Grief and Miscarriage — in Quito, Ecuador

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

“Nothing Gold Can Stay,” Robert Frost

One of my first little class activities for my students is to use cut-out lines of this poem (one per student, in groups depending on the size of the class) to try to put the poem back together based on content, rhyme, and chronology. Sometimes the students vaguely remember this poem from the book The Outsiders, and it’s fun to see when that lightbulb turns on. It’s gratifying to see the students working together to figure things out like, “Oh my gosh, these lines rhyme!” or, “Maybe because this line says ‘first,’ it should be the first line!” Then we get to discuss their choices and, ultimately, the poem itself.

As I begin prep work to tutor a student this year (as I am not full-time teaching anymore), I came across the activity and poem again. Wonderful memories of first days of school flooded back. What a joy it was to teach. What a joy it was to get to know the students and form real relationships with them.

I read this poem again, and my heart is flooded with something else, too.

Grief.

One of the very beautiful things about poems is that you go into them with your own life experiences: your burdens, your hurts, your joys, your worries, your faith, yourself. To a fourteen-year-old, this poem might mean a loss of a friendship, a loss of a love interest, a loss of closeness with parents, a loss of parents’ marriage, a loss of “childhood” and the time that came with it, or even a loss of identity.

I empathize with my students. It is not easy being a teenager and navigating the relationships, the friendships, the politics, the parents, the social media. It’s completely overwhelming, and I’m glad I made it through. But I’ll never forget how hard it was.

But for me in this season of life, I think of the golden excitement of being pregnant . . .
and then not being pregnant anymore.

~

Trigger warning: Miscarriage description. Graphic.

~

Two Thursdays ago, I peed and noticed some pink color. I had just gotten home from a particularly rough city-streets-and-sidewalks bike ride, so I thought there was a chance I had exercised a little too hard. And when it was just the one instance of pink over the course of the next few days, I exhaled a huge sigh of relief. The following Sunday I went to get my blood drawn to “prove” to the insurance company here in Ecuador that I was, indeed, pregnant. My HCG levels were in the 7-week range, even though I was 10 weeks. I was a little concerned, but I knew worrying wouldn’t help anything. I tried to put it out of my mind. Then on Wednesday there was that pink color again, but more. And then the pink turned a little more red. But it was really slow, and I had zero pain. I thought maybe I had twins and I was losing one of them. I googled it, and I had all the symptoms: I was older, I had lower HCB levels, the pain was on par with a mild period.

I had hope.

Thursday came, and I was still bleeding, slowly but steadily. I decided to make an appointment with an OBGYN. I got on the phone with him directly, and he told me to go ahead and come in that evening, that he’d make room for me. My kind-hearted neighbor offered to take me, my other neighbors offered to watch my kids, and, because Steve was still at school and somewhat unreachable, I accepted the help. (I am learning to accept help. It is a work in progress. But I was incredibly thankful for the kindness of my neighbors. I will bake them bread in the near future.)

The ultrasound clearly showed an egg sac.

But it was empty. And it was an irregular shape (not perfectly round). My kind doctor told me that the baby was not in the sac and that the sac had started detaching from the uterine wall. There was a teeny tiny little shape just below the sac, and my doctor said that it might be the baby.

Such a sad little gray lump on the screen.

He measured the sac and told me it measured about 7 weeks. He drew a line to show me how big a 7-week baby would be. He then drew a line about quadruple that, and way beyond the size of the sac, to show me how big an 11-week baby would be (which on that Thursday was the size baby I was supposed to have). I learned that something had gone awry around 6 or 7 weeks and that it was just now physically manifesting in my body.

We finished up with the ultrasound, sat back down at his desk, and discussed options: pills to expedite the process, a D&C (dilation and curettage — basically a scraping of the uterine lining to get everything out), or waiting it out. I chose to wait. I had done this three times already, so I felt I knew what to expect. I knew the worst was coming. I could brace for that.

I walked back out to the waiting room and cried as I hugged my neighbor. She drove me home. Steve was then at soccer with the boys, so I texted him “Miscarriage.”

I ordered Sushi on UberEats. I enjoyed what I wanted before anyone else got home.

My 9- and 6-year-olds were very sad about the news. My two-year-old was sad because he could see that I was crying; he opened his eyes wide and said, “Awww.” It was cute, in the most devastating way.

After reading a chapter of Christopher Mouse to the boys and tucking them in, I went out to watch some Netflix with Steve.

And wait.

I didn’t have to wait long. The blood started flowing heavier and heavier. Oftentimes, shuffling back from the bathroom to watch a few more minutes of our show, I didn’t even get to the couch before I had to turn around and head back to the bathroom.

Here’s my experience with miscarriage: when it comes, you know. The bleeding becomes very heavy and there are blood clots, ranging in size from very small to two inches in diameter. It’s terrifying.

And you know that one of those clots is the fetus.

This miscarriage was so sudden, I had a difficult time managing it. And in Ecuador, the plumbing is such that you are not supposed to flush toilet paper or the toilet will clog. So all the bloody toilet paper started piling up in the little wastebasket that sits next to the toilet. Clots splashed. Blood splattered onto the toilet bowl and somehow onto the bathroom floor and wall. Blood dripped down my legs.

The word that came to mind was “massacre.”

I decided to move to the shower to clean myself up. But the simple act of taking off my clothes and walking one foot over to the shower proved difficult. More blood dripped onto the floor, but I made it to the shower. In the shower, though, the blood was flowing so heavily, I started to worry I was losing too much too quickly. Clots stubbornly got caught in the drain. I felt dizzy. I decided to get out of the shower and try to just lie down. I grabbed a big bath towel, squished it between my legs, and waddled out to try to find a place to lie down and get warm. I ended up on the cold wood floor with Steve trying to get blankets and pillows to keep me warm and make it more comfortable. I didn’t have a fever, so I figured it was safe to try to rest, even as the blood flowed. At a couple points, I thought I was going to throw up, so a trash can was my sleeping partner for the night. Eventually, I felt able to get into bed. With a new bath towel acting as a the world’s biggest pad, I was able to get some sleep in a bed.

In the morning, I felt like I had given birth that night: sore, tired, mentally exhausted, and dizzy at times.

But there was no newborn sleeping next to me. Just a trash can on the floor and lots of blood in the bathroom.

It is Saturday today, and I am taking breaks from writing this to go change my pad. But the blood is very slow now, just a drizzle to remind me of the massacre that’s taken place.

When I posted about my miscarriage on Instagram, several people reached out to offer condolences and to thank me for sharing.

Several of those several people were former students. It makes me well up just thinking about the fact that my students care about me. Teaching is a job that is so much more than a job. It is the potential for life-long friendships. It is the potential to make a lasting difference in lives — both teacher to student and student to teacher (Students, do you realize you make a difference in your teachers’ lives? You do. You matter, so much.) Maybe a poem like “Nothing Gold Can Stay” resonates with a student and stays with her for the rest of her life. Maybe the poem makes her realize that happiness is fleeting and that’s OK. Maybe she realizes that trying to prolong happiness with people and things is an act in futility but on some level it’s still worth it.

Life is not simply long stretches of happiness. And it’s the big lie if you think it is supposed to be. There are massacres along the way. And they suck every ounce of happiness right out of your body — maybe for a day or three or 58.

So we move on as humans, beaten in spirit and body, but not broken. When I am beaten, I look at my kids and soak in the love. I hug my husband hard and know he cares about me on a deeper level than any human alive. I accept help from kind neighbors who have become like family to me. I pray to God and know that there are better things to come. I talk to my parents and know that they love me on an ethereal level, whatever that means exactly.

Perhaps it’s true that nothing gold can stay. And that’s OK. It’s a good reminder to appreciate what we have. So go hug your people. Call your mom. Tell your teachers thanks. And do your best in this life to be the kind of human that makes a positive difference in other people’s lives.

Sending you all the love.

J.

Don’t Be an A-hole. Read a Book.

When he needed to calm his mind, he opened a book. Any book. He had never failed to feel refreshed, even if the book was no good.

The Night Watchman, Louise Erdrich

The skies are gray today. We are enduring another pandemic weekend lock-down, unable to leave our apartment. I look out at the other apartments across the street from us and see people on the roof, on their balconies, straining to get out.

To escape.

But even when the skies are blue and the gates unlocked, I feel trapped inside the confines of my own non-Spanish-speaking brain. People have told me it takes two years to feel comfortable in a new language, and sometimes, I just can’t wrap my mind around having to endure for that long.

Because I am being tutored, three times a week.

Because I listen to podcasts in Spanish.

Because Spanish subtitles are always on for whatever I watch.

Because nature documentaries I watch are completely in Spanish.

And yet.

When I escape my apartment gates, and someone, masked, speaks to me, I panic and hardly anything translates. Even Thoreau says, “We hear and apprehend only what we already half know.” Now add a language barrier onto that? Yeesh. I come home from my outing drained and discouraged.

I wish I could go to sleep with ear buds in, listen to a Spanish novel all night, and wake up refreshed and Spanish literate. If only it were that easy.

When I was in fifth grade, I did think it was that easy. For my science project, I posited that listening to a story while asleep would control dreams. To that end, I found a cassette tape and recorded my voice telling stories and describing the sights, sounds, and tactile imagery of walking down a beach. I recruited my neighbor Chris to listen to the cassette when he was asleep and write down his dreams upon waking. It was a great plan! I was sure to win the science fair.

Except that the cassette tape I found was one of my dad’s, and it wasn’t blank. So when Chris was in dreamland and the volume was turned way up so he could hear my voice describing the sand squishing between his toes, something bad happened. My voice recording ended, and in the middle of the night, Jimmy Buffett’s “Asshole Song” started BLARING:

Were you born an asshole?
Or did you work at it your whole life?
Either way it worked out fine
’cause you’re an asshole tonight.
Yes you’re an A-S-S-H-O-L-E and don’t you try to blame it on me
You deserve all the credit.
You’re an asshole tonight.
You were an asshole yesterday, you’re an asshole tonight.
And I got a feeling, you’ll be an asshole the rest of your life.

It was so loud that Chris’s parents ran into his room, confused and angry, to punch “stop” on the tape player.

Oops. Luckily, Chris reported, he did not have nightmares of being an asshole tonight and the rest of his life.

A good reminder for me when I want to take the easy way out in learning Spanish by listening to novels while I sleep.

But I think our friend Thomas from The Night Watchman might be onto something. Sometimes in life we just need to feel refreshed (likely it was not a refreshing night’s sleep for Chris or his parents). And sometimes, I think that means we need to escape real life for a bit. Maybe even leave “the present” and slip into the fictional world of a book.

When I was a kid, I loved the Pippi Longstocking books. When I read them, I felt empowered to do anything I wanted. Make a huge mess in the house, go on adventures as a Thing Finder, fight off robbers, go on picnics, skip school — lots of things that kids in their normal lives aren’t allowed or able to do. Reading those books flipped this little creative switch inside my brain, and the ordinary things (like a discarded can, for example) turned into a wonderful treasure with lots of uses. Things that might otherwise be scary (ghosts, for example), turned into opportunities for new friends. My living room couch turned into a pirate ship, and the floor was the sea, infested with sharks.

I slipped into Pippi’s world and then I slipped into my own made-up world. And it was a wonderful slip. (I am reminded of those hot summer days when my parents would relent to setting up the slip n slide on the lawn and my exhilaration in sliding down that yellow piece of plastic.)

So this weekend, as I was slipping into the slough of despond under the gray skies, trapped inside my apartment, I decided to reread Pippi Longstocking. It was fun. It was refreshing.

Emily and Amelia Nagoski, in their book Burnout: The Secret to Solving the Stress Cycle, list seven things to do when we experience those inevitable times of stress:

  1. Move
  2. Breathe
  3. Talk to people
  4. Laugh
  5. Speak to loved ones
  6. Cry
  7. Do something creative

So I’d like to skip straight to number 7 and have a reading party. And maybe we can start with a favorite book from childhood. What would yours be? Here are some of my favorites:

  • Any Roald Dahl book
  • Harriet the Spy
  • Island of the Blue Dolphins
  • Little House on the Prairie series
  • Anne of Green Gables series
  • The Phantom Tollbooth
  • Any Judy Blume book
  • Pippi Longstocking
  • Megan’s Island
  • My Side of the Mountain

The bottom line is that it’s OK to give yourself permission to escape every once and a while. But that’s not a message that we get very often, and sometimes for good reason. When “escape” has directly to do with addiction, it’s not good. Growing up, my dad would escape through alcohol to avoid real life — and maybe also to avoid me, especially when I was a snobby, loud-mouthed teenager.

So choose a healthy escape, and read great books.

When you’re feeling discouraged and the skies are gray and you can’t understand the people around you (whether it’s the language or you just can’t understand the people around you), read a book.

And maybe read it while awake.

Happy reading, everyone!

Pippi Longstocking, Astrid Lindgren, illustration: page 36 “Pippi Is a Thing-Finder” and has found a can

I’ve Had an Accident. So May You All.

I always thought it was what I wanted: to be loved and admired. Now I think perhaps I’d like to be known.

The Nightingale, Kristin Hannah

Listen 8:09

Never have I resonated with this more than now. (OK, well, maybe with the exception of middle school because that was a complete nightmare of no one knowing anyone.)

I left a great job teaching English literature at a school where I was loved and admired and known by students and teachers.

I moved to another country where I barely know how to communicate with other humans.

I am now a stay-at-home Zoom Mom.

Ah, how the mighty have fallen.

So I’m at home a lot these days. And Quito has just mandated stay-at-home orders for the next four weekends. I am not in a classroom, I am not teaching, I am not making lesson plans, I am not pestering my students about what books they’re reading. As a teacher, I am not known here. At all. I feel like I’ve lost part of my identity. But while I am sad that people here don’t know me and the skills I bring to the table, something exciting is happening.

I am learning new things. New doors are opening for me. Dormant skills are bubbling to the surface. Dare I say, I am getting to know myself better. And while it’s great to feel known by others, it’s also great to know yourself.

It’s funny that we float through life just assuming we know all there is to know about ourselves. We are the only ones with full access to our own brains, after all. But it’s scary how easy it is to simply flip off the switch, darkening most of that mass inside our skulls.

I have to stop and wonder what we’re missing here. If we don’t know ourselves, how are others supposed to know us? And don’t we desperately want to be known by others?

It took a seismic shift of events for me to realize that there’s more to me than being a teacher. And I bet it’s similar for most humans. Maybe for you.

I learned something new this week about the word “accident,” all because of my 9-year-old’s Spanish project that asked him to write about “coastal accidents.” My son and I were both very confused — coastal accidents, like shipwrecks? Natural disasters on the coast? We were struggling. Finally, after a desperate email to the teacher, we realized that the word “accident” refers to how various landforms come into being. A bay, for example, is formed through the erosion of rocks. In the Spanish language, this is considered an “accident” because erosion is not intentional. But go ahead and Google “Tortuga Bay, Ecuador,” and you tell me if that looks like an “accident.” I’d visit that accident any day of the week.

What a mindset shift to think of accidents creating beauty. And though leaving the teaching profession, moving to a new country, and becoming a Zoom Mom weren’t accidents, per se, they certainly were in line with a seismic shift of events. And let’s remember that during seismic shifts when tectonic plates collide (accident!), beautiful mountains are formed.

I am reminded of W. H. Auden’s poem “The Unknown Citizen,” a poem about a man who floats through life, doing things and saying things and being things. He is “normal,” “sensible,” “proper,” “popular,” and even a “saint” — descriptors we’d probably appreciate being said about us. His life is smooth — no accidents. But when he dies, we realize — with horror — that no one even knew his name. No one even knew if he was free. Or if he was happy.

Go ahead and read the poem. Take your time.

The Unknown Citizen

W. H. Auden

(To JS/07 M 378

This Marble Monument

Is Erected by the State)

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be

One against whom there was no official complaint,

And all the reports on his conduct agree

That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint,

For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.

Except for the War till the day he retired

He worked in a factory and never got fired,

But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.

Yet he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views,

For his Union reports that he paid his dues,

(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)

And our Social Psychology workers found

That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.

The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day

And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.

Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,

And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured.

Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare

He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan

And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,

A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.

Our researchers into Public Opinion are content

That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;

When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went.

He was married and added five children to the population,

Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation.

And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education.

Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:

Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

What a truly devastating poem. To go through your entire life, doing and saying and being all the things, only to die, in the abyss of obscurity.

It’s a reminder to us to live. To live in a way that we are known to others and to ourselves. And for that to happen we might have to endure some accidents. We might have to induce some accidents.

Leaving my profession, moving to another country, becoming a Zoom Mom — these things propelled me to dig deeper into what I have to offer to my community, to my family, to myself.

And digging deeper, I have discovered within myself something very exciting — something that has been waiting patiently for me.

That something? It’s a book. A book that I will write.

(I’m terrified. Maybe terrified like those tectonic plates when they were inching closer to each other, knowing they were going to collide and there was nothing they could do about it.)

When people look at my life after I die, I want them to see beautiful bays and mountains, knowing the erosion and shifting of tectonic plates it took to get like that.

Because sometimes it takes an accident to create something beautiful. And to be known.

Unlock the House. And Get Out.

I have refused to live
locked in the orderly house of
reasons and proofs.

Mary Oliver, “The World I Live In”

Listen 8:15

Living locked — anywhere — sounds pretty icky to me. Say those two words together: live locked. Does that alliteration just punch you right in the tooth? It does for me. It’s definitive. It’s harsh. It’s like when you slam your locker door shut only to realize you don’t have the combination for the lock.

In junior high, I wanted to be locked in the orderly house of coolness, popularity, and rum raisin lipstick . . . and sunflower everything and baggy pants and white eyeliner and baby tee’s from Hot Topic and chunky-heeled jellies. Ah, the glorious mid-nineties — what a time to be alive! And I was living in California, so the word “like” was basically, like, a topic of conversation.

But my problem was that I didn’t have friends. Sad day, I know. (Hey, Parents! Wanna know how to really mess with your kids? Make them change schools right when they are at their lowest point in self esteem, self reliance, and confidence.) So being new and without friends, I — very logically — thought, Why not really go for it and get in with the popular clique?

‘Twas a great plan. A great plan that absolutely flopped. (Think of a fish out of water, eyes glazed in horror and locked with yours, gasping for breath, flopping its wet scales against the flat grey rock. A bit of an understatement to my situation, but appropriate nonetheless.)

You don’t just waltz into the popular group, the word like dancing on your lip-glossed lips. No. Those popular girls — they are exclusive, lemme tell you, and they decided pretty early on that the frizzy-haired, caterpillar-eyebrowed Plain-Jen just wasn’t gonna cut it. I even wore oversized overalls with a baby tee and men’s boxers peeking out. Not. Good. Enough.

So I would wander around campus, alone, wondering how to kill time during the soul-crushing breaks of brunch and lunch. One of my go-to tactics was to casually sidle up to my locker and pretend to busy myself getting ready for my next classes. Even better, to soak up juuust a few more seconds, I’d pretend to get my combination wrong opening my locker. In hindsight, it probably wasn’t the best strategy, seeing as how it killed maybe 20 seconds and made me look like a total idiot.

The funny thing here is that being a 13-year-old, I really thought that people were watching and judging me at all times. I wish I could go back to that girl, put my hands on her bony shoulders, give her a good shake, and tell her, People don’t really care about you that much! Nobody is watching you “struggle” with your locker. Just get your stuff and go find some decent humans to hang out with! Sheesh!

You’ll be happy to know that I did eventually find some decent humans, but only after a group of super-cool kids paid cash to Danny to try to “pants” me in the middle of the quad. It was all very anti-climactic, though, because I was wearing jeans, and when he got down and tugged, nothing happened. (Hey, Danny, here’s a pro-pantsing-tip: maybe pants someone when they’re in PE, wearing their stretchy-waisted sweat pants. Might work a little better.)

At the end of the nightmarishly long two years of junior high, I came out of it. I’d like to say I came out as a better person, but in truth, I came out as just a solidly average person. I still had lessons to learn in high school and a long way to go in getting to be a decent person myself.

I wanted so badly to be locked in with the popular crowd. I longed to follow their rules — their reasons and proofs. I held onto so much angst for such a stinking, rotten prize.

But struggling with my locker and struggling with my angst helped me to become the person I am today. And the person I am today would hop up onto that soapbox with Oliver and preach to the world that You can refuse to be locked up in the orderly house of reason and proofs!

Though it’s not about rum raisin lipstick and jellies and popularity anymore (maybe for some of you, it still is — yikes), we humans do have the tendency to lock ourselves into that orderly house. We like reasons and proofs and walls and locks and black and white and answers.

But wow has this past year been anything but an orderly house. For me, that meant an international move and the chaos that comes with it — all in the midst of a pandemic. But it was scary how quickly I settled into this new life and started allowing myself to be locked into the orderly house of Zoom and schedules and laundry and dishes and sweeping and cooking. Could I have gotten out of the apartment more, working on my Spanish in real-life situations with real people, exploring my city without waiting for Steve to be finished with school? Yes. But it was so easy to stay inside, telling myself I needed to keep my apartment orderly, telling myself I had to be with my kids during every minute of every Zoom call just in case they needed me even though Steve was in the house, too. I’m going to try to unlock a little bit.

Well this past weekend, we decided to unlock ourselves from our apartment and go stay at an Airbnb in Mindo, a cloud forest in Ecuador. It was a windy, nauseating 2-hour drive (vomit definitely happened — both ways), but when we finally made it, it was as if we had stepped into heaven, except with humidity and bugs and mosquitos. In reality, it was a wooden cabin nestled in the middle of lush tropical gardens and an organic farm. Hummingbirds, toucans, and lots of other birds I don’t know the names of twittered and sang us through the weekend. We walked, we read, we puzzled, we listened to the birds (Oliver would be proud), and we star-gazed. It was lovely.

I don’t think it was exactly what Mary Oliver was talking about in her poem, but, man, it worked for us. It was time to get out of the apartment.

Maybe for you it’s also about getting out of the house. But maybe it’s about refusing to accept the status quo. Maybe it’s about being the lone voice in opposition, being vulnerable. Maybe it’s about being OK with not having the answers. And maybe, it’s about refusing to live locked.

The world I live in and believe in
is bigger than that. And anyway,
what’s wrong with Maybe?

Mary Oliver, “The World I Live In”

One of our activities was hiking to La Reina waterfall. Here, we are trying not to slip on the rocks to get a close-up view of the falls. We were most definitely not inside the orderly house at this moment.
One of the views from the property.
On the property.
On the property.
On the property.
My boys had a blast running around, discovering trails through bamboo, forging into hideouts in the middle of banana trees, and catching sight of the guatusa, a rodent similar to the capybara.

Yet Another Storm — in Quito, Ecuador

The sky is blue, or the rain
falls with its spills of pearl.

“Spring,” from Owls and Other Fantasies, Mary Oliver

Well it’s been spilling pearls here in Quito lately.

So

many

pearls,

drops

upon pearly

drops.

We are officially in rainy season. I see it outside; I feel it in my heart. Sometimes it feels like each Zoomy-Gloomy class is a fat drop of rain. This relentless rain pelts us, and instead of giving us life and growth and blooms, we’re just cold, soaked, and exhausted.

And while most everything here in the city is open for the masked human, school campuses remain closed. While restaurants are packed with unmasked humans eating food, school campuses remain closed. While grocery stores and malls and markets and buses are crammed with people, school campuses remain closed. Ecuador, I do not understand.

But while I sit here complaining about what a drag Zoomy Gloomies are, I have to remember what a privilege it is that my kids have devices, internet, and a connection — albeit through a screen — to classmates and teachers.

So many kids aren’t having any school whatsoever right now. So I think about all that rain and realize that it’s better than scorched and burning earth.

I am trying to see those raindrops as beautiful pearls and be grateful. But I’m human. And I’m cold, soaked, and exhausted. As I write this, yet another storm is rolling in. The thunder just cracked so loudly that a couple of car alarms went off. Pearls — they’re comin’.

All this talk of pearls — I should mention that in my household, “Pearl” has a very different meaning from the beautiful gem used for earrings and necklaces and rings. A long, long time ago, when kids were not even a thought, Steve and I used to entertain ourselves during church services by making little drawings of animal combinations on the bulletins. For example: a “feagle” was a fox with an eagle head and wings, a “duake,” a snake with a duck head, etc. One of our all-time favorites, both in name and illustration, was our beloved “Pearl.” Steve drew the most hilarious depiction of a pig and squirrel that I remember physically covering my mouth with my hands, stifling the laughs, feeling like my insides were going to explode from the pressure. All this during church.

So of course I start thinking about that poem excerpt, picturing our Pearls spilling from the sky. And though the sky is DARK right now, the thought of hundreds of pig-squirrels dropping from the sky brightens my day.

This. This is why I married Steve. We laugh SO HARD together, sometimes at the most inappropriate times. But isn’t that part of the fun? Tell me you haven’t gotten the case of the giggles during church, or during class, or during a meeting. You feel that tightening of your stomach and lungs; your face contorts; perhaps there are tears; and this volcanic laughter-air does everything in its power to escape out of your mouth and nose.

It’s the best.

Maybe it’s a reason I loved teaching so much. Those crazy students would make me laugh so hard. And laughing is energizing! And fun!

One time during Wellness Club, a club I sponsored, I decided to talk about this very concept of laughter being energizing (if you haven’t ever worked with teenagers, I’ll tell you: there’s a lot of sleepiness happening at school). I thought to my 30-something self: I know! I’ll search around the internet and find some super hilarious videos to show them. We’ll all laugh together, AND IT WILL BE AWESOME!

I had such good motives. And such confidence!

So they all filed into my room, collapsed into desks, and I started what was sure to be a total laugh-fest. I started with the hilarious Steve Carell blooper reel from Anchorman. I started playing it, giggling in anticipation. But soon enough, I side-eyed my students to see them practically melting off their desks in boredom. (Think of those Salvador Dali melting clocks — those were my students drooping and dripping off their desks and onto the multi-colored classroom carpet.)

It was so bad that I casually grape-vined over to my computer with a squinty smile and pressed pause. Heads turned expectantly toward me. It was awkward, so I — as I do — filled the silence by talking. Soon enough, we were all laughing at how NOT funny the video was to everyone except me and how clearly out of touch I was with teenage humor.

Even when the rain is pouring, we can choose to view the raindrops as pearls.

Or Pearls.

So maybe this post is a pep-talk to myself during this Zoomy-Gloomy cloudy rainy time. I’ll take it. But I’ll say this to the nine of you reading this: find the humor in this life. Spend time with people who make you laugh. Start there. And maybe your own artist’s rendering of Pearl might help.

And if you happen to be one of my former students reading this, thank you for the laughs.

In all her glory.
More church shenanigans. You know those “connect cards” that churches always have? Yeah.
“I give Journey Church permission to print My Story.”

How Not to Fall to Your Death: Climbing Life with No Ropes

But once you’ve proven to yourself that you can do a move or even an entire route, it’s like a tiny door opens inside your mind, and the belief that you can do it, that you will succeed, creates a powerful positive visualization.

Mark Synnott, The Impossible Climb

Listen 7:34

I don’t know a whole lot about rock climbing. But there’s something about those granite walls and cracks and slab pitches that lures me in. I don’t need to do it; I’m happy in my platonic voyeurism of the sport. And I admire the mental keenness it takes to get from ground to peak.

The context of this quote is that climbers can fail again and again and again on one particular move, but once they complete it, they’re likely to complete it every subsequent time. Synnott mentions a certain “warrior spirit” that enables climbers to give just a little more to succeed on the move. And when they keep coming up short? He says that it could feel like an intentional fail, called “punting” in the climbing world.

I want to have a warrior spirit.

But isn’t it interesting that a whole phenomenon exists where people intentionally fail? I have to wonder what that looks like off the wall.

For the longest time, I failed at writing. Intentionally. I was an English teacher teaching writing who didn’t write — not really. And the reason I didn’t write? Funny enough, fear of failure. So let’s climb through this, rock by rock, crack by crack: I taught writing without writing myself. The fear of failure (negative feedback, judgment from colleagues and students) kept me from it. But listen: the actual failure was not “turning on the faucet” — not writing that first sentence, and then that second one, and then the third, the fourth, and on. That first sentence for me was like that move on the granite wall that the climbers just couldn’t muster the spirit to do.

It seems silly comparing a sentence to the wrinkle of granite being used as a hand hold. Sentences don’t seem quite as scary — or dangerous. But in my bubble, I felt like I was on that wall, holding on for dear life, refusing to grab that granite wrinkle. I’d rather stay frozen, splayed to the side of the wall. No progress. But a feeling of safety.

I’d rather fail than take a chance on that move.

But just like some of the great rock climbers who scale a wall only after experiencing a traumatic event (watch the documentary The Dawn Wall to see Tommy Caldwell succeed only after heartbreak), it took a traumatic event at my school to finally light that fire under me.

I recently became “email friends” with Berit Gordon, and she mentioned that teaching is an “oddly lonely endeavor.” So true. We teachers don’t get much attention or validation from our peers. What validation we do get normally comes from the students themselves, which is great, but they’re not in charge of scheduling, pay raises, tenure, etc. So when I came back to school after taking maternity leave in the spring of 2019 to my department head demoting me, I was stunned. I would no longer be teaching my beloved AP Literature class.

There’s a whole messy story behind it, but suffice it to say, I was traumatized. And even though formal apologies were later made to me and I didn’t completely lose my AP class (I taught one section; a colleague taught another), the damage had been done. To liken my teaching to climbing, for years I felt like I was basically alone on the wall, taking care of myself, making sure I was taking all the safety precautions, successfully making my way to the summit. And I felt very confident in my abilities.

But then, in the middle of being alone on the wall, someone came out of nowhere and started fiddling with my rope, unclipping it from my harness, pulling it loose from the anchor. And then I was alone again. Without a rope. Scared. I was at the point where either I needed that warrior spirit or I was going to fall to my death.

Finally (finally), I decided to write. My starting a blog and putting my writing out there for the world (reality: tens of people) to read was my way of free-soloing the rest of my climb. No ropes, just me on the wall at my most vulnerable.

And did I mention that I’d never been on this particular wall?

But I’m making it up, trying to hold on to that warrior spirit, allowing that tiny door to open inside my mind. And let me tell you, it’s freeing. I don’t need to actually climb up a mountain wall sans ropes to feel liberated from the boundaries of this world.

And that’s the beauty of the analogy. What is rock climbing for you? What is that move you just can’t let yourself do in life? And do you realize that it’s you holding yourself back, failing intentionally? It’s a harsh reality, but one that we can face. And this difficult move you’re facing — you don’t have to wait for a traumatic event to happen to force you to make it. Alex Honnold free-soloed El Capitan without just having broken up with his girlfriend (he did wonder, though, if he was in the right headspace because his previous climbing feat was a result of a bad break-up).

So make the move. And live the rest of your life believing that you can do it, that you will succeed. Meanwhile, I’ll keep tapping the keys, wondering what my next move will be. Because, remember, I haven’t been on this wall before.

And neither have you.

Last weekend, my family and I went to El Refugio retreat center up in the mountains near Quito. The rock wall beckoned us, so we climbed. That’s me on the right and my 8-year-old son Asher on the left. We both made it to the top. With ropes.
At the top of one of the mountains. We didn’t have to rock climb to get up, but it was a feat nevertheless. No ropes.

Beasts of Burden

The last mist fell away,

And under the trees, beyond time’s brittle drift,
I stood like Adam in his lonely garden
On that first morning, shaken out of sleep,
Rubbing his eyes, listening, parting the leaves,
Like tissue on some vast, incredible gift.

Mary Oliver, “Morning in a New Land,” from No Voyage and Other Poems, from Devotions

Listen 9:06

The phone’s (too) early-morning ding-dinga-ling-dong-dinging is unrelenting. As you flop an arm over to grab your phone to silence it, you open an eye and there it is. The beast. It squats next to your bed, still, unblinking. As you stumble to the bathroom for your morning pee, it follows. It lurks in the corner of the kitchen, bemused as you make your coffee. It taunts you as you glance at the clock to make sure you have enough time to get ready for the day.

The beast is different for everyone. Some are troll-like with bulbous noses and wrinkly brown faces. Some are goblin-like: shards-of-glass teeth and red eyes. Simon from Lord of the Flies says that the beast is inside of us all. But one thing’s the same: the beast robs joy.

Every morning, we wake up to a new day. The dawning of this new day is such a powerful phenomenon, there’s a whole genre of poetry celebrating (and sometimes lamenting) the morning called aubades.

Such a powerful phenomenon that of course the beast would want in on it. And those still, unblinking eyes are going to be staring at us every single morning.

So what is one to do? Some options:

  • Have a staring contest.
  • Punch that beast in the fat nose.
  • Fart in its face.
  • Hurl insults.
  • Give it a glamour-shots makeover? (HOW I wish I had my glamour shots from 7th grade to post. Someday I will find them. And I will post them. The one with me and a blue feather boa is especially glamorous.)

All good options, but as with humans, the best thing to do first is to understand what that beast is exactly. Because once we understand it, we can beat it.

The beast is a simple, yet persuasive, creature. Starting at the staring, it mind-control convinces us that the day ahead of us is fraught with mundane tasks, overwhelming details, never-ending to-do lists, idiot bosses, bossy kids, a-hole teenagers, bad drivers, grey cubicles, grey skies, fluorescent lights, dirty dishes, dirty laundry, dirty floors, poopy diapers, schoolwork, homework, work, work, work.

Gosh darn it, that beast convinces me sometimes. I putz around the house, doing dishes, sweeping the floors, yelling at the kids to LOG ON TO ZOOM YOU’RE GOING TO BE LATE, changing diapers, doing laundry, trying to sit down to read only to be immediately interrupted by the bebe crawling all over my face, figuring out what food to feed to the wolves kids, etc. It’s enough to make me want to crawl back under the covers and block it all out.

But with great power comes great responsibility, as they say, though the “great power” I have likes to talk back, punch brothers, wipe boogers on the walls, and poop out wet cement. Some days, I look at the clock and wonder where the time has gone. Or wonder how to fast forward. (Luckily, I saw the Adam Sandler movie Click, where he fast-forwards through his life just to realize that he’s fast-forwarded through his whole life. Rated 6.4/10 on IMBD, it’s a real winner.)

All this beast talk really starts turning that Mary Oliver poem into a fantasy. Parting the leaves to discover the vast, incredible gift that is our lives? OK.

But if life isn’t a gift, what is it? This is where you take out your notebook, write the words “WHAT IS MY LIFE?” at the top, and do some good ol’ fashioned brainstorm-journaling.

When I did this exercise myself, my brain automatically honed in on the cherished things in my life. Maybe because I had already ranted about the annoying things in my life in this blog post, I didn’t feel the need to write down “gloopy poopy diapers.” So perhaps the exercise for you would be to do two pages: one for the negative, one for the positive.

And while it might be tempting to believe that the negative page is your life, it isn’t. It’s part of your life, yes. But it is not the essence. That’s the lie that pesky beast tells us every morning.

Choosing to view life as a gift is the gamechanger. Waking up every morning shaken out of sleep, rubbing your eyes, listening, parting the leaves, like tissue on some vast, incredible gift sounds a whole lot better than opening your eyes to a warty, toad-like face inches away from your own.

And the best part? That little beast will get bored with you if you choose the gift. Eventually it will move along to the next unsuspecting victim.

How stupid would I be to think, though, that choosing the gift is simply a matter of writing some words on two pieces of paper.

But I’ve found in life that sometimes the simple things are the most profound. So maybe it starts with the writing of the words on the papers. And then maybe it’s about trying to be mindful to wake up every morning with an attitude of appreciation. Using Oliver’s sentence as a formula, we can:

  • be shaken out of sleep: Wake up to the glorious and exciting prospect of all that is in store for us this day. Life! It’s a marvelous discovery! Even if the discovery is that almond milk Earl Grey lattes are delicious and easy to make at home. And even if that’s in conjunction with not leaving the house all day.
  • rub our eyes: Open our eyes to see the beauty all around us. I gravitate towards nature when I think of beauty, so I’ve brought in lots (LOTS) of houseplants to surround me in my home. But I also see beauty in the coffee froth that bubbles to the top of the French press and my pillow cover from IKEA and a clean kitchen and the rainbow that is the fruit haul from my local frutería.
  • listen: Listen to nature, to our loved ones, to bread crackling when it’s straight out of the oven, to great music, to silence.
  • part the leaves: Choose to think about our life, even though that can be really difficult. Don’t turn off. Stare at life right in its eyes, and say “Let’s do this.”

And open your gift.

Parting the leaves to discover my almond milk Earl Grey latte and how easy it is to make: Steep a bag in a mug filled about 1/3 with hot water. Pour hot almond milk into a glass jar. Put the lid on and shake it like it’s a shake weight. Pour the now-frothy milk into the mug. Add honey if ya like. Enjoy, preferably on a cloudy day.
My Christmas cactus is blooming for Valentine’s Day!
Not exactly a rainbow, but just as beautiful as one.
My journal exercise.
Playing piano and singing brings me MUCH joy. “Beast of Burden” is a fun one.

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 máchica, 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.*

Great (Coffee) Expectations — in Quito, Ecuador

Throughout high school, I never touched a drop of alcohol because I lived in fear that addiction was like a man in a dark trench coat, stalking me, waiting for me to get off the well-lit sidewalk and step into an alley. I had seen that alley.

Transcendent Kingdom, Yaa Gyasi

My high school friends can attest: I did not touch a drop of alcohol in high school, just like Gifty from Transcendent Kingdom. And like Gifty, I knew what that alley looked like.

Because my dad was in it.

Like many children growing up with addiction in the home, I really didn’t understand it. I would get so angry at my dad for what I interpreted as “choosing” alcohol over his family. When I became a mouthy teenager, I would tell him just that. He’d shrug.

And speaking of mouthy teenagers, one of them, one day, slouched in the back of one of my English classes, listened as I (then an adult and the teacher) told my students about how I was a teetotaler. I didn’t touch alcohol. I’d never been drunk. This teenager — his name was John — shouts (shouts!), “WHAT A LOSER!” The class, myself included, burst into laughter. I couldn’t believe this kid! It took a hot minute to calm the class down after that. John reminded me a lot of my high school guy friends. They were always making fun of me, always trying to get me to drink. But I loved them. And I loved John, too. He is a great human with a good heart. And if not-drinking makes me a loser in the eyes of teenagers, I’m A-OK with that. Makes me chuckle just writing it. Sweet teenagers.

Sweet teenagers that certainly didn’t know my dad and his proclivity for alcohol.

My mom, though, didn’t touch the stuff. Her beverage of choice?

Coffee — cream, no sugar.

When I was 27, I lost my mom; at 34, my dad. Naturally, I find myself trying to stay connected with my parents in whatever ways I can.

So I drink.

Two cups a day — cream, no sugar. I still don’t touch the alcohol. My dad drank coffee every morning, too, without fail, so I do feel connected to both of my parents through my making-coffee-every-morning ritual. I have fond and bittersweet memories of drinking coffee with both my mom and my dad. My mom — on her balcony in Sunnyvale, CA. My dad — out in his front yard on old camping chairs. My mom — when she was sick and staying in our guest room in Florida. I’d bring our steaming cups into her room and sit next to her as she sipped in bed. My dad — when he was in the hospice unit at the Palo Alto VA Hospital. One day a week, his floor would get the Keurig machine, and I’d take a couple of mugs I had grabbed from his house and fill them with the finest K-cup coffee. We’d sit together and look out his window at the mountains.

So it’s coffee for me, and now I live in the coffee belt here in Quito. I know my parents would be thrilled. But when I first got here, I was dismayed to learn that Ecuadorians don’t tend to drink much coffee, and the coffee they do drink is (it’s difficult even to utter…) instant coffee.

Whaaaaat? I was not expecting that. We have access to world-renowned, award-winning coffee here. Search “Ecuador” on coffeereview.com, and nearly 40 results come back with coffees scoring 90 points or above. And yet it’s fairly common in a restaurant to be brought hot water or milk with a little container of instant coffee, instant barley drink (cebado en polvo, I’m told to make your coffee “fuerte“), and sugar.

I had great expectations of cute little local coffee shops run by Quito hipsters or families who’ve been in the coffee business for generations lining the streets here. That is not the case.

Enter my friend Dion. Dion is a human who appreciates coffee. And he lives in Quito! He buys from a local coffee farmer in Playa Rica, roasts at the Perla Negra Farm, and bags it up in his own home here in the city (conveniently, he lives only a couple blocks away from me). His “Dos Hemisferios” single-origin coffee scores over 80, which makes it a specialty coffee (which simply translates to a great cuppa).

And a great cuppa is what I’m after. More good news is that since moving here, I have found some cute coffee shops with delicious coffee. Last week, two friends took me to Cafe Traviesa in Cumbaya for my birthday. Just today, my family and I were walking through a (ritzier) part of the city we hadn’t been before, and I saw quite a few cute coffee shops (Kofi Time, Cafe Europa, Pulcinella, Magic Bean — all on Avenida Repulica de El Salvador). Things are looking up.

Now I just need to learn how to order. The last time I tried to order a coffee with cream (what I would normally call half and half), I got coffee . . . with whipped cream on top. Whoops. The boys got to enjoy that.

I’ve learned that if you want to drink like the locals, it’ll most likely be instant and maybe with some barley powder. But just go to a different part of the city, and you’ll find your cute coffee shops. All is not lost.

So maybe I am a coffee-drinking loser, but I sure do love my life. And now that I have great coffee at home (thanks, Dion) and am finding more and more coffee shops that serve good quality drip coffee and espresso (read: not hot milk with a jar of instant granules), life is even better. Call it an addiction if you will, but I love my two cups of coffee a day.

And if some sketchy, trench-coat-wearing dude appears and starts beckoning me to the coffee alley, I’d probably go.

At Dion’s house, preparing for our cupping of three different coffees: Dos Hemisferios, Perla Negra, and Sidra Washed Coffee. The highest scoring was Washed, but my favorite was Dion’s coffee Dos Hemisferios.
I’d never done a real cupping before, so it was a fun, new experience!
Dion bags his coffee right in his living room!

My birthday outing! Thanks, Cameron and Laura, for indulging my coffee inclinations and taking me to Cafe Traviesa. And a free birthday brownie? YES.