Sunday, March 09, 2008

A Superball on Island Time

First, don’t hate me. As I type this entry I’m sitting on the balcony of my uncle’s condo in Luquillo, Puerto Rico. I would tell you this is just your typical get-me-the-hell-out-of-subzero-Vermont-and-on-to-the-beach type vacation, but this yearly sojourn has become so much more to me, my husband and my son Carlos. We need to come to the languid pace of my mother’s island to regroup and recharge. And it helps me to recognize certain qualities in me that I share with my familia Boricua, as well as those that I don’t but should. It always takes me several days to slow my heart rate down with the temperature’s rise, to not get uptight when my cousin Tere is a half an hour late for our kayaking trip (“Didn’t you know? I meant 11:30 Puerto Rican time!”). By the time the second weekend rolls around I’m moving slower, the bright sun burning off the dreary thoughts of a winter of captivity, and I feel more at home here. But I can’t help but wonder: how I can hold on to this feeling when I return to the great white north? Can a neurotic, displaced New York Latina-Swede bottle some of the peace this culture has to offer?

The week before vacation I had a lunchtime revelation while dining with some colleagues. Someone was talking about how he feared change, avoided it all costs. I listened politely, quietly chewing my caesar’s salad though his words were scurrying around in my mind. I was measuring his self reflections against myself, wondering if I shared this quality. Finally I spoke, the words coming out of my mouth before I had time to process them, “The thing I fear above all else is stagnancy.”


Nothing kills a conversation like an intensely personal and just basically intense comment, but as I reflect on this now, I realize it is not only true, but it also represents the antithesis of who I am down here on my mother’s island, and it is a quality I thought I had left behind me years ago, one I thought I had grown beyond.

At thirty years old I found myself in the city I had grown up in, walking around New York hating people: the guy who pushed ahead of me on the token booth line, the man who leered at me from his stoop, the woman who stole my cab. That year I moved to Vermont to slow down, because in Vermont I can leave my car running in front of the store and it’s still there when I come out. Clothes are casual, the outdoors rule and life is laidback. But in that one revelation-filled lunchtime moment, I realized that after fifteen years of living there I’ve managed to once again over commit my life so that I am going at full speed all the time. No, I don’t hate people and I’m calmer in many ways, but I still work myself hard, always moving, always planning. So I seek my release valve.

Every few weeks I call down to my family in Puerto Rico, just to hear their voices. We talk about how life in Vermont is: Carlos’ sports, Doug’s work, my latest novel. And during every call I ask the same question: “What’s new down there?” The answer is always the same. “Nothing, everything is the same and everyone’s fine, thank God.” And it’s true: very little changes with my family in Puerto Rico, and they seem to cherish that. But as I sit here on my perch with the Atlantic on one side and El Yunque the rainforest on the other, I realize that I call here and come down here at least once a year because I find that constancy, and yes, that stagnancy, comforting. But why is it okay here and not anywhere else?

When I was talking about this with my brother John, he pointed out that our Puerto Rican family actually works a lot, 50-60 hours a week, that the stores are a constant buzz of shoppers and loud Reggaeton blasts from passing cars, rattling the glass of the condo’s windows. He’s right, but somehow the island’s culture is still tranquil in its vibrancy. Though our family members work a lot, they don’t scurry or stress about things. When someone cut us off on route 3, making a right on red turn from the far left lane, no one cursed at him or shook their fist like we would have in New York. And on line at those very stores people are willing to stand there forever, chatting, while things moved along slower than sap in winter. Though there is the stereotype surrounding “island time” it is a way of life where one lives in the moment, sucking the marrow out of life piece by piece, and being grateful for what life brings you. It still forces me to move slower, to quell my anxiety as I move with the local tides.

I don’t know, but I think this is yet another bridge I find myself on between the two shores of my identity: the Swedish, type-A, anxiety-ridden Gringa and the leisurely, fried-plantain loving Puertoriqueña, But perhaps one side would balance the other, if I allow them to even when I’m away from the island. I will probably always be the kind of person who pushes the elevator button continuously even though it is already lit (it makes it come faster, I swear!) but also one who is able to drop everything and sit on a sandy beach and do nothing but watch the waves sweep on to shore. It is on this Caribbean afternoon that I realize that if my life were limited to one side or the other, I would bore myself with intensity or conversely, serenity. During my most recent physical, my doctor and friend Mike Sampson said, “Ann, sometimes being in the same room with you is like being in the room with a superball. Some of that is who you are and I wouldn’t change a thing, but some of it is anxiety and that we have to deal with.” Next time I see Mike, I will tell him that I’ve realized that it is staying in touch with my Caribbean blood that will occasionally slow down the superball’s kinetic bouncing long enough to be warmed by the setting Luquillo sun or be lulled by the coquis’ evening serenade. That I have to consciously remember the comfort of the sea’s salt drying on my skin and occasionally drink out of a coconut’s shell even when the temperature reaches below zero.

Or if that doesn’t work, we can always up my meds.


Anonymous said...

There's a comfort in being home. That's part of it but I do know what you mean. Every so often I have to call my mom and my sister and listen to their Spanish/English/Pocho mix and then I'm there. It's calming; grounding.

You have a beautiful place to get away to. You're a lucky one. Ask your gente if they want to adopt me!

Anonymous said...

As you know, I left for a vacation in Europe in May 2001 (just one month short of 29 years in NYC), but due to the events of 11 September 2001, I never quite returned (well, just to pick up my clothes and the cat and get rid of the apartment).

I love my new home and the relaxed pace of Europe (i.e. everything closes by 6 p.m. on Saturday and literally nothing is open on Sunday, so you are forced to have a weekend), but now the work I have taken up, which in so many ways seems like one big vacation, is starting to wear me down with all the travel. And then I walk into a 13th century castle in Lower Austria, or discover a rooftop bar overlooking the cathedral in Milan, or find a vaulted medieval restaurant in Prague where they will slow-roast an entire duck on a spit high over an open fire, and suddenly it's not so bad anymore.

Nonetheless, thank the goddesses for whoever invented Xanax!

Elinor said...

I was glad to be able to slow down enough to read your blog. Living here has given me an appreciation for slower clock you describe. Only gringas like me arrive at the appointed hour. I was telling my son-in-law about the "crazy" drivers in El Paso and he said he read we have the lowest incidence of road rage in the country. Of course, if everybody drives that way, it's normal--right?

The one big thing we are lacking here is a beautiful tropical forest and an ocean. Lucky you to have such a beautiful place to calm down in.