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.



Sea Lion

Sea Lion Baby



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.


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.  
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.

Confession: I’m Ready To See Beauty

After nearly 22 hours of flying and layovers, I landed at LAX on Monday morning after the trip of a lifetime in Bali.  I was tired, I was a little cranky, and I felt the Bali joy start to seep out of me with every step through the airport.  The length of time it took for my suitcase to appear on the conveyor belt caused many drawn out sighs of annoyance.  The line blocking the exit to customs provoked an exaggerated eye roll and some foot tapping.  When I started arguing with my cab driver about directions, while on the phone with my mom, I knew it was slippery slope downhill from there.

So I stopped.  Took a deep breath.  Told my mom I loved her.  Accepted the cab driver’s apology, and thanked him offering it and getting me home safely.  Focused on recalling how happy I had been just one short day earlier. 
And then I remembered: The 5 Most Beautiful Things Project.  Earlier this month, my friend and mentor, Jen Pastiloff, started the 5 Most Beautiful Things Project.  The idea, born while she was sitting in LA traffic, was that you can find 5 beautiful things in every day, in every moment.  In her exquisite words:

What if we walked around looking for beauty instead of looking for things to be stressed about or offended by?  What if we became beauty hunters?  What if we told more beautiful stories?  What if it was all we saw, even in the dirt?  What if we trained our eyes and our hearts to tune into that which makes us cock our head to one side and close our eyes gently in an effort to memorize what we were looking at.  What if it is all we got?


I quickly took stock and identified my 5 Most Beautiful Things in that moment:
-Global Entry Kiosk
-My suitcase arriving
-2 episodes of my favorite Homeland
-My comfy bed
-A million Facebook interactions with my fellow Bali tribe members
And I felt better.  Immediately.  Actually, truly, really better.  I smiled, I felt lighter, and being back at home felt good, instead of a letdown.  Because my real life, here, in Santa Monica, is GOOD.  Great even.  I need to believe in that and not lose sight of it because I have to wait a little longer for my luggage.
How quick was I to believe in the magic in Bali that I assigned significance to every gesture, every beautiful thing I saw.  An elegant green door, a dirty child placing a flower on a tree, a man washing his chicken in the river.  Each was beautiful in its own special way.  Each meant something MORE, because it was in this magical place.
I had my laundry done halfway through the trip, and it was returned to me with a delicate green thread sewn into the back of every item.  I knew it must have been a special blessing bestowed upon me by the Balinese, some offering that would protect me, the wearer of these clothes.  I asked my new friend Wayan to explain what specifically this beautiful green thread meant, what glorious custom this was.
 “Oh, that’s how they keep the laundry organized.  All of your clothes have a green thread, all of Jen’s have a red thread, all of Mel’s have a blue thread….”.
How lovely will my life be if I can find the green thread in every moment, real or imagined?  It sure takes the edge off returning to reality.
**Join The 5 Most Beautiful Things project on Twitter or at now!

Confession: I Am Grateful

I am grateful.

I am grateful for the opportunity to spend Thanksgiving in the most beautiful, magical place I ever could have imagined.

I am grateful for a lovingly cooked  Western-style Thanksgiving dinner, eaten with the Bali tribe at a table set for 20.

I am grateful for new, lifelong friends.

I am grateful for the one who brought me here.

I am grateful for a mindful, heart-lifted practice amongst the greenery.

I am grateful for sunsets on the beach.

I am grateful for spontaneous skinny-dipping in the rain and dance parties in white in the kitchen.


Happy Thanksgiving from Bali.