have you never been awoken by the sun only to hear the wind whisper through the needles on the evergreens in the chilly breath of fall? feared the pinecones above as you sleep, naked to the stars, below? have you never made the unlevelled earth your home for the eve? the air and sky your shelter from a story you don't quite fit? have you never remembered what it feels like to listen to the silence of what it is to belong to the nature that gives life to all beings? never contemplated the ancient wisdom in the rocks you climb? the unfathomable strength in the seas you surf? the innocent purity in the rivers you raft and fish? the deep calm in the lakes where you might bathe? have you never remembered that you live and breathe in nature, just as nature lives and breathes in you?
...and so the car drama continues. now with a few life lessons in tow.
this morning i found myself roadside off the 8 at Hotel Circle, comparing estimates on a new timing belt for the new-to-me used Honda CRV i bought two weeks ago - no, not the stolen one i'd test-driven on my Craigslist kidnapping date. this one was legit, title in hand, and even the mechanic gave it a clean bill of health before i took the plunge and bought it. i had felt accomplished when i talked the guy down from $3900 and we settled on a clean $3400 cash. and she was all mine.
this Saturday, two weeks later to the day, i left it in front of the Sheraton after it died on me at 70mph on the freeway, swerving to the shoulder in oncoming, angry traffic, ne'er to start again. today i was pleasantly shocked to find it where i'd left it, expecting someone to have stolen it or at least borrowed the tires for a while. but there she was, shining blue in the morning sun, 'paintball or die' sticker still neatly pressed to the bottom righthand corner of the rear window, right where it's former owner had left it. too busy driving it up and down the coast from one fancy-free activity to the next, i hadn't even bothered to register the thing in my name yet.
"hola mi'ija," Antonio's jolly demeanor met me at the curb. despite my run of luck, i couldn't help but smile. he was just one of those guys. i climbed into the passenger seat of his tow-truck, watching in the rearview as he hoisted my new blue baby to an incline, chained up on the flatbed behind me. completely secured.
unrusting my Spanish, we got to talking.
"llevo 22 años aqui en San Diego," he said. "since 1988."
now i'm no math wiz, but i ran the numbers in my head anyway.
"no son 26 años?" i asked him, gently.
we both laughed at his miscalculation on how long he'd actually been here.
"looks like you lost 4 years somewhere along the way," i joked. we laughed some more as he shook his head.
Antonio had moved here from Acapulco, once among Mexico's top beach vacation destinations. he had money there and everything, he said. but he wouldn't go back now; not with the way things were down there.
i thought about the sense of security we take for granted here, material security anyway. not having to worry about our cars not being there where we parked them two days later. probably a much different story in today's Acapulco Antonio had left behind. someone would have definitely borrowed my tires there, indefinitely.
"i've been a grujero for 15 years," he said, reminding me that the word for tow-truck driver hadn't made the cut for Spanish vocab i'd remember after a month outside Costa Rica, my transition back into the gringa version of me now nearly complete.
"and in those 15 years," he continued. "i've learned that a woman driving a stick-shift SUV is a very independent woman."
an independent woman... i looked at myself in the sideview mirror.well at least he knew what he was working with. (...to a fault, i thought as i raised an eyebrow in silent confirmation.)
he liked that i lived in Costa Rica, that i had left the US for a simpler life. it was something he aspired to do, too, someday down the line. he was tired of everything being about money here. about ambition, he said. everyone competing for this and that to make a living, doing whatever it takes to get by. he admired people who came here, made some money and got the hell out. people like his friend, he told me, who owned an auto shop, sold everything and moved South to a small home on a humble piece of land somewhere a thousand miles from here. somewhere where the culture was still in tact, he said. where people could be trusted, where relationships were real. where he could just fish and live simply, he said.
i wondered if that's how Antonio had lived in Acapulco 26 years ago. was he nostalgic for a different kind of security he had felt in a previous life's version of himself? or was he looking to the future promise of the emotional security that comes with being part of a community he called home in a simpler life he hoped to create? a new type of non-material security he didn't feel here, yet couldn't imagine himself feeling there? was he stuck, like me, in the insecure space between?
"it seems like a lot of people come here from Mexico for the opportunity to live the American Dream." i said, waking myself from his daydream (or was it mine?). he nodded, perhaps contemplating the good old sueño Americano that brought him here in the first place.
"but are you noticing that many of them find themselves in a situation like yours, where they feel stuck, disillusioned, and want to leave again?" i asked the question i want to ask every single Mexican i meet in San Diego; every single person i talk to, really, whose desire for a simple, happy life seems to clash with their current lived reality, inspired only by the idea that living differently is even a far-flung possibility.
"sueñoAmericano no es," he said quickly, looking at me as we waited at the stoplight. it's not a dream. "es una pesadilla." nightmare, i translated in my head. that one i still remembered.
"i've lost two houses already," he admitted just before we reached the auto repair shop's parking lot. i wasn't sure what that meant, but it sounded rough. "i just want a simple life," he went on. "but here, it's all about money. and it's really, really hard."
Antonio pulled the truck to a stop as i pulled my wallet from my bag to pay him, the irony in that moment only apparent to me now.
"do you take credit card?" i asked, pulling the Visa from the square stack of plastic, grateful to the gods of credit for bailing me out of unexpected car debacles like this one, past and present.
"yes," he said. "but i'll have to charge you a $3 fee."
of course he would, i thought, smiling to my feet. three dollars here, three dollars there. what's three dollars to me but a way to make both of our worlds go 'round.
"está bien?" he asked in kind, apologetic eyes.
"claro que si," i responded in kind, handing him the card. at this point i hadn't yet received the diagnostic report for the repairs i'd need to make my used car all shiny like new again. so at this point, i was still making dilemmonade from my lemon dilemma, all smiles in naivete. because at this point, i didn't know i'd be choosing between investing another $3000 in engine repairs or selling the thing for parts for $500.
"i hope to see you again soon," Antonio told me before i hopped out, my feet touching down in colorful flipflops on the dark asphalt. "under different conditions, of course." he smiled his jolly smile once again.
"ojalá," i said back, cherising the solidarity in our fleeting moments together, knowing i'd never see him again.
as i walked into the shop to face the music of my present car dilemma, Antonio drove off with a wave, to go play hero in someone else's automotive tragicomedy, unknowingly doling out the real, good stuff money can't buy, one wise wizard word at a time.
our realities were very different by privilege and circumstance. yet for that perfect instant in time, we were kindred souls in the inescapability of our shared American nightmare.
"hop in and drive" he said, coming around to the passenger side before i could get my bearings, the red light about to turn green in front of us informing my split-second non-decision outside the Old Town trolley station. i hopped off the curb and onto the street, throwing my backpack in the backseat before climbing in behind the wheel.
...i guess if i was getting kidnapped i might as well drive myself there. most likely at gunpoint. death by Craigslist my chosen way out.
i pressed for the clutch that wasn't there, challenged to find the shifter thingy, the automatic transmission unfamiliar in Tony's forest-green 1998 Honda CRV with 148,000 miles on it. the clean, empty interior stank like cigarettes. i kind of liked it.
no doubt in my mind, this car was stolen.
puffy black curls hid beneath his Padres hat. i checked myself out in his mirrored sunglasses, worried he was hiding more than just his eyes behind the lenses. i liked the freckles on his broad nose and wondered how much black he was (maybe half, i decided). i remembered his voice from our phone calls that morning, smooth and logical as we planned our meeting. he didn't sound black.
"i'll pick you up from the station," he had said a few hours earlier. famous last words, i had thought, skeptical.
he looked cool, like someone i'd probably hang out with in Costa Rica.
but this is San Diego, i reminded myself. this is the USA, remember? where the color of your skin is never just the color of your skin. and white girls like me don't often find themselves in the company of half-black men like Tony. it just doesn't happen.
and in San Diego, we just wouldn't have inhabited the same social space - ever - let alone be sharing the same breathing room at arm's length, getting to know one another as strangers becoming friends, flimsy armrests our only visible barrier.
this was the rare occasion where the rules could bend, and we could just be there and be different colors like no big deal. as if being different colors wasn't even a thing.
my brain said be scared, this guy is trying to sell you a stolen car or kidnap you and sell you into the sex trade. my brain said that because it had been conditioned to say that, all those scary stories about Craigslist encounters gone wrong, the nightly news pumping fear through our veins.
but the rest of me thought this guy was pretty damn cool, telling me about his American Indian grandfather sundancing in Wyoming, his cousins in Tucson and his deformed collarbone that never healed right from a skateboarding injury a few years' back. i wanted to be skeptical of this sense of authentic connection i felt with a stranger i was supposed to be afraid of. but as he listened to me talk about my life and work and seemed truly interested, i felt at ease. i felt like we had oceans more in common than the white surfer kid who took me out to sushi last night in Encinitas on what might have been the most boring date of all time. and he didn't even pay for dinner.
in the San Diego i knew, there were no black people. here, my friends were all white. and my days were spent surfing on white sand beaches where other white people sunbathed and frolicked with their families, looking up in varying shades of envy at other white people's million-dollar homes up high on the seaside cliffs. i shopped for groceries at Whole Foods where only white people spend their often-not-so-hard-earned money on fancy organic produce. i drank overpriced red wine at open-air bars talking about riveting subjects like landscape architecture and craft beer with other white people listening to black people music we spoke loud to hear eachother over. i went to yoga and drank wheatgrass and rarely ventured beyond the 10-mile radius of manicured lawns, fancy cars, chic cafes and surf shops dotting the Coast highway.
"god it's white here," i remembered complaining to my mom over the phone.
it was so white here we'd leave the front door open and not even think twice.
so white we'd talk about which juice cleanse gave us the fewest heart palpitations. what we'd do on our next vacation overseas. where we'd do mimosas and bennies at brunch this Sunday.
it was so white here i'd leave my bag with my wallet, car keys and iPhone on the beach when i paddled out for a surf.
so white, even, that it would all still be there when i got back.
so white you forget being white is even a thing.
so white, even, that i felt right at home.
safe. predictable. comfortable.
or drunk. sometimes being drunk made doing white people things really, really fun.
"so what kind of music do you listen to?" Tony asked as i exited the freeway, nearing 10 minutes into our test-drive kidnapping date. we had already covered where we worked, what we did for fun and whether we "burned trees" or not. (me: USD, surfing, and every now and then; him: self-employed plumber, street-skating, and yes, do you want some.) i laughed into my belly. my brain still wondered where he was taking me and if he had a knife in his pocket.
"oh, you know," i said, feigning non-chalance as we pulled into the Walmart parking lot. "i get into a little bit of everything depending on how i'm feeling. usually reggae, or dancehall if i'm out, or anything with a good beat. or i can get into some folky stuff. my parents are old hippies so it's kind of in my blood." he nodded, smiling in his smooth, cool little way.
i noticed my heart had slowed to steady as i pulled into a tight spot in the crowded lot, purposely in plain sight of the shopping center surveillance cameras. just in case. because my brain wouldn't let me not be scared.
a blazing purple low-rider drove past us real slow, beats blaring hot. held-back dreadlocks laid back with a cigarette out the window, staring at me from the passenger seat; soft hair extensions and gorgeous, full lips tapped her neon acrylics on the steering wheel, looking hard. a mom and her daughter walked by speaking Spanish. i hoped they'd think i was mexican. that they wouldn't listen long enough to realize i was just a little white girl, lost in the 'hood.
i had no idea where i was. but this did not feel like San Diego.
not my San Diego, anyway.
"holy shit," i said to myself, coming to terms with my surroundings. "i am so white right now."
i was terrified, my sense of security threatened by difference, everything i was taught to fear playing out in a storybook of news headlines with me as the victim in the you-name-it social tragedy of the hour.
yet, to be honest, i was also a little excited. i was starring in my own accidental adventure, surviving kidnapping car-buying in the multi-racial Walmart parking lot in non-white San Diego. this was some real-ass shit in the heat of broad daylight.
definitely not boring.
not even a little bit drunk.
popping the hood, Tony asked me what my ethnicity was, "if i didn't mind telling him." i was flattered he didn't just leave it at 'white', believing that meant he probably thought i was Latina or something. i fake-examined the engine, pretending to know what i was looking for.
"well my heritage is Eastern European," but my parents are American. thank god he didn't know that meant Jewish.
as Tony pulled the dipstick out of its little hole-thingy, assuring me the oil was clean (like i would have known the difference), our conversation was cut short. our time together neared its end.
"hey Tony!" i heard from across the parking lot, my brain identifying the voice as definitely male and probably mexican. i looked toward the spot where the voice was coming from, a corner near some bushes, a brown-skinned man in baggy pants and a wife-beater tanktop, his car mostly hidden from plain sight. he may or may not have been wearing a bandana.
"pull the car over here, Tony! i've got another customer who wants to buy the car," he said, accent thick.
for some reason, Tony didn't respond. and my inner alarm went off. i walked around to the side where my backpack was, survival mode my saving grace.
Tony acted natural. of course he did. he was just their pick-up guy, said my brain. he's the cool and collected one, the unsuspecting frontman. and now he knows everything about me. where i work, where i live, where i surf. because he made me feel comfortable enough to be myself and not be afraid.
"come on, Tony," the guy insisted, waving at us. i looked again. there were three of them now, standing in a row in front of a dark blue sedan near the bushes. three little gangster-looking dudes, looking more than ready to tag-team the shit out of me, steal my bag and identity before smuggling me over the border into some shady drugs-and-guns-for-sex dealings in Tijuana.
"so, what do you think?" Tony said, still ignoring the guys behind him. he meant about the car. i grabbed my backpack and shook his hand abruptly.
"it was really nice to meet you," i spoke in a hurry. "but i'm really sketched out right now and i think i'm gonna go." he didn't argue. because what's there to say, really.
"okay," i heard him say after me, when i was halfway across the parking lot, bee-lining it to the Walmart women's bathroom. i didn't have to pee.
hiding out in the strangest of escapes, a place i'd otherwise never be caught dead inside, i washed my sweaty palms in the automatic sink, my face looking pale, wholly convinced i just narrowly escaped the end of my life as i knew it.
i stared into my own eyes as they welled up in self-disappointment, wanting to believe it was my divinely guided intuition, and not my socially ingrained fear-of-other that made me run that day. but seeing myself clearly now, i couldn't see any clear distinction between the two. did my survival instinct kick in because i was truly in danger? or did my fearfully conditioned brain simply choose racism over reason? i'm not sure i'll ever know the answer to that question.
because it only takes a short trolley ride to take the girl out of the white. but it's gonna take a hell of a lot more than that to take the white out of the girl.
dimpled and doughy, they stared at me in the fitting room, nearly three decades of gravity showing up in a hurry on a Thursday afternoon in June. it didn't help that i was wearing grandma's retro one-piece, whose threadbare bottom left something to be desired where lift and perk were concerned.
this has to be a fat mirror, i thought. you know, the kind that make you look short and stumpy and like you want to run home and change into your period pants? of course it is, i went on in my mind. they put the fat mirror in the fitting room so when you try on their ass-lifting spandex you just have to buy them because the alternative is unstomachable and staring you in the face from all directions.
now that's a sales tactic that works.
still, that image of sag and cellulite struck deep, unexpected. and it wasn't pretty.
"whose legs are these?" i asked my 18-year old self as i climbed into one-size-too-small overpriced yoga pants. by then, my legs and butt looked pretty good stuffed in there like sausages, magic fabric working wonders on otherwise absent curves.
but the spillover at the top sold me right out, love-handles drooping over suffocating waistband. i wished i was ten pounds lighter. and a whole lot firmer around the middle.
images of food played in my memory. in shame, i regretted that red-velvet cupcake sample i devoured outside the store. and that cream-filled puff pastry i ate on a bench at the airport in Rome last month. and that damn proscuitto and sheep-cheese sandwich on heavy artisan bread at the farmers' market in Lisbon, enough wheat, fat and gluten to choke a hungry pony at the petting zoo. (#whitegirlproblems, i know.)
"not mine!" screamed 18-year-old me. "those legs are definitely not mine."
of course they weren't, that little bitch.
her legs were tight-skinned, tanned, firm and fancy-free. a far cry from the sloppy vision glaring at me from all angles, in reflection of reflection of reflection. like a bad dream on repeat.
18-year-old self was high on judgment as i undressed, pinching and poking at flab wherever she could get her hands on it. frowning in disgust, she examined thin white lines of stretch marks forming on my hips, embarrassed i had let it get that bad.
cocoa butter. for the love of god, go find some fucking cocoa butter.
"it's just the lighting in here," i told her, now a little girl pleading with her scary stepmother to put the wooden spoon back in the cupboard. "and don't worry, i'll start a cleanse this week and get back to my exercise regimen. and i'll stop eating out and i won't ever binge on chocolate cake again, and i promise i'll get in the best shape of my life!"
and i'll fit into these size 2 yoga pants. just you wait and see.
28-year-old me grabbed flab with conviction.
...and i'll do squats. lots and lots of squats.
18-year-old self nodded into the mirror, arms crossed in the scorn of approval.
...the old gray mare, she ain't what she used to be, ain't what she used to be, ain't what she used to be. the old gray mare, she ain't what she used to be, ...and she can't even remember the last line...
driving to yoga last week, late around the jungly mountain curves, i actually found myself singing that song.
flowing through my vinyasa practice robotically, core tight in chaturanga-to-updog transition, i caught my gaze in the mirror. dark circles around my eyes, my skin looked dull.
"what am i doing to myself?" i thought, pressing palms into the mat, lifting hips to the sky in downward facing dog. that morning, i had surfed for two hours straight. and later that afternoon i had run-hiked the steep mountain trail, huffing and puffing my way up to the even steeper stairs, lunging to the top and power-squatting it out when i got there. nature held me in trees and birds and monkeys throwing things as i dripped sweat to the muddy earth below my neon Nikes. fitness in the jungle.
i had been making good on my promise to 18-year-old self for nearly two weeks now. surfing, running, yoga. two-to-three physically challenging workouts a day.
...and squats. lots and lots of squats.
i was juicing beets and leafy greens and cilantro with hemp protein and spirulina. i was downing chia by the spoonful and flax-flushing like a fiber-fiend. skipping fats and sugar and living conscious of what i was putting in my body. counting calories. googling nutritional information on avocados. writing food diaries and shit.
and before i knew it, this war on self had become a full-time job.
as i stepped my right leg through my hands and lunged up into warrior one, my body trembled in overuse. my legs looked strong in the mirror but they could barely hold me.
i watched the skinny pretty girl in the back, her body lean and bendy. she's probably vegan, i thought, extending my arms in envy and tucking my tailbone into warrior two. i guessed she was twenty-one; maybe twenty-two, max.
"enjoy it while you can, sweetheart," my eyes told her reflection from the front of the room. "enjoy it now, because it's all downhill from here."
i reversed my warrior and extended my side-angle, praying for savasana.
at the end of class, gorgeous blond instructor chick stepped out of her half-naked yoga show and reminded us to thank our bodies for their strength, and to thank ourselves for showing up to practice.
her legs were perfect.
thank you body, i said, unconvincing. thank you self, even less so.
sitting cross-legged in that brief moment before namaste, my hands in prayer, thumbs pressed into third eye in connection with my higher wisdom, i wanted to cry. i wanted to eat a cheeseburger. i wanted to be proud of me for loving myself and my body so much that i had found the discipline to exercise, to eat healthy, to do all the things i was doing to get my body back in shape.
but i wasn't proud of me. not even a little bit. in fact, i was disappointed in me for not listening when my body whispered 'rest' and i told it to shut-up and go for a jog. when i dragged it to power yoga still sweaty and dirty from the mountain.
and now my shoulder hurt from too much side-plank, and that little roll of belly fat was still there, taunting me with her tongue out.
i was angry at my thyroid for being on the hypo side of balanced; at my hormones for slacking on the job; at my metabolism for not bouncing back like it used to.
eat like you love yourself. move like you love yourself. live like you love yourself.
my guiding mantra played in my headspace. i was doing everything right. eating, moving, living. going through the motions of loving myself.
but for what?
belly roll laughed at me again in the mirror. thighs smirked in injurious insult, their dimples far from cute. underarm flesh jiggled as i pinned sweaty hair off my neck.
belly roll. thigh dimples. underam jiggle. i was 0-for-3 in the battle against flub. despite my grueling efforts at self-abuse disguised as self-love, this body that wasn't mine was winning. and i was furious.
and sad in my bones.
but it's only been two weeks, i told myself. give it time, you'll see the results any day now. don't give up. you are strong. you can do it. hang in there.
self-abuse self-love pep talk 101.
18-year-old me was a slave-driver, her whip constantly at my hind-parts. she wouldn't rest until i was 18 again.
28-year-old me cowered in the futility of myself, in the impossibility of my predicament, no escape in sight. thyroid. hormones. metabolism. gravity. nearly three decades of physiobiology weighed heavy.
the old gray mare, she ain't what she used to be...
whoever came up with that fucking song should be shot in the head.
...too bad they probably shot the old gray mare instead.
i left class in a sort of daze, thanking top-model yoga teacher, and sweating into the humid air of evening at the beach. i walked through town and tried to make sense of myself.
lucky for me, it was 28-year-old self who chimed in this time, the voice of reason and nurturing; manifesting herself as mother, comforting me in acceptance of who i was in that very moment, of who i've been forever. she loved me no matter what.
"you're beautiful," she said sweetly in her low, soothing voice.
i felt a little warmer in my chest. for a second.
"but look at these legs," i said, looking down at loose skin swagging to and fro in the dim light of street lamps as i slowed to a stop, to make it stop. "these legs are not beautiful. i can't accept them as my own," i pleaded.
"whose legs are these?" i asked, begging for her answer.
"oh, my sweet love," she said, "if only you could see what i see, you would love your legs as i love them, now and always." she hugged me close in that 'every little thing is gonna be alright' sort of way.
"just look at your legs," she said. "so strong and capable. taking you surfing and running all the time; so flexible in your yoga practice."
i smiled a little bit as she kissed the top of my head.
"these legs, my love! these are the legs of someone unafraid of life, of living every experience that comes her way. these are the legs of someone who knows it's a sin not to eat gelatto twice a day everyday when you're on vacation in Italy; someone brave enough to sit with herself in meditation and write her authentic stories to the world; someone who skips the gym to have tea with a friend she hasn't seen in a while."
"these legs!" she continued, and i definitely didn't stop her. "just look at where they've been, where they've taken you, how they've held you up every day for nearly three decades. these legs are your legs. and they are beautiful."
where i saw flab and dimples, she saw the legacy of a life well-lived. and she thought it was beautiful.
i yearned to believe her. even if momentarily, i wanted to feel okay in my skin. i wanted to see myself as she saw me. i wanted to love myself like she loved me.
and so i did. for a second.
i changed out of my sweaty bra and met friends for dinner. i ate a cheeseburger. with fries. and i loved every second of it. 28-year-old mother-in-me smiled in satisfaction. in the non-judgment of unconditional love.
but on the drive home, my toes and fingers swelled up. and i felt sweaty and anxious. and too-full. and guilty in my gut. and now i had half a cow in my stomach and i wished i had eaten salad. with no dressing. and i promised myself i would wake up early and go for a run up the mountain. and when i reached the top i would do squats.
...lots and lots.
self-soothing and nurturing embraced acceptance. discipline sided with willpower. like roosters on steroids with razor blades tied to their tiny legs, they would fight to the death. and i was stuck somewhere in the middle, getting stabbed simultaneously by their impossible extremes.
and i asked myself, is self-love a jungle hike in the mountains, a power vinyasa class and a green super smoothie for breakfast, lunch, and dinner? or is self-love a cheeseburger and fries with friends after a long day of self-love self-abuse?
could it be both?
i didn't know.
i still don't know.
and so it goes, this constant battle between self-love and self-abuse in the negotiated space between 18-year-old me and 28-year-old me, between relentless slave-driver and ever-loving mother.
because they don't warn you about this. about the inevitable challenge in transition from maiden self to mother self, where we must forego, in grace and greiving, the attributes of self that once defined us; where we must accept in integrity the changes on the outside and the lessons they teach us on the inside. like the serenity prayer: to change the things we can. to accept the things we can't. and the wisdom to know the difference.
in my memory, i see women's faces looking at me in the same way i looked at the young woman in yoga class that night, silent in wisdom and telling of a certain future i could never foresee. that was them telling me about this phase of life i'd have to experience to understand. i see their faces now as my own in the mirror, reminding me of who i am; of who i was. of where i've been and how it's shaped me. reminding me that my body tells my story in ways i may not be ready to accept, while still allowing space for transformation into all i'm yet to become.
"so whose legs are these?" i asked myself again today, twisting backwards around my naked body to get a glimpse in the mirror over my shoulder.
and with the steadiness of my still-wavering balance between change and acceptance, i owned them as mine. i owned myself as me in maiden-mother transition.
these legs - doughy and dimpled, strong and flexible - are mine.
these legs are mine.
*special thanks to Desert Jewels for publishing this piece in its original version.