Renovating Endurance: One woman’s journey from isolating grief into the heart of the world
Jen attended a writing workshop following the violent death of a friend. It was there that she came to feel that endurance is about more than self care or figuring out how to take care of oneself.
I’m the one lying on my back across three vinyl seats for a three-hour layover. This wing of the LA airport is under renovation, and actually, so am I.
A stripped ceiling reveals grooved metal tubes of heating and cooling ducts, insulation, pipes and detritus I can’t identify. I question the wisdom of a deep inhale, but I have a migraine, so I need big breaths.
Circle peppermint oil with fingertips on my temples, elevate knees on my backpack, and talk with my mom, which makes me feel both easier and smaller. Tears spill over my eyelashes as I bemoan my current state and she lets me, saying she’s sorry her kid isn’t feeling good.
When I was little and home sick from school, she’d set up the couch with clean sheets and pillows from my bed, and I’d get to just sit there and rest or maybe watch cartoons, not having to worry about regular stuff.
Next to me, my mother would set a tray of chicken and stars soup, Schweppes Ginger Ale with ice and a straw, and a black cherry Jell-O shot—no vodka. She’d pour some of the hot, just-made Jell-O into a juice glass before she let the rest set. I drank that velvety sweetness right down.
Since my eighty-three year old mom can’t make it from Pittsburgh to LA to bring her forty-three year old daughter hot Jell-O and a clean pillowcase, I wrangle my own care. Like setting up this makeshift bed, like dragging myself and my luggage to get hot water from the coffee place and two slices of lemon from the bar. Like looking up food that helps migraines—an online excuse to get French fries, salty medicine I didn’t really need to research; I already knew that’s what I wanted.
Right now I question the clear yes I felt when I decided to go to this writing workshop in San Miguel de Allende. Clarity feels like my best friend from kindergarten. I vaguely remember her face and that she had brown hair and eyes like mine. But I don’t know what happened to her—where she lives or if she lives.
Right now, I wish for my bed, my ice mask, my Mike to rub my head and feet. But I’m also determined to get what I came for—support in enlivening my writing, and underneath that, something to help me endure this life.
I’m going to San Miguel to find relief and rejuvenation, but maybe I chose the wrong way. The pressure mounts in my head, behind my eyes, and in my uterus, where the lining thickens with blood. Pain creases my face, not just at the anticipation of losing blood, but with a month-old loss replaying in my mind—the violent death of a friend.
It’s like walking again and again into a familiar room, and every time finding the furniture rearranged, with new horrible decorations I didn’t, wouldn’t ever choose. My friend stands in the centre—bright, funny, thoughtful. Right where she’s supposed to be. But next to her, things that clash and shock—rape, murder, strangle, torn. In a frenzy, I remove them all, knock them of off shelves and into a trash bag. Tie it tight, throw it to the curb. With forced effort, I exhale, but when I return to the room, the same disarray greets me with a painted toothy grin.
Today, all over the world, women march in peaceful protest of their own lived stories of disarray they can’t control, of the inauguration of a man with utter disregard for life and loss and love. And here I am, flying to a writing workshop.
Along with everything else, I feel guilt.
Just before boarding the plane, I meet a woman with a felt flower on her hat, an expat returning to her home in San Miguel. Her voice melodic and generous, she says, “You’ll love it.” When we land at the Leon airport, with my bladder near bursting, this woman helps me to find a bathroom and get through customs. We discover we’ve booked the same shuttle, and her companionship relieves me.
Outside, the sun has just set, and I can’t find the rising moon. Anxious to gulp in some fresh air, I inhale exhaust fumes instead. In the shuttle, I choose a seat that folds my legs in an awkward position, but all I can feel is the pressure behind my eyes.
My new friend says I can talk if I want to, but she’s glad just to be quiet for my migraine. For the next hour, I ride through a Mexico draped in shadows.
Wilted, headachey, and hungry for more than French fries, I arrive in San Miguel in the dark. Lisa, another student who offered to share her rented house, greets me with enthusiasm and a hug. Her English cocker spaniels do, too. Tails wagging, they jump and press paws to my thighs to say hello. I fight to see straight, let alone respond.
We leave the dogs and walk to the corner restaurant, where lack of sleep blurs the Spanish words I know. With Lisa’s help, I order camarones al ajo, then return to a clean bed with dolphins kissing on the headboard. Beauty behind me as I sleep.
The next night at our welcome dinner, I meet the other attendees through a persisting fog. The pressure in my body hasn’t lifted, my intestines growl in protest, and I can’t reach out of it all to connect how I want to. Since I left home, all I can do is perform constant maintenance on myself.
More peppermint oil. Ice pack on my eyes. Pop ibuprofen. Suck on ginger candy. Drink water. Sit down in the corner so I don’t have to talk. Appear anti-social while aching with isolation. Explain that I’m not feeling well to nine people I’ve just met and will be spending the week with. Want them to like me, even though I don’t especially like myself right now. I go to bed and hope to goddess I’ll feel better when the workshop begins in the morning.
At 5:38 a.m., I wake. Something isn’t right. I long to roll back over to sleep, but I will myself to check the status of my bed. Bloodied underwear and sheets make me feel like I’m thirteen again and still learning how to manage my period, which has started in full force. The last thing I want to do is clean everything up, but it’s necessary, so I do. I climb back into bed for the half hour I have left to sleep. When I thought about coming here to take care of myself, this wasn’t what I imagined.
Still, this marks a turning point because it means that my body has found its flow again, and the migraine has vacated my skull. The next morning, in our first group writing time, struggles with identity and grief over my friend rise in black ink stains on my notebook.
I weep and wonder if I’ll leak the whole trip, a steady stream of saltwater and blood.
Come afternoon, in this bright courtyard, with gargantuan geraniums and a lemon tree dropping ripe fruit, we students spread out in silence, each immersed in our own making.
As I write about trees with vaginas and the rumble of cart wheels, my Portland apartment feels far away. Words roll out over cobblestones, bumpy but steady, finding grooves to move.
I sit in front of a candle that looks like a clear water glass filled with white wax, sloping to the right from a previous melt.
In the centre, a frayed black wick snaggles up, also leaning to the right, but curving back, too. The dark edge of a waxing moon, the sliver not yet ready to ripen.
Sunlight makes the wax gleam bright like a long, perfectly bleached tooth, the dry wick a root suggesting that it was pulled from some greater mouth. But not doing what it was ripped from its home to do.
In the evening, I have my first margarita of the trip. Lisa and I share ceviche with coconut milk and garlicky lentil soup with chopped plantains. I’ve shifted from maintenance to sustenance. Now this is the self-care I imagined. This is something I can write about.
Except that after dinner, I’m still hungry for something. I have homework to write a piece, but I’m tempted to put myself to bed.
I don’t. I am, after all, a good girl who does her homework. Back at Lisa’s house, at 10 p.m. I climb the spiral staircase in the dark to the rooftop deck. One step at a time, gripping the railing, afraid to fall.
City lights circle me, and church steeples aglow from within jut up from the skyline. Cicadas hum and bells chime back. Dogs chime in, too. The voices of the day quiet so that other conversations may be had.
I sit on the lounge chair in the corner and stretch out my legs, notebook on my lap. Darkness curls up at my feet and creeps into the folds of my pajama pants. Unlike that first night feeling isolated in a group, I’m actually by myself here. Still, the darkness defies me to say I’m alone.
I don’t say it, but I think it. Alone.
My lips are dry. This is desert air, one S, not two like dessert, which has an extra S because it has all of the good stuff. I smile at how my mom taught me to remember the spelling with her rolled oats cookies, jam-filled muffins, and two half-slices of pie—peach and apple—on a Blue Onion china plate.
Adult me craves a different sweetness. Like the garlic that lingers on my tongue, a bulb that must be buried to find its flavour.
This thin sweatshirt I wear offers a minimal line of defence against the chill, and the night tells the truth of January—black and silver. Despite the confident sunlight and mid-seventies daytime temperatures, it’s still winter in San Miguel. Although I wish I’d brought my heavy-duty hoodie, I lean back and surrender to the air.
Rock-a-bye baby on the rooftop. When the bells chime, the writing will stop.
As we her daughters grew up, my mother would sing lullabies every night to us. I loved the deepness of her voice, low like mine is now—the bottom register of feminine. A cradle shaped sound that could hold a girl who needed to be held.
Until she could grow strong enough to hold herself.
Words invisible in sunlight now seep out like dream lyrics through my pen to the paper. Now is the yin to the yang of a mug full of coffee. The hour of swimming in empty cups, when I can backstroke through stars, my fingers skimming the edges of Orion’s belt, hooking to tug it down, but feeling it stretch me up instead. Orion offers to take me as a lover, but I decline. Who am I to get swept up into the stars?
With ass, thighs and calves indenting this cushion, I feel heavy, immovable. But I don’t want to be left behind, cold on this rooftop.
Restless, I climb down the spiral staircase and into the dolphin-supervised bed.
The next day, I struggle to make sense of my rooftop reverie. To pinpoint what I really want to say about self-care and the need to rejuvenate in order to endure the world. To make this trip into a rallying cry I can share with others for how we all can steel ourselves to reenter the good fight.
Is that really why I’m here?
I scan the courtyard for answers. My eyes find a hummingbird up in the bougainvillea, but she doesn’t have time for a question.
Our teacher Gigi approaches with soft steps and asks if she can bring me anything. “Tea? Water? A cold beer?”
Like a hungry turtle, my neck rises to the last option. I smile.
“Okay,” she says, smiling back. “I’ll bring it to you.”
I worry I should follow her. I am, after all, able to walk, to get myself a drink. I shift in my seat.
Moments later, Gigi returns with a cold Dos Equis and a plate of chips and salsa for me. As she walks away, understanding runs down my cheeks in rivulets. I get the “it” I needed to get.
This is not about “I have to take care of my self.” Not about the wise nourishment of self-care. Nor about Self-Care, that fiercely independent training to be my own one-stop shop of survival stamina.
This is not about being a grown up, so now I must do it all for myself.
This is not about me getting and acquiring what I need, but rather, receiving what’s given.
This is about my mom singing me to sleep then and reassuring me now. Mike rubbing my head when I return home next week, the coffee shop people giving me hot water and the bartender handing me two lemon slices. A stranger offering me quiet.
This is about opening to the care of the world. Trusting myself as a piece of the whole.
Letting Orion love me from the rooftop, a kind teacher hand me just what I need, new friends welcome me and tell me, over lunch, “We need you. We need your voice. It matters.” New friends who don’t know, couldn’t know, that this is what I say to other writers all the time, who know somehow to give me back this medicine.
This is about two cocker spaniels flanking me on a couch far from home, snuggling in while I write, right now.
Without question, I have much to endure. Rearranging rooms in my mind and heart for as long as I need to grieve, finding a way to live with what is, and without what was and who was here. Giving voice to justice and compassion, because I am a piece of the whole, and I care. Still, I must remember the difference between necessary and chosen endurance.
Whatever I need to endure in this world, this is most of all about letting it enfold me into a bright, full circle.
About installing an opening in my heart, like a doggy door, a way to let the care of the world rush in barking and slobbering, all softness and excitement to see me. To let gifts be given and permit myself to receive them.