmother closing her eyes when we sang her favorite carol, A Welsh Lullaby. My mother, making the special chocolate Christmas cookies, that I could sometimes convince her to undercook just the way I liked them, and my father trying to put together a Barbie Dream house for my sister.

My family, together. My family, in love.  My family, happy.

Every year I’ve recalled these memories, these ghosts of Christmases past, these portraits of a family that I think once existed. The family in those home videos, forever immortalized on tapes too small for our VCR, that we could play back and watch through the camera’s viewfinder. I could make believe that all of our Christmases were perfect, that our family was perfect, as long as I could call up those images.

Until this year, when I finally couldn’t recognize those people any longer.

The splintering happened gradually, with little pieces of wood breaking off from the whole every year, until what remained was cracked and sharp-edged and just a fraction of what once was. Yelling. Hospitals. Criticism. Age. Dismissal. Death. Divorce. Lies. Addictions. Letdowns. Estrangement. The things that happen to families, I guess, over time. The things that, eventually, break them.

This year, I couldn’t bear it. The going through of motions, the pretending.

So I fled.

To London, and a friend I had met exactly once. To one I hadn’t seen in 20 years. To one I had worked with, sort of, at some point in time. To one I had loved once, who didn’t ask me to come. To one who was friends with my boss, a yoga teacher, who chastised me for “holding back”.

I fled to ones with whom I shared no past: no hurt, no pain, no guilt, no regret.

The trip began encouragingly, with cozy dinners in pubs and happy trips to the theatre. Kindness was the saving grace of those days, and I was met with it everywhere I turned, in everyone who tried to save me from myself. The friend who planned things she knew I would like, who listened and provided thoughtful guidance, and whose daughter climbed in my lap to brush my hair and asked me every morning to play with her. The friend who met me despite my scheduling changes, and the yoga classes that welcomed me into their fold, giving me comfort in something familiar. Even the taxi drivers, with their chirpy commentary and pointing out of sights, tried to keep me smiling.

It wasn’t enough to stave off the loneliness though, which crept in slowly. It tiptoed into the yoga class and rested in child’s pose next to my mat. It sat behind me at the theatre, kicking my seat and begging to be acknowledged. It hopped onto the train at Oxford Circus with me, covering my hand as I held onto a pole, although I lost it when switching to the Northern line at Stockwell. I thought I could outrun it, or outsmart it, or just outmaneuver it.

But it finally found me, forcing its way through the crowd at Harrods to catch me at the cheese counter, and it would not let me go. There was no more running, no more outsmarting, no more outmaneuvering.

It was the loneliest I’ve ever been, it seems. Sitting alone on a couch in my self-imposed exile, with a grilled cheese sandwich for Christmas dinner, 3,500 miles away from my family, the loneliness finally settled upon my shoulders and around my neck, like a cloak that threatened to choke me. So this is what it feels like to break your own heart, I thought. This was my punishment, I assumed, for leaving my family and ruining Christmas. I was meant to accept it gravely and stoically, while telling everyone I was having a jolly old time in England.

Except I found that I couldn’t. This time I couldn’t pretend that things were fine. I couldn’t continue to post pretty Instagram pictures and wrap up this trip with a bow and say, “Just what I always wanted”. I couldn’t act as though I was having the trip of a lifetime. I couldn’t get on yet another flight, to go to yet another city, alone. I couldn’t even leave the flat. I didn’t know how to rescue myself from this situation I had created.

I didn’t know how to undo what I had done.

Kindness, it turns out, saved me again. Kindness from the friends who said it was okay to simply give up on this trip, cut my losses and go home. Kindness from the father who answered his phone at 6am, and picked me up at the airport later that night without question. Kindness from the mother who changed the sheets to the ones I like, and tucked me in to sleep like I hadn’t abandoned her. Kindness from the grandfather who never mentioned my Christmas absence, and just hugged me a little longer instead.

Kindness taught me that you can go home again. Maybe not to that perfect family, or that perfect Christmas, frozen for all time in those old videotapes. But to the family that remains, who loved you through New Kids on the Block albums, and long holiday concerts in an overheated auditorium, and lies, and judgments and all of your other screw-ups. The family who plucks you from your loneliness and reminds you that you are never really alone.

They are your real Christmas.

Angels, Turtles and Magic: A Week in the Galápagos

My roommate sleeps with a smile on her face.

We are here, in the Galápagos Islands, for a weeklong retreat. The word “retreat” has never felt more fitting than it does here, where the main attractions are nature and animals and are so far removed from the constant traffic and smog and noise of Los Angeles. This is no City of Angels, but it seems to hold so many of them in the form of sea lions and blue-footed boobies and massive pre-historic looking turtles called tortugas.

My roommate, too. She is an angel. She sleeps in stillness while smiling, on her side, with her hands pressed together underneath her head as if in a silent prayer. She wakes languidly, smile still on her face, the physical embodiment of the lines from one of my favorite Mary Oliver poems:

“Good morning, good morning, good morning. Watch, now, how I wake in happiness, in kindness.”

I wake with the remnants of own night. Jaw sore from permanent clenching, teeth aching from grinding through a plastic mouth guard, muscles oddly tired from some unknown fight while I slept. I asked the dentist how I could stop grinding my teeth so badly, how I could sleep more peacefully. “Have less stress,” she tells me, as if stress were an object I could collect or discard at will, like souvenir t-shirts or expensive shoes. Just have less of them, and I will sleep better and my teeth won’t bite through plastic and my jaw will no longer lock. What if it were that easy? What if I could smile in my sleep too?

Or what if I was a tortuga?

We went to visit them, where they gather in ponds and roam across open land covered in landscaping scraps that looked like perfect little grass and twig houses. It was a surreal place, like we had stumbled upon the Galápagos-themed section of Epcot rather than real life. An amusement park attraction that couldn’t possibly exist in nature. Except that it somehow does.

I crouched down before one of the turtles who was submerged halfway in the mud, his shell making suction-y noises when he tried to lift himself to a new vantage point, detaching himself from the sludge momentarily before sinking back down again. I stared at him silently for what seemed an eternity, the wariness in his eyes never lessening. He opened his mouth as if to talk to me, but remained mute. Instead he kept his eyes trained on me as he slowly retracted his head back into his shell, connection to me lost for good.

I know this turtle. I am this turtle.

I know how to pull my head back into my shell. I know how to disengage. I know how to retreat.

But this retreat is actually not about retreating. It’s not about escaping at all here. It’s about finding yourself in a place, in nature, in animals.

Besides, as Chris Cleave put it his novel Little Bee, “life is not inclined to let us escape.” There is no retreating from the iguana who crosses my path, causing me to pause and admire his vivid yellow coloring. Or from the sea lion cub who stops to sniff my clothing before he flops down on the sand to dry himself, and to rest from the exertion of climbing up the rocks to dry land. Or yet another enormous tortuga, who walks boldly and deliberately towards me, eyes never leaving mine, an unspoken challenge to let him really see me.

The beauty here is both undeniable and inescapable.

At Semilla Verde, the picturesque retreat center where we are staying, the sunrise shines through the trees at 5am, illuminating them the way the brighten button on my camera means to enhance my pictures, but that I can now see fails miserably. Nothing could re-create this filter, this real light that dances across the treetops and peeks through the green.

The yoga studio, with its perfectly smooth wood floors, and dramatic wall of windows, looks out onto the tortoise pond. One night as we are practicing, in the dusk with just a few candles lit, a tortuga crosses the yard, moving slowly towards the setting sun in the distance. We pause in our practice to admire this completely natural, and completely surreal moment.

At that instant, we all believe in magic.

I am trying, desperately, to remember it all, now that it’s over. I’m writing it down and cataloguing pictures and studying our itinerary, because how tragic would it be to experience magic and not remember it?

I hope I never forget the color of the water here, and the multitude of shades of aqua and cerulean and cobalt that I’ve never before seen together. I hope I never forget the vibrant red grass that covers the desert land during the dry season, or the exact shade of the blue-footed boobies’ startlingly blue feet. I hope I never forget the intensity of the gaze of the tortugas, who seemed to see right into my soul.

I hope I never forget the smell of sea lion poop and iguana poop sealed together in the salty air, a smell so vile and distinct that it seems forever burned in my nostrils. I hope I never forget the smell of burning paper in the huge stone fireplace, where we tossed in pages of our journals, newspapers and candy wrappers; everything we hoped to leave behind in the Galápagos: our fears, our flaws and our trash. I hope I never forget the smell of the afternoon rain that fell on Semilla Verde almost daily—cool and earthy and cleansing.

I hope I never forget the sound of the frigate birds flying overhead during mating season, or the sea lion “bull” calling out from the water to his harem of females. I hope I never forget the sound of a little boy giggling as he ran through the house, or the raspy voice of our tour guide Cheche, as he shared his love of Galápagos with us. I hope I never forget our laughter as we recounted tales to each other with catch phrases like “clamp-down”, “wine-in-a-box” and “chef-on-a-boat”.

I hope I never forget the tartness of tamarind sorbet, or the chalkiness of Ecuadorian dark chocolate. I hope I never forget the amazing combination of rice and cheese and corn, fried together to make the perfect breakfast delicacy.

I hope I never forget the softness of the white sand on the beaches beneath our feet, the fine crystals feeling like something else entirely, almost like liquid even. I hope I never forget the rocky terrain we traversed, and the way it felt solid yet sometimes shifted under our slow steps.

I hope to never forget standing in the rain, barefoot in the wet grass, eyes and hearts lifted to the sky in a circle gratitude, feeling so perfectly in the right place at the right time.

I hope I never forget any of it.

Because if I can allow myself to dream of this beauty, to dream of this magic, I, too, may wake up with my hands pressed together under my head, saying a prayer of gratitude. I, too, may stop retreating into my shell. I, too, may awaken as a smiling angel. I may remember it all.

Gracias por los recuerdos Galápagos. Gracias por todo.

Tortuga

Tortuga

Sea Lion

Sea Lion Baby

Iguana

Iguana

Sea Turtle!

Sea Turtle!

View on South Plazas Island

View on South Plazas Island (sea lion and bird perched high above the water)

Sunset. Yoga. Tortuga. Bliss.

Sunset. Yoga. Tortuga. Bliss.

Katie