On hope, brewed in Bristol

My eco-anxiety is back, an old companion I thought I’d managed to shake off with a mixture of a low-impact lifestyle and cognitive behavioural therapy. But having to keep my toddler home because it was too hot to send them to nurseryin the UK – while the likely candidate for our future prime minister plans to double down on North Sea oil and gas, have left me with nothing but horror and fear for what lies ahead.

Writing helps, so I thought I would share some thoughts, and potentially a bit of hope.

I recently finished reading David Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History. I picked this up soon after moving to Bristol, having moved to an area of the city that is rich in and from colonial, slave-trafficking and imperial history, feeling like I needed to contextualise the beautiful architecture around me. Olusoga is a resident of Bristol, famous for his BBC history programmes, and recently in the news for testifying in the Colston Four trial. ‘Black and British’ is a masterpiece, and I highly recommend it to anyone living on this island. Not only is the research astounding, the writing is both beautiful and accessible.

at the Royal York Crescent in Clifton

There are so many chapters and elements to comment on, but it was the section on the abolition movement that stuck out as a lesson to reflect on. In short (and hoping I don’t oversimplify too much): at the end of the eighteenth century, slavery was completely embedded across the British economy, products produced by slaves were everywhere, enormous amounts of political power were invested in the system, and as such there were very few voices publicly denouncing it.

The slave trade and slavery was held up by centuries of racist and exploitative economic theories, but abolitionists also realised that they was tolerated by the general public mainly because they knew very little about it, rather than actively supported it. As such, abolitionists focused on educating the public about the realities of the slave trade as part of their campaign. Through the distribution of thousands of tracts and pamphlets, mass petitions gathering millions of signatures, political lobbying, boycotting, platforming the perspectives of former enslaved persons, making space for activism from women (who were denied the vote but who could play a role by emphasising mercy and compassion, which was deemed feminine), and providing physical evidence, abolitionists were able to turn the tide of public opinion and push for the abolition of the slave trade.

The role of former slaves and the impact of this public campaign was brilliantly told in a play recently shown at the Bristol Old Vic. The Meaning of Zong, written and performed by Giles Terera, tells the story of Olaudah Equiano, a writer, abolitionist and formerly enslaved person, who publicly spoke about the legal trial on a massacre aboard a slave ship named Zong, where 132 Africans were thrown overboard. This set in motion the events leading to the abolition movement in the UK. At one point during the trial, the narrator points across the stage, at the judge (who owned slaves), at the jury (who profited from the slave trade) and at the prosecutor and the defence lawyer (who all had investments in transatlantic slave trade). Across the board, power and money were tied up in the kidnapping of humans. But through the publicity and debate generated by the case and decades of committed activism, abolitionists managed to achieve the impossible.

Of course, as we know and as ‘Black and British’ goes on to show, the British abolition of the slave trade was not the end of slavery, nor the end of the horrors of the British empire. And this is not to contribute to a disingenuous and nationalistic ‘pat on the back’ that often accompanies discourse on abolition. But it was a positive step towards ending one of the most damaging parts of history, and one of which abolitionists can take credit.

While the context and challenges are different, I see parallels between the fight against slavery, with its total integration across the economy – as energy, means of production and wealth creation – with the fight against fossil fuels. We are living through a time when it seems like the forces of big oil and gas are winning against those trying to merely ensure the future of a liveable planet. With their total integration across our economies and political systems, it’s so easy to get despondent and paralysed in the face of climate breakdown.

But a reminder of concrete examples of social movements and the people involved can provide us with inspiration to shift from despair to action, with a successful end goal in sight. Lessons from our history can remind us that advocacy on system-wide challenges can be successful. Campaigning, building public support and storytelling are of upmost importance. And it’s this that we have to remember as we pick up the courage to keep chipping away at the system, that success is possible. As many activists keep repeating, there is a big difference between 4 degrees and 1.5 degrees warming. Every effort helps, and every fraction of a degree matters.

My tree is very tiny this year

My tree is very tiny this year
Its roots intact in a planter
Less landfill, more carbon capture;
Next year, it’ll stand a little grander.

My tree holds homemade decor this year
I’ve few trinkets to deploy
The more I move, less stuff survives –
String and oranges, ample joy.

My tree hosts few presents this year;
Resistance starts with buying less
But I’ve learnt real abundance lies,
In my people close, my little nest.

My tree is tucked away this year;
The little girl learning to crawl, pull, play
– her face, our festive cheer –
Is the focus of our day.

My tree is a reminder, this year,
That things can’t stay the same.
Yet for her, for them, for us and all,
We redeem, rejoice, and Christmas, reclaim.

On mammalian redemption

Last week during COP I saw a tweet with the slogan “We are not defending nature, we are nature defending ourselves”, and it got me thinking about what it means to shift away from the anthropocentric paradigm of man vs. nature. Our fates in the Anthropocene depend on us rewiring our societies towards a collective understanding of humans being not separate but part of nature, and I’m under no illusion that this will be nothing short of systemic and radical. It will inevitably involve a dismantling of our economic model, and the creation of a completely new reality, one that looks nothing like the consuming-hustling existence of Westerners over the past century. Part of me thinks that we are so completely unprepared for what is ahead, whilst at the same time everything about our lives is crying out for change.

There are many, many different practices that we need to embrace in order to truly get to the stage that collectively, we can claim that we are indeed nature defending ourselves (as many indigenous peoples are doing, despite all of the obstacles in their way). Regeneration, circularity, co-existence; just some of the concepts I’m at the beginning of a journey of learning about. But I’d like to propose a practice, that I’ve become very well versed in over the past nine months, as one of the paths to our return to nature: breastfeeding.

In essence, it could be the most basic form of being part of nature. Much as we seem to want to forget, we are, after all, mammals. Distinguished from other life forms by our three middle ear bones, fur/hair, neocortex, and our capacity to produce milk to feed our young. In practice, it has been one of the most neocortex-blowing, humbling, and rewarding experiences of my life. For nine months, so far, I’ve nourished a tiny newborn to a babbling, moving, growing infant. I’ve followed my instincts and read her cues. I’ve given the physical gift of a healthy microbiome and the emotional gift of a secure attachment. I’ve created constantly adapting antibodies during a global pandemic. We’ve danced the dance of supply and demand that has nothing to do with market mechanisms.

This isn’t the common narrative when it comes to breast/chestfeeding, which is often an arch of pain, struggles, labour and at times, grief. Because despite all of the benefits that science already knows and constantly continues to discover, our society makes it very very hard for parents to nurse their own babies. The data on how many women cannot physically breastfeed is both poor and W.E.I.R.D., but what is available suggests that it may be in the region of 5%. In contrast, in the UK, despite WHO and NHS guidance, only 1% of women make it to the recommended minimum target of six months of exclusive breastfeeding, let alone the recommended target of two years. And I have to say this most emphatically and at the top of my voice: this piece is not to shame or berate anyone for choosing or being unable to breast or chest-feed. There are so many valid reasons for not doing so in our current set up, and only the patriarchy benefits from the ‘mommy wars’. What I want to say goes beyond individuals, and is more a commentary on the mismatch between our species and our societies.

Several structural design flaws have led us here: split-second maternity leaves and nuclear family structures, leaving mums overwhelmed with the crushing burden of having to do everything under the sun, without a ‘village’, whilst also recovering from a major physical and emotional transition. At the very beginning of a newborn’s life, mothers need a quiet, fiercely-guarded period of time in which to establish the feeding relationship. Many traditional cultures across the world recognise this through 40 to even 100 days of postpartum rituals, where new mothers stay inside and focus on healing and feeding; practices in direct contrast with the Western obsession of everything getting back to normal as soon as possible. The latter leads us on a downward spiral, where continuing breastfeeding becomes the unique responsibility of the individual, rather than the task of the community to support. Breastfeeding demands energy, more energy than an active brain, and as such enters into direct competition with all other demands on our power. It demands free time, the equivalent in hours over the space of a year as a full time job. If women already face the double burden of work (paid and unpaid), an extra full time job is unmanageable. And this is even before considering the class and racial inequalities that block access to maternity leave, financial security and professional support. So instead of society valuing breastfeeding as a full time occupation, and protecting it as the most fundamental task in the first year of a parent and baby’s life, under late capitalism, we are offered the both the problem and the solution, all in order to prioritise other forms of ‘productive’ labour.

Other design flaws include the lack of technical and medical support that new parents get on what really matters. Mums don’t need half of the material things that they receive from well-meaning loved ones, they need sessions with lactation consultants, on hand for months to provide support and troubleshooting, to help establish a skill that is both instinctive, and at the same time, novel, learnt and at times very difficult. In other cases, the support is the problem. Misinformed doctors and midwives, often know more about formula requirements than normal breastfeeding behaviours and give out outdated or incorrect advice. For example, on my first day postpartum in hospital, I was told two completely contradictory pieces of advice by two different midwives within the space of an hour. I was also told that once my baby hit 5kg she would sleep through the night without feeds. Needless to say there is absolutely no evidence base for this arbitrary number, and it was bound to make me wonder what the matter with my perfectly normal breastfeeding baby when, nine months later, she still feeds at least n times per night (where n ≥ 1).

Then there are the societal and cultural practices, especially in this corner of the world, that are fundamentally in opposition to maintaining a healthy breastfeeding relationship, which thrives on proximity and flexibility. Sleep training, cough, I’m looking at you. Oh boy, am I looking at you. It was only about seven months in to motherhood that I realised how much of the formula industry was driving both the narratives promoted by mainstream parenting doctrines and also the well-meaning but disorienting advice that is passed on through generations: “it’s time to night wean”, “offer water instead”, “formula is so much easier”. This is then followed by the discomfort that people begin to express as the baby grows older: “once babies have teeth or can walk, it’s definitely time to wean”, “that toddler is too old to be breastfed, give them some cow milk instead.” Beyond the cognitive dissonance of replacing our own species’ milk with that of a different species (and claiming that it is more appropriate), we clearly have a deep rooted discomfort with breastfeeding, left unexamined to the detriment of our own well-being. This could be partly down to the widespread misinformation campaign promoted by the formula industry, and partly due to the sexualisation of breasts (this remains speculation on my behalf…).

However, I also think the discomfort goes deeper, circling back to this idea of humans controlling nature rather than being part of it. Breastfeeding demands responsiveness, rather than schedules, and it often defies logic. It requires a certain skill set that is highly dependent on our animal instincts, those ancient wisdoms encoded in our DNA for millennia, that we have spent mere centuries distancing ourselves from in the rush towards the efficient, independent and rational human. Maybe this is why it feels jarring, and why we pay lip service to the benefits of breastfeeding, but back away for creating a fertile society for it.

Maybe it’s time we were reminded that we are first and foremost animals. Mammals. That we are just one small part of an ecosystem. That we have the instincts to coexist in this system, if we want to. And maybe connecting to nature isn’t just about putting on a pair of hiking boots and leaving the big smoke. Maybe it starts with teaching our infants how to trust these instincts. How love is always available, and doesn’t fit into schedules. How we don’t need any props for connection. How we value them more than we value our free time, or our productivity. And maybe, through doing this, we can take one (amongst many) small step towards healing from the mindsets that have led us to destroying our planet and valuing all the wrong things.

So this is how I see breastfeeding. Not just a way to feed my child, but as a big FU to capitalism. A radical act. An expression of hope.

Phoenix

hi, hi little embryo,
you have no idea how much you are wanted.
“anhelado”; longed for,
three positive tests, too good to be true.

I’m sure you felt the smiles, little embryo,
at the news of your existence.
life’s been a little rough recently,
yet what a beautiful new start.

a handful of days together, little embryo.
“good morning my darlings”, he whispered
and we started to weave secret golden cocoons,
otherwise known as plans.

goodbye then, little embryo,
through tears and blood you leave this chaotic place.
thank you for the joy,
our microscopic little love.

just a memory now, little embryo,
so short-lived.
I can’t help but wonder,
was this all just a magical myth

Bædside manners

“Jet leg? Do you know what jet leg is?”
Let me assure you, dear paramedic,
This ain’t no ‘jet leg’
Home is only an hour behind
And no amount of sleepiness
Could make someone shake, judder, stiffen the way he just did
Or make the face he’s making now

“Family, family
Do you have any idea what this could be?”
The guessing game you never expect to play
In a hospital hallway
None of my guesses won the game
“Family we’ve found a large mass in his brain”
I need a bucket I need a bucket

“We operate tomorrow, side effects include death, paralysis, personality changes”
His phone rings
He raises his hand, “let me get this”
“Yea, yea, big aggressive tumour, my kind, you know…the hard ones”
He laughs
I hadn’t noticed the red horns when I walked in the door

Intensive care is a precious commodity
Any wounds that family may have
Receive tough love
“Personality changes? No no, definitely not due to trauma, medication or surgery
Those will likely be permanent”
He said, of my husband of four years
Before swooping down the hall,
His scrubs flapping like a cape

“Bad genes”
He says, “this island is full of inbreeding.
Good job you’ll mix your genes with hers”, nodding at me
He hasn’t asked my name yet
But the chemo drugs he prescribes
Can cause infertility

Hot Fuss

Dear old friend,

Last year, you posted about rekindling your relationship to music, tired of the playlist algorithms, and disenchanted. I’m curious, how did your experiment go?

Your post came to mind as I sit here on a bus on a Sunday evening, stuck in traffic on my way back to Panama city after a couple of days away for Easter. What should have been a 4 hour journey will probably turn out to be an 11 hour one; a combination of my lack of foresight and the infamous Panamanian traffic. The bus is moving at snail pace. Earlier it was a sweltering 34 degrees, and the AC absolutely battled (now luckily it has cooled down). Cumbia has been playing for a solid 6 hours, people are watching videos on their phones without using headphones, kids are whiney. It’s hectic, to say the least.

Luckily I have a charged phone and some headphones, and have spent the past few hours trawling through spotify, rediscovering some forgotten gems. My meanders took me to The Killers, and I decided to listen to Hot Fuss, the full album. Do you know how long it’s been since I sat and listened to an album? I have no clue. I have a feeling this is one of the things you said you missed. Sitting and listening to an album seems like it’s from another era.

From the first notes of ‘Jenny was a Friend of Mine’, I’m back in early 2005.

It’s February, a couple of weeks after my birthday, pitch black outside, and biting cold. I get home from school and there’s a package waiting for me, adorned with your distinct handwriting and stickers. I close my bedroom door, turn on my pink and purple ambiance lamps around my desk and sit on the little rattan chair under my bunk bed.

Inside the package is a birthday card, a letter, and two presents. The first is a multi-coloured wooden bead necklace from H&M kids. I’ve been wearing a lot of all-black these days, and a lot of black eyeliner. You assure me that wearing jewellery from the kids section is cool, in an ironic sort of way. I put it round my neck as a choker, and reapply some more eyeliner, just to make sure the irony is emphasised.

The second present is a copy of a new album, in one of those thin cases that came with the packs of 20 blank CDs. You’ve made a cover for it, including a couple of pictures of Orlando Bloom (of course), a mini vintage Star Wars poster, and a mini picture of the album cover, all lovingly collaged together, most likely on Paint.

‘It’s a new band called The Killers, I think you’ll like them. Happy 14th birthday!’

There on that cold winter night in early 2005, I listened to Hot Fuss for the first time, back-to-back. I spent most of the time thinking about my first real crush, and what I was going to say to him the next day at theatre rehearsals. Maybe something about this new band. Maybe I’d wear the new necklace. There was an excitement in my stomach that you can only ever really get from hearing music that you instantly love for the first time, from your first crush, from being 14, from that magic of early teenage-hood when you just can’t wait for something magic to ‘finally happen’ to your life.

14 years later, I’m on a bus traveling through Panama, trying to escape the cacophony around me. That brown paper package you sent me all those years ago is still providing instant transportation.

Love Suze

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heavy heavy use of the hair straightener, and a tanktop-over-long-sleeve-combo, 2005

Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala

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When my friend Lotta emailed me two weeks before Easter to remind me that she would be travelling through Guatemala, Carlos and I jumped at the chance to join her in Antigua (a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the central highlands of Guatemala).

We flew to Guatemala City on Palm Sunday, and went straight to Antigua. Our driver explained to us that the city was host to one of the biggest Easter processions in Latin America, and that dropping us off right in front of our hostel may be problematic; sure enough, as we arrived, the procession was actually going right past the door of our hostel, so we tried and failed to look inconspicuous with our backpacks as we made our way through the crowds.

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Children’s procession from La Merced church

The processions took place at least three times a day throughout the week, with some starting at three in the morning. Most of the processions started with men carrying incense, followed by lines of men dressed in purple robes. Groups of up to eighty men then carried huge wooden platforms with scenes of the Holy Week (such as Christ carrying the cross or the crucifixion), followed by a marching horn and flute band playing funeral marches. A similar procession would follow with groups of women dressed in white and black, carrying scenes of the Virgin Mary. It was obvious from the faces of those carrying the platforms that they were extremely heavy, and that the walk was a momentous spiritual experience. Despite the hundreds of people watching, the streets were often silent, save from solemn and slow drumming.

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Families preparing for the march

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Marching bands

On Easter Friday, everyone in the procession was dressed in black, and the floats got larger and even more impressive.

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The Virgin arriving through a cloud of incense

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By 5am on Friday morning the streets were full of Roman soldiers and scenes of the crucifixion

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Throughout the week, Antiguans lined the streets with carpets made from coloured sawdust, flower petals, pine needles and tropical fruits, as a symbol of the streets of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Each carpet was often the result of weeks of preparation in designing and creating large stencils and then hours of work on the spot. These carpets would exist for a few hours, often created in the wee hours of the morning, and then the processions would walk over them and reduce them to a messy mix of sawdust over the streets.

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Just like the Desalpe in Switzerland, the cleaning team was never far away

Besides the processions, Antigua is a beautiful colonial city, surrounded by volcanos and endless blue skies. Over Easter it was full of tourists (mainly Central Americans and US/European backpackers), but it’s no wonder why: there is an incredible amount of local handicraft for sale, and churches and streets to explore, the restaurants are excellent, and people are extremely friendly and open for a chat.

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I bought a huipil, a beautiful handwoven traditional blouse. I had a chance to have a long chat with the woman who wove it and she told me that it took six months to make. The designs follow those from the municipality of Chajul in Guatemala.

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Weaving huipils by hand

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We spent the week mostly eating small tortillas filled with guacamole, cabbage, meat or fish, beans and chilli, walking around, buying beautiful handicrafts, exploring abandoned churches destroyed by earthquakes, and drinking hot chocolate sprinkled with chilli.

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Three volcanos surround the city: the Volcán de Agua, the Volcán de Fuego and Acatenango. We decided to climb the Acatenango with an organised tour, and camp at the summit overnight. The Tropicana tour was extremely well organised, with incredible and serious guides, good food and equipment.

We knew that it would be a difficult climb and to prepare for almost freezing conditions at the top, but I definitely underestimated just how difficult and steep the hike would be, and most of all how affected I would be by the altitude. At times it was so heavy going that I would take five steps and stop to catch my breath. As we walked up, hundreds of Guatemalan families ran and practically skipped down the mountain, on their way down from Holy Monday mass at the summit.

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Carlos told me to make a warrior face and this is all that I could muster…

By the time I had reached the campsite at about 3700 metres, I’d made all sorts of drastic promises to myself (to never climb above 3000 metres again, to never run a marathon, to never claim to like hiking ever again) and I collapsed into the tent, only to come out to throw up during the night. Tips for future Acatenango hikers: pack rehydration salts!m20ILWqmQlSEQUyj%HqItA_thumb_db4

 

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Photo courtesy of Cosima (I was too busy trying to get down the mountain to see this)

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The descent the next day however was an entirely different experience. In a matter of a few hundred metres I started to feel more human, to notice the incredible eruptions of the Fuego volcano and the lava dribbling down the sides of the mountain. I stopped to observe the mountain flowers and even spotted a high altitude hummingbird. I was able to appreciate the different types of forest from the pine trees at the top to the dewy cloud forests and then agricultural lands. The descent almost made up for the trauma of the day before, and as usually is the case with this type of experience…it was worth it in the end.

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All in all it was a beautiful week with friends and a great opportunity to explore a small corner of Guatemala. We hope to be back soon!

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A love letter to you, Puerto Rico

Oh those first six weeks of a relationship. Constant surprise, a lightness of heart, tinted vision. Those weeks when any small gesture will inevitably etch itself to the walls of one’s heart, as the indelible marks of our own personal romance.

Take that time we were driving through farmland in the south, looking for the infamous ‘La Frutera’ fruit truck. The forty minute detour was worth it, not just for the smoothie, but for almost eight minutes of absolute joy, Hector Lavoe’s ‘Vamos a Reír un Poco’, on the radio. Percussion against the dashboard, stars in my eyes.

Or the sight of a whale, out past La Perla, and two days later, seven dolphins jumping over each other on their way out of the San Juan Bay.

My hued glasses on, I secretly love your clichés: the way you can hear ‘Dura‘ blasting from at least one car driving by every day, and catch every word, even when the car windows are fully wound up. Dancing to Plan B in a dirty dark alleyway was one of the highlights of my weekend, but I also laughed at the poster in a bar that said ‘No reggaeton, no trap, no Despacito, no Marc Anthony’. And though the postcard palm trees have taken a hit recently, lop-sided and barren on one side, they remain resilient and lush on the other. A metaphor for life after a hurricane, perhaps.

Sometimes you make me feel like a second character in a magical realism novel. Take that Airbnb with the dock between the mangroves, and the view onto the rusty abandoned sugar mill. As we drove up, a half-naked, fully-tattooed, sinister-looking neighbour observed us. I felt slightly on edge, until he whistled, and a troupe of goats trotted down the road and into his gate. Or when I peeked through the window of a house in Old San Juan to try and find the source of some wonderful piano music, and I saw a woman standing by the piano, under a chandelier, dressed to the nines, with a white cockatoo on her shoulder.

I married one of your compatriots so it’s no surprise I’m attracted to your collective humour, but the open cheekiness still sometimes catches me out. On an sunset run through a suburban area, I crossed an elderly lady walking her small dog. I looked out of place and I expected her to stare me down, as she would have done back ‘home’. Instead, she gave me the cheekiest wink I’ve ever seen. Or when I went to buy soap from a shop down the road, and my mother-in-law introduced me to the lady at the counter ‘we used to go to middle school together’. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘I used to check out the boys in her class!’.

I love the raging relentless wind over the old city: the wind of schooners and pirates, the rattles and whistles through the Spanish courtyards, the 17th century A.C. When I lie awake at night listening to the wind filing down the walls and the torrential rain appear from nowhere, I think about the previous inhabitants of these streets. Corsairs, scoundrels, hideaways, slaves, passersby. I think about the women who lived in these houses. Inevitably you get me thinking about my freedom and my existence, as any good lover should do.

There’s a leitmotif in my exchanges with family, acquaintances and friends, a response to any uncertainty, future plans or change: ‘Lo más importante, es que te guste‘ (the most important thing, is that you like it), I’ve heard, again and again. It’s so blatantly obvious, yet it’s never been repeated to me so blatantly explicitly. I’m still trying to understand the implications this little phrase could have on my life, my immediate and distant future. Now that its crept in, I’m not sure it can leave.

New loves teach you about old loves, old loves teach you about new loves, and love teaches you about yourself. These six weeks of uncertainty have most likely changed me more than a year of four seasons ever would. And for that, I’m eternally grateful for this time spent here, with the opportunity to drop everything, contemplate and investigate. Like a summer romance, we both know this will end eventually. Yet know, dear Borinquen, that a small part of me will forever be walking down the rainbow streets of Old San Juan, dodging drains and peeking into houses. Or running across the grass of the El Morro fort at sunset, trying not to get blown away. Peering into bromeliads to find a coquí. Playing dominos and drinking rum with guanábana juice.

Yours,
Suzy

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Metamorphosis

We used to have a regular routine; I would interrupt her from staring out into space and ask her what she was thinking about, and she would brush me off with an inane yet precise comment about the sound of the door handles or the complexity of the coffee pot. It was one of those simple mechanics of our relationship, repetitive and rusty, with me clumsily trying to pull her in closer whenever she felt distant. Of course, it is only looking back that I realise her answers always left little clues to a detached puzzlement towards her current form, and she always looked slightly relieved after sharing, as if I’d reeled her in from a deep abyss.

That day, speeding through the water back from Gilligan’s Island in the small motorboat, I was too busy looking out for dolphins in the open sea to notice her mind wandering. We were all tired: lulled by the saltwater, cold beers drunk at the beach, and the day’s sun. Our journey took us from the small island where we had spent the day, back to our holiday cabin in the bay, past shorelines of whispy half-moon sand strips and sprawling emerald green forests.

Some of us gently closed our eyes behind our sunglasses, embracing the last of the day’s sun. The rest of us faced the horizon, silently hoping we would be the first to spot a spurt or a jump from the water. I’ve recreated that day so often that at times it’s hard to distinguish the real memories from the added details from my imagination, but I know that she was sat on the other side of the boat, following the shore with her eyes. I glanced over at her at one point; her long caramel hair was flicking in the wind, topaz earrings reflecting the sun, her long tanned limbs poised and alert, her hand clasping the side of the boat. Spray danced up the sides of the boat, forming perfect white pearls that caught the light before falling back into the ocean. She looked completely normal, yet also, again in retrospect, to be travelling in a completely different direction to the rest of us. I resumed my scanning of the open sea. The next time I turned my head, she was gone.

**
The official report was a tragic drowning of a young female tourist, and unofficial explanations were in the dozens. I remained adamant that she was too strong a swimmer to drown in calm waters, and the divers never found a single trace of her. While my grief at her loss was overpowering, the qualification of tragic never sat right with me (although I never voiced this, mainly for fear of reinforcing some of the more sinister unofficial explanations of her disappearance). In the years that followed, I returned regularly to search for her: snorkelling over every square meter of the shoreline, pestering the same locals over and over, combing through old wives tales for clues.

It wasn’t until I widened my search to start hiking through the forests on the shore that I felt any closer to finding her. Even then I found little of consequence, but it was an almost constant sensation of being watched that kept me believing she was somehow just around the corner. I’d spot a dazzling blue earring, only to reach out to a small lizard tail flicking and disappearing into the undergrowth. I’d reach a gap in the canopy, and stare up at the turkey vultures hovering, so static that they reminded me of the blank look on her face when she stared out to space. I’d hear my name whistle through the trees, reverberating in the final notes of a frog call.

But it was the occasional lone iguana that stopped me in my tracks, and brought me a steady, grounding comfort. A stripe of caramel spikes down its back, its long fingers curled around a branch, and a pensive, unwavering gaze. I imagined her that day, travelling in a different direction, propelled by the ripples of a long tail, creating streams of silver bubbles in her wake, and then pulling herself on to the shore. These silent exchanges with iguanas gradually led me to decipher those blank stares and mundane answers of our past together: the symptoms of a being in captivity.

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New year, new mantra

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I started out 2017 by setting an intention for the year, embodied in a mantra. Instead of resolutions, which are often brought on by guilt and rarely kept, defining a mantra is a way of keeping a ‘fil rouge’ or gentle guidance throughout the year. When the clarity of the new year starts to fade in months long past January, it’s useful to have a small chant, or inner wisdom to defer to.

Last year, whilst basking in the sunshine on the Andaman coast, I set ‘strong core’ as my words for 2017. It came from a yoga session (as these things tend to do), when Adriene was talking about how having a strong core enables you to do what you want to be able to do: climb mountains, carry your neighbour’s shopping bags, stand tall. But ‘strong core’ was nothing to do with flat abs (although they would also be nice). Strong core was about working, concentrating and succeeding at a few core things: love, work and studies. I knew that 2017 would be a crazy busy year for me: it was my final year of my MA degree, my career was taking off, work trips were on the table. At home, Carlos was due to finish his PhD and we were planning for this to be our final year in Switzerland. I needed to be prepared for a lot of hard work and a lot of change. And I knew I could only succeed if I leave other things, those not core to the mission, to the side. That doesn’t mean that these were the only things I could do, it was more a question of where I could focus my energy.

Yet I find mantras often only reveal why they were chosen until after they have been used. Looking back on 2017 is like looking back at a storm, or even a wild, powerful, all consuming hurricane. There were small respites in the storm, but the next mushrooming and heavy cloud was always on the horizon. ‘Strong core’ was about being the solid tree trunk, and not being uprooted. Many beautiful and successful things were a result of the storm, and my strong core was just as much supported by myself as by loved ones. But there was no doubt that it was an intense year with moments of fierce stress. My friend Trish often signs off texts with ‘Hang in there!’. Strong core was very much about hanging in there, and maintaining a sense that at some point the storm would be die down, and that work could later start on sorting, regenerating and growing.

The beginning of this year has involved a lot of sorting out the mess from after the storm. As we prepare to leave the country, we are downsizing accumulated possessions (shedding debris in a sense), dealing with paperwork, ending contracts, closing chapters. My new year is not a perfectly instagrammable picture of fresh white snow, or a blank new page. Instead, I’m living through a transition phase, not quite autumn, not quite winter, not quite spring, nor summer. White snow covered in pine needles, leaves, and storm debris.

Yesterday, a week into 2018, my mantra for the year came to me (doing yoga, again, as these things often happen): ‘honour your inner teacher’. I don’t know exactly why this is the right mantra for 2018, but it seems to fit. The year ahead is uncertain, it is about change, adventure and growth. It seems natural that I need to make space to hear and listen to whatever is to be learnt from the experiences ahead.

Do you have a mantra for 2018?