Channeling Georgia O’Keeffe & Bill Bryson
For the past several mornings, my eyes have popped open at a few minutes till 5, no alarm clock needed, and Rennie, normally the Saturday-sleep-in-teenager, has started wandering out at a little past 7, making his let’s-go-out-now beeping noises and following me everywhere until I feed him. He used to eat at 8:30.
There’s no doubt about it. Spring has arrived and whether or not it sticks around, frost-free, remains to be seen but in the meantime, every bird, bee and blossom seems to think it will. I was in the kitchen yesterday when my dad asked if I had seen the Star Magnolia he planted in my name last year. I actually tweeted about it, when he did it, because he did not identify the plant by its distinguished name; rather, he told me that he had planted a shrub for me and well, I don’t know about you but the word shrubbery or any derivation of that makes me laugh and so to have someone tell you that they planted a shrub in your name is both heartwarming and hilarious. But then Twitter got all buggy and started publishing each of my tweets two, sometimes five times, and so I tried to delete the extra tweets but in doing so, I was actually deleting the original tweets themselves, that shrubbery tweet included, which made me really sad, because it meant I had permanently discarded about 80 tweets and all Twitter could do was say Sorry.
But back to that shrub of mine. I actually got to go outside and admire it in person. That never would have happened, if I had not gotten stuck here for three months (to the day on this Thursday). I would have just seen a picture of the blooms that my dad would have maybe e-mailed me. He plants things in honor of all loved ones, late and living, by the way, so I have been virtually watching the garden grow now for the last decade that I have not been home. Thus, to suddenly realize that I was here to actually see it as it makes daily transformations was a big deal.
It’s one of my favorite topics. I am endlessly fascinated by how much we humans plan things, how we are forever living with this delusional idea that we actually have any organized control over things, how we think that just because we have written it in our calendar books, it will happen, and then how we totally and completely freak out when it doesn’t. I almost had one of those moments yesterday.
It was about to rain but the air was sort of constipated and sticky, because the storm was still hours away, which tends to put me in a bad mood, try as I might not to be dependent on anything for good humor, and it was also a Monday, so I was trying to get things organized for this week, but there was this slightly gummy detail that was holding everything up: I did not know when I was going to Mexico. Yes, Mexico. A week or two ago, I got word from South of the Border that some very important paperwork was about to expire and since I am still the legal representative on everything for the hotel and since nothing is easy there, the only way to renew these very important documents is for me to go there in person.
I know what you’re thinking but trust me; three days spent under the fluorescent lighting of Mexican bureaucracy is not the same as three days spent lying on the beach with a margarita and some fresh guacamole. I’ll be there a week, though, so if I am lucky, that’s all it will be: three days of paperwork and then I will indeed have an extra four to lie on the beach with a margarita and some fresh guacamole. But if there is one thing you learn from living down there, it’s that you cannot count on anything. You are basically at the mercy of whatever decides to happen between the ebbing and flowing tides— or at least the shower spigot.
Except that it’s not just a truth from down there. It’s everywhere and the first time I really learned it was when I had signed up for a school in Greece to learn to teach English. It was 2005 and I was leaving my newspaper job in Virginia to live in Europe for two years, and so I had found this school on the island of Crete, where I would spend a month learning to teach my native language to foreigners, and after that I would find work somewhere in Greece, preferably on one of the islands, and I would spend long, luxurious mornings sitting in a white window with a coffee cup balanced on my knee, wearing something gauzy and flowing that showed off my tan as I gazed at the turquoise blue sea and had very deep thoughts in Greek. A week before my scheduled departure, I received word that the school was closing and my entire plan was turned on its head. Scrambling, I came up with a new route, one that would first take me to a reputable school in Barcelona, Spain, where I would learn my teaching skills. THEN I would be able to make my move to Greece.
Two years later, I had not left Barcelona. I had stuck around, because the city grew and grew and grew on me, until it was a full-blown love affair, and by then, I had found lots of jobs and learned the language and made friends and Greece was a distant daydream, one of those things that I was not sure why I had ever wanted to do in the first place, because really: they have a different alphabet, for Panagioti’s sake. Perhaps you have already made the connection then that I was then able to go to Mexico and open a hotel for my sister and brother-in-law. All because I knew Spanish. All because I had out of the blue found myself in Spain.
The list goes on of times that my well-laid plans have gone to crap and then a big bunch of tulips have grown in their place. Take the time that H1N1 (I still prefer swine flu) broke out in Mexico City and panic started spreading like aftershocks from the epicenter of an earthquake, so that everyone was having these apocalyptic visions of the entire human race getting completely wiped out by this virus, starting with Mexico, and I was no exception. I wanted to flee the country— until it came time to leave and then I wanted to stay put, because by then it had become clear that the danger was more than likely on the airplanes. But by then, I had worked my sister into a frenzy, so she was all “Come hooooome. I booked you a flight,” and I was all “Nooooooo. Wait. Yeeeeeees.” Except to get to that decision, I had spent all morning throwing myself dramatically all over the apartment, packing and unpacking, and so I got to the airport too late and missed my flight to Atlanta, which only heightened my need to get home, but the only way to do that was to divert to the D.C. area, which is how I ended up unexpectedly spending a long weekend with two of my greatest friends ever— something I was reminded of this past fall when I stayed with them again and saw my old entry in their guest book.
But of course, I forget things like that and so there I was yesterday, feeling myself build up into a tiny rage, wondering why nothing was working out, why I could not just get back on the road and drive, and stressing about the fact that even if this week-long trip was no big deal, it was a reminder of the fact that I was then going to have to go BACK down there this summer, regardless that I will still be on the road, and spend four to six weeks renewing my visa. That probably makes no sense to you whatsoever. Don’t try to understand it. Just trust me that because I am still the legal representative of the hotel down there, I have to renew my visa every year, despite the fact that I am not physically there, and that to get a new legal representative other than me is simply not possible right now.
It was somewhere about an hour into this pity party of mine then that I pulled out the kazoos and starting humming my heart out. What on Earth was I so bent out of shape about anyhow? If I have to go down to Mexico twice in less than six months, it’s MEXICO. On a Caribbean ISLAND. Sunshine, friends, the beach. Airfare & lodging covered by the business. It’s hard to find the short end of the stick in that situation.
I’m reading Bill Bryson’s Neither Here Nor There about his backpacking trip through Europe in the early 1990s, which could not be a better antidote to the last book I finally finished reading, Blue Highways. Y’all, it took me from Vermont all the way down to Georgia, plus three months, to finish that one and I am not even making that up. It’s a wonderful book that both awed and inspired me and taught me so much about what I am trying to do with this project, but that said, it’s also not immune to insufferable pockets of self-seriousness— which, if you haven’t noticed, I don’t need any encouragement developing.
The self-deprecating Bryson, on the other hand, makes you let out these great, cathartic guffaws at least once every two pages, as you laugh not just at him but at the things he makes you see in yourself, while he also occasionally presents you with wise truths about the universe. I just came across one of those a few days ago: “Traveling is more fun— hell, life is more fun— if you can treat it as a series of impulses.”
There’s also a serendipitous story as to why I am even reading that book right now but I will not get into that. Instead I’ll just say that to have picked it up is like— well, it’s like coming out of winter into spring, which reminds me. You probably want to see those pictures of my dad’s backyard garden; don’t you?