My Pixelated Life – By Jennifer Shipp
Guanajuato Mexico North America

My Pixelated Life – By Jennifer Shipp

The table in this photo is about 2 feet wide. John and I were able to fit two twin beds into this room in the bottom level apartment of a building we’re constructing in Mexico. Unfortunately, the baseboard on the twins are about two feet high so we have to crawl over the top of them in the middle of the night every time we get up for water or to pee.

Two days ago, we moved into an apartment in our new building that we’re constructing here in Guanajuato, Mexico. We moved everything we have in and/or on our little FJ Cruiser. It took 8 trips back and forth from the rental in Marfil. A part of me is impressed that we have so little. Another part of me is pissed off with myself for having burdensome things like furniture. John put our living room furnishings and beds up on the roof of the vehicle and strapped them on. On our first trip to the building, I told him that I planned to go back with him to the house to help lift the couches up but he said, “Don’t worry about it…I’ve had my Wheaties this morning.”

So I stayed at the new house to start putting things away into cabinets that had not yet been fastened down, closets that had not yet been built, and onto shelves that had not yet been put up. And did I mention the spectacular mess left behind by our construction workers?  A thick layer of dust from ongoing projects in the apartment next door covered the mess in apartment #1.  The chaos was layered and complex. The space tight and foreboding.

Needless to say, it was an exhausting three days of moving/building. I was once again, for the fifth time in a year and a half, thankful for all the things we don’t own.

Anyone who thinks our lives seem smooth, fun, and/or easy down here in Mexico should know that over the past 18 months we’ve moved four times. And we’ll move 3 more times in the next 1 to 2 months within the same building (thank GOD), slowly expanding so that Lydian will have her own private apartment. In addition to these moves, we’ve gone back and forth to the United States four times, each time driving a 6 day round-trip to Nebraska and/or Texas (depending) for various reasons.

In March, we got Cyclosporiasis. In May we came down with the flu.

But this morning, I got out the little laminated world map that I used to have sitting next to my computer while I worked back in the states. I’d put it away some months ago when John and I realized that this building project was going to require our constant focus for an indeterminate period of time. Lydian and I dug into our Cancer Cure ebook (of cures available throughout the world) as the project du jour and though the three of us have occasionally mentioned the idea of travel to each other, we’ve avoided making plans because we knew we wouldn’t be able to follow through.

This morning, as I lay in bed listening to the rain on the roof of this new house, I thought about how traveling allows me to think about things from a high place. And how I haven’t thought about my life or other people’s lives from that perspective for almost two years now. When we travel, I look in at the goings on in a place and it’s like I see it all miniaturized and from a distance. I watch the people going in and out of stores, buying groceries, carrying things on their heads; I see them doing things I don’t recognize or fully understand sometimes. I see rabid or mangy dogs, ownerless cats that have been well fed or scrawny felines that are struggling to survive. I see big rats dead in the gutter or pristine, litter-free sidewalks. It all depends on the location. The rain pours down in monsoon torrents or it’s hot and so dry my hair breaks off from the lack of humidity. People are kind, helpful, and generous. Or sometimes they’re timid. Occasionally, they’re snobbish, mean, and stand-offish. And when we travel, all that I see and experience is left open to my interpretation. I can’t understand it fully. I see it from such a distance that it can only make sense as a novelty. I can only wonder about it and try to understand. I can only experience it and through that experience, through my own personal lens, understand myself better. The misunderstandings between me and the places we travel to create a sense of suspension, where my view of life is like floating over the landscape about 30 feet in the air. I’m not a part of what’s going on. I’m not subject to the same rules as everyone else in that place. I’m not a participant and I don’t belong which is a liberating, but sometimes lonely feeling. I’m merely an observer; like someone leaning over a model railroad landscape trying to see inside the tiny yellow lit windows of fake homes and fake storefronts in a village that’s been frozen in time. What are those people in the rural communities of Egypt doing when they walk from here to there with their blankets and their tea? How do the Indians feel about snake charmers that sit on the street corner across from where we live for the two to three months while we’re there? What motivates Peruvians to eat the guinea pigs and wear those silly hats? Is it really cooler to dress like a Moroccan if you live in the desert?

I love to watch. I always have. When John and I first met, we used to go to a TCBY in Lincoln to sit and watch people through the big window that opened onto “O” Street. We would make up stories about people’s lives as they stood on the corner or crossed the street. When we opened our haunted attractions, Cornstalk and then later School District 13, one of our favorite things about the event was how people always surprised us. It was like a human sized ant farm. We made the tunnels and as people walked through them, we got to watch. We were privy to everything that happened in our Halloween village and we were even able to steer the goings-on and get people (our volunteers) to make things like Congo lines happen on main street. We got the people in our made-up village to cluck like chickens whenever they saw a bus go by. We got people to get other people to do the chicken dance in exchange for popcorn and give away pieces of hair in exchange for a raffle ticket.

The night before we moved into this house, I dreamed that after we’d sold School District 13 and all the walls were taken down, but that we’d changed our minds and decided to do the haunted Halloween event anyway. So, at the last minute, I was hurriedly building walls out of closet doors that I’d opened and folded this way and that in a very, large, dark room. The room was too spacious and I wasn’t satisfied with the final result, the closet-door haunt I’d created, when I heard that volunteers had gathered for costuming and make-up. I felt the emotion of being stretched too thin. Someone had been doing beautiful, intricate make-up on the volunteers but only on the backs of their necks so the make-up wasn’t visible to patrons. I had to fix it quickly or else people would be angry (the patrons as well as the volunteers). A classmate from elementary school came up to me and said she couldn’t find “the make-up cakes”. We no longer had the bus, so I had to come up with a character for John to play. I painted an eye on his forehead and the eye came to life and became real. I gave him a purple velvet suit coat and hung pots and pans from strings so that he could carry them over his shoulders. I told him that his character would make patrons play the pots and pans, but that he had to get them to play without saying a word.

I woke up with the strong feeling that I was floundering; that nothing I was doing was good enough. But I imagined John’s character and the pots and pans and still I smiled. What a great character idea! God! The patrons would’ve played the pots and pans for him. I know they would’ve and I can imagine what it would’ve been like. As I lay there, I thought about how I know that people can do all kinds of things that they don’t know they can do yet. I feel lucky to know these things, but it also frustrates me. Our Halloween event was designed to give people, Americans, the opportunity to rise above their rut for a moment or a few hours and be more creative with their lives…to shake free of the 8 to 5, daily grind that leads to nothing but more things and more debt…to imagine the possibilities.  But as I lay there in a twin bed that I’d barely squeezed into a very tiny room alongside with John’s twin bed…a twin bed with a frame that I literally had to hurdle in the middle of the night each time I had to go pee because, I had to admit to myself that the creativity with which John and I live our lives is hard. It takes a lot of effort. Often, I don’t know what I’m doing. And I understand why other people don’t want to venture out into the Unknown because at times it can be very uncomfortable and terrifying.

In reality, School District 13 was parted out a few months ago. It no longer exists. The reasons why are many and varied. When John and I first started doing haunted attractions back in 2004, people were different. The United States was a different place. The kids who volunteered for us were different. Social media was not yet “a thing”. It’s hard to say precisely what changed or why it changed, but the U.S., the people, and our event did, in fact, change. In our final three years, we or our volunteers were threatened by violent acts, including gun threats, at least once per year. John and I didn’t publicly discuss these problems because we felt like it might hurt the event or make our insurance rates go up. Like all Americans, we were tight-lipped. We kept our mouths shut about the things that mattered most to us.

Whereas when we first started doing haunted attractions, we often had cohesive groups of teenage boys who would come out to volunteer for us together, as a team, the young people who volunteered for us became progressively less willing to commit to showing up on any given night of the event. They came alone instead of in groups. During the School District 13 incarnation of our haunt we had problems with our volunteers using drugs and alcohol when they volunteered for us. And after working in this business for 11 years (we took 3 years off from it when we moved Cornstalk to Brule to do School District 13), over the last 2 years, we noticed a change in what our young volunteers talked about when they were helping out with costuming and make-up in the hours before the festival started each night.

When we first started the haunted attraction, the teenage-volunteers talked about school and the things that interested them. They were interested in meeting kids from other towns who came to volunteer with us. Often, the volunteers from different communities became life-long friends. But over the past four years, the kids doing costuming and make-up with me would talk about how much they hated taking Ritalin. That conversation happened several times. The ones who weren’t taking it anymore were supportive towards the ones who still were. “Hang in there, “ they’d say. They talked about parents struggling with mental illness. The kids talked about their own health problems, the surgeries they were having, not just on knees and joints (from sports injuries), but chronic and serious health issues. These young people were suffering from diabetes, gallbladder problems, digestive issues, vitamin D deficiencies, and severe allergies (to name just a few). On closing night, the first year of School District 13, an 18-year old boy who’d volunteered for us at Cornstalk many years before, came forward to tell ask if I remember him (I did). He told me he’d been diagnosed with leukemia several years before and gone through chemotherapy. He sat with me a long time and we talked about his fears. He wasn’t sure how to deal with his anxiety. I told him that he might have PTSD. He was one of several of our child-volunteers who’d had cancer. The young man stayed and talked with me until 1:00 AM. I never saw him again.

Four of our volunteers from the last four years were killed in automobile accidents. Prior to the last four years, during our decade-long Cornstalk era, not a single one of our volunteers died from any cause. Maybe we were lucky. Or maybe something important has changed.

Since we moved to Mexico, I’ve been observing this place through the eyes of someone who’s not traveling. I’m “down in it” or at least “down close to it” and not floating a full 30 feet above Mexico like I was before when we came here as travelers. And as I’m coming down to earth and connecting into the reality of life here, I’ve been looking back at the United States and what our lives consisted of there. I watch the people at home through Facebook, but I don’t feel like participating anymore. I’m not there. I’m here. What worries people in the states is not exactly the same thing as what worries people– what worries me, here. Indeed, what worries me here is not the same as what worries all the Mexican people around me. My worries are relatively unique now. I’m not just a traveler, not just a digital nomad on a sabbatical of indeterminate length. I’m an expat. Sort of. But I’m not grounded like a lot of expats either. We’re still travelers. And while I settle in and settle down in this new building here in Mexico; as we meet new people here and develop relationships with them, there’s never any question about the fact that John and I are different. We’re white and we speak English. Lydian could marry into the culture and end up on a deeper level with Mexico over time, but I doubt very seriously that John and I will ever root into life in any particular country again. I’m not sure that I want to. John and I like to peer into people’s lives more than we like to participate in them.

I watch and I write.

I guess that’s just the tour I’m on in this lifetime.

This afternoon at lunch, Lydian talked about a graphic design project she’s working on how she has to zoom into the images and how, the closer she gets to the image, the less sense the image makes. Closer and closer, the image gets more and more pixelated. The image eventually disappears completely and all that’s left is one or two meaningless dots of color. Of course, focusing this closely on one area of the design allows for a lot of precision. And precision is important to a lot of people.

But as the Nine Inch Nail song says,

Kinda like a cloud, I was up way up in the sky…

And I was feeling some feelings you wouldn’t believe…

Sometimes I don’t believe them myself,

And I decided I was never coming down.

Just then, a tiny, little dot caught my eye and I was just about, just wanna see,

But I watched it way too long…

It was pulling me down.

I was up above it…

Now I’m down in it…

I miss the Big Picture. I miss being able to see inconsequential actions performed with great pomp and seriousness by people in decorated garb; people who believe deeply in what they practice and how their belief is what makes the act purposeful. I miss being able to reflect on the human condition and our confusion about life and being. The dirty, awfulness of wearing human flesh, and engaging deeply in human processes makes it difficult to reflect at times. There’s little time for reflection until the moments of reckoning pass. And I feel like the moments have been reckoning, one right after the other, for several years now like a huge burden of difficult math problems that I have to do even though I’m majoring in art.

As John put it this afternoon, “I’m sure there’s a reason. There’s always a reason. Someday we’ll look back on this time and it will make sense why we had to go through all these things and learn about them in this way.”

Life is so strange. At times it seems so meaningless. Just a pixel on a blank background. A tiny little dot that captures my attention for no particular reason. Right now, the dot is just a dot and I don’t understand the bigger picture yet. All I can do is study the roundness of the dot and hope for perspective someday.

I suppose when a person lives a life of their own design, the extreme close-ups are necessary to get the final frame just right.

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