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.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Fried chicken

This is the story of how this author met her husband, written within a couple of days of their first date

She woke up that morning with a residual taste of last night’s Alaskan Ale mixed with junk food and a sense of duty: “I must break a sweat to purge that excess of lard out of my system.” Oh, those evasive thoughts, gone in an instant when she picked up her phone and looked at the text message that came in at around 12:30 a.m.: “do you like fried chicken?” No man had ever asked her that question. Somehow the world felt very light for a moment. Who needs a workout when you can have fried chicken with champagne for lunch with a sweet, nerdy-looking man at a place that calls itself a “wine dive”?

She took the morning for herself, a morning of spur of the moment, no-obligation type activities. Life was becoming too consumed with them both at work and her personal life. The sense of being trapped in her own freedom was extrapolating the barriers of normality. That morning she did what she normally does on Saturday mornings: fed the cat, grilled a toast, fried an egg, brewed some coffee. These small little tasks were meditative in nature: the goal was kitty’s thankful face, a bread’s perfect brown, a yolk’s semi-soft texture, coffee that is never bitter, just like souls should be. Simple, here, now. Nothing before, nothing after: the present in its absolute state and form. She picked up her computer to write about things that inspired her. She chose a different music station in Pandora. Van Morrison felt right. And when the time came to star that red dress she bought on a trip to the Southern hemisphere earlier that year, she was ready.

“I’ll take a dry sparkling rosé from California,” she ordered from a seat at the bar. Ten minutes later he walked in, black framed glasses over his small brown eyes, thick salt and pepper curls that matched a smooth light olive complexion. There was no awkwardness in that second encounter, considering that the first one the night before had lasted no more than 10 minutes when the music was too loud and the crowd was boozy (by his recollection, that first encounter lasted 30 minutes and he bought her a beer). Conversations just happened to flow like an ever-ending thread of stories, memories, laughter and the collection of unspoken signals sent to impress and attract. And yet, she wasn’t trying too hard. She was too exhausted of trying too hard. The dating scene was brutal and had gotten old too quickly. It was time to change tactics, to go back to the basics: be as authentic as possible, hold nothing, start from a place of simplicity, like fried chicken.

He told her stories of his childhood growing up in the mountains and seemed both proud and confused about his Native American origins. He grew up in a time when you were supposed to hide such facts. He was an avid basketball enthusiast and player despite his small frame. In his teen years, he had a sweet spot for blondes. She liked tall men, but the short one in front of her seemed bigger and taller than so many that had recently crossed her path. And she really, really liked that Cindy Crawford kind of mole on his left cheek. He seemed impressed by her travel tales. His gentle voice calmed her normally hyper-self. He was definitely a type-B and that was quite a different space for her. And just like that, in between bites of a fried bird with chipotle honey, four hours went by until the skies turned pitch dark and the rain started to pour in an attempt to compete with their outpour of unscripted words. They were trapped in a flooded neighborhood, nowhere to go other than possibly the covered patio to watch the storm engulf the city, thunder and lightening cutting through the skies and shaking the champagne glass flutes they held in their hands.

When the waters started to recede, he invited her to his house. She invited him to hers. And in separate cars on the way to somewhere another torrential body of water made its way to Earth and they were caught in the middle of the deluge, both water and adrenaline raising fast while they drove. “Turn around right now” he commanded over the phone. “Follow me to that parking lot,” she decreed. A few moments later and they were able to valet their way to safety.  It was almost dinner time and that pizza place just around the corner seemed like the perfect storm shelter. Rain bypassed the umbrella he carried. They were soaked, but they really didn’t care, each moment wholeheartedly improvised. They drank wine, shared a pizza and played an interrogation game to get to know each other better while the streets of Midtown Houston were submersed in some kind of wet spell.

They managed to arrive safely at his place, a comfortable townhome impeccably clean and decorated in the most traditional masculine bachelor style. She wasn’t a fan of the heavy curtains, the dark furniture, the lack of paintings on the walls. His decoration was beyond plain, so unlike the mind that charmed her that afternoon. She secretly laughed at her unspoken criticisms, but at that moment she chose to gave them up on the spot. She also opened the door for any sort of self-inflicted judgment to wash away with the rain. Her mind was clear. Her soul was light. With all traces of residual resistance out of the way, she surrendered to what felt completely natural. That night she was reminded of beauty, of tenderness, of lightness. It was a place of discovery and exploration. And when the morning came and he treated her to a cup of coffee that lasted through the early afternoon hours, she realized that milestones can happen in a 24-hour window. Hers was mindfulness. Nothing ahead, nothing to plan, expect or survive. It was just softness of spirit. She had gone back to the basics. Life was simple and festive like fried chicken with a flute of champagne under the stormy neon skies.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The cat and the road

If I had arrived three minutes earlier, I would have seen the exact moment that the murderous car took the life of the majestic feline on the intersection of old Houston and gentrification. I still don’t know what I would have done: would I have chased it? Would I let it go free from impunity and guilt?

The blood was still fresh and warm. An eyeball was completely removed from the eye socket.  His jaw was wide open, frozen in a scream of terror with his little sharp teeth echoing the shapes of the downtown Houston buildings in the backdrop. The cat, tabby and gray, looked exactly like mine and this thought brought shivers to my spine. I parked my car in front of the crime scene. A man with his name written on his baby blue shirt holding a bottle of Coors Light stood still looking at the corpse. It was so fresh its soul still hadn’t had time to process it moved to a different realm of existence. I rolled down my window. “Is it still alive by any chance?” was the first question that came out of my mouth, so disappointedly inappropriate. Shock was all I could see on that handsome face that framed stunning blue eyes. “That was my cat,” he said with a sight of disbelief. And shaking his head, he burst it out with the strange slow motion cadence that comes out of horror: “Those motherfuckers…they killed my cat.” I stood silent for a moment and then asked if I could help him remove the animal from the road. All he could say without ever letting go of my pupils was “those motherfuckers…those motherfuckers killed my cat.” I said I was sorry for his loss, rolled up my windows and drove back home, shaken by the whole experience. There was no opportunity for an 8th life that night.

There were too many vivid colors in that horrifying scene: the gruesome red of the blood, the shining black of the asphalt, the infinite blue of those suffering eyes and the uncertain gray of me not knowing exactly what to say or what to do. And yet, more vivid than any memory or color, was the absence of the embrace I should have given that man when he most needed it.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Yesterday was not a day for the world to end

Yesterday didn’t feel like a good day for the world to end. It didn’t feel like a day to go completely wild 100 miles per heartbeat. I wasn’t either sad or moved or ecstatic. I was actually kind of numb. So no, yesterday couldn’t be a day for the world to end. Sweat flourished out of my pores, some drops thicker than others, neither fear nor anxiety. It was just a plain hot and humid day, and kind of ordinary, too. It was a day I went house hunting, and you can’t go house hunting on the day the world will end. It was late afternoon under a golden sunlight, central time, when I asked myself if I’d go to heaven or if I’d go to hell. After two seconds I realized that either place is just too harsh for me and purgatory may be too close to real life. So no, because of that I knew that yesterday couldn’t be the day for the end of us. It was my niece’s 15th birthday, and you can’t deny a girl the pleasures of celebrating her rites of passage. Yesterday couldn’t be the end of times because I wanted to eat bread with olive oil and goat cheese and salami and red wine. It was delicious, and yet there was so little poetry. Yesterday was certainly not a day for the world to end. The city was exactly the same, no more ups and no more downs than the normal city self, and no doomsday prophets prophesying chaos. I saw a man getting handcuffed in Midtown, a mother feeding a baby, pigeons eating hamburger leftovers, people looking for trouble telling us to park our car away from their houses, a man flirting with my Mexican dress. And that other man, the one with a lion tattooed on his neck packing my groceries, didn't look like he was ready to let go of this realm. I got a manicure and painted my nails bright red. I listened to samba in the morning. I watched TV. And no, absolutely not: yesterday was not a day for goodbyes. I didn’t call my friends, I didn’t hug my family, I didn’t tell people I love them, I didn’t throw the finest party to celebrate the end of the world swimming in a champagne pool, I didn’t kiss the neighbor, I didn’t try tantra, I didn’t flap my wings, I didn’t allow myself to be completely out of control. It was a day for little socialization, for physical rest, modest rationalization and contained emotions. And I was in bed by 9pm. 

Yesterday was just another ordinary Saturday and only two things ended that day: the deadline of yet another false prophet and the person I was on that very day.


Post originally written on May 22, 2011, a day after a U.S. preacher warned that the end of the world would occur on May 21, 2011. This post has been modified from its original version.

The web

When I moved to my new home a tiny little spider decided to build her web in my front yard.  Her silky thread expanded from the cypress tree to the nearby bushes, almost imperceptible except when the sun rays caught the exact angle of the carefully sewn fabric. Otherwise, for most of the time the little spider seemed to hang freely in space, defying the laws of gravity. I liked that optical illusion right there in my newly acquired front lawn. Each day I would get back from work and observe her resting after a day’s labor. Each day her web seemed more beautifully crafted, such stunning geometric precision that I confess I was slightly jealous. I once tried cross stitching a gift for a friend’s newborn, but I failed miserably. It’s not that the little clown I weaved wasn’t cute: it’s that the reverse was a complete mess. My mother always said that you know a good weaver when the reverse is flawless. My mother is a perfectionist and even though I’m a Virgo with perfectionist tendencies and an aura of apparent “I-have-it-all-together,” the backstage of my mind is a web of flaws.

I never tried to get rid of my little yard neighbor. We were both busy building our new homes. She seemed pretty harmless to me, more poise than poison. While I was living under this intense jolt of adrenaline for acquiring a new place that officially crowned me as an adult, little Arachne was simply being. I only saw her when she was resting, like a constant reminder that I also needed to grant myself some quiet times, and yet I kept on moving in the opposite direction. Restless, always restless. There was always something else to do, someone else to visit, another party to attend, another email to write, another man to go out on a date with, another life plan to plan, another thing to prove to myself or to the world that I was capable of doing.

Within a few weeks of moving to my new place, a torrential storm engulfed the city. That night I experienced the most overpowering thunders of my entire life. The lightening strikes were so intense that for uncountable minutes my bedroom was uninterruptedly lit up in hues and shades of pale blue. All horrifying and beautiful, a spectacle of destruction and awe that only nature is capable of performing. When morning came, the sun was shining timidly amidst the news of complete chaos in a city that nearly drowned. There were lost lives and lost life dreams. And when I looked up at my cypress tree I noticed the void. Little Arachne was no longer there. Her web was also gone, washed away with the storm, silky threads of beauty swimming towards the sea. I want to think that she survived the deluge by jumping on a leaf and hanging on to it until she could rest in safer shores. Maybe she did, maybe she didn’t, but her existence taught me some good lessons: embrace quietness, buy flood insurance and use your natural gifts to bring beauty to this world.