The Year Of Us

While many people do their reflecting and goal-setting at the end of each calendar year, I typically wait until my birthday at the end of January to look back at the year that has passed and to make my plans for the year that is beginning for me.

The year that followed my turning thirty-six broke the mold of all years that came before. It broke me.

And now that my birthday is, once again, here, I find that I don’t want to do things as I have previously done them.

I don’t want to look back and reflect on the year I became an only child. I don’t want to examine all of the ways this year has changed me. I don’t want to make silly lists of all of the things I plan to do on this next trip around the sun (Get back in shape! Visit new countries! Find life’s purpose!!)

My windows of time now are shorter, more fragile. Long term reflecting and planning have both been abandoned out of necessity rather than any rational choice.

Instead of ruminating about all that has occurred since my last birthday, I can only reminisce about my most recent experience. Instead of formulating plans for the upcoming year, I can only arrange for today.

*

When I booked my trip to Guatemala, life looked a lot different. It was a new country to visit, and an opportunity to connect with friends, but it really didn’t extend past that for me. Once it came time to leave, however, the circumstances of my world had so drastically changed that I was now assigning a new weight to everything, counting on each trip to save me. I worried that Guatemala, or I, might crumble under this pressure.

I arrived in Quetzaltenango (Xela to locals) with three suitcases full of clothing and random belongings to distribute to the children and women at Education and Hope, an organization founded by my friend Julie Coyne that brings access to education to impoverished children in nearby areas of the Western Highlands. Specifically, they provide scholarships, bus tickets, school supplies, clothing, day care, food, and love to the Educación y Esperanza family.

What they actually do can only be encompassed in one word: miraculous.

I was intimidated by the closeness I witnessed, each person who walked through the doors of the Proyecto offering a hug and kiss to Julie, her husband Gordon, me. I was intimidated by my elementary grasp of Spanish, and what to say to people who spoke no English. I was intimidated by the enormity of what happens there. As the week went on, I tried to memorize all of the faces and names. I didn’t succeed but I managed with a few.

*

On my last night in Xela, Lorena walks with me to set up my ride out of town the next morning. I am taken care of here, never left to fend for myself, and Lorena takes over this duty happily tonight.

I ask her how long she has worked at Education and Hope, and she tells me she has been there for twelve years, first as a student and now working there. She loves it, and loves the people. They are my second family, she says. I ask her if she has children. She tells me she has nine siblings and that as the second oldest, that is enough work for her.

She asks me if I have brothers or sisters.

It’s the first time someone has asked me since my sister died. It’s the question I have been most dreading each time I meet someone new. I anticipated it coming up on a first date, or maybe even a job interview at home. Instead, it hits me in Spanish, with the force of a sledgehammer. Tienes hermanos?

I say no, only me. But that doesn’t feel right, so I think of how I can say this in Spanish. Mi hermana está muerta. Mi hermana murió. Mi hermana no está vivo.

Sometimes even when you don’t want to know the words, your body, your mind, your heart still knows them.

Lo siento, she says. I can feel how deeply she means it. She pauses for a moment while I blink back tears, before touching my arm and telling me, Now you have a second family here, too.

On my final morning in Xela, I spend thirty minutes with the smallest of the children, letting them climb all over me, playing peek-a-boo, pretending to sleep while they shriek with laughter above me. I don’t worry about the language barrier anymore. There is no language for their smiles, and no miscommunication in their fierce hugs. The love they offer me is simple and crosses all cultural divides. As it is happening, I think I have maybe never been this happy.

It’s nearly time for me to leave.

I make my way to the kitchen to begin saying goodbye to the ladies working there, who have fed me so lovingly all week. The little kids are napping, and the bigger kids are across the street in class. The kitchen is almost empty; I discover it is because all of the women are waiting in the main room, in a receiving line of sorts, to send me off.

They each hug me, and somehow I have no trouble understanding the things they say to me, my Spanish coming through in a way it hasn’t all week. Thank you for sharing your heart with us. Please come back again to see us. We love you.

Rosenda is there, one of the younger women, hugging me intensely, before drawing back and putting her hand firmly on my heart while she looks straight into my eyes. Tu tienes un gran corazón.

I cry, because I can’t fathom how she can see this, especially with the big fault line running through its center. Until I realize that she sees the fissure too, and maybe loves me just a little more because of it. I cry harder. For Kelly, for my parents, for the women here, for all of our collective losses, for myself.

And a tiny piece of the crack fuses back together again. Not healed, not like before, but held together somehow from the purest form of love I have been shown in this special place. When I walk outside and find all of the students standing in the street yelling, Adios Katie, before running to hug and kiss me goodbye, I understand that this is the kind of day worthy of reflection. This is the kind of day worthy of planning. This is the kind of day you learn how to change someone’s life.

*

This is the year I turn 37.

This is the year that will remain largely unplanned.

This is the year that I turn the front facing camera in my mind around, and point it outwards.

This is the year of ordinary and extraordinary miracles.

This is the year of doing more, for others; of giving back that love I have received.

This is the year of sharing, nurturing, assisting, comforting, trusting, hugging, believing, smiling.

This is the year of love.

 

This is the Year of Us.

 

***To learn more about Education and Hope, or to make a donation (I can make this request, it’s my birthday), please visit http://educationandhope.org/. It is so easy to make a difference in the lives of these wonderful people. Thank you!

Mis nuevos amigos

Mis nuevos amigos

The Moment

It’s sunrise in Punta Mita, Mexico. I have been waiting for it for nearly thirty minutes already. The sun is rising slowly from behind the mountains, in what feels like it should be a big, climactic moment, but is instead just the casual repetition of what happens here everyday. It won’t be rushed to glory because we are here to watch it. The orange and pink colors gradually, painstakingly spread across the sky, illuminating the stand up paddle boarders in the ocean below, as they take deliberate and precise strokes away from the shore.

The roosters crow somewhere in the near distance, their calls immediately answered threefold by the seagulls flying over our heads. But otherwise, there is silence on this morning. Those who wake early seem to understand this sacred moment of the day beginning, respecting its quiet.

There is no smell here, surprising me, when smells are so often what ground me to a particular place, like the blooming tuberose we smelled each morning in Bali, or the unique earthy mixture of horses and dirt on a farm in Italy. No fishy saltwater smell wafts up from the bay, no floral aromas surround us and tell us that we are not at home. It is only when the coffee begins brewing that there is any scent recognition at all.

I’m sitting outside on our patio, sipping tea and writing while overlooking the waves on the shoreline below, the early morning mist still rising off the water. This outdoor area is partially covered by a wooden trellis, with vines hanging over the edge, framing our pictures with context, setting them apart from anywhere else we may have taken this sunrise photo over the sea. I sink deeper into the soft cushions on our wraparound couch, crossing my legs beneath me as if in meditation, as if I might close my eyes and begin a chant of OM to seal this moment in my memory forever.

 

I am 36.

 

There’s no birthday confession this year, no fighting against what my life is, or grappling for what it perhaps “should” be. There are no justifications of my choices, or resignations of what I must accept for myself. There is no fretting about the future, or tormenting myself about the past. Not this birthday morning, not right now, not in this moment.

 

There is just stillness.

 

For the next four days I am in Punta Mita, a tiny gated area situated on a bay north of Puerto Vallarta, with several girlfriends, to celebrate the passing of another year in my life. I asked them to join me, without worrying if it was too much to ask six women leave their jobs and their families and their lives to travel to another country with me. They simply asked what time to book their plane tickets and didn’t question it further. When we arrived at the airport in Mexico, we stepped into the arrivals area to find someone holding up a sign in front of her face, meant for me to read:

To Me, You Are Perfect

A tribute to my favorite movie, Love Actually, and to me, actually. One of my friends who had been unable to commit to the trip was suddenly there, surprising me outside of baggage claim in  what could have been a scene from a movie. The movie of my life.

 

It’s the scene in the movie where the soul-searching, fumbling-for-life’s-meaning girl finally feels how much she is loved.

 

And then, (I had almost forgotten it!), there it is! That moment of climax in our peaceful morning. The moment the sun finally emerges fully from behind the mountains. It shines brightly on our faces, heating them, and glistens in its reflection across the water below. The moment that feels like a reckoning, as if all of our sins are forgiven in the face of this beauty, as if we could do no wrong in this day. The moment that reaffirms our goodness, and our place in this world. The moment that reminds us who we truly are. The moment I have been waiting all morning to find.

 

The moment that is everything.

 

Early morning sun, Punta Mita

Early morning sun, Punta Mita

The sun finally emerges, an hour later

The sun emerges, an hour later…most definitely worth the wait

With love, and so, so much gratitude from Mexico,

Katie

Confession: I Don’t Feel Worthy

This weekend marked the beginning of a week of birthday celebrations for me, orchestrated and carefully set up to ease me into this new year, a year that puts me into a new bracket on the age chart.  Setting up dinners with beloved friends, yoga classes and brunches, so that I’m surrounded by love instead of alone.  So far, it has been wonderful, fun, special….and just a bit uncomfortable.


I know, how incongruous is that?  That I would feel anything other than elation around friends I have known for months, for years, for decades even.  Who have seen me through joy and tears, heartbreaks and failures and growing ups.  Who have rallied around me, toasting me with red wine and giving me cards and singing Happy Birthdays.  I should have exalted in the attention, basked in the love.  And instead, a part of me was uneasy.  
 
Because they all showed up.
 
Some with headaches, some with husbands, some who can’t even eat pizza, some from the South Bay, some straight from work.  
 
THEY SHOWED UP.
 
That’s kind of the point, obviously.  And they’re my friends, who had told me they were coming, it really was no surprise to walk into a restaurant and see them sitting there.  So what exactly was my anxiety about?!?!
 
Part of me felt like I didn’t deserve it.
 
When I was in 8th grade, my best friend that year threw me a surprise party.  I can remember my mom having to tell me about it because I was having a moody, 14-year old kind of day and wanted to skip the sleepover that was planned at my friend’s house.  I refused to go.  She pleaded with me, trying to reason with her stubborn, self-righteous daughter (to no avail, I could out-stubborn anyone).  She finally resorted to telling me about the surprise party, thinking that would surely change my mind.  Um, no.  That made me want to go even less.  Because now I was not only the brat who didn’t want to go to her best friend’s sleepover, I was the brat didn’t want to go to her own surprise party sleepover that she clearly didn’t deserve and had to be forced by her mom to attend.
 
I went.  It was fun.  We ate junk food and laughed, watched Pretty Woman and Robin Hood with Kevin Costner, and tried to see who could hit the high notes in that Phantom of the Opera song, the one that ends in that piercing high E that mostly sounds like shrieking.  But I don’t think I stayed over.  I think I remember that I went home that night from this surprise birthday sleepover that my best friend threw for me because I couldn’t shake the knowledge that I didn’t deserve it.

 
It’s 20 years later and I’m 20 years older and it’s the same.  I don’t deserve it.
 
I never had another surprise party after that birthday.  I took control, planning my own birthday celebrations or lack of them some years, it was my choice.  That was so much safer.  I could control how much I allowed myself to take.  And I could share it, that felt okay.  I could have a blowout 3-day extravaganza 21st birthday with my two sorority sisters who were born the same day.  Surely I deserved at least 1/3 of a celebration?  I could indulge in the 30th birthday party at that bar on the Lower East Side called the Skinny and invite everyone I knew because it was also my friend Erin’s birthday.  And people could come to celebrate her and maybe I could accept a slice of the cake, a sliver really, and wash it down with her prosecco and just a little guilt.
 
The control felt necessary.  Because what if someone else threw me another party that I did not deserve?  Or worse, what if they didn’t?
  
I’m still worried no one will show up.
 
I went to a healer earlier this year who placed her hand on my heart and told me that she was sending love to me, directly into my heart.  Could I feel it?  I don’t know.  I could feel the light pressure from her hands, and feel her breath on my cheek, but love?  I don’t know.  She then asked me to focus on sending it back to her, straight back to her heart.  Suddenly it felt like my chest was on fire, heating up that cool room in Ojai the way the blankets and tea and afternoon sunshine had not.  Burning down through my fingertips and my toes like I had been holding them over a campfire, so hot it actually hurts but you can’t move away .  “I feel it”, she said. “I feel your love”.
 
“But you have trouble receiving the love that you give.”
 
 
How does that happen?  Did I miss that lesson in elementary school that taught how to give and receive love, nestled somewhere between sharing your toys and washing your hands in the bathroom?  Was I home sick that day and no one brought me the homework that had 10 multiple choice questions that led you to the knowledge that you are worthy of love?  Or did I just pick B for every answer and miss the point completely?
 
Instead I keep tallies of what I owe, like mini-golf scorecards that come with those stupid little pencils and always have me +1 over par.  Struggling to get my score down, to at least break even someday. 
 
It’s fine, I don’t need a ride to the airport. (Don’t go out of your way for me!)
You don’t need to come to my party. (I can’t take up your time!)
Please, don’t get me any gifts. (How will I repay you?!?)
 
How can I possibly repay you for this love that I’m not sure I deserve?
 
I can’t.  I have to drop the scorecards.  I have to go back through the questions and not just choose “B”.  I have to find another way that allows me to accept love.  While I’m struggling to open incredibly thoughtful gifts, when someone else wants to pick up the tab, when I’m confronted by the idea that I’m taking more than I deserve.  
All I can come up with is…thank you.  That’s all that’s left.
 
 
“In the end, though, maybe we must all give up trying to pay back the people in this world who sustain our lives.  In the end, maybe it’s wiser to surrender before the miraculous scope of human generosity and to just keep saying thank you, forever and sincerely, for as long as we have voices.”
-Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat Pray Love
 
 
Thank you, to all of you who sustain me.  Who love me.  Who show up.  Who remind me that I am worthy, and that I do deserve love.
 
 
xx,
Katie