The heat in Oaxaca is intense.
This winter somehow rivals Australian summer – if not in actual degrees, then at least in the harshness of the sun. Here, too, are rays so bright as to sneak behind sunglasses and glare off car windows in the street. I find myself pressing up against slivers of shade on the sidewalk and ducking into cafes for an iced chocolate con agua. Seeking internal respite from what feels like unending heat.
Yet, around six every evening, a breeze comes in as the sun softens its siege on the city. And again I can appreciate these orange and yellow and dusty rose buildings. And again I can see how the bougainvillea and the palms thrive in this high desert heat.
After two weeks seeing family and friends in California, Florida, and California again, I landed in Oaxaca at the tail end of January. While I had the fortune to have a very good friend here – providing an introduction and a soft landing – I have been challenged by this chapter emerging.
Within a couple of days, I was yearning for the (frankly luxurious) comforts one can find in a place like Melbourne: plentiful yoga studios, float centers, public pools, and sanctuaries of healing. Instead of a bubble of familiarity – Australia, composed of so many Western and Asian influences, conveniently resembles my background – I was back fumbling through a shrunken Spanish vocabulary in a new country.
Of course, this is what I wanted. As my mother gently chided, you wanted to go to Oaxaca for so long, now you’re there – don’t go thinking about leaving right away.
To list what I am grateful for: the thrumming arts and cultural scene in Oaxaca, much larger than the city’s size. This little room I am renting with cool tile floors and thick curtains, a balcony with a view of a church outside. The family who owns it is beautiful and welcoming. My friend Georgia, based here, for showing me her life – and my friends elsewhere, whom I miss. And of course, Mexican food, for being plentiful and saucy and spicy.
I am taking Spanish classes for the first time since I was fourteen – revisiting some dusty old synapses in the brain. And I am writing. That was a large part of my drive to come here: Oaxaca seemed a good place to settle temporarily to learn, reflect and reorganize.
Now as I write this – words have such an interesting way of revealing, and I think that’s why we do it, to get down to the root of things – I see that heat is not the real challenge.
But of course. The heat only lays bare the real hurt inside me: all that I had left, and continue to be leaving.
There was no time in the States to feel the full spectrum of what I said goodbye to. I was seeing grandparents! best friends! family friends! oldest friends! aunts and uncles and cousins! cousin’s babies! And I was genuinely excited to be there, overjoyed even – yet I kept finding myself averting my gaze, looking around the room and glancing down at the floor while catching up with people. It was painful to keep eye contact.
To be honest, my struggle with eye contact recently became a source of shame that I’m working through. Shoutout to trying to live a shame-free life. It’s an interesting phenomenon, anyways, as it’s never before been a challenge for me. Perhaps it’s a survival thing – pushing my feelings down so I could function more ‘normally’ in a busy social context. Mainly, I think I was afraid of looking into the eyes of people close to me because of the pain I was feeling – as Paul Simon sings in Graceland: “losing love/ is like a window in your heart/ everybody sees you’re blown apart/ everybody sees the wind blow.”
In December, my former partner and I had a ‘conscious uncoupling’. This is a phrase Gwyneth Paltrow popularized for what I see as a civil and loving breakup. Still, no matter the nature, there’s a painful process in grieving the romantic separation. We were lucky enough to be able to hold each other for some of it – and noted how that distinct heartbreak feeling occurred most often when thinking about the past or the future.
Emotions get wrapped up in the mind’s ruminations – yet move through us gently and quickly when we come back to the present. What does coming back to the present feel like to me? To snap back into awareness and body. To feel where I was fleeing or numbing without labeling good or bad or in-between. To feel with a knowing – that it will not kill you to feel.
In Women Who Run With the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estés writes, “the medicines of nature are powerful and straightforward: a ladybug on a green rind of a watermelon, a robin with a string of yarn, a weed in perfect flower, a shooting star, even a rainbow in a glass shard in the street can be the right medicine. Continuance is a strange thing: it puts out tremendous energy, it can be fed for a month on five minutes of contemplating quiet water.”
I have come to see that my work here in Oaxaca is to practice continuance and presence. To reorganize my heart and resist the mind’s propensity to flee from the hard work of healing. For this I have to thank the barking dogs, the mountains, and the electric blue of this heat. For reminding me to remember. And remembering to forget.
To be drawn back to the present is to allow for continuance: through the molten center, to words and flowers, to shade and songs.