The most important thing I learned in college (aside from my social security number) was networking. If you know enough of the right people, you can make anything happen, and usually on the cheap. Be bold, be nice, be generous, and you never know when a total stranger may give you the chance of a lifetime.
You wanna know how to get through the hard times? Take a minute or two– or an hour or two, however long it takes– and daydream about what it’s going to be like when you reach your goals, when you don’t feel shitty anymore, when your life is what you want it to be. Give yourself something to look forward to, and it’ll be easy to get the motivation to keep going forward, get your shit together and move on.
It works for me, anyway.
Dream big. Believe that you can achieve that dream. Prioritize your life around getting there, and you will. And when you get there, come up with a new dream. Inspiration is everything.
Happiness is a collection of tiny, perfect moments. The key to finding it is slowing down enough that you can recognize and appreciate them instead of missing them altogether.
This morning I woke up around six a.m. to use the bathroom and when I opened the fridge to grab a drink of juice (which I expected to be warm), I was pleasantly surprised to see the light on in the fridge, indicating that power had been restored to Vieques. In all honesty, I had no expectation that we’d have power back so soon, as I had no confirmation of what the source of the outage was. Rumor had it last night that there was no power on parts of the main island, that perhaps the outage had to do with the solar storm and resulting earthquakes– in my mind, we could have been without power for days. I was prepared for it. At least we still had running water, a house, and a gate around that house to protect us.
Turns out it was simply corroded wires, and the power was restored by morning, which, given my expectations, was a treat.
If there is one thing that I love about Vieques more than anything else, it’s that it makes me appreciate the small things in life. The simple necessities. It makes me grateful for the things that we take so much for granted at home. Running water. Locking doors. Privacy. Electricity. After camping for ten days, those things seem like a luxury, and every day I’m grateful for them.
And without all of the trappings of home –TV, internet, movie theaters, scads and scads of retail outlets vying for every last dime in your wallet– I find I appreciate the natural world around me more here than I do at home. Not that I don’t appreciate nature at home, but without anything else to do, there is really no choice here most days but to go to the beach, take pictures, go for a hike, or kayak, or paddleboard, or hop aboard a friend’s boat. On Vieques, there’s plenty of time to do all those things we keep telling ourselves we don’t have time for at home. The truth is, we have time for them all at home, but we fill up that time with unnecessary activities, most of which involve earning or spending money. It’s refreshing not to have the option of filling up my schedule with bullshit. I’ve been to the beach every day this week, and I DO have a job. My rent is $200 a month, and although the place is not a palace, it’s enough. It’s all I really need.
The other huge benefit to living without all the unnecessary extras we call “normal” at home is that I have plenty of time to think, to reflect, to write, to read, and to daydream. I think we Americans have trained ourselves to think these are the unnecessary extras, when the truth is quite the opposite. If we spend all of our time working in order to pay for all the things that we really don’t NEED, we don’t have time to live. To be. To relax. To think. To be happy, and REALIZE that we are happy. Our priorities are all messed up.
In the perpetual quest for material wealth that is contemporary American society, we have lost sight of what is really important: the quest for happiness. We all know, on a surface level, that money can’t buy happiness. But then why do we keep trying to fill whatever empty place exists in us with material things? Why do we get ourselves into crippling debt buying toys and clothes and fancy home furnishings and zippy cars? Wouldn’t being debt-free be more satisfying than having all those things at such a steep price? Because the price is not just the debt, and the stress of the debt, but the TIME spent trying to pay off the debts; time that we should be spending with our friends and loved ones, enjoying nature, making art, cooking and eating, listening to music, relaxing, and doing the things that will ACTUALLY make us happy.
Time is the most valuable resource we have, and we waste far too much of it. We waste it on working to pay for things we don’t actually need. We waste it on anger, stress, resentment and guilt. We waste it on pointless activities like video games, television and facebook. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not simply proselytizing–I’m just as guilty as anyone else. But I’m trying to shift the balance of how I spend my time and money, because as I’ve learned here on Vieques, I’m a hell of a lot happier when I’ve got less money, less trappings and all the time I want to sit in the hammock and read my book. Or to sit here, at half past noon on a Wednesday, and write to you.
There has been no electricity on Vieques since about 5:30 pm (Tues). A bit of research leads me to believe it’s got something to do with solar flares and an earthquake in the DR, followed by a tremor in western Puerto Rico. However, friends in San Juan say they have power. Not really sure what’s going on. The lights flickered on for a second around 7, but nothing since.
With no power, the stars above Esperanza are epic. Orion’s belt is kit up like a Christmas tree. The darkness is complete, and stunning. The only sounds are tree frogs, distant dogs and the hum of several generators.
We are camping again, this time in a cement tent with running water and beds. I’m ok with it.
I love having time to get sucked into an eight-hundred page book for pure pleasure. I love having the freedom to spend my morning doing things I enjoy, and not things that are required. I love that I have submerged myself in the Caribbean sea every day this week. I love that the climbing tree in my back yard is a mango tree, though it won’t give us mangoes until April. I love that when I do have to work, I work with friends and food, and that when I leave the building every evening, the only part of the job I take with me is the money. I love the dramatic tropical wind that occasionally slams the metal shutters on my windows closed. I love the simplicity of washing my clothes in the sink and hanging them in the sun to dry. I love the tree frogs and coquis, who provide a peaceful soundtrack to every night’s sleep– and I love that after a week I stopped hearing the roosters and dogs and falling-apart cars that otherwise cut up the night. I love the fact that everything seems possible here, if you’re willing to work hard at it. I love that New York money and arrogance have not polluted this paradise yet, and I love the stubborn hearts of the Viequenses who will fight against them when they try.
I love this island, with all its quirks and hiccups. I love these people, misfits all of them. I love my life.
Yesterday, I realized that my credit card bills were due… today. Which means that the only way to pay them was to go off-island to the Bank of America branch in Woods Hole and pay them in cash. Rather than simply riding across on the boat (which would have cost 11 dollars round trip), paying my bills and riding back, I decided to give the boat riding a wider purpose. So I invited my sister to accompany me for ferry-riding and chinese food, at Peking Palace in Falmouth (a rare treat for those of us who live on the island, where the Chinese restaurant is nicknamed the “Gaggin’ Dragon”).
After some brief discussion about the weather and the cost of taxis, we decided to bring the car. It would cost about the same anyway, right?
Because with the car, there came the possibility of shopping. Specifically the possibility of buying things that were too large to carry on the boat by hand. I spent enough money to get to California and back.
A rough inventory:
Bamboo rug for my kitchen
Four pairs of pants, two of which are a bit goofy
A gigundo thing of toilet paper
A ruffly shirt the color of a cartoon mango (yes, I said ruffly)
…and here’s where the evidence of island fever begins to show…
Two “mystery” Matchbox cars (the packaging is opaque black plastic)
Two boxes of Barbie miniature fairies, one of which looks like a less attractive Maleficent
Two whoppingly huge bags of Cadbury mini-eggs
Orange-flavored body wash/shampoo/bubble bath
Heart-shaped Everlasting Gobstoppers
A time-wasting card game that I used to play back in the stoner days of high school
A battery-powered sparkly lava lamp night light
Two boxes of dice
A partridge in a pear tree
Okay, so I was kidding about that last one. But you get the picture.
Thankfully, we didn’t make it to the Christmas Tree Shop. I might have come home with several garden gnomes, a dozen stained glass window doohickeys, Spiderman flip-flops, a stuffed jellyfish and a stray child or two.
For the past several years, I have wanted to move back to the West Coast. I kept telling myself, and other people, that the reason I did not was because my father was here, and he didn’t want me to be so far away. This reasoning became ever stronger when he became sick last March. I will not leave my Dad, I said. But who knows how long that will keep me here?
With the terribly premature passing of my Dad last week (I thought we had years left, maybe decades–they said they’d get him a liver, and they lied), I inherited a bunch of stuff. I am now the proud owner of a house in the middle of a town I’ll never have a desire to live in (and my father knew this–he wanted me to use it as collateral to buy my own home, which I will do). I also own a grey minivan that I’ll probably never use as my own because it’s so old and run down that it only makes sense for a gearhead like my dad to own. I’ve got a half-built hot rod, and a shop full of incredibly cool tools I don’t know how to use (but hopefully will someday), and a cherry red 1953 GMC 630 semi with a white Coke-bottle stripe that’s fully restored. And a decent chunk of change, too, the amount of which I will not specify.
And I have the freedom to go wherever I want to go, without feeling guilty about it, or missing the most important person in my life. Because the most important person in my life is gone.
And I thought about it, too. Years ago, before he got sick, I thought to myself, when he goes, I’ll be able to go wherever I want without getting lectured about being a bad daughter. If only I could bitch slap the face of my old self now. Oh, how stupid I was, and so willing to take for granted that he’d always be there. Sometimes desire can be a truly terrible thing; can make us think of things we should never think of.
Nevertheless, I have the freedom now. I can go wherever I want–New Zealand, Europe, California–and I’ve chosen to go home. Back to the place I came from. I’ve chosen instead of running away to some glorious faroff place to return to the tiny island that spat me out all those years ago.
There are some who think that I’m using my father’s death as an excuse to make a foolish and un-thought-out decision. That I’m going to drop out of school and be absorbed by the island, transformed instantaneously into a lazy, pot-smoking Island-duh, and that I’ll never leave again, never get anything accomplished.
It couldn’t be much farther from the truth.
For the first time since I left home in 1997, when I was 18, I realize what made my parents move there and raise a child in the first place. Although my father later became embittered with the forces that were acting upon our tiny island and left it, he could never say that the magic was completely gone. There is a community aspect of living in so small and isolated a place that’s hard to achieve anywhere else. And not only are the people on the island familiar and isolated, they’re smart (most of them, anyway). And they’re artistic.
I’m not going home to hide out, or to escape my demons. I’m going home in search of something I think I may only find there–solace. I’m going for the trees and the ocean, and the deep dark of the winter night sky. I’m going for friendly games of wine-infused Scrabble, and heaping pots of homemade chili. I’m going for the fresh-baked smell of pastries in coffee shops, and the knowledge that every door I walk through will reveal a face that I know. I’m going for free concerts by local musicians, and dinner parties that happen every week, and people who will band together with or without your consent and throw a benefit concert when your dad dies suddenly and you can’t afford to pay for a memorial service for him.
The things are mine, much as I wish I could trade them in for another day with my Dad. And they, too, mean freedom. Wheels to take me anywhere, if I want to go. A house to live in if I ever need a roof, or a rest. Something to show the bank when I want to buy my own home that I’m good for it. And a little money to help me along the way.
I want to believe that my father would have approved of my decision to move home. I’ve almost convinced myself that he would. What I do know for sure is that he would have believed I had the right to make my own decisions, and that if I’d taken the time to think them out, they were probably the right ones. The only time he ever told me not to move somewhere, my destination was Texas. He told me the whole 8 months that I was there that I had to pack up my duffel bags and get back on the bus and go back the way that I came–and he was right.
I’m not exercising excuses, I’m exercising freedom. And I’m using my freedom to stay nearby, and look for a quiet life instead of adventure. Dad, I hope you understand. Nobody else’s opinion even matters.
I miss you, but if I can’t have you back, I’m grateful for the freedom.
Tonight while I was at work, I happened to notice that a customer looked rather familiar. For a moment, I wondered if he was a smalltime celebrity, but I nixed that idea the moment he spoke–his voice was familiar, too. As I walked away from the table, I immediately realized who it was. I checked the ID that was left for the pool table and sure enough, the last name on the card (which was actually his female companion’s card) was O’Connor, just as I’d suspected. I was then convinced that the familiar-looking guy was, in fact, Mr. Tim O’Connor– my former counselor from the camp I attended for three summers in New Hampshire from 1990 to 1992. Almost sixteen years ago.
I approached the table and posed the inevitable question: “Were you a counselor at Brantwood Camp in New Hampshire in 1992?” As I’d expected, the man gave a sort of stunned smile and confirmed that yes, he had been. “Mr. O’Connor,” I said. He nodded and smiled a bit wider. “I was one of your campers for three years,” I said. I told him my name, and he remembered me, then he introduced me (or should I say re-introduced me) to his wife, who had been a camper and later a counselor while I’d been at the camp. As soon as she said her name, her face became familiar, too. “Wow,” they both said.
We spent a few minutes recounting old memories, and they filled me in on some happenings at the camp (they’re involved in the Alumni Association, which I haven’t managed to join yet, though I should). They showed me a picture of their two sons, who are adorable. We agreed to exchange email addresses before they left, and they said they’d pass on my information to another former counselor who lives in Boston, who I made a failed attempt at contacting last year.
This story would seem incredibly surprising if this sort of thing didn’t happen to me all the time. For example, not more than a month ago, a guy came in at the end of the night and I had the same “I know you” feeling–I asked him, and it turned out that he was the ex-stepson of my former Big Sister from Big Brothers/Big Sisters, and I’d met him while she and his father were in the final stages of planning their wedding. My instinct that time had been “I know he’s someone I know’s older brother…” and sure enough, it was his younger brother Charlie who I spent more time with, because he was closer to my age.
I have run into people I know from the Vineyard in Eugene (OR), Big Sur (CA), at least half a dozen in Monterey (CA), and a dozen or so on the T and in passing here in Boston, and a few more in other places. I ran into a couple I’d met in a bar one evening in Monterey at the San Jose Airport months later. I found out that a former bartender at my current place of employment spent part of her honeymoon hanging out at the bar I used to work at in Monterey–and it was a Sunday night, which meant that I was there, working–she described every person I worked with and a handful of regulars to a tee. The new waitress at my work used to hang out with the group of kids I partied with when I lived in Hyannis, only she hung out with them years later. I’ve seen Monterey friends unexpectedly in Portland and San Francisco. I was once on a plane from Oakland to Boston and was seated in the row across from a girl I went to school with on the island from kindergarten through high school.
About nine years ago, I ran into another former Brantwood camper when I knocked on her dorm room door to ask for a lighter because my high school friend (who my friend Jamie and I were visiting at college) said the girl in that room would be the most likely to have one. I wasn’t as practiced at my “don’t I know you” spiel then as I am now, so I simply rattled off her name and address like an automaton and waited for her to realize who I was (we’d written for a short time after camp ended). Sure enough, she did. We are still in touch. A few years before that, I was working at the Flying Horses Carousel in Oak Bluffs, and in walked Cathy and Tracy Freel, two sisters I’d raised a bit of hell with at camp my second year (one of them, I can’t remember which, had hidden cigarettes in the cinder block beneath her tent).
I’ve run into a girl named Else, who I met on a bus in New Zealand four years ago, twice–once on Martha’s Vineyard the following summer, and once in Boston last winter.
I don’t know why, but it seems like these random run-ins happen to me exponentially more often than they happen to anyone else. It could be accounted for by the fact that I have an exceptionally good memory for faces and therefore perhaps I tend to recognize people in situations that others would not (9 times out of 10 I’m the one who recognizes them). Perhaps it’s because Vineyarders are well-traveled, myself included.
But how the hell do you account for Else?! That shit just doesn’t happen twice. But I’m sure it will happen again. In a few months or a few years, I will be in New York, or Toronto, or Guatemala, and I will run into Else–again. The last time, we exchanged phone numbers and didn’t call. Maybe next time we’ll become friends.
When I visited Paris a couple of years ago with an ex, we did the tourist thing for a bit, which of course included a visit to The Louvre. We saw the Mona Lisa, some Van Goghs, a few other extremely famous paintings–then while we were descending a stairway to look at a room full of sketches, I caught sight of something truly arresting. I’ve always appreciated art, but I must admit that I’m not really stricken with awe by most paintings. I prefer photography and, I discovered on this trip, sculpture. There, in the stairway, was the only piece of art that has given me goosebumps: the Winged Victory of Samothrace.
The sculpture is of the goddess Nike, the goddess of Victory, and dates back to sometime B.C. (I’ve forgotten the date and am not feeling the necessity to look it up). It was discovered, partially destroyed, centuries after its creation. The goddess’s head and arms are missing, but a massive set of imposing wings are intact, outstretched behind her. I stopped in the stairwell and stared, while my ex anxiously shuffled his feet–to him, this visit was merely a “must-see,” and he didn’t appear truly awed by much of anything we saw, much less paralyzed on a stone step as I was, completely transfixed.
Ever since I saw the Winged Victory, I’ve wanted to get it as a tattoo. I’ve spent hours online looking for the right image–one that would translate correctly to the flesh, retaining the power of the image as much as possible. About a year ago, I was trading images of the sculpture with my friend Dave, a MySpace buddy who I’d never met in person. He sent me a few shots that I liked, and I added them to my library of “Winged Victory” images. In addition to finding the right shot, I needed to decide where on my body I’d like to have the Victory. I pondered putting it on my upper arm, but I’ve shied away from tattooing my arms for unknown reasons. I concluded that the best place to put it would be on my shoulder–my right shoulder, so that the wings would reach up and out from my shoulderblade and appear almost as though I had a wing of my own.
A couple months after the initial image trade with Dave, I received a picture message on my cell phone from an unknown number. The photo was of a girl’s back, with an amazing tattoo of the Winged Victory in exactly the place I wanted to get it. Damn, I thought. I guess I’m not so original after all. It took me a minute to realize that it was Dave who had sent me the message. I figured, since Dave is sort of an internet research guru and can find almost anything online, that he’d found the image on a website somewhere. Still, I asked: Whose back is that? For a couple hours, I received no response. Finally, a message came in: My psycho ex.
For a moment, I considered the possibility that my cyber-friend, whom I’d never met and should therefore not really consider a friend (though I did, and still do, and we’ve actually met now), had thought my idea was so cool that he’d shared it with this girl and she’d gone and swiped my idea. No, Dave told me when I asked him if this was the case, she came into town and boasted of a new tattoo, and when he saw it, he was shocked.
Though there is an incredibly small chance that I will ever meet Dave’s “Psycho ex,” or even encounter anyone who has met her besides Dave, I am nonetheless reluctant to get the tattoo now. The tattoos I do have, with the exception of the first one I got professionally (the Chinese symbol for “pleasure” on my back, which I had done when I was 18) are carefully chosen, and as far as I know, unique to me. While I understand that it’s a near certainty that there will be other people in the world who have the Winged Victory tattooed on them, as there are millions who have seen the sculpture and surely some of them were as taken aback by it as I was, still it makes me uncomfortable to know that I have a friend who’s seen the tattoo. In the exact spot I wanted to put it.
I’ve toyed with the idea of putting the tattoo in a different place, but the only place it belongs is on my right shoulder blade. That’s all there is to it. So, I either get it where it belongs–and have the exact same tattoo as someone’s Psycho Ex (not exactly someone I want to share a taste in ink with), or I do not get it at all. This, along with poverty and procrastination, is the reason my flesh is not currently adorned with the goddess of victory in all her stone glory.
My friend Jamie is coming up either tomorrow or next week, and we are going to get tattooed. Jamie knows exactly what she wants, and where she wants it. I would love to get the Victory, but a) can’t afford it, and b) have yet to make up my mind as to whether I want it at all anymore.
I know that my reluctance may sound unnecessarily indignant, but to me, a tattoo is a statement of identity–a marking which makes a claim not only of that person’s likes, loves and history, but of who they are. With this thought in mind, I’ve considered my other tattoos–“Belonging to the ocean” in Sanskrit; “Wander” and “Experience” in Japanese on my ankles; a Beastie figure on my neck in honor of my mother–and I’ve started to wonder if I have any business putting the Victory on my body at all, regardless of the other girl who’s already done it. After all, victory and the quest for it are not very high up on my list of important ideals. I don’t believe in war, and I feel most often that people who are on a quest for victory are willing to do almost anything in order to attain it, including damaging other people without regard–and that is an ideal I do not agree with. On the flip side, what the mythological significance of the sculpture is was never what drew me to it, or had me eager to preserve the image for posterity on my skin. The thing was just so goddamned beautiful, and I do appreciate beauty, particularly damaged beauty.
On Wednesday, I will most likely have a Latin phrase inked on the inside of my right wrist: Verba volant; Scripta manent. Translation: Spoken words fly away; Written words remain. As far as I know, this is mine and mine alone, tattoo wise. And it’s small, which means it’s cheap, and that’s what I can afford.
On a more philosophical level, a writer cannot afford to go chasing after victory, anyhow. They must be satisfied instead with the pursuit of small, indelible truths–because in time, the ever-pursued victory will spread its legendary wings and fly away too, ceasing to matter in the long run. But then again, there’s a certain melancholy beauty to destroyed victory…