Monday, December 20, 2010

Grief, Travel, Friendship and the Best Bar in the World

"There's a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in."
Leonard Cohen

Mike and I met in Guatemala when we were both broken hearted, grieving, grappling with the disorienting notion of what our lives might look like after the losses we had just suffered. I had just endured a series of intimate and devastating betrayals that led to the end of a ten year relationship. Mike had just lost his best friend to an abrupt and unexpected illness - John, dead at 42. We were both bewildered and raw. That was December 2007.

It was late summer 2007 when I hastily decided to take my first solo international trip somewhere, anywhere, someplace no one knew me and I could just be, floating, unattached, where things were different and I had to pay attention to something other than my empty house and the unrelenting ache in my guts....someplace where I didn't belong and nothing was expected of me and every interaction would demand my attention and be fresh and untainted. I needed to get the fuck out of town, out of country, out of my world.

My first solo trip was to Cabo where I intentionally booked two nights in a modest hotel frequented by Mexicans, not gringos. My trip was a week long and I figured I'd spend a couple days in Cabo and then decide where to go and what to do. I hated Cabo as it was packed with idiot drunk gringos who under-appreciated the Mexicans who served them. I spent one day fishing for dorado on a rough Pacific Ocean catching two fish which I brought to a sweet palapa restaurant where the kindly waiters had the cooks make three preparations for me to try. I gave the rest of the fish to the waiters who were my only friends in that town, a pattern that has often repeated itself in Mexico.

The second day I rented a car and headed north along the Pacific Coast in the August heat listening to Mexican music and concentrating on keeping the car on the narrow roads that link the towns of southern Baja. I spent a night in Todos Santos and then headed east to La Paz. I stayed in a gorgeous historical building, el Angel Azul, a B&B run by a savvy world travelled Swiss woman named Ester. We immediately liked each other. After an incredibly successful day of fishing on the Sea of Cortes in an 18' panga with my Mexican guide, she and I took my fish to the best restaurant in town where Jesus, a friendly chef from Tijuana, made that fish delicious. I gave the rest of my fish to hard working locals, people Ester knew. I so loved La Paz with it's sweet Mexican waiters, shop-keeps, chefs and guides, that I extended my trip another week. Ester and I sipped Don Julio in the courtyard and discussed her travels, politics, and local gossip. I snorkeled with sea lions, kayaked, ate ceviche on the beach, met friendly vacationing Italians, and walked the malecon in the evenings watching families eating ice cream cones and listening to the bands that played a mix of American cover songs and Mexican pop.

August days in southern Baja are oppressively hot and I was forced to move slowly, conservatively. I drank glasses of ice water with limes, ate chips and guacamole and obsessively wrote in my journal. My interactions with the locals could only deal with the immediate, the tangible, those things that could be explicitly named, mimed or pointed to...the abstract and conceptual were eclipsed by the language barrier and I was forced to live in the moment. It was perfect and when I returned to the States something had shifted. It was not an end, not a cure for the ache in my guts, the grief, the disorientation, but I had rounded some corner, was looking at some new fuzzy horizon. And I knew after years of traveling in Mexico, I needed to learn some Spanish. Within a month of returning from Baja I had booked five and half weeks in Guatemala over Christmas and New Years. I registered for Spanish classes and arranged boarding with a local family. I had no idea what to expect but I was going to really get the fuck out of town, out of country, out of my world. I was headed to Guate.

My first time in Antigua, Guatemala, I studied Spanish four hours a day, an exhausting enterprise in one's 40s. I ate my meals with my Spanish speaking and very religious host family. I walked the cobblestone streets alone, sat in cafes reading and studying my Spanish, ordering meals with my nascent skills. I sat in internet cafes and wrote emails and blogged at the request of my family. I read voraciously and slept in a closet room in the most uncomfortable twin bed. On the weekends I travelled alone, Lake Atitlan, Tikal, Rio Dulce, Chi Chi, Copan. I was often nervous, lonely...but I was present, engaged, everything was new and immediate. I watched no TV, read no newspapers, listened only to the music available in the clubs and cafes. I talked to all kinds of people stumbling through Spanglish conversations with smiling locals, swapping stories with traveling Europeans and gringos. Save for the snotty young Europeans in my Spanish school, most folks were friendly and engaging, especially the locals.

Although people were friendly to me as I travelled alone around Guatemala on the weekends, in Antigua I was starting to get a bit lonely. I was older than most of my fellow students and they were largely indifferent and often unfriendly to me. Then one day I walked into Dyslexia Books on Avenida Primera and met Carlos, a middle-aged sweetheart of a man, a lawyer from Tennessee who tends the store in the time when he's not working for local NGOs. We immediately hit it off talking books and politics and Guatemala. I asked Carlos if I could buy him drinks for the night at the adjacent bar, Cafe No Se. He accepted and we settled into what would become a liqueur soaked evening of disclosure and waxing philosophic. It was that night that I met Mike, shook his hand over the bar he was tending. Mike and I talked and ranted about US politics and who knows what and after a couple of hours I knew he was to be my friend, that I already loved him. It was a strange but comforting feeling.

Mike and I spent the next night in No Se sipping drinks and sharing our stories. He spoke candidly of John's death, his heartbreak and despair, the disorientation that comes with grieving a profound loss. I shared my stories, the betrayal and loss, the shock and disillusionment of the past year. I also talked about my first experience wrestling with profound grief, the loss of my mother when I was young. We acknowledged that despite its inevitability, death and the resulting grief are not something one can really prepare for. We drank. We talked. We didn’t try to fix each other. We didn’t pretend it was less painful than it was. We didn’t get uncomfortable and change the subject. We didn’t panic and fill the silences. We simply bore witness to each other. Thousands of miles from our lives and histories in the States, we sat together and told the heartbreaking truth in a dimly lit dive bar. And we both knew a profound friendship was being cemented.

One day walking through town Mike asked me what I was doing for Christmas. I had no plans and he insisted that I come to his house for dinner on Christmas Eve. I spent the evening with an incredibly eclectic group of folks, expats and Guatemalans, do-gooders and vagabonds, radicals and musicians. We told stories and shared poetry and drank rum and sang songs till the sun came up. It was beautiful. My heart was still broken but it was also filled with love....that ineffable paradox that is the human condition, the way the human heart can hold both profound pain and expansive love...the bittersweet feeling of love's return when you have suffered its absence.

I am in Guatemala for the fourth time since that first holiday season, my fourth Christmas and New Years with Mike and the various souls who land in this quirky little town this time of year. There are the regulars, the expats and Guatemalans who call this place a permanent home, and those who come back just for the holidays, and those just passing through, this place a stop on some journey. Each year we gather around a long table, eat and drink and sing songs till the sun comes up, giving thanks for the love and friendship. And each year Mike and I have grown stronger, let go of some more of the pain of those particular losses and cultivated a little more hope and peace. And we have noted that our friendship is rooted in our willingness to tell the truth when we were crushed and raw. We both knew that to tell those truths is an expression of great strength, the strength of letting go of pretense.

The other night Mike and I got into a little fight, something stupid and fueled by a little too much tequila. We immediately made up but the tiff threw me for a bit of a loop. Mike and I don't fight. Our relationship is not filled with's elastic and spacious, never demanding. And then a wise friend offered, shrugging off my concern, that to fight is a rite of passage of sorts. To make an ass out of oneself, to be petty or ridiculous and then be quickly and sincerely forgiven, to experience that is to know more the truth of the friendship. I realized she was right and I let it all go. As Mike said to me the next day, "all I know is that I love you and that's all that matters and this is just a little blip and it means nothing." He's half right. It once again means letting go of pretense, the pretense that we will always be our best selves. We will not. And to admit that is also an expression of strength.

Mike recently sent me a draft of an essay he wrote exploring the fragility of life, asserting that: "…occasionally Ye Olde Cycle of Birth and Death grabs us by the lapels and demands our full and undivided. And it does so to shake the comfort out of our heads and remind us that, as fast as gravity, conception or murder, entropy can send your whole world ass over tea-kettle."

I think Mike is a passionate and talented writer. And as his friend, I know some of the back-story that fuels this particular languaging. I know that in the past year he helped victims of the eruption of the volcano Pacaya, that he was one of the volunteers who helped dig people from the mudslides that Agatha's rains caused in Ciudad Vieja. I know that he returned to the states for the funeral of a friend who was murdered by her husband. And I know an ex lover recently gave birth to another man's baby. After reviewing his draft I wrote to him in an email: "One has to acknowledge all that vulnerability and tenderness in order to live out loud, to love big and generously despite the fact that your heart will be broken, again and again. And then again. People will die, people will betray you, volcanoes will erupt and floods will sweep away villages. No one escapes heartbreak. Life is a heartbreaking enterprise, inherently. Denying that leads to severe and potentially irreparable pussy-ness."

One of the reasons I love Mike so much is he acknowledges, front and center, without pretense, without a common self delusion, that life is heartbreaking. He names the pain, calls out the insecurities, stares them down, doesn't let them paralyze him. He does all that and then chooses to love generously again and again. In this way he inspires me and I think all those who know him and read his work.

It's good to be back in Guatemala, with Mike and all the dear friends I have made here. Unlike that first Christmas, I am stronger, happier, healed. I am forever thankful for those early conversations with Mike in that beautiful dive bar on Avenida Primera, because without them and the friendship they birthed, I would not be here today, a better woman, a better friend, a better person.

1 comment:

cindy said...

I am reminded of the night, over drunken chat, where you advised me to "drop the pride". Sage advice, and a suggestion that i have called upon more than once since then...Have a lovely holiday Mer, full of all the grief and glory life can muster up, i'll be heading to my love and my "dive bar across the planet" Jan 1, xxxx love you! your partner in crime :)