Despair and Geraniums in Quito, Ecuador

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese,” From Dream Work

Listen 5:37

Such a heavy word, despair.

Such a heavy, sad, hopeless, lonely word.

Tell me about your despair, Friend, and I will tell you mine.

Out earlier today on the important errand of getting still-warm, 22-cent croissants from my local bakery, I walked past a driveway with its gate open, a rare occurrence here in the city. When I slowed my gait to peek inside, what I saw for only a couple of seconds was a cute little cottage with red geraniums in the window box planters. Immediately, grief welled up inside of me.

My mom lives in that cottage with the red geraniums in the window box planters. Every morning (early), she sits out in her front-yard garden under the fig tree and drinks her coffee, reads her Bible, and thanks God for the day she’ll be spending with her grandkids. She finishes her coffee, takes another look at the mountains, and heads inside to make a bite to eat for breakfast. She sits at her little table with her bowl of oatmeal and fresh fruit, and through the always-open window she watches birds hop around the new feeder she bought last weekend (she was giddy as Steve hung it for her). Soon, I arrive with my boys in tow. (I have her gate key. I have her door key. And she has mine. Visits are rarely planned.) She scoops up Memphis as the other two boys hug her legs. I walk over to the kitchen counter to grind coffee beans for my cuppa. The morning could not be any more gorgeous. Birds are singing, sun is shining, puffy white clouds contrast the blue sky. As my coffee brews in Mom’s French press, we chat about our day. Mom needs to go to the market, as do I, so we decide to go together for our fresh-fruit-and-veggie haul. We’ll swing by my apartment, drop the kiddos off with Steve, and leisurely browse the produce.

Mundane, really, but so beautiful.

I started daydreaming about the type of house my mom would buy down the street or around the corner from us back when we lived in Michigan. But she said she needed to work a little bit more to be able to support herself through retirement. And we didn’t have kids yet.

We moved to Florida in 2008, and before we had time to feel settled in our new house enough for me to start thinking about where my mom would live, I got a call from my mom’s good friend telling me that she was in the hospital. Mom had gone in for her routine colonoscopy (that she had been dreading and putting off) and had stayed because the cancer was so bad that surgery was the only — and immediate — option.

Cancer was not a part of the plan.

But this new plan dictated that less than a year after her diagnosis, my mom would pass away.

Processing the death of the person who cared so much about my mundane life?

I’m still processing. So as I walk by the cottage with the red geraniums in the window boxes, I grieve all over again.

And to add a little cruelty to it all is that graffitied on the outside wall of my apartment compound is the word “CANCER.”

My mom was supposed to be here, in Quito. She was going to retire and move to wherever my family was. A huge perk of being an only child, I thought, was that I and my kids would get my mom 100%. She’d live in a cute little cottage with red geraniums in window boxes. She’d have a little front-yard garden with a fig tree and a swing. She’d sit out every morning with her coffee and Bible and thank God for the day she’d be spending with her daughter, her son-in-law, and, most of all, her grandkids. We’d interrupt whatever routines she had, and she’d love it. We’d have coffee together and chat about nothing at all. Maybe we’d go to the market.

Mundane and beautiful and too good to be true.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you about mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
. . .
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

My family doesn’t include my mom anymore — not on this physical earth, anyway — but Oliver reminds me that the world offers itself to me. The red geraniums, the fig tree, the mountains, and the birds? They are my family, too. I thank God for them. And I thank God that he gets to spend the day with my mom.

Are you a human? Then move to Quito.

After all, what can a first impression tell us about someone we’ve just met for a minute in the lobby of a hotel? For that matter, what can a first impression tell us about anyone? Why, no more than a chord can tell us about Beethoven, or a brushstroke about Botticelli. By their very nature, human beings are so capricious, so complex, so delightfully contradictory, that they deserve not only our consideration, but our reconsideration — and our unwavering determination to withhold our opinion until we have engaged with them in every possible setting at every possible hour.

A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles

Let me begin by saying that if you haven’t read A Gentleman in Moscow, you must. Grab a hot cuppa and a cozy blanket, and cuddle up in your favorite recliner. It won’t be long before you’ll feel like Count Rostov is a grandfather figure to you, and you’ll be overcome by a desire to give him a big ol’ hug. He’s not real, but you’ll love him like he is! Thank you, Towles, for creating this character. He is a gem.

This quote is just one of Rostov’s many reflections about humans and how to be one. I particularly resonated with his idea here because when I moved to Quito, Ecuador last August from the states, not knowing much about the country and the culture, first impressions abounded!

The longer I live here, the more I learn about the city and the humans in it. I don’t boast to be anywhere close to understanding them. I agree with Rostov when he muses that we must “withhold our opinion until we have engaged with them in every possible setting at every possible hour.” But as I ponder those words, I’m starting to realize that getting to a point when we no longer have to withhold an opinion is . . . impossible.

And maybe that’s the point. Look carefully at what he says: humans “deserve not only our consideration, but our reconsideration.” So it’s not that we should go around reserving all subjective feelings towards others, eyes glazed over, arms raised in front of us at a crooked bent, left leg dragging and leaving a meandering line in the dust. It’s that we acknowledge that opinions can and should be fluid. Humans aren’t robots. They are complex and ever-changing. It only makes sense to be open to changing opinions about them. It’s the least we can do.

I don’t live life feeling compelled to wander about zombie-like, but — I’ll be honest — I do feel compelled to judge others. Why? I don’t know. Probably my own insecurities and impatience with idiocy. Whatever the reason, it is not good.

I am working on it.

One thing that has helped me is moving to a new country. And I suggest you do the same. Because when you have to start all over at square one, and everything is a first impression, and you are constantly in a position of humility because of the language barrier, and you never know where public restrooms might be, you start realizing that withholding opinions is a very, very good thing. Having opinions about all the beings on top of learning all the things? Too much.

That said, move to Quito.

And join me in engaging with beings in every possible setting at every possible hour.*

*Disclaimer: I choose to interpret this statement metaphorically. Literally hanging with humans that much? Yikes. I’d get grumpy. Although I have to give a shout-out to some of my former students-now-friends: that all-nighter in the Performing Arts Center was epic. I loved it. Playing AND WINNING the game What Do You Meme against some of my AP Lit students is a memory for the books blog. Did I mention I won? But more than that, hanging with my students, staying awake ALL night, playing piano at 3 a.m., and being a total weirdo because of lack of sleep combined to create one of my favorite memories. Because at 3 a.m., no one cares too much about how much of a weirdo you are. And we’re ALL weirdos. So perhaps there is a bit of a literal bent to be taken from the statement.

And as I engage with Quito and its beings, I am learning so many things. They deserve my consideration (and reconsideration), so I’ve compiled a list to go down in the annals of (my personal blog) history.

List of Things About Quito That I Might Upon First Glance Feel Compelled to Cast Judgment Upon but That I Won’t Because I’m Trying to Be a Good Human and Take Count Rostov’s Advice to Heart:

  1. Quito is a treasure hunt: You want different types of whole wheat flours for your breads? Find a teeny tiny specialty store hidden in a random neighborhood where otherwise you wouldn’t think to shop. This is where being in a neighborhood chat group comes in very handy.
  2. Fly in your house? Open a window. There are so few flies, bugs, insects in this climate that instead of closing your windows to prevent them from coming in, you open them to let a wayward one out. Oh, and there are no screens on windows here!
  3. There is no air conditioning or heating in your house. A little warm? Open a window. Feeling a little cold? Stand in the sun for one minute. Or grab a blanket and head to the couch with a cuppa and a book.
  4. Coffee served at restaurants is instant. As you read in my last post, I definitely formed a (negative) opinion about this. Whoops. But — UPDATE — I now have decaf instant coffee in my home. Occasionally in the evening, I’ll heat up some milk and add coffee and m├íchica, instant toasted barley.
  5. Good luck finding public bathrooms. And if you do, it probably costs 10-20 cents to use it.
  6. Speaking of bathrooms, there is no toilet paper in the stalls. Get some from a dispenser before you head in. And if you’re goin’ in for some serious stanky business, everybody gonna know.
  7. Drinking fountains are not a thing. Bring your own water.
  8. If the sun’s out, you’ll get sun burned.
  9. Lunch is not a “choose your own adventure” like in the States. It is a set menu, different each day, with a couple of options for the protein. Expect a soup, a protein (chicken, pork, or fish normally), rice, some sort of salad, a small dessert, and a fresh-squeezed juice — all for about $3.
  10. The sewage system is such that there are drains in the bathroom and kitchen. Occasionally these will emit an unpleasant odor. Simply pour a little water in. It acts as a barrier and prevents the smell from emanating forth into your kitchen as you cook dinner.

I’m sure this list will grow, but I like the number ten. So we’ll leave it at that. I am doing my best to get to know Quito as I would a human being. And to that extent, I can say that I have experienced Quito at every possible hour since I live here. And sleep here. And what not.

But, similar to humans, Quito is a treasure hunt. It is a complex city, full of surprise hole-in-the-wall grain stores (just press pause on that humans-are-also-a-treasure-hunt analogy). Tomorrow, I plan on adventuring out with my bike to ride the Ciclopaseo Quito, a bike path that goes through the entire city.

So while first impressions might not be conducive to truly getting to know people or cities, I’ve got to say that the first impressions I’ve made of Quito so far have been pretty darn good. Well, the toilet paper thing is a little annoying. BUT I RESERVE JUDGMENT.

Here’s the thing. Our impressions and opinions can get us stuck. Especially if we can’t manage to reconsider our opinions. So what is one to do?

Move to Quito. I won’t judge you. I promise. *Sips instant coffee-barley-milk.*