Dreams and Nightmares of Mexico — by Jennifer Shipp
Guanajuato Mexico

Dreams and Nightmares of Mexico — by Jennifer Shipp

This house is a nightmare to design because so much of it needs to be destroyed. Like the stairs to the left, for example, that literally drop 12 feet to the ground with nothing but dirt and some poinsettias below them. The hand rail was made out of a tree branch. It’s been worn smooth by the passage of time and the grip of many oily hands.

Since we moved to Mexico, I’ve had to get used to a lot of things. Some of them are big, some are small. The process of assimilating and acclimating to a new culture reminds me of an acid trip with surreal and indescribable peaks and valleys pertaining to situations and ideas no one in my home country would know or fully understand. I haven’t spent much time seated at my computer to spell out the moment-to-moment of cultural acclimatization because I’ve been caught in the grips of waves and waves of twisted experiences and strange insights about myself, others, and Reality.

A lot of the things I took for granted as Truth when I was a citizen and resident of the United States are decidedly open for debate as long-term residents of Mexico. So much of what I believed to be true about this country and the people here was nothing but pure lore. For example,  I’ve never seen people work as hard as they do in Mexico. The men here take pride in doing hard, manual labor. This is a not a laid-back or lazy kind of place. So much of what I’d read about the culture is based on half-truths; the narcos, the trafficantes, the idea that every south of the border is lawless like the wild west. I often wonder why we didn’t move to Mexico sooner. Their focus on the family and relationships is so much more in tune with how we see the world. The food is healthier. The healthcare care system is healthier…What was stopping us from moving here, really? I could sit here and contemplate that question for hours with lingering feelings of regret over the fact that we’d stayed put in Nebraska of all places for so many years. But then, my mind stumbles over itself and continues onward to say (loudly), “why not just make the whole world be your home?” I never thought we’d move officially to another country. It was never a dream of mine as a kid to do such a thing. In fact, the idea never even occurred to me. I imagined myself traveling, yes, but traveler have official homes—places they return to when they aren’t traveling. Usually travelers return to their home-land, right? But that’s not my story anymore. So anything could happen next, I suppose. Hmmm…I wonder what else we could do?

Last year at this time, John and I were packing our things up to leave the United States “permanently”. We didn’t linger on the word “permanently” because we weren’t sure yet what that meant. What we did know, or rather, what we’d decided to do was to find a comfortable semi-long-term place to live in Guanajuato, our favorite city on the planet. We were going to travel through Tijuana and drive down to Guanajuato from there. We took our little Prius to do the trip. And we left before the presidential inauguration and crossed the border before Trump took office. We stayed in Tijuana for about a week to get some dental work done and visit some alternative cancer treatment clinics.

It would be easy for the people who know us to underestimate how much anxiety we had about driving through northern and central Mexico from Tijuana to Guanajuato. We travel a lot to places that are mostly third world and often a little edgy. But this wasn’t just a 2-month trip to us. This was the End of an Era and the beginning of a new one. We would never ever come back (we thought). It felt a lot like being diagnosed with a terminal illness…like we’d been given only a few days or a week to live and we were counting the time down, hoping to find a cure. We were hoping for survival in a new place with rules we didn’t yet know and a culture that was familiar but still very obscure to us. There were no guarantees. There still are no guarantees. Have we made the right decision? The verdict is still out on that one, but I believe that all decisions are the right decision. If I make a decision, it will inevitably lead me where I need to go.

But while we felt the full weight of this trip bearing down on us because of what it symbolized for us, everyone we left behind seemed to see our leaving as normal and inconsequential. And we had to let the tiny little trace of our leaving the U.S. seem inconsequential to us in order to go. It was necessary to make believe that we’d be back again to live there in the U.S. Over the past year, the conflict between what I see and what I know about here and there and my life and life in general what other people see of me, what they see of others, and what they project onto me and us and Mexico has at times been really uncomfortable. I’m aware of the fact that there’s a plot at its peak right now and the resolution is perhaps sometime far off in the future.

I had my first panic attack ever when we crossed the border back into the states to begin the process of getting our green card in Mexico. I complained that I felt like my spirit kept leaving my body (could that happen? I wondered seriously…) And John, at the same time, often wondered (seriously) whether he was really in a coma and that his life wasn’t really real. I felt so nervous about different aspects of the process of becoming residents/citizens of a different country that I felt like I was floating outside my own body. At the same time, I didn’t feel like I was nervous about the temporary residency process in Mexico. I blamed the nervousness on something else, I suppose to distract myself from…myself. No one knows how John and I whispered to each other in the dark of night over our neurotic fears about crossing the border back and forth, the food, the water, the narcos, the vigilant and sometimes unreasonable security guards on the American side of the border, and how emotionally untethered we became at times over the past 12 months. We played it cool and pretended to be chill (LOL–the secret’s out!). No one knows how much anxiety we felt over giving all of our things away or how giving away everything has left us with this feeling like it’s maybe bad to acquire anything (do I really need plates and cups?).

The sun is shining and the air is warm and I’m so glad for the beautiful weather, but it’s hard to learn a new language. It takes time. I make a fool of myself often while trying to learn. This is the hard steel of moving to a new country. It isn’t easy. We’re not down at the beach sipping piña coladas all day that’s for sure. Nope. Life marches onward in heavy steps toward an unknown enemy of unknown size.

Lydian will turn 18 in about 1 month. And she’s decided that she’d like to move out as soon as possible. I don’t blame her for that. When I was 18, I was emotionally ready to move out too. But Lydian is financially ready. And she’s only going to be moving out into an apartment that’s one level below ours in a building we own. So she’s not disowning us or trying to rid her life of us. On the contrary, she’s just ready to develop her own daily rhythms without having to sync up with John and I on all the details. But Lydian moving out tugs hard at some of my inner symbolism and the symbols are powerful and mildly wounded by her going (they’ll heal, but they’re pretty sore and a little sad right now). We moved to Mexico in part because we could see that she would have to be constantly focused on money and finances in order to survive. We wanted her to be able to love her work and to be able to have time for a family without being overburdened by the American system that requires huge spending on unnecessary things like insurance and on necessary things like healthcare that are so inflated that one minor accident could wipe out her entire savings.

Every time I tell people our lives in Mexico, about Lydian and how she’s moving out, about the details of her new life, they say my life sounds “dreamy”; like the idea of buying a building in a foreign country, renovating it, and then moving into it together with separate apartments was something that was advertised on a billboard here and we just went shopping and found this awesome deal. A woman who stayed as a guest in our AirBnB apartment said this bit about “dreaminess” to me as we were winding our way up to Valenciana two weeks ago. “Wow you guys have adapted so well!” She said, never realizing that at that that time my heart pounded inexplicably all the time and that often I felt like I was suffocating.  Then, later, a friend sent me a Facebook message to the same effect. “You’re living the dream,” she said. Several days ago, a fellow digital nomad in a forum made a similar comment to me. I furrow my eyebrows at this because my experience feels contrary. A dream? Really? The whole renovation process of this new building has been mostly a nightmare, actually. At times, it’s been like having a nightmare within a nightmare in fact, what with all the other formalities of figuring out life in Mexico on top of the formalities of buying property and working with an engineer…in Spanish. I have no regrets, mind you. We like learning new things, but the learning curve has been steep and formidable. Like climbing an ice cliff with nothing but a cheap steak knife and tennis shoes to make the ascent. The word “dreamy” has never come to mind when considering adjectives I would use to describe our current lives. It’s only when someone (or several people in this case) say something like that to me that I step back and look at myself through the lens of Facebook (is there any other lens to look through these days?) and if I squint hard, yes…there it is. I can see it in the rough outline of my life: The Dreaminess.

(Hold on…I have to pause for a second to laugh out loud before I continue…)

In truth, we’ve kicked around a lot of different ideas regarding our living situation when Lydian moves out. We’ve considered a completely location-independent life sans a Home Base. We’ve considered having multiple Home Bases. And we’ve considered having just this one. There are other options too (I often bring up the idea of a yurt and Mongolia, for example, though neither John nor Lydian are takers on that idea), but I have to get my mind out-of-the-box to come up with them. I spend hours and hours contemplating and learning new things about how people live and how their lives work to try to think outside-of-the-box and come up with ideas about how to design our lifestyle. Over the past 3 months, I’ve restricted myself to studying and learning new things only in Spanish because, though I’m frustrated about needing to make decisions and be creative quickly, I’m also frustrated with being so friggin’ slow at learning Spanish. This is not a dreamy situation: me stumbling over words, trying to tell the bank clerk that I’d like to open an account, the clerk curling her lip at me because I say cuento instead of cuenta accidentally and whispering to her colleague and then mumbling something back to me about comprobantes followed by a brief awkward silence as I try to come up with a word or two to argue my case (which is difficult since I don’t know what my case is). This is all very frustrating, embarrassing, and difficult. It makes me sweat. But I want to master it with all my heart, otherwise we’d give up and go back to the U.S.

Our family is close and we all like to travel. So, while we all know how to get on a plane and fly half-way around the globe, one of the things we value highly is the relationship we have with each other. We have to figure this out to continue globe-trotting now that Lydian is 18. We don’t want to leave for 2 months at a time to go to far-off places and leave Lydian behind or vice versa. So some creativity is required. It’s all a big experiment. And let me tell you, it’s not clear-cut or easy to figure it out. If we travel for 6 months of the year, we could miss out on major grand-baby-time someday…unless there’s a suitable compromise that we can design into our lives.

Add to that the fact that dogs bark a lot more often in Mexico. And when people mumble here, I truly and honestly cannot understand what they’re saying (because they’re speaking Spanish). I’ve had to get used to the fact that the streets in this city aren’t laid out in a grid. No one understands what a grid-less street system is like until they’ve experienced it (and gotten hopelessly, HOPELESSLY lost over and over again). I’ve lived here for a year and though I could walk from place to place within about 6 months without getting hopelessly, HOPELESSLY lost most of the time, driving is a completely different experience. Driving paths to a particular location are completely different than walking paths to the same place in Guanajuato capital (cap-ee-TAL). So when we moved for the 3rd time this year to a suburb on the outskirts of Guanajuato, I felt really frustrated about not knowing my way around (again) because I had to drive instead of walk to get there. Soon, we’ll move again. Being lost is our perpetual state of existence right now.

The thing is, I love my life. It’s a life of my own design. I feel utterly blessed to have John and Lydian with me in this lifetime. But even with all its apparent dreaminess, I feel like I need to set the record straight (to myself and others) and point out the fact that my life isn’t perfect. In fact, this year has been probably the second hardest year of our lives (the year of our stillbirth is still 1st in line for Worst Year Ever). But we’ve learned a lot. And we haven’t had a chance to really work with what we’ve learned yet. It’s just been a series of stressful lessons one right after the other. Our lives lack routine, even after a year of being here. We tire our quickly right now from being inundated daily by constant change and new information. And there are more Big Changes on the horizon.

Am I really Living the Dream? Yes. Maybe. I don’t know. Probably. Living dreams takes a lot of hard work, I think. It’s not something you can order in a catalog, that’s for sure. What I mean is that dreams are not material things and that also they aren’t made in bulk. Most dreams are custom-made and consist of nothing but situations and certain people or perhaps places. To construct such things as “dreams” in real life, in my experience, I have to spend more or at least as much time letting go of material things as acquiring them.

While our lives in Mexico have required an onward march of new adaptations each day and we’ve had plenty of ups and downs in terms of our business we don’t think about our life events in terms of dreams and nightmares. Rather, we’re trying to work our day-to-day down from Independent Film to Documentary. We’d like the plot to slow down a bit so that we can observe some of the details of our lives as they unfold. When there’s time, I’d like to go salsa dancing. And then, I might take a sketch diary down to the centro and doodle. I aspire toward this new level of “normal” someday soon. And then, when I get bored with that, I’d like to get on a plane and go to Haiti or drive to the Darien Gap. Or maybe go live in Kenya for a brief stint? On the way, unexpected things will happen, and then I’ll come back home to Mexico where life will seem “normal”.

A lot of people think that dreams happen spontaneously. They fall out of the sky like stardust and things just become suddenly and enduringly perfect. But for me, dreams aren’t dreamy at all. They’re the intricately woven fabric of hard work, painful change, and a lot of failure. All dreams incarnate have a dark side that stands as the gatekeeper. I have no regrets in terms of the life course I’ve chosen, or the dreams I’ve chosen to manifest, but for those who are prone to whimsical thinking about my life or the lives of others who accomplish something strange or wonderful, it seems prudent to note that as humans, everything that we have or that we’ll get in our lives is probably just as much of a nightmare as it is a dream. And while that seems to heartlessly squish whimsy, I also have to say that anything is possible. Do what you want to do. Want what you want to want. And then own it. All of it…the dreams as well as the nightmares.

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