02 October 2018

Life Right Now... in Puerto Rico

folios and traveler's notebooks by Sojourner USA
There is always a reason for why things happen.

Life is a completely different experience right now. With an incredible opportunity that my husband had, we made the decision to move for the next four years to Puerto Rico, a Caribbean island that is a United States territory and found a beautiful 100-year-old home on the southwest part of the island on a mountain. In the past two months of our new life, we've had several moments of pure glee at our new experience, and then moments where we dearly miss the comforts of the States.

Here's a quick overview of life: I was born in Manila, and lived in Venezuela and Greece. I grew up in Maryland, married once, divorced once, moved from Maryland, to Virginia, to North Carolina, to Minnesota, and then to Virginia Beach where I met the love of my life, married again, got pregnant through IVF treatments, and promptly had a gorgeous fat little boy who saved my life because he never wanted breast milk. Because if he had taken to my breast, it would have been an even longer time before I got that somewhat large lump rechecked. That means the evil breast cancer that had started in my right breast would have spread much more and much further than to 39 out of 53 lymph nodes in my right armpit. My story would have been very different. The Stage 3 breast cancer which required a double mastectomy, chemo and radiation, could have been even worse. So I will always say that my son saved my life. Because he absolutely did.

I've anointed our house as the "Hemingway Hideaway" since it reminds me of Hemingway's Key West home. The gothic beauty of vegetation and island life and palm trees and fruits dropping into our backyard is beautiful and extravagant at times, but there is another reality of living on a mountain without air conditioning on the main floor, without a dishwasher or garbage disposal, with a kitchen door that swings open easily to a gorgeous outdoor patio but also means those bugs and mosquitos and spiders I'm so scared of can also easily come right into where I live, too.

So, yes, that's challenging and different, but so hard to complain about because really - how can you complain when the view is beyond imaginable and God's artistry is so apparent? How can I complain when we have a pool that I can jump into anytime I want? Life here reminds me of all the many things I have always taken for granted living in the States. So this is my reminder. What my soul and spirit needed to become even stronger and thoughtful and aware. These are the things for which I wanted to come here, to raise my son here, for him to build his memory bank with moments of difference and language and beauty. I wanted to harshly remember that life is a luxury no matter where you live, that each breath is precious and that each place in the world can be different, unusual, quirky, delicious, frightening, fun, and always to be respected, even in the midst of homesickness and culture variances that make you doubt every decision made. The reminders that there is more outside of where you live and that one step outside the door each morning should bring you that awareness in some way.

Life in Puerto Rico in this mountain home is fun and crazy and frustrating. I don't know of anyone who really enjoys walking up the stairs and looking out onto the same balcony with the same incredible view that is only just a few feet from your bedroom and noticing that just past that open door, there is a five-foot boa constrictor very comfortably curled up on the corner of the balcony in the sun. That's not really a moment anyone seeks to accomplish, not a task on anyone's list to check off in a day, to try and figure out how to make a snake that big and that scary looking, go far, far away from your home and pets. But even in that, there was value, precious value in that crazy moment. For that moment is now a memory my son has tucked away into his memory bank, that he can draw on in the future to share with his friends and his family about his childhood. Even now, I laugh loudly about how my husband, son and I banded together like The Walking Dead, and with two hockey sticks and a trash can, we snagged and released that big boy back into the jungle in 22 minutes. Later, when the dust of the moment settled, it was an interesting feeling. We just encountered a boa constrictor. On our balcony. Our home. And we worked together. And laughed and high-fived that we accomplished this together and didn't run in fear. This is life now. It seemed familiar, it was our new world now and didn't seem like a big deal anymore.

Life is so sweet and precious. I know I took things for granted before and I will try harder in this life. So I'll take every single snake, mosquito and separation from the things I'm used to because God let me live one more day. Somehow I escaped a ride of cancer and chemo and much, much scarier things from the past four years, which are in my rear view mirror, and I can look at the snake on my balcony and not be all the way scared. I still experience doubt, anxiety, depression and fear in my vulnerable moments, and especially when I have my annual check-ups, but it feels further away from the quaking, dark hole of fear and despair, and closer to God. Closer to faith. It's happening, as I type these very words, that peaceful transformation of contentment flowing over me and I don't want that to end. I know I'll have my moments, the imperfections that make me human. But I believe I can do this. I believe I can choose faith over fear. I will try to practice yoga every morning on that same balcony. I hope for more good days than bad. I pray for those thriving with cancer each day and I will mediate and talk to God. I will be faithful to Him, my life, to my very dreams of creativity that I once tucked away, and I will devote everything to my incredibly strong husband and my life-saving son. I will give them my very all. Because everything was almost all taken away from me much too soon.

21 July 2018

American Fire, by Monica Hesse

My husband and I lived in Virginia Beach for a short time, and we would frequently travel up and down the 23-mile bridge on US 13 to get over to Annapolis, and many a time I made the drive alone for work. I preferred when my husband was driving because I am one of those people who love gazing at passing towns, wondering about the people who live there. And the Eastern Shore of Virginia is beautiful, and seemingly quiet. Unfortunately, we never stopped, even though we planned to. The next time I'm back in Virginia, you can bet I will stop, even if it's just the jam and fruit stand on the side of the road, or to take a picture of an aging motel. I remember one having a funky art deco vibe (I'm still trying to find out if the Whispering Pines Motel was off of US 13 or another road). Either way, if you look up the Virginia map, you'll find a hidden segment of the Commonwealth  of Virginia that is right across a bridge and a part that no one ever thinks of. Most assume it's part of Maryland.

I'm so glad this local library featured this book, all the way down here in Florida. I happened to walk by the shelves while my four-year-old son tore through to the kids' section. I obviously had to check it out because it was about THOSE fires.

I remember when it first started and thought how random they were, how they would sprout up. No one was ever hurt and they were usually old houses or buildings, abandoned for some time. Of course, rumor had it that it was just a bunch of kids, because hey, kids in the middle of nowhere always get blamed for stuff like this. Then, after one fire after another started, the news became real. There was an arsonist in the area. And then, when all the fires fizzled out and the highs and lows of watching the news concluded after about six months, one woman and one man were arrested. A couple, supposedly madly in love, were an arsonist pair. Charlie had previous infractions with the law as a recovering addict, and Tonya really had nothing on her record. They both had their own businesses and were trying to make a life together, but something made them do this. Although Tonya is adamant that she had nothing to do with it, they were both charged, and Tonya was looked as the one with all the ideas. Together, they completely freaked out the area, with everyone wondering which building was next. 

No one ever really understands the amount of man hours and dollars that go into catching a suspect, with trying to profile, stake out, and call on resources from all over the area, from other law enforcement to professors. Monica Hesse, the author, spent this time with each individual reviewing those items, and it's clear she has much respect for the work they did to catch this very oddly-paired Bonnie and Clyde arsonist team that made horrible choices that still have not been understood. Since Charlie was the only who talked to law enforcement and admitted to everything, details are really only from him; Tonya kept herself aloof and closed off, so it was easy to pin her as their ringleader. Charlie wasn't creative enough to come up with good lies, so he just told it as it was, and Tonya, with her way with words, and her quick poetry posts on Facebook, made it crafty and bizarre by staying silent and maintaining her innocence.

I don't read a lot of true crime or non-fiction books and this one was awesome, so I started getting nosey and probably thinking too much. I wonder what would have happened if a woman interrogated Tonya. If a woman who had it all together, and acted like Tonya couldn't possibly have been the one with the ideas, who would give credit to Charlie. Would that have threatened Tonya's ego and would she have confessed? Tonya seemed confident enough to manipulate people, maybe bored with life, or annoyed in her relationship with Charlie that I believe if a woman had questioned her, and gave credit to Charlie, Tonya may very well have gotten angry by a confident female officer and just spilled the truth to gain the credit.

And then, to add more interest, an anonymous book, Burned, by Z. Jasmine BelFord happened to be published on Amazon. It came out while Tonya was out on bail. It was about a couple, not named Tonya and Charlie, but named... Sonya and Harley. It took place in Accolake County, not Accomac County. Yeah... I don't think it's a stretch to assume Tonya wrote it. And then because I'm fascinated by it all, I called the main number for the publishing company and the call center representative said that the author account was in the name of "Mr. Dickerson." Wouldn't you know it, there is a Frank Dickerson in this whole story, and he happened to be Tonya's only character witness during her trial. Interesting, huh?

I bought the book. I'm reading it now. It's got a similar sense of Tonya's poems every few chapters and so far is solely from the perspective of after "Sonya" was arrested.

This was an interesting book and I'm probably more into it because I lived in Virginia Beach when it happened and I remember the news reports. I wish this book included a map with a pin for where all the fires occurred, and I still want to know why Accomac County and Accomack the city are spelled the way they were. Enjoy and read away! It is fascinating.

About the Author (from her website)
Monica Hesse is the national bestselling author of the true crime love story American Fire and the Edgar Award-winning young adult historical mystery novel Girl in the Blue Coat, which has been translated into a dozen languages and was shortlisted for the American Booksellers Association's Indies Choice Award. She is a feature writer for the Washington Post, where she has covered royal weddings, dog shows, political campaigns, Academy Awards ceremonies, White House state dinners, and some events that felt like a mixture of all of the above. She has talked about these stories, and other things, on NBC, MSNBC, CNN, CSPAN, FOX and NPR, and she has been a winner of the Society for Feature Journalism's Narrative Storytelling award, and a finalist for a Livingston Award and a James Beard Award. Monica lives in Maryland. with her husband and a brainiac dog.

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17 June 2018

The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer

My heart. This book. Here's how my life intersects with this story: Years ago, when I book blogged regularly, I luckily received an uncorrected proof of Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings from Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin Group. I started reading it and fell immediately in love. It had the feel of Donna Tartt's A Secret History, which is one of my favorite stores.

The Interestings has a lull, a full story to be told of kids who meet at a summer camp in the '70s and then their naturally unfolded lives over a period of forty years, some in directions they hoped for and some resigned to what they never could  become. I stopped reading partway through, because of the detour in my own life with breast cancer, a double mastectomy, chemo, just when my son had turned seven-months-old. I was, well... distracted, of course. With that time now firmly in my rear view mirror (thank you, God), and because of our big move to Puerto Rico and packing up my studio office a few months ago, I came across this book and my bookmark still in place of where I left off. 

I read through this furiously and quickly and fell in love with the story all over again, and it was like I had never put it down. Read this, absorb it. Every page is magic.

Originally published on my Instagram.

About the Author (from her website)
Meg Wolitzer is the New York Times–bestselling author of The Interestings, The Uncoupling, Ten-Year Nap, The Position, The Wife, and Sleepwalking. She is also the author of the young adult novel Belzhar. Wolitzer lives in New York City.
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11 June 2018

The Moon and More, by Sarah Dessen

I just finished The Moon and More and it was my first time reading young adult author Sarah Dessen (@sdessenand it won’t be my last, no doubt about that. Why have I waited so long to read her work? I will not make that mistake again.

Emaline is smart and ambitious, wanting more out of life in the last summer before she leaves the small touristy beach town she’s lived in her whole life for college and is feeling extremely guilty about it at the same time. She’s got a great family and a great boyfriend, but things take a different direction when her biological father comes to town to settle matters at a beach house, bringing her younger half-brother with him. She’s never had a relationship with either of them, except for disappointments from her absent father, especially recently when things seemed to round the bend whenever they discussed her education and college and her future. There’s also a filmmaker in town to put together a documentary on a local friend they never knew was an artist, and working on the film is an intern who makes things even more complicated for her after her boyfriend of three years lets her down. And throughout it all, there is a sense of an internal foundation Emaline has that anchors her, keeps her grounded through the pain of disappointments from what it seems like just about everyone.

Wise beyond her years but still young and sometimes naive, this is one of my favorite moments between Emaline and her mother that I think encapsulates life overall:
"But you’re right. You’re a big girl now. I can’t protect you anymore from everything. Especially yourself." She looked away, then back at me, taking a step forward. "But know this, Emaline. The mistakes you make now count. Not for everything, and not forever. But they do matter, and they shape you. If you take nothing else from what I’ve been through, at least remember this: make your choices well. Because you’ll always be accountable for them. That’s what being an adult is all about."
 FTC Disclosure: I checked this book out of the public library.

About the Author
Sarah Dessen is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of over a dozen novels for teens, which have received numerous awards and rave reviews. Her books have been published in over thirty countries and have sold millions of copies worldwide. She is the recipient of the 2017 Margaret A. Edwards Award from the American Library Association for outstanding contribution to young adult literature for her novels: Keeping the Moon, Dreamland, This Lullaby, The Truth about Forever, Just Listen, Along for the Ride, and What Happened to Goodbye. Her newest novel, Once and for All, will be released in June 2017. An NC native, she currently lives in Chapel Hill with her family.

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