How You Leave
There is a New Yorker cover I saved, years ago. It’s a drawing of a galaxy, floating in the dark nothingness of space. In the middle of it sits the skyline, the whole universe swirling around New York at its center.
That is how I have felt, for as long as I can remember. I grew up in Hoboken, across one river from Manhattan, and went to high school in Brooklyn, across the other. Growing up in such close proximity to the city, but just outside it, I think I loved New York in two ways. I loved it with the familiarity of a native, because so much of my childhood was spent there, but always tinged with a little bit of the awe of an outsider. I never took being there for granted. It always felt special to be at home in such a magical beast of a place.
I left New York twice before, once at 19 for LA, after a heartbreak, and a second time when I was 21 for Paris, where I moved to be with a boy I loved. In total I have lived outside of New York for just under eight years of my adult life. Though Paris was hugely formative – I spent most of my 20’s there—after six years of living as an expat, the ease of being back in a world that I could navigate innately was a relief. More than that, though, returning to New York was a relief. I was enveloped by the familiarity of all the people and memories, the coziness of home.
I was 27. At 27, I was still in the early years of a career I cared very much about, one that I had worked hard and taken a lot of risks to have. It’s only in hindsight that I can see the enormity of those risks, the slim likelihood that any creative pursuit would result in a viable career, but in my case it did. To me it never felt real, though. I remember as kid, eating ramen noodles with chopped carrots and an egg that that my mom had added, trying to turn something cheap into something sustaining. I remember her crying with frustration as she tried to find a path to earn a living as an artist while raising two little kids on her own, until finally she had to choose. She chose us, and so she got a desk job, one that she hated but that provided her with a regular paycheck, but one that was modest enough that she could never actually relax. Once I started working, I always felt the possibility, just short of a certainty, that at any moment my life would all come falling down, and I would be left without any practical way to take care of myself. My mother had at least known how to type. That fear kept me moving forward, always looking past where I was, always striving.
New York is a great place for that. There is always someone ahead of you, always someone who is doing better, who is doing what you wish you could be doing. Right after moving home, I lucked into a beautiful little apartment in Brooklyn, and that’s where I dug in, put my head down, and worked. I worked a lot. I genuinely like to work, and am really good at working hard, so this life worked pretty well for me—for a while.
Fast forward ten years, and I had managed to build myself the New York life I thought I wanted. It was an approximation of lives I had seen growing up, those of the friends whose parents had better jobs and better real estate than mine: kids, brownstone, interesting careers. Never mind that New York had changed in seismic ways. My mother had pointed out more than once that she, as a single mom, had managed to get my brother and me into private schools, and, thanks to large scholarships and the rent-stabilized apartment I grew up in, to pay for them. It was a few thousand dollars a year, not fifty, she would say to me, her eyes widening incredulously at the cost of entry to that world for my kids.
So my kids went to public school. So did most peoples’ kids I knew, except the few who had really serious money jobs. Like any true New Yorker, I had no problem bending the truth, using an office address, the address of an ex-boyfriend, to get my kids into school. And so they were in good schools—we just had to travel a long way to get them there each morning.
From the outside, I think my life looked pretty good. I certainly tried to keep it looking that way. Jeremy and I often met couples that we would joke seemed like alternate versions of ourselves. Their children went to school with ours, their homes were similar, the guys all had beards. I knew that they say not to compare your insides to other peoples’ outsides, but I couldn’t help it. I saw them in their in-between moments – running in to try to be on time for school drop-off, or biking past me with their kids, or at the farmer’s market on the weekends, and I wondered if the insides of their lives could possibly feel as insane as mine.
Our house was a big part of what felt crazy. A combination of luck and good timing had allowed us to buy a brownstone in a neighborhood we didn’t particularly want to live in, but that we suspected a lot of other people soon would. Our instincts were right, and our house turned out to be a really good investment. It was also a complicated one. With more confidence and less money than we should have had, we started a gut renovation. Once the house was gutted, it became clear that it was also, quite literally, falling down.
Over a year into our renovation, we ran out of money, and we weren’t even close to making the house habitable, let alone finishing it. We moved with our two young kids into a construction site without a kitchen, instead of what we had expected to be a finished home. Around that time, we watched The Money Pit, the Tom Hanks movie from the 80’s, where they buy what seems to be an amazing old house, but it’s actually such a piece of shit that trying to care for it drives them to the brink of insanity and divorce. Exhausted, I fell asleep about 15 minutes into the movie. Jeremy stayed up alone and watched the rest, crying.
We had also bought the house with my mom and her new husband, so every contractor nightmare, every structural issue that was suddenly revealed, every DOB fine we got hit with, and every interaction with our impressively, uniquely insane neighbor that arose— they were all compounded by the fear and guilt that we were failing them, or that they thought we were.
Just before we bought the house, Jeremy had founded a non-profit. Its mission— “teaching at-risk kids to restore vintage motorcycles”— sounded so amazing that nearly every man I met had a look of envy on his face when I told them how Jeremy spent his days. And it was amazing. Sort of. They produced incredibly specialized rebuilds of vintage BMW racers. They had a partnership with an organization that provided internships for kids aging out of the foster-care system. But “they” was Jeremy, because “they” were so grossly underfunded that he had never been able to hire anyone else. In practical terms, what that meant was that my partner was working inhuman hours to try to personally do all the work that needed to be done to make this non-profit succeed. He also didn’t draw a regular paycheck. For several years, he would work until 5 am several nights a week, come home and shower, nap for an hour if he was feeling indulgent, take the kids to school, and then drive himself straight back to work. When he did sleep, he often soaked the sheets with sweat that was greasy from the combination of the chemicals he was working with and the junk food he was eating. He woke up in the night with nightmares. When he was home, he was short with the kids, impatient with me. Impatient would be a nice way to describe how I treated him. We had explosive fights. I didn’t know how to ask him to stop what he was doing, when this company was his dream. I didn’t even know then that I could ask. I also didn’t see how this could continue. Eventually, I just felt relieved on the nights he stayed at work.
Friends asked me if I was worried that he was having an affair. The idea of that was funny. Of course he was having an affair. It just wasn’t with another woman.
So there was the house. There was Jeremy’s work. There was our fighting, which was constant. Of course there were the kids, which I don’t even need to explain. We had two small kids, with all that entails. And then there was my work.
My work had always a sweet spot for me. As I previously said, I like to work hard, and the combination of that and instances of major good luck had delivered me a career that I genuinely loved. I didn’t have to haul myself off to a job I hated, as I’d watched my mother do. I often said that as a photographer, I got paid to do two things I would gladly have paid my own money to do anyway: take pictures and travel.
But a few things happened. First of all, I had kids. When Jeremy and I first started dating, he would ask me what I was doing with my days. As I ran through my schedule, he would start to look confused. Breakfast meeting, coffee meeting, coffee meeting, lunch meeting, coffee meeting. How many coffees can you have in a day? But most of my workdays were spent building and nurturing relationships. Some of these eventually led to work, but usually it was more circuitous than that, and often it took years. Once I had kids, my time became so much more finite. The idea of yet another coffee with yet another person who had never booked me on anything anyway, started to feel exhausting. In the calculus of how I spent my hours, the immediacy of sitting at the playground with my kids while they played (because they are little right now) began to tug me away from the remote possibility of work three years down the line.
My resources also became much more limited. Once I went to an art exhibition in Paris where there was a piece on the wall that read: Will Work for Work. That constant working for free, working for exposure, is an indelible piece of the industry I had picked. It’s not for nothing that so many people in creative fields come from or have access to money. Not having that from the start, I counter-balanced it for many years with my willingness to work that much harder, but once I had kids? Once I had kids they needed boots, and coats, and I wanted them to have guitar lessons. It became hard to find the resources to allow me to work any harder, and on top of that to do it for free. And no matter how hard I was willing to work, there are, quite literally, only so many hours in a day.
I also didn’t want to go to fashion parties anymore. I mean, I really didn’t want to go to fashion parties. I had barely liked doing those things in my 20’s. Now, in my 30’s, the sweetness of bath time and tucking my kids into bed far outweighed the excitement of dressing up and having my picture taken at store openings or fashion shows.
You will likely surmise that because I stopped engaging in the necessary actions to propel my career forward, my career suffered. You would probably not be surprised to hear that, but for some reason I was. I really didn’t see it coming. I’d had a magazine, which had been very successful. People liked the magazine a lot, which I thought meant that they liked me. Trying to find more hours in my days, I closed the magazine, and then was surprised to find that many of them didn’t, actually. I didn’t know how actively I had been working to stay on top, to remain relevant, all those years, until I stopped working that hard, and suddenly I wasn’t anymore.
I didn’t know what was next in my life, and I had no time or space in which I could even stop to take a breath, let alone consider existential questions like that. My kids still needed to be schlepped from point A to point B, even in the snow and the sleet, even when I was despondent about the state of my career. I had a house that felt like a heroin habit, insatiable in its consumption of every dollar we made. Since the construction wasn’t finished, the permits were still open, which meant we couldn’t take out any money to finish it. But since we couldn’t take out any loans against it, we couldn’t finish it. So I lived an unfinished house (and I mean really unfinished. We had a whole floor gutted for five years). But because I did the work I did, it was still being photographed for design blogs (thought generally those features skewed heavily towards how to make your house look nice on a shoestring). Out of that description one could pull an apt metaphor for my whole life at that point.
If I had stopped to think about it, I might have been able to identify that the feeling I was experiencing when I woke up in the middle of the night, my heart and brain racing, as panic. I felt like I was treading water. The faster I treaded the more tired I got, but of course I couldn’t stop because if I did I would drown. I was trying so hard to hold it all together, and I was also still trying very hard to make sure my life looked good on the outside. I had spent my entire adult life in fashion, a tiny bubble of a world that values appearances above all else. So in the midst of it all, one of my deepest concerns was making sure that everything still looked okay to other people, which kept me from asking for any help.
Through this, Jeremy had started a campaign to get us out of New York. New York came to represent, for him, all the things that were wrong in our lives. Our financial problems? New York is unreasonably fucking expensive. The kids’ schools? In other places you don’t have to fight to get your kids into a good school. They can just go to a school, the one around the corner. Our house? Do you know what a house that’s worth this much money looks like in other places? His hatred of New York, of all things related to New York, grew and grew. The list became longer: the aggressive driving of the Access-a-Ride drivers, the dirty icebanks with fossilized garbage that would form on each corner after a snowstorm, the proximity to pee-soaked perverts on the subway. He became engaged in a full-fledged war with the rats on our block, trying to keep them out of our garbage cans and basement. He took to reading blog posts about rat psychology in his efforts to outsmart them, and would email me pictures of the traps he was setting, usually shot in the basement around 4 in the morning, with a flash that made everything look like a crime scene. New York became, for him, the problem with everything, and leaving, the only solution.
I didn’t want to hear it. I didn’t want to live in the suburbs. I didn’t want to live in upstate New York, where I feared I would be swallowed whole by my seasonal depression during the half the year that is deep, dark winter. I didn’t want to live in a smaller city, a blue dot in a sea of red where I would worry about my kids getting randomly shot at school or a mall, or targeted for their Jewish last name. I didn’t want to go to LA, where I knew that after a while, driving around in a car all day would make me sad, no matter how sunny it was.
What I really didn’t want was to do was compromise in any way. The suggestion felt like surrender, and, being a New Yorker, surrender felt terrible. It felt like giving up, which I equated with losing. And losing felt like one of the worst things I could imagine.
So the conversation around leaving became another thing for us to fight about. We both dug in, solid in our opposing views. He didn’t know where he even wanted to go anyway. His desire to leave was more rooted in a running away than it was in a running to, and so without a plan, nothing happened.
Then I got pregnant again. We had discussed having another baby for several years. Or, more accurately, I had repeatedly raised the conversation. In some ways, we had an ideal arrangement. Stig spent part of each week with his mother, so for half the week we had two kids, and they could (and did!) play together. And then for half the week we had one, which, after having two, felt like barely any kids at all.
On some sane level, I knew having another baby made no sense. I knew that our lives were just lapping at the edge of the glass, ripe to overflow. But I thought we could handle it, because I thought we could handle everything. I felt like it had all passed so quickly with Oona, and I wasn’t ready to let it go yet. I wanted to stop time, in the way that only having a tiny baby does. I thought I could appreciate it in a way I hadn’t the first time, because with Oona I was so overwhelmed with the entirety of the experience of becoming a mother. And babies bring so much joy. Didn’t we need more joy?
I wanted what I wanted, and what I wanted was more. If some was good, wouldn’t more be better? I think I had operated on that thinking for most of my life. I had approached everything with the idea that if only I got to this next threshold, got this next thing, then I would be happy. This was no different.
I pushed and pushed the conversation, and eventually Jeremy relented. I want you to be happy, is what he said. For almost a year we sort of tried to get pregnant. Everything felt like it was on hold, with this question hanging each month. I felt a mix of regret and relief each time my period came.
In August, as we did every year, we took a vacation to my godmother’s house in Maine, a house I grew up going to. Her house there is an old wooden cottage, funky and cozy, on a piece of property that is truly extraordinary. Her land juts out into the Penscobet River, with water surrounding it on three sides. I lay awake there in the early mornings, listening to the lobster boats, the buoys, the birds, and thought, If I don’t get pregnant this month maybe that is my answer. Maybe we should stop, let it go, and move on to whatever is next.
The last day of our trip my period was due. I did a preemptory pregnancy test and the faintest of lines appeared.
During both my pregnancies, I developed cholestasis. It’s a condition that generally shows up in the third trimester, in which the liver is no longer effectively cleaning the blood. It’s relatively rare, but is most often seen in those of Scandinavian and Chilean descent—neither of which describes me, so I was just lucky, I guess. As with almost everything related to pregnancy, it has been studied very little, and so there is no consensus about the mechanisms at work, just hypotheses. But the protocol is to induce at 37 weeks. They think that, after prolonged exposure to the toxins the liver should be cleaning out, the placenta starts to break down prematurely. And once those poisons start to cross the blood barrier, they can cause an otherwise completely healthy baby’s heart to suddenly stop. Until it was identified in the 1970’s, it was the primary cause of late-term stillbirth.
The major symptom of cholestasis is itching— all over, but particularly on your hands and feet. It’s caused by a build up of bile acids in your blood stream. At first it comes on at night, when your body is worn out—later it can last all day. The itching is unlike anything I have ever experienced. I don’t have any words to describe it. Like you’re wearing wool next to your skin and sweating? Like you’re covered in a million mosquito bites? Neither is really bad enough. It’s systemic – you’re having an allergic reaction to your own blood. And nothing soothes it.
With Oona, I was diagnosed at 37 weeks. On that same day, my homebirth midwife transferred me to a high-risk maternal-fetal medicine specialist. He recommended that I be induced immediately, and so I was. After three days of labor, Oona’s heart was showing signs of distress, so I ended up with a c-section. They warned me that she might have to go to the NICU for some breathing help, but she didn’t. She was fine. At the time it was really scary, but in hindsight the outcome was about as good as it could have been.
This time I wasn’t as lucky. While I was pregnant, we went to see my in-laws in Florida. During the trip, I noticed that my palms were itching. Usually cholestasis shows up in the third trimester. But usually doesn’t mean always. I was 24 weeks pregnant.
By the time I entered my third trimester, I was losing weight, because without my liver doing its job, everything I ate made me sick. I was waking up in the night, scratching my entire body, scratching so hard that I had welts, so hard that I made myself bleed. I would sit there in bed in the dark, scratching for hours.
Meanwhile, I had a started working with a new agent. For the first time in several years, I felt excited by the work I was doing. The election happened, and not long afterwards I was hired to travel around America, photographing women who had voted for Trump. It was so different from fashion, and it was a project that felt important and personally resonant, as I tried to make sense of what the fuck was going on in the world. So I was sick, and very pregnant, but I flew around the country and drove myself to some very disparate places, some quite remote, to meet women who I felt like were my enemies. I sat in their homes, talked to them about their lives, and tried to understand how our value systems could be so far apart.
My pregnancy helped facilitate those conversations. They knew I was flying in from New York, and so could probably guess where my political allegiances lay. But I walked into their doors with my belly, and it provided a human moment, an opening. We had something to talk about besides politics.
So my work was fulfilling me again, which was good, but this kind of interesting and time-consuming project doesn’t actually pay very much, so that wasn’t good. Financially, we were just barely hanging on. And then suddenly, I got very sick, and I couldn’t work at all. My blood pressure was doing strange things, and they were concerned I was developing something called HELPP syndrome, which at best can cause permanent liver damage, and at worst, sudden fetal and maternal death.
I had spent my whole life planning, making things happen, and suddenly I couldn’t even control my own body. It was terrifying. It was humbling.
Nova was born at 35 weeks, earlier than anyone wanted, but I was too sick to be pregnant any longer. Her lungs weren’t ready. They took her to the NICU, and I didn’t get to see her for 24 hours. When I was able to hobble down to her, she looked so big at seven pounds that the nurses joked maybe she’d eaten some of the other, tinier babies, but she was still fragile, tangled up in a sea of cords.
Once Nova arrived, something had to change. Our financial situation was critical, and the idea had been raised more than once of selling our house—our house, which we had poured the past five years of our lives into. The idea of it made me feel sick.
A friend of mine had just been hired at a big ad agency, and he arranged an interview for me. Eight weeks postpartum, I went in to talk to them about work as a creative director, something I had started doing as a consultant when I had my own magazine. The conversation was casual, but when the woman I was speaking asked if I wanted a full-time job, I froze. I didn’t have an answer. She said if I was interested I should get back in touch after the summer.
I knew the answer should be yes. Whether or not it was this job, it was obvious that if we wanted to stay in New York something like this was necessary. I was lucky to have the possibility of a job like this on the table. And even this kind of job was not going to buy an exorbitant life in New York. Not with three kids. But it would let us reliably pay our bills.
I thought about what that job would entail. I thought about waking up early, in the dark, in the winter, dropping my kids at school, commuting into Manhattan, coming home late and just seeing them for a few minutes before they went to bed. I thought about handing my new baby, this baby who I had wanted to be able to savor as I didn’t get to savor her sister, to someone else every morning, only seeing her on the weekends.
It made me see how tightly I was holding on to a life that wasn’t working. And I hadn’t ever even considered that I could question some of the premises that life was built on. I had never considered that there was another path available to me besides working really hard in service of making money, because that is more or less the only path if you want to be in New York. My house, my career, those were all markers to me of my value as a person, because work and money are so valued where I grew up. Were they even what I wanted? I had been so busy working I had never even stopped to ask. I had no idea what I actually considered valuable and wanted to work for in my own life.
Until then, compromise seemed to me to be a failure. But suddenly it looked like a choice, and probably a sane one. If I couldn’t have it all, what did I want?
The year before I got pregnant, we had taken a very short vacation to Sayulita. We almost didn’t go. There had been a sale on tickets to Greece, and I had spontaneously booked us a trip with my miles. Almost immediately I felt extreme panic at the cost of the trip, which we couldn’t afford, and the distance and multiple layovers we would have to do with the kids. So the next morning I cancelled the tickets and rebooked them for Sayulita, which was much closer, and where I knew everything would be really cheap.
A few days into our trip, I got an email from a photographer who had founded an international school there, asking me to donate to their art auction. We passed by the school and thought, huh. We joked that maybe we could live there.
We came home, but the thought persisted for both of us. Could we actually live there? It seemed pretty far out, just on the edge of insane. Standing in my kitchen, I mentioned the idea in passing to my mom. Skye, she said, you only get to have one life.
We had previously done a house swap, and our house was still floating out there, up on the site. Just before Nova was born we got an email from a woman with a house in Sayulita asking if we had ever heard of it, and if we would have any interest in doing a home exchange that coming summer. Actually, we said, yes we would. Could we come for a month?
When Nova was three months old we flew to Mexico. It was July. It was so hot. There were bugs everywhere, many I recognized but some I had never seen and couldn’t even identify. Oona and I smashed scorpions with our shoes and made slo-mo videos as swarms of ants carried them away. Everything was so inexpensive that for the first time in years, our days weren’t toned by a constant, gnawing worry about money, which brought in to focus how pervasive that undertone was. At night massive thunderstorms rolled through and Jeremy and I sat on the porch in the rain while pulses of lightning lit up the sky. It felt about as similar to New York as the moon. Being there opened my eyes to the possibility of another life, one opposite to ours in nearly every way. That life was a compromise, because everything is a compromise, but it also felt like an adventure. I wanted to be able to sit on a porch in the rain and watch a thunderstorm. I wanted to have the time and the energy to be the kind of person who did that.
There are a lot of downsides to the career of a freelancer: financial insecurity, never being able to plan your schedule, always worrying if the next job is going to come, and if it does, when it will pay. I would worry about those things in my 20’s and my boyfriend at the time, the son of two very successful artists, would take a drag of his cigarette and say, If you wanted that kind of life, maybe you should have gone to work at the bank.
But being freelance isn’t all downsides. The upside of what I do is that I actually can do my work from anywhere, and yet I was living in New York as though I was tethered to one incredibly expensive and challenging place. But I’m not. I’ve built myself a career that only requires that I have access to fast internet and an airport, and the willingness to get on a lot of planes.
Those realizations came, but then nothing actually happened. I’m going to fast-forward through the next year, because it really sucked. It was probably the hardest year of my life. There was death, a custody fight with Jeremy’s ex, major financial problems, intense discord in our relationship, and major issues with our house. We had a new baby and limited childcare. I was still recovering physically and emotionally from my pregnancy. Trump was president, and #MeToo was happening, and it seemed like every time I picked up my phone I was assailed by the reality that, on both a macro and micro level, the world was falling apart in a different way. I even got audited. It was humbling, and completely insurmountable. There was no way I could power over it on the strength of my will. The only thing to do was let go of the illusion that I could control any of it. Okay. Whatever is next, I’ll take it.
When I finally surrendered, when I started to turn it all over, things started to change. For one, I stopped worrying about what I looked like and started to talk to people about what was really going on. Very suddenly, those work coffees became a pleasurable thing again, as I stopped trying to convince the people I was meeting that my life was so great, and I just talked to them. Almost all of the people I met with were other women, most of them working mothers, and all of their lives were just as complicated as mine. My willingness to be honest about how much I didn’t have everything together led to conversations with those other women about how much they didn’t have everything together either. The friend with the enormous diamond ring, who lived in a beautiful white loft with three kids in private school in the city? Her husband’s start-up was struggling and they were going to run out of money in a few months if an investor didn’t appear. The friend whose adorable kids and husband I looked at on social media, comparing her life to my own? They were getting a divorce, because he’d cheated on her with a bevy of hookers. Everyone had their shit, and it took very little to open conversations about what was really happening in our lives. And those conversations made me feel so much less alone.
Being honest also allowed me to ask for help. Asking for help may be hard for most people, but I am going to tell you: it is especially hard for me. It feels like an admission that I have somehow failed, that I can’t actually do it all. But I desperately needed help, and when I asked, it came— from my mother, my friends, my neighbors, other moms at school. The vulnerability I had to access to ask help from them also allowed me to start talking to Jeremy about how much I needed his help, how much I wanted things between us to change. And that started helping them to change.
At the suggestion of a friend, I started to write every morning. It felt stupid, like, how is something this small possibly going to change anything? And yet after a few weeks, my head felt less cloudy, my raging internal monologue less insistant, and so I kept doing it. I remembered that when I was younger, I had loved to write. And yet at some point I had completely stopped.
After writing in the mornings, I started meditating. At first I could manage four minutes. But rather than judge myself harshly for that, and stop because four minutes is nothing, I did it every day, and slowly I was able to add time to that.
And I wrote gratitude lists. As much as it sucked that so many things in my life were not going as I thought they should, there were also so many things in my life that were great. I was healthy again! I had a family, and they were healthy! I had choices in my life! I didn’t have to clean toilets for a living! I had a choice as to what I wanted to focus on, and that focus really did dictate my experience. As I made the decision to actively look for what I was grateful for, those things grew. Nothing is only one thing. I started to see our house as the gift it was, not as the burden it had felt like for so long. I became willing to sell it if we needed to, because, despite all the weight I had assigned to it, in the end, a house is just another thing. And how much does a single thing matter anyway?
I learned that even in the midst of what felt like utter chaos, it was possible to carve out a space for myself of calm, and even find some happiness.
I’ve heard it said that the best thing about things being really bad is that things will always change. If they’re that bad, it’s pretty likely that that change will be for the better. That was true here. Some of things that changed were external, and concrete: Jeremy made the decision to close his company. We reached an agreement with Stig’s mom. My work suddenly got busy, and kept getting busier, until I was working more than I had been for several years. But so many of the biggest changes were internal, and I wouldn’t have gotten to change in those ways without reaching such a profound level of hopelessness and pain.
That pain created a door for us to come to Mexico, and as scared as we were— we walked through it.
Sayulita is a small town, a half-moon cut from the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains, where the jungle runs right up to the beach. From our deck you can see all the way down to the surf break. All night I hear the waves, because the roof of our bedroom is a palapa, woven from palm fronds. When we first arrived the electricity went out in the entire town for several days. It was August in the tropics, with no air conditioning. Not long after that, the town ran out of water. Often we don’t have cell service, and I have to schedule work calls around when I will be in a spot where I can at least likely count on coverage. We had ten straight days without wifi in our house. Eventually they came to fix it, but it was on their own timeline, not mine. There is a tree in town that has iguanas in it, and another on our street where all the parrots come to roost at night. When my mother and stepfather came to visit, Oona gave them a tour of town that included both trees. There is a bush at the foot of our hill that is covered with flowers and all the butterflies gather there. In the morning we drive the kids to school in a golf cart, and now that it’s winter they sometimes have to wear a sweatshirt in the mornings. Their school is built around an open courtyard, and they have surf lessons starting in fourth grade, and regular beach clean ups. Half the students there are locals, not just international students, and many of them are on scholarship, so my kids get to be part of the whole community, not just in a private school bubble. This is a very small town, which can feel both warm and stifling. I often meet people who know who we are before we’ve met, which is a startling experience for someone who has spent their entire life navigating the anonymity of cities. We are all learning Spanish, but I definitely don’t speak it yet. Not being able to communicate any better than my not-quite-two-year-old can feel humbling, and, often, exhausting.
I’ve been told that the Huichol, the indigenous people of the area, consider Sayulita to be an energy center. Traditionally it’s a place they came to face their demons, and they think it’s a crazy that so many gringos choose to come and live here. It is beautiful here, and the energy is also strong, and palpable. The wall between very good and really bad feels much thinner than what I’m used to. They coexist, and seem to brush together more than I thought possible. There also seems to be less insulation between life and death. In the six months since I have lived here I have seen a dead body, been attacked by a dog, and watched a motorcyclist be hit right in front of my car. I have also walked on the beach in the morning with my mother and my daughter, picking up plastic as the sun comes up over the mountains. Jeremy and I have sat together at night, our window a movie screen where we’ve watched thunderstorms tear across the ocean. The town has a turtle rescue, and at sunset you can go and help release the newly hatched baby sea turtles. Sometimes people bring guitars and play music to send them off while they scramble across the sand towards the sea.