Sunday, May 2, 2021

Soaking by the Blanco



A f
ew years ago, looking for a nature scape from cement, noise and highway dense Houston, I found the small town of Wimberley, a little nature haven tucked three hours and fifteen minutes away from home in the heart of the Hill Country, Texas. It was love at first sight, no doubt. Though my preference is to search for unexplored places (the world is too vast and too beautiful to be so narrow minded) I constantly feel this strong pull towards its country beauty with herds of deer roaming on the roads at dusk, foxes foxing their way through the woods, deep refreshing swimming holes in all shades of turquoise and the clear, translucent waters of the Blanco river embraced by rows of dramatic limestone cliffs. I keep returning, even if at times billboards of divisive political content on the outskirts of town tend to muddle the serene wonder of the natural surroundings. But isn’t this the thing about love, that we embrace all parts of the subject of one’s desire? I have embraced Wimberley and fantasize constantly, like an infatuated adolescent, that one day I’ll have my own cabin by these waters.

While that remains a vision in my mind’s eye, I’ve been renting AirBnBs when I need a quick nature and soul reset, a pick me up from the noise of the urban life I chose to live. And yes, there has been an incredible amount of noise in these past couple of weeks: 16-hour workdays, sleepless nights, the duality of having to be always on point when the mind is foggy due to sleep deprivation, no physical exercise and a poor diet of too much salt, fat and sugar. Interestingly enough, this is far from a complaint. Part of me was actually enjoying the chaos, the little volcanos here and there spilling sweet joy over hot challenges as I kept learning from the best how to be my best, every eruption an opportunity to hone my voice, my craft, my spirit. I’ve had professional burnouts in the past, but this felt differently: my body was indeed tired, but my soul was finding pleasure in the trade. Truth is, I haven't had this much fun in the corporate world in quite some time. In parallel, the looming reality that I may lose my job in the next few months as my workplace is going through a major reorganization and there are no guarantees. I tucked this possibility in the same corner of my brain where I tuck fear, but that corner is vulnerable, filled with cracks, incompetent at insulating the anxious voices from rushing to my ears. The timing of this current reset by the river couldn’t be more precise, though as the weekend approached I considered canceling my reservation, blaming it on work that needed to get done, the rainy forecast, the absence of wi-fi at the cabin and the fact that my husband bailed out on this weekend getaway to prepare for a business trip (the world is finally coming back online after the virus brought havoc to the world). 

I could run a side business fabricating excuses, but I chose the road, for the road never failed me. For the third consecutive time in a period of 8 months, I came to Wimberley alone, but never lonely. Google Maps put me on a new route and I welcomed the change. I drove through farm roads speckled with yellow and orange wildflowers like a living watercolor painting, roadside creeks and small towns framed by the luscious shades of Texas spring green. It rained the entire journey, though mostly mild showers with occasional punctures of blue skies. I sang cheesy 80s songs from the depth of my lungs. When I arrived at my cabin halfway through twilight, the firmament cracked a monumental faucet over my head. I unloaded my luggage, soaked but content. Let it rain. Good things grow in dampness, like life itself, for lust is wet, never dry. I opened a bottle of still rosé, poured me a glass and crossed the yard towards a covered canopy by the Blanco. He was there, whispering to me, “welcome back, dear, I look meek and narrow these days, but as you now know, this is just an episode, not the whole story. My true nature is wide, wild, wondrous.” I realized that the relentless rain couldn’t be more welcoming. The earth was parched and the Blanco needed a celestial lift.

I prepped grocery store bought crab cakes for dinner,  Buccee’s dark chocolate covered pecans for dessert and binged watched carefully downloaded episodes of Bridgerton (shameless, brazen pleasures). I slept through the sounds of the soft rain caressing the earth and woke up to the frolicking chirping of birds while the storm was taking a nap. There was no highway noise, no city buzz. Just the country and the peace within its rolling hills. I brewed coffee and stepped outside towards the Blanco, noticing that I was the only human in miles. On the opposite river bank two egrets hunted their breakfast, their white plumage beaming in the soft morning glow, a gift of peace out of Noah’s Ark. I found an expansive limestone rock to anchor my hips and as I sat down the sun carved its way through the dense blanket of clouds to greet us all. It was just nature and me now, the bubbly Blanco flowing rapidly as a perfect metaphor for all the noises in my head: muddy at dusk, clear and dazzling at dawn. 

It was pouring again as I started writing these free flowing observations in a wet outdoor beer garden in the heart of downtown, my hair messy from the humidity. The rain was torrential, beautiful, loud and inviting, so though I tried to keep the water away I also allowed it to fondle my clothes and even lick the screen of my computer. A masked waitress walked towards me and gave me a hug as if she’d known me for years. She immediately apologized for mistaking me for someone else as half of my face was also hidden under a mask. I laughed, knowing that I mischievously took full advantage of her confusion. After a year in semi-isolation, my now fully vaccinated body feels more confident to share the same space with other human beings. We’ve all been parched of so many forms of affection since early 2020. My batteries are again recharged after a good night’s sleep, the roadside deer that welcomed me into town, the lavishing rain, even the unsolicited hug of a complete stranger. On the glorious Sunday morning that I leave these hills knowing in my heart that I will return, the Blanco has regained its strength in the patch of land in front of me. May my mind in the week ahead be crystalline, evolving and free like the Blanco. Nature is always a prayer. 

Friday, February 26, 2021

High on blue skies

Saturday morning and outside my window the winter storm left imprints of destruction accumulated in frost-bitten lawns, broken pipes and anxious hearts. On this side of the blinds, a chemical reaction: the icicles in my spine had melted into an immaculate ebullience of joy and freedom. Listen, listen, the gut is speaking, the blood swimming in fleshy caves of wonder: you are high on life! Get out of the house now, child, and overdose your ears with poetry, your feet with movement, your eyes with blue sky. I knew why: just the day before I had fed my soul with a velvety protein called confidence. I published a blog post about my unconventional trip to a previous life and chose not to care if the world thought my fuses were loose. Let ‘em learn from your vulnerable craters!, said the fairy in my aorta. Let ‘em poison in their own venomous fangs of judgement!, said the raven in my bile. I put on my walking shoes, a bright magenta sweatshirt, a mouth full of smile and off I went, Emicida gracing my ears with contagious tropical hip hop that sounded both angry and lustful. 

If the gorgeous yet heavy lyrics dissecting the inequalities of my beloved Brazil didn’t exactly match my privileged upbringing or my exact state of mind, their passion and political activism filled my cup with hope and poetry, the fast beat synchronized with my heartbeat. I strolled the streets of West U in flow, floating, beaming, a jolt of endorphine per step in a world that felt sensual again, fertile even under skeletal, leafless tree branches, as if in the process of melting, the snow had inseminated my soul with an explicit desire to marvel. Texas still coming back online but my spirit was operating at high voltage, my energy grid publicly undressed, and oh, it was a beautiful thing to feel and oh, I knew the world could see it! I saw drivers looking at me, smiling at me -- one car, two cars, three cars, beeeep, traffic voyeurs -- my happiness moving in invisible waves (a wish: soak them all with vibrancy!).  


I wanted to encapsulate that moment as I knew it was ephemeral even for someone who feels content and cheerful most of the time, though often barbarically inquisitive. The expiration date could be just minutes away because nothing is constant, we all have in us the moon that rises and blooms, the sun that shines from yellow to red, the rain that caresses and pours, the wind that whispers and destroys. My high eventually washed off, but I never crashed. Triggered by somebody else’s judgement, I questioned my decision to publish my spiritual journey. Insecurity itched for a moment, but more like a small pack of fleas and I had prophylactic measures in place: days later, during a short guided meditation I was asked to think of a moment of joy. In the depths of my brain I found a closet full of jars, one of them with magenta pills overflowing with radiant blue skies. 





Thursday, February 18, 2021

Past life regression: what I learned from my previous death

The author in an alley in Pienza, Italy, December 2018

The polar vortex had swallowed the city. A thin blanket of snow folded over Houston, another abnormality in the oddity of the current times. Day three of on and off electricity, water shortages, the chilling of bones and the cloak of the COVID-19 plague still omnipresent. I found warmth in the crevices: the soft, luxurious fur of my cat oblivious to everything, green chili soup leftovers, Internet humor. Then another opening, this time in my chest: I was ready for a past life regression session. After months exploring the subject as a path to self-knowledge, I chose a sub-freezing afternoon to descend into a spiritual ladder that took me to the underworld of long lost memories.   

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

The giant spider: reflections on beauty, hair and race

Last night I dreamed that an enormous spider was in my bedroom trying to both attack and hide away from me. I was absolutely frightened and upon waking up I hit the Internet for nuggets of wisdom regarding the meaning of that nightmarish manifestation of my subconscious. Although there were several interpretations ranging from good fortune to terrible omens looming in the horizon, one particular description vividly resonated with me (these days I’m leaning towards intuitive vibrations). I learned that spiders are associated with major, powerful feminine energy. With eight legs and bodies shaped like the number 8 they “symbolize the infinite possibilities of creation.” Because they are also master weavers who build a web to sneakily catch prey, I learned that I need to examine my life to see if I’m about to get stuck on a trap of my own. It is no coincidence that this dream arrives during a period where I’m reconsidering my ideals of beauty, including rediscovering my natural curly hair, with the backdrop of the COVID-19 quarantine and the protests for racial equality post-George Floyd’s murder.

Since a very early age, concern with my physical appearance has occupied an enormous amount of mental real estate. We all have our own history and stories around beauty, and quite often our relationship with it is a complicated one, a rabbit hole of idealization, unmet expectations and fear of not fitting in to what the establishment dictates that beauty should look like. My story is no different. Growing up in a small and quite provincial Brazilian northeastern town in the 1980s and 90s, the male narrative about women’s looks, bodies and behaviors was pervasive, if not outright dominant, embraced by both men and women alike whether consciously or not. Being pretty and desired felt like a prerequisite for living. A man’s gaze was one of the ultimate goals of my youth along with getting good grades and traveling the world.  As shocking as it may sound in today’s age of #metoo, in my teens my day was ruined if I walked past a construction site and didn’t hear a laborer whistle ei gostosa (literally, “hey, delicious.”). Back then, construction sites were notorious for catcalling. I know for a fact that I wasn’t alone in being dependent of such archaic beauty thermometer. In between ballet classes and study sessions, my friends and I would commiserate about our damaged little egos in such “atrocious” situations. 

Interestingly enough, my parents were academics who valued books, intellect and careers. My mother was a professor, but to make ends meet in the financial reality of an unequal Brazil she often worked three shifts that included two to three jobs. She was practicing body positivity decades before it became a movement: she was fuller than most, often self-conscious and yet never hid behind her curves. She had an authentic fashion style, a mix of bohemian and classy as accounted by my childhood eyes. A self-proclaimed feminist highly encouraged by my open-minded father, she was an activist who took me and my sister to street marches to protest the rampant violence against women in our town. She also told us that beauty goes away with time and in the end it’s your brain and character that will be valued, not your looks. Nonetheless, she spent part of her hard earned salary making sure that her daughters wore stylish, fashionable clothes and adornments, although I cannot say that we were always truly satisfied, little brats we were.

The author and her natural roaring curls at age 14
I was considered a pretty girl for local standards, but all of that went away in flames when I reached puberty and became a classic example of teenage insecurity. Not only I was considered too thin in a society that valued strong legs and big butts, but around the age of 12 my long, super straight hair started to morph into unmanageable waves and frizzy curls. I panicked. I could see beauty in everybody’s curls but my own. It didn’t help being called a monkey by a friend and his girlfriend with long, straight, natural blond hair. It didn’t help that the majority of soap opera actresses, TV presenters and cover models of my go-to teen magazines looked nothing like me. They were mostly fair skinned with blue or green eyes and soft, velvety hair. And that is how the internalization of being “less than” due to my new hair texture paired with my brown skin was sealed. My mother, of course, intervened: “you are beautiful, your hair is beautiful and darling, embrace it: you’re ⅛ black and this is how your afro ancestry is showing up in your body now.”

At age 7 with grandpa Januário (and my very own 1980s mullet!) 
I have very few memories of grandpa Januário, my father’s father. When he died, I was 9 and he was almost 90. His skin was very dark, although mixed for Brazilian standards and its massive palette of infinite shades of brown. After his first wife passed away, he married my grandma, 20+ years younger, porcelain white skin. Grandma never admitted that grandpa was black: “he was a dark moreno” she would say. She would hold her infant children and grandchildren in her arms for hours, touching their nostrils as if shaping dough to ensure they were “refined,” not wide. I wonder about grandma’s own internalizations on race and class. She died over the age of 90, semi-illiterate just like her husband, barely knowing how to write her own name. Her four children went on to graduate from college and my uncle and godfather João, who I know guides me from heaven, even became a medical doctor, the ultimate small town prestige.

Although the majority of girls in my hometown looked like me — morena, brown — in racist and classissist Petrolina, a microcosm for what’s good and evil in human behavior, having money or power, being formally educated in private schools and displaying “good hair” were all indicators that you didn’t belong to the povão, the masses. And the way that 12-year old me remembers, straight hair was more desirable than curly, textured hair. To be fair, curly hair was appreciated and desired, but with caveats: your roots had to be straight and volume had to be tamed. Frizz was always the enemy. In casual conversations it wasn’t uncommon to hear blatantly racist sentences such as “she’s so pretty, but she definitely has a foot in the kitchen” when referring to other women because of their hair texture. A “foot in kitchen” translates to being a cook, a domestic worker, an occupation loaded with negative connotations from Brazil’s troubled history with slavery, which wasn’t officially abolished until 1888. 

I learned how to tame my curls with military diligence, engaging in weekly sessions of coquetel de frutas (“fruit cocktail,” the ultimate deep conditioner of 1990s Petrolina), squeezing leave-in oils and practicing 15 daily minutes of intense, hard core headbangs in the quest for perfectly soft, frizz controlled curls after shower. My headbangs were so entertaining that friends and family would watch me shake my hair up and down just to laugh (in-home blowdryers and heat styling tools were not widely available in that era). Up to this day I don’t know how my neck didn’t break. Ultimately, I ended up accepting my hair and at times even liking it. I carried my curls all the way through my early college years, but regardless of how many times I was told they were beautiful, deep inside I was always conflicted. When my college roommate taught me how to use a blowdryer to straighten my hair, I felt sophisticated and powerful. For the next 20 years, I relied on a round brush and hot air to tame my mane and my innermost fears. On a side note, we women are taught to be tamed, to behave, to be pretty, to agree, to conform. Even though I had strong, rebellious women in my family and friendship circles, other powerful voices cluttered my sense of self.  

My niece Lais and I and our strikingly different Barbies
Then one Saturday afternoon in 2018, three months before our wedding, my soon to be husband looked at me astonished: “do you have naturally curly hair?” I was too preoccupied with something I don’t even remember. In an extraordinary exception to my beauty routine I ended up air drying my hair. Not that I ever consciously tried to hide my curls from him, he just had never seen them in our two year relationship. He told me on the spot that he preferred my hair natural and has been putting in frequent requests for more curls ever since. Needless to say that at first I didn’t believe him. In the subsequent years, more pieces of the ever evolving puzzle called maturity started to fill in the holes of my relationship with myself. Movies such as “Nappily Ever After” and “Self-Made,” focused on African American women and their relationship with hair, race and self-esteem, hit home. Donald Trump and his war on immigrants and latinos also shook me up, evoking greater awareness of my physical appearance. I’ve channeled my growing anger and disappointment with the toxic political climate into a sense of personal empowerment, wearing the immigrant latina label more vocally and consciously. I also made sure to give my 6 year old niece a Barbie with hair similar to hers (and a curvier body). This was 2019 and she was being bullied at school for her gorgeous curly hair. Her mother thanked me and said that representation matters. It does. No girl should internalize that her hair texture or the color of her skin should determine her self-worth. As racial tensions in the U.S. continue to rise, I am also getting in touch with my own brown privileges. For most part, I fit in in the bubble of cosmopolitan values of my adopted home, Houston, and in the rare occasions that the police stopped me in traffic, I never feared for my life.

Roaring again in June 2020
Time...with it I am learning how to be more gentle with myself. On a very intimate, vulnerable level there is less dependency on the gaze of others, more acceptance and acknowledgement that in this lifetime I get to experience extraordinary moments of pleasure and fun in this human vessel called body. An awakening of self. Leaving home makeup-free or showing up without makeup for work video meetings is now the default mode. Nonetheless, I do find tremendous enjoyment in dressing up and wearing bright red lipstick from time to time, even if my COVID-19 audience in my daily neighborhood walks is now composed of squirrels, doves and earthworms. I found an incredible community of proud curly hair women in my social circles and online, and am back to embracing my wild, frizzy, textured and unruly mane that roars. My own gaze is my primary judge and these days I like the reflection in the mirror. Age is turning out to be the conduit to unweave years of emotional traps, a giant spider that shines in the horizon with infinite possibilities of creation. 

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Quarantine




In that apocalyptic spring of 2020 when the world stopped on its axes and humankind moved indoors, when hoards of humans caught themselves diving and drowning into the depths of their fears and souls, Delia realized that her marriage had been pulverized from the outside in and the inside out. It was the end of romance, the end of lust, the end of tiny gestures that could keep alive the flame that brought them together. Somewhere between raising child number two, the money that never came, her morning breath and his overconsumption of television, their story was the clone of all other marriages that flatten into a dumpster of colorless tediousness. Now it was only the two of them and their silence, if not for the occasional sound of someone spraying disinfectant in the boxes that came in the mail. She didn’t even have the strength to create an escapist illusion. “Live in the present,” she kept hearing from her colleagues over Zoom. So she did. Her present was now a pan of boring stewed chicken simmering for supper. That is, until he showed up with those clippers. 

 “Can you cut it?” he asked. She gasped. That was a first. It was week eight of the quarantine and Sam hadn’t yet had a haircut. His now long thinning hair that grew erratically in uncoordinated patches didn’t frame his skull in any means attractive. She googled “how to cut hair with clippers” and watched tutorials on YouTube. She brought a mirror from upstairs, used a blanket as an apron, pulled up a chair and the kitchen turned into a barber shop. She was nervous but didn’t want to display any signs of an accelerated pulse. She made a joke to break the ice, but he couldn’t break a smile. She then remembered how small he could be. 

She started from the base of his skull with clipper blade number three and kept climbing up in circular motions. It had been months since they had this much skin on skin contact. Chunks of coarse hair touched her hands before they reached the floor and she felt a jolt of light electricity in the pit of her stomach. It rained the first time she touched his hair back in the day. Her mind now played Leonard Cohen’s she tied you to her kitchen chair/she broke your throne and she cut your hair/and from her lips she drew the Hallelujah. Why couldn’t he just passionately throw her on the kitchen counter and have a feast with what was left of each other? “Oh my gosh, what are you doing?” Sam shouted as he moved away from the chair. “I...I...I’m so sorry, I didn’t…”, she tried to explain, but he interrupted her: “You gotta be kidding me.” Delia somehow had managed to switch to blade zero and there were now chunks of baldness all across his head. His face was flushed in red spots and he had to gather a colossal amount of strength not to explode in rage. To her surprise, he stared at her, sat back in the chair and asked her to keep going. She paused and looked deep into his eyes thinking of all the roads she could take. In minutes, his head was as smooth as an egg. His expression was a mix of shock and delight as he studied his new completely bald look. “Can you smile for me now?,” Delia asked, smartphone in selfie mode. He wouldn’t. “My goodness, it’s just a smile. It won’t hurt.” Instead, he mumbled: “your legs are hairy.”

With her heart shattered in pieces after another blow of passive aggressive punch, she took on the self care advice from her earlier Zoom meeting. “Me, I will focus on me now.” She filled up the bath tube with warm water, drops of rose oil and Epson salt, lit some candles, pushed play on Pandora, closed her eyes and allowed her aching body to float weightlessly in darkness, if not for the heaviness of her thoughts: “how did I end up here?” That’s when Jeff Buckley’s version of Cohen’s song started playing and Sam entered the bathroom. Well your faith was strong but you needed proof / You saw her bathing on the roof/ Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya. He couldn’t remember the last time he saw his wife naked. He stood there for a few minutes examining every inch of her, from her large calf muscles to her shoulder length hair with overgrown gray roots. She was glowing in the clandelight, definitely heavier, plump winding curves that could shape a coastal highway. And like a Samson in reverse, Sam found his strength. Quietly not to disturb her, he undressed, entered the bath tube, grabbed the razor and gently started shaving Delia’s legs. 

And every breath we drew was Hallelujah

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Closet cleaning, apartment fire and emotional contraband

The ides of October came with a call to action: let go of what no longer serves me. This is definitely not a new concept, but Mindfulness is a tease. She rubs herself against my brain, charming me with promises of present moment awareness just to fly away when the next challenge joins the table. And while the tests of the summer were not completely left behind, it was time to open space for the cooler, crispy breeze of autumn before the leaves turned yellow. Although I wish I could perform open brain surgery in my own head to remove once and for all the stuff that insists of holding on to my thoughts like bloodsucking parasites, I took the easy route and chose to clean my closet instead. The results were astonishing.

Fifteen years ago, when I was fresh out of college, I moved to small town in Kansas to work at an advertising agency. Those 11 months spent in that community marked my life in ways that only years later I was able to truly measure the impact they had in the depths of my existence. One of the episodes was a fire in my apartment. I decided to have a roommate to help me save for a lifelong dream trip around the world. The day he moved in he lit a candle in his bedroom and left the house unattended. I returned home later that evening only to find clouds of smoke, fire trucks, Red Cross workers, all of the little possessions I owned and the dream trip around the world burnt to ashes or completely lost to smoke damage.

I remember I didn’t cry. There was a small crowd of neighbors watching the freak spectacle. Somehow I was able to make my way through them, look at a firefighter in the eyes, tell him that I lived there and that I needed to enter the home immediately. My goal was simply try to salvage the only things that really made sense to me: my memories manifested in the form of photographs and journals dating back to my early college years. After a brief check of my psychological stability, a couple of firefighters and the Red Cross lady walked in with me, lanterns in hand exploring the suffocating chaos. I was calm, even making jokes.  In retrospect, the real shock was my reaction to shock. I was rational and cool throughout the whole process. I didn’t lose it completely until at least 12 hours later when I asked someone who I considered to be a friend if he could help me manage the wreck and he said he couldn’t. That was one of the few moments in life I felt the severe, cold blow of acute loneliness.

In my burnt closet I could see the pant suits I had purchased just the day before for my new job completely destroyed because the plastic hangers had melted all over them. I was sad, but deep inside I knew that those items didn’t really matter.  They were just replaceable stuff. What really mattered was that the manifestation of my memories was still intact: despite some ashes around the edges, my journals and photo albums were in perfect condition, as if a bubble of safety had protected them throughout the inferno. I was relieved beyond my imagination. I was never greatly attached to material possessions and that episode came as a violent reminder that from this life we take nothing with us other than the memories of the lives we choose to live.

Fast forward to 15 years, in my recently acquired home in a bustling Texas metropolis. I stood in front of my two closets piled with clothes and shoes. When I moved to this new house I had already performed a major cleaning, but decided to hang on to those pieces because they cost me a lot of money, had been worn just a few times or I was too attached to the sentimental value that skyrockets the price of our earthly possessions. Just like journals, I can see how clothes can also be a material testament of one’s life. And yet, being too attached can cost you some serious broken hearts (or a stuffed closet that suffocates you on a daily basis).

There were the “Jesus sandals” and the gaucho-style jeans from 2007 that along with my then short haircut turned me into a hip multinational executive, Rio de Janeiro style, almost overnight (or so I thought). There was the first purse I bought in Texas when I was still unemployed and had to be extra careful about what I chose to buy. There was the expensive dress from Anthropology that fit the version of me that was 10lbs lighter. There were the shoes that walked me all over Italy when I was living the “Eat” part of my “Eat, Pray, Love” journey. The list was long, but just as the hot, humid air that blows from the Gulf shores was now intertwining with colder winds, it was time to change the seasons of my closet. So in a matter of hours I packed over 100 pieces of clothes, several purses and 18 pairs of shoes inside seven garbage bags. I made $80 by selling some pieces and donated the rest to Goodwill. I sighed in relief. Let the past stay in the past. Hopefully, someone will find joy in those pieces that carried me to so many places.

A part of me wants to trim down my closet even more, embrace the minimalist movement of the 40-piece wardrobe, but the truth is that I’m still too attached to how I look. I like fashion and will not offer an apology for that.  But letting go of what no longer served me, even in the form of old clothes, had this profound positive effective in my mood and productivity. It shed pounds off my mind. It created a space for me to get rid of the emotional toxins can easily pile up. And of course, on a more practical level it reminded me to be mindful during future purchasing events. From now on, I pledge to only buy pieces that I know for a fact I will wear often and that will last for years to come. And because Mindfulness also helps me embrace my imperfections, including my contradictions, for now I will hold on to those ugly green leather shoes that I wore only once and cost me 90 euros in a street market in Athens, Greece. Because I was exploding in happiness that day. And because a small load of emotional contraband sparkling a few seconds of joy all over my senses and taking me on a trip around the world on a daily basis do serve me beautifully right now.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Guerilla at the gas station

I would have never stopped at that gas station if I didn’t have the urgency to use an ATM. I would have never driven on that street if the ATMs on the previous two convenience stores I visited were not out of order. But as you may already know, life works in mysterious little ways, making me a strong believer that nothing, zero, nada happens by chance.

That being said, for this story to make sense I must recall that earlier that day, around the time the first dose of caffeine was pouring into my brain on my commute to work, I felt a familiar itch: the desire to give birth to sound, the urge to test my full lung capacity, each hidden minuscule artery of it. Out. Loud. Tympanic-membrane-assault kind of sound. It’s a recurrent form of catharsis when I feel that my world is becoming too dull.  Let other drivers think I’m crazy. I’m well beyond that concern by now. I found my own little drug, I’m an addict and I don’t want to be cured.

Alicia Keys doesn’t necessarily rock my world, but she has one particular song that turns me into an inspired scream monster:

“Baby, I'm from New York
Concrete jungle where dreams are made of
There's nothing you can't do
Now you're in New York
These streets will make you feel brand new
Big lights will inspire you
Hear it for New York, New York, New York!”

I’ve never been to New York City (and yes, it's an embarrassing realization), but these lyrics, combined with that song’s rhythm, have an immediate invigorating effect on me. From the top of my vocal cords I add poetic license and sing “Houstooooooon! Concrete jungle where dreams are made of, there’s nothing you can’t do, now you’re in Houstoooooon”. When the song is over, I always whisper a “I wish there was a version of that song that would say Houstooooooon.” I speak to myself quite often, like a crazy mad woman who forgot to take her pills.

Fast forward to that evening at the gas station that I would have never stopped if if if. As an immigrant, one of the things I noticed about gas stations in a big city like Houston is that they are a common hang out place for nomads, beggars, drug addicts, the mentally ill and the ostracized in general. Some stations more than others, of course. I happen to live in a neighborhood where pretty much all gas stations are like that. They should be named The Territory of Lonely Souls Searching for Pocket Fueling or Just a Little Boost of Tenderness From a Total Stranger.

That evening I needed to cash some money fast. I was responsible for donating money to a great cause: the Buddhist temple post-meditation pizza. Because I didn’t anticipate that not only one, but two ATMs would be out of order, by the time I parked at the third gas station I was already running late for class. As I entered the convenience store, I noticed a few homeless men asking for change (there’s a lady in another gas station who always asks for beef jerky). That ATM was finally working, so I quickly cashed money and stormed back into my car. As I closed the store’s glass door behind me, this young man yelled: “hey, gorgeous, do you like hip hop?” It was one of those sentences you don’t understand immediately, so my first reaction was to verbalize a “No, honey, I don’t have anything”. Somehow I always call The Gas Station Lonely Souls “honey”, and I’m not sure if that’s a good thing. It may be even unintentionally condescending. I entered my car and promptly realized what he had just asked me. That’s when I noticed he was carrying a few CDs.

I’m not a hip hop fan, but somehow these words just came out naturally: “are these your CDs?” “Yeah, these are mine. See, this is in me in the cover. Only five bucks. I’m half Hispanic, half Nigerian, check out my music that translates my heritage .That’s me in the cover. There are some songs here that the ladies like, this one you will like it and…” I interrupted him abruptly. “Do you have change for $10?” “Oh, sure do. Check me out on Facebook and You Tube. Become a fan. Here’s your change”.

He was a good-looking young man, kind of tough, kind of sweet. His voice was sluggish and yet I could sense his excitement because I was buying his music. I have a habit of buying CDs from local artists and so far I’ve never regretted it.
-"What’s your name?,” he asked, and from the passenger’s window, he gave me his hand.
-“Juliana,” I said.
-“Nice to meet you, that’s a beautiful name. I’m half Hispanic, half Nigerian, hope you’ll like the songs and…”
-“Can you open the CD package for me? I wanna listen to it now”.
-“Oh, cool, sure can, here it is and did you know…”
-“I gotta go, good luck”. And I drove away.

I felt bitchy. I interrupted him so many times and don’t think I smiled not even once during this minute and a half conversation that seemed like an eternity because I was running late. I just wanted to get in and out, get business done, here’s the money, open the CD, done, deal, leave. I couldn’t even remember his name, but he was no gas station pariah. He was an artist selling his art, taking the time to approach people who most of the time probably just don’t give a damn. Total guerilla marketing, but maybe gas stations are the next big thing after iTunes.

As I drove to meditation class, I couldn’t help it but realize the dissonance between his gas-station voice and his studio voice. And he sang with so much passion. Hip hop is still an unexplored territory for me and lyrics that go on and on about nigga this, nigga that, bitches this, bitches that, are not my type of ear candy either. Maybe this was the first CD I would regret buying from a local artist. That’s until song number four started. Somewhere around minute two, after words I cannot understand, these lyrics came out: “Houstooooon, concrete jungle where dreams are made of, there’s nothing you can’t doooo”.

That evening it was hard to clear the mind and meditate. Too many attachments, too much excitement. Then the Buddhist monk started his dharma talk and the evening’s topic was the principle of karma. Morning drive, Alicia Keys, the lyrics I wished for, cash, meditation, broken ATMs, gas stations, hip hop artist, the lyrics I wanted. Don’t tell me about unconnected dots. Don't tell me that life is what you make it mean. Well, possibly. So to me, the meaning that I give this episode is that life is a bucket of dots connected by pulsating arteries that reverberate when you set your brain to a certain frequency. And I get it, this really sounds like Forrest Gump and Paulo Coelho altogether, but I never said I was perfect.

By the way, the artist is Bellicose Skrilla. I couldn’t find the song “Houston” online, but if you ever ride in my car you will sing it with me until our lungs burst with joy.


Post originally written in March of 2011. This is an edited version.